Mesopotamia, History & The Rise Of Civilisation
In ancient times, Mesopotamia, meaning ‘land between two rivers’, was a vast region that lay between the Tigris and Euphrates river systems, and it is where civilization emerged over 7,000 years ago. The first inhabitants, the Sumerians, established an advanced system writing, spectacular arts and architecture, astronomy and mathematics. The Akkadians would follow the Sumerians, borrowing from their culture, producing a new language of their own, and creating the world’s first empire.
Mesopotamia corresponds to what is now Iraq, Kuwait, Eastern Syria, Southeast Turkey, and parts of the Turkish-Syrian and Iran-Iraq borders. The region encompassed some of what is known by historians as the ‘ fertile crescent ’. The conditions in the fertile crescent, which also includes the Levantine coast, the Iranian-Iraqi modern border, and significant ancient sites such as Göbekli Tepe and Jericho, made it ideal for agriculture. All eight of the ‘founder’ crops of Neolithic agriculture (the wild forms of emmer wheat, barley, flax, einkorn, pea, lentil, chickpea, and bitter vetch) were found in abundance along with easily domesticated animals (pigs, sheep, cattle, and goats) with horses nearby.
The Sumerian people who first settled in Mesopotamia were some of the earliest known farmers and they began to settle villages there around 8000 BC. From humble origins the settlements blossomed into the earliest largescale civilizations. The Mesopotamian legacy includes organized government and religion, strategic warfare, the base six method of telling time we still use today, and literature.
Their demise finally came in 539 BC when Babylon fell at the hands of the Achaemenid Empire, marking the end of thousands of years of innovation and cultural growth.
From Tiny Villages to Mighty Cities
There are few moments in human history which mark significant points in our physical, behavioral, and cultural evolution – walking upright, learning to use and create fire, making tools, and beginning to talk are some of the earliest milestones on our journey, but one of the pivotal leaps our ancestors made was from an unstable life as nomadic hunter gatherers to settlers with permanent residences.
Restored ruins in ancient Babylon, Mesopotamia. ( juerpa68 / Adobe Stock)
The conditions in the region were the perfect melting pot for this change. The number and kinds of animals in Mesopotamia meant that people did not have to follow herds of steppe animals as they migrated. The cereals, grains, and legumes in the fertile crescent could be harvested in enough numbers that they could be stored to provide sustenance over the harsh winter months.
This lifestyle both required and enabled the building of more permanent structures. Caches to store grains and shelter for domesticated animals were needed, and housing followed suit.
As animals and crops were domesticated, harvests grew and the number of people that could be supported also increased. Villages joined or expanded naturally and over time they grew into cities .
Mesopotamia was not the first society with a distinct culture. The people of the European Upper Palaeolithic produced exquisite artwork such as painted caves, carved Venus figurines , and personal ornamentation such as pierced ivory beads. With extra time on their hands, the culture and skills in Mesopotamia were able to develop further than ever before, reaching new heights.
While the Venus figurines of the European Upper Palaeolithic are relatively simplistic, statues and carvings produced in Mesopotamia were elaborate and exquisitely detailed. A collection of around 27 statues depicting Gudea, a ruler of an ancient Mesopotamian city, has been found in the south of the region.
Gudea a ruler of an ancient Mesopotamian city. (Jastrow / Public Domain )
They are realistic representations of a real person, with details such as the draped fabric of his outfit showing the skill of Mesopotamian carvers. Mesopotamia art is compared to that of Ancient Egypt for its intricacies and grandeur, with beautifully carved Cylinder Seals and the Uruk vase being just two examples of the art people were exposed to on a daily basis.
The original Uruk Vase dated to 3200–3000 BC from Mesopotamia. ( पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
While the Sumerian culture was predominant, there was simple artwork in homes and people could adorn themselves with jewelry. After Mesopotamia was conquered by the Assyrians it became massively wealthy. Large scale public artworks were created, and they were known in particular for carved stone reliefs depicting scenes from wars or hunting. Although many of these have been lost, there are several installed at the British Museum and they are impressive to behold even today.
As populations grew, there was a need for stronger leadership. People were needed to protect and distribute stored food and supplies, to determine and enforce laws, to organize labor, to represent their people when trading with other cities, and more.
It was initially the job of priests, who were influential figures in society due to the importance of religion. Priests were the people who mediated between the world of mortals and the gods, who could help protect their livestock and ensure a successful harvest . As the need for governing grew, it was priests who filled the power vacuum.
Over time, the growing cities needed further organization and secular leaders joined the priests in governing the city, and in particularly the division of labor. The main secular leader was called a lugal and his role eventually became that of a monarch with a great deal of power and influence.
Mesopotamia evolved into city-states under the Sumerians. Each city was ruled by its own king, although they all co-operated. They needed a complex system of government to help manage inter-city affairs, taxes, and scribes to help things run smoothly and cohesively.
Mesopotamians Created Cuneiform
Governing and advancing such a complex network of cities and making trade deals across long distances meant another great leap was made – it was just the catalyst needed for the invention of writing.
Mesopotamians had their own special writing form called cuneiform which was first used around 4000 BC by the Sumerians. The name means ‘wedge shaped’ which comes from the distinctive shape of the symbols, which are pressed into a slab of clay using a stylus.
Mesopotamian relief 865-860 BC, showing cuneiform script. ( bennnn / Adobe Stock)
Although cuneiform was initially taught only to a few scribes, there is evidence that literacy was widespread in Mesopotamia after the rule of the Akkadian conqueror Sargon, when the use of cuneiform became commonplace. There was a public library in the city of Babylon and both men and women were taught to read and write.
Although many of the surviving cuneiform texts cover pragmatic subjects such as trade deals there are also works of fiction. The most famous of these is the Epic of Gilgamesh – a tale so incredible it has survived for thousands of years and is still read and enjoyed by many today.
The Akkadian Empire and Sargon the Great
Although early Mesopotamia was founded by the Sumerians, they were eventually conquered by the Akkadian Empire. The empire was founded by Sargon, a man who very little is known about. He believed himself to be the son of a temple priestess, though he did not know who his father was.
As well as conquering Mesopotamia, he was able to take over parts of Syria, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, and some people believe even Cyprus. He is considered to have founded the world’s first successful empire, as it lasted longer than one generation when he died in 2279 BC after a 56 year reign and was replaced by his son, Rimush.
After his death, Sargon was elevated to god-like status. He became known as Sargon the Great, and there were legends about his accomplishments and deeds.
Sargon the Great, ruler of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. (Dave LaFontaine / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The crown passed from Rimush to his brother Manishtusu and then to Manishtusu’s son, Naram-Sin. Naram-Sin died 110 years after his grandfather first ascended the throne, and his death marked the end of the first true dynastic empire which fell to the Amorites as a result of unrest and famine.
Under the Akkadians, Mesopotamia had achieved many significant things. There were roads built between cities, a postal system was implemented as a result of greater levels of literacy and ties between cities, and there were improvements in farming techniques.
Riches were regained, rebellions were crushed, and spectacular buildings like the Ishtar Temple in Ninevah were constructed. The Akkadians helped push Mesopotamian culture from interesting to legendary.
Mesopotamian Law - An Eye for an Eye and Amorite Rule
Another thing Mesopotamia established was codes of law. The Amorite king Hammurabi officially instigated his Code of Law in 1772 BC. The laws were designed to encompass all the people in Mesopotamia. They were so varied in their lifestyles and beliefs that it was crucial the law code was simple, specific, and easy to interpret. The same laws had to be understood and followed by housewives in large well off cities as well as farmers toiling in villages.
The most famous of the laws in Hammurabi’s codes is the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ which was at the time a literal law, designed to prevent physical fighting. Anyone who injured another person in a fight would be disfigured or even killed for their crime.
People from different parts of Mesopotamia had been fighting among themselves for hundreds of years, and the law was also intended to put an end to the blood feuds which were causing problems in some parts of Mesopotamia. Although the punishments in the Code of Law seem barbaric, Hammurabi also established the principle that a person was innocent until proven guilty.
The Assyrian Empire
The Assyrian Empire is considered by many historians and archaeologists to be the greatest of the Mesopotamian empires. It was massive, bureaucratically efficient, and dominant on the battlefield.
It had its roots in northern Mesopotamia, in the city of Ashur. Ruins unearthed at the site suggest the city was founded in around 1900 BC, but the location was probably inhabited for a long time before this. The city was a thriving center of trade and the wealth accumulated meant the city was a powerful force and able to expand.
The ancient city of Ashur in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. (Eric00000007 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Assyrian rule lasted hundreds of years, with sporadic interruptions by other dynasties. And yet the influence and power held by the Assyrians and the city of Ashur meant it was able to keep reclaiming power.
The final Assyrian rule over Mesopotamia is now known as the Neo-Assyrian era. It marked the transition from Bronze Age to Iron Age in Mesopotamia, and the Assyrians utilized new technologies such as iron weapons, giving them a massive advantage in combat against people who were still equipped with inferior bronze.
Their iron weapons and well-trained troops made them almost impossible to defeat and the empire began to spread further. They used war chariots and siege machines and used tactics such as ladders to scale fortified city walls.
But they were more than warmongers and conquerors. Their willingness to include aspects of the cultures they were invading meant their artwork, medicinal practices, and education were all extremely advanced. The Assyrian king Sennacherib moved the capital of Mesopotamia to Nineveh and built an extravagant palace with gardens that were likely the Hanging Gardens of legend.
Ancient Mesopotamia Assyrian sculpture painting. ( Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock)
Sennacherib’s grandson was Ashurbanipal, the last of the mighty Assyrian kings. His kingdom was so rich that artisans created incredible artifacts and ornamentation. Ashurbanipal himself was a ruthless leader, but a very intelligent man who amassed a vast library of cuneiform texts. But Ashurbanipal’s rule ended after 42 long years as cities began to rebel against the high taxes required to keep such a large empire running.
The Religious World of Mesopotamia
With such a rich history and mix of cultures over the years, the Mesopotamian world was a truly fascinating one. The importance of religion at the roots of the empire never lost their significance and religion was at the heart of Mesopotamian life. They may have originally believed the will of the gods meant the success or failure of a harvest or hunt, but this evolved into a belief the gods had a hand in absolutely every aspect of life.
They worshipped a massive pantheon of gods , with thousands of minor deities and many major gods and goddesses. Every city had its own patron god and every situation had a god that could be called upon.
Stepped pyramid like buildings called ziggurats were built in cities to house the patron gods. They were topped with a shrine or alter which was only accessible to priests and religious officials.
Ancient ziggurat designed to house the gods of Mesopotamia. (GDK / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The priests and priestesses of Mesopotamia retained the power they had held for thousands of years, and they were viewed in the same regard as kings. Religion played such an important part in the lives of Mesopotamians that they considered the role of these people awe inspiring.
They were the custodians of the temples and ziggurats and the fate of a city was dependent on the priests and priestesses appeasing the gods. As in many early cultures, they also served as healers and offered both practical and spiritual assistance.
Mesopotamia was truly amazing for countless reasons. From the advances in technology to introducing a complex writing system and a culture spanning thousands of years. It still fascinates many people today - the ruins and artifacts that have survived for so long are both beautiful and historically interesting, appealing to a wide audience – and everything they achieved shows just how important the switch from hunting and gathering to farming was to the future human race.
Top image: Mesopotamian relief of Assyrian warriors. Credit: kmiragaya / Adobe Stock
By Sarah P Young
Updated on January 14, 2021.
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