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Friday, 29 January 2016

World History: Ancient Mesopotamia

The last post of World History (Link here: I discussed the Three River Civilizations with the aim of going into detail about two of them. Located between the Euphrates and the Tigris Mesopotamia gave birth to many city states. Within these city states we saw the development of many ideas and technologies which would shape the Middle East and Europe for millennium to come. These include bureaucracies, writing, punishment based on severity of the crime and even the concept of empire. Last time I touched upon Sumer, one of the earlier developed city based cultures in the area, but this time we'll discuss some of the innovations developed by the Mesopotamian cultures, their life and how they rose and fell over a period of close to 3000 years.

The Most Important Innovation
You may be wondering what these strange objects pictured are. They were found at the Mesopotamian city of Uruk and are very important to how we live our loves today. Around 3200 BCE conical clay tokens were used by the people of Uruk and many have been found in refuse pits. Originally they were seen as being amulets or gaming pieces although several archaeologists, such as Denise Schmandt-Besserat, have created a theory about what they were. As time went on these tokens started to change shape and have patterns printed onto them. It turned out that these tokens these tokens represented items to be traded. The shape of the token and the amount determined how many of said items there were (one conical token might mean there was one jar of oil). Eventually they were placed inside the above pictured balls called bulla (bullae being the plural form). Quite likely the bullae were used by traders to ascertain if they were being fairly paid. They could crack open the bullae and inside if there were four cones but they had four items they knew that the middle man had taken one of them. Due to so many bullae being found unbroken we can imagine they had some trust between one another. Later bullae (which can be faintly seen on the above picture) had detailed images on them done by rolling a seal onto them before the clay was fired. Theories abound the reason to this but the most widely accepted one is that this represents a person like a family seal. Quickly after the bullae were being used people found it was much easier to carve the token images into flat pieces of clay creating a tablet. The images drawn into the clay within the next few hundred years started to be done to represent the items themselves. This was protocuneiform. This was the development of writing. 
Within a thousand years the amount of signs used on the tablets halved as signs were instead created to represent syllables or the occasional word. Two main languages were used in Mesopotamia: in the north was principally Akkadian, a Semitic language distantly related to Arabic and Hebrew, and Sumerian, a language with no relations today. The first people to actually transcribe Akkadian used Hebrew and Arabic texts to do this. Few people were literate, not even kings could read and write, but scribes instead wrote down many things which archaeologists would later use. Writing branched out from economic means with law codes (such as Hammurabi's above which shall be discussed soon) to hymns being produced. 5000 protocuneiform tablets have even been found at several sites including Uruk, Tell Uqair and Jemdet Nosr, although few could read this did not mean that they were not widely read. Soon Mesopotamian scribes were sent across the world to Egypt and India establishing trade with the far off lands.

Other innovations
Other than writing Mesopotamia saw many other innovations such as the above tablet. This tablet is one of the earliest multiplication tables. Like writing geometry and maths was invented for bureaucratic usage and was widely used by Mesopotamian scribes. The first abacus in fact was created in Sumeria between 2700-2300 BCE. Sumerian and later Babylonian mathematics was also just as widely used as it is today with a sexgesimal system (1,10,60,600) being used for discrete objects like cattle, a bisexagesimal system (1,10,60,120,1200) being used to distribute grain and rations and a time system (1,10,30) being used to tell the time. Some of the first calendars were in fact developed in Sumeria and Babylon. Calendars were very important to the Mesopotamian cities. Unlike the early farming urban areas of the Middle East like Jericho in Palestine or Catalhoyuk in southern Anatolia the cities of Mesopotamia could be massive; Lagash measured up to 12 hectares and Uruk had a population of over 400,000. Irrigation was widely used by cities to feed their large populations and calendars were an easy way to keep track of the date for growing crops. To create pottery in 3500 BCE the first wheel was created. However, Mesopotamia did not just create mathematical and engineering innovations. Warfare saw drastic advances. Wheels were added to carts around 3200 BCE and attached to horses creating some of the first chariots and in Mesopotamia more powerful and more accurate composite bows were created. Although the Mesopotamian cities traded with one another they often went to war.

Mesopotamian Life
A restored Ziggurat of Ur
Due to the amount of literature left by the Mesopotamians we know somethings about the lives of the powerful. As it is always the case in history the average people are often forgotten about. We do know somethings though. The overall bias of the elites in texts shows us that like societies up to and including the time of writing elites controlled the society. Farmers grew crops and then gave them to urban centers which were then distributed in the city to people in return for creating products like pots. However, this was brought through slavery (bought or taken in war) due to the fluctuating tides of the Euphrates and Tigris and with anger. They were angry because the city took the food that the farmers made. In fact this clash of urban-rural areas (something which would continue throughout history) is shown in the first fictional piece of literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Taxes were invented as well to distribute food: goods were taken to fund the elites in taxes and in return they got food. Today we pay taxes and in return the government funds schools and the police, (or if you live in the UK goes to the saving accounts of MPs in tax havens). 

Religion was also very important throughout all of Mesopotamia's history, as well as world history. Cities were often situated around temples called Ziggurats. Uruk's two main precincts were in fact centered around the Ziggurats worshiping Inanna, the goddess of war and love, and An, the sky god. Early cities were led by priests as they were seen as the direct link to the gods. When the Euphrates or Tigris flooded or dried up it was seen as the gods being displeased and political instability followed. In fact in the Epic of Gilgamesh the gods who are displeased send a flood to wipe out humanity and some scholars see this as the origin of the story of Noah. Some elites of city society literally got in bed with several high priests and priestesses (they even have accounts of it) and used that to become kings. The city kings would war between one another and we would then see the first empires.

Akkad, Babylon and Neo-Assyria
The above image is of the world's first emperor: Sargon of Akkad. Born around 2334 BCE Sargon of Akkad would shift from the simple battles over trade between cities and start conquering them with the aim of placing them all under his ruler. Until 2154 BCE the Akkadian Empire would control much of the modern day Iraq and Syria. Here Sumerian was replaced as the main language and culture to be replaced by Akkadian. In fact Sumerian did not return to its once powerful position until the rise of Uruk once more. Trade proliferated under the empire as the united cities were forced to trade with one another and with a united bureaucracy we see trade further afield. Lebanese cedar wood for example was widely traded through the empire. Art also was done to look more realistic although this may be due to Sargon and his successors wanting their victories 'accurately' depicted.  Around 2154 BCE a mixture of climate upheavals caused a decline in trade and Akkad's enemies started to become more powerful and the empire crumbled.

Babylon would replace Akkad as the main empire in Mesopotamia. Another Akkadian speaking culture they rose from a small city in 1894 BCE and would create an empire which would later be spoken about in the Bible. The law code tablet shown earlier was made by the person who made Babylon such a major city: Hammurabi. Written in Akkadian and dating to 1754 BCE it is the oldest text of its length and depicts slightly over 250 laws. These laws varied on severity and likewise the punishment for committing such laws varied. Often what was done to the victim was done to the perpetrator. These punishments are harsh by today's standards with a builder who builds a house which collapses and kills the owner's son the builder's son was then executed. The phrase 'an eye for an eye' was created by Hammurabi; the punishment for taking someone's eye was having your eye removed. Trade was extremely successful with them regularly trading with the Egyptians and the Harappans in the Indus Valley. However they were often attacked by the nomadic Kassites in the south. By 1595 BCE Babylonia had collapsed. Climate change had caused a dip in trade with the far reaching Egyptian and Harappan Civilizations on top of invasions from the Hittites in the north and the Kassites in the south. 

Finally we shall talk about the Neo-Assyrians which rose to power in 911 BCE. Speaking both Aramaic and Akkadian from their city of Assur in northern Iraq they would forge an empire covering most of Mesopotamia. They even managed to invade and conquer northern Egypt! They were known for an army which was a meritocracy attracting many people but the army was very ruthless. They were deport non-Sumerian, Aramaic and Akkadian speakers and to move their own people there instead as well as cutting off appendages of people who threatened to rebel. Bilingualism present in Neo-Assyrian texts however suggest that some tolerance was shown. Like other empires shown Neo-Assyria collapsed under the weight of invasion (some people including Babylonians, Persians and Scythians) and severe droughts by 605 BCE.

Why is this important?
Looking at Ancient Mesopotamia we can see how much our society came from them. Taxes, bureaucracy, calendars, organized religion and social distinctions developed in Mesopotamia and continue to shape our lives today. Mesopotamia established trade with far reaching places and created connections with these places which would be repeated throughout history. Hammurabi's Law Code, although very Draconian, is very similar to our own with the concept of punishment based on severity of the crime. Even the fall of empires shows us how our societies can fall: a lack of friends, war and climate change conquered Akkad, Babylon and Neo-Assyria and could conquer us. 

Thanks for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Human Past by Chris Scarre
-Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was by Susan Pollock
-Crash Course World History: Mesopotamia
-The lectures of Professor Edgar Peltenburg and Dr Ulf-Dietrich Schoop of the University of Edinburgh 

Next time on World History we'll be looking at the last of the Three River Civilizations which you might recognize from their lavish tombs.
For a list of other World History posts please see here

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