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What is Mesopotamia?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Mesopotamia was an ancient region that existed primarily in what is now Iraq, and it is recognized for its role in the development of the first literate societies. Though its borders were loosely defined, its central area lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with outward borders extending into regions now known as Syria and Turkey.

This region thrived from the late 4th millennium B.C. to 323 B.C., when Alexander The Great conquered the region for the Greeks. During Mesopotamia’s long existence, it bore witness to many changes in civilization and gave birth to great cities such as Ur and Babylon. Ancient peoples of the region included the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Armenians. It is little wonder that the geography of this area is also known as The Cradle of Civilization.

Mesopotamians believed in a pantheon of gods and constructed large pyramid-like structures called ziggurats as worship sites. They enjoyed music and dancing and are often depicted playing a stringed wooden instrument called an Oud. Wrestling and boxing were popular sports among the ancients, commonly depicted in their art.

The first evidence of writing comes from Mesopotamia, where stylus-inscribed clay tablets were used to record cruciform pictographs. Clay tablets from the region shed extraordinary light on every-day events, philosophies, and religious inclinations of these complex societies. They reveal debts, land agreements, marriages, poetry, and epics, such as the oldest known work of literature, the epic of Gilgamesh. Many themes present in the epic of Gilgamesh, including the story of the Great Flood, strike a familiar chord from various holy books written in the wake of these ancient civilizations.

Fortunately for modern scientists, a man named Ashurbanipal, who ruled Assyria in 6th century B.C., decided to build a library of cuneiform tablets, housing them in the city of Nineveh. At that time, libraries were located in temples, so Ashurbanipal sent scribes to the Babylonian temples to collect the tablets, instructing them to copy those they could not procure. Though much of the library was lost, many remnants survive.

In addition to writing and literature, some notable accomplishments of the Mesopotamians include weaving fabrics or textiles, metalworking, and irrigation. The region was also the source of the current form of time keeping and mapmaking, using a sexagesimal or base 60 system. The 24-hour day and the 360-degree circle come from this culture. The ancient people could also read the skies and stars, pinpoint the solstices, and predict eclipses.

The language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia was Sumerian, later replaced by Akkadian, and finally, Aramaic. As newer languages replaced older ones, older languages continued to be used in academia and for official business. Eventually, root languages were used only in temples, where they would survive a few centuries longer.

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Discussion Comments
By anon208506 — On Aug 23, 2011

why is mesopotamia even important? it is a deserted place.

By thumbtack — On Sep 29, 2010

@dkarnowski, You are right about the amazing location that Mesopotamia existed in however your view on the US occupation and conquering of Iraq is slightly skewed.

We actually have highly specialized civil engineers that are in Iraq with the specific purpose of rebuilding the water way infrastructure of downtown Baghdad. Previous sewer and fresh water lines were not only poorly designed for such a population but the were heavily damaged from so much warfare in the previous decades.

Hopefully the citizens there can eventually have access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation from sewage waste.

By dkarnowski — On Sep 29, 2010

Most people I don't think realized that Mesopotamia is in fact modern day Iraq. When we see images of our nation's Army blowing up buildings and bridges it doesn't occur the uneducated individual that those structures lay where the birth of civilization occurred.

The once beautiful and bountiful Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that cradled the infantile meanderings of man's dissent into structured society are now sledge streams that spread disease and poison.

It's sad but true and please don't think that I blame the pollution on US forces because that is most certainly not the case. The heavy industry and commercial interests within Baghdad are what contributed to the degradation of water quality in those ancient and significant water ways.

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