Quick: scan your memory banks for any references to Mesopotamia: what do you come up with?
Maybe you flashed on The Babylonian Marriage Market, painted by Edwin Long in 1875, or you remember thrilling to The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem that originated in that region, which is often seen as the world’s oldest literary work.
If you particularly enjoy films, you might have called up the Scorpion King franchise, starring The Rock and Michael Clark Duncan.
There have been several works inspired by this ancient civilisation – paintings, operas, graphic novels and science fiction tales among them. But even taken together, they do not begin to encompass the magnitude of this ancient society.
To truly understand life in Mesopotamia, the civilisation’s social structures, innovations and cultural advances, we have to travel back to a time where few written records remain.
Piecing artefacts together, your Superprof now weaves a fabric of life in ancient Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia: Basic Facts
The name comes from the Greek: ‘mesos’ meaning ‘middle’ and ‘potamos’, which translates to ‘river’, making the meaning ‘Land between the Rivers’.
Cradled within the Tigris-Euphrates river system, this was a rich, fertile land protected on the northeast side by the Zagros mountain range.
A vast expanse of desert capped off the region’s north; travelling south, the land gets progressively wetter, dotted with marshes and mudflats.
Seen on a contemporary map, the region referred to as Mesopotamia encompassed most of Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, as well as southeastern Turkey.
The major settlements – Babylon, Nineveh, Kalah and Arbela, as well as Assur (until Assyria broke away to form its own empire) all nestled on the east bank of the Tigris.
This location afforded them plenty of water, whereas the cities to the west had to depend on the fickle Euphrates to deliver an inconstant supply of water.
Mesopotamia was ruled by kings, emperors and series of rulers from the same family – dynasties.
Of these, King Ur-Nammu left an amazing legacy: the world’s oldest complete legal code.
When they happened, transfers of power were generally not peaceful; even within the dynasties, they were rather brutal. Invasions and takeovers, led by powerful men or families were generally how leadership was won.
A prime example of such: the Sumerians, the oldest Mesopotamian civilisation (and one of the first in the world, along with Ancient Egyptians), were overtaken by the Akkadians.
They were permitted to keep their culture and way of life; in fact, they swapped cultural elements, especially language, to the point that both societies were, at one time, bilingual.
Eventually, the Sumerian language became completely subsumed. By 2,000BC, everyone throughout the empire spoke only Akkadian.
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Mesopotamia in Economic Terms
In the foothills of the Zagros mountains, it was relatively easy to farm but further south, agriculture was only possible with irrigation of dry lands and frequent drainage of wetter areas.
After gaining control of water, harvests became bountiful – so much so that Akkadians could afford to engage in a bit of trade with their neighbours.
As they did not employ slaves, they had to devise tools to make farming easier; the use of wooden plough blades permitted them to plant onions, turnips and barley.
This area that millennia later was dubbed the Fertile Crescent is known as the cradle of civilisation.
The ability to grow food allowed the people to settle, establish cities and form governments, and spurred them to intellectual discovery.
Religion was exceedingly important to them for many reasons, one of them being that their temples functioned as banks.
The earliest large-scale credit system was developed by the Sumerians but it was the Babylonians who developed the first commercial banking system.
Was there a rivalry between the two?
Not necessarily. After the Akkadian Empire fell, the region split into two nations: Assyria occupied the north while the Babylonian Empire encompassed the south. Both countries spoke the same language and actively traded with one another.
So this was a peaceful time in human history?
Between power grabs and fighting for territory, one could hardly contend that these early civilisations were content to coexist.
There would often be fighting between cities; those battles would sometimes be arbitrated by an official of a nearby neutral town. Thus, strategic alliances formed. Later, as the region was governed by a succession of emperors, they mostly fought against foreign powers.
A prime example of such is Sargon the Great, humanity’s first emperor, who often led campaigns into neighbouring lands to appease his constant hunger for territory.
In Mesopotamia, warring was a fact of life.
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Religion in Mesopotamia
The earliest colonies praised natural forces – wind, rain and sun, because they helped to sustain life. It was only later that those forces became personified and a religious hierarchy was established.
Early on, the deities demonstrated a balance of power between males and females.
For instance, An was the name given to the supreme god, their personification of the heavens. The goddess Ki represented the earth.
The Sumerian word for ‘universe’ is an-ki, reflecting their two highest-ranked deities.
Their cast of gods soon grew to represent every aspect of Sumerian life, from the god of water to the moon goddess.
One their pantheon of gods was established to oversee daily life, Mesopotamians turned their minds to greater philosophical questions.
‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’ - the answers were construed as having divine influence.
As society evolved, so too did the people’s relationship with their gods; it became more personal and, as more believers worshipped in their own way, Mesopotamian religion became more fractured.
That had the effect of weakening the overall bond to their pantheon of deities.
When Cyrus the Great claimed Mesopotamian lands as a part of his Achaemenid Empire, the people more or less abandoned their religious beliefs in favour of the religion their conqueror brought: Syriac Christianity.
Myths and Legends of Mesopotamia
As with other cultures, the myths and legends that formed the bedrock of Mesopotamian society revolved around their gods and belief systems, and their heroes.
To properly understand how these tales came to be, you have to know that the scribes in charge of writing and preserving these documents were affiliated with the ruler and the temples.
Temples had many roles to fill, from food distribution to the worshipping of gods. Furthermore, it was believed that all victories were guided by the gods and even the laws that people lived by were divine instruction.
As such, much of Mesopotamian mythology is religious in nature; if the myth related a conquest, surely it too would have enjoyed the blessings of the gods.
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Omens played an important part in mythology; it was thought that the will of the gods could be divined if only one could interpret the clues they occasionally gave.
As such, a treatise was compiled regarding signs from the gods: what it means should a being be born deformed, for example, or what destiny awaits a people whose city is perched on a hill.
Immortality was a common theme in Mesopotamian mythology: Etana, a king with no heirs, liberated an eagle and flew on his back to the heavens. This was meant to serve as a cautionary tale, warning against dynasties.
Adapa, who had vexed the gods and was summoned to them, was careful to not consume anything the gods offered him, thus staving off immortality.
From these two examples, it would seem immortality was undesirable. On the other hand...
Atrahasis had been warned by the gods that a great flood was imminent. He followed their advice and built a boat, in which he was able to withstand the water’s great power.
Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and war. Her descent into the underworld and subsequent reemergence justified the seasonal change from winter to summer.
Mesopotamian mythology is full of stories that have been ‘borrowed’ and incorporated into other societies’ belief systems. In fact, they resonate still today, having undergone revision to suit new religious beliefs.
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Early in forming the Mesopotamian civilization, males and females had equal social power, a facet of the social fabric that changed dramatically over time.
Women held positions as high priestesses in Sumer. They could own property, benefit from education and engage in a trade.
Later, as warring became a way of life, women lost much of their social power: they were denied the right to education or to a trade. Soon, the societal role of females was reduced to caring for the home and children.
Subsequently, Mesopotamia’s patriarchal social structure influenced every aspect of life.
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A Life of Leisure?
Assyrian kings especially enjoyed hunting and the rich played an early version of polo – men rode on other men’s shoulders, not horses. Boxing was also a popular sport; scenes of boxers and wrestlers frequently adorned artwork.
Board games were quite popular then. In fact, what we know as backgammon originated in Mesopotamia. Oddly enough, Islam expressly forbids the game even though it was invented by their ancestors!
For the particularly energetic, there was a game similar to rugby, played with a wooden ball.
Besides these pastimes, singing and music were important cultural signatures.
People would sing at home or in the marketplace; oftentimes, songs were composed specifically to entertain royalty. There were also plenty of drinking songs sung; after all, the Mesopotamians regularly brewed beer and made wine.
Frivolity aside, songs had a far more important role to play in Mesopotamian culture.
There were renderings of specific events such as battles or coronations, and they were handed down through the generations, becoming, in effect, oral histories.
Musical instruments such as the lute, drums and other percussion instruments must have made for lively entertainment, especially as the Mesopotamians had developed an early form of music notation.
Besides entertaining royalty, these early musicians were called on to play at religious ceremonies, funerals and festivals.
Predictably, many of this people’s rites revolved around natural phenomenon:
- Lunar cycles: waxing moons were thought to encourage agricultural abundance; waning moons were times of conservation, reflection on philosophical matters and a time to revere ancestors.
- Seasons: sowing and reaping; celebrating a bountiful harvest or, conversely if pickings had been sparse, to implore the gods to intervene ahead of the next growing season
- The first full moon after the Spring Equinox: called the Akitu or ‘head of the year’ in Akkadian
- Equinoxes: the days of equal amounts of light and dark must be observed!
- Solstices: the longest days and nights deserved special consideration
Naturally, the reigning monarch and local heroes would be regularly celebrated, with odes and epics composed in their honour; the aforementioned Epic of Gilgamesh is a fine example of such.
The fact that these tales were written and still exist today suggest that they originated from a very intelligent, organised society.
Discovering proof of those people’s ability to observe natural phenomena such as solstices and equinoxes leads archaeologists to conclude that those living in Mesopotamia were very clever indeed.
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We’ve already hinted at how technologically advanced the Mesopotamians were: irrigating dry lands and draining swamps, building ploughs and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to fight their wars...
Right now, what is furiously debated in academic halls is whether the screw pump was actually invented by Archimedes, as has been long-thought.
Many now believe such a device was used to water the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which suggests the pump was invented some 350 years before he travelled to Egypt, making the device a Babylonian creation.
Besides, a clay tablet with a description of how to cast a water screw in bronze, written in cuneiform by an Assyrian king, certainly lends credence to the new school of thought!
Sumerian cuneiform is one of the earliest systems of writing, consisting of wedge-shaped marks in clay... another of Mesopotamia’s accomplishments.
As the Mesopotamian civilisation endured for so long – by some accounts, more than seven millennia, they were instrumental in shaping the Bronze Ages, the Iron Age and Antiquity, meaning they were crucial to many of the innovations of that time.
And, in case you were wondering, they invented the wheel!
All of their innovation means that they left a substantial legacy.
The Legacy of Mesopotamia
Perhaps without knowing it, you use Mesopotamian math every day.
Their numerical system, based on a value of 60, gave us the seconds, minutes and hours of our days. Ditto the number of degrees in a circle. We also got our 7-day week from them.
While both Sumerian and Semitic languages were spoken in early Mesopotamia, cuneiform was invented for the Sumerian language only. This gave the world one of the earliest, complete writing systems.
Thanks to this writing, today we understand and enjoy the culture and legends of a people long buried.
Babylonian astronomers were adept at math, a faculty that permitted them to map the stars with stunning accuracy. Their ability to ‘predict’ eclipses and other celestial events helped priests plan for religious observances.
Medicine: the Babylonians pioneered the concept of physical examinations, medical diagnosis and dispensing medicine by prescription.
Logic and rationality featured heavily in medicine as in other aspects of life, including agriculture.
Mesopotamia is called the cradle of civilization because it was there that the first societies took root and grew.
Their knowledge and skill at planting and harvesting crops, directing water where it was needed and developing the skills needed to advance civil living – glass-making, textile weaving and water storage, made it possible for humankind to form nation-states, political systems, laws and religions.
And, thanks to their skill at metalworking, more deadly weapons were designed, ensuring that warfare would continue to be a part of the human legacy.
How do the Mesopotamian accomplishments compare to those of other ancient civilisations?