- Gilgamesh and Enheduanna
- Ziggurats and Religion
- The Cultures: Sumer, Akkadia, Babylonia, and Assyria
- Persian Control and After
Ancient Mesopotamia was a region of western Asia now often known as the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilization. It was among the earliest places where agriculture, cities, and empires arose, as well as the home of inventions like the wheel and writing (though other areas of the world, such as China and Egypt, independently produced many of these innovations). Located in the eastern Mediterranean in what is currently Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, Mesopotamia is famous for being nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. “Mesopotamia” actually means “between the rivers.” Its location was very important because the close proximity to water enabled civilization to flourish by using the fertile soil. That’s why we call it the Fertile Crescent!
The Mesopotamians were among the first people (if not the first) to domesticate animals, which means they trained and adapted wild animals for human use, and were among the first to switch from being hunter-gatherers to living primarily from agriculture and irrigation. Hunter-gatherers were nomadic people who, instead of settling down in one place, traveled around in search of food. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers made the land so fertile that people could begin to settle down in groups and grow food while raising animals. The development of agriculture directly led to trade, which proved to be very powerful, and to the creation of some of the world’s first cities.
Mesopotamia was rich with water and soil, which resulted in plentiful agriculture. Grains were commonly grown, as were flax, olive oil, and many types of fruit. The region received extremely varied rainfall over time, so the amount of crops changed drastically from year to year. Planning ahead for years of drought, these cultures introduced irrigation canals and other harvesting inventions to make farming more effective and reliable. They also had techniques for preserving food for the winter as well as for trade.
What we call “Mesopotamia” actually consisted of many civilizations and empires. The big four were Sumer, Akkadia, Babylonia, and Assyria. They shared some things, such as polytheistic religions and an emphasis on writing. But their main point of commonality is that they evolved and prospered in the same region. And the region certainly has a rich history–humans have lived in Mesopotamia since well before 10,000 BC! The fertile region allowed its people to have amazing access to food through agriculture. Compared to hunting and gathering, which was previously the main way that humans lived, this new agricultural form of living allowed for large quantities of people to live in stable cities. In these cities, the specialization of labor and relative abundance of resources led to revolutionary changes in culture and technology. The Mesopotamians invented some of the most fundamental technologies, such as the wheel and the sail. They created written languages (most notably using the cuneiform script) which they used to write some of humanity’s earliest works of literature, and they invented the concepts of hours, minutes, and seconds that we still use today. A grimmer development happened in 3200 BC when Sumer and Elam fought in the first recorded act of warfare, though there is evidence that humans engaged in war prior to recorded history.
Spirituality and religion were very important in ancient Mesopotamia, where until 3600 BC their leaders were priest-rulers (they switched to kings afterward). Mesopotamian religions include many hundreds of gods, some of which were widely worshipped and feared. Temples became some of the earliest schools and they were fundamental to cultural life. These temples included ziggurats, which were massive stepped towers that are widely seen as symbols of Mesopotamian culture. The oldest of the ziggurats that still stand today date back to the early third millennium BC.
The Mesopotamians were at the forefront of codified law, with the Code of Hammurabi formalizing the rules of society as early as 1754 BC.
Gilgamesh and Enheduanna
King Gilgamesh of Uruk is known today for being the hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This story is considered the oldest known great work of literature, written sometime between 2150 and 1400 BC. The real Gilgamesh, if he was real (historians do not know with certainty), would have lived sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC. In the epic, he is glorified as a demi-god with a goddess for a mother. The Epic of Gilgamesh explored themes that authors and philosophers continue to grapple with today, including the tension between the desire for immortality and the inevitability of death. The epic poem is thought to have influenced many foundational cultural texts, such as Homer’s poems and the Hebrew Bible. In the Epic, Gilgamesh embarks on a quest in search of immortality after struggling to accept the death of his good friend Enkidu. His search for immortality fails and he learns to accept the impermanence of life by living it fully.
The Akkadian Empire was also the home to the first known literary author–a high priestess, Enheduanna. Her written prayers and poetry drastically influenced developing religions.
Cuneiform writing was established from 3500 - 3000 BC by the Sumer Empire, and remained popular throughout the history of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. This is one of the earliest writing systems we know of! But it didn’t work the same way that writing works today, like when we use pens to put ink on paper. They instead drew shapes (pictographs and then phonograms) into moldable clay that hardened into slabs that are still legible today. The Sumerians likely used cuneiform to keep track of supplies in their temples. Over time, the writing evolved and became more complex. Assyrian King Ashurbanipal even had libraries which contained at least 30,000 tablets! As this shows, very complex texts were etched using cuneiform–which used grammar and could convey complex human topics, alongside describing government policies and doing accounting work. Nevertheless, it was very rare to be literate in the ancient world; writing was difficult to learn, and scribes (as well as students) were viewed with importance.
In AD 1872, The Epic of Gilgamesh became the first cuneiform work to be translated (from Akkadian). This was followed by the modern rediscovery of the poetry of Enheduanna (2285 - 2250 BC), amongst others. Interestingly, these translations uncovered many stories that were also told in the Bible, including the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. Mesopotamian literature heavily influenced not only the Bible, but also the writings of many other ancient civilizations. Yet cuneiform itself dwindled in usage by around AD 100.
Ziggurats and Religion
From 3000 BC through 2000 BC, stepped pyramids called ziggurats were built. Ziggurat means “raised area,” and these large structures were brick constructions that looked like pyramids with huge steps (and staircases) running up their sides. The ziggurats were temples, places to celebrate the different gods or goddesses. Many cities worshipped a ‘patron deity,’ and the ziggurat was the place of worship. These gods and goddesses were seen as crucial to everyday life. Ziggurats, too, were central to cultural life, though generally only priests could enter them. The high priests of these buildings held immense power, as they detailed how the god(s) would be worshipped: with prayers, altars, or even holy feasts. It was hoped that if the god or goddess was happy, that they’d bless the city with prosperity. The well-known Great Ziggurat at Ur was built in the 21st century BC and stretched over 100 feet in each direction.
Though the ruler Ur-Nammu (of Sumer) popularized ziggurats in 3000 BC, temples were constructed as far back as 4000 BC. New temples kept being built on top of each other, where many of the mud-brick foundations were ancient and became much bigger than ordinary houses. Then the ziggurats came and towered over all else. They remained the most iconic temples in the region until 300 BC, when ziggurats stopped being constructed.
The Cultures: Sumer, Akkadia, Babylonia, and Assyria
Mesopotamia was the home of a variety of cultures and empires through its long history. Here’s a quick summary of the main ones:
Sumer (around 5000 BC - 2334 BC)
The Sumer region in southern Mesopotamia was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was possibly the first ever human civilization! The Sumerians were the first people (or one of the first) to move from hunting and gathering to settling as a group and farming. To aid in farming and mass food production, they domesticated animals and developed irrigation structures and canals. The Sumerians embraced art and architecture–largely creating the foundations for both. From pottery and murals to metal structures and temples (such as the ziggurats), these new cities were glorious creations of early human society. In addition, they developed different trades like sculpting and sewing.
Their city Eridu (founded around 5400 BC) might be the oldest city in the world. By 4000 BC Sumer had grown to a number of city-states around the Mesopotamian area, including the great cities Uruk and Ur. These city-states would later go to war with each other, competing for power over the region. A few key rulers over the history of Sumer were King Gilgamesh (probably an actual person who was then legendized in the Epic of Gilgamesh), Kubaba (the only known female leader in Sumer), and Ur-Nammu (who built great architecture and created codes of law).
As we only have evidence of Sumerian writing (with cuneiform) from, at the earliest, 3500 BC, their history before that is unclear from the written record. A key legacy from the cuneiform script is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an epic poem often considered the world’s oldest work of great literature. It is thought to be loosely based on a real Sumer King Gilgamesh. In addition, Sumer developed the earliest-known written laws, around 2400 BC. Remember, we only have evidence of a small fraction of the immense amount of writing that Sumer produced, but their work was hugely influential in creating a model for future civilizations to follow. The Sumerian language was eventually replaced by the Akkadian language around 2000 BC, though cuneiform did live on in writing. Another interesting Sumerian ‘invention’ was in keeping track of time: the Sumerians decided that there would be sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day.
Akkadian Empire (2334 BC - 2154 BC)
The Akkadians were a distinct group of people from the Sumerians, and over time they came into conflict with each other. The Akkadians eventually won control of Mesopotamia. Centered on the city Akkad, this was potentially the first empire in history, formed under the leader Sargon of Akkad (2334 BC - 2279 BC). Sargon was a military leader who vastly expanded Mesopotamia’s geographic control and power. He also connected the various regions through trade, post, and roads, creating a cohesive empire. Historians aren’t entirely sure where Akkad was and only know about it because of written references.
Akkadia had a large influence on the development of language and writing. This was notable in the works of Sargon’s daughter, Enheduanna (2285 BC - 2250 BC). Enheduanna was a high priestess and the earliest poet whose name we know! She wrote various poems and hymns, mostly in worship of the goddess Inanna. On a broader scope, Sumerian and Akkadian languages became mixed throughout the period until, by 2000 BC, Akkadian overtook Sumerian as the major spoken language of the region. It is also possible that the Akkadian system of keeping track of kings’ reigns eventually became an early calendar.
Sargon was a stable Akkadian ruler, but few others were. The empire eventually collapsed in the 2100s BC following wars, rebellions, and invasions.
Babylonian Empire (1792 BC - 1750 BC)
The Babylonian Empire is well-remembered for their leader Hammurabi. King Hammurabi conquered lands to create the Babylonian Empire, including the capital city Babylon. Today, he is most known for his unprecedented law code. The ‘Code of Hammurabi’ was one of the first written sets of laws. Ultimately, the strong leadership of Hammurabi was the main thing holding the empire together, and Babylonia didn’t survive his death in 1750 BC. In its place remained smaller kingdoms, and the city of Babylon would go on to have a long and rich history. In 626 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was formed and would last through 539 BC. You can read more about that resurgence below.
Assyrian Empire (1750 BC - 934 BC)
Assyria was a huge empire that started in Ashur, Mesopotamia, and would spread from Egypt to modern-day Turkey. This growth from 1900 BC on was helped by their expanding trade routes–places like Karum Kanesh were trading and banking centers from which merchants would venture out. This financial prosperity helped fund all other aspects of the Assyrian Empire, which included forcing out the Amorite and Hatti people from the land. However, Babylonia in turn took power from Assyria. It was only when the Babylonian Empire fell in 1750 BC that Assyria could rise back up. But then the Mitanni people took over . . . then the Hittites . . . then Assyria again. All of which shows how Mesopotamian culture was constantly in flux, and how many leaders, people, and empires were vying for power.
Assyrian power was so precarious that the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari I judged that the best way to remain in charge was to make sure he was ruling over mainly Assyrians. This set off waves of huge deportations of non-Assyrians.
King Tiglath Pileser I (reigned from 1115 to 1076 BC) was highly important in expanding Assyria’s borders and culture. He created vast public works, established law codes, and stocked new libraries with cuneiform tablets. Temples were also built, which continued the spread of the Assyrian god Ashur (this would only increase in the latter era of the empire).
Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 BC - 609 BC)
Following civil wars, rebellions, and public unrest, Assyria bounced back with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It was in this period that the army reigned supreme–they increased scholarly and medicinal knowledge while expanding the empire through military excursions. There were a few particularly interesting rulers in this period. The regent Shammuramat stabilized the borders and the empire to pass it down to her son, King Adad Nirari III. Later on, King Tiglath Pileser III (745 BC - 727 BC) reformed wide expanses of the empire and completely ‘modernized’ the military, making it an extreme force to be reckoned with. He also switched the language from Akkadian to Aramaic. King Sennacherib (705 BC - 681 BC) further expanded the army as he looted villages and conquered lands, all while adding to Assyria’s cities and renown. He was especially known for creating wondrous gardens (one was even rumored to be the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, typically attributed to Babylon).
Assyria’s previous deportations in the early empire had been transformed into a vast conquering (or alliances and assimilations) of neighboring territories. For members of this expanding Assyria, their quality of life significantly increased with greater access to medicine, trade, and security. At the same time, religious freedom, women’s rights, and societal equality took a tailspin, with the culture becoming less tolerant in regard to these issues. Through these methods the Assyrian culture became more powerful than the others around them. Eventually, in the 620s BC, Assyria became too bloated for the empire to remain together–especially with enemies knocking at their border. The main Assyrian cities of Ashur and Nineveh were raided and destroyed in 612 BC, which was the final straw for this powerful empire.
Neo-Babylonian Empire (626 BC - 539 BC)
Taking off where the much earlier King Hammurabi left it, the Neo-Babylonian Empire saw a new rise of–you guessed it–Babylonia. These new leaders set out to relive the perceived cultural greatness of the previous Babylonian Empire while expanding with their own interpretation of it.
Amidst this rich civilization lay a turbulent and dark struggle between religions. It was in Babylon that King Nebuchadnezzar II forcibly kept thousands of Jews after he’d captured them from Jerusalem. They were only freed when the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell.
Straying from concrete history, stories of Babylonia were present in religious texts, but keep in mind that these are legends rather than historical facts. The Bible mentions the Tower of Babel, supposedly in Babylon. In the story, the tower had been meant to be so high as to reach the heavens. God was unamused–so unamused that he demolished the tower and scattered humanity all across the Earth! The tower in the story might have been based on a real structure, though this is unknown. Another possibly dubious historical tale is known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, this legendary flora has entranced minds for eons … but we have no idea if it even existed. To be fair, gorgeous flowers and trees wouldn’t exactly leave archaeological evidence! Like the first Babylonian Empire, Neo-Babylonia didn’t last long. They were conquered by Persia in 539 BC, thereby ending the ancient history of independent Mesopotamia.
Persian Control and After
While the Neo-Babylonian Empire was a center of learning and a point of unity for the diverse Mesopotamian cultures, it was not to last. There had been in-fighting between the civilizations for years, but the Persian Empire ultimately took over Babylon in 539 BC. What followed was a swift decline of Mesopotamian culture (apart from Alexander the Great’s 331 BC conquering of Persia and his attempt to restore Babylon to its former influence). The region was reconquered by empire after empire, including the Seleucid Dynasty and the Parthian Empire. The fall of Mesopotamian unity was cemented with the Roman conquest in AD 116 and later a takeover by Muslim armies in AD 651, which led to the decline of the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.
Today, what remains of these ancient Mesopotamian civilizations by the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, is merely ruins. The promise of the Fertile Crescent has dried up into deserts. Yet from their groundbreaking advances in agriculture, technology, religion, and literature, the legacy of Mesopotamia lives on.