Mesopotamia (composed of μέσος, “middle,” and ποταμός, “river,” meaning ” is the area of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, which in modern day corresponds to roughly most of present day Iraq and Kuwait, plus eastern parts of Syria and regions along the Turkey-Syria and Iran-Iraq borders.

Widely regarded as one of the cradles of civilization by the Western world, Bronze Age Mesopotamia was home to Sumer, as well as the Acadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires, all native to the territory of present-day Iraq. In the Iron Age it was controlled by the NeoAssyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. The Sumerian and Akkadian peoples (including Assyrians and Babylonians) dominated the region from the beginning of written history (c. 3 100 BCE) until the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE, when it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire. It was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and, after his death, became part of the Greek-cultured Seleucid Empire.

By 150 BC, Mesopotamia was under the control of the Parthian Empire. The region became a battleground between the Romans and Parthians, with parts of Mesopotamia coming under short-lived control of the Roman Empire. In 226 AD, it fell to the Sassanid Persians and remained under Persian rule until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century Sassanid Empire. Several native Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian and Christian states existed between the 1st century BCE and 3rd century CE, including Adiabena, Osroena and Hatra.

Mesopotamia is the site of the first developments of the Neolithic Revolution of about 10,000 BCE. It has been identified as having “inspired some of the most important developments in human history, including the invention of the wheel, the planting of the first cereal crops, and the development of cursive writing, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture.

The history of Mesopotamia is a discipline that deals with the classical past of the territory of Ancient Mesopotamia (from Ancient Greek, “between rivers”), corresponding for the most part to the territory of the present-day Republic of Iraq. Mesopotamia is not defined by marked natural boundaries, extending east into Iran, north and northwest into Anatolia, and west into Syria.

The history of Mesopotamia also corresponds to a historical period in Eastern antiquity, beginning with the earliest settlements of Mesopotamia in places such as Tell Hassuna, Samarra, and Tell Halaf. The relationship of Mesopotamia to the Old Testament made this field of study particularly attractive to Westerners from the 18th century onward. Assyriology, a discipline dealing with the ancient history of Mesopotamia, was instituted in the 19th century; its development was influenced by a phenomenon postmodernists (annunaki), such as Edward Said, have called Orientalism, defined as the representation of the Orient in Western academia, literature, and art through stereotypes determined by a neocolonialist, ethnocentric, and racist stance.

Mesopotamia is considered one of the cradles of civilization, since it was in Lower Mesopotamia where the first civilizations emerged around the 6th millennium BC. The first cities were the culminating result of a sedentarization of the population and an agricultural revolution, which originated during the Neolithic Revolution. Man was no longer a gatherer who depended on hunting and the natural resources on offer, a new way of mastering the environment is one of the possible causes of the urban outbreak in Mesopotamia.

From the 3rd millennium BC cities like Ur, Uruk, Nipur, Quis, Lagas and Eridu and the Elam region develop and commercial activity between them becomes more intense. Temples begin to manage the economy and many ziggurats are built.

However, Richard Leakey, in his book The Evolution of Humankind, relates how Jack Harlan demonstrated that gatherers could have significant food storage: his experiment was with a flint sickle harvesting wild wheat and barley. Therefore, the first communities that abandoned nomadism could be hunter-gatherers, not restricting sedentarism solely to agriculture or the domestication of animals, which also became important in this process of urbanization.

The emergence of the first urban centers in the region was accompanied by the development of a complex hydraulic system that favored the use of the marshes, prevented flooding, and guaranteed water storage for the drier seasons. The construction of these structures was necessary to maintain some kind of control over the regime of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. At first it was believed that the construction of this irrigation system was responsible for determining a rigid and despotic control of society by the rulers, as suggested by Karl August Wittfogel’s “hydraulic causal hypothesis. However, recent findings have verified that the process of channelization and control of periodic river floods was of long duration, and the most complex engineering works were carried out only in the Hellenistic period. These twin rivers, because of the relief that surrounds them, flow from northwest to southeast, in an opposite direction to the Nile River, and the floods in Mesopotamia are much more violent and lack the uniformity and regularity presented by the Nile. “The bounty – land to plow, water to irrigate, dates to harvest and pastures for breeding – fixed man to the land” (PINSKY, 1994) Only collective work allowed the rivers to be mastered, the man who moved away from the cities moved away from the irrigated areas, putting himself at the margins of this process.

The Mesopotamians were not characterized by the construction of a political unit. Among them, small states always predominated, which had their political center in the cities, forming the so-called city-states. Each of them controlled its own rural and pastoral territory and its own irrigation network. They had their own government, their own bureaucracy, and were independent. But on some occasions, due to wars or alliances between cities, larger states arose, always monarchical, and the royal power was characterized as being of divine origin. However, these alliances were temporary. According to Pierre Lévêque “the Mesopotamian state is, first of all, a city, to which the prince is linked by close ties; it is also a dynasty, the legitimation of his power.

The archeological remains are limited and therefore it is not possible to define exactly how the political and social organization took place within some of these early cities. One of the reference sources for the study of Mesopotamia, other than one of the documents found in excavations in the region, is the Bible. In it, references are made to the cities of Ur, Nineveh and Babylon. The authors of antiquity such as Herodotus, Beroso, Strabo and Eusebius also make references to Mesopotamia. Therefore, when studying Mesopotamia, one must pay attention to the construction of a proto-history based on fragmented and sparse evidence, since excavations only began in the 19th century, and even today many gaps are exposed.

Origins (7000-5500 B.C.)

The history of Mesopotamia can be considered to begin with the settlement of the first peoples in the region, thanks to the development of agriculture. The first agricultural communities of Mesopotamia appeared in the north of the region around 7000 B.C., where rainfall was regular enough for the development of simple agriculture. Three cultural complexes have been identified by archaeologists from the pottery of the Hassuna-Samarra and Halafe cultures. In Sumer, the southern region of Mesopotamia, agriculture seems to have appeared around 5,500 B.C. The southern farmers were the first to employ the method of irrigation from the Tigris River and the Euphrates River, since rainfall in this region was intensely irregular.

al-Ubaide period (5500-4000 BC)

The transformation of the social structure of the Mesopotamian peoples around the 5th century B.C. is attested to by the existence of archaeological sites such as the ancient village of Tel al-Ubaide. The people of this time are commonly called the “Ubaide people” by archaeologists. These men had built irrigation canals for agriculture, and also produced abundant pottery and terracotta. They also possessed weapons such as stone axes, and maintained a dynamic trade in lapis lazuli, stone, and gold with neighboring peoples. Their village was made up of buildings based on baked clay bricks.

The Temple of Eridu, named after a region in southern Sumer, is known as the oldest temple ever found. Other temples dominate the Ubaide site, indicating the existence of an influential priestly group among these peoples. The temples were rectangular in shape, divided into several chambers and a main nave. A space was reserved for the placement of a statue of a deity, whose function seems to have been to protect the inhabitants of the region. The walls of the temples were built of baked clay. Some experts believe that the further development of these temples, elevated as towers, would have given rise to the famous ziggurats of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Uruk Period (4000-2900 B.C.)

The Ubaid culture influenced all the surrounding regions of Mesopotamia and developed in different ways as it expanded. The Uruk period is so named because it is related to the appearance of the impressive archaeological site of Uruk (Erek in the Bible), whose structures attest to an undoubted continuity with the Ubaid period. The appearance of Uruk is related to the advent of urban life and the first city in history. The growth of the irrigation network and the number of agricultural satellite towns allowed for an increase in food production.

The White Temple is a famous construction of Uruk built with bricks on top of a mountain. The Temple was dedicated to the sky god, Anu, and was painted entirely white. The inhabitants of Uruk believed that the gods could inhabit these regions.

Writing in Mesopotamia developed in several different stages, according to the complexity of palace business. Writing was used to control, above all, trade, economy and agriculture. Archeologists have found in archeological sites in the Near East baked clay pieces called tokens, whose function was to determine the quantity and nature of traded goods (according to the size and type of the tokens). This practice was later replaced by the use of tokens in conjunction with a clay ball in which they were stored to indicate the elements of a complex transaction separately.

Pictographic and ideographic writing was developed around the 4th millennium B.C. in Sumeria (considered here as the southern region of Mesopotamia). This writing used, for example, the figure of a fish inscribed in clay to determine a fish, circles to express numbers, and, in a more complex stage, figures to represent ideas, with feet representing movement (e.g. “walking”).

At a later stage, Mesopotamian writing started using phonetic and determinative symbols, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It would be, roughly speaking, as if we used the figure of a kiss and a flower to say beija-flor in Portuguese. In English, it would be like putting together the figure of a foot and a ball to say “futebol”. In this type of writing, each symbol represents a sound, but it can also represent a general idea, which is the case with determinatives. This means that, for example, after writing the word “woman” from phonemes, a drawing of a woman could be placed immediately after to give the general idea of the word (avoiding confusion between meanings of words of the same pronunciation).

Cuneiform writing seems to have been the result of the improvement of all these previous techniques. It got its name because it was made by pressing a wedge-shaped instrument on a clay tablet. The extremely abstract cuneiform symbols were used to represent ideas, sounds and figures. This writing became extremely popular throughout the Ancient East in subsequent years.

Once writing was developed, one can identify two peoples of different languages living together in Mesopotamia: Sumerian and Semitic. Actually, Sumerian and Semitic are linguistic concepts, and should in no way be related to ethnic concepts. The Sumerian language was predominant in the cuneiform documents, and Sumerian speakers lived in southern Mesopotamia, which is why the Akkadians later called this region Sumerian. The Semitic speakers are related by a common matrix, but they did not speak the same language (Akkadian and Hebrew, for example, are Semitic languages, but different). The origin of the Sumerians is uncertain. The Semitic-speaking peoples lived predominantly in central Mesopotamia. Their origin is also uncertain.

The Uruk epoch is a time of economic growth and political centralization. Urban centers were supported by rural territories adjacent to the cities, responsible for agricultural production. The development of architecture, arts and technology, and writing enabled an increase in food production. Noteworthy is the development of irrigation systems in ever more extensive forms.

The priest class seemed to control politics in the first political units of ancient Mesopotamia, commonly called “city-states. Every city had a protector god, who the Mesopotamians believed was responsible for ensuring good harvests, etc. if men behaved according to the rules. The temple priests, intermediaries between men and the gods, acquired political prominence as these beliefs grew stronger.

The advent of the city in the periods called ancient, middle, and recent Uruk (this chronology is used to differentiate the stages of urbanization), was a process that fascinated scholars from various scientific fields. The transformation of small villages into a complex urban structure during the Uruk period was exhaustively studied by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, who sought to probe the causes of this urbanization process and characterize it in a more systematic way. The theory of the “Urban Revolution,” developed by V. Gordon Childe in the 1940s and 1950s, is the most famous of these considerations about Mesopotamian urbanization. Gordon Childe, who was also responsible for coining the term “Neolithic Revolution”, argued that the emergence of civilization in Mesopotamia during the Uruk period was linked to some specific factors. Civilization was characterized by Childe based on the existence of ten factors:

Childe’s work, certainly one of the most influential on the subject, was criticized for its evolutionist bias and, in some cases, for using the Marxist concept of “revolution” to characterize the transformations in the way of life of the ancients. Gordon Childe’s work was followed by the works of Robert McC.  Adams published in the 1970s.

An important recent theory on the urbanization of Mesopotamia, developed by Guillermo Algaze , argues that the economic differentiation that occurred between diverse areas of the Uruk region allowed for the emergence of an “urban economy,” that is, trade between these regions involving woolen cloth, leather, goat hair, vegetables, fish, etc. Each region supplied its consumption needs with this trade, since each region could offer

Archaic Dynastic Period (2900-2350 B.C.)

During the archaic dynastic period the political situation in Mesopotamia emerges more clearly. After Uruk, cities like Ur and Kish emerge, vying for political supremacy. The city-state, composed not only of the city, but of the surrounding rural territory, appears as the basic political unit in these early years of the urban world. Its population could vary from 10,000 to 50,000 inhabitants.

Three titles for rulers were frequently employed by men of the ancient dynastic period: En, Ensi, and Lugal. Of these three, the one that comes closest to the Western idea of a king is Lugal, literally “Great Man.” The Lugal was responsible for the ministry of justice, for representing the city-state before others, and for waging war. The Ensi could be a vassal of Lugal in some circumstances, acting as a kind of governor, while the en was a local lord. All three could share both temporal and spiritual authority. It is believed that in the early years of the Mesopotamian dynasties, kings were advised by assemblies made up of the common men. This theory comes from interpretations of Sumerian mythical texts, where major gods were advised by a group of minor gods. This period sees the strengthening of the monarchy and a gradual escalation that places it above the temple (as a religious institution). The monarchy promoted banquets and feasts, arts and war. The monarchy organized armies, which were equipped with chariots, spears and axes for combat, as well as other sophisticated instruments of war. Moreover, kings were responsible for putting up large and sumptuous palaces, important indications of their great authority at this time.

An important document from the period in question is the Sumerian Royal List, a document whose information transits between mythical and historical imagination. The document seems to have been written around the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., because it transmitted to an earlier date facts that only happened later, such as the unification of Sumer under a single leader. The early Sumerian kings are presented in order, their kingdoms are dated, and their deeds narrated. The list is intended to indicate that kingship is a divine concession, legitimizing the monarchical institution. The early kings are almost all mythical, while the later ones seem to have actually existed. The Sumerian Royal List was reconstituted by Thorkild Jacobsen from several different tablets, and was published in 1939. It is concerned with presenting only the kings who reigned over the entire Sumerian territory, and lists them all up to the reign of Sinmagir of Isim (1827-1817 BC).

The city of Kish was in a region near present-day Baghdad, and during the Early Dynastic period was responsible for extending its dominion over much of the surrounding cities. The ancient dynastic period is marked by the conflicts between the city-states (more correctly city-kings) that developed in the region around this time (mainly Kish, Ur and Uruk). Around 2,700 B.C. a king named Enmebaragesi gained control over the entire southern region of Mesopotamia and also Elam, located in southwestern present-day Iran. Enmebaragesi was also responsible for building a temple in honor of the god Enlil in the city of Nipur, which would later become the most important religious center in Mesopotamia.

During this time the cities of Uruk and Ur began to grow in political importance, challenging the authority of Kish. King Gilgamesh, perhaps the best known figure in ancient Mesopotamia, was responsible for waging war with Aga, king of Kish and son of Enmebaragesi. Aga was defeated and submitted to the authority of Gilgamesh. The king of Uruk became a true hero in the Mesopotamian imagination, and even participated as a character in one of the most famous literary works of antiquity, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The third city to extend its dominion over its neighbors was the city of Ur. King Mesanepada, ruling perhaps around 2,600 B.C., adopted for himself the title “King of Quis,” which indicated his succession as supreme lord of Sumer. The splendor of Ur is attested to by the famous royal cemetery found in this city.

The incessant disputes between Ur, Uruk, and Kish, restarted with the death of King Mesanepada, made the region particularly vulnerable to attacks by foreigners such as the Elamites (from Elam, in southwestern Iran). The Elamite invasion favored the strengthening of a Mesopotamian city-state to the north, Lagas, which in subsequent years dominated and subjugated all of Sumer. King Eanatum, known by the title “He Who Subdues All Lands,” drove the Elamites out of Sumerian territory and conquered Elam. By 2,450 B.C. he extended his control over the other city-states in the region. The Stele of King Eanatum tells the story of the battle fought between the king of Lagas and the city of Uma, and describes the terms of the peace, making it perhaps the first diplomatic document in history. King Eanatum’s victory is achieved with the help of the god of Lagas, Ninguirsu, who is depicted on the stele.

The city of Uma, however, under King Lugalzaguesi, defeated and destroyed the city of Lagas in a little less than a century after Eanatum’s reign. According to official records, Lugalzaguesi managed to obtain the submission of 50 princes and control over the entire territory stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, in 2350, Lugalzaguesi was defeated and taken prisoner by the Akkadian conqueror Sargon the Great.

The decipherment of cuneiform writing was a difficult and time-consuming task undertaken by several intellectuals in the 19th century. One of the names most associated with this process is Henry Rawlinson, who copied a trilingual cuneiform inscription that had been produced by order of the Persian king Darius I around 520 B.C. Rawlinson also translated the column of the inscription that corresponded to Old Persian, using a technique already employed by Georg Friedrich Grotefend were essential for deciphering Akkadian cuneiform. The interpretation of the Sumerian, on the other hand, was much more time-consuming, and received particular help from Paul Haupt . Elamite, on the other hand, remains mostly misunderstood. From the interpretation of the ancient texts it was possible to know and study the cultural universe of the ancient Mesopotamians.

Religious thinking was very important to the early Mesopotamian peoples, in that almost every element of society was understood from its relationship to the sacred. The Sumerians believed that the world (or Mesopotamia) was a disk whose boundaries were determined by mountains and a vast expanse of water. Everything in the universe was capable of being “animated” in the religious sense, from rocks to animals to stars. The gods were conceived as superior, immortal agents with the power to control the cosmos. Although the gods were immortal, numerous mythological narratives speak of deities dying and then being reborn. A widely held belief throughout the Near East was that the gods could create only by the power of the word. The word of the gods also functioned to establish “me,” the cosmic law.

The most important deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon in the ancient dynastic period were An (god of the sky), Enlil (god of the wind), Enqui (god of water), and Ninursague (goddess of the earth). An was described as the ruler among the gods. Enlil was an important intermediary between the gods and men, whose main temple was in Nipur. He was called by the title “Father of the Gods”. One of the ancient myths, interpreted by some authors as the Sumerian belief regarding the cycle of life, tells the story of how Enlil kidnapped a beautiful goddess named Ninlil, and forced her to have sexual relations with him. For committing this heinous act, Enlil was punished by the other gods and exiled to the “Land of No Return,” the world of the dead, along with Ninlil, now pregnant with the moon-goddess Nana.

Enqui was strongly related to fertility, certainly because water was essential for agriculture in the dry lands of Sumer. An ancient myth tells of how Enqui ejaculated into the Tigris River, thereby making all the cultivated land fertile.

Other gods were important in the Sumerian pantheon, among them the fertility goddess Inana, known as Istar in Akkadian, and usually associated with the goddesses Venus and Aphrodite of ancient Greece and Rome. Inana was related to sensuality, the oppressed, and also to war. A Sumerian narrative tells the story of how Inana, after a foray into the underworld, discovers that she could no longer return to heaven. Seeking to escape her life imprisonment in the underworld, Inana places her lover Dumuzi as a substitute in her place, leaving him there for all eternity. Other myths recount Inana’s sexual appetite, while dedicating the title “Queen of Heaven” to her.

A popular ceremony in the ancient Sumerian city-states was the so-called “sacred marriage”. In this ceremony the sexual union was performed between a god and an important goddess of the regional pantheon (e.g. Inana and Dumuzi), represented by the king and a specially chosen noblewoman. This ceremony usually took place on New Year’s Day. Other erotic rites, called “Sacred Prostitution,” accompanied the sacred marriage ritual, and were usually performed between priests and priestesses in pursuit of religious experiences. Western authors, familiar with these rites through their descriptions in the Bible, often mistakenly confused them with homosexuality and prostitution.

Sumerian religion was organized by the temple. Each Mesopotamian city had a temple, dedicated either to a god or to a goddess, who were sort of local patrons. Inside the temples stood statues of the worshipped gods, in which the god himself was believed to reside. The Sumerians offered sacrificial food to the gods, for one of the widely held beliefs in the Near East was that the gods could feed on the food offered to them. In the temples, hymns were recited, songs sung, and feasts celebrated. The rites in honor of the gods were important for the maintenance of order on earth, and also for the manipulation of the deities in favor of men.

Ziggurats were multi-story towers, very popular buildings among the Mesopotamians. At the top of the ziggurats were shrines. Scholars believe that these buildings represented a link between heaven and earth, functioning largely as a means of communication with the gods. It is likely that the Biblical image of the Tower of Babel was based on the ziggurats.

The interest in the city of Ur in the West is easily explained by its remarkable presence in the Bible as the homeland of Abraham. The ancient city of Ur is located in southern Iraq, northwest of the present-day city of Bahazʹora. Its importance, attested to in the ancient dynastic period and even after, was no less in prehistoric times, when it was already populated. The first prospections in the region date back to 1854, while excavations began in 1918, were briefly interrupted and resumed in 1922, at the initiative of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, under the command of archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley. That same year, archaeologists had already succeeded in unearthing the city’s famous ziggurat. Valuable remains, however, diverted the archaeologists’ attention to another archaeological area, unearthed between 1926 and 1932: the cemetery at Ur.

In the 1920s British archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered the royal tombs of Ur from the ancient dynastic period. These tombs date from the years 2,550 to 2,450 B.C., and are famous because of the abundant and sumptuous archaeological material found in them. Their existence attests to the belief that Mesopotamian kings, due to their bond with the gods, would have a blessed life after death. For this reason, kings were buried in large chambers along with their most valuable belongings, such as jewelry and gold treasures. Servants were also buried with kings, perhaps unwittingly, although the idea of spending a privileged afterlife alongside kings may have seduced some of these men. Among the kings buried in the cemetery at Ur only a few have been identified, such as Akalamdug and Meskalamdug, as well as the two queens (nin) Puabi and Ninbanda. None of these kings, however, is mentioned in the Sumerian royal list, which indicates that they ruled only over the territory of the city-state of Ur.

Along with the kings of Ur, skeletons of musicians, musicians, singers, soldiers and ladies-in-waiting were also found. In the tomb of Acalandugue, for example, 53 skeletons were found on various levels. As already stated, it is possible that these people hoped to enjoy a well-advanced post-mortem with the kings by allowing themselves to be poisoned and buried with the sovereign’s body. This was the theory advanced by Leonard Wooley to explain the collective inhumations found at the archaeological site. However, this hypothesis has been challenged by other scholars, who point out different reasons for this phenomenon, since many of the bodies found in the tombs were not associated with any reigning dynast, that is, perhaps not every tomb carries the body of a monarch. Archaeologist Peter Roger S. Moorey’s theory is that these collective burials were a private ritual dedicated to the patron gods of the city of Ur, the moon goddess Nana and her husband Ningal. This ritual most likely involved the priestesses of the temple dedicated to the gods in question, which is why so many women were found in the tombs.

The most famous literary documents of the ancient dynastic period are the mythological narratives and the epic narratives. In the Creation Story, it is told how Enlil, the national god of Sumer, created the world by separating the earth from the sky. It also tells how human beings were created from clay with a divine breath, for the purpose of serving the gods with drink and food.

The Sumerian narrative of the flood tells how the gods, annoyed with humanity, decided to throw a terrible flood over it. Utnapistim (also called Ziusudra), a kind of Sumerian Noah, was warned by some deities in a dream that he should create an ark in which he would place representatives of all existing animal species and with which he would save himself from the flood.

In 1873, the Mesopotamian story of the Flood was published, causing controversy in academia and in Western societies. The fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, translated and disseminated from a tablet from Nineveh (preserved in the British Museum), narrated a story very similar to that of the biblical Genesis, which forced scholars to place the composition of the bible in the sphere of influence of its historical context, ancient Mesopotamia. However, early comparative studies between the Flood tablet and the bible treated the Sumerian narrative only as a proof of biblical historicity, which was very common in the early years of archaeology. It was the contradictory figure of Friedrich Delitzsch who first observed the need to study the Hebrew documents in the light of their Mesopotamian context, in a famous lecture known as “Babel

This exaggerated theory was accompanied by the rise of an ideological current known as “Pan-Babylonian.” The Orientalists of this current argued that the origins of almost all human culture could be traced back to Mesopotamia, radicalizing the diffusionist theory of sociology. Famous authors of this era were Hugo Winckler .

Gilgamés was a partly historical and partly mythological character. The epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk, two-thirds god, one-third human. This king had been a great conqueror, but also an oppressive ruler, which is why the gods sent the giant Enchidu to stop him in his tyranny. After an initial confrontation, however, Enchidu and Gilgamesh became friends. In one of their adventures together, Enchidu and Gilgamesses must face the Bull of Heaven, sent by the Sumerian goddess Inana as punishment for an offense. Enchidu manages to defeat the monster, which does not prevent it from being cursed and killed by Inana’s powers. Gilgamesh, terrified of death, embarks on a journey in search of immortality. Ziusudra (Utnapistim), a survivor of the flood episode, warns Gilgamesh that he can only become immortal after finding the plant of life, and although Gilgamesh succeeds in obtaining this plant, at the end of the epic it is stolen by a snake, making the king of Uruk’s journey a vain enterprise.

The Sumerians believed in life after death. In Sumerian mythology, the dead were sent to an underground world from which there was no return. The living revered the dead, because they believed that they would thus ensure the smooth running of things in the world of the living. There was no concept of post-mortem judgment among the Mesopotamians. The “spirit” of the dead was believed to cross a river to the “dark” world of the dead, where it would remain for eternity. This view was very similar to the one that the ancient Hebrews held for a long time, in which dead men were sent to Sheol, a kind of gloomy underworld. In both, there is no judgment, and life on earth is valued more highly than the afterlife, where no distinction is made between a “heaven” and a “hell,” or one eternity of damnation and another of paradise.

One of the main innovations of the Sumerian period was the discovery of bronze. Around 4 000 B.C. the Sumerians had already mastered the technique of casting, and already knew copper. Around 3,000 B.C. they discovered that the combination of copper with tin and arsenic made bronze possible. For this reason, archaeologists still call this period the “Bronze Age. Gold and silver were also handled by the specialists, and it seems that copper was imported due to its scarcity.

Eduba , translated as “house of tablets,” was an institution established to educate the children of the wealthy and scribes in Sumerian arts and knowledge. At Eduba, future palace officials learned to read, write, mathematics, biology, and drawing. In these institutions the students had to behave in an exemplary manner, otherwise they could suffer physical punishment. The presence of women in these schools was limited, although it is known that some daughters of important families did attend. Eduba preserved Sumerian tablets and literature documents.

The Sumerians also made important advances in the field of mathematics. Their numbering system was based on the number 60. The first Sumerian mathematical records were intended to regulate palace business, especially with regard to commercial transactions.

The Mesopotamian calendar was divided into 12 lunar months of 29 or 30 days each. An extra month could be added to the calendar to keep the lunar and solar years in sync. The year began after the harvest time, between September and October of our calendar. Like the ancient Hebrews, the Sumerians dated their years starting from year zero of a reign, for example, “Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh year. The Sumerians differentiated between only two seasons: emesh (summer, at the beginning of our year) and enten (winter, at the beginning of the Sumerian year, with the arrival of the rains and the harvest).

The invention of the wheel, which occurred in different places around the world and at different times regardless of contact between peoples, first took place in Sumer. The ceramic wheel was already in use in the Uruk period before it was employed for means of transportation, around the last century of the 4th millennium B.C. Archeologists have found remains of chariots buried in the region of ancient Sumer, probably used to transport material goods. Later wheeled vehicles were employed for waging war. The invention of the wheel is particularly important, as it allowed the ancients to expand the number of goods transported.

Akkadian Empire (2350-2160 B.C.)

In the year 2,350 B.C. Sumer is for the first time controlled by an Akkadian dynasty, that is, a dynasty of Semitic origin. The ancient texts tell how a man of extraordinary abilities, Sargon I of Akkadia, conquered and ruled the Sumerian territory. It is believed today that the Akkadians were peoples who came from the north (hence the name Akkadian for northern Mesopotamia). Sargon defeated King Lugalzaguesi, and kept him caged in the holy city of Nipur, where the deposed king went through the greatest humiliations. Mesopotamian legends say that Sargon was placed by his mother in a basket floating on the Euphrates River as a baby, and was later found by a farmer who raised him. It is not known how his political rise came about, but it appears that he won a position within the palace of the monarchy in Kish shortly before he defeated the king of Uma.

After defeating Lugalzaguesi, Sargon managed to defeat the Elamites and also the peoples of a region of Assyria. At this time Mesopotamia established trade networks with the Indus Valley civilization, Egypt and Anatolia. Sargon founded the city of Akkadia, an important jewel of the empire, which has never been found by archaeologists.

During this time the cities were ruled by envoys of the emperor, which reduced their political autonomy. These envoys were Akkadian speakers, and in time Akkadian replaced Sumerian in cuneiform inscriptions. The emperor built an important temple in honor of the god Enlil in Nipur.

Sargon’s grandson, Naran-Sim, who ruled around 2,250 B.C., was an important political figure for Mesopotamian history. Apparently this ruler demanded to be treated as a living god, calling himself the “god of Akkadia”. He also claimed to be the “King of the Four Corners of the World”. The “Stela of Naran-Sim,” exhibited in the Louvre Museum, shows how this king was deified, as his image stands out from that of the gods, which was not the case in the ancient dynastic period. Naran-Sim expanded the domain of the Akkadian Empire to the region of present-day Syria, having conquered the city of Ebla. His rule allowed the amalgamation of the temple and palace institutions.

Gothic period (2150-2100 BC)

The people over whom Naran-Sim won victory at the time his famous stele was engraved, the Guthians, at one point revolted against Mesopotamian rule and imposed their control over the ancient Akkadian Empire. Internal disputes, regional revolts (including the liberation of Elam), and attacks by these invaders from the Zagros range culminated in the dethronement of the last Akkadian monarch, Ur-Utu, around 2,150 BCE. The control of the Gútios was limited, and the city of Lagaxe, for example, seems to have remained independent during this period, as did the city of Uruk. Governor Gudea of Lagas was one of the important political leaders of this period, and was intensively praised by his subjects in the literature of the time.

Gudea of Lagas did not accept the title of king (Lugal), preferably calling himself “patesi” (ensi), a more humble political-religious ruler position. This ruler stood out in the statuary of the “neo-Sumerian” period, as 30 pieces representing him have been found in Ancient Mesopotamia. They are found today in museums such as the Louvre and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotheque.

Third Ur dynasty (2110-2000 B.C.)

Around the year 2 110 B.C. the king of Uruk, Utuegal, defeated and drove the Guthians from the Mesopotamian heartland. His rule, however, was short-lived, and he was soon overthrown by Ur-Namu, governor of Ur who would soon reunite much of the Sumerian territory and restore the power of earlier times.

Ur-Namu, the governor of Ur, founded the last Sumerian dynasty to reign over part of Mesopotamia. The official language was again Sumerian, arts and literature were again stimulated by the government, and military conquests multiplied. The great ziggurat of Ur was built by order of Ur-Namu. This ruler was considered a brilliant strategist and political leader, and promulgated the first code of laws in history

A good part of the academic community is reticent today to call the genre of legal documents produced in ancient Mesopotamia a “law code”. Ur-Namu’s code, for example, was not exactly a set of laws intended to regulate all human activities, but only a set of sentences intended to regulate exceptional cases. This king promulgated the first document of its kind known in history, the text of which has come down to us in a late copy. The “code” talks about crimes such as slave escapes, adultery, and false testimony, which were punished mostly by fines.

Fall of Ur (2000-1800 B.C.)

The period from 2000 B.C. to 1800 B.C. is a period of political disintegration, in which the dominion of Ur quickly dissolves in the face of the invasions of the Amurru peoples (Amorites, in the Bible), who penetrated Mesopotamia from the west. In addition to the Amorite invasions, Elamite incursions are attested from the east, and a decline in agricultural production. The defeat of the last Sumerian dynasty culminates with the siege and destruction of the city Ur by the Elamites. King Ibi-Sim, the last of the third dynasty, is imprisoned and humiliated by his captors. At this time, southern Mesopotamia came under the influence of the Elamites, radiating from the city of Larsa, while the north passed under the rule of the Babylonians, the ancient Amorites.

Paleobylonian Empire (1800-1590 B.C.)

Amorite peoples (of Semitic origin) arriving to occupy the region from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean founded new dynasties in the ancient Sumerian-Acadian city-states. The Paleobylonian Empire was one of numerous kingdoms established in Mesopotamia around this time. The sixth Babylonian king, the famous Hammurabi, conquered Larsa, the capital of the Elamites in the south, and annihilated the city of Mari, then an important Mesopotamian cultural and political center, thus rebuilding an empire along the lines of the one ruled by Sargon of Akkadia, the conqueror, years ago. The region formerly called Sumer or Akkadia was soon renamed Babylon. The Sumerian language continued to be used for written records, but was no longer spoken by this time. The Babylonian Empire did not last long after the death of Hammurabi, who was a brilliant strategist; however, the city of Babylon, whose origins remain obscure, remained an important Mesopotamian cultural center for years to come.

Hammurabi’s code is less a code of laws than Ur-Namu’s is. The document is actually a series of actual decisions to solve exceptional and real cases.

The best known stele on which the text of the code is found was found in southwestern Iran, where it had been taken by the Elamites thousands of years ago, and is now displayed in the Louvre Museum. It represents King Hammurabi honoring a deity, usually identified as the sun god Samas (Utu in Sumerian), sometimes also identified as the Babylonian national god Marduk. The idea that the stele conveys is that the code was approved by the gods. The prologue of the document praises King Hammurabi for his political skills and qualities, while the text presents resolutions to at least three hundred legal causes. Among the topics addressed are property, slaves, and trade. Death and mutilation were common punishments reserved for the worst offenses, such as incest, bigamy, adultery, and witchcraft. These punishments varied according to the social status of the accused (nobles, for example, had the highest compensation for insults but the heaviest fines for offenses).

Although the Babylonian mentality operated with different types of social orderings, operating at different levels and scales, archaeologists and historians emphasize a certain conception of society found in the cuneiform documents. The Code of Hammurabi offers the best picture of this conception of society, which was divided into three estamentos or orders (although these concepts are controversial), roughly speaking, the nobles

Marduk was a minor god of Amorite origin who, with the integration of these peoples into the Mesopotamian world, blends into the ancient Sumerian-Acadian pantheon. His rise to the rank of main deity in Mesopotamian religion occurs over time, after the foundation of the Babylonian kingdom, and intensifies with the reign of Hammurabi. In Hammurabi’s period, this god remains a local deity, but later his cult is spread to all Mesopotamia.

During the Babylonian period, the old gods (An, Enlil and Ea or Enqui) lose the importance they previously held. Istar, Samas and, of course, Marduk, become central to the cults of this period.

After the Epic of Gilgames, the Enuma Elis is the best known literary piece from ancient Mesopotamia. It is unknown who the author (or authors) of this literary composition was. Its Babylonian name (Enuma Elis) is derived from the first words of the text, “when on high,” and has been rescued by historians and archaeologists in opposition to the old title of “creation myth,” by which it was inappropriately designated in the early years of Assyriology. There is no consensus regarding the date of its publication, although one accepted theory is that this poem was made in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I (1124-1103 BCE), when he defeated the Elamites and restored the statue of the god Marduk to its former abode. The text of the Enuma Elish is divided into seven cantos, with a total of approximately one thousand one hundred verses. The poem tells of the creation of the world, the creation of the gods, and the creation of men, but its main theme is Marduk’s ascension over the other gods as divine ruler.

The poem tells how, in the beginning, Tiamate and Apsu, respectively the principles of salt water (sea) and fresh water mixed their waters. From within these two emerged the first gods, among them Lacmu and Lacamu, Ansar and Quisar, Anu and Nudimude (Ea). These gods would have caused trouble within Apsu and Tiamate, so that the former, along with his messenger Mumu, was seized by the desire to destroy them. Nudimude, however, knowing of Mumu and Apsu’s plans, murders them, and with Apsu’s heart gives birth to Marduk, characterized as the wisest and most perfect of all the gods. In the following chants, the generation of gods convinces Tiamate to punish the older generation of gods, based on Nudimude’s offense. Thus Tiamate, enraged, creates an army of monsters and dragons to exterminate the first gods, her children, and hands over the tablet of destiny (an instrument with which to control the course of the universe) to Quingu, general of her troops of monsters. Terrified by Tiamat’s projects, the first generation gods decide to abdicate their authority in favor of Marduk, who undertakes to oust Quingu and defeat Tiamat, thus proving his courage and strength. Marduk destroys Tiamate, and uses her body to create the parts of the universe. With Quingu’s sacrifice, men are created (called “black heads” in the poem), the work of Nudimude (Ea). The other rebellious gods are spared by Marduk, elevated to the level of supreme ruler among the deities by his exploits. Marduk also redeems the Tablet of Destiny, and receives fifty special titles, thus becoming the most powerful of the gods.

Most of the scholarly community claims that the story told in the Enuma Elis, that is, the rise of Marduk, is linked to the growth of the ancient Babylonian Empire and its political strengthening. Some say that, on the contrary, the writing of the myth is due to political weakening and the need for self-assertion in periods of crisis. A current opinion is that the style of government represented by Marduk’s monarchy is a reflection of the imperial model of governance in ancient Babylon. According to other interpretations of the Enuma Elis, the myth would portray a transition from early “democratic” government to monarchical rule, as the council of the first generation gods is replaced, by agreement, by Marduk’s autarchical rule.

Some historians believe that the myth reveals a tendency toward monotheism, since Marduk is placed above the other gods. Nevertheless, the rise of Marduk seems to depend precisely on these lesser gods, that is, on polytheism, to be verified.

Mircea Eliade, a celebrated scholar of the history of religions, believed to see in the universe of the Enuma Elish a dual nature: constituted by the body of Tiamate (demonic) and the work of Marduk (divine). The same would apply to men, who were created by the demonic substance of Quingu and the divine work of Ea. For Eliade, “primordiality” itself was seen as the source of negative creations,

Being a cosmogonic and anthropogonic poem, the Enuma Elis has been compared countless times with the book of Genesis. This is because the Bible, in the early years of Assyriology, had its importance exaggerated by researchers. In fact, we can draw certain parallels between the book of Genesis and the Enuma Elis, because both come from the same cultural universe. But the differences between the two are also substantial.

In both Genesis and the Enuma Elis, water appears as the primordial substance (Genesis 1:2). The original chaos is described similarly in both texts. However, while in Genesis there is only one creator god, in the Enuma Elis the gods are being created out of this primordial chaos. Elohim (God), like Marduk, uses the word in the Biblical cosmogony (Genesis 1:3). Elohim (God) creates the sky, in the same order as Marduk. In both texts, the sky is a vault in which the celestial water resides. Elohim and Marduk create the sun, moon and stars in the same sequence (Genesis 1:16). Then the plants are created, the same in Genesis and in the Enuma Elis (Genesis 1:12). Genesis has the passage “And God said, Let us make man in our image,” while the Enuma Elis has the passage “I will create something original whose name will be man.” In Genesis, man and woman are created to cultivate paradise, in the Enuma Elis, to be of service to the gods. At the end of creation, the gods rest, as does Elohim.

In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, one can see that the Hebrews attributed to Yahweh (God) certain deeds of Marduk. In Job 7:12, for example, images of the Babylonian myth resound (“Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you should set a guard over me?”). The theme of fighting a primordial monster, characterized as the “sea” or the “waters,” or even as a primordial mythological monster (among others.

In the Enuma Elis the creation of the city of Babylon is credited to the god Marduk. This city would have been built by the supreme god as a dwelling place for the gods. Its existence predates the creation of men, according to the poem.

Break-up period (1590-1000 BC)

After Hammurabi’s death, possibly in 1 750 B.C., people of Chassidic origin began to invade the region of Babylon. These people, whose language cannot be associated with any other linguistic group and whose origins remain obscure, founded new ruling dynasties in southern Mesopotamia and settled there for many years, until they were later driven out by the Elamites. Meanwhile, peoples of Indo-European origin began to enter Mesopotamian territory through Anatolia. One such people were the Hittites, originally from southeastern Europe, on the upper shore of the Black Sea, who formed a powerful empire in Mesopotamia, destroyed around 180 B.C. The Hurrian kingdoms, also formed by new invaders, unified into a political unit known as the Mitani kingdom (1550-1350 BC) which influenced the political situation in Mesopotamia for the next centuries. Egypt, at this time entering the New Empire period, would be another influential political force dominating Mesopotamian history in this period. However, it would be Assyria that would take the role of the new mistress of the near east with its political strengthening in these years of disintegration.

After Hammurabi’s death (around 1750 B.C.), myriad revolts and insurgencies exploded in the Babylonian kingdom, making it particularly vulnerable to outside attack. The southern part of the Paleo-Babylonian Empire passed under the control of invaders from the sea, while the northern region was occupied by the Chassites, people from the Zagros Mountains. The city of Babylon, still under the control of the Amorites, was invaded and occupied by the Hittites around 1590 B.C., thus extinguishing the dynasty of Hammurabi. However, Kassite raids pressured the Hittites to quickly leave the capital, and these migrant peoples took over the central and southern territory of ancient Babylon.

Babylon was under Chassite rule for about four hundred years. These peoples quickly absorbed the local culture, so that few of their cultural peculiarities could be identified. The Chassite kings had their authority limited and their people, after settlement, experienced long periods of peace. Their rule over Babylon ended around 1 160 B.C., when Elamite troops invaded the region. A brief restoration occurs with the help of Emperor Nebuchadnezzar I, who expels the Elamites during his reign (1125-1104).

The Indo-European peoples began to spread throughout Europe and Asia before the year 2000 B.C. Among them were the Persians and Medes, who occupied the region of present-day Iran, the Arians, who occupied northern India, and the Hittites and Hurrites, who occupied the region of Anatolia. The Hurrites entered northwestern Mesopotamia and southeastern Anatolia between 1800 and 1550 B.C.

Certain Indo-European speaking peoples occupied the Hati region of Anatolia, where non-Indo-European speaking peoples lived. They soon came to be called Hittites (named after “Hati”). These people settled as the ruling minority in Hati and, appropriating some native knowledge, organized themselves into city-states. King Hatusil I (1650-1620 B.C.) unified the Hittite peoples around 1,650 B.C. Between 1650 and 1,500 B.C., a political unity emerged that historians call the “Old Hittite Kingdom,” synthesized by the governments of Hatusil I and Mursil I (1620-1590 B.C.). Mursil I captured the city of Babylon in 1 595 B.C., but soon after was assassinated in a palace feud, which led the kingdom into a long period of instability (1590-1370 B.C.). With the accession of King Supiluliuma I to the throne around 1370 BC, the Hittite kingdom was reborn, in a period known as the New Hittite Empire. During this time, the Hittites annihilated the kingdoms of the Hurrites and Arzaua, extending their empire from the Aegean Sea to the Syrian Mountains. In the year 1274, the famous battle of Cadexe took place between the Hittites and Egyptians, culminating in a peace treaty between the two powers. The decline of the Hittite empire occurs with the arrival of the “peoples of the sea” and the strengthening of the Assyrians.

Beginning in 1 550 B.C. the Hurrians brought the entire region between northern Mesopotamia and the Syrian coast under a single rule, that of Mithani. This ethnic group succeeded in subjecting Assyria to vassalage and formed a coalition with Egypt during the reign of Thutemose IV (1401-1391 BCE). Around 1 350 BCE, the Hurrian king Tusrata was challenged by the nobility of the kingdom, while Mitani suffered attacks from the Hittite peoples. Egypt, if powerful ally, was going through internal turbulence with the reign of Achaenaton. This culminated with the fall of the Hurrian kingdom around the same year. The Hurrites worshipped gods similar to those of the Vedic Indians, such as Mitra, Indra and Varuna.

Ugarit was a Canaanite kingdom which flourished around 1450 B.C. This kingdom was vassal to the Hurrites, the Egyptians and the Hittites, and was eventually destroyed by the “sea people” (invaders who caused turmoil in the near east around the 13th century B.C.). The Ugaritic people had their own alphabet, large libraries and palaces. Their culture was in continuity with older traditions of the Canaanites, occupied since before 3500 B.C. The supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon was El, the king of the gods, often represented by a bull. His partner was the mother goddess Asherah. El’s son was Baal, the god of fertility. The Canaanite religion was deeply influential to Hebrew beliefs. Ugarit flourished for many years as an important commercial center.

The Peleset, known by their biblical name of Philistines, were one of the groups among the so-called “peoples of the sea” who invaded the Near East during the 12th century B.C. Their name (Peleset) gave rise to the name of the present-day region of Palestine. The Philistines were organized in city-states such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron and Gath, all of which were independent. The Philistines are believed to have introduced wine and olive crops to the Near East. Little is known about their language, which over the years was replaced by a Canaanite dialect. The Philistines came into conflict with the Hebrews, then the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans, and ceased documenting around 700 BC.

Little is known about the Assyrians before they took control of the largest portion of the Near East. The Land of Asshur, from which the Assyrians came, was named after a main deity among these peoples, written in Greek as Assyria (and adopted by westerners to this day). Assyrian territory was dominated by Akkadian and Sumerian dynasties, during the Empire of Sargon and the third dynasty of Ur. This explains the great proximity between the Sumerian-Akkadian and Assyrian cultural universes. The political unit adopted by the Assyrians was the city-state, a monarchy centered in the two main cities of the region: Nineveh and Asshur.

The year 2000 B.C. coincides with the fall of the third dynasty of Ur and, consequently, with the resurgence of Assyria as an autonomous kingdom. This allowed Assyrian merchants to establish trading posts in Anatolia, where the circulation of bronze, gold and silver was intense. Between 1850 and 1 650 B.C. Assyria was under Babylonian rule, and between 1650 and 1 350 B.C. it was a vassal kingdom of the Hurrites of Mitani. Due to its geographical position, Assyria remained for a long time a stage for wars, and this may have contributed to turning the native inhabitants into violent warriors. Around 1 365 B.C. the Assyrian king Assurubalite defeated the kingdom of Mitani and restored Assyrian independence. The invasion of the sea peoples destabilized the old political scene in Mesopotamia, favoring the Assyrian takeover, which with the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1077 B.C.) extended their domains to part of the Mediterranean coast. However, the following century would be one of political weakening, with the invasions of the Arameans and internal instability.

Neoassyrian Empire (1 000-605 BC)

The Assyrians resumed their conquering vigor after 900 B.C. The previous century had witnessed the gradual weakening of Assyrian power, which had nevertheless demonstrated its expansionist potential. The reign of Adadenirari II (911-891 BCE) reaffirmed Assyrian authority in Mesopotamia with the expulsion of the Aramaeans, while enabling greater control of the region’s major trade routes. Assurnasirpal II, grandson of Adadenirari II, dominated an impressive number of small kingdoms between the Assyrian region and the Mediterranean, and is considered the founder of the Neoassyrian Empire. Assurnasirpal II made the city of Kalhu, on the bank of the Tigris River, the new capital of the empire. This monarch was also famous for the mass dispersal of the conquered peoples, who were moved as labor to different parts of the empire.

Shalmanaser III, son of Assurnasirpal II, was responsible for the expansion of Assyria into the region of the old Syrian kingdom and the Palestine region. The end of his reign was rocked by internal revolts. His successors were considered inept, and allowed the kingdom of Urartu to take over part of Assyrian territory between 824-740 B.C.

Tiglath-Pileser III was a usurper, and did not belong to the previous dynasty. This monarch was responsible for conquering ancient Babylon, no longer occupied by the Chassites, but by a Semitic people, the Chaldeans. Tiglath-Pileser III fought the kingdom of Israel, and defeated the dreaded Urartians, who years before were pressing the Assyrian borders. In addition, he incorporated the Aramean kingdoms and established a system of roads and post offices to facilitate communication within the Empire.

At that time, the territories of the empire were ruled by local princes or Assyrian officials, according to the specifics of each city.

Shalmanaser V was the son of Tiglath-Pileser III, and during his reign, he fought a rival bloc made up of Israelites and Egyptians. The city of Samaria, capital of the kingdom of Israel, was besieged for 3 years and taken in 722 B.C. by Sargon II, Salmanaser V’s successor. Some Israelites were killed, others deported to Assyria. Sargon II took this name certainly alluding to the ancient Akkadian conqueror who had reigned over Mesopotamian territory 1500 years before. Sargon II begins a period in Assyrian history that historians have come to call the “period of the Sargonids”. Sargon II transferred the capital of the empire to Dur Sharrukim. In 714 B.C., this famous monarch invaded the kingdom of Urartu.

Sennacherib, son of Sargon, moved the capital of the empire to the rebuilt Nineveh. Among his countless works is the Assyrian botanical garden, which housed plants from all parts of the empire, the double wall of Nineveh, and a long water supply canal.

Sennacherib also faced the Jewish monarch Hezekiah, who was said to have formed an alliance with Phoenicians and Philistines against the Assyrians. In 701 B.C. Sennacherib launched a campaign against cities of these three kingdoms, which were destroyed and subjected to the yoke of the emperor.

Although the second book of Kings presents a toned-down version of the story of the siege of Jerusalem (2Kings 18, 2Kings 19), according to which Sennacherib would have abandoned his intent to destroy Judah’s capital because of Yahweh’s intervention (2Kings 19:35-36), an inscription by the Assyrian king describes a much more serious situation. According to it, “I locked him up in Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. (…) I imposed on him payments and gifts for my sovereignty, in addition to his previous tribute, paid annually.” Also according to Sennacherib, Hezekiah would have given as tribute (demonstration of his obedience) gold, silver, ivory, and even his own daughters.

In Herodotus’ History, second book paragraph 151, the author describes a disaster that occurred in a fight between Assyrians and Egyptians. According to the Greek “(…) When Sennacherib, king of the Arabs and Assyrians, came to attack Egypt with a large army, the warriors refused to fight in defense of their homeland. Seeing himself in such a difficult situation, Setos went to the temple, and there, before the statue of the god, he began to lament the ill fortune that seemed to await him; and thus, lamenting his misfortunes, he fell asleep. In his dreams, he thought he saw the god encouraging him and assuring him that if he marched against the Arabs, luck would be on his side, for he himself, the god, would send him help. Full of confidence in the vision, Setos gathered all the people of good will and willing to follow him, and went to make camp in Pelusa, a key point in Egypt. His army was made up exclusively of merchants, craftsmen, and villa workers. No warriors accompanied him. As soon as these improvised troops reached the city, an astonishing multitude of field mice spread over the enemy’s camp, gnawing away at the battlements, bows and shield straps, so that the next day the Arabs were without weapons, and so fighting they were soundly defeated. This passage has been interpreted as a version of the Biblical narrative about a possible disaster that would have slowed down the Assyrian conquests.

Sennacherib also conquered part of Babylon and destroyed the holy city around 689 B.C. The statue of the Babylonian god Marduk was taken to Assyria.

According to accounts from the Near East, Sennacherib was killed by two of his sons while praying in a temple. These were rebelling against Assaradan, his brother, who had been given the title of king of Assyria as his father’s successor. Assaradan defeated the rebels and rebuilt the city of Babylon. In 671 B.C. Assaradan invaded Egypt and proclaimed himself king. Ashurbanipal, Assaradan’s son, tried to reconquer Egypt, since the Nubian king Taracca had established a new dynasty in the region. Samassumukim, Assurbanipal’s brother, rebelled against his brother’s rule and, with help from the Elamites, attacked troops in Babylon in 652 B.C. After the recapture of the city, Samassumukim committed suicide. Ashurbanipal virtually wiped out the Elamite state and severely punished the Chaldean rebels in Babylon.

Ashurbanipal’s death was followed by the disintegration of the Assyrian empire. Egypt gained its independence in 626 B.C., and Nabopolassar, a Chaldean rebel, inaugurated the last Babylonian dynasty, ignoring Assyrian authority. An alliance formed between the Chaldeans and Medes allowed the destruction of the Assyrians, who had their capital (Nineveh) annihilated in 612 BC, and suffered their ultimate defeat in 605 BC at the Battle of Carchemish. The Assyrians were virtually wiped off the map, their language erased, and the empire divided between the Medes and Chaldeans.

Culture and Society in the NeoAssyrian Period

Excavations in Assyria began in 1845 under the leadership of British diplomat Austen Henry Layard . This famous archaeologist discovered the remains of the ancient cities of Nineveh and Kalhu. He found the royal palace of Sennacherib and the Bookshop of Ashurbanipal at these archaeological sites, constructions that impressed the whole world. Hormuzd Rassam, Layard’s assistant, continued the excavations in Nineveh over the next few years. The pieces rescued have been sent to the British Museum, and allow us to know and partially understand what Assyrian culture was.

The Assyrian king was primarily a military leader. Likewise, he held authority on a religious level, since for the ancient Assyrians, royal power was a concession from Asshur, the national god.

The gods having been the designers of the Assyrian world (seen as ordered), the king was, in the conception of imperial ideology, as a maintainer and also propagator of this so-called order. In this way, the world outside the Assyrian borders was interpreted as chaotic – it was then the king’s duty, in addition to his ordinary duties to his people, to bring order to distant lands by extending the empire through military conquests.

The king consulted prophets to know the will of the gods. When the king’s death was predicted (eclipses, for example, were a sign of regicide), a substitute was put in place to reign for a few days while the real king stayed somewhere safe, the false king was then sacrificed with the intention of fulfilling the omen.

Assyrian religion owed much to the ancient Babylonian beliefs. Asshur, the national god, was placed by the Assyrians above all other gods as the divine ruler, a place once held by Marduk. At the same time, Asshur possessed characteristics found in the ancient rulers of Mesopotamia, Marduk and Enlil. This god was believed to be responsible for bringing military victories and conquests to the Assyrians.

In Assyrian mythology, the demon Lamastu (represented by a female figure) was responsible for creating chaos and fear among the people.

Through dreams and astrology some learned Assyrians believed they were able to predict the future. For the most part, these predictions involved discovering the will of the gods, who punished men when they strayed from the divine intentions, and rewarded them when they behaved. Kings consulted prophets to find out how to rule.

The New Year’s Festival played an essential role in legitimizing the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian monarchies. This festival, whose Sumerian name is Zagmuk, already existed in Mesopotamia almost 3,000 years ago. Its Akkadian name was Aquitu. In the first 12 days of the month of Nisan the king incarnated a deity and played out his story in several stages. The final stages involved the king’s return from the banquet at Bit Aquitu (house of the new year) and the hierogamos, when he was united with a chosen young woman. According to critics of the history of religions, this ritual represented the recreation of the cosmos by the king, who obtained a divine role during the festival, and thus sacralized the monarchy.

The library of Ashurbanipal, almost entirely preserved by the British Museum, was a huge collection of cuneiform tablets in Nineveh. Some 20,000 tablets were found, bearing poetry, religious hymns, incantations, and excerpts from famous epics such as Gilgames and the Enuma Elish.

Neo-Babylon Empire (612-539 B.C.)

Egyptians, Lydians, Medes and Chaldeans were the new lords of the Near East after the fall of Assyria. The Chaldeans were a Semitic people who had settled in Babylon around the 9th century B.C.. These people controlled a portion of Mesopotamia for less than a century, until they lost their kingdom to the Persians.

As already mentioned, Nabopolassar was a Chaldean rebel who managed to become Babylonian king with the fall of the Assyrian Empire. This king was the founder of the last Babylonian dynasty and responsible for annihilating the last Assyrian effectives.

Son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar II extended the borders of the Neo-Babylonian Empire as far as Syria-Palestine. His great victory was the conquest of the kingdom of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem. The captured Jews were exiled to Babylon, an episode known as the “Babylonian Captivity

Nebuchadnezzar II maintained friendly relations with the Medes, but continued fighting the Egyptians. His immediate successors were killed in rebellions.

Palace conspiracies were enough to end the old dynastic line and put King Nabonidus in power around 556 BC. Nabonidus, considered a mad personality, promoted the moon god, Sin, as opposed to Marduk, still chief to the Babylonian cult. He also self-exiled himself to an oasis, abandoning his kingdom for many years, which left his subjects displeased.

His reign ends with Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The Persians will dominate this region for years to come.

The basis for the Hebrew calendar, the Babylonian calendar was a luni-solar calendar divided into twelve lunar months of 29

The excavations in Babylon of the Chaldeans brought considerable information about the architectural structures of these peoples. The city of Babylon, for example, was rebuilt during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, and its new version had more walls, temples and palaces. The gate of Istar, like other magnificent gates in ancient Mesopotamia, led outside the city walls. They were gates composed of figures of mystical creatures, associated with the deities of the city. The central avenues, such as the procession street, were places where religious ceremonies were held. Other famous buildings of Babylon at this time were Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, the temple of Esagila, and the ziggurat Etemenanki, traditionally considered the historical basis for the image of the tower of Babel.

The Aramaeans were Semitic people from the Syrian desert region. Their prominence in Middle Eastern commerce caused their language, Aramaic, to spread notably in the years after they settled in Syria. Their language, written on papyrus using the Phoenician alphabet, soon became the lingua franca in the Near East, including Babylon.

The Chaldeans believed that the stars (the sun, the moon, etc.) were gods. Their religion identified the gods of the traditional pantheon with certain celestial bodies. The Chaldean week was divided into seven days, which was later adopted by the Romans. Their astronomy was advanced, and they could predict eclipses of the sun and moon.


The Persians, originally vassals of the Medes, rose up against the latter in 559 B.C. Both the Persians and the Medes were Indo-European peoples who occupied the Iranian plain during the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. During the reign of Cyaxares the Medes established a large empire, which included the Persians as their vassals. However, Cyaxares’ son Astyages was dethroned by a Persian vassal, Cyrus the Great, in 559 B.C. When Cyrus ascended to the throne of the ancient Meda Empire, he began a series of expansion campaigns that included the conquest of Lydia, Jonia, and Babylon. By the end of his reign, the Achaemenid Empire dominated virtually the entire Near East. The early Persian dynastics, known as Achaemenids, had a policy of religious tolerance, and respected the beliefs of the conquered peoples. Cyrus, for example, was called “anointed” by the Jews (Isaiah 45:1), an unusual title for pagan monarchs, which shows the popularity of the Persian king among his subjects.

Assyriology and the Hebrew Bible

Assyriology was established as a discipline in the 19th century. During its early years, Assyriology was a kind of auxiliary science to biblical studies, functioning as a mere illustration of the passages and narratives of the Hebrew Bible, while biblical studies remained largely ahistorical. This was because Mesopotamia was known to Westerners, until then, only through two sources, considered to be to some extent controversial today: the Bible and Greek sources, particularly the histories of Herodotus. Not only did Assyriological studies represent Mesopotamia in distinctly ethnocentric terms, but they also contributed to the strengthening of the Western position in the East, particularly with regard to the imperial interests of countries such as France, England, and Germany. Archaeological pieces, treated as relics because of their connection with classical and sacred history, were taken as trophies to Europe, where they remain even today.

In the 20th century, Assyriology responded to its status as a dependent science with radical theories, which aimed to isolate Mesopotamia from Biblical study. Among these were the ideas of Friedrich Delitzsch and those of the Pan-Babylonians, who spoke of a supposed Mesopotamian cultural superiority.

Today, both biblical studies and Assyriology take into account comparative studies as a way of understanding ancient Near Eastern societies. However, the discursive nature of the biblical historical books, like the Greek ones, must be taken into account when studying Mesopotamia. The Jerusalem Bible points out that the Hebrew manuscripts had a particular significance for their people, which influenced their way of narrating past events. Some books, such as Esther (by the way, probably a variant of the Akkadian name “Istar”), took on a very “nationalistic” tone, and narrate facts that are not very credible from the historical point of view (such as the promulgation of an order for the extermination of the Jews by the Achaemenids). In addition, biblical critics point out that the concern of the Hebrew scriptures was theological.

Regarding the Greek documents, a plurality of perspectives must be admitted. Amélie Kuhrt in an article entitled “Ancient Mesopotamia in Classical Greek and Hellenistic Thought,” highlights the fact that classical narratives about Mesopotamia vary according to the purpose of their author. Herodotus’ stories, for example, are considered “vague,” and his characterization of Mesopotamian customs is set to Greek standards, like a distorted mirror.

The fertile land caused some of the nomadic peoples from various regions to settle there. From the coexistence of many of these cultures, Mesopotamian societies flourished. The peoples who occupied Mesopotamia were the Sumerians, Akkadians, Amorites or Old Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, and Chaldeans or Neo-Babylonians. Since these states rarely reached large territorial dimensions, it follows that despite the economic, social and cultural identification between these civilizations, there never was a Mesopotamian state.

Sumerians and Akkadians (before 2000 B.C.)

Of Semitic origin, the Sumerians were probably the first to inhabit southern Mesopotamia. The region was occupied in 5 000 B.C. by the Sumerian people, who built the first cities known to mankind, such as Ur, Uruk and Lagash. The cities were built on hills and fortified so that they could be defended from the invasion of other people who were looking for a better place to live. Their political organization was similar to a confederation of city-states, ruled by a religious and military chieftain who was called patesi.

Like most ancient peoples, the Sumerians were polytheistic. But the gods served more to solve earthly problems than to solve the problems that are part after death. Each Sumerian city had its “commander” god. In the Sumerian view, the gods behaved much like people, practiced good and evil, and were much more feared than loved.

The Sumerians are known for the development of cuneiform writing (so called because the register was made on clay plates with the help of a stylus that printed traces in the shape of a wedge) and since the fourth millennium B.C., they had a complex and complete system of river water control. They carried out irrigation works, dams and dikes, and also used bronze metallurgy techniques. Their social organization influenced many peoples that succeeded them in the region.

After a period of rule by the Elamite kings (they lived in the southwest of present-day Iran), the Sumerians once again enjoyed independence.

Groups of nomads, coming from the Syrian desert, began to penetrate the territories north of the Sumerian regions. Known as Akkadians, they dominated the city-states of Sumer around 2,550 B.C. By 2 400 BC, they managed to impose their hegemony over the Sumerian city-states. Already in 2 330 BC, the Akkadian king Sargon I promoted the unification of the south-central portion of Mesopotamia.

The period of the rise of the Akkadian Empire was relatively short, as several military invasion attempts seriously weakened its political and territorial unity. In 2,180 B.C., the Gutians – from the mountains of Armenia – launched a major offensive against several Mesopotamian cities. Only the city of Ur was able to react against the Gutians and impose its domination. However, around 2000 B.C., the Elamite peoples put an end to Akkadian supremacy.

Amorites (2000-1750 BC)

With the decline of the empire founded by Sargon, a great and unified empire stood out in Mesopotamia, whose administrative center was the city of Babylon, located on the banks of the Euphrates River. The Amorites, Semitic peoples from Arabia, then built the Paleo-Babylonian Empire. These people are also known as “ancient Babylonians”, which differentiates them from the Chaldeans, founders of the Second Babylonian Empire, called Neo-Babylonians.

The ruler who stood out the most was Hammurabi (1792 to 1,750 B.C.), drafting laws that became known as the Code of Hammurabi, which was based on a Sumerian code “Ur-Namu”. The “Code of Hammurabi”. The character of the laws that made up the Code of Hammurabi was quite severe – the penalty was equivalent to the fault committed.

If a son assaulted his father, his hands would be chopped off. If a doctor lost his patient, he would answer for his mistakes, and his hands would also be cut off. Thus, it can be said that the laws of these rulers were based on the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He presented a series of punishments for domestic, commercial, property, inheritance, slavery, and false accusations, always based on the Law of Talion (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”). After his death, Mesopotamia was shaken by successive invasions, until the arrival of the Assyrians.

They developed a very accurate sundial.

Assyrians (1 300-612 B.C.)

From the end of the second millennium B.C., they began to organize themselves as a highly military and expansionist society. They made several conquests and expanded their domain beyond Mesopotamia itself, reaching Egypt. The administrative center of the Assyrian empire was Nineveh, where the royal library of Ashurbanipal (the Library of Nineveh) was made, with more than 22,000 clay tablets.

The Assyrian army was one of the most remarkable in ancient times, a fact that gave the Assyrians the power to conquer many territories. With each territory the army increased even more because of the mandatory conscription they implemented. Some historians believe that the Assyrians could field up to 100,000 soldiers.

Even with the army, the empire could not sustain itself, largely due to the fact that the majority of the population of the empire disliked the military and often cruel regime to which they were subjected. One of the kings who stood out the most was Ashurbanipal.

Chaldeans (612-539 B.C.)

People of Semitic origin who settled in Lower Mesopotamia in the early first millennium B.C., the Chaldeans were mainly responsible for the defeat of the Assyrians (for, together with the Medes, they sacked Nineveh) and the organization of the new Babylonian empire. Nebuchadnezzar II was the best known ruler of the Chaldeans. Famous for the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, he ruled for almost sixty years, and after his death the Persians dominated the new Babylonian empire. The Chaldean empire lasted only 73 years, as it was incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire.

In general terms, it can be said that the predominant form of production in Mesopotamia was based on the collective ownership of land administered by temples and palaces. Individuals only enjoyed the land as members of these communities. It is believed that almost all means of production were under the control of the despot, personification of the state, and the temples. The temple was the center that received all the production, distributing it according to needs, and was also the owner of much of the land: this is what is called the temple-city.

Recent studies show that in addition to the temple and palace economy, there was a private sector that also participated in the economy of the city-state.

Administered by a corporation of priests, the land, which theoretically belonged to the gods, was given to the peasants. Each family received a plot of land and had to give the temple a part of the harvest as payment for the useful use of the land. Private properties, on the other hand, were cultivated by wage earners or tenants.

Among the Sumerians there was slavery, but the number of slaves was relatively small.

In contrast to the regular and beneficial floods of the Nile, the flow of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, as they rise eastward over the Tauro Mountains, is irregular and unpredictable, producing drought conditions one year and violent and destructive floods the next. To maintain some kind of control, the construction of dams and canals was necessary, as well as complex organization. The construction of these structures was also directed by the state. The control of the rivers required a large labor force, which the government recruited, organized and controlled. The main economic activities of Mesopotamia were:

The main sciences studied were:


Cuneiform writing, a great Sumerian achievement, used by the Syrians, Hebrews and Persians, arose in connection with the accounting needs of temples. It was an ideographic writing, in which the object represented expressed an idea. The Sumerians – and later the Babylonians and Assyrians, who spoke Akkadian – made extensive use of cuneiform writing. Later, the priests and scribes began to use conventional writing, which had no relation to the object represented. The conventions were known to them, the ones in charge of the cultured language, and they tried to represent the sounds of human speech, that is, each sign represented a sound. Thus phonetic writing appeared, which, at least in the second millennium B.C., was already used in accounting records, magical rituals and religious texts. The person who deciphered cuneiform writing was Henry C. Rawlinson. He got the key to this feat from the inscriptions on the Beistum rock, on which was engraved a gigantic message 20 meters long and 7 meters high. The message had been carved into the rock by King Darius, and Rawlinson identified three different types of writing (ancient Persian, Elamite and Akkadian – also called Assyrian or Babylonian). The German Georg Friederich Grotefend and the Frenchman Jules Oppent were also prominent in studies of Sumerian writing.


There are many texts and fragments of Mesopotamian literature left over, many of which are still being deciphered and translated. A common characteristic of most of the texts is their state origin, especially in the case of religion and business. There are also chronicles of the deeds of rulers and gods, hymns, fables, verses, as well as merchants’ notes. All this is recorded on clay tablets, in cuneiform writing, so called because its characters are wedge-shaped. Noteworthy are the Creation Myth and the Epic of Gilgamesh – the love and courage adventure of this hero god, whose goal was to obtain immortality.

The Code of Hammurabi, until recently the first known code of laws, is a compilation of Sumerian laws mixed with Semitic traditions. It presents a diversity of legal procedures and determination of penalties for a wide range of crimes. It contains 282 laws, covering virtually every aspect of Babylonian life, covering trade, property, inheritance, women’s rights, family, adultery, false accusations, and slavery. Its main characteristics are: the law of talion, i.e., “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (the criminal’s punishment should be exactly proportional to the crime he committed), inequality before the law (punishments varied according to the social position of the victim and the offender), division of society into classes (free men (awilum’), slaves, and a little-known intermediate group – the muskênum), and equality of parentage in the distribution of inheritance. The Code of Hammurabi reflects the concern to discipline economic life, giving rise to the first laws of pecuniary characteristics (price control, organization of artisans, etc.) and guaranteeing the regime of private ownership of the land. Mesopotamian legal texts were inspired by the gods of justice, and the enforcers called judges of divinity same as divination, who decreed the laws and presided over the trials.

Preceding the Code of Hammurabi is the Code of Ur-Namu, discovered in 1952 by Assyriologist and professor Samuel Noah Kromer.


One of the rare testimonies of Mesopotamian painting was found in the Palace of Mari, discovered between 1933 and 1955. Although the paints used were extremely vulnerable to weathering, in the few fragments that remain it is possible to perceive their brilliance and vivacity. Its artists possessed a technique perhaps superior to what they were allowed to demonstrate.

“Laws of frontality”

Since three-dimensional figures had to be placed on a two-dimensional surface, the image suffered a rigid distortion process: where the head, legs and feet were represented in profile and the bust in front.

Music and Dance

Music in Mesopotamia, especially among the Babylonians, was linked to religion.

When the faithful were gathered together, they sang hymns in praise of the gods, accompanied by music. These hymns often began with the expressions: “Glory, praise such a god; I want to sing the praises of such a god”, followed by an enumeration of his qualities, of the help the faithful can expect from him.

In penitence ceremonies, the hymns were of lamentation: “alas for us”, they exclaimed, remembering the sufferings of such and such a god or pitying the misfortunes that fell upon the city. Instruments, no doubt deaf-sounding, accompanied this recitation, and in the body of these psalms, one sees the text interrupted and the onomatopoeia “woe”, “woe”, “woe”, succeeding each other in a whole line. The mass of the faithful should interrupt the recitation and not resume it until everyone, in chorus, had groaned enough.

The procession, finally, often accompanied religious and even civil ceremonies. On an Assyrian bas-relief in the British Museum depicting the taking of the city of Madaktu in Elam, the population leaves the city and stands before the victor, preceded by music, while the women in the procession clap their hands to the east to compose the march.

Chanting also had connections with magic.

There are chants for or against a happy birth, chants of love, of hate, of war, chants of hunting, of evoking the dead, chants to favor, among travelers, the state of trance.

The dance, which is the gesture, the reinforced act, rests magically on laws of resemblance. It is mime, it applies to all things:- there are dances for making it rain, for war, for hunting, for love, etc.

Ritual dances have been depicted on monuments in West Asia, Sumer. At Thecheme-Ali, near Tehran; at Tepe-Sialk, near Kashan; at Tepe-Mussian, Susa region, archaic shards reproduce rows of naked women, holding hands, hair in the wind, performing a dance. On cylinder-sinets one sees dances in the course of sacred feasts (royal tombs of Ur).


The gods, extremely numerous, were represented in the image and likeness of human beings. The sun, moon, rivers, other elements of nature, and supernatural entities were also worshiped. Although each city had its own god, there were some deities among the Sumerians that were accepted by all. In Mesopotamia, the gods represented good and evil, so much so that they adopted punishments against those who did not fulfill their obligations.

The center of Sumerian civilization was the temple, the house of the gods that governed the city, as well as the center of wealth accumulation. Around the temple, commercial activity was developed. The patesi represented the god and combined political and religious powers.

Only the priests were allowed into the temple and it was their total responsibility to see to the worship of the gods and to see to it that the needs of the community were met. The temple priests were free from work in the fields, they would direct the work of building irrigation canals, reservoirs and dikes. The god through the priests lent the peasants animals, seeds, plows and leased the fields. When paying back the “loan”, the debtor added to it an “offering” of thanks. With the need to control the goods given to the gods and to account for the administration of the temple’s wealth, the counting system and cuneiform writing began. As an example of the power of the gods in Lagash, the countryside was divided into the possessions of approximately 20 deities, one of these, Bau, owns about 3250 hectares, three-quarters of which are allotted, one in lots, to individual families, one quarter cultivated by wage earners, by tenants (who pay one-seventh or one-eighth of the produce) or by the free labor of other peasants. In his temple work 21 bakers assisted by 27 slaves, 25 brewers with 6 slaves, 4 women preparing wool, spinners, weavers, a blacksmith, as well as officials, scribes and priests.

The conception of an afterlife was confusing. They believed that the dead went to Nergal, the god who guarded a kingdom from which one could not return.


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