Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning ‘between two rivers’) was an ancient region located 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, mostly, but also parts of modern-day Iran, Syria, and Turkey. The ‘two rivers’ of the name referred to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and the land was known as ‘Al-Jazirah’ (the island) by the Arabs referencing what Egyptologist J.H. Breasted would later call the Fertile Crescent, where Mesopotamian civilization began.
The Cradle of Civilization
Unlike the more unified civilizations of Egypt or Greece, Mesopotamia was a collection of varied cultures whose only real bonds were their script, their gods, and their attitude toward women. The social customs, laws, and even language of Akkad, for example, cannot be assumed to correspond to those of Babylon; it does seem, however, that the rights of women, the importance of literacy, and the pantheon of the gods were indeed shared throughout the region (though the gods had different names in various regions and periods). As a result of this, Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilizations rather than any single civilization. Even so, Mesopotamia is known as the “cradle of civilization” primarily because of two developments that occurred there, in the region of Sumer, in the 4th Millenium BCE:
- Rise of the city as we recognize that entity today.
- Invention of writing
- The invention of the wheel is also credited to the Mesopotamians and, in 1922 CE
- 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, in fact, has listed 39 `firsts’ in human civilization that originated in Sumer.
Archaeological excavations starting in the 1840s CE have revealed human settlements dating to 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia that indicate that the fertile conditions of the land between two rivers allowed an ancient hunter-gatherer people to settle in the land, domesticate animals, and turn their attention to agriculture. Trade soon followed, and with prosperity came urbanization and the birth of the city. It is generally thought that writing was invented due to trade, out of the necessity for long-distance communication, and for keeping more careful track of accounts.
The beginning of the world, they believed, was a victory by the gods over the forces of chaos but, even though the gods had won, this did not mean chaos could not come again. 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.
A Helpful Video About Mesapotamia
History of Mesopotamia
The history of the region and the development of the civilizations which flourished there is most easily understood by dividing it into periods:
Pre-Pottery Neolithic Age
Also known as The Stone Age (c. 10,000 BCE though evidence suggests human habitation much earlier). There is archaeological confirmation of crude settlements and early signs of warfare between tribes, most likely over fertile land for crops and fields for grazing livestock. Animal husbandry was increasingly practiced during this time with a shift from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agrarian one.
Pottery Neolithic Age (c. 7,000 BCE)
In this period there was widespread use of tools and clay pots and a specific culture begins to emerge in the Fertile Crescent. Scholar 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 that “the Neolithic economy was primarily based on food production through farming and animal husbandry” and was more settled, as opposed to the Stone Age in which communities were more mobile. Architectural advancements naturally followed in the wake of permanent settlements as did developments in the manufacture of ceramics and stone tools.
Copper Age (5,900 – 3,200 BCE)
Also known as The Chalcolithic Period owing to the transition from stone tools and weapons to ones made of copper. This era includes the so-called Ubaid Period (c. 5900-4300 BCE, 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 and cities began to appear in this period, most notably in the region of Sumer in which thrived the cities of Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Kish, Nuzi, Lagash, Nippur, and Ngirsu, and in Elam with its city of Susa.
This period saw the invention of the wheel (c. 3500 BCE) and writing (c. 3000 BCE), both by the Sumerians, the establishment of kingships to replace priestly rule, and the first war in the world recorded between the kingdoms of Sumer and Elam (3200 BCE) with Sumer as the victor.
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 (2350 BCE) 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.
Middle Bronze Age (2119-1700 BCE)
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 they were defeated by the allied forces of the kings of Sumer.
Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BCE)
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) leads 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 make use of iron, a technology which the Kassites and, earlier, the Hittites made singular use of in warfare.
Iron Age (1000 – 500 BCE)
This age saw the rise and expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE) and that Empire’s meteoric rise to power and conquest under the rule of great Assyrian kings such as Sargon II (722-705 BCE), Sennacherib (705-681 BCE), Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (c. 668-627 BCE, 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.
Classical Antiquity (500 BCE – 7th century CE)
After Cyrus II (d. 530 BCE) took Babylon, the bulk of Mesopotamia became part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and this period saw a rapid cultural decline in the region, most notably in the loss of the knowledge of cuneiform script. The conquest of the Persians by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE 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.
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