Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Extraordinary History of Mesopotamia

The Greek and Roman cultures are universally recognized as the greatest Western civilizations from the time we consider “ancient.” Their influence was rooted in culture, which provided a foundation for modern society and its political frameworks, and they would ultimately become models for post-Enlightenment governments. The Greeks, as specialists in ideas, pioneered modern philosophy, art, theater, poetry, mathematics, and science. The Romans, as a more practical people, contributed engineering, law, and a political system called the Republic.

The accomplishments of Greece and Rome cast a shadow over their predecessors, suggesting the older civilizations were less important. That line of thinking is a serious mistake, which we will attempt to reverse here by highlighting the importance of Mesopotamia, one of the most important civilizations in all of human history. Mesopotamia built the world’s first true civilization making it the father of all cultures in the West that would follow it. Mesopotamia served as the crucible for mankind to develop agricultural, pre-dynastic, and monarchical cultures.

The word Mesopotamia is a collective term for several ancient cultures located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. These societies prospered as independently from 5000 BCE to 1800 BCE. Their advent was facilitated by the presence of an alluvial plain, which provided the spark for mankind to begin irrigation farming. An alluvial plain is a gently sloping land surface formed by sediment left from rising and falling water levels.

1 Alluvial Plain Tigris River

Planting in an alluvial plain maid the sowing and watering crops easier because the softness of the soil allowed seeds to be pressed into the ground, by hand, without difficulty.

The history of the Mesopotamian region is too expansive to describe in a short article because its many separate cultures existed over a span of four millennia. To simplify the story, we will focus our discussion on Sumer, arguably the most important of the Mesopotamian cultures. The term Sumer refers to a specific geographical region of Mesopotamia, in the south, near the point where the Tigris and Euphrates empty into the Persian Gulf. That geography would come to support one of the greatest of the world’s ancient cultures.

The map above shows ancient Sumer and its cities.  At the time when the area which would become Sumer was established (6500BC), the Persian Gulf extended farther north than it does today. Baghdad and Babylon are shown as reference points only. Neither existed during the time of Sumerian domination.

The Ubaidians were the first to exploit the alluvial plain of Sumer and build a civilization between the great rivers.

The cities shown on the map, which would later become the jewels of Sumer, were originally Ubaid cities. We know this because their names predate the Sumerian language. The Ubaids developed as a civilization of farmers, cattle raisers, and fishermen. Their craftsmen included weavers, leatherworkers, carpenters, smiths, potters, and masons. Excavated remains from the period include hoes, adzes, and knives, along with clay artifacts such as sickles, bricks, loom weights, figurines, and painted pottery. Together, these artifacts provide a record of stunning accomplishments for a people who predated the Greeks by 4000 years.

As the Ubaid culture matured, outsiders from the Syrian desert region and Arabian Peninsula began to settle in their territory, gradually taking control of the area via assimilation and military conquest. The result was an ethnic fusion that became Sumer. By 3800 BCE, the Sumerian civilization had reached its peak.

The ziggurat is Mesopotamian temple and one of the most important symbols of the Sumerian civilization. These structures were the largest built by man at the time and represent the power and sophistication of the great Sumerian cities. Sumerians believed that the gods resided in their temples and so they prohibited the public from entering their sanctuaries. The ziggurat also contained separate structures for grain storage, recalling the time when the cities operated as theocracies and the priests served as municipal administrators in addition to their religious duties.

The first phase of the Sumerian Era is known as the Uruk period (4100-2900 BCE), after the Sumerian city of that name. Uruk seems to have been the cultural centre of Sumer at the time because it housed the principal monuments of the region and exhibited the most obvious traces of an advanced urban society. By 3500 BCE, the world’s first system of writing, had been developed as Uruk exerted influence over the entire Near East. The written form of the Sumerian language, called Cuneiform, was developed through the evolution of characters from representative (pictograms) to non-representative.

Sumer was the most agriculturally productive region of Mesopotamia, as a result of an irrigation system which was focused on the cultivation of barley and the pasturing of sheep for their wool. Although it lacked mineral resources and its climate was arid, the region had undeniable geographic and environmental advantages; it consisted of a vast delta with a flat region transected by waterways, resulting in a potentially vast area of cultivatable land, over which communications by river or land were easy. Sumer became a highly populated and urbanized region in the 4th millennium BCE, with a social hierarchy, an artisan economy, and long-distance commerce.

During the Uruk period, the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities (with populations of over 10,000 people), where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. It is fairly certain that it was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor captured from the hill country, and there is ample evidence for captured slaves as workers in the earliest texts.

Following the Uruk period, an early dynastic period evolved in Sumer. Political systems became centralized and were controlled by a small group of individuals. This period saw the emergence of multiple city-states, that developed and solidified over time.

The dynastic period began in 2900 BCE and was associated with a shift from the temple establishment headed by council of elders led by a priest towards a more secular leader such as the legendary patriarchal figures Dumuzid, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh, who reigned shortly before the historical record began. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and local Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture for their own.

The earliest dynastic king on the Sumerian king list whose name is known from any other legendary source is Etana, 13th king of the first dynasty of Kish. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, this period was associated with increased war. Cities became walled, and increased in size as undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared. Both Enmerkar and Gilgamesh are credited with having built the walls of Uruk.

In the year ~2350 BCE, the Sumerian dynasties were overrun by Sargon, king of the Akkadian Empire. Akkad and its capital Agate were located to the north of Sumer, just beyond Kish. The Akkadian Empire has been labeled the first empire in human history. Sargon built an empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to Cyprus, but the empire was always unstable and collapsed after two hundred years.

The last gasp at power by the Sumerians began immediately after the fall of the Akkadians. The 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, was able to extend its power as far as southern Assyria. Ur III would only survive for 100 years before it was absorbed into the growing Babylonian Empire. By then, the region had become more Semitic than Sumerian, with the resurgence of the Akkadian speaking Semites in Assyria and elsewhere, so the purity of the Sumerian race was compromised. The Sumerian language continued as a sacerdotal language taught in schools in Babylonia and Assyria, much as Latin was used in the Medieval period.

The Ur III period coincides with a major shift in population from southern Mesopotamia toward the north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands was being compromised as a result of rising salinity. Soil salinity in this region had been long recognized as a major problem. Poorly drained irrigated soils, in an arid climate with high levels of evaporation, led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil, eventually reducing agricultural yields severely. During the Akkadian and Ur III phases, there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, but this was insufficient, and during the period from 2100 BCE to 1700 BCE, it is estimated that the population in this area declined by nearly three fifths. This greatly upset the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and comparatively strengthening those where Akkadian was the major language. From that point on, Sumerian would remain, only serving as a literary and liturgical language, similar to the position occupied by Latin in medieval Europe.


1. Climate Change Post. Climate change impacts in the Euphrates–Tigris Basin. March 27,2021.

2. Arch Eyes: Timeless Architecture. Religious Architecture. Urban Design. Ziggurat Architecture in Mesopotamia, April 18, 2016.