MESOPOTAMIA

Away! For we are ready to a man!
Our camels sniff the evening and are glad.
Lead on, O master of the Caravan:
Lead on the merchant princes of Baghdad.

James Elroy Flecker

Introduction

Mesopotamia & the Fertile Crescent

 

Mesopotamia is the semi-arid region along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which ranges from the northern areas of rain fed agriculture, to the south where irrigation of agriculture is essential. This irrigation is aided by a high water table and by melted snows from the high peaks of the Zagros and from the Armenian cordillera, the source of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that give the region its name. The usefulness of irrigation depends upon the ability to mobilize sufficient labor for the construction and maintenance of canals, and this, from the earliest period, has assisted the development of urban settlements and centralized systems of political authority. Agriculture throughout the region has been supplemented by nomadic pastoralism, where tent dwelling nomads move herds of sheep and goats (and later camels) from the river pastures in the dry summer months, out into seasonal grazing lands on the desert fringe in the wet winter season. The area is generally lacking in building stone, precious metals and timber, and so historically has relied upon long distance trade of agricultural products to secure these items from outlying areas. In the marshlands to the south of the country, a complex water-borne fishing culture has existed since pre-historic times, and has added to the cultural mix.

Mesopotamia was not a single, coherent culture, in fact the cultures of Mesopotamia were diverse and variegated. Even in the period of great empires, beginning with the Akkadians, Mesopotamia consisted of largely independent city-states with their own cults (often completely different religions), languages, kings, and administrations. So when we speak of Mesopotamia as dominated by one group or another, the traditions and governments of other groups thrived beneath this domination. These diverse city-states were always on the look-out for an opportunity for independence, and the history of the exchange of power is largely determined by the desire for independence seething below the surface.

Periodic breakdowns in the cultural system have occurred for a number of reasons. The demands for labour have from time to time led to population increases that push the limits of the ecological carrying capacity, and should a period of climatic instability ensue, collapsing central government and declining populations can occur. Alternatively, military vulnerability to invasion from marginal hill tribes or nomadic pastoralists have led to periods of trade collapse and neglect of irrigation systems. Equally, centripetal tendencies amongst city states has meant that central authority over the whole region, when imposed, has tended to be ephemeral, and localism has fragmented power into tribal or smaller regional units. These economic and political trends have continued to the present day in Iraq.

Mesopotamian Civilisations

The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, it is said, hosted the legendary Garden of Eden - if it existed anywhere. Abraham prayed here c2,000 years B.C. Throughout Iraq ziggurat temples were built dating from 3,000 B.C. which recall the story of the Tower of Babel.

In the south lie the ruins of Sumer where were found tens of thousands of stone tablets from the incredible Sumerian culture which flourished 5,000 years ago. On some of these tablets, which were used for teaching children, are found fascinating descriptions of everyday life, including the first organized and detailed set of instructions on when to plant and when to harvest. Also in the south lie the ruins of Ur from which at God's prodding Abraham set out for the promised land. Here the Akkadians introduced chariots to warfare. Nearby on the west bank of the Shatt-el-Arab lies Basra which later became the home port of Sinbad the Sailor.

The Marsh Arabs (Ma'dan) are found at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in the south. In the north of Iraq the gates of Ninevah the Assyrian capital with their imaginative stone winged-bulls mark the place where the prophet Jonah is said to have preached penance to the wicked inhabitants, all of whom repented, much to Jonah's chagrin. Later neighboring Mosul became the crossroads of the great caravan routes. Kirkuk is the oil center of the north and boasts of the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. The city of Mosul has given us the cloth that bears its name "muslin" as well as the building materials of alabaster, and gypsum cement with its remarkable strength and rapid-drying properties.

Many ancient civilisations were founded in Mesopotamia as city-states. The earliest known religious temple, built c11,000 years ago, has been found in southern Turkey at Gobekli Tepe.[1] In contrast to pre-literate Gobekli Tepe, the oldest Hebrew writing discovered is only 3,000 years old.[2] The area lies in the 'fertile crescent' between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and had access to both water and sun for early farming skills.[3] Trade with India brought a flow of wealth. Perhaps the earliest were the Sumerians of c5000 BC: but not many bloodlines are traced to them. The Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Medes, Phoenicians, and Hebrews were amongst the peoples who created major cultures in the area.[4] Then there were the late arrivals.

Ancient Religions

Religion was important in a time of short lives and many superstitions. All states, kingdoms, empires, and tribes had multiple gods to cope with people's fears of the unknown. Popular gods included Marduk, Ishtar, Ra, Seth, Dagon, and Baal amongst a host of others. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten began worship of a single solar god Aten in c1350 BC. From c3500 BC in Sumeria and later Akkad, Ninurta was worshipped as a god of war, agriculture, and one of the Sumerian wind gods. However, neither Aten, nor the earlier Ninurta were truly montheistic as was the later Hebrew god YAWH, now the basis of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic beliefs.

Ancient Covenant Treaties

The Covenant-Treaty format familiar in the treaties between ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern city states and kingdoms are the basis of the Biblical Moses' Ten Commandments. In Covenant swearing both the dominant king and his vassal swear an oath in treaty form, thereby creating a covenant bonding both parties. Typically the treaty would be deposited in a holy shrine. When a vassal kingdom violated the terms of the covenant agreement, the overlord would send emissaries to warn the offenders of his coming judgment and enforcement of the curse sanctions. The vassal was forbbiden to deal with any other higher powers (lords, or princes).

In Assyria, a priest driving demons from sick people had to ask if: 'the sick person had offended a god? Had he shown contempt for his mother, or father? Had he lied? Had he stolen? Had he 'known' his neighbour's wife? Had he killed, or wounded his neighbour?'. The Hittites required the treaty to be read 'regularly in the presence of the vassal king and his people.' The Egyptians added the injunctions not to covet a neighbour's property; not to bear false witness, and not to ridicule the weak. The Egyptian 'Book of the Dead' specified restrictions against evil thoughts against neighbours, illicit sex, killing, and theft.[5]

ENDNOTES

1          See Andrew Curry, Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple? at, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/gobekli-tepe.html. Dr Klaus Schmidt, the German archeologist uncovering the site calls Gobekli Tepe "...This is the first human-built holy place...". The structure consisted of a series of large standing stones, weighing up to 10 tons. Many of the stones have carvings of foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures, and this area of the Fertile Crescent "...was [then] like a paradise...".

2          See BBC News, 'Oldest Hebrew script' is found, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7700037.stm, dated 30 October 2008.

3          Adapted from Grahame Clark, World Prehistory, In New Perspective, pp. 39-83; and Mesopotamia at, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesopotamia; Architectural Marvels of Ancient Mesopotamia at, http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/jmac/meso/meso.htm; http://www.amazeingart.com/seven-wonders/ziggurat.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ur, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilmun, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persian_Empire, http://www.farsinet.com/farsi/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Persia, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_empire.

4          Ur is considered by many scholars to be the city of Ur Kasdim mentioned in the Biblical Book of Genesis as the birthplace of the patriarch Abram (Abraham).

5          Adapted from Werner Keller, The Bible as History.

6          Maps are from http://www.science.co.il/Maps-Near-East-Empires.asp, the University of Oregon Historical Atlas Resource; and Image:World 2000 BC at, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:World_2000_BC.svg, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Assyria_in_reign_of_Adad-nirari_II.jpg.

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