Lecture 1: Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent

Welcome to The History of World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1650. We will be covering almost 5000 years of human history in this course, and in order to make sense of this enormous expanse we need start with some important distinctions. The course begins with two crucial shifts, one is from pre-history to history, and the other is from nomadic life to settled civilization. What do I mean here? I will begin with history. About 10,000 years ago, human beings first began keeping simple records of their daily lives, such as economic transactions marked in clay. By around 3,400 B.C. these records had grown much more complicated, including names of rulers, places, gods, laws, and even literatures appeared in clay or in stone, on animal skins, or later on paper. So when we talk about humanity’s move into history, what we’re really saying is that we are following the process by which humans produced and recorded distinct cultures. Now I turn to civilization. What is this supposed to mean? I use civilization in a narrow sense, seeing it as the living conditions that made human culture possible. These conditions are: farming, which includes the domestication of plants and animals; urbanism, living in towns and villages; writing, which makes is possible to accumulate knowledge; division of labor, a farm surplus allows markets in specialty items to appear; finally, the mastery of metal working, which made human beings both more productive and dangerous to each other, as we will see.
The course also makes one crucial assumption: this history is the story of Homo sapiens sapiens. (That’s us.) There have been other hominids on the earth’s face; some are our ancestors, others are evolutionary dead ends. This particular story is a long one. Anywhere from 2 to 8 million years ago Australopithecus, our first recognizable ancestor, appeared somewhere in what is today east Africa and began the hominid expansion around the world. Scientists have traced a variety of species and sub-species from this original one, giving them names such as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The picture is complicated and everyone is constantly arguing about its accuracy. We really don’t know which species is connected to which, though scholars do make educated guesses. This course does not go back far enough into the past for these debates to matter to us. Moreover, none of these ancient beings left behind enough material for us to trace their history. All we need to recall about pre-history for this class is that about 40,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens appeared, probably in Africa, and eventually spread around the globe. Our direct ancestors began just as other hominids did, as nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and used primitive stone tools. Between 10,000 B.C. and 3,500 B.C., however, for reasons we do not comprehend, some of these people learned to domesticate plants and animals and began to settle in small villages in and around what is today the Middle East. Small farming communities appeared in the area that today comprises Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Among these small and fragile villages, those located in Mesopotamia made the first known leap into civilization and, therefore, history.
Now, why this region? Why Mesopotamia, and not some other place? There were other small villages in other places, such as China and Japan. No one knows for certain, but the answer may lie in climate and access to water. The Middle East was not always as arid as it is today. Although it never got great amounts of rain, it was more temperate 5000 years ago, which made it possible for primitive peoples to build their lives in the open. The central reason, however, was access to river water. The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates is actually slightly below the level of the water, which made it possible to irrigate large areas through a complicated system of dikes and dams. It also meant, however, that people had to cooperate, usually at a very high level of organization, because improperly maintained dikes could burst and, thus, ruin everyone’s crops. Moreover, both the Tigris and the Euphrates were unpredictable. They shifted their courses on occasion and flooded irregularly, and any damage had to be repaired quickly, lest everybody starve. All of this is meant to suggest that although the Fertile Crescent was potentially very wealthy, it took a good deal of cooperation to unlock its potential. The historical effects of this situation were significant.
Before I discuss human history in Mesopotamia, however, I want to consider history at another level. Mesopotamia is only a beginning, but even here we begin to see some general themes that will be important for understanding the entire period we are considering. Five characteristics strike me as most important: (1) water, (2) government, (3) religion, (4) trade, and (5) conquest. From the moment that the first civilization arose out of Mesopotamia’s river muck, these factors combined to present human beings with great opportunities and great dangers. Government made it possible to pool resources and to direct them to specific needs. Religion allowed people to define their place in society and the universe, bringing meaning to a hostile world. Trade increased the economic and cultural wealth of societies. Conquest, oddly enough, did this as well, but also came with significant costs. As we consider Mesopotamia and each subsequent world civilization, you will want to keep in mind how these factors worked together to shape the story that we will be pursuing.
Now back to the particulars. The first known human civilization in Mesopotamia is called Sumer, which was the ancient name for that region of southern Mesopotamia. Sumerians were Sumerians because they spoke the Sumerian language. The people who spoke this language arrived in Mesopotamia about 4000 B.C. They were probably Caucasians, but this is not certain. We know only that they were not Semitic and had no connection to other peoples living in the region. In any event, people had already been living in this region since about 5000 B.C., and with the influx of settlers Sumer rapidly became a genetically mixed area. There is, thus, no point to imposing the modern fascination with race on this past. Moreover, even before the Sumerians’ arrival, cultural centers were appearing in the region, as the local people had already begun to turn some villages into cities. Eridu was one such place. It had a massive temple, which probably became the model for later Sumerian architecture. This temple is important for our purposes, because it draws our attention to the importance of religion in daily life and public organization. Religion dominated Sumer thoroughly, and this had important effects on later civilizations, as we will see. Another key city was Uruk, which also had a large temple that boasted mud-brick pillars eight feet wide. This city’s larger cultural importance is attested by the fact that it is named in the Bible, though there it is called Erech.
There was, therefore, already a solid foundation in the areas on which the Sumerians could build, and by the middle of the 4th millennium B.C. we begin to see changes in the structures of daily life that tell us we are heading for a full-blown civilization. The first clear sign we have is the proliferation of pottery. We know about pottery, because archaeologists discovered at Uruk a great number of clay pots, now called Uruk pots. For those of an aesthetic mind, they were actually rather dull and compared unfavorably to older pottery, which was freer and more artistic. Yet, and here we uncover a surprise, these pots were ugly, in part, because they were mass produced on a standard pottery wheel. The importance of this signal cannot be overestimated, for it shows us that the Sumerian economy had undergone deep changes by 3500 BC; its agricultural successes allowed it to support an entire group of people who produced non-agricultural products for sale at market. This reveals a level of complexity that no other area had yet achieved.
The second sign is the appearance of writing. Sumerians did not have paper, but they wrote on clay, which is good for us, since archeologists have discovered thousands of clay tablets on which are recorded a variety of economic transactions. These tablets are usually ledgers that record an exchange of goods and services, prices, taxes paid, which are again examples of how complicated life was becoming for people. The importance of this growing complexity is apparent in the history of Sumerian writing itself. Early writing took the form of pictograms, with pictures representing a particular object. During the next 500 years, however, the Sumerians made a remarkable achievement; they moved away from pictures and developed an abstract script called cuneiform. This word comes from the Greek word for wedge. Sumerians used the end of a wedge-shaped reed to press marks directly into wet clay. A group of marks together became a particular symbol. What was so important about this shift is that each symbol came to represent a particular sound, rather than a word.
By 3000 BC, the Sumerians had invented a phonetic system of writing. This was a momentous achievement, because it allowed the Sumerians to combine sounds in a way that made their language flexible, which in turn supported a more complex culture. Sumerian culture became so complex, in fact, that its language became a byword for civilization, as the learned by definition spoke Sumerian. Sumerian lived on long after Sumer itself had disappeared, filling the same role Greek played in the Roman world and Latin in the Medieval European one. Remnants of this cultural significance persist even in modern European languages. The original form of the word “alcohol,” for example, dates back to ancient Sumer--proof positive that beer, liquor, and wine are one of civilization’s building blocks.
With these broad brush strokes as a backdrop, we can now consider some of Sumer’s political history. Sumer’s history begins around 3500 BC and ends around 2000BC. This period is divided in to three phases. The first phase runs from 3500BC to 2400BC. Early in this period, cities rose and fought with each other. Fortifications and the use of the wheel in battle, including the development of four-wheeled chariots, are two products of this intra-city competition. Originally, Sumerian civilization seems to have had some democratic elements, but by 3000 BC kings emerged. This may have been a result of the need for order that war and the increasing size of the economy mandated. These kings fought each other until there were only a few left. By 2400 BC, Sumer entered a new phase, as a Semitic people the Akkadians conquered Mesopotamia. As a result of this conquest, one of history’s first great kings appeared, Sargon I, and with him began an unending procession of imperial rulers in the ancient world. Sargon’s power was based on state organization, as he brought together the various city states and pooled their resources to increase his power. His success highlights two important themes for us. First, Sumer benefited politically from Sargon’s management, in that the idea of universal kingship brought order to Sumer. Second, Sargon shows how conquerors often absorbed the culture of the conquered, as he became a “Sumerian” king, always being depicted in local costumes. Other examples of this trend will come later in India, China, and Rome. What this suggests overall is that conquest did not always destroy civilizations, as one may expect, but often also created the conditions for its development. However much we modern may dislike the notion, in the ancient world war became a central means of cultural exchange.
With the Akkadians’ rise, Sumer entered its second main phase, and here we see the rise of royal power and the first appearance of what we now call a state. Apparently, the Akkadians used the basic social and political structures of Sumer to create a professional army. The state raised money through taxes and used it to buy weapons, which was enormously important in an unsettled world where another violent, nomadic people always loomed on the horizon. The Sumerian army was extremely effective, and one reason was that the Akkadians had developed a new weapon, a composite bow that was made of both wood and animal horns. This bow could shoot farther and more accurately than other bows and its utility highlights another theme that will crop up from time to time: the role of simple technological advances in giving one civilization an advantage over another. I won’t go into this issue here, but you should keep it in mind. As I have already noted, however, what is important for Sumerian culture is that the Akkadians injected into Sumer a Semitic tradition of kingship that they had brought with them from the Arabian Peninsula. The effects of this would be felt strongly later.
The Akkadian hegemony dissolved after two centuries, as another people, the Gutians, swooped down from the mountains in the north and defeated the Akkadian armies around 2200 BC. With the collapse of the Akkadian army, sovereignty returned to the hands of the Sumerians, if only for a short time. Scholars call this period “neo-Sumerian,” and during this period Sumer’s cultural center was the ancient city of Ur. In a way, the Sumerians got their revenge on their conquerors, as the first king of Ur’s third dynasty called himself King of Sumer and Akkad, though it’s not clear exactly what this meant. It is, however, important to note that this was a golden age for Sumer, and here especially we see the profound impact that Semitic ideas of kingship had on Sumerian culture. The old temples were rebuilt and enlarged, with huge quantities of wealth being taxed and spent. The new Sumerian kings built enormous ziggurats, Sumer’s pyramids, to exalt their own status and also commissioned great works of art to enshrine their likenesses. Moreover, the fall of the Akkadians also allowed Sumer once again to extend its political influence well beyond its borders, as tribute came from cities as far away as Susa and Byblos. By the year 2000 BC, the Sumerians had probably the most advanced culture in the world. Certainly it was one of the most respected.
The last flowering of Sumer came to an abrupt end around 2000 BC. The Elamites, a people from the mountainous regions of Persia, and with whom the Sumerians had come into conflict over trade routes, took the city of Ur, and with that Sumer disappeared as a state and an independent culture. But perhaps the most important test of Sumer’s importance is the way it spurred change among neighboring peoples. The Akkadians had spilled out of the Arabian Peninsula and were transformed by their contact with Sumer. Another Semitic people, the Amorites helped to overthrow Ur and established themselves in the areas around Damascus and Babylon. One important offshoot of this resettlement was the later rise of the Babylonian empire, in which we find perhaps the most famous of all the ancient kings, Hammurabi, whose reign began around 1792 BC. At its height, the Babylonian empire extended from Sumer to Assyria and was centered around the cities of Nineveh and Nimrud on the Tigris and Mari on the Euphrates. Babylon’s most famous cultural artifact was Hammurabi’s code, which was carved on public monuments in cuneiform script. Babylon extended many of Sumer’s achievements, including pioneering work in astronomy and mathematics. The Babylonians could, for example, predict lunar eclipses almost exactly. What I want to show with this excursus on Babylon is how the appearance of one civilization always set others in motion. Other empires borrowed and/or stole, which led to the rise and fall of new civilizations.
Now, to return to Sumer; earlier I mentioned that the Sumerian language maintained its cultural importance for centuries, even after the empire itself fell. Let us consider some of the content that lay behind the prestige. One of Sumer’s most important cultural products was its religion. Cities such as Uruk and Ur developed a series of religious ideas that spread across the Middle East. Sumerians, for example, gave enormous importance to cultivating the gods and built huge temples, around which their cities grew. Religion and public life were thoroughly intertwined. In their city temples the Sumerians made sacrifices to the gods, hoping to gain their favor. This may have been rooted in the difficult environment in which they lived. As I have already mentioned, the rivers flooded irregularly and at great cost. Placating the gods, in an attempt to keep the rivers under control, made a great deal of sense. Most important, however, for us is that the development of a priestly class came along with these perceived needs. The Sumerians were probably the first people to associate their state and civilization with religious practices, and in many ways, these religious practices became embedded in the economy. Temples became great consumers of raw materials, a trend that would be mirrored later in Egypt’s pyramids, and we could also add medieval Europe’s cathedrals to this list. There are stories that one Sumerian temple used cedar from Lebanon and copper from Anatolia. Thus, in many ways, Sumer’s religious structure’s developed ways to extend Sumer’s general influence.
Sumer’s exports also included gods. By about 2250 BC the Sumerians had developed a complicated religion in which gods represented natural forces and the role of man was to please the Gods, so that these natural forces would be held in check. Originally each Sumerian city had its own god. This situation was later transformed into a pantheon, with gods having specific purposes. Ishtar, for example, was both the goddess of war and of love. Sumer’s most important gods were three male figures, Anu, Enlil, and Enki. Anu sired all the gods. Enlil was the lord of the air, builder of the world, and Enki the god of wisdom and calm water. Enki’s role was to maintain the order that Enlil had created. As we will discuss in a moment, many of these ideas were exported to other cultures in stories and literature.
One of the most important contributions of this religion was that Sumerian religious art brought the world the first true likenesses of human beings. From this tendency to show human forms comes the Sumerian interest in showing aspects of daily life. It is from Sumerian paintings that we know that the men were generally clean shaven and wore animal skins. Women also wore skins, throwing one fold of the skins over a shoulder. We also see social activities, such as drinking parties, where men sitting on chairs drink wine from goblets. Many of these artistic motifs and interests were then passed on to surrounding peoples.
Sumerians also made a number of important technical advancements. They built the foundation of mathematics by developing a technique for expressing number by both position and sign. (We can, for example, use the digit 1 to represent different values depending on where the decimal place is, though the Sumerian number system was based on six.) Sumerians also developed a method for dividing circles into six parts, which is the foundation of our modern time reckoning and mapping systems, both of which use hours, minutes, and seconds that are based on six. Sumerians also produced major innovations in building. Their brick technology made large structures possible for the first time. The great ziggurat at Ur was 250 feet by 200 feet at its base. The first known example of a potter’s wheel also dates back to ancient Sumer, having been found at Ur. This is also the first record we have of man making use of circular motion. By the year 3000 BC the Sumerians were using the wheel to transport items, an innovation they later applied to the military. Sumerians also invented glass and began using bronze also by 3000 BC.
Thus, in every aspect of early civilization, Sumer led the way and exported its ideas to other cultures. Luckily, we have one of its most important exports, the world’s first work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is assigned reading for this class. As you read this text, I want you to consider what kind of society would have written this text. What picture of Sumer emerges from the story? What things did these people fear? What purpose may this story have served? Are there aspects of this story that you find in other myths? All of these questions tie in with the themes that I have raised today. Next time, we will consider the history of another ancient people whose myths played a foundational role in Mediterranean civilization, the ancient Egyptians.