Glimpses of History #9: Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian Civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley

As the term is now used, Mesopotamia describes the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates spreading from the Kurdish foothills in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise in the Taurus and Zagros mountains (modern-day Turkey and Iraq’s Mosul region), flowing southeast to meet near Basra. The area between their near-parallel stretches was reliably fertile amid the surrounding desert, and gives rise to the Greek name ‘Mesopotamia’. 10,000-year-old pottery from the region traces the southward movement of settled farms as the climate altered. The Neolithic discovery of mutant grasses with distended seeds that were easier to separate from their plants soon led to deliberate cultivation. Emmer wheat, rye, barley and flax were selectively bred (though whether farmers realized this is debatable) and planted in oxen-ploughed fields. The advent of bronze made ploughing and harvesting less labor-intensive.

The need to predict and, to some extent, control water and crops tended towards priests, dynastic kings and permanent farms specializing in single crops. Similar processes occurred in the Indus valley of India and the Yellow River in China (where the staple cereal was early rice). As rice reached Mesopotamia and India, while bronze reached China, it is tempting to assume some exchanges took place, but the pattern of development may be coincidence. Mesoamerica followed a similar pattern, also apparently independently. Townships became more durable and fortified: Susa, in Iran, and Ur, near the confluence of the rivers, were cities by c.4400 BCE. Their bounty had to be recorded and protected, requiring both clerks and armies.


The most notable achievement of the Akkad Dynasty (2360—2180 B.C.) was the creation of the first world empire, and for this reason the Sargonids lived on in legend, not only in Sumerian and Akkadian, but also in Hurrian, Hittite, and Elamite.

The earliest tallies were recorded as impressions in soft clay, from which the earliest known alphabets and arithmetic developed around 3100 BCE—written ‘bustrophedon’ alternated left-to-right and right-to-left, as a plough does in a field. Pictographic notes, running top-to -bottom, predate these. The written form of the Sumerian language, transcribed as if spoken, begins c.2600 BCE; edicts and chronicles are accompanied by myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The script takes decades to learn, suggesting that it was limited to a specialized cadre (including women, to begin with). Many other specialists, notably architecture, carving, brewing and metallurgy, can also be identified. One tantalizing detail: a female tavern-keeper, Kug-Bau, is listed as king of Sumer after 2500 BCE, and later recognized with various mother-goddesses.

Ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq), one of the world’s longest (almost three thousand years old) and influential civilizations, remains the most concentrated archaeological site on Earth, a fact that incited outcry from researchers at the outset of the 1991 bombing of the Persian Gulf known as Operation Desert Storm. Throughout the history of Mesopotamia, its people interacted vigorously with their neighbors, warring, trading, migrating, and sharing ideas.

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