Mesopotamia was where humans first learned about and used the wheel. They came up with the concept of kingship and law, as well as many other concepts that we now associate with ‘civilization’. For these reasons and more, historians and archaeologists call Mesopotamia the Cradle of Civilization. Learn more about our shared roots with these 40 Mesopotamia facts.
- An arid plateau measuring 400 km in length makes up Northern Mesopotamia.
- Wetlands make up the vast 15,000 km² of Southern Mesopotamia.
- Silt buildup over the past 6000 years has added 210 km of land to the sea from Ancient Mesopotamia’s former coast.
- Even today, silt adds up to 35 meters of soil to the coast every year.
- Limestone cliffs once ran along the banks of the Euphrates River for up to 64 km.
- Humans lived in Mesopotamia as far back as the New Stone Age.
- Sumerian civilization rose in Southern Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC.
- The Sumerians built Humanity’s first cities during the 3rd millennium BC.
- Babylonia and Assyria constantly fought for dominance in Mesopotamia and in the Middle East from the 2nd millennium BC onward.
- The Persians conquered Mesopotamia in the 6th century BC.
- Alexander the Great conquered Mesopotamia in the 3rd century BC.
- The Seleucids controlled Mesopotamia after Alexander’s death.
- The Persians regained Mesopotamia after the Seleucids fell in the 1st century BC.
- Rome and Persia fought over Mesopotamia for centuries afterward.
- Arabs conquered Mesopotamia in the 6th century AD and renamed it Iraq.
- Mesopotamians believed their kings descended from the gods.
- Their kings also counted ‘shepherd’ among their titles, referring to their duty to watch over their people.
- Other titles they used include ‘great king’ and ‘king of the universe’.
- Ancient Mesopotamia also included parts of modern Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
- It also included modern Kuwait.
The name Mesopotamia has a history of its own.
The Ancient Greeks first used the name, meaning ‘land between rivers’, in reference to how the Tigris and Euphrates rivers bounded Mesopotamia. They also used it as a translation for the Hebrew name of the region, Naharaim. Naharaim also has a similar meaning in the Old Testament, which is ‘Aram between the rivers’.
The Mesopotamians developed one of the world’s oldest and most complex alphabets.
We call it cuneiform, but that’s not actually what the Mesopotamians called it. It means wedge-shaped writing, referencing how the letters appear as patterns of wedges. The shape resulted from how the Mesopotamians used cut reeds to write their alphabet. Meanwhile, the Sumerians developed cuneiform in the 3rd millennium BC. They also based it on an older pictographic proto-alphabet which dated back to the 4th millennium BC. Succeeding civilizations, like the Babylonians and Assyrians, continued to use the cuneiform alphabet. Neighboring civilizations, like the Ancient Egyptians among others, also made some use of cuneiform. In particular, they used it in diplomacy, allowing various cultures to communicate and share common records and agreements in a single format.
Gilgamesh was the Mesopotamians’ greatest hero.
The myth, though, resulted from the historical actions of King Gilgamesh of Uruk in the 2600s BC. In his reign, Uruk dominated the constant wars for power between the city-states of Sumer. He left such an impression not just on the people of his city or even the Sumerians, but in all of Mesopotamia itself, that after he died, they turned his life into a myth and legend. In particular, the Epic of Gilgamesh described him as a demigod, but unlike other demigods, Gilgamesh wasn’t just half-god and half-human. Instead, he became three-fourths god and one-fourth human. In particular, Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu’s adventures slaying monsters, defying the gods, and finally, looking for and even finding immortality, would later go on to influence the Ancient Greeks. Some scholars even think Heracles was actually the Greeks trying to present Gilgamesh as a Greek for a Greek audience.
Mesopotamian mathematics remains in use worldwide today.
The Sumerians became the first people in the world to write multiplication tables, and to also study division and geometry. Later on, the Babylonians came up with the base-60 mathematical system we use around the world today. They came up with 60 seconds in every minute, 60 minutes in every hour, and how 360 degrees make up a single circle. They also came up with the 24-hour day, and while they never truly discovered the concept of zero, they understood and applied it contextually in their math. The Babylonians also knew about pi, which they used to measure the circle. That said, the value they used to measure pi proved to be 3.13 instead of 3.14.
The Mesopotamians also pioneered the field of astronomy.
The Sumerians started it, with the Babylonians and the Assyrians continuing where their predecessors left off. Together with their advanced understanding of mathematics, their observations of the sky allowed Mesopotamian astronomers to accurately predict eclipses and solstices. It also allowed them to develop an accurate, 12-month calendar based on the phases of the moon.
A Mesopotamian may even have developed the heliocentric theory long before Copernicus.
Seleucus of Seleucia in the 2nd century BC based his work on the hypothesis of Aristarchus of Samos. However, Seleucus proved the theory wherein the Earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around. The exact method he used remains undiscovered today, but archaeologists have recovered enough to learn that Seleucus’ proof involved observations of how the Moon’s movements influenced the tides.
The Mesopotamians had a mixed approach to medicine.
On one hand, they followed the scientific method, basing their diagnosis and prognosis on physical examinations of a patient’s condition and symptoms. They also kept extensive records of their patients and their diseases. This allowed them to cross-reference new cases against old ones to narrow them down. Mesopotamian doctors also issued prescriptions, allowing them to control the medicines their patients take. But on the other hand, Mesopotamian medicine included its fair share of superstition. In particular, they saw diseases or conditions with unclear causes or unknown treatments as results of a curse. They would then conduct exorcisms to try and end the curse.
The Mesopotamians pioneered many technologies.
In metallurgy alone, Mesopotamians led the way in making and using various metals. These include not just precious metals like gold and silver, but also bronze and iron. The Assyrians even went down in history as the first culture to build an empire based on technological superiority, specifically their use of iron armor and weapons. This allowed them to overpower their neighbors, who continued to use weaker and softer bronze for their weapons and armor.
The Mesopotamians also pioneered glassmaking and textile weaving, while developing one of the most complex irrigation systems in the world. So complex, that the network of canals and aqueducts they built remained in use until their destruction a millennia later through the Mongol invasions. And they were proven so complex that after the Mongols’ defeat, no one knew how to repair the ruined ancient infrastructure.
Like many other ancient cultures, the Mesopotamians worshipped many gods.
They had three gods sharing the top spot: An, the god of the sky, Enlil, the god of the wind, and Enki, the god of water. The Mesopotamians also believed that Enki taught Humanity what they needed to build civilization. They also had one god or goddess for each of the seven most important objects in the sky. Those include Shamash the Sun God, Nanna the Moon God, and Ishtar the Goddess of War, Love, and the planet Venus. Nergal ruled over the plague and the planet Mars, while Nabu ruled over scribes, writing, and the planet Mercury. Marduk was the god of Jupiter, who killed the primordial creation goddess, Tiamat. Meanwhile Ninurta was the god of Saturn. Those only represent the most important Mesopotamian gods and goddesses. Others include Ereshkigal, the Goddess of the Underworld, and Ninsun, mother of the legendary King Gilgamesh of Uruk.
The Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma Elis influenced the Bible.
For starters, the Enuma Elis has the primordial creators, Apsu and Tiamat, existing alone over a dark ocean. From there, they created everything that exists, similar to how Genesis describes the spirit of God floating over a dark ocean before creating everything out of nothing. Scholars also note that Enuma Elis’ descriptions of creation are spread out over seven clay tablets, similar to how Genesis describes creation over seven days. This has led them to hypothesize that the Biblical creation myth may have taken influences from the Enuma Elis, while also presenting a contrast. In particular, God made everything on his own, while Apsu and Tiamat had to work together to create, thus contrasting monotheism against polytheism.
They also had their own myth about the Great Flood.
It appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and also in the Atra-Hasis from the 18th century BC. Much like in the Biblical myth, a god causes the Great Flood to punish humanity. However, in the Mesopotamian version, it wasn’t because Humanity had become evil, but simply because they started getting too noisy. This caused the annoyed Enlil to punish them with a flood, but Enki warned the human Utnapishtim in advance.
Under Enki’s guidance, Utnapishtim built a boat in which he, his family, their household, as well as pairs of every animal alive could ride out the flood. When the Great Flood came, the gods immediately regretted what Enlil had done. And when it ended, they made Utnapishtim and his wife immortal as a reward for ensuring the survival of life on Earth. This later led to Gilgamesh meeting with Utnapishtim to find the secret to eternal life.
The Mesopotamians also pioneered the concept of logic.
Specifically, the Babylonians became the first people to understand the concept of logic, which reflected their rigid and immobile social system. As they developed further logic, they found it axiomatic, in a way similar to the logical system developed by 20th-century economist John Keynes. The Babylonians also accepted the possibility of changes in logical systems caused by outside influences. They also took logic beyond academic limits, applying it to astronomy and medicine.
They also influenced later Greek philosophers.
Modern scholars believe that the Mesopotamians laid down the foundation for western philosophy. In particular, their folklore and cultural wisdom in the form of literature and oral traditions provided them with a background understanding of life that gave way to formal ethics. The Babylonians then developed this further, establishing schools of thought that had many similarities with those used by the Greek Sophists, Socrates’ Socratic Method, and even Platonic philosophy.
The Mesopotamians held a festival every month.
Fixed ones included the New Year Festival, which always took place on the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. Other fixed festivals included celebrations or memorials of historical events, such as the founding of their city, or a great victory in the past. However, other festivals became much more variable, depending on factors such as the Lunar calendar, the seasons, and of course, religion. Recent success on the part of the king also counted as a cause for celebration in a Mesopotamian city-state.
The Mesopotamian oud was the precursor for musical instruments developed later.
It’s a guitar-like instrument, with 11 strings grouped into six courses. Meanwhile, variants with five courses and 10 strings exist, as do seven courses with 13 strings. Archaeological evidence points to the oud existing as far back as 5000 years ago. It remains in use in the Middle East today, whereas it eventually evolved into the lute in Europe, which also eventually gave way to modern keyboard instruments.
The Mesopotamians had many games to pass the time.
Hunting proved especially popular among the nobility, along with a form of polo, only with the players riding on the shoulders of another person instead of on a horse. Boxing and wrestling, however, had a wider audience than simply the nobility, and enjoyed popularity among the commoners as well. The Mesopotamians also had their own version of backgammon, which archaeologists coined the ‘Royal Game of Ur’. That name’s only a placeholder, though, until they can discover what the Mesopotamians actually called it.
The Mesopotamians had a patriarchal society.
We can see this in how kings almost always ruled Mesopotamian city-states and nations, with rare exceptions like Queen Semiramis of Assyria. Further evidence comes from how men dominated priesthood, though again, exceptions exist such as the sacred priestesses of Ishtar. Generally speaking, fathers led Mesopotamian households, who then taught their sons their trade in life or apprenticed them to masters. Daughters stayed at home to learn how to manage the household from their mothers. However, even in their patriarchal society, women enjoyed rights of their own. They could inherit and own personal property, and even divorce their husbands if they had a good reason for doing so.
They also had a complex economy.
The Mesopotamians had the oldest banks to ever exist in human history, with temples providing organized loaning and credit systems. They even owned properties of their own, up to a third of all available land at one point in Sumerian history. Later on, however, royal and other private landowners competed with and reduced the properties of the priesthood. Overall, archaeologists have noted similarities between the Mesopotamian economy with modern post-Keynesian economics.
The Mesopotamians liked to build big.
Their pyramids especially proved this, though, unlike the Ancient Egyptians, the Mesopotamians never built any smooth-sided pyramids. Instead, they built ziggurats, usually square platforms of decreasing size built on top of each other. They then built alternating stairways on the sides of the ziggurats, climbing up to a temple at the very top. In that way, a ziggurat resembled a mountain, with the gods living at the very top in the heavens. That, and climbing up a ziggurat symbolized climbing up to the heavens. In fact, modern scholars agree that the Biblical Tower of Babel had a Mesopotamian inspiration. Specifically, the Etemenanki of Babylon stood between 50 to 90 meters tall, making it one of the tallest structures in the world at the time.
The Mesopotamians also had the world’s first legal codes.
We all know about the Code of Hammurabi from Babylon, but in fact, that’s only the most famous. And even then, it’s most famous for laying down the principle of ‘eye for an eye’, which archaeologists see as a sign of increasing harshness in Mesopotamian legal systems. Older codes, such as those compiled by Sumerian kings like Urukagina and Lipit Ishtar, prove more lenient in comparison to Hammurabi’s code.