In the story of Babylon, therefore, Hammurabi ranks as the second great figure. Sargon was venerated as the city's founder; Hammurabi as its rescuer, restorer, and second builder. Though we hear of this great monarch first as a warrior, we know him chiefly as a statesman, a wise and watchful benefactor of mankind. Instead of oppressing and terrifying his subject cities, he aimed to win their friendship. He repaired their walls and their temples as Sargon and Ur-gur had done. He built great canals, uniting the earlier ones into a single vast system which insured rich harvests to all the valley. Probably the world has never seen a land more fertile or a system of agriculture more wide-spread and complete than that of Babylonia some two thousand years before Christ.
Most notable today of all Hammurabi's work was the complete code of laws which he formulated and established throughout his domains. This code is the earliest of which we have definite knowledge; for Urukagina's earlier laws are known to us only by his comments on them. Hammurabi's code was recently discovered, engraved on a pillar which had been set up in Susa. From it we gain a full picture of the civilization of the day. The Babylonians had courts of justice; but they had also slaves. They had inns for travelers, taverns for the sale of strong drink, and prisons for delinquent debtors. They punished folk for oppression, for immorality, and even for slander. They had skilled laborers, carpenters, rope-makers, masons, potters, with some system of association and with bound apprentices. Sailors were a distinct class of society, with a code of their own for boats passing and making way for one another upon the river. Bankers transferred money by promissory notes, and trafficked by means methods, the people were deeply superstitious, and a man could be executed for "putting a spell" upon another.
The sudden yet complete and lasting subjection to Babylon on the part of all the restless cities of both Sumer and Akkad would seem strange if we did not pause for a moment to realize how Babylon's intellectual and commercial supremacy had been long preparing the road for her political sway. The Babylonians have been called the Greeks of the East, because their culture, their arts, their business abilities spread their influence earlier and farther than their arms. Their capital was indeed "a golden cup," from which all the earth had drunk. It became a centre of religion as well. It was at once the Rome, the Paris, and the London of the time. And when Babylon's empire was wrested from her by the younger and more military people of Assyria, her real power remained for centuries, even until the political sceptre was restored to her in a second period of empire. Hers was the power of mind and civilization.
It was Hammurabi who made Babylon the chief religious centre of the land. The ancient shrine of En-lil at Nippur had become so celebrated that it was spared even by the Elamite ravagers. But now, in a time of perfect peace, it appears to have been deliberately destroyed by Hammurabi's order. He proclaimed that Babylon's special "bel," or god, Marduk, was a son of En-lil, and as such intended to assume all his father's labors of protecting and dooming mankind. While thus dutifully relieving his aged father of so much toil, Marduk had decided to relieve him also of his rank as chief god.
We can imagine the protests of the priests of En-lil at this attack upon their deity. But they were powerless. Their temple was swept away; the religious rites of Nippur sank into obscurity. After uncounted thousands of years of priestly ceremonial the shrine of En-lil lay bare and unattended. The earth goblins and the imps of storm were left unappeased to wreak their malice where they might. Thus, in this fratricidal war of gods, so quaintly engineered by men, Marduk of Babylon drove out his father. In Babylon itself the worship of Marduk was in no way new. Indeed the very name of the city means "the gate of the god," the entrance by which worshippers might reach the deity. The splendid shrine which Hammurabi built for Marduk, or "Bel-Merodach," became one of the wonders of the world.
Hammurabi had, in fact, to rebuild Babylon almost entirely, so destructive had been the Elamite scourge; and from this time the city grew into the marvel of legend and history of which the prophets tell. National architecture is every-where the product of the land itself. The Egyptian saw always before him solemn stone cliffs, so he quarried from them the Immense stone blocks for his obelisks and his pyramids. There was no stone in Babylonia; in that flat valley of river mud even trees were scarce; it was chiefly a land of grassy marshes. So man, with his ever-ready ingenuity, had learned to build with the earth itself, moulding and baking the clay, which hardened into bricks. Those ancient Babylonian bricks are said to be as good as the best of modern manufacture; and today, as in centuries past, a regular industry is the digging them out, not for scientific research, but for the building of modern houses. In many an Asiatic town there are recent buildings whose bricks still show the stamp and name of kings who perished and were forgotten ages ago.
The raising of the mighty walls of Babylon must have strangely resembled the work of a colony of ants, each carrying his little load of bricks, each toiling by himself, and adding his mite to the mass that slowly grew around him. Hammurabi, Ur-gur, Nebuchadnezzar, any of the great builders, could have told the Hebrew prophets how those walls must eventually fall. The kings were kept constantly busy repairing the older temples and fortifications. The soft, yielding soil, the terrific rains which saturated the bricks and widened every fissure, the stupendous weight of the towering structures themselves--all combined to destroy the foundations. These, despite every art of man, would gradually bulge outward, and threaten to give way. Only the walls of the richest palaces could afford even an outer facing of stone; for this had to be brought in slabs from great distances.
The splendid reign of Hammurabi lasted fifty-five years. After that his successors seem to have degenerated gradually in ability, until in the eighteenth century B.C., a half-savage swarm of invaders overran Babylonia. These were the Kassites, a mountain race from the northeast, seemingly the very folk whom Sargon, founder of Babylon, had harried from their homes two thousand years before when he "searched the corners of the earth." Now the Kassite chief, Gandis, seized the throne; and his people held sway in Babylon for over three hundred years. Under them the ancient empire crumbled. The Kassite soldiery formed merely a sort of rough and turbulent aristocracy, parasites upon he almost inexhaustible wealth of commercial and agricultural Babylonia.