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Glimpses of History #10: Babylon

City of Babylon is the capital of Babylonia

Notwithstanding its lack of native stone or wood, Mesopotamia gave rise to noteworthy empires from crowded cities such as Babylon, Ur, Jericho, Samara and later Nineveh. Many of these empires are remembered as tyrannical (though of course records such as the Bible are history written by the vanquished).

Babylon was an important city-state of ancient Mesopotamia. Its remains can be found just south of Baghdad in present-day Iraq. Founded as a relatively small town around the beginning of the third millennium BCE, Babylon has been at the center of the rise and fall of a number of important dynasties and empires, including the Amorite, Hittite, Kassite, and Assyrian.

The City of Babylon is the capital of Babylonia and one of the most famous cities of antiquity. The ruins of the ancient city lie about 60 miles south of Baghdad, near the Hilla Canal of the Euphrates.

Ishtar Gate, Eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon Founded by Sumu-abum in 1894 BCE, Babylon rose to imperial status under Hammurabi (1792–1750 BCE). Many features of later cities developed here: written law, schools, taxes, shops and traffic: wheels, initially used for pottery, were now so common on carts that roads were purpose-built. The Babylonian number system, based on divisions of 60, is still at the center of our systems of geometry and timekeeping. Babylon ruled Mesopotamia for over a century, and later (after conquest by the Hittites, and Assyrian rule) was growing under Nebuchadnezzar II (634-562 BCE), when it attacked Egypt and sacked Jerusalem, Tyre and Nineveh. The reassembled city and Hanging Gardens persisted for centuries.

The earliest mention of Babylon comes from the time of the Dynasty of Akkad (2360—2180 BCE). The city of Babylon was well known to Greek and Roman historians. The Greek historian Herodotus, who may have visited the city in the fifth century BCE (or based his account on the reports of observers), wrote that “it surpasses in splendor any city of the known world.” Classical authors also credited Babylon with one of the ancient wonders of the world: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Babylonian Captivity is the detention of the Israelites in Babylon, lasting from their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 bc until their release by Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE. It is taken as a type of grieving exile.

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Glimpses of History #9: Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian Civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley

As the term is now used, Mesopotamia describes the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates spreading from the Kurdish foothills in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise in the Taurus and Zagros mountains (modern-day Turkey and Iraq’s Mosul region), flowing southeast to meet near Basra. The area between their near-parallel stretches was reliably fertile amid the surrounding desert, and gives rise to the Greek name ‘Mesopotamia’. 10,000-year-old pottery from the region traces the southward movement of settled farms as the climate altered. The Neolithic discovery of mutant grasses with distended seeds that were easier to separate from their plants soon led to deliberate cultivation. Emmer wheat, rye, barley and flax were selectively bred (though whether farmers realized this is debatable) and planted in oxen-ploughed fields. The advent of bronze made ploughing and harvesting less labor-intensive.

The need to predict and, to some extent, control water and crops tended towards priests, dynastic kings and permanent farms specializing in single crops. Similar processes occurred in the Indus valley of India and the Yellow River in China (where the staple cereal was early rice). As rice reached Mesopotamia and India, while bronze reached China, it is tempting to assume some exchanges took place, but the pattern of development may be coincidence. Mesoamerica followed a similar pattern, also apparently independently. Townships became more durable and fortified: Susa, in Iran, and Ur, near the confluence of the rivers, were cities by c.4400 BCE. Their bounty had to be recorded and protected, requiring both clerks and armies.


The most notable achievement of the Akkad Dynasty (2360—2180 B.C.) was the creation of the first world empire, and for this reason the Sargonids lived on in legend, not only in Sumerian and Akkadian, but also in Hurrian, Hittite, and Elamite.

The earliest tallies were recorded as impressions in soft clay, from which the earliest known alphabets and arithmetic developed around 3100 BCE—written ‘bustrophedon’ alternated left-to-right and right-to-left, as a plough does in a field. Pictographic notes, running top-to -bottom, predate these. The written form of the Sumerian language, transcribed as if spoken, begins c.2600 BCE; edicts and chronicles are accompanied by myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The script takes decades to learn, suggesting that it was limited to a specialized cadre (including women, to begin with). Many other specialists, notably architecture, carving, brewing and metallurgy, can also be identified. One tantalizing detail: a female tavern-keeper, Kug-Bau, is listed as king of Sumer after 2500 BCE, and later recognized with various mother-goddesses.

Ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq), one of the world’s longest (almost three thousand years old) and influential civilizations, remains the most concentrated archaeological site on Earth, a fact that incited outcry from researchers at the outset of the 1991 bombing of the Persian Gulf known as Operation Desert Storm. Throughout the history of Mesopotamia, its people interacted vigorously with their neighbors, warring, trading, migrating, and sharing ideas.

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