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Babylon Conquers

Agriculture and populations were growing. Herding and slash-and-burn agriculture in the Middle East contributed to mobility. There were migrating herdsmen grazing their animals. Armies were on the move, as were tribal warriors, fighting in the name of their god. In the 2300s, Sumerian civilization was still thriving in Mesopotamia (today Iraq) – although it had a declining agriculture because of evaporating irrigation water leaving behind layers of salt. Sumerians wrote of the earth turning white.

Political stability was another problem. It was around 2334 BCE that a humble Semite cup-bearer to the ruler of the city of Kish maneuvered his way to power. An exceptionally talented military leader, he led an army that conquered the other Sumerican cities. Supplying an army with bronze weapons required tin and copper, and he extended his empire into Asia Minor (today Turkey) and to the Mediterranean Sea around what today is Syria and Lebanon. He appointed as governors throughout his empire men of his ethnicity. He built himself a library of thousands of clay tablets and built an efficient system of roads and a postal service. He became known as Sargon the Great and described his victories in creating a Semitic rather than Sumerian empire. But there was cultural diffusion: he had a deference for Sumerian deities. He attributed his victories to the chief deity of the Sumerians – Enlil. He saw the Sumerian goddess Inanna as his patroness.

Hierarchy was built on hierarchy. His warriors became an aristocracy and they lived off taxes collected from the conquered. Nineteen years after taking power (around 2284 BCE) Sargon died. His dynasty was challenged by the uprisings of those whom Sargon had conquered, and perhaps this weakened his empire. During the rule of Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin (reigned c. 2254-18), a wave of nomads called Gutians from the Zagros mountains in the east overran the empire. Exactly why Naram-Sin was unable to defeat the invaders is unknown, but the response of his subjects to the invasions is. They saw adversity as had the Sumerians: as the work of displeased gods. They interpreted the Gutian invasion as the result of their Goddess Inanna having left them because of Naramsin's sins.

After only a hundred years, Sargon's dynasty was no more. The Sumerians rallied, and they were able to defeat and exterminate the invaders. A Sumerian renaissance lasted until about 1950 BCE when another invasion came out of the east, by Elamites from what today is Iran. The Sumerians were attacked also by a Semitic speaking people who infiltating Mesopotamia since around 2100 BCE — Amorite a word meaning Westerner. The Amorites sacked and burned Sumerian cities. A fragment of Sumerian writing describes bodies dissolving like fat in the sun and cities covered with a shroud of smoke, and the invasion was described as a result of their gods having abandoned them like migrating birds.

The Amorites are said to have founded the city of Babylon (by the Tigris River) in 1984 BCE. They had been adopting Sumerian culture. And the Sumerians were to vanish as an identifiable ethnicity, absorbed by Mesopotamia's other peoples. The Amorites increased their skills in the art of combat and extended their control over Mesopotamia. They fought off new waves of migrating peoples. They joined in the trade between Mesopotamian cities, and they extended their trade into Asia Minor, exchanging woolen cloth and tin for gold, silver and copper. And Amorite merchants created colonies in parts of southern Asia Minor.

Trade was a peaceful exchange, but in the 1790s the sixth king of an Amorite dynasty, Hammurabi, sent his armies out and conquered other kingdoms, cutting down his enemies, as he put it, "like dolls of clay." He established his authority from the Persian Gulf to Asia Minor. Like Sargon he built a new network of roads. He created a postal system, and he delegated power to governors who rule conquered territories in his name.

Babylon was a city with skilled artisans, architects, bricklayers and businessmen, with an efficient secular administration and a chain of command. 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.

Babylon's story of the creation of the world was the Enuma Elish, inherited from the Sumerians. And there was the Sumerian a story about a great flood – the story of Gilgamesh. The story addresses the mystery of why men must die while gods live forever, and it's a story about human audacity and willfulness against the wills of the gods. Gilgamesh learns about the god Enlil who wished to destroy all of humankind in a great flood. The story teller describes for Gilgamesh other kinder gods who told him to tear down his house, build a ship, abandon his possessions, save his life and to take into his ship his family and the seed of all living things.

Hammurabi claimed that he received his laws from Babylon's sun god and the god 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. Hammurabi's government had contracts between his subjects witnessed and ratified. 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. Deeds of partnership were maintained. Properties were registered and wills were written.

Landholders were protected from the landless. Hammurabi divided his subjects into classes: nobles; merchants, ordinary farmers, and slaves. All classes were to be protected from 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 would be thought of by historians as one of the outstanding rulers of early antiquity. But the institution called empire was doomed not to last. During the reign of Hammurabi's son, Samsu-Iluna (1750-12) there were more migrant invasions, and there were revolts by cities that Hammurabi had conquered. Cultural continuity left the Babylonians believing they were being punished for the sins, and life went on. A new era was emerging in the Middle East with more movement of armies and people and more diffusions.


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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.