Student Reader


Mesopotamia is blessed with fertile soil, riverine trade and a hospitable climate.

Mesopotamia is often called the cradle of civilization but this is a misnomer and a legacy of biblical scholars looking for Eden. In fact, Mesopotamia was one of many places around the world where civilization began independently. Civilization is any urban, socially stratified society; it is always characterized by artistry and literacy, and therefore history. The first civilization in any particular region is at the interface between prehistory and history.

Mesopotamia had ideal conditions for civilization to take root. Bound by mountains in the north and east, Mesopotamia is a basin nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Both rivers provided water for irrigation and daily life. The Euphrates River (aka Purattu or the great river) is very docile. However, the agility of the Tigris River (aka Idiklat or the rapid) gave Mesopotamia command over riverine trade.

Northern Mesopotamia has a Mediterranean and European climate. In northern Assyria, the Kurdish mountains run near the Tigris below Mosul (ancient Nineveh). The temperate climate there is much like California or Western Europe. In southern Assyria, the north mountains give way to unbroken alluvial plains with unrelenting heat and minimal rain.

Continuing further south into northern Babylonia, a Mediterranean climate returns and the river banks of Baghdad (near Babylon) are lined with palms. In southern Babylonia, the land is mostly consumed by reed-riddled marshes. Winter rains swell the Tigris and its tributaries, causing fatal annual floods that deposit fertile soil.

A flood not only destroyed what was in its path, but due to the loose alluvial soil could cause the river to change its watercourse (a catastrophic event for a riverside settlement) 1:4. Rampant flooding was overcome by canals that defused the riverine deluge, irrigated the soil and provided navigable waterways.

Mesopotamia was home to many indigenous civilizations in antiquity, namely Sumer, Akkad, Mari, Babylonia, and Assyria.

The first permanent Mesopotamian settlements formed in the 5th millennium BC. The first grand civilization was Sumer, which formed in the far south and was supreme in the 4th and 3rd millennia. Next was Akkad, which flourished in central Mesopotamia at the end of the 3rd millennium and was the first large Mesopotamian hegemon. After Sumer and Akkad, the next dominant powers were Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south. Romans misleadingly labeled all of Mesopotamia as Chaldea. In fact, Chaldea was a small part of southern Mesopotamia that grew to form Neo-Babylonia (625 - 539 BC).

Assyria, with a length of about 350 miles and a width ranging from 190 to 330 miles [totaling ~75000 square miles, the approximate size of Nebraska], is shut off to the north, northeast, and northwest by mountain ranges and retains for a considerable portion of its extent, and particularly towards the east, a rugged aspect. ... Babylonia, with a length of about 300 miles and a maximum breadth of almost 125 miles [totaling ~23000 square miles, the approximate size of West Virginia], developed an astounding fertility [due to the Tigris' overflow]. According to the statement of Herodotus, grain yielded a return of "two hundred fold and even up to three hundred fold" while "the blade of the wheat plant and the barley plant if often four fingers in breadth, and the stalks of the millet and sesame are surprisingly tall." [see Book 1 § 193, 440 BC] 2:6-7

Pre-historic Mesopotamia

Middle Paleolithic78,000 - 28,000 BC
First Humans65,000 BCThe first trace of human life in Mesopotamia is the ~65,000 BC Shanidar Man, a Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal buried in Shanidar Cave. This reveals that Neanderthals buried their dead instead of leaving them out in the open.
Upper Paleolithic28000 - 10000 BC
Mesolithic Period12500-10200 BCMesolithic humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in caves mostly but also built seasonal settlements. Near Shanidar Cave is a Zawi-Chemi, a cave that was used for shelter during this period.
Neolithic Period9500-5600 BC
10,000 - 6,000 BC
Humans underwent the Neolithic Revolution by shifting from hunter-gatherers to food-producers. Permanent villages were built and agriculture began. The first shrines and cult figures were made. Trade developed, particularly of obsidian.
After the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed and rainfall increased, the population of West Asia began to grow.

In the Neolithic period ("New Stone Age", circa 10,000 – 5,500 BC) nomads (perhaps under conditions of food scarcity) began to cultivate grains and domesticate dogs, sheep, and goats. As agricultural land became increasingly important, early farmers established permanent settlements. Most were simple villages, but some had substantial public architecture such as a stone city wall, and tower or cult buildings. Rituals involving not only fertility but also ancestral ownership of land seem to have become increasingly important, as suggested by the proliferation of images of humans and divinities. During the final phase of the Neolithic period, villagers began to make the first ceramic vessels to cook and serve their new foods.

Chalcolithic city-ctates

Major developments in the 4th Millennium BC in Mesopotamia were the first cities and urbanization, and also the development of writing.

In Chalcolithic Mesopotamia (5600-3500 BC; or 6000 - 3000 BC), surplus food production allowed lifestyles to develop and villages to urbanize. By 3000 BC, settlements large enough to accommodate twenty thousand inhabitants existed at many sites in Mesopotamia. Economic and political life is thought initially to have centered around temples, which controlled land, labor, and raw materials. In the Early Dynastic period (2900 – 2350 BC), rulers became increasingly independent both in Mesopotamia and Syria.

The Chalcolithic is marked by: the use of native copper in pace of stone; a myriad of painted pottery cultures; the growth of land and river trade; and the interaction of distant cultures. The Chalcolithic period ("Copper-Stone Age", circa 5,500 – 4,000 BC) saw the earliest metallurgy. The first copper objects were small ornaments and simple tools. However, by the 4th millennium BC, sophisticated methods of smelting, alloying, and casting were being employed in the southern Levant and western Iran. These societies often had a specialized ruling class that used the prestigious metal objects, as well as highly decorated and skillfully made pottery.

Later developments were dominated by the rise of the first large cities in the Uruk period in Mesopotamia (4,000 – 3,1000 BC). Fundamental changes of this time included the rise of the first kings and states; elite art and massive public architecture; and the invention of cuneiform writing. Many of the earliest cities continued to be major centers throughout much of ancient West Asian history, including Arbil which remains significant to the present day.

Sargon of Akkad established the first empire in the ancient Near East and controlled Sumer, Akkad, and parts of Subartu to the north and Elam to the east. Akkadian, a Semitic language, became the official language of the empire. Merchants, trading with distant regions over sea and land routes, acquired precious stones and metals in exchange for agricultural products and textiles. Expressing new political and social ambitions, Akkadian imperial art depicted military victories and the assumption of divine powers by the Akkadian kings. The collapse of the Akkadian empire came about in 2150 BC, due in part to incursions of nomads known as Guti from the Zagros Mountains in Iran.

Under the Third Dynasty of Ur (2100 – 2000 BC) founded by Ur-Nammu in the city of Ur, a regional empire was reestablished, and Mesopotamian bureaucracy reached a height of complexity. The ziggurat, a distinctive Mesopotamian stepped temple-tower, is first known from excavations at various cities in southern Mesopotamia. Instead of the vitality and naturalism of Akkadian art, artisans working for the court of the Third Dynasty of Ur produced orderly and hieratic compositions that emphasized pious supplication to the gods.

The chart below shows the pottery chronology of southern and northern Mesopotamia.
Southern Mesopotamia chronology Northern Mesopotamia chronology
Hassuna 6500 - 5500 BC
Samarra 6000 - 5000 BC Typified at Sawwan.
Halaf 5500 - 5000 BC
Ubaid 5000 - 4000 BC Typified at Ubaid 0 - 2.
Uruk 4000 - 3200 BC
Ubaid 6000 - 4000 BC
Hassuna 5500 - 5000 BC Contemporary with Samarra.
Halaf 5000 - 4000 BC Typified at Tell Halaf. Contemporary with Ubaid.
Jemdet Nasr 3200 - 3000 BC

Ubaid era

Beginning in the Ubaid period, there is differentiation in the size of settlements.

Some may have had a small circle of subsidiary villages around them. The end of the Ubaid period was characterized throughout the Near East by a regression of the number of settlements, and a number were destroyed and abandoned. Ubaid culture replaced Halaf culture throughout Mesopotamia. In the north was the North Ubaid culture; in the south was Ubaid 3-4.

Ubaid → Uruk transition

The early 4th millennium heralds the start of the Uruk period and a vast increase in the number and size of settlements, especially in central and south Babylonia. The increase in population is likely undue solely to indigenous population growth; it likely involved in sedentarization of previously undetectable semi-nomadic people, and the arrival of outsiders for climatic or other reasons.

Uruk period

During the Uruk period, the city Uruk in the extreme south of Mesopotamia underwent tremendous development.

The number of people seems to have been almost equal in central and southern Mesopotamia, but in central Babylonia they lived in three centers of 30 to 50 hectares, while in the south one site alone dominated with a size of 70 hectares: Uruk.

Sumerians Arrive (3600 BC)

Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia ~3,600 BC and settled in city of Uruk. They were of Asian origin but further detail is open to dispute. They founded city-states whose political, social and economic epicenter was the local temple dedicated to the city's main deity. The ensi (governor) ruled the city as the representative of the chief deity.

Sumer was is credited for inventing: a pictographic script that was the prototype for cuneiform; mathematical numbers and multiplication tables; instrumental music, including the lyre; the wheel, quickening trade via the first carts; terracotta cone mosaics, used to decorate walls of monumental temples; and the cylinder seal, allowing infinite bands of reliefs onto wet clay.

Uruk → Late Uruk transition

Urban growth exploded, particularly in the south of Babylonia at and around Uruk. The center of Babylonia underwent a negligible increase in permanently settled population and is attributable to natural growth.

Late Uruk Period (3800 - 3000 BC)

Uruk underwent further urbanization. The Uruk expansion brought Uruk culture to both north and south Mesopotamia by the Late Uruk period.

Jemdet Nasr era

The political landscape of southern Mespotomia was characterized by city-states constantly interacting and competing with one another.

Regarding the broader Near East, there was no longer cultural hegemony exuding from Babylonia; the Near East underwent a reversion to local traditions and certain skills became rare including writing. Within southern Mesopotamia itself, however, written sources actually increased thus illuminating more detail than ever to modern scholars. The Early Dynastic Era commenced when cultural contacts between Babylonia and the rest of the Near East reemerged and the Early Dynastic Era reemerged.

While the north of Mesopotamia had been settled earlier, it was only in the Ubaid period that permanent agricultural settlements formed in Sumer.

Initially, Southern Mesopotamia was slower to develop, lacking any settlements during Northern Mesopotamia's Neolithic era and only being settled during the North's Chalcolithic era. However, once the Chalcolithic began then Southern Mesopotamia developed faster, and southern cultures would spread north along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to permeate the whole of Mesopotamia.

The Early, Middle and Late Uruk periods saw a tremendous increase in the number of sites. The former two periods saw the north of Sumer predominate in terms of number of settlements, but environmental factors or perhaps even conflict drove the extreme south to dominate in the Late Uruk era with the most settlements and also the largest settlement, which was at Uruk.

The Early Dynastic era heralded hyper-urbanization, as evidenced by a sharp decrease in the number of settlements and a tremendous expansion of certain urban centers in the extreme south to a scale of a hundred hectares or more. These changes reveal that Sumerian society transformed from predominantly nomadic to significantly settled, perhaps due to changing environmental conditions that allowed agriculture and husbandry to flourish.

This was a significant restructure in and of itself, but then gave way to yet another revolution when hyper-urbanization resulted in the expansion of sites into massive cities that dominated the landscape, and likely drew in most remaining nomads who would have been caught between potentially hostile city states. While at the start, society was largely on the move and only transiently settled (perhaps between bouts of sheep and goat grazing), by the end of the Early Dynastic era it was urbanized and centralized in a few large cities.

Chronologies and sequences

Lloyd terminology
Ubaid1 Ubaid2 Ubaid3 Ubaid4 Early Uruk Late Uruk
Jemdet Nasr
Early Dynastic I
ED II ED IIIa ED IIIb Akkadian
Delougaz terminology Early Uruk Protoliterate
Perkins terminology Warkan Protoliterate
Ehrich terminology Early Uruk Middle Uruk (Protoliterate A) Late Uruk (PL B)Protoliterate C, D
Uruk sequence Uruk XVIII - XV Uruk XIV-IX Uruk VIII Uruk VII-V Uruk IVc-IVa, IIIc Uruk IIIb - Uruk IIIa
Ur sequence Soundings Seal Impressions Enmerkar First Dynasty Royal Tombs Graves
Eridu sequence Eridu XVIII-XV Eridu Ware; temples XIV-XII (No buildings) Hajji Muhammad Eridu XI-VIII Temples Eridu VII-VI Cemetery Eridu V-III Walled temenos Eridu II-I Temples; temenos raised Temenos survives; palaces
Ubaid sequence First settlement Earlier temples Oval terrace Graves Nin-Khursag temple
Nippur sequence Nippur XX-XVII Nippur XVI-XV Nippur XIV-XX Nippur XI-IX Nippur VIII Nippur VII Nippur VI-V Inanna Temple Buildings
Kish sequence Sounding Y Houses Palace A Ziggurat Cemetery Buildings
Uqair sequence First settlement Earlier temples? Painted temple Chapel Graves

First superpowers

In the 3rd millennium came Sumerian city-states, early Akkadians, and the Akkadian empire.

Scholars more or less labeled major periods of the third millennium according to the Sumerian King List. The two great civilizations of the 3rd millennium were Akkad and Ur, which shared a number of characteristics. They were both founded via military means in Babylonia proper and surrounding regions; they pursed policies of political, administrative and ideological centralization; and they collapsed due to internal opposition and external forces, especially from the Elamites to the east.

Early Dynastic era

Population grew, and urbanization accelerated.

City-states needed more cultivated land, causing territorial disputes. This led to the need for military prowess. Power within the city-states secularized, shifting from the temple to the military. The head of the military was an appointed official chosen in times of need; this position developed into palatial kingship. At the end of the Early Dynastic period, the usurper Uru'inimgina of Lagash tried to unite the temple and kingship by assigning earthly goods to the temple and placing himself and his wife as chief temple administrators.

Royal inscription began in the Early Dynastic period; these new texts originated with simple royal names and titles, and grew to include important yearly information on the ruler as a warrior and builder.

The largest group of Early Dynastic inscriptions was found at Lagash. Detailed in their description of the Lagash-Umma border conflict, these texts allowed modern scholars for the first time in Near East history to narrate an event based on contemporary sources. Another find important for understanding the Early Dynastic era, particularly the late Early Dynastic, is the cache of tablets from Palace G at Ebla.

Akkadian Empire

The last centuries of the third millennium brought government in Mesopotamia on a larger scale than ever before.

City-states were temporarily abolished and replaced by provinces under the control of a central government, and the new government systematically campaigned further than ever before. The first city-state to rise to this albeit brief power was Akkad in northern Babylonia in the 24th and 23rd centuries.

Sargon of Akkad ascended to the throne in 2334 BC.

Under Sargon and his successors, the state enacted a number of bureaucratic innovations including: organizing the state into provinces, formerly independent city-states, run by local elites now called governors (Sumerian ENSI2); standardized weights and measures; standardized accounting, including the use of Akkadian instead of Sumerian; state-wide system of taxation; and installing the king's daughter as the priestess of Inanna at Uruk. Naram-Sin ruled 2254 - 2218 BC.

Akkadian → Gutian

Under Naram-Sin's son Shar-kali-sharri, the empire clearly began to struggle to maintain its hold on Mesopotamia. Reasons for the collapse of Akkad include unrest in the south and threats from the east, namely the Guti. After Shar-kali-sharii, the Sumerian King List asks Who was king? Who was not king? followed by a quick succession of reigns.

After its collapse, a period of decentralization ensued until Ur in the far south rose in the 21st century, bringing the nearly-dead Sumerian language and the surrounding culture back to prominence along with it.

Gutian period

Mesopotamia fragmented politically into various city-states.

Gutian kings claimed control over some regions in the south, including Nippur, while various other city-states in the south re-asserted their political independence, including Uruk and Lagash. The Lagash king Gudea had manufactured countless statuettes of himself, making these a diagnostic of the era.

Ur III period

Ur-Nammu and his successors, particularly Shulgi, enacted reforms much like those enacted by Sargon.

These reforms created a strong state and included: organizing the territory into provinces; standardization of weights and measures; standardization of accounting, including a return to the use of Sumerian instead of Akkadian, though Sumerian was no longer the lingua franca of southern Mesopotamia; a state-wide taxation system (Sumerian bala); and a continuation of the age-old tradition of installing the king's daughter as the priestess of Inanna at Ur, and not transferring the position until her natural death. These reforms led to a surge in cuneiform documents, with major repositories at the provincial capitals Nippura, Umma, Lagash and the state capital at Ur. In addition to these reforms, Ur-Nammu created the first law code.

The Ur III documents depict a stable state, but the administrative records reveal a shaky transition from Ur-Nammu's grandson Amar-Suen to his great-grandson or grandson Shu-Sin (the nephew or brother of Amar-Suen).

By Ibbi-Sin's third year, various provincial centers stopped using Ur III year names, indicating their rising independence and state archives like Drehem ceased. By his eighth year, Nippur stopped using Ur's year names. The loss of the religious capital suggests that Ur had undergone a recension to a mere city-state. Reasons for Ur's collapse parallel Akkad's -- pressure from the East (Elamites); pressure from the hostile Westerners (likely nomads) described in communications; and economic pressure.

Fall of Ur (2004 BC)

With the collapse of Ur, former provincial capitals like Isin and Babylon, as well as other cities like Larsa, managed to assert their independence.

International superpowers

With the advent of the 2nd millennium, writing in cuneiform became a common skill from southwest Iran to central Anatolia and west Syria.

After the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur in about 2000 BC, Mesopotamia and Syria were ruled by dynasties that claimed Amorite lineage. Amorite was a Semitic dialect like the Akkadian used earlier in Mesopotamia; it had been spoken by nomads in the north since the mid-third millennium BC, but was never used as a written language. The most famous of the Amorite rulers was Hammurabi of Babylon (reigned 1792 – 1750 BC), known today for his monumental code of laws. He was, however, only one of many rulers who traded, negotiated, allied, and fought with their neighbors. In about 1595 BC, a Hittite army from central Anatolia attacked Babylon at a time when Mesopotamia was weak from years of drought.

During the remainder of the second millennium BC, ruling dynasties of varied lineage and cultural background ruled Syria and Mesopotamia. In northern Syria, the Mitanni state was powerful enough to exchange gifts with the Egyptian pharaohs and to fight with Hittite armies. Mesopotamia was ruled by Kassites, a people apparently from the northern Zagros Mountains or beyond, whose language was unrelated to other Near Eastern languages. An Assyrian state at Ashur reestablished its independence, and Assyrian rulers eventually took control of parts of eastern Syria formerly under Mitanni control. A number of Syrian cities were destroyed in the first two decades of the twelfth century BC, seemingly by invaders now known as Peoples of the Sea. The subsequent two centuries are little known in archaeological or historical records.

Scholars largely organized the 3rd millennium according to the Sumerian King List, but major periods of the 2nd and 1st millenia were organized by linguistic classifications. Significant developments in this millennium were: Babylonian state; law, mathematics. Internationalism; el Amarna, Egypt, Hittites, Hurrians (Mittani state), Assyrians, Babylonians.

Early Bronze Age2017 - 1595 BC

Landscape characterized mostly by warring city-states, though the beginnings of later empires began in Assur (later heralding Assyria) and the creating of the Hittite state.

There are two stories occurring at this time: the overall picture, controlled by Isin and Larsa and dominated by their warring; and the beginning of Assyrian and Babylonian superpowers, relatively unimportant at this time except in the context of later events.

Old Babylonia1900 - 1600Hammurabi brought in the Old Babylonian period.
Dark Age1590 - 1490Mursili's destructions of Yamkhad's capital Aleppo and Babylonia's capital Babylon, and the collapse of Hittite power due to internal instability, led to a power vacuum in Syria, Mesopotamia and Anatolia and thus the beginning of a Dark Age with scant textual sources.
Late Bronze Age
Dark Age1100 - 900 BCThe use of iron, the alphabet (Aramization) and domesticated camels began during the dark age.

There were simultaneous racial movements. Coming from the west side of the Euphrates, Amorites moved in from the Syrian desert, along the middle Euphrates. Amorites came to dominate in Babylonia. However, further north it was the Hurrians who became the most important element, after coming into Mesopotamia and Syria from the northeast. They came to dominate Assyria -- particularly in the Upper Habur -- in the 2nd millennium both culturally and politically. Also, in Anatolia the Hittites rose, a group of people speaking Indo-European languages who would found the first Anatolian empire.

Rise and fall of empires

The Assyrian and Babylonian empires reigned supreme, with marked conflicts with Levantine states and Egypt. Mesopotamia ceased to be an independent seat of empires when it was conquered by Persians and Medes.

By the start of the first millennium, the political situation had settled and an entirely new network of states had arisen. Assyria was dominant, and other prominent states were Babylonia, Urartu (a new state in eastern Anatolia), Elam and Egypt. Among the many smaller states were some from the 2nd millennium: Phoenician harbor cities and the Neo-Hittite states.

There were some entirely new states as well: Aram in Syria, Israel, Judah, Phrygians and Lydians in Anatolia, and various states in the Zagros mountains. By the 9th century sources exist for a wide geographic region, and by the 7th century Assyria was so powerful that all the Near East may be studied through its sources.

Neo-Assyria1000 - 610 BC
853 BCBattle of Qarqar between Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and western coalition.
691 BCBattle of Halule between Assyrian king Sennacherib and Elamite king Humban-nimena.
646 BCAssyrian king Assurbanipal sacks Susa.
Urartu~850 - 714 BC

Assyria, Babylonia and Elam continued from the 2nd millennium and were joined by the new-comer Urartu, unified by Sarduri I.

714 BCRaid by Assyrian king Sargon II ends Urartian threat.
Neo-Babylonia626 - 539 BCNabopolassar founds Neo-Babylonian dynasty.
Mesopotamia's Collapse

After the fall of the Neo-Babylonian state, why was there no Mesopotamian replacement? What were the Mesopotamian views on political/cultural collapse? They viewed it as the fault of a given king, and that the gods ended the state as punishment; another state would come to take its place. What are modern views on such collapsed? It may have been outsiders, though most of these (ie, the Amorites) assimilated into Mesopotamia. When Neo-Babylonia collapsed, it was all of Mesopotamia which was now competing with other cultures. Cuneiform was passé when it had once been standard.

Mesopotamia no longer had a position of authority. Thus, while Mesopotamian civilization did not collapse with the end of Neo-Babylonia, it was already competing with too many outside forces and was on the decline. With the last cuneiform tablet in the first century AD, the civilization of Mesopotamia was truly dead until it was rediscovered in the 19th century by European explorers.

Foreign rule

Persian Rule539 - 332 BC
Cyrus II559 - 530 BCAlso known as Cyrus of Anshan.
Cambyses II529 - 522 BC
Darius I521 - 486 BC

Islamic conquest

Battle of QadisiyyaAD 637Opened the rich territory of Mesopotamia, thenna under Persian control, to the invading Muslim army. However, the territory was only gradually absorbed and Islamized.
Caliph MansurIn 762 he founded Baghdad, which by the tenth century had a population estimated at 1.5 million and a luxury trade reaching from the Baltic Sea to China. Baghdad also had a vigorous scientific and intellectual life, with centers for translations of Greek works and scientific experiments.

Mongol rule

1258Mongol attack on Baghdad by Hulagu
1401Another even more devastating attack by Timur the Lame


1 Contenau, Georges. 1955. Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria. Chatham, Great Britain: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd.

2Jastrow, Morris. 1915. The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria. Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company.