2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology

Ancient Mesopotamia
Cities / Empires
Sumer: Uruk – Ur – Eridu
Kish – Lagash – Nippur
Akkadian Empire: Akkad
Babylon – Isin – Susa
Assyria: Assur – Nineveh
Dur-Sharrukin – Nimrud
Babylonia Chaldea
Elam Amorites
Hurrians Mitanni
Kassites Urartu
Kings of Sumer
Kings of Assyria
Kings of Babylon
Cuneiform script
Sumerian – Akkadian
Elamite – Hurrian
Enûma Elish
Gilgamesh – Marduk

Mesopotamia refers to the region now occupied by modern Iraq, eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and Southwest Iran. The toponym comes from the Greek words μέσος "between" and ποταμός "river", referring to the basins of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers and the area in between. Comparably, the Arabic term is بين نهرين Bayn Nahrain "between two rivers". The geographical area watered by these two rivers is often referred to as the "Cradle of Civilization", since it was here that the first literate societies developed in the late 4th millennium BC. Mesopotamia was coined in the Hellenistic period without any definite boundaries, to refer to a broad geographical area and probably used by the Seleucids. The area became a short-lived province of the Roman Empire at the time of Trajan, with the name Provincia Mesopotamia. Scholars have suggested that the Akkadian term biritum/birit narim corresponded to a similar geographical concept and coined at the time of the Aramaicization of the region. It is however widely accepted that early Mesopotamian societies simply referred to the entire alluvium as kalam in Sumerian (lit. "land"). More recently terms like "Greater Mesopotamia" or "Syro-Mesopotamia" have been adopted to refer to wider geographies corresponding to the Near East or Middle East. The later euphemisms are Euro-centric terms attributed to the region in the midst of various 19th century Western encroachments.


Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia
Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian history extends from the emergence of urban socities in Southern Iraq in the 4th millennium BC to the arrival of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC (which is seen as the hallmark of the Hellenization of the Near East, therefore supposedly marking the "end" of Mesopotamia). A cultural continuity and spatial homogeneity for this entire historical geography("the Great Tradition") is popularly assumed, though the assumption is problematic. Mesopotamia housed some of the world's most ancient states with highly developed social complexity. The region was as one of the famous four riverine civilizations where writing was first invented, along with the Nile valley in Egypt, the Indus Valley in the Indian Subcontinent and Yellow River valley in China.

Mesopotamia housed historically important cities such as Uruk, Nippur, Nineveh, and Babylon as well as major territorial states such as the Akkadian kingdom, Third Dynasty of Ur, and Assyrian empire. Some of the important historical Mesopotamian leaders were Ur-Nammu (king of Ur), Sargon (who established the Akkadian Kingdom), Hammurabi (who established the Old Babylonian state), Tiglath-Pileser I (who established the Assyrian Empire), and Tigranes the Great (who established the Armenian Empire).

"Ancient Mesopotamia" includes the period from the late 4th millennium BC until the rise of the Achaemenids in the 6th century BC. This long period may be divided as follows:

  • Hassuna, Samarra and Halaf "cultures" (Late Neolithic)
  • Ubaid period (ca 5900 BC - 4000 BC)
  • Uruk period (ca 4000 BC - 3100 BC)
  • Jemdet Nasr Period (ca 3100 BC - 2900 BC)
  • Early Dynastic city states (ca 2900-2350 BC)
  • Akkadian Empire (ca 2350 BC - 2193 BC).
  • Third dynasty of Ur ("Sumerian Renaissance" or "Neo-Sumerian Period") (ca 2119 BC - 2204 BC)
  • Early Assyrian kingdom 20th to 18th c.
  • First Babylonian Dynasty 18th to 17th c.
  • Kassite dynasty, Middle Assyrian period 16th to 12th c.
  • Dark Age 12th to 10th c.
  • Neo-Assyrian Empire 10th to 7th c.
  • Neo-Babylonian Empire 7th to 6th c.

Dates are approximate for the second and third millennia BC; compare Chronology of the Ancient Near East.

Language and writing

The earliest written language in Mesopotamia was Sumerian, a language isolate. Scholars agree that other languages were also spoken in early Mesopotamia along with Sumerian. Later a Semitic language, Akkadian, came to be the dominant language, although Sumerian was retained for administrative, religious, literary, and scientific purposes. Different varieties of Akkadian were used until the end of the Neo-Babalonian period. Then Aramaic, which had already become common in Mesopotamia, became the official language of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Akkadian fell into disuse, but both it and Sumerian were still used in temples for some centuries.

Mesopotamians invented cuneiform. Cuneiform was the first form of writing. It was a collection of symbols and wiggly lines. Most people couldn't read or write so they had to hire scribes.

Science and technology

Mesopotamian people developed many technologies, among them metalworking, glassmaking, textile weaving, food control, and water storage and irrigation. They were also one of the first Bronze age people in the world. Early on they used copper, bronze and gold, and later they used iron. Palaces were decorated with hundreds of kilograms of these very expensive metals. Also, copper, bronze, and iron were used for armor as well as for different weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, and maces.


The Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal (base 60) numeral system. This is the source of the current 60-minute hour and 24-hour day, as well as the 360 degree circle. The Sumerian calendar also measured weeks of seven days each. This mathematical knowledge was used in mapmaking.


The Babylonian astronomers were very interested in studying the stars and sky, and most could already predict eclipses and solstices. People thought that everything had some purpose in astronomy. Most of these related to religion and omens. Mesopotamian astronomers worked out a 12 month calender based on the cycles of the moon. They divided the year into two seasons: summer and winter. The origins of astrology probably date from this time.


Mesopotamian religion is the oldest religion recorded. Mesopotamians believed that the world was a flat disc, surrounded by a huge, holed space, and above that, heaven. They also believed that water was everywhere, the top, bottom and sides, and that the universe was born from this enormous sea. Mesopotamian religion was highly polytheistic, that is people believed in many gods.

Although the beliefs described above were held in common among Mesopotamians, there were also regional variations. The Sumerian word for universe is an-ki, which refers to the god An and the goddess Ki. Their son was Enlil, the air god. They believed that Enlil was the most powerful god. He was the chief god of the Pantheon, as the Greeks had Zeus and the Romans had Jupiter. The Sumerians also posed philosophical questions, such as: Who are we?, Where are we?, How did we get here?. They attributed answers to these questions to explanations provided by their gods.

If someone was sick they prayed to the gods so that person would recover. As mentioned above, the Mesopotamian doctors were not medically advanced, so instead people asked help from the gods.

Primary gods and goddesses

  • An was the Sumerian god of the sky. He was married to Ki, but in some other Mesopotamian religions he has a wife called Uraš.
  • Marduk was the principal god of Babylon. The people glorified him, so he would allow Babylon to rise into a great empire from a small state.
  • Gula,* Utu (also called Šamaš or Sahamash) was the sun god.
  • Ishtar was the goddess of love and of sex.
  • Enlil was the most powerful god in Mesopotamian religion. His wife was Ninlil, and his children were Inanna, Iškur, Nanna-Suen, Nergal, Ninurta, Pabilsag, Nushu, Utu, Uraš Zababa and Ennugi.
  • Nabu was the Mesopotamian god of writing. He was very wise, and was praised for his writing ability. In some places he was believed to be in control of heaven and earth.
  • Iškur (or Adad) was the god of storms.
  • Ninurta was the Sumerian god of war. He was also the god of heroes.
  • Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, was also the wife of Ninurta.
  • Pazuzu, also known as Zu, was an evil god, who stole the tablets of Enlil’s destiny, and is killed because of this. He also brought diseases which had no known cure.


Archeologists found hundreds of graves in some parts of Mesopotamia. These graves tell us many things about Mesopotamian burial habits. In the city of Ur, most people were buried in family graves under their houses. Children were put in big jars and were taken to the family chapel. Other people were just buried into common city graveyards. A few people were wrapped in mats and carpets. In most graves some belongings of the people were with them, and there were 17 graves with very precious objects in them so it is assumed that these were royal graves.


Music and songs

Some were written for the gods but many were written to describe important events. Although music and songs amused kings and rulers, they were also enjoyed by ordinary people who liked to sing and dance in their homes or in the marketplaces. Songs were sung to children who passed them on to their children. Thus songs were passed on through many generations until someone wrote them down. These songs provided a means of passing on through the centuries highly important information about historical events that were eventually passed on to us.

The Oud (Arabic:العود) is a small, stringed musical instrument. The oldest pictorial record of the Oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon. The image depicts a female crouching with her instruments upon a boat, playing right-handed. This instrument appears hundreds of times throughout Mesopotamian history and again in ancient Egypt from the 18th dynasty onwards in long- and short-neck varieties.

The oud is regarded as a precursor to the European lute. Its name is derived from the Arabic word العود al-‘ūd 'the wood', which is probably the name of the tree from which the oud was made. (The Arabic name, with the definite article, is the source of the word 'lute'.)


Hunting was popular among Assyrian kings. Boxing and wrestling feature frequently in art, and polo was probably popular, although with men sitting on the shoulders of other men rather than on horses. . They also had the first board game simalar to one we have now.

Family life

Infant mortality was between 75 to 95 percent. As for schooling, only royal offspring and sons of the rich and professionals such as scribes, physicians, temple administrators, and so on, went to school. Most boys were taught their father's trade or were apprenticed out to learn a trade. Girls had to stay home with their mothers to learn housekeeping and cooking, and to look after the younger children. Unusual for that time in history, women had rights. They could own property and, if they had good reason, get a divorce.


Food supply in Mesopotamia was quite rich due to the location of the two rivers from which its name is derived, Tigris and Euphrates. Although land nearer to the rivers was fertile and good for crops, portions of land further from the water were dry and largely uninhabitable. This is why the development of irrigation was very important for settlers of Mesopotamia. Other Mesopotamian innovations include the control of water by dams and the use of aqueducts. Early settlers of fertile land in Mesopotamia used wooden plows to soften the soil before planting crops such as barley, onions, grapes, turnips, and apples. Mesopotamian settlers were some of the first people to make beer and wine. The unpredictable Mesopotamian weather was often hard on farmers; crops were often ruined so backup sources of food such as cows and lambs were also kept. As a result of the skill involved in farming in the Mesopotamian, farmers did not depend on slaves to complete farm work for them, with some exceptions. There were too many risks involved to make slavery practical (i.e. the escape/mutiny of the slave).



The Mesopotamians believed their kings and queens were descended from the city gods, but, unlike the ancient Egyptians, they never believed their kings were actually gods. Most kings named themselves “king of the universe” or “great king”. Another common name was “ shepherd”, as kings had to look after their people.

Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful king in Babylonia. He was thought to be the son of the god Nabu. He married the daughter of Cyaxeres, so the Median and the Babylonian dynasties had a familial connection. Nebuchadnezzar’s name means: Nabo, protect the crown! Belshedezzar was the last king of Babylonia. He was the son of Nabonidus whose wife was Nictoris, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar.

The first king of the first dynasty of Ur (around 2560) was Mesanepada. He made Ur Sumer’s main city.

First Dynasty of Ur c. 2563–2387 B.C.

  • 2563–2524: Mesannepadda
  • 2523–2484: A'annepadda
  • 2483–2448: Meskiagnunna
  • 2447–2423: Elulu
  • 2422–2387: Balulu

Dynasty of Lagash c. 2494–2342 B.C.

  • 2494–2465: Ur-Nanshe
  • 2464–2455: Akurgal
  • 2454–2425: Ennatum
  • 2424–2405: Enannatum I
  • 2402–2375: Entemena
  • 2374–2365: Enannatum II
  • 2364–2359: Enentarzi
  • 2358–2352: Lugal-anda
  • 2351–2342: Uru-inim-gina

Dynasty of Uruk c. 2340-2316 B.C.

  • 2340–2316: Lugal-zaggesi

Dynasty of Akkad c. 2334-2154 B.C.

  • 2334–2279: Sargon
  • 2278–2270: Rimush


When Assyria grew into an empire, it was divided into smaller parts, called provinces. Each of these were named after their main cities, like Nineveh, Samaria, Damascus and Arpad. They all had their own governor who had to make sure everyone paid their taxes; he had to call up soldiers to war, and supply workers when a temple was built. He was also responsible for the laws being enforced. In this way it was easier to keep control of an empire like Assyria. Although Babylon was quite a small state in the Sumerian, it grew tremendously throughout the time of Hammurabi's rule. He was known as “the law maker”, and soon Babylon became one of the main cities in Mesopotamia. It was later called Babylonia, which meant "the gateway of the gods." It also became one of history's greatest centers of learning.


As city-states began to grow, their spheres of influence overlapped, creating arguments between other city-states, especially over land and canals. These arguments were recorded in tablets several hundreds of years before any major war - the first recording of a war occurred around 3200BC but was not common until about 2500BC. At this point warfare was incorporated into the Mesopotamian political system, where a neutral city may act as an arbitrator for the two rival cities. This helped to form unions between cities, leading to regional states. When empires were created, they went to war more with foreign countries. King Sargon, for example conquered all the cities of Sumer, some cities in Mari, and then went to war with northern Syria. Many Babylonian palace walls were decorated with the pictures of the successful fights and the enemy, whether desperately escaping, or hiding amongst reeds. A king in Sumer, Gilgamesh, was thought two-thirds god and only one third human. There were legendary stories and poems about him, which were passed on for many generations, because he had many adventures that were believed very important, and won many wars and battles.


King Hammurabi, as mentioned above, was famous for his set of laws, The Code of Hammurabi (created ca. 1780 BC), which is one of the earliest sets of laws found and one of the best preserved examples of this type of document from ancient Mesopotamia. For more information, see Hammurabi and Code of Hammurabi. There was 282 brutal laws in Hammurabi's code. They were so brutal so the people would follow the law.


The study of ancient Mesopotamian architecture is based available archaeological evidence, pictorial representation of buildings and texts on building practices. Scholarly literature usually concentrates on temples, palaces, city walls and gates and other monumental buildings, but occasionally one finds works on residential architecture as well. Archaeological surface surveys also allowed for the study of urban form in early Mesopotamian cities. Most notably known architectural remains from early Mesopotamia are the temple complexes at Uruk from the 4th millennium BC, temples and palaces from the Early Dynastic period sites in the Diyala River valley such as Khafajah and Tell Asmar, the Third Dynasty of Ur remains at Nippur (Sanctuary of Enlil) and Ur (Sanctuary of Nanna), Middle Bronze Age remains at Syrian-Turkish sites of Ebla, Mari, Alalakh, Aleppo and Kultepe, Late Bronze Age palaces at Bogazkoy (Hattusha), Ugarit, Ashur and Nuzi, Iron age palaces and temples at Assyrian ( Kalhu/Nimrud, Khorsabad, Nineveh), Babylonian ( Babylon), Urartian ( Tushpa/Van Kalesi, Cavustepe, Ayanis, Armavir, Erebuni, Bastam) and Neo-Hittite sites ( Karkamis, Tell Halaf, Karatepe). Houses are mostly known from Old Babylonian remains at Nippur and Ur. Among the textual sources on building construction and associated rituals, Gudea's cylinders from the late 3rd millennium are notable, as well as the Assyrian and Babylonian royal inscriptions from the Iron Age.


The materials used to build a Mesopotamian house were the same as those used today: mud brick, mud plaster and wooden doors, which were all naturally available round the city, although wood could not be naturally made very well during the particular time period described. Most houses had a square centre room with other rooms attached to it, but a great variation in the size and materials used to build the houses suggest they were built by the inhabitants themselves . The smallest rooms may not have coincided with the poorest people; in fact it could be that the poorest people built houses out of perishable materials such as reeds on the outside of the city, but there is very little direct evidence for this.

The Palace

The palaces of the early Mesopotamian elites were large scale complexes, and were often lavishly decorated. Earliest examples are known from the Diyala River valley sites such as Khafajah and Tell Asmar. These third millennium BC palaces functioned as a large scale socio-economic institutions, therefore, along with residential and private function, they housed craftsmen workshops, food storehouses, ceremonial courtyards, and often associated with shrines. For instance, the so-called "giparu" (or Gig-Par-Ku in Sumerian) at Ur where the Moon god Nanna's priestesses resided was a major complex with multiple courtyards, a number of sanctuaries, burial chambers for dead priestesses, a ceremonial banquet hall, etc. A similarly complex example of a Mesopotamian palace was excavated at Mari in Syria, dating from the Old Babylonian period.

Assyrian palaces of the Iron Age, especially at Kalhu/ Nimrud, Dur Sharrukin/ Khorsabad and Ninuwa/ Nineveh, have become famous due to the pictorial and textual narrative programs on their walls, all carved on stone slabs known as orthostats. These pictorial programs either incorporated cultic scenes or the narrative accounts of the kings' military and civic accomplishments. Gates and important passageways were flanked with massive stone sculpture of apotropaic mythological figures. The architectural arrangement of these Iron age palaces were also organized around large and small courtyards. Usually the king's throneroom opened to a massive ceremonial courtyard where important state councils met, state ceremonies performed.

Massive amounts of ivory furniture pieces were found in many Assyrian palaces pointing out an intense trade relationship with North Syrian Neo-Hittite states at the time. There is also good evidence that bronze repousse bands decorated the wooden gates.


Ziggurats (Akkadian ziqquratu from the verb zaqāru) were massive stepped cult platforms found in certain Mesopotamian sanctuaries. The idea seems to have originated in early Mesopotamian temples which were built successively, one building over another on the same site over centuries, creating a massive mound that raised the new temples over the rest of the city. A good example of such structure was the temple dedicated to Ea at Eridu (Tell Abu Shahrain) excavated by Fuad Safar and Seton Lloyd in 1940s, or the "White" Temple dedicated to Anu at Uruk in the Late Uruk period. Ur-Nammu's ziggurat, built at the height the Third Dynasty of Ur, at the site of Ur (Tell al Mugayyar) in the sanctuary of the Moon God Nanna, is also believed to be encasing earlier temples of the Early Dynastic Period. Ur-Nammu's ziggurat is considered one of the earliest of all planned ziggurats. After that time Kassites and Elamites of the Late Bronze Age, and Assyrians and Babylonians of the Iron age continued to build artificially erected ziggurats. Examples of such structures were found in Dur Kurigalzu (Aqar Quf), Dur-Untash (Tschoga Zanbil), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) and Babylon among others.

It has been suggested that ziggurats were built to resemble mountains, but there is little textual or archaeological evidence to support that hypothesis.

Ur-Nammu's ziggurat at Ur was designed as a three-stage construction, today only two of these survive. This entire mudbrick core structure was originally given a facing of baked brick envelope set in bitumen, circa 2.5 m on the first lowest stage, and 1.15 m on the second. Each of these baked bricks were stamped with the name of the king. The sloping walls of the stages were buttressed. The access to the top was by means of a triple monumental staircase, which all converges at a portal that opened on a landing between the first and second stages. The height of the first stage was about 11 m while the second stage rose some 5.7 m. Usually a third stage is reconstructed by the excavator of the ziqqurat ( Leonard Woolley), and crowned by a temple. At the Tschoga Zanbil ziggurat archaeologists have found massive reed ropes that ran across the core of the ziggurat structure and tied together the mudbrick mass.


There was a large difference in money and wealth between rich and ordinary people. Ordinary people were highly dependent on their crops, because they had very little money. Rich people had many slaves and usually lots of money.

1 talent =

  • 60 mina
  • 3,600 shekel
  • 30 kg of silver

1 mina =

  • 60 shekel
  • 500 grams of silver

1 shekel =

  • 8.333 grams of silver
  • 2 divisions
  • 8 slices
  • 12 grains
  • 24 carats
  • 24 chickpeas
  • 180 barleycorns

Silver coins were not pure silver. About 87% of a coin was silver.

A lot of the coins were also copper

More recent history

A Mesopotamian pendant
A Mesopotamian pendant
  • The region then came under the rule of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, apparently as two satrapies, Babylonia in the south and Athura (from Assyria) in the north. During this time, 500-330 BC, Persia, an Indo-European language-speaking nation, became the pre-eminent power of the world.
  • After the conquest of all Persia by the Hellenizing Macedonian king Alexander the Great, the satrapies were part of the major diadochy, the Seleucid Empire, until just before its elimination by Greater Armenia in 42 BC.
  • Most of Mesopotamia then became part of the Parthian Empire of Persia, which lasted until 224 AD. Ctesiphon was made the capital of the Parthian Empire. However, part in the northwest became Roman. Under the Tetrarchy this part was divided into two provinces: Osrhoene (around Edessa, roughly the modern-day border between Turkey and Syria) and Mesopotamia (a bit more northeast).
  • During the time of the Persian Empire of Sassanids, the much larger share of Mesopotamia was called Del-e Iranshahr meaning "Iran's Heart" and the metropol Ctesiphon (facing ancient Seleukia across the Tigris), the capital of Persia, was situated in Mesopotamia.
  • In the early 7th century AD, the caliphs of the Arab Empire came to power in Damascus and annexed all of the Sassanid Empire. Consequently Mesopotamia was reunited under the Arabs, but governed as two provinces: northern, with Mosul (also known as Nineveh) as its capital, and southern, with Baghdad as its capital. Later Baghdad also became the caliphal capital. Baghdad was the seat of the Arab Empire until 1258.
  • From 1508-1534 AD, the Persian Safavids took control of Mesopotamia.
  • In 1535 AD, Ottoman Turks took over Baghdad. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, Mesopotamia was ruled as three separate vilayats, or territories: Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, which included the territory that is now present-day Kuwait.
  • At the end of World War I Mesopotamia was briefly occupied by the British, who set up the government of what is now present day Syria and Iraq under one Hashemite ruler.
  • In 1920 the nation-state of Iraq was formed by the United Kingdom following the disillusion of the Ottoman Empire, with its present-day borders and including the territory that is now known as Kuwait. Kuwait, a British protectorate, which had originally been a part of the Basra province under Ottoman rule, was granted independence from Britain in 1961.
  • In the early 1990s coalition forces launched an attack on Iraq known as Operation Desert Storm, in response to President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

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