Ancient Mesopotamia

  September 26, 2021   Read time 4 min
Ancient Mesopotamia
The best case for the first appearance of something which is recognizably civilization has been made for the southern part of Mesopotamia, the 700 -mile-long stretch of land formed by the two river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.

This end of the Fertile Crescent was thickly studded with farming villages in Neolithic times. Some of the oldest settlements of all seem to have been in the extreme south where deposits from centuries of drainage from up-country and annual fl oodings had built up a soil of great richness. It must always have been much easier to grow crops there than elsewhere, provided that the water supply could be made continuously and safely available; this was possible, for though rain was slight and irregular, the river bed was often above the level of the surrounding plain. A calculation has been made that in about 2500 BCthe yield of grain in southern Mesopotamia compared favourably with that of the best Canadian wheat-fi elds today. Here, at an early date, was the possibility of growing more than was needed for daily consumption, the surplus indispensable to the appearance of town life. Furthermore, fi sh could be taken from the nearby sea.

Such a setting was a challenge, as well as an opportunity. The Tigris and Euphrates could suddenly and violently change their courses: the marshy, low-lying land of the delta had to be raised above fl ood level by banking and ditching and canals had to be built to carry water away. Thousands of years later, techniques could still be seen in use in Mesopotamia which were probably those fi rst employed long ago to form the platforms of reed and mud on which were built the fi rst homesteads of the area. In an example of making an advantage out of adversity, these patches of cultivation would be grouped where the soil was richest. But the drains and irrigation channels they needed could be managed properly only if they were managed collectively. No doubt the social organization of reclamation was another result. However it happened, the seemingly unprecedented achievement of making land from watery marsh must have been the forcing house of a new complexity in the way men lived together.

As the population rose, more land was taken to grow food. Sooner or later men of different villages would have come face to face with others intent on reclaiming marsh which had previously separated them from one another. Different irrigation needs may even have brought them into contact before this. There was a choice: to fi ght or to co-operate. Each meant further collective organization and a new agglomeration of power. Somewhere along this path it made sense for men to band together in bigger units than hitherto for self-protection or management of the environment. One physical result is the town, mud-walled at fi rst to keep out fl oods and enemies, raised above the waters on a platform. It was logical for the local deity’s shrine to be the place chosen: he stood behind the community’s authority. It would be exercised by his chief priest, who became the ruler of a little theocracy competing with others.

Something like this – we cannot know what – may explain the difference between southern Mesopotamia in the fourth and third millennia BCand the other zones of Neolithic culture with which it had already been long in contact. The evidence of pottery and characteristic shrines shows that there were links between Mesopotamia and the Neolithic cultures of Anatolia, Assyria and Iran, thereby beginning to establish a Middle Eastern region. They all had much in common. But only in one relatively small area did a pattern of village life common to much of the Middle East begin to grow faster and develop into something else. From that background emerges the fi rst true urbanism, that of Sumer, and the fi rst observable civilization.

Sumer is an ancient name for southern Mesopotamia, which then extended about a hundred miles less to the south than the present coast. The people who lived there may have been more similar to groups in the north and west than to their Semitic neighbours to the south-west. In this origin, the Sumerians were like their northern neighbours, the Elamites, who lived on the other side of the Tigris. Scholars are still divided about when the Sumerians – that is, those who spoke the language later called Sumerian – arrived in the area: they may have been there since about 4000 BC . But since we know the population of civilized Sumer to be a mixture of ethnic groups, perhaps including the earlier inhabitants of the region, with a culture which mixed foreign and local elements, it does not much matter.

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