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6-08-2015, 00:12

Life in Mesopotamia

Residents of the oldest civilization in human
history were surrounded by music and chants,
savory roasts and rich candy, incense and aromatic
herbs, brightly colored clothing and glistening skin,
and looming architecture and distinctive houses.
The stories of their time dealt with the same realities
as the stories from today: life and death, love and
despair, violence and restoration, and shame and glory. These stories and
their heroes provided a cultural backdrop that set the tone for daily life in
ancient Mesopotamia.


In 2030 BCE, Ur was in its prime. After centuries of Akkadian and Gutian
rule, it was back in Sumerian hands under the authority of Ur-Nammu.
His program of reforms included a written code of law and the completion
of Ur’s massive Great Ziggurat, which loomed over the city like a sacred
fortress. The population of the city had reached its peak at approximately
65,000 residents.1 A silver currency system of shekels, minas, and talents had
begun, and the economy was thriving. The common language had recently
transitioned from Sumerian to Akkadian, but most prayers and texts were
still written in Sumerian. It is likely many adult residents of the city spoke
both languages to some degree.
Morning for a mushkinu, a middle-class Sumerian, generally began with
waking up on a reed mattress on the house’s open second story, if the
weather was warm. People descended the stairs to say morning prayers and
eat some barley flatbread for breakfast, along with some honey and dates if
they were in supply. Most residents had drinkable water, soap, and oils for
personal hygiene. Both women and men combed and styled their hair. Men
were also expected to comb and style their beards,
and women were often expected to wear a head
covering. Clothing for both sexes consisted of a skirt,
sandals, a wool tunic, and distinctive jewelry. Then
it was off to work. Most mushkinu were farmers.
Others worked as potters, tailors, stonemasons,
brewers, or in other skilled trades. After a hard day’s
work, a Babylonian might eat a grain cake cooked
with dates or some other fruit, along with dried fish
and a pitcher of beer.


By 650 BCE, the Assyrian Empire was the dominant
power in Mesopotamia. The Sumerian and Akkadian
nations were no more, and Babylon was under
Assyrian occupation. This was good news for
residents of the new Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
Although it had been continuously occupied since the area was first
settled in 6000 BCE, Nineveh was essentially rebuilt by the mighty kings
Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal in the 600s BCE to serve as the empire’s
nucleus and their own home base. Among its many unique attractions was
the world’s first library, which included approximately 30,000 volumes.2 In its
prime, Nineveh was a global center of intellectual life.
Nineveh was also a very traditional Mesopotamian city in some ways.
The basic morning routine someone might have had in Ur in 2030 BCE would
still apply to most working-class people in Nineveh. The prayers might be
said to different gods, the flatbread might be eaten with date syrup instead
of honey, and the tunic might even be cotton instead
of wool, but there were no dramatic shifts in daily
life in a span of more than 1,000 years. Aramaic had
gradually begun to replace Akkadian as the language
of the people, and Sumerian had fallen further into
the background, but Ashurbanipal himself claimed to
read, write, and speak all three languages.


By 560 BCE, ancient Mesopotamia was approaching
its end. Assyria had fallen, and Babylonia had risen
once more to become more powerful than ever.
Yet in only 21 years, the Persians would crush the
Babylonian Empire, seize Babylon, and become the first of many long-term
regional occupiers. An indigenous Mesopotamian empire would never again
take the world stage. Akkadian and Sumerian would
gradually fall out of use, replaced completely by
Aramaic. Persian, Greek, and Roman influences
would eradicate the everyday routine of the ancient
Mesopotamian world. Even the traditional religions
would gradually fall away as imperial colonists
and missionaries from other faiths pushed out the
old ways.

By traditional measurements, the Babylon
of 560 BCE did not look like the capital of an
empire in decline. The 300-foot (91 m) Etemenanki
dominated a Babylonian landscape that was walled,
densely populated, and eight miles (13 km) wide.
With 200,000 people spread out over more than
2,000 acres (800 ha) of land, it was undeniably the
largest and most powerful city on Earth.4 But it
would not remain so for long.