Ancient History & Civilisation



Not very long ago, the great city which we have just described lay buried beneath a thick blanket of earth, as did all the towns and villages of ancient Iraq. Here and there on these ‘tells’ could be seen a brick inscribed with a writing no scholar could read. Of the monuments of art, of the masterpieces of literature, of the works of science produced in Mesopotamia during three thousand years of history, practically nothing was known. The Mesopotamian civilization was dead and forgotten, and even today no one, when confronted with the most desolate of ruins, can help wondering when, how and why it died.

If the Persians had dealt with Babylon as the Medes and Babylonians had dealt with Nineveh there would be no problem. The Near East offers, besides Assyria, other examples of nations and cultures which disappeared almost overnight, the victim of devastating wars – the Hittite kingdom of Boghazkoy, Urartu and Phrygia, for instance. But the Persians did not destroy Babylon, nor did they destroy the other cities of Babylonia, and a number of monuments and inscriptions dating from the Achaemenian, Hellenistic and Parthian periods testify to a partial survival of the Mesopotamian civilization down to the first century A.D. How then did it slowly decline and ultimately vanish?

There are, it seems, two main reasons why this extremely important question has not yet received all the attention it deserves. On the one hand it encompasses three separate fields of scholarly research. Historians of the Semitic Near East, Hebraists or Assyriologists by training, are naturally reluctant to encroach on the domain of Greek and Iranian studies with which they are not fully conversant, while Hellenists and Iranologists, struggling with wider problems, tend to treat Mesopotamia as a marginal subject beyond the normal scope of their work. On the other hand, the decline and fall of a civilization anywhere in the world is always a complicated process, dependent upon multiple political, ethnic, linguistic, religious, economic and even geographical factors which, in this particular case, are too often beyond the grasp of our knowledge. Nevertheless, we feel that, having described at length how the Mesopotamian civilization was born, we should at least endeav-our to examine how it died. Carrying this work a few centuries beyond that fateful date of 539 B.C., when Babylonia lost its independence for ever, we shall give here a condensed account of Mesopotamian history during the three relevant periods of foreign domination:

the Achaemenian period (539 – 331 B.C.)

the Hellenistic period (331 – 126 B.C.)

the Parthian period (126 B.C. – A.D. 227)

The Achaemenian Period

To many Babylonians the conquest of their country by the Persians may have appeared as a mere change of dynasty. Soon after Babylon was captured, life between the Tigris and the Euphrates resumed its normal course, and business was carried on as usual, the only difference being that contracts were now dated in the years of ‘Kurash, King of Babylon, King of the Lands’, instead of in the years of Nabû-na'id.1 The government of Babylonia was first entrusted to Nabonidus's former general, Gobryas, but in Nisan 538B.C. Cyrus's own son, Cambyses (Kambuziya) ‘took the hand of Bel’ in the New Year Festival and from then on acted as viceroy, with headquarters in Sippar and a staff of native officials. In 528 B.C. after Cyrus had been killed on a distant battlefield, Cambyses, already associated with the throne, became King of Persia. We have very little information concerning this period, except that Babylonian soldiers were enrolled in the Persian Army and took part in the conquest of Egypt, but whatever truth there may be in the story of the king's mad behaviour in the Nile valley, it seems certain that Babylonia enjoyed complete peace throughout his reign.

The death of Cambyses, early in 522 B.C., marks the end of this honeymoon. Bardiya, his brother, who had usurped the throne, was defeated and slain eight months later by Darius;2 but although Darius was of royal blood – he was a descendant of Ariaramnes and therefore belonged to the Achaemenian family – his authority was immediately challenged. Several of the satraps appointed by Cyrus refused to obey the new king, while a second Phraortes in Media and a pseudo-Bardiya in Persia rallied many supporters. The Babylonians, hitherto submissive, were not slow in joining the rebels, for among them were men in whose hearts the flame of freedom was still burning high. In the long cuneiform inscription in three languages – Old Persian, Babylonian, Elamite – carved in the rock at Behistun (near Kermanshah) to commemorate Darius's victories over his foes,3 the Persian monarch himself tells us how a Babylonian called Nidintu-Bêl recruited an army by declaring that he was ‘Nebuchadrezzar, son of Nabonidus’ and seized kingship in Babylon. Darius in person marched against him, routed the Babylonians on the Tigris and on the Euphrates and pursued the rebel to his capital-city, where he was captured and executed. According to dated receipts, ‘Nebuchadrezzar III’ reigned from October to December 522 B.C. In August 521 B.C., while Darius was fighting for his throne in Media and Persia, the Babylonians ‘broke the truce for the second time’. The pretender – who also claimed to be ‘Nebuchadrezzar, son of Nabonidus’ – was an ‘Armenian’ (Urartian) called Arakha, son of Haldita. Against him Darius dispatched one of his generals, Vindafârna:

‘I said to him: “Go forth! Fight this Babylonian army which does not declare itself for me!” Vindafârna marched against Babylon with the (Persian) army. Ahuramazda lent me his assistance. By the will of Ahuramazda, Vindafârna fought the Babylonians and took them captive. Twenty-two days of the month Margazana had elapsed when he captured Arakha and the nobles, his main followers. Whereupon, I gave an order: “This Arakha and the nobles, his main followers, shall be impaled in Babylon!”’4

‘Nebuchadrezzar IV’ was put to death on 27 November 521 B.C. He had ‘reigned’ only four months.5 At the beginning of 520 B.C. Darius, finally rid of all his enemies, was recognized as king throughout most of the Near East and immediately set out to promote a number of major reforms aimed at consolidating his power and cementing together the various regions of his vast empire. The administrative system was re-shaped, largely on the Assyrian model. The number of satraps was increased and their authority further limited by the creation of military governors, tax collectors and royal inspectors. Royal couriers rode swiftly from the Aegean to the Gulf on an admirable network of roads. A common law, reminiscent in style of the Code of Hammurabi, was imposed upon all subject peoples. The monetary systems were unified and based on a gold standard, the coinage used in trade and banking now being the gold daric worth twenty shekels of silver. Reorganized, cleared of corruption, heavily taxed and subjected to tight royal control, Babylonia remained quiet during the rest of Darius's long reign (522 – 486 B.C.).

In the fourth year of Xerxes, however, the Babylonians made a last attempt at recovering their freedom (482 B.C.). Contracts from Dilbat, Barsippa and Babylon show that Bêl-shimanni and Shamash-eriba were successively accepted as kings, the former in August, the latter in September, while we learn from other sources that the satrap Zophyrus was killed and that Xerxes, greatly angered, sent his brother-in-law Megabysus to crush the revolt.6 The repression was brutal, the rebels were tortured and slain, but the exact amount of damage inflicted upon Babylon itself is difficult to assess. If Herodotus really visited, some twenty years later, the city which he describes, we may conclude that it had suffered very little harm – indeed, the ‘Father of History’ merely states that Xerxes took from Esagila the colossal golden statue of Marduk. Yet Arrian, Ctesias and Strabo suggest that the city-walls were dismantled and the temples razed to the ground. Since Esagila and other sanctuaries are mentioned in later texts, it is probable that they were only partly damaged and that they fell into ruin through lack of maintenance in the course of the following centuries rather than through violent destruction.

The failure of the Babylonians to restore a national monarchy had consequences that went far beyond a simple loss of prestige. From time immemorial the Mesopotamian kings had been responsible to the gods for the welfare of their subjects. The cities owed to them their temples, their palaces, their fortifications and often their parks and gardens. They had never failed to ensure that canals were dug, kept open and extended, that dykes and dams were built, that land rights were safeguarded. In a country like ancient Iraq these functions were of vital importance. No matter what the temples could achieve in their own spheres, only a king residing permanently in the country and constantly aware of its needs could raise the funds and mobilize the labour required for such undertakings on a nationwide scale. Without her own rulers Mesopotamia was to a great extent paralysed. Sooner or later, it could be predicted, buildings left unattended would crumble down, canals would become silted-up and part of the land would revert to desert.

The first Persian kings, conscious of their duties towards one of their richest and most civilized provinces, carried out some of the royal tasks traditional in Mesopotamia. We know, for instance, that Cyrus restored the precinct of the temple of Sin at Ur and that he and Darius repaired the E-Anna of Uruk. In Babylon, his winter residence, Darius built an arsenal, a palace for the crown prince and an apadana (i.e. a hall supported by columns, in the Persian style) for his own palace.7 But Xerxes and his successors, engaged in an endless and costly war against Greece, do not seem to have cared much for their Babylonian satrapy. The entire period between the accession of Xerxes (485 B.C.) and the conquest of Alexander (331 B.C.) is exceedingly poor in architectural remains and building inscriptions. In southern Iraq business documents found in situ prove that Babylon, Barsippa, Kish, Nippur, Uruk and Ur – to mention only the main cities – were alive, some of them even fairly prosperous,8 but none of their monuments appears to have been rebuilt or repaired. As for the North, it was still suffering from the great destructions of the years 614 – 609 B.C. We learn from a letter9 that in about 410 B.C. five ‘towns’ in that region were administrative centres and that a Persian nobleman possessed a domain there, but with the exception of Arba'il (Erbil), these were only big villages away from the Tigris valley. Xenophon, who marched through Assyria in 401 B.C. with ten thousand Greek mercenaries, describes Nimrud (which he calls ‘Larissa’) as ‘deserted’, and did not even recognize the walls of Nineveh in the ‘large undefended fortifications’ which he saw near Mescila (Mosul).10

Adverse economic conditions perhaps contributed to the decline of the Mesopotamian civilization. The main artery of the Persian empire, the ‘Royal Road’ from Sardis to Susa, ran at the foot of the mountains and by-passed Babylon. Trade with India and the East in general was monopolized by the Persians, nearer to these countries. Syria had been detached from Mesopotamia by Darius or Xerxes. Babylonia and Assyria, forming together the ninth satrapy, were grossly overtaxed: they paid to the Crown an annual tribute of one thousand talents of silver and supplied the Persian court with food during four months of the year. In addition, they had to bear the full burden of a greedy local administration.11 If we are to believe Herodotus, the satrap of Babylonia received daily the content of an artaba (about 57 litres) of silver and kept 800 stallions and 16,000 mares, while his Indian dogs were fed by four villages!12 For all these reasons, the upward trend of prices, already noticed during the Neo-Babylonian period, continued under the Achaemenians: within the century following the death of Darius the cost of living doubled without corresponding increase in wages, and the rent of an average house passed from fifteen shekels per month under Cyrus to forty shekels under Artaxerxes I (464-424 B.C.13 Naturally, the great bankers and usurers benefited from these conditions. The Murashû family of Nippur, for instance – a powerful firm which operated in southern Mesopotamia between 455 and 403 B.C. – specialized in farming out the lands which Persian officials and collectives (hatru) of soldiers and civil-servants owned but refused to cultivate; they supplied oxen, agricultural tools and water for irrigation and took a share in the revenues. They also lent clothes, food and equipment to people called up for war duties and money (at 40 – 50 per cent interest) to those who could not pay their debts or taxes.14

No less important were the ethnic and linguistic changes brought about by the Achaemenian domination. The population of Babylonia, already mixed with Medes, Arabs, Jews, Egyptians, Urartians and other foreigners in Assyrian and Babylonian times, received a strong influx of Persian blood under Darius and Xerxes: many Persians were granted estates by the king; others were appointed judges or given major or minor administrative posts.15 With these men the gods of Iran entered the Tigris – Euphrates valley. There is, it is true, no evidence that they were at that time the object of an organized cult, and the decree of Xerxes forbidding the worship of deities other than Ahuramazda was never obeyed; but the mere fact that a number of Babylonians changed their Semitic name for a name composed with Aryan gods betrays a certain dwindling of private devotion. For all these people of various origins and tongues there could be only one common language: Aramaic. Already widely spoken in Western Asia, easy to learn, eminently suitable for writing on papyrus or parchment, officially adopted by Darius as the lingua franca throughout the empire, Aramaic replaced Babylonian in the homes, streets and shops. Only learned men and temple scribes could still read and write the Akkadian and Sumerian languages in their cuneiform script. The numerous literary, religious and historical texts copied during the Achaemenian period, as well as the remarkable works of astronomers such as Nabû-rimâni and Kidinnu (see above, p. 365) are proof that the traditional culture of Mesopotamia was still very much alive in these restricted circles; yet for the great majority of the population inscriptions on clay were meaningless, and history tells us that a nation which forgets its language forgets its past and soon loses its identit.

Oppressed, impoverished and partly ‘denationalized’, such was Mesopotamia, it would appear, in the last decades of the fourth century B.C., when Alexander came to give her a new, though entirely different life.

The Hellenistic Period

The battle of Gaugamela,16 on 1 October 331 B.C., opened for Alexander the road to Babylonia and Persia, as the battle of Issus, two years before, had opened for him the road to Syria and Egypt. The Persian troops stationed in Babylon surrendered without fighting, and the Macedonian conqueror made a triumphal entry into the old Semitic metropolis. Realizing, like Cyrus, that he could never rule over ‘a hundred different nations’ unless he won their hearts, he made sacrifice to Marduk and ordered the rebuilding of the temples thought to have been destroyed by Xerxes – a gigantic task which was never to be completed.17 The Babylonians hailed him as their liberator and immediately acknowledged his kingship. After a month's stay in Babylon he proceeded to Susa and thereafter embarked upon the great armed expedition to the East which took him as far as the River Ganges. When he returned, nine years later, his mind was full of grandiose projects: Babylon and Alexandria in Egypt were to become the twin capital-cities of his empire; they would be linked by sea around the Arabian peninsula, shortly to be conquered; the coasts of the Indian Ocean would be explored; the Euphrates would be rendered navigable up to the Gulf; a great port would be built at Babylon and another at the mouth of the river. But most of these plans remained a dead letter: on 13 June 323 B.C. Alexander died in Babylon, probably of malaria, at the age of thirty-two.

At that date Alexander's only son, the future Alexander IV, was not yet born, and it was his brother, Philip Arrhideus, who was proclaimed king in Macedonia. But the authority of this young and mentally retarded prince remained purely nominal. The real power lay in the hands of Alexander's generals – the diadochi – who, having divided the empire between themselves, struggled for forty-two years to prevent each other from reconstructing it. During this period – one of the most complex in the history of antiquity – Babylon changed hands several times. At first the seat of a military junta presided over by the regent Perdiccas, it was allotted to Seleucus, chief of the Macedonian cavalry, by his colleagues in 321 B.C., after they had murdered Perdiccas. In 316 B.C. Antigonus, the ambitious satrap of Phrygia, dislodged Seleucus from Babylon, forcing him to take refuge with Ptolemy in Egypt. But Seleucus came back in 312 B.C., recovered his satrapy, and for four years successfully protected it from repeated attacks launched by Antigonus and his son Demetrius. It was a fierce and bitter war which brought terrible suffering upon Babylon and its territory – ‘there was weeping and mourning in the land’ repeats as a leitmotif a Babylonian chronicle describing these events.18Finally, Antigonus was defeated and killed at Ipsus in Phrygia (301 B.C.), and Seleucus added to Babylonia the satrapy of Syria and the eastern half of Asia Minor. The war, however, continued, this time in the west, between Seleucus, Ptolemy, Demetrius and the Macedonian ruler of Thrace, Lysimachus. In September 281 B.C.,19 a few months after he had defeated Lysimachus at Korupedion (near Sardis), Seleucus was stabbed to death by a son of Ptolemy. He had taken the title of king in 305 B.C., but for the Babylonians the ‘years of Silukku’, the Seleucid era, began on the first New Year's Day following his return from Egypt: 3 April 311 B.C. It was the first time that a continuous dating system was used in Mesopotamia.

After Ipsus Seleucus ruled directly or indirectly over a huge territory extending from the borders of India to those of Egypt and from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. But this empire lacked cohesion and started disintegrating almost as soon as it was formed. By 200 B.C. the descendants of Seleucus had lost practically all their provinces and protectorates beyond the Taurus and the Zagros, and after Babylonia had been conquered by the Parthians (126 B.C.), all that remained was a small state in northern Syria, torn apart by dynastic crises, which fell an easy prey to the Romans in 63 B.C. In actual fact, ever since Seleucus founded Antioch on the Orontes, in May 300 B.C., and made it his favourite residence, the Seleucid kingdom had always been essentially a Syrian kingdom. If we except an unsuccessful attempt made by Antiochus III (222 – 187 B.C.) to recover the Eastern districts, the diplomatic and military activities of its rulers were almost entirely absorbed in an endless conflict with the Ptolemies of Egypt for the possession of the Phoenician ports and hinterland. This meant peace for the Babylonians who must have been relieved to see the ravages of war removed from their own country to ‘(the country) across the river’ (ebir nâri), as they now called Syria, but it also meant that Babylon lost the privileged position it would have held had it remained the capital-city of the Macedonian dominion, as geography and history destined it to be. For many years to come, the world's political, cultural and economic centre had shifted from the banks of the Euphrates to the shores of the Mediterranean.

Undoubtedly the most durable achievement of Alexander and his successors was the foundation in Egypt and Western Asia of numerous cities organized on the model of the Greek poleis and populated by Greco-Macedonian settlers as well as by Oriental subjects. Whether by so doing they merely wished to create a network of political and military strongholds, or aimed at promoting the Greek culture and way of life in the Orient is a much debated problem.20 But the results obtained are obvious: the Near East became ‘hellenized’ to various degrees, and the pattern of urban life in these regions was profoundly altered. We know of at least a dozen such cities in Mesopotamia21 alone, from Edessa-Antioch in the extreme north to Alexandria-Charax on or near the Gulf. They were, as a rule, built beside or on top of ancient towns and villages, though their layout and architectural characteristics were entirely new. Seleucia-on-the-Tigris (Tell ‘Umar, opposite Ctesiphon), founded by Antiochus I in 274 B.C., probably on the site of Semitic Upâ (Opis), was the largest city not only of Mesopotamia but of the whole Seleucid kingdom, with a population of about 600,000. Aerial photographs clearly show its ‘grid-plan’, the blocks of habitations being separated by straight avenues and streets crossing each other at right angles. Excavations conducted there before the war and since 1964 have uncovered a number of buildings and numerous objects (clay figurines, statues, coins, jewels, pottery) in the Seleucian city, the ruins of which were buried under an equally large and rich city of the Parthian period.22 A similar situation confronted archaeologists at Dura-Europus (Salahiyeh, on the Euphrates, fifty kilometres upstream of ancient Mari), and here again remains of Greek monuments – a fortress, a palace and at least one temple – could be traced underneath the Parthian buildings.23

These Hellenistic cities were all situated on the great trade-routes which linked Central Asia with the Mediterranean, and thrived on transit operations. Seleucia, in particular, was the meeting-point of two land-routes coming from India (one through Bactria and the north of Iran, the other through Persepolis and Susa), of the important sea-route from India through the Gulf, and of several tracks crossing the Arabian peninsula. From Seleucia gold, ivory, spices, incense and precious stones, as well as the products of Mesopotamia itself – wheat, barley, dates, woollens and bitumen – were transported to Syria, either along the Euphrates via Dura-Europus, or along the Tigris and across Jazirah via Nisibin (Antioch in Mygdonia) and Edessa. Commercial intercourse between Europe, Asia and part of Africa was extremely active in Hellenistic times, and there is little doubt as to the prosperity of the Seleucid kingdom in general – at least during the third century B.C. Our information on Babylonia is regrettably scanty, but the few commercial texts published (mainly from Uruk) show that a fair amount of business was carried out even within the older towns, and that prices had fallen much below the levels they had reached in Achaemenian times.24

The new economic and demographic conditions prevalent in Seleucid Mesopotamia exerted a deep, though diverse influence upon the older cities. Thus Nimrud owed to its situation on the Tigris route its revival as a small but prosperous village. Similarly, Nineveh, Mari and Arslan-Tash were reoccupied after long years of abandonment.25 Ur died slowly, probably killed by competition from Alexandria-Charax as much as by hydrographic changes in the region. Babylon was severely affected. It is true that sporadic efforts were made by the Macedonian rulers to revive and modernize the half-ruined city. In the last royal inscription in Akkadian that we possess Antiochus I (281 – 260 B.C.) calls himself ‘provider of Esagila and Ezida‘, like the Chaldaean kings, and declares that he ‘formed with his august hands’ and brought from ‘Hatti’ (Syria) the first bricks of these temples.26 A tablet dated in the reign of Seleucus III (225 – 223 B.C.) shows that regular offerings were still made to a number of Babylonian gods in their own shrines. Remains of Hellenistic architecture were discovered on the mound of Bâbil and on the site of Nebuchadrezzar's palace. Under Antiochus IV (175 – 164 B.C.) – the king who did most to propagate the Greek culture – Babylon received a gymnasium and a remarkable Greek theatre, later enlarged by the Parthians.27 Yet not only was Babylon no longer the seat of the royal government, but it was already partly deserted, a great number of its inhabitants having been transferred to Seleucia when the city was founded.28 We do not know what happened in Sippar, Kish and Nippur, but Uruk seems to have enjoyed considerable prosperity, judging from the impressive monuments erected during the Seleucid period. A huge terrace constructed around the E-Anna ziqqurat completely transformed the sacred area, while in other parts of the city were built two large temples: Irigal (or, better, Esh-gal), dedicated to Ishtar, and the so-called Bît rêsh, dedicated to Anu.29 Both had the conventional features of Babylonian temples, though a long inscription on glazed bricks which ran on the walls of the cult-room of Irigal was, significantly, in Aramaic script and language. Equally typical of the period are the Greek names conferred by the kings to the two city-magistrates who built these temples Anu-uballit Nicarachus and Anu-uballit Kephalon. A study of contracts on clay tablets and of bullae* bearing Greek or Aramaic inscriptions shows that Uruk (called by the Greek Orchoi) gave shelter to an important Greek community, but retained its ancient laws and customs and was exempted from certain royal taxes. Most of the business transactions were carried out by the temple organization in the activities of which ordinary citizens could be financially interested by means of a system not very different from our modern shareholding.30 The existence of semi-independent temple-states is well attested in Asia Minor in Hellenistic times, and it is probable that Uruk owed a similar status to the liberal policy of the Seleucids.

It was in temples like those of Uruk, Sippar, Babylon and Barsippa that the Sumero-Akkadian culture was preserved. Throughout the Seleucid period temple astronomers and astrolo-gers continued to record on tablets the motions of celestial bodies, while temple scribes wrote down contemporary events in the form of chronicles and copied a number of very ancient myths, rituals, hymns and omens. It would seem a priori that the much-advanced Greek culture, which flourished in cities such as Seleucia, exerted a strong attraction on the less conservative members of the Babylonian intelligentsia; but if a long list of Greek authors native from Mesopotamia can be compiled,31 it is often difficult to distinguish between those who were of pure Greco-Macedonian descent and those who, born Babylonian, had adopted a Greek name. In fact, the evidence available seems to indicate a movement in the opposite direction: the Greeks became interested not so much in Mesopotamian history and literature as in the scientific and pseudo-scientific works of the ‘Chaldaeans’. In the second and third centuries B.C. the Babylonian Sudinês translated into Greek the writings of Kidinnu and other astronomers, and Berossus, priest of Marduk, wrote in Greek a strange mixture of astrology and historical narratives called Babyloniaca,32 which he dedicated to Antiochus I. Limited as they were, these cultural contacts saved for posterity some of the most remarkable achievements of Mesopotamian scientists, while the most objectionable end-product of the Mesopotamian belief in predestination, astrology, permeated and corrupted the religions of the West.

The Parthian Period

The Parthians – a branch of the Scythians – appear for the first time in history c. 250 B.C, when Arsaces led his nomadic tribesmen out of the steppes of Turkestan to settle in the north-eastern corner of Iran.33 By 200 B.C., the ‘Arsacids’ were firmly established between the Caspian Gate (Hecatompylos) and the region of Meshed (Nisaia). Between 160 and 140 B.C. Mithridates I conquered the Iranian plateau in its entirety and, reaching the Tigris, pitched his camp at Ctesiphon, opposite Seleucia. The Seleucid Demetrius II succeeded in recovering Babylonia and Media for a few years, but in 126 B.C. Artabanus II reasserted his authority over these regions, and from then on the Tigris-Euphrates valley remained in Parthian hands – save for two brief periods of Roman occupation under Trajan and Septimus Severus – until it fell under Sassanian domination with the rest of the Parthian kingdom in A.D. 227.

To govern their empire the Arsacids could only rely upon a small, if valorous, Parthian aristocracy, but they had the intelligence to utilize the social organizations created by the Seleucids, or those which had grown upon the ruins of the Seleucid kingdom. They encouraged the development of Hellenistic cities and tolerated the formation of independent vassal kingdoms, such as Osrhoene (around Edessa-Urfa), Adiabene (corresponding to ancient Assyria) and Characene (near the Arabo-Persian Gulf).31 Towards the beginning of the Christian era Hatra, an old caravan city on the Wadi Thartar, 58 kilometres west of Assur, acquired its autonomy and became the centre of a small but prosperous state known as Araba.34 The Arsacids and their vassals were rich, since they controlled practically all the trade-routes between Asia and the Greco-Roman world, with the result that the second and first centuries B.C. were marked in Mesopotamia by intensive building activities resulting from governmental or regional initiative. Not only were Seleucia, Dura-Europus and, presumably, other prosperous market-places provided with a large number of new monuments, but towns and villages which had been lying in ruins for hundreds of years were reoccupied. In southern Iraq traces of Parthian occupation were found on almost every site excavated, in particular Babylon, Kish, Nippur, Uruk and even forgotten Girsu. In the north Assyria was literally resurrected: Nuzi, Kakzu, Shibanniba were inhabited again, and Assur, rebuilt anew, became at least as large a city as it had been in the heyday of the Assyrian empire.35 But it must be emphasized that the revived settlements had very little in common with their Assyrian or Babylonian precursors. Several of them, if not all, had straight streets, often lined with columns, a citadel, usually built on top of the old ziqqurat, and an agora wherever possible. Walls of stone or ashlar-masonry replaced the traditional walls of mud bricks, while the buildings themselves, with their lofty vaulted chambers wide open on one side (iwan), their elegant peristyle and their decoration of moulded stucco, differed from the buildings erected by Mesopotamian architects as markedly as the Greco-Iranian statues of the rulers of Hatra differed from those of Gudea or Ashurnasirpal.

These archaeological data, combined with textual evidence, point to a massive influx of foreign population. The Greek and

Macedonian settlers, probably not very numerous at the beginning, had lived side by side with the Babylonians with relatively few social contacts; they had preserved their nationality, their institutions, their art, their language, their ‘Greekhood’ in a word, and were still keeping it under the protection of enlightened monarchs who called themselves ‘philhellen’. But the newcomers – mostly Aramaeans, Arabs and Iranians – settled in Mesopotamia in very large numbers, and mixed with the native population more easily since they were of Oriental, often Semitic stock and spoke the same language. Each city, old or new, gave shelter to several foreign gods. At Dura-Europus, for instance, were brought to light two Greek temples, an Aramaean sanctuary, a Christian chapel, a synagogue and a Mith-reum, let alone the shrines of local deities and of the gods of Palmyra. Similarly, the Sumero-Akkadian god Nergal, the Greek god Hermes, the Aramaean goddess Atar'at and the Arabian deities Allat and Shamiya had their temples in Hatra, around the majestic sanctuary of Shamash, the sun-god common to all Semites. Even at Uruk, the ancestral home of Anu and Ishtar, can still be seen a charming little temple, more Roman than Greek in style, dedicated to the Iranian god Gareus, and the remains of an extraordinary apsidal building believed to be a temple of Mithra.36 Jews were numerous in Mesopotamia, and from about A.D. 30 to 60 or even more, a local family converted to Judaism ruled over Adiabene from its capital city Arbela (Erbil).37According to the Oriental tradition, during the same period Christianity began to penetrate into northern Mesopotamia coming from Antioch and Edessa.

This flood of people and ideas submerged what was left of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization. A handful of contracts, about two hundred astronomical or astrological texts and two or three very fragmentary chronicles and Babylonian – Greek vocabularies constitute all the cuneiform literature in our possession for that period.38 The last cuneiform text known so far – an astronomical ‘almanac’ – was written in A.D. 74 – 5.39 It is quite possible that the Babylonian priests and astronomers continued for severalgenerations to write in Aramaic on papyrus or parchment, but no work of this kind is likely to be found. We know that some of the ancient temples were restored, that Ashur was worshipped in his home town and that a cult was rendered to Nabû in Barsippa until, perhaps, the fourth century A.D. But there is no evidence that Esagila, the temple of the former national god Marduk, was kept in repair. Indeed, Babylon probably suffered more damage in the repression which followed the revolt of a certain Hymeros in 127 B.C., or in the civil war between Mithridates II and Orodes in 52 B.C., than in the hands of Xerxes. When Trajan, in A.D. 115, entered the once opulent city, it was not to ‘take the hand of Bêl’, but to sacrifice to the manes of Alexander. Eighty-four years later, Septimus Severus found it completely deserted.40

Very little is known of the administrative, social and economic status of Mesopotamia under the Sassanians (A.D. 224 – 651). We learn from Greek and Latin authors that the northern part of the country was ravaged by four centuries of almost uninterrupted war between Romans (or Byzantines) and Persians41 and that Assur was destroyed by Shapur I in A.D. 256 as radically as it had been destroyed by the Medes. At Ctesiphon can be admired the remains of a magnificent palace attributed to Chosroes I while the more modest residence of another Sassanian king has been excavated at Kish.42 At Uruk, not far from the city-wall originally built by Gilgamesh, a local ruler (?) was buried with his crown of golden leaves.43 Sherds of Sassanian pottery testify to the occupation or reoccupation of other ancient sites. But at the beginning of the seventh century A.D. shortly before the Islamic conquest, the usual combination of military setbacks, internal strife and economic difficulties brought about the decline of the Sassanian kingdom and the ruin of Mesopotamia. Many canals left unattended dried up; the rivers, unchecked, could meander freely; scattering to outlying villages, people abandoned the towns deprived of water, and the ancient cities of Iraq were gradually buried beneath the sand of the desert and the silt of the valley. Those which survived were much damaged by the formation, in A.D. 629, of the ‘Great Swamp’ that throughout the Middle Ages covered the whole area of ancient Sumer,44 or by the terrible destructions systematically performed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, or again, sadly, by the re-utilization of building materials by poor and or illiterate people to whom the history of ancient Iraq meant virtually nothing.


Alabaster head of a woman (or a goddess) found at Uruk. Proto-historic Uruk period (c. 3500 B.C.)


Archaic inscription on a clay tablet from proto-historic Uruk (c. 3300 B.C.)

From the Royal Cemetery of Ur. A harp found in the ‘Great Death Pit’ and partly restored. Beneath the bearded bull's head, made of solid gold, is a set of shell plaques engraved with scenes of animal life


Head-dress and necklaces of a woman found in a collective tomb of the Royal Cemetery at Ur (c. 2600 B.C.). The ornaments are made of gold, lapis-lazuli and cornelian


From an anonymous grave of the Royal Cemetery of Ur. A gold dagger with a hilt of lapis-lazuli, in its gold sheath

Fragment of the Stele of the Vultures, representing the army of Eannatum, ensi of Lagash (Telloh)


This beautifully worked bronze head, three-quarters life-size, was found at Nineveh and is presumed to be a portrait of King Sargon of Akkad (c. 2334 – 2279 B.C.) or, more probably, his grandson Narâm-Sin (c. 2254 – 2218)

One of the many statues of Gudea, ensi of Lagash, who lived c. 2141–2122 – 2122 B.C., just before the first kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Only sixteen inches high and made of diorite

Stele of pink sandstone commemorating the victory of the Akkadian king Narâm-Sin over the Lullubi (a people of the Zagros mountains) (c. 2230 B.C.)

The central stairs of the ziqqurat of Ur: looking as they probably did when the priests were treading the steps on the way up to the upper temple

The statue of Ebih-Il, an official from Mari, is one of the finest pieces of Early Dynastic sculpture. The name is Semitic, but the attitude and costume, as well as the sculptor's technique, are typically Sumerian


A votive dog dedicated to the goddess Nin-Sin by a high official of Lagash, ‘for the life of Sumu-El’, King of Larsa (1894 – 1866 B.C.)

Believed to be the work of a Hurrian artist: the head of an unknown god found at Jabbul, near Aleppo


Upper part of the stele bearing the text of Hammurabi's ‘Law Code’. Hammurabi, king of Babylon (1792 – 1750 B.C.) stands in front of the Sun-god Shamash, supreme chief justice, with his hand over his mouth as a sign of prayer


Façade of the temple of the Kassite king Karaindash (c. 1420 B.C.) in Uruk, showing the new technique of bricks with moulded motifs

One of the reliefs decorating the walls of the palace of Kapara, the Aramaean ruler of Guzana-Tell Halaf

A colossal Assyrian statue emerges from the earth at Nimrud

Specimen of Assyrian writing on stone (Nimrud)

Stele of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680 – 699 B.C.), found at Zenjirli, in the Amanus mountains. Taharqa, King of Egypt (kneeling) and Abdi-Milkuti, King of Sidon (standing) supplicate Esarhaddon, who is holding them captive

The Assyrian army at war. In a mountainous and wooded country, foot-soldiers and cavalrymen fighting with bows, lances and slings, are progressing. A mounted officer shouts orders. Relief from Nineveh. Reign of Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 B.C.)

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