Deep Dive into Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia—a historical region of Western Asia situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system—housed the world’s first urban civilization with a sophisticated cultural sphere that included music, art, and literature. The Sumerians of lower Mesopotamia founded the first cities, invented writing, developed poetry, and created vast architectural structures. Prehistory was left behind and an era of civilizations started.

Mesopotamia, the land of plenty

How was the geography of Mesopotamia?

A desert climate dominates the landscape between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea in Southwest Asia. Yet within this dry region lies an arc of land that provided some of the best farming in Southwest Asia. The region’s curved shape and the richness of its land led scholars to call it the Fertile Crescent, and it is considered “the cradle of civilization.” It includes the lands facing the Mediterranean Sea and a plain that became known as Mesopotamia. The word in Greek means “land between the rivers.”

The rivers framing Mesopotamia are the Tigris and Euphrates. They flow southeastward to the Persian Gulf. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flooded Mesopotamia at least once a year. As the floodwater receded, it left a thick bed of mud called silt. Farmers planted grain in this rich, new soil and irrigated the fields with river water. The results were large quantities of wheat and barley at harvest time. The surpluses from their harvests allowed villages to grow.

Map of Ancient Mesopotamia

 What environmental challenges did Mesopotamians face?

People first began to settle and farm the flat, swampy lands in southern Mesopotamia before 4500 B.C. Around 3300 B.C., the people called the Sumerians arrived on the scene. Good soil was the advantage that attracted these settlers. However, there were three disadvantages to their new environment.

  • Unpredictable flooding combined with a period of little or no rain. The land sometimes became almost a desert.
  • With no natural barriers for protection, a Sumerian village was nearly defenseless.
  • The natural resources of Sumer were limited. Building materials and other necessary items were scarce.

So, to provide water, they dug irrigation ditches that carried river water to their fields and allowed them to produce a surplus of crops. For defense, they built city walls with mud bricks.

Irrigation system
Mesopotamia’s irrigation system diagram

Sumerians traded their grain, cloth, and crafted tools with the peoples of the mountains and the desert. In exchange, they received raw materials such as stone, wood, and metal.

These activities required organization, cooperation, and leadership. It took many people working together, for example, for the Sumerians to construct their large irrigation systems. Leaders were needed to plan the projects and supervise the digging.

These projects also created a need for laws to settle disputes over how land and water would be distributed. These leaders and laws were the beginning of organized government—and eventually of civilization.

How did Sumerians create city-states?

The Sumerians stand out in history as one of the first groups of people to form a civilization. There were five key characteristics that set Sumer apart from earlier human societies: (1) advanced cities, (2) specialized workers, (3) complex institutions, (4) record-keeping, and (5) improved technology.

All the later peoples who lived in this region of the world built upon the innovations of Sumerian civilization.

By 3000 B.C., the Sumerians had built several cities, each surrounded by fields of barley and wheat. Although these cities shared the same culture, they developed their own governments, each with its own rulers. Each city and the surrounding land it controlled formed a city-state.

A city-state functioned much as an independent country does today. Sumerian city-states included Uruk, Kish, Lagash, Umma, and Ur. As in Ur, the center of all Sumerian cities was the walled temple with a ziggurat in the middle. There the priests and rulers appealed to the gods for the well-being of the city-state.

City in old Mesopotamia

Who controlled power in Sumer’s ealiest goverments?

Sumer’s earliest governments were controlled by the temple priests. The farmers believed that the success of their crops depended upon the blessings of the gods, and the priests acted as go-betweens with the gods.

In addition to being a place of worship, the ziggurat was like a city hall. From the ziggurat, the priests managed the irrigation system. Priests demanded a portion of every farmer’s crop as taxes.

In a time of war, however, the priests did not lead the city. Instead, the men of the city chose a tough fighter who could command the city’s soldiers. At first, a commander’s power ended as soon as the war was over. After 3000 B.C., wars between cities became more and more frequent. Gradually, Sumerian priests and people gave commanders permanent control of standing armies.

In time, some military leaders became full-time rulers. These rulers usually passed their power on to their sons, who eventually passed it on to their own heirs. Such a series of rulers from a single family is called a dynasty. After 2500 B.C., many Sumerian city-states came under the rule of dynasties.

Ziggurat, ancient temple in Mesopotamia

Sumer’s city-states grew prosperous from the surplus food produced on their farms. These surpluses allowed Sumerians to increase long-distance trade, exchanging the extra food and other goods for items they needed.

By 2500 B.C., new cities were arising all over the Fertile Crescent, in what is now Syria, northern Iraq, and Turkey. Sumerians exchanged products and ideas, such as living in cities, with neighboring cultures. This process in which a new idea or a product spreads from one culture to another is called cultural diffusion.

How was the Sumerian culture?

The belief systems, social structure, technology, and arts of the Sumerians reflected their civilization’s triumph over its dry and harsh environment.

Like many peoples in the Fertile Crescent, the Sumerians believed that many different gods controlled the various forces in nature. The belief in more than one god is called polytheism. To keep the gods happy, the Sumerians built impressive ziggurats for them and offered rich sacrifices of animals, food, and wine.

Sumerians worked hard to earn the gods’ protection in this life. Yet they expected little help from the gods after death. The Sumerians believed that the souls of the dead went to the “land of no return,” a dismal, gloomy place between the earth’s crust and the ancient sea. No joy awaited souls there. A passage in a Sumerian poem describes the fate of dead souls: “Dust is their fare and clay their food.”

Some of the richest accounts of Mesopotamian myths and legends appear in a long poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh.

How was life in Sumerian Society?

With civilization came the beginning of what we call social classes. Kings, landholders, and priests made up the highest level in Sumerian society. Wealthy merchants ranked next. The vast majority of ordinary Sumerian people worked with their hands in fields and workshops. At the lowest level of Sumerian society were the slaves. Some slaves were foreigners who had been captured in war.

Social class affected the lives of both men and women. Sumerian women could work as merchants, farmers, or artisans. They could hold property in their own names. Women could also join the priesthood. Some upper-class women did learn to read and write, though Sumer’s written records mention few female scribes. However, Sumerian women had more rights than women in many later civilizations.

How was Sumerian Science and Technology?

Historians believe that Sumerians invented the wheel, the sail, and the plow and that they were among the first to use bronze. Many new ideas and inventions arose from the Sumerians’ practical needs.

Arithmetic and geometry: To erect city walls and buildings, plan irrigation systems, and survey flooded fields, Sumerians needed arithmetic and geometry. They developed a number system in base 60, from which stem the modern units for measuring time (60 seconds = 1 minute) and the 360 degrees of a circle.

Architectural innovations: Arches, columns, ramps, and the pyramid-shaped the design of the ziggurat and permanently influenced Mesopotamian civilization.

Cuneiform Sumerians created a system of writing. One of the first known maps was made on a clay tablet in about 2300 B.C. Other tablets contain some of the oldest written records of scientific investigations in the areas of astronomy, chemistry, and medicine.

Cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia

How were the First Empire Builders?

From 3000 to 2000 B.C., the city-states of Sumer were almost constantly at war with one another. The weakened city-states could no longer ward off attacks from the peoples of the surrounding deserts and hills. Although the Sumerians never recovered from the attacks on their cities, their civilization did not die. Succeeding sets of rulers adapted the basic ideas of Sumerian culture to meet their own needs.

Who was Sargon of Akkad?

About 2350 B.C., a conqueror named Sargon defeated the city-states of Sumer. Sargon led his army from Akkad, a city-state north of Sumer. The Akkadians had long before adopted most aspects of Sumerian culture. Sargon’s conquests helped to spread that culture even further, beyond the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

By taking control of both northern and southern Mesopotamia, Sargon created the world’s first empire. An empire brings together several peoples, nations, or previously independent states under the control of one ruler. At its height, the Akkadian Empire loosely controlled land from the Mediterranean Coast in the west to present-day Iran in the east.

Sargon’s dynasty lasted only about 200 years, after which it declined due to internal fighting, invasions, and a famine.

King Sargon from Akkad

How was the Babylonian Empire?

In about 2000 B.C., nomadic warriors known as Amorites invaded Mesopotamia. Gradually, the Amorites overwhelmed the Sumerians and established their capital at Babylon, on the Euphrates River. The Babylonian Empire reached its peak during the reign of Hammurabi, from 1792 B.C. to1750 B.C.

Hammurabi’s most enduring legacy is the code of laws he put together that recognized that a single, uniform code of laws would help to unify the diverse groups within his empire. He collected existing rules, judgments, and laws into the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi had the code engraved in stone, and copies were placed all over his empire.

Stella where the Code of Hammurabi was engraved

The code lists 282 specific laws dealing with everything that affected the community, including family relations, business conduct, and crime. Since many people were merchants, traders, or farmers, for example, many of the laws related to property issues. Additionally, the laws sought to protect women and children from unfair treatment. The laws tell us a great deal about the Mesopotamians’ beliefs and what they valued.

Although the code applied to everyone, it set different punishments for rich and poor and for men and women. It frequently applied the principle of retaliation (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) to punish crimes.

The prologue of the code sets out the goals for this body of law. It said, “ To bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak.” Thus, Hammurabi’s Code reinforced the principle that the government had a responsibility for what occurred in society. For example, if a man was robbed and the thief was not caught, the government was required to compensate the victim.

The gate of kings

Nearly two centuries after Hammurabi’s reign, the Babylonian Empire, which had become much smaller, fell to the neighboring Kassites. Over the years, new groups dominated the Fertile Crescent. Yet the later peoples, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, and Hebrews, would adopt many ideas of the early Sumerians. Meanwhile, a similar pattern of development, rise, and fall was taking place to the west, along the Nile River in Egypt.

Assyrian Empire circa 650 BC
Characteristics of Early Empires

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