Ancient Babylonian art shows the origins of justice


Some of the most important pieces of art came from the Near East. We can see that in the last post with the religious art from the Sumerians. A lot of what we see in this time period —themes, styles, ideas— will be carried on throughout history. People of the past-past, people of the more recent past and people of today are undoubtedly very similar. I would argue that they feel the same emotions and, to an extent, still have the same thoughts. What we value may seem to change but intrinsically they’re still exactly the same as what our predecessors value.

King Hammurabi of Babylon came into power in 1792 B.C. after having defeated Rim-Sin. This ushered in the Babylonian period. Hammurabi ruled most of northern and western Mesopotamia. Under his rule, the first codified law system arose. It is embodied in the Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi. This stele was created out of basalt —a type of volcanic rock. It is a very black, hard stone. The durability of the stone is the reason why the stele still exists today. As well, this very hardness represents the power of King Hammurabi.


On the stele, all the laws are written in cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of writing. There are four registers: the bottom dictating King Hammurabi’s right to rule, his glory, the laws written in cuneiform and finally at the top a visual depiction of King Hammurabi being ordained by the God Shamash. This relief (at the top) shows God Shamash giving King Hammurabi the laws. It is chalk-full of detail, each little part representing something more. For example, Shamash is seated on a throne while King Hammurabi stands. That alone shows the power difference between the two individuals.


Many of us have learned of King Hammurabi’s laws in school. They are known for being somewhat… brutal. The way that the laws are structured creates a justice system that is most commonly known as an “eye for an eye.” If a person were caught stealing, they would have their hand cut off. It’s funny to think that this is the founding father, if you will, of the justice and legal system. Maybe we should implement some of these “eye for an eye” laws — could it cut down on crime?

After the fall of the Assyrian empire, we have the rise of a Neo-Babylonian dynasty. The Babylonians, once again, came to power in the late seventh century and resumed their place on the throne. The Neo-Babylonians are recognized for their incredible work with architecture. It can be seen in their capital city: Babylon. Let’s look at the Gates of Ishtar. These gates are the epitome of wonder. They are made with lapis lazuli glazed bricks with rows of golden lion reliefs. These Gates of Ishtar stand at about 47 feet high and 100 feet wide. They made up the entrance of what is known as the Processional Way. Can you imagine walking through these elaborate masses and entering the bustling city of Babylon? What a sight to behold. They truly showcase the power, wealth and splendor of the Neo-Babylonians. Today, a reconstructed version made of excavated material of the Ishtar Gate can be found at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Gates of Ishtar.jpg

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