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Sumerian Culture and Hammurabi at Babylon

With passing generations the Amorites adopted Sumerian culture, and Sumerians were vanishing as an identifiable ethnicity, absorbed by Mesopotamia's other peoples. The Amorites fought off new waves of migrating peoples, and they increased their skills in the art of combat.

The Amorites spread through more of Mesopotamia. They joined in the trade that remained among Mesopotamian cities, and they extended their trade into Asia Minor, exchanging woolen cloth and tin for gold, silver and copper. Amorite merchants created colonies in parts of southern Asia Minor. The center of the new Armorite empire was the city of Ashur, and Ashur was the center of a kingdom that was to become known as Assyria.

In the 1790s BCE an Amorite king at Babylon, Hammurabi, sent his armies out and conquered other kingdoms, cutting down his enemies, as he put it, "like dolls of clay." Hammurabi overran Assyria and conquered Ashur. He established his authority from the Persian Gulf to the city of Haran. Like Sargon, he built a new network of roads. He created a postal system, and he delegated power to governors, who were to rule conquered territories in his name.

Hammurabi. Click for information and to enlarge.

Hammurabi Hammurabi

Babylon was a city where trade routes crossed. Under Hammurabi it became a bronze-age city of commerce and agriculture. It was a city with skilled artisans, architects, bricklayers and businessmen, with an efficient secular administration and a chain of command. The city was at the hub of an intricate network of canals. It was surrounded by great fields of barley, melons, fruit trees and the wheat the Babylonians used in making unleavened, pancake-like bread. From their barley, the Babylonians made beer. They sheared wool from their flocks of sheep. And they imported wood from Lebanon and metals from Persia.

Like other emperors, Hammurabi operated a protection racket, offering towns he captured the security of his superior military might in exchange for their obedience and tribute (payment of taxes). He believed that where he had conquered he had put an end to war, and he wanted to protect his subjects from the terror of nomads.

City of Babylon and Ziggurat

Babylon with Ziggurat City of Babylon and Ziggurat, enlarged

Hammurabi wished to promote what he saw as welfare and justice for his subjects. He saw that contracts between people had to be witnessed and ratified, that deeds of partnership had to be maintained, that properties had to be registered and wills written. Hammurabi established laws that protected landholders from the landless. He regulated the treatment of women and slaves. A law made a doctor liable if the doctor made his patient worse, and an architect might be executed if his negligence resulted in the collapse of a house he had designed.

Like other rulers among the civilized, Hammurabi saw some people as more worthy than others. His laws divided his subjects into three classes: the nobles; merchants and ordinary farmers; and slaves. All classes were to be protected from what he believed was unnecessary abuse, but punishments were to differ according to one's class. If a noble destroyed the eye of another noble he might have his own eye put out, or if he broke the bone of another noble he had one of his own bones broken. But if he broke the bone of a common person or destroyed that person's eye, he only had to pay a fine.

Hammurabi claimed that he received his laws from Babylon's sun god and god the of justice, Shamash. According to Hammurabi's scribes, the people of Babylon saw events as directed by the gods, and they saw Hammurabi as wise and as having created a world of order and justice under Shamash.

Decline in the 1700s

The Babylonians believed that the gods punished people for lack of respect for god-given laws. And during the reign of Hammurabi's son, Samsu-Iluna (between 1750-1712), the Babylonians believed that such a punishment had arrived in the form of more invasions. Hammurabi's son led an army that was able to drive the invaders away, but they would return. And Shamshu's reign was marked by violent uprisings in areas conquered by his father and by Shamshu abandoning cities in Sumer.

Mesopotamia would remain a mix of ethnicities, including Semites called Assyrians in Babylon and Assyria. And the preservation of Sumerian culture remained and would be passed on to new arrivals. The Assyrians had adopted and altered Sumerian stories, and they preserved the Sumerian language much as Christians were to preserve Latin.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.