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Babylonia and Assyria

empire assyrian mesopotamia ancient

Babylonia and Assyria, ancient kingdoms of the Middle East in Mesopotamia, the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Assyria was in northern Mesopotamia, while Babylonia lay to the south. The Tigris-Euphrates Valley, along with the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow rivers, was one of the cradles of world civilization. Agriculture and the raising of livestock may have begun in Mesopotamia earlier than anywhere else, about 8000–7000 B.C. The first urban economy was also established in Mesopotamia.

About 3000 B.C. the Sumerian civilization began to emerge in southern Babylonia. The Sumerians built an irrigation system and invented cuneiform writing. Sumer was composed of the independent and frequently hostile city-states of Lagash, Ur (where the biblical Abraham was born), Kish, Erech, and Umma. Northern Babylonia was conquered by a Semitic people from the west around 2500 B.C. and the kingdom of Akkad emerged. Its founder, Sargon (c. 2306–2250), conquered Sumer areas to the east and west, a policy of expansion that was continued by his successors. Sumerian civilization survived for a time under the kings of Ur, under whom the earliest known code of laws was compiled and work started on the great ziggurat, a tiered pyramid-shaped temple.

Meanwhile an Amorite dynasty established itself in Akkad and made the town of Babylon its chief center. Southern Mesopotamia came to be called Babylonia. The sixth king of this dynasty, Hammurabi (c. 1792–1750), was an able ruler who organized his territories on imperial lines. Hammurabi's famous code divided the people into 3 classes (citizens, commoners, and slaves), and contained laws on property, inheritance, marriage, and the family. Punishments for criminal offenses were usually severe, and increased with the status of the victim. About 1594 a Hittite army sacked Babylon, and the country was conquered by the Kassites, who ruled for more than 400 years, adopting Babylonian culture. By 1171 a native Babylonian dynasty had taken over, but its authority was uncertain. The 11th and 10th centuries B.C. saw the influx of Aramaean tribes from the west and Chaldean infiltration along the Persian Gulf.

The Middle Assyrian Empire began to emerge as a great military power in the 14th century B.C., reaching the height of its power around 1100. A period of decline followed, but a new Assyrian Empire rose in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C. Babylonia, Syria, and Israel fell to Assyrian arms; even Egypt was for a time under Assyrian rule. Sennacherib (705–682) made Nineveh his capital and transformed it into one of the most splendid cities of the time. During his reign Babylon revolted (689) and he destroyed the city and its inhabitants, but Babylon was in part restored by his successor, Esarhaddon. The last great king of Assyria was Ashurbanipal (669–627?). An able general like his predecessors, he was also a devoted patron of the arts and literature. Some 25,000 tablets from the large library he assembled are now in the British Museum, London. During this period Assyria was the most powerful nation in the Middle East, but after Ashurbanipal's death it suddenly began to collapse. There was widespread revolt, and in 612 the Chaldeans of Babylonia, in alliance with the Scythians and Medes, captured and destroyed Nineveh. The last Assyrian forces were destroyed in 609.

The Assyrians decorated their buildings with glazed bricks and wall paintings. During the height of the empire the palace walls were covered with great stone reliefs that give a vivid impression of life of the time. Other remains include great statues of winged bulls and lions with human heads that once guarded the palaces.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire

After many years as a subject state of the Assyrian Empire, Babylonia recovered its independence under the Chaldean king Nabopolassar (626 B.C.). He devoted most of his reign to the destruction of Assyria, and after the fall of Nineveh brought the southern part of the empire, including Syria, Palestine, and part of southern Persia, under his control, despite the opposition of Egypt. This new Babylonian Empire, which was to enjoy immense power and prosperity, was consolidated by his son Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562).

Nebuchadnezzar continued the war against Egypt. Meanwhile, Tyre and Judah revolted. He twice captured Jerusalem, and on the second occasion (587) destroyed the city and deported most of the inhabitants of Judah to captivity in Babylon. Tyre surrendered after a siege lasting 13 years. Nebuchadnezzar made Babylon one of the most magnificent cities of ancient times. It was girdled by massive outer and inner walls with numerous gates, including the gate of Ishtar, which opened on to the great processional way that led to the temple of Marduk. The terraced Hanging Gardens overlooking the Euphrates River were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and formed part of the imposing palace. Assassination and civil war followed his death, but prosperity returned under Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar. In 539 B.C. the ambitious Cyrus II, king of the Medes and Persians, invaded Babylonia. The Book of Daniel tells how Belshazzar was warned of the final disaster by the “writing on the wall” that mysteriously appeared during a feast the evening before Babylon fell. Babylonia now became a province of the Persian Empire, and Babylon the provincial administrative center.

Knowledge of Babylonian life comes largely from the thousands of clay cuneiform tablets that have been found at various sites, including legal and commercial records, literary and historical texts, and treatises on magic and astrology. The ancient Babylonians based their number system on 60. They separated the day into 12 double hours and the year into 12 months of 30 days each. They were the first to divide the circle into 360 degrees and the minute into 60 seconds. Their system was able to express fractions and squares and cube roots. The later Babylonians were noted astronomers, and the Chaldean priests could predict eclipses of the sun and moon.

Midway between the civilizations of the Indus and the Nile, the Babylonians acted as the great cultural intermediaries of the ancient world. Because Mesopotamia lacked such raw materials as metals, stone, and wood, the Babylonians became great merchants, trading as far as Armenia and the Red Sea. The Chaldeans, like the Assyrians before them, brought the area of the Near East known as the Fertile Crescent together under one rule, creating the first cosmopolitan society of peoples of many cultures and languages.

See also: Hammurabi; Nebuchadnezzar.

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