Ancient Mesopotamia: 9 Greatest Cities

Ancient Mesopotamia cities

Ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of mankind’s civilization, was home to some of the most well-known ancient empires and city-states in the world. The region, which is located in southwest Asia, was most famous for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In fact, many of the Mesopotamian cities (i.e. Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Persian, etc) that we are about to explore relied heavily on those rivers.  Inhabitants of those cities made immense contributions to agricultural technology, legal codes, science, philosophy and religion of future civilizations.

Here is a look at 9 of the greatest cities of ancient Mesopotamia that changed the world forever.

URUK

Ancient Mesopotamia cities – Uruk

Uruk was an ancient city-state of the Sumer people (i.e. Sumerians). Dating back to about 3200 BC, the city is generally considered as one of the first civilized cities to spring up in the region.

Situated in southern Mesopotamia, Uruk took about 300 years to reach its zenith in 2900 BC. Littered with a host of mud brick houses, Uruk is believed to have had about 50-80 thousand inhabitants, making it the largest city on earth at the time.

The city’s developed agricultural and administrative structures made it possible for such large population to thrive. Up until the Akkadians came unto the scene, the city of Uruk’s boundaries stretched very far; it gulped up several neighboring cities around the Euphrates River.

AKKAD

The city of Akkad was the largest city among the Akkadians (the Akkadian Empire). It came to greatness starting around 2400 BC, after Sumerian city states in the south went into decline. This resulted in Akkadian language replacing Sumerian language.

Under Sargon the Great, the city-state of Akkad (as well as the Empire itself) developed in leaps and bounds. Sargon was able to make Akkad the center of his expanding empire, bringing in people from the north as well.

Akkad was not much different from other Sumerian cities. The city had similar religious beliefs and local system of governance as that of Uruk. Owing to its multicultural environment and central government structure, Akkad was able to build upon several Sumerian technologies in irrigation, sailing, and literature.

NINEVEH

Ancient Mesopotamia cities | Ashurbanipal with officials from the city

Nineveh was famous because it contributed immensely to the development of local government structures and legal codes for the Assyrians. Its tag as the greatest city to emerge from the Assyrian Empire is rightly deserved.

Nineveh’s path to greatness was largely carved out by King Sennacherib around 700 BC.  Subsequent rulers made Nineveh famous because of their immense contributions to the development of local government structures and legal codes in the city. The city spent a great deal of resources in building irrigation canals, which propelled the city’s agricultural produce to even greater heights.

Inhabitants of the city were kept relatively safe by the city walls, which spanned about 6 miles long. About 15 large gates were strategically placed to control the movement of people in and out of the city. The Great Walls of Nineveh also fortified the city, preventing invaders from sacking the city.

It’s been estimated that the library of Nineveh, built by King Ashurbanipal, had about 20,000 clay tablets. The library helped in disseminating knowledge and good agricultural practices throughout the city.

BABYLON

Hammurabi receiving the laws from Code of Hammurabi

In some regard, the city-state of Babylon was the greatest city in ancient Mesopotamia. Babylon also became famous due to it being mentioned a number of times in both Christian and Islamic literature.

In archaeological terms, Babylon is famous simply because of two renowned kings – Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. King Hammurabi (reign – 1792 – 1750 BC) was credited with the introduction of the Hammurabi Code (in 1172) – one of the world’s first legal codes that pronounced just punishments on offenders, regardless of gender or social status.

As for Nebuchadnezzar, his story abounds in the Christian Bible. The King was a deeply polytheist ruler who stretched the boundaries of the empire into other parts of the region. Nebuchadnezzar and subsequent rulers from the Semitic dynasty reinforced the need for equal rights for women and men in the city of Babylon.

The ancient city of Babylon, located in modern-day Baghdad, was also famous for housing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Legend has it that the garden, which was filled with all sorts of trees and flowers, was built as a gift for the Nebuchadnezzar’s wife, Amytis of Media.

As the capital city of the Babylonian Empire, Babylon’s population of over 250,000 made it the largest city in the world at the time.

ASSUR (ASHUR)

Archaeologists today commonly believe that the Mesopotamian city of Assur was situated around the western part of the Tigris River. The city of Assur burst onto the scenes after the Assyrian Empire was formed. It was the first capital of the Assyrians.

Doubling as the religious and administrative hub of the Assyrians, Assur held a very significant place in ancient Mesopotamia. Archaeological evidences from the ruins today even point to the fact that there was a god called “Assur”, the god of war.  It was believed that the god accompanied the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal in all his war campaigns.

NIMRUD

Located in the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nimrud was a very influential city in the 13th and 14th centuries BC. Similar to Assur, the city of Nimrud had one of the most advanced architectures in the region at the time. After a few centuries on the top, Nimrud declined only for it to be revived by subsequent Assyrian emperors starting around the 10th century BC.

Historians and archaeologists state that Nimrud became the capital of the Assyrian Empire around 884 BC. The ruler behind the elevation of the city to prominence was King Ashunasirpal II. The king, as well as his descendants, was known for building spectacular palaces in the city.

PERSEPOLIS

Ancient Mesopotamia cities | The lamassu in Persepolis, ancient Persian Empire

Persepolis comes in our list of greatest Mesopotamia cities because it was one of the most important (if not the most important) cities in the Persian Empire.

Located in present-day Iran (southeastern Iran), the city’s name “Persepolis” is actually Greek words for “Persian city”.

It is generally believed that Persepolis was built by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 515 BC. Cyrus went ahead and made the city the economic and political hub of the Persian Empire. His descendants, such as Darius I and Xerxes I, followed in his footsteps and developed Persepolis into one of the greatest cities in the world at the time.

Persepolis’ architecture marvels such as the Throne Hall and Apadana Palace drew people from all over the region into the Persian Empire.

UR

Artwork of Ur-Namma (right) with the goddess Nanna, goddess of the moon

The Sumerian city-state of Ur came into prominence around 2100 BC, after the decline of the Akkadian Empire. The city was propelled to its zenith by two kings – Ur-Namma and Shulgi. Owing to their immense contributions, city’s inhabitants took to deifying them.

Ur-Namma (reign – 2047 – 2030 BC) for example was the one who built the famous Ziggurat of Ur – shrine of the god Nanna – in the 21st century BC. The Ziggurat of Ur –pyramid-like structure – can be found in present-day Dhi Qar Province in Iraq.

The city of Ur worshiped Nanna as their patron god. Nanna was also the god of the moon in many Mesopotamian city-states.

During Ur-Namma, the Sumerian city of Ur also witnessed the first known code of law – the Code of Ur- Nammu. It is believed that the code precedes the Code of Hammurabi by a whopping 300-400 years

In the 18th century BC, Ur went into decline, allowing it to be incorporated into the empire of the first dynasty of Babylonia (the Amorites).

HATTUSA (HATTUSHA)

Sphinx Gate entrance of the city of Hattusa

Not only was the city of Hattusa the capital city of the Hittites (located in the Anatolian region of Turkey), it was also the artistic and religious hub of the Hattian people.

The city’s geographic conditions enabled greater access to timber. They inhabitants also planted wheat, barley and lentils.

From the evidence we have today, the first inhabitants came to the area around the sixth millennium BC. Over centuries, the place became a central trading spot that drew people in from Assur in Assyria.

Like many ancient cities, Hattusa had several major religious deities. For example the god Teshub was the god of storm. And the goddess of the sun was known as Hebat. The Rockshrine remains at Yazilikaya paint a detailed picture about the type of gods and goddesses (i.e. “the thousand gods of Hatti”) that prevailed in Hattusa. Prior to its ultimate demise in 1200 BC, Hattusa reached a population of about 50,000 people.

Hattusa’s present-day location is at Boğazkale District of the Çorum Province, close to Ankara, Turkey. The ancient city of Hattusa entered the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

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