Life Under Hammurabi's Rule in Ancient Babylonian Cities

What the Cities of Mesopotamia's Old Babylon Period Were Like

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi. Getty Images/Mesopotamian

Babylonian cities during Hammurabi's day were made up of royal compounds with palaces, gardens, cemeteries, and Mesopotamian temples known as ziggurats. Residential areas in cities such as Ur consisted of ordinary houses on winding streets, dotted with elite housing, shops, and shrines. Some of the cities were quite large, reaching their maximum size in the late 3rd or early 2nd millennium BCE. Ur, for example, measured 60 hectares in size during the Isin-Larsa period, with additional suburbs outside the city walls.

Ur's population at that time has been estimated at 12,000.

Babylonia was a kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia, located to the west of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq. Although famous in the West for its cultural advances—including the legal code of its greatest ruler, Hammurabi—the city of Babylon itself was of minor importance throughout much of Mesopotamian history. Far more significant was the city of Ur and its rivals (at various times) for regional power: Isin, Lagash, Larga, Nippur, and Kish.

Ordinary and Elite Residences

Ordinary houses in Babylon and Ur were house complexes rather like a Roman villa, consisting of a rectangular internal courtyard open to the air or partially roofed, surrounded by blocks of rooms opening up on to it. The streets were curving and generally unplanned. Cuneiform texts from the period tell us that private householders were responsible for taking care of the public streets and were at the risk of death for not doing so, but archaeologists have found trash deposits in those streets.

Simple house plans without internal courtyards and single roomed structures probably representing shops were scattered throughout the residential quarters. There were small shrines located at street crossings.

The grandest houses at Ur were two stories high, with rooms around the central courtyard again open to the air.

The walls facing the street were unadorned, but the internal walls were sometimes decorated. Some people were buried in the floors beneath the rooms, but there were separate cemetery areas as well.

Palaces

The palaces were, in comparison to even the grandest of regular houses, extraordinary. The Palace of Zimri-Lim at Ur was built of mud brick walls, preserved to heights as much as 4 meters (13 feet). It was a complex of over 260 rooms on the ground floor, with separate quarters for the receiving rooms and the king's residence. The palace covered an area of about 200 by 120 meters, or about 3 hectares (7 acres). The exterior walls were up to 4 meters in thickness and were protected with a coat of clay plaster. The main entrance to the palace lay off a paved street; it had two large court yards, an antechamber and an audience hall thought to be the throne room.

Surviving polychrome murals on Zimri-Lim show the events of the king's investiture. Near life-size statues of goddesses graced the courtyard.

Below is a list of some of Babylonia's most significant cities at the height of Hammurabi's empire.

  • Agade (Akkad): exact location between the Tigris and Euphrates is not known. They spoke Akkadian.
  • Babylon
  • Eridu (Eridug/Urudug): Site of the temple of Enki
  • Eshnunna: Located in the Diyala Valley, gateway to the kingdom of Elam
  • Kish: Symbolic center of northern Mesopotamia
  • Ur: Biblical home of the Hebrew forefather Abram, later Abraham
  • Uruk: Seat of the legendary king Gilgamesh
  • Nippur: Symbolic center of southern Mesopotamia
  • Sippar: Sun-cult center on the banks of the Euphrates
  • Umma: Rival to Lagash
  • Larsa: Another center of a sun cult
  • Adab: A vassal of Kish
  • Lagash: Especially ancient city, center of artistic development
  • Isin: Important city to the Third Dynasty of Ur, ca. 2000 BCE, and thereafter