Mesopotamian Civilization

"The civilization between the two rivers"

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‘Mesopotamia’ means the land between the rivers. Mesopotamian civilization is considered to be the first civilization known to the history of mankind originated in the Fertile Crescent bounded in the northeast by the Zagros Mountains and in the southeast by the Arabian Plateau nourished by two rivers the Tigris and the Euphrates. The presence of the two rivers made the land fertile making it possible for the civilization to thrive. Mesopotamian Civilization became the base for many aspects of Western Civilization.

The geography of Mesopotamia that included flat and marshy land can be traced to parts of modern day Syria, almost all of Iraq and southeastern Turkey. As per the geography, Mesopotamian Civilization could be roughly divided into two zones: the mostly flat Upper Mesopotamia and the highly fertile plain of Lower Mesopotamia

The Fertile Crescent: Cradle of Civilization

The population of the previously hunters and gatherers grew in Mesopotamia with development of better tools. These clans began developing small village like settlements. Increased dependence on the food that they produced set the base for a more developed technology of farming and irrigation. Along with more permanent houses, Mesopotamian Cities discovered methods of storing food grains which could be used over an extended period of time. Animals were domesticated which in turned gave additional support in their farming. Mesopotamians developed pottery, stone tools and started spinning thread from wool and flax. Wool was the most common fabric used in Mesopotamian Clothing. Looms for weaving fabric can be traced to as early as 3000 BCE. Along with carved stone jewelry, copper were also used for the same.

The vast expanse of the region was constantly disturbed by devastating flood and thunderstorm making it vulnerable to suffering and starvation. This constant fear and helplessness gave rise to the belief in God to save them from such perils. Temples were dedicated to many gods and goddesses. During this phase, priests were at the top of the society. Religion in Mesopotamia was the center of their lives. However, governors also the war leaders ruled the city with an assembly of adults. With the passage of time, these governors assumed more power giving rise to monarchy in turn establishing dynasties so that monarch could pass on their power down to their sons and grandsons.

Mesopotamian Civilization: Rise of the First Civilization

With the advent of farming, irrigation became an important issue to be addressed. On the other hand creation of embankments was required to keep the flood away from Euphrates. Canals and ditches were dug to drain out marshes. Abundant crops were produced and the surplus was used to feed to city workers such as the artist, merchants and craftsmen among others. This organization gave rise to a complex Mesopotamian society supported by economic activities. Groups of people stayed together and spoke a common language. With society, emerged leaders and social classes.

The urbanization of this region went through several changes:

  • 9000 BCE: Hilltop cities evolved. Example: Jericho
  • 7000 BCE: Settlement began in the Zagros Mountain. A network of small cities developed in the fertile crescent
  • 6000 BCE: The network of villages and small cities expanded towards the South along the Euphrates
  • 5000 BCE: Mesopotamia became a large network of villages and cities.

Religion for Mesopotamians however was the central focus in the city life and each city had its own gods and goddesses. Hence, temple became an important architectural element which was built to honor the divinity. With the scale of the city, grew the size of the temple in its functions and wealth.

Mesopotamian temples were designed on a rectangular plan. These temple towers or Ziggurats a representation of the sacred mountain were brick-built temple mounds in a layered platform. Ziggurats were the main center of administrative and economic activity. Quarters of the priest, officials and the accountants, musicians, treasure chambers, granary along with ceremonial banquets and courtyards etc. was present in the temple complex. Sacrificial animals were also reared in the temple complex.

Ziggurat of Ur is one of the largest with a height of around 70 to 100 feet on a rectangular plan of 210 by 150 feet. Three stairways led to the first level while a single stairway led to the second level and finally to the last and highest terrace. The most important part of the Ziggurat of Ur was the Nanna temple believed to have been an engineering and design marvel.

Another important piece of architecture was the White Temple which was built on the Anu Ziggurat. The temple gets its name for the fact that it was entirely white washed inside and out. It was a long rectangular central hall with rooms on either side and had three entrances.

Mesopotamian Government and its functioning

The temple which was the very center of public life also acted as a major source of distribution. It kept a track on available grains, holding back a portion for times of flood and poor harvest. A class of people emerged to keep and maintain records. The temple also employed skilled craftsmen, traders and other laborers.

With time, the supreme powers of the priest in the temples were replaced by kings. With this, onus of land was slowly taken away from temples and went into the hands of kings. Mesopotamian Economy which was mostly trade and agriculture followed a similar course. However, rulers of Mesopotamia had a number of responsibilities other than maintaining law and order. Rulers had to ensure the proper functioning of canals and irrigation system too. The city had a complex network of scribes, accountants and officials to look after the working of the temples and the royal kingdom. Mesopotamian states even had a postal service. Landowners had to give a portion of their produce to the king and also supply labors when required to work on the irrigation system or supply man for the army.

Settlements of Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia was constituted by a network of cities. Larger cities were surrounded by numerous satellite villages and most of these villages were under the authority of the large city. Scholars believed that a city typically may have housed around 20,000 to 50,000 people.

The city or settlement which was mostly surrounded by baked brick walls evolved around a temple usually a monumental structure including the granaries, storehouses and other administrative houses. In later phases, a royal palace also existed near the city center. Wide streets connected the city gates to the center of the city. Houses of the elite and common people existed away from the public places. Houses had courtyards and most windows opened towards it. Accommodations of foreign traders existed around the harbors. Near the cities, there were the irrigated farms and meadows and territories ruled by the city.

Rise of a distinct culture: the Sumerians

The Sumerians emerged as a distinct class with the advancement in their farming and irrigation techniques. They built large cities and organized them to address the needs of its people. Small fields expanded to large farmlands while canals and irrigation ensured a successful crop.

The Sumerians also developed wheeled chariot and carts were pulled by donkeys. Their access to water gave them an added advantage to sell their goods away from the homeland.  The development of a script known as the cuneiform script enabled the citizens to record the produce and accounts, to sends news or letters or enter into business contracts. Around 2000BC, both Sumer and Akkad were attacked by barbarian invaders and built a powerful new state around the city of Babylon.

The Babylonians rose to power in the later phase of 7th Century and ruled an empire as that of the Assyrian Empire before them. This period is also known as the Neo-Babylonian as it had rose to power earlier during Hammurabi too.

Art, Culture and Mesopotamian written language

Mesopotamian Art was in the form of sculpted figures in art and clay along with few paintings. Sculptures usually depicted animals, mythical creatures, gods and goddesses. During the Assyrian and the Babylonian period, sculptures took the form of giant statues guarding the royal palaces. Mesopotamian culture was closely linked to the worship of the gods and goddesses.

Cuneiform, the earliest writing was one of the key Mesopotamian inventions that can be traced to around 3000 BCE which coincides with the peak of Sumerian Civilization. The first written language in Mesopotamia is called Sumerian. Text were inscribes on damp clay tablets with a pointed tool. Cuneiform tablets were used for inscriptions representing the work of administrators or to keep records.

The range of Mesopotamian languages that were written with cuneiform includes Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Hurrian, Urartian, Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, Hatian and Elamite.

Hammurabi and Hammurabi’s Code

The Sumerian Kingdom came to an end with the crowning of Sargon I as the new ruler of Akkad and Sumer. Sargon I expanded its empire to almost whole of Mesopotamia. Under the leadership of Sargon, the Akkadians conquered the whole of Sumer along with influencing other areas. After ruling Mesopotamia for about 140 years, another group from the East began conquering parts of Mesopotamia. Many public buildings and temples were destroyed as part of the celebration of their victory. They slaughtered people and looted their homes. During this phase, another group known as the Amorites came to Mesopotamia. They established a central government to control the lands. The King was considered as God and had tremendous power. Heavy taxes were levied and every young man had to serve in the army. The demands of the King were considered the ultimate decision and any crime committed was considered to be against the king himself.

After several rulers, Hammurabi become the sixth king and was regarded as an important king. Hammurabi considered himself to be a great builder. Canals were one of his greatest accomplishments. However, Hammurabi’s most important contribution was a set of laws which he claimed to have come directly from God. He believed that everybody should have a chance to get justice. In his reign, there was a list of crimes and punishments. Hammurabi’s Code had a total of 282 laws and punishments. Most punishments included dealt penalties and exile.  Religion, law and military power made Babylon a powerful empire.

End of power

Ancient Mesopotamia remained as one of the most influential civilization. They built cities, used potter’s wheel, developed writing, and developed a complex bureaucratic system, laid out law and use metals. A number of technologies and scientific advances were made which eventually influenced Medieval and Modern European civilization.

However, Mesopotamia had an ever changing political system along with the rise and fall of many cultures. The reason of war stayed constant which was greed for more power, land and wealth. The city states constantly fought for more power making it vulnerable for outsiders to attack. This constant invasion from external factors doomed the civilization.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for the interesting articles! They provide an excellent overview without being too technical or complex. I hope you will add material about the several major periods in ancient Anatolia.

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