Mesopotamia is the region within the Tigris and Euphrates rivers located south of Anatolia and West of the Iranian plateau. It hosted the earliest large-scale civilizations, who bequeathed the earliest forms of organized government, religion, warfare, and literature. Mesopotamian civilizations flourished from the founding of the Sumerian Empire in 3100 BC to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC to the Achaemenid Empire.
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Governments of Mesopotamia
Mesopotamian cities started as farming villages. Farming brought in surplus food and the population of the village began to grow. As the gods were the most important beings to the early Mesopotamians, priests, who mediated with the gods and divined their wills, became the most important people in the village. Slowly, priests took on a governing role.
Climate change intervened in this simple form of governance. In order for farming to continue producing adequate food, the villagers had to begin irrigating the crops. Irrigation required a substantial amount of labor in building and maintaining canals and dams. Organizing this labor required intelligent leadership. While priests were capable men, they now needed assistance from a secular leader who could guide communal labor.
By the time farming villages had grown into the great Mesopotamian cities, both priests and secular leaders were involved in governing the increasingly complex society of a city. The secular leader was called the lugal, the strongman. With specialization of labor—people finding lots of different jobs and tasks to do other than farming work—it made sense to have priests fully involved in keeping the gods happy while the lugal oversaw running the city.
Gradually the lugal became a powerful king who dominated governance of the Mesopotamian city-state. While most of his duties as king were secular, the king had religious responsibilities as well. He, as well as the high priest, was an intermediary between the gods and the people. Kings participated in religious rituals. Common Mesopotamians considered the king as the representative of the city’s patron god, the god’s overseer on earth, so to speak.
A king was expected to protect his city, to provide law, order and justice and to be a shepherd to the people, ensuring that widows and orphans were cared for. Kings formed dynasties and leadership passed from father to son. Women, in general, were not involved in politics, but there are instances of women ruling a city.
A city-state is a complex entity and running it involved a civil bureaucracy of government officials, tax collectors, scribes and ward bosses. Government officials took the tithes from farmers and other workers, they oversaw the communal labor necessary for maintaining aqueducts, irrigation canals and water resources. They assisted merchants and traders when necessary, seeing to a caravan’s protection.
Most kings sustained an active military that defended the city and went on military campaigns when the city needed more land or water resources. Kings also worked closely with the priesthood, both the en, the chief priest in charge of religious observances and the sanga, the priest involved in running the temple’s business concerns. It wasn’t until the Akkadians came to power, circa 2334 B.C., that Mesopotamian gained its first empire. For most of its history, Mesopotamian city-states each ruled its own area, ruled by a powerful king.
Sumer’s history began long before humans invented writing to record historical events. Much of what we know of prehistoric Sumer was found in archeological ruins, which told of a people who gradually switched from a hunting and gathering society to a settled, agriculture-based culture. As agriculture could produce a surplus of food, people found they could devote their time to other work besides that in the fields. A surplus of food could also sustain a larger population, which congregated at first in small villages.
As time went on, many small villages became the first cities, one of them being Eridu, according to the Mesopotamians themselves. Scholars, however, consider Uruk to be the first city in history. Other Sumerian cities include Ur, Lagash, Adab, Kish, Larsa, Nippur, Kullah and Adab among others.
In 4000 B.C. came the first villages and the beginning of towns. By 3500 B.C., the Sumerian city-states began forming, all centered around temples to the gods. By this time, Sumerian people had invented writing, the wheel, irrigation and water control and sailboats. One of the names for Mesopotamia is the “cradle of civilization,” as the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was the birthplace of civilization as we know it.
Sumer’s city-states were first ruled by priest-kings, known as Ensi. As society grew more complex, however, and city-states began battling over land and water rights, a secular kingship began, with the rule of a city-state in the hands of a Lugal, or strong man. The Lugal supervised wars and oversaw important trade with other lands. Trade brought in goods such as metal ores that were unobtainable in Sumer itself. It was probably the necessity of record-keeping in long-distance trade that spurred the development of cuneiform writing.
While the archeological record reveals the life of common Sumerians, the Sumerian King List provides some detail of Sumer’s kings. The King List, a cuneiform document that lists and briefly describes all the kings of the region beginning with Etana of Kish, who ruled c. 3100 B.C. A scribe in the city of Lagash wrote the document around 2100 B.C. at the instigation of a king who wished to legitimate his rule by connecting his name with the known kings and their great deeds.
Sumer’s city-states warred with each other continually for land, water rights and other natural resources. One king might create a larger alliance, but no one managed to rule them all until Eannutum of Lagash, who managed to subdue most of the city-states of Sumer under his rule. Lugalzagesi of Umma then held that proto-empire together until he was overthrown by Sargon the Great circa 2234 B.C. Sargon, a Semite rather than a Sumerian, originated from northern Mesopotamia. The Akkadian Empire dominated Sumer for the next 150 years. Sumer, however, would rise again during the Sumerian Renaissance of 2047-1750 B.C.
Sumer’s civilization provided the world with many firsts: first legal codes, court system, schools, proverbs, moral and ethical ideas, mathematical systems, libraries, bronze, writing, astrological signs, our division of time into hours and minutes and many technological innovations.
No one knows who Sargon, the founder of the Akkadian Empire, was, nor the location of the fabled city of Akkad. Sargon himself believed he was the son of a temple priestess and an unknown father. Whatever his origins, Sargon conquered and ruled all of Mesopotamia and parts of Syria, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and perhaps, Cyprus, founding the world’s first true empire. His dynasty, including his sons Rimush and Manishtusu and grandson Naram-Sin, lasted for the next 140-150 years.
Sargon the Great
Sargon’s reign (2334 to 2279 B.C.) consisted of one military campaign after another. He set out to conquer the known world of his time, starting with northern and southern Mesopotamia. He began by overthrowing Lugalzagesi, the king of Umma, who had previously conquered the city-states of Sumer. Under Sargon’s rule, the empire was stabilized, which allowed road construction, improved irrigation and more access to vital trade routes. He also established a postal system for the empire.
Sargon reigned for 56 years, dying of natural causes. His deeds and life gave rise to legends told for a thousand years after his death. While Sumerians rebelled against the empire in Sargon’s lifetime, they raised him to the level of semi-divine after his death.
Sargon’s Sons Rimush and Manishtusu
Rimush came next to the throne in 2279 B.C. After Sargon’s death, Sumer’s cities rebelled and Rimush spent his first years crushing rebellions and restoring order. He also campaigned against Elam (part of modern-day Iran) and won, bringing that land’s riches back to Akkad. Rimush reigned for nine years before his death in 2271 B.C. Some speculate that he was killed by his brother, Manishtusu, who followed him on the throne.
Manishtusu’s reign also included crushing rebellions, but he was better known for establishing trade with Egypt and building the Ishtar Temple in Nineveh. He reigned for 15 years, but was killed in a palace conspiracy in 2255 B.C.
Naram-Sin, son of Manishtusu, came to the throne in 2261 B.C. He ruled the empire for the next 36 years as the Akkadians’ greatest king. He campaigned and conquered, yet kept order in the empire and expanded trade. Naram-Sin deified himself, writing his name with a sign that meant godhood.
An ancient text called “The Curse of Agade,” tells of a king who angered the gods by attempting to force them to answer him. The gods withdrew their support from this king, who scholars say is Naram-Sin. The story then tells of Naram-Sin marching on the temple of the great god Enlil in the holy city of Nippur, and tearing it down. Supposedly, Naram-Sin’s pride in deifying himself angered the gods to the point that they ended their rapport with Mesopotamia. Historically, Naram-Sin built temples, not destroyed them. Yet it is true that shortly after his reign, the Akkadian empire was ravaged by wars and famine. Mesopotamia entered a dark age.
While Naram-Sin’s reign was orderly and even spectacular, things in the empire began to break down shortly after his death in 2224 B.C. His successor, Shar-Kali-Sharri, fought his entire reign as the empire began to be overrun with Elamites, Ammorites and invading Gutians. While drought and famine devastated the lands, the Gutian Invasion ensured the collapse of the Akkadian empire in 2193 B.C.
King Hammurabi and His Code of Law
Babylon reached its first height with the reign of the great King Hammurabi, an Amorite prince, the sixth of his dynasty. The Amorites were a semi-nomadic people who migrated east into Mesopotamia from Syria. During the reign of Hammurabi’s father, Babylon’s kingdom contained only a few cities: Babylon, Kish, Borsippa and Sippar. When Hammurabi took the throne, that began to change, although slowly at first.
In King Hammurabi’s first few years, he focused on his first primary objective: to improve the lives of his people through improving agriculture and irrigation (always a prime goal for Mesopotamian kings), strengthening his city’s defenses and building public spaces, roads and temples. His first act was a jubilee, a forgiveness of the people’s debts, which of course, made him popular among the people.
Elamites, a people located just to the east of Mesopotamia in what is today’s Iran, often raided into Mesopotamian territory. Hammurabi allied with Babylon’s rival city Larsa to defeat the Elamites, which they did. Hammurabi then instituted a tactic he was to use many times: he broke the alliance, quickly made alliances with other city-states, and proceeded to conquer Uruk and Isin, cities in thrall to Larsa. Hammurabi went on to conquer Lagash, Nippur and Larsa itself. Another favorite tactic was to dam up a city’s water supply, withholding the water until the city surrendered. Once southern Mesopotamia was under his control, Hammurabi turned his military campaigns to the north and west until all of Mesopotamia was conquered in 1755 B.C.
Even when he conquered cities, Hammurabi looked after the people under his governance. He made sure vital irrigation canals and dams functioned, maintained the infrastructure of the cities in his control and built splendid temples to the gods. While Sargon the Akkadian emperor continually had to put down revolts, the people under Hammurabi’s rule were not rebellious as Hammurabi governed well.
Hammurabi promulgated his Code of Law circa 1772 B.C. Hammurabi’s was not the first such law code, but it was the most famous and important. Previous law codes, such as that of Ur-Nammu, were made to rule over a single ethnic group, people all of the same family, more or less. By Hammurabi’s time, Babylon had become a large, cosmopolitan city with many different people rubbing shoulders on its busy streets. Hammurabi’s Law had to rule over nomads, Assyrian traders, aristocratic Babylonians, Elamite slaves and Sumerian housewives. His law code had to be simple, specific and direct. Hammurabi’s laws sought to avoid the blood feuds that could easily arise among people of different cultures.
To modern minds, Hammurabi’s laws are harsh; they established the principle of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, literally. If a man took out another man’s eye in a fight, he then lost his own eye. Punishments for breaking the law included dismemberment, disfigurement and death. The lightest punishments were fines. Hammurabi had his Code inscribed on a stele, an eight-foot tall diorite rock where all could see the law. While harsh, Hammurabi’s law included the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Over the centuries of its long existence, the Assyrian empire expanded and grew only to fail and fall many times. Scholars divide Assyrian history into three main periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Empire and the Neo-Assyrian Empire. While Assyria ended as a political entity, Assyrians as a people still live today in parts of Iran and Iraq. Historically, the Assyrians were a Semitic people living in northern Mesopotamia who spoke Akkadian until the easier Aramaic language came along. The Assyrian Empire is considered the greatest Mesopotamian empire because of its size, the efficiency of its bureaucracy and it powerful military strategies.
The Assyrian story began in the city of Ashur in northern Mesopotamia. Although Ashur had been inhabited from 3000 B.C. onwards, scholars date the founding of the city to 1900 B.C. since that is the date of the extant ruins. Its early kings, who worshipped the god Ashur, were called the “kings who lived in tents,” which implies a nomadic people rather than a settled, agricultural one. Little is known about this time period (circa 1900 to 1791 B.C.). The information we do have is sourced in thousands of clay tablets, mostly containing letters from merchant families involved in trade with Anatolia (modern day Turkey).
Throughout the Old Kingdom era, at times Ashur and other Assyrian cities came under the control of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Great. At other times, Assyria was a vassal state to Ur’s Third Dynasty in southern Mesopotamia. During this time, Ashur grew prosperous due to trade. Assyrian traders set up businesses in a trade colony they established in Karum Kanesh, Anatolia.
Merchant families from Ashur took wool and finished cloth to Kanesh, where they traded it for silver, tin and other metals. These merchants left some trusted members of the family in Kanesh to run things there, while older family members returned to Ashur. Thousands of clay tablets found in Kanesh discuss this profitable trade network. The wealth generated by this trade gave Ashur the strength and security necessary for eventual empire-building. Tin from Anatolia gave the Assyrians the opportunity to develop iron working to perfection. Assyria’s iron weapons would later give the Assyrian empire a great military advantage.
Assyria’s competitors in the Old Kingdom included Hittites, Amorites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Elamites as well as Babylonians and Sumerians. The Amorites began to settle in the area, taking vital resources needed by Ashur. An Assyrian king named Shamshi-Adad I (1813 to 1791 B.C.) succeeded in driving out the Amorites and uniting the Assyrian cities of Arbel, Nineveh, Ashur and Arrapkha. Along with the city of Nimrod, this was the core of the fledging Assyrian empire. Under King Shamshi-Adad I, the Assyrian trade network with Anatolia flourished, giving Ashur power and wealth. While stronger competitors prevented the empire’s growth, the Assyrian core cities were secure. The year after King Shamshi-Adad’s death, Hammurabi took the Babylonian throne and Assyria became vassals to the Babylonians during Hammurabi’s rule.
For a few centuries after the death of Shamshi-Adad I, Assyrian cities were subjugated by a succession of outsiders: Babylonians under Hammurabi, Hittites and Mitanni-Hurrians. From 1791 to 1360 B.C. control over Assyria passed back and forth, although Assyria itself remained more or less stable. After a power struggle between the Hittites and Mitanni, the Hittites successfully broke the power of the Mitanni in the region. Assyria then began to take control over territories that had belonged to Mitanni. The Hittites battled with the Assyrians, but the Assyrian king Ashur-Uballit stamped out any remaining Mitanni or Hittite control over northern Mesopotamia.
The Middle Empire
King Ashur-Uballit, who ruled from c. 1353 to 1318 B.C., succeeded in gathering all former Mitanni regions under his control. He also battled the Hurrians, Hittites and the Kassite king of Babylon. Ashur-Uballit married his daughter to the Babylonian king, angering the Babylonian people. They promptly slew the king and replaced him with a pretender to the throne. King Ashur-Uballit then invaded Babylon, killed the pretender and placed another Kassite royal on the throne. King Ashur-Uballit solidified his power by conquering any remaining Hittite or Mitanni rulers, finally taking control of the entire region for Assyria.
King Adad-Nirari I (1307 to 1275 B.C.) expanded the Assyrian empire in contrast to two proceeding kings who merely maintained control. King Adad-Nirari implemented the policy of deportation of segments of the population from one region to another, which remained a standard Assyrian policy from then on. This policy was meant to head off any uprisings by moving the potentially rebellious to other regions of the Assyrian empire. Although the deportees found their lives disrupted, the Assyrian intention was not to harm the people, but to make the best use of their talents where their skills were needed. The empire moved entire families along with their belongings and provided transportation and food.
Tiglath Pileser I
While Adad-Nirari’s son Shalmaneser and grandson Tukulti-Ninurta were cultured, competent and resourceful kings, after their reigns, the Assyrian empire simply maintained, neither growing nor declining. The entire Mesopotamian and Near East region entered what’s called the Bronze Age Collapse. For 150 years, from 1250 to 1100 B.C. all the Near East civilizations—the Egyptians, Greeks, Cyprians, Syrians, Mesopotamians—all disintegrated to a certain extent, except for the Assyrians who held steady. Scholars believe that drought and climate change caused this collapse, along with the attendant ills of famine, disruption of trade, wars and disease.
Tiglath Pileser I took the Assyrian throne in c. 1115 B.C. at the end of the collapse. An energetic king, Tiglath Pileser revitalized the Assyrian empire. He took military campaigns to Anatolia, conquering many regions there. He began lavish building projects in Ashur and established a library to contain his collection of scholarly cuneiform tablets. Under this king, culture, arts and trade all flourished. After King Tiglath Pileser’s death in 1076 B.C., later kings fought incursions by Amorites and Aramaeans, but managed to maintain Assyria’s borders. The empire once again entered a period of stasis, gradually shrinking due to internal rebellions and outside attacks.
For 300 years, from 900 to 600 B.C., the Assyrian Empire expanded, conquered and ruled the Middle East, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and parts of today’s Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Since around 1250 B.C., the Assyrians had started using war chariots and iron weapons, which were far superior to bronze weapons. These tools and tactics made the Assyrian army the most powerful military force of its time, both doctrinally and technologically advanced.
A series of kings from Adad-Nirari II (c. 912-891 B.C.) to Adad-Nirari III (811 to 806 B.C.) fought to expand the empire. The powerful Assyrian army conquered its enemies city by city, as it excelled in siege warfare as well as battlefield tactics. The Assyrians were the first army to contain a separate engineer corps. Assyrians moved mobile ladders and ramps right up against heavily fortified city walls. Sappers and miners dug underneath the walls. Massive siege engines became prized Assyrian armaments. Successfully taking city after city, the Assyrians extended their empire throughout the Middle East and down the Levant coast. After Adad-Nirari III’s reign, however, the empire again stagnated.
The final stage of the Assyrian empire began in 745 B.C. when Tiglath Pileser III took the throne. Tiglath Pileser III received the empire in a slump with a demoralized army and disorganized bureaucracy. He took control and began reorganizing all aspects of the empire from the army to the bureaucracy to re-conquering rebellious provinces. Tiglath Pileser ended military conscription, replacing it with levy requirements from the provinces and vassals. His reorganized army became the model for efficiency, training and tactics for any military coming later.
The Assyrian empire was renowned not only for its powerful military machine, but also for its progress in the arts, culture, medicine and education. While deportations of segments of conquered populations continued, all subjugated regions were accepted and treated as Assyrians.
Following Tiglath Pileser III, the Assyrian empire was ruled by Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Sennacherib. Sennacherib’s reign (705 to 681 B.C.) welded the empire into an even greater force; he conquered provinces in Anatolia, Judah and Israel, even sacking Jerusalem. Sennacherib moved the capital of Assyria to Nineveh, where he built a splendid palace and exquisite gardens, which might have been the famous Hanging Gardens.
Sennacherib’s son, Esarhaddon and grandson Ashurbanipal both ruled well, if ruthlessly. They expanded the empire, consolidated its power and stabilized all the regions under their control. This security and stability allowed the arts to flourish. With the wealth that poured into Nineveh, artisans created many beautiful objects from jewelry to wrought iron temple gates. Ashurbanipal (668 to 627 B.C.) became the most literate of the Assyrian kings, collecting a vast library of cuneiform tablets from all over the known world.
Ashurbanipal was the last great Assyrian king. After his reign of 42 years, the huge empire began to fall apart. It had become too large, taxes were too high and entire regions rebelled. In 612 B.C., Nineveh itself was razed by a host of Persians, Babylonians and Medes. The great Assyrian empire was over.
Each of these three great Mesopotamian civilizations, all related to each other, brought in new weapons and tactics to Mesopotamian warfare. All warred among themselves and with others. Mesopotamian cities usually went to war for water and land rights. As cultures based on agriculture, land and sufficient water supply were vital to the well-being of their cities. They fought for that which was vital to them, as well as for less crucial motives such as preeminence.
Mesopotamian Warfare: Sumerians
In Sumer, there was no standing army, although there may have been some professional soldiers. When the king, high priest and council of elders decided the need for war, they called all free male citizens to arms. Each citizen had to bring his own weapons. Common weapons included bows, spears, slingshots, battle axes, maces and knives. Protective armor was rare, although many carried shields. Professional soldiers wore helmets of copper.
When cities went to war, as did Umma and Lagash around 2525 B.C., the citizen armies came out from their cities and met on open land. At 300 feet distance, each army’s archers would shoot. The resulting barrage of arrows no doubt killed many, whose bodies were then trodden under foot when the armies charged each other with spears. Spears and rocks thrown by slingshots filled the air and many more died. Apparently, the army with the most men still standing won the day. This was the typical battle order of the times.
A stele raised by the king of Lagash commemorates the victory of that city over its neighbor and enemy city, Umma. The Stele of Vultures shows ranks of soldiers in a phalanx formation, armed with spears and wearing copper helmets and short, armored cloaks for protection. The king of Lagash rode to the battle in the chariot of the times—a clumsy, heavy cart pulled by four onagers, or semi-wild asses. Sumerian military innovation includes the chariot, helmet, armored cloaks, bronze axes and the phalanx formation in battle.
Mesopotamian Warfare: Akkadians
Sargon of Akkad created the first empire through conquest. Sargon’s conquest began with Sumer and stretched from the Persian Gulf to Syria and the Taurus Mountains in southern Anatolia or Turkey.
During Sargon’s 50-year reign, he fought in 34 wars, using a core military of 5,400 men, the first true standing army. Once a city-state was conquered, it was required to provide a contingent of military men for Sargon’s main army. This became a standard element for empires from then on, the use of conquered forces in the victor’s army. As armies grew larger, the need for competent administration and logistics grew in importance. Sargon’s talents included administration and delegation: he gave this work to trusted men in both civilian and military matters.
The invention of composite bow gave Sargon’s army a great advantage. Made of wood, horn and animal sinew laminated together, the composite bow had two to three times the power of a simple wooden bow. It could shoot twice the distance, and arrows shot from it could easily penetrate leather armor.
Mesopotamian Warfare: Babylonians
Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 B.C.), who created the first Babylonian empire, used all of Sargon’s weapons and tactics. He was known to create alliances, then later end them, conquering his former allies. Hammurabi’s reputation included damming up and diverting a city-state’s water sources. A clever emperor, his empire lasted only during his lifetime. The Later Neo-Babylonian Empire (626 to 539 B.C.) repeated his successes.
While the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians were all good at war, they were pikers compared to the Assyrians who took warfare to new heights. During the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 1000 to 609 B.C.), the Assyrian army was the most powerful military force yet seen. The 300 year duration of this empire consisted of never-ending wars, as the Assyrians based their economy and wealth on conquering all of Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Egypt, Elam (or western Iran), Syria, parts of Anatolia (Turkey) and Urartu (Armenia).
Based in the Mesopotamian city of Ashur, the Assyrians moved to take over as much territory as possible. To do this, they built roads, placed food and war supplies in strategically-placed storage depots and set up a pony express relay system to carry messages throughout the empire. With armies constantly on the move, the Assyrians ensured they had the necessary administration and logistics ready at all times.
- The Hittites had learned to forge iron in the 18th century B.C. As Assyrians had at times been vassals to the Hittites, they learned to make iron tools themselves. The great Assyrian armies of the Neo-Assyrian empire used iron weapons, giving them a great advantage over their enemies. They also used metal to cover the wheels of their formidable chariots, starting with bronze but moving later to iron.
- Assyrians were not the first to use chariots in warfare, but they used both light and heavy chariots to break up their enemies’ infantry. The chariots had blades on the hub of their wheels, which effectively mowed down enemy infantry.
- The Assyrians were the first to have a permanent corps of engineers in their army who would make siege engines, ladders and battering rams for attacking cities. This corps included miners and sappers to go under the walls if they couldn’t knock them down.
- Besides charioteers, the Assyrians employed mounted cavalry in battle that carried both bows and arrows and lances. They were also the first to use camels for carrying heavy loads. Camels can carry far more weight than donkeys and didn’t need as much watering.
- They were as adept at siege warfare as they were on the battlefield. The Assyrians employed psychological warfare in the form of sheer terror. If a city didn’t surrender, they would impale captives on poles before the gates of the city, torturing and killing them in plain sight of the city’s defenders. The Assyrians had found that many cities would simply surrender if the people were terrified. They also used mass deportations to keep conquered enemies from developing resistance to Assyrian rule.
From their continual warfare, the Assyrians captured riches upon riches. They demanded tribute from each conquered city, which was paid in precious metals, gems, silk, ivory and slaves. With this wealth, the Assyrians built grand palaces of stone in Ashur and Nineveh. They also demanded contingents of military men from each conquered city and region, which would then be incorporated into the Assyrian army. The Assyrians were rightly feared as the most bloodthirsty, cruel empire of the time.
What remains today of Old Babylon are the ruins of an ancient city under the water level of the Euphrates River, although some later city ruins still exist. However, archeology tells us much about the 4,000-year history of this storied city that passed through many hands and empires during its long existence.
Babylon began as a small, administrative center during the reign of Sargon the Great. Babylon’s history truly begins with Hammurabi, an Amorite prince, who began his reign over the city in 1792 B.C. Through war and diplomacy, Hammurabi subdued all of Mesopotamia under Babylonian rule by 1755 B.C. His empire stretched from Syria to the Persian Gulf. Hammurabi called his empire Babylonia.
Besides Hammurabi’s famous law code, he focused on improving irrigation and control of water resources, building massive temples and engaging in public works such as enlarging the double walls of the city. We discuss his life and law code a separate article.
Hammurabi’s empire lasted only his lifetime. The control he had established over Mesopotamia dwindled away until the city itself was sacked in 1595 B.C. by the Hittites. Kassites, a mountain people from Iran, later took the city and conquered the rest of Mesopotamia as well. Under the Kassite dynasty, Babylon became a great cultural center of learning, producing texts on mathematics, medicine and astrology. The Kassites called Babylon by the name Karanduniash. Kassite control of the city lasted 435 years, with periodic episodes of Assyrian or Elamite conquests.
Assyrians controlled Babylon from 911 to 608 B.C. Under the Assyian king, Sennacherib, Babylon rebelled. Sennacherib destroyed the city, razing its walls, temples and palaces to the ground. This act shocked the religious peoples of Mesopotamia, and his sons murdered Sennacherib to atone for his sin. They then proceeded to rebuild Babylon.
A Chaldean king took control of Babylon after the fall of the Assyrian Empire circa 612 B.C. King Nabopolassar used diplomacy and alliances to build the Neo-Babylonian Empire out of the remains of the fallen Assyrian empire. King Nebuchadnezzar II, his son, began renovating and building on a grand scale in Babylon until it covered 2,200 acres with a population perhaps reaching 200,000.
Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became one of the wonders of the world. He rebuilt the Etemenanki ziggurat (also known as the Tower of Bable), the magnificent Ishtar Gate and is credited with creating the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Scholars, however, dispute whether the Hanging Gardens existed in Babylon or in the Assyrian city of Ninevah.
Babylonian rule of Babylon ended in 539 B.C. when the Persian army under Cyrus the Great conquered the city in the Battle of Opis. Babylon retained its glory as a center of learning and culture as a province of the Persian Empire.
Alexander the Great conquered the city in 331 B.C., dying there in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in 323 B.C. The city was taken by the Parthians in 141 B.C., then back to the Persians and finally became part of the Muslim world in the mid-7th century A.D.
Religion was central to Mesopotamians as they believed the divine affected every aspect of human life. Mesopotamians were polytheistic; they worshipped several major gods and thousands of minor gods. Each Mesopotamian city, whether Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian or Assyrian, had its own patron god or goddess. Each Mesopotamian era or culture had different expressions and interpretations of the gods. Marduk, Babylon’s god, for example, was known as Enki or Ea in Sumer.
Clay tablets found in archeological excavations describe the cosmology, mythology and religious practices and observations of the tibme. Some Mesopotamian myths were reflected in Biblical stories including that of the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Creation and the Tower of Babel. As the world’s oldest religion, Mesopotamian beliefs influenced the monotheistic religions that came after, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In early Mesopotamia, priests were the initial rulers as all authority came from the god. Priests then were both representative of the god and mediator between the god and the people. Later, the secular power was established in a king, although kings also had specific religious duties. Kings ruled by the god’s favor and so were imbued with a semi-divine authority. Kings, priests and priestesses were the most important people in Mesopotamian society.
If Mesopotamian pantheon and mythology were not simple and straightforward, the cosmology was. The universe was the heaven and earth, the term for which was an-ki or heaven-earth. Earth was flat, surrounded by a hollow space in which everything existed. A solid surface, thought to be made of tin, enclosed the an-ki. Within the space was lil, a word that means air or breath. All around the an-ki was the sea, abzu.
Nergal and Ereshkigal ruled the underworld, where people went when they died. People entered the underworld from their graves. First, they had to cross a river via a ferry. Once there, a soul was judged by Utu, another god. A positive judgment meant an afterlife of happiness; however, most Mesopotamians thought the afterlife would be dreary.
Mesopotamia’s gods were humans writ large; they were human in form and characteristics. Although all powerful, the gods behaved much like humans—they fought, ate, drank, married and had children. Although they were immortal, they could be hurt and paradoxically, killed. Each god had charge of some aspect of existence according to a set of rules that ensured the continued functioning of the cosmos.
The four primary deities were An, Ki or Ninhursag, Enlil and Enki, who ruled heaven, earth, air and sea, respectively. Enlil gradually takes on all of An’s powers and becomes the most powerful god. The four gods are the progenitors of the rest of the pantheon. Three other gods were also important: Nanna, another name for the moon god, Sin; Utu, the god of the sun and judgment; and Inanna, the goddess of love and war. Mesopotamia’s pantheon of gods and their deeds make up the region’s rich, dense mythology, which will be explored in of another article.
Ziggurats are as emblematic of Mesopotamia as the great pyramids are of ancient Egypt. These ancient stepped buildings were created to be home to the patron god or goddess of the city. As religion was central to Mesopotamian life, the ziggurat was the heart of a city. Starting around 3000 B.C., Mesopotamian kings began building ziggurats and continued to build them up to the time of Alexander the Great circa 300 B.C.
In Mesopotamia, a fine balance of power existed between the secular kings and the high priests of the patron god or goddess. Kings built ziggurats to prove their religious dedication and fervor.
The word ziggurat means raised area. Broad at the bottom, these pyramid-shaped buildings had two to seven tiers, with each ascending tier smaller than the one under it. The top of the building was flat, and on it was a shrine or temple to the god where only priests could go. The entire building was made of sun-dried bricks in all the interior areas, with glazed fire-dried bricks facing outward. The facing bricks on each successive tier were glazed a different color. A series of staircases led to the top of the ziggurat for the priests to use.
Ziggurats were part of a temple complex, a set of buildings devoted to the care of the gods and to all the businesses of the temple. The temple complex was one of the economic centers of the city. Large temples employed hundreds or even thousands of people, from priests and priestesses to humble shepherds, carpenters and weavers. The ziggurat, however, was dedicated to the city’s patron god or goddess; it was sacred ground, off limits to any but the hierarchy of priests.
A series of chambers and rooms within the ziggurat were used for priests to care for the god or goddess. Special priests prepared sacred meals for the god. Each ziggurat contained an altar to the god and a statue of the deity as well. Mesopotamians believed that if the people cared sufficiently for the god, and if the sacred meals pleased them, the god would inhabit the temple or shrine prepared for them.
Since ziggurats were made with sun-dried mud bricks, they would deteriorate with age. Kings would regularly rebuild the ziggurat, often building the new on top of the old. The Great Ziggurat at Ur was most famous ziggurat in Mesopotamia. Originally built by Ur-Nammu in the 21st century B.C., it was 150 feet wide, 210 feet long and over 100 feet high. During the Neo-Babylonian era, the ziggurat had deteriorated to just the base level. It was entirely rebuilt by King Nabonidus in the 6th century B.C.
In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein had the façade of the lower level restored, and rebuilt the three huge staircases leading to the first terrace level. During the Iraq war, Saddam parked some fighter jets near the ziggurat, hoping that the presence of this ancient landmark temple would prevent the Americans from bombing the jets. Although some damage did occur during the war, Ur’s great ziggurat remains to this day in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
In Mesopotamian society, priests and priestesses were equals to the king in power and honor. They were mediators between the gods and the people. Ordinary Mesopotamians looked to the priesthood to gain the favor of the gods, especially the patron god or goddess of their city. Mesopotamian Priests and priestesses had many duties and responsibilities, and in exchange they received respect, honor and creature comforts.
Each city was organized around the god’s temple, which was a complex of buildings including the temple proper, chambers for the Mesopotamian priests and priestesses, workshops and public areas. A temple had two chief administrators. One, the en or chief priest, oversaw all sacred and religious duties of all the priests and priestesses. His or her job was to please the gods, to divine their will and communicate it to the ruler and the people. He supervised scores of other priests in performing sacred duties. These priests had many tasks; some cared for the gods by feeding and clothing them, others sang, made music and wrote hymns, and others still provided religious services to the people. Different types of priests performed purifications, exorcisms, treated people medically and prayed with them.
The other chief administrator of the temple complex, the sanga, ran the business of the temple. Temples were not only places of religion, but of commercial activity as well. Temples ran long distance trade networks, owned a third of the land and provided employment to much of the city’s inhabitants.
The sanga supervised all of the temples’ businesses. Temples at times employed thousands of weavers to turn the wool collected from the temple’s sheep into lengths of cloth. Each temple had a household staff that provided culinary and housekeeping services for the priesthood. Temples employed accountants, scribes, guards, butchers, messengers, artisans and seamstresses. Temples cared for orphans and charity wards; they also held numerous slaves who worked in a variety of capacities. A temple complex functioned as small city within the city.
Young people who wanted to be a priest or priestess had to be perfect in body and come from a good family. Young boys who showed talent in the scribe schools often became priests. Girls who wanted to be priestesses also went through the literacy education given to boys, the only girls who did. The training to become a priest or priestess was arduous and difficult, but the rewards were great. In general, Mesopotamian priests served a male god and priestesses a goddess, though some priestesses worked in the temples of male gods.
Priestesses served as the first dentists and doctors in Mesopotamia. They treated their patients in the temple’s outer court. Priestesses were required to be celibate. Although they could not bear children, they could marry and be stepmother to their husband’s children. Most Mesopotamian priests and priestesses, however, lived at the temple serving the gods and providing religious and medical services to king and populace.
In Sumer and later in Babylon, religious rituals involved sacred sexuality in the form of the Sacred Marriage or hieros gamos, an act simulating marriage between the fertility goddess Inanna/Ishtar and the shepherd god, Dumuzi. In this act, the high priestess of Inanna would have intercourse with either the high priest or the king of the city. Through the sexual act, divine fertile energy was released on the land ensuring good crops and productive herds. Sacred prostitution involved temple priestesses of Inanna/Ishtar having ritual sex with male visitors to the temple, again releasing the divine fertile energy. Both of these sacred sexual practices existed for thousands of years in Mesopotamia. It is best to understand these rituals as a religious act of devotion to the goddess rather than as sex per se. After all, secular prostitutes plied their trade in Mesopotamian cities as well.
In the many myths and stories involving Inanna in ancient Mesopotamia, Inanna does not appear as either wife or mother. Yet it is she that makes the Sacred Marriage with her husband Dumuzi in a fertility rite. Remember that in Mesopotamia, agriculture held primary importance and keeping the land fertile required many religious observances. In the Sacred Marriage, humans took the place of the gods in religious rituals devoted to fertility. The high priestess of the city, acting in the capacity of the fertility goddess Inanna, would have sex with the high priest or the king role-playing the fertility god Dumuzi.
In the myths concerning Inanna and Dumuzi, due to some of Inanna’s less exalted behavior, Dumuzi must spend half the year in the underworld. When his time is up and he returns from the underworld in springtime, he joyously mates with Inanna and the land reawakens. Those familiar with the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone will recognize the precedence found in the earlier Inanna myths.
Scholars have yet to settle on the question of whether sacred prostitution took place. Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote that every Babylonian woman had to attend the temple of Ishtar/Inanna and agree to sex with any male that asked her. Once she performed this ritual, the male visitor gave her money to donate to the temple. Scholars have called this sacred prostitution, although the rite was essentially performed as a devotion or prayer to the goddess to ensure fertility. Herodotus, however, is an unreliable reporter, which is why scholars debate the historicity of this practice.
Inanna, who later transformed into the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, the Phoenician Astarte and later still as the Greek goddess Aphrodite, is the goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility. Priestesses of this goddess, at least one order of them, performed as sacred prostitutes, lying with males who desired their services in ritual sexuality. This order of priestess was called Nin-Gig in Sumeria.
The role of Mesopotamian women in their society, as in most cultures throughout time, was primarily that of wife, mother and housekeeper. Girls, for example, did not attend the schools run by priests or scribes unless they were royalty. Girls stayed home and learned the household tasks they would perform when they grew up and married.
However, as the polytheistic religion practiced by Mesopotamians included both gods and goddesses, women were also priestesses, some of them not only important, but powerful. A family might sell a daughter to the temple, and they were honored to have a priestess in the family. Families could also sell their daughters into prostitution or slavery. Prostitution, however, was not regarded as vile or degrading at that time. In fact, a form of sacred prostitution in the temples existed side by side with secular prostitution.
Shortly after a girl reached puberty, her father arranged a marriage for her. Marriages were legal contracts between two families and each family had obligations to meet. A bride’s father paid a dowry to the young couple. The groom’s family paid a bride price. While ancient Sumerians and Babylonians could and did fall in love, and romantic love was celebrated in songs, stories and literature, it wasn’t encouraged in real life. The basis for a society is the family unit, and Mesopotamian societies structured the laws to encourage stable families.
Most women, then, were wives and mothers, doing the necessary tasks of women everywhere: taking care of their families, raising children, cleaning, cooking and weaving. Some women, however, also engaged in trade, especially weaving and selling cloth, food production, brewing beer and wine, perfumery and making incense, midwifery and prostitution. Weaving and selling cloth produced much wealth for Mesopotamia and temples employed thousands of women in making cloth.
Mesopotamian women in Sumer, the first Mesopotamian culture, had more rights than they did in the later Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. Sumerian women could own property, run businesses along with their husbands, become priestesses, scribes, physicians and act as judges and witnesses in courts. Archeologists and historians speculate that as Mesopotamian cultures grew in wealth and power, a strong patriarchal structure gave more rights to men than to women. Perhaps the Sumerians gave women more rights because they worshipped goddesses as fervently as they did gods.
For men, divorce was easy. A husband could divorce a wife if she was childless, careless with money or if she belittled him. All he had to say was “You are not my wife.” Women could initiate divorce, but had to prove her husband’s abuse or adultery. Monies paid to each family, in cases of divorce, had to be returned. If Mesopotamian women were caught in adultery, they were killed. If men were caught in adultery, a man might be punished financially but not killed. While women were expected to be monogamous, husbands could visit prostitutes or take concubines.
The oldest epic tale in the world was written 1500 years before Homer wrote the Illiad. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” tells of the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the hero king of Uruk, and his adventures. This epic story was discovered in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. Written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets, this Akkadian version dates from around 1300 to 1000 B.C.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” was one of the most beloved stories of Mesopotamia. According to the tale, Gilgamesh is a handsome, athletic young king of Uruk city. His mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father the priest-king Lugalbanda, making Gilgamesh semi-divine. Gilgamesh is rambunctious and energetic, but also cruel and arrogant. He challenges all other young men to physical contests and combat. He also proclaims his right to have sexual intercourse with all new brides. Gilgamesh’s behavior upsets Uruk’s citizens and they cry out to the great god of heaven Anu for help with their young king.
The gods send a wild man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh. At first, Enkidu lives in the rural wilds, living with animals. He is partially civilized by a temple priestess, Shamhat, who seduces him and teaches him how to eat like a human being. Enkidu then heads for Uruk and meets Gilgamesh and they fight. Gilgamesh wins the fight, and he and Enkidu become the best of friends.
The first half of the epic concerns the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They conquer and kill the monster Humbaba, who the gods had set over the Forest of Cedar. Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar/Inanna when she tries to seduce him. In revenge, Ishtar asks the god Enlil for the Bull of Heaven, with which to attack Gilgamesh. However, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull, which angers all the gods. The gods decide to punish Gilgamesh by the death of Enkidu.
The second half of the epic has Gilgamesh searching for immortality as he deeply mourns Enkidu’s death and worries about his own. He searches for Utnapishtim, an immortal man who survived the Great Flood, a precursor to the Biblical Noah. Gilgamesh finally finds Utnapishtim, who tells him to accept his mortality as he cannot change it. Gilgamesh then returns to Uruk and becomes a good king. He rules for 126 years, according to the Sumerian King List.
Gilgamesh was not only an epic hero, but a historical king of Uruk who appears in contemporary letter and inscriptions found by archeologists. From a human, mortal king, however, in stories Gilgamesh became the semi-divine hero of Mesopotamia’s greatest tale.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” conveys many themes important to our understanding of Mesopotamia and its kings. Themes of friendship, the role of the king, enmity, immortality, death, male-female relationships, city versus rural life, civilization versus the wild and relationships of humans and gods resound throughout the poem. Gilgamesh’s many challenges throughout the poem serve to mature the hero and make him a good king to his people.
Mesopotamia trade grew organically from the crossroads nature of the civilizations that dwelt between the rivers and the fertility of the land. Because of irrigation, southern Mesopotamia was rich in agricultural products, including a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, dairy, fish and meat from animals both wild and domestic. Other than food items, Mesopotamia was rich in mud, clay and reeds out of which they built their cities. For most other essential goods, such as metal ores and timber, Mesopotamia needed trade.
Besides local trade, which brought food and animals into the city and took tools, plows and harnesses out to the countryside, long-distance trade was needed for resources like copper and tin and for luxury items for the nobility. Merchants and traders in early Mesopotamian cities began to form caravans for long-distance trading.
Mesopotamia Trade: Development
With the development of the wheel and sail, transportation of goods became easier. Heavy bulk goods could travel by ox cart or be loaded onto riverboats. Most long-distance trade, however, was carried out by caravans using donkeys as pack animals. Donkeys could carry about 150 pounds and travel on the plains and into the mountains, places were wheeled carts couldn’t go.
Craftsmen in Mesopotamia created a variety of trade goods from fine textiles to sturdy, nearly mass-produced pottery made in temple workshops to leather goods, jewelry, basketry, devotional figurines and ivory carvings among others. Agricultural products such as grains and cooking oils were also exported as were dates and flax.
Mesopotamian cities established trade all up and down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and into Anatolia, today’s Turkey. Other overland trade routes went east over the Zagros Mountains into present-day Iran and Afghanistan. A busy sea route went through the Persian Gulf across the Arabian Sea to the Indus valley in what is today’s northern India and Pakistan. By the 3rd millennium, Mesopotamia trade went in all directions.
Mesopotamia Trade: Outposts
As Mesopotamian trade developed, merchants even set up trade emporiums in other regions and cities. Around 1700 B.C., Assyrian traders set up a trading outpost in Kanesh, Anatolia. The traders traveled over 1,000 miles to this city in today’s Turkey. There the Assyrian merchants paid a tax to the city’s ruler to live in their own quarter of Kanesh and trade with the city dwellers and other merchants who came from afar to trade for their Mesopotamian goods.
The Assyrian traders came with a caravan of donkeys loaded with fine textiles their womenfolk wove, and tin that originally came from farther east. They traded the textiles and tin for silver and other goods. The Assyrian merchants were part of a family business that traded all over Mesopotamia and beyond. An archeological excavation of 20,000 clay tablets in present-day Kultepe, Turkey, brought these detailed merchant records to light.
By the time of the Assyrian Empire, Mesopotamia was trading exporting grains, cooking oil, pottery, leather goods, baskets, textiles and jewelry and importing Egyptian gold, Indian ivory and pearls, Anatolian silver, Arabian copper and Persian tin. Trade was always vital to resource-poor Mesopotamia.
The upper classes of ancient Mesopotamia included kings and their families, priests and priestesses, ranking military officers, scribes and wealthier merchants and traders. The hereditary noble class were the kings, land-owning families and priests and priestesses and their families. Keep in mind that ancient Mesopotamia’s history stretches over 3000 years and includes many cultures: Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. We can discuss these groups as one general culture as they all lived in the lands we call Mesopotamia and were very similar.
Social stratification in ancient Mesopotamia grew out of the requirements of the environment. In southern Mesopotamia, the lands were fertile, but the two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris flooded often, ruining the crops. Some Mesopotamians began to figure out how to control the water supply to save the crops from floods. They began to dig canals and make dams to both control the waters and to irrigate the crops in drier seasons. With their specialized knowledge and ability to provide direction and coordinate communal labor in water control projects, they gained power and prestige.
Complex societies are unequal societies in that some have more privileges and benefits than others. However, these greater privileges are also tied to greater responsibilities; more is required of the nobility than of commoners.
The king reigns at the top of Mesopotamian society, an almost divine figure who represents the city’s own god. The king makes law, heads the military and provides for building the city’s infrastructure. He lays taxes upon the people to fund the city’s defense and public works such as building temples, digging wells and maintaining city walls.
Of almost equal importance are the priests and priestesses, who mediate between the many gods and the people. In all Mesopotamian cultures, priests and priestesses performed essential religious observances, made sacrifices, kept the calendars and interpreted omens and signs. Priests and priestesses were literate and served as healers. The first doctors and dentists were temple priestesses who cared for the ill.
While not of the nobility, military officers, scribes and merchants who owned their own trading company were in the upper class. Their privileges were less than the nobles’ but greater than then commoners. Neither northern or southern Mesopotamia were rich in natural resources so merchants and their trade networks were necessary to obtain essential goods. Merchants obtained copper ore from the north in exchange for the manufactured goods of the south, for example.
Warfare between Mesopotamian cities was common if not endemic. Cities were rivals and competitors and political squabbling was a part of life. Strong militaries were necessary for a city’s defense or for actively warring with a neighboring city. High-ranking military officers were greatly rewarded for their victories.
Scribes were honored due to their knowledge. It took 12 years to learn cuneiform writing. Scribes worked for the temples, for kings and other noble families and for merchants who needed to keep tract of trades. Scribes also ran scribe schools to teach reading and writing to sons of the nobility.
Most Mesopotamian commoners were farmers living outside the city walls. However, cities too required commoners as many tasks were involved in running a city efficiently. All of Mesopotamia’s social classes lived in the city, including the nobility, the royals and their families, priests and priestesses, free commoners, clients of the nobility or temples and slaves. Clients were either temple dependents, such as important craftsmen, temple workers or dependent commoners who owned no property and worked on the nobility’s great estates.
Most Mesopotamian commoners, whether in the city or countryside, owned small plots of land, sometimes as individuals, but more often as part of their family or clan. Clans and extended families owned land and all members of the family worked that land, at least in the countryside. Even city dwellers might own a small bit of land for a garden.
Besides farming, Mesopotamian commoners were carters, brick makers, carpenters, fishermen, soldiers, tradesmen, bakers, stone carvers, potters, weavers and leather workers. Nobles were involved in administration and a city’s bureaucracy and didn’t often work with their hands.
A day’s work began early for Mesopotamian commoners. Women were up and making the morning meal by sunrise. Breakfast was simple but filling: a barley or wheat porridge flavored with onions and garlic or fruit, bread and beer. Beer was the favorite Mesopotamian beverage even among the wealthy, who could afford wine.
Mesopotamian commoners’ houses were one or two stories, made of mud bricks with rooms around an open courtyard. The walls were plastered and whitewashed both inside and out to help reflect the heat. Roofs were flat, and families slept on the roof when it was hot.
Because of the hot climate, dress was simple. Men either wore a kilt-like skirt which reached to their ankles or a long robe. They were either clean-shaven or had long beards. Women wore long robes draped to leave the right shoulder bare. They wore their hair braided, then put it up in fashionable hair dos. They often wore elaborate headdresses and ribbons. Poorer people could only afford wool for their cloth; the wealthier wore linen, a much lighter fabric in hot weather.
Once the day was over, families congregated for the evening meal, which could be a meat and vegetable stew, or roasted meats such as mutton, lamb, duck or pork served with vegetables, fruit, bread and beer. Cakes were eaten on special occasions, sweetened with honey. Families enjoyed singing and story-telling after dinner.
While free commoners held no religious or political power, they could move up the social ladder through marriage or enterprise. Some Mesopotamian commoners were successful enough at their trade to buy land, which they could then rent. Commoners were taxed a percentage of their labor or products. They might also be drafted into the military in times of war or to work on public buildings such as temples or palaces. Nevertheless, they often lived comfortable if not luxurious lives.
Like many agriculturally-based people, most ancient Mesopotamians were farmers, perhaps 80 percent of them. Their lives differed from those of the city-dwellers. While crops grew abundantly in the fertile soil near the rivers, crops grown farther away required irrigation, which meant maintaining dams or canals that led from the river to the fields. Mesopotamian farmers were laborers and their work was physically hard. Roads, canals and aqueducts had to be built and kept up, and crops needed to be sown, weeded and harvested. From dawn to dusk, men worked in the fields or tended the livestock and women worked in the homes, raising children, making baskets and pottery, weaving cloth and cooking.
Ancient Mesopotamian houses were either built of mud brick or of reeds, depending on where they were located. People lived in reed houses near the rivers and in wetland areas. In drier areas, people built homes of sun-dried mud bricks. Mud brick homes had one or two rooms with flat roofs. The roof was an extra living area where families could cook and sleep on hot nights. Some houses had courtyards with a small garden or fruit trees. Homes, whether reed or brick, were simply furnished with tables, chairs, chests for clothing and kitchen ware. People slept on reed mats laid on the floor.
A working day started early. Rural people ate twice a day, once early in the morning and a later, after work meal. The first meal might be bread and porridge with beer to wash it down. The later, evening meal might be a spicy vegetable stew, perhaps flavored with onions and fish or meat along with barley bread and beer. A hard working farmer or road builder took some bread, dried fruit and a jug of beer or water for a little meal during the working day.
In the hot Mesopotamia climate, men who labored wore a pleated skirt of sheepskin, wool or linen if they could afford it. Women wore a long robe, belted at the waist or hips, made of wool or linen. Women’s robes were colorful with a variety of patterns or designs. Men and women of every class wore jewelry of a type they could afford.
Family dinners were much the same as they are today, except that the Mesopotamians enjoyed entertainment during or after their meal. Someone in the family would tell a story, or the whole family would sing. Prayers were offered before a meal, as ancient Mesopotamians were strongly religious and the gods were a major part of their lives.
While rural life was physically more demanding, people of the countryside in ancient Mesopotamia had good lives. In the countryside, daily life revolved around the work that had to be done to feed not only themselves, but the city dwellers as well. Rulers took a portion of every crop as taxes. Nevertheless, the fertile soil of ancient Mesopotamia provided enough for all.
Daily life in an ancient Mesopotamian city depended on a person’s status and occupation. Almost all societies and cultures are hierarchical with rulers at the top and laborers at the bottom. By the time people began living in cities, circa 4000 B.C., societies had different classes and a variety of occupations.
Life in a Mesopotamian city began early. Women would rise first and begin preparing a breakfast. In wealthy homes, slaves or servants would be the first ones up to get a meal together. Usually two meals were eaten daily, one in the morning before work began and one in the evening after work. The staples of Mesopotamian life were bread, beer and onions. Breakfast might include a porridge or a soup as well as bread with beer to wash it down. People also drank water and milk, though milk spoiled quickly in the hot climate.
After breakfast, those who worked in or around their homes began their workday. Most women worked in their homes caring for their families, though some also worked as weavers, potters, tavern-keepers or bakers. Those whose work took them outside their homes usually carried some bread and beer for a middle of the day snack.
Every day included religious observances such as prayers before meals and requests for aid from the gods for many of life’s daily tasks. Mesopotamians made sacrifices to one god before beginning a building project and made sacrifices to another god when the building was complete. The gods were involved in all of life’s experiences and people performed specific rituals concerning the gods daily.
City centers held the temples, ziggurats, the king’s palace and wealthy homes. Most cities spread out from this center with the poorer people living farther out. Cities were dotted with fruit and nut trees and some homes had gardens. Narrow, winding streets and alleys were the norm throughout most of the city except in the city center.
Most city houses were made of sun-dried mud brick. Temples, palaces and homes of the nobility were also made of mud-brick, but these bricks were kiln-dried and of far higher quality. Most houses had two or three stories with flat roofs. In hot weather, people cooked, entertained and slept on their roofs.
After a working day, people headed home for the evening meal. Mesopotamian women served bread, beer and onions at the evening meal along with a vegetable stew, a fish soup or on special occasions, roasted meats such as mutton or lamb. Grains such as barley and wheat, vegetables and fruit were eaten at every meal, flavored with herbs and spices grown locally or imported from afar.
Poorer Mesopotamians went to bed at dark so they didn’t have the expense of lighting candles or oil lamps. Wealthier homes had windows for lighting as well as sesame oil lamps. They also had braziers for heat and light in the colder times of the year.
Mesopotamian education was a cornerstone of elite life for all empires that dwelt in the Fertile Crescent. The first schools were started by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia. The invention of writing in the mid-4th millennium B.C. made kings and priests realize the need for educating scribes. At first, the writing was simple pictograms, but it gradually developed into cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks inscribed on clay. The wedge shapes were due to the triangle-shaped tip of the stylus, a reed used as a pen. With the invention of writing, the Sumerians began to record everything they saw: business records, inventories, observations of daily life, religious hymns, poems, stories, palace orders and temple records.
Mesopotamian education largely centered around literacy. This could be said for nearly any culture, but it was particularly true for the difficult of the written language. In the 3rd millennium, cuneiform writing became quite complex. It took 12 years to learn the cuneiform marks and the general knowledge of scribes. Temples established schools in which to educate boys as scribes and priests. At first, scribal schools were aligned with the temples, but gradually secular schools took over. Established scribes opened schools and charged costly tuition.
The costly tuition ensured that only boys of wealthy families could afford to acquire any level of Mesopotamian education. The sons of the nobility, government officials, priests and rich merchants went to school from dawn to dusk each day. Due to the difficulty in learning cuneiform script, few Sumerians were literate, although they could probably recognize some common words.
Boys probably started school when they were seven or eight years old. Learning scribal skills was hard work. Girls did not learn to read or write unless they were a king’s daughters or were training as priestesses. Teachers, mostly former scribes or priests, were harsh disciplinarians; mistakes were often punished by whipping. Teachers punished students who spoke out of turn, spoke without permission, dressed inappropriately, or got up and left without permission. They expected students to be obedient as well as hard working.
Teachers taught the boys reading, writing, math and history. Depending on their future employment, students not only had to learn literacy and numeracy, but to be familiar with a wide variety of subjects, including geography, zoology, botany, astronomy, engineering, medicine and architecture. While schools were reserved only for the elite and wealthy, students had to work hard to learn the skills of a scribe.
Students learned the complicated cuneiform script by constant practice on their clay tablets. A teacher would write a sentence on the tablet. The student was then to copy the sentence repeatedly until he got it right with no errors. A “big brother” or a teacher’s aide helped younger students with their work. Repeated practice, recitation, reading various texts and constant copying gradually taught the students the thousands of groups of cuneiform marks they needed to know. Archeologists found many clay tablets covered with a student’s efforts, often corrected by a teacher. Once graduated, a new scribe could become a priest with more training, or he could work as a scribe for the military, palace, temple or an array of businesses.
Artisans in Mesopotamia represented the middle class of society. They were free citizens with a few rights and privileges who created the goods desired by the upper classes. Fine pottery, gold and silver jewelry, carved ivory figurines, finely woven textiles and carved semi-precious gemstones were all goods traded throughout the cities of Mesopotamia and the greater world. Providing these goods were the work of a city’s craft workers or artisans.
The nobility and priesthood ruled Mesopotamian city-states, but the upper classes relied on those below them for trade goods and labor. As civilization developed with its greater societal complexity and enlarged populations, a class of people who weren’t required for agricultural work or for building projects arose. Craft workers produced the finished goods that brought wealth to the cities.
Along with the artisans, merchants and traders belonged in the middle class. Local traders ensured the distribution of subsistence goods such as salt, food items and fiber for making clothing. Long-distance traders took finished goods from the artisans and craft workers, such as weapons, tools, linen or wool cloth, jewelry, pots and cauldrons to other cities and regions where the goods would be sold or traded.
At times in Mesopotamia’s history, middle class workers were relatively strong and independent. At other times, the upper classes consolidated, their power and lower classes suffered. Still, as trade was vital to all Mesopotamian cities, craft workers and traders were respected members of society.
Craft workers could work in small private workshops limited to their extended family. They made goods that were utilitarian such as cauldrons, brooms, tableware and textiles for daily use. They also made fine works of art to be traded in the market or for kings, nobles and the priesthood. Many artisans worked exclusively for temples, which sometimes employed thousands of workers in dyeing, weaving and creating garments for the nobility and to clothe the gods in their temples. Temples ran craft workshops providing the means for artisans to make their goods such as pottery kilns, potters wheels, smithies and forges for metallurgy.
Craft knowledge was closely guarded and passed down from fathers to sons. Most craft workers had certain techniques, formulas or recipes they protected from the competition. Occasionally, a fine artisan would gain popularity and his or her works become known to the nobility, who then created more demand for the artisan’s products. Perfumers, musicians, jewelry-makers, scribes and poets might become the special favorite of the aristocracy.
Usually, however, most craft workers worked in city neighborhoods in family workshops. They dealt with merchants and traders on a daily basis, both to obtain the raw materials of their craft and to sell their finished products. Their goods brought riches to the cities, playing an important role in the economy of ancient Mesopotamia. While cloth and wooden goods don’t survive the ravages of time, items crafted of metal, clay, ivory, stone or semi-precious gems remain to reveal the artistry of Mesopotamian craftsmen.