Mesopotamia’s fame in world history relates to it being one of the cradles of civilization, it is by many considered home to the very first civilization in history, predating even Ancient Egypt.
Mesopotamia corresponds to modern Iraq, it is defined as the land of the fertile lowlands and lower surrounding mountains where the rivers Euphrates and Tigris run parallel out to the Persian Gulf. The wider definition of Mesopotamia is the lands that that lies west of the Zagros mountains and south of the Anti-Taurus mountains, north of the Arabian plateau, and east of the fertile western Syria. This includes modern Iraq, eastern Syria and southeastern Turkey.
The history of Mesopotamia runs strong from the middle of the 4th millennium BCE, lasting a good 3,000 years. After this, many more civilizations around Mesopotamia had emerged, and often proving stronger. Although often only a province of other states, Mesopotamia continued its civilization into the modern ages of Iraq.
The name ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from Greek, and means ‘between rivers’.
The eras of Mesopotamia
The eras of Mesopotamia cannot be dated exactly in terms of years, nor are the definitions for the beginnings and ends of eras easy to determine for historical events this far back in time. Eras overlap in several cases, at times two or more states thrived at the same time. “Empty” periods are characterized by several, small kingdoms and tribes ruling the lands of Mesopotamia.
|All years BCE|
Eridu and Uruk
|Gudea of Lagash|
|3rd Dynasty of Ur|
About 200 years
About 400 years
|1st Dynasty of Babylonia
|Kassites of Babylonia|
|Chaldeans of Babylonia|
Society and Economy
The most important ancient civilizations in the region were first the Sumerian (3500 BCE-2000 BCE), the Babylonian (18th century BCE-539 BCE) and Assyrian (1350 BCE-612 BCE). During the last two millenniums the Muslim Abbasids must be considered as the strongest rulers of Mesopotamia, both in might and in cultural achievements.
It was the two rivers that became the basis upon which the wealth of the region was based. Through relatively easy irrigation the agriculture could yield heavy crops. There were fish in the rivers, the area had a diversified agriculture and wildfowl was available out near the coast.
There was never a regular supply of water in Mesopotamia, and therefore irrigation was central to controlling the crops in southern Mesopotamia. In northern Mesopotamia, agriculture proved successful at an earlier date, dating back to 10th millennium BCE.
The result was an easy surplus of food products — a prerequisite for urbanization (since the city did not produce basic products, only refined) so cities developed. The cities were centres of trade, as well as production of handicrafts, state administration and military defence. Mesopotamia also had other important raw materials available, even if stone and wood was rare, which had to be imported. The most important local raw material was clay, which was used for building houses, and which was used to create tablets to write on.
The richness of Mesopotamia made it attractive for neighbouring peoples, and its lack of mountains made it fairly difficult to protect against invaders. The result was numerous invasions through the history, and many times did foreign warlords replace the existing rulers. Few dynasties lasted more than a few hundred years. The threat from the neighbours, was another reason for establishing the cities: The cities could be fortified and defended.
Much mathematical and astronomical science owes its beginnings to the Mesopotamians. They developed the sexagesimal system, which was used for all types of calculations, but which is still used for the clock all around the world.
Architecture and art are often impressive seen relative to its epoch, but cannot be compared to what is found in Egypt. But one achievement is among the greatest found in antiquity: The ziggurat, a temple structure of impressive size and high aesthetical values.
Science was at a relatively early stage, and there are no known attempts to create laws and little use of analogy.
It was in Mesopotamia cuneiform writing was developed, and with this much literature of high value was produced. Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh are examples of great religious literature, while the Code of Hammurabi is one of the greatest early examples of juridical literature. Still, much of the available literature still remain untranslated.
People have been living in Mesopotamia for many thousands of years, the region probably belong to the longest inhabited regions of the world.
10th millennium BCE: Agriculture is starting to be developed in northern Mesopotamia.
7th millennium: Tiny settlements start to grow into villages.
4th millennium: Irrigation agriculture of southern Mesopotamia is starting to be developed, and proves to be more effective than the agriculture in the northern regions.
— Some of the villages started to grow into cities, where Eridu and Uruk were among the very first.
Around 3500: City-states in southern Mesopotamia develop, and form the culture we call Sumer.
Around 3100: The cuneiform writing system is starting to be used.
Around 2330: Mesopotamia is conquered by the Akkadians.
Ca. 2220: The tribesmen Gutians defeat the Akkadians.
22nd century: The 3rd dynasty of Ur gets control over large parts of Mesopotamia, and the region is revived.
Around 1760: Most of Mesopotamia comes under the control of Hammurabi and Babylonia.
Around 1600: Babylon is first sacked by the Hittites, then by the Kassites, who take control over the city.
Around 1350: The Assyrians become an important power in northern Mesopotamia, and can at times threaten Babylonia. In the centuries that followed, the Assyrian politics of deporting rebellious subjects made races mix in Mesopotamia.
11th century: Decline in strength and importance of Babylonia. Political chaos would last for about 200 years.
9th century: The Chaldeans get control over Babylonia, and makes it one of the strongest states in Mesopotamia.
612: Assyria collapses.
539: Babylon is conquered by the Persians. The Persians divided Mesopotamia into 2 satrapies; Babylon and Ashur, where Babylon was the most important in politics and administration. The following period was one of slow economic decline for the region.
312: Seleucus conquers Babylon, and a period of Hellenistic culture and economic growth comes to Mesopotamia.
Approx. 250: Mesopotamia is conquered by the Parthians.
226 CE: Mesopotamia is conquered by the Sassanids. Under their rule, prosperity continued and irrigation was improved.
635: Mesopotamia is conquered by the Muslim Arabs.
763: Baghdad is started to be built, as part of moving he centre of the Muslim world from Damascus to the Mesopotamian region. This involves the start of one the most impressive periods of the region, where Mesopotamia in many fields is the centre of the world.
1258: Following a sack of the Mongols, many state structures of Mesopotamia and the Muslim deteriorates. Both culture and economy suffer.
16th century: Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persians start battling over Mesopotamia.
17th century: The Ottomans get control over Mesopotamia.
1840: The first archaeological excavations start.
1932: The eastern and largest parts of Mesopotamia becomes part of Iraq with its independence.
1945: Syria becomes independent, with a territory that covers the western parts of Mesopotamia.