Mesopotamia means the “land between two rivers”. It is the ancient name for the region of western Asia around the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in present-day Iraq. The world’s first cities were built in Mesopotamia more than 6,000 years ago, and the region became very rich and powerful.
CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION
Mesopotamia is often described as the cradle of civilization. The people of ancient Mesopotamia were the first to build cities, the first to use writing and the first to ride in wheeled carts. They developed mathematics, astronomy and medicine, and kept detailed records of their activities. The cities of ancient Mesopotamia were small by modern standards (with about 40,000 inhabitants), but they had housing developments, warehouses, factories, shops and eating houses—just like modern cities.
CONTROLLING LAND AND WATER
Mesopotamia has a mainly flat landscape. The soil is very fertile, but in some places it is too dry or too marshy to grow crops. The Mesopotamians learned to build canals and dams to drain marshes and carry irrigation water to crops in dry areas. They built large farms that produced great quantities of food. As the population increased, people began to build towns and then cities. The first city was named Eridu, but others were soon built including Lagash, Uruk and Ur. The cities were ruled by kings who lived in grand palaces. The most important public buildings in a Mesopotamian city were temples to the local gods. These were often built on large stepped pyramids, known as ziggurats, which were made of mud bricks. The city streets were arranged around the ziggurats and had houses and shops that were also built of mud bricks.
In about 3200 bc southern Mesopotamia was taken over by the Sumerians, and this region became known as the land of Sumer. The Sumerians developed a system of picture signs for writing their language, and this developed into cuneiform script. Cuneiform means wedge-shaped, and the Sumerians wrote their script by pressing the wedge-shaped end of a reed into soft clay tablets. Large numbers of these tablets have been discovered, and historians can now read the Sumerian language. Sumerian power ended with the fall of the Third Dynasty at Ur in about 2000 bc.
The cities of central Mesopotamia became increasingly important, and the city of Babylon was dominant. This central region became known as Babylonia. In 1792 bc a warrior leader named Hammurabi conquered Babylon and neighbouring cities. He created an empire that extended beyond Mesopotamia into Syria and parts of Iran. Hammurabi was a wise ruler and issued a law code of crimes and their punishments. He sent copies of the code to all parts of his empire, carved on stone pillars known as stela.
The cities of Babylonia became very wealthy. Prosperous families lived in houses with living rooms and kitchens on the ground floor, bedrooms above and a walled garden outside. If they travelled outside the city to visit their farms, they might ride in a cart drawn by a donkey. Farm labourers in the fields guided ploughs drawn by oxen. The poorest people in Babylonian society were slaves who had been captured in war. They were forced to work as servants or in mines or pottery factories. Slaves were given just one bowl of food a day.
In about 1000 bc the Assyrians became powerful in the region. They were a warlike people from northern Mesopotamia, and their capital city was called Ashur. They were ruled by a series of strong rulers who created an empire that was much bigger than Hammurabi’s, and stretched southward into Egypt. In about 600 bc Assyrian power began to decline, and the Babylonians briefly regained power. The most famous of the late-Babylonian kings was Nebuchadnezzar II, who built many splendid buildings including the Ishtar Gate in Babylon.
Mesopotamia then became part of the Persian Empire that was ruled from what is now Iran. This was the largest of the early empires and extended from the Himalaya Mountains in Central Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In 480 bc the Persians tried unsuccessfully to conquer Greece. About a century-and-a-half later, Alexander the Great led a Greek army that conquered Mesopotamia and the rest of the Persian Empire. After Alexander’s death, Mesopotamia became part of the Roman Empire for a short time. In the 7th century ad it was conquered by Islamic armies and became one of the centres of Islamic civilization.