Located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, the ancient city of Babylon served for nearly two millennia as a center of Mesopotamian civilization.
One of its early rulers, Hammurabi, created a harsh system of laws, while in later times the Babylonian language would be used across the Middle East as a way of communicating across borders. Another greataccomplishment, if the ancient stories are true, is the construction of the Hanging Gardens, a wonder of the ancient world, which some believe was built by the biblical king Nebuchadnezzar II.
Today, Babylon is a site in peril, a place impacted by modern-day wars and in need of extensive conservation and archaeological work. Its history, however, is one that continues to thrive in religious stories, ancient artifacts and popular culture.
“Babylon, in all its manifestations, is at once remote to us and all around us. Like no other city, its history has become bound up with legend…” write researchers Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour in the book “Babylon” (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Archaeologically little is known about the early history of Babylon. Ancient records suggest that more than 4,000 years ago, at a time when the city of Ur was the center of an empire, Babylon appears to have been a provincial administration center. “Babylon had not been an independent city,” writes researcher Gwendolyn Leick in her book “The Babylonians” (Routledge, 2003).
This inscription, made in the name of Tiglath-pileser I, a king of Assyria, records the conquest of Babylon. It was made more than 3,000 years ago.Credit: The Schøyen Collection MS 2063, Oslo and Londo
She notes that in 1894 B.C., after the Ur-based empire had collapsed, the city was conquered by a man named Samu-abum. He was an Amorite, a Semitic-speaking people from the area around modern-day Syria. He proceeded to turn Babylon into a petty kingdom made up of the city and a small amount of nearby territory. Babylon would remain this way until, six kings later, a man named Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) ascended the throne. He was the ruler who would go on to turn this once small kingdom into a great empire.
The empire of Hammurabi
Leick notes that Hammurabi had to be patient before he could expand. Located between two larger kingdoms at Larsa and Ashur, he was cautious. He used his time wisely. “At home he concentrated on improving the economic basis of his kingdom by building canals and strengthening fortifications,” she writes.
With the death of the king of Ashur, and the power vacuum resulting from it, Hammurabi was able to expand. After a series of campaigns, he defeated Rim-Sin, the ruler of Larsa, a man who had ruled a large kingdom for nearly 60 years. “This victory signalled the annexation of all the old urban centers, such as Ur, Uruk, Isin and Larsa,” Leick writes. Further campaigns against Assyria and Mari further expanded Hammurabi’s empire.
Archaeologists know little about what Babylon itself looked like during Hammurabi’s reign. “The remains of Hammurabi’s own city at Babylon are, unfortunately, almost inaccessible as the water table has risen too high to allow them to be explored,” writes researcher Harriet Crawford in a paper published in the book “The Babylonian World” (Routledge, 2007).