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Ancient Mesopotamia - an overview

Mesopotamia at Cambridge

Cuneiform

Ancient Mesopotamia, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, now lies mostly in modern Iraq and northeastern Syria, together with southeastern Turkey and western Iran. More than five thousand years ago, the world's first literate and urban society arose in this region. Mesopotamia was diverse and endlessly changing. After the early historical cultures of Sumer and Akkad, the region was later dominated by the great empires of Assyria and Babylonia and was in constant interaction with the contemporary cultures of Anatolia (modern Turkey), northwest Syria, the Levant, Egypt, Iran and the Gulf.

Mesopotamian history is the first chapter in the history of the western world. After the first flourishing of urban culture, associated particularly with the spectacular temple architecture and the earliest written archives excavated at Uruk in the south of Iraq, the Early Dynastic period saw rival city-states vying for control of the irrigated land of south Mesopotamia and extending their economic and cultural influences to neighbouring lands. The dynasty founded by Sargon of Akkad and the Third Dynasty of Ur each united the region under one ruler for a century or more, and later all the south fell under the control of Hammurabi of Babylon, an achievement he celebrated by promulgating his laws and inscribing them on his famous Stele (now in the Louvre).

Neo-Assyrian ScribeAfter a period of political disruptions, both Babylonia and Assyria belonged to the elite club of the great powers of the Amarna Age, along with the Egyptians, Mitanni and Hittites. After another period of disruption associated with the collapse of palatial states in the Mediterranean and Anatolia and the incursion of Aramaean nomads into the Mesopotamian plains, the kings of Assyria forged the largest territorial empire then known, stretching by the 7th century BC from Susa in the east to Egypt and the borders of Phrygia in the west, and providing us with historical sources for the Biblical world and Greece's eastern neighbours. The Assyrian Empire was supplanted by the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar and his successors, and they in turn fell to the Persians when Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BC. 

What is special about Mesopotamia is that the bare bones of this political history can be fleshed out with deep insights into both the social and economic conditions and the religious, scientific and literary traditions, from the wealth of cuneiform documents which survive from public and private libraries and archives. We have the personal correspondence received or dictated by figures such as Hammurabi of Babylon or Sargon of Assyria, and everyday legal and commercial transactions which allow us to approach the reality behind the propaganda the kings have left us and see into the lives of farmers and merchants. The scribal classes have left us the original record of their astronomical and mathematical expertise, and the handbooks of diviners and exorcists give us an insight into those branches of contemporary science. In a very real sense, ancient Mesopotamia is a long first chapter in the history of the western world.

Britain has been a centre for Assyriology since the early days of exploration, study and research in Mesopotamia. It has a lengthy tradition of active fieldwork, beginning with the explorations of Layard at Nimrud and Nineveh in the 1840s, continuing through the 1920s-1950s with the research of Sir Max Mallowan at Nimrud, Arpachiyah, Tell Brak and Chagar Bazar, Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur, and Seton Lloyd at Tell Uqair, Eridu and Tell Hassuna. In Iraq during the 1960s-1980s, British archaeological teams excavated at Tell al-Rimah, Abu Salabikh, Umm Dabaghiyah, Choga Mami, and on numerous rescue projects, embracing modern scientific techniques. The unrivalled collections of tablets and artifacts in the British Museum in particular have inspired generations of scholars.

Click for more information on Mesopotamian languages and archaeology.