Civilization Overview: Ancient Mesopotamia
Ancient Mesopotamia was the earliest civilization in world history, and the longest lasting. It was probably also the most influential, as all later western civilizations were built on foundations it laid.
Mesopotamia is one of the cradles of human civilization. Here, the earliest cities in world history appeared, about 3500 BC.
"Mesopotamia" is a Greek word meaning, "Land between the Rivers". The region is a vast, dry plain through which two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, flow. These rivers rise in mountain ranges to the north before flowing through Mesopotamia to the sea. As they approach the sea, the land becomes marshy, with lagoons, mud flats, and reed banks. Today, the rivers unite before they empty into the Persian Gulf, but in ancient times the sea came much further inland, and they flowed into it as two separate streams.
The land is too dry to grow many crops on. As a result, much of it has been - and is still - home to herders of sheep and goat. These nomads move from the river pastures in the summer to the desert fringes in the winter, which get some rain at this time of year. At various times they have had a large impact on Mesopotamian history.
Near the rivers themselves, the soil is extremely fertile. It is made up of rich mud brought down by the rivers from the mountains, and deposited over a wide area during the spring floods. When watered by means of irrigation channels, it makes some of the best farmland in the world.
The marshy land near the sea also makes very productive farmland, once it had been drained. Here, the diet is enriched by the plentiful supply of fish to had from the lagoons and ponds.
It is this geography which gave rise to the earliest civilization in world history. Agriculture is only possible in the dry climate of Mesopotamia by means of irrigation. With irrigation, however, farming is very productive indeed. A dense population grew up here along the Tigris and Euphrates and their branches in the centuries after 5000 BC. By 3500 BC, cities had appeared. The surplus food grown in this fertile landscape enabled the farming societies to feed a class of people who did not need to devote their lives to agriculture. These were the craftsmen, priests, scribes, administrators, rulers and soldiers who made civilization possible.
At the time when civilization first arose in Mesopotamia, the population was divided into two distinct groups: those who spoke Sumerian (a language unrelated to any modern language), and those who spoke Semitic dialects (related to modern Arabic and Hebrew). It was the Sumerian-speakers who lived near the great rivers, and it was they who built the first cities. Their language therefore became the first to be written down in world history.
The first script to be used was cuneiform, developed at the time of the early cities in the centuries after 3500 BC. Cuneiform ("wedge-shaped" writing) was written on clay tablets. with triangular-tipped stylus tools being pressed onto wet clay.
Cuneiform symbols probably originated as pictograms, though by 3000 BC they had already become highly stylized. There were thousands of these symbols, and learning to write in cuneiform was a long and rigorous process.
In the centuries after 2000 BC, Sumerian increasingly fell out of everyday use. In its place, a succession of Semitic dialects became the dominant language of the region: Akkadian, Aramaic and Aramean. The waxing and waning of these languages reflected population movements within Mesopotamia, as well as the rise and fall of ruling dynasties to which they gave rise. For a while, Sumerian retained importance as the language of administration, religion and high culture, but gradually it became confined to the courtyards of the temples - much like Latin was used in the monasteries of Medieval Europe long after the rest of society had abandoned it.
In the first millennium, the cuneiform script fell out of use, apart from in the temples. It was replaced by the alphabetical Aramean script. This was far easier to learn than cuneiform, and literacy became much more widespread. Aramean became the international medium of communication in the region, and well beyond.
Politically, the early Sumerian cities each formed its own city-state, composed of the city itself and the farmland for several miles around. These city-states were fiercely independent from one another, and warfare between them was frequent.
The king was held to be the earthly representative of the patron god of the city. To disobey him was to disobey the god. One of the chief roles of the king was as high priest of the patron god. He was seen as the shepherd of his people, and his duty was to provide justice and order, to protect property, and of course to defend the people from attack.
From time to time, one of these city-states would succeed in conquering its neighbours. Powerful and extensive states would thus be formed, which endured for a generation or two. However, holding such conquests together was hard, in the face of invasions from the surrounding mountains or deserts, or from rebellions from within. Mesopotamia would soon fall back into its normal patchwork of small states.
As time went by, however, a simpler pattern of larger states gradually evolved. From the early 2nd millennium, southern Mesopotamia was usually unified under the control of various dynasties ruling from the large city of Babylon. As a result, this region came to be called Babylonia. Some time later, northern Mesopotamia came to be dominated by the Assyrians.
In the first millennium BC, Mesopotamian civilization pioneered the first true multinational empires in world history. The Assyrian empire was the earliest of these. Such was the ferocity of its rule - using, amongst other instruments of policy, the uprooting of entire populations and settling them hundreds of miles away - that it seems to have successfully weakened local feelings of independence. This paved the way for other empires to follow in its wake: first, Babylon, under its famous king Nebuchadnezzar, and then the huge Persian empire, which ruled a realm far wider than Mesopotamia. In fact, the rise of the Persian empire marked the end of Mesopotamian self-rule in the Ancient World; from now on it would be governed by foreigners.
One of the governing innovations which the Assyrians introduced was the division of their empire into provinces. Previously, defeated kings had tended to keep their thrones, so long as they were loyal to the conqueror. If the king was not to be trusted, his place would be taken by a rival likely to be more loyal. However, such subordinate kings could never be truly trusted. The Assyrians therefore developed the practice of appointing one of their own officials as governors of a province. He had the job of seeing that the province remained peaceful; of raising taxes and forwarding them to the capital; of making sure the province met its military obligations, and so on. The provincial system thus established was taken over by the Babylonian empire, then by the Persians. From them it was adopted by Alexander the Great and his successors, and then by the Romans and all later empires.
One of the major contributions of ancient Mesopotamia to government practice was the development of written law codes. The most famous of these is the Code of Hammurabi, written about 1780 BC. However, this code drew on earlier codes going back to the Sumerian city-states of the 3rd millennium BC.
Warfare was endemic in early Mesopotamian society, as cities quarrelled over land and water rights. The Sumerian city-states organized the first true armies (as opposed to warrior bands) in history. Their elite soldiers were armed with bronze armour and weapons, and less-well armed but more mobile troops were deployed slings and bows and arrows.
In the 2nd millennium BC, Mesopotamian armies adopted a new piece of military technology, the horse-drawn chariot. This was an innovation imported from the nomads of the steppes to the north.
Ancient Mesopotamian warfare reached its peak with the great empires of the first millennium. Military state that it was, Assyria was the pioneer of a new era of large-scale warfare. By then, iron was coming into common use in weaponry and armour, and Assyria was the first state to develop a true standing army, manned by full-time professional soldiers. Siege warfare was developed, and for the first time incorporated such engines of war as battering rams, mining and even siege towers. The Assyrians also introduced mounted cavalry on a large scale, demoting chariots to a secondary role.
The empires of Babylon and Persia adopted Assyrian military practices en masse.
Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic; more than 2,000 gods and goddesses have been identified. The chief of the gods varied from period to period. For the Sumerians, it was Enlin, the Sky God. For the Babylonians, it was Marduk. For the Assyrians, Ashur was the supreme god. Other notable gods and goddesses were Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility, Tiamat, god of the sea and chaos, and Sin, the moon god.
Mesopotamian cosmology viewed the world as a flat disc, with a canopy of air above, and beyond that, surrounding water above and below. The universe was held to have come out of this water.
The Mesopotamians had a rich store of myths and legends. The most famous of these today is the epic of Gilgamesh, due to the fact that it contains a legend of the flood which has various similarities with (but also glaring differences to) the Biblical account of Noah's Ark.
The Mesopotamians grew a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, onions, grapes, turnips, and apples. They kept cattle,sheep and goats; they made beer and wine.
The rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and their branches, made life possible for the Mesopotamians. However, they could be wild rivers, and floods were frequent. The Mesopotamians were the first people to attempt to control water on a large scale by the use of an integrated system of dams, reservoirs, canals, drainage channels and aqueducts. Maintaining, repairing and extending this system was seen as one of the prime duties of a king. The water control system was built up generation by generation, covering an ever wider area and involving an ever denser network of waterways.
As a result of the large and concentrated population which grew up in Mesopotamia, farming was carried out by peasants rather than by slaves (mass slavery tends to be a response to a shortage of labour). In early times these were bound to the land as serfs; later, most became free farmers, able to buy and sell their plots.
The plain of Mesopotamia was created in comparatively recent times (from an geological point of view) by the mud brought down by the rivers. This means that the region is very short of useful minerals such as stone for building, precious metals and timber.
This had the effect of stimulating trade with neighbouring regions, and beyond. Early in Mesopotamia's history food surpluses and craft goods were exchanged for mineral resources. Later, Mesopotamian merchants ventured further afield, with trading contacts being developed with peoples in Syria and Asia Minor in the west, and in Iran and the Indus civilization, in the east.
With the coming of the Bronze Age, in about 3000 BC, an added incentive to trade was the desire to acquire the copper and tin needed to make this valuable metal. Once Mesopotamian states started to equip their soldiers with bronze armour and weapons, this hunger intensified. However, these minerals are only found in widely scattered locations, so the search for them involved developing long distance trade routes.
The Bronze Age came to an end in the centuries after 1000 BC; Mesopotamian trade, however, continued to expand. By this date urban civilizations had become established - or were now appearing - in north Africa, southern Europe, Asia Minor, Syria and the Levant, Arabia, Iran and India. Their increasing demand for sophisticated and exotic trade goods stimulated international commerce. The only land through which all trade routes could cross from Europe to Asia, and from Africa to Asia, was Mesopotamia. Major long-distance trade routes now traversed the region.
Furthermore, the first millennium BC saw the rise of great empires, with Mesopotamia at their heart. These fostered trade (probably unintentionally) by building roads for military purposes, and encouraging (again unintentionally) the spread of an international language throughout the region, Aramean.
Numerous technological advances can be attributed to the Mesopotamians: irrigation, the plough, the sail, clay bricks, the potters wheel, metal-working (including metal armour and weaponry), writing, accounting, filing, glass and lamp making, weaving and much more.
The Mesopotamians developed mathematics to a more advanced level than any contemporary people, and in so doing laid many of the foundations for modern mathematics. They developed a number system based on base 60, which has given us the 60-minute hour, the 24-hour day, and the 360-degree circle. The Sumerian calendar was based on the seven-day week. They developed theorems on how to measure the area of several shapes and solids, and came close to an accrurate measure of the circumference of circles.
A major branch of Mesopotamian science was astronomy. Mesopotamian priests could predict eclipses and solstices, and worked out a 12-month calendar based on the cycles of the moon. Mesopotamian astronomical knowledge was later to have a major influence on Greek astronomy.
As with most pre-modern cultures, astronomy and astrology were inextricably bound together: the movement of the heavenly bodies were seen as having a direct influence on the affairs of men. This was a powerful stimulus for priests to work out as exactly as they could the movement of the planets and stars.
Mesopotamian medicine is above all known from a text called the Diagnostic Handbook, dated to 11th century BC Babylon. This shows that Mesopotamian doctors had developed rational techniques of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and prescriptions. Diagnosis and prognosis were based on rules of empirical observation and logical reasoning (as in modern medicine).
Doctors used bandages, creams and pills in their treatments. As in all ancient societies, medicine and religion went hand in hand, and exorcism was also regularly resorted to.
A large amount of ancient Mesopotamian literature has come down to us, much of it found in royal libraries dating from Assyria and late Babylonian times. The literature is written in cuneiform script, and contains prayers, hymns, myths, epic poetry, collections of proverbs, works on theology, philosophy, politics and astrology, books of spells, historical records and many other kinds of texts.
The main forms of Mesopotamian art which have come down to us are sculptured figures in stone and clay. Few paintings have survived, though most sculpture was also painted.
Mesopotamian sculpture comes in all sizes, and appears in the round or as reliefs. It often depicts animals, such as goats, rams, bulls and lions, as well as mythical creatures such as lions and bulls with men's heads. Others show gods and goddesses, as well as priests and worshippers. Most human figures from the early period have large, staring eyes, and, on men, long beards. As time goes by the figures become increasingly realistic. Under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, sculpture takes on a colossal form, with giant statues guarding the royal palaces.
On a smaller scale, cylinder seals come from all periods of Mesopotamian history. many are beautifully executed, with highly complex and sophisticated designs.
Temples: Mesopotamian temples were designed to a rectangular plan. Early examples were constructed atop a small earthen platform; as time went by, these platforms became taller and taller, giving rise to the classic Mesopotamian ziggurat.
Ziggurats probably represented the sacred mountain where gods and men could meet. They were brick-built temple-mounds, taking the form of a layered platform. They resembled step pyramids with a flat roof, on which a shrine would be built. Access to this shrine was by a broad staircase or ramp.
Surrounding the central temple building was a complex of ceremonial courtyards, shrines, burial chambers for the priests and priestesses, ceremonial banqueting halls, along with workshops, storehouse and administrative buildings, as temples were main centres of economic and administrative activity in ancient Mesopotamia.
Palaces: The palaces of even the early Mesopotamian rulers were large and lavishly decorated. Along with the royal family and its domestic servants, these complexes housed craftsmen's workshops, food storehouses, ceremonial courtyards and shrines.
In later Mesopotamian history, the palaces of the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs were truly awe-inspiring. Like their predecessors, they were laid out around a series of large and small courtyards. The largest of these led off to the throne room, of a size and majesty designed to stun visitors. The palace walls were decorated with carved stone slabs on which pictorial and textual depictions of cultural scenes or the the Kings' deeds. Gates and important passageways were flanked with massive stone sculptures of mythological figures. Outside, these palaces were often adjoined to expansive gardens and parks, stocked with wild animals for hunting.
Houses: The materials used to build a Mesopotamian house were the same as those used today: mud brick, mud plaster and wooden doors. These all used materials naturally available in the locality.
Most large houses had a square centre room with other rooms leading off it. There were great variations in the size and materials used, which may suggest they many were built by the inhabitants themselves.
The homes of the poor were probably built of materials such as mud and reeds, which have long since perished. They may have been situated in the ancient equivalent of shanty towns outside of the city walls, but there is very little archaeological evidence for this.
Ancient Mesopotamia must surely be the most influential civilization in world history. For a start, it was the first. The Mesopotamians were the first to build cities, use the potter's wheel, develop writing, use bronze in large quantities, evolve complex bureaucracies, organize proper armies, and so on.
All subsequent Western civilizations were ultimately built largely upon foundations laid here. Mesopotamian civilization deeply influenced societies in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. These in turn, especially via the Phoenicians and the Israelites, would provide the material, religious and cultural models on which the Greek, Roman and Islamic civilizations would later be constructed. A whole range of technologies and scientific advances were thus made in ancient Mesopotamia which eventually found their way to Medieval and Modern European civilization.
To the east, powerful Mesopotamian influences flowed into India at the time of the Assyrians and Persians - for example, the Sanskrit alphabet is based on the Aramean script.
So, the Mesopotamians built long and well; they were the giants upon whose shoulders later ages have stood. And given that they were the first people to have writing, and the first to record their deeds, their place in world history is, it is no exaggeration to say, as the ones who got it going!
History maps: Maps of Ancient Mesopotamia
History article: Ancient Mesopotamia