History of Mesopotamia

History of Mesopotamia starting with the Sumerian Civilization in the late 4th millennium BC was marked by rise and downfalls of many great empires including the Akkadian Empire, Babylonia, Assyria and Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Sumerian Civilization

Mesopotamia is often referred to as the Cradle of Civilization. The first known civilization was founded by the Sumerians along the valley of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in the late 4th millennium. The emergence of the Sumerian civilization known as Sumer was influenced by the use of advanced agricultural techniques, in first place irrigation system as well as trade. The region had to import virtually all raw materials from wood to metals and building material.

Sumerian City-States

Unlike Egypt that was governed and administrated by a strong central authority – the pharaoh, Sumer consisted of numerous city-states governed by priest-kings, called en, lugal or ensi who were both political and religious leaders. Each Sumerian city-state was ruled by its own priest-king who was considered a divine representative of a patron god of a particular city-state. Priest-kings lived in temples known as ziggurats which served as both religious and administrative centers. The Sumerian city-states are therefore often referred to as temple states.

Akkadian Empire

The surrounding Semitic peoples eventually started to settle in the Sumerian city-states adopting the Sumerian culture. The last Sumerian priest-king Lugal-zage-si (reigned c. 2340-2316 BC) who tried to unite the Sumerian city-states under his authority was overthrown by Sargon of Akkad who was of Semitic origin and a prominent member of the royal court of Kish. He conquered the Sumerian city-states and established an empire known as Akkadian Empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to Nur mountain range in south central Turkey and from Zagros mountain range in Iran and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea.

Third Dynasty of Ur and Neo-Sumerian Empire

In contrary to the Sumerian priest-kings who were divine representatives on Earth only, the Akkadian rulers were considered divine and were worshipped as gods. Sargon’s empire collapsed almost as fast as it emerged. The power in Mesopotamia was seized by Ur-Nammu (2112-2095 BC) who founded the Third Dynasty of Ur under which the Sumerian civilization flourished for the last time. The rule of the Third Dynasty of Ur, also known as the Sumerian Renaissance and Neo-Sumerian Empire came to an end in the early 2nd millennium BC.

Rise of Babylonia under Hammurabi

The Sumerian Renaissance was followed by the emergence of Babylonia which reached its height during the rule of Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 BC) who joined the entire Mesopotamia under his authority. Hammurabi is best known for his code of laws, called the Code of Hammurabi which greatly influenced the Moses’ Ten Commandments.

Fall of Babylonia and Rise of Assyria

Hammurabi was after his death succeeded by weak rulers and Babylonia was captured by the Hettites, an ancient people from the Asia Minor. The collapse of the First Babylonian Dynasty was taken advantage by Assyria which established itself as the leading power in the region and conquered Palestine, Phoenicia, part of Asia Minor and Iran as well as Egypt. Assyria was destroyed by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians in 612 BC.

Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar II

The collapse of Assyria was followed by Neo-Babylonian Empire founded by the Chaldean Dynasty. The Neo-Babylonian Empire encompassing Mesopotamia, Palestine and Syria reached it height under Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604-562 BC) who conquered Judah, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and sent Jews into exile in 587 BC which came to be known as the Babylonian Captivity.