The Fertile Crescent: Cradle of Civilization

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  • 0:07 The Cradle of Civilization
  • 1:13 Mesopotamian Artifacts
  • 2:28 Temples and Ziggurats
  • 5:33 Uruk
  • 6:38 Akkadians & the Guti
  • 7:35 Uruk Returns
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Complex civilization wasn't always the norm. In this lesson, we are going to check out the origins of civilization as we know it, and see where, when, and how this new system of living first began.

The Cradle of Civilization

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.

Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
Fertile Crescent Map

Mesopotamian Artifacts

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.

Mesopotamian Temples and Ziggurats

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.

The temple known as Goebekli Tepe
Goebeckli Tepe

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.

The City of Uruk

The Standard of Ur shows early Sumerian life
Standard of Ur

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.

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