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6-08-2015, 00:02

The First Civilization

A woman named Enheduanna was one of the most powerful figures in ancient Mesopotamia. Enheduanna was still a child when her parents,

King Sargon and Queen Tashlultum of Akkad, conquered Sumer and brought it under Akkadian rule, establishing the world’s first empire. As Enheduanna grew older, she became history’s earliest author.

Her poetic works, written in approximately 2300 BCE, were the first to be credited to a specific person rather than being anonymous. This gave her an unprecedented legacy.

Historians do not know her birth name. Enheduanna was the name she took on when she became high priestess, a common practice among religious leaders to this day. Just as Pope Francis is not addressed by his birth name of Jorge Bergoglio, Enheduanna did not refer to herself by her birth name. It is unlikely we will ever know what it was.

Most of what historians know about Enheduanna comes from two sources: the text of her 47 surviving hymns and a calcite engraving called the Disk of Enheduanna. These artifacts say relatively little about her daily life or her personal history outside of the public eye, but they say a great deal about her far-reaching priorities. Her temple dedications tell us she was talented at describing gods, the communities that worshiped them, and how the two were connected.

She likely spent much of her daily life in the giparu, or priest’s home, in the Sumerian city of Ur. Her religious duties involved rituals we now know little about. She would have probably washed and maintained the statues of the gods, overseen sacrifices, pronounced blessings, and written hymns. She also would have predicted the future, kept detailed records on the movement of the moon and the stars, delivered public speeches, and managed the massive network of temples. These buildings were the most important social and cultural institutions of their time. As high priestess she would have also been regarded as the wife of the moon god Nanna. This made her a symbol of fertility, power, and wisdom for the entire nation.


Carved from a durable off-white mineral called calcite, the 3,000-year-old Disk of Enheduanna is approximately ten inches (25 cm) in diameter and three inches (7 cm) thick—roughly the size of an average pie.1 Wearing an ornate headdress and textured robes, Enheduanna (second from left) is taller than the three other figures in the carving. Standing in front of her on the left is a naked man at what may be an altar. Standing behind her are two more plainly dressed figures whose genders are unknown.

The specific context of this disk, including the exact ceremony it depicts and the role of each figure, is lost to history.


Enheduanna’s life represents a turning point in ancient Mesopotamian history. King Sargon’s conquest of Sumer and the formation of the Akkadian Empire marked the transition between agricultural city-states and regional empires. Before Enheduanna was born, Mesopotamia had never been ruled by a regional power. By the time she was an adult, Mesopotamia was part of a larger empire. It would never again be made up of loosely knit agricultural city-states.

The beginning of Mesopotamia, which was also the beginning of what we call civilization, can be traced back 7,000 years to the founding of the Sumerian city Eridu, which developed into one of the oldest known cities on Earth.2 It was there where humanity perfected agriculture. This period was the end of the Neolithic Era, the last part of the Stone Age. The Neolithic saw the emergence of stone tools and the development of farming technology. At the end of the Neolithic Era, civilization began to consist of permanent cities rather than small, temporary settlements. Seven and one-half miles (12 km) northeast of Eridu was Ur, a second agricultural site that would soon become the cultural center of southern Mesopotamia. Other cities soon emerged in the same region. A loose collection of city-states was ruled by a single king, who—according to Sumerian mythology—was a man from Eridu named Alulim. From Alulim came a succession of many other kings and queens, and their reigns combined spanned thousands of years.

The enormous scale of ancient Mesopotamian history is hard to convey. Historians tend to think of the Sumerian period as lasting between the founding of Eridu in approximately 5400 BCE and the rise of another great city, Babylon, in approximately 1700 BCE. This is a period of 3,700 years, spanning the same amount of time as the gap between the rise of Babylon and the present day. Archaeological evidence tells us most of the first 3,700 years of recorded history took place in southern Mesopotamia in the general region of Ur and Eridu. The second 3,700 years of this history represents the entire post-Sumerian history of human civilization as we know it. So when historians talk about ancient Mesopotamia, they are talking about a vast

span of time that we do not know very much about. This makes the study of ancient Mesopotamia both incredibly exciting and incredibly frustrating. It raises many fundamental historical questions about early human civilization but does not fully answer most of them.


As human civilization began spreading beyond southern Mesopotamia, the city of Babylon in central Mesopotamia slowly began to replace the former cities of Sumer as the area’s cultural and economic center. The city had originally been founded in approximately 2290 BCE as a small Sumerian settlement. Although it continued the cultural traditions of Sumer, Babylon soon began to take on characteristics political scientists would associate with a major city today: wealth, infrastructure, cultural diversity, and a complex system of law.

Babylon in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament, mentions Babylon often. The city was the wealthiest and most powerful in the region when the stories of ancient Israel were written. It is often used in the Bible as a symbol of wealth and sensuality, but other references are literal. After the army of Babylon destroyed the Jewish Temple and exiled Jerusalem’s priestly class to Babylon in 587 BCE, many of the biblical texts mournfully recorded the experiences of captive immigrants. “By the rivers of Babylon,” Psalm 137 begins, “there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. . . . How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”3

esopotamia’s first metropolis. Ur, established in approximately 3800 BCE, was important, but none of the cities of southern Mesopotamia were ever as large, diverse, or successful as Babylon.

Babylon also gave the world the most famous ancient Mesopotamian:

King Hammurabi, born in approximately 1820 BCE. Hammurabi is best known

for his legal code carved on stones and tablets.

His code was not Mesopotamia’s first. This credit may belong to another tablet, a code attributed to the king Ur-Nammu, written several hundred years earlier in approximately 2100 BCE.4 However, Hammurabi’s was certainly the most influential, and it would provide a template upon which later legal codes would improve. By the standards of today’s industrialized nations, the tablet was a strange and brutal system of law if it was in fact enforced, and historians have no way of knowing whether it was. But its level of detail, sophistication, and consistency was unmatched at the time.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem chronicling the adventures of King Gilgamesh of Uruk, the brave demigod who purportedly ruled Sumer in approximately 2700 BCE and was honored as a mythologized national hero.

The epic is important because it is the oldest surviving work of long-form fiction. The story tells of Gilgamesh’s corruption; his eventual redemption at the hands of his companion, the elemental force of nature Enkidu; Enkidu’s decision to sacrifice his own life to protect Gilgamesh; and Gilgamesh’s tiring yet ineffective effort to conquer death and learn the secrets of immortality.

history of English-language literature. No fictional character since Gilgamesh has ever enjoyed such a central place, for such a long time, in a regional literary tradition.

Although historians can only approximate the year in which the ancient Mesopotamian civilization began, it is easy to say when it ended: on October 29, 539 BCE. On that date, Cyrus the Great of Persia entered the city of Babylon and declared himself king. After 539, there would never again be an independent Mesopotamian king of Babylon. The Persians ruled Babylon until 331 BCE, when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the city.

In subsequent centuries, the civilization fell under the rule of the Parthians, the Romans, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. By the time Iraq won its independence in 1932, the regional identity associated with Mesopotamia’s ancient empires had long since been worn away by 2,500 years of foreign occupation.

The invasion of Babylon by Cyrus the Great became a popular subject of art. Later artists often depicted a fanciful version of the city.