Mesopotamia is the ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It covers modern day Iraq and parts of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Mesopotamian civilizations were the first in history to exist in well-populated and fixed settlements. As settlements became larger and more organized, they progressed politically and socially into city-states. They developed irrigation methods and invented the wheel and the plow. After they developed the first written language, economic transactions and legal codes were kept. Mesopotamian literature was recorded. Great architectural structures were built. In time, empires, kings, and innovative military establishments emerged. These advancements, along with scientific, mathematical, and communal ceremonies, are the legacies of the great Mesopotamian civilizations.
Mesopotamia was the heartland of emerging nations and empires that would control the Near East for centuries. Mesopotamia is a general name for a number of diverse ethnic groups that contributed to the culture of the region. The most well-known Mesopotamian civilizations include the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Other cultural groups may have been key players on the Mesopotamian stage, but none was as influential as these groups.
The Sumerians captured the region beginning in the Early Dynastic period (ca. 2900 BC) and ending with the Third Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2004 BC). Over these years, Sumerians developed the first writing system and created epic literature. They invented the wheel, the plow, and the earliest known irrigation methods, enabling an otherwise unstable agricultural environment to prosper as Sumerian settlements grew into the world’s first political city-states. Under an Akkadian Empire (ca. 2334-2193 BC), this land of independent city-states consumed the entire Mesopotamian.
Babylon was located in the southern part of modern Iraq, between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. At its cultural height (1900 BC to 1595 BC), the Babylonian civilization unified its Mesopotamia region. Many adored Babylonian civilization because it was a melting pot of many ethnic groups. Even the emperors and barbarians who battled for control of Babylon preferred assimilation into its dynamic cultural heritage.
Assur lay to the north in the Upper Tigris Valley and around the ancient city of Nineveh. Assyrians were a fierce cultural group, and the Assyrian empire reigned during a time of intense warfare. Assyrian control constantly expanded and receded in its quest for complete domination of Mesopotamia. At one time, the empire had expanded from Egypt, far to the east, to Iran in the west. At another time, Assyrian control receded to near extinction. The civilization reached its zenith from 910 BC to circa 610 BC but would eventually fall to a renewed Babylonian military.
Mesopotamia Begins in Sumer
The first inhabitants of this Mesopotamian region settled in a broad range of foothills that surrounded the Mesopotamian plains known as the Fertile Crescent. The region ran from central Palestine, north to Syria and eastern Asia Minor, and extending eastward to northern Iraq and Iran. During the historic periods known as the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (ca. 9000-5800 BC), the people of the Fertile Crescent began to abandon a lifestyle where hunting and food gathering prevailed and entered a period of food production. They settled into farming and herding communities. As they became skilled in animal husbandry and farming, they were able to produce more food and the population in this region soared.
Although the villages in the Fertile Crescent became more sophisticated and sedentary, the people migrated southward, into the Mesopotamian Plains, between 6000 and 5000 BC. Some families and clans may have migrated to escape excessive population and overcrowding. Others may have left due to social or political discontent. Still other evidence suggests that a great flood may have wiped out the shores surrounding the Black Sea and that many settlers may have been refugees of this huge natural disaster.
The earliest Mesopotamians existed in a variable climate with a geography that included deserts, mountains, and river plains. Although northern Mesopotamia had adequate rainfall for successful agriculture, the remaining regions required irrigation and skilled control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Southern Mesopotamian settlements may have begun using irrigation principles as early as 5000 BC. Their ability to irrigate allowed growth in settlement populations, which then created a need for organized communal work and complex hierarchical social structures.
During these years, an immigrant group of settlers known as the Sumerians settled into the Mesopotamian region. Sumerians were a very influential culture. Future peoples in this region preserved aspects of the Sumerian political and social customs as well as Sumerian literature and artistic style. Sumerians created the first wheel and the plow. Their skilled irrigation methods enabled an increase in food production. Sumerians rapidly turned agricultural communities into urban developments as they built the first cities. Sumerians also developed the writing system that enabled nobles and rulers to record economic transactions and legal decrees.
Sumerian city-states were independent of one another, and each was focused on controlling and supporting its farmlands and villages. The earliest city-states developed by the Sumerians were originally organized around a temple and a priesthood governed by an en (“high priest”). The en represented the local god and managed the temple lands that the people entrusted to work on them. As societies grew more complex, an ensi (“governor”) emerged to manage civic affairs such as law and order, commerce, trade, and military efforts. In time, people would select a leader, called a lugal (“great man”), to rule during times of war and peril. The lugal managed all civil, military, and religious functions of the city. The office of lugal seemed to emerge at a time when defense walls were first constructed. As war became a constant threat, rulers became kings who would remain in power for their lifetimes, passing rule onto their sons as successors to their thrones. As a state of dynasties took root, kings and royal families emerged.
One of the most elaborate and impressive architectural structures of this time was the ziggurat, a multilevel platformed temple of worship. The oldest ziggurat was unearthed in the city-state of Ur. C. Leonard Wooley was the archaeologist who discovered most of what we know about this ancient city. He also uncovered ancient burial tombs that included not only the deceased but also physical possessions and domestic servants. Experts believe that the burial tomb included everything that the Sumerians believed would be needed for a comfortable afterlife.
By the second half of the third millennium, the Semitic-speaking people were a significant element in northern Mesopotamia, also known as Akkad. The most notable kings of the time were Sargon of Akkad and his grandson, Narcum-Sin. They enslaved Sumerian city-states and achieved control of the trade routes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, achieving for the first time a unified Mesopotamian region. Sumerian culture and cuneiform were retained, but Akkadian tongue became the dominant language in Mesopotamia. The empire of Sargon and his grandson reigned for nearly a century. But the Akkadian empire would then fall, leaving its legacy of imperialistic expansion.
The Third Dynasty of Ur came into power circa 2112 to 2004 BC. This Sumerian dynasty governed most of Mesopotamia and southwestern Iran. Its founder, Ur-Nammu, wrote the oldest known collection of laws, intended to protect the economically and politically weak. As this dynasty fell to pressure from the Amorites, another migration of Semites who originated west of the Euphrates, central imperial control disappeared.
According to scholars, the years following the Third Dynasty of Ur are called the Old Babylonian period (2000-1400 BC). For many years, Mesopotamia was disunited, with independent city-states frequently engaging in disputes and wars with its neighbors. This time of intense conflict was a time of great political opportunity for the most powerful men in Mesopotamia. The most successful leaders to establish dynasties were Amorites, who spoke Akkadian, and Elamites, who spoke a tongue unrelated to any others in the region. The Akkadian speakers settled a strong state in the city of Assur. When Ur fell to the Elamites, Assyrians became a leading political-military force. In 1813 BC, Shamshi-Adad overthrew Assur and established a new dynasty there. Because Shamshi-Adad’s troops were consumed by military expeditions, he avoided attacks on the strong city-state of Babylon that lay southeast of Assur. The attacks Shamshi-Adad did launch were relatively small scale and ceased after his death in 1781 BC. His successor was then squashed by a Babylonian army led by the sixth king of an Amorite dynasty that had established itself circa 1850 BC.
This widely respected and feared king was known as Hammurabi and lived in Babylonia. Hammurabi wrote the most famous laws of the time, known as the Code of Hammurabi, which embraced and proclaimed an “eye for an eye” discipline. Hammurabi also became the first king since Sargon of Akkad to unite the entire Mesopotamia land, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Syrian border and the Armenian foothills. He was a skilled military leader and conqueror. Under his administration, trade flourished. He attended to domestic and economic issues while promoting literature, the arts, and science.
However, the peaceful times he created diminished shortly after his death in 1750 BC. What followed was a time of military conflict and strikes for the captured territories that wanted to break from Hammurabi’s Babylonia. Eventually, the city of Babylonia fell to the Kassite nobles, who took the city in 1400 BC. They were so impressed with the refined culture that they became assimilated into the Babylonian way, abandoning their native tongue for the Akkadian dialect of the Babylonians. In fact, the Kassites stabilized the region for more than four centuries, the longest period in Babylonian history.
Great military innovations developed during the Old Babylonian period. The horse was domesticated. After the wheel was redesigned with spokes instead of a solid surface, horses were harnessed to chariots to enable military attacks en masse. The bow was also redesigned to fly faster and farther. These changes were implemented, and large-scale military action was possible.
Although Mesopotamians were famous for building elaborate palaces, the most impressive palace belonged to King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562 BC). Although no archaeological evidence or other physical remains have ever been found, this palace is said to contain the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built to please one of Nebuchadnezzar’s wives who was homesick for her mountainous Iranian homeland that was lush with foliage.
In 1365 BC, during a time that some modern scholars call the Middle Assyrian period, the Assyrians launched their first major front in the northwest from the border of Hatti, through Armenia, and to the Zagros Mountains. In a series of small-scale attacks, the Assyrians use their newfound military innovations to take human captives, horses, and other war booty. The Assyrians continued a second major front to seize Babylon and placed it under the rule of a monarch, Tukulti-Ninurta I, who reigned from 1244 to 1208 BC. Although this victory filled the Assyrians with great pride and satisfaction, the great Babylonian nobles would rebel. In 1165, a strong Elamite king would lay permanent claim to the great city.
In the next tactical front, the Assyrians fought relentlessly from Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. In the most amazing gain during this period of empirical expansion, King Tiglathpileser I took control of the Mesopotamian region from the Mediterranean Sea to Babylon. He was assassinated in 1077, and because his successors could not hold together this vast land, in time the Assyrian empire shrank until only Assur and Nineveh remained. It lay dormant until reaching its height during the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 911 to 612 BC. This was a time when the Assyrian army became a highly skilled machine. Merciless warrior kings launched repeated military campaigns and attained impressive imperialistic growth. Assyrian conquest extended across the Near East and made Nineveh one of the richest cities in the Ancient World.
The greed of the Assyrians would be their demise. Nineveh and the Assyrian control would soon fall to the Babylonians and Medes. At this time, the splendor of the three greatest cultures of Mesopotamian civilizations would become legend. Their great contributions to the time and to world history were a finality. For the next several hundred years, the land would fall to many new tribes, new empires, and other dynasties, but none would be as influential as those of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.
From 539 to 331 BC, Persians saw Aramaic replace the long-standing Akkadian language. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great would take the region and make Babylon the capital of his empire. The Parthians, and then the Sassians, would later rule the land. When Islamic control began in 651 AD, a time and a culture known as ancient Mesopotamia ended.
- Bertman, S. (2003). Handbook to life in ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Facts on File.
- Bottero, J. (2001). Everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Kramer, S. N. (1967). Cradle of civilization. New York: Time-Life Books.
- Nardo, D. (2004). Ancient Mesopotamia. San Diego: Gale Group/Thomson Learning.
- Nemet-Nejat, K. R. (1998). Daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Postgate, J. N. (1994). Early Mesopotamia: Society and economy at the dawn of history. New York: Routledge.