Whatever happened to the Ancient Mesopotamians?

By time of fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persians, in 539 BC, the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia had lasted for some three thousand years. It can be divided into different periods, the major ones being the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian. Some historians view these as distinct civilizations, but there was such a high degree of continuity between them that it is much better to see them as all belonging to one very long-lasting civilization: the earliest in world history, indeed.

What caused such a robust civilization to decline and fall?  Whatever happened to the ancient Mesopotamians?

They didn’t go away!

The first thing to say is, the Mesopotamians certainly didn’t go anywhere else; they stayed put. If you were to compare the DNA of modern Iraqis and that of some human remains from ancient Mesopotamian (it’s probably been done, actually) you would find that the former were the descendants of the latter. There would be plenty of additional genetic strains, above all Arabic; but these would overlay the foundational genetic makeup, which would be Sumero-Babylonian.

So if the people didn’t vanish, or move away, what happened to their civilization?

There’s a bigger question here: what actually makes up a “civilization”? But I’m going to leave this for another time and focus on the Mesopotamians themselves. In fact, I’m going to focus on those elements of their civilization which, though by no means most important, are what we see of it today: their architecture and art.  As Karl Marx would put it, they are the surface expressions of the deeper modes of thoughts, beliefs and customs of their society, and as such they provide markers for us of the chronology of the rise and decline of civilization.

Babylonian civilization under Nebuchadnezzar

Under the Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar (612 to 539 BC), Mesopotamian civilization reached its peak. It had never been wealthier, its capital, Babylon, had never been more magnificent, and it had certainly never been more politically powerful. This is all reflected in its art and architecture: the ruins of Babylon which can be seen today mostly date from this phase in its history, and show what a splendid city it was at that time.

More striking still is the fact that this art and architecture stood in an unbroken Mesopotamian tradition stretching back to early Sumerian times. Of course there had been some evolution in style, but this had been within quite closed limits. For example, the temples which Nebuchadnezzar built were in Ziggurat form, just as had been the temples of the Sumerians in the 3rd millennium BC. Also, the writing that was used by the priests of the temples was in the cuneiform developed by the priests in the earliest cities in the world, such as Eridu, Uruk and Ur, which were located on the Mesopotamian plain of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. And this script was being used to note down the fiendishly exact observations of the stars which brought ancient astronomy to its peak.

Great Ziggurat of Ur (reconstruction)

Under the Persian empire

The fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persians 539 BC brought Mesopotamia under foreign rule: and it was to remain so for more than a thousand years. In that time, the culture of the people of Mesopotamia was transformed.

The Persian ruling class had no high culture of its own– not many centuries had passed since their ancestors had been nomadic wanderers of the central Asian steppes. Settling in southwest Iran, they had been influenced by the culture of the ancient kingdom of Elam, but this was hardly different from that of the Mesopotamians. The Persian kings chose the old Elamite city of Susa as their chief administrative capital, and this thus became one of the great cities of the world at that time – but it must have looked very much like any other Mesopotamian city.

As for Babylon, the greatest city of Mesopotamia, it was adorned with beautiful temples and palaces by the early Persian kings, Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes. These were eager to present themselves as legitimate Mesopotamian rulers, one of whose main roles was to keep the temples and other public buildings in good order.  Other Mesopotamian cities also received attention from these kings.

Later kings, however, neglected the Mesopotamian cities. No new temples or public buildings were erected under the direction of these foreign rulers, and existing ones were not maintained properly. Babylon was the centre of the revolt in 452 BC, and in the aftermath it was sacked and its main temple destroyed. The damage was not repaired, but Babylon probably remained the largest city in the huge Persian empire.

Giant statues in the Babylonian tradition, from Persepolis, the Persian capital

Alexander the Great and successors

The Persian empire was brought to an end by the conquests of Alexander the Great, who occupied Babylonia in 331 BC. It is quite likely that he intended Babylon to be the capital of his new empire, but his premature death in 323 BC, in Babylon, put an end to any such schemes.

The decades of struggle between Alexander’s generals which followed ended with a commander called Seleucus in charge of the region. He and his family would then rule Mesopotamia for the next 150 years.

Like most of the Persian kings before them, the Seleucid kings did not engage with the traditional Mesopotamian royal duty of restoring temples and constructing great monuments inscribed with the ancient cuneiform script of Akkad and Sumer. Indeed the Seleucids promoted their native Greek culture within Mesopotamia. They founded Greek-style cities all over their dominions, and even in cities of ancient Mesopotamian origin, Greek – or Hellenistic – styles in art and architecture often supplanted more traditional Mesopotamian forms.

It was in the Seleucid period that Babylon ceased to be one of the great cities of the world. Much of the population of the ancient city was resettled on the opposite banks of the Euphrates, in a brand new Greek-style capital, Seleucia.

In southern Mesopotamia, however, several cities enjoyed a semi-independent status under their temple elites. Traditional Mesopotamian styles in architecture and art were followed, and the temple priests continued to record the motions of the stars and planets in the old Babylonian way. They kept the old chronicles up to date, and copied the ancient omens, hymns, stories and rituals. Indeed, the Greeks were fascinated by these activities, and Babylonian knowledge became a by-word for ancient wisdom.

Under the Parthians

In the mid-2nd century the Seleucids lost control of Mesopotamia to a people new to the region, the Parthians. Although these newcomers were an Iranian people from central Asia, they left things very much as they found them, and both Greek-style and Mesopotamian-style cities flourished under their rule. The temples in the cities of southern Mesopotamia continued in being, and the priests continued their traditional activities in preserving ancient Mesopotamian knowledge in the old Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform. But even here Greek-style temples dedicated to Greek and Iranian gods could be found.

By mid-Parthian times (c. 100 BC onwards), however, these temple communities were clearly islands of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, effectively museums to a long lost past, surrounded by a society which had changed out of all recognition.

Long-term trends

Even by Nebuchdnezzar’s time, more than half a millennium before, processes were at work which were weakening the vitality of ancient Mesopotamian culture. Under the previous Assyrian empire, Aramaic had spread s the common language of the Middle East. With its easy-to-learn alphabet, the old Mesopotamian languages of Mesopotamia, Sumerian and Akkadian (or Old Babylonian), with their complex cuneiform script, had fallen out of everyday use. Indeed, under the Assyrians, and later the Babylonians and Persians, Aramaic was the official language of government.

An example of complex cuneiform script

Keeping the old ways alive…

Under these circumstances it is noteworthy that the priests in the temples were able to keep alive the old Akkadian and Sumerian speech, with their ancient cuneiform texts. Yet it is hardly surprising, given the enormous wealth and political clout these temples had within Mesopotamian society art the time. Under the Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar, the temples formed the chief economic units of society. They were huge and wealthy corporations whose estates covered much of Mesopotamia, and were active in a vast range of economic activities such as banking, commerce and craft industry.

…under Persians, Seleucids and Parthians

Later, under the Persians, Seleucids and the Parthians, the temples benefitted from the neglect of Mesopotamia by rulers of these foreign dynasties. The temple elites effectively ran the cities in which they were located, and owned much of the land. This gave them the economic resources to patronize the old ways, to build in the old style, to copy and recopy the old texts, within their precincts. But the ancient languages of Mesopotamia were increasingly confined to religious and ceremonial purposes only, and to sacred texts and long-enduring chronicles.

The parallel here is the use of Latin as the language of the Christian church in western Europe during the Middle Ages – only more so; for whereas Christianity had a real claim on the lives of the ordinary people, this was less and less true of the old Mesopotamian religions. For around the temples, society had been changing radically.

Mesopotamia had been ruled by foreigners before the Persians. The Kassites had ruled Babylonia for four hundred years, from the mid-2nd millennium BC. However, they had governed from Babylon, within Mesopotamia, and had followed the ancient tradition of Mesopotamian kings, which included building and maintaining temples and other public buildings. More importantly, they had taken seriously the royal responsibility, which from time immemorial had been one of main duties of Mesopotamian kings, to keep the canals, irrigation channels and water storage ponds in good repair. On these Mesopotamian agriculture depended.

Under the Persians, Mesopotamia was ruled by officials appointed from Iran. Wealth was drained away from Mesopotamia in the form of heavy taxes to fill the king of Persia’s coffers, rather than being reinvested in monuments or irrigation. Heavy rents to support the lavish lifestyle of absentee Persian landowners, who had been granted extensive estates in Mesopotamia, were transferred to their Iranian homeland.

After the replacement of the Persian empire by the Greek-speaking kingdom of the Seleucid dynasty, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia were ruled from far-away Syria, and wealth continued to be transferred out of the region.

Social and economic trends

Most foreign kings, whether Persian, Greek or Parthian, did not give the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia priority; some neglected it entirely.

Little by little living standards of the farming population declined, and the economies of the cities came under increasing pressure. The area of cultivation shrank, and herding became more and more important. In paces the desert encroached. Population levels declined.

The cities fared somewhat better, with the Persian peace bringing an upswing to trade. However, the fact that Mesopotamia now belonged to a huge multinational empire meant that immigrants from all over the Middle East settled in the cities of the region, bringing with them their own gods, who jostled with the old gods of Mesopotamia for people’s allegiance. Such immigration also caused Aramaic to continue its spread as the language of everyday life, and the old cuneiform languages of Akkad and Sumer to retreat into the temple precincts.

Under the Seleucids, Greek became the language of government, and to some extent of international commerce as well. Anyone who wanted to get anywhere in the Seleucid state needed to speak, act and think like a Greek.

The Parthian period saw continued immigration into Mesopotamia, mainly Arabs and Iranians. They also brought with them their own gods, and the old Mesopotamian religion continued to decline in influence.  As we noted above, even in the cities least affected by Greek culture, temples dedicated to Greek and Iranian gods could be found, along with an ever increasing number of mystery religions from East and West.

The end of a civilization

The last cuneiform text so far found – an astronomical almanac – was written in AD 75. Some of the old temples continued through the first two centuries AD, and even saw some restoration in late Parthian times. Their priests almost certainly continued their chronicles and astronomical observations, but they increasingly did so in Aramaic, not the old cuneiform, so they wrote on parchment rather than clay, so they have long perished.

While the temples enjoyed a measure of political power within their own cities, which the Parthian regime allowed them, they were able to patronize traditional Mesopotamian forms of art, architecture and literature. In the 220s AD, however, the Parthians were replaced by much more vigorous rulers, a Persian dynasty called the Sasanids.

The Sasanid monarchs imposed a more direct control over the cities of southern Mesopotamia, and also actively promoted their own religion, Zoroastrianism. These developments deprived the Mesopotamian temple priesthoods of much of their remaining power over people’s lives, along with most of their revenues. The true extent of their loss of influence amongst the people must now have been laid bare. Christianity had been spreading through Mesopotamia since the 1st century AD, and by the 3rd century may have won the allegiance of the majority of the population. At some time during the 3rd century the last of the old temples must have proved too costly to maintain. It would have been abandoned and left to rot, its antiquarian custodians defeated by the long struggle to keep the past alive. The civilization of ancient Mesopotamia gave up its last gasp.