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Ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq), one of the world’s longest (almost three thousand years old) and influential civilizations, remains the most concentrated archaeological site on Earth, a fact that provoked outcry from researchers at the outset of the 1991 bombing of the Persian Gulf known as Operation Desert Storm. Throughout the history of Mesopotamia, its people interacted vigorously with their neighbors, warring, trading, migrating, and sharing ideas.
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Mesopotamia, the ancient name for the land that is now Iraq, flourished as what was recognizably the same civilization for almost three thousand years, from 3200 BCE, when the people of the region invented a system of writing and the first cities arose, to 330 BCE, when the Persian Achaemenid Empire was conquered by the Greeks. Throughout those centuries, the people of Mesopotamia used the same writing system, worshiped the same gods, lived in the same cities, and traded the same types of goods. Mesopotamia was where some of the most important innovations in human history occurred first: cities, the wheel, the plow, written law, irrigation agriculture, mathematics, and imperial government. Although peoples elsewhere in the world developed many of these innovations at other times, Mesopotamia left an impressive legacy for the histories of Europe and Western Asia.
Mesopotamia was also a center for trade and for contact between cultures. Artifacts from prehistoric sites reflect the fact that long-distance trade was taking place long before anyone could record the transactions. Throughout the history of Mesopotamia, its people interacted vigorously with their neighbors, warring, trading, migrating, and sharing ideas.
Mesopotamia had many names during the height of its civilization, but Mesopotamia was not one of them. The ancient Greeks named the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers “the land between the rivers” (meso = between, potamia = rivers), and the name has stuck. In the third and early second millennia BCE, there was no name for the region as a whole. The southernmost part, the area closest to the Persian Gulf, was called Sumer. Slightly to the north of Sumer, where the Tigris and Euphrates flow closest together, was the land of Akkad. Later, when these two lands were united under a single government, they came to be thought of as one state, which we call Babylonia. North of Babylonia on the Tigris was a land that had a deep historic connection with Babylonia. It was called Ashur, or Assyria, in our modern terminology. But rarely during ancient history was the land of Mesopotamia a political whole.
Northern Mesopotamia, the region that became known as Assyria, is a land of rolling hills that are green and covered with wildflowers in the spring but dry and brown in the summer. Southern Mesopotamia— Babylonia—is flat, hot, and dry. It would be an inhospitable desert if it were not for the two rivers that flow through it. The Tigris, the eastern of the two, is fast moving and often dangerous, whereas the Euphrates is a gentler river surrounded by rich silty soil. The earliest settlers in southern Mesopotamia, arriving around 5000 BCE, chose to live on the banks of the Euphrates, as did most people who lived in the south in ancient times.
Early communities were small, and their inhabitants probably survived by fishing, hunting gazelles and birds, and gathering plants, along with practicing small-scale agriculture. Agriculture had already developed in the foothills to the northwest of Mesopotamia, in Syria, and was brought to the south by settlers, who introduced domesticated grains—wheat and barley—and animals, such as goats, sheep, oxen, and pigs. The village fields might have been located in old marshlands, still wet enough to support agriculture without additional watering, or the villagers might have watered their fields using simple irrigation ditches.
Over time, the communities began to grow, requiring larger irrigation ditches and more cooperation between families in order to feed the population. From earliest times the Mesopotamians who occupied these communities seem to have understood the importance of irrigation technology. They could not allow the Euphrates to overflow its banks, for fear of the river moving to a different location, perhaps miles from their town, when the flood receded. The annual flood also came at an awkward time in the agricultural calendar and might destroy new plants if allowed to cover the fields. So the southern Mesopotamians built up artificial levees along the riverbanks, and they dug canals and reservoirs to cope with the floodwaters. Although archaeologists have found evidence of a few devastating floods in Mesopotamian prehistory, by historic times the annual floods seem to have been brought under control and rarely presented a danger to the people or their communities.
By 3200 BCE the landscape had changed dramatically in southern Mesopotamia. Up and down the banks of the Euphrates were big cities, each one home to 10,000–25,000 people, the first cities on Earth. Each had a big temple complex in the center, surrounded by mud brick houses built in rows along narrow streets. Around the cities were canals and irrigation ditches, bringing river water to long, rectangular fields of wheat and barley. Gardens of palm trees spread along the levees of the river. Most city residents were farmers who went out to work their fields during the day, but some residents engaged in specialized professions; these included metal workers, potters, textile weavers, priests, and traders. This was the time when some people began to become rich while others fell into debt and poverty.
This period, known as the Uruk period, also witnessed the invention of the wheel, the plow, and the cylinder seal for marking property. With the invention of metallurgy, copper bowls and, later, bronze weapons and tools were forged.
Someone must have been in charge of the individual cities, though archaeologists are unsure who. Some sculptures from the Uruk period feature men who wore long beards and broad belts. These must have been important individuals to have warranted having their portraits sculpted. It is possible, since temples dominated the cities, that these were priest-rulers.
The cities of the south were certainly in contact with one another, but they also had connections with other cities at a great distance, in Syria to the northwest and Assyria to the north. Indeed, the settlements of the Uruk period seem to have been colonies established by southern cities as centers for an extensive trade network. The styles of architecture and pottery in the colonial outposts are almost identical to those in the south and contrast dramatically with the material culture in surrounding towns and villages.
One of the most important innovations of the Uruk period was the invention of writing. The first signs were pictures, drawn carefully on clay tablets, but the pictures soon became simpler and unrecognizable as objects. The signs were drawn with straight lines, impressed by a stylus with a distinctive end that resulted in small wedges at the end of each line. These wedges give the script its modern name, cuneiform, from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge.” Some of the cuneiform signs stood for whole words, but most were phonetic symbols that represented the sounds of the language.
Around 2900 BCE the first kings took power in Sumer and in Akkad to the north, marking the beginning of the early dynastic period of Mesopotamian history. Each of the major cities had its own king, and each city-state was also home to a god. The major temple in each city was where the city god and the god’s spouse were believed to live. For example, the city of Nippur was the residence of the king of the gods, Enlil. The city of Ur was home to the moon god, Nanna. The people of Sumer and Akkad believed in all these gods, but had a special connection with the god of their own city, by whom the king of the city claimed to have been chosen by the god to rule.
Throughout the early dynastic period, city-states warred with one another, sometimes forming leagues, sometimes forced to submit to rule by another city. But it was not until the twenty-fourth century BCE that the entire region was brought under the rule of a single government. Sargon of Akkad (reigned c. 2334–2279 BCE) forged the first empire to include people of different nationalities. He dominated the Sumerian-speaking peoples of the south, the Akkadian- speaking peoples of the center, and the Eblaiteand Hurrian-speaking peoples of the northwest. He claimed to have conquered from the Upper Sea (the Mediterranean) to the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf). Sargon also boasted that he sponsored trade on a large scale, welcoming ships from as far away as Dilmun (Bahrain), Magan (Oman), and Meluhha (the Indus Valley) to his ports. Archaeological evidence supports this claim, as objects from these regions have indeed been found in Mesopotamia, and Mesopotamian artifacts have been found in lands bordering the Persian Gulf and in the Indus Valley.
Sargon’s religious innovations included making his daughter, Enheduanna, the high priestess of the mood god at Ur. She was first of many royal women to hold this powerful position, and was also the author of many hymns to the gods.
Sargon’s native language of Akkadian was used for the first time in written documents, but it had long been spoken throughout Mesopotamia and was gradually replacing Sumerian as the spoken language of the people, even in the south. Akkadian is a Semitic language, related to modern-day Hebrew and Arabic.
Third Dynasty of Ur
Sargon’s great empire was maintained and even enlarged under the rule of his grandson, Naram-Sin (c. 2254–c. 2218 BCE), but it collapsed under an invasion around 2150 BCE. The invaders were Gutians from the mountains to the east, whom the Mesopotamians viewed as only partly human—their language sounded to Mesopotamian ears like dogs barking.
It was not until 2112 BCE that the land was once again united, this time under the third dynasty of kings from the southern city of Ur. This era is often known as the Ur III period. Unlike Sargon, the Ur III kings did not emphasize their military conquests. Instead, they focused on peaceful, organizational developments. They standardized weights and measures; introduced a staggeringly complicated bureaucracy, in which, for example, every animal dedicated to a temple was recorded in daily and monthly records; built the first ziggurats (monumental stepped towers associated with temples to the gods); and tried to revive Sumerian as the language of literature and administration. Thanks to their scribes, many of the classics of Sumerian storytelling were recorded and kept for future generations.
Shulgi, an Ur III king whose long reign lasted from 2094 to 2047 BCE, also created the first written set of laws. This achievement has often been credited to his father, King Ur-Nammu (reigned 2112–2095), but Shulgi is now thought to have been the one responsible. Only thirty-seven of the laws survive; but this is enough to show that most crimes were punishable by fines and that a court system was already in effect.
The kings of the Ur III period seem to have had less contact with the lands of Magan and Meluhha than did the Akkadian kings, but they had diplomatic ties with kings in Elam, in what is now eastern Iraq and western Iran. In fact, several princesses of Ur were married to kings and princes of Elam in dynastic marriages that aimed to strengthen ties between the states.
Old Babylonian Period
Mesopotamia was constantly subject to immigration as people from neighboring lands moved to the river valley, settled, and adopted Mesopotamian ways. The valley was not protected from the outside by any natural barrier, or even any clear political border, and its agricultural wealth must have made it a magnet for people from areas with less fertile soil. One such people were the Amorites, who came from somewhere to the west of Mesopotamia, though historians are not certain where. They began as immigrants, but ended up, around 2000 BCE, as invaders, taking over control of Mesopotamia from the weakened kings of the third dynasty of Ur. Amorite dynasties conquered and then ruled some major cities and some lesser-known ones. One of the latter was Babylon, which only became an important place under its Amorite kings. The kings of Babylon (Hammurabi being perhaps the most notable) had a particularly stable dynasty, with son taking over from father on the throne for at least seven generations, and perhaps as many as eleven.
Late Bronze Age
In 1595 BCE Babylon was attacked and sacked by an army from Hatti (modern Turkey). The Hittites, as the people of Hatti were called, were relatively new to power, and it was two centuries before they became a major international force, but their raid into Mesopotamia had a devastating impact on the Babylonians. The land fell into a dark age, during which few cuneiform documents were written. By 1500 BCE a new immigrant dynasty was on the throne—the Kassites. Like the Amorites before them, they adopted Mesopotamian gods and Mesopotamian dress. They used Mesopotamian languages (Sumerian and Akkadian) in their administration and inscriptions, and only used their native language to write their personal names (though they may well still have spoken in Kassite). The Kassites oversaw four centuries of peace and prosperity during the late Bronze Age, when Babylonia was in close diplomatic and economic contact with the other great powers of the region: Egypt, Hatti, and Mittani (a state that encompassed Syria and the northern part of Mesopotamia that became Assyria).
The kings of these lands married one another’s daughters, sent one another luxury gifts, and kept ambassadors and messengers busy traveling for months between one another’s courts with letters and news. The lands also periodically went to war, though Babylonia seems for the most part to have stayed out of military conflicts.
Mittani suffered a setback when its eastern half, Assyria, asserted its independence in the fourteenth century BCE. By 1250, Mittani was gone, swallowed up by the imperial ambitions of its neighbors. By around 1100 BCE, all the great powers had fallen into decline, even the upstart Assyria. Many theories have been put forward to account for this disaster at the end of the Bronze Age, including climate change, invasion, internal revolt, even epidemic disease, but whatever the cause, the outcome was a massive change in Near Eastern political and economic structures. Small kingdoms became the rule of the day, and for over a century scribes seem to have been writing nothing at all (though someone was keeping the cuneiform tradition alive somewhere, because some centuries later cuneiform sources reappear, so we have almost no clue as to what was happening.
In the ninth century BCE Assyria began to reassert its dominance over northern Mesopotamia. Its kings were devoted to their state god, Ashur, and put great value on military prowess. They built up armies and sponsored the development of new military technologies (such as the siege machine and battering ram) that enabled them to expand the borders of their kingdom to the east, north, and south.
Like earlier Mesopotamian emperors, the kings of Assyria were masters of organization. They divided their empire into provinces, each ruled by a governor; they posted garrison troops in these provinces, ready to put down local rebellions, and they kept in close contact with even the most distant reaches of the empire. Hundreds of letters to and from the kings of Assyria have been excavated from their palaces, showing that the kings were kept well informed about even apparently trivial matters across their realm.
The Assyrian kings did not hesitate to use force to extract tribute from rebellious cities or to punish rebel leaders. They also deported whole populations across the empire in order to break up possible revolts and to settle tax-paying subjects in areas with agricultural potential. The huge wealth that flowed into Assyria from taxes and tribute was used to build spectacular palaces decorated with stone relief sculptures of the kings’ victories. Ashurbanipal (reigned 668–627 BCE) created a vast library of cuneiform documents, literary works copied from originals that he had scribes seek out in cities throughout Assyria and Babylonia. The study of astronomy, mathematics, and other sciences blossomed under the patronage of the kings of Assyria.
At its height, Assyria shared with Babylonia a common culture, a common written language (Akkadian, though Aramaic was increasingly the spoken language in both regions), a single writing system, and a shared belief system. Their economies were intertwined, and yet they were ambivalent about one another: sometimes they were at war, sometimes Assyria dominated Babylonia; sometimes they managed a fragile peace under separate governments.
In 612 BCE the Assyrian Empire fell to the combined forces of its neighbors to the south and the east—the Babylonians and the Medes. Its cities were sacked and burned, and Assyria never again became an important player on the world stage. For seventy-five years the center of Mesopotamian culture returned to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605–562 BCE) enlarged and beautified the city with a huge palace, an embellished ziggurat to Marduk, magnificent city walls, and gateways several stories high decorated with brilliant blue glazed bricks and sculpted lions and dragons. Later classical historians even credited him with building the hanging gardens of Babylon, though there is no evidence of them from his reign.
The Neo-Babylonian kings, like their Assyrian forebears, extracted tax and tribute from their empire, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to conquer Egypt. It was during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that Babylon conquered the kingdom of Judah and many Jews, including the king, were taken captive to Babylon. But the Neo-Babylonian kings fell victim to their neighbors the Persians, situated in what is now Iran, during the reign of Cyrus II (reigned 559–c. 529 BCE). The Persian Empire, which stretched from the Indus Valley to Egypt, lasted until 330 BCE, when it fell to Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, reigned 336–323 BCE).
The Akkadian and Sumerian tongues faded from use during Persian and Greek rule, but although the civilization was forgotten for many centuries, its great innovations lived on. The Canaanites and Israelites had taken on many of the legal ideas from Hammurabi’s laws, and from other Mesopotamian collections. These are reflected in the Biblical laws, which were never forgotten once they had been compiled. The Greeks learned mathematics and astronomy from the Mesopotamians and elaborated the sciences further. They also adopted Mesopotamian astrological ideas, military tactics, and artistic styles. It is from the Mesopotamians that we get the 24-hour day, the 60-minute hour, and the 60-second minute, and the 360-degree circle (their numerical system had a base of sixty). Our writing system is not directly descended from cuneiform, but the idea of writing down sounds, a concept common to both cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, inspired the creation of the alphabet. Even the very idea of urban living first developed on the banks of the Euphrates, as did many early experiments in how to govern. Mesopotamian civilization was one of the longest lasting and most influential in all of human history.
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