Mesopotamia is where civilization began. By 4000 B. C., many different groups of people were working out their lives in a variety of ways. In a great arc from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, across the Turkish plains and through the highlands of Iraq and Iran, groups of peoples had settled and were farming, tending animals, making pottery and building towns, markets and forts. In the deserts, mountains and steppes, nomadic tribesmen lived by herding animals and by hunting and raiding. In Mesopotamia as these populations grew, they began to compete for land, food and supplies.
One of the areas that was to become most sought after was a stretch of land almost at the very centre of these various peoples. It was only about 150 miles wide and 600 miles long and extended from the foothills of northwester Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, drained the area and gave it its name, Mesopotamia – “the land between the rivers”.
For the next 3,500 years, Mesopotamia was to witness the rise and fall of many cities and cultures. Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldaeans – these were only some of the people who took root and flourished in this land. Finally the Persians came and reduced Mesopotamia to a mere province but from the first unknown settlers to the mighty Nebuchadnezzar, this land gave rise to much that would affect all civilization.
The first settlers in Mesopotamia set up their villages and farmed in the upper reaches of the Tigris. These were among the earliest farming communities anywhere in the world, but they gradually declined and it was many years later before this region came to be known as Assyria.
Mesopotamia’s southern region, which was later called Babylonia, was especially hot and dry and did not seem to attract early man. Between the rivers were broad plains, ideal for farming if they could be watered. Along the lower reaches and in the delta, were marshlands with fish and wild fowl and reeds that could be made into boats and huts. What was needed to develop this territory were men willing to settle and work the land.
The Founding of Eridu
For a long time, people came and went in southern Mesopotamia. Then, about 4000 B. C., men from the east settled at a site called Eridu, in the Delta near Euphrates River. They farmed and fished and made pottery. Stone was so rare that they even baked clay tools. There was not enough rainfall to support their crops, but fertile lands along the river were easily flooded. To keep the marshes drained and to bring water to more and distant fields, men began to develop a system of dikes and canals. The construction and upkeep of such an irrigation system took much planning and labour and men were forced to work together. True community living had begun.
Soon the community at Eridu built itself a shrine to its patron god. It was a simple building, made of the same unbaked bricks used for their houses. This was only proper, since the shrine was the home of the god. Inside, on its altar, people laid their offerings of fish and other foods to express thanks for past harvests and hopes for the future. If the god became unhappy, he might leave the city and expose it to evils and enemies.
As the community grew, there was need for more food. The irrigation system was enlarged, but the floods in the delta and marshlands were so unpredictable and destructive that people began to settle further up on the plains, North of Eridu, for instance, there was the prosperous city of Uruk. Its people were not only farmers, but carpenters, priests and metalsmiths. They also wove cloth, made fine stone carvings and played music on a simple harp.
The Rise of Sumer in Mesopotamia
No matter how busy they were, the people of Uruk always took time to worship their god. As at Eridu, they periodically built a new temple, using the old building material as its foundation. Now that Uruk was thriving, the great platform towered forty feet above the plain. Stairs and ramps led up to the white temple on the top, where there was an altar to Anu, the great royal sky god. In a city as large and as wealthy as Uruk, there was room for other gods and temples as well.
The southernmost part of Mesopotamia was called Sumer and now many cities are growing there. Along with Eridu and Uruk, there were Ur, Lagash and Nippur, each with its own supreme gods were recognized by all Sumerians. Among them were Anu, the sky god and his son Enlil, lord of the wind and earth; Ea, god of water and Nanna, or sin, the moon god who governed the night, the months and the calendar. All Sumerians also worshipped Uta, or Shamash, the sun god. Since he was “the one from whom no secrets are hid”, Uta was also the god of justice.
Each god had his temple home in one city or another, often on a high platform, or ziggurat. The ziggurat was like an artificial mountain rising from the flatlands. The Sumerians called it “the house of the mountain,” or “the bond between heaven and earth.” To them, all nature – plants, animals, water, even the sun – sprang from the mountains and it seemed that the life-giving gods would be most at home in a high place.
The temple that towered over the city was the centre of the city’s life. All land was considered the estate of the god, with the high priest acting as the god’s steward. As farming and irrigation became more complicated, officials were appointed to supervise the work. In time, some citizens gained control of large lots of land and became wealthy. Other people became so indebted that they had to sign themselves into slavery. At all times, however, everyone worked for the good of the community.
The area around the temple was a busy place. Here were brought the various products – grains, vegetables, fish, cheeses, dates, sesame seed, wool, skins, reeds. Some of the products were given to support the temple staff and the community’s festivals. Some were stored for famine and emergencies, or distributed among those who could not farm, or exported to other cities and distant tribes.
Supervising all this were the various men who combined the roles of temple priests and civic officials. Quotas had to be filled, land assigned, goods divided. A system for keeping records was needed and it was not long before the Sumerians were working with numbers. They had two systems, in fact; one was based on the number 60 and the other on the number 10. They could make various calculations and even worked with fractions. Systems of weights and measures were developed at the same time.
Writing with Signs
A man could make simple calculations in his head, but certain records had to be kept to administer the community’s property. People began to scratch the numbers in stone or press them in clay tablets. Alongside the numbers they drew outlines of the objects accounted for – livestock, human heads, plants, tools, buildings. Soon they began to simplify the pictures, eliminating details and leaving little more than a sign.
They soon realized that a drawing or sign could stand for something beyond itself. The sign for star came to mean “heaven,” the sign for foot came to mean “going”. After a while, they began to use a sign for its sound alone. The word for arrow, Ti, sounded like the word for “life”, so a simple arrowhead was used to express a complicated idea. Later the arrowhead was combined with other signs to form words with the ‘Ti’ sound in them.
For hundreds of years, these signs were used mainly to record lists of produce, receipts of goods, quotas and rations. The few people who kept such records did not see themselves as creating anything special. They took the clay that was readily at hand and pressed on it with a piece of pointed reed. The fact remains, however, that these early Sumerians had invented writing.
It was the people of Uruk who took the lead in developing writing and other forms of Sumerian culture. Meantime, other cities were also advancing, each independent and yet sharing the Sumerian way of life. The rivers made communication and trade easy and a city might send out a whole colony to watch over trading routes. From the mountains of Iran to the east, the Sumerians got stone, timber and metals in exchange for their grains. They traded with peoples who lived as far away as Troy and the Caspian Sea. Even the Egyptians learned new ways of doing things from trading with the Sumerians.
Religion and the Gods of Mesopotamia
Wherever they went, the Sumerians carried their cylinder seals – semi-precious stones no longer than a finger joint. Carved on each was a design usually of animals and plants, often done with great artistry. Rolled across wet clay, the design was transferred and became a signature and a seal. To people who believed the gods watched over all their doings, it was a curse to disturb a man’s seal.
In Mesopotamia, the Sumerians saw nothing strange about calling on the gods to watch over property. Every object, every activity belonged to some god. Besides the great gods of the temples, there were also the gods in the forces of nature – fire, sandstorms, lightning and thunder, the plague. All around men, too, were ghosts, demons, devils and monsters. Rabiscu the Croucher lurked in doorways and dark corners. Another demon threatened women in childbirth.
Men could do several things to keep the gods and demons happy. The great temple gods were honoured with offerings and ceremonies. People wore magic charms and amulets and in their homes they kept figures of clay or wood. When a man was troubled, he asked a priest or magician to work spells or perform rites. Everything that happened was a possible sign or omen. “If a scorpion lurks in a man’s bed, that man shall have riches,” went one saying. “If the black winged ants are in town, there will be pouring rain and floods,” said another. There was a right way and a wrong way to do everything and Sumerians had to watch all their actions.
It was religion – the gods, the temples, the priests – that guided community through all these dangers. Yet, as time went on, life began to change. In the early days, people looked to the temple for leadership in all affairs. The En, the highest official, was both high priest and king. Gradually the En had given up his priestly duties to concentrate on administering the expanding city. The temple, ofcourse, still controlled the land and the farmers who worked it. The ceremonies presided over by the priests and priestesses were still of great importance and a strong king could still dominate the religious life of his people.
One of the greatest of the priest-kings was Gilgamesh of Uruk. For hundreds of years afterwards, men throughout the Near East told tales that made him seem more like a god than a man. Gilgamesh performed superhuman feats to protect Uruk, but one day he began to fear death. He set forth to consult an ancestor, Utnapishtim, who had been made immortal. After a long and dangerous journey, Gilgamesh found Utnapishtim and asked him how he had been freed from threat of death. Utnapishtim was willing enough to tell the story. The gods had once decided to wipe out all mankind by a great flood, but the god Ea, who often favoured men, warned Utnapishtim and told him to make a ship. Utnapishtim built a large ark, on which he loaded his family, certain craftsmen, various animals and his treasures. When the earth was flooded, all other life was wiped out. The ark grounded on a mountain peak and when the water began to go down, Utnapishtim prepared a sacrifice to the gods. It was after this that he and his wife were given the immortality of the gods.
For Gilgamesh, there was to be no such escape from death. Knowing that he must die, he returned to Uruk, where his last pleasure was to look out over the city and the fortified walls he had helped to build.
Such a tale told a great deal about the Sumerians themselves. It showed their respect for a great priest-king and their pride in the city. It contained the memory of the great floods that had wiped out earlier settlements and recognition of the fate that awaited all men.
The tale revealed, too, that Uruk had built a wall during the reign of Gilgamesh. Other Sumerian cities such as Ur, Nippur, Lagash and Kish had also built walls and they had enlarged their armies as well. They needed to protect themselves from the nomadic tribesman to the west and the marauding mountain-men to the east. Besides, the cities were competing with each other for land, water rights and trade routes and sometimes rivalry broke out into open warfare. Meanwhile, the king of each city was becoming more powerful. He was taking over the duties of the military chief, who had formerly been elected to lead a city’s troops only during emergency. Now the king was the permanent commander of the army and even passed the position on to his descendants.
No matter how powerful the ruler or how rich the city, the gods were not forgotten, Ur, for instance, was now a wealthy city, with a strong army and a firmly established dynasty of kings. Yet, as in the old days, men still made great sacrifices for their religion. Ur even observed rituals in which several people were buried along with many treasures. Then, on one occasion, about the year 2500 B. C., the king ordered a ceremony more lavish than any before.
It began with the Sacred Marriage at the temple. This was a traditional ritual, held every year to ensure fertility to the land. This year, however, the sacred couple left the temple and marched down into a burial pit many feet below the ground. They were accompanied by priests, members of the court, musicians, soldiers and servants. Many of them wore jewelry or carried weapons and treasures. Four-wheeled chariots drawn by oxen were also in the procession.
When they had all gathered in the pit, another ceremony took place. The sacred couple was put to death and buried in a stone chamber. Then dozens of their attendants drank a poisonous drug and lay down to await death. After the oxen were sacrificed and the final rites performed, the whole tomb was filled with earth. It was a royal burial such as only the gods could inspire.
“Who is King”
Sumerian cities could not afford such extravagant ceremonies very often, yet their gods did seem to be pleased. Then about 2370 B. C., Sargon, an official of the king of Kish, seized power. A new ruler was not unusual, but Sargon and his followers were Semites, people from the lands to the west. The Semites had come and gone in Mesopotamia from the beginning, sometimes as migrant groups, sometimes as individuals. Some had settled just north of Sumer in a region known as Akkad. These Semites shared a common past with the Sumerians. They had no interest in doing away with Sumerian culture and they even took over the Sumerian writing system for their own language, Akkadian.
When Sargon and his Akkadians took over, then, it was more like a change in government. He set up a new capital at Agade and proceeded to take control of many cities of Mesopotamia. He destroyed the city walls and put his own people in power. Through trade he extended his influence into Syria and the Mediterranean.
Sargon’s descendants expanded his empire. His grandson Naram-Sin defeated various tribes on the edges of Mesopotamia. To guard the trade routes with Turkey and Syria, great forts were built. Some goods went as far as Cyprus and India. Agade, the capital, became a splendid city, with people from all over the world bringing trade and tribute. Elephants and apes were displayed in captivity.
About a century after Sargon founded it, the Akkadian empire began to fall apart. Tribes from the west and east were raiding the Akkadians and the Sumerian cities no longer supported their overlords. Then Agade was destroyed, so completely that it would never rise again. With Agade ruined, there was no clear authority. ”Who is king?” the people asked. “Who is not king!” came the answer. The Mesopotamian cities fell to the Gutians, barbarous tribesmen from mountains in Iran. Trade, communications, irrigation were all disrupted. The temples were plundered and famine spread across the land.
By about 2100 B. C., however, Ur had revived and become Sumer’s strongest city. Its ruler Ur-Nammu and his descendants formed Ur’s third dynasty, which led Ur through a period of great splendour. Ur built itself a ziggurat almost 70 feet high and encouraged the building of cities, temples and canals throughout Sumer and Akkad. By trade, diplomacy and military expeditions, Ur extended its influence beyond Mesopotamia. It was not so large an empire as that of Sargon and the Akkadians, but it was more tightly organized.
Administering such an empire required a great many records and documents. Clay tablets and a reed stylus were still the basic materials of the scribes who did the writing, but much had changed since the early days. The signs now in use mostly represented sounds and all words and ideas could be exposed in writing. Each sign, moreover, had long been reduced to a simple wedge shape or cuneiform, that could be quickly pressed into the clay. Even so, to become a scribe took many years of training in scribal school, or “tablet-house”. The student who misbehaved or did it careless exercises was punished. Families competed with one another to get their children into such schools, for the skill of writing assured a person of a respected career.
Despite its organization, Ur’s empire began to fall away. Other cities stopped paying tribute and raiding tribes swooped down on its fortresses, lands and crops. The final blow came when the Elamites, a people from southeast, captured Ur and destroyed it. The Sumerian culture had made an impression on Mesopotamia that could never be wiped out; the language would survive for centuries in religious and learned writings. However, the power of the Sumerians was ended.
The Elamites did not settle and build an empire. Instead, the Amorites, Semitic tribesmen from western deserts, took over the cities and set up their kingdoms. For the next two centuries, there was no real central authority in Mesopotamia. Marauders and nomads came and went. In the north, the Assyrians began to show their strength. Various cities took turns trying to rule Mesopotamia, but none succeeded for long.
The Laws of Hammurabi
Finally, out of all this turmoil, one of the Amorite kings emerged as a true ruler. He was Hammurabi of Babylon, an old Sumerian city that had never been of much importance. But when Hammurabi came to its throne about 1790 B. C., Babylon was becoming one of the stronger cities. Hammurabi took firm control, defeated various warring groups and gradually brought the cities and lands of Sumer and Akkad into a kingdom of Babylonia.
Hammurabi was more than a military chieftain. He ran a true government, undertaking everything from new canals to a revised calendar. He personally supervised the affairs of his kingdom and was constantly sending letters and documents to his officials. Nothing was too small for his attention. If an official neglected to clear out an irrigation canal, Hammurabi ordered him to do the job and report back. If there was a charge of bribery, Hammurabi ordered an investigation and had everyone involved brought before him. Hammurabi’s great achievement was restoring law and order in the land. He was following tradition when he did this, for the settles peoples of Mesopotamia had always respected law, whether in the conduct of their business or in the worship of their gods. Justice was “the straight thing” that kept people on the right path.
Hammurabi issued many laws and regulations. They dealt with everything from prices, wages and debts to broken contracts and the conduct of lawsuits. Then, when his reign was drawing to an end, he decided that the laws needed improving. Some had to be completely revised; others needed to be explained. With the inspiration from Shamash, god of the sun and of justice, he drew up the new laws. He had them engraved on stone and sent them forth throughout the kingdom.
“Hammurabi the reverent god-fearing prince”, began the inscription, was called by the gods “to make justice appear in the land, to destroy the evil and wicked that the strong might not oppress the weak”. The laws that followed dealt with many matters: the administration of justice, property, marriage, assault, agriculture, wages and slaves. Many of them were based on the ancient idea of “an eye for an eye” – that is, a man who had put out someone’s eye would be punished by having his own eye put out. “If a man accuses another man of murder and it proves to be false, the accuser shall be put to death,” said one of Hammurabi’s laws. Another said, “if a builder makes a house for a man and the house falls down and causes the death of the owner, the builder shall be put to death”. It was harsh justice but atleast the laws were written down for all men to appeal to and behind them was the power of the king of Babylon.
When Hammurabi died, he was succeeded by his son, but the dynasty soon ended. Kassites tribesman from the Zagros Mountains to the east, began to raid Babylonia and in time they captured the cities of Ur and Uruk. The people in the southern marshes known as the “sea lands” revolted and set up their own kingdom. Then out of the north came a new brand of marauders, the Hittities. They took Babylon, plundered and burnt it and then withdrew, but the damage was done. The irrigation systems, writing, the ziggurats, the laws – such things survived for centuries, but the first great age of Mesopotamia was at an end.