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6-08-2015, 00:04

Empires of the Fertile Crescent

The name Mesopotamia comes from the Greek mesos potamos, “amidst two rivers,” and it was applied long after these civilizations thrived. Mesopotamia referred to the region’s location between and around the massive Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,

The Euphrates River runs for more than 1,700 miles (2,700 km), providing a valuable source of water for the region.

The Sumerian Rivers

Much like Mesopotamia, the names Tigris and Euphrates were later Greek terms the Sumerians themselves did not use. The Sumerians called the Tigris the Idigina, “fast river,” because it moved quickly. More agriculturally useful was the slower-moving Euphrates, which they called the Buranuna, “great river.”1 Although both rivers were essential to ancient Mesopotamian civilization, most early cities were settled along the Euphrates.

the major bodies of water that determined the landscape of the ancient Near East. From their source in Turkey to their mouth in the Persian Gulf, they created moist, nutrient-rich soil and provided water to animals and plants suitable for domestication. Located at the hinge of three continents, the area was an ideal place for human civilization to begin.

The story of ancient Mesopotamian settlement begins in 6500 BCE at the beginning of what archaeologists now refer to as the Ubaid Period.

The Ubaid Period gets its name from the mysterious Tell al-'Ubaid mound located on the southern Mesopotamian floodplain in the heart of Sumer, near what would become the sites of Eridu and Ur. On this site, ancient Mesopotamian subsistence farmers raised families and crops, leaving behind

impressive pottery as evidence of their presence. It was little more than a campsite, though. It was not, strictly speaking, the first city in Mesopotamia.

That distinction falls to Eridu, founded in approximately 5400 BCE and generally regarded as among the oldest cities on Earth.2 It was Eridu, along with the slightly later and ultimately more influential city-states of Uruk and Ur, that gave birth to the oldest civilization on Earth—the confederation of city-states we now refer to as Sumer.


As the southern Mesopotamian city-states united under a common language and a common culture, they began sharing a national identity. The residents of Ur, Eridu, Akkad, and nearby city-states united to govern what they called kiengi, “[our] native land.” They referred to themselves as sag gigga, “black-headed people.”3 In time, kings began leading groups of city-states rather than single ones. However, it was their neighbors, the Akkadians, who gave them the name we remember them by: Sumer.

Prehistoric Settlements on the Anatolian Border

Although Eridu was among the first known cities in these ruins, archaeologists have uncovered

on Earth, it was not the first known settlement. not only practical materials, such as tools,

On the northern margins of the region now called pottery, and textiles, but also significant cultural

Turkey lie the ruins of the mysterious Qatalhoyuk materials including paintings and sculptures.

dwellings, dating to approximately 7400 BCE. Deep

The Akkadians, a central Mesopotamian culture with their own language and traditions, united under Sargon the Great to conquer Sumer in 2334 BCE after more than 3,000 years of rule by local Sumerian city-states. The Akkadian Empire ruled over the Sumerian territory, as well as much of the surrounding land, until Sumer fell to Gutian invaders in 2154 BCE. These people came from the Zagros Mountains in what is now Iraq and Afghanistan. Few records exist of the Gutian occupation, most likely because the Gutians either had a different written language or had no written language at all.

The Black-Headed People

The Sumerians described themselves as sag gigga, “black-headed people,” which would seem to suggest they had the darkest physical features in south Mesopotamia. Beyond that, it is difficult to know what they looked like. There is a remote possibility that scientists may one day be able to perform DNA testing on ancient Sumerian remains to determine their physical appearance. Successful tests have been performed on human remains dating back 400,000 years.4

In 2047 BCE, following a series of rebellions that overthrew the Gutian monarchy, the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu returned to power. By that time, the differences between the Sumerians and Akkadians

had disappeared. Akkadian had replaced Sumerian as the primary conversational language, and the concept of an Akkadian civilization as a separate political and cultural entity, independent from Sumer, no longer existed.


As the Sumerians built their civilization near the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates, a parallel civilization began taking shape farther north. In the northeastern part of what is now Iraq, two cities dominated the landscape: Ashur, founded in approximately 2500 BCE, and Nineveh, founded in approximately 2800 BCE. Smaller settlements had emerged in the area dating back as far as 6000 BCE. Although these two city-states were initially incorporated into the Akkadian Empire, they would soon represent the seat of a new regional power named after Ashur: the Assyrian Empire.

The Gutians

Not much is known about the violent and mighty Gutians, who defeated the Akkadian Empire in 2154 BCE and fell to the final Sumerian dynasty a half century later. In surviving texts, they are generally described as barbaric and uninterested in literature, but because no surviving texts speak of the Gutian conquest from the perspective of the conquerors, it is difficult to know if this characterization was correct.

Some European scholars of the 1800s suggested the Gutians were European, citing the fact that they were sometimes described by Akkadians as namrum, meaning “fair-haired” or “fair-skinned.” However, this theory has never been well supported by the available evidence.

Meanwhile, the political climate in southern Mesopotamia was increasingly changing because of immigration and invasion from other nearby nations. The Elamites, a civilization living to the east and southeast of Mesopotamia in what is now Iran, were particularly successful in their military efforts. They raided Ur in 2004 BCE, leaving behind a damaged, impoverished city that would never again be the center of the Mesopotamian world. The cultural focus of Mesopotamia increasingly shifted to the emerging city of Babylon, which achieved regional power as the seat of the Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi by 1750 BCE. The Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations coexisted in Mesopotamia for eight centuries, although not without occasional military conflicts.

The shape of the region changed dramatically beginning in 911 BCE.

The Assyrian Empire began three centuries of military expansionism that would make it the largest empire in the history of the region. Its territory stretched as far west as Egypt, as far north as Turkey, and as far east as Iran. Conquering this territory proved easier than maintaining it, and a series of revolts led to the destruction of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BCE and the fall of the Assyrian Empire seven years later.

The fall of the Assyrian Empire created a power vacuum, and the Babylonian Empire filled it. For nearly a century, Babylon stood tall as the world’s largest city and the capital of the region’s last true empire.