The Human Story – Mesopotamia

Today we are going to look at the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. This historical region in west Asia is situated within the Tigris-Euphrates river system and located in modern day Iraq, Kuwait, parts of northern Saudi Arabia, the eastern reaches of Syria and stretched to south eastern Turkey.

Mesopotamian sites provide evidence for the earliest developments of the Agricultural Revolution from around 12,000 years ago. It has also been identified as the place where much of history’s greatest and most important early developments occurred: innovations such as the wheel; the planting of the first cereal crops; development of cursive script; astronomy; and mathematics.

Taming the ‘Land Between the Rivers’

Around 3000 BCE, cities began to pop up in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just like they had done so in the Indus River region. The name itself is taken from Ancient Greek: “meso” meaning “between” or “middle” and “potomas” being “rivers”, so translating as “[Land] between the/two rivers”.


The early Mesopotamian cities engaged in a basic form of socialism where the farmers contributed their crops to the public granaries, out of which the workers such as metalsmiths, builders, doctors or merchants were paid uniform wages of grain. This supply of food meant that if someone lived in the city then they could put their talents to work as something other than farmer or shepherd and thanks to this form of proto-socialism they could be sure that they would eat.

Although a farmer or shepherd could give up his harvest or flock respectively, they did not have to. One of the legacies of Mesopotamia is the enduring conflict between country and city and can be seen in the adventures of Enkidu and Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic poem is one of the oldest known works of literature and its main theme is mortality, but another important theme throughout is the conflict between nature and civilisation and the epic ends with Gilgamesh singing the praises of the city of Uruk. What this allegorical tale tells us is that the people of Mesopotamia were proud of their accomplishments and their domination of the natural environment.

They had every right to be proud of their achievements too as we shall soon see!

City Life


So, what were the cities of Mesopotamia like? Let’s take a quick look at Gilgamesh’s home city of Uruk. This was an impressive city with massive walls and an extensive canal system used to transport goods around. Archaeologists reckon that 90% of the city would have been buildings whilst only 10% would have been streets, so it is easy to see why the canals were so important for the trade of the city. Several monumental temples would have towered over the Uruk skyline. These massive temple complexes were known as ziggurats. The priests who ran these ziggurats initially held most of the power in the city as it was believed that they had a direct communication line with the gods.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers were pretty decent for agricultural development, but they paled in comparison to the reliable, on-schedule flooding and easy irrigation of the Indus Valley. Lots of slave labour was required to make the Euphrates-Tigris river system useful for irrigation. They were hard to navigate and flooded unpredictability and violently. The Epic of Gilgamesh talks of a great deluge of biblical proportions that may have been inspired by a particularly devastating flood. The poem claims that this near-extinction level flood was brought about by the gods when the people were making too much noise as the gods tried to sleep. So, it stands to reason that the gods are both violent and unpredictable (much like the rivers) and therefore it was only natural that the priests who led the religious rituals that were designed to placate the gods held so much power.

Roughly 1,000 years after the first temples had sprung up, we find that Mesopotamian cities began to create another structure to rival them: the palace. Responsibility for the well being and success of the social order was beginning to shift from the gods to men. This power shift between god to man – man to god is one that we will see throughout history for…. well, probably forever.

These new kings, who most likely started out as military leaders or very rich land owners, took on a quasi-religious role. How did they do this? Usually by engaging in a ‘Sacred Marriage’ ritual; in other words, they had sex with the High Priestess of the city’s temple. How do we know that the kings and priestesses engaged in sexual rituals? It was all written down and recorded. Of course, it was!

Writing: Really that Great? Yes!

The Mesopotamians gave us writing. Very early in Mesopotamian history (around the middle of the fourth millennium BCE) cuneiform was invented for the Sumerian language. Cuneiform literally means ‘wedge-shaped’ due to the triangular tip of the stylus used to impress symbols onto wet clay. The earliest, yet, discovered texts are in the form of seven archaic tablets that were found in a temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna at the city of Uruk.

Although the earliest texts were found in a temple, cuneiform itself was initially invented to record transactions: for example, ‘I exchange X bushels of wheat for Y amount of your sheep.’ Most remaining cuneiform tablets are some form of receipt. Nothing more exciting than the receipt you receive from the supermarket, really except very, very old.


Why did this happen in Mesopotamia? Well the Fertile Crescent may be very fertile, but it lacks pretty much everything else. To get metal for tools, stone for buildings and sculptures, cotton for clothing or wood for burning the Mesopotamians had to trade. Writing evolved as a (very fortunate for human advancement) by-product of this trade as a means for accounting and recording each transaction.

We cannot overestimate the importance of writing, but it is important to note two points:

1. Writing leads to elites. Reading and writing are not things that everyone can do, and it helps build a class distinction. Foraging societies were relatively egalitarian, but Mesopotamia had class stratification (including slaves as pointed out earlier). The development of the written language played a huge part in widening the gap between the different classes.

2. Writing leads to actual history. Once writing enters the picture, humanity can record events. Prior to writing, history is mostly guesswork and archaeology; you just need to look at the Indus Valley Civilisation to see this (and they had a written language, it just has not been deciphered yet).

The Boring Stuff – Laws and Taxes

The city-state period of Mesopotamia ended around 2000 BCE. Perhaps due to drought caused by a shift in the course of the rivers and their tributaries led to rural nomads passing through and conquering the environmentally weakened cities. They settled these existing cities and founded new cities. These new Mesopotamian city-states were similar to their predecessors in that they still had temples and writing but they were also different in other ways. Firstly, the proto-socialism of the earlier culture was replaced with private enterprise: people could produce as much as they liked so long as they gave a cut of it to the government. And thus, humanity had entered the age of taxes!

The political landscape of Mesopotamia changed too. Tribal chiefs became kings who tried to extend their power beyond their city walls and pass this power onto their sons. The most famous of these kings was Hammurabi who ruled Babylon from 1792 – 1750 BCE. Hammurabi is famous for his Law Code which established everything from the wages of surgeons and ox drivers to the punishment for adultery. Nearly half of Hammurabi’s Code deals with matters of contract, one third addresses issues concerning household and reproductive issues, such as paternity, divorce, inheritance and sexual behaviour. Perhaps one of the most significant innovations to criminal law, the presumption of innocence, is first found in the Code. The Code is seen as an early example of a fundamental law regulating a government, i.e. a primitive form of constitution.

Hammurabi attempted to portray himself in a dual role through his Law Code. He saw himself as the shepherd and the father of his people. Sound familiar? If you were brought up in a Christian household then it should.

I am indeed the shepherd who brings peace, whose sceptre is just. My benevolent shade was spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap…

The Exciting Stuff – Empire and Conquest

Even though territorial kingdoms like Babylon were more powerful than any cities that had come before them, they were still not actually all that durable. Babylon was soon taken over by the wandering Kassites. They literally wandered into the kingdom and just took over!

The Assyrians have the deserved reputation of being the brutal bullies of ancient Mesopotamia, but they did provide us with an early example of probably the most important and durable form of political organisation in world history: The Empire.

The biggest problem for an empire is that they are diverse and multi-ethnic which makes them hard to unify. Just wait until we reach the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th and early 20th century – ay ay ay!

The Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 – 612 BCE) grew from the home cities of Ashur and Nineveh to encompass the whole of Mesopotamia, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and even parts of Egypt. They conquered these lands through the most brutal and efficient army that the world had seen up to that point. Perhaps the most seminal aspect of the Neo-Assyrian army was that it was a meritocracy: that is, the generals and officers were selected not along familial lines, but rather, by their abilities to lead. These leaders were often very nasty and would displace hundreds of thousands of people, separating them from their family and their history. The army also engaged in the usual activities of conquering armies such as raping and pillaging, but interestingly also chopping off the appendages of their enemies; apparently, they had a penchant for noses.

This brutality was all done in the name of Ashur, the great god of the Neo-Assyrian pantheon, whose divine regent on earth was the king. Through the king, Ashur kept the world going and as long as conquest continued then the world would not end. However, if the conquering ever stopped then the world would end. When your world view is based on the apocalypse happening if you ever lost a battle and then you lose a battle, your whole world view implodes. This is what eventually happened and in 612 BCE the city of Nineveh was captured, and the Neo-Assyrian Empire came to an end. Long live the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

The empire as a political structure was here to stay!

The Rest is History

Next time we will be exploring the land of the pharaohs. That’s right ladies and gentlemen  we’re off to visit Ancient Egypt.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation


One thought on “The Human Story – Mesopotamia”

  1. Enjoyed this instalment. I’ve never really been ‘in to’ ancient civilisations = apart from Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Looking forward to reading about the Egyptians.


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