A sculpture of a Sumerian worshipperMesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, was one of the first places in the world where people settled down to be farmers: around 10,000 BC. By 4500 BC, the Sumerians were building cities, such as Eridu, there. In 2330 BC, the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians. Different groups of invaders then founded new city-states, which struggled to rule the area for the next 500 years. Hammurabi came to the throne of one of the city-states, Babylon, in 1792 BC. He brought other city-states under his control. Babylon dominated Mesopotamia until the 6th century BC.
The first cities in Mesopotamia were founded by the Sumerian people about 6500 years ago. One of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, was invented by the Sumerians. We know a lot about their way of life because they left many clay tablets with pictures, representing words, carved on them. The writing later developed from pictures into lines and symbols, which were easier to carve. Writing enabled accurate records to be kept, such as of the number of sheep a farmer had.
Hammurabi of Babylonia
In 1792 BC, Hammurabi came to the throne of one of the Mesopotamian city-states, Babylon. He was a wise king who set out a new code of laws. These gave status to women, protected poor people and punished wrongdoers. Unlike previous rulers, Hammurabi did not regard himself as a god. During his reign, Babylon was a rich city, the capital of a kingdom known as Babylonia. He built a great ziggurat (stepped pyramid temple) there, which was later known as the Tower of Babel. It was, the Bible says, designed to reach Heaven. Six centuries after Hammurabi’s death in 1750 BC, the kingdom he founded was conquered by a warlike people, the Assyrians.
What the Tower of Babel could have looked like
The land of the Assyrians, in northern Mesopotamia, lay on important trade routes. They wanted to dominate the area by building up a great empire. Many years of warfare followed, during which the Assyrian Empire expanded to cover most of the Near East.
The ruler during the main period of expansion was Ashurbanipal (668–c.627 BC), the last great Assyrian king. Archaeologists found 20,000 clay tablets in his library at the palace of Nineveh. These give many details about Assyrian laws and history.
The royal lion huntOne of the features of Assyrian life was the royal lion hunt, when the king and his party went out to destroy the mountain lions which preyed on people and animals. Assyrian artists made fine carvings of such events.
When Nebuchadnezzar II became king of Babylon in 604 BC, he changed the city's fortunes. His father had delivered Babylon from the control of the warlike Assyrians, who had destroyed it. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became one of the richest cities in the world. He fought many wars and created a huge empire. He used wealth from his conquests to rebuild the city, including constructing a huge ziggurat to the god Marduk.
Massive stepped pyramid temples, called ziggurats, were built in Mesopotamia to worship the gods. Ziggurat was the Assyrian word for mountaintop. They were believed to be stairways linking heaven and earth. The earliest ziggurats were built in the 3rd millennium BC by the Sumerians. They continued to be built in the region by the Babylonians, Elamites, Akkadians and Assyrians, until the 6th century BC.
One of the most famous ziggurats was built at Ur in the 21st century BC. It is believed to have been over 30 metres (100 feet) high and was a shrine to the moon god Nanna, patron deity of the city of Ur.
The remains of the Ziggurat of Ur
Consultant: Philip Parker
Farming begins in Mesopotamia.
The Sumerian city of Eridu is founded.
Early writing is developed in Mesopotamia.
The development of major cities, such as Ur, in Sumer. Various city-states struggle over rule of Mesopotamia.
Hammurabi comes to the throne of Babylon, which begins to dominate Mesopotamia.
The start of the Hittite Empire.
Hittites overthrow the Babylonian Empire.
Babylon is sacked by the Assyrians and the city comes under their influence.
Nabopolassar declares Babylonian independence from Assyria.
Reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. Babylon conquers Assyria and Judah, widening its empire.
Babylon falls to the Persians in the Battle of Opis. Babylon goes on to become one of the most important cities in the Persian Empire.