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Background Information

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Babylonia was a state in southern Mesopotamia, in modern Iraq, combining the territories of Sumer and Akkad. The earliest mention of the city of Babylon can be found in a tablet from the reign of Sargon of Akkad, dating back to the 23rd century BC.


The Akkadians, a Semitic people, had early on come to dominate the region around Kish — including Babylon and the parts of Mesopotamia just north of Sumer, whose civilization deeply influenced that of Akkad. An area intensely irrigated, and strategically located for trade routes and commerce, it was often under threat from outsiders throughout its history.

By the "neo-Sumerian" or Ur-III period, Babylon had become a centre for Amorite migrants from west of the Euphrates who had settled north of Sumer. The Amorites were another Semitic-speaking people, who were at first regarded as uncivilized and nomadic shepherds by the more settled, crop-growing, Akkadians.

Old Babylonian period

At around 2000 BC, following the collapse of the " Ur-III" dynasty at the hands of the Elamites, Semitic Amorites from west of the Euphrates River gained control over most of Mesopotamia, where they formed a series of small kingdoms. During the first centuries of what is called the "Amorite period", the most powerful city state was Isin, although Shamshi-Adad I came close to uniting the more northern regions. One of these Amorite dynasties was established in the city-state of Babylon, which would ultimately take over the others and form the first Babylonian empire, during what is also called the Old Babylonian Period.

The extent of the Babylonian Empire at the start and end of Hammurabi's reign

The city of Babylon obtained hegemony over Mesopotamia under their sixth ruler, Hammurabi (c. 1780– c. 1750 BC; dates highly uncertain). He was a very efficient ruler, writing an influential law code, Hammurabi's Code and giving the region stability after turbulent times, thereby transforming it into the central power of Mesopotamia.

Babylonian beliefs held the king as an agent of Marduk, and the city of Babylon as a "holy city" where any legitimate ruler of Mesopotamia had to be crowned. A natural development was the establishment of a bureaucracy, with taxation and centralized government, to allow the king to exert his control.

A great literary revival followed the recovery of Babylonian independence. One of the most important works of this " First Dynasty of Babylon", as it was called by the native historians, was the compilation of a code of laws. This was made by order of Hammurabi after the expulsion of the Elamites and the settlement of his kingdom. In 1901, a copy of the Code of Hammurabi was discovered by J. De Morgan and V. Scheil at Susa, where it had been taken as plunder. That copy is now in the Louvre.

The Babylonians engaged in regular trade with city-states to the west; with Babylonian officials or troops sometimes passing to Syria and Canaan, and Amorite merchants operating throughout Mesopotamia. The Babylonian monarchy's western connections remained strong for quite some time. An Amorite named Abi-ramu or Abram was the father of a witness to a deed dated to the reign of Hammurabi's grandfather; Ammi-Ditana, great-grandson of Hammurabi, still titled himself "king of the land of the Amorites". Ammi-Ditana's father and son also bore Canaanite names: Abi-Eshuh and Ammisaduqa.

The armies of Babylonia were well-disciplined, and they conquered the city-states of Isin, Eshnunna, Uruk, and the kingdom of Mari. But Mesopotamia had no natural, defensible boundaries, making it vulnerable to attack. Trade and culture thrived for around 150 years until Babylon was sacked by the Hittites in the reign of Samsu-Ditana, ushering in the age of the Kassites who filled in the power vacuum.

The date of the sack of Babylon by the Hittite king Mursilis I is considered crucial to the various calculations of the early Chronology of the ancient Near East, since both a solar and a lunar eclipse are said to have occurred in the month of Sivan that year, according to ancient records. The event has been variously calculated to dates ranging from 1499 BC to 1659 BC; the "Middle Chronology" most widely used today places it in 1595 BC.

The extent of the Babylonian Empire during the Kassite dynasty

Kassite period

The 15th king of the dynasty was Samsu-Ditana, son of Ammisaduqa. He was overthrown following the sack of Babylon by the Hittite king Mursili I, and Babylonia was turned over to the Kassites (Kossaeans) from the mountains of Iran, with whom Samsu-Iluna had already come into conflict in his 6th year.

The fall of Babylon is taken as a fixed point in the discussion of the chronology of the Ancient Near East. Suggestions for its precise date vary by as much as 150 years, corresponding to the uncertainty regarding the length of the "Dark Age" of the ensuing Bronze Age collapse, resulting in the shift of the entire Bronze Age chronology of Mesopotamia with regard to the chronology of Ancient Egypt. Possible dates for the sack of Babylon are:

  • ultra-short chronology: 1499 BC
  • short chronology: 1531 BC
  • middle chronology: 1595 BC
  • long chronology: 1651 BC

The Kassite dynasty was founded by Kandis or Gandash of Mari. The Kassites renamed Babylon "Kar-Duniash", and their rule lasted for 576 years. With this foreign dominion — that offers a striking analogy to the contemporary rule of the Hyksos in ancient Egypt — Babylonia lost its empire over western Asia. The high-priests of Ashur made themselves kings of Assyria. Most divine attributes ascribed to the Semitic kings of Babylonia disappeared at this time; the title of God was never given to a Kassite sovereign. However, Babylon continued to be the capital of the kingdom and the 'holy' city of western Asia, where the priests were all-powerful, and the only place where the right to inheritance of the old Babylonian empire could be conferred.

The Kassite period lasted for several centuries, until 1125 BC, when Babylon was conquered by Shutruk-Nahhunte of Elam, and re-conquered a few years later by Nebuchadrezzar I.

Early Iron Age

In the Early Iron Age, from 1125 to 732 BC, Babylon was again ruled by native dynasties, beginning with Nebuchadrezzar I of Isin (Dynasty IV). Dynasty IX begins with Nabonassar, whose rule (from 748 BC) heads Ptolemy's Canon of Kings. In 729 BC, Babylon was conquered into the Neo-Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-Pileser III and remained under Assyrian rule for a century, until the 620s BC revolt of Nabopolassar.

Neo-Babylonian Empire (Chaldean Era)

The Middle East, c. 600 BC, showing extent of Chaldean rule.

Through the centuries of Assyrian domination, Babylonia enjoyed a prominent status, or revolted at the slightest indication that it did not. The Assyrians always managed to restore Babylonian loyalty, however, whether through granting of increased privileges, or militarily. That finally changed in 627 BC with the death of the last strong Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, and Babylonia rebelled under Nabopolassar the Chaldean the following year. With help from the Medes, Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC, and the seat of empire was again transferred to Babylonia.

Nabopolassar was followed by his son Nebuchadnezzar II, whose reign of 43 years made Babylon once more the mistress of the civilized world, including the conquering of Phoenicia in 585 BC. Only a small fragment of his annals has been discovered, relating to his invasion of Egypt in 567 BC, and referring to "Phut of the Ionians".

Of the reign of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (Nabu-na'id), and the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, there is a fair amount of information available. This is chiefly derived from a chronological tablet containing the annals of Nabonidus, supplemented by another inscription of Nabonidus where he recounts his restoration of the temple of the Moon-god at Harran; as well as by a proclamation of Cyrus issued shortly after his formal recognition as king of Babylonia. It was in the sixth year of Nabonidus ( 549 BC) that Cyrus, the Achaemenid Persian "king of Anshan" in Elam, revolted against his suzerain Astyages, "king of the Manda" or Medes, at Ecbatana. Astyages' army betrayed him to his enemy, and Cyrus established himself at Ecbatana, thus putting an end to the empire of the Medes. Three years later Cyrus had become king of all Persia, and was engaged in a campaign in the north of Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, Nabonidus had established a camp in the desert, near the southern frontier of his kingdom, leaving his son Belshazzar (Belsharutsur) in command of the army.

In 539 BC Cyrus invaded Babylonia. A battle was fought at Opis in the month of June, where the Babylonians were defeated; and immediately afterwards Sippara surrendered to the invader. Nabonidus fled to Babylon, where he was pursued by Gobryas, and on the 16th of Tammuz, two days after the capture of Sippara, "the soldiers of Cyrus entered Babylon without fighting." Nabonidus was dragged from his hiding-place, where the services continued without interruption. Cyrus did not arrive until the 3rd of Marchesvan (October), Gobryas having acted for him in his absence. Gobryas was now made governor of the province of Babylon, and a few days afterwards the son of Nabonidus died. A public mourning followed, lasting six days, and Cambyses accompanied the corpse to the tomb.

Cyrus now claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Babylonian kings and the avenger of Bel-Marduk, who was assumed to be wrathful at the impiety of Nabonidus in removing the images of the local gods from their ancestral shrines, to his capital Babylon. Nabonidus, in fact, had excited a strong feeling against himself by attempting to centralize the religion of Babylonia in the temple of Merodach (Marduk) at Babylon, and while he had thus alienated the local priesthoods, the military party despised him on account of his antiquarian tastes. He seems to have left the defense of his kingdom to others, occupying himself with the more congenial work of excavating the foundation records of the temples and determining the dates of their builders.

The invasion of Babylonia by Cyrus was doubtless facilitated by the existence of a disaffected party in the state, as well as by the presence of foreign forced exiles like the Jews, who had been planted in the midst of the country. One of the first acts of Cyrus accordingly was to allow these exiles to return to their own homes, carrying with them the images of their gods and their sacred vessels. The permission to do so was embodied in a proclamation, whereby the conqueror endeavored to justify his claim to the Babylonian throne. The feeling was still strong that none had a right to rule over western Asia until he had been consecrated to the office by Bel and his priests; and accordingly, Cyrus henceforth assumed the imperial title of "King of Babylon."

A year before Cyrus' death, in 529 BC, he elevated his son Cambyses II in the government, making him king of Babylon, while he reserved for himself the fuller title of "king of the (other) provinces" of the empire. It was only when Darius Hystaspis acquired the Persian throne and ruled it as a representative of the Zoroastrian religion, that the old tradition was broken and the claim of Babylon to confer legitimacy on the rulers of western Asia ceased to be acknowledged.

Immediately after Darius seized Persia, Babylonia briefly recovered its independence under Nidinta-Bel, who took the name of Nebuchadnezzar III, and reigned from October 522 BC to August 520 BC, when Darius took the city by storm. A few years later, probably 514 BC, Babylon again revolted under Arakha; on this occasion, after its capture by the Persians, the walls were partly destroyed. E-Saggila, the great temple of Bel, however, still continued to be kept in repair and to be a centre of Babylonian patriotism, until at last the foundation of Seleucia diverted the population to the new capital of Babylonia and the ruins of the old city became a quarry for the builders of the new seat of government.

Persian Babylonia

Chaldean Babylonia was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. The name of the satrapy was changed to Asuristan in the Sassanid period. Excepting brief interludes of Roman conquest ( Roman Assyria, Roman Mesopotamia; AD 116 to 118), and a longer period of Hellenistic rule (the Seleucid Empire, 330 to 250 BC), Mesopotamia remained under Persian control until the Islamic conquest in the 630s AD.


Art and Architecture

In Babylonia, an abundance of clay, and lack of stone, led to greater use of mudbrick; Babylonian temples are massive structures of crude brick, supported by buttresses, the rain being carried off by drains. One such drain at Ur was made of lead. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, and of frescoes and enamelled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with zinc or gold, as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones for torches were also embedded in the plaster.

In Babylonia, in place of the bas-relief, there is greater use of three-dimensional figures in the round — the earliest examples being the statues from Telloh, that are realistic if somewhat clumsy. The paucity of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious, and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting.

The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel are seen as symbols of luxurious and arrogant power respectively.


Among the sciences, astronomy and astrology occupied a conspicuous place in Babylonian society. Astronomy was of old standing in Babylonia, and the standard work on the subject, written from an astrological point of view, later translated into Greek by Berossus, was believed to date from the age of Sargon of Akkad. The zodiac was a Babylonian invention of great antiquity; and eclipses of the sun and moon could be foretold. There are dozens of cuneiform records of original Mesopotamian eclipse observations (see Wikipedia's "Chronology of Babylonia and Assyria"). Observatories were attached to the temples, and reports were regularly sent by astronomers to the king. The stars had been numbered and named at an early date, and we possess tables of lunar longitudes and observations of Venus. Great attention was naturally paid to the calendar, and we find a week of seven days and another of five days in use.

Babylonian astrology was based on the belief that the entire universe was created in relation to the earth. Thus the ancients saw it as no accident that the stars and planets were set in a certain divine order at the time of creation.

The first evidence of recognition that astronomical phenomena are periodic and of the application of mathematics to their prediction is Babylonian. Tablets dating back to the Old Babylonian period document the application of mathematics to the variation in the length of daylight over a solar year. Centuries of Babylonian observations of celestial phenomena are recorded in the series of cuneiform tablets known as the 'Enūma Anu Enlil'. The oldest significant astronomical text that we possess is Tablet 63 of 'Enūma Anu Enlil', the Venus tablet of Ammi-saduqa, which lists the first and last visible risings of Venus over a period of about 21 years and is the earliest evidence that the phenomena of a planet were recognized as periodic. The oldest rectangular astrolabe dates back to Babylonia ca. 1100 BC. The MUL.APIN, contains catalogues of stars and constellations as well as schemes for predicting heliacal risings and the settings of the planets, lengths of daylight measured by a water-clock, gnomon, shadows, and intercalations. The Babylonian GU text arranges stars in 'strings' that lie along declination circles and thus measure right-ascensions or time-intervals, and also employs the stars of the zenith, which are also separated by given right-ascensional differences.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers developed a new approach to astronomy. They began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the early universe and began empoying an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. This was an important contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science and some scholars have thus referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution. This new approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy.

In Seleucid and Parthian times, the astronomical reports were of a thoroughly scientific character; how much earlier their advanced knowledge and methods were developed is uncertain. The Babylonian development of methods for predicting the motions of the planets is considered to be a major episode in the history of astronomy.

The only Babylonian astronomer known to have supported a heliocentric model of planetary motion was Seleucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC). Seleucus is known from the writings of Plutarch. He supported the heliocentric theory where the Earth rotated around its own axis which in turn revolved around the Sun. According to Plutarch, Seleucus even proved the heliocentric system, but it is not known what arguments he used.

Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of what was done in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy, in classical Indian astronomy, in Sassanian, Byzantine and Syrian astronomy, in medieval Islamic astronomy, and in Central Asian and Western European astronomy.


The Babylonian system of mathematics was sexagesimal, or a base 60 numeral system (see: Babylonian numerals). From this we derive the modern day usage of 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 (60 x 6) degrees in a circle. The Babylonians were able to make great advances in mathematics for two reasons. First, the number 60 has many divisors (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30), making calculations easier. Additionally, unlike the Egyptians and Romans, the Babylonians had a true place-value system, where digits written in the left column represented larger values (much as in our base-ten system: 734 = 7×100 + 3×10 + 4×1). Among the Babylonians' mathematical accomplishments were the determination of the square root of two correctly to seven places ( YBC 7289 clay tablet). They also demonstrated knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem well before Pythagoras, as evidenced by this tablet translated by Dennis Ramsey and dating to ca. 1900 BC:

4 is the length and 5 is the diagonal. What is the breadth? Its size is not known. 4 times 4 is 16. And 5 times 5 is 25. You take 16 from 25 and there remains 9. What times what shall I take in order to get 9? 3 times 3 is 9. 3 is the breadth.

The ner of 600 and the sar of 3600 were formed from the unit of 60, corresponding with a degree of the equator. Tablets of squares and cubes, calculated from 1 to 60, have been found at Senkera, and a people acquainted with the sun-dial, the clepsydra, the lever and the pulley, must have had no mean knowledge of mechanics. A crystal lens, turned on the lathe, was discovered by Austen Henry Layard at Nimrud along with glass vases bearing the name of Sargon; this could explain the excessive minuteness of some of the writing on the Assyrian tablets, and a lens may also have been used in the observation of the heavens.

The Babylonians might have been familiar with the general rules for measuring the areas. They measured the circumference of a circle as three times the diameter and the area as one-twelfth the square of the circumference, which would be correct if π were estimated as 3. The volume of a cylinder was taken as the product of the base and the height, however, the volume of the frustum of a cone or a square pyramid was incorrectly taken as the product of the height and half the sum of the bases. Also, there was a recent discovery in which a tablet used π as 3 and 1/8. The Babylonians are also known for the Babylonian mile, which was a measure of distance equal to about seven miles today. This measurement for distances eventually was converted to a time-mile used for measuring the travel of the Sun, therefore, representing time. (Eves, Chapter 2)


The oldest Babylonian texts on medicine date back to the First Babylonian Dynasty in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. The most extensive Babylonian medical text, however, is the Diagnostic Handbook written by the physician Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, during the reign of the Babylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1069-1046 BC).

Along with contemporary ancient Egyptian medicine, the Babylonians introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and prescriptions. In addition, the Diagnostic Handbook introduced the methods of therapy and a etiology and the use of empiricism, logic and rationality in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. The text contains a list of medical symptoms and often detailed empirical observations along with logical rules used in combining observed symptoms on the body of a patient with its diagnosis and prognosis.

The symptoms and diseases of a patient were treated through therapeutic means such as bandages, creams and pills. If a patient could not be cured physically, the Babylonian physicians often relied on exorcism to cleanse the patient from any curses. Esagil-kin-apli's Diagnostic Handbook was based on a logical set of axioms and assumptions, including the modern view that through the examination and inspection of the symptoms of a patient, it is possible to determine the patient's disease, its aetiology and future development, and the chances of the patient's recovery.

Esagil-kin-apli discovered a variety of illnesses and diseases and described their symptoms in his Diagnostic Handbook. These include the symptoms for many varieties of epilepsy and related ailments along with their diagnosis and prognosis.


There were libraries in most towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that "he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn." Women as well as men learned to read and write, and in Semitic times, this involved knowledge of the extinct Sumerian language, and a complicated and extensive syllabary.

A considerable amount of Babylonian literature was translated from Sumerian originals, and the language of religion and law long continued to be the old agglutinative language of Sumer. Vocabularies, grammars, and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students, as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. The characters of the syllabary were all arranged and named, and elaborate lists of them were drawn up.

There are many Babylonian literary works whose titles have come down to us. One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, in twelve books, translated from the original Sumerian by a certain Sin-liqi-unninni, and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh. The whole story is a composite product, and it is probable that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure.


The origins of Babylonian philosophy can be traced back to early Mesopotamian wisdom, which embodied certain philosophies of life, particularly ethics, in the forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose, and proverbs. Babylonian reasoning and rationality developed beyond empirical observation.

It is possible that Babylonian philosophy had an influence on Greek, particularly Hellenistic philosophy. The Babylonian text Dialog of Pessimism contains similarities to the agonistic thought of the sophists, the Heraclitean doctrine of contrasts, and the dialogs of Plato, as well as a precursor to the maieutic Socratic method of Socrates. The Milesian philosopher Thales is also known to have studied philosophy in Mesopotamia.


Babylonians invented many technologies, which include metalworking, copper-working, glassmaking, lamp making, textile weaving, flood control, water storage, as well as irrigation. Earlier on they used copper, bronze and gold, and later they used iron. Palaces were decorated with hundreds of kilograms of these very expensive metals. Also, copper, bronze, and iron were used for armor as well as for different weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, and maces.

A 16th century depiction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (by Martin Heemskerck). The Tower of Babel is visible in the background.

Babylonia in culture

Babylonia, and particularly its capital city Babylon, has long held a place in Abrahamic religions as a symbol of excess and dissolute power. Many references are made to Babylon in the Bible, both literally and allegorically. The mentions in the Tanakh tend to be historical or prophetic, while New Testament references are more likely figurative, or cryptic references to pagan Rome. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel are seen as symbols of luxurious and arrogant power respectively.

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