Babylonian Law: The first building regulations

By The Helpful Engineer / On / In Historic Buildings

The oldest structure in the world is a 23,000 year old stone wall, at a cave entrance, in Greece. It is known as the Theopetra Cave. Ireland oldest structure, New Grange, although older than the Pyramids, is still comparably young at an estimated 5000 years old.

Oldest written laws: Surprisingly examples of building laws and regulations survive that are almost as old as New Grange. This is the 3800 year old Code of King Hammurabi, from the Babylonian Empire, the empire was centred around modern day Iraq. The Code was a set of 282 laws which cover a range of sensitive issues, including: contracts, construction, property, marriage, family, injury, treatment of slaves and labour rates. They survive today on stone carvings and clay tablets. In fact we only have an incomplete set of the laws, as those between 66 to 99 are missing from the fragments/ tablets available.

Although these laws are 300 years older than the ten commandments, they are vastly more detailed, and have no law that refers to religion or God. Perhaps these laws then are the first recorded separation of church and state.

The Hammurabi Laws contain, in some shape or form, many of the concepts of modern justice systems. Trials, judges and evidence are all included and even punishments for Judges whose rulings are subsequently are overturned. However this feeling of a nice, caring and fair society is quickly dashed and contradicted by a large number of harsh laws. One of these, right at the start, (no. 2) seems to come straight from the witch-trails of more recent history:

Law 2:   If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if …………. he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death……….

Another harsh example is law no. 196 which pre-dates the Old Testament concept of an eye for an eye.

While Law no. 195 ensured family tranquilly at the expense of frightened children with the startling punishment of:

Law 195: If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

Based on the above, it would seem King Hammurabi wouldn’t take too kindly to our modern system of penalty points and suspended sentences.

Building Regulations: The punishments detailed for breaking the building laws are very strict. For example, one law (no. 228) instructs that the builder be punished by death if any of his buildings collapse and kill their owner. The builders in Babylonia must have had many sleepless nights, considering the basic nature of construction at the time and their relatively limited engineering knowledge.

Compared to the vast technical detail of our modern Codes of Practice these laws are basic, and yet they are the parent of them all.

The full text of the laws which relate to construction are as follows, they make for an interesting read:

228. If a builder build a house for someone and complete it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each sar of surface.

229. If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

230. If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.

231. If it kill a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.

232. If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.

233. If a builder build a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.

234. If a shipbuilder build a boat of sixty gur for a man, he shall pay him a fee of two shekels in money.

235. If a shipbuilder build a boat for someone, and do not make it tight, if during that same year that boat is sent away and suffers injury, the shipbuilder shall take the boat apart and put it together tight at his own expense. The tight boat he shall give to the boat owner.

The laws go on and the rates of pay for labourers, masons, artisans and more are set out in laws 273 and 274.

For more information see the Wiki entry here, and the list of the complete laws here.

2 thoughts on “Babylonian Law: The first building regulations

  1. This article in my opinion is “awesome” (an american expression that seems apt)! It is really great to see that laws in relation to the construction of buildings have been around for a long while. Thanks for posting it!

    How fascinating to learn to what degree this ancient Babylonian civilization went to ensure that buildings were constructed to what today might be considered a standarized methodology. Though Codes 66 to 99 of King Hammurabi are still missing may I suggest that these codes could have related to “plumbing standards” and that the following could be one of the missing regulations:

    67. If a builder build a house for someone, and does not install a well (and the means to drink and bathe) correctly and also does not provide the means to remove foul water from the house, then that builder shall be put to death, the eldest son of that builder shall be put to death and all the remaining children, the slaves and the wives of the builder shall be bequeathed to the owner of the badly-constructed house

    In my opinion losing this tablet and regulations 66-99 has unfortunately set back the evolution of building codes in relation to the installation of plumbing (at least in my relatively modern home where water leakages into the walls and onto the ceilings has been a common occurence)!

  2. I thought the Roman’s brought the vast leap forward with their introduction of Engineering knowhow, including water supply and sanitation? We have Roman roads, canals, sewers to this day in the UK which are still functional. What baffles me is, before the invention of paper, how were the details worked out? If anyone has been to the folk museum to look at the old construction techniques, they are pretty basic with literally tree trunks and branches lashed together with twine and reeds. There were no mechanical means of fixings as nails had not yet been invented. Hence the knowledge is assumed to be passed down from father to son from one generation to the next.

    I was thinking, are some of these laws subjective as opposed to being taken on a literary sense. Bearing in mind it is an interpretation of the scripture by scholars and translated into English. We have trouble interpreting Shakespeare some 400 years ago let alone some stone tablet 30,000 years ago. Were the Babylonians civilized or are they comparible to the developing nations of modern society?

    If the majority of the population is illiterate, then the concept of “an eye for an eye” would be quite simple for the average person to understand and adhere to. Besides, the harsh punishment for false accusation is the likelihood of a death penalty, means for the majority of cases, you would not make any accusations unless you had proof. I think, the verse is metaphorical as opposed to being taken literally.

    We know people float on water. We also know the majority of people living on the land can’t swim. So why would a law state for someone to leap into the river and the case be decided on the basis of whether he sinks or swims? I think it is metaphorically referring to proven innocent (swims) or guilty (sinks). If guilty, the accuser shall be compensated with the accused possession, which might not be much if they were poor farmers or slaves. If innocent, the accuser, shall be put to death. With that prospect in mind, I would say the vast majority of people would not make any sort of accusations on anyone without first catching the accused red handed. For example, walking in to find one’s wife in bed with the neighbour, etc.

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