Mesopotamia: The Rise of the First Civilization

Geography | Writing | Sumer | Gods | Gilgamesh
Sargon I | Hammurabi | Conclusion

What historians refer to as Mesopotamia is a region in present-day Iraq that lies along and between two rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates. "Mesopotamia" is actually a Greek word meaning "between the rivers". The people who inhabited the region had no notion of the word. They arose in two great empires, Akkad to the north and Sumer to the south. Later they would become united under the familiar name Babylon.

The Effect of the Geography of Mesopotamia

Map of Mesopotamia

The climate between the two rivers was generally dry with occasional fierce rain storms. The region was relatively devoid of easily accessible metals and it had little in the way of stone for building materials. It was extremely flat. However, it did have some advantages. First, it was endowed with a continuous source of water from the rivers that flowed down from the north. Second, it had deposits of clay, which could be turned into bricks for building. Most importantly, there was productive, fertile soil which could be easily cultivated.

In spite of the advantages, moving into the Tigris-Euphrates river valley had to have been a conscious, concerted effort by a fairly large group of people. The fertility of the soil must have been understood as was the availability of water. But there was also the problem of flooding which could frequently wash away the crops produced by the hard labor of the people. Thus, efficient organization had to be used in order to take advantage of the terrain and climate.

Excess crop production allowed for organization and specialization, and the terrain in the fertile crescent demanded even more organization. Population centers formed. The close living of people facilitated the advancement of new ideas and inventions. Innovations such as the wheel, the plow, sailing boats, and copper tools made work far more efficient, creating yet more surplus and made possible even larger living centers. As cities began to grow, they formed into city-states. Ur, Lagash, and Uruk are examples. These were constituted not only by hundreds of buildings within mud bricked walls, but also the surrounding farmland which provided much of the subsistence for the inhabitants. The walls became studded with towers and a regular guard kept peace within the city and protected it from attacks from without.

Man had shown that he could control nature by improved farming methods. He could control other men by instituting governments. It was about the same time that he attempted to control every aspect of life by influencing the "gods". This was done by building temples, or houses for particular deities. In many cities, artificial mounds were constructed called ziggurats. They were meant to resemble mountains, which were thought to be the focus of power on Earth. It was the people who controlled these temples that came to dominate early Mesopotamian society. The priests began taxing the peasants who tilled the fields and the artisans who lived in the city. Because they were thought to have a direct connection with the local gods, they were listened to and obeyed. The priests generally instituted a command economy by which they benefited and ruled. There were also kings, usually rising up from the priestly and military classes.

Writing: the Beginning of History

Seals were developed to stamp objects to verify ownership. They were formed in a cylindrical shape and figures were carved on them. When rolled in clay, they left an imprint which was allowed to dry. This eventually developed into more detailed record keeping on clay tablets. From seals came official inventories using clay tablets. The next step was using hieroglyphics to write down slightly more complex ideas. But the real leap occurred when someone came up with the idea of using symbols to represent sounds. Although they were still heavily reliant on images (the Mesopotamians created a huge alphabet of over 2000 characters), suddenly complex thoughts could be recorded. History, which had for a long time been passed down orally now had a more reliable means of transmission. Laws could be codified. Messages could be reliably sent over long distances. Writing created a new information revolution.

Writing began in Sumer or Sumeria. The script is now called cuneiform (derived from the Latin word cuneus which means "wedge" because of the peculiar look of the script). As it was composed of marks pressed into clay tablets by a stylus, once written, the documents could not be changed. This must have given writing an air of solid permanence, and whatever was written was given a degree of importance. Because the script recorded phonetic syllables, it could be used to write any language. Yet the complex alphabet meant that writing remained the province of the priveleged few.


The Sumerians called themselves the "Blackheaded People". They believed that the crafts had been taught to them by the gods and once they had developed were worked by relatively rigid rules. Names were important to the Sumerians. They sorted things into lists on their tablets, categorizing, trying to make order of their world. The Mesopotamian numbering system is based on the number six. This is where we get the numeration of the hours on the clock as well as the division of the hours into minutes and seconds today. The 12 lunar months of the year are also rooted in Mesopotamian thought.

The beginnings of higher level thinking started here as well. Arithmetic, with place-holders was developed. Algebra through quadratic equations was understood. Standardized weights and measures and geometric shapes for buildings were all put in place. Painting had been around since Paleolithic times, but the Mesopotamians took it to a new level of art in decorating buildings and walls.

The Gods of Mesopotamia

The gods of the region were anthropomorphized, giving them human shape and motivation. Like the more familiar Greek gods, there was a pantheon of many gods who controlled different aspects of nature. Among them was An, the divine force representing the sky. Nin-khursag was the goddess of the Earth. Inanna (or Ishtar) was a female goddess of fertility. Later Babylon worshiped the god Marduk. The people believed in an afterlife where the spirit dwelled after death.

Because the people saw the gods as forces of nature, they may have perceived their own accomplishments in advancing civilization, controlling nature by damming, irrigating, building houses, et al, as a usurpation of the place of the gods. Part of their devotion to the gods may have been an effort to appease the gods for the sins of the people, but even more, using supplication was a means of controlling forces which were far beyond them.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

One of the great epics of history is the story of Gilgamesh. In its final form produced about 2000 B.C., it follows a legendary/mythical king of Uruk who actually lived about 2700 B.C. He is so harsh to his people that the gods make a wild man to challenge him. But Gilgamesh is a wily character. He brings forth a woman who tames the wild man, Enkidu. The two men become friends and have many adventures against monsters. Enkidu is killed and the grieving Gilgamesh travels the known world, looking for a way to bring his friend back to life. The epic says much about ancient Mesopotamia, its values, its beliefs, and its social structure.

The powerful king dominated the people. The social classes had only limited means of reining him in. Yet, when he acted as a hero, he could benefit all of society. The gods (nature) had control, but people had free will and could act accordingly. Ultimately, the search of Gilgamesh to find life for his lost friend is a futile one. Mortality limited the scope of humanity, but life continued because civilization continued.

Sargon: The First Great Imperialist

Sargon I (c. 2276-2221 B.C.) became the first king to accomplish truly imperialist ambitions. He probably became ruler of Akkad by assassinating the previous king. He took the name Sargon, which means "rightful ruler". In a vital struggle, he defeated Lugalzaggisi of Sumer and united the states into a single empire. He went on to conquer other regions around him that included Elam and parts of the Anatolian peninsula (present day Turkey). The end of his life was marked by rebellions. It is thought that as his energetic rule waned, the empire began to crumble. Even so, administrative techniques were sufficiently developed by this time that the empire survived for several generations after the death of the great king.

Law Making and Hammurabi

Within early civilization problems inevitably arose. The segmentation and stratification of society came as economic and political power was agglomerated to a few. This created jealousy among the classes and some class conflict. To prevent rebellion from the lower classes and ruthless exploitation by the upper classes and to help maintain peace within the society a system of laws was developed. Disputes among city states spawned wars. Their expansion created states made up of multiple cities. These required a civil bureaucracy as well as even more laws.

Many law codes were developed in the region before Hammurabi came along. Nevertheless, Hammurabi (1728-1786 B.C.), a powerful king of Babylon conquered or pacified most of the region by attacking in nearly every direction. In this dominating position, he was able to reorganize and impose the laws of the region. Besides being inscribed in clay tablets, they were carved into a large stone pillar, which must have been displayed for public view. It was actually found in 1901 in Elam where, it has been conjectured, it was carried by later conquerors, perhaps as a trophy, but also perhaps as a means of bringing the same code to their own country.

The laws, in general, follow the familiar biblical Old Testament rules of "an eye for an eye" for injuries to others (even by accident). It was an efficient form of justice because keeping people in prison is expensive. The very fact of having an enforced code helped deter crime. Since even a builder whose house might collapse on an occupant could be punished (by death), Hammurabi's laws could even be seen as containing a rudimentary form of building code. Punishment was harsh, purjurers were sentenced to death. The code reveals a complex court system in place, with judges who ruled on disputes over contracts, land ownership and other types of civil damages. We think of the ancients as being simple, but their business dealings and governmental structures were fairly complex. Yet, in some areas they still exhibited curiously childlike beliefs. For example Hammurabi's Code stipulates that an accused person has the right to throw himself into the Euphrates River, and if he ends up on shore, then he is innocent, if he drowns, then he is guilty. The idea being that the gods would save an innocent person. (It seems evident that the people of this region had no concept of swimming!)

Hammurabi is thought to have ruled relatively justly. There are actually a huge number of clay tablets that survive from his reign. His rule formed the very height of Babylonian civilization. It did not survive him long. Within about 50 years the empire was torn apart by the various forces gnawing away at its borders.


Geographically, there were few natural boundaries to contain or to protect Mesopotamia. This allowed outside influences to filter into the region. Perhaps more importantly, it would ultimately allow the Mesopotamians to spread their cultural influences across Europe and Asia. When travelers saw the cities of the region and learned their forms of governance many went home to imitate what must have appeared to be a great advancement over their old way of life. Rivers led to the Persian Gulf with an outlet to the Indian Ocean. Although there are hills and then mountains to the north and east, these were relatively traversable. Thus from this region, civilization easily spread. To understand why civilization spread as it did, the reader can turn to the book of Samuel in the Bible. The people of Israel demanded that the old priest/judge give them a king, so that they could have the advantages of the peoples nearby them. This was how Saul became the first King of Israel.

Civilization had huge advantages in advancing personal and institutional security, in creating more goods and services, in opening up new ways of life. Because of the surplus, especially in manpower that it produced, a society which possessed it could almost always defeat one that did not. Once invented, there was no stopping its eventual spread to the rest of the world.


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