The History of Ancient Mesopotamia



The first civilization in human history was that of the Sumerians. This emerged in the mid-4th millenium BC, with the appearance of the first cities on the Mesopotamian flood plain. This was a pivotal event for mankind – but why here? And why now?

The Rise of Farming in Mesopotamia

By 6000 BC, farming settlements[1] the Middle Eastern landscape from Egypt to Iran. Most of these were small villages, but some, like Jericho, were sizeable towns. Jericho, situated in a large oasis, consisted of 8 to10 acres of mud-brick homes surrounded by substantial walls. Large water tanks were probably used for irrigation, and a massive stone tower for defence. It had a population of some 2,500 people.

The farming population in the Middle East[2] was distributed across the “Fertile Crescent”, that huge stretch of territory from Egypt in the west to Iran in the east were farming is easy and productive. One region where farming was not yet present, however, was southern Mesopotamia. This low-lying plain was too dry to allow farming; there simply was not enough rain, apart from during a very brief period in the spring, to grow crops.


In about 6000 BC, irrigation began to be practised in the foothills of the Zagros mountains, very near southern Mesopotamia. Communities of farmers dug tanks and reservoirs to store water, and ditches to lead it to the fields throughout the growing season. In this way they were able to water their fields over a long period of time, increasing their yield of crops.

The techniques learnt here enabled farmers to settle in the dry southern Mesopotamian plains. By creating irrigation systems, they were able to feed their crops with water well beyond the brief rainy season.


The farming villages faced a further challenge, however. This region has no mineral resources to speak of, so the new communities had to import all their stone – for tools, decorations and weapons – from elsewhere.

Trade networks can be traced far back into prehistory, before agriculture in fact. Hunter-gatherer sites 100 miles inland show stores of shellfish which must have come from the coast. The spread of agriculture, however, would have greatly stimulated trade.

One of the beneficial characteristics of cereal staples such as wheat and barley is that they can be stored for a long time before eating, unlike fruit, berries and meat. Buildings for communal grain storage are a universal feature of early farming villages, and they will have been able to build up food surpluses. This in turn will have allowed them to survive periods of drought as well as use grain for trade with neighbouring peoples. Trade routes gradually developed over long distances. These would almost certainly not have been operated by long-distance traders, but rather have grown up through repeated local exchanges. Bladed tools of obsidian, a semi-precious stone found in Asia Minor, have been discovered in south western Iran dating from as early as 8000 BC.


Returning to the period just after 6000 BC, then, and to those new communities in the dry and mineral-poor plain of southern Mesopotamia, they were able to survive only by creating irrigation systems and tapping into the already-existing trade routes of the region. Having survived, however, they thrived. The plains of southern Mesopotamia have wonderfully rich soils, deposited by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates over thousands of years. Watered by means of irrigation, they turned into highly productive farmland, able to sustain large populations.

Archaeology traces the growth of these early southern Mesopotamian communities from just after 6000 BC down to historic times, and witnesses their growth from farming villages into the first true cities in history, two and a half thousand years later.

This comparatively sudden growth of a dense new population in the Middle East must by itself have quickened trade in the region. The two thousand years between 6000 BC and 4000 BC saw a very large expansion of population in southern Mesopotamia. The pace of change quickened, with new inventions appearing. Most notable, the wheel had arrived by 4000 BC, and a few hundred years later they were being fixed to ox carts.

Ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seal Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seal Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

They were also being used by pottery makers – and indeed the potter’s wheel is a pointer to the appearance of craftsmen making artefacts for a wide market. The artistic standard of pots in fact declines with the advent of this device, as for the first time potters churn out their wares quickly and cheaply. This is a clear sign of the increasing trade of the region.

Early States

Within southern Mesopotamia itself, the archaeological record indicates that over the course of hundreds of year, the Tigris and Euphrates plain became ever more thickly studded with farming villages. Some of these became religious centres, each home to a small temple of a local god which the people of the surrounding villages worshipped. It was these centres which later evolved into the Sumerian city-states[3] of later centuries.

How exactly this happened is of course unknown. One likely scenario is that, as the population grew and the available land came under the plough, disputes arose between villages as to land- and water-rights. To resolve these disputes they turned more and more to the local temple, with its (at that time small) group of priests, whose religious prestige thus gradually evolved into a judicial authority covering a locality.

This authority was further augmented by the need to build large-scale dykes and canals to contain the flooding of the turbulent rivers; this would have involved the labour of men from a whole locality, not just one village, who would need to be controlled as a body. Furthermore, as groups of villages were co-ordinated into tighter co-operative, even “political”, units, conflict would now involve locality against locality. Individual villages would have been very vulnerable in these circumstances, and the trend would all have been towards greater power shifting to the temple priests, now transformed into something like a ruling class.

An Urban Revolution

The archaeological evidence would harmonize with this narrative, as it shows the gradual enlargement of these temple centres surrounded by many villages. This was the situation by about 4000 BC. Over the following few centuries, however, the temple centres – and indeed the temples themselves – grew massively.

Sizeable towns appear, and by 3500 BC several are true cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants. The largest, Uruk, may have been home to 40,000 people. This development was accompanied by the decline in the number of small villages. Clearly a concentration of the population within the city precincts was taking place, very likely for protection.

This dramatic development has been called an “urban revolution”, and it reflects in physical settlement patterns the transformation of society into a much more complex organism than any up to this time. The large surpluses made possible by the rich soil of the plains had come under the control of religious and political elites, centred on the temples. By imposing tribute and taxes on the surrounding population, these had accumulated wealth on a scale undreamt of in previous times.

This they used to construct monumental public buildings – granaries, temples and palaces. These overawed the people and proclaimed their power, and indeed helped to reinforce it. The granaries were centres of a distributive system whereby the temple officials controlled much of the economic life of the people. The god (and therefore his temple) was held to own the land and people of the state (which the locality can now fairly be called); and this translated into the temple elite directly controlling much of the land and labour of the city and its surrounding area.

New Horizons

Much of this wealth was devoted to the decorative arts, and along with a ruling group a class of full-time professional craftsmen emerged. The standard of craftsmanship – indeed, of representational art – was raised to new heights. This was not only stimulated by the desire to decorate temples and other public spaces, but also to manufacture trade goods needed to keep the inward flow of raw materials, in which southern Mesopotamia was so sadly lacking, open. This in turn stimulated long-distance commerce.

A final development needs to be noted, perhaps the most important of all. The demands of administering land and wealth on a scale hitherto unknown presented significance challenges to the temple officials. To meet this challenge, they developed a system of symbols to record the huge number of economic transactions they were overseeing. From these early foundations writing scripts evolved, and the first literate societies appeared.

Link: Map of Ancient Mesopotamia c. 3500 BC

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