Of the many law codes surviving from the ancient Middle East, perhaps the most famous is the Code of Hammurabi, sixth King of the Amorite Dynasty of Old Babylon. Today, the code, engraved in stone takes on a unique form as a piece of art. However, decoded it is clear that this stone was obeyed and served as a sort of political propaganda. The noted stone found in 1901 by French archeologists, now rests in the Paris Louvre where it is preserved from moisture and natural decomposition.
The raw material consists of an 8 ft. all block of black basalt engraved with cuneiform. It clearly intended to be observed in public. The immense size of this rock was a sign of strength and authority and its dark coloration an ominous warning. At the top is a depiction of Hammurabi receiving the code from Shamash the sun god or god of justice. In this picture the two men are the same size, which symbolizes Hammurabi’s power being equal to that of the gods. Below this is a prologue praising Hammurbai’s wisdom and power.
To further its legitimacy the law code was in those days regarded as subject for prayer, though the prayers here are chiefly cursings of whoever shall neglect or destroy the law. The content of the code regulates in clear and definite strokes the organization of society and the harsh punishment for crimes. For example, the witness who testifies falsely is to be slain. Indeed, more serious crimes were punishable with death. If a man builds a house poorly, and it falls and kills the owner, the builder is to be slain. If the owner’s son is killed, the builder’s son is slain.
The idea of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” could not be debated. There was no gray area and no mercy. Like the cold black basalt stone the code was unchangeable and indestructible. Throughout history rulers have utilized various structures to signify their authority. Dimmond studded crowns and elaborate castles are examples. Hammurabi inscribed a code of law to control behavior, which was not to be questioned, and unfortunately was often times seemingly retaliatory. The towering black stone, engraved with his code, is a symbolic structure fitting of its contents.