When learning about ancient history the different civilisations might be hard to delineate and define in your mind. However, a great starting place are peoples known as the cradle of civilisation. These civilisation include the Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China and, today’s focus, Ancient Mesopotamia. A people known for their early writing and economic system, in this article we’re refering to the period of activity between the 4th Millennia BC and the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. A lot happened within this era and we hope to answer some of the most commonly answered questions in this article.
Mesopotamia/Sumerian/Babylonian – what do they all mean?
Wherever you learn about Ancient Mesopotamia, multiple terms may be used interchangeably that can be confusing to understand. So here are some quick definitions of what frequently used terms are when talking about this period of history:
- Mesopotamia – The Geographical Region that this period of History is set in. People therefore refer holistically to the ancient civilisation in this area as ‘Mesopotamian.’
- Sumerian – The earliest urban inhabitants and civilisation of southern Mesopotamia.
- Akkadian – This was the first empire in Mesopotamia who followed the Sumerians.
- Babylon – This was the central city of the Babylonian empire which was the main power in the region from around 1900 BC.
Before continuing, we want to stress that this list is not definitive. Throughout Ancient Mesopotamia various different peoples took power, and each had slightly different ways of organising society. This article is just a start, so we talk in generalities. However, if you’re interested in more specifics please refer to our reading list. For the terms specifically, we recommend this full glossary of terms for the region.
Where is Mesopotamia?
Mesopotamia is a region in western Asia that sits predominantly in modern day Iraq and Kuwait. Its outer bounds to the east and west are defined by two great rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates. Indeed, its name itself tells us of its beneficial position between these two channels. ‘Meso’ comes for the Greek for between or middle and ‘potamia’ comes from the Greek for river. Therefore, it’s literal translation and name means (land) between rivers. The irrigation provided from these rivers is what encouraged settled agriculture in this region so early. Previously to this agriculture had been partially nomadic, moving to different areas in different seasons. However, using the rivers for regular irrigation allowed them settle and create agricultural surplus. It was this surplus that allowed them to develop economic, political and social systems.
Was Mesopotamia the First Civilisation?
In Mesopotamia, we first see Agriculture and Animal Domestication around 10,000 BC. However, the beginning of ‘Ancient Mesopotamia’ as we usually describe it began in the Uruk Period which lasted between 4000 BC and 3100 BC. Described as the ‘proto-literate’ period, we start to see the use of writing and seals they would become known for. These people were the first Sumerians and it was named after the city of Uruk. At its height, Uruk would have had a population of between 25,000 and 50,000.
So, is it the first civilisation? In short, yes! However, not long after we have the civilisations of Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley appear independently on either side of Mesopotamia. Additionally, there are the civilisations created further afield in Ancient China and Ancient South America around a similar time.
Who did Mesopotamia Trade with?
As civilisation in Mesopotamia grew, there became a growing need for trade. Their land may have been fertility rich, but it lacked some of the materials – like metal ore and timber – needed for growth. This in part lead to the development of a complex economic system. They are thought to be the earliest proponents of banks and centralised loans. Unsurprisingly, it was a system based off the two central tenents of Sumerian wealth – land tenure and internal trade. However, external trade added a boost to the economy and encouraged the involvement of external traders and merchants.
Their main exports were cloth, pottery and agricultural goods, which they made skilfully and in abundance. In terms of trade partners, they traded with polities and civilisation in ‘all directions’ by both land and sea.
As mentioned previously, the Indus Valley was one of the contemporary civilisations to early Mesopotamia. They were a considerable distance from one another, but lots of evidence point to them having a long-lasting trade agreement. Although historians argue, general estimates suggest that they traded between 2550 and 1300 BC.
How do we know this? Well, within Mesopotamia we see various pieces of Indus Valley craftsmanship and work that is likely to have only come from trade. For example, historian J. Kenoyer focuses on a shell bracelet find with chevron pattern. These chevron shell bracelets were the preserve of Indus Valley noblemen. Therefore, they were unlikely to be traded and it suggests the settlement, or at least temporary visits, of Indus Valley merchants. in the region. Secondly, many Mesopotamian Carnelian seals are likely to have had Indus Valley origins. Historians posit that blank seals were made in Happara and then sent to Mesopotamia where they were then engraved and sold by Sumerian traders.
Overall, this trade was fairly significant to both the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Indeed, in the case of the former it’s been suggested that a collapse of trade between the two during a period of Mesopotamian turmoil was part of its demise.
What was the main religion in Mesopotamia?
Like nearly all ancient religions, the beliefs of Mesopotamia were polytheistic. Their religion developed over time and nearly all of what we know about its beliefs and myths come from Babylonian scripts on the subject. They have an ancient creation story – that of Enki and Ninhursag in the land of Dilmun. This creation story follows the lines of nearly all others. Ninhursag live in an ordered cosmos with no death or disease. However, the births of the gods Enki and Uttu put a stop to this. As various altercations between the gods unfold, the concepts of evil but also rebirth are introduced. The story tells of a perfect but simple world that’s then complicated by the misdeeds of those who live there. This is the earliest Sumerian religious script we have. However, as time progresses Akkadian religious teachers would have adapted and change the story to their preferences.
Additionally, most of the issues covered in this ancient Mesopotamian religion were ones directly related to their reliance on the fertility of the land and their relations with surrounding civilisations. In the existing literature we find hymns, laments and praises to the various gods. The words used were expressive as they believed that the more vivid the language the more effective and complimentary the prayers were. These prayers could be a simple as a couple of lines long but there are also examples found that stretch over 200 lines. Overall, the religion of Ancient Mesopotamia is the most well-known as it later morphed into Zoroastrianism in the 6th Century BC. This has become an important world religion and is believed to be one of the longest continuously followed faiths.
How did the Ancient Mesopotamians keep records?
One of Ancient Mesopotamia’s greatest feats is its creation of early writing in a style that we call ‘cuneiform.’ Much like the name Mesopotamia, the name cuneiform tells us a lot about the writing style. Meaning ‘wedge shaped’ it describes a writing based around wedged shapes based of pictographs that were inscribed into wet clay. All manner of things from myths and stories to temples and agricultural records were recorded in this way. However, this does not mean that literacy was widespread. In fact, Mesopotamia relied heavily on the labour of scribes. Small groups of society went to é-dubba, or the ‘Tablet House’, for school at a young age and learnt how to write in this method. Today, these texts are where we get the vast amount of our knowledge about Ancient Mesopotamia. However, only 90% of the fragments discovered have been translated.
Epic of Gilgamesh
Arguably, the most famous myth and piece of Ancient Mesopotamian literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh. The story follows a legendary leader of the city of Uruk and his search for immortality. It was originally written in Akkadian on 12 clay tablets and would have been known across the Middle East. Gilgamesh’s motivation for this journey is the death of his beloved companion Enkidu. He sees the suffering this put him through and wishes to combat it. Through his journey he would fight monsters and deities before coming to an anti-climatic ending. As well as showing complex human emotions, the story details appropriate actions for a Uruk King. Although once an important part of the canon, it gradually fell out of general readership. However, when the tablets were first translated by George Smith in 1872 it gradually found its way back into the general consciousness.
References and Further Reading
J. Kenoyer, ‘Indus and Mesopotamian Trade Networks: New Insights from Shell and Carnelian Artifacts’ in E. Olijdam & R.H. Spoor (eds) INTERCULTURAL RELATIONS BETWEEN SOUTH AND SOUTHWEST ASIA. STUDIES IN COMMEMORATION OF E.C.L. DURING CASPERS (1934-1996) (2008)