[Partly edited February 2010.] 


If you went today to Nippur, you would see little or nothing...nothing to indicated that, for nearly two thousand years, this was one of the greatest centers of civilization on the face of the earth.  And this give rise to a question.  Not, "why did Nippur disappear?"  That's easy.  Rivers shifted, and it was no longer a good place for a city so people settled elsewhere.  The more important question is, "Why did it last so long?"  And, with Mesopotamia in general, that's an important question.  I would suggest that, like Egypt, Mesopotamian civilization lasted for more than 2000 years because, for the most part, it did an excellent job providing physical security, ethical guidance, and emotional fulfillment to its members.

I will be talking about four phases of Mesopotamian society, the Sumerian phase (roughly 3000-2000 BC) the Amorite or Babylonian phase (roughly 2000-1500 BC), the Assyrian phase (roughly 1000-612 BC), and the Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian phase (roughly 612-539 BC).

Sumer (3000-2000 BC)

The Sumerian phase of Mesopotamian history is similar to the Old Kingdom of Egyptian history in that this is the period during which foundations of Mesopotamian were laid civilization laid. However, conditions in Mesopotamia were different, and Sumerian society had to take a different approach than Egyptian society. Like Egypt, Mesopotamian civilization development depends on a river--in this case, two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.  Mesopotamia is Greek for "between the rivers," a good name for this land.  The Tigris and Euphrates are more unpredictable than the Nile with frequent destructive floods.  Also, Mesopotamia is not a land fortified by nature, but a land very vulnerable to invasion.

As a result, the initial success of Mesopotamian civilization depended more on local organization rather than on unity.  The Mesopotamian city-states (similar to the Egyptian nomes) remained independent during the first centuries of  Sumerian development, with Ur, Isin, Lagash, Uruk, Nippur and the rest all governing themselves and the farming region immediately around each city state.

Local cooperation was made possible by allegiance to an "Ensi," governor, and able man who (in some instances) might have been elected by the people he governed.  Also important, the Sumerian priests.  The priests helped, not just with religion, but with organization of the farming regions.  Mesopotamian conditions meant that farming had to be a cooperative occupation.  Water had to be directed away from where it wasn't wanted and directed to where it was wanted. The priests helped organize the control of water and the development of land, and they directed other farm operations as well.  Essentially, the temples became the grain elevators: the places where crops would be stored, and seed stored to plant at the next planting time.

To do an effective job, the priests needed a way of keeping records.  They developed cuneiform writing, writing done with a wooden stylus on wet clay tablets.  Because the Sumerians (and later Mesopotamians) wrote on clay, we know a lot more about them than about many other civilizations.  Once baked, the clay tablets last and last, and, even after 5000 years, they are often still legible.  Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of cuneiform tablets.  80% of them are just business records, but there's plenty of other stuff as well: stories, laws, proverbs--even accounts of a typical school day!  "History begins at Sumer," said Samuel Noah Kramer, and that's exactly right.  The Sumerians are the earliest people who have left behind the kinds of records historians need to explore the kinds of subjects they are interested in.

The invention of cuneiform allowed the Sumerians to keep accurate records of farm and business transactions, and spurred economic development.  In addition, it made possible great advances in mathematics.  While can do simple arithmetic in one's head, problems of any complexity at all can't easily be done without writing.  The Sumerians developed a base sixty number system (a sexegesimal system) that enabled them to do much harder addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems.  It was a system particularly appropriate for working with fractions--very useful for the practical mathematics the Sumerians needed.  They could now become good at some fundamental engineering problems: able to figure out how to do a better job with dams, canals, walls, etc. And speaking of walls, the Sumerians did construct great defensive walls around their cities.  In time of war, people from the surrounding agricultural community could come into the city itself and be relatively safe from invasion.

The Sumerian city states did a fairly effective job providing physical security.  They also did a good job providing ethical guidance.  One source of ethical guidance: written laws.  Here are some samples of Sumerians laws:

Sumerian Laws

1.  If a man entered the orchard of another man and was seized there for stealing, he shall pay 10 shekels of silver.

2.  If adjacent to the house of a man the bare ground of another man has been neglected and the owner of the house has said to the owner of the bare ground, "Because your ground has been neglected someone may break into my house; strengthen your house, and this agreement has been confirmed by him, the owner of the bare ground shall restore to the owner of the house any of his property that is lost.

3.  If a man rented an ox and damaged its eye, he shall pay one-half of its price.

4.  If a slave girl or slave of a man has fled into the heart of the city and it has been confirmed that he or she dwelt in the house of another man for one month, he shall give slave for slave.  If he has no slave, he shall pay 15 shekels of silver.

5.  If a man married a wife and she bore him children and those children are living, and a slave also bore children for her master but the father granted freedom to the slave and her children, the children of the slave shall not divide the estate with the children of their former master.

6.  If his first wife dies and after her death he takes his slave as a wife, the children of his first wife are his heirs.

7.  If a man's wife has not borne him children but a harlot from the public square has borne him children, he shall provide grain, oil, and clothing for that harlot; the children which the harlot has borne him shall be his heirs, and as long as his wife lives the harlot shall not live in the house with his wife.

8.  If a man turned his face away from his first wife, but she has not gone out of the house, his wife whom he married as his favorite is a second wife; he shall continue to support his first wife.

One doesn't want to have to regulate every aspect of life.  A successful society gets its people to internalize its values.  One very good (and frequently used) was of doing this is to state those values in a particularly memorable way, often as what's called a proverb.   Here are some sample Sumerian proverbs.  Note the values reflected in each.

Sumerian Proverbs

1.  Into an open mouth, a fly enters.
2.  The traveler from distant places is a perennial liar.
3.  Friendship lasts a day; kinship lasts forever.
4.  A sweet word is everybody's friend.
5.  A loving heart builds the home; a hating heart destroys the home.
6.  A scribe whose hand moves as fast as his mouth, that's a scribe for you!
7.  A singer whose voice is not sweet is a poor singer indeed.
8.  In a city without dogs, the fox is the overseer.
9.  Don't pick it now; later it will bear fruit.
10.  Who has much silver may be happy; who has much grain may be glad; but he who has nothing can sleep.

 Such proverbs were an excellent source of ethical guidance, and also of emotional fulfillment: a guide to what's truly important in life.

 The Sumerians had other sources of emotional fulfillment.

1.  Religion

Like the Egyptians, the Sumerians were polytheistic, and, like the Egyptians, the Sumerians identified their gods with the forces of nature.  But the Sumerians were a lot less optimistic about their gods.  Understandably so! While for the Egyptians natural forces were generally predictable and benificent, the natural forces in Mesopotamia were unpredictable--sometimes good, always necessary--but often destructive.  It's not surprising, then, that the Sumerians didn't regard their gods as kindly. They viewed An, Ki, Enlil, Shamesh and the rest as capricious and sometimes actively hostile to human beings. It's not surprising that the the Sumerians didn't expect kindness from their gods after-life. Nothing good awaited after death: one ate dust and drink dirty water--not much to look forward too.

So, how could such a religion help provide emotional fulfillment?  Lots of ways.  One: it explained the meaning and purpose of life.  The Sumerians had a complex mythology help them understand the world and their place in it. According to these myths, Enlil created mankind from the dust of ground to serve the gods.  That's why life is so hard!  But life is also meaningful.  Each city-state regarded itself as the particularly property of one of gods, and, whatever work one did for the city--well, that was work for your city's god or goddess.  The Sumerians built huge ziggurats in the center of their cities, huge towers with a temple on top. This was a source of pride, and a constant reminder that your city was the city of your particular god or goddess.

Also, the Sumerians had hundreds of religious rituals designed to please the gods.  Did this do any good?  Well, at least it made them feel they were doing what could be done.  Sumerian rituals helped them with big issues of life--things like death.  Of all arbitrary events, death is the worst.  Sumerians learned to get control over death!  With sacrifices!

Some of you might think all this not very emotionally fulfilling.  But Sumer had other sources of emotional fulfillment.  The civilized Sumerians were wealthier than barbarians who surrounded them.  They produced beautiful works of art and music, and they could produce luxury items none of the nomadic peoples around them could match.  And if all this wasn't enough, well, the Sumerians had plenty of beer.  Malt does more the Milton can to justify God's ways to man....

[That's a line from a Houseman poem, by the way.  And I should note that Houseman follows this up by showing that the "fulfillment" of alcohol doesn't last.  "And in lovely muck I've lain, happy till I rose again.  The world--it was the old world yet, and I was I--my things were wet."]

Pretty good?  Yes, but, just like Egypt, there were some potential problems. While the Sumerians had done a reasonably good job protecting themselves from natural disaster and barbarian invasion, they were less successful in solving an ongoing problem: war between city states. 

Frequent war seems to have led to a change in government. The Ensi (governor) gave way to the Lugal (great man, or king).  But this was a problem.  A lugal might do a good job protecting you, but his greed for more might ultimately make conflicts worse. The eventual solution was to move in the direction Egypt had gone much earlier--unity for the whole country.  One of lugals, Sargon of Akkad  c. 2300 BC) became strong enough to defeat all the others. He became the first empire builder known to history.  Sargon's reign was a real blessing: trade improved, warfare ended.  The story was similar to that of Egypt under the Pharaohs, but with a different ending.  Sargon's successors were not primarily concerned with welfare of people and became tyrants.  This provoked rebellion--and made Sumer vulnerable to invasion.  The Sumerian period lasted about 300 more years, but no ruler was able to establish a lasting empire--until the Sumerians were invaded by a new people, Amorites or Babylonians.

Amorites/Babylonians (2000-1550)

The Amorites, like the Hyksos, were a people very similar to the patriarchs you read about in Bible: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They were shepherds wandering with flocks.  Around 2000 B.C., these Amorites began moving into Mesopotamia and taking over.  But the Amorites did not destroy Sumerian civilization.  They adopted many of its characteristics for themselves--and even made improvements on what the Sumerians had been doing.  This led to the next stage of Mesopotamian civilization, the Babylonian phase.  Why is it usually called that and not Amorite?  The name is taken from what becomes the great capital city, Babylon.

Babylonian civilization got off to a good start.  They preserved all the good things from Sumer, the engineering techniques that enabled the Sumerians to control rivers, the cuneiform writing that enabled them to preserve and pass on knowledge, etc.  But the Babylonians improved on Sumer in lots of ways.

For one thing, the Babylonians were better governed.  Instead of warring city states and unstable empires, Babylon, led by Hammurabi around 1750 BC, created a strong, stable empire, probably the largest empire the world had yet seen.  The empire was excellent for trade.  The Babylonians preserved and adapted the business-like ways of Sumerians, and created a wealthier society.

The Babylonians also had a more effective law code, the Code of Hammurabi:

Code of Hammurabi

1.  If a man has accused a man and cast against him an accusation of murder and has not proved it against him, his accuser shall be put to death.
2.  If a man has opened his ditch for irrigation and has been slack and has consequently caused the water to carry away his neighbor's field, he shall pay corn corresponding to the crop of the field adjoining it.

3.  If a man strikes the daughter of a freeman and causes her to cast that which is within her womb, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for that which is within her womb.  If that woman dies as a result, they shall put his daughter to death.

4.  If a surgeon has made a major incision in a freeman with a bronze instrument and saved the man's life, or opened an eye-infection with a bronze instrument and so saved the man's eye, he shall take ten shekels of silver.  If a surgeon has made a major incision in a freeman with a bronze instrument and caused the man to die, or opened an eye-infection with a bronze instrument and thereby destroyed the man's eye, they shall cut off his hand.

5.  If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made his work sound, so that the house he has made falls down and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.  If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall kill the son of that builder.
Now the individual laws here are no better than the Sumerian laws, and sometimes they are worse.  But the Code of Hammurabi has the advantage that it was the law code for a much broader territory and for a much longer period of time.  This was nice for businessmen, since they didn't have to worry about different laws in each place they did business.  Another advantage is that a long-lasting law code does tend to be better internalized. People absorb the values of the code and just take them for granted.

The Babylonians surpassed Sumerians in other ways, e.g. math and science.  The Babylonians could solve quadratic equations, and they kept better astronomical records, e.g., the tablets of Amisaduga.  This meant a better calendar: important to the success of agriculture.

The Babylonians also made improvements on Sumerian religion. They had basically the same gods, but they added important variations to the creation story.  They Babylonian creation account (the Enuma Elish, "When from Above," tells of the Babylonian god Marduk's defeat of  Tiamat and Kingu, the forces of chaos and evil.  It explains how Marduk becomes the chief of the gods rather than Enlil.  Note that Marduk is a great champion of order over chaos.  The Babylonians saw their society as involved in exactly that: the subduing of chaos. But note something else.  Marduk creates mankind from the dust of the ground, but (also) from the blood of the evil Kingu.  This seems to be a recognition of the fact that every one of us has a potential for evil within ourselves--a very important realization!

Perhaps greatest way Babylonians surpass Sumerians was in literature.  The Babylonians developed the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem based on earlier Sumerian stories.  The real Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king.  But the Babylonian epic far surpasses anything written by the Sumerians--at least, it surpasses those Sumerian works we know about.

Gilgamesh is an epic poem, a long poem centered around a larger-than-life hero.  Great national epics of this type to seem to play a role in emotional fulfillment, giving people a sense of shared culture, values, and dreams. The poem uses poetic techniques (e.g., foreshadowing and repetition) particularly useful in a society seeking to bring order out of chaos.  Also, the Epic of Gilgamesh deals with ethical issues particularly important to Mesopotamia.

Notice the problem for Uruk at the beginning: a king who has become a tyrant.  What to do?  Rebel?  Very bad. Better to simply ask the gods for help. Notice that Gilgamesh is specifically told by the gods not to abuse his power: "deal justly with your servants, deal justly before Shamash."
Note also the story of Enkidu, the wild man caught by the trapper using a most unusual bait, a woman.  Enkidu is trapped: and notice something important.  The writer realizes the important role women play in civilizing men.  Also note that Enkidu, who would like to go back to the simpler way of life, finds that he can't.  Message: once you've tasted civilization, going back to nature just won't work.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight--then become friends.  The message here seems to be for the peoples of Mesopotamia to put aside their conflicts and rivalries, to become friends, and then see all the amazing things possible if former foes learn to be friends.

But not all foes can be made friends.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu capture Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar forest.  Now the choice seems to be to enslave Humbaba or to kill him.   This is similar to a situation the peoples of Mesopotamia must have often faced: does one kill defeated enemies, or enslave them?  The story here suggests that there is no single right answer: there are advantages and disadvantages to both courses of action.

Then we have the situation where Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and wants him to be her lover.  His response?  No way!!  Why?  Well, Ishtar represents the force of erotic love, and there is an important message here.  Erotic love can be dangerous, capricious, and destructive.  Watch out! 
At Ishtar's request, Enlil sends the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh, but Enkidu and Gilgamesh dispatch the bull.  But now the gods decide the two friends must pay a price: Enkidu will die.

Enkidu is angry at his impending death, but Shamash consoles him: you've had a good life, people will mourn for you.  Shamash does not promise Enkidu a better life after death--probably because Mesopotamians don't think anything good awaits.

This brings us to the heart of poem: how do you handle death?  Gilgamesh goes in search of the plant of youth/life. He finally meets Utnapishtim, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah. He finds the plant, but the snake eats it.  Message: struggle as much as you like, but death comes in the end.  In view of this, is there any consolation possible other than that given Enkidu?  Well, perhaps.  Look at the end of the story.

Gilgamesh could find consolation in wisdom, in history (the tale of days before flood), the hope that his story would live, and in the work of his hands, the work he had done for Uruk.  The message of the story: work hard for your city state, work on its walls, its farms, and its gardens.  You don't have long in this world, but your city will endure.
Now all this would make you think Babylon doing an excellent job providing physical security, ethical guidance, and emotional fulfillment, and that's pretty much true.  But around 1550, Babylon went into a period of stagnation.  A group of foreign invaders, the Kassites, took over the administration of the empire.  They didn't make any changes (so it seems), but there were no advances either. 

 [V. Gordon Childe argues that, in most societies, a privileged elite takes over and absorbs the good things the society produces for itself.  Those who actually do anything constructive wind up at subsistence level, and, since anything "extra" they produce gets taken by privileged parasites, they have no incentive to innovate.  Cultural stagnation is the result.  The elites focus solely on maitaining their privileges and there is no motivation for creativity.]

Changes did come around 1000 B.C. when a new people began to dominate Mesopotamia, the Assyrians.

Assyria (1000-612 BC)

The Assyrians dominate a third great phase of Mesopotamian history.  Actually, Assyria, in north Mesopotamia, had been a fairly  important center of Mesopotamian civilization a long time before 1000 B.C., but (although there was an earlier Assyrian empire) it's not until around 1000 B.C. that they began to dominate.  Prior to that time, Assyria was often on the short end of things. Assyria suffered invasion after invasion from formidible foes like the Horites, Mittani, Hittites, Moshku and the Aramaeans.  Because of this, the Assyrians had to develop a warlike civilization simply in order to survive.  Eventually in Assyria, we see a society almost totally dedicated to warfare.

Devoting themselves to war enabled the Assyrians to conquer a large area, and (eventually) to create the largest empire the world had yet seen, but holding on to thise empire was difficult.  To try to prevent revolt by already conquered peoples and to try to intimidate new potential targets, the Assyrians ended up resorting to terror.

 [I read in class from the chronicles of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II.  Here is a good online synopis. It also shows how the Assyrians used art for purposes of war propanda.]

Assyrian law likewise reflects the warlike/violent nature of the culture.

Assyrian Laws

1.  If a man has caught a man with his wife, and a charge is brought and proved against him, they shall kill both of them; there is no guilt for this.  If he has caught him and brought him either before the king or before the judges, and a charge is brought and proved against him, if the husband of the woman puts his wife to death, then he may put the man to death; if he cuts off the nose of his wife, he shall make the man a eunuch and the whole of his face shall be mutilated; or if he lets his wife go free, they shall set the man free.

2.  If a woman has damaged a man's testicle in a quarrel, they shall cut off one of her fingers.... if she has damaged the second testicle in the quarrel, they shall tear out both her....

3.  Married women must be veiled, as must a concubine accompanying her mistress.  But a harlot shall not be veiled; her head must be uncovered, and (if not) she shall be beaten fifty stripes with rods and pitch poured over her head.

4.  If a woman by her own deed has cast that which is within her womb, and a charge has been brought and proved against her, they shall impale her and bury her not.  If she dies from casting that which is within her womb, they shall impale her and not bury her.

5.  Leaving aside the penalties for a man's wife which are inscribed on the tablet, a man may flog his wife, he may pluck her hair, he may strike and damage her ears.  There is no guilt involved in this.

6.  If a man divorces his wife, if it is his will he may give her something; if it is not his will, he shall not give her anything and she shall go out in her emptiness.

7.  If a man has lain with his male friend and a charge is brought and proved against him, the same thing shall be done to him and he shall be made a eunuch.

Note the low status of women and the problems with adultery, abortion and homosexual rape. The harshness of the penalties suggests a society where these things are totally out of control: and no wonder!  Men that behave like Assyrian men did on the battlefield aren't going to come home and be model husbands and citizens.  Note especially the complete failure to protect the rights of women here: generally, one of the first signs of a sick, decaying society.

Still, for a time, the Assyrians were a powerful people, and they controlled a great empire.  But a cruel society always has problems, and Assyria was constantly facing revolts and rebellion.  And when they were finally weak, their enemies hated them so much they destroyed them utterly. Alexander the Great couldn't even find the ruins of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, so thoroughly it had been destroyed.

The Chaldaeans (Neo-Babylonians) 612-539 BC

The fall of Assyria brought in the last great phase of Mesopotamian civilization, the Chaldaean (or Neo-Babylonian) phase.  The Chaldeans were part of a coalition that had destroyed Assyria, and soon the Chaldean ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, controlled an empire almost as large as that of the Assyrians.  But Nebuchadnezzar was more than a conqueror.  He had a great dream: to restore Babylonian greatness. He made Babylon his capital, building splendid walls around city.  He attempted to go back to pre-Assyrian ways, the ways of Hammurabi.  In religion, he went back to Marduk, building a splendid new Ziggurat.  In law, he used the Hammurabi Code rather than cruel Assyrian laws.  He beautified his capital, creating the Hanging Gardens.  All this to try to restore a measure of confidence.

To some extent, it worked.  The Chaldean empire was wealthy and powerful--probably more powerful than the Babylon of Hammurabi.  It was certainly wealthier, probably richest society of face of earth.  But Nebuchadnezzar's great attempt failed after a very brief time. (612-539)  Why?

The  long years of warfare Assyrian dominance had changed Mesopotamina character.  Pessimistic from beginning, they were now even more pessimistic.

Astral religion, the belief that all human events were determined by the patterns one could read in the heavents, led to a de-emphasis of personal responsibility and to moral decay.

How far had morals collapsed?  One good measure is treatment of women. The prostitution rate was enormously high.  Herodotus tells us that (after the collapse of the empire) all Babylonian women had to work as prostitutes. That's probably not true, but Herodotus visited Babylon himself, and certainly the rate of prostitution was high, even before the fall of the empire. This is an indication that women no longer being supported by men, and that they had no other alternative. But possibly an even clearer indication of what had gone wrong is the story of how the Chaldaean empire fell.

The last king of Babylon, Belshazzar, found has capital city (Babylon) attacked by the Persians.  No immediate worry, thought Belshazzar.  It's party time!  He trusted the walls for defense, and didn't even bother to prepare properly for the emergency.  The city fell (first) without any effort at defense.

But it gets worse!  The Chaldeans decided to rebel and throw off the Persian yoke.  Cyrus came back and beseiged Babylon, leading to food shortage. How do you save food? The Babylonians numbered off the women remaining in the city, and killed nine of ten of them, leaving the tenth to bake bread for them. 

In a healthy society, men give their lives before allowing any harm to their women. It's a sick, sick society where men will kill their women to try to save their own worthless lives.  It's not surprising that this civilization wasn't going any further and that it would be replaced by the very different civilization Cyrus and his Persians brought to the region.