The first civilization in the history of mankind was born in Mesopotamia in the 5th millennium BC. For over two thousand years, it spawned the most powerful and developed states in the world. At the origin of many inventions, including writing, the Mesopotamian world had its imprint on its neighbors in the Middle East, Egypt and the Indus Valley, before beginning to decline around 500 BC. By the advent of the Christian era, it was gone.
Map of the "Mesopotamia River"
The term Mesopotamia, which means "land between rivers", refers to the floodplain that stretches between the Tigris and the Euphrates (present-day Iraq). When these rivers overflowed with their life, they submerged the land, depositing layers of fertile silt. But arid and uncultivable due to the lack of rainfall, this region had to wait for the invention of irrigation canals around 5500 years before J-C for the development of fields and crops. Regularly watered, these provided an almost sufficient harvest each year. A thousand years later, the invention of the wooden plow further increased agricultural output. The population grew as a result and in 1300 BC hundreds of towns and villages dotted the region.
Mesopotamia was sorely lacking in natural resources. For many activities, from construction to jewelry, raw materials such as wood, stones and minerals were imported from neighboring regions in exchange for surplus crops and handicrafts. The rapidly expanding trade, was controlled by wealthy and powerful rulers, who developed collective projects such as irrigation networks and other flood defenses. These represented a considerable danger for crops and homes. They were thought to signify the wrath of the gods at the time, and the biblical flood episode probably has its origins in early Mesopotamian myths.
The first city-states of southern Mesopotamia
By 3100 BC dozens of cities with as many as 10,000 inhabitants occupied the land of Sumer in lower Mesopotamia. Independent states, they submitted to a king. These city-states were populated mostly by farmers, who worked outside the walls during the day to return to the city at night. Surplus crops were stored in temples and distributed to non-agricultural trades: blacksmiths, potters, masons, traders, soldiers and priests. In the heart of the Sumerian cities soon arose immense buildings adjoining the temple, gigantic warehouses for the entire community.
The early Sumerian city-states were very different from our current cities. Because money was not there, they had no market. The inhabitants received food, clothing and other products in payment for their labor, or resorted more simply to barter. While a few wealthy families had palaces and villas built, the majority of the population lived in modest housing, without running water or sanitation. The buildings were of raw bricks dried in the sun; because of its rarity, the stone was reserved for sculpture.
The cradle of civilization - The invention of writing
Around 3400 BC, the Sumerians invented a form of ’primitive writing to record business transactions. The cuneiform writing, obtained by imprinting reeds on damp clay, took several hundred years to evolve into a more complex system. Its uses diversified, from the recording of legal codes and historical chronicles to the transmission of messages, including the writing of religious and literary texts. Since many tablets have survived to us, historians have been able to paint a fairly comprehensive picture of life at this time, although the texts are difficult to interpret.
During the period of the first dynasties (from 2900 to 2334 BC), conflicts pitted the city-states against each other and most were surrounded by defensive walls. The art of war was refined: sculptures from this period depict soldiers going to the battlefield in four-wheeled chariots pulled by donkeys. Around 2334 BC, Sargon, king of the city of Akkad, succeeded in conquering all the Mesopotamian city-states. His domain extended northwards to the Mediterranean coast. Unifying different peoples and cultures, he founded the first empire of mankind, which hardly survived its king, as rivalries between city-states resumed again. One of them, Our, came to dominate the region at one point, but the Sumerian decline was inexorable. It was upper Mesopotamia which then dominated the region with the cities of Assur and then Babylon.
Hammurabi and its code
Babylon was at its peak during the reign ofHammurabi (1792-1750 BC). He is best known for the series of laws he had engraved on a high stone pillar. This stele, on which is one of the oldest legal texts in the world, reveals that women and children were considered the property of the husband, of the father. The penalties were severe: minor offenses were punished by mutilation or death.
Mesopotamia - The Neo Assyrian period
In 1595 BC, the Hittites, originally from the mountains of central Anatolia, where they were the first to use the iron, invaded and sacked Babylon. Mesopotamia then entered a dark age that lasted 600 years. It was reborn around the year one thousand BC with the impetus of the Assyrian cities of Assur and Nineveh. At VIIe century, the Assyrian Empire dominated the entire Middle East.
The Assyrian society seems to have been organized in a very military fashion. Even the arts turn to warlike themes. The royal palaces were adorned with bas-reliefs depicting scenes of battles and defeated enemies subjected to torture, enslaved or executed. However, by extending its influence to Egypt, first conquered in the 7th century, Assyria had dangerously dispersed its resources and armies. Revolts broke out, and with the death of King Ashurbanipal (669-627 BC), the empire fell into the hands of the Babylonians.
The Neo Babylonian period
Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) was the most famous and last king of Babylon. He put an end to the rebellions which were tearing his empire apart and was intractable towards his enemies. He did not hesitate, in particular, to deport the Jews to Babylon. Not shrinking from any expense to finance his wars and transform the city into an imperial capital (we owe him the famous hanging gardens) he left an empire divided and bloodless.
In 539 BC, Babylon offered little resistance to the armies of the Persian king Cyrus the great (559 -530 BC). From his kingdom on the Persian Gulf, Cyrus had conquered the Medes to the north and invaded Anatolia. He was at the head of an empire spanning the then rising Mediterranean to Central Asia, the largest ever known. After centuries of over-cultivation the soil of Mesopotamia was depleted. Its neighbors surpassed it in wealth and population, and under the foreign yoke, this civilization, one of the cradles of humanity, fell into oblivion.
Bibliography on Mesopotamia
- By Véronique Grandpierre: History of Mesopotamia (Pocket). Editions Folio Histoire, February 2010.
- The Mesopotamia by Georges Roux. History Points, 1995.
- Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero. Folio history, 1997.