Ancient Mesopotamia--Tigris and Euphrates Valley

Babylonian clothing
Figure 1.--We have not yet found Babylonian art depicting the clothing of common people, especially children. Here we have an Asyrian relief from Nineveh. It dates to the reign of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC). It the Assyrians deporting Babylonian women and children. It is not clear what happened to the men or how the women an children will be used. Here and in other similar bas-reliefs, we can see that the the children were nor wearing clothing. That was also an Egyptian custom, apparently a common situation in many ancient cultures. Clothing and textiles were more costly in relative terms than in modern society. Source: Barracco Museum in Rome.

Historians believe that settlement of the Fertle Cressent creaetd by the Tigris Euphrates Rivers began about 7000 BC. Several important civilizations developed in the Fertile Cressent. The generic name for the cultures of Fertile Cresent is Mesopotamia. The first major civilization was the Sumerians who devloped a loose coaltion of independent city states. Their civilization was concentrated in the marshy south where a thriving civilization emerged about 3500 BC. Summerians developed the pottery wheel from which they mad clay untensils. They also developed an early lunar calendar and advanced mathematics. An inovative irrigation system permitted the first intesive cultivation of the Tigris Euphrates. The Summerians also developed the first primitive writing, cuniform writing first used for commercial records, but evolving into literature such as poetry. The Summerians with their advanced agricuture were able to support the first first urban centers. The first city appears to be Ur. It apparent was fom Ur that Biblical Patiarch left to find Canaan. The Amorite King Hammurabi unified the Sumerian city states. He is know or enacting the fist written legal code. The Amorites and other war-like people from the hearding socities of the north blended blended with agraian Sumerian civilization. Babylon developed as the most important city of the region. Babylon was destroyed by the Assyrians, another war-like northern peolpe, in 669 BC. Nebuhadnezzar II rebuilt Babylon as the worlds most beautiful and advanced city. It was the sit of the Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel. Babylon was conuered by Alexader the Great in 331 BC who set out to Hllanize it. The Persians after defeating Roman armies led by Anthony, conquered Mesopotamia in 64 AD.

Geography

Mesopotamia like all the early human civilizations developed in a fertile river valley, the fertile plain created by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The word Mesopotamia in fact is is Greek for "the land between two rivers" an apt description for the civilizations that developed between these two great rivers. Mesopotamia extended from Armenia (now part of Turkey, modern Armenia, Aberbijan, and Iran) southeasdt to where the rivers exit into the Persian Gulf. The norther portion has veen called Al Jazira and the southern portion Iraq. On the south west Mesopotamia was bounded by the Arabian desert. Much of Mesopotamia is located in modern Iraq.

Early Settlement

Historians believe that settlement of the Fertle Cressent created by the Tigris Euphrates Rivers began about 7000 BC. About this time people from the surronding mountains and arid ares begn to settle in the floodplain of the two rivers as they discovered the substantial harbests possible in the rich aluvial soil and plentiful water--leading to the invention of agriculture nd subsequently civilization. There is evidence of Chalcolithic (stone and copper) culture before 4000 BC. While often presented in a few pages of wotld history books, in the cities that appeared in Mesopotami, half of human history in chronologica terms unfolded. Kriwaczek] Very littlr is known about the earlier millenia. One often poorly appreciated fact is that Mesopotamia was the first of the great river vallies settled and that both Egyot and the Indus Vally civilizations benefoited from the rise of agriuculkture and civikization in Mesopotamia. Only China developed independentkly of the other three grrat river valley civilizations.

Civilization

The 3rd millenium was the critical point in human historical development. Writing for the first time in history florished and sophisticated social organization developed. As best we can tell, it is in Mesopotamia that the first sophisticated, urban civilization emerged. It is not all together clear why this occured first in Mesopotamia. Certainly it was the wide alluvial plain created by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. But Mesopotamia seems a rather hostile location in which civilization and cities to first appear, but of course the same was true of Egypt. The key factor appears to be the steady and relable source of water. Mesopotamia is an area of limited precipitation. Large areas are arid or desert. The climate is harsh, hot summers and cold winters. But it is in Mesopotamia that we see the first cities, the beginning of writing, and monumental archetecture associated with substantial political power and and increasingly sophisticated religious worship. The first writing seems to have appeared in Mesopotamia (about 3200 BC). We also see the first written legal code as well artisans depicting humans, animals, and gods in increasingly refined forms. One historian writes that the art of ancient Mesopotamia is the remnants of "the urban revolution represented by the formation of the cities of southern Mesopotamia" which "must be looked upon as one of humanity's defining moments". [Aruz] Cities were critiical to the development od civilization. They are in fact the signature unit of human civilization. Even so it was a very small portion of the people of Mesopotamia that lived in cities. In fact it is only in our modern age that we find more than half the world population living in cities.[Smith] Mesopotamia developed trade contacts with the developing Egyptian and subsequentkly the Indus River civilization.

Slavery

Slavery was an accepted institution in all major civilizations emerging in Mesopotamia. Actual information is, however, is very limited. Mesopotamia spans millenia and many different states and socities. Few details of the institution, however, are available. Historians believe that slavery as a major institution probably occurred with the development of agriculture about 10,000 BC. This of course occurred in Mesopotamia. Agriculture required a labor force and thus a way of profitably utilzing slaves. Only imited numbers of slaves could be used by nomads. The supervision and control of slaves was was a problem for nomads. Escape would have been reatively easy. This changed with settled life and agriculture. Slaves became more valuavle. Very little is known about slavery in the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia. Archeologists have found scattered refeences to slavery in Sumeria, Assyria, and Babalonia, mostly from remanents of legal codes which have survived. While these early codes do not sound very fair to us today as justice was to a large degree affected by social status. The very fact that there were laws limiting the owners absolute authority did provide a degree of lgal protection to slaves. very few details are available about slavery in Mesopotamia in general, let alone specially about individual states. There seem to be three ways in which people were enslaved: war captives (civiian and military), crime, and debts. Historiams debate which was the most imprtant, but we know of little solid evidence. In looking at the legal codes (Hammurabi's Code wa just the most elaborate) one can not help but be struck by the attention given to commercial issues and debt. This suugests to us that debt slavery was the primary source of slaves. Given the high rates of interest prevailing, it was rather easy to fall into debt. A father might sell a child or been forced himself into slavery. Both farmners and mnerchants often had to birrow to fimance operations. And a crop failure or loss of a caravan could spell fisaster. There is, however, little actual data. We also suspect that this varoed over time and among the different civilzations. There coulkd have been a pulse of slavery after a war. And we might expect the highly Asyrians to have taken many slaves as war booty. That said, the Assyrians before their imperial period were an imprtant commercial society. Historians disagree as to the importance of slavery in the different societies of Mesopotamia. In general it does not seem as wide spread as in later classical civilizations. The earliest known written references to slavery come from the city states of Sumer where information on the legal codes have been found dating to the 4th millennium BC. The Sumerian had a cuneiform symbol for slave, suggesting 'foreign' which indicates that slaves were not from the Sumerian city states, but outsiders--at least at this eraly point of writing. There are also multiple references to slavery in the Babylonian code of Hammurabi (about 1750 BC) which provide the most detailed view of slavery in Mesopotamia. Slaves under the code had the status of property or merchandise. Slaves did, however, have rights. Slaves were permitted to own property, conduct business, and even marry free women. Manumission was allowed through both self-purchase or adoption by the owner. The legal penalties for free persons and slaves were very different. No where is that more apparent than the rewards and penalties for surgeons operating on free persons or slaves.And there is the added complication is that in Babylon, there were not only free peopland slaves, but also a third class--commomers. While they are menbtioned in the Babylonian codes. not one has yet found what just how they different from free individuals and slaves. Some authors suggest that free individuals often had ties with the nobility, suggesting that they were not totally free. Commoners may have been totally independent of the nobility.

Writing

Perhaps after fire and the wheel the greates humn schievemrnt was writing. This monumental achievement was first made in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians (3100 BC). Witing allowed man to accumulare knowledge. The advances of individuals could thus be preserved, even after their death. With the development of agiculture and cities, life becme increasingly complicated. The need arose to keep records and the nest way of doing that was writing. The poorly understood development appeared stuningly quickly--almost immediated in historical terms. Historians and lingustics do not undestand how a fully developed writing system could have appeared so suddenly. It appears to have developed out of a poorly understood system of tokens and bullae that had been in use for about a millenium. Interestingly, while the Sumeriam cuniform writing system has been deciphered, the token bullae system has not. The system of seals may have been another formative influence. The cuneiform writing system was wedge-shaped characters. The earliest version of the systen had some characters which had some pictorial shpes, but this was gradually lost. The characters were impressed on soft cly by scribes in soft clay tablets using a triangle-shaped tip of a pointed tool, probably made from a reed. This had produced a windfall for archeologists. Unlike paper and prchment whiuch can be lost as in the great Library of zlexandria, clay tablers can be damaged or broken, but they are vurtully impossible to destroy. The first writing seems to have been used for business records and inventories and then temple records. We soon begin to see much ore, including daily life, religious hymns, poems, stories, palace orders, and personal communications. .

Clothing

We have not yet developed much information on clothing in ancient Mesopotamia. There were differences among the various civilizations, but here we have not yet gathered much information. There were also similarities because the various cultures arising in Mesopotamis were inter-related. In addition textiles and eaving techology were shared by the different civilizations. The natural materials availabble for clothing wee wool and flax (used for making linnen). Many of the fashion differences among cultures were apparent only in the relatively small ruling and trading classes. The peasants who were the bulk of the population and toiled in the field were not significantly affected by fashion. The cost of textiles and the climate were major factors. We believe that the major fashion for men was a skirt like kilt. The length varried. Here social class was a factor. Peasant men commonly wore short skirts better suited for field work. Many wore no shirt or other garment covering their chest. The more affluent might wear robes or tunics, often fringed. Women wore long robes that did cover their upper torsos. We do not know much about children's clothing. We do not know of any specifically dedicated garments for children. Most young children presumably went naked because of ther hot climate. The high cost of textiles was another factor. Many peasants could barely afford to clothes themselves. Information on clothing is limited. One of the best sources of information is the surviving scupltures, especially carved stone reliefs.

Scribal Schools

The Sumerians invented writing and one consequwnce of this is that they had to unvdnbt schools as well. he first schools were started by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia. The invention of writing in the mid-4th millennium B.C. made kings and priests realize the need for educating scribes. The cuniform witing system emerged as a fully developed writing syste, The earliest chracters were fairly basic simple pictograms, but it very quickly developed into cuneiform, wedge-shaped characters. This system became increasingly complex (3rd millennium BC). This mean that a demanding education was required to master it. One authir describes a 12-year ttrining program. This mean that boys aspiring to be scribes had to begin at atoung age. Boys as young as 7 years of age began the stidies. Mot cibes were boys, but there were girl scribes as well. we are not sure, however, if they attended standard scribal schools. Temples established schools to educate both scribes and priests. Over time as secular leadership emerged in Mesopotamian cities, secular schools appeared. Scribes began opening schools and charging tuition, sometimes fairly high rates. as far as we know, the state never took oin this function. Literacy was not widespead in Mesopotamia, although no one know what literact ates were. we have seen etimates in the 3-10 percent ranbge. The lower range seems the most plasusible. Most rulers given the demand, never bother to learn. A rare exception was Shulgi of Ur (2029-1982 BC) who bragged about hi writing skills.

Major Cultures

Several important civilizations developed in the Fertile Cressent. The generic name for the cultures of Fertile Cresent is Mesopotamia. The most notable is of course Summer because it was here that the Neolithic agricultural revolution took place. The first major civilization was the Sumerians who devloped a loose coaltion of independent city states. Their civilization was concentrated in the marshy south where a thriving civilization emerged about 3500 BC. Babylonia emerged as the dominate power in the Fertile Cresentvaround 1900 BC under the great Amoritic dynasty. Babylonia was located in the southern areas of Mesopaotamia. It was divided into two states, Acad and Sumer. Babylon developed as the most important city of the region. The history of the Fertile Cressent is in part the conflict between the rich agricultural society of the river vallies and the less civilized barbarians from the surrounding area, especially the norther hill country. A secession of northern invaders swept over Mesopotamia and dominated the area until about the 14th century BC. Assyria rose in powe beginning in the 14th century BC. The first great Assyrian king was Shalmaneser I (1276-57 BC) Babylon was destroyed by the Assyrians, another war-like northern peolpe, in 669 BC. Nebuhadnezzar II rebuilt Babylon as the worlds most beautiful and advanced city. It was the sit of the Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel. The great Assyrian cities (Nineveh, Calah, and Dur-Sharrukin) were located in the north of Mesopotamia. The Medes and Babylonians (called Chaldeans) defeated the Assyrians in 606 BC. Mesopotamia was in 539 incorporated into the Persian Empire. Soldiers from Mesoptamia were part of the huge armies that successive Persian emperors mobilized to defeat the Greeks. Alexader the Great defeated the Persion armies of Darius in a series of massive battles and in 331 BC set out to Hellanize Mesopotamia.

Sumerian and Accadians (3500-1900 BC)

The first major civilization was the Sumerians who devloped a loose coaltion of independent city states. Their civilization was concentrated in the marshy south where a thriving civilization emerged about 3500 BC. Summerians developed the pottery wheel from which they mad clay untensils. They also developed an early lunar calendar and advanced mathematics. An inovative irrigation system permitted the first intesive cultivation of the Tigris Euphrates. The Summerians also developed the first primitive writing, cuniform writing first used for commercial records, but evolving into literature such as poetry. One of the first known works of literature, The Epic of Gilamesh was written in cuneiform. The Summerians using a system of irrigation and canals were able to make the plain between the Tugris and Euphrates extrodunarily productive. With their advanced agricuture were able to support the first first urban centers. The first city appears to be Ur. It apparent was fom Ur that Biblical Patiarch left to find Canaan. The Amorite King Hammurabi unified the Sumerian city states. He is know or enacting the fist written legal code. The Amorites and other war-like people from the hearding socities of the north blended blended with agraian Sumerian civilization.

First Babylonian Empire (1900-1600 BC)

Babylonia emerged as the dominate power in the Fertile Cresent around 1900 BC under the great Amoritic dynasty. Babylonia was located in the southern areas of Mesopaotamia. It was divided into two states, Acad and Sumer. Babylon developed as the most important city of the region. Hammurbi is one of the best known figures of the anvient world (arounf 1800 BCO. He is especially noted for his law code. The first Babylonian kingdom was destroyed by the Assyruians (around 689 BC).

Hittites and Kassites (1600-1300 BC)

The history of the Fertile Cressent is in part the conflict between the rich agricultural society of the river vallies and the less civilized barbarians from the surrounding area, especially the norther hill country. A secession of northern invaders swept over Mesopotamia and dominated the area until about the 14th century BC. The Hittites also threatened Egypt at the time of Anakton, father of the boy pharoh Tutenkamen.

Assyria (1276-606 BC)

The Assyrians were a semietic people who first appeared to history (14th century BC). They became a great military power, building one of the great empires of westen Asia controlling the Fertile Cressent and Egypt. It was at first a small city state city state on the upper Tigris north northeast of Babylonia. Assyria was bounded in the north and east by the Taurus and Zagros mountains--the Mountains of Ashur. Two areas were the central Assyrian breadbasket: the Arbel plain and the Nineveh plain. Here crops as agriculture became more sophisticated could be grown without irrigation, unlike in Babylonia further down river. The rich agriculture provided the wealth that supported a massive army as well as as an educated class and gifted craftsmen. The first great Assyrian king was Shalmaneser I (1276-57 BC). Assyria achieved some importance under Tiglath-pileser I (12th century BC). Assyria became a major power with the great war leader Ashurnasirpal II (9th century BC). He set up the beginnings of an imperial administration with his conquests. His successors (Shalmanser III, Tiglath-pileser III, and Sargon) carved out a great Middle Eastern Empire. Sargon's son Sennacherib consolidated these gains. Esar Haddon (681-668 BC) conquered the Chaldaeans and sacked Babylon (669 BC). He also gained control of Egypt. Assur-bani-pal (669-633 BC) is seen as reigning during the height of the Empire with important artisticic achievements. After Egypt broke away, however, the Assyrian Empire rapidly declined. Nineveh was sacked (612 BC). Assyria was absorbed by first a revived Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great.

Second Babylonian Empire: The Chaldeans (606-539 BC)

The Babylonian Empire returned briefly to power. The Medes and Babylonians (called Chaldeans) defeated the Assyrians (606 BC). This was the second Babalonian Empire. Nabopolassar rebuilt Babylon as the world's most beautiful and advanced city. It was the site of the Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel. Some describe this period as Babylon's Golden Age. Babylon continued as the mot powerful state in Mesopotamia under Nabopolassar's son Nebuchadnezzar II. This of course is the poerful king appearing in the Bible. As one historian reports, even while the fortunes of Babylkon rose and fell, the city never kost its allure as the greatest metropolis of the ancient world. [Kriwaczek]

Persians (539-331 BC)

Mesopotamia was in 539 incorporated into the Persian Empire. Soldiers from Mesoptamia were part of the huge armies that successive Persian emperors mobilized to defeat the Greeks.

Alexander the Great (331 BC)

Alexader the Great defeated the Persion armies of Darius in a series of massive battles and in 331 BC set out to Hellanize Mesopotamia.

Various

After Alexander, Mesoptamia was incorporated into various expanding empires. It was part of the Seleucid kingdom ( -171 BC). King Mithridates I conquered Mesopotamia in 171 BC and the region was made part of the Aracid Parthian kingdom (171 BC - 171 AD). The Parthians defeated a Roman army led by Anthony in 64 AD. Rome finally gained control in 171 AD and Mesopotamia became a Roman province (115-363 AD). The Sassanian Persians seized Mesopotamia from Rome and ruled for three centuries (363-6?? AD). Finally the Persians were displaced by Arab bedouins emerging from the desert with the new faith of Islam.

Middle East

Arab bedouins in the 7th century deposed the Persians and founded a new capital located at Bagdad. Since that time, the history of Mesopotamia or modern Iraq has been assocaited with that of the Arab world and Middle Eastern history in general.

Sources

Aruz, Joan with Ronald Wallenfeis. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (Yale University Press, 2003).

Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia abnd the Birth of Civilization (2012).

Smith, P.D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age (2012).






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Created: March 20, 2003
Last updated: 5:12 AM 11/24/2015