8000 years of Evolution
From Greek, meaning 'between two rivers’, Mesopotamia was an ancient region in the eastern Mediterranean bounded in the northeast by the Zagros Mountains and in the southeast by the Arabian Plateau, corresponding to today’s Iraq, with parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The 'two rivers' referred to the Tigris and the Euphrates and the land where Mesopotamian civilization began was known as 'Al-Jazirah' (the island) by the Arabs.
Rise of Cities
Mesopotamia is known as the “cradle of civilization” primarily because of 2 developments that occurred, the rise of the city as we recognize that entity today, plus the invention of writing (although writing is also known to have developed in Egypt, the Indus Valley, China, and Mesoamerica).
Unlike later more unified civilizations such as Egypt or Greece, Mesopotamia was a collection of varied cultures whose bonds were their script, their recognition of womens equality, and their gods (though the names varied by region and period). Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilizations.
The Wheel & Other Firsts
The invention of the wheel is also credited to the Mesopotamians. In 1922, at the site of the ancient city of Ur, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered the remains of 2 four-wheeled wagons along with their leather tires, the oldest wheeled vehicles ever found.
Other important developments credited to Mesopotamia include, domestication of animals, agriculture, common tools, sophisticated weaponry and warfare, the chariot, wine, beer, demarcation of time into hours, minutes, and seconds, religious rites, the sail (sailboats), and irrigation. Orientalist Samuel Noah Kramer, listed 39 `firsts' in human civilization that originated in Sumer.
Archaeological excavations in the 1840s AD, revealed human settlements dating to 10,000 BC which indicate the fertile conditions of the land allowed an ancient hunter-gatherer people to settle on the land, domesticate animals, and turn their attention to agriculture. Trade soon followed, and with prosperity came urbanization, the birth of the city and writing.
Religion & Life
Mesopotamia was known in antiquity as a seat of learning. The temple schools, devoted primarily to the priestly class, taught reading, writing, religion, law, medicine, philosophy and astrology. Intellectual pursuits were generally highly valued across Mesopotamia.
It is believed that Thales of Miletus (c. 585 BC, the 'first philosopher') studied there. As the Babylonians believed that water was the 'first principle' from which all else flowed, and as Thales is famous for that claim, it seems likely.
It is widely accepted that biblical tales such as the Fall of Man and the Flood of Noah originated in Mesopotamian lore, as they first appear in Mesopotamian works such as The Myth of Adapa. There were over 1,000 deities in the pantheon of the gods with many religious stories (among them, the creation myth, the Enuma Elish).
The Mesopotamians believed they were co-workers with the gods and the land was infused with spirits and demons (though `demons’ should not be understood in the modern, Christian, sense). The beginning of the world, they taught, was a victory by the gods over the forces of chaos.
Balance, Respect & Honour
Through daily rituals, attention to the deities, proper funeral practices, and simple civic duty, the people of Mesopotamia felt they helped maintain balance in the world and kept the forces of chaos and destruction at bay.
Along with expectations that one would honor one’s elders and treat people with respect, the citizens of the land were also to honor the gods through the jobs they performed every day.
Men and women both worked. The principal occupations were growing crops and raising livestock. Other occupations included scribe, healer, artisan, weaver, potter, shoemaker, fisherman, teacher, and priest or priestess.
At the head of society were the kings and priests served by palace and temple staff. With standing armies and the spread of imperialism, professional soldiers took their place in the expanding workforAD.
Women enjoyed nearly equal rights and could own land, file for divorce, own their own businesses, and make contracts in trade. The early brewers of beer and wine, as well as healers, were initially women. The work one did, however, was never considered simply a `job’ but one’s contribution to the community and to the gods’ efforts in keeping the world in harmony.
Bertman: "Mesopotamian architecture grew out of the soil upon which it stood. Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia – especially in the south – was barren of stone that could be quarried for construction.” The land was equally devoid of trees for timber, so the people “turned to other natural resources that lay abundantly at hand: the muddy clay of its riverbanks and the rushes and reeds that grew in their marshes. Simple homes were constructed from bundles of reeds lashed together and inserted in the ground, while more complex homes were built of sun-dried clay brick (a practice followed later by the Egyptians)".
Cities and temple complexes, with their famous ziggurats (the step-pyramid structures indigenous to the region), were all built using oven-baked bricks of clay which were then painted.The temple, at the center of every city (often on a raised platform), housed the city’s patron deity who was also worshipped by communities that city presided over. Mesopotamia gave birth to the world’s first cities, employing the world’s first columns, arches, and roofed structures.
Prior to the concept of a king, the priestly rulers are believed to have dictated the law according to religious precepts.
The gods were considered to be present in the planning and execution of any building project and very specific prayers, recited in a set order to the proper deity, were considered of utmost importance in the success of the project and the prosperity of the occupants of the home.
Whichever kingdom or empire held sway, in whatever historical period, the vital role of the gods in the lives of the people remained undiminished. Reverence for the Divine characterized the lives of both field worker and king. Historian Helen Chapin Metz writes: The precariousness of existence in southern Mesopotamia led to a highly developed sense of religion.
Cities & Religious Centres
Centers such as Eridu, dating back to 5000 BC, served as important centers of pilgrimage and devotion even before the rise of Sumer. Many of the most important Mesopotamian cities emerged in areas surrounding the pre-Sumerian religious centers, reinforcing the close relationship between religion and government.
Priests & Kings
Prior to the concept of a king, the priestly rulers are believed to have dictated the law according to religious precepts and received divine messages through signs and omens. The role of the king was established at some point after 3600 BC. The king dealt directly with the people and while still honoring the gods, was considered a powerful enough representative of those gods to be able to speak their will through his own dictates.
Hammurabi of Babylon
This is seen in the famous laws of Hammurabi of Babylon (r. 1792-1750 BC). The Akkadian king Naram-Sin (r. 2261-2224 BC) went so far as to proclaim himself god incarnate. The king was responsible for the welfare of his people and a good king, who ruled in accordance with divine will, was recognized by the prosperity of the region he reigned over.
Sargon of Akkad
Still, even very efficient rulers, such as Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BC), had to deal with perpetual uprisings and revolts by factions, or whole regions, contesting his legitimacy. As Mesopotamia was so vast a region, with so many different cultures and ethnicities within its borders, a single ruler attempting to enforce the laws of a central government would invariably be met with resistance from some quarter.
Pre-Neolithic or Stone Age (c. 10,000 BC)
Pottery Neolithic Age (c. 7,000 BC)
Copper Age (5,900–3,200 BC)
Early Bronze Age (3,000–2119 BC)
Middle Bronze Age (2119-1700 BC)
Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BC)
Iron Age (1100–500 BC)
Classical Antiquity (BC 500–7th century AD)
Stone Age (c. 10,000 BC)
Around 9500 BC there was a dramatic change in the environment. The world began to emerge from the last Ice Age and grasslands spread across much of what we call the Middle East, especially Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Though this being thousands of years before the introduction of Cuneiform Script means there are no written records from this period, there is archaeological confirmation of crude settlements and early signs of warfare between tribes.
Mesopotamia, in the delta of the 2 great rivers, provided an ideal place to take advantage of the improving climate for the development of agiculture. There was a corresponding growth of permanent human settlements. Animal husbandry was increasingly practiced with the shift from a hunter-gatherer to agrarian culture.
Pottery Neolithic Age (c. 7,000 BC)
In this period there was a widespread use of tools and clay pots and a specific culture begins to emerge in the Fertile Crescent. Stephen Bertman writes, “during this era, the only advanced technology was literally 'cutting edge'” as stone tools and weapons became more sophisticated.
Bertman further notes “the Neolithic economy was primarily based on food production through farming and animal husbandry” and was more settled, as opposed to the Stone Age when communities were more mobile. Manufacture of ceramics developed. Growing settlements led to the development of permanent dwellings and the dawning of more sophisticated architecture.
Copper Age (5,900–3,200 BC)
Known for the transition from stone tools and weapons to ones made of copper. This era includes the so-called Ubaid Period (c. 5000-4100 BC, named for Tell al-`Ubaid, the location in Iraq where the greatest number of artifacts were found) during which the first temples in Mesopotamia were built and unwalled villages developed from sporadic settlements of single dwellings.
These villages then gave rise to the urbanization process during the Uruk Period (4100-2900 BC) when cities rose, most notably in the region of Sumer, including Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Kish, Nuzi, Lagash, Nippur, and Ngirsu, and in Elam with its city of Susa. The earliest city is often cited as Uruk, although Eridu and Ur have also been suggested.
Van De Mieroop writes, “Mesopotamia was the most densely urbanized region in the ancient world”, and the cities which grew up along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as those founded further away, established systems of trade which resulted in great prosperity.
Writing, the Wheel & War
This period saw the invention of the wheel (c. 3500 BC) and writing (c. 3000 BC), both by the Sumerians, and the establishment of kingships to replace priestly rule,
The first war in the world was recorded between the kingdoms of Sumer and Elam (2700 BC) with Sumer as the victor. During the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2334 BC), all of the advances of the Uruk Period were developed and the cities, and government in general, stabilized.
Increased prosperity in the region gave rise to ornate temples and statuary, sophisticated pottery and figurines, toys for children (including dolls for girls and wheeled carts for boys), and the use of personal seals (known as Cylinder Seals) to denote ownership of property and to stand for an individual’s signature.
Early Bronze Age (3,000–2119 BC)
During this period, bronze supplanted copper as the material from which tools and weapons were made. The rise of the city-state laid the foundation for economic and political stability which would eventually lead to the rise of the Akkadian Empire (2334–2218 BC) and the rapid growth of the cities of Akkad and Mari, two of the most prosperous urban centers of the time.
The cultural stability necessary for the creation of art in the region resulted in more intricate designs in architecture and sculpture, as well as the following inventions or improvements: the plough and the wheel the chariot and the sailboat, and the cylinder-seal, the single most distinctive art form of ancient Mesopotamia and a pervasive demonstration of the importance of property ownership and business in the country’s daily life. (Bertman, 55–56).
The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great was the first multi-national realm in the world and Sargon's daughter, Enheduanna (l.2285–2250 BC), the first author of literary works known by name. The library at Mari contained over 20,000 cuneiform tablets (books) and the palace there was considered one of the finest in the region.
Middle Bronze Age (2119–1700 BC)
The expansion of the Assyrian Kingdoms (Assur, Nimrud, Sharrukin, Dur, and Nineveh) and the rise of the Babylonian Dynasty (centered in Babylon and Chaldea) created an atmosphere conducive to trade and, with it, increased warfare. The Guti Tribe, fierce nomads who succeeded in toppling the Akkadian Empire, dominated the politics of Mesopotamia until defeated by the allied forces of the kings of Sumer.
Hammurabi, King of Babylon, rose from relative obscurity to conquer the region and reign for 43 years. Among his many accomplishments was his famous code of laws, inscribed on the stele of the gods. Babylon became a leading centre at this time for intellectual pursuit and high accomplishment in arts and letters. This cultural centre was not to last, however, and was sacked and looted by the Hittites.
Late Bronze Age (1700–1100 BC)
The Hittites were then succeeded by the Kassites. The rise of the Kassite Dynasty (a tribe who came from the Zagros Mountains in the north and are thought to have originated in modern-day Iran) led to a shift in power and an expansion of culture and learning after the Kassites conquered Babylon. The collapse of the Bronze Age followed the discovery of how to mine ore and smelt and forge iron, a technology which the Kassites and, earlier, the Hittites made singular use of in warfare.
Elamites & Aramaeans
The period also saw the beginning of the decline of Babylonian culture due to the rise in power of the Kassites until they were defeated by the Elamites and driven out. After the Elamites gave way to the Aramaeans, the small Kingdom of Assyria began a series of successful campaigns. Most Mesopotamian states were either destroyed or weakened following the Bronze Age Collapse c. 1250–c.1150 BC, leading to a brief "dark age".
Iron Age (1100–500 BC)
The Assyrian Empire was firmly established and prospered under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser I (r. 1115–1076 BC) and, after him, Ashurnasirpal II (r. 884–859 BC) consolidated the empire further.
This age saw the rise and expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745–727 BC) and that Empire’s meteoric rise to power and conquest under the rule of great Assyrian kings such as Sargon II (r. 722–705 BC), Sennacherib (r. 705–681 BC), Esarhaddon (r. 681–669 BC) and Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 BC, who conquered Babylonia, Syria, Israel, and Egypt).
The Empire suffered a decline as rapid as its rise due to repeated attacks on central cities by Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians. The tribes of the Hittites and the Mitanni consolidated their respective powers during this time.
The Neo-Hittite were followed by the Neo-Babylonian Empires. King Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 BC) of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem (588 BC) during this period and forced the inhabitants of Israel into the “Babylonian Exile”. He was also responsible for extensive construction in Babylon, creating famous buildings such as the Ishtar Gate and the Great Ziggurat (the "Tower of Babel").
Fall of Babylon
The fall of Babylon to Cyrus II of Persia in 539 BC effectively ended Babylonian culture. The bulk of Mesopotamia became part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire which was to lead to a complete loss of the knowledge of cuneiform script.
Classical Antiquity (BC 500–7th century AD)
After Cyrus II (d. 530 BC) took Babylon, this period saw a rapid cultural decline in the region.
Alexander The Great
The conquest of the Persians by Alexander the Great in 331 BC brought Hellenization of the culture and religion but, even though Alexander tried to again make Babylon a city of consequence, its days of glory were now in the past.
Alexander’s General Seleucus
After his death, Alexander’s general Seleucus took control of the region and founded the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled until 126 BC when the land was conquered by the Parthians who were, in turn, dominated by the Sassanians (a people of Persian descent). Bertman writes, “Under Sassanian domination, Mesopotamia lay in ruins, its fields dried out or turned into a swampy morass, its once great cities made ghost towns”.
By the time of the conquest by the Roman Empire (c. 115–117 AD), Mesopotamia was a largely Hellenized region, lacking in any unity, which had forgotten the old gods and the old ways. The Romans improved the infrastructure of their colonies significantly through their introduction of better roads and plumbing and brought Roman Law to the land. Even so, the region was constantly caught up in the wars various Roman emperors waged with other nations over control of the land.
End of Ancient Mesopotamia
The entire culture of the region once known as Mesopotamia was swept away in the final conquest of the area by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD which resulted in the unification of law, language, religion and culture under Islam. Bertman notes, “With the Islamic conquest of 651 AD the history of ancient Mesopotamia ends”.
Today the great cities that once rose along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are largely unexcavated mounds or broken bricks on arid plains, and the once fertile crescent has steadily dwindled to a wasteland due to human factors (such as overuse of the land through agricultural pursuits or urban development) and also due to changing climate.
The legacy of Mesopotamia endures today through many of the most basic aspects of modern life such as the sixty-second minute and the sixty-minute hour. Helen Chapin Metz writes, Because the well-being of the community depended upon close observation of natural phenomena, scientific or protoscientific activities occupied much of the priests' time.
For example, the Sumerians believed that each of the gods was represented by a number. The number sixty, sacred to the god An, was their basic unit of calculation. The minutes of an hour and the notational degrees of a circle were Sumerian concepts. The highly developed agricultural system and the refined irrigation and water-control systems that enabled Sumer to achieve surplus production also led to the growth of large cities.
Urbanization, the wheel, writing, astronomy, mathematics, wind power, irrigation, agricultural developments, animal husbandry, and the narratives which would eventually be re-written as the Hebrew Scriptures and provide the basis for the Christian Old Testament all came from the land of Mesopotamia.
Kramer lists 39 `firsts' from Mesopotamia in his book History Begins at Sumer and yet, as impressive as those `firsts' are, Mesopotamian contributions to world culture do not end with them. The Mesopotamians influenced the cultures of Egypt and Greece through long-distance trade and cultural diffusion and, through these cultures, impacted the culture of Rome which spread through western civilization. Mesopotamia generally, and Sumer specifically, gave the world some of its most enduring cultural aspects and, even though the cities and great palaces are long gone, that legacy continues in the modern era.
Cuneiform Deciphered, 1872
In the 19th century AD, archaeologists of varying nationalities arrived in Mesopotamia to excavate for evidence which would corroborate the biblical tales of the Old Testament. At this time, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world and the stories found in its pages were thought to be original compositions. The archaeologists who sought physical evidence to support the biblical stories found exactly the opposite once by the scholar and translator George Smith (1840–1876 AD) in 1872 AD. The story of the Great Flood and Noah's Ark, the story of the Fall of Man, the concept of a Garden of Eden, even the complaints of Job had all been written centuries before the biblical texts by the Mesopotamians.
Once cuneiform could be read, the ancient world of Mesopotamia opened up to the modern age and transformed people's understanding of the history of the world and themselves. The discovery of the Sumerian Civilization and the stories of the cuneiform tablets encouraged a new freedom of intellectual inquiry into all areas of knowledge.
It was now understood that the biblical narratives were not original Hebrew works, the world was obviously older than the church had been claiming, there were civilizations which had risen and fallen long before that of Egypt. The spirit of inquiry in the late 19th century was already making inroads into challenging the paradigms of accepted thought when Smith deciphered cuneiform but the discovery of Mesopotamian culture and religion encouraged this further.
In ancient times, Mesopotamia impacted the world through its inventions, innovations, and religious vision; in the modern day it literally changed the way people understood the whole of history and one's place in the continuing story of human civilization.
c. 11700 BC – End of the most recent glacial episode within the current Quaternary Ice Age
c. 10000 BC – Beginnings of agriculture in the Middle East.
c. 9000 BC – Cultivation of wild cereals in the Fertile Crescent.
c. 8000 BC – Ovens in use in the Near East are applied to pottery production.
c. 6000 BC – Nineveh is first settled.
c. 5400 BC – The City of Eridu is founded.
5000 BC – Irrigation and agriculture begin in earnest in Mesopotamia.
c. 5000 BC – Godin Tepe settled
c. 5000 BC – Sumer inhabited by Ubaid people.
c. 4100 BC – The Ubaid Period in Sumer.
5000 BC – 1750 BC - civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.
c. 4500 BC – Sumerians built their first temple
c. 4500 BC – City of Uruk founded.
4100 BC – 2900 BC - Uruk Period in Mesopotamia. First cities.
Ur 4000 BC
c. 4000 BC - First settlement of Ur.
c. 3600 BC - Invention of writing in Sumer at Uruk.
3400 BC - Priests become the rulers of Mesopotamian cities.
c. 3000 BC - c. 2900 BC - Mari, the earliest known planned city, is built near the eastern bank of the Euphrates.
2900 BC - 2334 BC - The Early Dynastic Period in Sumer.
2500 BC - First Dynasty of Lagash under King Eannutum is first empire in Mesopotamia.
c. 2400 BC - Sumerian sources to mention migrating Amorites in Mesopotamia.
2350 BC - First code of laws by Urukagina, king of Lagash.
Sargon 2334 BC
2334 BC - 2279 BC - Sargon of Akkad (the Great) reigns over Mesopotamia to create the world's first empire.
2334 BC - 2218 BC - The Akkadian Empire rules Sumer
c. 2330 BC - Sargon of Akkad sacks Ur.
2218 BC - 2047 BC - The Gutian Period in Sumer.
c. 2150 BC - c. 1400 BC - The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh written on clay tablets.
2100 BC - First ziggurats in Ur, Eridu, Uruk, and Nippur.
2100 BC - The Reign of Utu-Hegal at Uruk in Sumer and creation of Sumerian King List.
c. 2083 BC - c. 2050 BC - The Dark Age of Mesopotamia.
Dark Age 2083 BC
c. 2083 BC - c. 2050 BC - The Dark Age of Mesopotamia.
c. 2055 BC - 2047 BC - Utu Hegel's reign over Sumerian and Akkadian cities
c. 2050 BC - The Code of Ur-Nammu (the earliest known code of laws) is written.
2047 BC - 2030 BC - Ur-Nammu's reign over Sumer.
2047 BC - 1750 BC - Third dynasty of Ur.
2047 BC - 1750 BC - The Ur III Period in Sumer, known as the SumerianRenaissanAD.
c. 2038 BC - King Shulgi of Urbuilds his great wall in Sumer.
Domesticated horses 2000 BC
2000 BC - Domesticated horses introduced in Mesopotamia.
c. 2000 BC - 1600 BC - Amorite period in Mesopotamia.
1900 BC - Ashur, capial of Assyria, is founded.
c. 1900 BC - c. 1400 BC - Trade flourishes between Mesopotamia and other regions.
1894 BC - Amorite dynasty established in Babylon.
1795 BC - 1750 BC - Reign of Hammurabi, king of Babylon.
c. 1792 BC - King Hammurabi builds walls of Babylon
1787 BC - Hammurabi of Babylon conquers Uruk and Isin.
Code of Hammurabi 1772
c. 1772 BC - The Code of Hammurabi: One of the earliest codes of law in the world.
c. 1760 BC - c. 1757 BC - Hammurabi of destroys the city of Mari. The people of Mari are spared according to Hammurabi.
1755 BC - Hammurabi rules the whole of Mesopotamia from Babylon.
1750 BC - Elam conquers Ur.
1750 BC - Elamite invasion and Amorite migration ends the Sumerian civilization.
1680 BC - Hurrians occupy Assyria.
1595 BC - King Mursilis of the Hittites sacks Babylon. Beginning of Babylonian "dark ages."
1595 BC - Hittites under Mursilli I sack Babylon, ending Amorite rule.
1550 BC - The Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni is founded.
Egypt Rules 1500 BC
1500 BC - Egyptian empire extends to the Euphrates.
c. 1500 BC - Rise of the kingdom of Mitanni.
1472 BC - Mittani annexes Assyria.
1400 BC - Assyria regains its independenAD.
c. 1350 BC - Peak of Mitanni power, it is considered a great nation.
1350 BC - 1250 BC - The Hittite empire is at its peak.
c. 1344 BC - 1322 BC - King Suppiluliumas I of the Hittites sacks the Mitanni capital Washukanni and installs Artatama II as vassal king.
c. 1321 BC - Western Mittani is conquered by the Hittites.
1285 BC - Peak of Hittite power.
1244 BC - 1208 BC - Reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I, King of Assyria.
1220 BC - Babylon is under Assyrian control.
Aramaeans Rule 1080 BC
1080 BC - Aramaeans invade Mesopotamia.
1000 BC - Chaldeans occupy Ur.
853 BC - Babylonian kings depend on Assyrian military support.
734 BC - Babylon is captured by Chaldeans.
729 BC - Babylon is occupied by Assyrians.
722 BC - 705 BC - Peak of the Assyrian empire under the reign of Sargon II.
612 BC - Downfall of the Assyrian empire.
605 BC - 562 BC - Nebuchadnezzar II is king of Babylon.
Cyrus of Persia 539 BC
539 BC - Babylon, conquered by Cyrus of Persia. Return of the Jews.
500 BC - 330 BC - Achaemenid Empire rules in Mesopotamia, Persian Royal Road in use.
485 BC - Babylon is destroyed by Xerxes, King of Persia.
Hellenistic Age 323 BC
323 BC - 31 BC - Hellenistic Age. Greek thought and culture infuses with indigenous people.
312 BC - Seleucos conquers Babylon and founds the Seleucid dynasty.
c. 312 BC - 63 BC - Duration of the Seleucid Empire.
129 BC - Parthians conquer Mesopotamia. The Silk Road to China is now controlled by the Parthians.
100 BC - Ctesiphon becomes Parthian capital.
Rome Rules 115 BC
115 AD - 117 AD – Rome occupies Mesopotamia.
224 AD - Sasanians overthrow the Parthians.
34 AD - Emperor Maximinus Thrax is governor of Mesopotamia
637 AD - Conquest of Mesopotamia.
About the Author
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.
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