Ancient Middle East

Mesopotamia

A sculpture of a Sumerian worshipperA 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.

A map of MesopotamiaA map of Mesopotamia

A letter from 2400 BC, written on a lump of clay A letter from 2400 BC, written on a lump of clay

The Sumerians

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.


Code of HammurabiCode of Hammurabi

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 likeWhat the Tower of Babel could have looked like 

A clay tablet from Ashurbanipal's library A clay tablet from Ashurbanipal's library

Assyrian Empire

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 huntThe royal lion hunt
One 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.


Ishtar Gate, BabylonIshtar Gate, Babylon

A new
Babylonian empire

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. 



A reconstruction of the Ziggurat of UrA reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur

Ziggurats

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 UrThe remains of the Ziggurat of Ur

 

 

Consultant: Philip Parker

Timeline

  • c.9500 BC
    Farming begins in Mesopotamia.
  • c.4500 BC
    The Sumerian city of Eridu is founded.
  • c.3300 BC
    Early writing is developed in Mesopotamia.
  • c.3000 BC
    The development of major cities, such as Ur, in Sumer. Various city-states struggle over rule of Mesopotamia.
  • c.1792 BC
    Hammurabi comes to the throne of Babylon, which begins to dominate Mesopotamia.
  • 1650 BC
    The start of the Hittite Empire.
  • 1595 BC
    Hittites overthrow the Babylonian Empire.
  • 1225 BC
    Babylon is sacked by the Assyrians and the city comes under their influence.
  • 627 BC
    Nabopolassar declares Babylonian independence from Assyria.
  • 604–562 BC
    Reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. Babylon conquers Assyria and Judah, widening its empire.
  • 539 BC
    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.

See also in History

See also in Culture

The Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian law code from about 1772 BC. It consists of 282 laws and their punishments, including "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth".

The Mesopotamian writing system is believed to be the world's oldest. It grew from a method of keeping accounts on clay tablets, around 3600 BC.

The earliest known multiplication tables date back to around 2500 BC. They were written on clay tablets by Sumerian scribes.

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