Mesopotamia is an ancient historical region in West Asia, located in the heart of the Tigris–Euphrates river system. In fact, the name Mesopotamia translates to “the land between the rivers” in Greek. The region covers most of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia, the eastern parts of Syria, and Southeastern Turkey. As one of the birthplaces of civilization, Mesopotamia has played a very important role in human history.
What is Mesopotamia and why is it so important? Let’s take a look at the history of this “cradle of civilization”.
What is Mesopotamia? An Overview
Mesopotamia is considered one of the birthplaces of civilization. However, there is one important distinction to keep in mind; unlike the unified civilizations of Egypt and Greece, Mesopotamia is better described as a group of different cultures and societies, bound together by some common cultural similarities, like their writing and gods.
Mesopotamia is important historically because the region is credited with introducing the world to many important developments and inventions, including cities, writing, the wheel, domestication of animals, agriculture, more sophisticated weapons and tools, the chariot, beer, wine, and much more.
Because the societies of Mesopotamia flourished so long ago, there is still a lot we don’t know about the region. Archaeological evidence suggests humans began settling the land between the Tigris and Euphrates around 10,000 BCE. The seasonal flooding of these two rivers led to fertile land conditions, which ancient hunter-gatherers would ultimately settle. They would domesticate animals and begin to grow crops, leading to more sedentary lifestyles. Over time, trade between regional settlements would begin, leading to greater prosperity and the sharing of knowledge. Eventually, increased urbanization would lead to the formation of cities in the area.
Life in Mesopotamia
Ancient Mesopotamians were known for valuing education and learning. Schools in the region were common, with subjects like reading, writing, religion, law, medicine, and astrology being taught to students. This polytheistic society was also known for producing the world’s first written stories, which were often about their many gods.
In Mesopotamian society, both men and women worked, primarily in agricultural roles to help grow crops and raise livestock. However, cities in Mesopotamia did include other occupations, like scribes, healers, artisans, fishermen, teachers, and priests. Mesopotamia was also notable for the role women played in society. Women had nearly equal rights to men, and could own land or their own businesses.
Mesopotamian cities featured homes built from bundles of reeds tied together and secured into the ground. Over time, more complex homes built from sun-dried clay bricks would become common. Most cities featured a large temple in their center. Known as ziggurats, these were built using painted, oven-baked bricks.
History of Mesopotamia
The first cities in Mesopotamia began to crop up starting around the 4th millennium BCE. These cities were primarily located in the southern region of Mesopotamia known as Sumer. The cities of Sumer would prosper, and we typically credit the Sumerians with giving us the wheel (around 3,500 BCE) and writing (around 3,000 BCE). It was around this same time that humans began to transition from stone tools and weapons, to ones made from cooper.
Around 2,350 BCE, another important development would occur in Mesopotamia, with the rise of the region’s first empire. The Akkadian Empire was located in northern Mesopotamia, and was known for its booming cities and cultural stability. It is in the Akkadian Empire that art, reflected in architecture and sculpture, begins to flourish in the region.
The Akkadian Empire would ultimately collapse during the Middle Bronze Age (2,119-1,700 BCE), giving rise to other kingdoms and increased warfare in the region. Eventually, Hammurabi, King of Babylon, would conquer Mesopotamia. Ruling for 43 years, Hammurabi is perhaps best known for his code of laws, but he also helped Babylon become a center of culture and learning.
By 1,200 BCE, the Bronze Age ended and many Mesopotamian states were weakened or destroyed. Babylon would gradually lose influence in the region, as other kingdoms would rise and fall from power. In this power-void, the Assyrian Empire would form. This empire flourished under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser I (1,115-1,076 BCE) and Ashurnasirpal II (884-859 BCE).
The Iron Age and Beyond
The Neo-Assyrian Empire would ultimately succeed the Old Assyrian Empire, lasting from around 911 to 612 BCE. Repeated attacks by nearby kingdoms would result in this empire’s collapse. In its place, the Neo-Babylonian Empire would take its place.
King Nebuchadnezzar II was perhaps the best known of the ancient Babylonian kings. He was known for destroying Jerusalem and forcing those living there into Babylonian exile. He was also known for his many building projects, like construction of Etemenanki (thought to have been the ‘Tower of Babel”), the Ishtar Gate, and perhaps the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
In 539 BCE, Babylon would fall to Cyrus II of Persia, marking the end of Babylonian culture. Mesopotamia would become part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire until Alexander the Great conquered the region in 331 BCE. The Roman Empire would take control of the region in 116 AD.
By the time the Romans came around, most of Mesopotamia had lots its unity and past traditions and culture. The region came to be constantly plagued by wars and territorial disputes. Around the 7th century, however, Mesopotamia would once again be conquered, this time by Muslim Arabs. Islam would unite the region under a common law, language, religion, and culture, and its influence lasts to this day.