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The World of Fables and Legends - 16
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

Babylonia: The Jewel of Mesopotamia

Continued from Previous Page

The ancient Mesopotamia was a region of the West Asia largely falling within the combined vast drainage areas of the Tigris–Euphrates River system. In terms of the geographical territories, it encompassed most of the present day Iraq, Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, South-eastern Turkey, as also the areas along the Turkish–Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders.

As mentioned in earlier parts, the region is very significant in the ancient history of the old world civilizations and cultures that evolved and flourished several thousand years ago. For instance, many historians believe that the Mesopotamia was the ‘cradle of civilization’ as the West Asia offers the sites for some of the world’s oldest and glorious civilizations like Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian, etc. In the earlier parts, glories of the ancient Sumerian and Assyrian people was briefly dealt with and the author sincerely feels that the ancient history of Mesopotamia is incomplete without accounting for the Babylonians in the same region. Accordingly, the Babylonian history, culture and religion is briefly described here which has many elements of commonality with the aforesaid two civilizations of the West Asia.

History of Babylonia

The ancient history of the vast region of Mesopotamia was dominated by the Sumerian and Assyrian civilizations in a long span but its description without the Babylonia is incomplete. While Sumerian history appears to be one of the oldest vintage with civilization marked with permanent settlements by 5500 - 4000 BCE, the Assyrians period roughly dates back to about 26th – 25th century BCE. Many western scholars also grade Sumer as the first urban civilization in the ancient Mesopotamia with Eridu as the first city of the world. Arguably, Uruk became the largest city in the world by 3000 BCE. As Assyrians grew in influence, Assur (or Ashur) and several other smaller city states and kingdoms came in existence in Mesopotamia. The region also experienced an Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BCE) for a short spell that ensured unification of the Akkadian Semites and Sumerians of Mesopotamia under one rule and emergence of Babylon city. Gradually, the Akkadian replaced Sumerian as the spoken language in the region somewhere between the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE. From the Akkadians, the Babylon dynasty emerged around 1900 BCE under which Babylon remained an important centre of Akkadian culture and power for the next three centuries.

The period of Babylon dynasty started with an Amorite chieftain namely Sumu-abum who expropriated a sizeable tract of land including a small town of Babylon from the neighbouring city state of Kazallu in 1894 BCE. He, however, had a limited aim of expanding his territory into a city state like many others in the region. Sumu-abum was followed by Sumu-la-El, Sabium and Apil-Sin, respectively, who ruled in Babylon and associated territory without any reference to kingship or kingdom. The writings on a recovered clay tablet of the time suggest that subsequent ruler Sin-Mubalit was first to assume the title of a king although Babylon was still a small state compared to the neighbouring old and powerful kingdoms like Assyria, Larsa and Elam. Thus Babylonia remained a small town in a city state until the beginning of the reign of its sixth ruler King Hammurabi.

Hammurabi’s rule lasted for nearly fourty-two years during 1792–1750 BCE, during which he endeavoured in a great manner to expand and uplift Babylon from a small town to a great city commensurate with a worthy kingship. He was the one who systematically defeated and drove away Elamites from the Southern Mesopotamia to free Babylon from their influence. He augmented his army and repeatedly undertook military campaigns to conquer majority of Southern Mesopotamian states like Lagash, Isin, Larsa, Ur, Uruk, Umma, Erudu, Eshnunna, Kish, Nippur, Borsippa, Adab, and so on. His conquests and unified rule over a vast tract of land led to a relative stability in the region with many small states uniting in a spirit of nation. As such he proved to be a worthy and efficient ruler who introduced several reforms in the bureaucracy, centralized government and taxation. It was during his time that the southern Mesopotamia acquired the status and recognition as Babylonian kingdom.

Hammurabi did not stop with aforesaid achievement; he took expeditions with his large and disciplined army eastward to conquer Elam, Lullubi and other states which later represented Iran. In the west too, he subdued powerful states of Amorites such the Levant, Mari and Yamhad, parts of which constitute the modern day Syria and Jordan. However, the most remarkable achievement of Hammurabi was his protracted war with the Old Assyrian Empire and ultimately forcing Assyrians to cede the control of Hurrian and Hattian parts to Babylon dynasty in 1751 century BCE. From 3000 BCE until the rule of Hammurabi, the ancient city Nippur had remained the major cultural and religious centre of South Mesopotamia with Enlil as Supreme god, he transferred this privilege to Babylon establishing god Marduk as most important god in their pantheon and city with holy status. Among other significant contributions of Hammurabi was the compilation of the Babylonian law code.

Although Hammurabi had controlled most of the Southern Mesopotamia but his kingdom had no viable and effective natural defenses which rendered his boundaries vulnerable. After Hammurabi’s death, this border vulnerability and his not so effective successors culminated into fast disintegration of the Babylonian kingdom. During the reign of Samsu-iluna (1749 – 1712 BCE), his immediate successor, the Babylonians lost far south of Mesopotamia to a native Akkadian-speaking king Ilum-ma-ili. Similarly, the Babylonians and their Amorite rulers were expelled from Assyria to further north by an Assyrian-Akkadian governor named Puzur-Sin. Thus Babylonia kept losing their acquired territories to Assyrians with time. Samshu-iluna's successor Abi-Eshuh made an attempt to recapture the lost territories but did not succeed against adversaries. Subsequent rulers Ammi-Ditana and Ammi-Saduqa too were weak and instead of endeavouring to regain lost territories concentrated only on peaceful building and holding Babylon intact. Thus in due course, Babylonia kingdom shrunk to a small and relatively weak state, although the city itself had considerably expanded and flourished from the erstwhile small town prior to Hammurabi.

Samsu-Ditana was the last ruler of the Old Babylonian Dynasty of Amorite descent who constantly faced raids from Hittites and Kassites, and the control of Babylon was ultimately passed to Kassites. The Kassites were non-Babylonian people with their own distinct language and it is believed that their place of origin was in the Zagros Mountains east of Mesopotamia. It is believed that they had prevailed over Hittites menace in the region and successfully established their political power in southern Mesopotamia, initially in and around Babylon and, subsequently, by conquering other southern cities under the dominance of the First Sealand Dynasty. Their period of rule and dominance over the Babylon, known as the Kassite period, lasted for over four centuries virtually synonymous with the middle Babylonian period. Accordingly, the period 1595-1155 BCE is often referred to as the Middle Babylonian Dynasty by the modern age historians. In the intervening period around 1234 BCE, Assyrians had subjugated Babylon but Kassites reasserted until Elamites replaced them by sacking the city of Babylon in 1158 BCE.

However, the Elamites could not retain Babylonia for long, and were thrown out in a war with Marduk-kabit-ahheshu of Isin (1155–1139 BC), who then established Isin dynasty in Babylonia which continued for nearly 125 years. He was a native Akkadian-speaking south Mesopotamian, who not only successfully drove out the Elamites but also ensured that Kassites do not revive again. His successor was Itti-Marduk-balatu who successfully defended Babylonia against Elamite attacks but his own attempt to capture Assyria was futile. The next King Ninurta-nadin-shumi’s adventure with Assyrians met the same fate. However, Nebuchadnezzar I (1124–1103 BCE) turned out to be a famous and effective ruler of this dynasty. He is credited with convincingly defeating the Elamites, sacking the Elamite capital Susa and recovering back the sacred statue of the god Marduk which was taken away from Babylon in the past. However, he did not have same success in wars against Assyrian Empire and in the later years of regime, mostly devoted self for peaceful building projects and strengthening borders against potential adversaries.

Nebuchadnezzar’s successors were not so worthy and effective; consequently, they lost significant Babylonian territories in their wars with Assyrian Empire. Around 1072 BCE, Marduk-shapic-zeri entered into a peace treaty with Assyrian King Ashur-bel-kala but the former’s successor Kadasman-Burias again waged war with the Assyria that led to his defeat converting Babylonia a vassal state of Assyria. Thus Assyrian dominance over Babylonia continued till 1050 BCE but later on following a civil war in Assyria and their troubles with powerful neighbouring states, Babylonia once again freed itself from the Assyrian dominance for a few decades. Nonetheless the kingdom remained unstable due to weak rulers and large parts of Babylonian countryside was annexed by Arameans and Suteans. From the 9th to late 7th century BCE, Babylon remained almost continuous under Assyrian suzerainty as vassal state or directly ruled by Assyrian Kings. After the death of a powerful Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, a Chaldean warrior Nabopolassar established his kingdom in Babylon and his son Nebuchadrezzar II (605–561 BCE) proved to be a powerful ruler with a vast rebuilding and fortification programme of Babylon. He is also credited with building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Nabonidus (556–539 BCE), Nebuchadrezzar’s successor, even had a long campaign in Arabia region for nearly a decade leaving behind his son Belshazzar as governor in his absence but when Cyrus II of Persian Achaemenidian dynasty attacked Babylonia in 539 BCE, the capital fell to his forces without much resistance. Henceforth Babylonia remained under the Persian rule and according to the 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, Babylon remained as world’s most splendid city for a considerable time. However, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great invaded Babylon in 331 BCE and the city came under his control. Recognizing the importance of the city, Alexander is also believed to have permitted restoration of earlier sabotaged and destructed temples etc., of cultural importance and tried to foster commercial and trade activities by construction of a harbor. It is also believed that he had actually planned to make Babylon his imperial capital but he died in 323 BCE in the erstwhile king Nebuchadrezzar’s palace. With Alexander’s conquest, Babylonia had come under the Greek influence but after his death the importance of the city under the Seleucid dynasty was gradually reduced as the rulers decided to build a new capital Seleucia on the River Tigris.

Babylonian culture occupies a remarkable place in the ancient history of Mesopotamia. The art and architecture was well developed and unique in many aspects; the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon find a place among the seven wonders of the Old World. With abundance of clay, the Babylonian temples were massive structures of crude brick supported by buttresses, with rains carried off through meticulous drains. The use of brick, pilaster and enameled tiles was abundant in building material and wall were brilliantly coloured, using terracotta and plates coated with zinc and even gold. Tablets dating back to the Old Babylonian period suggest wide use and application of mathematics and observations of the celestial phenomeno (Astronomy). Men and women had learning habits, including the existence of libraries. The earlier used Sumerian cuneiform was gradually replaced by Akkadian language script common among the Babylonian and Assyrian people. The famous Mesopotamian creation “the Epic of Gilgamesh” is an excellent example the literary interests of Babylonians. In a nutshell, the Sumerian and Akkadian (i.e. Babylonians and Assyrians) constitute the most important part of the Mesopotamian history till the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE, after which the Persian Achaemenid Empire and Greek Seleucid Empire dominated its history. The Babylonians also had a fairly good knowledge in the field medicine, symptomatic diagnosis, prognosis and prescriptions.

Babylonian Pantheon: Gods and Goddesses

Like other Mesopotamian civilizations, Babylonians too believed in polytheism. In fact, their mythology was greatly influenced and derived from the Sumerian mythology. Mythological texts were either written in Sumerian cuneiform or Akkadian and many texts were simple translation from the Sumerian to Akkadian language. In the most parts of the Mesopotamia, same deities were worshipped with names and some attributes changed or without change. For instance, in Sumerian pantheon Enlil was the most important deity but his place was taken by Marduk in Babylonian pantheon while their Assyrian counterpart was Ashur. In some other cases, even the same nomenclature of deity was adopted. For instance, Nergal was worshipped by both Babylonians and Assyrians as the god of underworld, also associated with war, destruction and plague. Some primary deities of Babylon were Marduk, Apsu and Tiamat, whose cult flourished in other Mesopotamian cities as well. In a pantheon of umpteen gods and goddesses, only ten more important Babylonian deities are briefly described here, despite some repetition or duplication of deities.

1. Marduk

Marduk was the patron and chief deity of the city of Babylon and the god of thunderstorms. He was the son of god Enki and goddess Damgalnuna, and his spouse was Sarpanitu, the goddess of fertility. Marduk was also linked with Jupiter, one of the seven constellations, and attributes of compassion, healing, fairness, magic and regeneration. Many Babylonians also associated him with agriculture and addressed him with several titles such as king of gods, patron god, chief god, supreme deity, and so on. He was depicted as a human with royal robs, equipped with a spade and accompanied with a snake-dragon. Several legends and myths are associated with him including that of the creation story of Enuma Elish that inter alia shows how Marduk arose to power following a protracted war among the gods of old and new order, and became undisputed leader of gods.

2. Adad

Adad was also one of the primary deities of Babylonians popularly known as the god of storms, and in a way, he was the darker version of the Sumerian god Ninurta. He was known as a giver and taker god depending upon the acts of people. For instance, if people worshipped, followed and obeyed his rules, he would be happy and provide a pleasant climate and good rainfall leading to high crop productivity. However, if they ignored, disrespected or broke his rule, he would unleash torrential rains and hurricane leading to flood, darkness and destruction everywhere. He was depicted in a human form carrying a lightening fork symbolizing his control over the nature. Like many other Mesopotamian gods, he had different names in different time and place such as Ishkur in Sumer, Rammanu in Akkad, and Rimmon, Addu or Hada in other cities.

3. Nergal

Nergal was the deity who presided over the underworld and was worshipped across the Mesopotamia in various names such Nirgal, Nirgali, Erra and Irra. He was the powerful god of war, death, destruction and plague. He is usually depicted as a man in motion wearing a long robe and carrying a maze, scimitar with a double lion’s head and human figures under his feet. In iconography, he is also depicted as a lion and some monuments symbolize him with a mace surmounted by the head of a lion. He was said to be son of Enlil and Ninlil, and he also represented certain phase of sun, especially the noontime and the summer solstice, being harsh in the Mesopotamian annual cycle. Babylonians worshipped Nergal as one of their primary deities associated with agriculture too besides the aforesaid attributes.

4. Tiamat

In Babylonia, Tiamat was treated as the primordial goddess of the salt sea and the mother to many gods of the city of Babylon. According to Babylonian mythology, Tiamet had given birth to the first generation of gods with her male counterpart Apsu, the fresh water god. In mythology, she was parted into two prominent avatars namely Chaoskampf Tiamat and Tiamat mythos. The first one represented her monstrous manifestation symbolized as the primordial chaos while the other image was that of a holy goddess. She is mentioned in different mythical tales of the ancient Mesopotamia; in one such, story, she fights assuming the form of a dragon against her son Ea and clan to take revenge of the death of Apsu as the former had killed the latter to ascend the throne. She was later defeated and killed by the god Marduk.

5. Ea

For the Babylonians, Ea was worshipped as the god of wisdom and was known with other names such as Enki and Nudimmud in different cities of Babylonia. He was one of the prominent gods of the first generation and the famous son of Apsu and Tiamat. He was known by Enki among Sumerians, Ea among Babylonians and Nudimmud among Akkadians. Ea looked after the atmosphere, heaven and earth among other responsibilities and powers, which included intelligence, crafts, trickery, magic, healing, mischief, art, fertility and exorcism. In iconography, he is depicted as a bearded man with a horned cap, long robe and streams shown flowing from his shoulders that symbolize two significant rivers Euphrates and Tigris. As part of Mesopotamian mythology, he finds mention in mythical tales such as Enuma Elish, Enki and the World Order, and the Atra-hasis.

6. Shamash

Samash, other names being Utu, Samas and Babbar depending on cities, was the ancient Mesopotamian sun god of Babylonians and Assyrians in-charge of divine justice, morality and truth. He was the twin brother of the much famous and worshipped Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar among the Assyrians and Babylonians or Inanna among Sumerians. As per popular belief, he was an enforcer of the divine justice besides helping people in distress. Samash rode through the heavens in his sun chariot to oversee all phenomenons that occurred during the day. His main temples were located in the cities of Eridu, Larsa and Sippar. In iconography, Samash is depicted as an old man with a long beard wielding the pruning-saw as his main weapon, and his main symbol was a solar disc. His wife was goddess Sherida or Aya, associated with beauty, fertility and sexual love. Samash and Sherida had two children: the goddess Kittu, which means "Truth", and the god Misharu, meaning "Justice".

7. Ishtar

Ishtar was the most worshipped goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, justice, war and political power; and in different time span and cities, she was also known as Inana, Ishhara or Iriniri. The ancient Sumer people worshipped her as goddess Inanna, who was then associated with love, beauty, sex, war, justice and political power. She is believed to have been rechristened as Ishtar and worshipped by Babylonians, Assyrians and Akkadians. She was associated with the planet Venus symbolizing bodily love; and with the sun god Shamash and moon god Sin, she formed an astral triad. Her most prominent symbols included the lion and the eight-pointed star. Her husband was the god Dumuzid, later known as Tammuz. Also known as the Queen of heaven, Ishtar was a universally popular goddess across the ancient Middle East and at various temples and worship places. In the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, she was mentioned as the goddess who tried to seduce demi-god King Gilgamesh.

8. Apsu

Apsu was the primordial god of fresh water for the Babylonians and was also known with other names like Abzu or Absu. He became the father of the first generation of gods by merging with consort Tiamet. Babylonians respected and worshipped him as the creator and governor of Babylonian gods and in that role he is mentioned in several Mesopotamian mythical tales, the most important one being the Enuma Elish. The sad part was that he was killed by own son Ea who wanted to ascend the throne.

9. Nabu

Nabu was the Babylonian god of wisdom and writing, as son of Marduk and grandson of Ea. He was also considered as the patron of scribes. The people of Babylonia worshipped him as one of the principal gods holding a massive festival Akitu in his honour during the first millennium BCE; in this festival, the statue of Nabu was brought to Babylon from Borisippa. In popular iconography, he was depicted as a man holding a stylus and either riding or standing near a Mushhushshu dragon.

10. Nanna

Nanna was the moon god who was also known as Sin in Akkadian mythology. He was the son of Enlil and Ninlil, and was believed to be the god of wisdom. The main cities of his worship were Harren and Ur in the northern and southern regions, respectively. According to some sources, when the pantheon was taking shape, Sin was initially regarded as the head of the pantheon by many followers which is apparent with some references glorifying him as the "father of the gods”, "chief of the gods", or even the "creator of all things". His consort was goddess Ningal and important offsprings were Samash (Utu), Adad and Inanna. He was variously depicted in iconography but his more common avatar was an old man with beard comprised of lapis lazuli, and riding on the vehicle of a winged bull.

Babylonian Mythology and Legends

Mesopotamian region was very rich both culturally and religiously with their mythical and legendary texts having a lot of commonalities among all civilizations developed in the region in terms of names, plot and events. Some of the famous mythical tales like Enuma Elish, the Fall of Man, Altra-hasis and many others were originally of Sumerian origin later adopted by the Babylonians, Assyrians and other Akkadians as such or with modifications. The Enuma Elish is considered as one religious text which is said to have even inspired the Hebrew scribes who created the biblical Book of genesis. Originally, many of these tales were written in Sumerian cuneiform and later translated and modified by Babylonians and Assyrians. With the passage of time, even recognition and veneration of gods changed, For instance, the god An or Anu was worshipped as the supreme deity and ancestor of gods by Sumerians; this trend, however, changed after centuries with Marduk established as the supreme and most adorable god among the Babylonians. A few representative mythical tales are briefly presented here.

1. Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish, also known as The Seven Tablets of Creation, is the Mesopotamian creation mythical tale which narrates the victory god Marduk over the combined genre of old gods and supernatural forces representing chaos ultimately establishing order at the creation of the world. This is perhaps the oldest Mesopotamian mythological text of about a thousand lines recorded on seven clay tablets in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform script which narrates the creation of world from the Akkadian view describing the birth and battle of gods, emergence of Marduk as the late-generation god responsible for the creation of world and human beings to serve the Mesopotamian gods. The legendary tale dates back to a period when there was no creation and only the primordial entities Apsu and Tiamat existed, of which the former represented the sweet and fresh water while latter the bitter and salt water.

From the amalgamation of the two, Lahmu (first born male god) and Lahamu (first born female god) were born; and next were Anshar and Kishar from the combination of the latter two; and from the latter came a host of other gods including Ea. The young gods were very loud and noisy, troubling the sleep and peace of Apsu and Titamat at night and distracting them from work during day. Hence Apsu proposed to destroy the progeny on the advice of his vizier (chief advisor) Mummu but Tiamat was not inclined for this extreme measure; so she alerted the younger god Ea about the plan. Hearing this plan, the younger gods were extremely worried and Ea crafted a spell in retaliation to put Apsu to sleep (in a deep coma sort). Mummu tried to revive him but failed and, in turn, he was also punished by Ea, who now took Apsu's halo and wore it himself and from his remains created own home. Later, Ea and his wife Damkina gave birth to Marduk.

Although Titamat had initially favoured the younger gods but when they eliminated her consort, she was enraged and waged a bitter war on younger gods with the support of Quingu. She rewarded Quingu with the “Tablet of Destinies” and appointed him as chief of her war efforts creating eleven ferocious monsters to destroy the younger gods. She dominated the younger gods till they chose Marduk as their leader who avowed to defeat Titamat and her troops. Marduk was entrusted with the throne, divine scepter and vestments, along with weapons like bow, quiver, mace, and bolts of lightning, together with the four winds by the combined forces of younger gods. In a fierce battle that followed, Marduk trapped Titamat with the help of four winds and used a net to catch her. The evil wind disabled Titamat, then Marduk fired an arrow on her heart and smashed head with the mace slaying her. All other gods, including Quingu, and horrible monsters were captured and chained making Marduk’s victory final and supremacy over gods complete. Thereafter, Marduk resorted to the creation of world in consultation with Ea (the god of wisdom).

2. The Making of Man

At the end of war between the gods and other supernatural beings of old generation led by Tiamet versus younger gods under the command of Marduk, the latter was victorious and Marduk was accepted as the Supreme deity and leader of gods. Tiamet’s vizier Quingu too was captured, the Tablet of Destinies confiscated and he was handed over to the angel of death. The creation of world has slightly varied in different versions of the major texts of the Mesopotamia such as Enuma Elish, Alra-Hasis and Epic of Gilgamesh as available on few survived clay tablets with Sumerian and their revised Akkadian versions. In one version of the creation of world, Marduk split Tiamat's remains into two to constitute the sky and earth followed by the creation of the night and day, the moon, clouds and rain, the water of which was made the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Yet another version suggests, Marduk used the arch of Tiamet’s rib for constructing heavens, tail was put in the sky to create the Milky Way and her crying eyes became the source of Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and so on.

But after creating the world, another worry started troubling the ruling gods that there must be some mechanism whereby the cosmos is put under constant working in the service of gods. According to one legend, Enki’s mother Nammu brought this issue before the gods of newer generation. Enki then advised that a servant of the gods shall be created out of the clay and blood. Therefore, the gods decided to slay Quingu and use his blood for the creation of mankind. Enki was initially against the idea of killing Quingu but later he consented to use his blood to create the first human being. Consequently, using the clay and blood of Quingu, the first human being Lullu (also Adapa in some versions) was created with the aim that human beings would henceforth serve the gods. In the Bablonian mythology, Marduk assumed the same importance and role as Ashur in the contemporary Assyrian civilization.

3. Atra-Hasis

Atra-Hasis is actually an 18th century BCE Akkadian epic recorded in various versions on clay tablets, as also the name after its chief protagonist, Atrahasis, which means ‘exceedingly wise’. The story of Altrahasis had its Assyrian version too and was reconstructed later based on several fragmented tablets recovered. The story was written on three tablets. The first tablet contained the narrative of the creation myth and making of the man for the service of gods. Thereafter, there is also a mention of overpopulation and spells of plagues with Atrahasis finding a mention towards the end. The second tablet recorded the issue of human overpopulation. To control this menace, Enlil sent famine and drought at regular intervals. Due to this reason, Enlil is depicted as a cruel and capricious god with malicious intentions towards humans while Enki as kind and helpful. Finally, Enlil decided to destroy mankind with a great deluge while Enki was put under oath by him to keep the plan closely guarded.

The third tablet actually contains the illustrated account of the flood myth. As Enlil’s plan was close to execution, Enki cautioned the good-natured hero Atrahasis speaking through a reed wall about Enlil’s resolve to destroy the mankind through a great flood and advised him to dismantle his house to construct a boat to escape. Altrahasis acted as advised and boarded the huge boat in time with his family and representative (seeds) of other animals and plants. The torrential rains and storm continued for seven days and the world was flooded destroying all life sans Atrahasis and his belongings on boat. When the flood finally subsided, he offered sacrifices to the gods that made Enlil furious with Enki for violating his oath. Enki contested that whatever he did was to preserve life and finally the two gods reconciled and agreed to resort to other means to control disobedient human overpopulation. The flood myth is found nearly in all civilizations with variations in its plot and ending. For instance, in the Sumerian version of the great flood myth, the protagonist’s name is Ziusudra.

 4. Ishtar and Gilgamesh

As the goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, war, justice and political power, Ishtar enjoyed a special place in the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. She was also remembered as the ‘Queen of Heaven’ and several mythical legends were associated with her. In one famous legend, she descends to the underworld to confront her estranged sister Ereshkigal while on yet another occasion she is shown seducing demi-god Gilgamesh in the Sumero-Akkadian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the chief protagonist of the epic. According to this story, when Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu return to Uruk after defeating the monster ogre Humbaba, Ishtar made a proposal to the former to become her consort. Gilgamesh, however, refused her advances citing the nemesis of her past lovers who had badly suffered with her betrayal.

Enraged with Gilgamesh’s refusal, Ishtar complained to her father Anu in the heaven how he had insulted by declining her proposal. Ishtar demanded that the father give her the mighty Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Initially, Anu was reluctant to intervene and, instead advised her to personally confront his adversary. However, Ishtar threatened that in the event of his refusal, she would break in the doors of hell to bring up the dead who would then compete with the living, use their food and belongings to create a chaos everywhere. Then Anu relented and allowed Ishtar to use the Bull of Heaven, who unleashed it on Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. The two together fought and killed the Bull, and offered its heart to the sun-god Shamash. However, while they were celebrating the victory, Ishtar cursed them and Enkidu torn off the Bull’s thigh and threw on Ishtar’s face. Enkidu died later for this impiety shown to gods.

5. Making of Babylon Empire

Till Hammurabi ascent to throne, Babylonia was a small kingdom and other states seldom felt threatened with its presence. The king initially appears to have mainly focused on stabilizing the internal structure, fortifying defenses of the kingdom, the welfare and prosperity of his people. Due to this approach, the neighbouring states took his rule lightly and some of them became even hostile and aggressive. When Elamites invaded his kingdom, he sought alliance with the neighbouring Larsa but the latter betrayed him. Consequently, he valiantly fought and defeated Elamites and conquered Larsa as well. Similar attempt of alliance with Mari failed; this breach of trust angered Hammurabi and he destroyed this city state too. Thereafter, there was no stopping and Hammurabi gradually conquered many of them building the great Babylonian Empire in the Mesopotamian history.

King Hammurabi had attempted to build strong defenses across Babylonia to safeguard it against the enemy attacks. The king had the rare recognition and honor of being portrayed as a god or demi-god during his lifetime with hymns written in his praise. Later another powerful Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II supplemented his work by building three walls around Babylon which were nearly eighty feet tall, which could be breached only by the forces of Alexander, only remnants of it have survived till date. Another remarkable feat of Nebuchadnezzar II was the construction of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, which is still categorized in seven wonders of the ancient world. This engineering marvel of the times was created as an ascending series of tiered gardens and is said to have been created for his beloved queen Amytis who used to miss the flourishing green valley and hills of her homeland. However, some accounts raise doubt about its existence with no traces of archeological or more recent credible texts.


Ancient Mesopotamia has been a site of civilizations which were not only culturally rich but also very powerful and prosperous during their time. The people were very religious too who respected and worshipped almost every phenomenon of nature creating one or more corresponding gods to represent it. Thus a long list of major and minor deities existed and such gods too kept receiving varying response and recognition at different times. Among numerous city states and kingdoms, the most prominent and long-lasting civilizations were those represented by the Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria. A remarkable feature about them was that though they remained in constant conflicts and wars for supremacy but they seldom attempted to destroy the culture or religion of the defeated people in the occupied or subdued territories. This contrary trend became the order of the day only with advent of the post-Christ Abrahamic religions in various parts including the Mesopotamian region.

To be Continued 

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