First Cities of Mesopotamia!
Have you ever wondered how civilization as we know it ever started? On Sunday afternoon, are you wondering why there isn’t an 8th day of the week, and we only have 7? Where did the history of civilization itself begin? The answer: Mesopotamia! The first cities of Mesopotamia have quite the history themselves, whilst their discoveries have shaped the way we still live today. Even Cuneiform, the world’s FIRST system of writing, was developed in the ancient towns that made up Mesopotamia. The first cities of Mesopotamia include, Uruk, Ur, Megiddo, Babylon, Nineveh, and Persepolis. Let’s dive a little deeper to explore these ancient city-states whose impact still holds relative today.
Mesopotamia: The First of the First!
The history of writing, astronomy, law, literacy, and the story of civilization itself, begins in Mesopotamia! Mesopotamia was located on a fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; on what is now known as Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria. The geography provided a stable climate, rich soil, and most importantly: a steady supply of fresh water. Under the Akkadian empire, all the cities lived united together and unified. Later they broke apart to form Assyria and Babylon. The people of Mesopotamia built structures on monumental scales. Additionally, they constructed great temples in an effort to communicate with the gods.
The incredibly skilled structures very well may have been the result of their development of mathematics. A Base-60-System was created. For example: 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and a 360 degree circular angle. Furthermore, the first cities of Mesopotamia would use math to map and study the sky. The sky was divided by the different constellations seen, that make up the 12 zodiac signs. As a result, we measure one earth year, as 12 months. A week would be comprised of 7 days and named after 7 gods and the observable planets in the sky. (Where was that eighth planet hiding when Sunday afternoon rolls around- am I right?!)
Irrigation for the Win
Equally important to developing mathematics, farmers learned how to use irrigation! Canals were important resources used to bring water to the fields. As a result, this advancement in irrigation allowed for a rise in crop yields. The heightened yields produced enough food that would be capable of feeding an entire city-state, allowing one to emerge. City-states were small independent nations whose inhabitants worked together as one for the good of the whole. The first city-state would be, Uruk.
It was by the 4th millennium B.C. that the development of agriculture and irrigation was capable of feeding the growing population of Sumer; an early Mesopotamian civilization located in what is now modern-day Iraq. Uruk was Sumer’s chief city that experienced its height around the third millennium B.C. Moreover, Uruk was a walled settlement, that would house 40,000 people.
Since the mid-19th-century archeologists have focused their efforts on discovering two sacred precincts within this land. These precincts are dedicated to Anu; Sumerian god of the sky. As well as Inanna; Sumerian goddess of fertility and war. Temples took the form of “ziggurats”; massive, stepped towers made of brick. At the tops of such temples, offerings would be made to the temple’s god. This would one-day transcend into the creation of taxation.
Temple of Inanna
The Temple of Inanna housed some incredible finds for archeologists! For example, the Mask of Warka. The mask was a serene marble visage that may represent the goddess Inanna herself. In addition, the mask offers one of the earliest realistic depictions of a human face. Another exciting discovery from the Temple, was a treasure trove of clay tablets inscribed with sharp-edged shapes and symbols. What were these symbols? CUNEIFORM! The world’s FIRST system of writing! Within these thousands of clay tablets, priests and scribes recorded prayers, correspondence, and even complaints. (So curious as to what these ancient complaints might have been…Were ancient civilizations asking for a second Sunday too?!)
Uruks incredible structures are assumed to have been built after years of heavy physical labor, and by thousands upon thousands of workers. Yet, their names and much about their daily lives still to this day remain unknown. One Sumerian proverb reflecting such work reads; “The lives of the poor do not survive their deaths.”
Introducing: The City of Ur
As Uruk’s power grew less and began to fade in the late third millennium B.C. when another ancient Mesopotamian City started to gain influence and was on the rise. Ur, was founded during the fourth millennium B.C. By the year 2000 B.C it had grown into a prosperous Sumerian port, which 60,000 people would call home. The markets of Ur benefited from its location and were able to pull in trade from the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and India. At its peak, Ur was the home of the empire and inhabited by rulers and powerful priests. Following in Uruks footsteps, after centuries had passed, Ur began to fade away; being remembered most as Ur of the Chaldees; birthplace of the biblical patriarch, Abraham.
When archeologists finally began to explore what was once Ur in the nineteenth century, English Scholar, Leonard Woolley, began to uncover a series of magnificent discoveries. An enormous ziggurat temple erected by the Sumerian ruler, Ur-Nammu, was the focal point of the excavation site. The temple housed a shrine paying tribute to Ur’s patron deity, moon god Nanna. While exploring the grounds surrounding the temple, Wooley began to uncover fascinating historical discoveries! What did he find, you ask?! Hundreds of buried tombs!!! These ancient tombs dated back to an era even earlier than the construction of the ziggurat itself and offered incredible artifacts. Some of these artifacts include a hammered gold helmet, a gold dagger, a gold bull’s head, and even ancient gaming boards! (Daniels; p.11)
What Rises, Falls
Following the glow of treasures, was the shock of the bodies! Some appeared to even be royalty. Whilst many more seemed to be servants and warriors; all buried with their respective tools of craft such as musical instruments, and weapons.
After losing political power, Ur remained an important destination regarding trade. But between the sixth to fourth century B.C., Ur was abandoned; potentially due to a change in direction of the once nourishing Euphrates. Many great cities came to rise and fall in ancient times. Some of which still hold great importance to this day, largely due to their prominence in the Old Testament. Included in these cities of heightened interest are the military town, Megiddo, and the magnificent city of Babylon. Nineveh, a reputably evil metropolis has also been a city of attention. Let’s continue on our journey and explore more about each one!
Next on our tour across the first cities of Mesopotamia, is Megiddo. Megiddo may be a name most are unfamiliar with. But have you heard of Armageddon? Ready for another fun-fact? Armageddon actually translates to “hill of Megiddo”! Scholars believe that the town fits the bill as a reasonable location to where the world may end, due in part to its vicious history of numerous battles beforehand.
The world today may not know a city on earth as grand as what was once, Babylon. Babylon knew a handful of different rulers. By the late seventeenth century B.C. Nebuchadnezzar II would take command. Not only was Nebuchadnezzar a skilled military leader, but he was also a magnificent builder; leaving Babylon to gain stunning benefits. Babylon’s walled city stretched over more than three square-miles of land. Glorifying one entrance to the city was a stunning construction unlike any other: the magnificent Ishtar Gate!
The Ishtar Gate
Over 38 feet high, the Ishtar Gate features jaw dropping blue and gold glazed tiles with images of different animals and creatures. This was the eighth gate to the city of Babylon, but stood as the main entrance into the city. A plaque on the gate reads, “I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder”. This restored ancient masterpiece now resides at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum and is a site quite hard to top, let alone forget.
Tower of Babel
Passed the gate was a path which led to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, and temples. It is possible that one of the temples, Etemenanki, may have been directly related to the biblical story, The Tower of Babel. Again highlighting the importance of these areas that are embedded in religious texts and history.
The ziggurat known as the Tower of Babel, was a structure of eight different towers, all on top of one another. Greek historian, Herodotus described it as a, “solid tower, 583 feet in length and width, and upon this tower stands another tower, and another upon that and so on, rising to a height of eight towers”.
After Nebuchadnezzar II’s death, Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great; a Persian conqueror. Following him, would be Alexander the Great, who planned to make Babylon his capital. Instead Alexander the Great would pass away in June of 323 B.C. at the age of 32.
Although the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it has left no trace for archeologists to find. Instead, some scholars believe it was actually the city of Nineveh. Made up of fertile green lands nourished by the bank of the Tigris, the city was located amongst trade routes. Nineveh would peak under the rule of Assyrian king Sennacherib, who rebuilt the city in great magnitude. During his reign the city was fruitful and prosperous. The people who inhabited the town worshipped gods and goddesses such as Ishtar (Inanna), in the temples within Nineveh. In addition, Nineveh’s three square miles of land was also occupied with markets, palaces, and canals. Merchants would sell cloth, spices and bronze work, as well as spices and wine. There were even taverns in the town, offering locally made fig beer!
Ancient City of Sin
Later, Nineveh would be ruled by Ashurbanipal, who established a library within the town filled with around 30,000 tablets and boards. These items included legal documents, histories, myths, and tales.
In the Bible, Nineveh is known more as a city of sin. The Book of Nahum describes the town as “the city of blood/ full of lies/ full of plunder/ never without victims!” (Daniels; p.21) Likely gaining this reputation from the manner Assyrians would wreak havoc on enemies at times. In the end, they were defeated in 612 B.C. by Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians who sacked and burned the city.
Last on our list of first cities of Mesopotamia, we explore Persepolis; otherwise known in the modern day as Southern Iran. Persian rulers built Persepolis in 513 B.C., blending aspects of Mesopotamia, Greek, and Persian design influence. Central buildings were mainly used as ceremonial centers. The stunning Gate of Nations, decorated by carvings of gigantic bulls, lead to the halls and courtyards. One of the walls had been inscribed upon by Emperor Darius I, reading, “God protect this country from for, famine, and falsehood”.
This would last until 330 B.C. when the city was sacked by Alexander the Great, on his quest for revenge for the previous pillage of Athens.
Now Exiting Mesopotamia
We have now just explored the first cities of Mesopotamia; the first cities in the world! Mesopotamia would eventually fade as would the cities, sinking beneath the sands of Iraq. But the discoveries made from their advanced mathematical developments and systems of civilization still carry on to what we know them today. From the first form of literacy, to creating the days of the week; we have the first cities of Mesopotamia to thank! Personally, I’ll still be waiting for that second Sunday though! 😉
Daniels, Patricia. “Lost Cities: Treasures of the Ancient World Revealed.” National Geographic (2021)
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