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Ancient Civilizations

Mesopotamia:
An overview

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)




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Mesopotamia or the Sumerian civilization is, alongside ancient Egypt, the most ancient of known civilizations.

Originally settlements were in the north of the Tigris-Euphrates plain where there was more abundant rainfall but, as rainfall declined, settlements moved south into the plains. This meant that co-operative effort was needed to irrigate the fields and so a civilization began to grow in that region.

In about 3000 BC the Sumerians had begun to build cities and, during the following millennium, invented a phonetic alphabet which they wrote in wet clay tablets, using a reed pen.

POLITICS

The earliest Sumerians governed themselves in city-states by means of a Council of Elders, a general assembly of all free adult males. That was soon replaced by a dictatorial monarchy.

The Sumerians, however, did not have the lengthy periods of peace which characterised the Egyptian civilization. Mesopotamia was open to attack from all sides, especially by the nomads from the north and west.

In that way the territory was over-run in about 2300 BC by Sargon, a Semite from the north, who fused his own kingdom with Sumeria.

Conflicts between the city-states themselves were also common. In such fashion the city of Ur (Abraham's hometown) came to rule in about 2000 BC. Later the territory was conquered by the Babylonians (under Hammurabi), then by the Assyrians (under Tiglath-Pileser), then once again by the Babylonians (under Nebuchadnezzar).

Each conqueror adopted the useful features of the Mesopotamian civilization so that, although the rulers changed, the civilization continued and reached its full-flowering under the Babylonians in about 600 BC, with the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Ultimately, in about 529 BC, the Mesopotamian civilization fell before the invasion of the forces of another civilization, the Persians under Cyrus the Great.

SCIENCE

The emergence of the Mesopotamian civilization depended on the development of science for the drainage of the fertile but swampy river plains and the construction of the cities and temples. In the process, the people learnt to obey rules and developed administrative, engineering and mathematical skills.

RELIGION

Hand in hand with science went religion which lay at the centre of Mesopotamian life. Every human activity was subordinated to some religious purpose. As such the cities of Mesopotamia became sacred communities serving divine masters, with the temples and the priests dominating human life.

Indeed, the temples were the integral part of the city, owning most of the land, and most of the townspeople worked in some way or other for the priests. Even science tended to be subordinated to religion.

CODIFIED LAW

Law was an integral part of the control of society and Mesopotamia was the first to codify its law into written form, the Code of Hammurabi. The law secured family life through penalties for adultery, and controlled property through penalties for thieving, lying and murder.

The law also maintained the existence of class-distinction through unequal penalties which were imposed according to status.

EDUCATION & ART

The evolution of a money economy was accompanied by the development of leisure time. That in turn saw the growth of education, art and literature. The earliest forms of writing (clay tablets) are from the Mesopotamian era, with the Epic of Gilgamesh probably forming the basis for the later Biblical stories of creation and the flood.

The Mesopotamians also gave birth to mathematics and medicine as distinct schools of learning.

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