1.2 First Civilizations


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 10,000 BCE Beginnings of the Agricultural Revolution
c. 3500 BCE Appearance of Sumerian city-states in lower Mesopotamia
c. 3200 BCE Early use of cuneiform
c. 2900 BCE Production of bronze
2334 – 2100 BCE Akkadian Empire
c. 2000 BCE Gilgamesh first recorded in cuneiform
1792 – 1595 BCE Babylonian Empire
1792 – 1750 BCE Reign of Hammurabi
900 – 612 BCE Assyrian Empire
626 – 539 BCE Neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) Empire
605 – 562 BCE Reign of Nebuchadnezzar

Defining Civilization

The term civilization often elicits mostly idealized images of ancient empires, monumental architecture, and the luxurious lives of ruling classes. Civilization, however, is a tricky term. In the United States, students of history studied Western Civilization, almost exclusively, through the 1950s. In their studies, civilizations were advanced societies with urban centers, rooted in European or Middle Eastern culture. America’s origins in these Western civilizations was used to explain our own high level of development. However, more recent scholars have definitely broadened the geographical focus by recognizing that worldwide from 3500 to 1000 BCE at least seven independent civilizations emerged in different regions. These recent scholars also continue to debate the definition of civilization, and the current compromise amongst World Historians is to recognize characteristics that civilizations tended to share. Common characteristics of civilizations included food surpluses, higher population densities, social stratification, systems of taxation, labor specialization, regular trade, and accumulated learning (or knowledge passed down from generation to generation). The list here is not all-inclusive by any means, but it indicates the complexity of the societies that scholars have labeled civilizations.

In addition to heated debates about its exact definition, civilization is a loaded term, meaning that it can contain a value judgment. If we use the term carelessly, it seems to indicate that some societies are deemed civilized and worthy of inclusion, while others are uncivilized and thus not worth our study. In part, our sensitivity to this issue is a response to the tendency of past historians, including many of those working in Europe in the 1800s, to assume that there was a natural progression from an uncivilized state to civilization. These historians viewed people who had values, ways of living, and religious beliefs different than theirs as uncivilized. They further believed that these allegedly uncivilized peoples were behind or needed to catch up with those who were civilized. Today, World Historians try to appreciate the great diversity of human experiences and consciously remove these sorts of value judgments. World Historians avoid assumptions that some societies in the past were better or further along than others. Therefore, many World Historians remain wary of the uncritical use of the term civilization.

For our purposes, let us leave aside any value judgments. Societies labeled as civilizations were not inherently better than any others. In fact, as we will see, civilizations demonstrated various vulnerabilities. Considering things like war, slavery, and the spread of diseases, there were sometimes advantages to living outside the nexus of civilizations. For example, in comparing societies, scholars have found that in many instances people residing in decentralized states were healthier and lived longer than did their counterparts in early civilizations. However, people living in societies with social stratification, labor specialization, and trade usually left more written records and archeological evidence, which historians can analyze to narrate our past. The available resources mean that civilizations tend to be better represented in the written historical records. As you read about past civilizations, keep in mind that historians are currently enhancing our understanding of societies that perhaps remained mobile, rejected hierarchies, or preserved their histories orally. These societies were also part of our shared past, even if they are harder to study or have received less scholarly attention.

This section focuses on early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and Northeast Africa. The civilizations in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) and Northeast Africa left written records, so that is where we will begin. They also all initially had economies based on farming and developed alongside rivers. Their locations alongside rivers allowed populations to grow the surplus food that they used to support urbanization, social stratification, labor specialization, and trade.

Key Questions

  • Why did the political, economic, social, and religious aspects of each culture develop as they did? What factors drove this development?
  • Why did people choose to settle? What form did these settlements take?
  • What types of government did they choose and was government necessary?

Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is located in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. Archeologists have found some of the earliest known sites of agricultural production in the Fertile Crescent. Although much of this region received little or irregular rainfall, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provided large amounts of freshwater, facilitating agricultural production and the development of early civilizations. The Greeks later recognized the significance of the river systems to these ancient societies and referred to the region as “the Land between the Rivers” or Mesopotamia.

Map 2.1 | The Fertile Crescent Author: User “Ras67” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.

“Great Empires of the Past: Ancient Mesopotamia.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217860. 2:48.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers both originate in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Anatolia and flow southward to empty into the Persian Gulf. The rivers carry and deposit silt downstream, enriching the soil. In general, the richer soils and availability of water in areas that in the north otherwise had little rain, or else towards the south had concentrated months of rainfall followed by long, dry spells, encouraged settlement near the rivers. The areas closer to the Persian Gulf, known as Lower Mesopotamia, in particular, were attractive to early settlers because they had extremely fertile soils. People built some of the earliest cities, including Uruk, Eridu, and Ur, in Lower Mesopotamia.

While the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers did provide water to the region, their floods were unpredictable and could even be catastrophic when they washed away entire settlements. In response, the region’s residents created irrigation canals and drainage ditches to control the flow of water. They also stored water in reservoirs to use during the dry months of the year. Additionally, in parts of Lower Mesopotamia, the courses of the rivers and their tributaries changed frequently, so people either had to move to follow the water’s new path or divert a river to continue supplying water for their settlement. As regular access to water supported agricultural surpluses and population growth, people tended to fare better against the unpredictability of the floods, seasonal changes, and the rivers’ changing courses when they lived in settlements capable of maintaining irrigation canals, drainage ditches, and water reservoirs.

The rivers offered another benefit to ancient Mesopotamians. Just as the rivers were definitely important to meet people’s everyday needs for water and for agricultural production, so they also facilitated trade. While people made use of local resources, like mud to build their homes, in general, Lower Mesopotamia lacked other desired resources, including wood, stone, and precious metals. Traders were able to use the rivers to bring in these resources from Assyria, Anatolia, the Levant, and areas adjacent to the Persian Gulf. Early Mesopotamians also obtained goods from as far away as what today are northern Pakistan and India. Merchants used overland routes that crossed the Iranian Plateau and sea routes, exchanging Mesopotamian products like grains and textiles for luxury goods from the east. Royal cemeteries show that by 2500 BCE Mesopotamian elites were buried with a variety of imports, including beads brought from the Indus River Valley. The rivers and the overland trade routes also facilitated communication and, with it, the sharing of ideas and technologies.

Map 2.2 | Trade Routes in Early Mesopotamia | In the third millennium BCE, people in Lower Mesopotamia used river routes to trade northward. They also used sea routes through the Persian Gulf, and they connected with traders to the east by crossing the Iranian Plateau. Author: Corey Parson Source: Original Work License: CC BY-SA 4.0

The oldest Mesopotamian cities were founded in the fourth millennium BCE by a people known as the Sumerians.  The city of Uruk was the largest city in Sumer and possibly in the world at the time.  We know that this people established colonies as far away as southern Anatolia (modern day Turkey), but no one knows the purpose of these colonies or what technology existed that allowed them to do so.

Sumerian City-States

Lower Mesopotamia, or the southern areas of Mesopotamia towards the Persian Gulf, drew settlers, who moved to take advantage of rich soils and the availability of water in the area commonly known as Sumer. The people who lived in Sumer are generally referred to as Sumerians. Prior to 3,000 BCE, Sumerians, whose origins remain a subject of debate, founded a number of independent cities in Lower Mesopotamia. In these cities, Sumerians had organized religions, centralized governments, social hierarchies, and access to trade networks. As these cities expanded, their leaders claimed control over adjacent territories, forming at least a dozen city-states, which became the basic organizational structure of Sumerian civilization in the third millennium BCE. By incorporating the surrounding territories into city-states, urban centers were able to draw on more resources.

Sumerian cities had certain characteristics in common. First, a temple complex or a ziggurat was usually the visual focus of the urban landscape. Sumerians believed that their entire city belonged to its main deity, and built a massive temple, the most important building in the city, to be the dwelling place of their city’s main god or goddess. A complex that comfortably housed many of the priests and priestesses who served the city’s deity surrounded each temple. In addition to attending to the religious needs of the community, temples complexes also owned land, managed industries, were involved in trade, and acted as banks. Their wide-ranging roles meant that temples often had additional outbuildings, like granaries and storage sheds, in the surrounding countryside. Sumerians were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped multiple gods and goddesses. Because Sumerians believed each god had a family, they also built smaller shrines and temples dedicated to these divine family members. Therefore, each city would have a number of temples while many Sumerian homes had small altars dedicated to other gods. Sometimes, urban temples or ritual spaces were built atop a ziggurat, a solid rectangular tower made of sun-dried mud bricks.

Figure 2.1 | The Great Ziggurat of Ur | Located in what is today the Dhi Qar Province of Iraq, Sumerians originally built the ziggurat in the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BCE). It has been restored several times since, including fairly recently in the 1980s. Author: User “GDK” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 3.0

Archaeological evidence shows that temple complexes were expanded and rebuilt over time and, by the late third millennium BCE, temples in many of the Sumerian city-states were raised on platforms or else situated on a ziggurat. The towering architecture of the ziggurat stressed the significance of the temple to the surrounding community. The best- preserved ziggurat, the Great Ziggurat of Ur, was constructed with an estimated 720,000 baked bricks and rose to a height of about 100 feet. The people of Ur constructed this ziggurat for their patron deity, the moon goddess Nanna. They likely brought regular offerings to Nanna and also received food rations from the Great Ziggurat of Ur.

Viewing nature as unpredictable, people brought offerings to their city’s temple complexes or ziggurat, hoping to please the gods who controlled the natural forces of their world. Priests and priestesses collected and redistributed the offerings, demonstrating the vital roles they played in Sumerian society. The relatively privileged position of priests and priestesses at the temple complex also shows Sumerian social stratification (the development of a hierarchy) and how agricultural surpluses supported the specialization of labor. Some of the early leaders of Sumerian cities may have been “priest-kings,” who attained elevated positions through their association with the temples. The later rulers of city-states definitely supported the temples, claiming to be acting on behalf of the gods who brought divine favor to their followers.

Sumerian city-states had local rulers, who lived in large palaces, but most of these local rulers were not considered kings. So far, archeologists have dated the earliest known royal palaces to c. 2600 BCE and conclude that Sumerian city-states had centralized governments with secular rulers by at least that timeframe. While there does seem to have been a sense of inhabiting a shared space in Southern Mesopotamia, referred to as “the Land” in written records, city-states had distinctive identities. In part, their distinctive identities revolved around their main deity. The rulers of city-states alternately supported, competed with, and fought against one another. The Sumerian King List, a manuscript that listed early kings and described their reigns (with some presumably fictive and exaggerated elements), provides evidence of these alliances, competition, and war. For example, it describes Enmebarages as the second to last king of the 1st Dynasty of Kish, “…who carried away as spoil the weapons of the land of Elam, became king, and reigned 900 years…”[1] Local rulers often came to power after proving themselves militarily.

Figure 2.2 | The Sumerian King List Author: Taiwania Justo Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Furthermore, the Sumerian King List recognized only rulers who had established control over multiple city-states as kings (with the title of lugal in the Sumerian language) belonging to distinct dynasties. While it lasted, a dynasty generally passed down the kingship through the male line. According to the Sumerian King List, the seat of power, held by hereditary kings, shifted from city-state to city-state with the rise and fall of dynasties through the third millennium BCE. Significantly, the Sumerian King List began its recorded history “when kingship came down from heaven,” legitimizing secular kings through their association with gods.[2] Sumerian kings, often along with more local rulers, led armies, collected taxes, organized labor for state projects, and meted out justice. At the top of the hierarchy and with control over multiple city-states, kings expected obedience from local rulers and their subjects, and support from the priests and priestesses of the temples.

Kings, local rulers, priests, and priestesses held influential positions in Sumerian societies. However, farmers, taken as a whole, made up an estimated 90% of the population. Other skilled people included animal-breeders, merchants, craftspeople, fishermen, doctors, soldiers, architects, and scribes. Surplus agricultural production collected as tribute as well as wealth generated by trade supported such labor specialization. One important outcome of labor specialization was innovation in metalworking. In approximately 2900 BCE, metalworkers began producing bronze, which was stronger than copper. Stronger weapons and farming tools gave Sumerians advantages when it came to combat and agricultural production.

Social stratification is further evident as some Sumerians and even institutions, including temples, owned slaves. Slaves performed a variety of tasks like construction, weaving, agricultural and domestic labor, tending animals, and even administrative work as scribes. Some slaves were chattel slaves, meaning that society treated them as property with no rights. Usually, chattel slaves were prisoners of war or slaves bought from outside communities. They were branded by barbers or tattoo artists and forced to work at the will of their masters. If they tried to run away, the law required slaves to be returned. The more widespread type of servitude in most Sumerians societies was likely debt slavery, which was generally temporary until a debtor paid off a loan and its interest. Over the past century or so, archaeologists have added a great deal to our understanding of Sumerian social distinctions through their work at numerous excavation sites, but many gaps in our knowledge still exist.

The Mesopotamians developed cuneiform writing and record keeping systems that we can read today. Trade was extensive and far-flung across the fertile crescent and beyond. How far, we don’t know for sure, but it is clear that this earliest of civilizations was highly advanced for that time. Sumerians developed highly sophisticated systems of astronomy, time-keeping and building technologies that allowed them to rule as the dominant culture for over a thousand years..

The archaeological discovery of cuneiform tablets at excavation sites has aided efforts to learn about this civilization. Sumerians developed cuneiform, a written script of wedge shaped marks, around 3200 BCE. Cuneiform was one of the earliest, if not the very first, written script in the world. The Sumerian King List, discussed above, was recorded in cuneiform. Merchants, scribes, administrators, priests, and others kept written records describing financial transactions, court proceedings, administrative decisions, and architectural plans. They also wrote legends, epic poems, chants, and prayers. Most people were not literate, so scribes—who had been specially trained in scribal schools—generated many of the records. While in school, in addition to copying written passages, scribes learned arithmetic. The Sumerians system of arithmetic was based on the number 60, which we still use to divide time into hours, minutes, and seconds. Scribes used styluses made of reed to write on clay tablets that were dried and could be stored. The discovery of cuneiform tablets has greatly aided archaeologists, but only a small percentage of the tablets found to date have been translated.

Figure 2.3 | Cuneiform | Cuneiform script on a clay tablet currently housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran. Author: A. Davey Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 2.0

“City of Ur in Sumeria.” Mesopotamia: I Have Conquered the River. 2000. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11654&loid=7886. 5:56.

Using archaeological and written evidence, scholars have pieced together what they can about everyday life for Sumerians, though some questions remain. For instance, it has been a challenge to determine the layout of urban spaces beyond the prominence of the temples and the relative grandeur of palaces. From archaeological finds, scholars suspect that Sumerian cities were divided into neighborhoods by occupation and according to kinship groups, but uncertainties about specifics linger. Legal documents and tax records show that people owned property in both the cities and the countryside. Also, evidence suggests social stratification, as some Sumerians owned fairly large chunks of land, while others had much smaller plots or presumably no land at all. Wills, court proceedings, and temple documents show that land and temple offices were usually bought or else acquired through military or other service to the state. A man inherited land, property, offices, and their attendant obligations to the state (like reoccurring military service) from his father. The eldest son seems to have frequently inherited a larger share than younger brothers and have been given control over the family home. He was tasked with performing regular rituals to honor dead ancestors, who were usually buried underneath the home. From the written documents, we also get glimpses into other aspects of Sumerian life, like marriage and divorce.

Sumerians viewed marriage as a contract between two families and, as a result, the male heads of the two families arranged a couple’s marriage. Documents show that both families contributed resources to seal the union or complete the marriage contract. The man’s family gave gifts or money and hosted a feast, while the woman’s family amassed a dowry. Although a woman did not automatically receive an inheritance upon the death of her father, she could expect (and use the court system to make sure she got) to receive a dowry, even if it came from her father’s estate after his death. Divorce was possible but sometimes led to social ostracism or even punishment if there were accusations of misconduct, such consequences being especially the case for the woman. Records indicate that polygamy was not common, but wealthier men did keep slave-girls as concubines. Overall, Sumerians considered marriage an essential institution in that it brought families together and ensured the continuation of the family lineage.

Legends, myths, poems, and literary texts tell us about Sumerians, too. For example, we can explore their values and views of the afterlife through reading the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh relates the adventures of Gilgamesh, a legendary king, who may have lived around 2700 BCE. The epic has multiple versions and was told orally before it was first written down in cuneiform in about 2000 BCE. The epic follows the heroic exploits of Gilgamesh and his companion, Enkidu, to emphasize the importance of values such as loyalty and humility. In one section, the epic describes a very gloomy afterlife where “people see no light, they sit in darkness,” reflecting Mesopotamian beliefs that the afterlife was miserable for all, even those who had lived virtuously.[3] Additionally, it portrays the environment as potentially violent and hostile as in its flood story, which in some ways resembles the account of Noah and the flood found in Genesis. Ultimately, Gilgamesh fails at his quest to find eternal life but learns to work for the glory of the gods and for worthwhile human achievements.

Figure 2.4 | The Queen’s Lyre | The Queen’s Lyre is a reconstructed musical instrument modeled after a lyre found by archaeologist Leonard Wooley in one of the graves at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The original instrument has been dated to c. 2500 BCE. The reconstructed instrument is held at the British Museum in London. Author: User “Fae” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

“Epic of Gilgamesh” and “Queen’s Lyre.” Mesopotamia: I Have Conquered the River. 2000. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11654&loid=7894. 2:46.

Other archaeological finds and the written documents also give some hint of the wider popular culture and artistic conventions in ancient Mesopotamia. For example, cuneiform tablets with pictures of dancers and singers, as well as instruments found in graves, suggest that Sumerians placed importance on music, using it for entertainment and ritual purposes. Trying to learn more about Sumerian music, scholars and other enthusiasts have replicated these instruments and presented their best estimation of Sumerian scales and tuning. The documentary evidence suggests that hymns from the ancient Sumerian city-states were shared with later Mesopotamian empires and even spread into the Mediterranean world.

“Uruk to Push for Urbanism.” Come Together: Ancient Worlds. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020.  https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=55134&loid=602048.8:22.

Key Questions

  • How was the government of Mesopotamia structured?
  • What was the role of the king, the bureaucracy, and the individual in that government?
  • How did rulers such as Sargon and Hammurabi (discussed later) use political power to shape, expand or transform Mesopotamian society?

Mesopotamian Empires

In the second half of the third millennium BCE, Sumerian city-states fought each other, and dynasties rose and fell. Kings consolidated power over multiple city-states in the region. Then, King Sargon of Akkad enlarged the scale by conquering the Sumerian city-states and parts of Syria, Anatolia, and Elam. In doing so, he created one of the world’s first empires in approximately 2334 BCE. For generations, Mesopotamian literature celebrated the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334 – 2100 BCE) that King Sargon founded. Like the Akkadian Empire, three subsequent empires, the Babylonian Empire (c. 1792 – 1595 BCE), the Assyrian Empire (c. 900 – 612 BCE), and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (c. 605 – 539 BCE), also ruled large parts of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent.

The Akkadian Empire (c. 2334 – 2100 BCE)

In the third millennium BCE, a people arose to the east, near Baghdad. These people were called Akkadians and they were led to victories over all the Sumerian city-states by their first king, Sargon. The Akkadian Empire was the first true empire in history and Sargon was the first conqueror.  The Akkadians flourished, controlling an area from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf and building a rich culture focused, in part, on their polytheistic religion.

Map 2.3 | The Akkadian Empire, c. 2300 BCE Author: User “Nareklm” Source: Wikipedia License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Sargon of Akkad founded the first empire in Mesopotamia. Legends about Sargon of Akkad stress that he rose from obscurity to become a famous, powerful king. While the legends all tend to describe him as coming from humble origins and rising to the top using his own wits, there are many variations. One much later Babylonian tablet, from the seventh century BCE, describes his background as descendent of a high priestess and an anonymous father. His mother hid her pregnancy and the birth of Sargon, secreting him away in a wicker basket on a river, where he was rescued and then raised by Aqqi, a water-drawer. This version of the legend links Sargon with a more elite family through his birth-mother, a high priestess, but also shows how he had to advance himself up to king after being adopted by the rather more humble figure of a water-drawer.

From his allegedly humble origins, Sargon of Akkad conquered Sumerian city-states one by one, creating an empire, or a large territory, encompassing numerous states, ruled by a single authority. It’s quite possible that Sargon of Akkad’s predecessor, who claimed to rule over the large region stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, began the process of building the empire, but Sargon is remembered for accomplishing the task. One of the reasons we attribute the empire to him is his use of public monuments. He had statues, stellae (tall, upright pillars), and other monuments built throughout his realm to celebrate his military victories and to build a sense of unity within his empire. Archaeologists have not found the empire’s capital city, Akkad. However, from the available information, archaeologists have estimated its location, placing it to the north of the early Mesopotamian city-states, including Ur and Sumer. It is clear that Sargon of Akkad turned the empire’s capital at Akkad into one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in the world. According to documentary sources, the city’s splendor stood as another symbol of Sargon’s greatness. The city grew into a cosmopolitan center especially because of its role in trade. Akkadian rulers seized and taxed trade goods, with trade routes extending as far as India. Sargon ruled the empire for over fifty years. His sons, grandson, and great grandson attempted to hold the empire together.

“Ancient Threats and Unification.” Come Together: Ancient Worlds. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020.https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=55134&loid=247998. 3:45

The Ascent of Ur

“The Standard of Ur.” Mesopotamia: I Have Conquered the River. 2000. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11654&loid=7915. 4:38.


As the Akkadian Empire declined, other city-states took prominence in the region. Around 2121 BCE, Ur in Sumeria rose in prominence. Much of what we know about Sumer comes from clay tablets that survive bearing their form of writing that we call cuneiform. This is also the period from which epic poems arise such as The Epic of Gilgamesh mentioned elsewhere.

The question of political power once again comes to the forefront in Ur. Indeed, power underlies the formation and rationalization of governments, and very often shapes the relationship between the individual and the state. Therefore, this semester we explore how and why governments are formed, as well as how the rights and responsibilities of the individual are shaped.

As you watch the video segments, consider the nature of power and its connections to culture and the rise of civilization.

“Foundation of Civilization to Royal Tombs.” Come Together: Ancient Worlds. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020.https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=55134&loid=610380 7:59.

After about 200 years, attacks from neighboring peoples caused the empire to fall. The kingdom of Ur fell in part due to invasions from the north, the west and the east. One of these peoples, the Amorites settled in large numbers in Sumer, eventually creating their own kingdoms. The most prominent among these was established with a center in Babylon and for a time there is a period of peace in the area.

The Babylonian Empire, c. 1792 – 1595 BCE

Hammurabi is the most famous of the Amorite kings of Babylon. His rule, beginning in approximately 1792 BCE, is considered to be the high point of Babylonia. It is under the rule of Hammurabi that law codes are first recorded, and Hammurabi is the king who unified most of Mesopotamia under one rule. Hammurabi aspired to follow Sargon’s example, to create the next empire in the region, the Babylonian Empire. With well-disciplined foot soldiers armed with copper and bronze weapons, he conquered Mesopotamian city-states, including Akkad and Sumer, to create an empire with its capital at Babylon. Although he had other achievements, Hammurabi is most famous for the law code etched into a stele that bears his name, the Stele of Hammurabi.

Figure 2.5 | The Stele of Hammurabi Author: User “Mbzt” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 3.0

Key Questions

  • What was governed by law under the rule of Hammurabi?
  • Why were certain things, such as irrigation, women and children regulated by law while other things (such as religion) were not mentioned?

The Stele of Hammurabi records a comprehensive set of laws. Codes of law existed prior to Hammurabi’s famous stele, but Hammurabi’s Code gets a lot of attention because it is still intact and has proven very influential. The upper part of the stele depicts Hammurabi standing in front of the Babylonian god of justice, from whom Hammurabi derives his power and legitimacy. The lower portion of the stele contains the collection of 282 laws. One particularly influential principle in the code is the law of retaliation, which demands “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The code listed offenses and their punishments, which often varied by social class. While symbolizing the power of the King Hammurabi and associating him with justice, the code of law also attempted to unify people within the empire and establish common standards for acceptable behavior.


“Iraq Excavation of 1899.” Mesopotamia: I Have Conquered the River. 2000. Accessed April 6, 2020.https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11654&loid=7843. 2:39

Hammurabi also improved infrastructure, promoted trade, employed effective administrative practices, and supported productive agriculture. For example, he sponsored the building of roads and the creation of a postal service. He also maintained irrigation canals and facilitated trade all along the Persian Gulf. After Hammurabi’s death, his successors lost territory. The empire declined, shrinking in size. The Hittites, from Anatolia, eventually sacked the city of Babylon in 1595 BCE, bringing about the official end of the Babylonian Empire.

“Ancient Mesopotamia: Babylonian Society and Culture.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217862. 2:25.


“Contracts and Laws.” Mesopotamia: I Have Conquered the River. 2000. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11654&loid=7900. 2:45.

Kassites and Hittites, c. 1550 – 1200 BCE

Key Questions

  • Consider what is more successful in conquest: assimilation of those conquered or annihilation of their culture and why?
  • What were the major cultural differences between the Hittites and the Kassites?

During the New Kingdom in Egypt, there arose in the Near East new peoples in power. Among these were the Kassites and the Hittites. These were warrior peoples who conquered others to expand their own territory. There is not a lot known about the origins of the Kassites, but once in Mesopotamia, they ruled Babylon for almost 500 years.

We know more about the Hittites’ origins. Their language tells us that they were of Indo-European origins, probably coming from the north. By about 1500 BCE, they had established a centralized government on the Anatolia peninsula. One hundred years later, the Hittites were the leading military power in the Middle East and provided a threat to Egyptian ambitions as well as others. The Hittites adopted much of Mesopotamian culture and thus carried the traditions of Babylon forward.

The Assyrian Empire, c. 900 – 612 BCE

The original Assyrian people roughly paralleled Babylon in development. They lived north of Babylon but were heavily influenced by Babylonian culture, at least early on. The Assyrians faded in power for a period of time, but sometime around 1000 BCE they began expanding until, through continual warfare and conquest, they controlled all of Mesopotamia and Palestine.

The Assyrian Empire, which saw its height of power at the end of the first millennium to the seventh century BCE, was larger than any empire that preceded it. Dominating the region, its well-equipped soldiers used their stronger iron weapons to extend the empire’s control through Mesopotamia, Syria, parts of Anatolia, Palestine, and up the Nile into Egypt. They used siege warfare, along with battering rams, tunnels, and moveable towers, to get past the defenses of cities. The Assyrians had a large army (with perhaps as many as 150,000 soldiers) that utilized a core of infantry, a cavalry, as well as chariots. As part of their military strategy, the Assyrians purposefully tried to inspire fear in their enemies; they decapitated conquered kings, burnt cities to the ground, destroyed crops, and dismembered defeated enemy soldiers. One Assyrian soldier claimed:

In strife and conflict I besieged [and] conquered the city. I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword…I captured many troops alive: I cut off of some of their arms [and] hands; I cut off of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.[4]

The Assyrians expected these methods to deter potential rebellions and used their spoils of war, like precious metals and livestock, to finance further military campaigns. After conquering an area, they conscripted men into their army, and employed resettlement and deportation as techniques to get laborers where they wanted them and deal with communities who opposed their regime. They also collected annual tributes that were apparently high enough to, at least occasionally, spur rebellions despite the Assyrians’ reputation for violent retribution.

Map 2.4 | The Assyrian Empire at its height. Author: User “Ningyou” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domai

Full-size image of Map 2.4 – The Assyrian Empire at its height

In addition to its military strength, the Assyrian empire also stands out for the size of its cities and its administrative developments. The empire’s biggest cities, such as Nineveh and Assur, each had several million people living within them. Administratively, kings ruled Assyria, appointing governors to oversee provinces and delegates to keep tabs on the leaders of allied states. There were between 100 and 150 governors, delegates, and top officials entrusted by the king with ruling in his place and helping him maintain the empire. In the later centuries of the Assyrian Empire, kings chose these officials on the basis of merit and loyalty. Kings met with large groups of officials for rituals, festivals, and military campaigns. Evidence of such meetings has led some scholars to propose the possibility that the king and his officials might have worked together in something resembling a parliamentary system, though there is no scholarly consensus on the point.

By 700 BCE, the Assyrian Empire included Mesopotamia, sections of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt down to the city of Thebes. Under King Ashurbanipal it became apparent that the Empire was overextended.  The territory was simply too vast to be controlled by a central authority without an efficient communication and transportation system.  Civil wars broke out as a result and the Empire disintegrates, but during the height of the Assyrian Empire it was characterized by the organization of its military which partly explains how they were able to conquer so much so quickly.  The empire fell after the conquest of Nineveh in 612 BCE.

“Ancient Assyrian Armies to Destruction of Assyrian Empire.” Sumer, Babylon, Assyria: The Wolves. 1991. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=2782&loid=610381. 14:27.

The Chaldean (New Babylonian) Empire, c. 626 – 539 BCE

A general named Nebuchadnezzar, one of many dissatisfied residents of the Assyrian Empire, led one of the many assaults on the Assyrian Empire. Eventually, Nebuchadnezzar took over most of the Assyrian Empire, destroying the Assyrian capital of Ninevah (612 BCE) and creating a new capital in Babylon in the process. The Chaldean Empire is thus often called the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

With the weakening of the Assyrian Empire, the New Babylonian Empire began to dominate Mesopotamia. Lasting for less than 100 years, the New Babylonian Empire is best known for its ruler, Nebuchadnezzar II, and its great architectural projects. Nebuchadnezzar ruled for 43 years and, during that reign, he rebuilt Babylon, built the Processional Way, and, according to legend, created the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon — one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The Neo-Babylonian Empire only lasted for a century, but in that time, it defeated Egypt, gained control of Syria and Palestine and destroyed Jerusalem. In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to the Persians.  Consider the reasons why as you go through the reading and videos.

Key Questions

  • Consider as you review these items why this grandiose empire was so short-lived? Why did it fall? And why is it still so important today?


“The Babylonians.” Wellspring of Holiness: Jerusalem—The Making of a Holy City. 2011. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=52513&loid=182630. 1: 46.


As described in the Hebrew Scriptures (also known as the Old Testament), Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 605 – 562 BCE, was a ruthless leader. He gained notoriety for destroying the city of Jerusalem and deporting many of the city’s Jews to Babylon. The captive Jews suffered in exile, as they were not allowed to return to their homeland. Nebuchadnezzar II also rebuilt Babylon with fortresses, temples, and enormous palaces. He associated the New Babylonian Empire with the glory of ancient Babylonia by reviving elements of Sumerian and Akkadian culture. For example, he had artists restore ancient artwork and celebrated the kings of old, like Hammurabi. Nebuchadnezzar is often also credited with rebuilding the city’s ziggurat, Etemanaki, or the “Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” When completed, the ziggurat rose several stories above the city and seemed to reach to the heavens. Some scholars claim that the Babylonian ziggurat was the famous Tower of Babel described in the Old Testament. Another one of Nebuchadnezzar’s purported projects, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was considered by the later Greek historian Herodotus to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar had the hanging gardens built for his wife. He made the desert bloom to remind her of her distant homeland; the elaborate gardens planted on rooftops and terraces were designed so that the plants’ leaves would spill down high walls. Since definitive archaeological evidence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon has not been found, scholars continue to debate its most likely location and even its very existence. After the death of Nebuchadnezzar II, outside military pressures as well as internal conflict weakened the empire until the much larger Persian Empire conquered the New Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE.

“New Babylonians and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” Mesopotamia/Neolithic Period To Modern Day: Timelines of Ancient Civilizations. 2003. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=65621&loid=610354. 2:29.

The Significance of Mesopotamia for World History

Mesopotamia saw the emergence of some of the first cities and the world’s first empires. The city-states of the region flourished from about 3000 to 2300 BCE. Then, Sargon of Akkad and subsequent rulers built empires, expanding their control and influence over even larger territories.

There were cultural links and commonalities found in the Sumerian city-states of the third millennium BCE. With agricultural production dependent on access to water, cities initially grew in Southern Mesopotamia near rivers, namely the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries. Sumerians tried to control their environment using irrigation, drainage ditches, water reserves, and other methods. With unpredictable floods and other environmental challenges, the Sumerians viewed nature as hostile and their expectations of the afterlife tended to be pessimistic. Their understanding of nature as unpredictable also spurred engineering innovations as Sumerians prepared for floods, water shortages, and other natural events. While farming was the mainstay of their economies, city-states were also involved in robust long-distance trade networks, which allowed them to garner the many resources not available in their region. These city-states alternately allied with, competed against, and waged war on one another, with kingship emerging as rulers dominated multiple city- states. As evidenced by the centrality of temples and the belief that kingship came from heaven, religion was of fundamental importance to these societies. Archaeologists have also uncovered ample evidence of social stratification and labor specialization in these ancient city-states. Archeologists have been able to recognize Sumerian developments, in part, because the Sumerians left behind a wealth of information documented in cuneiform, one of the world’s first written scripts. Scholars have begun to describe life in ancient Sumerian societies and appreciate the many Sumerian achievements, like those in math, where they introduced a computation system based on 60 (which we still use to divide time and in geometry as a circle has 360°). Overall, Sumerians were innovators, with some of the first cities, one of the first systems of writing, notable achievements in engineering and architecture, the creation of larger political entities, and more.

Starting with the Akkadian Empire, four empires controlled vast territories in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. Over a period of almost 1800 years, these empires brought together diverse communities, often by military conquest and force. The empires facilitated trade, and spread ideas and culture. Their rulers developed administrative, military, and other techniques to try to ensure compliance and recognition of their authority. As intended, the rulers and the cities they built live on in legends, even though their empires eventually withered and fell.

[1] J.N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History, (London: Routledge, 1994): 28.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Excerpt from: The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Nancy Sandars (New York: Penguin Books, 1960), http://web.archive.org/ web/20010217041824/http://www.humanities.ccny.cuny.edu/history/reader/gilgames.htm.

[4] Quoted in Erika Belibtreau, “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death,” http://faculty.uml.edu/ethan_Spanier/ Teaching/documents/CP6.0AssyrianTorture.pdf.