Mesopotamia:  the First Civilization
("land between the rivers")




   "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.



I.  Protoliterate Period (c.3500-3000 BC)

    A. city-states

       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.
This 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.  Mud bricks, 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).

    B. pictographs

Though 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, etc.).   

    C. ziggurat

   "The 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. 

II. Old Sumerian Period ("Old Dynastic," "Early Dynastic") (c.3000-2300 BC) 

A.      writing

  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 Persians.      
"The 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 13)

    B. 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). 

C.      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., and protect 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! 

NOTE: “Sumerian 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 ed. 9). 

III. The Akkadian Period (2340-2100 BC)

            A. 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 Mediterranean Sea.
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, (NY, 1964)]

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 Euphrates.

  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).



B.      priests and Guti

Sargon’s successors 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). 

IV.  Neo-Sumerian Period (2100-2000 BC)

A.      Ur-Nammu

   Ur-Nammu founded the Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2112-2000) which restored order and prosperity by 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.    

B.      Elamites

   "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)

2. Monumental architecture:  elaborate brick houses, palaces & temples

3. irrigation works

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).

5. religious & secular literature (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh, archives of Lagesh--king's exploits)

6. codes of law (Ur-Nammu 2100 BCE)

7. lunar calendar

8. bronze tools & weapons

10. trade with other peoples ["Since the Mesopotamians had to import both stone and metals, temple construction encouraged trade" (McKay 16)]

11. early form of money

12. varied art forms

13. medicinal drugs.  

NOTE:  " 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)

A.      Hammurabi 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).

B.      Epic of Gilgamesh

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 universe).
            Their 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).

     D.      Hittites 

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!


            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.
 Every 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). 

            5. cities 

  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.

 9. 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.



Send comments and questions to Dr. Richard Baldwin, Gulf Coast State College.
This page last updated 3/17/12