Ancient Mesopotamia

One or more wide streets connected the central area to the city gates. Away from these public spaces, the large homes of the elite and the squat mud dwellings of the common people crowded together, interspersed by narrow passages down which even pack animals could not pass. The stench must have been appalling, as most people had no means of disposing of their waste apart from into the street. No wonder the better-off houses had all their windows facing inwards, onto their courtyards!

A bas relief showing a Mesopotamian army on the march(Stele of the Vultures, the Louvre; photo: Eric Garba)

The elite was greatly restricted in size by the difficulty, length of time and expense it took to acquire literacy and numeracy. The cuneiform script had hundreds of symbols to master, which took long years of hard schooling and one can be sure that access to such schooling was available only to the children of elite families. In any case, the vast majority of ordinary folk needed their children to be contributing to the family income as soon as they were able, and not spending time in education.

Cuneiform was at first written in the Sumerian language. For more than a millennium Sumerian retained importance as the language of administration, religion and high culture. However, in the centuries after 2000 BCE, it increasingly fell out of everyday use. In its place, a Semitic dialect, Akkadian (also known as Old Babylonian) became widespread. Later still, in the early 1st millennium BCE, another Semitic dialect, Amaraic, took its place. The waxing and waning of these languages reflected population movements within Mesopotamia, and to the rise and fall of ruling kingoms and empires with which they were linked.

A person could not be convicted unless there was clear evidence of his or her guilt. However, carelessness or negligence could be harshly punished famously, the builder of a building which fell down and killed a person could himself be killed (and if it killed a mans son, then his own son could be killed!).

The Sumerian city-states had a complex hierarchy of scribes and officials to look after the complex workings of the temple and royal government. Most notably, Ur, at the height of its power under Shulgi (reigned 2094-2047 BCE), had a large and elaborate bureaucracy to administer the remarkably centralized state it had built up.

Exactly how this first came about is unknown, but it seems likely that this development was linked to the endemic warfare that set in between city-states at this time (attested by the appearance of city walls). It may have been that the high priests of the temples who, in an age when politics and religion were deeply entwined would always have been highly political figures became more and more important as the people of the city looked to them for military leadership; or it may have been that gifted war-leaders were given (or seized) pre-eminent power in the states.

With the coming of the Bronze Age, in about 3000 BCE, 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.

All this would have given the members of theliteratia huge amount of authority over the rest of the population. Only through exercising the skills of literacy and numeracy could the large bodies of people be organized. Very probably literacy was seen as a mysterious and sacred skill, conferring high status on those who possessed it.

The rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and their numerous branches, made farming possible in Mesopotamia. However, they could be wild rivers, and floods were frequent. At the same time, the hot, dry climate meant that year-round irrigation was needed to grow crops.

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 BCE. However, this code drew on earlier codes going back to the Sumerian city-states of the 3rd millennium BCE.

c. 1530:Babylonia is conquered by the Kassites, who rule the area for 400+ years.

Map of Mesopotamia in about 3500 BCE

Nevertheless, throughout ancient Mesopotamian times, temples and palaces retained huge economic influence.

Women had a respected place in Mesopotamian society, at least by the time of Hammurabis Code. They had rights and duties as citizens, they could act as witnesses in court, and they could own property. She brought a dowry into the family, and although divorce was entirely a husbands prerogative, the divorced wife would take her dowry with her out of the marriage.

As time went by this situation was modified by the rising importance of the secular ruler, the king. As he grew in power, little by little he arrogated more economic control to himself. This was achieved through taking land (the primary economic asset) from the temple, and diverting the work of scribes, overseers, craftsmen and workmen to his own purposes.

The Euphrates river runs through a hot and dry landscape in Mesopotamia

Trade caravans (of donkeys camels were only domesticated after 1000 BCE) were organized by specialist agents, to whom merchants entrusted their goods. Overland transport was by oxen. Most bulk goods (such as the timbers brought from as far away asLebanon) was transported by river. Sea-going ships were also used, with trading voyages being made to the ports ofnorthern India.

As time went by, however, the independence of the city-states was gradually undermined as more enduring states covering many cities arose. From the early 2nd millennium,southern Mesopotamia was usually unifiedunder 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 theAssyrians. (You can see these trends by contrasting the map ofMesopotamia in 2500 BCEand in1500 BCE.)

Politically, the each Sumerian city formed its owncity-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.

c. 3500:Writing begins to be developed. At first this is based on pictograms, and takes about a thousand years to evolve into a full cuneiform script.

The early Mesopotamian city-state was, to a very large extent, a self-sufficient economic unit. It was viewed as being the household of the patron god which meant, in practice, that the temple had an immense degree of control over economic activity. Craftsmen metal-smiths, potters, spinners, weavers, carpenters and labourers were (what we would call) employees of the temple. So too were traders. Long-distance trade caravans were organized and supplied by the temple, and the traders were temple servants.

The Mesopotamians were the first people to attempt to control water on a large scale by the use of an integrated system of dykes, reservoirs, canals, drainage channels and aqueducts. Maintaining, repairing and extending this system was seen as one of the prime duties of a king. Scribes and overseers managed the projects, and the common people were dragooned into working on them through the system of forced labour (orcorvee). The water control system was built up generation by generation, covering an ever wider area and involving an ever denser network of waterways.

As each language fell into decline in everyday use, it retained its useage amongst the conservative temple priests much like Latin was used in the monasteries of Medieval Europe long after the rest of society had moved on. The cuneiform script, first developed by the Sumerians, remained in use, adapted for each successive language.

The city proper would be enclosed by a stout mud or baked brick wall, pierced by guarded gates. Just outside these gates were probably reed huts of those unable to afford to live inside the walls. The remains of such structures have long since perished, but carvings depict them, and many people in modern Iraq live in similar houses.

Mesopotamian rulers had wide duties. Not only had they to maintain law and order, but they had to ensure that the canals and irrigation systems were in proper working order, so that agriculture could thrive. As a result, much of the bureaucratic apparatus that had grown up to serve the temple was now under the orders of the king, to assist him in fulfilling his awesome responsibilities.

Marduk, high god of the Babylonians(the Louvre)

Estimates for the size of Mesopotamian cities vary wildly. However, a typical city may have housed 20,000 people, and a larger one 50,000. Once it became the chief city of southern Mesopotamia, Babylon could have had a population of as much as 100,000.

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.

(Sergeant James McCauley, US military)

Maps telling the story of Ancient Mesopotamia

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.

The larger cities followed the above pattern except that they were composed of several districts, each one centred on its own temple (whose god was subordinate to the patron god of the city).

This had the effect of stimulating trade with neighbouring regions, and beyond. Early in Mesopotamias history food surpluses and craft goods were exchanged for mineral resources. Later, Mesopotamian merchants ventured further afield, with trading contacts being developed with peoples inSyriaandAsia Minorin the west, and in Iran and theIndus civilization, in the east.

Most of the population in ancient Mesopotamia were farmers, working small plots of land. Above them stood a very small elite group made up of the ruling classes kings, courtiers, officials, priests and soldiers. Merchants and craftsmen also held a high position in society.

From 1100: Nomadic peoples such as theAramaeans and the Chaldeans overrun much of Mesopotamia. The kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria go into temporary decline.

(Click here for more on thehistorical context in which writingfirst developed.)

Please see the article onAssyrian civilizationfor later developments within Mesopotamia.

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.

Either joined to the main town, or a little distance from it, were the quays of the river or sea port. Around the harbour were the homes of foreign traders, who would not have been allowed to live in the city itself. The citys market would probably have been held here.

In early Sumerian cities, the temple stood at the very centre of public life, both political and religious. The god of the city was held to own the city; in practice, this translated into the temple controlling the productive land of the city-state. There are indications that the common people (who were also owned by the god, an therefore under the temples authority) brought what they grew to the temple, and received back what they needed to live on from the priests. If this is correct, then we have here as near a communist state as we ever get in history.

Irrigation is needed to bring the arid Mesopotamian landscape to life(photo:jamesdale10)

The Mesopotamians grew a variety of crops, including barley, wheat, onions, turnips, grapes, apples and dates. They kept cattle, sheep and goats; they made beer and wine. Fish were also plentiful in the rivers and canals.

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.

Hammurabis code and its predecessors were written on clay tablets or stone pillars, so that they could be seen in public. From them, we know a great deal about the Mesopotamian legal system.

By modern standards, punishments could be harsh many crimes carried the death penalty (with sentences ranging from hanging to burning). Flogging was used for various crimes, but fines were the most common punishment.

(Click here for theAssyrian army, which brought Mesopotamian warfare to its peak.)

As more time passed, the situation changed again as the king granted lands and wealth to his officials and supporters, and so created a private market for goods and services separate from either king or temple. Traders, craftsmen and labourers increasingly worked on their own account.

The typical Mesopotamian city was built around the temple, a monumental structure sitting at the centre of a complex of granaries, storehouses and other administrative buildings. From the mid-second millennium onwards, a monumental royal palace would also stand nearby, sometimes rivalling the temple in magnificence.

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.

In any event, during the early third millennium BCE kingship arose in all the city-states, and in subsequent centuries became gathered more and more power and status to themselves (judging by the ever-larger palaces that they built). Accompanying this process was the alienation of land away from the temples, with the growth of large estates in the hands of rulers, and later of private individuals. Other aspects of economic life, such as trade and craftwork, followed a similar course.

Mesopotamia is one of the cradles of human civilization. Here, the earliest cities in world history appeared, about 3500 BCE.

The king was held to be the earthly representative of the patron god of the city. He was a sacred being, and to disobey him was to disobey the god. His primary duty was to ensure that the people served their god properly. Because the people believed themselves to be the slaves of their god, they were also viewed as being slaves of the king. However, the king was also seen as the shepherd of his people, and his duty was not simply to ensure their obedience; it was also to provide justice and order, to protect property, and of course to defend the people from attack.

The Mesopotamians conceived of the material world as being deeply bound up with the divine. Every household, village and city had its own god. Everything that happened on Earth had a divine dimension to it was at least as much the result of the wishes of gods as of men and women.

The remains of the ancient ziggurat temple at the great Mesopotamian city of Ur(Photo:Hardnfast)

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 first script to be used was based on pictures, and is therefore known as pictographic. They first appeared around 3500 BCE. By 3000 BCE the pictograms (of which there were more than a thousand) had become highly stylized, and were losing their original meanings. They were gradually becoming more phonetic that is, reflecting spoken words. Finally, around 2500 BCE, the script had evolved into cuneiform or wedge-shaped writing. This was written by means of triangular-tipped stylus tools being pressed onto wet clay, and the symbols (which had been reduced to a more manageable 600 or so) were highly stylized and abstract.

From time to time, one of these city-states would succeed in conquering its neighbours, with the conquering ruler becoming acknowledged by other kings as their overlord, or high king.Extensive stateswould thus be formed temporarily, enduring 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 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 temple or royal serfs; later, some became free farmers, owning their land outright, but many farmed estates owned by kings, temples, high officials and other wealthy members of the ruling classes. All remained liable to forced labour on irrigation projects, or on the construction and maintenance of temples, palaces and city walls.

To sustain the state apparatus, Mesopotamian landowners had to pay the king a portion of the crops they grew. They also had to provide labour services (corvee) to work on the irrigation dykes, channels and canals, and men for the army theoretically, every male was liable for military service, with only a few exemptions. Also, the king owned large estates from which he could draw income. The individual cities were also responsible for the upkeep of their local irrigation systems, and could raise their own labour for this. To meet their local government needs, the subordinate cities could impose their own taxes and dues, as well as levy duties on local trade.

The ancient Mesopotamians lived in cities, which formed the core of the city-states. These cities were surrounded by numerous satellite villages, and in the case of the larger cities, smaller towns were also under their authority.

c. 2100: Thecity of Ur becomes the centre of a powerful Mesopotamian state. It soon falls into decline. This marks the decline of the Sumerians as theAmorites, a nomadic people, start moving into Mesopotamia.

The temple would also have employed a large number of menial labourers, as well as skilled craftsmen, and probably even traders who were dispatched to barter with peoples further afield for much needed building materials and other products. In a sense, in fact, the farmers too were temple employees, working the gods land and under the authority of the temple priests and overseers.

c. 2300: King Sargon of Akkad starts conquering thefirst empire in world history. The empire reaches its height in c. 2220.

In the 2nd millennium BCE, 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. Mastering chariot warfare demanded considerable training and practice, and the adoption of this technology must have given further impetus to the use of trained, perhaps even professional, soldiers.

Early Mesopotamian writing(The Schoyen Collection)

Reconstruction of the avenue leading to the Ishtar Gate, Babylon(Pergamum museum, Berlin;photo: gryffindor)

1792-49: KingHammurabi of Babylonconquers a large empire. Hammurabi is famous for the law code which he issues. His empire begins to decline immediately after his death.

A widow took the husbands place at the head of the household until her children were adults. She was not able to sell any of the familys property, however; this was so that the children cou

The overriding purpose of man was to serve the gods. This meant not just tending the gods sanctuaries and burning incense at their altars, it meant feeding them and providing them with all their material needs. In early Mesopotamian times this meant that the entire economic life of a city-state was geared to the service of the temple.

Until the spread of the use of iron, in the first millennium BCE, farming implements were made of stone and bone as they had been during the Stone Age. Metals such as bronze were far too expensive to use in this way, while copper was too soft for most uses. Wood was also quite rare, as there is little tree cover in the region. However, the soil of Mesopotamia, once watered, is easy to work, and agriculture was highly productive.

Excerpt from Hammurabis Code(The Louvre: photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

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. The Babylonians worshipped Marduk above all others, and Ashur was the supreme god of the Assyrians. Other notable gods and goddesses were Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility, Tiamat, god of the sea and chaos, and Sin, the moon god.

(The first of asequence of maps covering Mesopotamias history)

As well as criminal law, there was a well-developed body of civil law. Contracts, deeds and agreements had to be written on a clay tablet, witnessed on oath and placed in the temple archives, so that in case of dispute they could be referred to later.

c. 1500: The Mitanni, an Indo-European people, conquer northern Mesopotamia, plus areas of Syria and Asia Minor. After 200 years the kingdom of Assyria conquers northern Mesopotamia from the Mitanni

We know very little about how these armies were composed or organized. Fragmentary evidence suggests that there was a small permanent corps of trained soldiers, which would be supplemented in times of war by a larger group of citizens, called up until they were no longer needed (presumably at the end of the years fighting season).

Learning to write in cuneiform was a long and rigorous process, and literacy was confined to a small elite of priests and officials.

By the mid-third millennium, the political dominance of the temple was seriously modified by therise of kingshipin all the Mesopotamian city-states.

In these circumstances the first bureaucracies in history emerged. Scribes and accountants were needed to keep track of what was being brought into and sent out of the temple store houses. They left behind them thousands and thousands of documents on clay tablets, the majority of them as yet unstudied.

In early Mesopotamia, members of this elite group would have been supported by temple revenues. later, as temples lost their pre-eminent place in Mesopotamian society, a career in royal service would have become a more important source of income for ambitious officials. Later still, as kings gave away landed estates, or as wealthy individuals were able to purchase them, the topmost levels of Mesopotamian society would have come to form an hereditary landed aristocracy.

Most marriages were monogamous, though concubines were farily frequent, especially in wealthy families, and more especially where the wife was unable to have children.

Cases were heard by judges appointed by the king; in important cases, a panel of judges was appointed. Appeals could be made to the king. Indeed, it seems that one of the reasons for Hammurabi issuing his Code was to make it clear to all his subjects (who would have been accustomed to different laws in different places) on what basis decisions would be arrived at if appeals were made to the royal court.

Temples also made loans on their own account. If the debt was repaid before the due date, no interest was levied. If it was late, a high interest of 20-30% was charged.

Surrounding this built up area was the territory ruled from the city. Nearest the city were the irrigated farms and meadows. Dense villages of closely-packed mud huts dotted this countryside, and every now and then the large courtyard-style house of a wealthy landowner. Beyond the fertile farmland would be the grassland where shepherds and nomads grazed their sheep and goat; and beyond this, the desert.

Near the bottom of society was an underclass of landless labourers and beggars. These had only restricted rights as citizens; and right at the bottom was a class of slaves, who had very few rights. They could be bought and sold like other property. They had either been war captives, or had fallen into slavery through debt, or had been born into slavery. They worked as household servants, as workers in workshops, and in other menial roles. However, they could acquire property, and even own other slaves. They also had the right to buy their freedom, if they were able.

The land has too little rainfall 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.

All the Worlds history, at your fingertips

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.

One of the most remarkable things about Mesopotamian civilization is that here, right at the dawn of recorded history, we find states which organized their populations more tightly than all but a very few in subsequent ages. In truth, this situation is the result of gradual steps taken over hundreds, even thousands, of years, and only appears to arrive fully formed as written records begin to shed their light; however, the sheer scope of the states control over the lives of the people is astonishing.

Later, with the rise of kings, the idea grew that, as representatives of the gods on Earth (indeed, in some senses kings were seen asbeingthe patron gods of their cities) they were responsible for the peoples service to the gods. This gave religious justification for their complete authority over their subjects.

c. 5000-3500 BCE: Thefirst city-states gradually developin southern Mesopotamia. This is the achievement of the Sumerian people.

The Mesopotamian economy, like all pre-modern economies, was based primarily on agriculture.

A few centuries later,Hammurrabi, king of Babylon (1792-49 BCE) also had a large organization of officials to assist him rule his empire. By this date, Mesopotamian states also had a regular postal system at their service.

Whatever the true situation (and it probably varied from city to city) the temple acted as a major centre of distribution: receiving, storing and disbursing the food (and other goods, such as seed and agricultural implements) as needed, and keeping back stocks for years of poor harvest or floods.

Hammurabi enthroned as king of Babylon by the god, Shamash(The Louvre)

Ancient Mesopotamias place in world history

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 Noahs Ark.

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.

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