[Mesopotamian Bronze Age]
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[Introduction] [Geography] [Climate and Environment] [Agriculture] [Akkadians]
[Irrigation] [People] [Sumerians] [Pre-Sumerians] [Neighbors] [Deities]
The branch of science dealing with the study of ancient civilizations in the Near East is called Assyriology, named after an Assyrian empire uncovered by the first archeological excavations. This empire is now known as the New Assyrian empire in the first millennium BCE.
The word `Mesopotamia' is in origin a Greek name (mesos `middle' and potamos `river', so `land between the rivers'). The name is used for the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Irak and part of Syria. South of modern Bagdad, the alluvial plains of the rivers was called the land of Sumer and Akkad in the third millennium. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad, where the Euphrates and Tigris are close to each other. In the second millennium both regions together are called Babylonia, a mostly flat country. The territory in the north is called Assyria, with the city Assur as center. It borders to the mountains.
The region roughly containing the Asian part of modern Turkey will be called Anatolia. The countries along the east-Mediterranean coast (modern Syria, the Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) bounded on the east by the Syrian desert and extending north towards Mesopotamia will be called Syria-Palestine. Modern Iran is roughly equivalent to Persia and including in its southwestern part ancient Elam.
Man have been attracted to both rivers since prehistoric times. As water ways they make inland navigation possible. The rivers yearly flood its banks, producing fertile land. The character of Euphrates and Tigris are different. The Tigris is rough and fast flowing. `Tigris' is the Greek pronunciation of the Akkadian name idiqlat. Sumerian idigna meaning `fast as an arrow'. The upper course in particular is difficult to pass. The river cuts deep in the surrounding land and the water flow can hardly be used for irrigation. The Euphrates is a lifeline. It can more easily be used by ships. The banks are lower, suitable for irrigation, with less violent floods. Precipitation in the mountains to the north is large and rainfall-agriculture is possible. In the Babylonian low lands precipitation is low and moreover rain is concentrated in shortly lasting showers in the winter period December-February. Intensive sunshine after a short spring parch the soil in the summer. Without irrigation agriculture is not possible.
In the last few hundred kilometer in the lower course, the river drops only of order 10 meter. Consequently the river flow has changed significantly in the course of time. The ruins of many famous ancient cities, like Eridu, Ur, Nippur and Kish are now far from the river, but were in the past situated at the river banks. The location of the sea shore is determined by the extend of silk deposition in the Persian Gulf and the rising of the sea level. The river delta has probably gained territory over the Persian gulf. The coastal line has moved further south or at least lagoons and estuaries in the past have now become silted up. The city of Eridu, home of the water god (in Sumerian Enki, Akkadian Ea, one of the top three deities in the pantheon) was in the past situated at a lagoon near the sea and had a famous port.
The change in course of many arms of the river has had great consequences in the past. A breakthrough somewhat more north in the plains of Mesopotamia could drain several river arms and render a network of irrigation channels useless. It has been a question of constant debate, struggle and war between early Sumerian cities.
The Euphrates reaches its highest water levels at the end of March to the beginning of May, the Tigris a few weeks earlier. In both cases the crops are already growing on the field. The river flood can only be used for agriculture when the fields are shielded by a system of dams, dikes and canals. This contrasts with the Nile in Egypt. High water in the Nile are a result of the summer monsoon in Central Africa and has is highest water levels in September-October. The Nile fertilizes the land in the autumn and the crops can grow in (early) spring when no floods occur. Moreover the Nile, fed by rivers in a large area, has a more constant flow and carries the soluble salts and lime into the sea. The Euphrates is more easily prone to salination.
The irrigation system is attested already in very ancient times, the earliest around 6000 BCE. Through a system of dikes, dams and canals the precipitation in the mountainous region in the north is used in the south. This required a high level of organization of the society and collective efforts for the construction, maintenance, supervision and adjustments of the irrigation network. Over-irrigation and limited drainage gradually brackished the fields, often causing ecological crisis. Together with the change of river flow, it stimulates throughout the Mesopotamian history the foundation of new settlements and cities. Our knowledge about the history of irrigation networks is limited by the difficulty of dating most of the water works.
Climate in the Pleistocene. The motor of the general atmospheric circulation is the heating of the tropics and the evaporation of the tropical seas. The pleistocene is the geological period of cold climates (glaciers in the mountains and at high latitudes) that coincides with the cultural period, the paleolithic (Old Stone Age). Atmospheric circulation and the evaporation of the tropical seas, is `in low gear'. The monsoonal rains now watering the southernmost margins of the Near East, are retracted to lower latitudes and mid-latitude westerly storms carry little moisture. The ice-age at the latitude of the Near East is characterized by low evaporation and thus little precipitation. The large quantities of water held in the form of ice lowered the sea level to typical ~100 meter below present sea level.
The Würm ice-age made its last attack around 8000 BCE. The geological epoch starting then is called Holocene. Within a fairly short time (of order 1000 year) the world climate is basically the same as nowadays, with fluctuations on a large time scale. Recovery to normal temperature after an ice age is generally fast. It was even warmer and wetter than it ever has been since. The optimum of the warm and wet period (called Atlanticum, one of the subdivisions of the Holocene) is around 5000 BCE. It is the era in which England becomes an island again and northern Europe changes in marshland by the heavy rainfall. Modern shorelines are approximately reestablished. Coastal settlements earlier than 5000 BCE are now under water. During the Atlanticum westerly rainstorms stray deep into the desert zones of North Africa and the Near East. The present-day steppe areas were turned into green land. Many lakes are seen, in particular in Africa, that are now always dry. The distribution of the precipitation is the same as nowadays, only the absolute values change.
The fertile crescent. Because of the shape of this distribution in the Near East (almost absent precipitation in the central desert regions and high rainfall in the mountains around it), the area is called the fertile crescent. The total precipitation is indirectly known from the deposit of organic material in the sediments on the sea floor in the Gulf of Persia, from radiocarbon dates in lake sediments. The ratio of the Oxygen-18 isotope in lake sediments is an indicator of the total lake volume of water. There is no systematical trend (e.g. it is not getting dryer and dryer) in the last 5000 years (historical times), but there are three large scale dry periods effecting the entire Near East: 3200-2900, 2350-2000 and around 1300 BCE.
Local and temporal climatic anomalies. Local anomalies in the climatic history are important to mankind, but not always seen in the data (which have a coarse resolution). In arid environment, where water resources are at a premium, climate local anomalies are of real significance and may cause abandonment of settlements and movements of nomadic groups.
After 8000 BCE Near Eastern environments become substantially more attractive for human settlements. The Atlanticum is the period in which agriculture developed in the Near East, around the Nile in Egypt and in the Indus valley in India. The use of agriculture is expanding gradually further to the north and west. The Atlanticum is followed by a climate of lower temperature and precipitation. One of the relative cold and dry periods (4000-3000 BCE) coincides with the expansion of cities in Mesopotamia and the foundation of the first Egyption dynasty.
Many attempts have been made (particularly in the early parts of this century) to explain the course of history as a result of large scale climatic change. These theories are called climate determinism. The modern equivalent of this is an explanation from an ecological perspective, in which still external influences (change in natural environment, now including e.g. deforestation etc) are the driving factor. Another school emphasizes the interhuman relations and sociological changes as the dominant process. It is now clear that a combination of these and additional factors play a significant role (cultural changes, technological innovations, new tools). However, a new hot and dry period, starting around 500 BCE, which hastens environmental changes (overgrazing and deforestation) probably did contribute to weaken the Mesopotamian civilization and caused the ``center of civilization'' to move to northern latitudes.
Two cultural groups form the principle elements in the population of Mesopotamia before the beginning of history and in the millennium thereafter (the 3rd millennium BCE). These are the Sumerians and the Akkadians. They lived peacefully together and created in mutual fertilization, by symbiosis and osmosis, the conditions for a common high civilization. Mesopotamian sources in all periods seem to be free of strong racial ideologies or ethnic stereotypes. Enemies, both groups and individuals, may be cursed and reviled heavily, but this applies more strongly to the ruler of a nearby city than to one of a remote territory.
The people responsible for the first monumental temples and palaces, for the founding of the first city states and most likely for the invention of writing (all in the period of 3100-3000 BCE) are the Sumerians. The first written signs are pictographic, so they can be read in any language and one can't infer a particular language. A pictogram of an arrow means `arrow' in any language. A few centuries later, however, these signs were used to represent Sumerian phonetic values and Sumerian words. The pictogram for an arrow is now used to represent ti, the Sumerian word for `arrow', but also for the phonetic sound ti in words not related to `arrow'. So it is generally assumed that the Sumerians were also responsible for the pictographic signs, or possibly together with (or with a large influence of) the contemporaneous Elamites. If the Sumerians aren't the ones who actually invented writing than they are at least responsible for quickly adopting and expanding the invention to their economic needs (the first tablets are predominantly economic in nature).
The name 'Sumer' is derived from the Babylonian name for southern Babylonia: mät umeri `the land of Sumer'. (construct state of mätum `country' followed by genitive of Sumer; unknown meaning in Akkadian) The Sumerians called their country ken.gi(r) `civilized land', their language eme.gir and themselves sag.gi6.ga `the black-headed ones'. [the consonant in between brackets appears in writing depending on following sounds. Compare e.g. French `les Francais' where in both words the final -s are not pronounced, but they are explicitly heard if a vowel follows, e.g. in `les Anglaises'.]
The Sumerian language is not Semitic. It is a so called agglutinating language, like Finnish and Japanese (and in fact like the majority of languages in the world). This is a term in the typology of languages that contrasts with inflecting languages, like the Indo-European and Semitic languages. In an agglutinating (or agglutinative) language words are composed by stringing forms together, often into quite lengthy sequences. In inflecting languages the basic element (the root) of the word may change (like `foot', `feet' and sing, sang, sung, called internal inflection).
Sumerian has no known relation to any other language. There seems to be a remote relationship with Dravidian languages (like spoken by the Tamils, now in the south of India). There is evidence that the Dravidian languages were spoken in the north of India, being displaced by the arrival of the Indo-European invaders around 1500 BCE. Because of the term `the black-headed ones', it is possible (but far from proven) that the Sumerians are an early branch of one of the people now living in southern India.
Sumerian/Elamite inventions: Cylinder seals (French Sceaux-cylindres, German Zylindersiegel) are small (2-6 cm) cylinder-shaped stones carved with a decorative design in intaglio (engraved). The cylinder was roled over wet clay to mark or identify clay tablets, envelopes, ceramics and bricks. It so covers an area as large as desired, an advantage over earlier stamp seals. Its use and spread coincides with the use of clay tablets, starting at the end of the 4th millennium up to the end of the first millennium. After this time stamp seals are used again. Cylinder seals are important to historians: they literally give First Impressions (title of a book by D. Collon, see literature below) Purpose. The seals are needed as signature, confirmation of receipt, or to mark clay tablets and building blocks. The invention fits with the needs caused by the general development of city states.
The origin of the Sumerians is unknown. The intriguing question keeps returning into the literature but has so far unsatisfactory answers. The Sumerians were not the first people in Mesopotamia. They were not present before 4000 BCE, while before that time village communities existed with a high degree of organization. The ``principle of agriculture'' was not discovered by the Sumerians. This is evident from words the Sumerians use for items in relation to the domestication of plants and animals.
substrate languages. A language (in particular as it appears in proper names and geographical names) may show signs of so called substrate languages (like the influence of Celtic on ancient Gaul; compare some Indian geographical names in the US attesting the original inhabitants). Some professional names and agricultural implements in Sumerian show that agriculture and the economic use of metals existed before the arrival of the Sumerians. Sumerian words with a pre-Sumerian origin are:
Professional names: such as simug `blacksmith' and tibira `copper smith'
Agricultural terms: like engar `farmer', apin `plow' and absin `furrow'
Craftsman: like nangar `carpenter', agab `leather worker'
Religious terms: like sanga `priest'
These words must have been loan words from a substrate language. The words show how far the division in labor had progressed even before the Sumerians arrived.
(Semi-)nomads in the Near East. Even at the time that a large part of the population in Mesopotamia had a sedentary (non-migratory) life in settlements, large groups of people (nomads) at the same time are migrating. Nomads roam from place to place in search for pasture and moving with the season. Semi-nomads graze their small live stock near the fields of the settlements, often trading for goods obtained elsewhere and having all kinds of other interactions. This characteristic is still present in the Near East today. Nomads leave little archeological trace and are illiterate, so not much is known about them by direct means. However, some description does appear in written form: recorded by the Sumerians and later by the Akkadians. Some of the (semi-)nomads, either as individuals or as groups, mix with the sedentary population and become sedentary themselves. In times of political or economical crisis they may do so by force, but they adapt quickly to the current civilization and even to the dominant language. Their increased influence on the society is manifested by a change in type of personal names. Sometimes the names are the only remains of their original language. In their new positions, they often stimulate further cultural development.
Akkadians, speaking a Semitic language, may have been present in Mesopotamia since the time the Sumerians arrived, or they may have diffused into the region later. Their culture intermingled and they must have been living peacefully together. On Sumerian clay tablets dated around 2900-2800 BCE found in Fara, Semitic (Akkadian) names are attested for the first time. It concerns the names of kings in the city Kish. Kish is in the north of Babylonia where according to the Sumerian King Lists `kingship descended again from heaven' after the great Flood. The proper names often contain animal names like zuqiqïpum `scorpion' and kalbum `dog'. Kings with Semitic names are the first postdiluvial kings to rule Kish. They started the first historical period called the Early Dynastic Period.
A few centuries later the first Akkadian king Sargon of Akkad ruled over an empire that included a large part of Mesopotamia. Apparently Semitic speaking people have lived for centuries amidst the Sumerians and gradually became an integral part of the Sumerian culture. We don't hear much about them in the first part of the 3rd millennium, because the (scholarly) language used in writing is Sumerian.
Mesopotamia has no natural boundaries and is difficult to defend. The influence of neighboring countries is large. Throughout the history of Mesopotamia trade contacts, slow diffusion of foreign tribes and military confrontations have been of great influence.
Neighbors in 3rd millennium
In the east: Elamites
In the west: city of Ebla The discovery in 19.. of the 3rd millennium city Ebla took Assyriologist by surprise. The extend of the Sumerian culture in the 3rd millennium was not known, but not expected to go so far west. Ebla is situated at Tell Mardikh 65 km south of Aleppo in Syria and appeared to be an urban culture in the middle of the 3rd millennium in the far west of Mesopotamia. The site shows impressive archeological remains (royal palace) and has a rich archive of cuneiform tablets which attests a new (western) Semitic language (called Eblaite) different from and even slightly older than Old Akkadian.
The Ebla archive is found as a shelved room with ~2100 clay tablets. Subjects range from administration, textile- and metal accounting, tax deliveries, temple offerings, letters, state reports and scribal exercises. Texts and excavations show Ebla to be a complex mixture of (Sumerian) borrowings and local traditions. From ~2600-2350 BCE a good deal of Sumerian literacy and school tradition had been assimilated by Ebla scribes and in addition they used cuneiform for their own language. Ebla's power depended on political hegemony over a local territory with autonomous minor urban centers. Hundreds of villages are named in the archives, mention is made of large (~6700 animals) heards, wool industry, and large quantities of gold and silver. During at least 26 years tribute is paid to Mari (an important city on the Middle Euphrates), with which Ebla usually had a friendly relation (exchange of gifts). From the lack of long distance ventures it is concluded that Ebla probably was not a commercial empire, but merely profited of the strategic position at the crossroads of major trade routes.
Ebla ended by a fire in ~2350, probably in a conflict with Sargon of Akkad, the first Mesopotamian empire. It was rebuilt and flourished again during the Ur-III dynasty and in a period roughly coinciding with the Old Babylonian Period. A final destruction took place by a Hittite king ~1600 BCE, after which Ebla remained a small village.
Antropomorphic gods. The supernatural universe is populated with divine beings: gods and demons. They are portrayed in an
antropomorphic way as superior humans, imaging the ruling class of society. They are, however, more powerful, freed from
human miseries and mishaps and they live endless lifes. The Sumerian word for `god' is dingir, Akkadian ilu. The sign to
represent this, is the same as AN `heaven', and also used as a determinative (classifier) attached to the name of the deity to
indicate his/her divine nature. In transcription the sign is represented with a d from dingir in superscript, like dEnlil. It is not
pronounced. Deities live in a temple, Sum. É, Akkadian bïtum, which is also the word for `house'. In the temple they are
represented by a sculpture. Some deities have in addition a representation on the celestial sphere by a constellation or a star.
Gods have human appearance, they have a body, they need food, want to be washed and dressed, want to travel, carry
weapons etc. Each god has a well defined character, representing the scala of human characters. They may be ill-tempered,
aggressive, cheerful, clever, just, ambitious, skillful, merciful and graceful, etc. Some are better disposed to mankind than others.