The Stele of Hammurabi
I am Hammurabi the king of righteousness,
to whom Shamash has entrusted the truth.
My words are special.
… … . .
If that man has not paid attention
To the commandments I have inscribed on this stone …
If he has … emended what I have written,
And if he has removed my name from the inscription …
… Almighty Anu, the father of the gods,
… will smash his staff and curse his destiny.
— HAMMURABI (TRANSLATED BY M. E. J. RICHARDSON)1
DURING THE LAST years of his reign, King Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon for over four decades between 1792 and 1750 B.C., wished to commit to stone his name, his image, and his wise legal verdicts. The monument he commissioned forcefully combines the power of writing with the power of images and is considered here the epitome of the interface between writing and art in the ancient Near East (fig. 7.1). In this chapter, I describe the stele and analyze how each medium contributed to the monument.
The monument to Hammurabi, the sixth king of the Amorite Dynasty of Babylon, has a long, eventful story. It is the only extant example of what may have been a series of similar or even identical steles distributed for display in the various cities of the empire. The monolith was carved sometime before 1750 B.C. and probably erected in the temple of the sun god Shamash at Sippar.2 The stele presumably remained on view in the Mesopotamian oracular center for about six centuries until it was looted by Shutruk-Nahhunte I in 1158 B.C. The Elamite king then transported the monument to his capital to be displayed as a war trophy in the sanctuary of the great god Inshushinak.3 This explains why the Babylonian stele was found at Susa by the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan in the course of his 1901–1902 excavation campaign in western Iran. It is now on display at the Louvre, in Paris.