Mesopotamia, often called "the Cradle of Civilization," was the birthplace of the world's first civilization, Sumer. Mesopotamia was home to some of the world's greatest civilizations as well—not only of Sumer and the related culture of Akkad but also of Babylonia and Assyria. From these countries came the world's first legal system, the Code of Hammurabi, and the first great tale in Western civilization, the Gilgamesh Epic. The cuneiform (pronounced cue-NAY-i-form) of Sumer was the first known form of writing and probably influenced Egyptian hieroglyphics. Israel felt the influence of Mesopotamia: Tales from the region provide the source for many of the great stories in the early chapters of the Bible, and later the Israelites would become captives of the Assyrians and Babylonians. From the mud of Sumerian huts to the stars mapped by the astronomers of Babylon, there were few aspects of ancient life not touched by the brilliant cultures of Mesopotamia.
Where to find Mesopotamia
The name Mesopotamia is Greek for "between rivers." On the eastern edge of this region, located in southwest Asia, is the Tigris (TIE-griss) River; to the west is the Euphrates (you-FRAY-tees). The rivers flow out of the mountains in southeastern Turkey and ultimately come together before emptying into the Persian Gulf. Today the whole of Mesopotamia lies inside the nation of Iraq (ear-OCK), which has continued to be a focal point for the world's attention. It is a dry, parched land, but once its soil was so rich that historians refer to Mesopotamia as part of "The Fertile Crescent." The Fertile Crescent describes a strip of land that included the Nile Valley in Egypt as well as Mesopotamia. The region is so named because a line in the shape of a crescent, or half-moon, would join the two regions. Today the area surrounding Mesopotamia is called the Middle East.
Even though historians tend to treat Egypt as the world's first major civilization, in fact civilization first developed in the region of Sumer (SOO-mur). No one knows quite when this happened: the first settlers could have arrived anywhere between 6000 and 4500 B.C.
This first group was the Ubaid (oo-BYE-ad) culture, which settled in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia—an area that remains marshy today. Historians know little about the Ubaidans, but they seem to have had a fairly sophisticated knowledge of irrigation, or methods of keeping crops watered. They also knew how to make pots of baked clay, and built their houses of reeds from the nearby marshes. At some point their area was invaded by Semitic (seh-MIT-ick) tribes from the southwest, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, but the two groups eventually became one through marriage.
By about 3500 B.C., the intermarriage between various groups produced the people known as the Sumerians. The Sumerians in turn established virtually all the essentials of civilization over the next 800 years.
An explosion of knowledge (3500-2750 B.C.)
The Sumerians developed the plow, which could be drawn by an animal such as an ox. Before that time, people had planted and tended crops with simple handheld tools such as hoes. The plow made it possible to cultivate (plant crops on) a much larger area of ground in a much shorter period of time. This invention in turn made possible a well-developed agricultural economy, one of the main ingredients of civilization. Beginning from this basis in farming, Sumerian society emerged.
Thanks to the plow, the Sumerians progressed beyond subsistence agriculture, or farming just to produce enough food to stay alive. As a result, there came to be a division of labor, meaning that not everybody had to do the same work for survival—another key ingredient of civilization. Some people, for instance, became craftsmen, or skilled workers who produced items according to their specialty. A craftsman might fashion clay pottery, for instance, or he might be a brick mason who built houses. In Egypt, masons built with stone, but Mesopotamia had very little rock. It also lacked other natural resources such as metals and timber; therefore, the people of Sumer became involved in trade with people in other parts of the Middle East.
The term trade refers to the exchange of goods for units of value (money, for instance, or gold) between two individuals or two countries. A tradesman is a merchant or shop-owner, another class of people that developed in Sumer as business-people sold various goods. In those days, trade really meant trading, since there was not yet such a thing as money in the form of coins. Instead, people might barter (exchange) a bronze tool for grain with which to make bread or another Sumerian specialty, beer.
With such a highly organized society, it is not surprising that the Sumerians established the world's first cities, or rather city-states, self-contained political units that were not part of a larger nation. These apparently resulted from people's mutual need to protect themselves from outside invasion. Of the dozen Sumerian city-states, the two most important were Ur and Uruk (OO-rook). By modern standards, these city-states were not large: Uruk, for instance, took up less than half a square mile and contained only a few thousand people.
At the center of the Sumerian city-state of the 3000s B.C. was what one might describe as history's first skyscrapers: a ziggurat (ZIG-uh-raht). These were temple towers as tall as seven stories, each story of which was smaller than the one below. Thus they may have influenced the pyramids of Egypt, which began to appear about nine hundred years after the beginnings of Sumerian civilization: indeed, the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zoser, resembled a ziggurat. The infamous Tower of Babel in the Bible's Book of Genesis was most likely a ziggurat; and in coming centuries, successive Mesopotamian cultures would perfect the ziggurat form.
Ziggurats may have been at the physical center of Sumerian life, but the spiritual center lay with the gods, and with the political system. In most cultures, ancient and modern, the prevailing religious beliefs (or the lack of them) are closely linked with the form of government; and initially in Sumer, there was little distinction between the two. At the highest level in Sumerian society was the ensi, a priest who also served as leader and claimed to rule under the direction of the gods. Sumer developed a sophisticated religion whose four primary gods and goddesses supervised various aspects of creation. Second-rung deities such as Inanna (ee-NAH-nuh), the goddess of love and procreation (that is, having children), were typically linked with the notion of sustaining life.
Yet there was something in Sumer more splendid than its religion, its government, its cities, or its ziggurats. It was perhaps their most wonderful contribution to civilization: writing.
Without writing, the only way to communicate ideas is verbally, which means that a thought can only travel so far. Only through writing can people convey complex thoughts and pass on detailed information, across time and space.
Even before the Egyptians first used hieroglyphics, the Sumerians of the fourth millennium B.C. produced the first form of written language, cuneiform (cue-NAY-i-form). The name cuneiform is Latin for "wedge-shaped." Indeed its symbols do look like wedges placed at various angles to one another.
Cuneiform may have influenced the development of hieroglyphics, with which it shared many similarities. As with hieroglyphics, the earliest cuneiform symbols were pictograms, or pictures of the thing they represented: a picture of a man, for instance, for "man." Some of these pictograms came to stand for other concepts related to the function of the object depicted. Thus a foot could symbolize walking, or symbols could be joined to produce a new idea. Hence the combination of pictograms for mouth and water meant drink. Eventually the Sumerians developed phonograms, symbols that stood for sounds or syllables. This made writing much easier. Before the introduction of phonograms, cuneiform had as many as 2,000 symbols. Later, the number was reduced to 600—which is still a large number compared to the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet.
The Sumerians used cuneiform to record the great Gilgamesh Epic (GIL-guh-mesh). They also developed a much more practical use for cuneiform: keeping track of money. In any business situation, it is important to maintain a record of what one spends and what one receives. This is called accounting. People keep accounts on a personal level today (for example, by balancing a checkbook). Businesses do it on an even bigger scale, often employing full-time accountants for the task.
Using a sharp stick called a stylus, a Sumerian accountant would make an impression in a soft clay tablet, recording the details of who paid what to whom. Later the tablet would be baked and would harden, a permanent record of a business transaction. Thousands and thousands of years later, when archaeologists examined the ruins of Sumer, some of the first evidence of Sumerian culture that they found were what people today would call receipts!
The Early Dynastic Period (2750-2300 B.C.)
Eventually the ensi became greedy and began to oppress the people, who looked to powerful landowners for leadership. A man who owned a great deal of property was called a lugal, which literally meant "great man," and in time the lugals became like kings. Thus the theocracy (thee-OCK-ruh-see; government controlled by religious leaders) was replaced by a monarchy, or rule by a king. Whereas the ensi were priests who became political leaders, the lugals were kings who became religious leaders as well. In order for a Sumerian ruler to have legitimacy, or the right to rule, he needed to have the approval of the gods: therefore it was necessary to combine political and religious functions.
Historians refer to this period of some four centuries as the Early Dynastic Period, "dynastic" (die-NASS-tick) being a form of dynasty. The dynasties of Sumer were different from the dynasties of Egypt, established around the same time: the Sumerian dynasties were much shorter and less powerful, and they spent much of their time at war with one another.
Sumer, at least during this phase, would never become a single country in the way that Egypt was—not until it was invaded by a brilliant conqueror from a neighboring land. Later Greece would have a similar experience, and as in Sumer, the city-states of Greece would not unite until brought together by Alexander the Great from neighboring Macedonia. Sumer's Alexander was named Sargon I. He came from the nation of Akkad (AH-kahd) in the north.
The Akkadian Empire (2300-2150 B.C.)
The Akkadians had come to Mesopotamia with the Semitic tribes who had migrated to the region centuries before. Their culture was similar to that of the Sumerians. When Sargon (SAHR-gahn; c. 2334-2279 B.C.) conquered Sumer, he was not so much destroying a civilization as he was unifying two related peoples.
Sargon was not born to royalty; he came from among the people, the son of a single mother who had been forced to give him away when he was an infant. Raised by a fruit grower, he ultimately rose to power, but he never forgot his roots. He worked hard to promote the interests of the working class and the growing middle class by keeping taxes low and encouraging trade.
Around 2300 B.C., he conquered the city-states of Sumer and united them under one system, perhaps the first empire in history. Under Akkadian rule, cuneiform developed further. The Akkadians began to produce works of literature. Sargon also moved the government of Sumer further away from a theocracy: now the word ensi came to mean not a representative of a god but a representative of a king.
Despite Sargon's achievements, his successors had a hard time holding on to power. His grandson Naram-Sin (NARahm SIN) declared himself "The Lord of the Four Quarters," which was another way of saying "king of the world," but in fact he faced rebellions among the Sumerians. Later Akkadian kings also had to deal with an uncivilized group called the Gutians (GOO-tee-uhns), who invaded from the mountains to the north in about 2150 B.C.
Renewal in Ur (2150-2000 B.C.)
After a period of unrest, in about 2150 B.C. a group of lugals in the city-state of Ur reestablished order. Unlike Sargon, they favored a highly centralized government, with the other cities under the control of authorities in Ur. The economy, which had been allowed to run free under the Akkadians, was now placed under state control, with priests in charge. Despite the harsh nature of this system, it restored order and allowed for a renewal of Sumerian culture.
This period is known as the Third Dynasty. In about 2000 B.C., however, this final chapter of Sumer's history came to an end when Mesopotamia was overrun by a group from the west called the Amorites (AM-uh-rites.) The Amorites would in turn establish the next great Mesopotamian civilization in Babylon.
Babylonia (3000–539 B.C.)
One of the most brilliant cities of the ancient world was Babylon (BAB-uh-lahn). In its legal codes and its sciences, it stood at the furthest advances of human understanding. Its Hanging Gardens were among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Founded by the Amorites, a previously nomadic (noMAD-ick; wandering) people from Arabia, it existed as early as 3000 B.C. For nearly a thousand years, it remained under the control of Ur and later the Akkadians. But the invasion of Ur in 2000 B.C. was an indication that the Amorites were on the move, and in 1894 B.C., an Amorite chieftain named Sumu-abu (SOO-moo AH-boo) took over Babylon. A century after Sumu-abu would come the only truly great leader in early Babylonia—and one of the great figures of human history.
Hammurabi's reign (1792-1750 B.C.)
Hammurabi (hah-moo-ROB-ee) began ruling in 1792 B.C. and quickly distinguished himself as a leader of great power. He thwarted, or frustrated, the ambitions of a neighboring king to take over Isin (EE-zin), an important neighboring city, and over the next thirty years defeated the kings of all surrounding regions. Eventually the empire of Hammurabi stretched from Babylon, in the southern part of modern-day Iraq, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea far in the west. He also built many ziggurats and great fortifications (defensive walls) to protect his nation from foreign conquest. But the greatest achievement of Hammurabi was his legal code, or system of laws.
He was probably not the first leader to create laws, but Hammurabi's is certainly the oldest surviving code, and it continues to influence the law of modern times. The law was written on a stele (STEE-lee), a great stone pillar which bore at the top a carved picture (or a relief sculpture) of Hammurabi receiving the laws from Shamash (SHAH-mosh), the god of justice.
Aspects of Hammurabi's code might not seem very fair to modern people. Its justice is built around the idea of "an eye for an eye," and its punishments relate to a person's social rank. Babylonian society was sharply divided according to classes—rich, middle class, and slaves. The rich, or free people, were by far the smallest (but also the most influential) group in society. Next came the common people or middle class, which were a somewhat larger but much less powerful force in Babylonia. At the bottom rung were the slaves, who were the most plentiful group and the lowest-ranking but who nonetheless enjoyed some rights.
The Code of Hammurabi clearly established more harsh penalties for a wrong done to a rich person than for one done to a slave, but it was a remarkable legal code because it offered some protection for the more unfortunate members of society. Nor was Hammurabi's code the only great achievement of Babylonia, which made many advances in mathematics and science as well as law.
Mathematics, science, and religion
It might seem odd to group religion with mathematics and science, because to modern people they are usually separate. But to ancient peoples such as the Babylonians, these concepts were linked. Indeed, Babylonian achievements in astronomy, the scientific study of the stars' movements, resulted from their interest in astrology.
Astrology is the study of the position of stars and planets that, according to believers in astrology, have a direct effect on a person's everyday life. Like people of ancient times, modern people read horoscopes, or astrological charts, in hopes of finding out who they will marry, or whether they will get rich, or what other things fate has in store for them. Astrology was and is an unscientific belief system, more like a superstition than a science. Yet it makes use of scientific data or information, and therefore the Babylonians' astrological studies yielded some advances in learning.
Though they did not have telescopes, which are essential to the work of a modern-day astronomer, Babylonian astrologers charted the movements of the heavenly bodies they could see with the naked eye. Each of these had an association with a god. The Moon was Sin, a deity (DEE-ih-tee) first worshiped by the Sumerians; the Sun was Shamash, who drove across the sky in a fiery chariot; and so on all the way to Jupiter, which they equated with the supreme god Marduk (MAR-duke).
Marduk was primarily a Babylonian deity, but most of their gods originated in Sumer. Ishtar (ISH-tar), associated with Venus, seems to have come from the Sumerian goddess Inanna. The Greeks and later the Romans worshiped deities with similar roles—and with the same planetary associations. Thus, for instance, the Greek and Roman Apollo, the sun god, drove a chariot across the sky every day. As for the planets, today these are known by the Roman names of gods whose function was typically the same as their Babylonian counterpart: Jupiter the supreme god, Venus the goddess of love, and so on.
By the time of Nebuchadnezzar II centuries later, Babylonian astronomy had progressed a great deal. The Babylonians were the first to recognize that planets and stars were not the same thing, and they made detailed observations of the Earth's movement around the Sun. They figured that the Earth took 360 days to revolve around the Sun. Their calculation of a year's length was off by 5.25 days, but the number 360 made for easy division. From the Babylonians comes the idea of a circle as having 360 degrees, each degree of which is divided into sixty minutes, which in turn are divided into sixty seconds.
These terms are still used for measuring angles and portions of a circle—but of course minutes and seconds are also used for measuring time in a day, which is one of the most notable of all Babylonian contributions to modern life. The Babylonians also divided the period of the Earth's movement around the sun into twelve signs of the astrological zodiac (ZOE-dee-ack) and divided the year into twelve months. Theirs were lunar months, however, meaning that they were based on the twenty-eight day cycle of the Moon.
Therefore in some years they had to add a thirteenth month to make the calendar work out right. To divide the month, they used the four phases of the Moon as it goes from a new moon to a full moon and back again. A twenty-eight day month divided by four yields a seven-day week—yet another Babylonian contribution to everyday life.
A series of invasions (1749-625 B.C.)
Although Hammurabi was a strong leader, it would be many centuries before another king of similar strength emerged in Babylonia. In fact, the nation entered a period of decline soon after his death, and the next thousand years would be characterized by a series of invasions from all sides.
Hammurabi's son fought off an attack from a nation called the Kassites (KASS-ites), who came from the mountains to the east. The Kassite invasion did not succeed then, but they would return. In the meantime, a group known as the Sealand people swept into Babylonia from the south, taking over cities and establishing their own dynasty. Historians know little about the people of the Sealand, who were much less civilized than the Babylonians and made little cultural impact, but they remained a threat to Babylonia for many years. In 1600 B.C., the Hittites came down from the northwest and sacked, or destroyed, Babylon. Strangely, however, they did not remain in the area, and soon after they departed, the Kassites seized control of Babylonia in 1595 B.C.
Though their name is not nearly as well-known as that of the Babylonians, the Kassites in fact established the longest-running of all dynasties in Babylonia. Apparently they respected the civilization established by the people they had subdued, and over the next four centuries Babylonian culture flourished. It was a time of considerable construction, as Babylon and other cities were rebuilt from the ruins of the Hittite invasion. During this period cuneiform went through a great deal of development, thanks to the establishment of schools to teach scribes the art of writing.
The Kassites encouraged trade, and maintained relations with leaders of other powerful lands. A record of their diplomacy, or negotiations with other leaders, exists in the form of the Amarna Letters found in the Egyptian city of Akhetaton. These letters show that the Kassite kings exchanged gifts with the pharaohs, who sent them gold.
Despite their achievements, the Kassites lost control of Babylon to the invading Assyrians in 1225 B.C. Other parts of Babylonia remained under Kassite rule until 1158, when a nation called the Elamites (EE-lum-ites) invaded from the south. During the Elamite period, the only pocket of Babylonian resistance was in the city of Isin, which established its own independent dynasty.
The most powerful of Isin's kings was Nebuchadnezzar I (neb-you-cud-NEZ-ur), who reigned from 1125 to 1104 B.C. and eventually drove out the Elamites. Once again, Babylonia experienced a brief period of renewal. For a time it appeared that Nebuchadnezzar would establish a new empire. He even took on the powerful Assyrians, and invaded their territory all the way to within twenty miles of their capital. But he never went any farther; nor did the Babylonians get to fulfill their hopes of once again becoming a powerful nation. Nonetheless, Nebuchadnezzar became a legendary figure who inspired hope. It is perhaps fitting that the most famous Babylonian leader other than Hammurabi would later be named Nebuchadnezzar as well.
But the time of Nebuchadnezzar II still lay many centuries in the future. Before Babylonia reemerged, it would fall into the hands of more invaders. Notable among these were the Aramaeans (air-uh-MAY-uns) from the region of modern-day Syria to the west. Like the Kassites, they came as invaders but adopted Babylonian culture—with a major twist. Their language, Aramaic (air-uh-MAY-ick), gradually replaced Babylonian as the common language of the people. Because of the great influence of Babylonian civilization, Aramaic spread throughout the region until it became the lingua franca (LING-wah FRANK-uh), or common language, for much of the known world.
During much of the period from the 800s to the 600s B.C., Babylonia faced an off-and-on threat from the Assyrians, who took over in the 700s and in 689 sacked Babylon. This second destruction of their capital city enraged the Babylonians, who revolted against Assyria in 652 B.C. The Assyrians put down the rebellion after four years, but the Babylonians remained defiant. Two decades later, they established a new dynasty that would be the most powerful since the days of Hammurabi.
The Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire (625-539 B.C.)
This last and perhaps brightest phase of Babylonian history is sometimes called the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The prefix neo- simply means "new" and is often used to describe the new version of something. As for Chaldean (kal-DEE-uhn), it was the name for a group of people from southern Babylonia. They may have had Aramaic roots, but they consciously identified themselves with Babylonia: in this way, they established their own legitimacy as rulers through a connection with the past glory of the empire.
The founder of this new dynasty was Nabopolassar (nab-ohpoe-LASS-uhr), who reigned from 625 to 605 B.C. Coming out of the Chaldean homeland in the south, his troops swiftly overran all of Babylonia, but they did not stop there. He formed an alliance with the Medes (rhymes with "beads") to the east, and together they took on the Assyrians. In 612 B.C., the combined forces of the Chaldeans and Medes attacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (NIN-uhvuh). For three months, they conducted a siege, a sustained military attack against a city, until Nineveh fell to them. In spite of this success, the Assyrians still held on and retreated to the west, where they reestablished themselves with the help of Egyptian forces. Nabopolassar once again defeated the Assyrians, and in 605 B.C. his son Nebuchadnezzar completed the victory with a battle against the Egyptians at Carchemish (KAR-kuhmish.) After this, Babylonia claimed most of the Assyrian Empire.
Nabopolassar died while his son was away at Carchemish. Nebuchadnezzar returned in haste to Babylon, where he was crowned king. Under his long reign (605-562 B.C.), his city and his nation flourished as never before. Nebuchadnezzar ordered immense building projects in Babylon, including a new temple to Marduk, new palaces, improved and extended walls, and magnificent gateways such as the Ishtar Gate.
The blue-tiled Ishtar Gate opened onto the Processional Way, along which parades went during Babylonian festivals. The gate and the parade route are legendary, but Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon included even more famous structures. There was the seven-story ziggurat of Etemenanki, which some archaeologists associate with the biblical Tower of Babel. And there were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar built them for his wife, a Mede, who missed the mountains of her homeland; because Babylon was flat, he created man-made mountains complete with lush vegetation.
Under Nebuchadnezzar's rule, Babylon became a vast city of some 2,500 acres, or about four square miles. But Nebuchadnezzar did not only build, he also conquered. In 597 B.C., he launched a campaign against the Israelites in Judah, and took many prisoners, including their king. He left another king in charge as a vassal—a ruler who is subject to another ruler. When this king rebelled, he returned and destroyed the Israelites' capital at Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Thus began the Babylonian Captivity, one of the most important events in the history of the Hebrews. Though Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Israelites, the Bible treats him not as an enemy, but as someone who did God's will. He is a major figure in the biblical Book of Daniel, which tells how a gifted young Hebrew interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dreams concerning his own future and that of his nation.
Daniel prophesied that the empire established by Nebuchadnezzar would be short-lived, and indeed it was. After the king's death in 562 B.C., there followed a succession of weak kings. Nabonidus (nab-oh-NIDE-us), who ruled from 555 to 539 B.C., was not so much weak as he was strange. Instead of paying attention to affairs of state, he devoted himself to studying the Sumerian past and its religion. For many years of his reign, he lived in a desert oasis, apparently unconcerned that the Persians from the east were about to conquer Babylon.
During this time, he left his son Belshazzar (bel-SHAZZ-ur) on the throne, and Belshazzar became the unfortunate main character in a chilling story from the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel. In Daniel's account, while feasting and drinking, the king was surprised to look up and see a finger—apparently unattached to a hand—writing four strange words of the wall of his palace: "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPARSIN" (min-AY, min-AY, tekUHL, oo-PAR-sin.) Terrified by words he did not understand, he called for Daniel, and Daniel interpreted the message: "God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.... You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.... Your kingdom [will be] divided and given to the Medes and the Persians." Daniel concludes the chapter by saying, "That very night Belshazzar ... was slain [killed], and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom" (Daniel 5:26-28, 30).
Assyria (2000–612 B.C.)
Third among Mesopotamia's great civilizations was that of Assyria, which arose earlier than Babylonia and ended sooner. But it would be a mistake to assume that these groups—Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians—were the only peoples of Mesopotamia. There were of course the Aramaeans, whose one contribution to the culture of the area, their language, was exceedingly important. There were the other groups that menaced Babylonia, including the Hittites and the Persians. Also there were the peoples at the fringe of Mesopotamia, who either threatened or were threatened by the Babylonians and Assyrians. Principal among these were the Israelites, who became captives of both nations.
Finally, there were the smaller groups of earlier times in Mesopotamia, who ultimately became part of larger cultures. Among these were the Akkadians, who became so completely tied to Sumerian culture that it is impossible to talk about the one without the other; and there were city-states such as Mari and Isin, ultimately absorbed in Sumer and Baby-lonia respectively. There were also the Hurrians, who entered the region in about 2000 B.C. and established the kingdom of Mitanni (mi-TAHN-ee), which flourished briefly between 1500 and 1300 B.C. Caught between the powerful Hittites to the north and the even more powerful Assyrians to the south, Mitanni survived by making an alliance with Egypt; but eventually the Egyptians lost interest in this relationship, and courted favor with the Assyrians. That was the end of Mitanni, whose two threatening neighbors devoured it.
Despite the many names and the many cultures, however, there remained three primary Mesopotamian groups. But since the Sumerians disappeared from the scene much earlier, Mesoptamian history between about 1800 and 600 B.C. can be characterized as a great competition between two cultures, Babylonia to the south and Assyria to the north. Both had great capital cities along the rivers of Mesopotamia: Babylon on the Euphrates and Nineveh on the Tigris. Both grew out of Amorite groups who absorbed the Sumer-Akkad civilization, and they were similar in language, religion, and other cultural aspects. Perhaps because they were so similar in some ways, they were almost always in conflict, like two family members who cannot resolve their differences.
This pattern has repeated itself throughout history, from ancient times to the modern world. As ancient history is full of conflicts between related peoples, the twentieth century has been full of wars and conflicts between neighboring lands. Africa has been subject to countless struggles among and within nations of similar heritage. The countries that broke off from the nation of Yugoslavia entered a period of incredible struggle following the end of Communism there in 1992. Greece and Turkey have often been at odds with one another in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just as peoples of those two nations fought in the Trojan War more than 3,000 years before. The two greatest conflicts in history, World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) involved, among other issues, an age-old rivalry between Germany and France.
In some ways, the Assyrians and Babylonians can be compared with the German and French nations. Like the French, the Babylonians were noted for their splendid culture, which excited both the admiration and the scorn of other countries, who often tended to see them as people devoted to pleasure and high living. And like the Germans, the Assyrians were known for their talent at making war. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Germany had an ambition of ruling the world, and it developed one of the most powerful military forces ever known. Similarly, Assyria wanted to rule the known world, and it created an army that terrorized many nations. This is not an entirely accurate comparison, of course, because Germany has produced all manner of cultural achievements in the arts and philosophy. Assyria is likewise remembered for its brilliant architecture. But the greatest talent of the Assyrians was the art of warfare.
Old Assyria (2000-1363 B.C.)
Assyria originated from three city-states: Nineveh, Arbela, and Ashur (AH-shoor). The latter, from which the Assyrians took their name, was also the name of their chief deity. Like the Egyptian Ra and the Babylonian Shamash, Ashur was a sun god. Aspects of his character say much about ancient Assyria: he was not a merciful god, but delighted in war, and took special pleasure in the execution of prisoners.
Settled by Amorites in about 2000 B.C., the region experienced its first military triumphs under Shamshi-Adad I (SHAHM-shee AH-dahd), who ruled from 1813 to 1781 B.C. Though other civilizations of about the same time can be described as empires, or large countries that united many groups of people, Shamshi-Adad's was perhaps the first true empire because he established a centralized and highly organized state to rule the conquered nations. For a brief time under his rule, he controlled everything from Babylonia in the southeast to the Mediterranean in the west.
But Shamshi-Adad's son lost his empire to Hammurabi of Babylon in 1760 B.C. It would be many years before Assyria reemerged. In the meantime, it was ruled by Mitanni, then a great power in the region. From the Hittites, the warriors of Mitanni had learned about using chariots, small and highly mobile open-air wagons drawn by horses, in warfare. Chariots might be called the tanks of their day, but with their speed they can also be compared with fighter planes. When the Assyrians learned about chariot warfare, they gained a valuable weapon. By 1363, the Assyrian ruler Ashur-uballit I (AH-sure-oo-BAH-lit) had driven out the armies of Mitanni and begun building a new empire.
Middle Assyria (1363-934 B.C.)
Because Assyria as such had not emerged as a nation in the time of Shamshi-Adad, Ashur-uballit (reigned 1363-1328 B.C.) can be called the founder of the first Assyrian empire. He conquered Mittani and waged war against Babylonia.
Tukulti-Ninurta I (too-COOL-tee ni-NOOR-tah), who reigned from 1243 to 1207 B.C., sacked Babylon in 1225. He also started a practice that would be common among Assyrian conquerors to follow, the deportation or forced removal of defeated peoples. The deportees were relocated to another part of the empire, the idea being that they could not cause as much trouble to the rulers if they were removed from their homeland.
Once again, however, the period of Assyrian power did not last long. Tukulti-Ninurta's son led a revolt against him, and usurped (you-SURPD) or seized the throne. For the next few years, the area was ravaged by a variety of conquering peoples, most notably the Phrygians from what is now Turkey, as well as the Sea Peoples, who also threatened Egypt.
The next great Assyrian king was Tiglath-Pileser I (tig-LAHTH puh-LAY-zur). During his reign, from 1104 to 1076 B.C., he fought a seemingly endless series of wars against the Phrygians, Aramaeans, and Babylonians. At one point he reached the Mediterranean, where he washed his weapons in the water as a way of symbolically saying that his conquests were through. Assyria during this time developed the uses of chariot warfare and iron smelting (another Hittite contribution), and borrowed heavily from Babylonian culture in areas that ranged from literature to religion to its system of weights and measures. Indeed, much of Assyrian culture throughout its history was adapted from Babylonian roots.
After Tiglath-Pileser, the pattern of previous years continued as Assyria lost the gains made under his rule. For about a century, Aramaeans dominated, but by 934 B.C. the Assyrians were on the move again.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire (934-612 B.C.)
A series of kings from 934 B.C. onward began conquering territory for Assyria. During this time, they perfected their system of warfare, using chariots and cavalry units, deporting conquered peoples, and placing local areas under the rule of Assyrian governors. In 883 B.C., Ashurnasirpal II (AH-sure-nahZEER-pall) established what historians call the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and under his rule (883-859 B.C.), the Assyrian armies developed a particularly effective strategy for warfare.
This innovation, or new idea, had nothing to do with the actual fighting, but concerned a matter of equal importance to armies: supplying the troops. An old saying goes "An army travels on its stomach," meaning that men cannot fight if they have not been fed. Ashurnasirpal established local supply houses throughout the empire, where the Assyrians stored grain and other items with which to feed soldiers. This made it possible to move farther and to conquer more lands.
Ashurnasirpal was a great and ruthless leader who, in addition to his conquests and deportations of subject peoples, built many palaces and a capital city, Calah (cuh-LAHK) on the ruins of an old city called Nimrud (nim-ROOD). The next kings fought a series of wars, but the Assyrians' power declined while other nations, including the Babylonians and Aramaeans, had victories at their expense. During this time, Aramaic emerged as the language of the Assyrian people, and indeed the Aramaeans began to have an increasingly dominant role in the life of the empire. Ironically, this was a result of what had seemed an ingenious plan when it originated: the relocation of conquered peoples.
Another powerful force threatening Assyria was Urartu (oo-RAR-too) to the north, but the next great Assyrian ruler, Tiglath—Pileser III (r. 745-727 B.C.), dealt with the Urartians. In another military campaign, he drove as far southwest as the Sinai Desert, on the borders of Egypt. For a time, he tried to maintain good relations with the Babylonians, but he became suspicious of the Chaldeans' desire to rule the area, so he invaded and set himself up as king of both nations.
Surprisingly, given the record of conquest the Assyrians had already established, it was only under Tiglath-Pileser that they set up a standing army, or a full-time military. His successor was Sargon II (r. 721-705 B.C.), who carried on the work of conquering the world and reestablished Assyrian rule over Babylonia when the Babylonians made a bid to regain power. He also conquered Israel in 721 B.C., and repeating a familiar pattern, he carried off most of its people. This group became assimilated, or mixed, into the Assyrian Empire, and later became legendary as the "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel."
Sargon built himself a new capital, Dur-Sharrukin (door-shah-ROO-kin), whose name means "Fort Sargon." His palace there was a magnificent structure, which had on its gateway a pair of winged bulls that were characteristic of Assyrian art forms. But as in the case of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton's capital at Akhetaton, his successor and son, Sennacherib (sin-ACK-uh-rib; r. 704-681 B.C.) later abandoned the city in favor of Nineveh. During a military campaign, Sargon was ambushed and killed, an event that deeply upset the Assyrians because it seemed like a bad sign from Ashur. Indeed, Assyria's days were numbered.
The Assyrian art of warfare had evolved further, with military roads and supply lines—including a military postal system for communications between generals—that were the envy of competing nations. Sennacherib also launched the first Assyrian navy. As was always the case, he could only maintain power through nearly constant warfare, and the threat from Babylonia became more and more severe. Still maintaining control over the other nation, he had set his son up as ruler over Babylonia. But the Chaldeans joined forces with the Elamites and killed the son. Sennacherib, filled with rage, marched his troops into Babylon in 689 B.C., and sacked the capital city.
The Assyrians had sacked Babylon before, of course, but this time it was different. For one thing, they destroyed the city as they never had previously, even diverting (changing the course of) the Euphrates so that it flooded Babylon. In the long run, this so angered the Babylonians that it led to the rise of the Chaldean Empire under Nabopolassar sixty years later. Even in the short run, however, it proved a bad move, because the Assyrian people themselves were almost as upset over the destruction as the Babylonians. They may have been at war with Babylonia on a regular basis, but they still shared many things in common with the Babylonians, including much of their religion, and they considered the sacking of Babylon an offense to Marduk and the other gods.
Therefore Sennacherib's son, Esarhaddon (ee-sar-HAD-duhn), who ruled from 681 to 668 B.C., tried to improve relations with the Babylonians by rebuilding temples to Marduk and other parts of their capital city. He also waged war with Egypt, capturing the city of Memphis and setting up Necho as a vassal king. At this point, the Assyrian Empire reached its height in terms of the territory it controlled, all the way from the Persian Gulf in the east to the Nile Delta in the west, and from the mountains of Asia Minor to the deserts of Arabia.
But usually when something reaches its peak—whether it be an empire, a business, or even a person's career—it is most often past its prime, because that high point is usually a result of work that was put in before. After Sennacherib, the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was swift, though there remained one last great ruler. This was Ashurbanipal (AH-sure-bah-NEE-pal), Sennacherib's son, who ruled from 669 to 627 B.C.
Sennacherib had made Ashurbanipal ruler over Assyria and his brother Shamash-shuma-ukin (SHAH-mosh shoo-MAH oo-kin) king of Babylonia. Shamash-shuma-ukin was the older of the two, and he probably did not care for the fact that his brother had the more powerful position. In 652 B.C., he led a revolt against Assyria. Ashurbanipal managed to subdue the Babylonian revolt in 648, and according to legend, Shamash-shuma-ukin committed suicide by burning down his palace with himself and his wives in it rather than surrender to his brother.
Despite the fact that Ashurbanipal was a fighting man, like most other Assyrian rulers before him, he was also a man of culture. In those days, when scribes were the primary bearers of knowledge, illiteracy was common, even among kings. Ashurbanipal distinguished himself not only by his ability to read and write, but also by his contributions to learning. Under his direction, Assyrian scribes put together the first true library. The final version of the Gilgamesh Epic, Mesopotamia's greatest contribution to world literature, emerged during his reign.
Assyrian art forms, particularly relief sculptures of great winged lions and other creatures, reached their height during this time as well.
Ashurbanipal's empire did not outlast him by a long time. Just fifteen years after his death, in 612 B.C., a combined force of Babylonians and Medes completely destroyed Nineveh. Assyrian rulers struggled to maintain a weak grip on power, aided by their allies in Egypt, but with the destruction of its capital city, the Assyrian Empire had come to an end.
Mesopotamia in modern times
Babylonia and Assyria fell first to the Persians and later to the Greeks under Alexander. Still later, Mesopotamia briefly became a part of the Roman Empire. In the A.D. 600s, like much of the Middle East, it fell to the conquering Muslims and flourished again as a part of their empire. The Muslims gave the area its religion, Islam, which is the faith of modern Mesopotamia. Again like most of the Middle East, it came under the rule of the Turkish or Ottoman Empire for many centuries, which only ended with the defeat of Turkey in World War I. Britain then took over, and for a time they revived the old name of the region.
In 1932, Mesopotamia achieved independence as Iraq. Kings ruled the country until 1958, when a revolution led by the military overthrew the monarchy. The Baath (buh-OTH) Party gained control in 1968, and in 1979 the Baath leader Saddam Hussein (suh-DOM hoo-SAYN; 1937-) assumed control. Meanwhile modern Syria, the land of the Aramaeans in ancient times, also came under the leadership of its own Baath Party, which like its counterpart in Iraq favored unity among Arab nations against their ancient enemy, Israel. But this was not the only theme from ancient times that was repeated: despite their similarities, the governments of Syria and Iraq remained opposed to one another. In 1980, Iraq went to war against another enemy from times past, Iran (ee-RAHN), formerly Persia. The Iran-Iraq war lasted for eight years, claimed more lives than any conflict since World War II, and did not result in a clear victory for either side.
On August 2, 1990, Saddam's troops swept into the oil-rich nation of Kuwait (coo-ATE) to the south. Not only did they slaughter many people, but with his hold on the combined oil fields of Iraq and Kuwait, Saddam threatened to bring the world to its knees. The United Nations, a world organization established for the primary purpose of maintaining peace, launched an attack on January 17, 1991. The Gulf War lasted only a few months, and United Nations forces—primarily those of the United States, which launched a powerful air attach on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad (BAG-dad)—forced the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
But Saddam was not removed from power, and he continued to threaten the region. Saddam, whose capital is close to the site of old Babylon and who has identified himself with the Babylonians, also maintained uneasy relations with an age-old rival, the Assyrians. The latter, who live in the northern part of the country as their ancestors did thousands of years before, maintain the Aramaic language and are Christians instead of Muslims.
Digging up the past
The Assyrians and Babylonians could not have known that their great gods Ashur and Marduk, along with the other deities they worshiped, would be largely forgotten in modern times; or that the god of the people they defeated, the Israelites, would be worshiped by hundreds of millions of people. Yet thanks to the Israelites and their holy book, the Old Testament, the memory of those two nations was preserved throughout the Middle Ages (A.D. 500-1500) By contrast, Sumer, though its city Ur was mentioned in the Book of Genesis, would be lost to history for many centuries.
In 1842, archaeologists from several countries who had been conducting an excavation (ex-cuh-VAY-shun), or archaeo-logical dig, on Assyrian sites found a set of tablets in Akkadian cuneiform. Because the Assyrians had retained use of Akkadian for a time, the archaeologists knew how to interpret the writing, but parts of the tablets bore another language they could not identify. Gradually they became aware of a culture older than that of Akkad, and over time they conducted a series of excavations at Ur and other cities.
These archaeological digs, which continue to the present day, have established much of the region's early history, but the archaeologists have faced several problems. Sumerian inscriptions were on clay, which is much less durable than stone. Also they have had to deal with the Mesopotamian practice of building on top of the ruins of past buildings. Thus many of these archaeological sites are in the form of tells, or small mounds of earth heaped over layers of ruins.
The digging up of Assyria began much earlier than that of Sumer, and the recovery of Babylonia followed excavations at Nineveh and other Assyrian cities. Between 1899 and 1917, a team of German archaeologists was able to uncover most of the layers that represented the empire of Nebuchadnezzar. They even reconstructed the Ishtar Gate, which stands in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. Flooding from the Euphrates, however, prevented them from reaching the level of Hammurabi's era.
Viewing the landscape of modern Iraq, it is perhaps hard to believe that this region was once called the Fertile Crescent, a land of lush gardens and fruit trees maintained by the extensive irrigation systems of the various Mesopotamian peoples. The delta of the Euphrates in southern Iraq is still green in many places, but the constant fighting in ancient times destroyed most of the irrigation systems, and much of the country is dry, rocky desert.
Yet Mesopotamia lives on in modern culture, in the Gilgamesh Epic and in Hammurabi's Code, in the days of the week and in the many other aspects of astronomy to which the Babylonians contributed. The building styles of the area, particularly in Assyria, have continued to fascinate architects. Among these was an American, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), often described as the greatest architect of the twentieth century, who included many Assyrian aspects in his designs.
Likewise it appears that the Romans made use of Assyrian styles in their monuments and other symbolism. Certainly the Romans, who built the greatest empire of the ancient world, must have been fascinated by the Assyrians' talent for warfare, which influenced military tactics for centuries to come. A less distinguished admirer may have been Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who like the Assyrians waged a kind of "lightning warfare," as he called it, which stunned the conquered peoples. Architecture in Nazi Germany, too, seems to have reflected Assyrian as well as Roman themes.
In modern times, Saddam Hussein has often been likened to Hitler. His swift invasion of Kuwait seems to point back to Assyria, but he has clearly identified himself more with the legacy of Babylonia. During the Gulf War, the American media noted the fact that Nebuchadnezzar was his hero: thus, to carry on the theme of legitimacy, Saddam had reached back more than 2,500 years to identify himself with the past glories of his nation. In keeping with his admiration of Nebuchadnezzar's empire, in 1988 he began work on the restoration of ancient Babylon. Archaeologists there are reportedly piecing together the remains of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, Hammurabi's temple, and even the Hanging Gardens.