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history of Mesopotamia

historical region, Asia

history of Mesopotamia, history of the region in southwestern Asia where the world’s earliest civilization developed. The name comes from a Greek word meaning “between rivers,” referring to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but the region can be broadly defined to include the area that is now eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and most of Iraq. The region was the centre of a culture whose influence extended throughout the Middle East and as far as the Indus valley, Egypt, and the Mediterranean.

Sites associated with ancient Mesopotamian history

This article covers the history of Mesopotamia from the prehistoric period up to the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. For the history of the region in the succeeding periods, see Iraq, history of. For a discussion of the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, see Mesopotamian religionSee also art and architecture, Mesopotamian.

1:055 Alexander the Great: The Boy Who Conquered a Horse, Greek warriors riding horses with spears
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Mesopotamia to the end of the Old Babylonian period

The origins of Mesopotamian history

The background

In the narrow sense, Mesopotamia is the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, north or northwest of the bottleneck at Baghdad, in modern Iraq; it is Al-Jazīrah (“The Island”) of the Arabs. South of this lies Babylonia, named after the city of Babylon. However, in the broader sense, the name Mesopotamia has come to be used for the area bounded on the northeast by the Zagros Mountains and on the southwest by the edge of the Arabian Plateau and stretching from the Persian Gulf in the southeast to the spurs of the Anti-Taurus Mountains in the northwest. Only from the latitude of Baghdad do the Euphrates and Tigris truly become twin rivers, the rāfidān of the Arabs, which have constantly changed their courses over the millennia. The low-lying plain of the Kārūn River in Persia has always been closely related to Mesopotamia, but it is not considered part of Mesopotamia as it forms its own river system.

Mesopotamia, south of Al-Ramādī (about 70 miles, or 110 kilometres, west of Baghdad) on the Euphrates and the bend of the Tigris below Sāmarrāʾ (about 70 miles north-northwest of Baghdad), is flat alluvial land. Between Baghdad and the mouth of the Shaṭṭ al-ʿArab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, where it empties into the Persian Gulf) there is a difference in height of only about 100 feet (30 metres). As a result of the slow flow of the water, there are heavy deposits of silt, and the riverbeds are raised. Consequently, the rivers often overflow their banks (and may even change their course) when they are not protected by high dikes. In recent times they have been regulated above Baghdad by the use of escape channels with overflow reservoirs. The extreme south is a region of extensive marshes and reed swamps, hawrs, which, probably since early times, have served as an area of refuge for oppressed and displaced peoples. The supply of water is not regular; as a result of the high average temperatures and a very low annual rainfall, the ground of the plain of latitude 35° N is hard and dry and unsuitable for plant cultivation for at least eight months in the year. Consequently, agriculture without risk of crop failure, which seems to have begun in the higher rainfall zones and in the hilly borders of Mesopotamia in the 10th millennium BCE, began in Mesopotamia itself, the real heart of the civilization, only after artificial irrigation had been invented, bringing water to large stretches of territory through a widely branching network of canals. Since the ground is extremely fertile and, with irrigation and the necessary drainage, will produce in abundance, southern Mesopotamia became a land of plenty that could support a considerable population. The cultural superiority of north Mesopotamia, which may have lasted until about 4000 BCE, was finally overtaken by the south when the people there had responded to the challenge of their situation.

The present climatic conditions are fairly similar to those of 8,000 years ago. An English survey of ruined settlements in the area 30 miles around ancient Hatra (180 miles northwest of Baghdad) has shown that the southern limits of the zone in which agriculture is possible without artificial irrigation has remained unchanged since the first settlement of Al-Jazīrah.

The availability of raw materials is a historical factor of great importance, as is the dependence on those materials that had to be imported. In Mesopotamia, agricultural products and those from stock breeding, fisheries, date palm cultivation, and reed industries—in short, grain, vegetables, meat, leather, wool, horn, fish, dates, and reed and plant-fibre products—were available in plenty and could easily be produced in excess of home requirements to be exported. There are bitumen springs at Hīt (90 miles northwest of Baghdad) on the Euphrates (the Is of Herodotus). On the other hand, wood, stone, and metal were rare or even entirely absent. The date palm—virtually the national tree of Iraq—yields a wood suitable only for rough beams and not for finer work. Stone is mostly lacking in southern Mesopotamia, although limestone is quarried in the desert about 35 miles to the west and “Mosul marble” is found not far from the Tigris in its middle reaches. Metal can only be obtained in the mountains, and the same is true of precious and semiprecious stones. Consequently, southern Mesopotamia in particular was destined to be a land of trade from the start. Only rarely could “empires” extending over a wider area guarantee themselves imports by plundering or by subjecting neighbouring regions.

The raw material that epitomizes Mesopotamian civilization is clay: in the almost exclusively mud-brick architecture and in the number and variety of clay figurines and pottery artifacts, Mesopotamia bears the stamp of clay as does no other civilization, and nowhere in the world but in Mesopotamia and the regions over which its influence was diffused was clay used as the vehicle for writing. Such phrases as cuneiform civilization, cuneiform literature, and cuneiform law can apply only where people had had the idea of using soft clay not only for bricks and jars and for the jar stoppers on which a seal could be impressed as a mark of ownership but also as the vehicle for impressed signs to which established meanings were assigned—an intellectual achievement that amounted to nothing less than the invention of writing.

The character and influence of ancient Mesopotamia

Questions as to what ancient Mesopotamian civilization did and did not accomplish, how it influenced its neighbours and successors, and what its legacy has transmitted are posed from the standpoint of modern civilization and are in part coloured by ethical overtones, so that the answers can only be relative. Modern scholars assume the ability to assess the sum total of an “ancient Mesopotamian civilization”; but, since the publication of an article by the Assyriologist Benno Landsberger on “Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt” (1926; “The Distinctive Conceptuality of the Babylonian World”), it has become almost a commonplace to call attention to the necessity of viewing ancient Mesopotamia and its civilization as an independent entity.

Ancient Mesopotamia had many languages and cultures; its history is broken up into many periods and eras; it had no real geographic unity, and above all no permanent capital city, so that by its very variety it stands out from other civilizations with greater uniformity, particularly that of Egypt. The script and the pantheon constitute the unifying factors, but in these also Mesopotamia shows its predilection for multiplicity and variety. Written documents were turned out in quantities, and there are often many copies of a single text. The pantheon consisted of more than 1,000 deities, even though many divine names may apply to different manifestations of a single god. During 3,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization, each century gave birth to the next. Thus classical Sumerian civilization influenced that of the Akkadians, and the Ur III empire, which itself represented a Sumero-Akkadian synthesis, exercised its influence on the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BCE. With the Hittites, large areas of Anatolia were infused with the culture of Mesopotamia from 1700 BCE onward. Contacts, via Mari, with Ebla in Syria, some 30 miles south of Aleppo, go back to the 24th century BCE, so that links between Syrian and Palestinian scribal schools and Babylonian civilization during the Amarna period (14th century BCE) may have had much older predecessors. At any rate, the similarity of certain themes in cuneiform literature and the Hebrew Bible, such as the story of the Flood or the motif of the righteous sufferer, is due to such early contacts and not to direct borrowing.

The achievements of ancient Mesopotamia

The world of mathematics and astronomy owes much to the Babylonians—for instance, the sexagesimal system for the calculation of time and angles, which is still practical because of the multiple divisibility of the number 60; the Greek day of 12 “double-hours”; and the zodiac and its signs. In many cases, however, the origins and routes of borrowings are obscure, as in the problem of the survival of ancient Mesopotamian legal theory.

The achievement of the civilization itself may be expressed in terms of its best points—moral, aesthetic, scientific, and, not least, literary. Legal theory flourished and was sophisticated early on, being expressed in several collections of legal decisions, the so-called codes, of which the best-known is the Code of Hammurabi. Throughout these codes recurs the concern of the ruler for the weak, the widow, and the orphan—even if, sometimes, the phrases were regrettably only literary clichés. The aesthetics of art are too much governed by subjective values to be assessed in absolute terms, yet certain peaks stand out above the rest, notably the art of Uruk IV, the seal engraving of the Akkad period, and the relief sculpture of Ashurbanipal. Nonetheless, there is nothing in Mesopotamia to match the sophistication of Egyptian art. Science the Mesopotamians had, of a kind, though not in the sense of Greek science. From its beginnings in Sumer before the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, Mesopotamian science was characterized by endless, meticulous enumeration and ordering into columns and series, with the ultimate ideal of including all things in the world but without the wish or ability to synthesize and reduce the material to a system. Not a single general scientific law has been found, and only rarely has the use of analogy been found. Nevertheless, it remains a highly commendable achievement that Pythagoras’ law (that the sum of the squares on the two shorter sides of a right-angled triangle equals the square on the longest side), even though it was never formulated, was being applied as early as the 18th century BCE. Technical accomplishments were perfected in the building of the ziggurats (temple towers resembling pyramids), with their huge bulk, and in irrigation, both in practical execution and in theoretical calculations. At the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, an artificial stone often regarded as a forerunner of concrete was in use at Uruk (160 miles south-southeast of modern Baghdad), but the secret of its manufacture apparently was lost in subsequent years.

Writing pervaded all aspects of life and gave rise to a highly developed bureaucracy—one of the most tenacious legacies of the ancient Middle East. Remarkable organizing ability was required to administer huge estates, in which, under the 3rd dynasty of Ur, for example, it was not unusual to prepare accounts for thousands of cattle or tens of thousands of bundles of reeds. Similar figures are attested at Ebla, three centuries earlier.

Above all, the literature of Mesopotamia is one of its finest cultural achievements. Though there are many modern anthologies and chrestomathies (compilations of useful learning), with translations and paraphrases of Mesopotamian literature, as well as attempts to write its history, it cannot truly be said that “cuneiform literature” has been resurrected to the extent that it deserves. There are partly material reasons for this: many clay tablets survive only in a fragmentary condition, and duplicates that would restore the texts have not yet been discovered, so that there are still large gaps. A further reason is the inadequate knowledge of the languages: insufficient acquaintance with the vocabulary and, in Sumerian, difficulties with the grammar. Consequently, another generation of Assyriologists will pass before the great myths, epics, lamentations, hymns, “law codes,” wisdom literature, and pedagogical treatises can be presented in such a way that modern readers can fully appreciate the high level of literary creativity of those times.

The classical and medieval views of Mesopotamia; its rediscovery in modern times

Before the first excavations in Mesopotamia, about 1840, nearly 2,000 years had passed during which knowledge of the ancient Middle East was derived from three sources only: the Bible, Greek and Roman authors, and the excerpts from the writings of Berosus, a Babylonian who wrote in Greek. In 1800 very little more was known than in 800 CE, although these sources had served to stir the imagination of poets and artists, down to Sardanapalus (1821) by the 19th-century English poet Lord Byron.

Apart from the building of the Tower of Babel, the Hebrew Bible mentions Mesopotamia only in those historical contexts in which the kings of Assyria and Babylonia affected the course of events in Israel and Judah: in particular Tiglath-pileser IIIShalmaneser V, and Sennacherib, with their policy of deportation, and the Babylonian Exile introduced by Nebuchadrezzar II. Of the GreeksHerodotus of Halicarnassus (5th century BCE, a contemporary of Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I) was the first to report on “Babylon and the rest of Assyria”; at that date the Assyrian empire had been overthrown for more than 100 years. The Athenian Xenophon took part in an expedition (during 401–399 BCE) of Greek mercenaries who crossed Anatolia, made their way down the Euphrates as far as the vicinity of Baghdad, and returned up the Tigris after the famous Battle of Cunaxa. In his Cyropaedia Xenophon describes the final struggle between Cyrus II and the Neo-Babylonian empire. Later, the Greeks adopted all kinds of fabulous tales about King NinusQueen Semiramis, and King Sardanapalus. These stories are described mainly in the historical work of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), who based them on the reports of a Greek physician, Ctesias (405–359 BCE). Herodotus saw Babylon with his own eyes, and Xenophon gave an account of travels and battles. All later historians, however, wrote at second or third hand, with one exception, Berosus (born c. 340 BCE), who emigrated at an advanced age to the Aegean island of Cos, where he is said to have composed the three books of the Babylōniaka. Unfortunately, only extracts from them survive, prepared by one Alexander Polyhistor (1st century BCE), who, in his turn, served as a source for the Church Father Eusebius (died 342 CE). Berosus derided the “Greek historians” who had so distorted the history of his country. He knew, for example, that it was not Semiramis who founded the city of Babylon, but he was himself the prisoner of his own environment and cannot have known more about the history of his land than was known in Babylonia itself in the 4th century BCE.

Berosus’ first book dealt with the beginnings of the world and with a myth of a composite being, Oannes, half fish, half man, who came ashore in Babylonia at a time when men still lived like the wild beasts. Oannes taught them the essentials of civilization: writing, the arts, law, agriculture, surveying, and architecture. The name Oannes must have been derived from the cuneiform U’anna (Sumerian) or Umanna (Akkadian), a second name of the mythical figure Adapa, the bringer of civilization. The second book of Berosus contained the Babylonian king list from the beginning to King Nabonassar (Nabu-naṣir, 747–734 BCE), a contemporary of Tiglath-pileser III. Berosus’ tradition, beginning with a list of primeval kings before the Flood, is a reliable one; it agrees with the tradition of the Sumerian king list, and even individual names can be traced back exactly to their Sumerian originals. Even the immensely long reigns of the primeval kings, which lasted as long as “18 sars” (= 18 × 3,600 = 64,800) of years, are found in Berosus. Furthermore, he was acquainted with the story of the Flood, with Cronus as its instigator and Xisuthros (or Ziusudra) as its hero, and with the building of an ark. The third book is presumed to have dealt with the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to the time of Berosus himself.

Diodorus made the mistake of locating Nineveh on the Euphrates, and Xenophon gave an account of two cities, Larissa (probably modern Nimrūd [ancient Kalakh], 20 miles southeast of modern Mosul) and Mespila (ancient Nineveh, just north of Mosul). The name Mespila probably was nothing more than the word of the local Aramaeans for ruins; there can be no clearer instance of the rift that had opened between the ancient Middle East and the classical West. In sharp contrast, the East had a tradition that the ruins opposite Mosul (in north Iraq) concealed ancient Nineveh. When a Spanish rabbi from Navarre, Benjamin of Tudela, was traveling in the Middle East between 1160 and 1173, Jews and Muslims alike knew the position of the grave of the prophet Jonah. The credit for the rediscovery of the ruins of Babylon goes to an Italian, Pietro della Valle, who correctly identified the vast ruins north of modern Al-Ḥillah, Iraq (60 miles south of Baghdad); he must have seen there the large rectangular tower that represented the ancient ziggurat. Previously, other travelers had sought the Tower of Babel in two other monumental ruins: Birs Nimrūd, the massive brick structure of the ziggurat of ancient Borsippa (modern Birs, near Al-Ḥillah), vitrified by lightning, and the ziggurat of the Kassite capital, Dur Kurigalzu, at Burj ʿAqarqūf, 22 miles west of Baghdad. Pietro della Valle brought back to Europe the first specimens of cuneiform writing, stamped brick, of which highly impressionistic reproductions were made. Thereafter, European travelers visited Mesopotamia with increasing frequency, among them Carsten Niebuhr (an 18th-century German traveler), Claudius James Rich (a 19th-century Orientalist and traveler), and Ker Porter (a 19th-century traveler).

In modern times a third Middle Eastern ruin drew visitors from Europe—Persepolis, in the land of Persia east of Susiana, near modern Shīrāz, Iran. In 1602, reports had filtered back to Europe of inscriptions that were not in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Georgian, or Greek. In 1700 an Englishman, Thomas Hyde, coined the term “cuneiform” for these inscriptions, and by the middle of the 18th century it was known that the Persepolis inscriptions were related to those of Babylon. Niebuhr distinguished three separate alphabets (Babylonian, Elamite, and Old Persian cuneiform). The first promising attempt at decipherment was made by the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend in 1802, by use of the kings’ names in the Old Persian versions of the trilingual inscriptions, although his later efforts led him up a blind alley. Thereafter, the efforts to decipher cuneiform gradually developed in the second half of the 19th century into a discipline of ancient Oriental philology, which was based on results established through the pioneering work of Emile Burnouf, Edward Hincks, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and many others.

Today this subject is still known as Assyriology, because at the end of the 19th century the great majority of cuneiform texts came from the Assyrian city of Nineveh, in particular from the library of King Ashurbanipal in the mound of Kuyunjik at Nineveh.

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