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B E T W E E N T WO R IV E R S : M E S O P O TA M IA (55002000 BCE) 59

 What role did cities play in Mesopotamian society?

would cross deserts, stopping at oasis communities where

water and supplies could be exchanged for their wares. They
traveled over routes that passed through deserts, steppes, and
forests, carrying goods and ideas across Afro-Eurasia.

B E T W E E N T WO R I V E R S :
z M E S O P O TA M I A
(55002000 BCE)

 What role did cities play in Mesopotamian society?

Early Mesopotamian Waterworks. From the sixth millennium

The common social geography of the world in 3500 BCE saw
BCE, irrigation was necessary for successful farming in southern
people living close to the land in small clans and settlements, Mesopotamia. By the first millennium BCE, sophisticated feats of
some mobile, some stationary, but a breakthrough occurred engineering allowed the Assyrians to redirect water through
in one place: the Mesopotamian river basin in Southwest constructed aqueducts, like the one illustrated here on a relief
Asia, where the worlds first complex society came into exis- from the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib at Nineveh.
tence. There the city and the river changed how people lived.

Converting the floodplain of the Euphrates River into a

breadbasket required mastery over the unpredictable rivers.
TA P P I N G THE WAT E R S Both the Euphrates and (to an even greater degree) the Tigris,
Mesopotamia, whose name is a Greek word meaning [coun- unless controlled by waterworks, were rivers profoundly un-
try] between two rivers, is not at first glance a hospitable favorable to cultivators. The annual floods and low-water sea-
place. From their headwaters in the mountains to the north sons came at exactly the wrong times in the farming
and east, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are wild and unpre- sequence. Floods occurred at the height of the growing sea-
dictable, flooding in periods of heavy rainfall and snow, and son, when crops were most vulnerable. Irrigation waters, con-
dry during the parched months of summer. Thus, water was versely, were needed when the floodwaters had receded and
both scourge and blessing for the pioneers who moved to the the river was at low ebb. In order to prevent the river from
Tigris and Euphrates river basin. It could wipe out years of overflowing during the flood stage, farmers put up and main-
hard work; but, properly handled, water could also transform tained levees (barriers to the waters) along the rivers banks,
the landscape into verdant fields. In retrospect, the simple ir- and dug ditches and canals to drain away floodwaters. To en-
rigation systems created by the earliest Mesopotamians were sure a plentiful supply of water in the later growing stages,
nothing short of revolutionary. A large landmass that includes they needed highly developed water-lifting devices. In pio-
all of modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria and southeastern neering water storage, Mesopotamians were the worlds first
Turkey, Mesopotamia embraces a richly varied topography hydraulic engineers.
and a wide variety of culturesall unified by interlocking The great technological breakthrough in Mesopotamian
drainage basins. Both rivers provided water for irrigation, and societies was in irrigation, not necessarily in agrarian meth-
although hardly navigable, both served as important routes ods. The soils were fine and rich, constantly replenished by
for transportation and communication by pack animal and silt carried by the floodwaters, so soil tillage was light work.
by foot. Farmers sowed a combination of wheat, millet, sesame, and
The first advances occurred in the foothill zones of the especially barley (which doubled as the basis for beer, a sta-
Zagros Mountains along the banks of the smaller rivers that ple of their diet), with yields possibly as high as those afforded
feed into the Tigris. Here, men and women discovered that by current-day wheat fields in Canada.
simple irrigation techniques enabled them to achieve higher
agricultural yields and greater surpluses on these lands than
were possible on rain-fed areas to the north. Gradually they
ventured out of the foothills onto the southern alluvial plain
of the Tigris and Euphrates River basin. There floods were Though its soil was rich and water was abundant, southern
larger, and the water harder to harness, but the land held Mesopotamia had few other natural resources apart from the
greater promise of abundant harvests. abundant mud and marsh reeds in the immediate vicinity of
60 Chapter 2 R I V ER S, CI TI ES, AND F IR S T S TAT E S , 40002000 BCE

the river basin that provided primitive building materials. In expanded as a result of its agricultural bounty, and swelling
order to get wood, stone, metal, and all of the other raw mate- ranks of Mesopotamians migrated from the villages scattered
rials on which complex settled societies relied to construct across the countryside to particular centers that eventually
cities and the temples and palaces within them, Mesopotami- became cities. The earliest of these cities, Eridu, Nippur, and
ans had to interact with the inhabitants of surrounding regions. Uruk, dominated their environs by 3500 BCE. Rather than
They imported the cedars of Lebanon, the copper and stones appearing suddenly, the first cities in the southern part of the
of Oman, more copper from what is now Turkey and Iran, and Mesopotamian floodplain grew gradually over about 1,000
the precious blue gemstone called lapis lazuli from faraway years. Buildings of mud brick were erected in successive lay-
Afghanistan in return for textiles, oils, and other commodities. ers of accumulated urban development. Consider Eridu,
Maintaining trading contacts with their neighbors was rela- which had first been settled as a village around 6000 BCE.
tively easy, given Mesopotamias open boundaries on all sides. Home to the Sumerian water god, Ea, Eridu was a sacred site
In this crucial respect, Mesopotamia contrasted with Egypt, where temples full of fish bones were built one on top of the
whose long and narrow land was cut off by impassable deserts other for more than 4,000 years. During the course of more
to the east and west, and by the Nile River rapids to the south. than twenty reconstructions, the temples became increas-
Mesopotamias natural advantagesits rich agricultural ingly elaborate, built on an ever-higher base. Eventually, the
land and water combined with easy access to neighboring temple was raised on a platform like a mountain, looming
regionswere propitious for the growth of cities. But this over the featureless landscape and visible for miles in all di-
very openness made the river valleys vulnerable to invaders rections. Not only had the temple grown up but the village
from the deserts and the mountains. Mesopotamia thus be- had expanded horizontally, becoming a city, with its god over-
came a crossroads for the peoples of Southwest Asia, the seeing its growth.
meeting grounds for several distinct cultural and linguistic There were some thirty-five cities with major divine sanc-
groups of people. Among the dominant groups were Sumeri- tuaries widely scattered across the southern plain of
ans, who were concentrated in the south; Hurrians, who lived Mesopotamia. Sumerian ideology glorified a way of life and
in the north; and the Semitic-speaking Akkadians, who con- a territory composed of politically equal city-states, each with
centrated in western and central Mesopotamia. In general, its own principal guardian deity and sanctuary, supported by
people engaged in pastoralism outside the core agricultural its inhabitants. Local communities in these urban hubs ex-
regions, and they provided the settled communities with an- pressed their homage to individual city gods and took great
imal products in exchange for agricultural produce. pride in the temple, the gods home.
Early Mesopotamian cities served as meeting places for
peoples and their deities. In fact, it was the citys status as a
devotional and economic center that elevated it over the
FIRST CITIES countryside. Whether enormous, like Uruk or Nippur, or
Archaeological surveys suggest that sometime during the first modest, like Ur or Abu Salabikh, all cities performed these
half of the fourth millennium BCE, a large-scale demographic complex roles as spiritual, economic, and cultural homes for
transformation occurred. The population in the region had Mesopotamian subjects.

Layout of Eridu. Over several millennia, temples of increasing size and complexity were built atop
each other at Eridu in southern Iraq. The culmination came with the elaborate structure of level VII.

Offering table

Central room

Offering table

Central room
Altar table Altar Altar

0 3m
0 10 ft

Level XVI Level IX Level VII

B E T W E E N T WO R IV E R S : M E S O P O TA M IA (55002000 BCE) 61
 What role did cities play in Mesopotamian society?

Ziggurat. The first ziggurat of Mesopotamia, dedicated to the moon god Nanna, was built by the
founder of the Neo-Sumerian dynasty, Ur-Nammu (21122095 BCE). Although temples had been
raised on platforms since early times, the distinctive stepped form of the ziggurat was initially
borrowed from the Iranian plateau. It became the most important sacred structure in Mesopotamia.

Simply making a city was therefore not enough: it had to ples depended on the nearby rivers to produce their dis-
be made great. Urban design reflected the role of the city as tinctive cultures.
a wondrous place to pay homage to the gods and their human
intermediary, the king. The early cities contained enormous
spaces within their walls. Initially, houses were large and sep-
arated by great plantations of date palms. Within the city lim-
its were also located extensive sheepfolds (which became a The worldview of the Sumerians and, later, the Akkadians re-
frequent metaphor for the city). As populations grew, the fab- volved around a pantheon of gods who were believed to in-
ric of the cities of Mesopotamia became denser. Even houses habit the lands of Sumer and Akkad, shaping political
belonging to the well-to-do became considerably smaller. And institutions and controlling everything, including the weather,
often urbanites established new suburbs, either settling be- fertility, harvests, and the underworld. As depicted in the Epic
yond the city perimeter or simply breaking through the old of Gilgamesh, a later composition based on a cycle of several
walls and spilling into the countryside. oral tales about Gilgamesh (a historical but much mytholo-
The original layout of Mesopotamian cities conformed to gized king of Uruk), the gods could give, but they could also
a common pattern. Through their middle invariably ran a take awaywith searing droughts and unmerciful floods and
canal, around which neighborhoods housing specific occu- with natural and violent death. Gods, and the natural forces
pational groups emerged. The temple marked the city center, they controlled, had to be revered and feared. Faithful sub-
while the palace and other official buildings often arose on jects imagined their gods as immortal, all-powerful, anthro-
the periphery. In separate quarters for craft production, fam- pomorphic beings whose habits were capricious, contentious,
ilies passed down their trades from generation to generation. and gloriously work-free. Each of the major gods of the Sumer-
The emergence of politically autonomous and essentially ian pantheon had its home in a particular floodplain city,
equal cities was a recurring theme in lower Mesopotamia, which it was believed to have created; therefore each gave his
where Sumerians and Semites lived side by side. The city- or her city its particular character, distinct institutions, and
states were bound together through a common culture, in- individual patterns of relationships with its urban neighbors.
tense trade, and a shared environment. Urban life and Temples, and especially the main temple, were thought
irrigated agriculture demonstrate how much ancient peo- of as the home of the gods and the symbol of urban identity.
62 Chapter 2 R I V ER S, CI TI ES, AND F IR S T S TAT E S , 40002000 BCE

Cylinder Seal of Adad Carved from Green Stone. Many people in Mesopotamia involved with
administration and public life had one or more cylinder seals. Cylinder seals were carved with imagery
and inscriptions and were impressed into clay tablets and other documents while they were still
malleable in order to guarantee the authenticity of a transaction. The cylinder seal shown here carries
the inscription of the scribe Adda. The imagery includes representations of important gods of the
Akkadian pantheon. The sun god Shamash rises from between the mountains in the center. Ishtar as a
warrior goddess stands to the left. To the right is Ea, the god of wisdom, who is associated with flowing
water and fish. Behind him is the servant Usmu, whose double face allows him to see everything. At
the far left is a god of hunting.

Temples represented the ability of the gods to hoard wealth Their dependents cultivated cereals, fruits, and vegetables,
at sites where mortals exchanged goods and services. They all of which required extensive irrigation. The temples owned
were the single most important marker distinguishing the vast flocks of sheep, goats, cows, and donkeys. Those located
urban from the rural world, and rulers lavished resources on close to the river employed workers to collect reeds, to fish,
their construction and adornment to demonstrate the power and to hunt. Enormous labor forces were required to main-
of their cities. Because the temple was the symbolic focus of tain this high level of production. Other temples operated
the entire city-state, it was important for rulers and other im- huge workshops (embryonic factories), where textiles and
portant members of the community to contribute to its up- leather goods were manufactured. Temple workshops em-
keep. Communal efforts would often be channeled to temple ployed legions of craftworkers, metalworkers, masons, and
projects. Many royal inscriptions commemorate the con- stoneworkers. Since southern Mesopotamia lacked many raw
struction and later renovation of a temple as one of the rulers materials, temples as well as the palaces sponsored long-dis-
major duties. tance trade, often commissioning independent merchants
Inside the temple was an altar, on which the cult image and traders to organize commercial expeditions to distant
was placed. Frequently benches lined the walls, with statues lands. The model of the household extended beyond the tem-
of humans standing in perpetual worship of the deitys im- ple to all aspects of the Sumerian and Akkadian economy.
ages. By the end of the third millennium BCE, the elevated The royal court was organized around the kings household;
platform base of the temple was transformed into a stepped and in the private sector, large landowning extended families
platform called a ziggurat. On top of the temple tower itself functioned as a household economic unit.
stood the main temple. Surrounding the ziggurat was a con-
glomeration of buildings that composed the temple precinct,
which housed priests, officials, laborers, and a copious ret-
inue of servantsall bustling about to serve the citys god.
While the temple was the gods home, it was also the gods The palace, both as an institution and as a set of buildings,
estate. As such, temples functioned like large households en- appeared around 2500 BCE, about a millennium later than
gaged in all sorts of productive and commercial activities. the Mesopotamian temple. But the palace quickly joined the
B E T W E E N T WO R IV E R S : M E S O P O TA M IA (55002000 BCE) 63
 What role did cities play in Mesopotamian society?

temple as a defining landmark of city life. As life became the 1930s, 16 were the burial sites of highborn persons. The
more complex and cities grew in size, palaces began to sup- royal burials were distinguished from others by being housed
plement temples in upholding order and diffusing a sense of in a structure of mud brick. Further, they held not only the
shared membership in city affairs. Over time, the palace primary remains but also the bodies of other humans who
became a source of power rivaling the temple. Palace and had been sacrificed. In one case, more than eighty men and
temple life often blurred, with rulers doubling as secular women accompanied the deceased to the afterlife. Many of
governors and sacred figures. Indeed, rulers embodied gods the graves containing human sacrifices also demonstrate the
in such rituals as the Sacred Marriage, in which the king, as elaborateness of the burial festival rituals. From the huge vats
high priest, took on the role of the god Dumuzi, a Sumer- for cooked food, the bones of animals, the drinking vessels,
ian god of fertility and agrarian productivity, as in the tem- and the musical instruments recovered from the grave sites,
ple he engaged in sexual relations with the high priestess, we can reconstruct the lifestyle of those who were required
who embodied the goddess Inanna. Although located at the to join their masters in the graves. Honoring the dead by in-
edge of cities in previously uninhabited locations, palaces cluding their followers and possessions in their tombs rein-
quickly became the visible expression of permanent secular, forced the social hierarchiesincluding the vertical ties
military, and administrative authority, as distinct from the between humans and godsthat were the cornerstone of
spiritual and economic power of the temples. Their builders these early states.
expanded their citys influenceand thereby also disrupted
the balance of power within and among Mesopotamian
Rulers tied their status to their gods through elaborate
burial arrangements of the kind well known from Egypt and Social hierarchies were an important part of the fabric of
China. The Royal Cemetery at Ur offers spectacular archae- Sumerian city-states. The origins of the first states and hier-
ological evidence of how Sumerian rulers dealt with death. Of archies topped by powerful elites that supported them and
the more than 2,000 graves that archaeologists uncovered in profited from them can be traced to the very breakthrough

The Royal Tombs of Ur. The Royal Tombs of Ur, excavated in the 1930s, contained thousands of
objects in gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and shell that were buried along with elites of the First Dynasty of
Ur. One tomb belonged to the king, Mes-KALAM-dug. Next to his head was a gold helmet with the
bun and braid that was headdress of the ruler. In another grave, along with the skeletons of more than
sixty members of a royal household, were musical instruments, including this large harp with a golden
bulls head. Such instruments would have been played at the ritual meal associated with these
fabulously rich burials. Pu-Abi, identified as a queen by the cylinder near her body, was buried in a
separate chamber. She was interred in full regalia, including the elaborate headdress shown here.
64 Chapter 2 R I V ER S, CI TI ES, AND F IR S T S TAT E S , 40002000 BCE

that made the region so special: irrigation. Whereas plows that were meant to provide the dowry necessary for a suc-
and sicklesthe basic implements of farmingwere tools cessful marriage. Adoption was also a common way for a fam-
employed by individuals for their own benefit, dikes, canals, ily to gain a male heir. Most women lived inside the contract
banks, and hydraulic lifts required collective effort, invest- of marriage, but a special class of women joined the temple
ment, and organization. No single individual or family could staff as priestesses. By the second millennium BCE, these
sustain the challenge. Early irrigation societies therefore cre- priestesses were allowed broad economic autonomy that in-
ated communal ways of building infrastructure and main- cluded ownership of estates and productive enterprises. Yet
taining it, collecting taxes and drafting labor to expand and even in the case of the female temple personnel, their fa-
preserve waterworks. These efforts laid the foundations of thers and brothers remained ultimately responsible for their
the first Afro-Eurasian states. well-being.
City-states at first were run by assemblies of elders and
young men who made collective decisions for the commu-
nity. From the outset, specially empowered elites were inter-
mittently appointed to tackle emergencies; with time, these
elite power holders became permanent features of the polit- The first recorded words of history were set down in the cities
ical landscape. The social hierarchy set off the rulers from of Mesopotamia, and they promoted the power of the temples
the ruled. Ruling groups secured their privileged access to and kings in the expanding city-states. The people who con-
economic and political resources by erecting systems of bu- trolled the production and distribution of goods used writing
reaucracies, priesthoods, and laws. Priests and bureaucrats to enhance communication among large numbers of individ-
served their rulers well, championing rules and norms that uals and to keep track of the products of their realm. Oral
legitimized the political leadership. communication and human memory had adequately served
Occupations within the cities were highly specialized. A the needs of small-scale hunting and gathering and village
list of professions was formalized and transmitted across the farming communities, but they imposed limits on a societys
land so that everyone could know where he or she fit within scale and complexity. As people developed more specialized
the newly emerging social order. The king and priest in Sumer skills and roles, they had to communicate with other spe-
were at the top of the list. Following them were bureaucrats cialists and convey messages over longer distances. Writing
(scribes and accountants of the household economy), super- facilitated transactions and information sharing across wider
visors, and specialized craftworkers. These included cooks, spans of distance and time.
jewelers, gardeners, potters, metalsmiths, and traders. The We now take reading and writing for granted, but they
biggest group, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy, con- emerged independently in only a few locations. Mesoamerica
sisted of the male and female workers who were not slaves was one such area, and China, too, saw the autonomous de-
but who were dependent on their households. Frequently sev- velopment of literacy. What is certain is that at approximately
eral households would operate as a closed economic unit, the same time, Mesopotamians and Egyptians became the
producing most of the necessities within a closed system. worlds first record keepers and readers. The precursors to
Property was held collectively by the family or extended writing appeared in Mesopotamian societies when farming
household. All members were party to land transfers or sale. peoples and officials who had been employing clay tokens
Movement between these economic classes was not impos- and images carved on stones to seal off storage areas began
sible but, as in many traditional societies, it was unusual. to use them to convey messages. Originally intended simply
There were also independent merchants who assumed the to identify those responsible for the vessels and storerooms
risk of long-distance trading ventures, hoping for a generous where valuable commodities were held, these images, when
return on their investment. combined with numbers also drawn on clay tablets, began to
Sumerian society was organized around the family and record the distribution of goods and services.
the household, and the Sumerian family was also hierarchi- In a flash of human genius, someone, probably in Uruk,
cal: the senior male dominated as the patriarch of the fam- understood that the marks, usually pictures of objects, could
ily. Most Sumerian households were made up of a single also represent words and then distinct sounds. A representa-
extended family, all living under the same roof. The family tion that transfers meaning from the name of a thing to the
consisted of the husband and wife bound by a contract; she sound of that name is called a rebus. For example, a picture
would provide children, preferably male, while he provided of a bee can be used to represent the sound b. Such pic-
support and protection. Monogamy was the norm, unless a tures opened the door to writing: a technology of symbols
son was not produced, and in such cases it was common to that uses marks to record specific discrete sounds. Before
take a second wife or to bring a slave girl into the house to long, scribes connected symbols with sounds, and sounds
bear male children who would be considered the married with meanings. As people combined rebus symbols with other
couples offspring. Sons would inherit the familys property in ways to store meaning in visual marks, they became able to
equal shares, while daughters were supported through gifts record and transmit messages over long distances by using
66 Chapter 2 R I V ER S, CI TI ES, AND F IR S T S TAT E S , 40002000 BCE

civilizing process in cities, was a skill mastered by only a tiny

but influential scribal elite.
Much of what we know about Mesopotamia rests on our
ability to decipher cuneiform script. Writing that employed
the rebus first appeared sometime around 3200 BCE, but not
until about 700 years later could the script record spoken ut-
terances completely. By around 2400 BCE, texts began to de-
scribe the political makeup of southern Mesopotamia, giving
details of its history as well as its economy. At that time, the
land of Sumer in the southern floodplain consisted of at least
a dozen city-states. Northern cities also borrowed the
cuneiform script to record economic transactions and polit-
ical events, but in their own Semitic tongue. Cuneiforms
adaptability to different languages is one of the main reasons
its use spread so widely. As city life and literacy expanded,
they gave rise to more than documents; they also spawned
the first written narratives, the stories of a people and their
One famous set of texts written down around 2100 BCE,
The Temple Hymns, describes the thirty-five major divine
sanctuaries on the southern plain. The magnificent Sumer-
ian King List is among the texts that recount the making of
political dynasties and depict great periodic floods. Written
Early Uruk Writing. The earliest tablets found at the site of Uruk
down around 2000 BCE, it organizes the reigns of kings by
were first impressed with cylinder seals and subsequently with
wedge-shaped signs. Appearing around 3200 BCE, these earliest
dynasty, one city at a time. The Sumerian King List also refers
tablets are no more than aids to memory, recording, for example, to the Great Flood, which is just one of many traditional
quantities of goods transferred to workers. It is not until six Mesopotamian stories that were transmitted orally from one
hundred years later that the cuneiform script is developed enough generation to another before being recorded (this story was
to record complete sentences that would be read by everyone in borrowed and incorporated into the book of Genesis as part
the same way. of the traditional creation story of the Bible). The Great
Flood, a crucial event in Sumerian memory and identity, ex-
plained Uruks demise as the gods doing. Flooding was the
abstract symbols or signs to denote concepts; such signs later most riveting of natural forces in the lives of a riverine folk,
came to represent syllables, which could be joined into words. and it helped shape the material and symbolic foundations
From the beginning, scribes occupied a special place in of Mesopotamian societiessocieties whose breakthroughs
Mesopotamian societies. By impressing these signs into wet were a consequence of tapping the waters of massive rivers.
clay with the cut end of a reed, the scribes engaged in a form
of wedge-shaped writing that we call cuneiform; it could be
used to fill clay tablets with information. What looked like SPREADING CITIES AND FIRST
gibberish to someone who was illiterate was actually intelli-
gible to anyone who could decipher iteven those in faraway
locations or in future generations. This Sumerian innovation Although no single state dominated the history of fourth and
powerfully enhanced the ability of urban elites to produce third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, a few stand out. Easily
and trade goods, to control property, and to transmit ideas of the most powerful, influential, and fully studied were the
society through literature, historical records, and sacred texts. Sumerian city-states of the Early Dynastic Age (28502334
Once again, the human experience had changed fundamen- BCE) and their successor, the Akkadian territorial state
tally, this time because human communication and memory (23342193 BCE), which was founded by the warrior king
were extended by being stored in the symbols of natural spo- Sargon of Akkad (r. 23342279 BCE).
ken language. While the city-states of southern Mesopotamia flourished
By taking these gradual steps, Mesopotamians opened the and competed, giving rise to the land of Sumer, the rich
door into the world of literacy. The cuneiform script was ex- agricultural zones to the north inhabited by the Hurrians also
ceedingly complicated, using a large set of signs that only a became urbanized. (See Map 2-3.) Northern urbanization, be-
very small proportion of the population was trained to deci- ginning around 2600 BCE, was rapid and soon yielded cities
pher. Therefore literacy, though a fundamental part of the comparable in size to those in the south, including ancient
B E T W E E N T WO R IV E R S : M E S O P O TA M IA (55002000 BCE) 67
 What role did cities play in Mesopotamian society?

Nagar and Urkesh. In west- iMAP

ern Syria, ancient Ebla (mod-
ern Tell Mardikh) was the BLACK

center of another Semitic- Troy

speaking city-state. Though

their inhabitants were cultur-

ally related to the Sumerians Kultepe

and Akkadians of the allu- NT
vium, the northern cities had US
Per Hussein
Tigris R.
economic, political, and so- TA
Urkesh Bassetki
cial organizations that were Tell Brak Nineveh
distinct and independent. Ebla

It was their very success Ashur

that eventually destabilized MEDITERRANEAN
Mari E hrates PLATEAU


the balanced world of the MESOPOTAMIA

early Sumerian city-states. Tell Agrab


Southern Mesopotamia con-


Susa T
tained many cities with bur- Umman Girsu A
geoning populations that EGYPT Uruk Ur ELAM S
were vying for access to agrar- Eridu

ian lands, to increasingly


scarce water, and to lucrative

Northern Mesopotamia cities after 2600 BCE

trade routes. As the regions Northern alluvium (Akkad) cities before 2600 BCE

bounty became known to

Southern alluvium (Sumer) cities before 2600 BCE

pastoralists far and wide, they 0 100 200 300 Miles

Akkadian power, 2334 2193 BCE

journeyed in greater numbers

0 100 200 300 Kilometers

to Mesopotamian cities, fuel- MAP 2-3 T H E S P R E A D O F C I T I E S I N M E S O P O TA M I A

ing urbanization and compe-
A N D T H E A K K A D I A N S TAT E , 2 6 0 0 2 2 0 0 B C E
tition. Thus, as cities grew
up, they also became impor- Urbanization began in the southern alluvium of Mesopotamia and gradually spread north-
tant crossroads. ward during the third millennium BCE. Eventually, the entire region was united under one
territorial state. Why did urbanization spread to the northern alluvium of Mesopotamia after
The worlds first great
2600 BCE? How similar were these new urban centers to those in the southern alluvium?
conqueror emerged from What were the legacies of Sargons Akkadian territorial state for the region?
one of these cities. By the
end of his long reign, he had
successfully united the
independent Mesopotamian
cities south of modern Baghdad by force. The legendary Sar- stood for centuries and were copied by many generations
gon the Great, king of Akkad, a city-state close to modern of builders, architects, artists, and scribes. And by encour-
Baghdad, brought the era of increasingly competitive inde- aging contact with distant neighbors, many of whom incor-
pendent city-states to an end. Remembered for two millennia porated various aspects of Mesopotamian culture into their
as a conqueror, Sargon was a ruler whose remarkable achieve- own distinct traditions, the Akkadian kings also increased
ment was not simply to dominate the southern lands but to the geographic reach of Mesopotamian influence. Although
unify their cities, forging a single political, economic, and his historical reputation has endured, Sargons empire was
cultural alliance in a land called Agade or Akkad. Although short-lived. Foreign tribesmen who came out of the Zagros
the unity forged by Sargon lasted only three generations, he Mountains to the east of the Tigris River infiltrated the
established the first multiethnic collection of urban centers heartland of Akkad, conquering the capital city around
the territorial statecapable of combining the northern and 2190 BCE. As legend has it, these barbarians wreaked
southern parts of the alluvium, thus laying the foundations havoc on civilization, but we will see that this interpreta-
for the integration of the territorial states that we describe in tion was promoted by the conquered and may not have re-
Chapter 3. flected the reality of the conquest (see Chapter 3).
The most obvious legacy of the dynasty established by Nonetheless, this cycle of urban magnificence, punctuated
Sargon was sponsorship of monumental architecture, art- by nomadic destruction, would become the stuff of epic his-
works, and literary works. These cultural achievements tory writingand it continues to captivate readers to the
68 Chapter 2 R I V ER S, CI TI ES, AND F IR S T S TAT E S , 40002000 BCE

plateau (Jiroft culture) and beyond what is now called the

Khyber Pass as far as the Indus River in present-day Pakistan
and India. To the west, they reached the Mediterranean Sea
and entered the floodplains of the Nile. Riverine settings,
such as the Nile and the Indus rivers, produced parallel flour-
ishing states. While in some ways influenced by Mesopotam-
ian examples, the peoples of the Nile and Indus created their
own distinctive cultures and societies.
The urban culture of the Indus and the surrounding area
is called Harappan after the urban site of Harappa that arose
in the third millennium BCE on the banks of the Ravi River,
a tributary of the Indus. Unlike in Mesopotamia, develop-
ments in the Indus River basin reflected an indigenous tra-
dition combined with strong influences from the peoples of
the Iranian plateau, as well as indirect influences from the
peoples of more distant cities on the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers. Villages first appeared around 5000 BCE on the Iran-
ian plateau along the foothills of the Baluchistan Mountains,
to the west of the Indus. By the early third millennium BCE,
a frontier of villages had spread from these mountains in an
eastwardly direction until it reached the fertile alluvial banks
of the Indus River and its numerous tributaries. (See Map
2-4.) The riverine settlements soon yielded agrarian surpluses
that supported greater wealth, more trade with neighbors,
and more surpluses that could be devoted to public works.
In due course, urbanites of the Indus region and the Harap-
Naram Sin. This life-size head of a ruler cast of almost pure
pan peoples both began to fortify their cities and to embark
copper was found at Nineveh in northern Iraq in the destruction
levels of the Assyrian Empire. The style and imagery of this
on public works similar in scale to those in Mesopotamia, but
sculptural masterpiece identify it as a ruler of Old Akkadian strikingly different in function.
dynasty. While sometimes identified as Sargon, it is most likely a The ecology of the Indus Valley boasted many advan-
portrait of his grandson, Naram Sin, who consolidated and tages, especially compared to the area near the Ganges
transformed the Akkadian state. It must have stood for over fifteen Riverthe other great waterway of the South Asian sub-
hundred years in the courtyard of a temple at Nineveh, before it continent. Located in the semi-tropical latitudes, the Indus
was defaced by the Medes and Elamites, whose savage attack on Valley had plentiful water coming from the Himalayas that
Nineveh cause the Assyrian Empire to fall. ensured flourishing vegetation without suffering the tor-
rential monsoon downpours that caused heavy flooding
every year on the Ganges plain. The expansion of agriculture
present, even while creating a myth of urban civility and in this basin, like those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China,
rural backwardness. depended on the rivers annual floods. Here the river pro-
vided the land with predictable amounts of water, drawn
from the melting snow on the Himalayas and beyond, that
replenished the soil and averted droughts. From June to
I N D U S VA L L E Y : A
September, the rivers inundated the plain. Once the waters
PA R A L L E L C U LT U R E receded, farmers planted wheat and barley on fertile soft al-
luvium. They harvested the crops the next spring as tem-
peratures rose. And as they took advantage of the fertility
 Why do we know less about Harappan culture than created by the river, the villagers on the banks of the Indus
also improved their tools of cultivation. Researchers have
about others in Afro-Eurasia?
found evidence of furrows, probably made by plowing, that
they have dated to around 2600 BCE. Farmers were soon
Mesopotamian developments had spillover effects across able to achieve harvests like those of Mesopotamia
much of Eurasia. As an outward-looking people, Mesopotami- yielding a surplus that freed many of the inhabitants from
ans depended on trade for many of their most basic needs. having to produce food and thus allowed them to specialize
Mesopotamian commercial trails reached across the Iranian in other activities.
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About the Cover Image: This sculpture of the Buddha developed in the Gandharan style during the first
millennium comes from the region that today is known as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part of the
Kushan empire, Gandhara maintained close contact with Rome and incorporated many Greco-Roman
motifs into its Buddhist art. In this representation, although the iconography remains South Asian,
Buddha appears as a youthful Apollo-like figure.

ISBN: 978-0-393-11355-6

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