("land between the
"The roots of Western civilization may be found in the experience
and culture of the Greeks. Yet
Greek civilization itself was richly nourished by older, magnificent
civilizations to the south and east, especially in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
In the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia) and soon
after in the valley of the Nile in Egypt, human beings moved from a life in
agricultural villages, using tools of wood, bone, shell, and stone, into a much
richer and more varied social organization that we call civilization"
(Kagan, 0). That is, instead of merely agricultural villages, we see the
beginnings of real cities.
Why did people first chose to live in cities, with their
inherent disadvantages: overcrowding, epidemics, wide separation from sources of
food and raw materials, and the concentration of wealth that permitted organized
warfare? Perhaps cities were
created because, to quote the Greek philosopher Aristotle,
"Man is by nature a political animal"
(POL. i.2.1233a]; or perhaps they arose merely because they
offered more possibilities for amusement, occupational choice, and enrichment
than had the Neolithic villages.
In addition, why did civilization develop first
here in Mesopotamia?
Maybe they just had to learn to cooperate to control the rivers.
That is, learning to work together for the common good was the beginning
of the creative spark that led to the development of civilization here first.
Other early civilizations will also appear on great rivers (Egyptian on
the Nile, Indian on the Indus and Ganges, Chinese on the Wei and Huang Ho), but
it appears that no civilization existed anywhere on the earth's surface before
3000 BC. Only then did one develop,
first in Mesopotamia, a little later in Egypt.
Protoliterate Period (c.3500-3000 BC)
The Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia ca. 3500, but we don't know where
they came from ("origins remain unclear" Spiel. 5th ed. 8).
Their language is neither Indo-European nor Semitic nor
Hamitic! They probably
originate from central Asia by way of Iran (Kramer, 33).
These Sumerians controlled the southern part of the valley (Sumer) close
to the head of the Persian Gulf by the dawn of history, around 3000 BC (Kagan,
7), by which time there seem to have developed twelve independent city-states.
Unlike Neolithic villages, these city-states were communities established
for purposes other than agriculture. City-states,
such as Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Umma, Lagash, were administrative, religious,
manufacturing, entertainment, and commercial centers.
Like the later Greek city-states, these Sumerian city-states were
involved in incessant fighting over
water rights and frontiers so that in time stronger towns conquered weaker ones
and even expanded to form kingdoms.
situation meant that Sumerian cities were surrounded by walls.
“Uruk, for example, occupied an area of approximately 1,000 acres
encircled by a wall 6 miles long with defense towers located every 30 to 35 feet along the wall. City
dwellings, built of sun-dried bricks, included both the small flats of peasants
and the larger dwellings of the civic and priestly officials. Although Mesopotamia had little stone or wood for building
purposes, it did have plenty of mud.
easily shaped by hand, were left to bake in the hot sun until they were hard
enough to use for building. People
in Mesopotamia were remarkably inventive with mud bricks, inventing the arch and
the dome and constructing some of the largest brick buildings in the world.
Mud bricks are still used in rural areas of the Middle East today"
(Spiel.5th ed. 7-8).
there is no phonetic writing yet, pictographs do appear this early.
At first they consist of pictures of concrete things such as a man,
sheep, star, or measure of grain; then some began to be used for ideas (e.g.,
picture of foot would symbolize walking; a
picture of mouth added to picture of water would stand for drinking; a star
would mean star , sky, or heaven,
most prominent building in a Sumerian city was the temple, which was dedicated
to the chief god or goddess of the city and often built atop a massive stepped
tower called a ziggurat" (Spiel.7). A
ziggurat large, brick platform crowned by sanctuary, i.e. temple on top
of platform. The Sumerian word means "high place,"
"mountain top," "pinnacle"; so a ziggurat is sort of like an
artificial mountain where the gods revealed themselves (the ancients thought
gods resided on mountains, such as Mt. Sinai or Horeb for the Hebrews or Mt.
Olympus for the Greeks). These were
the chief buildings constructed at this time.
The most famous is the ziggurat at Ur which was 205X 140’ at the base
and 70’ high. The ziggurat had staircases to each level up to temple and it was surrounded by low walls
enclosing offices and houses for priests and shops for potters, weavers, carpenters, farmers.
Old Sumerian Period ("Old Dynastic," "Early Dynastic")
The Old Sumerian Period begins ca. 3000 at the city of Uruk
with the development of a phonetic alphabet called cuneiform (Lat., cuneus
"wedge"): a reed stylus
was used to make impressions in soft clay tablets.
Later, cuneiform would be copied by Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and
Sumerian system of writing was so complicated that only professional scribes
mastered it, and even they had to study it for many years.
By 2500 B.C. scribal schools flourished throughout Sumer. Most students came from wealthy families and were male.
Each school had a master, teachers, and monitors.
Discipline was strict, and students were caned for sloppy work and
misbehavior. One graduate of a scribal school had few fond memories of the
joy of learning:
My headmaster read
my tablet, said: "There is
something missing," caned me.
The fellow in charge of silence said: "Why
did you talk without permission," caned me. The fellow in charge of the
assembly said: "Why did you
stand at ease without permission," caned me.
"Mesopotamian education always had a practical side because of the
economic and administrative importance of scribes.
Most scribes took administrative positions in the temple or palace, where
they kept records of business transactions, accounts, and inventories.
But scribal schools did not limit their curriculum to business affairs.
They were also centers of culture and scholarship.
Topics of study included mathematics, botany, and linguistics" (Mckay
lugals ["great men"]:
the evolution of kingship and the move toward larger territorial states.
The city-states were originally theocracies in which a
local god was believed to be the real sovereign with an ensi, a high priest and city governor, who acted as the god's
steward in both religious and secular functions. Thus temples of the city god and subordinate deities assumed
a central role in the city-states. Each
temple owned lands & each citizen belonged to one of the temples and
referred to themselves as "the people of the god X."
The land was divided with the commons worked by everybody and 1/6-1/3 of
the land divided among citizens for rental
(except priests who received land rent-free).
Land was also owned by clans (kinship groups comprising a
number of extended families), but by 2600 BC the clan lands began to be owned by
lugals, "great men"
who would pay much copper for land to clan leaders & small grants of food to
the rest of the people.
In time, priests,
administrators, and ensis usurped property and oppressed the common
people. This led to the rise
of despots who were usually lugals (therefore this term became a
political title and is generally translated "king"). Eventually, after kingship became institutionalized, "Sumerians
viewed kingship as divine in origin--kings, they believed, derived their power
from the gods and were the agents of the gods" (Spiel. 8).
Urukagina of Lagesh.
Of these Sumerian lugals, enlightened despots who made
the general welfare their major concern, the best known is Urukagina of Lagesh.
Urukagina declared himself lugal near the end of the Old Sumerian
period and ended the rule of priests and "powerful men," each of whom
he claimed, was guilty of acting `for his own benefit'” (Wallbank,12).
He attempted to establish justice by freeing the people of Lagesh from
"usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, etc.,
widows and orphans." This
story of Lagesh is a matter of recorded history that has come down to us through
contemporary documents by Lagashite archivists, man's first historiographers!
city-states contained three major social groups--nobles, commoners, and slaves.
Nobles included royal and priestly officials and their families.
Commoners included the nobles' clients who worked for the palace and
temple estates and other free citizens who worked for the palace and temple
estates and other free citizens who worked as farmers, merchants, fishers,
scribes, and craftspeople. Probably 90
percent or more of the population were farmers. They could exchange their crops for the goods of the artisans
in free town markets. Slaves
belonged to palace officials, who used them mostly in building projects; temple
officials, who used mostly female slaves to weave cloth and grind grain; and
rich landowners, who used them for farming and domestic work" (Spiel.5th
III. The Akkadian Period
Sargon I ("the Great") of Akkad (2340-2215? BC)
The Akkadians were the
earliest of Semitic peoples to filter in from Arabia late in fourth millennium BC. They absorbed Sumerian culture.
The most outstanding of the Akkadians was Sargon I ("the
Great") of Akkad (2340-2315 BC) who conquered Sumer (defeated the army of
Lugalzaggisi of Umma who had himself defeated Lagash, Uruk, and Ur) and
established the world's first empire extending from Persian Gulf to the
Sargon rose to power through the
army from humble beginnings. As lugal
he protected the lower classes and aided the rising class of private merchants
(e.g., he sent army to Asia Minor to protect a colony of merchants from a
local ruler) so as to establish an empire that fostered commercial and
cultural exchange throughout large parts of western Asia.
NOTE: SARGON AND MOSES [source:
Joseph Campbell Occidental Mythology,
1. Sargon’s birth:
"Sargon am I, the mighty king, monarch of Agade.
My mother was of lowly birth; my father I knew not; the brother of my
father is a mountain dweller; and my city, Azupirana, lies on the bank of the
My lowly mother conceived and bore me in secrecy; placed me
in a basket of rushes; sealed it with bitumen, and set me in the river, which,
however, did not engulf me. The
river bore me up. And it carried me
to Akku, the irrigator, who took me from the river, raised me as his son, made
of me a gardener; and while I was a gardener, then goddess Ishtar loved me. The I ruled the kingdom..." (p.73)
2. Moses’ birth: EXODUS
2:1-4: Now a man from the house of Levi [we read] went and took to
wife a daughter of Levi. The woman
conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a goodly child, she hid
him three months. And when she
could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed
it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the
reeds at the river's brink. And his
sister stood at a distance, to know what would be done to him...
3. "[The legend of
Moses' birth is obviously modeled on the earlier birth story of Sargon of Agade
(c.2350 BC), and is clearly not of Egypt, since in Egypt bitumen or pitch was
not used before Ptolemaic times, when it was introduced from Palestine” (127).
“The name Moses itself is Egyptian. It is the normal word for "child" and occurs among
the names, for example, of the pharaohs of Dynasty XVIII....the idea that an
Egyptian princess could have thought the word to be Hebrew shows that the
story-tellers do not always think their problems through:
And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he
became her son; and she named him Moses [Hebrew Mosheh], for she said,
"Because I drew him out [Hebrew mashah] of the water" (128).
priests and Guti
collapsed c. 2180 BC as result of: (1)
attacks of semi-barbaric highlanders the Guti from Iran, (2) desire for
independence of priest-dominated Sumerian cities. Now there is evidence of other
problems for the Akkadians: "...dramatic
discoveries announced in August 1993 suggest strongly that climate also played
role in the demise of Akkadian power. Archaeologists
have found evidence of a long, harsh drought, perhaps lasting as long as 300
years, that struck the northern regions of the empire.
The areas most severely affected were in modern Iraq, Syria, and parts of
southern Turkey. Abandonment of the
northern cities led to a stream of refugees to the south, overtaxing the economic
resources of the cities there and straining their social and political
structures. Cuneiform tablets had
earlier mentioned this migration. The
turmoil that resulted from this large influx of peoples may have contributed to
the fighting that consumed the Akkadian empire" (McKay 17).
Neo-Sumerian Period (2100-2000 BC)
Ur-Nammu founded the
Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2112-2000) which restored order and
creating a highly centralized administration in Sumer and Akkad that would
represent the "final flowering of Sumerian culture" (Spiel.9).
The cities were now
dominated by the temples; they became provinces with governors with the church
becoming and arm of the state with high priests appointed by the state.
Temple economic organization was used to control the economy in the
general interest, and Sargon's free economy came to a halt!
There was extensive temple
building during this period; in fact, this was the period in which the
ziggurat at Ur was built. Sumerian
literature, too, reached its peak: this
is the era in which the great Epic of
Gilgamesh was composed (cf. Spiel.5th ed. 15-16).
In addition, a code of laws developed was developed by Ur-Nammu, the
earliest law code in Mesopotamia ca. 2100 BC.
"Invasion by nomadic tribes, a perennial problem
in Mesopotamian history, proved disastrous for the Third of dynasty of
Ur" (Spiel.5th ed.9). Elamites from
Iran destroy Ur in 2000 BC and ended Sumerian political dominance forever, but
the influence of their culture would persist.
"For more than two centuries following the
destruction of Ur, disunity and warfare again plagued Mesopotamia, along with
depression, inflation, and acute hardship for the lower classes. Merchants, however, utilized the lack of state controls to
become full-fledged capitalists who amassed fortunes that they invested in
banking operations and in land. (These
merchants used a form of double-entry bookkeeping they called "balanced
accounts." Their word for
capital, qaqqadum, meaning
"head," influenced later peoples; our word capital
is derived from the Latin form, caput.)"
(Wallbank, 13) The Sumerian language became obscure (known only to priests)
and the Sumerians disappeared as a
distinct people. But their
cultural achievements endured: their
religion, art, legal and literary forms will be
retained by Akkadians, Babylonians and Elamites.
C.Summary of achievements of the Sumerians
1. seem to have
invented the art of writing
(several hundred thousand tablets have been found)
Monumental architecture: elaborate
brick houses, palaces & temples
4. schools (by
2500 BC, acc. to Spiel.5th ed. 14, the upper class sons were trained in cuneiform
for jobs in temple, palace, law courts, merchants).
religious & secular literature (e.g. Epic
of Gilgamesh, archives of Lagesh--king's exploits)
codes of law (Ur-Nammu 2100 BCE)
bronze tools & weapons
trade with other peoples ["Since the Mesopotamians had to import both
stone and metals, temple construction encouraged trade" (McKay 16)]
early form of money
varied art forms
"...in November 1993...American and Turkish archaeologists reported
evidence of Sumerian influences far removed from Mesopotamia.
At Tell Leilan in northern Syria and at Kazam Hoyuk in southern Turkey,
researchers found proof of large urban centers that shared Sumerian culture as
early as ca 2600 B.C. Finds included evidence of widespread literacy, a functioning
bureaucracy, and links with Ebla and Mesopotamia. These discoveries also point to another conclusion.
These frontier cities came under Sumerian influence not by conquest but
because they found Mesopotamian culture attractive and useful.
In this process, a universal culture developed in the ancient Near East,
a culture basically Mesopotamian but fertilized by the traditions, genius, and
ways of many other peoples" (McKay 17).
V. The Old Babylonian Period (c.2000-1600 BC)
of Babylon (c.1792-1750)
The first five kings of a
new dynasty at Babylon were mainly reoccupied with defensive and
religious building and by canal-clearing, with little extension of territory.
It was left to Hammurabi to engage in victorious campaigns that
extended the empire. Hammurabi,
king of the Semitic Amorites (Amurru "West"), brought most of
Mesopotamia under one rule by 1760 BC, esp. Akkad and Sumer.
"He followed in the footsteps of previous conquerors by
assimilating Mesopotamian culture with the result that Sumerian ways continued
to exist despite the end of the Sumerians as a political entity.
A collection of his letters, found by archaeologists, reveals that the
king took a strong interest even in trivial matters.
He built temples, defensive walls, and irrigation canals, encouraged
trade, and fostered an economic revival" (Spiel.9).
He is best know for his Law Code of nearly 300 laws; it was a code for
social justice (basically "eye for an eye") and therefore offers a
wealth of information about daily life in Mesopotamia; best known copy is
engraved on stele. “The Code of
Hammurabi reveals a society with a system of strict justice.
Penalties fro criminal offenses were sever and varied according to
social class of the victim….Moreover, the principle of retaliation (‘an
eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ was fundamental to this system of
justice” (Spielvogel 9).
This great Sumerian work
was preserved by the Akkadians and now by the Babylonians.
Gilgamesh, a legendary ruler of Uruk c.2700 BC, (who may have been an
early prototype of Heracles!) searched for eternal life by confronting
Utnapishtim who was granted eternal life by the gods for saving living
creatures from a flood. But
Gilgamesh, in the end, must accept his mortality and is basically
told to eat drink and be
merry while he still can. Indeed,
there seems to be no belief in an afterlife among the Mesopotamians:
"...the days of human beings 'are numbered; watever he may do, he is but
wind" (Speil. 7th, 13). This epic
story is the earliest surviving text to show humans confronting the painful
fact of their own mortality.
C. Mythopoeic Worldview:
Although they were rather advanced in math (arithmetic, geometry
and algebra; tables for multiplication, division; square & cube roots;
linear and quadratic equations; Pythagorean theorem; and place-value notation that
gave numbers a value according to their place in a series--greatest
achievement), they still produced no real science!
Religion is hindering a naturalistic explanation of nature.
For example, their mythical explanations of the sun, moon and planets as
gods able to influence human lives resulted in the birth of astrology rather
than astronomy! The dominance of
religion prevented them from investigating cause-effect connections betweens the
observed phenomenon! Instead they
looked for the will of the gods in the sky (mythical interpretation of the
superstition also extended to the use of amulets inscribed with incantations,
magic formulas to exorcise demons, and the consultation of omens to divine the
future (such as dreams, the activities of birds and animals, the internal organs
of sacrificed animals, the shape taken by oil poured on water surface, casting
lots, and astronomical phenomena).
In 1595 BC
Hittites (King Mursilis I) from Anatolia sacked Babylon and the Kassites took
over in the 1550s. The result
will be a 1,000 year slump until Neo-Babylonian Period!
SUMMARY OF MESOPOTAMIANS
1. Much of their culture will be transmitted to the Greeks and Hebrews
and therefore will become elements of Western Civilization.
(Babylonian astronomers gave us 7-day week--Romans had 8-day week and
Greeks had no week; Lunar calendar and system
of weights to Greeks; myths to Greeks and Hebrews, etc.)
2. Religion: "The
Mesopotamians viewed their city-states as earthly copies of a divine model and
order. Each city-state was sacred
because it was linked to a god or goddess.
Hence, Nippur, the earliest center of Sumerian religion, was dedicated
to Enlil, god of Wind. Moreover,
located at the heart of each major city-state was a temple complex.
Occupying several acres, this sacred area consisted of a ziggurat with
a temple at the top dedicated to the god or goddess who owned the city.
The temple complex was the true center of the community.
The main god or goddess dwelt there symbolically in the form of a
statue, and the ceremony of dedication included a ritual that linked the
statue to the god or goddess and thus supposedly harnessed the power of the
deity for the city's benefit....Although the gods literally owned the city,
the temple complex used only part of the land and rented out the
remainder" (Spiel.5thed. 12). .study the stars (astrology) & lunar calendar.
human activity of Mesopotamian life--political, military, legal, literary,
artistic--was generally subordinated to an overriding religious purpose! Even wars between cities were interpreted as wars between
gods of those cities; indeed, they interpreted all misfortunes to the gods:
the Mesopotamians considered natural catastrophes the work of the gods.
This general pessimism was no doubt partly due to environmental factors
such as a lack of natural barriers to protect them from invasions, by the
unpredictable waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the bad
windstorms and thunderstorms that occur in Mesopotamia.
“At times the Sumerians described their chief god, Enlil, as 'the
raging flood which has no rival'" (McKay 13). The result was that the
Mesopotamian’s superstitions filled them with anxiety and uncertainty,
caused them to believe in a capricious, even malevolent and vindictive, nature
of the gods, and even left them with no hope for an afterlife.
3. writing (cuneiform).
4. epic poetry: Their
general PESSIMISM abounds in Mesopotamian literature: happiness is transitory or
beyond one's reach, cf. Epic of Gilgamesh [THE FIRST EPIC POEM] with its
theme of human protest against death: "Where
is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only
the gods live forever...but as for us men, our days are numbered, our
occupations are a breath of wind" (Perry, 11).
6. Kingship was the central institution in Mesopotamian society, but
the kings did not claim to be gods, just great men selected by the gods to
represent them on earth (i.e., gods governed through the kings).
The main duties of the kings were to direct construction, maintain the
temples and irrigation canals, and wage war.
They viewed earthly governments as exact replicas of the government of
gods; no one god was all-powerful
(an assembly of gods made decisions), therefore, the kings could not be
ABSOLUTE RULERS! (for one thing,
there was no way that the king could correctly interpret the will of the
gods—they’re too capricious!). So
although they thought law came from gods and was to be administered by kings,
the king had to obey the law like everybody else.
7. Private enterprise did exist in Mesopotamia.
They imported stone, silver, timber, copper (Persian Gulf), precious
metals (Afghanistan), ivory (Africa), cedar, cypress, oils, and essences
(Mediterranean coast). They
exported: textiles, handicrafts, agricultural products.
They even had regulations to prevent fraud.
8. Their system of counting was based on 60.
Their day consisted of two sets of 12 hours (cf. the 12 signs of the
Zodiac). Their lunar calendar had
12 months, to which they added a month from time to time to bring it into
harmony with the solar year.
The use of arch, an important architectural principle that the Romans will
utilize to produce some of the most remarkable buildings of the ancient world.
10. Wheeled vehicles (by 3200BCE).
11. Legal codes.