Ancient History & Civilisation



Old Babylon: The Culmination

c.1900 to 1600 BCE

Wonderful, Mystical, Assyrian Babylon

And so, finally, we arrive at Babylon, the most famous, the most notorious, the most splendid, the most excoriated, the most admired, the most vilified city of antiquity. And the most persistent in European memory.

She derives her name from a Greek version of an Akkadian version of some earlier original designation. Akkadians rationalized it by taking it to mean Bab-Ilu, the Gate of God. Genesis claims it derives from a Hebrew root, Balal, meaning to mix up, referring to the confusion of tongues by which the hubris of Babel’s tower builders was punished.

She owes her location to its strong strategic position: close to the centre of the Mesopotamian plain, near to where Euphrates and Tigris approach each other most closely, today some 500 kilometres from the head of the Gulf.

She can blame her evil repute squarely on the Bible, with its account of the Judaeans’ Babylonian exile, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion’, and of St John’s vision, in the Book of Revelation, of the woman ‘arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery: Babylon the Great, mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’

Yet at the same time, the ancient city’s name has borne far more positive associations, among both adults and children, who even in our own times still used sometimes to sing:

How many miles to Babylon?

Three score and ten.

Will I get there by candle-light?

Yes, and back again.

If your heels be nimble and light,

You’ll get there by candle-light.

Nobody seems to know the origin or meaning of that children’s rhyme, once associated with a street game of some kind, and appearing to refer to the average human lifespan, three score years and ten, as well as to the spirit of life itself, represented as a flickering candle lighting the way. Nobody is even sure that the verse always named Babylon – once upon a time it may have specified Bethlehem, or some other similar sounding place. Yet by our own day the version with Babylon has long overcome all competition, and still regularly appears in the titles of novels, plays, films and even songs. The English-speaking world’s greatest experts on children’s songs and games, Iona and Peter Opie, concluded that most nursery rhymes were not first sung by children, but are the vestigial remains of once popular ballads and folksongs, of forgotten street cries and passion plays, of long outdated prayers and proverbs. Somehow Babylon, the name of the ancient world’s greatest city, though vanished from the surface of the earth these two millennia, has stuck in the popular imagination long enough to be still invoked by children playing in twentieth century streets.

The imperial centres of ancient Egypt or Assyria are familiar only to those tutored in their history. Most places known to Jews and Christians from the Bible – Jerusalem, Shechem, Bethlehem, Nazareth – derive their fame from far later times. Jericho may be one of the oldest inhabited urban centres of all, but is associated in popular culture only with Joshua’s sonic demolition of its walls: ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.’ Babylon, on the other hand, is still readily remembered for its pagan greatness. Particularly in England. And even more particularly in London.

Already in the twelfth century, Peter Ackroyd tells us in London: The Biography, there was a part of the city wall called Babylon; ‘the reasons for that name are unclear; it may be that in the medieval city the inhabitants recognized a pagan or mystical significance within that part of the stone fabric.’ As London grew in size and importance over the centuries, the ancient name was increasingly deployed as a metaphor to represent the entire imperial capital. One might think that when the modern metropolis was referred to as Babylon, it would have a pejorative sense. But no. Ackroyd relates that eighteenth-century London was described as ‘cette Babylone’ because she provided a safe asylum for the dispossessed: ‘le seul refuge des infortunés’. The poet William Cowper found this ‘increasing London’, with its multifarious population, to be ‘more diverse than Babylon of old’, and he meant that as praise; while to Arthur Machen, a Welsh author of the belle époque, ‘London loomed up before me, wonderful, mystical as Assyrian Babylon, as full of unheard-of things and great unveilings.’

If, to modernizing Britain, the name Babylon symbolized a mysterious but vibrant multicultural megalopolis, other traditions recalled Babylon each in its own way.

To classical authors she was a city of this world, without mystical overtones. Greek and Latin writers from Herodotus in the fifth century BCE to Dio Cassius who lived on into third century Rome, left us prosaic, though sometimes fanciful, accounts of her history, topography, later fortunes and final decay. According to Dio, when Roman Emperor Trajan visited the place in the first century, he found no more than a heap of ruins. On the other hand Theodoret, Bishop of Cyprus in the fifth century, claimed that Babylon was still inhabited (by Jews) during his lifetime.

To devout Christians, Babylon would always be the whore of the Book of Revelation, representing everything that is sinful and wicked about urban living. To Rastafarians, following the teachings of Marcus Garvey, she is the ultimate symbol of everything that oppresses and crushes black people, playing a central role in reggae music’s expression of suffering and call to resistance.

To the world of Islam, in whose territory the site lay after the Arab conquests of the seventh century, the name Babylon meant almost nothing. True, several important Arab geographers noted her former location, though sometimes wrongly. But the general attitude of Islam towards the time of jahilliyah, ‘ignorance’ (of the true faith), being so scathing, there was never any great interest in recalling the days when the ancient city flourished. The Qur’an refers to Babylon by name once only, in an entirely neutral sense, when recounting the story of two angels sent to earth by God to tempt humans to sin: ‘It was not Solomon who misbelieved, but the devils who misbelieved, teaching men sorcery, and what had been revealed to the two angels at Babylon, Harut and Marut – though these taught no one until they said, “We are but a temptation, so do not misbelieve”’ (Sura 2, The Cow, Verse 14).

Round about Al-Hillah, where Babylon’s deserted mounds silently slept through the centuries, visible for miles across the otherwise level plain, Muslim villagers populated them imaginatively with demons, jinn and evil spirits, or their physical embodiments, snakes and scorpions; and with the angels Harut and Marut, hanging by their feet and howling loudly in an eternity of punishment. Good reason to keep well away.

Thus it was left to Jews to keep the multi-faceted reality of the ancient centre of civilization alive in western cultural consciousness, waiting for the time when a new spirit of enquiry would lead European explorers to investigate the remains properly, when a new discipline, archaeology, would begin to build a picture of Babylon as she once was, and when the name Babylon would be applied allegorically to the new centre of a world empire.

Ever since King Nebuchadnezzar II, after burning the Temple, exiled the Jerusalem ruling class to Babylon in 586 BCE, southern Mesopotamia had supported the largest and most important communities of Jews. It was there, during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries of our era, in the Babylonian towns Nehardea, Sura and Pumbedita (this last was probably today’s Fallujah), that the more influential of the two recensions of the Talmud was assembled: the compilation of legal precepts, national history and folklore which still lies at the root of all Jewish belief and observance. There, too, was to be found the seat of the Resh Galuta, the Exilarch or Head of the Exile, supposedly descended from the royal line of King David and the de jure ruler of all Jewry until the eleventh century.

It was unsurprising therefore that the earliest European traveller to write an account of a visit to the ruins of Babylon city should be a Jew: Benjamin, born at Tudela in Iberia, who journeyed around the Near East from the 1160s onwards, collecting information about the conditions of its Jewish communities. Perhaps his aim was to provide guidance to prospective refugees from the increasingly oppressive discrimination against the Jews of Spain after the recapture of Navarre for the Christian church in 1119. After much wandering, he found himself in Resen, near the Euphrates, a location mentioned in the Bible, but now lost to geography. ‘Thence it is a day’s journey to Babylon, which is the Babel of old,’ he wrote in his travel diary.

The ruins thereof are thirty miles in extent. The ruins of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar are still to be seen there, but people are afraid to enter them on account of the serpents and scorpions. Near at hand, within a distance of a mile, there dwell 3,000 Israelites who pray in the synagogue of the Pavilion of Daniel, which is ancient and was erected by Daniel. It is built of hewn stones and bricks. Between the synagogue and the palace of Nebuchadnezzar is the furnace into which were thrown Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the site of it lies in a valley known unto all.

Where the Jew led, others followed, though most travellers in the area, including Marco Polo, were happy to repeat hearsay and folklore rather than to investigate for themselves. By contrast, the Italian nobleman and adventurer Pietro della Valle did personally visit the ruins near Al-Hillah in 1616, correctly identifying them as those of Babylon. He is credited as the first European to recognize that the strange clusters of wedge-shaped marks on the bricks he found strewn over the nearby sands were not decoration but writing, and he furthermore somehow deduced that they were to be read from left to right. On his return to Italy in 1626 he was given a celebrity reception and appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber by the Pope. Yet for all that, it seems not to have been in Rome but in London that there was most keen interest in della Valle’s revelations. So an unexpected discovery at the end of the nineteenth century tells us.

In 1886 a devastating fire destroyed the church of St Mary Magdalen and a row of old merchants’ houses in Knightrider Street in the City of London, a narrow medieval passage not far from the river Thames, named for the fact that it was once the route for knights to make their way from the Tower Royal in Cannon Street to the tournament grounds at Smithfield. After clearing the charred remains, builders began to dig out the ancient foundations. In a layer deep underground they came across a number of fragments of black diorite stone inscribed with cuneiform characters. Sent for identification to the British Museum, they turned out to date, as the press delightedly reported, ‘from the time of the oldest Babylonian kingdom as yet known’.

An expert from the British Museum, a Mr B. T. A. Evetts, noted that the houses from under which the stones were recovered dated back to the second half of the seventeenth century and were part of the rebuilding work undertaken after the destruction of the area in the Great Fire of 1666. Referring to the inscribed fragments, he suggested that ‘there is hardly any reason to doubt that they were buried among the foundations when the street was afterward restored’. The Warsaw-born Jewish-American Orientalist Morris Jastrow Jr. concluded that more interest than previously supposed had been generated by della Valle’s published letters, and the specimens of Babylonian brick that he brought back on his return.

Learned men and societies began to take an interest in the subject, and since the surfaces of the mounds in Babylonia are commonly strewn with fragments of stone, bits of bricks and pottery, nothing is more likely than that, in consequence of the interest aroused by della Valle, a London merchant should have secured some specimens of these antiquities for his private collection of curios. The whereabouts of the bricks of della Valle above referred to being unknown, the British Museum now takes priority to the Louvre, the oldest piece in whose Babylonian collections was brought to Europe by Michaux, the botanist, in 1782.

The rivalry between London and Paris was real enough. Adventurers of many nationalities had, over the centuries, taken part in the exploration of the ancient Middle East. Towards the end of the Victorian era, just as European imperial powers were beginning the ‘scramble for Africa’, so also was there strenuous competition between them over the antiquities of the Levant, each striving to unearth and bring home the most impressive remains. By the end of the nineteenth century the field had shrunk to just three, Britain, France and Germany, each with political interests in the region. Britain was concerned to defend the trade routes to her Indian Empire; France was long established by treaty as protector of Catholic Christians in the Ottoman Empire; the newly unified German Empire was eager for support from the Sultan against perceived British attempts to keep her in her place. There were unedifying squabbles between them over the rights to excavation. Public interest was feverish; the spoils were spectacular; national pride was at stake. Magnificent displays were erected in the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, and Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum. But while the astonishing antiquities from all over Mesopotamia were attracting visitors in ever greater number, the highest honour was reserved for whoever could bring the city of Babylon back to life in the public imagination.

Here Germany was definitely the winner. Her increasingly cordial relations with the fading Ottomans made it possible for Robert Johann Koldewey, an architect and art historian turned archaeologist, to unearth and export back to his homeland the entire ceremonial portal known as the Ishtar Gate, as well as part of the processional way leading to it, reconstructed from the original excavated multicoloured tiles. It seemed that very soon it would be possible to establish in fullest detail the whole history of Babylon from earliest times.

These hopes were, however, quickly to be dashed. While the objects transported to Berlin were undoubtedly spectacular, all too soon it was recognized that the Babylon of the excavations represented little more than the final centuries of the city’s independent existence: the capital city of King Nebuchadnezzar’s empire and of the Judaeans’ exile. While beautiful, fascinating, and historically important in their own right, the ruins discovered by della Valle and his successors were not so very ancient at all, but belong to what, in Greece, would be considered part of the late archaic era – hardly very much older, in fact, than the buildings on the Athenian Acropolis. Nothing was found to date from much before the seventh or sixth century BCE. This was rather more than a thousand years after the establishment of the city as the major political player among the new polities founded by Amorite sheikhs in wake of the decline and collapse of the third dynasty of Ur.

The older layers of evidence could not be reached; they proved to be antediluvian in the strict meaning of the word. Through the course of millennia the water-table has inexorably risen, rendering all earlier occupation levels inaccessible to excavation. Thus, to the great chagrin of Assyriologists, we have no direct archaeological or documentary knowledge of Babylon City dating back to its earliest days. Nor are we ever likely to. We are forced to rely for our account of early Babylonian history on oblique hints and incidental references by others. It is like trying to establish the origins of the European renaissance had the city of Florence long ago been swept away by the river Arno.

The comparison is not as fanciful as it may seem. Many equally tumultuous events took place over the several centuries that separated the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur from the establishment of Babylon as southern Mesopotamia’s premier city, centre of the high-point of Mesopotamian civilization.

No King is Powerful Just on His Own

For a few hundred years the political kaleidoscope shook – all over Mesopotamia. Westerners, Amurru in Akkadian, arrived in an unstoppable flood. These were not all one nation; their names tell us that they spoke at least two different west-Semitic dialects. Other peoples entered from the east and the north. They frequently fought against each other. Dynasties rose and fell. Power rewarded intrigue and assassination. City strove against city for superiority. Great battles were fought. Kings took to the field. Some prevailed; some died.

And some found odder and more unusual ends. When the omens were particularly unfavourable it was the custom to spirit the monarch away to safety and temporarily place a commoner on the throne to receive whatever blow fate had in store for the man in the palace. Around 1860 BCE destiny spoke, probably in the form of a lunar eclipse, threatening the Sumerian King Irra-Imitti of Isin. ‘That the dynasty might not end,’ explains the later text that Assyriologists call the ‘Chronicle of Early Kings’, the sovereign ‘made the gardener Enlil-Bani take his place upon the throne and put the royal tiara upon his head.’ Thus legitimized, the pretend-ruler officiated in the temple rites and performed all other royal duties.

The usual course of events – which will be familiar to readers of the Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer, much of whose The Golden Bough concerns the late survival of this very practice into European history – would have been to wait until the danger had passed and then put the temporary monarch to death. But fate was not as blind as she is usually described and seems to have been perfectly able to distinguish the fake royal from the real: ‘Irra-Imitti died in his palace after swallowing boiling broth. Enlil-Bani, who was upon the throne, did not relinquish it and so was established as king.’ Enlil-Bani was remarkably successful, managing to maintain his rule for almost a quarter of a century, and being declared a god. Maybe the entertaining tale describing his accession to power was merely a cover story for what really happened: a palace putsch – hardly an unusual occurrence in that violent century. A little later the city-state called Kurda was ruled by four kings in ten years, the city Shubat-Enlil the same, the city Ashnakkum saw five rulers in half that time. A palace official, writing from Mari City, confirms that during his period of office, ‘No king is truly powerful just on his own: ten to fifteen kings follow Hammurabi of Babylon, as many follow Rim-Sin of Larsa, as many follow Ibal-pi-El of Qatna; but twenty kings follow Yarim-Lim of Yamhad.’

The state of Mari, the most north-westerly outpost of southern Mesopotamian culture, lying some 400 kilometres north of Babylon on the upper Euphrates, was ancient and glorious and boasted a palace that must have been the most splendid of its day. Its elaborately decorated throne room, audience chambers, reception and dining areas, with their frescoed depictions of Abrahamic daily life, must have been regularly thronged with a crush of exotically dressed visiting dignitaries: foreign kings coming to pay homage, vassals arriving with gifts, tribal sheikhs delivering tribute. An enormous entourage of slaves, servants, personal assistants, gentlemen- and ladies-in-waiting, the workforce that serviced the daily needs of the king and his several wives, would be pressing urgently through the narrow corridors of the royal private apartments, bearing baskets of clothes, trays of food, jugs of drink and boxes of documents. The administrative block must have been a hive of activity, with its messengers, filing clerks, accountants and auditors, with its bustling secretaries, under-secretaries, assistant under-secretaries and deputy assistant under-secretaries, with its foreign envoys hoping to establish or cement political alliances, and its ambassadors recently returned home to be debriefed and receive fresh instructions.

In one section at ground level is a large scriptorium, where fair copies were made from the scratch-tablets on which letters had been taken down by dictation. In another section the palace archive contains the files, records of correspondence between Mari’s kings and officials, and the state’s emissaries, enemies and allies, near and far.

All this busy and productive life came to a very sudden end when Mari was taken by Hammurabi, Amorite King of Babylon. Once the Babylonian garrison was in control and all resistance suppressed, the conqueror sent in an intelligence task-force to examine the files. Agents spent many weeks reading through the well over 25,000 documents, sorting them by author, subject and addressee, and placing each group in a separate container. Tablets with contents important to Babylonian national security – all letters from Hammurabi to Mari’s ruler Zimri-Lim, for example – were packed up and shipped off by donkey caravan to the capital down south.

Some time later, perhaps after an attempted insurrection, Hammurabi had the entire palace cleared of people and burned to the ground. Workmen then demolished and levelled whatever walls were left standing after the fire. Mari’s tragedy was archaeology’s gain. The palace archive, its documents sorted into separate categories basket by basket, baked by Mari’s final fire into everlasting permanence, were buried under the rubble, where they remained until dug up nearly 4,000 years later, starting in the 1930s, by a French team of Assyriologists led by André Parrot. The more than 23,000 tablets they recovered paint for us a remarkable picture of ancient life and times.

What is particularly striking, over and above the details of political machinations and ever-shifting alliances among the strongmen, warlords and mafia bosses who now dominated Mesopotamia, is that in their letters, you actually hear them talk. They do not couch their correspondence in some formal mode of expression but shoot from the hip and speak from the heart. These are authentic ancestral voices, and mostly they prophesy war.

This matter is not for discussion; yet I must say it now and vent my feelings. You are the great king. When you requested of me two horses, I had them conveyed to you. But as for you, you sent me just twenty pounds of tin.

Undoubtedly, you could not be honourable with me when you sent this paltry amount of tin. By the god of my father, had you planned sending nothing at all, I might have gotten angry [but not felt insulted].

Among us in Qatna, the value of such horses is ten pounds of silver. But you sent me just twenty pounds of tin! What would anyone hearing this say? He could not possibly deem us of equal might.

In other words, ‘Show me some respect, man!’

But the whingeing ruler of Qatna had made the mistake of tangling with the King of Ekallatum, eldest son of Shamshi-Adad, a capo di tutti capi long remembered with great honour in later Assyrian history, who spread his tentacles of power out from his base in the city of Shubat-Enlil. The father’s relations with his younger son, who ruled at Mari, read like dialogue from The Godfather. While the elder son was consistently praised for his lust for battle, the King of Mari was regularly scolded and denigrated: ‘How long do we have to guide you in every matter? Are you a child, and not an adult? Don’t you have a beard on your chin? When are you going to take charge of your house? Don’t you see that your brother is leading vast armies? So, you too, take charge of your palace, your house.’ Now the old mafioso wanted his younger son to teach the King of Qatna a lesson: ‘While your brother here is inflicting defeats, you, over there, you lie about amidst women. So now, when you go to Qatna with the army, be a man! As your brother is making a great name for himself, you too, in your country, make a great name for yourself.’

Though we can read much of the correspondence of these gangster-like characters, as people we actually know very little about them. It is like coming to a radio play halfway through. We hear the words, but we do not know whether they are spoken by someone tall or short, fat or thin, old or young, trustworthy or mendacious, given to exaggeration or to understatement. Yet if we go on listening long enough, we can begin to recognize individual characters.

In his 1997 Presidential Address to the American Oriental Society, Professor Jack Sasson drew on a career-long study of correspondence written by Mari’s last monarch, Zimri-Lin, who had grabbed the city from Shamshi-Adad’s unfortunate younger son, to give us an informed thumbnail sketch.

Despite all the shortcomings, from these letters we were able to penetrate Zimri-Lim’s personality. From witty or proverbial statements attributed to him we could decide that his sense of humour was more subtle than crude. We learned also that he was not without vanity, for he pestered his valets for specific cuts of garments and reacted with fury when feeling ignored. He was not without curiosity, for we have records of extensive visits beyond his kingdom. He had a large appetite for details of government, constantly soliciting answers to unsatisfied questions. But he also suffered well the internal bickering and scandal-mongering of bureaucrats vying for his attention. It is obvious, too, that Zimri-Lim was a pious, god-fearing man, prompting his staff to proceed with religious ceremonies and requesting to be kept abreast of the latest messages from the gods. Yet, he was not beyond whining, especially when asked for objects he did not wish to give up. He also seems to have had self-doubts.

How Zimri-Lim ended his life is unknown. But the event marks the close of that long, troubled interregnum between the Third Dynasty of Ur and a new, Babylonian, empire.

A New Social Order

When the Mesopotamian kaleidoscope was finally laid to rest, a novel stable pattern revealed itself – a pattern very different from the old. Centred on Babylon City, scholars call this the Old Babylonian era.

The reality of the new social order is illuminated by one of its best known relics. If King Hammurabi, the sixth ruler of the first dynasty of Babylon and the consolidator of the Old Babylonian Empire, is popularly known for anything, it is his law code, inscribed on a column of black diorite stone, recovered, not from Mesopotamia, but from Susa, the capital city of the state of Elam, now in western Iran. It had been looted as a spoil of war after the Elamite conquest of Babylonia in the thirteenth century BCE, half a millennium after the lifetime of its author.

Surmounted by an image of the king receiving the law from Shamash, sun god and patron of justice, this object probably once stood in a public court at a temple in Sippar. Other copies would have been found right across the king’s realm, notably in the god Marduk’s temple in Babylon, Esagila, the House with the Raised Head, cultic centre of Babylon City and therefore of the whole empire. In the text, Hammurabi himself describes purpose of the stele: ‘Let the oppressed, who has a case at law, come and stand before this my image as king of righteousness; let him have read to him the inscription on this monument, let him hear my precious words; the inscription will explain his case to him; he will discover what is just, and his heart will be glad, so that he will say: “Hammurabi is a ruler who is as a father to his subjects.”’

As with the earlier laws of Ur-Nammu, this is not a law code in our modern sense. It is not totally comprehensive; nor does it set out legal principles. Instead it provides a list of paradigms, records of model cases supposedly heard before the king but in fact probably representing long judicial tradition, rather like Anglo-Saxon common law, with its preference for precedent and case law, and its strong distaste for all-embracing schemes like the continental Code Napoléon.

The text does, nevertheless, cover a great range of eventualities. After a long preamble, praising Hammurabi as protector of the weak and oppressed, and detailing the regions over which he ruled, comes a list of some 280 judgements concerning the family, slavery and professional, commercial, agricultural and administrative law, including setting standard commodity prices and hirelings’ wages. The section on family law is the largest, dealing with engagement, marriage and divorce, adultery and incest, children, adoption and inheritance.

Many of the judgements strike the modern reader as fair and reasonable. For example,

If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the income from field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.

If a woman quarrel with her husband, and says: ‘You are not congenial to me,’ the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house.

On the other hand Hammurabi’s laws famously differ from those of Ur-Nammu, in that rather than specifying financial penalties, many judgements enshrine the principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution, otherwise known as ‘an eye for an eye’:

If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.

It used often proposed that these apparently more cruel penalties expose a residual and irreducible savage barbarism intrinsic to the Semitic as opposed to the noble Sumerian mentality. There is a strong whiff of prejudice about such a judgement. Far more likely, Hammurabi’s laws reflect the shock of an unprecedented social environment: the multi-ethnic, multi-tribal Babylonian world.

In earlier Sumerian–Akkadian times, all communities had felt themselves to be joint members of the same family, all equally servants under the eyes of the gods. In such circumstances disputes could be settled by recourse to a collectively accepted value system, where blood was thicker than water, and fair restitution more desirable than revenge. Now, however, when urban citizens commonly rubbed shoulders with nomads following a completely different way of life, when speakers of several west Semitic Amurru languages, as well as others, were thrown together with uncomprehending Akkadians, confrontation must all too easily have spilled over into conflict. Vendettas and blood feuds must often have threatened the cohesion of the empire. Just as today the sterner social system of the USA, with its abhorrence of collective provision of public services and commitment to the death penalty expresses its identity as a nation of immigrants and deportees from many countries and backgrounds, in contrast to the predilection for social market solidarity and justice tempered by mercy in continental Europe, until very recently a far more ethnically homogenous realm, so do the draconian Babylonian laws, like the similar legal provisions of the Hebrew Bible, both reflect and attempt to limit the potential for discord and violence that always haunts a fragmented society. The contrast with previous legal compendiums tells us that the rules of the game had changed, that radically different social arrangements had come into being.

Gone was the ancient perception of the land as divided into the spheres of influence of separate city-states, each with its own ruling divinity, the 2,000-year-old notion of city, land, people, crops and livestock as foundation and property of the gods. Hereon in the pattern would be one of large territorial states. Two major centres would emerge: Ashur, eventually controlling all the north, and Babylon, ruling over all the south.

Gone was the sense of unity, of an entire population sharing the same Sumerian–Akkadian ancestry, the same burdens, the same destiny. It could hardly be otherwise, when so many of the ruling class traced their origins to ancestors from elsewhere. An odd ambivalence of attitude towards the incomers persisted. At the same time as literary texts were showering the Amurru with contempt as primitive and hostile barbarians, Hammurabi of Babylon was still proudly calling himself King of the Amorites. But though the famous law code implies that individuals from different communities not infrequently locked horns with each other, there seems to have been no permanent legacy of general ethnic strife among the people. We do find hints at social divisions, though.

Hammurabi’s laws tell us that there were three classes in Babylon: awilum, ‘freeman’ or ‘gentleman’, mushkenum, a member of the lower orders, and wardum, slave. The word mushkenum comes from a Semitic form, meaning ‘that which is, or he who is, put in its place’. (The same Semitic root is still in use, nearly 4,000 years later, in some modern romance languages like French, where mesquin means base, shabby or wretched.) Though there is no actual evidence, it is tempting to interpret awilum as originally denoting a member of the incoming Amorite ruling class, and mushkenum as a native of the land now reduced to lower status. Whether that be true or not, it can certainly be said that the loss of ethnic uniformity led, as it has so often done at different times and in different places, to the disappearance of social solidarity. The longstanding Sumerian communal ideal was dead and buried.

Gone, therefore, was the Sumerian attraction to collectivism and central planning. From now on came an era of privatization and outsourcing – there would be no such thing as society, just individual men and women and families, some wealthy, some poor, some weak, some powerful. Of course there remained the great temple and palace estates, but they shed most of their workforce, and with it their responsibility for those who serviced their needs, bureaucrats and craftspeople as well as ploughmen and stock-herders. Instead farmhands and artisans were hired and fired according to season, and independent entrepreneurs and tax-farmers were contracted to sustain the estates’ monetary and commercial affairs.

The result was a financial system recognisably related to our own, featuring banking and investment, loans, mortgages, shares and bonds, trading companies and business partnerships. This was history’s first experiment in mercantilist capitalism, with all its consequences, negative as well as positive.

The positive result was to make some people very rich. In his excavations, Leonard Woolley uncovered what has been called the financial district of Ur, separated from the palace and temple compound by the large canal that divided the town into two. This was not, as its alternative description as Ur’s Wall Street might imply, a particularly splendid location where majestic buildings lined grand thoroughfares. Simple two-storied residences crowded against each other along a maze of twisting lanes and narrow alleyways, along which no more than a single donkey could pass at a time. To find any particular house, you would have to follow complicated directions of the kind satirized in a humorous anecdote of the period: ‘You should enter by the Grand Gate and pass a street, a boulevard, a square, Tillazida Street, and the ways of Nusku and Nininema to your left. You should ask Nin-lugal-Apsu, daughter of Ki’agga-Enbilulu, daughter-in-law of Ninshu-ana-Ea-takla, a woman gardener of the Henun-Enlil gardens, who sits on the ground in Tillazida selling produce. She will show you.’ Arriving at the address Woolley named Number 3 Niche Lane, there was the office, and perhaps home, of businessman Dumuzi-Gamil, an educated, cautious and thrifty merchant, who preferred to keep his records in his own idiosyncratic hand, disdaining to employ a scribe either because of the cost, the challenge to his self-respect or the desire to keep his affairs strictly confidential – hired scribes had a reputation for being unable to keep their mouths shut. The large number of documents found apparently buried under the floor show him to have been a highly successful exponent of Old Babylonian commercial practice.

Not very long before Hammurabi succeeded in consolidating all Babylonia into a single imperial state, he and a business partner, Shumi-Abiya, borrowed a little over an ounce of silver from the businessman Shumi-Abum. They invested the money in bakeries that supplied the temples and palaces of Ur and Larsa with grain and bread. Woolley recovered a receipt issued by King Rim-Sin of Larsa, Isin and Ur, for a monthly supply of some 150 bushels of barley. The partners not only dealt with the great and the good. They lent much smaller amounts over much shorter terms to farm-workers and fishermen who needed emergency loans to pay their taxes. In turn, Shumi-Abum, who had advanced the partners the silver, sold the debt on to another partnership, Nur-Ilishu and Sin-Ashared. There was, it seems, an active market for bonds and what we now call commercial paper in Old Babylon. Dumuzi-Gamil’s files similarly listed sums credited and debts owing to other merchants both in his home city and elsewhere. These records could be used as negotiable instruments, the original of our paper money. Investments made in overseas trading expeditions brought Babylonian merchants close to what we recognize as commodity futures.

In short, the financial system that flowered in Hammurabi’s Babylon, had in place the very techniques which, when rediscovered several thousand years later, enabled first the Jews, then the Lombards and Venetians, to finance the expansion of the European economy during the Middle Ages. However, among the downsides of this proto-liberal economic revolution were the encouragement of debt, an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the reduction of many to penury and worse.

The term of Dumuzi-Gamil’s silver loan was five years; the interest rate specified by law for silver was 20 per cent. That sounds very steep. But the cost of borrowing money was calculated differently in those days. Rates may not have been permitted to vary competitively, but as they were levied over the whole term of the debt and not calculated annually, varying the repayment date changed the equivalent annual rate. Twenty per cent interest over five years, as in Dumuzi-Gamil’s case, is the same as something over 3 per cent a year: far more reasonable. Had the same been charged over two years, it would have equated just under 10 per cent per annum. Dumuzi-Gamil’s records show that when he made loans to workers and artisans, the repayment date was usually one or two months ahead. Over such a short time, the interest rate was the equivalent of up to 800 per cent APR: highly rewarding to the lender, but absolutely crippling to the debtor.

The privatized revenue agents and tax-farmers who preyed on the populace were relentless. Not only did they have to extract the cash owing to the tax-man, they also had to increase the obligation to ensure an income for themselves. Many of their victims were forced to sell themselves or members of their family into slavery because they simply could not pay. In the end the debt mountain grew to such colossal dimensions that something had to be done. Radical solutions were implemented that would have a long resonance in the history of finance.

Firstly, the law prescribed that debt slavery be limited to three years only. Hammurabi’s law code specifies: ‘If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, or daughter for money or give them away to forced labour: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.’

More dramatic yet, when the degree of general indebtedness grew so large as to threaten the financial, or even political, stability of the state, was the proclamation of general ‘debt forgiveness’, when all loans were declared null and void. Such edicts, often accompanying an amnesty for prisoners of the state, were the norm on the accession of a new ruler. But they were also sometimes promulgated mid-reign, such as when King Rim-Sin, a decade or so before his fiefdom fell to Hammurabi, suddenly declared all loans void, and in doing so completely wiped out Dumuzi-Gamil’s cosy partnership, as well as much other business activity in Ur. There are suggestions that debt-remission was limited to short-term personal loans that funded consumption or tax-paying, and that borrowing for investment, as well as to pay fines and penalties, was excluded. That was not enough to rescue Babylonian business, which took many years to return to its previous levels of activity.

Perhaps the wild business-cycle enforced by such a crude method of control appeared less damaging to those who experienced it than it does to us. For the lesson was taken up many centuries later by the Hebrews, who in Deuteronomy 15 incorporated it into their religious law:

At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release.

And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord’s release…

And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.

And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty handed.

And finally, emphasizing the total political, social, and economic volte-face represented by the Old Babylonian Empire, gone were the last vestiges of Sumerian cultural dominance.

As a living language, Sumerian was finished. From now on Mesopotamia would be a land solely of Semitic everyday culture and Semitic everyday speech, though this would not be the western Semitic of the new ruling class, but a dialect of indigenous Akkadian that philologists call Old Babylonian. Nobody knows exactly when Sumerian stopped being heard in the streets. Perhaps some time towards the end of the previous Ur III era. Which is not to say that every use of the Sumerian language ceased. That would not happen until the final end of Mesopotamian civilization some 2,000 years hence. But it survived to be written rather than spoken, reserved for religion and scholarship rather than vernacular communication.

Such preservation of written Sumerian in later times is usually compared to the role of Latin as the language of learning in European history: from the fall of the western Roman Empire almost to the mid twentieth century, when the classics were finally abandoned by most schools. The analogy is slightly inaccurate because, of course, Latin never ceased to be spoken: following the usual processes of linguistic evolution, spoken Latin slowly turned into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and the other modern languages of the Romance family. Written Latin on the other hand, as a language of scholars, stayed frozen at the stage it had reached in the first century of the Common Era.

A more useful comparison for Sumerian would be Hebrew. For more than 2,000 years after it stopped being spoken, replaced in everyday life first by Aramaic and later by the local languages of the Diaspora, Hebrew remained the religious, literary and scholarly language of the Jews, and the medium for teaching Jewish children to read and write. Whatever tongue ruled in the home and the workplace, the Hebrew alphabet was adapted to represent it. Eventually it would be the basis upon which spoken Hebrew was reinvented at the end of the nineteenth century. In a similar fashion Sumerian remained the basis of literacy for as long as cuneiform continued to be written.

What Sumerian, Latin and Hebrew all have in common is their role as touchstones, as symbolic markers, of their respective traditions. Command of Sumerian, at whatever level, would always be the entry ticket to taking part in the great and continuous cultural tradition that now in Babylonia, quite ignoring the continuous ‘warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed’ all around, was reaching the peak of its development.

The new masters of Mesopotamia used the Sumerian language and the Sumerian cultural tradition as a glue to hold together the now diverse populations of their realm. Just as in France citizens are taught fidelity to the Revolution and to Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and in the USA schoolchildren are taught loyalty to the flag, the constitution and to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, so in Old Babylon were the king’s subjects, wherever their origin, taught to honour the ancient myths, legends and sacred stories, as well as the habits and the history, so far as it was known, of their Sumerian predecessors in the land. Religious beliefs remained largely unchanged, about the only innovation being the introduction to the pantheon of Babylon City’s patron deity Marduk, who slowly took over the status and prerogatives of Enlil, former king of the gods. Distinguished scribes even adopted Sumerian names, just like those European scholars of the Middle Ages and even later, who classicized their identities, preferring be known, for example, not as simple Neumann but Neander, not as plain Schwartzerd but Melanchthon, and not as mere Philip von Hohenheim, but as Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus – Paracelsus for short.

That made education of paramount importance. Indeed it was central to Babylonian civilization. No longer institutionalized in large and carefully regulated state-run academies, like those established in Ur III times by King Shulgi, but privatized like everything else in the new Babylonia, the education system none the less bequeathed us a huge legacy of documentary evidence: a small mountain of discarded written exercises and test-pieces. As a result we know more about what schooldays were like than many other aspects of life in ancient Babylon.

The Babylonian School

In Sumerian, school was called E-Dubba, in Babylonian Bet-Tuppi. Both names refer to the tablets on which documents were written. All education was based on reading and writing Sumerian and Babylonian text. From the résumé of a newly graduated student:

The total number of days I worked at school is as follows: I had three days of vacation each month: and since each month has three holidays when one does not work, I therefore spent twenty-four days in school each month. And it did not seem like a very long time to me!

From now on I will be able to devote myself to recopying and composing tablets, undertaking all useful mathematical operations. Indeed, I have a thorough knowledge of the art of writing: how to put the lines in place and to write. My master has only to show me a sign and I can immediately, from memory, connect a large number of other signs to it. Since I have attended school the requisite amount of time I am abreast of Sumerian, of spelling, of the content of all tablets.

Our graduate has not only mastered reading, writing and ’rithmetic, but has acquired many other office skills too.

I can compose all sorts of texts: documents dealing with measurements of capacity, from 300 to 180,000 thousand litres of barley; of weight, from eight grams to ten kilograms; any contract that might be requested of me: marriage, partnership, sales of real-estate and slaves; guarantees for obligations in silver; of the hiring out of fields; of the cultivation of palm groves; including adoption contracts. I can draw up all of these.

All very impressive and maybe even true, although it sounds rather like an extract from a modern school brochure. Our graduate’s account of his abilities undoubtedly paints an idealized picture of the deregulated Old Babylonian education system.

We receive a rather different impression, perhaps closer to the truth, from an anonymous writer – a sort of Charles Dickens or Thomas Hughes of ancient Babylon. This much-copied short story was called ‘Schooldays’ by its first translator and editor Samuel Noah Kramer, who pieced it together from more than twenty separate fragments lying in different museums, and it satirizes the randomness of the discipline, the corruption of the teacher and a risible lack of correspondence between praise and achievement. Not that the hero is much of a paragon of virtue.

The story begins with an account of a normal day’s events. Our protagonist goes to school, reads out an exercise, eats his lunch, copies out further texts, returns home and shows off what he has learned to his father. His father is pleased with his progress, which the schoolboy takes as an excuse suddenly to turn into a little monster.

I am thirsty, give me drink!

I am hungry, give me bread!

Wash my feet, set up the bed!

I want to go to sleep.

Wake me early in the morning.

All this serves as a contrast to what happens the very next day. At first everything seems normal enough. He gets up early, his mother gives him a packed lunch, and off he goes. Yet when he gets there, a supervisor stops him.

‘Why are you late?’

I was afraid, my heart beat fast.

I went in and sat down, and my teacher read my tablet. He said ‘There’s something missing!’

And he caned me.

One of the monitors said ‘Why did you open your mouth without my permission?’

And he caned me.

The one in charge of rules said ‘Why did you get up without my permission?’

And he caned me.

The gateman said ‘Why are you going out without my permission?’

And he caned me.

The keeper of the beer jug said ‘Why did you get some without my permission?’

And he caned me.

The Sumerian supervisor said ‘Why did you speak Akkadian?’

And he caned me.

My teacher said ‘Your handwriting is no good!’

And he caned me.

Bewildered by the sudden turn in his fortunes, the boy goes home and hatches a plan. He suggests that his father invite the teacher to dinner. But not to protest at his son’s treatment; the strategy is far subtler than that.

To that which the schoolboy said, his father gave heed.

The teacher was brought from school.

Having entered the house, he was seated in the seat of honour.

The schoolboy took a chair and sat down before him.

Whatever he had learned of the scribal art, he unfolded to his father.

His father, with a joyful heart says joyfully to his ‘school-father’: You train the hand of my young one, you make of him an expert, show him all the finer points of the scribal art.

Having cynically showered the teacher with praise, father and son proceed shamelessly to lavish food, drink and presents on him.

They poured out for him the good date-wine, brought him a stand, made flow the good oil in his vessel like water,

dressed him in a new garment,

gave him a gift, put a bracelet about his wrist.

To which the teacher quite openly responds in the way expected of him.

Because you gave me that which you were by no means obliged to give,

presented me with a gift over and above my earnings,

showed me great honour,

may Nidaba [goddess of scribes], the queen of the guardian deities, be your guardian deity,

may she show favour to your reed stylus,

may she take all error from your hand copies.

Of your brothers, may you be their leader,

of your companions, may you be their chief,

may you rank highest among all the schoolboys.’

If the word school conjures up in the mind the image of a large building with a playground and many pupils, that would be a mistake. Whatever the academies of Ur and Nippur set up by King Shulgi may have been like, in Old Babylonian days schooling took place in private dwellings, rather like the dame schools of the Victorian era, except that the instruction was undertaken by men. Also, though some archaeologists believed they had discovered schoolrooms, for example in the traces of a large chamber furnished with benches in the palace of Mari found by André Parrot, actually most learning must have taken place outside. Dealing with cuneiform text had to be largely an outdoor activity.

Writing, as we still do it today, with ink on papyrus, vellum, parchment or paper, depends for its readability on the contrast between the black, or at least dark, ink against a white, or at least pale, background. Though good light helps, it is not indispensable. The marks of cuneiform writing on clay are three-dimensional. There is no contrast in colour or tone between the sign and its substrate. To read or to write cuneiform demands excellent, and steady, illumination.

But ancient Mesopotamian interiors were dark. This is a very hot country for much of the year, boasting some of the highest temperatures to be found anywhere in the world. Every effort must be made to keep out the sun. In Babylonian houses windows were either entirely absent or heavily shuttered during the day. Literacy must have been learned – and indeed practised – in a courtyard under the open sky, either outside, within the house or perhaps on the roof.

Nevertheless, although the physical premises of a Babylonian and a nineteenth-century school may be quite different, the two still have much in common. The teacher in ‘Schooldays’, for example, is susceptible to bribery because he is a paid employee, rather than the equivalent of a master of apprentices. The monitors and supervisors who cane the protagonist may well have been senior boys, so-called ‘elder brothers’, constituting a kind of prefect system. And as in the nineteenth century, education seems to have been, in theory, open to all. We do not know whether Babylonian kings like Hammurabi could read and write, unlike King Shulgi of Ur who boasted of his education and his abilities as a scribe. But scholars believe that literacy was much more widely spread among the Old Babylonian population than at any time before or after in Mesopotamian history. The student body was not restricted to any particular caste, such as priests or bureaucrats. As in Victorian times, sending children to school was apparently open to any parents who did not need their offspring to contribute to household earnings – and for quite a long time, too, perhaps rather more than ten years. Ordinary families would have found this an impossibly great sacrifice. In one text, a father, complaining about his son’s attitude to study, demands that his son show due appreciation:

Never in all my life did I make you carry reeds to the canebrake. The reed rushes which the young and the little carry, never in your life did you carry them. I never said to you ‘Follow my caravans.’ I never sent you to work to plough my field. I never sent you to work to dig my field. I never sent you to work as a labourer. I never in my life said to you, ‘Go, work and support me.’ Others like you support their parents by working.

We do not know how schooling was paid for, nor how much it cost. In any case, only better off families could have managed without their children’s labour – although poor boys were sometimes adopted and sent to school. In common with many traditional societies to this day, reading and writing was a matter mainly for men, although there were female scribes too, some of whose names are known.

As in European schools until not so long ago, education was often in the hands of the clergy. Private schools were set up in the homes of temple officials, like Ur-Utu, a kalamahhum-priest in the city called Sippar-Amnanum, about 80 kilometres from Babylon, from whose residence several thousand student exercise-tablets were recovered. But the great difference between Mesopotamian religion and Christianity expresses itself in the apparent absence of explicit religious instruction. No texts discuss the nature of divinity, no tablets record meditations about the meaning of life; there are no documents laying down theological doctrine, nor prescriptions for the correct worship of the gods. Though ancient religious myths, and many hymns, were copied and recopied as writing exercises, the education that students received appears to have been largely secular, a great contrast with the education system in our own world, which has taken nearly 2,000 years to distance itself from the church, its original sponsor.

Babylonian schooling being restricted to the elite who were destined to fill all positions for which literacy was needed, the pupils received a general education with a broad curriculum. This was far from narrow vocational training. Students were taught not only the necessities for the future occupation of scribe, but they followed a liberal timetable that encompassed all the knowledge of the day. No doubt they would receive further instruction upon entering their final adult profession, whatever it may have been. Accountant, administrator, architect, astrologer, clerk, copyist, military engineer, notary, priest, public scribe, seal-cutter, secretary, surveyor, teacher are just some of which we know. But the foundations for all further study were laid in the schools.

It is clear from the recent graduate’s résumé that arithmetic was as important to Babylonian education as reading and writing. A closer look at how the art of working with figures was taught and learned tells us much about how Babylonians approached all forms of knowledge.

To begin with, we must recognise that the ability to manipulate numbers was more advanced in that ancient era than at most times in European history. In his book Beyond Numeracy, the mathematician John Allen Paulos relates an anecdote about a medieval German businessman who inquired where he should send his son to be educated in mathematics. ‘If you want him to master addition and subtraction,’ was the reply, ‘the local university will be adequate. But if you want him also to be able to perform multiplication and division, you will have to send him to Italy to study.’ No such limitations applied to Babylonian schools. But they had an advantage. Their way of writing numbers was far superior to the Roman numerals that medieval Europeans were saddled with until early modern times. Here was the earliest known form of ‘positional notation’ – the ‘hundreds, tens and units’ that we learn as children. It differed from our modern system only in that, using so-called Arabic numerals, we make each place to the left ten times larger, while the Babylonians made it sixty times. What they wrote as image (1111) represented, in our numerals, 216,000 + 3,600 + 60 + 1, which is 219,661. As is well known, we still preserve the Babylonian number system, based on multiples of 60 when we speak of 95,652 seconds as 26 hours, 34 minutes and 12 seconds, or when we write down the size of an angle as 26° 34’ 12’. To Babylonians that number was image.

Two signs they lacked were zero and the decimal point. For zero they could have left a gap in the number – but mostly they did not. As a result, only context could differentiate between 26, 206, 2006, 260 or 2600. It would be several thousand years before the Arabs popularized the Indian notion that an empty place in a row of figures could be represented like any other number. (The Arabs used a point, ‘.’, to represent it. Our ‘0’ actually comes from Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra’s book Sefer ha-Mispar, the Book of the Number, the earliest explanation of Indo-Arabic numbers to be published in Europe, written in Hebrew at Verona in 1146.) In fact Mesopotamians did eventually devise a way of marking a space in a number. But not until very much later, about 700 BCEperhaps. And not for use at the end of figures. Babylonian numbers were always true ‘floating point’: 26, 260, 2600, as well as 2.6, 0.26 and 0.026, were always represented identically.

Dealing with a number base as large as sixty, rather than base ten as we use today, was a stumbling-block to schoolchildren trying to remember their times tables. Up to ten is easy to learn by heart; a little more than ten is also possible. Before the decimalisation of British money, pupils had perforce to memorize multiplication tables up to twelve, since there were twelve pennies to the shilling. Dozens, too, were still in common use and every schoolchild knew that a dozen dozens was a gross. Early in the computer era, it was useful to write numbers based on multiples of sixteen, known as hexadecimal; six extra number signs had to be brought in: 1 to 9 was followed by A to F. Many computer enthusiasts knew multiplication tables up to sixteen by heart. But keeping in your head tables for every number up to sixty is too much to ask. So when passing a Babylonian school, we would probably not have heard the familiar sound of children chanting ‘two ones are two; two twos are four’. And if we did, we would certainly not hear them go up to ‘thirty-one fifty-threes are a thousand six hundred and forty-three’. Instead the Babylonians had recourse to multiplication tables written out on clay tablets.

Using such tables, the procedure to perform multiplication, even of very large numbers, was relatively straightforward. Division, however, was a problem. The Babylonians solved it with a method analogous to one that most people who went to school before the last third of the twentieth century would also recognize. Where we used to consult tables of base-ten logarithms, which made big calculations possible using only addition and subtraction, they used tables of reciprocals: one divided by the relevant number. (For example the reciprocal of two is ½ or, in our decimal system, 0.5. The reciprocal of 4 is ¼ or 0.25. The reciprocal of 5 is 1/5 or 0.2.) With reciprocal tables to hand, they were able to turn division into multiplication, because to divide by any number is the same as to multiply by its reciprocal – 12 divided by 4 is the same as 12 multiplied by 0.25.

Other tables were frequently put to use too: lists of squares and cubes as well as square and cube roots. With these, Babylonian students were expected to be able to solve really quite advanced mathematical problems. They had solutions for linear equations – a method similar, modern mathematicians note, to Gaussian elimination – for quadratic and cubic equations, for calculating the hypotenuse of right-angled triangles (Pythagoras’s theorem), for deducing the areas of polygons, for working with circles and chords of circles – they called them bowstrings. Their approximation for image, ‘pi’, was 31/8, which, at 3.125, is not so very far from the value we use, 3.14159 – closer, at any rate, than the value 3 prescribed in the Bible about a thousand years later.

If all the above looks fairly daunting, it is because it is expressed in the abstract language of modern mathematics. Babylonians educators put such problems much more accessibly. Like Victorian schoolbooks, they set them in entirely concrete, practical, situations. Just as our nineteenth-century ancestors were confronted with questions like ‘if 8 men in 14 days can mow 112 acres of grass, how many men can mow 2,000 acres in 10 days?’, so Babylonian schoolboys struggled over: ‘With a volume of earth of 90 I shall capture the city hostile to Marduk. From the foot of the earth-ramp I went forwards 32 lengths. The height of the earth-ramp is 36: what is the length I have to advance in order to capture the city?’

Expressing maths in the form of apparently practical problems extended even to complex algebra. Where today we might ask a student to find the value of x in the quadratic equation 11x2 + 7x = 6.25, a text from about 1800 BCE states: ‘I have added seven times the side of my square to eleven times its area, and it is 6 15.’ In Babylonian hexagesimal numbers, six and fifteen sixtieths represents our 6.25 or six and a quarter. The problem implied here is to find the length of the side. (It has been couched in terms of an imaginary geometry in which one can add a length to an area). Where a modern mathematician would apply the general quadratic formula, the Babylonian solution was reached this way:

You take 7 and 11. You multiply 11 by 6 15 and it is 1 8 45. You halve 7 and obtain 3 30. You multiply 3 30 and 3 30. You add the result, 12 15 to 1 8 45 and the result 1 21 has 9 as its square root. You subtract 3 30, which you multiplied by itself, from 9 and you have 5 30. The reciprocal of 11 does not divide. What shall I multiply by 11 so that 5 30 results? 0 30 is its factor. 0 30 is the side of the square.

Typically for the Babylonians, the procedure for finding the solution is minutely described but never explained, and never reduced to a principle. One modern mathematician has suggested that such an approach will be quite familiar to anybody who remembers being ‘subjected to an old-fashioned high school algebra course, where one learned of, say, quadratic equations by doing a large number of problems with varying coefficients instead of stating and proving a theorem which shows once and for all how to solve any quadratic equation that may arise.

Whether This is So, I Shall Ascertain

The preference for the concrete over the abstract, for practice over theory, for specific examples over general principles, extended into every area of Babylonian study, thought and intellectual life. It was one of the most significant characteristics of this high point of Mesopotamian civilization, indeed of all Mesopotamian civilization both before and long after, which may be one of the reasons why the Greeks, who favoured the opposite approach, have always been credited with the invention and discovery of much that was in reality inherited by them from Mesopotamia. For instance, Babylonian music-theory anticipated Pythagoras and Plato by more than a thousand years; but its concepts were expressed in the form of practical instructions for tuning a musical instrument’s strings.

The foundations of science were laid long before Aristotle. At the root of all real knowledge stands observation and classification: taxonomy must precede zoology – a proper account of the way the living world is arranged must be established before a theory of evolution can be imagined. For every Charles Darwin, a Carl Linnaeus must come first.

Ever since the invention of cuneiform writing, training in literacy had been based on word tables – the so-called lexical lists. These were long tallies of plants and animals, rocks and stones, of human artefacts made of different substances, of verbal expressions and grammatical forms. Scribes learned to recognize and reproduce the many signs of cuneiform writing by copying out these lists – simple signs composed of few wedge-marks at first, more difficult spellings coming later. Naturally, if students were to become fully literate, the lists had to be comprehensive. In consequence most conceivable features of Mesopotamian life and the Mesopotamian environment were ultimately tabulated. The items listed were arranged according to the arrangement of their wedge-marks, their similarity of sound, or classified by function, or arranged by shape, or size or material composition.

It used to be claimed that here we had the beginnings of science, that in the ordering of the lists, the Mesopotamians were applying the first principles of taxonomy to the features of their world. However, scholars now recognize that if this was a science at all, it was a science, not of external reality, but just of writing. Even so, the recognition of the importance of regularity, of pattern and order, which the lexical lists show was part of the training of every educated Mesopotamian, must have had an influence on how they saw their world.

This is particularly noticeable in the other documents commonly found in Babylonian text collections: the omen tables – catalogues of events and the unusual occurrences that preceded them and were thought to predict or warn. To us the fact that one thing happens to have followed another does not necessarily mean that the first is in any way connected to the second. Yet, though fallacious, the belief in omens tells us something important about the Babylonians’ outlook. They saw the world as based on laws and rules: if this occurs, then that is likely to follow. To them events did not take place, as some religious believers hold even now, because God or the gods arbitrarily decreed from moment to moment that they should. Babylonians did not think, as even modern Kabbalists do, that the world only exists from day to day by a miracle. Rather they noted that there was an underlying order and logic to the universe, which careful observation had the power to disclose. Today we call that science.

Astrology, quintessentially Babylonian, is undoubtedly a science – a spurious one, maybe, one rejected by modern understanding of the universe, certainly. But that is merely the view of our time. Seeking the future in the stars was undeniably a study based on laws, on rules, on observation and deduction. And so were the omens sought in the livers of sacrificial animals, in the figures formed by pouring oil on water, in shapes seen in rising smoke, in unusual configurations in the night sky, in the patterns of storm clouds, in abnormal births of humans or animals:

If the foetus is male and female: it is an omen of Azag-Bau who ruled the land. [A former tavern-keeper who became a famous Queen of Kish around 2500 BCE.] The king’s country will be seized.

If a foetus is male and female, without testicles, a son of the palace will rule the land or will assert himself against the king.

If it is a double foetus, the heads enclosed, with eight legs and only one spine, the land will be visited by a destructive storm.

Though we may now scoff at what we recognize as specious links, we must accept that the diviners themselves thought that they were working with empirical observations. They treated their evidence with a respect of which modern researchers would surely approve.

Omen: If a foetus has eight feet and two tails, the ruler will acquire universal sway.

A butcher, Uddanu by name, reported as follows:

A sow gave birth to a young having eight feet and two tails. I have preserved it in salt and kept it in the house.

Nor did investigators hesitate to state when they thought more research was needed. A report of the abnormal birth of two ass foals is interpreted as a favourable omen, but with the reservation: ‘Whether this is so, I shall ascertain. It will be investigated according to instructions.’

Omen tables demonstrate one further step towards recognisable science. Among the extensive lists of portents and predictions, we see how, though still always adhering to the concrete and the specific, augurs were beginning to systematize their discoveries and extrapolate from them to fill in gaps in their knowledge. We can best see this happening when the omen catalogues are extended to include purely theoretical, indeed impossible, phenomena, events which we know could not possible have ever been observed – for example lunar eclipses on nights when the sun and moon are aligned on the same side of the earth, so that the moon cannot be in our planet’s shadow. The astronomers of the early second millennium may not have been aware that lunar eclipses are only seen on certain days of the month, but they surely did recognize that no Babylonian had ever experienced the following: ‘If the sun comes out in the night and the country sees its light everywhere: there will be disorder in the country everywhere.’

Even those who insist on dismissing the investigation of omens as superstitious nonsense rather than science can hardly say the same of the Babylonian approach to medicine. The Greek historian Herodotus was guilty of an outrageous canard when he wrote, ‘They bring out all their sick into the streets, for they have no regular doctors. People that come along offer the sick man advice, either from what they personally have found to cure such a complaint, or what they have known someone else to be cured by. No one is allowed to pass by a sick person without asking him what ails him.’

A charming and romantic idea perhaps, but very far from the truth. Of course there were doctors in Babylon. As a matter of fact there were two kinds: the ashipu, who specialized in omens and exorcism, and the asu who made physical diagnoses and prescribed remedies. Around the year 1800 BCE King Hammurabi’s laws specified the fees to be paid to physicians, depending on the status – and therefore resources – of the patient. It also prescribed the penalties for a surgeon’s failure.

Perhaps Herodotus did not recognize Babylonian doctors because, as Mesopotamians, they were far more interested in specifics and practicalities than the later Greek medical theorists, who concerned themselves with developing grand, overarching, but mistaken theories of disease. Their view that illnesses were caused by an imbalance of the four bodily humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – would bedevil the practice of medicine for more than two millennia. Contrast a letter from the King of Mari to his wife, which shows an understanding that would have bewildered most European practitioners before the late nineteenth century: ‘I have heard that the lady Nanname has been taken ill. She has many contacts with the people of the palace. She meets many ladies in her house. Now then, give severe orders that no one should drink from the cup where she drinks, no one should sit on the seat where she sits, no one should sleep in the bed where she sleeps. She should no longer meet many ladies in her house. This disease is contagious.’

The authors of a collection and translation of Babylonian medical texts published in 2005 noted that that Mesopotamian treatments were often appropriate because they had evolved through hundreds of years of careful experimentation and observation: ‘Some are still in use, such as surgically draining the pus that sometimes develops between the lungs and chest wall of pneumonia patients. Their precise instructions to “make an opening in the fourth rib with a flint knife” to insert a lead drainage tube, pretty well match present-day procedures.’ Where it is hard to judge the efficacy of Babylonian treatments is where the names they gave to diseases mean nothing to the modern reader: ‘If a man’s eyelids thicken and his eyes shed tears, it is [the illness known as] “blast of the wind”. If a sick man is relaxed during the day, but from dusk he is sick for the night, it is [the condition called] “attack of a ghost”.’ On the other hand, where the symptoms are accurately described, we can often recognize afflictions with which we are only too familiar. Arthritis, for example: ‘If he has been sick for five, ten, fifteen, twenty days…the digits of his hands and his feet are immobilized and so stiff that he cannot open them or stand on them, [it is the condition known as] Hand of Ishtar.’ Or senile dementia: ‘His mind is continually altered, his words are unintelligible, and he forgets whatever he says, a wind from behind afflicts him; he will die alone like a stranger.’

Most treatments were, necessarily, herbal and dietary – pills and potions, rectal and vaginal suppositories, skin patches and plasters – but none the worse for it. Some even accord with modern medicine’s prescriptions. ‘A couple of tablets describe night blindness when a patient can see in daylight but is blind at night,’ say the authors of the medical text collection, ‘They talk about cutting off a piece of liver and having the patient eat it. Night blindness, we now know, is caused by Vitamin A deficiency, and liver is loaded with Vitamin A.’ The Babylonians also seemed to have observed that date kernels contained what we now call oestrogen. Symptoms of the condition they called Nahshatu included abnormal uterine bleeding. To treat this, ‘You char and grind date kernels, wrap them in a tuft of wool and insert the result into her vagina.’

In fact, much Babylonian medicine appears be good enough to raise the possibility of discovering some overlooked treatments for hard-to-treat conditions today. After all, many modern medications have been developed out of folk-wisdom and non-western medical traditions. It would not be surprising if in the course of 2,000 years and more of experiment and observation, the Mesopotamians had come across remedies as yet unknown to us.

The End of Old Babylon

There is nothing, in the enormous collection of documents that we have inherited from ancient times, which tracks in any detail the way in which the flourishing and extraordinary civilization centred on Old Babylon came to an end. Babylonian literary genres did not include history writing, and the decline and fall of the great City seems to come as a sudden surprise. Nor have we found any documents that reflect how the City’s population felt to see their culture, which they knew to be outstanding, and their way of life, in which they felt so comfortable, threatened by radical change and ultimate dissolution.

In part this must reflect the lack of interest in expressing abstract, theoretical ideas so typical of Mesopotamian intellectual life. Yet to suggest, as many used to do, that the Babylonians had no interest at all in philosophy, in exploring the nature of human existence, is to do them very much less than justice. ‘The Semite has been notoriously unproductive in the field of speculative thought,’ wrote D. D. Luckenbill of the University of Chicago in April 1924: ‘His early desert environment made him shrewd, self-reliant, selfish. As his chances for betterment in this world were slim, he was not likely to develop an optimistic view of the life beyond…. He is pessimistic as to the life beyond death, and the more he thinks about such problems as that of suffering, the deeper he plunges into the gloomy abyss.’

In fact, just as the mathematical exercises, the medical diagnoses and the omen lists clearly implied – though never overtly stated – that there did exist certain underlying general principles, so is part of the literature written in Old Babylon structured on notions that today we would recognize as philosophical. True, it is expressed in the usual Mesopotamian way, by the description of concrete situations. But that is hardly different from much of European literature. Who would today, after all, accuse the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire of being ‘unproductive in the field of speculative thought’, or share British historian Thomas Carlyle’s view that he never had an original idea in his life, because in Candide he had couched his meditations in the form of a satirical novel?

One great difficulty is that, unfamiliar as we are with the Babylonian mindset, we cannot easily grasp what a writer is trying to say, even when it is clear that some kind of speculative thought is involved. It is even harder to deduce the historical circumstances that occasioned the work. Typical is one highly enigmatic text over which many scholars have ruminated: a short dialogue in which a vacillating master proposes various actions to his slave, and then immediately changes his mind. The servant, rather comically, always finds a way to endorse his master’s decision.

Slave, listen to me!

– Here I am, master, here I am!
Quickly! Fetch me the chariot and hitch it up. I want to drive to the palace.

– Drive, master, drive! It will be to your advantage. When he sees you, the king will give you honours.

O well, slave I will not drive to the palace!

– Do not drive, master, do not drive!

– When he sees you, the king may send you God knows where,

– He may make you take a route that you do not know,

– He will make you suffer agony day and night.

And so it goes on. The master first proposes, and then decides he does not want, to give a banquet, to go hunting, to get married, to go to court, to lead a revolution, to make love, to perform a sacrifice and more. Every time, the slave has something to say about each decision. The tale initially appears to be a satire on popular wisdom, as when we contrast proverbs like ‘look before you leap’ with ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. Yet there are occasional moments when the slave demonstrates almost Hamlet-like profundity. The master turns against the idea of performing a public service:

O well, slave, I do not want to perform a public benefit for my country!

– Do not perform it, master, do not perform it!

– Go up the ancient tells and walk about.

– See the mixed skulls of plebeians and nobles.

– Which is the malefactor and which is the benefactor?

In the final part of the dialogue, when the master contemplates suicide, the servant suddenly waxes mystical about the limits to human understanding, and then closes with an effective comic put-down.

Slave, listen to me!

– Here I am, master, here I am!

What then is good? To have my neck and yours broken,

Or to be thrown into the river, is that good?

– Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven?

– Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?

O well, slave, I will kill you and send you on first!

– Yes, but my master will certainly not survive me for more than three days.

What can this strange little story really mean? Is it a just a joke? Or is it, like the very much later Ecclesiastes 1:14, a world-weary expression of the futility of all action and pointlessness of life? ‘I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.’ The text is so terse and economical that without complete familiarity with the Babylonian world, we will probably never truly understand the writer’s purpose. Yet purpose there must have been. Mesopotamian documents were not composed – and certainly not copied – in light-hearted moments of creative abandon. This story could not have been a mere jeu d’ésprit, thoughtlessly tossed off by some amateur intellectual in a few idle minutes. I think we should take this story as a reproach to those who have written off the Babylonians as incapable of profound thought, and an indication that, in their own way, and using their own modes of expression, ancient Mesopotamians were as interested in addressing the meaning of the human condition as any later thinkers.

There were five more kings after Hammurabi in the line of the First Dynasty of Babylon, each reigning for more than twenty years. Though Old Babylon lasted longer than the Third Dynasty of Ur, the great ruler’s successors saw the territory ruled from his capital shrink. Serious rebellions broke out during the reign of his son, and, though largely militarily successful when he took to the field, he could not prevent important cities like Nippur slipping from his grasp. New peoples speaking new languages, Hurrians, perhaps originally from the Caucasus, and Kassites, from the Zagros Mountains, were penetrating the region and taking Mesopotamian territory for themselves.

Something else was happening too: in the heart of Mesopotamia people were on the move. As government failed, transport links ruptured and bureaucracy broke down, city life became unsustainable. Ur was largely deserted by its citizens; the priesthood of Uruk migrated away. People fled back to the countryside; the urban population fell to its lowest in a thousand years.

Finally, as often before, the coup de grâce came from a completely unexpected source. A new player in history, the Hittite kingdom of central Anatolia, populated by uncultivated speakers of a barbarian Indo-European tongue, sent a force south down the Euphrates Valley on an extended razzia. Perhaps they took the Babylonian military by surprise. In any event, they sacked the city and brought its illustrious dynasty to an end.

The Hittites had no intention of occupying a place so far from home and left immediately. Into the power vacuum quickly sprang a new ruling class of recent immigrants from the east, Kassites, who would maintained control for more than 400 years, another long period when the arts of civilization were not abandoned but, making little progress, went into suspended animation. To be sure, great efforts were made to collect and collate the literature of earlier ages, to compile translations of canonical works from Sumerian into Akkadian – not Kassite – and to provide new analysis and commentary. The minor arts of seal-cutting and jewellery-making were brought to new perfection. But Kassite Babylon remained a deeply conservative society, as if the incoming ruling nation felt its greatest obligation to be the preservation of what they found already in place when they arrived, and to ensure its continued survival.

For the next half millennium, the wellsprings of innovation and enterprise were to be found far north of the burning Babylonian plain, in the rain-watered homeland of the Assyrians, who would sustain the tradition of Mesopotamian civilization by giving it great clunking fists and the sharpest of teeth.

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