Part of the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia (“the land between the rivers” in Greek), was by its geographical location and development influential in the region from at least 2500 BCE to the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE.
Unpredictable amounts of silt-laden water caused by the disastrous seasonal flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates had to be controlled. Consequently, people learned how to construct levees and to develop a system of irrigation canals. Adapting and improving on these skills, they were able to build settlements, city-states and temples. Within high walls for safety, city-dwellers developed complex hierarchical cultures, whose influence was felt from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, from Iran to Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. We know of the ancient Mesopotamian empires of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon through their extant written records that, for the first time in our history, enabled scholars to do more than infer and speculate from archeological findings.
The Elamites of southeastern Iran and the Semites of Ebla in Syria both borrowed their script and, in part, their languages from Mesopotamia in the third millennium; as did the Semites, the Hurrians of Syria-Palestine and the Indo-Europeans of Anatolia, known as the Hittites, in the second. The courts of the Near East in the fifteenth century BCE were in Egypt at el-Amarna, but they wrote in cuneiform script in the Akkadian language, which was the regional language of diplomacy. Over 300 tablets, known as “the Amarna Letters” have been found which include correspondence from both Amenhotep III’s and Akhenaten’s reign that have helped to establish the history and chronology of the period.
The Mesopotamian’s mythological, epic and poetic literature, and their scientific works travelled from Babylonia throughout the then-known world. Egypt borrowed its astrology from Babylonia in the first millennium. Themes and stories developed in Mesopotamia are found in the Old Testament Bible. Thales of Miletus used Babylonian records of solar observations to become the first to predict a total solar eclipse. Even the formation of Greek philosophical thought appears to have stemmed from Babylon as its literature spread from Asia Minor to the Aegean and on to the Greek islands.
The oldest city found to date is Uruk (ca 3900 BCE), located near the Euphrates River about 155 miles south of Baghdad. Uruk was a capital city for the Akkadian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Seleucid civilizations, and was abandoned only after 100 CE. In the late fourth millennium it was the largest city in the Sumerian civilization, and by 2900 BCE it included nearly 1,000 acres making it most likely the largest city in the world at the time, with somewhere in the region of 50,000–80,000 residents. Along with urban settlements were temples, platforms, ziggurats, and cemeteries, all enclosed by a massive wall almost ten kilometers in circumference which was said to have been built on the orders of King Gilgamesh, who, well known in stories and legends, may actually have been an historical king of Uruk around 2700 BCE.
More than 200,000 cuneiform clay tablets have been found in the lands of ancient Mespotamia. Tablets with pictographic script from about 3000 BCE were found in the ruins of the Red Temple of Uruk. Nearly 30,000 cuneiform tablets (dated about 2350 BCE) were recovered at Telloh, near Lagash. Many others were found at a temple library at Nippur (2500 BCE), south of modern Baghdad. The Great House of Tablets, which seems to have been a law library dating to the reign of Ur-Nammu around 2100 BCE, was unearthed in the ruins of Ur.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
In 669 BCE, Ashurbanipal became ruler of the Assyrian Empire. His library is the largest so far uncovered in Mesopotamia. During his reign he added more to the library at Nineveh than any of his ancestors had done over the previous two centuries. Much of our knowledge of ancient Babylonian myths and early history comes from his effort. Among the books archeologists have recovered from the palace library were the Babylonian creation myth, spread out over 7 tablets, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, spread out over 12 tablets. The tablets survived into modern times because when the nomadic Chaldeans from the southeast and Medes (Ancient Persians) destroyed Nineveh in 612 BCE, they were content to push in the palace walls with battering rams, so the walls collapsed, burying and preserving the tablets for the benefit of modern scholars and archeologists.
The inscribed tablets at Nineveh were kept on shelves in earthenware jars with identifying tags. Subjects were sometimes arranged by room: one room might be devoted to history and government, another to geography, and so on. One of the most important rooms in the palace library was devoted to myths, lists of gods, prayers, and incantations. Near the door to each room was a tablet with that room’s subject catalog. Each entry listed the title of a given work, the number of tablets in the work, the number of lines in the work, its opening words, and a location or classification symbol.
Fragments discovered at the site confirm that Assyrian scribes were tasked to copy Babylonian original tablets inscribed as early as 1,500 years before their own time.
In the Mesopotamian worldview, illnesses and strife were caused by evil demons or by divine displeasure. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the world depended entirely upon the superhuman forces that created it, and these formidable forces did so entirely for their own advantage. For example, Ea is the creator and protector of humanity in the Babylonian flood myth Atrahasis (Atra-hasīs) and the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgameš). It was he (Ea) who came up with the plan to create humans out of clay so that they could perform work for the gods. But the supreme god Enlil attempted to destroy Ea’s newly created humans with a devastating flood, because their never-ending noise prevented him from sleeping. But clever Ea foresaw Enlil’s plan and instructed a sage named Atrahasis, whose name means “Extra Wise”, to build an ark so that humanity could survive.
Robert Wright says in his book The Evolution of God, “Like the gods of prehistory, these gods expected goods and services from humans, and dished out rewards or punishment accordingly. So everywhere people made sacrifices to the gods, flattered – that is, worshipped – them, and tended to their needs in other ways. (A Mesopotamian tablet of ritual instruction begins, ‘When you wash the mouth of a god…’). Everywhere the upshot was a symbiotic relationship between people and gods, with each having something the other needed. And everywhere – as in chiefdoms – the political leaders took the lead in mediating that relationship, and indeed defining the relationship; everywhere, religion was used by the powerful to stay powerful. Hence the similarity in the way scholars describe civilizations separated by an ocean. Mayan kings were ‘conduits through which supernatural forces were channeled into the human realm.’ The Egyptian king was ‘the sole intermediary who could serve the gods and hence maintain the flows of energy’ into the world.’”
The supernatural world and the way it worked was modeled on the Mesopotamian’s earthly world where the monarch reigned at the top of a pyramid of subordinate authorities whose power emanated from his. As Jean Bottéro writes in Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, “Just as their king governed the country, directly or through ‘vicars,’ by expressing his wishes, by making decisions, and by communicating them, the gods also made the world function according to their designs, by deciding the destinies of all beings, as individuals or collectively.”
Mesopotamian culture survived over 4,000 years, with myths, poetry, legends and artifacts reinterpreted again and again, their older versions enduring side by side with the newer which were subject to repeated reinterpretations. So, it is difficult for scholars to establish definitively a coherent timeline of the evolution of the thinking of these ancient peoples. According to Thorkild Jacobsen in his book The Treasures of Darkness, three major aspects or phases of Mesopotamian religion occurred: Initially, worship focused on survival – the power of fertility and plenty – what we have previously called “cosmic maintenance”; later the concept of the ruler was added along with issues of security from enemies and expansion of territory; and lastly at the end of the third millennium BCE, “once the fortunes of the individual increased in importance until they rivaled those of the communal economy and security,” then the personal god is added.
To the Mesopotamians, the god was present in an object and caused it to be, thrive and flourish. The Sumerian word both for “sun” itself and the invisible, august and powerful deity within it was Utu and the moon god was Nanna, which is also the word for “moon.” Unlike the idea of a transcendent god or gods, says Jacobsen, for the Mesopotamians, “The Numinous was the indwelling spirit and power of many phenomena and situations and it differed with each of them. Thus ancient Mesopotamian religion was conditioned to a pluralistic view, to polytheism, and to the multitude of gods and divine aspects that each recognized.”
So, like the Greeks seven centuries later, the Mesopotamians believed in a pantheon of gods. There were deities connected with various professions – such as scribes and builders – “Mesopotamia had gods for everything from brickmaking to brewing” says Wright – even including, apparently, a Lord of Livestock Pens! Each city-state had its own patron god or goddess who belonged to this pantheon, such as:
Anu, representing the sky and the patron god of Erech (Uruk) and Der
Enlil (Bel), the god of air and the patron deity of the city of Nippur
Enki (Aa or Ea), the god of the fresh groundwater (Apsu) and of the city of Eridu
Ninhursag, the mother goddess and the goddess of Kish
Nanna (Sin), the moon god of Ur and father of the sun (Utu)
Utu (the sun), the patron deity of the city of Larsam
Inanna, the war and love goddess and patron of Unug and Zabalam
Ishtar, a goddess of love and of war and the patron of Agade, Nineveh and Arbela
Nina, another goddess like Ishtar at Nina
Hadad or Rimmon (the storm god), the god at Muri, Ennigi and Kakru
Nergal (Mars), a plague and war god at Cuthah
Allatu (Erishkigal), the goddess of the underworld
In order to insure the presence of this power, the gods were provided with “a place.” Thus, divine images were fashioned which became the gods themselves. Participants in cult dramas actually became the god(s) in question – literally a re-presentation that is able to, in the words of Thorkild Jacobsen, “fulfill the divine will with all its beneficent results for the community.” The creative power of the word itself was also a way to evoke the gods, particularly in the early periods. Literature of praise and lament, of myths, epics and disputations, all activated their latent supernatural power.
Similarly worshippers could create statues of themselves to stand in perpetual prayer on their behalf before the god or goddess to whom the sanctuary was dedicated. When the temples were renovated, those statues that had fallen into disrepair or outlived the terms of their dedication were carefully buried within the building.
Above all, the temple house was built to achieve and insure the divine presence. Just as the owner of a house would be present in his home, the god’s presence and power filled the house. As the place of the god, the temple was sacred, awesome, set apart from the secular activities of the world and visited only by the priesthood. Every temple was different, since every temple held an individual god, its presence reflecting the specific nature and function of that god – an embodiment.
There was a hierarchy in the world of the gods and only those who controlled the fundamental way the universe ran were considered major deities. Enki, the god of fresh water and Lord of Wisdom, was one as were the gods of the sky, the sun and the air. Although these gods were served and revered by everyone, they were quite distant and unconnected to ordinary life. The bridging of the cosmic world of the gods and the personal world of the individual seems to have appeared first in Mesopotamia towards the end of the third millennium BCE.
Ordinary people depended on a relationship with their own personal god for protection and to intercede for them with the great deities. This personal god was not part of the public face of religion but confined to the individual. It was concerned with his good or bad luck, his success or lack of it. In fact, the Akkadian term to describe luck and good fortune was: “to acquire a god.” According to Jacobsen, this proverb expresses the Mesopotamian idea of the personal god and it also gives us another example of how the orderly life was appreciated: “When you plan ahead your god is yours, when you do not plan ahead your god is not yours.” Obviously, misfortune or lack of success meant that the god had left – perhaps angry and so punishing the person. From this notion the idea of a parental deity evolved. But with a difference, of course: these parents were and had to remain, divine. And their children would sometimes have to suffer because of the impersonal nature of divinity.
The divine mind is remote
Like the utmost of the heavens
Knowledge of it is arduous,
People are uninformed.
(Gudea, Cylinder B)
The Temple: Connecting Heaven and Earth
Since, in a sense, the role of human beings was to be a link between the heavens above and the underworld below, much of the social, economic and political activities of the cities concentrated around the temple area. Temple complexes were built in the center of each city-state and included courtyards, storage rooms, bathrooms, and living quarters. The most important part of the complex was the ziggurat, a massive, pyramid-like structure that was the sacred dwelling place of their patron deity and ensured that he/she remained close to them. Additional ziggurats were built for other gods as well.
As the “mountain of God” or “hill of heaven,” ziggurats connected heaven and earth, with the rest of the city-state built around them. During the 48-year reign of King Shugli (2095–2049 BCE), who completed construction of the Ziggurat of Ur, the city of Ur grew to be the capital of a state controlling much of Mesopotamia.
The royal tombs of Ur contained 74 carefully arranged skeletons all entombed at the same time, which implies that monarchs took their staff along with them to the next life. Sir Leonard Woolley (1880–1960), a British archaeologist and an expert in Mesopotamian stories, led a team from the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania to the Sumerian site of Ur. He noted the following:
“Although ten of the Royal Tombs at Ur contained the remains of a central or primary individual, six of them were ‘grave pits’ or ‘death pits’: shafts leading down to the tombs and sunken courtyards built around the tomb or adjacent to it. These were filled with skeletons of retainers, most of them, like their monarchs, dressed in jewels and carrying bowls.
“The largest of these pits was called the Great Pit of Death, located adjacent to Queen Puabi’s tomb and measuring 4 x 11.75 meters. Over seventy individuals were buried there, neatly laid out, wearing jewels and carrying bowls or cups. Bioarchaeological studies of these skeletons show that many of these people had labored hard during their lives, supporting the notion that some of these were servants, even if dressed in finery and perhaps attending a banquet on the last day of their lives.
“Recent CT scans and associated studies of some of the servants’ bodies have revealed that they were killed by blunt force trauma, then preserved with heat and mercury, and later dressed in their finery and laid out in rows for the trip to the afterlife.”
The later Marduk Ziggurat, or Etemenanki, “The Foundation of Heaven and Earth” of Babylon measured 298.48 feet (91 meters) in height with a square base also of 298.48 feet on each side. Exteriors of these temples were often faced with fired bricks glazed with different colors that may have had astrological significance.
Access to the topmost shrine where the god dwelt was provided by a series of ramps on one side of the structure, or by means of a spiral ramp from the base to the summit. Only those of the priesthood were allowed inside and to them was given the responsibility of caring for the god and attending to his/her needs. One practical function of the ziggurats was that they provided a high place on which the priesthood could escape the rising water that annually inundated lowlands and occasionally flooded for hundreds of miles.
Another practical function of the ziggurat was for security. Since the shrine was accessible only by way of stairways, a small number of guards could prevent anyone else but the chosen few from entering the sacred shrine on top.
The hereditary kings of Babylonia and Assyria were also the chief priests and were regarded as intermediaries between the gods and the people; they were divinely authorized to rule. Says Robert Wright, “According to Mesopotamian cosmology, the universe had once been on the brink of chaos, but fortunately kingship was then invented, which meant that gods who favored order could be rallied to defeat an older generation of gods who didn’t.”
King as God
As kings conquered and absorbed city-states, their gods too were absorbed into each other, with characteristics and qualities merging into a single deity. As monarchs became more and more powerful, one or two began to see himself as a deity. The first ruler who declared himself divine was Naram-Sin of Akkad who reigned sometime during the 23rd century. After Naram-Sin no ruler declared himself divine for about two centuries, when Shulgi, the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, took up the custom of self-deification in an attempt to consolidate the empire he had inherited from his father Ur-Nammu. The trend of the powerful to assume or be awarded god-like stature is one that will show up again and again in our human journey.
Rise of Marduk: Early Indication of Monotheism
During the reign of Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE, Babylon became the principal city of southern Mesopotamia, and the patron deity of Babylon, the god Marduk, was elevated to the level of supreme god. Marduk eventually became head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, absorbing the qualities and characteristics of over 50 deities; his ascension is one of the first indications of what would eventually become monotheism.
In The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation, Assyriologist and biblical scholar Alexander Heidel described the Enuma Elish (“When above”) as created by the Babylonian priests to illustrate how the rise of Marduk came about and to sing the praises of Babylon and strengthen her claim to supremacy over all the cities of the land. Although the oldest extant copies date to 1000 BCE, it was likely written in the First Babylonian Dynasty (1894–1595 BCE) during the reign of Hammurabi when Marduk became the national god.
The Mesopotamians recited, or chanted, their epics at special times to honor the god in question. The effect was hauntingly rhythmic and believed to have great power to exorcise evil spirits, to stem the potential inundation of the city by the rise of the rivers once the snows had melted, and so on.
According to the Enuma Elish (Enûma Eliš), Marduk demanded supreme and undisputed authority among the gods as his reward for delivering them from disaster. He proved worthy and was granted “kingship over the totality of the whole universe.” The city of Babylon and Marduk’s great temple complex, the Esagila, south of the ziggurat Etemenanki, was built by the Anunnaki (a general designation for all the gods of heaven and earth) in gratitude to Marduk for their deliverance. After its completion, a joyful banquet took place at which attendees recited the fifty names previously attributed to various gods, which were now passed on to Marduk with all their attributes and abilities, making “his way pre-eminent.”
Marduk, as creator of the present world order, was honored every New Year in a sacred festival at which Babylonians believed the great pantheon of gods actually entered the city in order to honor him. As part of the festivities the Enuma Elish was read twice by the high priest as he stood before the statue of the god Marduk while the king and guests are thought to have dramatized the narration.
As previously mentioned, it is not possible to assert the dates of any of these creations since they were written and rewritten, and must originally have stemmed from oral sources. Stories, such as the creation story, were revised to suit the times but earlier versions were retained. Scholars claim that all the tablets found in Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh or from the cities of Ashur, Kish or Uruk are copies of older ones.
From 668–627 BCE in the time of Ašhurbanipal and the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty and again in the Early Persian period of Cyrus the Great, Marduk was the chief god of Babylon. Because they opposed the oppressive measures of Nabonidus, the last Neo-Babylonian king, the priests of Marduk facilitated the peaceful occupation of Babylon by Cyrus. With Cyrus and the Persians came the teachings of Zoroaster, which claimed Ahura Mazda as the Supreme True God. These two ways of understanding the universe and our place in it – the Babylonian and Zoroastrian – would influence Judeo-Christian thought from its first recorded beginnings to the present day.
In 587 BCE Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, violently ransacked Judah, the capital of Ancient Israel and took the young king Jehoiachin and 8,000 of his people, including royal and aristocratic families, prisoners to Babylon. The now famous Babylonian Exile left little doubt in the minds of the people of Babylonia of the supreme power of their own national god, Marduk.
On December 3, 1872, the Assyriologist George Smith astounded the London Society for Biblical Archaeology with the news that he had discovered on a cuneiform tablet an account of the Flood that was so similar to that of the biblical book of Genesis that its influence could not be denied.
The Flood story in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh found on 12 tablets at Nineveh is very close to the biblical one, but it predates the Bible story by at least 2,000 years. The Izdubar (or “Gilgamesh”) legends included not only the Story of the Flood, but the story of the Tower of Babel and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as well, all originally written down at least as early as 2000 BCE from an oral tradition that was very much older.
Like Moses, Sargon, the Akkadian king who unified Sumer, was found in a reed basket that was flowing up a river and brought up under the protection of the high priestess of Inanna, who was more than likely, a royal princess.
The high point of Babylonian civilization was the rule of Hammurabi (around 1700 BCE). From his reign, we have the first written record of a legal code, which most likely was established through oral tradition long before: the Law Code of Hammurabi, written 1,200 years before the Israelites, while exiled in Babylon, wrote down their Ten Commandments.
From their cuneiform writings on clay tablets scholars know that the Mesopotamians, like the later Greeks, attempted to understand their world and the universe in any way they could.
We find antecedents of Greek philosophy in early Mesopotamian wisdom, in their forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose works, and proverbs. Disputations or literary debates were a popular form of exchange. A kind of literary tournament involved two people who represented prototypes of a similar sort. By turns each presented its own qualities, advantages and credentials until one was declared the winner: it might be “Summer versus Winter,” “Bird versus Fish,” “Tree versus Reed,” “Silver versus Copper,“ “Ox versus Horse,” and so on. As the Assyriologist Professor Jean Bottéro notes, “behind the mental games and the endemic passion of the ‘duel of prestige’ there lies a real analysis of the objects presented, always with the same care to dissect, to compare, to classify, to understand things.”
Mesopotamians created an “encyclopedia” compiled in the first half of the second millennium, which contained nearly ten thousand entries that classified and organized, for example, “all the known trees and objects usually made of wood; all the reed implements; clay containers; skins and articles in leather; various metals and what is made of them; animals, both domesticated and wild; parts of the body; stones and objects in stone; plants other than trees; fish and birds; fibers, fabrics and clothes; all that can be found on the face of the earth – cities and dwelling places, mountains and waterways, in Mesopotamia itself and in the surrounding areas; and finally all things, natural and prepared, that were used as foodstuffs.” (Bottéro)
Their cuneiform writing was based on pictography – so the idea of representing an object with another object was current and powerful. By drawing a foot you could conjure walking, moving, standing up or transport. By extension, everything the gods produced to make the world function as they wished became “their script.” So, when an unexpected event happened it was interpreted to mean that the gods were writing an equally unusual outcome – or destiny. And you could only determine what that was if you could interpret the abnormal phenomenon in question in all its detail. Consequently, many tablets found are examples of deductive divination, omens and predictions. One example Bottéro gives from what he calls an “enormous treatise on divination” is “If a horse attempts to mount a cow: there will be a decline of the land.”
The movements of the stars and meteorites were obviously significant, affecting births both of animals and of humans, crops and health; behaviors both human and animal, accidents, and of course dreams were all portentous.
A discourse between a master and his slave, The Dialogue of Pessimism (ca 1000 BCE) is, on an obvious level, either a negative view of existence that basically states that any action is counteracted by non-action and is eventually futile, or a satire on the relationship between an indolent master and his far-wiser servant; but, as Bottéro suggests in his book Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, it was also a vehicle through which to stimulate the mind: “a fundamental indication for us to go beyond the text itself.” When we allow that to happen, an affiliation with Socratic dialogue is evident. By simultaneously comprehending a thesis and its antithesis, individuals would be able to access an intuitive ability – a change in consciousness.
Here is a sample of the work from an edition of the text by W.G. Lambert in 1960 in his masterly work Babylonian Wisdom Literature:
VIII – Sacrifice
– Slave, listen to me!
– Here I am, master, here I am!
– Quick! Fetch me water for my hands and give it to me. I want to sacrifice to my god.
– Sacrifice, master, sacrifice! The man who sacrifices to his god is satisfied at heart. He accumulates benefit after benefit.
– O well, slave, I do not want to sacrifice to my god!
– Do not sacrifice, master, do not sacrifice! You will teach your god to run after you like a dog. Whether he asks of you “Rites” or “Do you not consult your god?” or anything else!
– Slave, listen to me!
– Here I am, master, here I am!
– I want to perform a public benefit for my country!
– So do it, master, do it! The man who performs a public benefit for his country His actions are exposed to the circle of Marduk!
– O well, slave, I do not want to perform a public benefit for my country!
– Do not perform, master, do not perform! Go up the ancient tells and walk about. See the mixed skulls of plebeians and nobles. Which is the malefactor and which is the benefactor?
XI – Conclusion
– Slave, listen to me!
– Here I am, master, here I am!
– What then is good? To have my neck and yours broken, Or to be thrown into the river, is that good?
– Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven? Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?
– O well, slave, I will kill you and send you first! –
– Yes, but my master would certainly not survive me for three days!…
Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago
Explore the museum’s vast collection of Mesopotamian artifacts, unearthed in archaeological excavations over the past century, to learn more about life in the in the cradle of civilization.
SOAS University of London
Hear ancient Babylonian and Assyrian poetry and literature in the original language.
Found on at least three continents, pyramids are yet another example of how humans expressed their place in a three-tiered universe.