Mesopotamia: Overview and Summary
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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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“Mesopotamian Civilization (2): Everyday Life of Merchants, Temple Priests, and Prostitutes”
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Governments of Mesopotamia
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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.
Mesopotamia – Sumeria
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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.
In Mesopotamia , 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. In Mesopotamia, it was probably the necessity of record-keeping in long-distance trade that spurred the development of cuneiform writing.
While the archeological record of Mesopotamia 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.
Mesopotamia – The Akkadian Empire
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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
In Mesopotamia, 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, Amorites and invading Gutians. While drought and famine devastated the lands, the Gutian Invasion ensured the collapse of the Akkadian Empire in 2193 B.C.
The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Story Of The Legend
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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.
Mesopotamia – King Hammurabi and His Code of Law
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During Mesopotamia, 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.
Mesopotamia – Hammurabi’s Law Code
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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.
Assyrian Empire: The Old Kingdom
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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.
Assyrian Empire: The Middle Empire
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For a few centuries after the death of Shamshi-Adad I, Assyrian cities in Mesopotamia 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. In Mesopotamia, 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. In Mesopotamia, 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.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire
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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 in Mesopotamia 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.
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