Ancient Mesopotamia: History and Timeline
Brief Background of Ancient Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia was an ancient region situated in southwestern Asia, between the Tigris River and the Euphrates River. Geographically, the region was mainly found in present-day Iraq and Syria. Ancient Mesopotamia is widely regarded as the place where the early ancient civilizations and cities sprang up. The double river system is believed to have created a favorable environment (i.e. conducive climatic and geographical conditions), which allowed the early settlers to thrive and grow. over time.
The Mesopotamian era was marked by breakthrough inventions such as boats, wheels, and maps. During the era, new ideas about time were conceived, and writing and math were developed.
History remembers the ancient Mesopotamian era as the time of the Sumerians, Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians. The first organized settlers and city-states of the Mesopotamian era date back to around 5,000 BCE (or even further).
Mesopotamia literally translates into “an area between rivers” (Rivers Euphrates and Tigris). The region took its name from Greek origins. Basically, the modern-day countries of Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait now occupy the place that was once termed as ancient Mesopotamia.
Timeline of Ancient Mesopotamia
As the cradle of civilization, ancient Mesopotamia hosted the first city-states and empires in human history.
The region may have started relatively peaceful and sprouted into organized communities; however, with the passage of time, the region succumbed to a series of wars and invasions. Control of the region moved from one empire to another empire.
Historians believe that the Sumerians were the first people to dominate the crescent-shaped area of Mesopotamia. They developed into advanced city-states like Ur, Uruk, Umma, Kish, and Lagash. With the help of silt deposits from the two rivers, their farmlands benefited immensely.
After a few centuries of rule, the Sumerians lost control of the area to the people of Akkad. This marked the beginning of power shifts and dominance that moved back and forth among the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Persians.
Here is a quick overview of important events that occurred in and around the fertile regions of ancient Mesopotamia. The timeline begins around the year 5,000 BCE and ends when Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered ancient Persia in the year 333 BCE.
5000 BCE- The Sumer people (the Sumerians) were the first organized settlers and city-states to occupy the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia. They soon developed sophisticated irrigation channels to water their crops.
4500 BCE- With a stable climate and a constant supply of freshwater, the Sumerians soon had to contend with food surpluses. The excesses made them form trading routes across various city-states such as Nippur, Kish, Lagash, Eridu, Ur, Uruk, and Umma. Obviously, those city-states had to protect their reserves and farmlands; hence, they built city walls with resources raised from taxing the populace.
4000 BCE- By the turn of the new millennium, the Sumerians had become relatively more organized. Also, organized polytheist religious worship and rituals thrived. Priests and noblemen were at the helm of Sumerian affairs. With this came large monuments and temples built in honor of their numerous gods and goddesses. One of such temples was what archaeologists and historians term as a Ziggurat.
3500 BCE- After centuries and centuries of development, the Sumerians developed the first form of writing, which used simple pictures and signs. Regardless of its simplicity, it was very useful in record keeping and conducting business transactions. Scribes would record the things by inscribing pictograms on clay tablets. Hundreds of years later, this form of writing became more refined and profound. It included proper sound structures, phonetics, and meanings. Historians call it the Cuneiform Writing.
3200 BCE- The first wheel gets invented by the Sumerians. With wheels and cart came greater movement of people and the transportation of goods across Sumerian city-states.
3000 BCE- Mathematics, astrology, and chemistry start to spring up. With regard to mathematics, the Sumerians developed the base 60 system.
2700 BCE- King Gilgamesh ascends to the throne of Ur.
2400 BCE- Akkadian language becomes the dominant language among the Sumerians.
2330 BCE- Most of Sumeria, along with other parts of Mesopotamia, falls under the control of the Great Sargon I of the Akkadian Empire.
2250 BCE- Massive territorial expansion is undertaken by the long-reigning Akkadian King Naram-Sin.
2100 BCE- Sumerians come back to the scene after the demise of the Akkadian Empire. The power base of Sumerians forms at the city of Ur. However, this does not last for too long. The nomadic tribes of Amorites begin to make massive incursions into Mesopotamia.
2000 BCE- The city of Ur goes under the might of the Elamites. This opens the door for an Assyrian invasion.
1900 BCE- Assyrian Empire takes full control of northern Mesopotamia. They make their way southwards into Sumeria.
1792 BCE- Babylon Empire is formed and their leader, Hammurabi, establishes his famous code- the Code of Hammurabi. The code is extremely useful in keeping the peace and order in the ancient city of Babylon. With relative peace at home, Hammurabi is afforded the opportunity to venture outside and expand the Babylonian Empire.
1781 BCE- The death of the Assyrian king, Shamshi-Adad, spells doom for the Assyrians as their empire falls to the control of the Babylonians.
1750 BCE- King Hammurabi passes away, and the Babylonians have no clue what to do. Their empire starts to wilt and crumble.
1595 BCE- Babylon gets overrun by the Kassites. The Kassites stay in firm control for about 400 years.
1360 BCE- The Assyrians become a major power in the region again. This time around, they come back with far more advanced and sophisticated technology and culture.
1250 BCE- The Assyrians introduce never-before-seen iron weapons and horse chariots into their arsenal.
1225 BCE- the Kassites relinquishes control of Babylon to Assyria. The Babylonians could not handle the superior tactics and machinery of the Assyrians.
1115 BCE- The upward trajectory of Assyria continues under the Great King Tiglath-Piliser I.
1077 BCE- The might of Assyria takes a nosedive after the death of Tiglath-Piliser I. Their dark age begins.
744 BCE- Tiglath-Piliser III rescues the Assyrians and makes them powerful and great again.
721 BCE- King Sargon II continues from where Tiglath-Piliser III left off and keeps the Assyrian Empire on a path towards regional dominance.
709 BCE- The city of Babylon submits to King Sargon II.
705 BCE- Sargon II’s successor, King Sennacherib, makes Nineveh the capital of Assyria.
668 BCE- A great library is constructed in the city of Nineveh by King Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria.
626 BCE- Assyria plunges into disrepair after the death of King Ashurbanipal.
616 BCE- Nabopolassar becomes king after wresting control of the city of Babylon from the Assyrians. Under his reign, the Babylonian Empire prospers and reaches its zenith.
550 BCE- Cyrus the Great embarks on a conquering spree across the region. He starts off with the Median Empire and later the Lydians.
539 BCE- Cyrus sets his eyes on the city of Babylon. He conquers them and catapults the Persian Empire into a truly great one in the region.
522 BCE- The Persian King Darius I takes the Persian Empire to an even higher height. With the help of his governors (Satrap), Darius rules wisely.
518 BCE- Persepolis becomes the capital and administrative hub of the Persian Empire under King Darius I.
490 BCE- King Darius I begins to become a thorn in the flesh of the ancient Greeks. However, he unexpectedly loses to the Greek (Athenian army) at the Battle of Marathon.
480 BCE- King Xerxes I hopes to emulate his predecessor, Darius I, but he too falls flat on his face. His army gets repelled by the Greeks.
333 BCE- Alexander the Great and his army move across the Mediterranean taking control of places like Egypt and the great Persian Empire itself.
What happened before the Mesopotamian Civilization?
It’s believed that Mesopotamia was the first place that humans inhabited during the early days of the Stone Age, known as the Paleolithic era. The human inhabitants lived in circularly-built houses and fragmented settlements starting around 14, 000 BCE.
After the passage of a few thousand years, the communities started rearing domestic animals. With the abundance of water (provided by the two rivers), agricultural techniques were introduced. Irrigation activities became the order of the day which watered the fertile grounds of the region.
How was the Geography of Ancient Mesopotamia like?
As stated above, Mesopotamia’s area was shaped like a crescent with two rivers- Euphrates and Tigris- running through. The mouths of the two rivers are located in mountain ranges in the north. The rivers then meander through Mesopotamia into the Persian Gulf.
Millennia ago, the rivers went their separate ways into the gulf. However, with the sea much outward in modern times, the two rivers interact with each other before entering the sea. The flows of the rivers leave silted materials, mud, lagoons and reed banks in their wake.
Ever since the ancient settlers settled on Mesopotamia, rainfall has been limited. Luckily for the inhabitants back then, they could channel some of the fresh waters of the rivers to irrigate their crops. Therefore, regardless of the annual rainfall, ancient Mesopotamia rarely lacked water to irrigate their crops.
The two rivers also paved the way for nomads populations to thrive. Those nomads raised sheep and goat and went from one river bank to another.
In terms of farming, the Mesopotamians benefited a lot from all the mud and silt sediments deposited on their farmlands by the two rivers. Soil scientists believe that the region has/had one of the most fertile lands on earth. This explains why agriculture and food produce skyrocketed and hence shepherded Mesopotamia into a civilized age.
In simple terms: The two rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates) were to the Mesopotamians as the River Nile was to the Ancient Egyptians. Had the rivers not been there, the world’s cradle of civilization certainly would have been in a different place.
Examples of Ancient Mesopotamian Civilizations
Historically, the farming communities originated from northern Mesopotamia and gradually spread to the south as thousands of years passed by. Migration continued and it led to the formation of cities. The strong relationship between migration and agriculture and trade is what propelled the early civilizations. Here are some examples of ancient Mesopotamia civilizations:
The Sumerian Civilization
Those who made it to the southern part of Mesopotamia went on to become the Sumerians (Sumer people). Located on a very fertile parcel of land, Sumerians cities such Ur, Umma, Kish, and Ur became very advanced and each developed its own independent administration.
Collectively, these Sumerian cities are considered the birthplace of civilization due to their enormous social, cultural and economic development. For example, by 3200 BC, the city of Uruk was among the first major establishments of the era. The metropolis had houses built out of bricks from the mud that was deposited along the river banks. By the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, the city’s population was estimated to be about 50,000 citizens.
Generally speaking, the reason why the Sumerians flourished largely had to do with the abundance of farming produce; other members of the society had the time to pursue different crafts other than farming. With this specialization came innovations that changed human’s course.
Sumerians build monumental places of worship in honor of their vast number of deities. The polytheist Sumer people often worshiped in religious town halls called Ziggurats. Their gods and goddesses varied from city-state to city-state.
As trade grew among the city-states, Sumerians thought it wise to keep records of the transactions. Governmental and religious institutions also had the need for some form of record-keeping of payments and taxes collected. Therefore, writing came to being. It started off as simple picture symbols but later got structured into a Cuneiform Writing.
The Sumerians were also the people that invented the wheel. They formed small carts so as to transport goods from one city to another. They also invented mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry.
At the initial stages of development, the priests were the echelons of the society. However, as time progressed, and when sporadic inter-city wars became increasingly frequent, the strong men and army generals rose to the apex of the social hierarchy. Soon, their bloodlines inherited the status and roles of these men. Hence, the royal system was born.
Following the demise of the Sumerians in the south, the Akkads in the North step forward to control the majority of the region. They brought the north together with the south and formed the world’s first united empire. Culturally speaking, the Akkadian Empire was not much different than the Sumerians.
They pretty much had the same religious beliefs, a system of governance, social hierarchy and economic system. At some point in time, the two most dominant languages in the Akkadian Empire were the Akkadian and Sumer languages.
Akkadians rule of Mesopotamia helped in the advancement of Sumerian inventions. Things like sails, maps, bronze, and farm ploughs were frequently used in the empire.
Throughout Mesopotamian history, no other city had more fame and glamour than the city of Babylon. It was the center of power as well. But it was not always well for the city dwellers. The city of Babylon had it hay days as well as it’s bad days. Control of the city switched hands really fast. For centuries, it was under the control of the Assyrians, then the next few centuries it will fall into the hands of the Persians.
Regardless of this, the Babylonians still had some really great rulers. These rulers were like gods on earth. A great number of them stretched the empire’s boundaries by defeating other territories. One of the all-time great rulers was Hammurabi. This ruler is credited with writing the “the Hammurabi Codes/laws”. Simply put, the code goes by an eye for an eye principle, or as we will call it in our time- tit for tat. Brutal as it may sound in today’s age, Hammurabi Codes went a long way in preserving the peace of Babylon.
The Assyrians first appeared in the Northern regions of Mesopotamia. The rose to prominence in the region around the 20th century BCE but later fizzled out into obscurity.
During their second emergence in 1360 BCE, they bring very advanced war tools. As a result, they are able to cease control of Babylon from the Kassites. This was made possible due to the military brilliance of kings such as Tiglath-Piliser I and Tiglath Piliser III.
The Persians were the ones who halted the Assyrians in their tracks. Persia’s conquest stretched from Mesopotamia into places such as Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). For a period of time, ancient Egypt was part of the Persian Empire. Examples of some famous Persian kings are Cyrus the Great, King Darius I and King Xerxes.
Read More: 9 Major Cities In Ancient Mesopotamia
Prominent Kings to come from Mesopotamia
Gilgamesh: He was a son of King Lugalbanda who was born and bred in the city of Uruk during the 2700 BC. An important literary collection (the Epic of Gilgamesh) is believed to have had an influence on some Biblical stories.
Lugalzagesi: He was the last ruler of the Sumerian people who later joined hands with an Akkadian army led by Sargon. They took control of the city of Kish
The Akkadian Empire: It was ruled by Sargon the Great who expanded his territory by using great military powers to conquer the Sumerians. He later settled at a region in present-day Syria. Sargon intensified trades across the borders of Mesopotamia and also redeveloped their architecture.
The Gutians: Around 2193 BC, when the last ruler of the Akkadian empire (Shar-kali) died, the Mesopotamian region became politically unstable with wars and conquests. The Gutians were the brain behind the turmoil which disrupted the Mesopotamian empire.
Ur-Namma: He was the king of Ur during 2100 BC. After controlling the Sumer people, he was fought and defeated by the Amorites.
Artistic innovations became a Mesopotamian norm. Complex architectural structures were created on a large scale. It has been reported that Mesopotamians even ventured into metalwork. The usage of metals was first observed in southern Mesopotamia whereby a small statue of a bull in a kneeling position was made in 3000 BCE. Before that time, limestone and ceramics were the most common works of art.
Another usage of metalwork was pictured in 2500 BC at Ur. A statue structure of a goat standing on its two legs with gold and copper were found.
Mesopotamian Gods and Religion
Ancient Mesopotamians were polytheists and as such worshiped numerous gods and goddesses. In 1775 BCE, painting works depicted Ishtar; a goddess with her sibling (Ereshkigal) who were followed by nocturnal animals.
There are also artworks which portray Kings of Assyria in palaces. There was a god with wings called Assur who followed king Ashurbanipal to battles and conquests. In 585 BCE, During King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, it is believed that an image of a lion appeared on the Gate of Ishtar.
Read More: 12 Major Gods from Ancient Mesopotamia
Major Achievements of Ancient Mesopotamia
The Mesopotamian era brought forth scientific and mathematical revolutions. For example, astronomy and some aspects of mathematics trace their roots to the Babylonians. A system of calculations involving the number “60” (hexagesimal system) was used by Mesopotamians to compute angles and time. The 12 Signs of the Zodiac can be traced to the Mesopotamian era.
The accomplishments of the Mesopotamian civilization could be summed up into 4 sections – the scientific, literary, artistic and moral achievements. Even though their science lacked carefully theorized and experimented laws, it would surprise you to know that the Pythagoras’ theory about triangles was successfully used in the early 18th century BC. The technical ability of their civilization was evident in their Ziggurats artworks (temples, towers, and pyramids).
It’s believed that artificial stones (more like concrete) were used for construction projects in Uruk. Unfortunately, history has lost the keys to the deep technical secrets surrounding the manufacture of such a stone.
Historians, however, agree that Mesopotamian artistic work is nowhere near the complexities of ancient Egyptian Art. Regardless, Ancient Mesopotamia boasted of good literature. They used writing to pass on their myths, poems, and wisdom to other civilizations.