In ancient times, Mesopotamia, meaning ‘land between two rivers’, was a vast region that lay between the Tigris and Euphrates river systems, and it is where civilization emerged over 7,000 years ago. The first inhabitants, the Sumerians, established an advanced system writing, spectacular arts and architecture, astronomy and mathematics. The Akkadians would follow the Sumerians, borrowing from their culture, producing a new language of their own, and creating the world’s first empire.
Mesopotamia corresponds to what is now Iraq, Kuwait, Eastern Syria, Southeast Turkey, and parts of the Turkish-Syrian and Iran-Iraq borders. The region encompassed some of what is known by historians as the ‘ fertile crescent ’. The conditions in the fertile crescent, which also includes the Levantine coast, the Iranian-Iraqi modern border, and significant ancient sites such as Göbekli Tepe and Jericho, made it ideal for agriculture.
All eight of the ‘founder’ crops of Neolithic agriculture (the wild forms of emmer wheat, barley, flax, einkorn, pea, lentil, chickpea, and bitter vetch) were found in abundance along with easily domesticated animals (pigs, sheep, cattle, and goats) with horses nearby.
The Sumerian people who first settled in Mesopotamia were some of the earliest known farmers and they began to settle villages there around 8000 BC. From humble origins the settlements blossomed into the earliest largescale civilizations. The Mesopotamian legacy includes organized government and religion, strategic warfare, the base six method of telling time we still use today, and literature.
Their demise finally came in 539 BC when Babylon fell at the hands of the Achaemenid Empire, marking the end of thousands of years of innovation and cultural growth.
From Tiny Villages to Mighty Cities
There are few moments in human history which mark significant points in our physical, behavioral, and cultural evolution – walking upright, learning to use and create fire, making tools, and beginning to talk are some of the earliest milestones on our journey, but one of the pivotal leaps our ancestors made was from an unstable life as nomadic hunter gatherers to settlers with permanent residences.
The conditions in the region were the perfect melting pot for this change. The number and kinds of animals in Mesopotamia meant that people did not have to follow herds of steppe animals as they migrated. The cereals, grains, and legumes in the fertile crescent could be harvested in enough numbers that they could be stored to provide sustenance over the harsh winter months.
This lifestyle both required and enabled the building of more permanent structures. Caches to store grains and shelter for domesticated animals were needed, and housing followed suit.
As animals and crops were domesticated, harvests grew and the number of people that could be supported also increased. Villages joined or expanded naturally and over time they grew into cities .
Mesopotamia was not the first society with a distinct culture. The people of the European Upper Palaeolithic produced exquisite artwork such as painted caves, carved Venus figurines , and personal ornamentation such as pierced ivory beads. With extra time on their hands, the culture and skills in Mesopotamia were able to develop further than ever before, reaching new heights.
While the Venus figurines of the European Upper Palaeolithic are relatively simplistic, statues and carvings produced in Mesopotamia were elaborate and exquisitely detailed. A collection of around 27 statues depicting Gudea, a ruler of an ancient Mesopotamian city, has been found in the south of the region.