Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 224 lessons
Welcome to Mesopotamia! Mesopotamia derives its name from the Greek meso, meaning 'between', and the Greek potamos, meaning 'river.' It is literally a place between two rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates. This Fertile Crescent proved an ideal place to form the first civilizations.
Looking at this region today it is difficult to see how, but 12 thousand years ago, the earth was far cooler and rainier than it is now. Climate shifts and centuries of intensive agriculture have since made this area less inviting, yet when the first peoples came to settle between the Tigris and Euphrates, the lands were lush and productive.
But it was not just farmland that made Mesopotamia such a splendid place to found an empire. The two rivers served as arteries for trade, as well as highways for soldiers and chariots. There are few natural boundaries in this relatively flat region, allowing for armies to move fairly easily over land. These features combined to make Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization.
It is difficult to tell the history of Mesopotamia. It is a time in which many cities vied for power. Ebla, Mari, Ur, Uruk, Akka, Lagash, Isin, Larsa, Babylon, Susa, Assur - each would try to unite their neighbors under a single empire. Some would succeed better than others and each would build off the accomplishments of its predecessors. This makes them hard to tell apart in many respects. For most of early Mesopotamian history, the main distinguishing feature between empires is language.
Our sources for this time period are few but more than we've had to work with so far. We have written epics, which are enlightening but difficult to trust since they are written by kings trying to tell everyone how awesome they are. Our main source for chronology is lists of kings. We make especial use of the Egyptian lists because they don't go through revolutions quite so often. We also have occasional events that are mentioned across cultures, such as specific battles or eclipses. Yet our most trustworthy source of information in this period is material culture - buildings, artifacts, etc. These are many but they're also hard to interpret.
This is especially true when dealing with early Mesopotamian architecture. Southern Mesopotamia doesn't have much stone, so Sumerians built with clay and mud brick. Such building materials erode very quickly, creating tells upon which new structures are built, thereby slowly raising the level of ancient cities. Unfortunately, eroded mud brick buildings leave us very little archaeological evidence.
However, they do leave enough to confirm the descriptions we find in epic. It is likely that the first public buildings were temples. People had been building temples for thousands of years.
This is Goebekli Tepe, a temple from the 10th millennium BCE. Like with the rest of their architecture, the Sumerians built their temples of sun-baked mud brick, tearing them down when they began to crumble and rebuilding them grander than ever. This makes it hard to say much.
Sumerian Temples apparently start out as rectangular enclosures with a single entrance. As these early city-states become more advanced and complex, their temples do likewise and incorporate a bent axis approach, with entrances for gods along one axis, and entrances for mortals along another. In the Uruk Period, people start making T-shaped or tripartite temples.
Yet the height of Sumerian temple building would be the ziggurat. A ziggurat is a step pyramid with a flat top holding a temple. It is likely that this developed from the trend of building on the tell of a previous building. The higher the mound, the more ancient and sacred a building is. It took only a bit of imagination for them to decide to build an artificial tell, a ziggurat, for the temple to stand on top of.
Temples contain a bunch of stuff. They contain votive figures since mortals cannot enter the most sacred precincts of the temple. Temples also contain steles, which provide us with the valuable information, like who built this temple and why.
Another source of information are tombs. The Royal Tombs of Ur offer us a wealth of information. They're not architecturally very interesting but their contents tell us a great deal. First of all, we find a lot of other people buried in the tomb with their king. This suggests human sacrifice, unless everyone got sick simultaneously and died. Possible, not likely. Second, there are beautifully decorated artifacts. We have this lovely little lyre here. Perhaps the most enlightening artifact we've found is the Standard of Ur, which offers a glimpse into the lives of early Sumerians in times of war and times of peace.
The final things we find in tombs are cylinder seals. Archaeologists have found thousands of these things. In a society that uses clay to write, a rolling seal makes for a fine signature. Yet even after clay is abandoned as a writing material, people still keep carrying around these cylinder seals for thousands of years, suggesting that these were perhaps a status symbol as well as a way of writing your name.
All right, so we've seen what early Mesopotamians have left us to work with. From these remains, archeologists have pieced together a rough history of early Mesopotamia.
As I said before, early Mesopotamian history is all about city-states vying for regional control. These states were organized with writing and hierarchies, they were protected by walls, they were armed with bronze, and they used chariots and roads to move their armies around. Each city-state tried to dominate the region.
The first people to make the attempt were the Sumerians. The Sumerians had an advantage over their neighbors in their writing system, cuneiform. At the heart of this empire was the city of Uruk. The huge mounds of records we find in this city tell us this was centralized state. Uruk's time in the sun was short lived however, lasting only from 2295 BCE to 2271 BCE when Naram Sin (an Akkadian king) had a great victory over the Sumerians, which he commemorated in this famous victory stele.
Although Akkadian was a new language, they borrowed cuneiform from the Sumerians. This would form a trend. Each culture would need to learn to write before they could build an empire.
Still, there is evidence that the Sumerian language continued to be used for religious purposes. Indeed, the Akkadians and their successors would copy virtually everything from the Sumerians: their temples, their palaces, their irrigation, and their roads. Perhaps they were unsure whether civilization would work unless they copied it exactly.
Akkad proved a longer lasting capitol, surviving more than a century until the Akkadian empire, in turn, was destroyed around 2141 BCE by a savage people called the Guti. The Guti weren't as interested in building an empire as in pillaging it. In their century-long reign of terror, city after city was razed, while canals and roads were left to fall into disrepair.
Finally around 2050, Utu Hengal (the governor of Uruk) had enough of these barbaric Gutians and drove them from the land - once again establishing Uruk as the capitol of a new Sumerian empire.
Yet for some reason, Uruk just has no staying power as a capitol. Perhaps the Akkadians felt left out. This time, Uruk lasted less than a decade before another city, Ur, took the reins of the empire. In this empire, Akkadian and Sumerian cultures merged and reached their apex.
Ur was a fully planned city, with gardens, neighborhoods, temples and palaces. Those palaces served as huge administrative structures. At the head of this empire stood their inspired leader, Ur-Nammu. Ur-Nammu does much to unify the disparate people of his empire. He establishes a powerful central bureaucracy. He rebuilds roads and canals ruined by the Guti. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his system of law. The code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest surviving code of laws. The publication of laws implies a high level of literacy, and indeed, this culture generated an unprecedented amount of literature. They wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enmerkar Legends, the Tales of Lugalbanda and the Tale of the Flood that would later become our story of Noah.
Thus by the 19th century BCE, the Akkado-Sumerian culture had established the general outlines of civilization. They had centrally planned cities administered through writing under a king. These central cities were connected by roads and canals, first to their surrounding areas, and later to conquered lands and cities of the empire. They built walls, palaces and temples, culminating with the impressive ziggurat. They had laws, literature, art, and music. Later civilizations would expand upon and improve these forms, yet they all retain a debt to the genius of the Sumerians.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 224 lessons