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This paper is the book report of the book Babylon, written by Joan Oates in 1979. In her book Babylon, Joan Oates depicts the development of this great city under the rule of Sargon and then Hammurabi. The latter is  the well-known law-giver under the rule of which in the eighteenth century BC Babylon initially obtained pre-eminence. The author describes the greatest era of Babylon during the reign of his heirs, Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC, and the decay and ultimate abandonment as Greeks and Persians turned Mesopotamia into a battlefield.


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It must have been a very complex book to write. The title of the book, of course, enables the readers to understand what this work is about: glamorous, glorious Babylon. But, on closer acquaintance, much of the magnificent city turns out to be something reflected in a distorting mirror, with Hammurabi wearing Nebuchadnezzar’s wig. People generally know so little about the early periods. Even about the great Neo-Babylonian period and empire they know far less than it might have been expected, as the official and administrative accounts are compared with those of the Assyrians one century before, whilst the economic documents still require extensive investigation and discussion. The old German excavations provided scholars with the fine view of the city’s monuments, but that does not bring them to life.

The authors, who write about Babylon, find themselves diverging into whatever aspects of old Mesopotamian culture, which are of the major interest to them; and the further away from Babylon they move, the better they write. Joan Oates obviously respects the prehistory, and the most valuable part of the book is, thus, the initial quarter, the primary two chapters dealing with the time period before 1800. During this time period, as the author comments (Oates 60), “Babylon had make no mark on its country’s history”, a tactful manner of asserting that it was a tiny provincial town barely mentioned in the text. In fact, the earliest recognized mention of Babylon emerges during the period of Sharkalisharri (reigned c. 2217– c. 2193 BCE), a ruler of Akkad and successor of the empire’s creator, Sargon (reigned c. 2334–2279 BCE). The writing refers to two temples in the city, but little else is acknowledged from this early time.

In the 19th century BCE, the story of Babylon comes into far sharper focus. In 2000 BCE the local Akkadian and Sumerian populaces of Mesopotamia had been subject to the attacks of Amorites, the “westerners”, who had settled in the river valley and adopted local traditions. Amorite, just like Akkadian, was a Semitic tongue, but the speakers did not use it in writing. They carried on using Akkadian and Sumerian languages in documents.

Amorite rulers took control of some Mesopotamian places, including Babylon. Over the following century, the Amorite dynasty, created by Sumu-Abum (reigned1894–1880 BCE), consolidated own power over all surrounding territories. By the early 18th century BCE, one  dozen kingdoms, including Babylon, were dominated by Syria and Mesopotamia; some were united by coalitions, others were frequently at war (Reade 363-364).

Hammurabi (reigned1792–1750 BCE) is treated as the greatest of all kings of the initial dynasty of Babylon (recognized as the Old Babylonian era). From the establishment of his reign, he stressed to be the ruler concerned with justice. It was conventional at that time to mention the years by names rather than numbers, and the name of the king’s second year of reign demonstrates his care for justice. He established justness and liberty in his territory. Though Hammurabi was not the primary lawgiver as there were written laws in Mesopotamia. However, his regulations made a strong impression on the following generations of Mesopotamian scribes that copied them for many centuries. His rules also had an impact on surrounding populaces, such as the Canaanites and Hittites, and finally on the Israelites and, thus, on Biblical law.


Joan Oates describes that, at its zenith, Babylon was one of the major, largest, and most significant cities of the ancient globe. It was situated in Mesopotamia, near the place where Euphrates and Tigris flow close to one another. This part of the book offers the genuine feeling of the historical evolvement. Joan Oates describes the so-called Sumerian problem and the supposed Sumerian-Semite conflict. The author concerns that they absorbed an unbelievable amount of energy in the past, and it is pleasant to observe them shrink before the writer uses lucid prose into little more than questions of terminology. The book is highly recommended for this part alone, and there are scholars, who might really benefit from the careful reading. However, it is not very convenient to read about all these uncelebrated dates; for instance, c. 3100 b. c., the centuries too late for the earliest known texts, in book are intended for the general public (Oates 15). Mesopotamian archaeologists reasonably accept the superior attitude to the grand calibration scramble, having known since the early sixties, that for readers anyway there was something wrong with radiocarbon before about 3000 BP (Oates 23), but the situation has changed, and definitely there is no need to calibrate, judiciously, as far back as it is possible; the readers, who miss the author’s cursory clarifications of what she is doing, could be badly misled.

The following chapters, three to five, cover the second and first millennia, from Hammurabi to the Greeks. The author mentions the Mari letters from Syria, the Amarna letters from Egypt, and the Assyrian accounts, thus, it is extremely difficult to preserve own interest in so many dynasties. Probably the author should have presented more discussion. Can the readers identify Gaugamela with modern Karamleis (ancient Karmulisi), as of Gogemal/Tell Gomel was out of the question (Oates 139)? There are lots of statements like this one, which require further qualification even in such a compressed account, especially when certain technical issues, for instance, the problem of the Dur-Kurigalzu stratigraphy, are clearly depicted. Nevertheless, mostly, as the readers should have expected from the author, this part is a serious effort to offer the modern account of the major characteristics of the evolvement of the Babylonian state, with the necessary archaeological conformations not neglected, and the book serves this aim well. This book finishes with the chapter of the legacy of Babylon, mostly the description of literature, science religion, and technology. Sadly, the author does not have much space to do justice to her theme.

A huge work has been obviously made concerning the choice of illustrations, many of which demonstrate crucial but relatively unfamiliar items. However, this paper, which is richly illustrated with photos and plans, and written with judgment will delight students, scholars and laypersons alike. 

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