Ancient history can often become a snooze fest when presented within the confines of a stuffy classroom. Mesopotamia, for instance, a historical region known as the “Cradle of Civilization,” is typically blunted and overlooked in favor of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman culture.
The name ‘Mesopotamia’ means the land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) in modern Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria, Kuwait, and Turkey. But when delving beyond the basic facts and figures, a far more compelling narrative exists that you won’t find in lackluster textbooks.
According to modern Islamic criminal law, those found guilty of unlawful sex (including adultery and same-sex acts) can be stoned to death as legal punishment. However, 4,000 years ago, Babylonians took a far more relaxed attitude regarding intimacy.
Mesopotamian erotic art was mass-produced as far back as the early second millennium BCE during the Old Babylonian period. Small terracotta plaques depicting various sexual acts have been discovered at excavation sites of former temples, graves, and private homes — underscoring the popularity and wide acceptance of what would now be considered pornographic artifacts.
6. Beer Bucks
Although the exact origins of beer are debatable, surviving recipes from Mesopotamia indicate early pioneering methods in the brewing process. Additionally, Sumerian records dating back over 5,000 years prove that beer was used as currency to compensate workers, revealing the high value placed on the starchy beverage that could also double as a meal.
One of these old pay stubs is now displayed at the British Museum in London. The clay tablet, discovered in the city of Uruk (located in modern-day Iraq) and written in cuneiform, depicts a human head consuming the “ration” and features scratches marking the amount of beer paid. The Egyptians would later adopt a similar business model — a cunning strategy that explains how all those enormous pyramids got built.
5. Sin City
At its peak in the 7th century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nineveh (modern-day northern Iraq) was the largest city in the world. Renowned for its lush gardens, infrastructure, and sophisticated culture, Nineveh served as an important junction for commercial trading routes linking East and West civilizations. Biblical narratives, however, paint the walled city in a much darker light that includes a whale of a story for the ages.
In The Book of Jonah, God sends the titular prophet on a mission to deliver a dire warning to the residents of Nineveh “for their great wickedness is come up before me.” But when Jonah ignores the command, the Israelite ends up spending three days of penitence inside the belly of a giant fish. After being vomited ashore, he then begrudgingly delivers the message, thus saving the urban center from God’s vengeful wrath.
Another Old Testament reference to Nineveh is found in The Book of Nahum, which prophesied its destruction by God’s will. The Assyrian metropolis would indeed be sacked in 612 BCE by a coalition army, but biblical authors most likely wrote these works well after the city had already fallen.
King Sennacherib is best known for his role in the Bible regarding the Siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE. But the monarch’s credits also included expanding the Assyrian Empire, transforming Nineveh into a vibrant trading hub, and constructing an opulent residence, which he dubbed the “palace without rival.”
Sennacherib’s sprawling estate featured sumptuous gardens, colossal sculptures of lamassu ( human-headed winged bulls), and over 70 rooms filled with carved stone reliefs depicting scenes of military victories and imperial life. The stunning opulence has prompted some scholars to suggest the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, were actually located on the palatial grounds in Nineveh.
Despite all his accomplishments, the fate of Assyrian’s legacy would be sealed with Lord Byron’s 1815 poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib, which famously begins:
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”
3. Epic Lap Dance
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Mesopotamia’s best-known literary work, pleasures of the flesh, is vividly described. One of the racier passages involves a goddess named Sidari, a divine “alewife” associated with the fermentation of beer and wine. She tells the king of Uruk to “let your belly be full… enjoy yourself day and night, dance, sing and have fun… and let your wife delight in your lap!”
The poem, written in the Akkadian language, may have served both religious and educational purposes. In an article from the Israel Times, Laura A. Peri, curator of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, explains that “delight in your lap” was a common euphemism for sex at the time — a detail most likely missed by history teachers unversed in the ancient text.
2. Heavenly Romance
Tales of Mesopotamian deities recounts a mélange of amorous relationships, infusing all the messy complexities accompanying carnal knowledge. These trysts often include nuanced forms of deception — a tactic capable of producing grave consequences for not only the entangled lovers but all of society. Throughout history, famed authors such as Shakespeare would liberally borrow from these beguiling plot twists, which first sprouted in the so-called “Fertile Crescent.”
Ishtar, the Goddess of Love and War, figures prominently in several myths and legends as the first deity for which we have written evidence. Her legacy and influence appear in numerous cultural archetypes, ranging from Aphrodite to Wonder Woman. Oddly, Ishtar has no relevance in the 1987 movie that carries her name, something the producers should have re-considered to avoid creating one of the worst films in American cinema history.
1. Pre-Renaissance Man
Historians have lauded him as the last of the great rulers of Assyria. During his reign of over 40 years, King Ashurbanipal vastly expanded the Neo-Assyrian territorial realm, establishing the largest empire ever seen. The popular monarch would further his reputation by actively promoting the arts and installing the world’s first systematically organized library, a collection containing over 30,000 clay tablets.
In the mid 19th century CE, the excavation of Ashurbanipal’s library became one of the greatest and most important archaeological discoveries in history. Among the works found were the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian tale of Creation) and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains an original Mesopotamian story of the Great Flood, predating the Bible’s version and inspiring countless films of varying quality and success.