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Babylon (Greek Βαβυλών, from Akkadian: Babili, Babilla) was a city-state of ancient Mesopotamia, the remains of which are found in present-day Al Hillah, Babil Province, Iraq, about 85 kilometers (55 mi) south of Baghdad. All that remains of the original ancient famed city of Babylon today is a mound, or tell, of broken mud-brick buildings and debris in the fertile Mesopotamian plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Although it has been reconstructed, historical resources inform us that Babylon was at first a small town, that had sprung up by the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. The town flourished and attained prominence and political repute with the rise of the First Babylonian Dynasty. Claiming to be the successor of the ancient Eridu, Babylon eclipsed Nippur as the "holy city" of Mesopotamia around the time Hammurabi first unified the Babylonian Empire, and also became the seat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 612 to 539 BC. The Hanging Gardens of Babylonwere one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


The Greek form Βαβυλών is an adaptation of Babylonian Babili. The Babylonian name as it stood in the 1st millennium BC had been changed from an earlier Babilli in early 2nd millennium BC, interpreted as "gateway of the god" (bāb-ili) by popular etymology.[1] The earlier name Babillaappears to be an adaptation of a non-Semitic source of unknown origin or meaning.[2]

In the Hebrew Bible, the name appears as בָּבֶל (Babel; Tiberian בָּבֶל Bavel; Syriac ܒܒܠ Bāwēl), interpreted in the Book of Genesis (11:9) to mean "confusion" (viz. of languages), from the verb בלבל bilbél, "to confuse".


The earliest source to mention Babylon may be a dated tablet of the reign of Sargon of Akkad (ca. 24th century BC short chronology). The so-called "Weidner Chronicle" states that it was Sargon himself who built Babylon "in front of Akkad" (ABC 19:51). Another chronicle likewise states that Sargon "dug up the dirt of the pit of Babylon, and made a counterpart of Babylon next to Agade". (ABC 20:18-19). More recently, some researchers have stated that those sources may refer to Sargon II of the Neo-Assyrian Empire rather than Sargon of Akkad.[3]

Some scholars, including linguist I.J. Gelb, have suggested that the name Babil is an echo of an earlier city name. According to Ranajit Pal, this city was in the East.[4] Herzfeld wrote about Bawer in Iran, which was allegedly founded by Jamshid; the name Babil could be an echo of Bawer. David Rohl holds that the original Babylon is to be identified with Eridu. The Bible in Genesis 10 indicates that Nimrod was the original founder of Babel (Babylon). Joan Oates claims in her book Babylon that the rendering "Gateway of the gods" is no longer accepted by modern scholars.

Map showing the Babylonian territory upon Hammurabi’s ascension in 1792 BC and upon his death in 1750 BC

Old Babylonian period

The First Babylonian Dynasty was established by Sumu-abum, who declared independence from the neighboring city-state of Kazallu, but Babylon controlled little surrounding territory until it became the capital of Hammurabi‘s empire a century later (r. 1728–1686 BC short chronology). Subsequently, the city continued to be the capital of the region known as Babylonia – although during the almost 400 years of domination by the Kassites during the Late Bronze Age, the city was renamed Karanduniash

Hammurabi is also known for codifying the laws of Babylonia into the Code of Hammurabi that has had a lasting influence on legal thought.

The city itself was built upon the Euphrates, and divided in equal parts along its left and right banks, with steep embankments to contain the river’s seasonal floods. Babylon grew in extent and grandeur over time, but gradually became subject to the rule of Assyria.

It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world from ca. 1770 to 1670 BC, and again between ca. 612 and 320 BC. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000.[5]

Assyrian period

During the reign of Sennacherib of Assyria, Babylonia was in a constant state of revolt, led by Mushezib-Marduk, and suppressed only by the complete destruction of the city of Babylon. In 689 BC, its walls, temples and palaces were razed, and the rubble was thrown into the Arakhtu, the sea bordering the earlier Babylon on the south. This act shocked the religious conscience of Mesopotamia; the subsequent murder of Sennacherib by two of his sons was held to be in expiation of it, and his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city, to receive there his crown, and make it his residence during part of the year. On his death, Babylonia was left to be governed by his elder son Shamash-shum-ukin, who eventually headed a revolt in 652 BC against his brother in Nineveh, Assurbanipal.

Once again, Babylon was besieged by the Assyrians and starved into surrender. Assurbanipal purified the city and celebrated a "service of reconciliation", but did not venture to "take the hands" of Bel. In the subsequent overthrow of the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance. (Albert Houtum-Schindler, "Babylon," Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed.)

Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire

 Neo-Babylonian Empire

Detail of the Ishtar Gate.

Under Nabopolassar, Babylon threw off the Assyrian rule in 612 BC and became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire.[6][7][8]

With the recovery of Babylonian independence, a new era of architectural activity ensued, and his son Nebuchadnezzar II (604–561 BC) made Babylon into one of the wonders of the ancient world.[9] Nebuchadnezzar ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including rebuilding the Etemenanki ziggurat and the construction of the Ishtar Gate — the most spectacular of eight gates that ringed the perimeter of Babylon. A reconstruction of The Ishtar Gate is located in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. All that was ever found of the Original Ishtar gate was the foundation and scattered bricks.

Nebuchadnezzar is also credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), said to have been built for his homesick wife Amyitis. Whether the gardens did exist is a matter of dispute. Although excavations by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey are thought to reveal its foundations, many historians disagree about the location, and some believe it may have been confused with gardens in Nineveh.

Persia captures Babylon

In 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, with an unprecedented military engagement known as the Battle of Opis. The famed walls of Babylon were indeed impenetrable, with the only way into the city through one of its many gates or through the Euphrates, which ebbed beneath its thick walls. Metal gates at the river’s in-flow and out-flow prevented underwater intruders, if one could hold one’s breath to reach them. Cyrus (or his generals) devised a plan to use the Euphrates as the mode of entry to the city, ordering large camps of troops at each point and instructed them to wait for the signal. Awaiting an evening of a national feast among Babylonians (generally thought to refer to the feast of Belshazzar mentioned in Daniel V), Cyrus’ troops diverted the Euphrates river upstream, causing the Euphrates to drop to about ‘mid thigh level on a man’ or to dry up altogether. The soldiers marched under the walls through thigh-level water or as dry as mud. The Persian Army conquered the outlying areas of the city’s interior while a majority of Babylonians at the city center were oblivious to the breach. The account was elaborated upon by Herodotus,[10] and is also mentioned by passages in the Hebrew Bible.[11][12] Cyrus claimed the city by walking through the gates of Babylon with little or no resistance from the drunken Babylonians.

Cyrus later issued a decree permitting captive people, including the Jews, to return to their own land (as explained in the Old Testament), to allow their temple to be rebuilt back in Jerusalem.

Under Cyrus and the subsequent Persian king Darius the Great, Babylon became the capital city of the 9th Satrapy (Babylonia in the south and Athura in the north), as well as a centre of learning and scientific advancement. In Achaemenid Persia, the ancient Babylonian arts of astronomy and mathematics were revitalised and flourished, and Babylonian scholars completed maps of constellations. The city was the administrative capital of the Persian Empire, the preeminent power of the then known world, and it played a vital part in the history of that region for over two centuries. Many important archaeological discoveries have been made that can provide a better understanding of that era.[13][14]

The early Persian kings had attempted to maintain the religious ceremonies of Marduk, but by the reign of Darius III, over-taxation and the strains of numerous wars led to a deterioration of Babylon’s main shrines and canals, and the disintegration of the surrounding region. Despite three attempts at rebellion in 522 BC, 521 BC and 482 BC, the land and city of Babylon remained solidly under Persian rule for two centuries, until Alexander the Great‘s entry in 331 BC.

Hellenistic period

In 331 BC, Darius III was defeated by the forces of the Ancient Greek ruler Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela, and in October, Babylon fell to the young conqueror. A native account of this invasion notes a ruling by Alexander not to enter the homes of its inhabitants.[15]

Under Alexander, Babylon again flourished as a centre of learning and commerce. But following Alexander’s death in 323 BC in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, his empire was divided amongst his generals, and decades of fighting soon began, with Babylon once again caught in the middle.

The constant turmoil virtually emptied the city of Babylon. A tablet dated 275 BC states that the inhabitants of Babylon were transported to Seleucia, where a palace was built, as well as a temple given the ancient name of Esagila. With this deportation, the history of Babylon comes practically to an end, though more than a century later, it was found that sacrifices were still performed in its old sanctuary.[16] By 141 BC, when the Parthian Empire took over the region, Babylon was in complete desolation and obscurity.

Persian Empire period

 Babylonia (Persian province)

Under the Parthian, and later, Sassanid Persians, Babylon remained a province of the Persian Empire for nine centuries, until about 650 AD. It continued to have its own culture and people, who spoke varieties of Aramaic, and who continued to refer to their homeland as Babylon. Some examples of their cultural products are often found in the Babylonian Talmud, the Mandaean religion, and the religion of the prophet Mani. Christianity came to Mesopotamia in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, and Babylon was the seat of a Bishop of the Church of the East.


Babylon in 1932.

The site at Babylon consists of a number of mounds covering an oblong area roughly 2 kilometers by 1 kilometer, oriented north to south.[citation needed] The site is bounded by the Euphrates River on the west, and by the remains of the ancient city walls otherwise. Originally, the Euphrates roughly bisected the city, as is common in the region, but the river has since shifted its course so that much of the remains on the former western part of the city are now inundated. Some portions of the city wall to the west of the river also remain. Several of the sites mounds are more prominent.

These include:

  • Amran Ibn Ali – to the south and the highest of the mounds at 25 meters. It is the site of Esagila, a temple of Marduk which also contained shrines to Ea and Nabu.
  • Homera – a reddish colored mound on the west side. Most of the Hellenistic remains are here.
  • Babil – in the northern end of the site, about 22 meters in height. It has been extensively subject to brick robbing (or brick recycling depending on your point of view) since ancient times. It held a palace build by Nebuchadnezzar.

Occupation at the site dates back to the late 3rd millennium, finally achieving prominence in the early 2nd millennium under the First Babylonian Dynasty and again later in the millennium under the Kassite dynasty of Babylon. Unfortunately, almost nothing from that period has been recovered at the site of Babylon. First, the water table in the region has risen greatly over the centuries and artifacts from the time before the Neo-Babylonian Empire are unavailable to current standard archaeological methods. Secondly, the Neo-Babylonians conducted massive rebuilding projects in the city which destroyed or obscured much of the earlier record. Third, much of the western half of the city is now under the Euphrates River. Fourth, Babylon has been sacked a number of times, most notably by the Hittites and Elamites in the 2nd millennium, then by the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the Achaemenid Empire in the 1st millennium, after the Babylonians had revolted against their rule. Lastly, the site has been long mined for building materials on a commercial scale.

While knowledge of early Babylon must be pieced together from epigraphic remains found elsewhere, such as at Uruk, Nippur, and Haradum, information on the Neo-Babylonian city is available from archaeological excavations and from classical sources. Babylon was described, perhaps even visited, by a number of classical historians including Ctesias, Herodotus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Strabo, and Cleitarchus. These reports are of variable accuracy and some political spin is involved but still provide useful data.

The first reported archaeological excavation of Babylon was conducted by Claudius James Rich in 1811-12 and again in 1817.[17][18] Robert Mignan excavated at the site briefly in 1827.[19] William Loftus visited there in 1849.[20]

Austen Henry Layard made some soundings during a brief visit in 1850 before abandoning the site.[21] Fulgence Fresnel and Julius Oppert heavily excavated Babylon from 1852 to 1854. Unfortunately, much of the result of their work was lost when a raft containing over forty crates of artifacts sank into the Tigris river.[22][23]

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and George Smith worked there briefly in 1854. The next excavation, a major one, was conducted by Hormuzd Rassam on behalf of the British Museum. Work began in 1879, continuing until 1882, and was prompted by widespread looting occurring at the site. Using industrial scale digging in search of artifacts, Rassam recovered a large quantity of cuneiform tablets and other finds. The zealous excavation methods, common in those days, caused much damage to the archaeological context.[24][25]

A team from the German Oriental Society led by Robert Koldewey conducted the first scientific archaeological excavations at Babylon. The work was conducted every year between 1899 and 1917 until World War I intruded. Primary efforts of the dig involved the temple of Marduk and the processional way leading up to it, as well as the city wall. Hundreds of recovered tablets, as well as the noted Ishtar Gate were sent back to Germany.[26][27][28][29][30][31]

Further work by the German Archaeological Institute was conducted by Heinrich J. Lenzen in 1956 and Hansjörg Schmid 1962. The work by Lenzen dealt primarily with the Hellenistic theatre and by Schmid with the temple ziggurat Etemenanki.[32]

In more recent times, the site of Babylon was excavated by G. Bergamini on behalf of the Centro Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia and the Iraqi-Italian Institute of Archaeological Sciences. This work began with a season of excavation in 1974 followed by a topographical survey in 1977.[33] The focus was on clearing up issues raised by re-examination of the old German data. After a decade, Bergamini returned to the site in 1987-1989. The work concentrated on the area surrounding the Ishara and Ninurta temples in the Shu-Anna city-quarter of Babylon.[34][35]

It should be noted that during the restoration efforts in Babylon, some amount of excavation and room clearing has been done by the Iraqi State Organization for Antiquities and Heritage. Given the conditions in that country the last few decades, publication of archaeological activities has been understandably sparse at best.[36][37]


In 1983, Saddam Hussein started rebuilding the city on top of the old ruins (because of this, artifacts and other finds may well be under the city by now), investing in both restoration and new construction. He inscribed his name on many of the bricks in imitation of Nebuchadnezzar. One frequent inscription reads: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq". This recalls the ziggurat at Ur, where each individual brick was stamped with "Ur-Nammu, king of Ur, who built the temple of Nanna". These bricks became sought after as collectors’ items after the downfall of Hussein, and the ruins are no longer being restored to their original state. He also installed a huge portrait of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance to the ruins, and shored up Processional Way, a large boulevard of ancient stones, and the Lion of Babylon, a black rock sculpture about 2,600 years old.

When the Gulf War ended, Saddam wanted to build a modern palace, also over some old ruins; it was made in the pyramidal style of a Sumerian ziggurat. He named it Saddam Hill. In 2003, he was ready to begin the construction of a cable car line over Babylon when the invasion began and halted the project.

An article published in April 2006 states that UN officials and Iraqi leaders have plans for restoring Babylon, making it into a cultural center.[38][39]

As of May 2009, the provincial government of Babil has reopened the site to tourism.

Panoramic view over the reconstructed city of Babylon

Effects of the U.S. military

US forces under the command of General James T. Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were criticized for building the military base "Camp Alpha", comprising among other facilities a helipad, on ancient Babylonian ruins following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

US Marines in front of the rebuilt ruins of Babylon, 2003.

US forces have occupied the site for some time and have caused irreparable damage to the archaeological record. In a report of the British Museum‘s Near East department, Dr. John Curtis describes how parts of the archaeological site were levelled to create a landing area for helicopters, and parking lots for heavy vehicles. Curtis wrote that the occupation forces

"caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity […] US military vehicles crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavements, archaeological fragments were scattered across the site, more than 12 trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists […] Add to all that the damage caused to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate by soldiers trying to remove the bricks from the wall."

A US Military spokesman claimed that engineering operations were discussed with the "head of the Babylon museum".[40]

The head of the Iraqi State Board for Heritage and Antiquities, Donny George, said that the "mess will take decades to sort out".[41] In April 2006, Colonel John Coleman, former Chief of Staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, offered to issue an apology for the damage done by military personnel under his command. However he claimed that the US presence had deterred far greater damage from other looters.[42] Some antiquities were removed since creation of Camp Alpha, without doubt to be sold on the antiquities market, which is booming since the beginning of the occupation of Iraq.[43]

See also



  1. ^ Dietz Otto Edzard: Geschichte Mesopotamiens. Von den Sumerern bis zu Alexander dem Großen, Beck, München 2004, p. 121.
  2. ^ Liane Jakob-Rost, Joachim Marzahn: Babylon, ed. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum, (Kleine Schriften 4), 2. Auflage, Putbus 1990, p. 2
  3. ^ Stephanie Dalley, Babylon as a Name for other Cities Including Nineveh, in, Proceedings of the 51st Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Oriental Institute SAOC 62, pp. 25-33, 2005
  4. ^ Tertius Chandler. Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census (1987), St. David’s University Press ( ISBN 0-88946-207-0. SeeHistorical urban community sizes.
  5. ^ Bradford, Alfred S. (2001). With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World, pp. 47-48. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0275952592.
  6. ^ Curtis, Adrian; Herbert Gordon May (2007). Oxford Bible Atlas Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0191001581 p. 122 "chaldean+empire"&num=100 Google Books Search
  7. ^ von Soden, Wilfred; Donald G. Schley (1996). William B. Eerdmanns ISBN 978-0802801425 p. 60 "chaldean+empire"&num=100#PPA60,M1 Google Books Search
  8. ^ Saggs, H.W.F. (2000). Babylonians, p. 165. University of California Press. ISBN 0520202228.
  9. ^ Herodotus, Book 1, Section 191
  10. ^ Isaiah 44:27
  11. ^ Jeremiah 50-51
  12. ^ Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia The British Museum. Accessed April 19, 2008.
  13. ^ Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X.
  14. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Babylon". Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  15. ^ Claudius J. Rich, Memoirs on the Ruins of Babylon, 1815
  16. ^ Claudius J. Rich, Second memoir on Babylon; containing an inquiry into the correspondence between the ancient descriptions of Babylon, and the remains still visible on the site, 1818
  17. ^ Google Books Search, Robert Mignan, Travels in Chaldæa, Including a Journey from Bussorah to Bagdad, Hillah, and Babylon, Performed on Foot in 1827, H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1829 ISBN 1402160135
  18. ^ Google Books Search, William K. Loftus, Travels and Researches in Chaldaea and Susiana, Travels and Researches in Chaldaea and Susiana: With an Account of Excavations at Warka, the "Erech" of Nimrod, and Shush, "Shushan the Palace" of Esther, in 1849-52, Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857
  19. ^ Google Books Search, A. H. Layard, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, J. Murray, 1853
  20. ^ J. Oppert, Expédition scientifique en Mésopotamie exécutée par ordre du gouvernement de 1851 à 1854. Tome I: Rélation du voyage et résultat de l’expédition, 1863 (also as ISBN 0543749452) Tome II: Déchiffrement des inscriptions cuneiforms, 1859 (also as ISBN 0543749398)
  21. ^ H V. Hilprecht, Exploration in the Bible Lands During the 19th Century, A. J. Holman, 1903
  22. ^, Hormuzd Rassam, Asshur and the Land of Nimrod: Being an Account of the Dicoveries Made in the Ancient Ruins of Nineveh, Asshur, Sepharvaim, Calah, [etc]…, Curts & Jennings, 1897
  23. ^ Julian Reade, Hormuzd Rassam and his discoveries, Iraq, vol. 55, pp. 39-62, 1993
  24. ^ Google Books Research, R. Koldewey, Das wieder erstehende Babylon, die bisherigen Ergebnisse der deutschen Ausgrabungen, J.C. Hinrichs, 1913, with online English translation: Agnes Sophia Griffith Johns, The excavations at Babylon By Robert Koldewey, Macmillan and Co., 1914
  25. ^ R. Koldewey, Die Tempel von Babylon und Borsippa, WVDOG, vol. 15, pp. 37-49, 1911 (German)
  26. ^ R. Koldewey, Das Ischtar-Tor in Babylon, WVDOG, vol. 32, 1918
  27. ^ F. Wetzel, Die Stadtmauren von Babylon, WVDOG, vol. 48, pp. 1-83, 1930
  28. ^ F. Wetzel and F.H. Weisbach, Das Hauptheiligtum des Marduk in Babylon: Esagila und Etemenanki, WVDOG, vol. 59, pp. 1-36, 1938
  29. ^ F. Wetzel et al., Das Babylon der Spätzeit, WVDOG, vol. 62, Gebr. Mann, 1957 (1998 reprint ISBN 3786120013)
  30. ^ Hansjörg Schmid, Der Tempelturm Etemenanki in Babylon, Zabern, 1995, ISBN 3805316100
  31. ^ G. Bergamini, Levels of Babylon Reconsidered, Mesopotamia, vol. 12, pp. 111-152, 1977
  32. ^ G. Bergamini, Excavations in Shu-anna Babylon 1987, Mesopotamia, vol. 23, pp. 5-17, 1988
  33. ^ G. Bergamini, Preliminary report on the 1988-1989 operations at Babylon Shu-Anna, Mesopotamia, vol. 25, pp. 5-12, 1990
  34. ^ Excavations in Iraq 1981-1982, Iraq, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 199-224,1983
  35. ^ Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi, Nabopolassar’s Restoration Work on the Wall "Imgur-Enlil at Babylon, Iraq, vol. 47, pp. 1-13, 1985
  36. ^ Gettleman, Jeffrey. Unesco intends to put the magic back in Babylon, International Herald Tribune, April 21, 2006. Accessed April 19, 2008.
  37. ^ McBride, Edward. Monuments to Self: Baghdad’s grands projects in the age of Saddam Hussein, MetropolisMag. Accessed April 19, 2008.
  38. ^ "Damage seen to ancient Babylon". The Boston Globe. January 16, 2005.
  39. ^ Heritage News from around the world, World Heritage Alert!. Accessed April 19, 2008.
  40. ^ Cornwell, Rupert. US colonel offers Iraq an apology of sorts for devastation of Babylon, The Independent, April 15, 2006. Accessed April 19, 2008.
  41. ^ J. E. Curtis, "Report on Meeting at Babylon 11 – 13 December 2004", British Museum, 2004

External links

Iraq war

Categories: Amorite cities | Ancient cities | Archaeological sites in Iraq | Babylon | Former populated places in Iraq | Hebrew Bible places | Historic Jewish communities | Fertile Crescent | Populated places on the Euphrates River


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Euphrates · Tigris


Eridu · Kish · Uruk · Ur
Lagash · Nippur · Ngirsu


Susa · Anshan

Akkadian Empire

Akkad · Mari


Isin · Larsa


Babylon · Chaldea


Assur · Nimrud
Dur-Sharrukin · Nineveh

Hittites · Kassites
Ararat / Mitanni



Sumer (king list)

Kings of Elam
Kings of Assyria
Kings of Babylon


Enûma Elish · Gilgamesh

Assyrian religion


Sumerian · Elamite

Akkadian · Aramaic

Hurrian · Hittite

Sumer (from Akkadian Šumeru; Sumerian kien-ĝir15, approximately "native land"[1][2] ) was a civilization and historical region in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age.

The pre-dynastic period of Sumer spans the Uruk period (4th millennium BC), followed by the proto-historical early dynastic period (early 3rd millennium BC) and the dynastic period of Sumer proper in the mid 3rd millennium BC, until the conquest of Sumer by the Akkadians around 2400 BC. Native Sumerian rule re-emerged for about a century in the so-called Sumerian Renaissance of the 21st to 20th century (short chronology).

The cities of Sumer were the first civilization to practice intensive, year-round agriculture, by 5000 BC showing the use of core agricultural techniques including large-scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation, and the use of a specialized labor force. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place instead of migrating after crops and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density, and in turn required an extensive labor force and division of labor. Sumer was also the site of early development of writing, progressing from a stage of proto-writing in the mid 4th millennium BC to writing proper by 3000 BC (see Jemdet Nasr).

Origin of name

The term "Sumerian" is the common name given to the ancient inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia, Sumer, by their successors, the Semitic Akkadians. The Sumerians referred to themselves as ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga, phonetically uŋ saŋ giga, literally meaning "the black-headed people".[3] The Akkadian word Shumer may represent the geographical name in dialect, but the phonological development leading to the Akkadian term šumerû is uncertain.[2][4] Biblical Shinar, Egyptian Sngr and Hittite Šanhar(a) could be western variants of Shumer.[4] Sumer was said to have influenced later societies such as Babylon, Uruk, and Egypt.


Further information: Cities of the Ancient Near East and Waterways of Sumer and Akkad

Map of Sumer

By the late 4th millennium BC, Sumer was divided into about a dozen independent city-states, whose limits were defined by canals and boundary stones. Each was centered on a temple dedicated to the particular patron god or goddess of the city and ruled over by a priestly governor (ensi) or by a king (lugal) who was intimately tied to the city’s religious rites.

The five "first" cities said to have exercised pre-dynastic kingship:  

  1. Eridu (Tell Abu Shahrain)
  2. Bad-tibira (probably Tell al-Madain)
  3. Larsa (Tell as-Senkereh)
  4. Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah)
  5. Shuruppak (Tell Fara)

Other principal cities:

  1. Kish (Tell Uheimir & Ingharra)
  2. Uruk (Warka)
  3. Ur (Tell al-Muqayyar)
  4. Nippur (Afak)
  5. Lagash (Tell al-Hiba)
  6. Ngirsu (Tello or Telloh)
  7. Umma (Tell Jokha)
  8. Adab (Tell Bismaya)
  9. Mari (Tell Hariri) 2
  10. Isin (Ishan al-Bahriyat)

(1location uncertain)
(2an outlying city in northern Mesopotamia)

Minor cities (from south to north):

  1. Kuara (Tell al-Lahm)
  2. Zabala (Tell Ibzeikh)
  3. Kisurra (Tell Abu Hatab)
  4. Marad (Tell Wannat es-Sadum)
  5. Dilbat (Tell ed-Duleim)
  6. Borsippa (Birs Nimrud)
  7. Kutha (Tell Ibrahim)
  8. Der (al-Badra)
  9. Eshnuna (Tell Asmar)
  10. Nagar (Tell Brak) 2

(2an outlying city in northern Mesopotamia)

Apart from Mari, which lies full 330 km northwest of Agade, but which is credited in the king list as having “exercised kingship” in the Early Dynastic II period, and Nagar, an outpost, these cities are all in the Euphrates-Tigris alluvial plain, south of Baghdad in what are now the Bābil, Diyala, Wāsit, Dhi Qar, Basra,Al-Muthannā and Al-Qādisiyyah governorates of Iraq.


History of Sumer

The Sumerian city states rose to power during the prehistorical Ubaid and Uruk periods. Sumerian history reaches back to the 26th century BC and before, but the historical record remains obscure until the Early Dynastic III period, ca. the 23rd century BC, when a now deciphered syllabary writing system was developed, which has allowed archaeologists to read contemporary records and inscriptions. Classical Sumer ends with the rise of the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century BC. Following the Gutian period, there is a brief "Sumerian renaissance" in the 21st century BC, cut short in the 20th century BC by Amoriteinvasions. The Amorite "dynasty of Isin" persisted until ca. 1700 BC, when Mesopotamia was united under Babylonian rule.

Ubaid period

Ubaid period

The Ubaid period is marked by a distinctive style of fine quality painted pottery which spread throughout Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. During this time, the first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was established at Eridu, ca. 5300 BC, by farmers who brought with them the Samarran culture from northern Mesopotamia. It is not known whether or not these were the actual Sumerians who are identified with the later Uruk culture. Eridu remained an important religious center when it was gradually surpassed in size by the nearby city of Uruk.

Uruk period

Uruk period

The archaeological transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift from painted pottery domestically produced on a slow wheel, to a great variety of unpainted pottery mass-produced by specialists on fast wheels.

By the time of the Uruk period (ca. 4100–2900 BC calibrated), 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. Artifacts, and even colonies of this Uruk civilization have been found over a wide area—from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and as far east as Central Iran.[5]

The Uruk period civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists (like that found at Tell Brak), had an effect on all surrounding peoples, who gradually evolved their own comparable, competing economies and cultures. The cities of Sumer could not maintain remote, long-distance colonies by military force.[5]

Sumerian cities during the Uruk period were probably theocratic and were most likely headed by a priest-king (ensi), assisted by a council of elders, including both men and women.[6] It is quite possible that the later Sumerian pantheon was modelled upon this political structure. There was little evidence of institutionalised violence or professional soldiers during the Uruk period, and towns were generally unwalled. During this period Uruk became the most urbanised city in the world, surpassing for the first time 50,000 inhabitants.

Notable Sumerians

History of SumerMythologyKing list

Pre-dynastic kings:
AlulimDumuzid, the ShepherdEn-men-dur-ana

1st Dynasty of Kish:
EtanaEn-me-barage-siAga of Kish

1st Dynasty of Uruk:

1st Dynasty of Ur:
MeskalamdugMesh-Ane-padaPuabiMesilim of Kish

2nd Dynasty of Uruk:

1st Dynasty of Lagash:

Dynasty of Adab:

3rd Dynasty of Kish:

3rd Dynasty of Uruk:

Dynasty of Akkad:
SargonEn-hedu-anaMan-ishtishuNaram-Suen of AkkadShar-kali-sharriDudu of AkkadShu-Durul

2nd Dynasty of Lagash:

5th Dynasty of Uruk:

3rd dynasty of Ur:

The ancient Sumerian king list includes the early dynasties of several prominent cities from this period. The first set of names on the list is of kings said to have reigned before a major flood occurred. These early names may be fictional, and include some legendary and mythological figures, such as Alulim and Dumizid.[7]

The end of the Uruk period coincided with the Piora oscillation, a dry period from c. 3200–2900 BC that marked the end of a long wetter, warmer climate period from about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, called the Holocene climatic optimum.[8]

Early Dynastic Period

The Dynastic period begins ca. 2900 BC and includes such legendary figures as Enmerkar and Gilgamesh—who are supposed to have reigned shortly before the historic record opens ca. 2700 BC, when the now deciphered syllabic writing started to develop from the early pictograms. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and neighboring 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. The earliest king authenticated through archaeological evidence is Enmebaragesi of Kish (ca. 26th century BC), whose name is also mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic—leading to the suggestion that Gilgamesh himself might have been a historical king of Uruk. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, this period was associated with increased violence. Cities became walled, and increased in size as undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared. (Gilgamesh is credited with having built the walls of Uruk).

1st Dynasty of Lagash

Fragment of Eannatum‘s Stele of the Vultures


ca. 2500–2270 BC

The dynasty of Lagash, though omitted from the king list, is well attested through several important monuments and many archaeological finds.

Although short-lived, one of the first empires known to history was that of Eannatum of Lagash, who annexed practically all of Sumer, including Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Larsa, and reduced to tribute the city-state ofUmma, arch-rival of Lagash. In addition, his realm extended to parts of Elam and along the Persian Gulf. He seems to have used terror as a matter of policy—his stele of the vultures has been found, showing violent treatment of enemies. His empire collapsed shortly after his death. He is notable for the policy of having deliberately introduced the use of "terror" as a weapon against his enemies.

Later, Lugal-Zage-Si, the priest-king of Umma, overthrew the primacy of the Lagash dynasty in the area, then conquered Uruk, making it his capital, and claimed an empire extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He was the last ethnically Sumerian king before the arrival of the Semitic king, Sargon of Akkad.

Akkadian Empire

Akkadian Empire

ca. 2270–2083 BC (short chronology)

The Semitic Akkadian language is first attested in proper names of the kings of Kish ca. 2800 BC,[9] preserved in later king lists. There are texts written entirely in Old Akkadian dating from ca. 2500 BC. Use of Old Akkadian was at its peak during the rule of Sargon the Great (ca. 2270–2215 BC), but even then most administrative tablets continued to be written in Sumerian, the language used by the scribes. Gelb and Westenholz differentiate three stages of Old Akkadian: that of the pre-Sargonic era, that of the Akkadian empire, and that of the "Neo-Sumerian Renaissance" that followed it. Speakers of Akkadian and Sumerian coexisted for about one thousand years, until ca. 1800 BC, when Sumerian ceased to be spoken. Thorkild Jacobsen has argued that there is little break in historical continuity between the pre- and post-Sargon periods, and that too much emphasis has been placed on the perception of a "Semitic vs. Sumerian" conflict.[10] However, it is certain that Akkadian was also briefly imposed on neighboring parts of Elam that were conquered by Sargon.

Gutian period

Gutian dynasty of Sumer

ca. 2083–2050 BC (short chronology)

2nd Dynasty of Lagash

Gudea of Lagash


ca. 2093–2046 BC (short chronology)

Following the downfall of the Akkadian Empire at the hands of Gutians, another native Sumerian ruler, Gudea of Lagash, rose to local prominence and continued the practices of the Sargonid kings’ claims to divinity. Like the previous Lagash dynasty, Gudea and his descendents also promoted artistic development and left a large number of archaeological artifacts.

Sumerian Renaissance

Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah,Iraq

Sumerian renaissance

ca. 2047–1940 BC (short chronology)

Later, the 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, whose power extended as far as northern Mesopotamia, was the last great "Sumerian renaissance", but already the region was becoming more Semitic than Sumerian, with the influx of waves of Martu (Amorites) who were later to found the Babylonian Empire. The Sumerian language, however, remained a sacerdotal language taught in schools, in the same way that Latin was used in the Medieval period, for as long as cuneiform was utilised.


This period is generally taken to coincide with a major shift in population from southern Iraq 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 BC to 1700 BC, it is estimated that the population in this area declined by nearly three fifths.[11] This greatly weakened the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and comparatively strengthening those where Akkadian was the major language. Henceforth Sumerian would remain only a literary and liturgical language, similar to the position occupied by Latin in medievalEurope.

Following an Elamite invasion and sack of Ur during the rule of Ibbi-Sin (ca. 1940 BC), Sumer came under Amorite rule (taken to introduce the Middle Bronze Age). The independent Amorite states of the 20th to 18th centuries are summarized as the "Dynasty of Isin" in the Sumerian king list, ending with the rise ofBabylonia under Hammurabi ca. 1700 BC.

During the third millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism.[12] The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence.[12] This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a sprachbund.[12]

Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate),[13] but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the first century CE.


The first farmers from Samarra migrated to Sumer, and built shrines and settlements at Eridu

In spite of the importance of this region, genetic studies on the Sumerians are limited and generally restricted to analysis of classical markers due to Iraq’s modern political instability. It has been found that Y-DNA Haplogroup J2 originated in Northern Iraq.[14][15] The Sumerians were a non-Semitic people; a number of linguists believed they could detect a substrate language beneath Sumerian. However, the archaeological record shows clear uninterrupted cultural continuity from the time of the Early Ubaid period (5300 – 4700 BC C-14) settlements in southern Mesopotamia. The Sumerian people who settled here farmed the lands in this region that were made fertile by silt deposited by the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It is speculated by some archaeologists that Sumerian speakers were farmers who moved down from the north, after perfecting irrigation agriculture there [note there is no consensus among scholars on the origins of the Sumerians]. The Ubaidpottery of southern Mesopotamia has been connected via Choga Mami Transitional ware to the pottery of the Samarra period culture (c. 5700 – 4900 BC C-14) in the north, who were the first to practice a primitive form of irrigation agriculture along the middle Tigris River and its tributaries. The connection is most clearly seen at Tell Awayli (Oueilli, Oueili) near Larsa, excavated by the French in the 1980s, where 8 levels yielded pre-Ubaid pottery resembling Samarran ware. Farming peoples spread down into southern Mesopotamia because they had developed a temple-centered social organization for mobilizing labor and technology for water control, enabling them to survive and prosper in a difficult environment.


Social and family life

A reconstruction in the British Museum of headgear and necklaces worn by the women in some Sumerian graves

In the early Sumerian period (i.e. Uruk), the primitive pictograms suggest[16] that

  • "Pottery was very plentiful, and the forms of the vases, bowls and dishes were manifold ; there were special jars for honey, butter, oil and wine, which was probably made from dates, and one form of vase had a spout protruding from its side. Some of the vases had pointed feet, and stood on stands with crossed legs ; others were flat-bottomed, and were set on square or rectangular frames of wood. The oil-jars – and probably others also – were sealed with clay, precisely as in early Egypt. Vases and dishes of stone were made in imitation of those of clay, and baskets were woven of reeds or formed of leather."
  • "A feathered head-dress was worn on the head. Beds, stools and chairs were used, with carved legs resembling those of an ox. There were fire-places and fire-altars, and apparently chimneys also."
  • "Knives, drills, wedges and an instrument which looks like a saw were all known, while spears, bows, arrows and daggers (but not swords) were employed in war."
  • "Tablets were used for writing purposes, and copper, gold and silver were worked by the smith. Daggers with metal blades and wooden handles were worn, and copper was hammered into plates, while necklaces or collars were made of gold."
  • "Time was reckoned in lunar months."

There is much evidence that the Sumerians loved music. It seemed to be an important part of religious and civic life in Sumer. Lyres were popular in Sumer; see Sumerian music.

Inscriptions describing the reforms of king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC) say that he abolished the former custom of polyandry in his country, by which a woman who took multiple husbands was stoned with rocks upon which her crime had been written.[17]

Though women were protected by late Sumerian law and were able to achieve a higher status in Sumer than in other contemporary civilizations, the culture was male-dominated. The Code of Ur-Nammu, the oldest such codification yet discovered, dating to the Ur-III "Sumerian Renaissance", reveals a glimpse at societal structure in late Sumerian law. Beneath the lu-gal ("great man" or king), all members of society belonged to one of two basic strata: The "lu" or free person, and the slave (male, arad; female geme). The son of a luwas called a dumu-nita until he married. A woman (munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi), to a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow (numasu) who could remarry.

Historian Alan I. Marcus has observed, "Sumerians held a rather dour perspective on life." One Sumerian wrote: "Tears, lament, anguish, and depression are within me. Suffering overwhelms me. Evil fate holds me and carries off my life. Malignant sickness bathes me." Another wrote, "Why am I counted among the ignorant? Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. On the day shares were allotted, my allotted share was suffering."[18]

Language and writing

Sumerian language and Cuneiform

The most important archaeological discoveries in Sumer are a large number of tablets written in Sumerian. Sumerian writing is the oldest example of writing on earth. Although pictures – that is, hieroglyphs were first used, symbols were later made to represent syllables. Triangular or wedge-shaped reeds were used to write on moist clay. This is called cuneiform. A large body of hundreds of thousands of texts in the Sumerian language has survived, such as personal or business letters, receipts, lexical lists, laws, hymns, prayers, stories, daily records, and even libraries full of clay tablets. Monumental inscriptions and texts on different objects like statues or bricks are also very common. Many texts survive in multiple copies because they were repeatedly transcribed by scribes-in-training. Sumerian continued to be the language of religion and law in Mesopotamia long after Semitic speakers had become the ruling race. The Sumerian language is generally regarded as a language isolate in linguistics because it belongs to no known language family; Akkadian, by contrast belongs to the Afro-Asiatic languages. There have been many failed attempts to connect Sumerian to other language groups. It is an agglutinative language; in other words, morphemes ("units of meaning") are added together to create words, unlike analytic languages where morphemes are purely added together to create sentences.

Understanding Sumerian texts today can be problematic even for experts. Most difficult are the earliest texts, which in many cases don’t give the full grammatical structure of the language.

During the third millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism.[12] The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence.[12] This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a sprachbund.[12]

Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate),[13] but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the first century CE.


Sumerian religion

Tell Asmar votive sculpture 2750-2600 B.C

There were no organized set of gods; each city-state had its own patrons, temples, and priest-kings. The Sumerians were probably the first to write down their beliefs, which were the inspiration for much of later Mesopotamian mythology, religion, and astrology.


The Sumerians worshipped:

  • Anu as the full time god, equivalent to "heaven" – indeed, the word "an" in Sumerian means "sky" and his consort Ki, means "Earth".
  • Enki in the south at the temple in Eridu. Enki was the god of beneficence, ruler of the freshwater depths beneath the earth, a healer and friend to humanity who was thought to have given us the arts and sciences, the industries and manners of civilization; the first law-book was considered his creation,
  • Enlil, lord of the ghost-land, in the north at the temple of Nippur. His gifts to mankind were said to be the spells and incantations that the spirits of good or evil were compelled to obey,
  • Inanna, the deification of Venus, the morning (eastern) and evening (western) star, at the temple (shared with An) at Uruk.
  • The sun-god Utu at Sippar,
  • the moon god Nanna at Ur.

These deities were probably the original matrix; there were hundreds of minor deities. The Sumerian gods thus had associations with different cities, and their religious importance often waxed and waned with those cities’ political power. The gods were said to have created human beings from clay for the purpose of serving them. If the temples/gods ruled each city it was for their mutual survival and benefit—the temples organized the mass labor projects needed for irrigation agriculture. Citizens had a labor duty to the temple which they were allowed to avoid by a payment of silver only towards the end of the third millennium. The temple-centered farming communities of Sumer had a social stability that enabled them to survive for four millennia.

Sumerians believed that the universe consisted of a flat disk enclosed by a tin dome. The Sumerian afterlife involved a descent into a gloomy netherworld to spend eternity in a wretched existence as a Gidim (ghost).[citation needed]

Ziggurats (Sumerian temples) consisted of a forecourt, with a central pond for purification.[citation needed] The temple itself had a central nave with aisles along either side. Flanking the aisles would be rooms for the priests. At one end would stand the podium and amudbrick table for animal and vegetable sacrifices. Granaries and storehouses were usually located near the temples. After a time the Sumerians began to place the temples on top of multi-layered square constructions built as a series of rising terraces, giving rise to the later Ziggurat style.

Agriculture and hunting

By 5000 BC the Sumerians had developed core agricultural techniques including large-scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation, and the use of a specialized labour force, particularly along the waterway now known as the Shatt al-Arab, from its Persian Gulf delta to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place instead of migrating after crops and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density, and in turn required an extensive labor force and division of labor. This organization led to the development of writing (ca. 3500 BC).


The Sumerians adopted an agricultural mode of life. In the early Sumerian period (i.e. Uruk), the primitive pictograms suggest that "The sheep, goat, ox and probably as had been domesticated, the ox being used for draught, and woollen clothing as well as rugs were made from the wool or hair of the two first. … By the side of the house was an enclosed garden planted with trees and other plants ; wheat and probably other cereals were sown in the fields, and the shaduf was already employed for the purpose of irrigation. Plants were also grown in pots or vases."[16]

The Sumerians practiced the same irrigation techniques as those used in Egypt.[19] American anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams says that irrigation development was associated with urbanization,[20] and that 89% of the population lived in the cities.[21]

They grew barley, chickpeas, lentils, wheat, dates, onions, garlic, lettuce, leeks and mustard. They also raised cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They used oxen as their primary beasts of burden and donkeys or equids as their primary transport animal. Sumerians caught many fish and hunted fowl andgazelle.

Sumerian agriculture depended heavily on irrigation. The irrigation was accomplished by the use of shadufs, canals, channels, dykes, weirs, and reservoirs. The frequent violent floods of the Tigris, and less so, of the Euphrates, meant that canals required frequent repair and continual removal of silt, and survey markers and boundary stones continually replaced. The government required individuals to work on the canals in a corvee, although the rich were able to exempt themselves.

After the flood season and after the Spring Equinox and the Akitu or New Year Festival, using the canals, farmers would flood their fields and then drain the water. Next they let oxen stomp the ground and kill weeds. They then dragged the fields with pickaxes. After drying, they plowed, harrowed, and rakedthe ground three times, and pulverized it with a mattock, before planting seed. Unfortunately the high evaporation rate resulted in a gradual increase in the salinity of the fields. By the Ur III period, farmers had switched from wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley as their principal crop.

Sumerians harvested during the spring in three-person teams consisting of a reaper, a binder, and a sheaf arranger[citation needed]. The farmers would use threshing wagons to separate the cereal heads from the stalks and then use threshing sleds to disengage the grain. They then winnowed the grain/chaff mixture.



Sumerian architecture, Ziggurat, and Mudhif

The Tigris-Euphrates plain lacked minerals and trees. Sumerian structures were made of plano-convex mudbrick, not fixed with mortar or cement. Mud-brick buildings eventually deteriorate, so they were periodically destroyed, leveled, and rebuilt on the same spot. This constant rebuilding gradually raised the level of cities, which thus came to be elevated above the surrounding plain. The resultant hills, known as tells, are found throughout the ancient Near East.

According to Archibald Sayce, the primitive pictograms of the early Sumerian (i.e. Uruk) era suggest that "Stone was scarce, but was already cut into blocks and seals. Brick was the ordinary building material, and with it cities, forts, temples and houses were constructed. The city was provided with towers and stood on an artificial platform ; the house also had a tower-like appearance. It was provided with a door which turned on a hinge, and could be opened with a sort of key ; the city gate was on a larger scale, and seems to have been double. … Demons were feared who had wings like a bird, and the foundation stones – or rather bricks – of a house were consecrated by certain objects that were deposited under them."[16]

The most impressive and famous of Sumerian buildings are the ziggurats, large layered platforms which supported temples. Some scholars have theorized that these structures might have been the basis of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis. Sumerian cylinder seals also depict houses built from reeds not unlike those built by the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq until as recently as 400 AD. The Sumerians also developed the arch, which enabled them to develop a strong type of roof called a dome. They built this by constructing several arches.


Sumerian temples and palaces made use of more advanced materials and techniques, such as buttresses, recesses, half columns, and clay nails.


Babylonian mathematics

The Sumerians developed a complex system of metrology c. 4000 BC. This metrology advanced resulting in the creation of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. From 2600 BC onwards, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets and dealt with geometrical exercises and division problems. The earliest traces of the Babylonian numerals also date back to this period.[22] The period 2700–2300 BC saw the first appearance of the abacus, and a table of successive columns which delimited the successive orders of magnitude of their sexagesimal number system.[23] The Sumerians were the first to use a place value numeral system. There is also anecdotal evidence the Sumerians may have used a type of slide rule in astronomical calculations. They were the first to find the area of a triangle and the volume of a cube.[4]

Economy and trade

Discoveries of obsidian from far-away locations in Anatolia and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan, beads from Dilmun (modern Bahrain), and several seals inscribed with the Indus Valley script suggest a remarkably wide-ranging network of ancient trade centered around the Persian Gulf.

The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to trade with far lands for goods such as wood that were scarce in Mesopotamia. In particular, cedar from Lebanon was prized.

The finding of resin in the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur, was traded from as far away as Mozambique.

The Sumerians used slaves, although they were not a major part of the economy. Slave women worked as weavers, pressers, millers, and porters.

Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery. Sumerian masons and jewelers knew and made use of alabaster (calcite), ivory, gold, silver, carnelian, and lapis lazuli.Military

Early chariots on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BC.

Battle formations on a fragment of theStele of Vultures.

The almost constant wars among the Sumerian city-states for 2000 years helped to develop the military technology and techniques of Sumer to a high level. The first war recorded was between Lagash and Umma in ca. 2525 BC on a stele called the Stele of Vultures. It shows the king of Lagash leading a Sumerian army consisting mostly of infantry. The infantrymen carried spears, wore copper helmets and carried leather or wicker shields. The spearmen are shown arranged in what resembles the phalanx formation, which requires training and discipline; this implies that the Sumerians may have made use of professional soldiers.

The Sumerian military used carts harnessed to onagers. These early chariots functioned less effectively in combat than did later designs, and some have suggested that these chariots served primarily as transports, though the crew carried battle-axes and lances. The Sumerian chariot comprised a four or two-wheeled device manned by a crew of two and harnessed to four onagers. The cart was composed of a woven basket and the wheels had a solid three-piece design.

Sumerian cities were surrounded by defensive walls. The Sumerians engaged in siege warfare between their cities, but the mudbrick walls were able to deter some foes.


Examples of Sumerian technology include: the wheel, cuneiform, arithmetic and geometry, irrigation systems, Sumerian boats, lunisolar calendar, bronze, leather, saws, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nails, pins, rings, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads,swords, glue, daggers, waterskins, bags, harnesses, armor, quivers, war chariots, scabbards, boots, sandals, harpoons, and beer. The Sumerians had three main types of boats:

  • clinker-built sailboats stitched together with hair, featuring bitumen waterproofing
  • skin boats constructed from animal skins and reeds
  • wooden-oared ships, sometimes pulled upstream by people and animals walking along the nearby banks



Most authorities credit the Sumerians with the invention of the wheel, initially in the form of the potter’s wheel. The new concept quickly led to wheeled vehicles and mill wheels. The Sumerians’ cuneiform writing system is the oldest which has been deciphered (older proto-writing such as the Vinča signs and the even older Jiahu signs may not be decipherable). The Sumerians were among the first astronomers, mapping the stars into sets of constellations, many of which survived in the zodiac and were also recognized by the ancient Greeks.[24] They were also aware of the five planets that are visible to the naked eye.[25]

They invented and developed arithmetic by using several different number systems including a mixed radix system with an alternating base 10 and base 6. This sexagesimal system became the standard number system in Sumer and Babylonia. They may have invented military formations and introduced the basic divisions between infantry, cavalry, and archers. They developed the first known codified legal and administrative systems, complete with courts, jails, and government records. The first true city states arose in Sumer, roughly contemporaneously with similar entities in what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. Several centuries after the invention of cuneiform, the use of writing expanded beyond debt/payment certificates and inventory lists to be applied for the first time, about 2600 BC, to messages and mail delivery, history, legend, mathematics, astronomical records, and other pursuits. Conjointly with the spread of writing, the first formal schools were established, usually under the auspices of a city-state’s primary temple.

Finally, the Sumerians ushered in the age of intensive agriculture and irrigation. Emmer wheat, barley, sheep (starting as mouflon), and cattle (starting as aurochs) were foremost among the species cultivated and raised for the first time on a grand scale.

See also



  1. ^ ĝir15 means "native, local", in some contexts also is "noble"[1]. Literally, "land of the native (local, noble) lords". Stiebing (1994) has "Land of the Lords of Brightness" (William Stiebing, Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture). Postgate (1994) takes en as substituting eme "language", translating "land of the Sumerian tongue" (John Nicholas Postgate (1994). Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. Routledge (UK).. Postgate believes it likely that eme, ‘tongue’, became en, ‘lord’, through consonantal assimilation).
  2. ^ W. Hallo, W. Simpson (1971). The Ancient Near East. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. p. 28.
  3. ^ a b K. van der Toorn, P. W. van der Horst (Jan 1990). "Nimrod before and after the Bible". The Harvard Theological Review 83 (1): 1–29.
  4. ^ a b Algaze, Guillermo (2005) "The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization", (Second Edition, University of Chicago Press)
  5. ^ Jacobsen, Thorkild (Ed) (1939),"The Sumerian King List" (Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Assyriological Studies, No. 11.)
  6. ^ Jacobsen, Thorkild (1939) "Sumerian King List" (Univ of Chicago)
  7. ^ Lamb, Hubert H. (1995). Climate, History, and the Modern World. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415127351
  8. ^ Roux, Georges "Ancient Iraq" (Penguin Harmondsworth)
  9. ^ See Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture by T. Jacobsen
  10. ^ Thompson, William R.; Hay, ID (2004). "Complexity, Diminishing Marginal Returns and Serial Mesopotamian Fragmentation" (pdf). Journal of World Systems Research 28 (12): 1187. doi:10.1007/s00268-004-7605-z. PMID 15517490.
  11. ^ a b [Woods C. 2006 “Bilingualism, Scribal Learning, and the Death of Sumerian”. In S.L. Sanders (ed) Margins of Writing, Origins of Culture: 91-120 Chicago [2]
  12. ^ N. Al-Zahery et al, "Y-chromosome and mtDNA polymorphisms in Iraq, a crossroad of the early human dispersal and of post-Neolithic migrations," Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (2003)
  13. ^ a b c Sayce, Rev. A. H., Professor of Assyriology, Oxford, "The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions", Second Edition-revised, 1908, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, Brighton, New York; at pages 98-100 Not in copyright
  14. ^ The Wisdom Fest by Kathleen L. Bruce, D. Miss.
  15. ^ Mackenzie, Donald Alexander (1927). Footprints of Early Man. Blackie & Son Limited.
  16. ^ Adams, R. McC. (1981). Heartland of Cities. University of Chicago Press.
  17. ^ Duncan J. Melville (2003). Third Millennium Chronology, Third Millennium Mathematics. St. Lawrence University.


Further reading

  • Ascalone, Enrico. 2007. Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians (Dictionaries of Civilizations; 1). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520252667 (paperback).
  • Bottéro, Jean, André Finet, Bertrand Lafont, and George Roux. 2001. Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Edingurgh: Edinburgh University Press, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Crawford, Harriet E. W. 2004. Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. 2002. Mesopotamia: Invention of the City. London and New York: Penguin.
  • Lloyd, Seton. 1978. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. 1998. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. London and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah (1963). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-45238-7.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium BC.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians : Their History, Culture, and Character.
  • Roux, Georges. 1992. Ancient Iraq, 560 pages. London: Penguin (earlier printings may have different pagination: 1966, 480 pages, Pelican; 1964, 431 pages, London: Allen and Urwin).
  • Schomp, Virginia. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Sumerians, Babylonians, And Assyrians.
  • Sumer: Cities of Eden (Timelife Lost Civilizations). Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993 (hardcover, ISBN 0809498871).
  • Woolley, C. Leonard. 1929. The Sumerians. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

External links


Categories: Sumer | Civilizations | Fertile Crescent | Archaeology of Iraq

Ancient Sumer History

Important Sumer City-States


See Also Cities of Sumer by James Bell

Genesis 10:10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and
Erech and Accad and Calneh in the land of Shinar (Sumer) …

Genesis 11:2 And it came to pass as they journeyed
from the east that they found a plain in the
land of Shinar; and they dwelt there …

Overview … The Sumerians may have migrated from the East — either ancient India or Iran — and were unrelated on the basis of their language to the various groups speaking Semitic languages in the Ancient Near East (F) … Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world (although long term settlements at Jericho and Catal Hoyuk predate Sumer and examples of writing from Egypt may predate those from Sumer). From its beginnings as a collection of farming villages before 5000 BC through its conquest by Sargon (Sharrukin) of Agade (Akkad) around 2370 BC and its final collapse from the Amorite invasion around 2000 BC the Sumerians developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbors and their conquerers. Sumerian cuneform — the earliest written language — was borrowed by the Old Babylonian Kingdom which also took many of their religious beliefs (A) …

Abstract … Sumer was a collection of city-states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers although as early as the mid fourth millenium BC the leader of the dominant city-state was considered to have been the king of the region (ibid) … Although evidence for human presence exists in western Asia far back into paleolithic times the prehistory of southern Iraq is relatiely late in coming; there are no archaeological remains preceding the sixth millennium BC (1) …

The history of Sumer tends to be divided into five periods. They are the Uruk Period — which saw the dominance of the city-state of that same name — the Jemdet Nasr Period — the Early Dynastic Periods (2900-2370 BC) — the Akkadian Period — Ur III Period; the entire span lasting from circa 3800 to 2000 BC (A) …



Ubaid Culture … The earliest settlement of the southern alluvial flood plain in the late 6th millenium (G) was by a non-Semitic people called proto-Euphrateans (H) … This prehistoric Ubaid Culture had a long duration beginning before 5000 BC and lasting until the beginning of the Uruk Period. In the mid-5th millennium BC the Ubaid Culture spread into northern Mesopotamia and replaced the Halaf Culture. It is characterised by large village settlements and the appearance of the first temples in Mesopotamia … The Ubaid Culture developed as a result of increasing sophistication in irrigation techniques. Ubaid pottery was more austere in form and decoration than that of the Halaf … Thus the distinctive types of pottery serve to delineate strigraphic layers and cultures as well. This culture is properly divided into two phases which both precede and are also regarded as proto-Ubaidian; the earlier Eridu and later Hajji Muhammed

The earliest known settlement in Sumer however has been excavated at the small site Tell (mound) Oueili. The lowest levels of this hamlet are earlier than the hitherto attested phases of the Ubaid Culture. The culture to which this Oueili Phase is linked is unknown but certain architectural similarities suggest a connection with the Hassunan Culture ofSamarra (1) … French excavations at Tell Oueili (J.-L. Huot) near Larsa have revealed a predecessor Ubaid 0 occupation which appears to be derived from the Samarran Culture (B 4 5) … The Ubaid Period in Lower Mesopotamia was particularly critical because it immediately preceded urbanization (1) …

Uruk: Ubaid II Period Temple Bricks (The Oriental Institute of Chicago)

The Uruk Period stretched from 3800 to 3200 BC. This time saw an enormous growth in urbanization with impressive structures and the earliest evidence of writing. Uruk probably had a population of around 45000 at the end of the period. Irrigation innovations as well as a supply of raw materials for craftsmen provided an impetus for this growth. In fact the city-state of Uruk also seems to have been at the heart of a trade network which stretched from southern Turkey to eastern Iran (A) … It remained in occupation throughout the following two millennia until the Parthian Periodat which time it was only a minor centre …

The Jemdet Nasr Period lasted from 3200 to 2900 BC. This city-state gave its name to a distinctive wheel-turned painted pottery (K) … The period represents the transition from prehistory to history and literate civilization [urban revolution] … Occupation commences in the Ubaid Period (circa 4000 BC) and flourishes from 3400 to 2800 BC during the Late Uruk — Jemdet Nasr — Early Dynastic I Periods. This period was a time of retrenchment [anti-expansionism] and relative cultural isolation in southern Mesopotamia. In sum the material culture of Jemdet Nasr reflects the consolidation of administrative and social developments in the centuries following the invention of Proto-cuneiform writing in the Late Uruk Period in southern Mesopotamia. These developments were to underpin the spectacular achievements of Sumerian civilization in the succeeding Early Dynastic Period (1) …


Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350) … Sumer was divided between some thirty city-states each with a patron deity and a ruler generally called Ensi. They shared a set of religious beliefs that recognized the supremacy of the patron deity Enlil of Nippur — the Sumerian religious centre. The history of this period is not widely known and the use by some historians of later literary narratives concerning earlier legendary rulers is questionable (Page 809 2) …

For Another Historical View and Chronology See
For Instance: Old Sumerian Age by John Heise

EARLY DYNASTIC I (2900–2700 BC) … The Sumerian King List names eight antediluvian kings who reigned for tens of thousands of years but it is not known if these names have any historical basis. The Royal Tombs of Ur contain the graves of Meskalamdug and Akalamdug — among others — which probably date to this period (L) …

Gold Helmet of King Meskalamdug from the Royal Cemetery of Ur: LOST TREASURES FROM IRAQ (The Oriental Institute of Chicago)EARLY DYNASTIC II (2700–2600 BC) … According to the King Lists the first dynasty after the Great Flood (recorded in the Gilgamesh Epic) was the 1st Dynasty of Kish. The last two kings — Enmebaragesi and Agga — are the first rulers attested in contemporary inscriptions. According to the King List kingship or Lugal then passed on to the 1st Dynasty of Uruk which included Enmerkar — Lugalbanda — Gilgamesh; heroes of epic tradition — and then finally to the 1st Dynasty of Ur. Epigraphic evidence shows that these dynasties (and at Mari on the Middle Euphrates River) were all contemporary and date to circa 2700–2600 BC. Many rulers known from contemporary inscriptions are not found in the King Lists (ibid) …

EARLY DYNASTIC III (2600–2334 BC) … The King Lists record eleven more dynasties before Sargon of Akkad. Except for the 3rd Dynasty of Uruk little is known of them and many were probably contemporaneous. By 2500 BC the city-state of Kish seems to have established hegemony over Sumer. Thereafter the title King of Kish lent preeminence to the sovereigns of later city-states seeking their supremacy acknowledged (L and Page 809-10 2) …

The 1st Dynasty of Lagash (Telloh) is well known from inscriptions though it is not mentioned in the King List. It started with Mesilim (circa 2550 BC) but it was Eannatum (circa 2450 BC) who conquered much of Sumer and extended Lagash’s power into Elam and Mari. UruInimGina of Lagash (circa 2350 BC) was the earliest known social reformer: he established freedom or amargi in the land — the first recorded use of the term in a political sense (L) …

The 3rd Dynasty of Uruk had only one king. LugalZagesi as King of Umma seized Uruk and established domination over Lagash; thus taking the title Lugal over all the rulers of Sumer. He claimed to rule from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — though this is doubtful. Under his rule Akkadians began to rise to high positions in government. The population of Mesopotamia probably reached half a million in this period. He was defeated and replaced by Sargon — whose rise ushered in a new phase of Mesopotamian history that saw for the first time the political unification of Sumer and Akkad (L and Page 809-10 2) …

Akkad and Guti Period (2334-2112 BC) … The Akkadians are a Semitic-speaking people who lived in the northern part of what was later to be called Babylonia beginning with the accession of Hammurabi. The period usually refers to the 141 years circa 2334-2193 BC defined by the reign of the five kings of the Sargonic Dynasty. The area extended from north of Nippur to Sippar. Some scholars add another 40 years to this period (see below) to include the 2 later kings of the city-state Agade — which has not yet been found by archaeologists. Sargon was King of Kish which implied suzerainty over northern Babylonia when he defeated the principal ruler in Sumer — King Lugalzagesi of Uruk (1) thus uniting the non-Semitic Sumer with the more northerly Akkad under one kingship …

The actual Sargonic Dynasty ended with SharKaliSharri in 2193 BC … The collapse of the embattled state of Akkad may have been the result of internal weaknesses and rebellion and foreign attack especially — according to Sumerian tradition — the Gutians (ibid) of the Zagros Moutains on the Iraq-Iran border … They then subjugated and laid waste the whole of Sumer (C) … With the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the land lost its common leadership and collective power. The wild Gutian hordes were not very qualified for the leadership so the individual cities in Sumer and Akkad fell back to the old city-state (D) localized hegemony … The now obscure and impotent Akkadian Dynasty survived for another 40 years in name only with Dudu and ShuDurul as kings but there realm was limited to the region of the capital. The instumental role of the Gutian tribes in the fall of Akkad is uncertain. It seems more likely that they filled the vaccuum created by the decay of the empire (Page 811 2) …

On the overlap between the Gutian line and the later kings of Agade
etcetera read
Pages 42-3 of Babylon by John Oates (1979)
Library of Congress # DS 71 O35

The Ur Ziggurat from the SouthEast : Photograph by Leonard WooleyThird Dynasty of Ur (2112-2002 BC) … Ancient historiographyascribed to King UtuKhegal of city-state Uruk (2133-2113) the actual role of liberating Sumer by ousting the Gutian hordes. After the death of Utukhegal his brother and general Ur-Nammu asserted his independence and established a kingship in Ur and its surroundings — thus establishing the Third Dynasty of Ur in 2112 BC (ibid C E) … At first however the kingdom of Ur was probably overshadowed by Lagash. The Dynasty of King Gudea partly overlaps the reign of UrNammu (Page 811 2) … UrNammu consolidated his control by defeating the rival dynast in Lagash and soon gained control of all of the Sumerian city-states (A) … The Third Dynasty of Ur came to an end when the Elamites destroyed the city-state and captured Ibbi-Sin (2029-2002) and deported him to Elam (Excerpt 60) …

The city-state ruler who finally achieved a temporary supremacy and whose dynasty was in some senses the heir to the Third Dynasty of Ur was IshbiErra of Isin — whose reign may be taken as 201Third Dynasty of Ur was IshbiErra of 2) …

Under the Third Dynasty of Ur Babylon had been a small city-state ruled by an Ensi. The founder of the First Dynasty — Sumu-Abum — was of West Semitic origin (Excerpt 60) …

Hammurabi ……………….. 1792-1749 BC

Language … Sumerian is a linguistically isolated and extinct language. All attemts to connect Sumerian with any other tongue have so far failed. Sumerian is preserved only on clay tablets in a considerable corpus of texts written in cuneiform. After 2000 BC the Semitic language Akkadian became dominant (lingua franca) and Sumerian was relegated to the status of a literary language (1) …

Fertile Crescent

City-states of the Fertile Crescent in the 2nd millennium BCE

The Fertile Crescent is a region in Western Asia. It includes the comparatively fertile regions of Mesopotamia and the Levant, delimited by the dry climate of the Syrian Desert to the south and the Anatolian highlands to the north. The region is often considered the cradle of civilization, saw the development of many of the earliest human civilizations, and is the birthplace of writing and the wheel.

The term "Fertile Crescent" was coined by University of Chicago archaeologist James Henry Breasted in his Ancient Records of Egypt, first published in 1906.[1] The region was so named due to its rich soil and crescent shape.

Modern-day countries with significant territory within the Fertile Crescent are Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, besides the southeastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringe of Iran.

As crucial as rivers and marshlands were to the rise of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, they were not the only factor in the area’s precocity. The area is important as the "bridge" between Africa and Eurasia. This "bridging role" has allowed the Fertile Crescent to retain a greater amount of biodiversity than either Europe or North Africa, where climate changes during the Ice Age led to repeated extinction events due to ecosystems becoming squeezed against the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Coupled with the Saharan pump theory, this Middle Eastern land-bridge is of extreme importance to the modern distribution of Old World flora and fauna, including the spread of humanity.

The fact that this area has borne the brunt of the tectonic divergence between the African and Arabian plates, and the converging Arabian and Eurasian plates, has also made this region a very diverse zone of high snow-covered mountains, fertile broad alluvial basins and desert plateau, which has also increased its biodiversity further and enabled the survival into historic times of species not found elsewhere.


Climate and vegetation

The Fertile Crescent had a diverse climate, and major climatic changes encouraged the evolution of many "r" type annual plants, which produce more edible seeds than "K" type perennial plants. The region’s dramatic variety of elevation gave rise to many species of edible plants for early experiments in cultivation. Most importantly, the Fertile Crescent possessed the wild progenitors of the eight Neolithic founder crops important in early agriculture (i.e. wild progenitors to emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chick pea, pea, lentil, bitter vetch), and four of the five most important species of domesticated (to train plants or animals to be helpful to people) animals—cows, goats, sheep, and pigs—and the fifth species, the horse, lived nearby.[2]

As a result the Fertile Crescent has an impressive record of past human activity. As well as possessing many sites with the skeletal and cultural remains of both pre-modern and early modern humans (e.g. at Kebara Cave in Israel), later Pleistocene hunter-gatherers and Epipalaeolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers (the Natufians), this area is most famous for its sites related to the origins of agriculture. The western zone around the Jordan and upper Euphrates rivers gave rise to the first known Neolithic farming settlements (referred to as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)), which date to around 9,000 BCE (and includes sites such as Jericho). This region, alongside Mesopotamia (which lies to the east of the Fertile Crescent, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates), also saw the emergence of early complex societies during the succeeding Bronze Age. There is also early evidence from this region for writing, and the formation of statelevel societies. This has earned the region the nickname "The Cradle of Civilization."


Both the Tigris and Euphrates start in the Taurus Mountains of what is today Turkey. Farmers in southern Mesopotamia had to protect their fields from flooding each year, except Northern Mesopotamia which had just enough rain to make some farming possible. To protect floods from coming, they made levees.[3]

Since the Bronze Age, the region’s natural fertility has been greatly extended by irrigation works, upon which much of its agricultural production continues to depend. The last two millennia have seen repeated cycles of decline and recovery as past works have fallen into disrepair through the replacement of states, to be replaced under their successors. Another ongoing problem has been salination — gradual concentration of salt and other minerals in soils with a long history of irrigation.

In the contemporary era, river waters remain a potential source of friction in the region. The Jordan lies on the borders of Israel, the kingdom of Jordan and the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Turkey and Syria each control about a quarter of the river Euphrates, on whose lower reaches Iraq is heavily dependent.

Cosmopolitan diffusion

Modern analyses[4][5] comparing 24 craniofacial measurements reveal a predominantly cosmopolitan population within the pre-Neolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age Fertile Crescent,[4] supporting the view that a diverse population of peoples occupied this region during these time periods.[4] In particular, evidence demonstrates a strong Sub-Saharan African presence within the region, especially among the Epipalaeolithic Natufians of Israel.[4][6][7][8][9][10] Similar arguments do not hold true, however, for the Basques and Canary Islanders of the same time period, as the studies demonstrate those ancient peoples to be "clearly associated with modern Europeans."[4] Additionally no evidence from the studies demonstrates Cro-Magnon influences, contrary to former suggestions.[4]


The studies further suggest a diffusion of this diverse population away from the Fertile Crescent, with the early migrants moving away from the Near East —— westward into Europe and North Africa, northward to Crimea, and eastward to Mongolia.[4] They took their agricultural practices with them and interbred with the hunter-gatherers whom they subsequently came in contact with while perpetuating their farming practices. This supports prior genetic[11][12][13][14][15] and archaeological[4][16][17][18][19][20] studies which have all arrived at the same conclusion.

Consequently contemporary in-situ peoples absorbed the agricultural way of life of those early migrants who ventured out of the Fertile Crescent. This is contrary to the suggestion that the spread of agriculture disseminated out of the Fertile Crescent by way of sharing of knowledge.[4] Instead the view now supported by a preponderance of the evidence is that it occurred by actual migration out of the region, coupled with subsequent interbreeding with indigenous local populations whom the migrants came in contact with.[4]

The studies show also that not all present day Europeans share strong genetic affinities to the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent;[4] instead the closest ties to the Fertile Crescent rest with Southern Europeans.[4] The same study further demonstrates all present day Europeans to be closely related.[4]

babylonthegreattext (1)



Lion image on Ishtar Gate

Euphrates · Tigris

Empires / Cities


Eridu · Kish · Uruk · Ur
Lagash · Nippur · Ngirsu



Akkadian Empire

Akkad · Mari


Isin · Larsa


Babylon · Chaldea


Assur · Nimrud
Dur-Sharrukin · Nineveh

Hittites · Kassites
Hurrians / Mitanni



Sumer ( king list)

Kings of Assyria
Kings of Babylon


Enûma Elish · Gilgamesh

Assyro-Babylonian religion


Sumerian · Elamite

Akkadian · Aramaic

Hurrian · Hittite

Mesopotamia (from the Greek meaning "The land between the two rivers") is an area geographically located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, largely corresponding to modern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and the Khūzestān Province of southwestern Iran.

Commonly known as the " Cradle of civilization", Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian Empires. In the Iron Age, it was ruled by the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Neo-Babylonian Empire, and later conquered by theAchaemenid Empire. It mostly remained under Persian rule until the 7th century Islamic conquest of the Sassanid Empire. Under the Caliphate, the region came to be known as Iraq.



Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia

Archaeological sites of Mesopotamia

Archaeological sites of Mesopotamia

The history of Mesopotamia begins with the emergence of urban societies in southern Iraq in the 5th millennium BC, and ends with either the arrival of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, when Mesopotamia began being colonized by foreign powers, or with the arrival of the Islamic Caliphate, when the region came to be known as Iraq.

A cultural continuity and spatial homogeneity for this entire historical geography ("the Great Tradition") is popularly assumed, though the assumption is problematic. Mesopotamia housed some of the world’s most ancient states with highly developed social complexity. The region was famous as one of the four riverine civilizations where writing was first invented, along with the Nile valley in Egypt, the Indus Valley in the Indian subcontinent and Yellow River valley in China (Although writing is also known to have arisen independently in Mesoamerica and the Andes).

Mesopotamia housed historically important cities such as Uruk, Nippur, Nineveh, and Babylon as well as major territorial states such as the Akkadian kingdom, Third Dynasty of Ur, and Assyrian empire. Some of the important historical Mesopotamian leaders were Ur-Nammu (king of Ur), Sargon (who established the Akkadian Kingdom), Hammurabi (who established the Old Babylonian state), and Tiglath-Pileser I (who established the Assyrian Empire).

"Ancient Mesopotamia" begins in the late 6th millennium BC, and ends with either the rise of the Achaemenid Persians in the 6th century BC or the Islamic conquest of Persian Mesopotamia in the 7th century AD. This long period may be divided as follows:


  • Pre-Pottery Neolithic:
    • Jarmo (ca. 7000 BC-? BC)
  • Pottery Neolithic:
    • Hassuna (ca. 6000 BC-? BC), Samarra (ca. 5500 BC-4800 BC) and Halaf (ca. 6000 BC-5300 BC) "cultures"
  • Chalcolithic:
    • Ubaid period (ca. 5900 BC–4000 BC)
    • Uruk period (ca. 4000 BC–3100 BC)
    • Jemdet Nasr period (ca. 3100 BC–2900 BC)
  • Early Bronze Age
    • Early Dynastic Sumerian city-states (ca. 2900 BC–2350 BC)
    • Akkadian Empire (ca. 2350 BC–2193 BC).
    • Third dynasty of Ur ("Sumerian Renaissance" or "Neo-Sumerian Period") (ca. 2119 BC–2004 BC)
  • Late Bronze Age
  • Iron Age
    • Neo-Hittite or Syro-Hittite regional states (11th–7th c. BC)
    • Neo-Assyrian Empire (10th to 7th c. BC)
    • Neo-Babylonian Empire (7th to 6th c. BC)
  • Classical Antiquity
    • Achaemenid Assyria (6th to 4th c. BC)
    • Seleucid Mesopotamia (4th to 1st c. BC)
    • Parthian Mesopotamia (3rd c. BC to 3rd c. AD)
      • Roman Mesopotamia (2nd c. AD)
    • Sassanid Mesopotamia (3rd to 7th c. AD)
    • Islamic conquest of Persian Mesopotamia (7th c. AD)

Dates are approximate for the second and third millennia BC; compare Chronology of the Ancient Near East.



Mesopotamia is a semi-arid environment which ranges from the northern areas of rain fed agriculture, to the south where irrigation of agriculture is essential if a surplus energy returned on energy invested ( EROEI) is to be obtained. This irrigation is aided by a high water table and by melted snows from the high peaks of the Zagros and from the Armenian cordillera, the source of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that give the region its name. The usefulness of irrigation depends upon the ability to mobilize sufficient labor for the construction and maintenance of canals, and this, from the earliest period, has assisted the development of urban settlements and centralized systems of political authority. Agriculture throughout the region has been supplemented by nomadic pastoralism, where tent dwelling nomads move herds of sheep and goats (and later camels) from the river pastures in the dry summer months, out into seasonal grazing lands on the desert fringe in the wet winter season. The area is generally lacking in building stone, precious metals and timber, and so historically has relied upon long distance trade of agricultural products to secure these items from outlying areas. In the marshlands to the south of the country, a complex water-borne fishing culture has existed since pre-historic times, and has added to the cultural mix.

Periodic breakdowns in the cultural system have occurred for a number of reasons. The demands for labour has from time to time led to population increases that push the limits of the ecological carrying capacity, and should a period of climatic instability ensue, collapsing central government and declining populations can occur. Alternatively, military vulnerability to invasion from marginal hill tribes or nomadic pastoralists have led to periods of trade collapse and neglect of irrigation systems. Equally, centripetal tendencies amongst city states has meant that central authority over the whole region, when imposed, has tended to be ephemeral, and localism has fragmented power into tribal or smaller regional units. These trends have continued to the present day in Iraq.

Language and writing

The earliest language written in Mesopotamia was Sumerian, an agglutinative language isolate. Scholars agree that other languages were also spoken in early Mesopotamia along with Sumerian. Later a Semitic language, Akkadian, came to be the dominant language, although Sumerian was retained for administration, religious, literary, and scientific purposes. Different varieties of Akkadian were used until the end of the Neo-Babylonian period. Then Aramaic, which had already become common in Mesopotamia, became the official provincial administration language of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Akkadian fell into disuse, but both it and Sumerian were still used in temples for some centuries.

In Early Mesopotamia (around mid 4th millennium BC) cuneiform script was invented. Cuneiform literally means "wedge-shaped", due to the triangular tip of the stylus used for impressing signs on wet clay. The standardized form of each cuneiform sign appear to have been developed from pictograms. The earliest texts (7 archaic tablets) come from the E-anna super sacred precinct dedicated to the goddess Inanna at Uruk, Level III, from a building labeled as Temple C by its excavators.

The early logographic system of cuneiform script took many years to master. Thus only a limited number of individuals were hired as scribes to be trained in its reading and writing. It was not until the widespread use of a syllabic script was adopted under Sargon’s rule that significant portions of Mesopotamian population became learned in literacy. Massive archives of texts were recovered from the archaeological contexts of Old Babylonian scribal schools, through which literacy was disseminated.

Literature and mythology

In Babylonian times there were libraries in most towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that "he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn." Women as well as men learned to read and write, and for the Semitic Babylonians, this involved knowledge of the extinct Sumerian language, and a complicated and extensive syllabary.

A considerable amount of Babylonian literature was translated from Sumerian originals, and the language of religion and law long continued to be the old agglutinative language of Sumer. Vocabularies, grammars, and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students, as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. The characters of the syllabary were all arranged and named, and elaborate lists of them were drawn up.

There are many Babylonian literary works whose titles have come down to us. One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, in twelve books, translated from the original Sumerian by a certain Sin-liqe-unninni, and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh. The whole story is a composite product, and it is probable that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure.


The origins of philosophy can be traced back to early Mesopotamian wisdom, which embodied certain philosophies of life, particularly ethics, in the forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose, and proverbs. Babylonian reasoning and rationality developed beyond empirical observation.

The earliest form of logic was developed by the Babylonians, notably in the rigorous nonergodic nature of their social systems. Babylonian thought was axiomatic and is comparable to the "ordinary logic" described by John Maynard Keynes. Babylonian thought was also based on anopen-systems ontology which is compatible with ergodic axioms. Logic was employed to some extent in Babylonian astronomy and medicine.

Babylonian thought had a considerable influence on early Greek philosophy and Hellenistic philosophy. In particular, the Babylonian text Dialog of Pessimism contains similarities to the agonistic thought of the sophists, the Heraclitean doctrine of contrasts, and the dialectic and dialogs ofPlato, as well as a precursor to the maieutic Socratic method of Socrates. The Phoenician philosopher Thales is also known to have studied philosophy in Mesopotamia.

Science and technology


The Babylonian astronomers were very interested in studying the stars and sky, and most could already predict eclipses and solstices. People thought that everything had some purpose in astronomy. Most of these related to religion and omens. Mesopotamian astronomers worked out a 12 month calendar based on the cycles of the moon. They divided the year into two seasons: summer and winter. The origins of astronomy as well as astrology date from this time.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers developed a new approach to astronomy. They began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the early universe and began employing an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. This was an important contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science and some scholars have thus referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution. This new approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy.

In Seleucid and Parthian times, the astronomical reports were of a thoroughly scientific character; how much earlier their advanced knowledge and methods were developed is uncertain. The Babylonian development of methods for predicting the motions of the planets is considered to be a major episode in the history of astronomy.

The only Babylonian astronomer known to have supported a heliocentric model of planetary motion was Seleucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC). Seleucus is known from the writings of Plutarch. He supported the heliocentric theory where the Earth rotated around its own axis which in turn revolved around the Sun. According to Plutarch, Seleucus even proved the heliocentric system, but it is not known what arguments he used.

Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of what was done in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy, in classical Indian astronomy, in Sassanian, Byzantine and Syrian astronomy, in medieval Islamic astronomy, and in Central Asian and Western European astronomy.


The Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal (base 60) numeral system. This is the source of the current 60-minute hours and 24-hour days, as well as the 360 degree circle. The Sumerian calendar also measured weeks of seven days each. This mathematical knowledge was used inmapmaking.

The Babylonians might have been familiar with the general rules for measuring the areas. They measured the circumference of a circle as three times the diameter and the area as one-twelfth the square of the circumference, which would be correct if p were estimated as 3. The volume of a cylinder was taken as the product of the base and the height, however, the volume of the frustum of a cone or a square pyramid was incorrectly taken as the product of the height and half the sum of the bases. Also, there was a recent discovery in which a tablet used p as 3 and 1/8 (3.125 for 3.14159~). The Babylonians are also known for the Babylonian mile, which was a measure of distance equal to about seven miles (11 km) today. This measurement for distances eventually was converted to a time-mile used for measuring the travel of the Sun, therefore, representing time.


The oldest Babylonian texts on medicine date back to the Old Babylonian period in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. The most extensive Babylonian medical text, however, is the Diagnostic Handbook written by the physician Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, during the reign of theBabylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1069-1046 BC).

Along with contemporary ancient Egyptian medicine, the Babylonians introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and prescriptions. In addition, the Diagnostic Handbook introduced the methods of therapy and a etiology and the use of empiricism, logic andrationality in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. The text contains a list of medical symptoms and often detailed empirical observations along with logical rules used in combining observed symptoms on the body of a patient with its diagnosis and prognosis.

The symptoms and diseases of a patient were treated through therapeutic means such as bandages, creams and pills. If a patient could not be cured physically, the Babylonian physicians often relied on exorcism to cleanse the patient from any curses. Esagil-kin-apli’s Diagnostic Handbook was based on a logical set of axioms and assumptions, including the modern view that through the examination and inspection of the symptoms of a patient, it is possible to determine the patient’s disease, its aetiology and future development, and the chances of the patient’s recovery.

Esagil-kin-apli discovered a variety of illnesses and diseases and described their symptoms in his Diagnostic Handbook. These include the symptoms for many varieties of epilepsy and related ailments along with their diagnosis and prognosis.


Mesopotamian people invented many technologies, most notably the wheel, which some consider the most important mechanical invention in history. Other Mesopotamian inventions include metalworking, copper-working, glassmaking, lamp making, textile weaving, flood control, water storage, as well as irrigation. They were also one of the first Bronze age people in the world. Early on they used copper, bronze and gold, and later they used iron. Palaces were decorated with hundreds of kilograms of these very expensive metals. Also, copper, bronze, and iron were used for armor as well as for different weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, and maces.


Sumerian religion was based on a series of sacred marriages between divine couples

Sumerian religion was based on a series of sacred marriages between divine couples

Mesopotamian religion was the first to be recorded. Mesopotamians believed that the world was a flat disc, surrounded by a huge, holed space, and above that, heaven. They also believed that water was everywhere, the top, bottom and sides, and that the universe was born from this enormous sea. In addition, Mesopotamian religion waspolytheistic.

Although the beliefs described above were held in common among Mesopotamians, there were also regional variations. The Sumerian word for universe is an-ki, which refers to the god An and the goddess Ki. Their son was Enlil, the air god. They believed that Enlil was the most powerful god. He was the chief god of the Pantheon, as the Greeks had Zeus and the Romans had Jupiter. The Sumerians also posed philosophical questions, such as: Who are we?, Where are we?, How did we get here?. They attributed answers to these questions to explanations provided by their gods.


Primary gods and goddesses
  • Anu was the Sumerian god of the sky. He was married to Ki, but in some other Mesopotamian religions he has a wife called Uraš. Though he was considered the most important god in the pantheon, he took a mostly passive role in epics, allowing Enlil to claim the position as most powerful god.
  • Enlil was initially the most powerful god in Mesopotamian religion. His wife was Ninlil, and his children were Iškur (sometimes), Nanna – Suen, Nergal, Nisaba, Namtar,Ninurta (sometimes), Pabilsag, Nushu, Enbilulu, Uraš Zababa and Ennugi. His position at the top of the pantheon was later usurped by Marduk and then by Ashur.
  • Enki (Ea) god of Eridu. He was the god of rain.
  • Marduk was the principal god of Babylon. When Babylon rose to power, the mythologies raised Marduk from his original position as an agricultural god to the principal god in the pantheon.
  • Ashur was god of the Assyrian empire and likewise when the Assyrians rose to power their myths raised Ashur to a position of importance.
  • Gula or Utu (in Sumerian), Shamash (in Akkadian) was the sun god and god of justice.
  • Ishtar or Inanna was the goddess of sex and war.
  • Ereshkigal was goddess of the Netherworld.
  • Nabu was the Mesopotamian god of writing. He was very wise, and was praised for his writing ability. In some places he was believed to be in control of heaven and earth. His importance was increased considerably in the later periods.
  • Ninurta was the Sumerian god of war. He was also the god of heroes.
  • Iškur (or Adad) was the god of storms.
  • Erra was probably the god of drought. He is often mentioned in conjunction with Adad and Nergal in laying waste to the land.
  • Nergal was probably a plague god. He was also spouse of Ereshkigal.
  • Pazuzu, also known as Zu, was an evil god, who stole the tablets of Enlil’s destiny, and is killed because of this. He also brought diseases which had no known cure.


Hundreds of graves have been excavated in parts of Mesopotamia, revealing information about Mesopotamian burial habits. In the city of Ur, most people were buried in family graves under their houses (as in Catalhuyuk), along with some possessions. A few have been found wrapped in mats and carpets. Deceased children were put in big "jars" which were placed in the family chapel. Other remains have been found buried in common city graveyards. 17 graves have been found with very precious objects in them ; it is assumed that these were royal graves.


Music, songs and instruments

Some songs were written for the gods but many were written to describe important events. Although music and songs amused kings, they were also enjoyed by ordinary people who liked to sing and dance in their homes or in the marketplaces. Songs were sung to children who passed them on to their children. Thus songs were passed on through many generations until someone wrote them down. These songs provided a means of passing on through the centuries highly important information about historical events that were eventually passed on to modern historians.

The Oud (Arabic:العود) is a small, stringed musical instrument. The oldest pictorial record of the Oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon. Theimage depicts a female crouching with her instruments upon a boat, playing right-handed. This instrument appears hundreds of times throughout Mesopotamian history and again in ancient Egypt from the 18th dynasty onwards in long- and short-neck varieties.

The oud is regarded as a precursor to the European lute. Its name is derived from the Arabic word العود al-‘ūd ‘the wood’, which is probably the name of the tree from which the oud was made. (The Arabic name, with the definite article, is the source of the word ‘lute’.)


Hunting was popular among Assyrian kings. Boxing and wrestling feature frequently in art, and a form of polo was probably popular, with men sitting on the shoulders of other men rather than on horses. They also played a board game similar to senet and backgammon, now known as the " Royal Game of Ur."

Family life

The Babylonian marriage market, in the Royal Holloway College.

The Babylonian marriage market, in the Royal Holloway College.

Mesopotamia across its history became more and more a patriarchal society, in which the men were far more powerful than the women. As for schooling, only royal offspring and sons of the rich and professionals such as scribes, physicians, temple administrators, and so on, went to school. Most boys were taught their father’s trade or were apprenticed out to learn a trade. Girls had to stay home with their mothers to learn housekeeping andcooking, and to look after the younger children. Some children would help with crushing grain, or cleaning birds. Unusual for that time in history, women in Mesopotamia had rights. They could own property and, if they had good reason, get a divorce.


Sumer developed the first economy, while the Babylonians developed the earliest system of economics, which was comparable to modern post-Keynesian economics, but with a more "anything goes" approach.


Food supply in Mesopotamia was quite rich due to the location of the two rivers from which its name is derived, Tigris and Euphrates. The Tigris and Euphrates River valleys formed the northeastern portion of the Fertile Crescent, which also included the Jordan River valley & that of the Nile. Although land nearer to the rivers was fertile and good for crops, portions of land further from the water were dry and largely uninhabitable. This is why the development of irrigation was very important for settlers of Mesopotamia. Other Mesopotamian innovations include the control of water by dams and the use of aqueducts. Early settlers of fertile land in Mesopotamia usedwooden plows to soften the soil before planting crops such as barley, onions, grapes, turnips, and apples. Mesopotamian settlers were some of the first people to make beer and wine. The unpredictable Mesopotamian weather was often hard on farmers; crops were often ruined so backup sources of food such as cows and lambs were also kept. As a result of the skill involved in farming in the Mesopotamian, farmers did not depend on slaves to complete farm work for them, with some exceptions. There were too many risks involved to make slavery practical (i.e. the escape/ mutiny of the slave).




The Mesopotamians believed their kings and queens were descended from the city gods, but, unlike the ancient Egyptians, they never believed their kings were real gods. Most kings named themselves “king of the universe” or “great king”. Another common name was “ shepherd”, as kings had to look after their people.

Notable Mesopotamian kings include:

Eannatum of Lagash who founded the first (short-lived) empire.

Sargon of Akkad who conquered all of Mesopotamia and created the first empire that outlived its founder.

Hammurabi founded the first Babylonian empire.

Tiglath-Pileser III founded the neo- Assyrian empire.

Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful king in the neo-Babylonian Empire. He was thought to be the son of the god Nabu. He married the daughter of Cyaxeres, so the Median and the Babylonian dynasties had a familial connection. Nebuchadnezzar’s name means: Nabo, protect the crown!

Belshedezzar was the last king of Babylonia. He was the son of Nabonidus whose wife was Nictoris, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar.


When Assyria grew into an empire, it was divided into smaller parts, called provinces. Each of these were named after their main cities, like Nineveh, Samaria, Damascus and Arpad. They all had their own governor who had to make sure everyone paid their taxes; he had to call upsoldiers to war, and supply workers when a temple was built. He was also responsible for the laws being enforced. In this way it was easier to keep control of an empire like Assyria. Although Babylon was quite a small state in the Sumerian, it grew tremendously throughout the time of Hammurabi‘s rule. He was known as “the law maker”, and soon Babylon became one of the main cities in Mesopotamia. It was later called Babylonia, which meant "the gateway of the gods." It also became one of history’s greatest centers of learning.


Assyrian soldiers, from a plate in THE HISTORY OF COSTUME by Braun & Schneider (ca. 1860).

Assyrian soldiers, from a plate inTHE HISTORY OF COSTUME by Braun & Schneider (ca. 1860).

As city-states began to grow, their spheres of influence overlapped, creating arguments between other city-states, especially over land and canals. These arguments were recorded in tablets several hundreds of years before any major war – the first recording of a war occurred around 3200BC but was not common until about 2500BC. At this point warfare was incorporated into the Mesopotamian political system, where a neutral city may act as an arbitrator for the two rival cities. This helped to form unions between cities, leading to regional states. When empires were created, they went to war more with foreign countries. King Sargon, for example conquered all the cities of Sumer, some cities in Mari, and then went to war with northernSyria. Many Babylonian palace walls were decorated with the pictures of the successful fights and the enemy, whether desperately escaping, or hiding amongst reeds. A king in Sumer, Gilgamesh, was thought two-thirds god and only one third human. There were legendary stories and poems about him, which were passed on for many generations, because he had many adventures that were believed very important, and won many wars and battles.


King Hammurabi, as mentioned above, was famous for his set of laws, The Code of Hammurabi (created ca. 1780 BC), which is one of the earliest sets of laws found and one of the best preserved examples of this type of document from ancient Mesopotamia. He made over 200 laws for Mesopotamia For more information, see Hammurabi and Code of Hammurabi.


The study of ancient Mesopotamian architecture is based on available archaeological evidence, pictorial representation of buildings and texts on building practices. Scholarly literature usually concentrates on temples, palaces, city walls and gates and other monumental buildings, but occasionally one finds works on residential architecture as well. Archaeological surface surveys also allowed for the study of urban form in early Mesopotamian cities. Most notably known architectural remains from early Mesopotamia are the temple complexes at Uruk from the 4th millennium BC, temples and palaces from the Early Dynastic period sites in the Diyala River valley such as Khafajah and Tell Asmar, the Third Dynasty of Ur remains at Nippur (Sanctuary of Enlil) and Ur (Sanctuary of Nanna), Middle Bronze Age remains at Syrian-Turkish sites of Ebla, Mari, Alalakh, Aleppo and Kultepe, Late Bronze Age palaces at Bogazkoy (Hattusha), Ugarit, Ashur and Nuzi, Iron Age palaces and temples at Assyrian ( Kalhu/Nimrud, Khorsabad, Nineveh), Babylonian ( Babylon), Urartian ( Tushpa/Van Kalesi, Cavustepe, Ayanis, Armavir, Erebuni, Bastam) and Neo-Hittite sites ( Karkamis, Tell Halaf, Karatepe). Houses are mostly known from Old Babylonian remains at Nippur and Ur. Among the textual sources on building construction and associated rituals, Gudea’s cylinders from the late 3rd millennium are notable, as well as the Assyrian and Babylonian royal inscriptions from the Iron Age.


The materials used to build a Mesopotamian house were the same as those used today: mud brick, mud plaster and wooden doors, which were all naturally available round the city, although wood could not be naturally made very well during the particular time period described. Most houses had a square centre room with other rooms attached to it, but a great variation in the size and materials used to build the houses suggest they were built by the inhabitants themselves . The smallest rooms may not have coincided with the poorest people; in fact it could be that the poorest people built houses out of perishable materials such as reeds on the outside of the city, but there is very little direct evidence for this.

The Palace

The palaces of the early Mesopotamian elites were large scale complexes, and were often lavishly decorated. Earliest examples are known from the Diyala River valley sites such as Khafajah and Tell Asmar. These third millennium BC palaces functioned as a large scale socio-economic institutions, therefore, along with residential and private function, they housed craftsmen workshops, food storehouses, ceremonial courtyards, and often associated with shrines. For instance, the so-called "giparu" (or Gig-Par-Ku in Sumerian) at Ur where the Moon god Nanna’s priestesses resided was a major complex with multiple courtyards, a number of sanctuaries, burial chambers for dead priestesses, a ceremonial banquet hall, etc. A similarly complex example of a Mesopotamian palace was excavated at Mari in Syria, dating from the Old Babylonian period.

Assyrian palaces of the Iron Age, especially at Kalhu/ Nimrud, Dur Sharrukin/ Khorsabad and Ninuwa/ Nineveh, have become famous due to the pictorial and textual narrative programs on their walls, all carved on stone slabs known as orthostats. These pictorial programs either incorporated cultic scenes or the narrative accounts of the kings’ military and civic accomplishments. Gates and important passageways were flanked with massive stone sculpture of apotropaic mythological figures. The architectural arrangement of these Iron Age palaces were also organized around large and small courtyards. Usually the king’s throneroom opened to a massive ceremonial courtyard where important state councils met, state ceremonies performed.

Massive amounts of ivory furniture pieces were found in many Assyrian palaces pointing out an intense trade relationship with North Syrian Neo-Hittite states at the time. There is also good evidence that bronze repousse bands decorated the wooden gates.


Ziggurats (Akkadian ziqquratu from the verb zaqāru) were massive stepped cult platforms found in certain Mesopotamian sanctuaries. The idea seems to have originated in early Mesopotamian temples which were built successively, one building over another on the same site over centuries, creating a massive mound that raised the new temples over the rest of the city. A good example of such structure was the temple dedicated to Ea at Eridu (Tell Abu Shahrain) excavated by Fuad Safar and Seton Lloyd in 1940s, or the "White" Temple dedicated to Anu at Uruk in the Late Uruk period. Ur-Nammu’s ziggurat, built at the height the Third Dynasty of Ur, at the site of Ur (Tell al Mugayyar) in the sanctuary of the Moon God Nanna, is also believed to be encasing earlier temples of the Early Dynastic Period. Ur-Nammu’s ziggurat is considered one of the earliest of all planned ziggurats. After that time Kassites and Elamites of the Late Bronze Age, and Assyrians and Babylonians of the Iron age continued to build artificially erected ziggurats. Examples of such structures were found in Dur Kurigalzu (Aqar Quf), Dur-Untash (Tschoga Zanbil), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) and Babylon among others.

It has been suggested that ziggurats were built to resemble mountains, but there is little textual or archaeological evidence to support that hypothesis.

Ur-Nammu’s ziggurat at Ur was designed as a three-stage construction, today only two of these survive. This entire mudbrick core structure was originally given a facing of baked brick envelope set in bitumen, circa 2.5 m on the first lowest stage, and 1.15 m on the second. Each of these baked bricks were stamped with the name of the king. The sloping walls of the stages were buttressed. The access to the top was by means of a triple monumental staircase, which all converges at a portal that opened on a landing between the first and second stages. The height of the first stage was about 11 m while the second stage rose some 5.7 m. Usually a third stage is reconstructed by the excavator of the ziggurat ( Leonard Woolley), and crowned by a temple. At the Tschoga Zanbil ziggurat archaeologists have found massive reed ropes that ran across the core of the ziggurat structure and tied together the mudbrick mass.


The regional toponym Mesopotamia ( < meso (μέσος) = middle and potamia < ποταμός = river, literally means "between two rivers") was coined in the Hellenistic period without any definite boundaries, to refer to a broad geographical area and probably used by the Seleucids. The term biritum/birit narim corresponded to a similar geographical concept and coined at the time of the Aramaicization of the region. It is however widely accepted that early Mesopotamian societies simply referred to the entire alluvium as kalam in Sumerian (lit. "land"). More recently terms like "Greater Mesopotamia" or "Syro-Mesopotamia" have been adopted to refer to wider geographies corresponding to the Near East or Middle East. The later euphemisms are Eurocentric terms attributed to the region in the midst of various 19th century Western encroachments.