Babylonia, an ancient country that occupied the area of southwestern Asia that is now Iraq. It was located in the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia. Two great empires developed there—the Old Babylonian in the 18th century B.C. and the Neo-Babylonian (or Chaldean) in the seventh century B.C.
Babylonia began as a small kingdom centered around the city of Babylon and eventually spread over southern Mesopotamia. At its greatest extent, Babylonian power stretched from the Persian Gulf north into Assyria and west to the Mediterranean Sea. where it extended from Syria south to Egypt. In later times, Babylonia was also called Chaldea—after the Chaldeans, a Semitic people from the desert of Arabia who had settled there about the 11th century B.C.
Babylonian culture was greatly influenced by earlier Mesopotamian peoples. Nomads before settling in Mesopotamia, the Babylonians adopted and preserved many elements of the civilization developed there more than a thousand years earlier by the Sumerians. Through commerce and conquest, the Babylonians helped spread Mesopotamian culture to surrounding lands.
Among the outstanding accomplishments of the Old Babylonian period was the Code of Hammurabi, a compilation of laws. It sheds light on Babylonian society, indicating, for example, that there were three classes—nobles, commoners, and slaves.
The Babylonians also made significant advances in the sciences. They made many accurate astronomical observations, recognized several constellations, predicted eclipses of the sun and of the moon, and performed complex mathematical calculations.
Babylonia's economy was based on farming and trading. The land was fertile, but the climate was hot and dry, and agricultural prosperity depended on the use of irrigation canals. The major crops were dates and grain. The Babylonians traded throughout the Near East and east into India, by river and sea and overland by caravans. Major imports were metals, lumber, and other raw materials. Textiles were among their major exports. Trade and industry were carried on largely by private enterprise.
The outstanding feature in each city was the temple tower, or ziggurat, which consisted of a series of terraces. The temple stood at the top of the tower. The Biblical Tower of Babel in Babylon was a ziggurat. Religion was a powerful force, and the priests sometimes held more authority than the kings. Many of the gods and religious practices of the Babylonians were adapted from those of the Sumerians. Marduk, the god of Babylon, was the country's chief deity. Babylonian literature dealt mainly with legends of heroes and gods. The Epic of Creation recounts Marduk's rise to preeminence.