Disclaimer: What follows is a very brief summary of the (political) history of Mesopotamia, intended as a quick introduction for people who know nothing about the area. In a couple of pages one should expect neither accuracy nor detail.

Brief History of Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, derives its name and existence from the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. These two rivers created the Fertile Crescent in the midst of surrounding inhospitable territory. The space we call Mesopotamia is roughly the same as that of the modern country of Iraq.

About ten thousand years ago, the people of this area began the agricultural revolution. Instead of hunting and gathering their food, they domesticated plants and animals, beginning with the sheep. They lived in houses built from reeds or mud-brick, grouped in villages where they tended their crops. They built granaries to store their grain, and they began developing a token system to record trade and accounts.

Between 3500 and 3000, for reasons still not well understood, the civilization of Southern Mesopotamia underwent a sudden growth and change, centered in the cities of Ur and Uruk. This development was perhaps driven by climatic change which rendered the old ways of agriculture less productive. People clustered into fewer, but larger, locations and the plough, potter's wheel and the introduction of bronze can be seen as responses to the demands of a more intensive economic life, and also as causes of increased complexity in that life. In this same period came the beginnings of writing, metrological systems and arithmetic.

The main part of the third millennium, now called the Early Dynastic period, saw the gradual development of Sumerian civilization, based on numerous city states. From the Early Dynastic period comes the earliest Sumerian literature, including the epic poetry about Gilgamesh. The Sumerians lived in a complex, unpredictable and frequently hostile environment. They had to contend with floods, droughts, storms, dust, heat, disease and death. They strove to uncover order and organization in the world to overcome feelings of futility and powerlessness.

The Early Dynastic period was brought to an end when Sargon (2334-2279) created the world's first empire, stretching the length and breadth of the fertile crescent. The impact of Sargon's unification of Sumer and Akkad resonated down through the history of Mesopotamia for the next two thousand years. The Sargonic empire lasted for almost a hundred and fifty years, before it fell to insurrections and invasions. There followed a characteristically Mesopotamian turbulent period, part of which involved the hordes of Guti, who ruled in the south for a century or so. Eventually, they were thrown out in an uprising which inaugurated the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III, or Neo-Sumerian period). During the reign of the Ur III kings beginning with Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, Sumerian culture and civilization experienced a remarkable renaissance. There was peace and prosperity throughout the land, the legal system was strengthened, the calendar was revised, metrology simplified, agriculture revived, and towns and temples were rebuilt, the most imposing of the latter being the ziggurat at Ur.

The Ur III empire lasted for over a century (2112-2004) before falling to the violent incursions of nomadic Amorites. With the fall of Ur went Sumerian civilization for ever. The language of Sumerian was retained as an ever more abstruse, recondite and literary ornament of the civilized elites, but as a living tongue, it was dead, to be replaced by Akkadian.

The next couple of hundred years was another turbulent time during which the cities of Isin and Larsa vied for supremacy in the south, while Mari and Assur grew to prominence in the north. Assur was the principal city of the Assyrians, of whom we will hear more later. Also in the south was the city of Babylon.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the ruler of Babylon was one Hammurabi (1792-1750). In short order he conquered and unified the whole of Mesopotamia, and Babylon became its greatest city. We now call this period Old Babylonian, and it is from this time that the great bulk of mathematical tablets come (although mostly not from Babylon itself). When people speak of Mesopotamian mathematics as Babylonian, they are usually referring to Old Babylonian mathematics. During this period the literate elites, the scribes, the doctors, the teachers of language, literature and mathematics emerged as distinct professional groups, rather than just being priests or administrators. Inherited from bureaucratic and religious backgrounds is the characteristic style of Old Babylonian mathematics (and medicine and jurisprudence): a passion for lists, and an emphasis on algorithmic procedures, carving a complex world into numerous understandable cases.

In about 1600, while Egypt was falling to the Hyksos invasion, Mesopotamia was faced with troublesome northern neighbors. The Hittites, under Mursilis, captured and plundered Babylon, but they did not stay and hold the territory. Into the vacuum thus created came the Kassites from the Zagros mountains to the northeast. The Kassite rule of Babylon lasted for four hundred years, some of which were quite peaceful, but it left little trace. The (current) archaeological record is particularly sparse and not much can be said about this period.

The last centuries of the second millennium were yet another turbulent time. Throughout the Near East and southern and eastern Europe mass movements of peoples coincided with the destruction of all major centers of civilization. The end of the Bronze Age is shrouded in mystery and provides a fertile ground for scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) speculation.

The next empire to arise in Mesopotamia came from a different quarter, the Assyrians in the northeast. The Assyrians lived in a narrow strip of land surrounded by enemies. While the mass movements all around them had brought down one nation after another, the Assyrians had held onto their territory, and indeed, kept one dynasty for over two hundred years. They had matured as a people, and built up a fearsome military reputation. From this base and background, they emerged to conquer the whole of Mesopotamia and hold it for three hundred difficult years.

With the Assyrians came came an increased emphasis on celestial divination, providing a new occupation for Babylonian scholars. The Babylonians took to making long lists of astronomical observations and in time, this led to the development of mathematical astronomy, which used arithmetical schemes to produce extremely detailed tables of predictions of astronomical phenomena.

The last of the great Neo-Assyrian kings, Assurbanipal (669-627), collected a vast library at his palace at Nineveh. In 1849, this library was rediscovered by the British archaeologist, Sir Henry Layard, and the modern discipline of Assyriology was born.

Assurbanipal ruled over the Assyrian empire at its peak. In the abrupt way that characterizes Mesopotamian history, his empire outlived him by less than twenty years. It was followed by a brief period of Babylonian hegemony before Babylon in turn fell to the Persians, former nomads who ruled until Alexander conquered the known world. But this is to bring us into modern times.

The best one volume introduction to Mesopotamian history remains George Roux's Ancient Iraq, 3rd edition, 1992. From there the interested reader can delve into more sophisticated and up-to-date interpretations and discover just how wildly biased and inaccurate my history is. Near Eastern chronology is subject to a certain amount of dispute. I have tried to be reasonably vague in my dating, and where I have given actual numbers I mostly followed Brinkman's chronology.

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Last modified: 30 May 2001
Duncan J. Melville