Long before the Great Pyramid was building in Egypt, the first people of Asia to be civilized were making their homes about the mouths of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. This land we sometimes call Babylonia and sometimes Mesopotamia, which is Greek for "the land between the rivers." It is said to be the "Paradise" of the Old Testament.
Here people called the Sumerians settled, migrating from the mountains where the rivers rise. They made mud-brick houses; they learnt, like the Egyptians, to irrigate the land by canals; they had utensils of copper, but not of bronze. They learnt to write with the tip of a reed on soft clay -- not on papyrus. The reed was generally square-tipped, and it made wedge-shaped marks, so their writing is called cuneiform., from "cuneus, Latin for "wedge." The clay tablets were afterwards baked to preserve them. One of the earliest clay tablets we have is a business account, and it was found in one of the mounds which are all that remain of the ancient cities of Babylonia.
As the Egyptians measured the land, so the early Babylonians measured the heavens. They invented the sun-dial. They divided the circle of the heavens into 360 degrees, and the day into the hours, minutes, and seconds that we still use. Their astrologers -- students of the stars -- could foretell eclipses. They also believed they could foretell the future by reading the stars; and when we "thank our lucky stars" we revert to the ideas of these ancient star-gazers. Five of the planets are to this day named after their gods, though in the names which the Romans gave them (Jupiter, Saturn, etc.).
After centuries of struggle, the men from the mountains were conquered by wild nomads or wanderers from the desert that lies between the fertile regions of Egypt and Babylonia. These men of the desert are known as Semites, to which race the Hebrews and Arabs belong.
One of their great kings was Hammurabi, under whom great progress was made. The clay-tablet bills of the Babylon merchants spread in his time all over Western Asia. There was as yet no coined money, but value was reckoned in so many shekels or weight of silver. They had schools for children, and a school of Hammurabi's time actually survives in ruins to this day.
By 2000 B.C. this great king had conquered all Babylonia. He devised the first Code of Laws, which were later inscribed on a very hard stone column 8 feet high, which still exists. In these laws he ordered justice to be done to the orphan and widow and the poor. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," was to be exacted if injustice was done. If a house fell down and killed a boy, the builder was to suffer the death of his own son.
Abraham was probably living about the same time. He, the Bible tells us, travelled from Ur of the Chaldees, round the Fertile Crescent to Canaan, into Egypt and back to Canaan, where he lived and died. Abraham thus knew both Egypt and Babylon, and could compare their teeming life. He himself was a tent-dwelling chief, with great wealth in sheep and cattle, goats and asses, and camels for long journeys (see Genesis xxiv. 10); with gold and silver; with many servants and women who cooked and weaved and ground the corn with their hand-mills.
Although Abraham had to defend himself against raids of other wanderers of the desert, yet he was a man of peace. Compared with the great King of Babylon, he was less important in the eyes of men; but he was great for his ideas of God, and his only buildings were altars.