A Brief History of Ancient Mesopotamia and Early Civilization

Assyrian war chariot

If we’re going to start with the beginnings of recorded human history, we ought to start with the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, the “land between the two rivers.” This is where most historians believe that the foundations of our modern civilization began.

The Beginnings of Mesopotamian Civilzation

Early farms in ancient Mesopotamia

It’s hard to put exact dates to events from ancient antiquity. All we know is that the world we are familiar with today in terms of geography really took shape after end of the most recent ice age, about 12,000 years ago. With the polar ice caps melting and the gigantic glaciers of the world receding, sea levels began to rise. This actually flooded large parts of the earth that had at one time been filled with animals and prehistoric humans. As the seas rose, the famous land bridge between Asia and North America (today eastern Siberia and Alaska, respectively) disappeared, as did much of the coastline of both continents. The land which connected Britain to Europe also was gradually flooded, creating the English Channel. So too was the land between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The land that we today call the Near or Middle East was no different. It was here that at least 7000 years ago, the very beginnings of human civilization as we know it began to take form and that the first collection of city-states fully emerged.

The Sumerians and the first City-states

Sumerian chariot from an ancient mural

Sometime after 4000 BCE, a group of people known as the Sumerians created settlements along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq. These were the foundations of what became the world’s first cities. By learning how to irrigate the land around these rivers, the Sumerians were able to make the rich soil of southern Mesopotamia yield harvests large enough to support a relatively dense and growing population. Basically, they succeeded where others had failed in producing the first food surpluses in human history. With excess food supplies, human beings no longer had to spend every day of their lives hunting and gathering food. Instead, they had time to not only ponder the mysteries of the universe, but also develop new, practical technologies that could greatly improve their lives.

Ancient Sumerian mural depicting farmers and herders of different domesticated animals.

With these new technological advances, a new specialized society emerged with farmers, masons, carpenters, kings, soldiers, priests, teachers, artisans and, with the invention of writing, scribes. In fact, the Sumerians are credited with being the first ancient civilization to develop and use writing. The earliest evidence that we have of this comes dates back to 3300 BCE (some say 3500 BCE) and is contained on clay tablets found in the ruins of the city of Uruk. This early writing, known as cuneiform, took form by impressing pictographs and symbols on wet slabs of clay with a stylus. Initially, such tablets were used to keep records of agricultural surpluses but later became the main medium for recording royal proclamations and laws, the history and oral epics of Sumerian civilization.

Sumerian Urban Centers of Civilization

Ancient Sumerian figurines praying – from the site of Tell Asmar ca. 1900 BCE

By 3500 BCE, the Sumerians and several other peoples of Mesopotamia were living in fully urbanized centers with paved roads lined with simple adobe houses, common markets, large step temples known as ziggurats, palaces and public squares. Some of the most ancient of these cities (that we know about) were Eridu, Ur and Uruk, the latter which in the 4th millennium BCE was believed to have been the largest urban area in the world.

Artist conception of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk.

These cities also acquired a great deal of wealth and possessed a relatively high degree of culture, at least for some of their citizens. In Uruk for example, several royal tombs were found which contained golden objects, precious stones, ornately embroidered clothes, cosmetics and even musical instruments. These objects are believed to have been placed into the tombs so that the deceased could take them on their journey into the afterlife. However, it was not just objects that were found in these tombs, but human remains of what are believed to have been servants. It is believed that the royal patrons of these servants – soldiers, harpists and maybe a few concubines – would need them in the world of the dead as much as they had in the world of the living. There is evidence that these servants drank poison before being entombed with their masters.

The Akkadians

Artist conception of the Akkadian leader Sargon

Then as now, ideas and technologies don’t stay with one group of people for long. Others discover or acquire them and oftentimes become even more powerful than the original users. This was the case with another Mesopotamian people known as the Akkadians.

In 2340 B.C.E., Sumer was conquered by Sargon of Akkad. The Akkadians were once in a semi-nomadic people who had gradually settled on the outskirts of Mesopotamia proper. Sargon ruled from his capital known as Agade (a.k.a. Akkad), believed to be close to modern-day Baghdad. Agade eventually became the center of trade and administration for the region with the Akkadian language replacing Sumerian, at least officially.

Life of Sargon

Bronze head of Sargon of Akkad

According to the legends and secondary sources written after his death, Sargon came from humble origins. He was believed to have been the son of a gardener. The Sumerian King list, of which there are several versions, say that he had been the cup-bearer of King Ur-Zababa of the city of Kish and eventually went on to seize the throne of another king, Lugal-zage-si of Uruk. Sargon then shifted his capital to Agade and apparently ruled an empire that consisted of all of Mesopotamia and spanned from the Mediterranean to the borders of Iran. According to inscriptions that are believed to have been left by Sargon himself, the Akkadian king claims to have defeated some 50 other rulers during his conquest of Sumer and all of the regions leading down to the Persian Gulf. According to the King Lists, he ruled this multi-ethnic empire, the first of its kind, somewhere between 54-56 years.

Possible extent of the Akkadian empire of Sargon

Though he founded his empire through conquest, it’s continued survival was due to trade. The Akkadian governors that Sargon appointed for his Sumerian conquests were instructed to tear down all of the walls around the cities. Sargon believed that not only would this prevent rebellions, but would also make commerce easier between the regions of his new empire. In this he was very successful as Sargon’s empire sent and received valuable goods such as grain, timber and tin from areas as far away as Egypt and India.

The End of the Akkadians

Though Sargon appears to have had the power and charisma to have held together his empire, his successors proved to be not as capable at ruling. After just over a hundred years, the Akkadian empire was overrun by a people known known as the Gutians, after which a sort of dark age settled over Mesopotamia. At least this is what later chroniclers describe. It could just be that no one could compare to Sargon since after his death he was regarded more like a god then a man. Divinity aside, Sargon’s empire created a workable bureaucracy that laid strong foundations for the other empires that would follow it.

The Amorites of Assyria and Babylonia

Artist conception of the Amorites
Around 2000 BCE, a new era began in Mesopotamia. After countless wars and perhaps decline caused by environmental factors, the old cities of Sumer began to be eclipsed by other ones that were being founded by new arrivals to Mesopotamia. Among these were the Babylonians and the later the Assyrians.

For the next 400 years, several dynasties vied for power over Mesopotamia. Each was based in a particular city-state with the most powerful of them being Babylon, Ashur, Mari, Larsa, and Isin. These new dynasties were all of Amorite descent. The Amorites were a group of Semitic tribes that had migrated and later settled in and around Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium BCE. They are believed to have come from the west, possibly as far as the biblical land of Canaan.

The first great tribe of the Amorites to rule over large swaths of Mesopotamia were the Assyrians. Their king, Shamshi-Adad, built up his empire not only through the strength of his military, but like Sargon before him, through trade, especially with Anatolia to the northwest. When Shamshi-Adad died in 1781 BCE, another Amorite power to the south was already on the rise, the city state of Babylon. The man who is credited for its rise is the famous Hammurabi.
Code of Laws found at Susa, the old Elamite capital. Today it’s in the Louve.
Hammurabi was unique in that he was both a warrior and a scholar. His most famous contribution to human history is his code of laws, commonly referred to as in Hammurabi’s code. This legal document (if you could call it that) covered a host of issues as varied as the pricing of agricultural goods and consumer protection to brutal capital punishments. He also was a great patron of mathematics, astronomy, astrology and the sciences. It is believed that during his reign, the numbering system based on 60 that we use today was developed.

Assyria and Babylonia constantly vied for influence over Mesopotamia. Eventually the two more or less coalesced with each other. The Assyrians were known more for their wealth and military might while the Babylonians were viewed more as high culture snobs. However in 1595 BCE, both areas were overrun by invaders from Anatolia, the Hittites.

The Hittites

Around 1600 BCE, an Indo-European people known as the Hittites appeared on the scene. Their initial stronghold was the city of Hattusa, today in central Anatolia near the modern-day city of Boğazkale. This was a tough, harsh and mountainous regain which undoubtable rubbed off on all who lived there. Thus, it was only natural that a warlike people such as the Hittites would be inclined to invade and reap the rewards of greener pastures to the south. Eventually, they expanded and created an empire that dominated Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean and threatened the ancient but powerful kingdom in Egypt.

The Hittite Empire

As warriors, the Hittites were among the most efficient and lethal of the ancient world. They are also believed to have been among the first peoples to adopt the horse-drawn chariot as a means of attack. Between the years 1658 and 1200 BCE, the Hittite empire was ruled by a single “Great King” and a centralized government. To help them to administrate their many territories, the Hittites developed a system of client kingdoms, kind of like vassals, who were to swear their loyalty and arms to the “Great King,” often by paying tribute, providing soldiers and wives for marriage. It was a system that seemed to work for several centuries until it didn’t. This was probably the result of several things all occurring around the same time including growing instability, famine and several wars. Both the Egyptians and Assyrians had also reasserted themselves militarily, thus putting pressure on the Hittite military machine and gobbling up their territory and client kings. By 1200 BCE, the Hittite empire was essentially finished.

The End of the Old Order

The Hittites were brutal no doubt, but they paled in comparison to the Assyrians. These were people who made it a sport of massacring people, carrying the survivors into slavery and turning once thriving cities into wastelands. For themselves though, the Assyrians built some pretty exquisite cities such as Nineveh and their historical capital of Ashur. These and other Assyrian cities contained beautiful palaces, temples and libraries. In fact, much of what we know about the Akkadians and early peoples of Mesopotamia comes from texts discovered in the ruins of Nineveh’s library. When the Assyrians weren’t out killing and looting, they enjoyed a pretty high standard of living and culture.

King Sennacherib of Assyria

Through a policy of fear and intimidation, the Assyrians were able to hold onto their empire for several hundred years. Yet like the empires before it, the Assyrian one grew too big for its britches. That, along with ruling over populations who totally despised them, brought about their destruction. This was done through an alliance between the Babylonians under the Chaldeans and the Medes, an Indo-Iranian confederation to the east that was a relative newcomer to the Mesopotamian scene. In 612 BCE, they destroyed Nineveh and three years later, Ashur. This Neo-Babylonian, Chaldean Dynasty rebuilt Babylon into possibly the ancient world’s most wealthy and beautiful city. This though was not done through the efforts of the Babylonians themselves; they relied heavily on the labor of conquered slaves. This was the empire of Nebuchadnezzar II, infamous for his destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of its population in 597 BCE but well-known as the builder of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Neo-Babylonian Chaldean empire was short-lived. After just 60 years, they and the old order of Mesopotamia fell to the Persians and their king, Cyrus the Great. This changed the Mesopotamia and really the world forever.

Further Reading and Sources:

Go to the main page