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Chapter: 9th Social Science : History : Ancient Civilisations

Mesopotamian Civilisations

Mesopotamia refers to the region of Iraq and Kuwait in West Asia.

Mesopotamian Civilisations

Mesopotamia refers to the region of Iraq and Kuwait in West Asia. Several kingdoms emerged around the city states of this region from the early third millennium BCE. The Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations flourished in Mesopotamia.




In the Greek language, meso means ‘in between’ and potamus means river. The Euphrates and Tigris flow here and drain into the Persian Gulf is since this area is in between two rivers it is known as Mesopotamia. The northern part of Mesopotamia is known as Assyria, and the southern part is called Babylonia.


The Sumerians


The oldest civilisation in Mesopotamia belonged to the Sumerians. The Sumerians were the contemporaries of the people of Indus and Egyptian civilisations. These civilisations had trade connections. The Sumerians settled in the Lower Tigris valley around 5,000 to 4,000 BCE. They are believed to have originated from Central Asia. They founded many cities and Nippur was one of the important cities. They developed the cuneiform writing system. During the early phase of the Sumerian civilisation, kings acted as the chief priests. Their political domination came to an end by 2450 BCE.


The Akkadians


The Akkadians dominated Sumeria briefly from 2450 to 2250 BCE. The Sargon of Akkad was a famous ruler. Sargon and his descendants (ca.2334–2218 BCE) ruled Mesopotamia for more than hundred years. In the cuneiform records of Akkadians, mention is made about the Indus civilisation. The documents of

Sargon of Akkad (2334–2279 BCE) refer to the ships from Meluhha, Magan and Dilmun in the quay of Akkad.


The Babylonians


The Semitic people called Amorites from the Arabian desert moved into Mesopotamia. They were known as Babylonians as they established a kingdom and made Babylon its capital. By the time of the king Hammurabi, they extended their domination to the western part of Mesopotamia. The powerful states of Ur (2112 to 2004 BCE) and Babylon (1792 to 1712 BCE) controlled this region. The hero Gilgamesh referred to in the first ever epic on the earth may have been a king of Sumeria. Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon belonging to the first Amorite dynasty (1792–1750 BCE), attained fame as a great law-maker.




The Assyrian Empire was politically active in Mesopotamia around 1000 BCE. The Assyrian kings were the priests of Ashur, the chief deity of Assyria. The Assyrian government was controlled

by the emperor and provincial governors were appointed by the emperor to administer provinces. Assur was the capital city of Assyria. Ashurbanipal was popular ruler of the late or neo-Assyrian empire (ca. 668 to 627 BCE). He maintained a famous library of cuneiform records. Assyrians worshipped the deity of Lamassu for protection.


Society, State and Administration


The Sumerian civilisation had many city states. A typical Sumerian city was surrounded by cultivable lands. The fortified Sumerian cities had the temples called Ziggurats at its centre. The temple was controlled by the priests. Priests, scribes and nobles were part of the government. The rulers and priests occupied the top of the social hierarchy. The ruler performed the role of the chief priest. The scribes, merchants and artisans were placed next in the hierarchy. The scribes maintained the account of the taxes and the priests collected the taxes. The temples acted as storehouses of the taxed commodities. Assemblies were created for the administration of the state. Cultivable lands were owned by the kings and the higher classes of people in the hierarchy. The peasants who remained attached to the temples in the earlier phase of Mesopotamian civilisation became free from that association in the later period. Not all people were allowed to live in the cities.


Food and Agriculture


Agriculture was the main occupation of the Mesopotamians. They had developed irrigation systems for ensuring the availability of water for agriculture and cultivated wheat, barley, onions, turnips, grapes, apples and dates. They domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. Fish was part of their diet.


Trade and Exchange


Trade was an important economic activity of the Mesopotamian society. Traders assisted in the exchange of goods procured from the potters and artisans. They traded with Syria and Asia Minor in the west, and in Iran and the Indus Valley civilisation in the east. They travelled in ships across the seas for trade. Their temples acted as banks and lent credit on their own account. The Mesopotamian documents have references to loan and repayment, with or without interest. Perhaps this is the first written evidence of charging an interest on borrowed money.


Cities and Town Planning


The Mesopotamian cities featured mud or baked brick walls with gates. Some people lived in reed huts outside the cities. The Ziggurats were at the city centre on a platform and appeared like steep pyramids, with staircases leading to the top. Around this temple were complexes of ceremonial courtyards, shrines, burial chambers for the priests and priestesses, ceremonial banquet halls, along with workshops, granaries, storehouses and administrative buildings.




Sumerian religion was polytheistic. They worshipped several gods and goddesses. Sumerians did not pay much attention to the life after death and so they did not build pyramids like the Egyptians. The Sumerians prayed to Enlil, the god of sky and wind. The city of Nippur was centre of Enlil’s worship. Ninlil was the Sumerian goddess of grain. The Babylonians worshipped Marduk, and Ashur was the supreme god of the Assyrians. Ishtar was goddess of love and fertility, Tiamat the god of the sea and chaos, and Sin, the moon god. The kings were seen as representatives of the gods on earth. The Mesopotamians developed a rich collection of myths and legends. The most famous of these is the epic of Gilgamesh, which is written in the cuneiform text. It contains a legend of the flood and has similarities with the account of Noah’s Ark mentioned in the Bible and other myths in the Hindu puranas.


Hammurabi’s Law Code


Hammurabi Code is an important legal document that specifies the laws related to various crimes. It has 282 provisions specifying cases related to family rights, trade, slavery, taxes and wages. It is carved on a stone, which portrays Hammurabi as receiving the code from the Sun god Shamash. It was a compilation of old laws based on retributive principles. The ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ form of justice is used in the Hammurabi Code.


Cuneiform: The Sumerian Writing System


Cuneiform is the Sumerian writing system. The shape of the letter is in the form of wedge and hence it is called cuneiform. Evolving around 3000 BCE, it is one of the earliest scripts of the world. The epic of Gilgamesh was written in this script. They used this script for commercial transactions and writing letters and stories. The clay tablets contain loads of information on the Sumerian civilisation.




The Mesopotamian art included sculptures in stone and clay. A few paintings and sculptures from the Mesopotamian times have survived today. Mesopotamian sculptures portray animals, such as goats, rams, bulls and lions. Some mythological figures like lions and bulls with human head have also been found in their art. Massive sculptures were created at the time of Assyrian and Babylonian empires.




The Mesopotamians excelled in mathematics, astronomy and medicine. They developed the concepts of multiplication, division and cubic equation. The numerical system based on 60 was conceived by them. They were the ones to formulate the 60-minute hour, the 24-hour day and the 360° circle. The Sumerian calendar had seven days in a week. Their numerical system had place values. They created the water clock and the lunar calendar based on the movement of the moon. They developed methods for measuring areas and solids. They also developed advanced weight and measurement systems.

They introduced the twelve month calendar system based on lunar months. Their ideas influenced Greek astronomy. They had developed a medicinal system as well. A text called the Diagnostic Handbook, dated to the 11th century BCE Babylon, lists symptoms and prognoses. This indicates their scientific understanding of herbs and minerals.


Contributions of the Mesopotamian Civilisation


·        The invention of the potter’s wheel is credited to the Sumerians.

·        They developed the calendar system of 360 days and divided a circle into 360 units.

·        The cuneiform system of writing was their contribution.

·        The Hammurabi’s law code was another legacy of the Mesopotamians.


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