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I. “Mesopotamia” Greek word meaning “between the rivers”
A. Tigris to the east and Euphrates to the west
1. Both rise in the Armenian highlands and flow
generally southeastward toward the Persian Gulf
2. Multiple tributaries and winter rains
B. Southern part where the two diverge again to a distance
up to 100 miles for a distance of about 200 miles was home
of some of the first “civilizations”—Sumer, Akkad, Babyonia
1. Water and light tillable soil but
a. Lack of building materials, metals
b. Constant supply of water to irrigate fields
c. Flooding in spring not useful (mature crops);
had to develop ways to block and shift waters
C. Exposure to other peoples: trade, cultural diffusion
1. To south and west vast expanses of Arabian dessert
w/seminomadic Semitic peoples who continually migrated
into area
2. To east and north foothills and then mountains of
Armenia and Iran
a. Sumerians probably came from this direction
b. Peoples would always rush in from this direction
3. River mouths probably emptied into Persian Gulf where
traders could make their way down the coasts all the way to
the Indus Valley
a. Other traders went up into the mountains to gain
usable wood, metals, stone
b. Some crossed into Asia Minor and Syria
II. Great sweep of arable land stretched between lower Mesopotamia
around through Syria and down by Palestine to Egypt—“The Fertile
A. ****Far more influenced by external events and far more
cultural diffusion than early Egypt
1. Constant influx and outpouring of ideas and trade items
B. Appearance of Civlization (3,500-3,000 BCE)
1. Growth of agriculture led to first “city-states”
a. Larger than earlier villages and displayed
evidence of economic specialization and pronounced
political organization
b. Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Umma, etc.
2. Just before 3,000 BCE next step: system of major canals,
subsidiary channels, roads, regular plots of land in
geometrically order, wooden plows, seed-drills, stone hoes
a. Also: sheep, goats, sheepdogs
b. Also: gardens with mudbrick walls, fruit trees, and
date palms
c. Use of donkeys and boats to transport goods
d. Big increase in yields of barley
3. Each city surrounded by wall made of sun-dried brick and
a moat
a. Uruk’s walls eventually stretched six miles with up
to 900 towers (Legend: built by Gilgamesh)
b. Soldiers regulated traffic of chariots and wagons
III. Politics, Religion and Society
A. 90% of the population worked in agriculture
1. Lived in simple, small, flat-roofed huts
a. Some lived in subsidiary village
2. Also potters, smiths, other artisans
B. Large temple mounds imitating mountains where they believed
the powers of the earth were focused represented the main god
and other gods
1. Called “ziggurats”
Reconstructed facade of Ziggurat of UR
C. Members of society depended on each other; Sumerian city
was tightly interlocked political and economic structure
1. Common cultural and religious outlook
2. Farmers had to dedicate portion of crops and labor
to communal activities—maintaining canals, roads,
walls, fighting in army
***3. Managers of system were the priests
IV. Big changes in governance: from higher degree of citizen assemblies
led by an “ensi” (governor) who spoke for the gods, to “lugal” (king)
who had more power but whose power was checked by nature, dreams,
and processed of divination revealed in events. Then increasing
monarchical power.
A. Eras divided into the following:
1. Early Dynastic (c. 3000-2300)
2. Sargonic epoch of Semitic domination (c. 2300-2150)
3. Sumerian revival under the Third Dynasty of
UR (c. 2150-1950)
4. Old Bablyonian era culminating in reign of Hammurabi
(c. 1700)
V. Sumerian Culture and Outlook
A. [See text for language]
1. A lot of counting but that reflects complexity of life
a. Trying to impose abstract order on unpredictable
and mysterious life/existence
2. Eventually led to measurements, star charts, weights and
measures, and the roots of our number system
B. Arts also progressed
1. Mudbrick temples (massive) with arches and vaults
a. Bands of colored cones to decorate
b. Later painted frescoes
2. Gods visualized in human forms in statues
a. Often seated for structural reasons and
did not express interest in human
3. “Cylinder seals”—carved with gods, animals, myths,
demononic or bestial forms that influenced other cultures
C. Religion: Ritual myth expressed idea that the world was the
Product of conscious divine action and that all the world was
animate (alive)
1. Every element (trees, springs, mountains, etc.) had
human characteristics directed by immortals
2. Highest god was “An” visualized in the overarching
a. Name meant “sky” or “shining”
***3. Then came “Enlil” manifested via the active forces of
4. Then “Nin-khursag” (and other names) who was the
earth goddess
5. Then “Enki” the god of the waters
6. Also important was “Inanna” (later Ishtar) the goddess
of human fertility who may have had her origins in
Neolithic fertility figurines
a. Her decent into the underworld and return
symbolized seasons/agriculture
7. Physical environment had come into being from
primordial chaos of water whence the forces of “Tiamat”
and “Abzu” procreated and created the gods.
a. Thereafter came the sky, earth, and then
b. New Year’s day 11-day feast celebrating creation
8. When died went to a shadowy gray land of spirits
9. Many Sumerian myths percolated into other cultures and
present in Genesis
[What are “myths?” All cultures have and develop them. ]
[Special note on the epic of “Gilgamsh”]
VI. Evolution of Mesopotamian Civilization
A. Dramatic changes during 3rd millennium
1. Not much in the way of documents but can see,
however dimly, substantive change
**a. Social classes more differentiated
**b. Social unrest and then development of law
to develop social and economic relationships
2. Interstate warfare led to imperialism which produced
military classes and bureaucratic systems to run a larger
state born of conquest
***3. The first cities probably composed of relatively
undifferentiated masses grouped in tightknit economic and
spiritual unity gave way to rapidly evolving separations
a. At top were priests who “managed” on behalf of
the gods
b. Temples grew into powerful economic centers
that owned much of the land and laid claim over
much of what was produced
c. Example: Early Dynastic period one-sixth of farm
land directed by priests; half rented out to peasants
who paid one-sixth of yield in rent plus sums in sliver.
Half cultivated by peasants organized into guilds;
Also controlled flocks sheep, shipping craft,
Fishermen, brewers, bakers, spinners of wool.
4. Big increases in production; much of what was produced
went to temple-cults, kings, military, and bureaucracy.
a. Merchants brought in raw materials and products
such as stone, metals, wood, incenses, and jewels
B. Above the priests rose the king or “lugal”
1. Myths of king being lowered from heaven by gods
to ensure order evolved
2. Palaces and tombs began to appear
a. Ex. City-state of Ur—delicate jewelry, harps,
and masses of sacrificed servants
3. Too facile to conclude kings were parasitical; provided
order, both literally and psychologically
C. Slave “system” evolved [special note]
1. Leisure of upper classes and building of temples, palaces,
monuments, tombs, and infrastructure
2. Most labor in Mesopotamia was technically free and
rarely used in agriculture; slaves lived mostly in cities
as domestic servants, concubines, and artisans
a. Valuable capital and usually given minimum
standard living with possibility of rising to freedom
through work
***3. “Civilization” did not benefit all and was partly result
of class differentiation and slavery
***D. Tribal farmers sank into status of peasants from whom
the machinery (structures) of the state extorted a large
part of what they produced.
1. Increasing dichotomy between upper and lower classes
and sophisticated means of exploitation accompanied by
ethos of “cultural superiority”
2. Position of women in Sumerian society relatively high
(could buy and sell property) independence declining
VI. Social unrest, invastions, and decline
A. First recorded reformer appeared about 2275
1. Ensi (governor) of Lagash took power away from
temple foremen and prohibited delivering of widows
and orphans to wealthy men; killed by neighboring
king of Umma
***a. Could not reverse social differentiation
B. War and imperialism played important role in solidification
of class system
1. Early Dynastic war for limited purposes and left
city-states in rough equilibrium
a. Some kings spread rule far to north
****2. First great imperialist was Sargon I (c. 2276-21)
a. legend: waif left by river's edge, became a great
gardener, and then rose to be king.
Account (exaggerated) of his conquests and deeds: "He spread his
terror-inspiring glamor over all the countries. He crossed the Sea in the
East and he, himself, conquered the country of the West...He marched
against the country of Kazalla and turned Kazalla into ruin-hills and
heaps of rubble. He even destroyed there every possible perching place
for a bird."
**3. Sargon's grandson Naramsin (c. 2196-60) called
himself "King of the Four Quarters of the World"
a. Other rulers down to Persians would use title
C. By end of 3rd millennium Sumerian political and cultural
system losing vitality due to invaders from hills; ended first
Mesopotamian empire; revival with Third Dynasty of Ur
(c. 2150-1950)
1. Semitic invaders from deserts, Amorites
ended Sumerian dominance
***a. Summerian became a "sacred language"
VI. Old city-states taken over by Babylon: city-state at junction of major
trade routes at north end of Mesopotamian plain.
***A. Greatest king Hammurabi (c. 1728-1686)
1. Semitic language but preceding Sumerian culture
formed basis of society--myths, arts, religion,
2. Advances: mathematics, astonomy, some degree
of "individualism" w/merchants, land often personally
owned, especially by military and upper class
3. Intense supervision of bureaucracy, which was
growing in size and complexity
a. Infrastructure improvement and supervision
"I rooted out the enemy above and below;
I made an end of war;
I promoted the welfare of the land;
I made the peoples rest in friendly habitations;
I did not let them have anyone to terroize them...
I have governed them in peace;
I have sheltered them in my strength.
*******B. Hammurabi most famous for his extensive law codes
carved on a basalt (type of stone) slab
1. "An eye for an eye" unlike Sumerian money payments
If a noble has broken another noble's bone, they shall break his bone. If
he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or has broken the bone of a
commoner, he shall pay one mina of silver. If he has destroyed the eye
of a noble's slave or broken the bone of a noble's slave, he shall pay onehalf his value.
Note: class differentiation.
2. Many laws directly connected to economic life regulating
contracts, debts/interest, wages.
VIII. Gender and sexuality
A. Women still relatively independent but essentially viewed as
property, especially in marriage rights; but not as oppressive as later
Assyrian laws of 12th century BCE ("When she deserves it, a man may
pull out the hair of his wife, mutilate or twist her ears, with no liability
attaching to him."
1. Reproduction and sex connected to religion
a. Why? [Think back to prehistoric]
2. Temples had prostitutes whose function was
connected to religion (both female and male)
a. Sexual acts performed in connection
to fertility, economics, and spirituality
b. Sometimes sex with priestess or priest
(sometimes castrated) to join with