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Dawn of Civilization
he Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire
Assyria and Babylonia
Neo-Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Collapse
Achaemenid Rule
In the Wake of Alexander
Parthian and Sassanian Rule
The Rise of Islam
Rediscovering the Past
Significant Sites
Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage


After the fall of the last Sumerian dynasty, the center of Mesopotamian power shifted from Sumer to Babylonia, which consisted of both Sumer and Akkad peoples and encompassed the region from the northern edge of the Persian Gulf to present-day Baghdad. Its name derives from the city of Babylon, which would dominate Mesopotamia, both politically and psychologically, for more than 2,000 years.

Kings of Isin and Larsa. Ishbi Erra, a governor of Isin under the last Ur III ruler, exploited the weakness of the central state to set himself up as king, and established a dynasty that lasted for about a century. After expelling the Elamites, Ishbi Erra gained control of the Sumerian cities of the south as well as central Babylonia. The Isin kings followed the Ur III model and were the last Mesopotamian kings ever to assume divine status. While they employed Sumerian for official documents and in the scribal schools, Akkadian by now has become the dominant spoken language.

Texts continue to mention the Amorites, and record the establishment of the first Amorite dynasty at the old Sumerian city of Larsa in the south, around 1930 BC. While the Amorites were often described as nomadic and even barbaric (not eating grain), the relationships between tribally based nomads like them and the settled populations were more complex.

Much earlier texts describe people identified as Amorites living and working in Babylonia, part of the diverse mixture of peoples that had been settling there. And nomadic groups regularly interacted with sedentary populations, sometimes in the service of local rulers, with some members settling down while others remained nomadic. Their patterns of tribal structure and migration appear to correspond to modern Bedouin, and their chiefs seem much like modern sheiks, a number of them took the opportunity of the unsettled conditions to gain control of city states and establish dynasties.

The dynasty established at Larsa seized control of Ur from Isin and began to expand, eventually eclipsing Isin.

Babylon’s Rise to Power: (1894-1595 BC). One of the Amorite chiefs to establish a dynasty did so around 1900 BC in Babylon, which had been in existence since the Akkadian period and possibly earlier. Nearly a century later, Hammurabi came to power, one of many kings competing for power and influence. As a famous text observes:

    “There is no king who by himself is strongest. Ten or 15
      kings follow Hammurapi of Babylon, as many follow
      Rim Sin of Larsa,  (the kings of ) Eshnunna and Qatna
      while 20 follow the king of Yamhad (Aleppo).”

Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) gradually established power through diplomatic alliances. But in his 29th year, he started an aggressive military policy, gaining control of central Babylonia, and when he conquered Rim Sin of Larsa, he seized all of the lands to the south.  Hammurabi even conquered Mari on the Euphrates in Syria, a former ally, and extended control at Assur and Nineveh in Assyria, effectively ruling all of Mesopotamia.

This was the highpoint of Mesopotamian omnipotence. While Hammurabi’s successors did gradually lose some control (his son, for example, faced a revolt in the south and the establishment of an independent dynasty called the Sealand), Babylon remained the established seat of kingship, unchallenged in this role from 1750 BC until 325 BC when Seleucus Nikator, the cavalry commander under Alexander the Great, founded the Seleucian Empire after Alexander’s death and built Seleucia (near Ctesiphon) as his royal capital. 

Law Codes. The most important Old Babylonian artifact – both monument and text - to have survived from this period is the Code of Hammurabi, a basalt slab, 2.25 meters in height, found at Susa in Iran where it had been taken as booty.  Today beginning students in Akkadian learn to read the language by studying this text, which consists of a prologue, epilogue and a section of 282 laws.

The Code of Hammurabi is famous for many reasons, one of them being the elegant simplicity with which the laws were constructed, each in the form of a conditional sentence: “If such and such happens … then this penalty will apply.”

Mesopotamia has a long tradition of law codes, with Ur Nammu of Ur III generally known as the promulgator of the first law code, as well as  texts dealing with social reforms from the Early Dynastic Period that have great legal significance.  An early King Lipid Ishtar of the Iain Dynasty also issued a law code. The first Akkadian example, known as the Laws of Eshnunna, was excavated in a suburb of Baghdad. Possibly every city-state had such a collection, written in Sumerian or Akkadian.

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A major difference that distinguishes these earlier law codes from the Sumerian tradition is that they lack the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” legal philosophy found in the later Hammurabi code, which probably derived from Amorite tradition.  Instead of prescribing death in capital cases — such as a builder whose shoddy construction caused a fatal accident — these earlier codes imposed financial restitution as a penalty.

“Code” is also a somewhat misleading term, because although the text covers a variety of subjects, dealing mainly with the disposition and responsibility for property and social relations, such as marriage and adoption, it was by no means comprehensive. Hammurabi does not claim to have codified existing law. Major areas of behavior are unaddressed. And of the thousands of legal documents and contracts that have survived from this period, only one explicitly refers to the Hammurabi Code. Some scholars have suggested that the “laws” are not so much decrees as collections of decisions in particular cases.

The Code of Hammurabi also shows how the conception of Mesopotamian kingship has evolved and changed. The relief carving at the top of the famous stele (now at the Louvre in Paris) shows Hammurabi humbly approaching Shamash, the sun god and god of Justice, a distinct contrast from the kings of the Akkadian and Ur III period who had deified themselves.

In describing himself as the shepherd of his people, Hammurabi emphasized his role in establishing justice, primarily social justice. “These are the laws of justice, which Hammurabi the able king has established. That the strong may not oppress the weak, to give justice to the orphan and widow”. Sentences like this are no less true and important in our time as they were 3,500 years ago.

Scribal Schools Inspire a Literary Tradition. Becoming proficient in the cuneiform writing system required a lengthy, specialized training, and some sort of scribal schools were in existence in temples since writing emerged in the Uruk period. 

From the Early Dynastic period at sites like Uruk, Ur, Nippur and Shuruppak have come exercise tablets, in which an inscription or phrase is written out by a teacher and copied by students. Merchants and administrators needed some knowledge of writing, and priests and high government officials even more. 
The official title of DUB_SAR, or scribe, corresponded to a present-day MBA degree, with the recipient working in a temple rather than an office.

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During the Old Babylonian period, scribal schools reached their zenith, training their students, probably sons of the wealthy and influential, administrators, military officers, scribes.  While Sumerian had probably died out as a spoken language, their training included fluency in both Sumerian and Akkadian, and during this time, many Sumerian literary compositions – myths, epics chronicles - were copied over and preserved or revised and adapted. For example, an unnamed Old Babylonian scribe composed the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s great works of literature, by drawing upon four different Sumerian compositions. Other works written in Akkadian include the Epic of Atrahasis, a creation myth and flood story with an environmental theme (don’t upset mother nature lest you be upset in return). This literary corpus was preserved, copied and recopied, again and again, for more than 1000 years.

Literacy in ancient Mesopotamia was never widespread. But interestingly, during this time, the cuneiform writing system in Akkadian was as simplified as it would ever be, consisting mostly of a syllabic system with word sign indicators.  Numerous personal letters written in varying degrees of competence suggest that some parts of the general population were marginally literate, although scribes were available in the marketplace for those who were not. (The standard form of letters in Mesopotamia indicates that they were to be read aloud: “to so-and–so (the recipient) say, thus speaks so-and-so (the writer)…”

The Fall of Babylon and the Kassites. As Hammurabi’s successors failed to match his achievements, the kingdom began to shrink in territory and prestige. First, the South dissolved under pressure from the independent Sealand Dynasty. A number of foreign, non-Semitic speaking peoples began asserting pressure from the North, including the Indo-European Hittites from Anatolia, the Hurrians from the Upper Euphrates, and the Kassites.

While some features of the Kassite language suggest Indo European connections, and they are thought to have come from the mountains to the east, their first recorded appearance in Babylonia is as agricultural laborers, apparently peaceful.  But as their numbers grew,  they soon became a military threat, forcing Hammurabi’s son Samsu–iluna to engage the Kassite army when a Kassite state emerged on the borders of Babylon, perhaps in the middle Euphrates.

In 1595 BC, the Hittite king Mursilis I made a lightening raid, moving south into Syria to take Aleppo, then continued down the Euphrates to capture Mari and finally on to Babylon, which he conquered, plundered, then, just as rapidly, abandoned.

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Into this power vacuum stepped the Kassites, establishing a dynasty that ruled until 1155 BC. They can hardly be regarded as conquering foreigners. By this point, they had been thoroughly assimilated into Mesopotamian culture and established themselves as a dynasty that respected and observed Babylonian traditions, to the point that their own native culture seems totally transparent. While they founded the new city of Dur Kurigalzu, Babylon remained the capital, and Kassite kings restored and rebuilt the historic city. By around 1460 BC, the Kassites had won back the Sealand area to the south, and thereafter ruled over a unified Babylonian state for approximately 400 years. Ironically, they were more successful in their rule than the much more famous kings of Ur III, Akkadian and Old Babylonian Dynasties, which achieved unity for only a century or two at most.

The Kassite kings are best known as the masters of geo-politics from the 15th to the 13th centuries BC, all extensively documented in the Amarna archives in Egypt, written in Akkadian (the lingua franca of the period). In the archives, we discover that the great kings of Egypt, Babylon, the Hittites and Mitanni (Hurrians) corresponded extensively with each other and their vassals during this period, exchanging gifts and concocting diplomatic alliances, arranging dynastic marriages.

The Kassite state ended, first under a conquest and brief rule by Assyria, around 1240 BC, which unleashed a long, troubled relationship between Babylonia and Assyria compounded by equal parts of struggle for hegemony and cultural envy.

The last vestiges of the Kassite kingdom ended around 1155BC, when the Elamites from present-day Iran conquered the region, looted Babylon and carried of to Susa, as booty, the stele of Naram Sin, the famous carving of the Code of Hammurabi, which is today in the collection of the Louvre in Paris.

Various dynasties ruled Babylonia, the most famous being Nebuchadnezzar I, of the Second Dynasty of Isin, who managed to control Assyria and attacked Elam, avenging the earlier looting of Babylon. Reputedly, he made a daring surprise attack during the summer, when it was considered far too hot for warfare, much like Lawrence of Arabia led Arab troops across the blistering desert of the Empty Quarter for his surprise attack on the Turkish fortifications at Aqaba.

The end of Kassite rule coincided with major disruptions and upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean. Around 1200 BC, the Hittite empire collapsed and Troy fell, both events related to widespread migrations of groups known in Egyptian sources as the “Sea Peoples”. One such group, the Peleshet or Philistines, eventually gave their name to the region we know as Palestine.

While archaeologists designate the time from 1200 B.C. onwards as the Iron Age, the earliest iron objects in Mesopotamia actually date much earlier, circa 2000 BC. As iron working technology grew more  complex, control of it fell to the Hittites. After their collapse, iron making became more widely available and iron weaponry an important factor in the rise of the empires in the centuries that followed, during the first millennium BC.

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