Mesopotamia (mes-uh-puh-TAY-mee-uh from the Greek, "land between the rivers") refers to that region, generally along and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in modern Iraq), where civilisation first appeared some time before 3000 B.C.
Located in Western Asia, in fertile areas of Iraq northeast of the desert, this region is known as part of the "Fertile Crescent" that extends along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (including modern Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that run southeast into the Persian Gulf. These rivers deposited silt in the surrounding land, creating rich alluvial soil. Today the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are not far from the location of our soldiers in Iraq. However, our soldiers are mostly pictured in sandy areas, while the ancient people would have stayed close to the water. Moreover, ancient floods would have changed the landscape over time.
Genesis 2:8-17 (NAS) describes the beginning in Mesopotamia as follows: "The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. … Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. ... The name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates." Using the ages mentioned in the Bible and counting backwards, biblical scholars have dated this as about 6000 years ago, or about 4000 B.C. This is about 500 years before our earliest record of ancient writings.
In the fourth millennium before Christ, between about 3500 and 3000 B.C., two things happened: writing was invented and cities began to sprout up with their own political and economic systems. Both of these developments occurred in southern Mesopotamia. This was known as Sumer, and the occupants were the Sumerians.
We owe a great deal to the work of the Sumerians. They developed the first system of writing (the cuneiform), the first codes of law and the first "city-state" (essentially a nation consisting only of a large city). Their inventions were marvelous: the seed plow, the sailboat, and the potter's wheel. (Distinguish "cuneiforms" from "ideograms", which show ideas with symbols such as arrows for war, from "phonograms", in which symbols represent sounds).
Most workers in Mesopotamia were farmers, but some devoted their time to trade. They had a calendar based on the moon to aid the farmers, and they developed a mathematical system using base 12. They were marvelous inventors, creating complex systems of irrigation and discovering the plow, the cart and the wheel, and used bronze (a mixture of copper and tin) to make good farming tools. Both men and women owned private property, had slaves, and were ruled by a king.
They built cities known as Eridu, Lagash, Ur, Uruk, Isin, Kish, just to name a few. They were smart, and developed Akkadian as their language. One interesting aspect of Akkadian is that it lacks any tense forms such as past or future tense. The verbs expressed the manner of an action rather than its time.
By 3000 B.C. the people had built major canals to channel water, and roads on which to travel. Shepherds had dogs to help them tend the sheep, just as we use today to help herd sheep together. Each city was surrounded by a moat and a wall of brick, with as many as 900 towers inside the city. Soldiers watched entry back and forth, and wagons carried people and goods within the city. By 3000 B.C. mankind had already built a mini-version of Manhattan, without the automobile and steel skyscrapers. But Mesopotamia (unlike Egypt) was not protected by geography, and would constantly face invasion by foreigners.
Do not think there was anything primitive about these ancient cities. They had shipping, fishing, brewers and bakers. They spun wool and traded fine jewelry. They discovered the Pythagorean Theorem, though it was later named after a Greek. In 2500 B.C., the queen of Ur, which was a prominent city, lived in a palace that featured harps and many servants. Slavery existed, but it was typically confined to domestic work in the cities rather than hard labor on the farm. Slaves were given a minimum standard of living and often had the opportunity to rise to freedom through diligent work.
Temples were everywhere. But the people also built stepped mountains known as ziggurats, with a temple on top, and the Bible tells how they tried to build one higher and higher. A massive ziggurat at Ur that is described in Genesis 11:1-9 as the Tower of Babel led to hundreds of different languages in the world. As we shall learn in this course, language is a central part of a society that has much to do with its success or failure. Societies with useful languages prospered; those with difficult-to-use languages failed.
Genesis Chapter 10 places the roots of modern mankind in Noah and his three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. The term "Semitic" means "pertaining to the descendants of Shem," and includes Assyrians, Chaldeans, Aramaeans, Sabaeans, Arabs and Hebrews (now known as Jews). Semitic languages include Hebrew and Arabic. Semitic religions include Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One of Noah's descendants was Abram, who later changed his name as Abraham to reflect his covenant with God.
Both the Bible and many independent sources describe a Great Flood (or "Deluge"), which historians date at about 3000 B.C. Very little of any history, including writings and civilization, has survived from before that time. The biblical account of the Flood is at Genesis 5-8, describing an ark having reasonable dimensions similar to modern ocean steamships. A non-biblical Sumerian (from Sumer in Mesopotamia) account of the Flood was found in the last hundred years, and that account was apparently written about 1600 B.C. Even better, a cuneiform tablet from Babylon was found dating from 3000 B.C., which also described a massive flood in great detail. There are many other ancient accounts of a massive flood found in most other cultures around the world. Fossils and limestone (the result of ocean sediment) are found today on mountaintops and land worldwide at all altitudes. Independent accounts of a great flood can be found in ancient works of India, Britain (Druid) and American Indians, all having striking similar details. See, e.g., http://www.searchgodsword.org/enc/isb/view.cgi?number=T2631 . Recently two scientists at Columbia University published a widely praised book that proved that the Flood did occur, entitled "Noah's Flood," which concludes that the biblical Flood "is surely a true story of the permanent destruction of a land and its people ...." (p. 251). Yet no public school textbook ever mentions a massive flood.
The conflict between the Hebrew (Jewish) and Arab peoples in the Middle East and throughout the world is described by some as a family feud. They are descended from the same father, Abraham, as described in Genesis 16. But Jewish and Arab peoples trace their lineage from different sons of Abraham who were rivals for their father’s love. Jewish people claim to be descendants of Isaac, the child of Abraham and Sarah, while Arabs are descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham (then Abram) and the Egyptian woman Hagar. The Old Testament teaches that Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac to the Lord, while Islam teaches that Abraham’s sacrifice was of Ishmael. Islam teaches that Ishmael helped Abraham build a mosque in Mecca (the venerated Kaaba), and that it was Ishmael (rather than Isaac) who was nearly sacrificed. Regardless, Ishmael went a different way from the rest of Abraham's family, and there have been hard feelings by Ishmael's descendants ever since.
Civilization quickly prospered in Sumeria, the northwest (Akkad) was constantly fighting the southeast (Sumer), and eventually an Akkadian warrior named Sargon conquered Mesopotamia. Sargon was the first person in recorded history to create an empire or multi-ethnic state, from 2334 to 2279 B.C. His empire included the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also part of what is Turkey today. The capital of his empire was Agade in Akkad. But like many military rulers, his empire collapsed when he died. He did not have a civil (non-military) form of government to pay his soldiers and sustain his empire. Instead, he could only survive as long his soldiers continued to capture and loot. Once the empire stopped expanded upon his death, it collapsed. After Sargon's death, the city of Ur in Sumer was the leading city.
In sum, the Sumerians established many of the things that define civilization today: buildings, engineering, legal codes, written language and a military. The Sumerians also had literature: in 2000 B.C., they wrote "The Epic of Gilgamesh," considered to be oldest fictional story ever written. It was based on a real person, however, who ruled a city-state in Sumer. He struggles with religious issues in the form of multiple gods, and the story seems to draw on some of the wisdom of the Bible. This non-biblical source also describes a great flood.
Inventions: We can thank Mesopotamia (probably Ur) for inventing the wheel in about 3500 B.C., which is the single greatest invention of all time. It is used for much more than transportation. The wheel is essential to manufacturing and even pre-digital watches. No American civilization had the wheel until the Europeans brought it to them.