Mesopotamia is a historical region situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. It corresponds to present day Iraq, mostly, but also parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey. Mesopotamian civilization was one of the earliest in world history. During the reign of King Hammurabi (r. 1792 BC – 1750 BC), Babylon became a key kingdom of Mesopotamia and southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia. The Babylonians went on to greatly influence Mesopotamian culture. More importantly, they had a great impact on the history of western civilization. Among the most important contributions of Babylonia are the first ever positional number system; accomplishments in advanced mathematics; laying the foundation for all western astronomy; and impressive works in art, architecture and literature. Here are the 10 most important achievements of the ancient Babylonian civilization.

 

#1 Their capital city was the largest city in the world at the time

Mesopotamia had a long history prior to the emergence of Babylonian civilization. Between 2900 BC and 2000 BC, two civilizations flourished in the region that would later be known as Babylonia: Sumer in the south and Akkad in the north. Around 2000 BC, nomadic people known as the Amorites began to migrate into southern Mesopotamia. The Amorites began expanding their influence taking over many city-states and established what is known as the Old Babylonian Empire. The sixth Amorite ruler, Hammurabi, took the Old Babylonian Empire to its greatest heights. It was during his reign that southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia and Babylon eclipsed Nippur as its holy city. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire bringing an end to the last independent state of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization. It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world from around 1770 BC to 1670 BC; and then again between 612 BC and 320 BC. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000.

Depiction of ancient Babylon
Depiction of ancient Babylon

 

#2 They developed the first ever positional number system

The Babylonians inherited their numeral system from either the Sumerian or the Eblaite civilizations. They used a base 60 or sexagesimal number system. From this we derive the modern day measurements of both the hour and the minute. As the number 60 has many divisors (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30), a sexagesimal system makes calculations easier than the decimal, or base 10, system we use today. Unlike their predecessors, Babylonians used a positional numeral system, in which the value of a digit depends on both the digit and its position. Positional system greatly simplifies arithmetic. In fact it is nearly impossible to do advanced mathematics with a non-positional system like the Roman Numerals. The Babylonian numeral system is the first known positional numeral system and it is considered by some as their greatest achievement in mathematics. However, the Babylonians did not have a concept of zero or a digit for it. They instead used a space. Due to their advanced number system, the Babylonians made great advances in mathematics. It has now been established that Greek and Hellenistic mathematicians borrowed heavily from the Babylonians.

Babylonian numerals
Babylonian numerals

 

#3 They could perform advanced arithmetic calculations and solve quadratic equations

Among the most spectacular aspects of the mathematical skills of the Babylonians was their construction of tables to aid calculation. Unearthed Babylonian tablets give squares of the numbers up to 59 and cubes of the numbers up to 32. If one uses formulas, a table of squares is all that is necessary to multiply numbers. As the Babylonians did not have an algorithm for long division, they instead used a table of reciprocals. We still have their reciprocal tables going up to the reciprocals of numbers up to several billion. Apart from arithmetical calculations, Babylonian mathematicians also developed algebraic methods of solving equations. These were also based on pre-calculated tables. The first ever evidence of the solution of quadratic equations is from Babylonia. Also, Babylonian tablets have been found which could have been used for calculating cubes and cube roots.

Mathematical Babylonian clay tablet
A Babylonian clay tablet with interesting and important mathematical content (courtesy Yale Babylonian Collection)

 

#4 They were the first to use sophisticated geometry to track moving objects

The Babylonians used geometry for the calculation of the areas of rectangles, triangles and trapezoids as well as the volumes of simple shapes such as bricks and cylinders. There is also evidence to suggest that the Pythagorean theorem may have been known to Babylonian mathematicians as early as 1900 BC, over a thousand years before Pythagoras was born. Five Babylonian tablets also provide evidence that they were using sophisticated geometrical calculations to track Jupiter across the night sky. They did this through a method for estimating the area under a curve by drawing a trapezoid, or four sided figure, underneath. Using this method they tracked the position of Jupiter as well as its speed and the distance that it traveled. This technique is fundamental to physics and was previously believed to have originated in 14th century Europe.

Astronomical Babylonian tablet
A Babylonian tablet revealing the path of Jupiter

 

#5 Babylonian astronomy laid the basis for all western astronomy

Ancient Babylonia occupies a pivotal place in the history of modern scientific astronomy. The Babylonians recorded astronomical observations in a meticulous way generation after generation. In time, their huge cumulative database of past observations allowed them to apply mathematically based rules for predicting future events. The Babylonians were the first to recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic and apply mathematics to their predictions. Apart from numerous accurate astronomical observations, other contributions of Babylonian astronomers include the discovery of eclipse cycles and Saros cycles. The periodicity and recurrence of eclipses is governed by the Saros cycle, a period of approximately 6,585.3 days (18 years 11 days 8 hours). The Saros can thus be used to predict eclipses of the Sun and Moon. The earliest historical record of the Saros is by Neo-Babylonian astronomers. Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of ancient Greek mathematics and astronomy, which in turn was the historical predecessor of the scientific revolution in the west.

Babylonian Almanac
A Babylonian Almanac mentioning future positions of the planets

 

#6 They also laid the foundation for Western astrology

Babylonia is the first known civilization to possess a functional theory of the planets. The idea of geocentrism, where the center of the Earth is the exact center of the universe, did not exist in Babylonian cosmology. Instead they believed that the cosmos revolved around circularly with the heavens and the earth being equal and joined as a whole. Astrology is the study of the movements and relative positions of celestial objects as a means for divining information about human affairs and terrestrial events. Astrology was one of the primary means of Babylonian priests to ascertain the will of the Gods. Babylonia thus laid the foundations of what would eventually become Western astrology. The Zodiac and its twelve signs can also be traced to Babylonian astrology.

 

#7 They built massive and marvelous structures like Etemenanki and the Ishtar Gate

A ziggurat is a massive stone structure with successively receding stories or levels. The Mesopotamian civilization built a number of ziggurats. The most famous of these is Etemenanki, which had a height of 91 meters but is now in ruins. It was constructed around 610 BC by the Babylonian king Nabopolassar and was dedicated to the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk. Etemenanki is most probably the inspiration for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, a tower tall enough to reach heaven. The Babylonians were well known for their large scale buildings. Apart from Etemenanki, they are said to have constructed The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Hanging Gardens were an ascending series of tiered gardens containing a wide variety of trees shrubs, and vines. They are described as a marvelous feat of engineering and are said to have been constructed during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC). However, some doubt the existence of such a structure as there is no physical evidence for it. Other awe-inspiring structures constructed by the Babylonians include the Ishtar Gate, which was the main entrance to the ancient city of Babylon.

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate
Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

 

#8 They enacted one of the earliest and most complete legal codes

Hammurabi (r. 1792 BC to 1750 BC) was the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty. He brought almost all of Mesopotamia under Babylonian rule. Hammurabi enacted a set of laws to govern his empire now renowned as the Code of Hammurabi. It was one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes. Also, unlike earlier Mesopotamian law code, it was one of the first law codes to place greater emphasis on the physical punishment of the perpetrator. The Code of Hammurabi contains as many as 300 laws that discuss a wide range of subjects, including homicide, assault, divorce, debt, adoption, tradesman’s fees, agricultural practices and even disputes regarding the brewing of beer. It was among the first codes to establish the presumption of innocence, the principle that one is considered innocent unless proven guilty. However, it was an extremely harsh code by today’s standards with the death penalty being listed as punishment for no fewer than 30 crimes.

Code of Hammurabi
Prologue of the Code of Hammurabi on a clay tablet

 

#9 They had a rich and long tradition in literature

There were libraries in most towns and temples in Babylonia. Women as well as men learned to read and write. Literature flourished in the Old Babylonian Empire between 1900 BC and 1600 BC with the works being high in originality. After this period, there was less originality with many texts being revisions or studies of past writings. Babylonian literature relied heavily on the ancient mythology of the Sumerians. Drawing on the traditions of Sumerian literature, the Babylonians compiled a substantial textual tradition of mythological narrative, legal texts, scientific works, letters and other literary forms. The most famous work of Mesopotamian literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which first appears in Akkadian language during the Old Babylonian period. The epic poem is around 1000 lines and tells the story of a demigod of superhuman strength named Gilgamesh. It is widely regarded as one of the first great works of literature.

Depiction of Gilgamesh
Depiction of Gilgamesh

 

#10 Babylonia contributed significantly to Mesopotamian art and architecture

The Babylonians were able to architect and build complex and large scale structures. The abundance of clay and lack of stone led to greater use of mudbrick. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, and of frescoes and enameled tiles. Babylonian temples are massive structures of crude brick, supported by buttresses, the rain being carried off by drains. Babylonian architecture had a considerable influence on Assyrian architects. During the Old Babylonian Period, art was showcased in frescoes and with enameled tiles. Its subject was frequently religious and it gained in complexity throughout its development. While the Assyrians preferred bas relief form, the Babylonians specialized in free standing statuary. These figures were three dimensional and largely realistic. As stone was scarce in the region, Babylonian artists treated it as a precious material and achieved high perfection in the art of stone cutting and carving. Also, numerous sophisticated and finely carved seals survive from the Babylonian period. The crowning achievement of Babylonian art is perhaps the decoration of the famous Ishtar Gate.

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