Cradle of Civilization
Did you know that a region corresponding to modern-day Iraq and known as the “cradle of civilization” is the birthplace of the earliest examples of the use of writing, agriculture, and the wheel?
Mesopotamia was a historical region in southwestern Asia that corresponds to an area that is now covered by eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and most of Iraq. The word Mesopotamia derives from ancient Greek and means “the land between rivers”; the rivers are a reference to the Euphrates and Tigris.
Map of Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia forms part of a crescent-shaped area, known as the Fertile Crescent, that comprises comparatively moist and fertile land on which the first known Neolithic farming settlements flourished around 11,000 years ago. Plant and animal domestication and extensive surplus food production stimulated population expansion and encouraged the emergence of complex societies, resulting in the foundation of some of the world’s earliest cities.
As a result of these early developments and the subsequent spread of culture throughout the Middle East, Mesopotamia is often referred to as a “cradle of civilization.” However, unlike more cohesive civilizations, such as that of Egypt, Mesopotamia produced multiple empires and civilizations differentiated by their history, language, culture, and geographical location.
By the time of the development of the first system of writing, the region’s dominant power was the Sumerians. The writing system (known as cuneiform script), which consisted of pictograms carved on clay tablets, was originally used by the Sumerians to record information about crops and taxes, and became the most significant writing system in the region. Its use can be traced as far back as 3000 B.C.
Limestone Kish tablet from Sumer with pictographic writing; may be the earliest known writing, 3500 BC.
This period of Sumerian dominance also saw the emergence of the earliest known city-states and kingdoms, the invention of the wheel (3500 B.C.), and the first recorded war between states (3200 B.C.).
In around 2300 B.C., the independent city-states of Sumer were conquered by Sargon the Great of Akkad. Making Akkad the capital city, Sargon united the region under what is referred to by historians as the world’s first empire – the Akkadian Empire.
Although the size of the territory ruled by Sargon and the actual location of Akkad cannot be confirmed, historians believe the king ruled over a vast territory that was unified under a single form of government, and its people shared a common language and religious practices.
Following the fall of the Akkadian Empire, the region saw the emergence of a new empire created by a tribe that had moved into central Mesopotamia. Founded by King Hammurabi, the Babylonian Empire was named after its capital city of Babylon.
The reign of King Hammurabi (from 1792 to 1750 B.C.) is notable for the development of law, which was used to govern the kingdom. The Code of Hammurabi is a set of legal decisions that were carved on large stones. Under his rule, Babylon became a center for the arts and sciences, and the Babylonians were responsible for making important advances in the fields of mathematics and astronomy.
Code of Hammurabi on clay tablets, 1780 BC.
Following the decline of Babylonian culture, a new power emerged in Assyria in Upper Mesopotamia that was to dominate the region. The Assyrians were renowned engineers who created large stone palaces with incredible gardens and built the world's first library. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal held many ancient Mesopotamian texts, including the world’s oldest great work of literature – the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Despite the reemergence of the Babylonians after the demise of the Assyrian Empire, the dominance of Mesopotamia by peoples native to the territory came to an end in 539 B.C. with the fall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus the Great from Persia.
“The first duty of government is to protect the powerless from the powerful.” – Hammurabi, The Code of Hammurabi
“If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.” – Hammurabi, The Code of Hammurabi
“If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.” – Hammurabi, The Code of Hammurabi
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