Known as the Fertile Crescent and the cradle of civilization, ancient Mesopotamia lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The name itself means “between two rivers.” Today these lands form part of countries such as Iran and Iraq. However, thousands of years ago Mesopotamia gave birth to what may well have been the very first human civilization.
Sumer, the Akkadian Empire, and finally the Babylonian Empire were home to some of the most sophisticated and advanced people in the world.
Some of their discoveries, inventions, and ideas were thousands of years ahead of their time, and here we look at 10 fascinating facts about the ancient Mesopotamians.
10. Mesopotamians Loved Their Beer
We know that alcohol played a central role in ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Workers were often paid in beer, by some estimates as much as 40% of the region’s wheat crops were devoted to producing alcohol, and Ninkasi, the goddess of alcohol and procreation, numbered amongst the most important and influential of all the ancient Mesopotamian gods.
It may even be that the people of Mesopotamia first abandoned the hunter gatherer lifestyle in order to brew beer.
Advocates of this “beer before bread” theory maintain that the earliest known Mesopotamian tools have more in common with brewing than baking. At this point in history beer may have even been healthier than bread, as it is rich in B vitamins and the brewing process killed the harmful microorganisms that would have been found in regular water.
If this theory is accurate, then beer might even have been the driving force behind the beginnings of civilization itself.
9. They Invented Writing
Over the course of the last several thousand years, human beings have written down trillions upon trillions of words. The very first of these can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia.
The system of writing invented by the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago is known as cuneiform, and it’s believed to be the most ancient writing system in the world.
While Mesopotamia was rich in many resources, wood did not number prominently amongst them. This has proved to be fortuitous for historians and archaeologists. With wood in such short supply, it wasn’t wasted on producing paper for writing. The ancient Mesopotamians instead used clay tablets, which for obvious reasons are far more resistant to the ravages of time.
Cuneiform is by no means easy to decipher; however, there are a small number of modern scholars who have dedicated years to mastering the text. While many of the tablets uncovered by archaeologists cover mundane matters such as tallying grain, others have proved far more remarkable and have revealed the Sumerians to be far more advanced than was previously imagined possible.
Remarkably, it has recently been discovered that the ancient Sumerians were able to accurately predict the movement of the planets. This some 2,000 years before anybody else managed to work it out.
Something in the region of half-a-million cuneiform objects have been uncovered, and so far only a fraction of these have been translated. The chances are there’s a good deal more surprises to come.
8. They were Almost lost to History
In 539 BC the city of Babylon fell to King Cyrus the Great, and Mesopotamian lands were incorporated into the powerful and growing Persian Empire.
The ancient Mesopotamian civilizations would never rise again. Part of their legacy would none the less survive. To take just one example, the reason that hours and minutes are divided into sixty can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamian mathematics.
Myths and legends were also passed down and became entwined with those of other civilizations; many of the Greek gods and goddesses bear a striking resemblance to those of Mesopotamia.
However, a huge amount was lost. The Mesopotamian languages disappeared entirely and became a linguistic dead end. They bore no relation to any other existing language and couldn’t be understood by anybody for thousands of years.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that archaeologists began to learn how to decipher the ancient clay tablets that were being discovered in huge numbers in the Middle East. Only then did we begin to realize how important and surprisingly advanced the Mesopotamian civilizations really were.
7. They Worshipped Dangerous Gods
As a species, humans seem to be driven to explain the world around them. Every civilization in history has turned to religious belief of some kind. In the modern world, monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam are the most widespread, but the people of ancient Mesopotamia believed there were thousands of gods.
These gods were not distant, unknowable figures. The Mesopotamians believed humanity had been created by the gods to provide for them and aid in the task of managing the earth. Some of these gods were benign; others were unpredictable and dangerous. It was particularly unwise to upset Erra, the god of war and famine, who was bad tempered enough to have been said to have attempted to wipe out humanity merely for being excessively noisy.
Priests and priestesses were trained from a young age, and they were believed to possess the ability to divine the will of the gods. This made them the best defense against capricious gods who might inflict famine, drought, or flood. These religious figures were amongst the most powerful and respected individuals, and high-ranking priests wielded as much influence as kings.
6. They Developed the First Music Theory
At a time when Europe had still not progressed beyond the Stone Age, Mesopotamia was flourishing. Through advanced irrigation techniques the Sumerians had taken steps to tame nature, and their trade routes stretched for thousands of miles.
Life wasn’t just a desperate struggle to survive. People had some leisure time to enjoy, and art and music became important parts of society.
Sumerians made drums with animal skins and fashioned wind instruments from horns and bones. They also played string instruments, and a Sumerian lyre is the oldest example ever found from this family of instruments.
Until just a few years ago we could only guess at how Sumerian music would have sounded. However, recent discoveries have unveiled perhaps the world’s oldest form of musical notation, based around a seven-note scale. This came two-thousand years before the Ancient Greeks developed the eight-note musical scale that is the foundation of Western music today.
Another cuneiform tablet was found to contain the music to a 3,400 year old hymn. This is the oldest piece of notated music ever discovered. It has been recreated by modern musicians, and after thousands of years it can now be listened to once again.
5. Sargon of Akkad was one of the First Great Military Leaders
While the people of Sumer held similar beliefs and were united by a shared culture, Sumer was not a monolithic entity. It was a civilization made up of numerous independent city states. Each was ruled over by a religious leader, a king, or in at least one case a queen. Sometimes they were loosely allied and other times they were at war.
That finally changed in 2300 BC when Sargon of Akkad became the first to conquer all of Mesopotamia, and bring it under the rule of just one man.
Sargon was recorded history’s first great military leader, but it seems he rose to power from humble beginnings. According to his autobiography, only parts of which have ever been discovered, he was born an illegitimate child. None the less, he proved to be a major force to be reckoned with.
With the aid of a standing army of more than 5,000 men he conquered dozens of cities and forged them into the Akkadian Empire. This was history’s first true empire, and it rapidly expanded to reach the mountains of Turkey and perhaps even into the island of Cyprus.
Sargon of Akkad seems to have been equally skilled in the art of politics, and by shrewdly installing his daughter as high priestess he aligned his own authority with the will of the gods.
4. The Akkadian Empire might have been Felled by Climate Change
While Sargon of Akkad lived the Akkadian Empire flourished and prospered. However, history’s first empire was not destined to last for long. Just one-hundred years after Sargon’s death the empire he had forged collapsed.
We don’t know much about the downfall of his empire. It was widely believed that war and political instability were to blame. However, new evidence suggests that climate change also had a major part to play.
Most of the empire’s food was produced in the fertile north, but archaeological evidence suggests these lands were abruptly abandoned around 4,200 years ago. This ties-in with evidence from marine core samples which suggest the region was struck by a huge drought at around this time.
Quite what caused this shift in climate isn’t known for sure, but it seems that it was a blow from which the Akkadian Empire was not able to recover.
Mesopotamia was none the less by no means finished yet, and the Babylonian Empire would rise to become one of the great powers of the ancient world.
3. Their Laws were Surprisingly Progressive
Societies can only function when they operate under the rule of law, with transgressors running the risk of punishment.
As in so much else, the oldest known written code of laws can be traced back to Sumer in the 21st century BC. However, a far more famous legal text is the Code of Hammurabi, named after King Hammurabi of ancient Babylon.
The laws laid down in this code are remarkable for being remarkably progressive; their stated goal was to protect the weak from the strong. It set down a minimum wage for workers, which has been dubbed by some as theocratic socialism, and established the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Those who did fall foul of the law could none the less expect brutal punishment. Thieves and murderers would be put to death, and another law says: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” This was later more punchily put as “an eye for an eye.”
Accusations of crimes such as sorcery could be more difficult to prove, and guilt or innocence here was established through trial by ordeal.
This was, however, a risky way to attempt to get rid of an enemy. If the accused survived the trial, thus proving their innocence before the gods, the accuser would instead be put to death.
2. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon may not Have Existed
Hammurabi’s code of laws is not the most famous legacy of the Babylonian Empire. That distinction belongs to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which has claimed a place as one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
The fabled Hanging Gardens were said to have been built by its greatest ruler, King Nebuchadnezzar II, who had the ancient wonder constructed as an elaborate gift to his wife, who missed the verdant greenery of her homeland.
Said to have resembled a mountain of trees, shrubs, and vines, the gardens are described by several sources as one of the greatest feats of engineering in the world. The problem is that they have proved to be extremely elusive.
According to most sources the gardens should have been located somewhere close to the Euphrates River, but despite extensive archaeological investigations nobody has ever been able to locate them.
One theory is that they may have never existed at all, and this is supported by the fact that no contemporary Babylonian text has been found that mentions the gardens.
Another possibility is that they were never actually located in Babylon at all, and we have been looking in the wrong place for all this time.
1. Ancient Mesopotamia has been the Subject of some Strange Theories
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, and some have attempted to fill the gaps with some pretty wild theories.
Even the Iraqi Transport Minister, Kazem Finjan, has got in on the act. Without troubling to provide evidence, he recently claimed that the ancient Sumerians constructed the world’s first airports some 7,000 years ago. Running with the theme he went on to claim these airports served as a base for space exploration, and that the Sumerians had even visited Pluto.
Cuneiform tablets have been discovered which describe how the gods of ancient Mesopotamia descended from the skies. Some of the more imaginative students of the times have suggested that this wasn’t a description of a myth, but instead an actual historic event.
According to this theory, which has failed to attract much support amongst sober and serious scholars, the ancient Mesopotamian gods were actually a race of human-like aliens that descended to Earth from the heavens thousands of years ago.