Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mesopotamia: Birthplace of civilisation

Driving north out of Samawa towards Baghdad, a short way beyond the Euphrates bridge, a tarmac track leaves the main road, heading eastwards into a scarred, dun-coloured wasteland. Soon you enter the real desert, swept by sandstorms. Then, after 60km or so, a haunting scene unfolds.

Looming out of the haze, the eye begins to make out a low range of brown hills, at first shapeless, then taking form: the eroded stumps of ziggurats to the Goddess Ishtar and Anu ("Lord Sky"). This is Warka, a site few places on earth can match for sheer atmosphere, and a landmark in the human story.

William Loftus, the first outsider in modern times to see these sights in 1849, was almost overwhelmed: "I know of nothing more exciting or impressive than the first sight of one of these Chaldaean piles, looming in solitary grandeur from the surrounding plains and marshes ... Of all the desolate sites I ever beheld, that of Warka incomparably surpasses all".

4,000 years of history

Named Uruk by the Akkadians, Unug by the Sumerians, Erech in the Bible and Orchoe by the Greeks, the city was founded in the fifth millennium BC and survived into the first millennium AD. It was ruled in later times by Romans, Persians and Muslim Arabs before in the seventh century AD it was abandoned, except for the Bedouin, whose black tents still hug the horizon. To what extent Uruk really was the "mother of cities" is still hotly argued by archaeologists. It is claimed to be the birthplace of writing, mathematics and literature, and few would dispute that it is one of the most potent memory places of humanity.

The size of the site is testimony to the scale of the achievement of Mesopotamia, the world's first civilisation. Inside its silted gates, poking out of huge dunes, it is 3km wide and the circuit, dating back to around 3000BC, is 9km. Where the past century of archaeology has exposed them, you see great platforms and revetments of burned brick like the foundations of small skyscrapers. In places below the visitor's feet are strata 75 feet deep, which contain the shattered bric-a-brac of human history: Islamic glass, Hellenistic bowls, Parthanian clay coffins, greenish black-patterned Ubaid sherds and the little clay sickles used by the first dwellers in the Mesopotamian plain around 5000BC. In this one place is the image of civilisation: its rise, growth, triumphs – and perhaps its end too.

Like the cultures of the Nile or the Indus, Mesopotamia, as its name suggests ("the land between the rivers") owed its existence to a river system. Large-scale human societies had begun to grow from about 10,000BC in an arc through Syria, Palestine, Anatolia and the Zagros mountains. Starting with the first larger scale settlements at Jericho and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, these were well built but still relatively small. It was only when sophisticated irrigation techniques were developed that the plain of southern Iraq was opened up to sustain a huge concentration of people and resources. Yet even this was still a relatively confined area: Mesopotamia had 25,000 sq km of irrigated land – similar in size to early dynastic Egypt.

From the fourth millennium BC came the first large cities, then states, whose culture and society would influence every aspect of life across west Asia – and further afield. In the third millennium BC, there were around 40 cities in Sumer and Akkad that made up the Babylonian plain. One big city-state, Lagash (whose site is more than 3km across), had 36,000 male adults in the third millennium BC, suggesting upwards of 100,000 people altogether. Uruk was probably of similar size. Each controlled an extensive territory: at Nippur, for example, 200 subsidiary villages clustered around five main canals and 60 smaller ones, joined by a web of countless small irrigation ditches – all subject to laws, customs and close control. These urban developments were fed by a trading network which, in the case of Uruk, linked Anatolia, Syria and the Zagros. Recent research has shown that Mesopotamia might not only have given birth to the world's first trading culture, but also the earliest private treaty stock market.

It is not surprising then that writing, written law, contract law, and international treaties are all found for the first time in the area. Not only does history begin at Sumer, but so does economics.

Read more on the website

Wood, Michael. 2010. "Mesopotamia: Birthplace of civilisation". Guardian Series: Guides to the ancient world. Posted: November 10, 2010. Available online:

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