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Mesopotamia (Ancient Iraq)

Southwest Asia (Middle East) Geography

Southwest Asia satallite map

Most of Southwest Asia has an Arid climate today. An Arid climate receives less than 10 inches of precipitation (rain, sleet, or snow) per year. Arid areas are usually covered in desert and often experience very high temperatures.  This region was not always covered in desert. Ancient Mesopotamia was a mostly green land where many plants grew due to the rich soil and occasional rain. Grasslands covered much of the area that desert covers today. During this time period the area had more of a Semi-Arid climate. The rich plant life allowed many animals to live in this region. People living here hunted and gathered the animals and plants.  


Ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding area is often called the Cradle of Civilization or the Fertile Crescent because of the shape of the fertile land where cities developed into a civilization.  The Tigris and Euphrates rivers supplied fresh water for humans, plants, and animals.  These rivers start in the mountains of Turkey and flow into the Persian Gulf. When the snow would melt in the mountains the rivers would often flood the land along the rivers. The floodwater would leave behind very fertile soil each year after the spring floods. The word Mesopotamia is Greek for "land between rivers".  Eventually these rivers would provide irrigation for the farms of the first civilization in human history. Irrigation means to supply plans or farmland with water.

Southwest Asia Early History

Around 8,000 BCE (BC), people began to slowly discover that planting a seed would make a new plant grow—the beginning of farming! The main reason farming probably began in this region is because Southwest Asia had several types of wild grain such as wheat and barley that can be farmed—in fact, we still use them today! The slow process of taking a plant from the wild and turning it into a controlled farm crop is called domestication. For example, corn was domesticated in Mexico around 7000 BCE (BC). Farmers in Mesopotamia grew barley, wheat, lentils, chickpeas, onions, garlic, dates, and lettuce.  Not every plant can be domesticated. Southwest Asia had more wild plants that could be domesticated than any other region, and they had the same advantage when it came to animals. 13 out of the 14 main domesticated animals today were native to Southwest Asia. Native means originally from a particular area. People in Mesopotamia domesticated sheep, goats, cows, donkey, oxen, and pigs.  

It is believed that people first began farming around 8000 BCE. Southwest Asia was the first place farming developed. Farming produces much more food than hunting and gathering because a few farmers can grow enough food for an entire village.  Since farming requires constant attention, farming people couldn’t be nomadic.  Nomadic people don't have a permanent home, so farming forced people to settle down and live in one place. That being said, there were still people then--and today who live a nomadic lifestyle. An example of nomadic people today would be animal herders.


The new farmers of Mesopotamia usually settled along a river for the fresh water and fertile soil, in this case the Tigris or Euphrates Rivers. Slowly, more people moved into these areas and villages or small towns began to develop. The world’s first cities may have developed as early as 10,000 BCE—in Damascus or Jericho. However, these individual cities do not qualify as a civilization. A civilization means several cities and usually a common culture between all of the cities.  Mesopotamia is different than most civilizations since they develop city-states.  A city-state is a nation that is only one city.  Mesopotamia was a collection of cities, and they shared many aspects of culture.

Graph showing numbers of Southwest Asia Native Species

Mesopotamia's First Civilization

Sumer religious statue

Around 3500 BCE, people were growing more food than they needed, which allowed the division of labor. People were living in multiple cities with governments and religions. A written language developed around 3300 BCE—civilization is official!  The first civilization to develop was called Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Sumer was a collection of city-states, most of them with thick defensive walls because the city-states were often at war with one another.  Major cities included Eridu, Uruk, Ur, and Lagash. Uruk was one of the largest cities; at one time it may have had 80,000 people living in and around the city. This time period began a great human migration from the countryside into the city.

Mesopotamia invented new technology.  They were the first to use the wheel.  The wagon was a transportation revolution for farming and trade.  They developed a number system based on 60--this explains why we have 60 seconds in minute and 60 minutes in an hour.  They used a 12 month calendar with a 7 day week.  Astronomers studied the stars and mapped the first set of constellations.  Early writers wrote the earliest known literature called the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells the tale of the struggle between man and the Gods.  They also created  architectural structures such as the dome, the column, and the arch. Architecture is the art of building structures (buildings of any kind).  All that remains today of most Mesopotamian architecture are mounds of dirt and clay called a tell--broken mud-brick buildings in modern-day Iraq.  This is why the architecture of Mesopotamia is hard to find today.  The mud-bricks have eroded away, but archeologists have uncovered amazing artifacts under the ruble that tell the story of these ancient people.  A tell is also a good place to look for graves.  We have learned a great deal about Mesopotamia and other civilizations from exploring their burial grounds.

Sumer Social Pyramid

Sumer was not the only group to develop in Mesopotamia, but their culture influenced future civilizations.  The government was organized around one king, the man dominated the household, and their religion believed in some kind of afterlife.  Their culture had social classes—groups of people with similar backgrounds, wealth, and ways of living. Social classes were formed when people began doing different jobs. The jobs made them live in different ways, wear different cloths, and earn different amounts of wealth.  All of these culture characteristics would be passed on.

Refurbished Ziggurat

In Sumer, the city became the center of trade, religious, and social life. The city layout reflected the rank of developing social classes. At the center of each town was a religious temple called a ziggurat. Palaces for the king's family surrounded the temple. Homes and shops for government workers, scribes, and craftsman surrounded the royal palaces. Smaller houses were usually found on the outsides of the city, but still in the large defensive walls that surrounded the city. Narrow alleys and small streets divided the houses.

The religion was slightly different in each city-state, but all of them were polytheistic.  Polytheism is the belief in many Gods.  They believed the Earth was a flat disc and the sky had holes that showed the light of heaven above.  They believed their kings descended from the Gods.  They buried their important people with their personal belongings and sometimes their servants.  One grave had nearly 70 servants who were buried with their leader.

clay tablet with Sumerian cuneiform

Over five thousand years ago, people living in Mesopotamia developed a form of writing to record different types of information. The earliest writing was based on pictures that represent words or phrases—these are called pictograms. Pictograms were used to communicate basic information about crops, taxes, and lending (loans). 

Cuniform early symbols

This type of writing required hundreds of symbols. Over several hundred years, the pictures developed into a type of writing we call cuneiform. Cuneiform was different because the symbols now stood for sounds, similar to our alphabet.  At some point scribes began using a new wedge-shaped tool to press into the wet clay tablets. Paper had not been invented so they wrote on wet clay tablets.  Scribes were the only people who knew how to read and write. Over thousands of years, Mesopotamian scribes recorded daily events, trade, astronomy, and literature on clay tablets. The first alphabet would develop around 1000 BCE by a different civilization along the Mediterranean called Phoenicia. All modern alphabets can be traced back to this extremely important development in writing.

The countryside farmers grew food for themselves and everyone in the city. In this dry region they depended on the regular flooding of the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers. They used careful irrigation to save water in pools and canals to keep for later use during dry times. Irrigation is a way to water fields without rain. Most of the farmers grew grain crops such as barley or wheat. These wild grasses produced grains that could be ground up to make flour for bread. Peas, garlic, onions, dates, and figs were also grown. The crops were brought to the temple to be stored or to market for trade or sale.  Over the next several thousand years, Sumerian civilization influenced the surrounding area. New city-states rose to power in the region such as Akkad, Babylon and Assyria. Each of these cities grew into empires as they conquered the surrounding area and constantly fought each other.


Mesopotamia Timeline of city-states

Babylonia came into power when King Hammurabi created an empire out of the former kingdoms of Sumer and Akkad.  Babylonia gets its name from their capital city, Babylon.  Babylon is probably the most famous city in Ancient Mesopotamia because of its regular mentions in Jewish and Christian religious writings.

Drawing of Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Babylon became known for impressive architecture and its laws and government.  A Babylonian king named Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (artists drawing on the left).  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Nebuchadnezzar II supposedly built these around 600 BCE because his wife missed the forests and jungles of her home. The gardens didn’t actually hang—they were simply built on top of towers, platforms, and temples. The plants hung down the side and gave an appearance of “hanging” plants.

Hammurabi is also known for creating a system of laws called the “Code of Hammurabi” that has had a lasting influence on legal thought. Only one example of the Code survives today on a seven foot, four inch tall basalt stone slab, which you can see pictured on the right. The Code is considered an early form of what is now known as a constitution. There are 282 laws in the Code of Hammurabi.  After Hammurabi, Babylon was conquered by the Assyrians and controlled for centuries until they finally recaptured and increased their empire in 627 BCE. Below you can see some of the laws of the Code of Hammurabi.

  • If any one accuses another of murder but cannot prove it, then the accuser shall be put to death.

  • If a slave says to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

  • If a barber cuts off the marking of a slave without the knowledge of his master, the hands of this barber shall be cut off.

  • If any one strikes the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

Code of Hammurabi on slab of rock artifact
Code of Hammurabi
  • If a son strikes his father, his hands shall be cut off.

  • If a holy woman opens a tavern door or enters a tavern for a drink, she shall be burned to death.

  • If this woman does not wish to remain in her husband's house, then he shall compensate her for the dowry that she brought with her from her father's house, and she may go.

Assyria and Persia

Assyria was in the Upper Tigris River in modern day Iraq and Turkey. They were a powerful military empire that came to rule a large empire, including Ancient Egypt, a number of times in history. The main Assyrian cities of the middle period were Ashur, Kalhu (Nimrud) and Nineveh.  The Assyrian empire has been described as the first military power in history. Assyrians were the first to manufacture metal wheels, which was much more durable and therefore able to be used in war. The core of the Assyrian army was their war-chariots. The Assyrians were also the first to use camels in war. 

Map of Persian Empire at 490BC

Persia became a powerful empire when they defeated Assyria. Persians gained control of most of Mesopotamia and even Ancient Egypt, and created the largest empire in the ancient world.  Persia developed in modern day Iran.  Persia controlled an area that stretched from the Indus River (Pakistan) to beyond the Nile.  The Persian Royal Road was an ancient highway that allowed rapid communication throughout this very large empire. Messengers on horseback could travel the 1,677 miles in seven days; it took ninety days on foot. The road also helped Persia increase long distance trade and eventually became a major part of the Silk Road.

Assyrian King drawing

Persia was a major contributor to early science. Persian scientists worked on understanding nature, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Persians made important contributions to algebra and chemistry.   Zoroastrianism was a major religion found in ancient Persia as early as 5000 BC. Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religion—or belief in only 1 god. Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the Abrahamic religionsChristianityIslam, and Judaism. About a quarter of a million people still follow this religion.  Judaism developed near the Mediterranean around the same time.  Judaism would eventually give rise to Christianity and Isalm.

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