's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Fall of Sumer and the Rise of the Babylonian Empire

The Fall of SumerEdit

At the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, there was a major shift in population from southern Mesopotamia toward the north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands was being compromised as a result of rising salinity. Soil salinity in this region had been long recognized as a major problem. Poorly drained irrigated soils, in an arid climate with high levels of evaporation, led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil, eventually reducing agricultural yields severely. During the Akkadian and Ur III phases, there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, but this was insufficient, and during the period from 2100 BC to 1700 BC, it is estimated that the population in this area declined by nearly three fifths. This greatly weakened the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and comparatively strengthening those where Akkadian was the major language. Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia (Babylonia and Assyria) until the 1st century AD; in other words, Sumerian remained only a literary and liturgical language, similar to the position occupied by Latin in medieval Europe.

The Rise of the Babylonian EmpireEdit

Reconstruction of ancient Babylonian Ishtar Gate

Babylonia was an ancient cultural region in central-southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), with Babylon, and later Seleucia-Ctesiphon as its capital. Babylonia emerged as a major power when Hammurabi (1792- 1752 BC or fl. ca. 1696 – 1654 BC, short chronology) created an empire out of the territories of the former Akkadian Empire. Babylon was the first city-state to assemble a true kingdom around itself in Mesopotamia. Located at a point not far from modern-day Baghdad, the Babylonians used the river for communication and control in a wide empire that spread across the river valleys.

Babylonia retained the written Semitic Akkadian language for official use (the language of its native populace), despite its Amorite founders and Kassite successors not being native Akkadians. It retained the Sumerian language for religious use, which by the time Babylon was founded was probably no longer a spoken language. The earlier Akkadian and Sumerian traditions played a major role in Babylonian (and Assyrian) culture, and the region would remain an important cultural center, even under protracted and lengthy periods of outside rule.

The earliest mention of the city of Babylon can be found in a tablet from the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2334- 2279 BC), dating back to the 23rd century BC. Babylon was merely a religious and cultural center at this point and not an independent state, and like the rest of Mesopotamia, it was subject to the Akkadian Empire which united all the Akkadian and Sumerian speakers under one rule. After the collapse of the Akkadian empire, the south Mesopotamian region was ruled by Gutians for a few decades before the rise of the Sumerian third dynasty of Ur which encompassed the whole of Mesopotamia, including Babylon.

Following the collapse of the last Sumerian "Ur-III" dynasty at the hands of the Elamites (2002 BC traditional, 1940 BC short), the Amorites, another Semitic people, gradually gained control over most of southern Mesopotamia, where they formed a series of small kingdoms, while the Assyrians reasserted their independence in the north. During the first centuries of what is called the "Amorite period", the most powerful city states in the south were Isin and Larsa, although Shamshi-Adad I usurped the throne of Assyria and formed a short lived empire in the north. One of these Amorite dynasties founded the city-state of Babylon, which would ultimately take over the others and form the short lived first Babylonian empire, during what is also called the Old Babylonian Period.


Old Babylonian PeriodEdit

During the third millennium BC, Sumerians and the Akkadians developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) was evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a sprachbund or a linguistic convergence area. Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD.

Amorite PeriodEdit

The extent of the Babylonian Empire at the start and end of Hammurabi's reign.

The independent city state of Babylon was founded by an Amorite chieftain named Sumuabum in 1894 BC. The Amorites were ancient Semitic people from ancient Syria who also occupied large parts of Mesopotamia. Initially Babylon was a small nation which did not control much territory, and was overshadowed by much older, powerful, and more established kingdoms like Isin, Larsa, Assyria and Elam. Babylon remained a small and minor state until the reign of its sixth ruler, Hammurabi ((1792- 1750 BC or fl. ca. 1728 – 1686 BC). During his reign, Hammurabi was able to transform Babylon into the central power of Mesopotamia by establishing a bureaucracy, with taxation and centralized government, and giving the region stability after turbulent times. One of Hammurabi's most important works was the compilation of a code of laws, after the expulsion of the Elamites and the settlement of his kingdom. In 1901, a copy of the Code of Hammurabi was discovered on a stele by J. De Morgan and V. Scheil at Susa, where it had later been taken as plunder. That copy is now in the Louvre.

Code of laws of Hammurabi, Louvre museum, Middle East antiques.

The armies of Babylonia under Hammurabi were well-disciplined, and conquered the city-states of Isin, Eshnunna, Uruk, Mari and eventually Assyria after a protracted struggle with the Assyrian king Ishme-Dagan for control of Mesopotamia. However, southern Mesopotamia had no natural, defendable boundaries, making it vulnerable to attack. After the death of Hammurabi, his empire began to disintegrate rapidly. Under his successor Samsu-iluna (1749-1712 BC) the far south of Mesopotamia was lost to a native Akkadian king called Ilum-ma-ili and became The Sealand Dynasty, remaining free of Babylon for the next 272 years, and both the Babylonians and Amorites were driven from Assyria to the north by an Assyrian governor named Puzur-Sin, and after a civil war, a native king named Adasi seized power. However Amorite rule survived in Babylon itself for around 150 years, until the reign of the 15th king of the first dynasty, Samsu-Ditana. He was overthrown following the "sack of Babylon" by the Hittite king Mursili I. The date of the sack of Babylon by the Hittite king Mursilis I is considered crucial to the various calculations of the early chronology of the ancient Near East. Suggestions for its precise date vary by as much as 150 years, corresponding to the uncertainty regarding the length of the "Dark Age" of the ensuing Bronze Age collapse, resulting in the shift of the entire Bronze Age chronology of Mesopotamia with regard to the chronology of Ancient Egypt. Possible dates for the sack of Babylon are: ultra-short chronology: 1499 BC; short chronology: 1531 BC; middle chronology: 1595 BC; and long chronology: 1651 BC.

Kassite PeriodEdit

The extent of the Babylonian Empire during the Kassite dynasty.

The Kassite dynasty was founded by Kandis or Gandash of Mari. The Kassites were a non-Semitic and non-Indo-European people, speaking a language isolate, which originated in the Zagros Mountains of what is today Iran. The Kassites conquered Babylonia circa 1570 BC, some 25 years after the fall of Babylon to the Hittites in ca. 1595 BC, and renamed Babylon "Kar-Duniash"in honour of Kurigalzu I (ca. early 14th century BC). Their rule lasted for 576 years, the longest dynasty in Babylonian history.

The circumstances of their rise to power are unknown, due to a lack of documentation from this so-called "Dark Age" period of widespread dislocation. No inscription or document in the Kassite language has been preserved, an absence that cannot be purely accidental, suggesting a severe regression of literacy in official circles. Babylon under Kassite rulers re-emerged as a political and military power in Mesopotamia.

Their success was built upon the relative political stability that the Kassite monarchs achieved. The transformation of southern Mesopotamia into a territorial state, rather than a network of allied or combatative city states, made Babylonia an international power, although it was often overshadowed by its northern neighbour, Assyria and by Elam to the east.

Kassite kings established trade and diplomacy with Assyria. Puzur-Ashur III of Assyria and Burna-Buriash I signed a treaty agreeing the border between the two states in the mid 16th Century BC. Moreover, Egypt, Elam, and the Hittites, and the Kassite royal house intermarried with their royal families. There were foreign merchants in Babylon and other cities, and Babylonian merchants were active from Egypt (a major source of Nubian gold) to Assyria and Anatolia. Kassite weights and seals, the packet-identifying and measuring tools of commerce, have been found in as far afield as Thebes in Greece, in southern Armenia, and even in a shipwreck off the southern coast of today's Turkey.

A further treaty between Kurigalzu I and Ashur-bel-nisheshu of Assyria was agreed in the mid 15th century. However, Babylonia found itself under attack and domination from Assyria for much of the next few centuries after the accession of Ashur-uballit I in 1365 BC who made Assyria (along with the Hittites and Egyptians) the major power in the Near East.

Babylon was sacked by the Assyrian king Ashur-uballit I (1365 BC – 1330 BC)) in the 1360s after the Kassite king in Babylon who was married to the daughter of Ashur-uballit was murdered. Ashur-uballit promptly marched into Babylonia and avenged his son-in-law, deposing the king and installing Kurigalzu II of the royal Kassite line as king there. His successor Enlil-nirari (1330 BC to 1319) also attacked Babylonia and his great grandson Adad-nirari I (1307 to 1275 BC) annexed Bablonian territory when he became king. Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244 BC -1208 BC) not content with merely dominating Babylonia went further, conquering Babylonia, deposing Kashtiliash IV and ruling there for 8 years in person from 1235 BC to 1227 BC.

The Kassite kings maintained control of their realm through a network of provinces administered by governors. The revived city of Nippur was the most important provincial center. Nippur, the formerly great city, which had been virtually abandoned ca. 1730 BC, was rebuilt in the Kassite period, with temples meticulously re-built on their old foundations. In fact, under the Kassite government, the governor of Nippur ruled as a sort of secondary and lesser king. The prestige of Nippur was enough for a series of 13th century BC Kassite kings to reassume the title 'governor of Nippur' for themselves. Other important centers during the Kassite period were Larsa, Sippar and Susa. After the Kassite dynasty was overthrown in 1155 BC, the system of provincial administration continued and the country remained united under the succeeding rule, the Second Dynasty of Isin.

Documentation of the Kassite period depends heavily on the scattered and disarticulated tablets from Nippur, where thousands of tablets and fragments have been excavated. They include administrative and legal texts, letters, seal inscriptions, kudurrus (land grants and administrative regulations), private votive inscriptions, and even a literary text (usually identified as a fragment of a historical epic).

"Kassite rulers in Babylon were also scrupulous to follow existing forms of expression, and the public and private patterns of behavior and even went beyond that — as zealous neophytes do, or outsiders, who take up a superior civilization — by favoring an extremely conservative attitude, at least in palace circles." (Oppenheim 1964, p. 62). Over the centuries, however, the Kassites were absorbed into the Babylonian population. Eight among the last kings of the Kassite dynasty have Akkadian names, Kudur-Enlil's name is part Elamite and part Sumerian and Kassite princesses married into the royal family of Assyria.

The Elamites conquered Babylonia in the 12th century BC, thus ending the Kassite state. The last Kassite king, Enlil-nadin-ahi, was taken to Susa and imprisoned there, where he also died. The Kassites did briefly regain control over Babylonia with Dynasty V (1025 BC-1004 BC), however they were deposed once more, this time by an Aramean dynasty.

Early Iron AgeEdit

The Elamites did not remain in Babylonia long, and Marduk-kabit-ahheshu (1156 BC-1139 BC) established the Second Dynasty of Isin, (the first native south Mesopotamian dynasty to rule Babylon) in a series of wars that continued under his successors. Nebuchadnezzar I (1124 BC-1103 BC) was the most famous ruler of this dynasty. He fought and defeated the Elamites and drove them from Babylonian territory, sacking the Elamite capital Susa, and recovering the sacred statue of Marduk that had been carried off from Babylon. Shortly afterwards, the king of Elam was assassinated and his kingdom disintegrated into civil war. However, Nebuchadnezzar failed to extend Babylonian territory further, being defeated by Ashur-resh-ishi I, king of the Assyrians, for control of formerly Hittite controlled territories in Aramea (Syria). In the later years of his reign, he devoted himself to peaceful building projects.

Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his two sons. The second of them, Marduk-nadin-ahhe (1098 BC-1081 BC) went to war with Assyria. Some initial success in these conflicts gave way to heavy defeat at the hands of Tiglath-pileser I who annexed swathes of Babylonian territory. Following this a terrible famine gripped Babylon, inviting attacks from Semitic Aramean tribes from the west. Successive kings wisely maintained peaceful relations with Assyria, but could not stem the repeated incursions from Semitic nomadic peoples, and large swathes of Babylonia were appropriated and occupied by these newly arrived Arameans, Chaldeans and Suteans. The native dynasty, then ruled by Nabu-shum-libur was deposed after 126 years, and between 1025 BC and 977 BC Babylonia was in a state of anarchy, with seven kings divided by three foreign dynasties ruling the land. Dynasty V (1025 BC-1004 BC) was Kassite, this dynasty was replaced by Dynasty VI (1003 BC-984 BC) which was Aramean and Dynasty VII (984 BC-977 BC) which was Elamite.

Native rule was restored by Nabu-mukin-apli in 977 BC, ushering in Dynasty VIII. Dynasty IX begins with Ninurta-kudurri-usur I, who ruled from 941 BC. Babylonia remained weak during this period, with whole areas now under firm Chaldean, Aramean and Sutean control.

From 911 BC with the founding of the Neo-Assyrian Empire by Adad-nirari II, Babylon found itself under Assyrian domination and rule for the next three centuries. Babylonian territory was annexed by Assyria, and its kings were forced to pay tribute to Assyrian kings.

In 729 BC, Babylon was fully incorporated into the Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-Pileser III, who instead of allowing Babylonian kings to remain as vassals of Assyria as his predecessors had done for two hundred years, decided to rule directly himself. Revolt was eventually fermented against Assyrian domination by Merodach-Baladan, a Chaldean king of the far south east of Mesopotamia, with Elamite help. Merodach-Baladan managed to take the throne of Babylon itself between 721- 710 BC. He was ejected by Sargon II of Assyria, and fled to Elam. However Merodach-Baladan and the Elamites continued to agitate against Assyrian rule. This led to the Assyrian king Sennacherib invading and subjugating Elam and sacking Babylon, laying waste to the city. This act led Sennacherib to be murdered by his own sons while praying to the god Nisroch. His successor Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon, and upon his death he installed his eldest son Shamash-shum-ukin as king in Babylon, and his youngest, Ashurbanipal in the more senior position as king of Assyria. Shamash-shum-ukin, after decades peacefully subject to his brother, eventually became infused with Babylonian nationalism, declaring that the city of Babylon (and not the Assyrian city of Nineveh) should be the seat of empire. He raised a major revolt against his brother, Ashurbanipal. He led a powerful coalition which included Elam, the Chaldeans, Suteans, Arameans and Arabs. After a bitter struggle Babylon was sacked and its allies vanquished, Shamash-shum-ukim being killed in the process. Elam was destroyed, and the Chaldeans, Arabs, Arameans and Suteans were violently subjugated. An Assyrian governor named Kandalanu was placed on the throne. Upon Ashurbanipal's death in 627 BC, his son Ashur-etil-ilani became ruler of Babylon and Assyria.

Neo-Babylonian EmpireEdit

Approximate extension of the Neo-Babylonian Empire during the reign of Nabonidus (556-539 BC).

Through the centuries of Assyrian domination, Babylonia enjoyed a prominent status, or revolted at the slightest indication that it did not. The Assyrians always managed to restore Babylonian loyalty, however, whether through granting of increased privileges, or military force. That finally changed after 620 BC, seven years after the death of the last great Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal in 627 BC. Assyria descended into a series of brutal internal civil wars, Ashur-etil-ilani was deposed by one of his own generals, named Sin-shumu-lishir, who also set himself up as king in Babylon. After yet another brutal civil war, Sin-shar-ishkun ousted him as ruler of Assyria and Babylonia. However, he was beset by constant unremitting civil war in the Assyrian heartland. Babylonia took advantage of this and rebelled under Nabopolassar, a member of the Semitic Chaldeans, who had settled in south eastern Mesopotamia circa 1000 BC. In 620 BC Nabopolassar seized control over much of Babylonia with the support of most of the inhabitants, with only the city of Nippur showing any loyalty to the Assyrian king. For the next 4 years he had to contend with Assyrian armies encamped in Babylonia trying to unseat him. However, the Assyrian king, Sin-shar-ishkun was plagued by constant revolt in Nineveh, and was thus unable to eject Nabopolassar.

The stalemate ended in 616 BC, when Nabopolassar entered into alliance with Cyaxares, king of the Medes and Persians, (who had also taken advantage of the anarchy in Assyria to free his peoples from the Assyrian yoke) and also the Scythians and Cimmerians. After 4 years of fierce fighting Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC after a bitter prolonged siege in which Sin-shar-ishkun was killed. The last Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II, relocated the capital to Harran where he held out until 608 BC, when he was eventually ejected by the Babylonians and their allies. A final victory was achieved at Carchemish in 605 BC, which included also defeating the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II who had belatetly tried to aid Egypt's former masters. The seat of empire was thus transferred to Babylonia for the first time since Hammurabi over a thousand years before.

Nabopolassar was followed by his son Nebuchadnezzar II, whose reign of 43 years made Babylon once more the mistress of much the civilized world, taking over a fair portion of the former Assyrian Empire once ruled by its Assyrian brethren, the eastern and north eastern portion being taken by the Medes and the far north by the Scythians. His empire included the conquering of Phoenicia in 585 BC, as well as Aramea (Syria), Israel, Judah and parts of Asia Minor and Arabia. Only a small fragment of his annals has been discovered, relating to his invasion of Egypt in 567 BC, and referring to "Phut of the Ionians".

Of the reign of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (Nabu-na'id), and the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, there is a fair amount of information available. Nabonidus and his son, the regent Belshazzar were not Chaldeans or Babylonian, but hailed from the last Assyrian capital of Harran. Information regarding Nabonidus is chiefly derived from a chronological tablet containing the annals of Nabonidus, supplemented by another inscription of Nabonidus where he recounts his restoration of the temple of the Moon-god at Harran; as well as by a proclamation of Cyrus issued shortly after his formal recognition as king of Babylonia. It was in the sixth year of Nabonidus (549 BC) that Cyrus, the Achaemenid Persian "king of Anshan" in Elam, revolted against his suzerain Astyages, "king of the Manda" or Medes, at Ecbatana. Astyages' army betrayed him to his enemy, and Cyrus established himself at Ecbatana, thus putting an end to the empire of the Medes. Three years later Cyrus had become king of all Persia, and was engaged in a campaign in Assyria. Meanwhile, Nabonidus had established a camp in the desert of Arabia, near the southern frontier of his kingdom, leaving his son Belshazzar (Belsharutsur) in command of the army.

In 539 BC, Cyrus invaded Babylonia. A battle was fought at Opis in the month of June, where the Babylonians were defeated; and immediately afterwards Sippar surrendered to the invader. Nabonidus fled to Babylon, where he was pursued by Gobryas, and on the 16th day of Tammuz, two days after the capture of Sippar, "the soldiers of Cyrus entered Babylon without fighting." Nabonidus was dragged from his hiding-place, where the services continued without interruption. Cyrus did not arrive until the 3rd of Marchesvan (October), Gobryas having acted for him in his absence. Gobryas was now made governor of the province of Babylon, and a few days afterwards the son of Nabonidus died. A public mourning followed, lasting six days, and Cambyses accompanied the corpse to the tomb.

Cyrus now claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Babylonian kings and the avenger of Bel-Marduk, who was assumed to be wrathful at the impiety of Nabonidus in removing the images of the local gods from their ancestral shrines to his capital Babylon. Nabonidus, in fact, had excited a strong feeling against himself by attempting to centralize the religion of Babylonia in the temple of Merodach (Marduk) at Babylon, and while he had thus alienated the local priesthoods, the military party despised him on account of his antiquarian tastes. He seemed to have left the defense of his kingdom to others, occupying himself with the more congenial work of excavating the foundation records of the temples and determining the dates of their builders.

The invasion of Babylonia by Cyrus was doubtless facilitated by the existence of a disaffected party in the state, as well as by the presence of foreign forced exiles like the Jews, who had been planted in the midst of the country. One of the first acts of Cyrus accordingly was to allow these exiles to return to their own homes, carrying with them the images of their god and their sacred vessels. The permission to do so was embodied in a proclamation, whereby the conqueror endeavored to justify his claim to the Babylonian throne. The feeling was still strong that none had a right to rule over western Asia until he had been consecrated to the office by Bel and his priests; and accordingly, Cyrus henceforth assumed the imperial title of "King of Babylon."

Persian BabyloniaEdit

Babylonia was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. A year before king Cyrus' death, in 529 BC, he elevated his son Cambyses II in the government, making him king of Babylon, while he reserved for himself the fuller title of "king of the (other) provinces" of the empire. It was only when Darius Hystaspis acquired the Persian throne and ruled it as a representative of the Zoroastrian religion, that the old tradition was broken and the claim of Babylon to confer legitimacy on the rulers of western Asia ceased to be acknowledged. Immediately after Darius seized Persia, Babylonia briefly recovered its independence under a native ruler, Nidinta-Bel, who took the name of Nebuchadnezzar III, and reigned from October 522 BC to August 520 BC, when Darius took the city by storm. A few years later, probably 514 BC, Babylon again revolted under the Armenian King Arakha; on this occasion, after its capture by the Persians, the walls were partly destroyed. E-Saggila, the great temple of Bel, however, still continued to be kept in repair and to be a center of Babylonian religious feelings.

Alexander the Great conquered Babylon in 332 BC for the Greeks, and died there in 323 BC. Babylonia and Assyria then became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire. It has long been maintained that the foundation of Seleucia diverted the population to the new capital of Babylonia, and that the ruins of the old city became a quarry for the builders of the new seat of government, but the recent publication of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period has shown that urban life was still very much the same well into the Parthian age (150 BC to 226 AD). The Parthian king Mithridates conquered the region into the Arascid Empire in 150 BC, and the region became something of a battleground between Greeks and Parthians.

There was a brief interludes of Roman conquest (Roman Assyria, Roman Mesopotamia; AD 116 to 118) under Trajan, after which the Parthians reasserted control. The name of the satrapy was changed to Asuristan (Assyria) in the Sassanid period, which began in 226 AD, and by this time Eastern Rite Christianity (which emerged in the 1st century AD) had become the dominant religion among the native populace, who had never adopted the Zoroastrian or Hellenic religions of their rulers. Apart from the independent Assyrian state of Adiabene in the north, Mesopotamia remained under largely Persian control until the Arab Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD. After this Asuristan-Assyria was also dissolved as a geo-political entity, and the native Aramaic speaking and largely Christian populace gradually underwent a process of Arabisation and Islamification, with only the Assyrians/Chaldo-Assyrians of the north (known as Ashuriyun by the Arabs) and Mandeans of the south retaining their religions and a distinct Mesopotamian identity and language, which they still do to this day.

Babylonian cultureEdit

Bronze Age to Early Iron Age Mesopotamian culture is sometimes summarized as "Assyro-Babylonian", because of the close cultural interdependence of the two political centers. The term "Babylonia", especially in writings from around AD 1900, was formerly used to include Southern Mesopotamia's earliest history, and not only in reference to the later city-state of Babylon proper. This geographic usage of the name "Babylonia" has generally been replaced by the more accurate term Sumer in more recent writing.

Old Babylonian cultureEdit

Art and ArchitectureEdit

In Babylonia, an abundance of clay, and lack of stone, led to greater use of mudbrick; Babylonian temples were massive structures of crude brick, supported by buttresses, the rain being carried off by drains. One such drain at Ur was made of lead. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, and of frescoes and enameled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with zinc or gold, as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones for torches were also embedded in the plaster. In Babylonia, in place of the bas-relief, there was greater use of three-dimensional figures—the earliest examples being the Statues of Gudea, that are realistic if somewhat clumsy. The paucity of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious, and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting.


Tablets dating back to the Old Babylonian period document the application of mathematics to the variation in the length of daylight over a solar year. Centuries of Babylonian observations of celestial phenomena are recorded in the series of cuneiform tablets known as the 'Enūma Anu Enlil'. The oldest significant astronomical text that we possess is Tablet 63 of 'Enūma Anu Enlil', the Venus tablet of Ammi-saduqa, which lists the first and last visible risings of Venus over a period of about 21 years and is the earliest evidence that the phenomena of a planet were recognized as periodic. The oldest rectangular astrolabe dates back to Babylonia ca. 1100 BC. The MUL.APIN, contains catalogues of stars and constellations as well as schemes for predicting heliacal risings and the settings of the planets, lengths of daylight measured by a water-clock, gnomon, shadows, and intercalations. The Babylonian GU text arranges stars in 'strings' that lie along declination circles and thus measure right-ascensions or time-intervals, and also employs the stars of the zenith, which are also separated by given right-ascensional differences.


The oldest Babylonian texts on medicine date back to the First Babylonian Dynasty in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. The most extensive Babylonian medical text, however, is the Diagnostic Handbook written by the ummânū, or chief scholar, Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, during the reign of the Babylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1069-1046 BC).

Along with contemporary ancient Egyptian medicine, the Babylonians introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and prescriptions. In addition, the Diagnostic Handbook introduced the methods of therapy and aetiology and the use of empiricism, logic and rationality in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. The text contains a list of medical symptoms and often detailed empirical observations along with logical rules used in combining observed symptoms on the body of a patient with its diagnosis and prognosis.

The symptoms and diseases of a patient were treated through therapeutic means such as bandages, creams and pills. If a patient could not be cured physically, the Babylonian physicians often relied on exorcism to cleanse the patient from any curses. Esagil-kin-apli's Diagnostic Handbook was based on a logical set of axioms and assumptions, including the modern view that through the examination and inspection of the symptoms of a patient, it is possible to determine the patient's disease, its aetiology and future development, and the chances of the patient's recovery.

Esagil-kin-apli discovered a variety of illnesses and diseases and described their symptoms in his Diagnostic Handbook. These include the symptoms for many varieties of epilepsy and related ailments along with their diagnosis and prognosis. Later Babylonian medicine resembles early Greek medicine in many ways. In particular, the early treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus show the influence of late Babylonian medicine in terms of both content and form.


There were libraries in most towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that "he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn." Women as well as men learned to read and write, and in Semitic times, this involved knowledge of the extinct Sumerian language, and a complicated and extensive syllabary.

A considerable amount of Babylonian literature was translated from Sumerian originals, and the language of religion and law long continued to be the old agglutinative language of Sumer. Vocabularies, grammars, and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students, as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. The characters of the syllabary were all arranged and named, and elaborate lists of them were drawn up.

There are many Babylonian literary works whose titles have come down to us. One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, in twelve books, translated from the original Sumerian by a certain Sin-liqi-unninni, and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh. The whole story is a composite product, and it is probable that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure.

Neo-Babylonian cultureEdit

The brief resurgence of a "Babylonian" identity in the 7th to 6th centuries BC was accompanied by a number of important cultural developments.


Among the sciences, astronomy and astrology still occupied a conspicuous place in Babylonian society. Astronomy was of old standing in Babylonia. The zodiac was a Babylonian invention of great antiquity; and eclipses of the sun and moon could be foretold. There are dozens of cuneiform records of original Mesopotamian eclipse observations.

Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of what was done in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy, in classical Indian astronomy, in Sassanian, Byzantine and Syrian astronomy, in medieval Islamic astronomy, and in Central Asian and Western European astronomy. Neo-Babylonian astronomy can thus be considered the direct predecessor of much of ancient Greek mathematics and astronomy, which in turn is the historical predecessor of the European (Western) scientific revolution.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers developed a new approach to astronomy. They began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the early universe and began employing an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. This was an important contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science and some scholars have thus referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution. This new approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy.

In Seleucid and Parthian times, the astronomical reports were of a thoroughly scientific character; how much earlier their advanced knowledge and methods were developed is uncertain. The Babylonian development of methods for predicting the motions of the planets is considered to be a major episode in the history of astronomy.

The only Babylonian astronomer known to have supported a heliocentric model of planetary motion was Seleucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC). Seleucus is known from the writings of Plutarch. He supported the heliocentric theory where the Earth rotated around its own axis which in turn revolved around the Sun. According to Plutarch, Seleucus even proved the heliocentric system, but it is not known what arguments he used.


The Babylonian system of mathematics was sexagesimal, or a base 60 numeral system. From this we derive the modern day usage of 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 (60 x 6) degrees in a circle. The Babylonians were able to make great advances in mathematics for two reasons. First, the number 60 has many divisors (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30), making calculations easier. Additionally, unlike the Egyptians and Romans, the Babylonians had a true place-value system, where digits written in the left column represented larger values (much as in our base-ten system: 734 = 7×100 + 3×10 + 4×1).

Among the Babylonians' mathematical accomplishments were the determination of the square root of two correctly to seven places (YBC 7289 clay tablet). They also demonstrated knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem well before Pythagoras, as evidenced by this tablet translated by Dennis Ramsey and dating to ca. 1900 BC:

4 is the length and 5 is the diagonal. What is the breadth? Its size is not known. 4 times 4 is 16. And 5 times 5 is 25. You take 16 from 25 and there remains 9. What times what shall I take in order to get 9? 3 times 3 is 9. 3 is the breadth.:

The ner of 600 and the sar of 3600 were formed from the unit of 60, corresponding with a degree of the equator. Tablets of squares and cubes, calculated from 1 to 60, have been found at Senkera. The Babylonians might have been familiar with the general rules for measuring the areas. They measured the circumference of a circle as three times the diameter and the area as one-twelfth the square of the circumference, which would be correct if π were estimated as 3. The volume of a cylinder was taken as the product of the base and the height, however, the volume of the frustum of a cone or a square pyramid was incorrectly taken as the product of the height and half the sum of the bases. Also, there was a recent discovery in which a tablet used π as 3 and 1/8.

The Babylonians are also known for the Babylonian mile, which was a measure of distance equal to about seven miles today. This measurement for distances eventually was converted to a time-mile used for measuring the travel of the Sun, therefore, representing time. (Eves, Chapter 2)


The origins of Babylonian philosophy can be traced back to early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, which embodied certain philosophies of life, particularly ethics, in the forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose, and proverbs. Babylonian reasoning and rationality developed beyond empirical observation.

It is possible that Babylonian philosophy had an influence on Greek philosophy, particularly Hellenistic philosophy. The Babylonian text Dialog of Pessimism contains similarities to the agonistic thought of the sophists, the Heraclitean doctrine of contrasts, and the dialogs of Plato, as well as a precursor to the maieutic Socratic method of Socrates. The Milesian philosopher Thales is also known to have studied philosophy in Mesopotamia.


The Tower of Babel, from a Russian manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes, 1539.
Illustration of the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Babylon, Iraq.

Babylonia, and particularly its capital city Babylon, has long held a place in Abrahamic religions as a symbol of excess and dissolute power. Many references are made to Babylon in the Bible, both literally and allegorically. The mentions in the Tanakh tend to be historical or prophetic, while New Testament references are more likely figurative, or cryptic references possibly to pagan Rome, or some other archetype. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel are seen as symbols of luxurious and arrogant power respectively. A main festival for Babylonians was the Mishtkaru Buylshu, used to ward off evil spirits. Many Babylonians, mostly males, attended this festival at a young age. At this festival, priests would kill, or sacrifice, an animal, usually an ox, in order to make the gods happy. In return, the gods would presumably give permission to the people at the festival to each obtain an amulet that would protect them for the rest of their lives.


"Babylonia" (Wikipedia)

Last modified on 18 March 2014, at 11:23