Babylon was an old kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia from the 18th to 6th centuries BCE. The city was built on the Euphrates river and divided in equal parts along its left and right banks, with steep embankments to contain the river’s seasonal floods.
Babylonia, and particularly its capital city Babylon, has long tradition as a symbol of excess and dissolute power. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel are seen as symbols of luxurious and power respectively. The spirit of Babylon was transmitted throughout the centuries in cities like El Cairo, Constantinople, Rome or today New York.
The resurgence of Babylonian culture was accompanied by a number of important cultural developments in the fields of astronomy, law, mathematics, science, art or philosophy.
There are many Babylonian literary works whose titles have come down to us. One of the most famous of these was the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, which was elaborated in twelve books. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh, who is a hero of an old Mesopotamian epic. In its fourth book entitled “the search for everlasting life”, Gilgamesh wept for his friend Enkidu and in his bitterness Gilgamesh cried, ‘How can I rest, how can I be at peace?
The Epic responded saying:
“Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods.’ So Gilgamesh travelled over the wilderness, he wandered over the grasslands, a long journey, in search of Utnapishtim, whom the gods took after the deluge; and they set him to live in the land
The Babylonian philosophy had an important influence on Greek philosophy, particularly Hellenistic philosophy. The Milesian philosopher Thales is also known to have studied philosophy in Mesopotamia. This pre-Socratic Greek philosopher responded to the question “who is happy?”, as follows:
“This is a person, who has a healthy body, is dowered with peace of mind and cultivates his talents”.
The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the so-called “Code of Hammurabi”, which consists of 282 laws about trade, slavery, duties of workers, theft or divorce. This Code is a well-preserved Babylonian code of law of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1754 BC. The Code is the longest surviving text from the Old Babylonian period.
The “Code of Hammurabi” was one of only sets of laws in the ancient Near East and also one of the first forms of law. It was written in a column of stone and influenced the civilizations. The code of laws was arranged in orderly groups, so that all who read the laws would know what was required of them.
The code has been seen as an early example of a fundamental law or a primitive constitution. The code is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence, and it also suggests that both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence.
An initial precedent of humanitarian international law, which was primary regulated in the modern times during the XIX-XX century thanks to the Swiss philanthropist Henry Dunant, can be already contemplated in the Babylonian Code. In particular, its article 32 embodies a specific protection and treatment for prisoners of war as follows:
“If a chieftain or a man is captured on the Way of the King” (in war), and a merchant buy him free, and bring him back to his place; if he have the means in his house to buy his freedom, he shall buy himself free: if he have nothing in his house with which to buy himself free, he shall be bought free by the temple of his community; if there be nothing in the temple with which to buy him free, the court shall buy his freedom”.
However, as to the prisoners of war, the third Geneva Convention of 1949 provided several centuries later a more detailed range of rules. In fact, it defines the specific rights of prisoners of war, including their treatment and eventual release.
In the Babylonian mythology, the goddess of love and war is represented by Isthar. With various names, she was known throughout the world, becoming the most popular goddess of the Mesopotamian pantheon.
In line of the famous Hittite-Egyptian Treaty in its wide conception of peace, the epilogue emphasizes the king Hammurabi as visionary who brings peace to his citizens. It explicitly states that these laws were publicly displayed in order to testify to Hammurabi’s righteous and just rule, to bring consolation to anyone seeking justice, and to serve as an example for future rulers. The Code also outlined that the main purpose of law is to attain peace in his kingdom.
“I am Hammurabi, noble king. I have not been careless or negligent toward humankind, granted to my care by the god Enlil, and with whose shepherding the god Marduk charged me. I have sought for them peaceful places, I removed serious difficulties, I spread light over them…. The great gods having chosen me, I am indeed the shepherd who brings peace, whose scepter is just. My benevolent shade is spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap. They prospered under my protective spirit, I maintained them in peace, with my skillful wisdom I sheltered them”.
However, the Code of Hammurabi makes a step forward toward the recognition of peace as an obligation to be pursued by the rulers. The main beneficiaries of peace are all those citizens, who live in the kingdom. In fact, all their citizens enjoy the right to repose in peace.
“The great gods have called me, I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city; on my breast I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad; in my shelter I have let them repose in peace; in my deep wisdom have I enclosed them”.
As indicated by Brian R. Doak in its research “The Origins of Social Justice in the Ancient Mesopotamian Religious Traditions”, the existence of written law in the ancient Near East predates the earliest legal codes of other notable ancient civilizations. He added that we have also received, via the Mesopotamian legal writings, the earliest recorded answers to the complex questions engaging the greatest philosophers and social thinkers for the past five millennia:
Why treat people fairly? Who deserves to be protected in society, and to what extent? What makes someone truly guilty of a crime? What is justice?
Justice entails both the alleviation of suffering for the poor, mistreated, and marginalized and the conviction and punishment of the oppressors. Thus, the concept of “social justice” does not only apply to the poor or marginalized, although these groups are often highlighted as most susceptible to abuse and therefore most in need of protection.
And to finalize, it should be recalled that the prohibition of armed conflict was set forth in the Ur-Nammu law code, which is the oldest known law code surviving today, written about 300 years before Hammurabi’s law code. Its Prologue outlines that “then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife…”.