2: Mesopotamia


Mesopotamia & Ancient Egypt
A larger map of the Near East is here

  • To outline why Mesopotamia was the first civilization on Earth.
  • To outline how the early civilizations of the ancient Middle East
    laid the basis for Western civilization
  • To examine the artistic and intellectual contributions of early,
    major civilizations of the ancient Middle East
  • Know about the Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Know the contributions of Hammurabi
  • Know the terms ziggurat, cuneiform, and stele.

I. Historical Context

Key Terms

Epic of Gilgamesh
Law Code of Hammurabi

  • Western civilization begins in in the Cradle of Civilization or Fertile Crescent
  • So why does civilization begin in the Middle East? Answer: Farming.
    • Large–scale farming means that a people can settle an area, specialize into differrent jobs (instead of hunting every day), and stay put in one place
    • Farmers need 3 basic things: farm land, record–keeping, and plow animals
  • Plow Animals 101
    • Farming on a large scale requires domesticated plow animals
      • Animal Domestication Checklist:
        • Diet must be cheap, abundant, and plentiful (grass is best)
        • Must grow/mature quickly (time = money)
        • Must breed in captivity
        • Must be easy–going (not much in–group fighting)
        • Must be willing to follow a human as the pack leader
      • So, on the entire planet, which animals can be domesticated for plowing?
        • ✓ | The Middle East and North Africa had donkeys and cows
        • ✓ | India and Asia had water buffalos, horses, and yaks
        • ✗  | Sub–Saharan Africa had elephants and zebras, but they won’t plow
        • ✗  | Northern Europe had reindeers, but they won’t plow
        • ✗  | South America had llamas, but they won’t plow
        • ✗  | Australia had kangaroos, but they won’t plow
  • So, from an agricultural standpoint, civilization had to begin in either the Middle East, North Africa, India, or Asia
    • Ultimately, each of these four regions began their own Bronze Age civilization.
      • Mesopotamia - origin of the founder crops, Judaism, and the Abrahamic faiths
      • Ancient Egypt - origin of π, the pyramids, and the Exodus Narrative of the Jewish people
      • Ancient India - origin of the decimal system, the Vedas, the Buddha, and European language (PIE)
      • Ancient China - origin of rice, soybeans, chickens, Eastern Philosophy, Paper, Silk, and Gunpowder
  • So what advantages led Mesopotamia to be first among these four earliest civilizations?
    • Best Land: Rich soil, temperate climate, and fresh river water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
    • Best Geography: land bridge between Africa, Europe, and Asia
      • Ideas, techniques, and trade goods contantly flowed through here
    • Best Resources: Iron for tools and weapons is plentiful here
    • Best Crops: this is the source of 8 "founder crops" (e.g. barley, wheat, peas)
    • Best animals: cows, goats, sheep, and pigs all native to this region
    • First in Writing! Record–keeping allows food storage, trade, and future planning

II. Politics

  • Organized into regional city-states controlled by priest-kings
  • Early writing called cuneiform
    • Catalog of food stores = planning for the future
    • Taxes: wealth flows from the commoner to the king
    • Trade: Economics begins in Mesopotamia
    • Laws: Larger groups of people require grander sets of codified ethics (laws)

Example of cuneiform writing

III. Religion (Sacred Ritual & Practice)

  • Temples built as interface between humans and gods
  • Gods have plans and human needs/desires
  • Lady of Warka – statue of a female deity?
  • Each city–state or tribe had their own patron god
  • Religious festivals gave people routine; marked seasonal changes
  • Temple wealth + literacy = powerful priests

IV. Key Texts

  • A. Law Code of Hammurabi
    • 1,800 BCE: 282 laws received from the Sun God, written on a stele 
    • Laws put aside the prehistoric random whims of the crowd or cruel leaders
      in favor of fairness and justice
  • B. Epic of Gilgamesh
    • Follows the adventures of king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu
    • Has story parallels to Flood Narrative in the Bible

Law Code of Hammurabi

V. Major Periods in Ancient Mesopotamia

  • A. Sumerian
    • Bronze Age (3500-2350 bCE)
    • Developed cuneiform
    • Epic of Gilgamesh is written in Sumerian language
  • B. Semitic
    • Begins around 2350 when a Semitic king takes over Mesopotamia
    • Built Ziggurats, pyramid-like structures, for ceremonial purposes
    • Sophisticated irrigation system

VI. End of Mesopotamia

  • Peak of power in the Iron Age (1000-612 BCE)
  • Conquered by nomadic, war-like tribes like the Medes and the Persians
  • Lacked unifying elements, but first cultures to show qualities of civilizations