2

Ancient Mesopotamia

The best case for the first appearance of something which is recognizably civilization has been made for the southern part of Mesopotamia, the 700-mile-long land formed by the two river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. This end of the Fertile Crescent was thickly studded with farming villages in Neolithic times. Some of the oldest settlements of all seem to have been in the extreme south where deposits from centuries of drainage from up-country and annual floodings had built up a soil of great richness. It must always have been much easier to grow crops there than elsewhere, provided that the water supply could be made continuously and safely available; this was possible, for though rain was slight and irregular, the river bed was often above the level of the surrounding plain. A calculation has been made that in about 2500 BC the yield of grain in southern Mesopotamia compared favourably with that of the best Canadian wheat-fields today. Here, at an early date, was the possibility of growing more than was needed for daily consumption, the surplus indispensable to the appearance of town life. Furthermore, fish could be taken from the nearby sea.

Such a setting was a challenge, as well as an opportunity. The Tigris and Euphrates could suddenly and violently change their beds: the marshy, low-lying land of the delta had to be raised above flood level by banking and ditching and canals had to be built to carry water away. Thousands of years later, techniques could still be seen in use in Mesopotamia, which were probably those first employed long ago to form the platforms of reed and mud on which were built the first homesteads of the area. These patches of cultivation would be grouped where the soil was richest. The drains and irrigation channels they needed could be managed properly only if they were managed collectively. No doubt the social organization of reclamation was another result. However it happened, the seemingly unprecedented achievement of making land from watery marsh must have been the forcing house of a new complexity in the way men lived together.

As the population rose, more land was taken to grow food. Sooner or later men of different villages would have come face to face with others intent on reclaiming marsh which had previously separated them from one another. Different irrigation needs may even have brought them into contact before this. There was a choice: to fight or to cooperate. Each meant further collective organization and a new agglomeration of power. Somewhere along this path it made sense for men to band together in bigger units than hitherto for self-protection or management of the environment. One physical result is the town, mud-walled at first to keep out floods and enemies, raised above the waters on a platform. It was logical for the local deity’s shrine to be the place chosen: he stood behind the community’s authority. It would be exercised by his chief priest, who became the ruler of a little theocracy competing with others.

Something like this - we cannot know what - may explain the difference between southern Mesopotamia in the third and fourth millennia BC and the other zones of Neolithic culture with which it had already been long in contact. The evidence of pottery and characteristic shrines shows that there were links between Mesopotamia and the Neolithic cultures of Anatolia, Assyria and Iran. They all had much in common. But only in one relatively small area did a pattern of village life common to much of the Near East begin to grow faster and harden into something else. From that background emerges the first true urbanism, that of Sumer, and the first observable civilization.

Sumer is an ancient name for southern Mesopotamia, which then extended about a hundred miles less to the south than the present coast. The people who lived there may have been Caucasians, unlike their Semitic neighbours to the south-west and like their northern neighbours, the Elamites, who lived on the other side of the Tigris. Scholars are still divided about when the Sumerians - that is, those who spoke the language later called Sumerian - arrived in the area: they may have been there since about 4000 BC. But since we know the population of civilized Sumer to be a mixture of races, perhaps including the earlier inhabitants of the region, with a culture which mixed foreign and local elements, it does not much matter.

Sumerian civilization had deep roots. The people had long shared a way of life not very different from that of their neighbours. They lived in villages and had a few important cult centres which were continuously occupied. One of these, at a place called Eridu, probably originated in about 5000 BC. It grew steadily well into historic times and by the middle of the fourth millennium there was a temple there which some have thought to have provided the original model for Mesopotamian monumental architecture, though nothing is now left of it but the platform on which it rested. Such cult centres began by serving those who lived near them. They were not true cities, but places of devotion and pilgrimage. They may have had no considerable resident populations, but they were usually the centres around which cities later crystallized and this helps to explain the close relationship religion and government always had in ancient Mesopotamia. Well before 3000 BC some such sites had very big temples indeed; at Uruk (which is called Erech in the Bible) there was an especially splendid one, with elaborate decoration and impressive pillars of mud brick, eight feet in diameter.

Pottery is among the most important evidence linking pre-civilized Mesopotamia with historic times. It provides one of the first clues that something culturally important is going forward which is qualitatively different from the evolutions of the Neolithic. The so-called Uruk pots (the name is derived from the site where they were found) are often duller, less exciting than earlier ones. They are, in fact, mass-produced, made in standard form on a wheel (which first appears in this role). The implication of this is strong that when they came to be produced there already existed a population of specialized craftsmen; it must have been maintained by an agriculture sufficiently rich to produce a surplus exchanged for their creations. It is with this change that the story of Sumerian civilization can conveniently be begun.

It lasts about thirteen hundred years (roughly from 3300 to 2000 bc), which is about as much time as separates us from the age of Charlemagne. At the beginning comes the invention of writing, possibly the only invention of comparable importance to the invention of agriculture before the age of steam. Most of it was done on clay for nearly half the time mankind has possessed the skill. Writing had in fact been preceded by the invention of cylinder seals, on which little pictures were incised to be rolled on to clay; pottery may have degenerated, but these seals were one of the great Mesopotamian artistic achievements. The earliest writings followed in the form of pictograms or simplified pictures (a step towards nonrepresentative communication), on clay tablets usually baked after they had been inscribed with a reed stalk. The earliest are in Sumerian and it can be seen that they are memoranda, lists of goods, receipts; their emphasis is economic and they cannot be read as continuous prose. The writing on these early notebooks and ledgers evolved slowly towards cuneiform, a way of arranging impressions stamped on clay by the wedge-like section of a chopped-off reed. With this the break with the pictogram form is complete. Signs and groups of signs come at this stage to stand for phonetic and possibly syllabic elements and are all made up of combinations of the same basic wedge shape. It was more flexible as a form of communication by signs than anything used hitherto and Sumer reached it soon after 3000 BC.

A fair amount is therefore known about the Sumerian language. A few of its words have survived to this day; one of them is the original form of the word ‘alcohol’ (and the first recipe for beer), which is suggestive. But the language’s greatest interest is its appearance in written forms at all. Literacy must have been both unsettling and stabilizing. On the one hand it offered huge new possibilities of communicating; on the other it stabilized practice because the consultation of a record as well as oral tradition became possible. It made much easier the complex operations of irrigating lands, harvesting and storing crops, which were fundamental to a growing society. Writing made for more efficient exploitation of resources. It also immensely strengthened government and emphasized its links with the priestly castes who at first monopolized literacy. Interestingly, one of the earliest uses of seals appears to be connected with this, since they were used somehow to certify the size of crops at their receipt in the temple. Perhaps they record at first the operations of an economy of centralized redistribution, where men brought their due produce to the temple and received there the food or materials they themselves needed.

Besides such records, the invention of writing opens more of the past to the historian in another way. He can at last begin to deal in hard currency when talking about mentality. This is because writing preserves literature. The oldest story in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its most complete version, it is true, goes back only to the seventh century BC, but the tale itself appears in Sumerian times and is known to have been written down soon after 2000 BC. Gilgamesh was a real person, ruling at Uruk. He became also the first individual and hero in world literature, appearing in other poems, too. His is the first name which must appear in this book. To a modern reader the most striking part of the Epic may be the coming of a great flood which obliterates mankind except for a favoured family who survive by building an ark; from them springs a new race to people the world after the flood has subsided. This was not part of the Epic’s oldest versions, but came from a separate poem telling a story which turns up in many Near-Eastern forms, though its incorporation is easily understandable. Lower Mesopotamia must always have had much trouble with flooding, which would undoubtedly put a heavy strain on the fragile system of irrigation on which its prosperity depended. Floods were the type, perhaps, of general disaster, and must have helped to foster the pessimistic fatalism which some scholars have seen as the key to Sumerian religion.

This sombre mood dominates the Epic. Gilgamesh does great things in his restless search to assert himself against the iron laws of the gods which ensure human failure, but they triumph in the end. Gilgamesh, too, must die.

The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning. Men will say, ‘Who has ever ruled with might and with power like him?’ As in the dark month, the month of shadows, so without him there is no light. O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny; everlasting life was not your destiny.

Apart from this mood and its revelation of the religious temperament of a civilization, there is much information about the gods of ancient Mesopotamia in the Epic. But it is hard to get at history through it, let alone relate it to the historical Gilgamesh. In particular, attempts to identify a single, cataclysmic flood by archaeological means have not been convincing, though plentiful evidence of recurrent flooding is available. From the water eventually emerges the land: perhaps, then, what we are being given is an account of the creation of the world, of genesis. In the Hebrew Bible earth emerges from the waters at God’s will and that account satisfied most educated Europeans for a thousand years. It is fascinating to speculate that we may owe so much of our own intellectual ancestry to a mythical reconstruction by the Sumerians of their own prehistory when farming land had been created out of the morass of the Mesopotamian delta. But it is only speculation; caution suggests we remain satisfied merely to note the undeniable close parallels between the Epic and one of the best of the Bible stories, that of Noah’s Ark.

This story hints at the possible importance of the diffusion of Sumerian ideas in the Near East long after the focus of its history had moved away to upper Mesopotamia. Versions and parts of the Epic - to stick to that text alone for a moment - have turned up in the archives and relics of many peoples who dominated parts of this region in the second millennium BC. Though later to be lost until rediscovery in modern times, Gilgamesh was for two thousand years or so a name to which literature in many languages could knowingly refer, somewhat in the way that European authors could until recently take it for granted that an allusion to classical Greece would be understood by their readers. The Sumerian language lived on for centuries in temples and scribal schools, much as Latin lived on for the learned in the muddle of vernacular cultures in Europe after the collapse of the Western classical world of Rome. The comparison is suggestive, because literary and linguistic tradition embodies ideas and images which impose, permit and limit different ways of seeing the world; they have, that is to say, historic weight.

Probably the most important ideas kept alive by the Sumerian language were religious. Cities like Ur and Uruk were the seedbed of ideas which, after transmutation into other religions in the Near East during the first and second millennia BC, were four thousand years later to be influential worldwide, albeit in almost unrecognizably different forms. There is, for example, in the Gilgamesh Epic an ideal creature of nature, the man Enkidu; his fall from his innocence is sexual, a seduction by a harlot, and thereafter, though the outcome for him is civilization, he loses his happy association with the natural world. Literature makes it possible to observe such hints at the mythologies of other and later societies. In literature, men begin to make explicit the meanings earlier hidden in obscure relics of sacrificial offerings, clay figures and the ground-plans of shrines and temples. In earliest Sumer these already reveal an organization of human discourse with the supernatural much more complex and elaborate than anything elsewhere at so early a date. Temples had been the focus of the early cities and they grew bigger and more splendid (in part, because of a tradition of building new ones on mounds enclosing their predecessors). Sacrifices were offered in them to ensure good crops. Later their cults elaborated, temples of still greater magnificence were built as far north as Assur, 300 miles away up the Tigris, and we hear of one built with cedars brought from the Lebanon and copper from Anatolia.

No other ancient society at that time gave religion quite so prominent a place or diverted so much of its collective resources to its support. It has been suggested that this was because no other ancient society left men feeling so utterly dependent on the will of the gods. Lower Mesopotamia in ancient times was a flat, monotonous landscape of mud-flats, marsh and water. There were no mountains for the gods to dwell in like men, only the empty heavens above, the remorseless summer sun, the overturning winds against which there was no protection, the irresistible power of flood-water, the blighting attacks of drought. The gods dwelt in these elemental forces, or in the ‘high places’ which alone dominated the plains, the brick-built towers and ziggurats remembered in the biblical Tower of Babel. The Sumerians, not surprisingly, saw themselves as a people created to labour for the gods.

By about 2250 BC a pantheon of gods more or less personifying the elements and natural forces had emerged in Sumer. It was to provide the backbone of Mesopotamian religion and the beginning of theology. Originally, each city had its particular god. Possibly helped by political changes in the relations of the cities, they were in the end organized into a kind of hierarchy which both reflected and affected men’s views of human society. The gods of Mesopotamia in the developed scheme are depicted in human form. To each of them was given a special activity or role; there was a god of the air, another of the water, another of the plough. Ishtar (as she was later known under her Semitic name) was the goddess of love and procreation, but also of war. At the top of the hierarchy were three great male gods, whose roles are not easy to disentangle, Anu, Enlil and Enki. Anu was father of the gods. Enlil was at first the most prominent; he was ‘Lord Air’, without whom nothing could be done. Enki, god of wisdom and of the sweet waters that literally meant life to Sumer, was a teacher and life-giver, who maintained the order Enlil had shaped.

These gods demanded propitiation and submission in elaborate ritual. In return for this and for living a good life they would grant prosperity and length of days, but not more. In the midst of the uncertainties of Mesopotamian life, some feeling that a possible access to protection existed was essential. Men depended on the gods for reassurance in a capricious universe. The gods - though no Mesopotamian could have put it in these terms - were conceptualizations of elementary attempts to control environment, to resist the sudden disasters of flood and dust-storm, to assure the continuation of the cycle of the seasons by the repetition of the great spring festival when the gods were again married and the drama of creation was re-enacted. After that, the world’s existence was assured for another year.

One of the great demands which men later came to make of religion was that it should help them to deal with the inevitable horror of death. The Sumerians, and those who inherited their religious ideas, can hardly have derived much comfort from their beliefs, in so far as we can apprehend them; they seem to have seen the world of life after death as a gloomy, sad place. It was ‘The house where they sit in darkness, where dust is their food and clay their meat, they are clothed like birds with wings for garments, over bolt and door lie dust and silence.’ In it lies the origin of the later notions of Sheol, of Hell. Yet at least one ritual involved virtual suicide, for a Sumerian king and queen of the middle of the third millennium were followed to their tombs by their attendants who were then buried with them, perhaps after taking some soporific drink. This could suggest that the dead were going somewhere where a great retinue and gorgeous jewellery would be as important as on earth.

There were important political aspects to Sumerian religion. All land belonged ultimately to the gods; the king, probably a king-priest as much as a warrior-leader in origin, was but their vicar. No human tribunal, of course, existed to call him to account. The vicariate also meant the emergence of a priestly class, specialists whose importance justified economic privilege which could permit the cultivation of special skills and knowledge. In this respect, too, Sumer was the origin of a tradition, that of the seers, soothsayers, wise men of the East. They also had charge of the first organized system of education, based on memorizing and copying in the cuneiform script.

Among the by-products of Sumerian religion were the first true likenesses of human beings in art. In particular at one religious centre, Mari, there seems to have been something of a fondness for portraying human figures engaged in ritual acts. Sometimes they are grouped in processions; thus is established one of the great themes of pictorial art. Two others are also prominent: war and the animal world. Some have detected in the early portraiture of the Sumerians a deeper significance. They have seen in them the psychological qualities which made the astonishing achievements of their civilization possible, a drive for pre-eminence and success. This, again, is speculative. What we can also see for the first time in Sumerian art is much of a daily life in earlier times hidden from us. Given the widespread contacts of Sumer and its basic similarity of structure to other, neighbouring peoples, it is not too much to infer that we can begin to see something of life much as it was lived over a large area of the ancient Near East.

Seals, statuary and painting reveal a people often clad in a kind of furry - goatskin or sheepskin? - skirt, the women sometimes throwing a fold of it over one shoulder. The men are often, but not always, clean-shaven. Soldiers wear the same costume and are only distinguishable because they carry weapons and sometimes wear a pointed leather cap. Luxury seems to have consisted in leisure and possessions other than dress, except for jewellery, of which quantities have survived. Its purpose often seems to be the indication of status and it symptomizes a society of growing complexity. There survives, too, a picture of a drinking-party; a group of men sit in armchairs with cups in their hands while a musician entertains them. At such moments Sumer seems less remote.

Sumerian marriage had much about it which would have been familiar to later societies. The crux of the matter was the consent of the bride’s family. Once arranged to their satisfaction, a new monogamous family unit was established by the marriage which was recorded in a sealed contract. Its head was the patriarchal husband, who presided over both his relatives and his slaves. It is a pattern which was until very recently observable in most parts of the world. Yet there are interesting nuances. Legal and literary evidence suggest that even in early times Sumerian women were less downtrodden than their sisters in many later Near-Eastern societies. Semitic and non-Semitic traditions may diverge in this. Sumerian stories of their gods suggest a society very conscious of the dangerous and even awe-inspiring power of female sexuality; the Sumerians were the first people to write about passion.

It is not easy to relate such things to institutions, but Sumerian law did not regard women as mere chattels, but gave them important rights; even the slave mother of a free man’s children had a certain protection at law.

Divorce arrangements provided for women as well as men to seek separations and for the equitable treatment of divorced wives. Though a wife’s adultery was punishable by death, while a husband’s was not, this difference is to be understood in the light of concern over inheritance and property. It was not until long after Sumerian times that Mesopotamian law begins to emphasize the importance of virginity and to impose the veil on respectable women. Both were signs of a hardening and more cramping role for them.

The Sumerians also demonstrated great technical inventiveness. Other peoples would be much in their debt. The influence of the Sumerians’ laws can be traced well into post-Sumerian times. Sumerians, too, laid the foundations of mathematics, establishing the technique of expressing number by position as well as by sign (as we, for example, can reckon the figure 1 as one, one-tenth, ten or several other values, according to its relation to the decimal point), and they arrived at a method of dividing the circle into six equal segments. They knew about the decimal system, too, though they did not exploit it, and we first encounter the seven-day week in the Gilgamesh epic.

By the end of their history as an independent civilization Sumerians had learnt to live in big groups; one city alone is said to have had thirty-six thousand males. This made big demands on building skill, and even more were made by the large monumental structures. Lacking stone, southern Mesopotamians had first built in reeds plastered with mud, then with bricks made from the mud and dried in the sun. Their brick technology was advanced enough by the end of the Sumerian period to make possible very large buildings with columns and terraces; the greatest of its monuments, the Ziggurat of Ur, had an upper stage over 100 feet high and a base 200 feet by 150. The earliest surviving potter’s wheel was found at Ur; this was the first way in which man made use of rotary motion. On it rested the large-scale production of pottery which made it a man’s trade and not, like earlier pottery, a woman’s. Soon, by 3000 BC, the wheel was being used for transport. Another invention of the Sumerians was glass, and specialized craftsmen were casting in bronze early in the third millennium BC.

This innovation raises further questions: where did the raw material come from? There is no metal in southern Mesopotamia. Moreover, even in earlier times, during the Neolithic, the region must have obtained from elsewhere the flint and obsidian it needed for the first agricultural implements. Clearly a widespread network of contacts abroad is in the background, above all with the Levant and Syria, huge distances away, but also with Iran and Bahrein, down the Persian Gulf. Before 2000 BC Mesopotamia was obtaining goods - though possibly indirectly - from the Indus valley. Together with the evidence of documentation (which reveals contacts with India before 2000 bc), it makes an impression of a dimly emerging international trading system already creating important patterns of interdependence. When, in the middle of the third millennium, supplies of tin from the Near East dried up, Mesopotamian bronze weapons had to give way to unalloyed copper ones.

The whole of this was sustained on an agriculture which was from an early date complicated and even rich. Barely, wheat, millet and sesame were grains grown in quantity; the first may have been the main crop, and no doubt explains the frequent evidence of the presence of alcohol in ancient Mesopotamia. In the easy soil of the flood beds no very advanced tools were needed to achieve intensive cultivation; the great contribution of technology here was in the practice of irrigation and the growth of government. Such skills accumulated slowly; the evidence of Sumerian civilization has been left to us by 1500 years of history.

So far this huge stretch of time has been discussed almost as if nothing happened during it, as if it were an unchanging whole. It was not. Whatever reservations are made about the slowness of change in the ancient world, and though it may now seem to us very static, these were fifteen centuries of great change for the Mesopotamians - history, in the truest sense. Scholars have recovered much of the story, but this is not the place to set it out in detail, especially as much of it is still debated, much of it remains obscure and even its dating is often only approximate. All that is needed here is to relate the first age of Mesopotamian civilization to its successors and to what was going on elsewhere at the same time.

Three broad phases can be marked out in the history of Sumer. The first, lasting from about 3360 BC to 2400 BC, has been called its archaic period. Its narrative content is a matter of wars between city-states, their waxings and wanings. Fortified cities and the application of the wheel to military technology in clumsy four-wheeled chariots are some of the evidence of this. Towards the middle of this 900-year phase, local dynasties begin to establish themselves with some success. Originally, Sumerian society seems to have had some representative, even democratic basis, but a growth of scale led to the emergence of kings distinct from the first priestly rulers; probably they began as warlords appointed by cities to command their forces who did not give up their power when the emergency which called them forth had passed. From them stemmed dynasties which fought one another. The sudden appearance of a great individual then opens a new phase.

He was Sargon I, a king of the Semitic city of Akkad, who conquered Mesopotamia in 2334 BC and inaugurated an Akkadian supremacy. There exists a sculpted head which is probably of him; if it is, it is one of the first royal portraits. He was the first of a long line of empire-builders; he has been thought to have sent his troops as far as Egypt and Ethiopia and he drew Sumer into a wider world. Akkadian took cuneiform from Sumer and Sargon’s rule was not based on the relative superiority of one city-state to another. His regime achieved some degree of integration. His people were among those which for thousands of years pressed in on the civilizations of the river valleys from outside. They took over from its culture what they wanted as they imposed themselves. This left behind a new style of Sumerian art marked by the theme of royal victory.

Akkadian empire was not the end of Sumer, then, but its second main phase. Though itself an interlude, it was important as an expression of a new level of organization. By Sargon’s time a true state has appeared. The division between secular and religious authority which had appeared in old Sumer was fundamental. Though the supernatural still interpenetrated daily life at every level, lay and priestly authority had diverged. The evidence is physically apparent in the appearance of palaces beside the temples in the Sumerian cities; the authority of the gods lay behind the occupant of the palace, too.

Obscure though the turning of the notables of early cities into kings remains, the evolution of professional soldiery probably played a part in it. Disciplined infantry, moving in a phalanx with overlapping shields and levelled spears, appear on monuments from Ur. In Akkad there is something of a climax to early militarism. Sargon, it was boasted, had 5400 soldiers eating before him in his palace. This, no doubt, was the end of a process which built power on power; conquest provided the resources to maintain such a force. But the beginnings may again have lain originally in the special challenges and needs of Mesopotamia. As population rose, one chief duty of the ruler must have been to mobilize labour for big works of irrigation and flood control. The power to do this could also provide soldiers, and, as weapons became more complex and expensive, professionalism would be more likely. One source of Akkadian success was that they used a new weapon, the composite bow made of strips of wood and horn.

The Akkadian hegemony was relatively short. After two hundred years, under Sargon’s great-grandson, it was overthrown, apparently by mountain peoples called Gutians, and the last phase of Sumer, called ‘neo-Sumerian’ by scholars, began. For another two hundred years or so, until 2000 BC, hegemony again passed to the native Sumerians. This time its centre was Ur and, though it is hard to see what it meant in practice, the first king of the Third Dynasty of Ur who exercised this ascendancy called himself King of Sumer and Akkad. Sumerian art in this phase showed a new tendency to exalt the power of the prince; the tradition of popular portraiture of the archaic period almost vanished. The temples were built again, bigger and better, and the kings seem to have sought to embody their grandeur in the ziggurats. Administrative documents show that the Akkadian legacy was strong, too; neo-Sumerian culture shows many Semitic traits and perhaps the aspiration to wider kingship reflects this inheritance. The provinces which paid tribute to the last successful kings of Ur stretched from Susa, on the frontiers of Elam on the lower Tigris, to Byblos on the coast of Lebanon.

This was the sunset of the first people to achieve civilization. Of course they did not disappear, but their individuality was about to be merged in the general history of Mesopotamia and the Near East. Their great creative era was behind them and has focused our attention on a relatively small area; the horizons of history are about to expand. Enemies abounded on the frontiers. In about 2000 BC, the Elamites came and Ur fell to them. Why, we do not know. There had been intermittent hostility between the peoples for a thousand years and some have seen in this the outcome of a struggle to control the routes of Iran which could guarantee access to the highlands where lay minerals the Mesopotamians needed. At all events, it was the end of Ur. With it disappeared the distinctive Sumerian tradition, now merged in the swirling currents of a world of more than one civilization. It would now be only occasionally visible in patterns made by others. For fifteen centuries or so Sumer had built up the subsoil of civilization in Mesopotamia, just as its precivilized forerunners had built up the physical subsoil on which it itself rested. It left behind writing, monumental buildings, an idea of justice and legalism and the beginning of mathematics and a great religious tradition. It is a considerable record and the seed of much else. The Mesopotamian tradition had a long life ahead of it and every side of it was touched by the Sumerian legacy.

While the Sumerians had been building up their civilization, their influence had contributed to changes elsewhere. All over the Fertile Crescent new kingdoms and peoples had been appearing. They were stimulated or taught by what they saw in the south and by the empire of Ur, as well as by their own needs. The diffusion of civilized ways was already rapid. This makes it very hard to delineate and categorize the main processes of these centuries in a clear-cut way. Worse still, the Near East was for long periods a great confusion of peoples, moving about for reasons we often do not understand. The Akkadians themselves had been one of them, pushing up originally from the great Semitic reservoir of Arabia to finish in Mesopotamia. The Gutians, who took part in the Akkadians’ overthrow, were Caucasians. The most successful of all of these peoples were the Amorites, a Semitic stock which had spread far and wide and joined the Elamites to overthrow the armies of Ur and destroy its supremacy. They had established themselves in Assyria, or upper Mesopotamia, in Damascus, and in Babylon in a series of kingdoms which stretched as far as the coast of Palestine. Southern Mesopotamia, old Sumer, they continued to dispute with the Elamites. In Anatolia their neighbours were the Hittites, an Indo-European people which crossed from the Balkans in the third millennium. At the edges of this huge confusion stood another old civilization, Egypt, and the vigorous Indo-European peoples who had filled up Iran. The picture is a chaos; the area is a maelstrom of races pushing into it from all sides. Patterns grow hard to distinguish.

One convenient landmark is provided by the appearance of a new empire in Mesopotamia, one which has left behind a famous name: Babylon. Another famous name is inseparably linked to it, that of one of its kings, Hammurabi. He would have a secure place in history if we knew nothing of him except his reputation as a law-giver; his code is the oldest statement of the legal principle of an eye for an eye. He was also the first ruler to unify the whole of Mesopotamia, and though the empire was short-lived the city of Babylon was to be from his time the symbolic centre of the Semitic peoples of the south. It began with the triumph of one Amorite tribe over its rivals in the confused period following the collapse of Ur. Hammurabi may have become ruler in 1792 BC; his successors held things together until sometime after 1600 BC, when the Hittites destroyed Babylon and Mesopotamia was once more divided between rival peoples who flowed into it from all sides.

At its height the first Babylonian empire ran from Sumeria and the Persian Gulf north to Assyria, the upper part of Mesopotamia. Hammurabi ruled the cities of Nineveh and Nimrud on the Tigris, Mari high on the Euphrates, and controlled that river up to the point at which it is nearest to Aleppo. Seven hundred or so miles long and about a hundred miles wide, this was a great state, the greatest, indeed, to appear in the region up to this time, for the empire of Ur had been a looser, tributary affair. It had an elaborate administrative structure, and Hammurabi’s code of laws is justly famous, though it owes something of its pre-eminence to chance. As probably happened to earlier collections of judgments and rules which have only survived in fragments, Hammurabi’s was cut in stone and set up in the courtyard of temples for the public to consult. But at greater length and in a more ordered way than earlier collections it assembled some 282 articles, dealing comprehensively with a wide range of questions: wages, divorce, fees for medical attention and many other matters. This was not legislation, but a declaration of existing law, and to speak of a ‘code’ may be misleading unless this is remembered. Hammurabi assembled rules already current; he did not create those laws de novo. This body of ‘common law’ long provided one of the major continuities of Mesopotamian history.

The family, land and commerce seem to be the main concerns of this compilation of rules. It gives a picture of a society already far beyond regulation by the ties of kindred, local community and the government of village headmen. By Hammurabi’s time the judicial process had emerged from the temple and non-priestly courts were the rule. In them sat the local town notables and from them appeals lay to Babylon and the king himself. Hammurabi’s stele (the stone pillar on which his code was carved) clearly stated that its aim was to assure justice by publishing the law: 

Let the oppressed man who has a cause

Come into the presence of my statue

And read carefully my inscribed stele. 

Sadly, perhaps, its penalties seem to have harshened by comparison with older Sumerian practice, but in other respects, such as the laws affecting women, Sumerian tradition survived in Babylon.

The code’s provisions in respect of property included laws about slaves. Babylon, like every other ancient civilization and many of modern times, rested on slavery. Very possibly the origin of slavery is conquest; certainly slavery was the fate which probably awaited the loser of any of the wars of early history and his women and children, too. But by the time of the first Babylonian empire, regular slave-markets existed and there was a steadiness of price which indicates a fairly regular trade. Slaves from certain districts were especially prized for their reliable qualities. Though the master’s hold on the slave was virtually absolute, some Babylonian slaves enjoyed remarkable independence, engaging in business and even owning slaves on their own account. They had legal rights, if narrow ones.

It is hard to assess what slavery meant in practice in a world lacking the assumption which we take for granted that chattel slavery cannot be justified. Generalities dissolve in the light of evidence about the diversity of things slaves might do; if most lived hard lives, then so, probably, did most men. Yet it is hard to feel anything but pity for the lives of captives being led away to slavery before conquering kings on scores of memorials from the ‘golden standard’ of Ur in the middle of the third millennium to the stone reliefs of Assyrian conquests 1500 years later. The ancient world rested civilization on a great exploitation of man by man; if it was not felt to be very cruel, this is only to say that no other possible way of running things was conceivable.

Babylonian civilization in due time became a legend of magnificence. The survival of one of the great images of city life - the worldly, wicked city of pleasure and consumption - in the name ‘Babylon’ was a legacy which speaks of the scale and richness of its civilization, though it owes most to a later period. Yet enough remains, too, to see the reality behind this myth, even for the first Babylonian empire. The great palace of Mari is an outstanding example; walls in places forty feet thick surrounded courtyards, 300 or so rooms forming a complex drained by bitumen-lined pipes running thirty feet deep. It covered an area measuring 150 by over 200 yards and is the finest evidence of the authority the monarch had come to enjoy. In this palace, too, were found great quantities of clay tablets whose writing reveals the business and detail which government embraces by this period.

Many more tablets survive from the first Babylonian empire than from its predecessors or immediate successors. They provide the detail which enables us to know this civilization better, it has been pointed out, than we know some European countries of a thousand years ago. They contribute evidence of the life of the mind in Babylon, too. It was then that the Epic of Gilgamesh took the shape in which we know it. The Babylonians gave cuneiform script a syllabic form, thus enormously increasing its flexibility and usefulness. Their astrology pushed forward the observation of nature and left another myth behind, that of the wisdom of the Chaldeans, a name sometimes misleadingly given to the Babylonians. Hoping to understand their destinies by scanning the stars, the Babylonians built up a science, astronomy, and established an important series of observations which was another major legacy of their culture. It took centuries to accumulate after its remote beginnings in Ur but by 1000 BC the prediction of lunar eclipses was possible and within another two or three centuries the path of the sun and some of the planets had been plotted with remarkable accuracy against the positions of the apparently fixed stars. This was a scientific tradition reflected in Babylonian mathematics, which has passed on to us the sexagesimal system of Sumer in our circle of 3 60 degrees and the hour of sixty minutes. The Babylonians also worked out mathematical tables and an algebraic geometry of great practical utility and it seems likely they invented the sundial, the earliest known instrument for measuring the passage of time.

Astronomy began in the temple, in the contemplation of celestial movements announcing the advent of festivals of fertility and sowing, and Babylonian religion held close to the Sumerian tradition. Like the old cities, Babylon had a civic god, Marduk; gradually he elbowed his way to the front among his Mesopotamian rivals. This took a long time. Hammurabi said (significantly) that Anu and Enlil, the Sumerian gods, had conferred the headship of the Mesopotamian pantheon upon Marduk, much as they had bidden him to rule over all men for their good. Subsequent vicissitudes (sometimes accompanied by the abduction of his statue by invaders) obscured Marduk’s status, but after the twelfth century BC it was usually unquestioned. Meanwhile, Sumerian tradition remained alive well into the first millennium BC in the use of Sumerian in the Babylonian liturgies, in the names of the gods and the attributions they enjoyed. Babylonian cosmogony began, like that of Sumer, with the creation of the world from watery waste (the name of one god meant ‘silt’) and the eventual fabrication of Man as the slave of the gods. In one version, gods turned men out like bricks, from clay moulds. It was a world picture suited to absolute monarchy, where kings exercised power like that of gods over the men who toiled to build their palaces and sustained a hierarchy of officials and great men which mirrored that of the heavens.

Hammurabi’s achievement did not long survive him. Events in northern Mesopotamia indicated the appearance of a new power even before he formed his empire. Hammurabi had overthrown an Amorite kingdom which had established itself in Assyria at the end of the hegemony of Ur. This was a temporary success. There followed nearly a thousand years during which Assyria was to be a battleground and prize, eventually overshadowing a Babylon from which it was separated; the centre of gravity of Mesopotamian history had decisively moved northwards from old Sumer. The Hittites who were establishing themselves in Anatolia in the last quarter of the third millennium BC, were pushing slowly forwards in the next few centuries; during this time they took up the cuneiform script, which they adapted to their own Indo-European language. By 1700 BC they ruled the lands between Syria and the Black Sea. Then, one of their kings turned southwards against a Babylonia already weakened and shrunken to the old land of Akkad. His successor carried the advance to completion; Babylon was taken and plundered and Hammurabi’s dynasty and achievement finally came to an end. But then the Hittites withdrew and other peoples ruled and disputed Mesopotamia for a mysterious four centuries of which we know little except that during them the separation of Assyria and Babylonia which was to be so important in the next millennium was made final.

In 1162 BC the statue of Marduk was again taken away from Babylon by Elamite conquerors. By that time, a very confused era has opened and the focus of world history has shifted away from Mesopotamia. The story of the Assyrian empire still lies ahead, but its background is a new wave of migrations in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC which involve other civilizations far more directly and deeply than the successors of the Sumerians. Those successors, their conquerors and displacers, none the less built on the foundations laid in Sumer. Technically, intellectually, legally, theologically, the Near East, which by 1000 BC was sucked into the vortex of world politics - the term is by then not too strong - still bore the stamp of the makers of the first civilization. Their heritage would pass in strangely transmuted forms to others in turn.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!