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Updated on January 17, 2012

The Sumerian civilization flourished in Mesopotamia, the area in South West Asia that surrounded the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, during the approximate period 3000-2000 B.C.

Mesopotamia was divided into several kingdoms, one of which, Babylon, under the rule of Hammurabi, successively defeated all of the other kingdoms. By 1756 B.C. Babylon had defeated Assyria and taken possession of Mesopotamia.

The city of Babylon lay in an important strategic position on the east bank of the Euphrates, less than 65 km from the River Tigris. From this position Babylon was able to control the traffic on both rivers.

Under Hammurabi's rule, 1792-1750 B.C., Babylon became the thriving capital of a growing empire. Hammurabi's most important action to protect the stability of his empire was the strengthening of central government. Each city had its own governor and an 'Assembly of Elders' which took decisions on local matters but all were directly answerable to the king. In order not to alienate his subjects Hammurabi interfered as little as possible with local religious beliefs. Marduk, the god of Babylon, replaced the Sumerian god Enlil, but existing temples were rebuilt and improved.

Hammurabi himself acted as chief justice in his kingdom. He took decisions on all matters of importance, basing his decisions on those of past rulers. When no appropriate precedent existed he decided on a course of action. All of his decisions were recorded on clay tablets and became known as the 'Code of Hammurabi'. The Babylonians were conscientious record keepers and much of our knowledge of their society is derived from clay tablets containing reports, requests and instructions.

Shortly after Hammurabi's death Mesopotamia was invaded by people from Asia Minor, the Hittites and Mitanni. Revolts broke out in many parts of Mesopotamia and the Babylonian kingdom broke up. In Babylon itself Hammurabi's heirs continued to resist the revolts and invasions but in 1595 B.C. the Hittites sacked Babylon.

Although they withdrew from Babylon Mesopotamia remained under the rule of Kassite kings until 1162 B.C., when the Assyrian invasions brought Babylon and most of the rest of Mesopotamia under Assyrian rule.

A new Babylonian dynasty arose when Nabopolassar, the governor of Babylon under Assyrian rule, rebelled in 626 B.C. He joined forces with the Medes and in 612 B.C. the combined Medean and Babylonian armies sacked Ninevah, bringing an end to Assyrian rule. In 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar II, Nabopolassar's son, drove the Egyptians from north Syria and advanced to Pelusium on the Egyptian border. By 575 B.C. he had extended his empire as far as the Egyptian frontier to the west of Babylon. New Babylon, however, lasted as an empire for only a short time. In 539 B.C. Cyrus of Persia attacked and captured Babylon but he took care not to destroy it and encouraged the continuation of local tradition and cultures.

Both Old and New Babylon were great centers of art and literature. Hammurabi's Code of Law is the basis of many existing legal codes and the records found in Bablyonian libraries have provided much of the knowledge that we have of the history of Babylon and other Mesopotamian civilizations. New Babylon was even greater than Old Babylon had been and in the short period of its existence it became one of the wonders of the civilized world. In the extensive reconstructions there was an impressive wide avenue passing through the imposing Ishtar Gate. This gate still stands although it is now in the State Museum in Berlin. Made of bricks, it is decorated with animal shapes made of thick, colored enamels that were traded throughout the empire.

Trade was an important feature of Babylonian civilization and it was in trade that Babylon made two of its most important advances. The first was the development of a banking system and the second was the fixing of the value of silver in relation to that of gold. Even under foreign rule Babylon was a great scientific and cultural force.

For example, it was under Assyrian rule that Babylonian astronomers first calculated the length of the solar year.


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