Mesopotamia is the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris river, that is now part of the Republic of Iraq. Mesopotamian civilisation is known for its prosperity, city life, voluminous and rich literature and its mathematics and astronomy.
Mesopotamia’s writing system and literature spread to the eastern Mediterranean, northern Syria, and Turkey after 2000 BCE, so that the kingdoms of that entire region were writing to one another, and to the Pharaoh of Egypt, in the language and script of Mesopotamia.
Navigate further through the blog to understand Writing and City Life and add more knowledge to your UPSC CSE preparation.
Mesopotamia and its Geography
- Mesopotamia was the ancient name for what is now Iraq, which is a land of diverse environments.
- In the north-east lie green, undulating plains, gradually rising to tree-covered mountain ranges with clear streams and wildflowers, with enough rainfall to grow crops. In that region, agriculture began between 7000 and 6000 BCE.
- In the north, there is a stretch of upland called a Steppe, where animal herding offers people a better livelihood than agriculture.
- To the east, tributaries of the Tigris provide routes of communication.
- The south is a desert, and this is where the first cities and writing emerged.
- Euphrates and Tigris act as a source of irrigation.
- Of all ancient systems, it was the agriculture of southern Mesopotamia that was the most productive.
The Significance of Urbanism
- Urban centres involve in various economic activities such as food production, trade, manufactures and services.
- City people, thus, cease to be self-sufficient and depend on the products or services of other people.
- The division of labour is a mark of urban life. For instance, the carver of as tone seal requires bronze tools that he himself cannot make, and coloured stones for the seals that he does not know where to get. He depends on others for his needs.
- There must be a social organisation in Cities. Fuel, metal, various stones, wood, etc., come from many different places for city manufacturers. Thus, organised trade, storage, deliveries of grain and other food items from the village to the city were controlled and supervised by the rulers.
Movement of Goods into Cities
- Mesopotamia had rich food resources, however, it lacked supply of raw materials and mineral resources.
- The ancient Mesopotamians could have traded their abundant textiles and agricultural produce for wood, copper, tin, silver, gold, shell and various stones from Turkey and Iran, or across the Gulf.
- The canals and natural channels of ancient Mesopotamia were important routes of goods transport between large and small settlements.
The Development of Writing
- All societies have languages in which spoken sounds convey certain meanings. This is verbal communication. Writings too is verbal communication but in a different way.
- The first Mesopotamian tablets, written around 3200 BCE, contained picture-like signs and numbers. There were about 5,000 lists of oxen, fish, bread loaves, etc.
- Mesopotamians wrote on tablets of clay.
- When a transaction was completed the tablet was thrown away, so each transaction, however minor, required a separate written tablet.
- By 2600 BCE writing was used for making dictionaries, recording land transfers, narrating the deeds of kings, and announcing any change in the laws of the land.
- Sumerian, the earliest known language of Mesopotamia which was gradually replaced after 2400 BCE by the Akkadian language.
The System of Writing
- The signs that a Mesopotamian scribe had to learn ran into hundreds, and he had to handle a wet tablet and get it written before it dried.
- Writing was a skilled craft but, more important, it was an enormous intellectual achievement, conveying in visual form the system of sounds of a particular language.
- Very few Mesopotamians could read and write.
- There were hundreds of signs to learn, many of these were complex.
- There writing reflected the mode of speaking.
The Uses of Writing
- The connection between city life, trade and writing is brought out in a Sumerian epic poem about Enmerkar, one of the rulers of Uruk.
- It can be inferred from the epic that in Mesopotamian understanding it was kingship that organised trade and writing.
- Besides being a means of storing information and of sending messages, writing was seen as a sign of the superiority of Mesopotamian urban culture.
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Urbanisation in Southern Mesopotamia: Temples and Kings
- From 5000 BCE, settlements had begun to develop in southern Mesopotamia. These were of various kinds:
- That gradually developed around temples.
- That developed as centres of trade.
- Imperial cities.
- Early settlers began to build and rebuild temples at selected spots in their villages.
- The god was the focus of worship, people offered grain, curd and fish and god was also considered the owner of the agricultural fields, the fisheries, and the herds of the local community.
- The temple gradually developed its activities and became the main urban institution.
- Chiefs who became victorious in wars offered precious booty to the gods and renovated the community’s temples.
- Enmerkar, ruler of Uruk, got legitimacy in the community through this way.
Life in the City
- A ruling elite had emerged, and small section of society had a major share of the wealth, enormous riches buried with some kings and queens at Ur was found.
- In Mesopotamian society, nuclear family was the norm, and the father was the head of the family.
- In Ur, narrow winding streets and the irregular shapes of house plots indicate an absence of town planning. There was no street drain, as found in Mohenjo-daro.
- There was a town cemetery at Ur in which the graves of royalty and commoners have been found.
A Trading Town in a Pastoral Zone
- After 2000 BCE the royal capital of Mari flourished.
- Some communities in the kingdom of Mari had both farmers and pastoralists, but most of its territory was used for pasturing sheep and goats.
- Located on the Euphrates in a prime position for trade between the south and the mineral-rich uplands of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, Mari is a good example of an urban centre prospering on trade.
- As bronze was the main industrial material for tools and weapons, this trade was of great importance.
The Legacy of Writing
- Greatest legacy of Mesopotamia to the world is its scholarly tradition of time reckoning and mathematics.
- Tablets dating around 1800 BCE show multiplication and division tables, square- and square-root tables, and tables of compound interest.
- The Mesopotamians worked on
- The division of the year into 12 months according to the revolution of the moon around the earth.
- The division of the month into four weeks.
- The day into 24 hours and the hour into 60 minutes.
- 7000-6000 BCE: Beginning of agriculture in the northern Mesopotamian plains.
- 5000 BCE: Earliest temples in southern Mesopotamia built.
- 3200 BCE: First writing in Mesopotamia.
- 3000 BCE: Uruk develops into a huge city, increasing use of bronze tools.
- 2700-2500 BCE: Early kings, including, possibly, the legendary ruler Gilgamesh.
- 2600 BCE: Development of the cuneiform script.
- 2400 BCE: Replacement of Sumerian by Akkadian.
- 2370 BCE: Sargon, king of Akkad.
- 2000 BCE: Spread of cuneiform writing to Syria, Turkey and Egypt; Mari and Babylon emerge as important urban centres.
- 1800 BCE: Mathematical texts composed; Sumerian no longer spoken.
- 1100 BCE: Establishment of the Assyrian kingdom.
- 1000 BCE: Use of iron.
- 720-610: BCE Assyrian empire.
- 668-627: BCE Rule of Assurbanipal.
- 331 BCE: Alexander conquers Bablyon.
- 1st century CE: Akkadian and cuneiform remain in use.
- 1850s: Decipherment of the cuneiform script.
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