Abraham house_in_Ur_Iraq by Aziz1005

Iraq: The Gateway To The Dawn Of Civilisation

Abraham house_in_Ur_Iraq by Aziz1005

In the post-World War 2 British Empire, the focus was on the future.

Across the world, former colonies were getting ready to become independent nations.

But in Iraq, a discovery was made that instead gave it a glimpse deep into its own past.

An excavation at a site named Abu Shahrein, which was believed to have been an ancient fort, was organised. 

When they started, archaeologists knew the site to be 4,100 years old but they found, submerged below one corner, ruins far older than that.

As they scratched away at the dirt with their trowels, they kept going further and further back in time, eventually uncovering a smaller structure that was around 6,100 years old.

This took them to about 1,000 years before the beginning of history itself, since history is defined by record keeping and writing is thought to be ‘only’ around 5,000 years old.

But, as Paul Kriwaczek reveals in ‘Babylon’, even this was not the end of their discovery.

They just kept finding more, and more; one level, then another, and another, until, in total, another 16 layers of human habitation had been unearthed.

What they discovered was apparently a temple, but its purpose was not the most striking thing about it.

Rather, what most interested them was that this was the oldest sign of a truly organised settlement anywhere in the world.

This, it turned out, was Eridu, the world’s first ever city, and, by extension, the birthplace of civilization itself.

Modern humans, homo sapiens, first emerged around 200,000 years ago.

For about 95% of this time, our early ancestors were hunter-gathers, nomads who followed animals and foraged for food as they went.

Then, sometime shortly after the last ice age 12,500 years ago, a process referred to as the agricultural revolution began.

Humans transitioned to a more settled existence as they learnt to control and raise crops and to keep animal herds.

When Eridu was established, some 7,400 years ago, ‘homo urbanicus’ was born – city dwellers living a life that was complex rather than simple, stratified rather than egalitarian. As Richard Miles puts it in ‘Ancient Worlds’:

“One thing led to another, from farming, to irrigation, to rations, to a dominant central authority, directing the workforce… And you can bet that the masters got more than the daily bowl of grain dolled out to the workers… The fat cats, it seems, have always been there.”

Recreation of the port of Eridu
An artist’s impression of the port in ancient Eridu (image: Таис Гило)

Whether the ‘fat cats’ were responsible for writing is hard to know. It’s certainly likely that it was first used to keep track of grain supplies.

What is known is that once Eridu, the prototype city, had been established, “the idea of civilization,” as Kriwaczek puts it, “…spread at remarkable speed to conquer the world”.

Why precisely Eridu was the inception point for the city-dominated civilizations we all live in today isn’t entirely certain, though scholars have a very good guess.

It lies at the edge of the ‘fertile crescent’, a crescent moon-shaped area that runs from the north of the Persian Gulf, through what is now modern Iraq, up into Syria and eastern Turkey, and then down through the area comprising Jordan, Lebanon and Israel to the Mediterranean.

The Iraqi portion comprises mostly land between and on either side of the Tigrus and Euphrates rivers.

In fact, the name for ancient Iraq is Greek in origin and means ‘land between’, meso, ‘two rivers’, potamia – Mesopotamia.

Though potentially highly fertile, farming in the region requires work. Again, Kriwaczek informs us: 

“…the riverine environment around the two great Middle Eastern streams (demanded) collaboration in irrigation works to ensure its settlers’ survival. And… somehow this led to the invention of city life.”

Irrigation, in other words, was agriculture 2.0, and it brought with it, apparently as a by-product, the components of civilisation. 


The transition to city life was also intertwined with religion. 

Conditions were capricious, flood patterns necessary for irrigation being unpredictable and difficult to understand and control.

Recall that Eridu’s very first major structure appears to have been a temple, which was the site of a number of rituals in which fish bones were left behind, and presumably were a central feature.

These ceremonies then were likely outward manifestations of the insecurities people felt about finding meat (or fish), farming and harvesting crops.

The bureaucracy required to organise vast irrigation required a sacrifice of personal freedoms, and it’s likely that religious beliefs were shaped by the need to justify and encourage this. 

The result was a codified set of behaviours necessary to produce and sustain civilization, collectively known as the ‘Me’.

Kriwaczek describes these ideals in ‘Babylon’:

“‘Me’ include matters of governance such as: high-priesthood, divinity, the noble and enduring crown, the throne of kingship, the exalted sceptre, the staff, the holy measuring rod and line, the high throne. There are matters relating to war like weapons, heroism, the destruction of cities, victory and peace.”

Yet, on a more fundamental level:

“The ‘Me’ (also) encompass human abilities and qualities like wisdom, judgement, decision-making, power and enmity. They delineate strong emotions like fear, strife, weariness and the troubled heart. And there are arts and crafts like those of the scribe, the musician, the metalworker, the smith, the leather worker, the builder and the basket weaver, as well as numerous different priestly offices, varieties of eunuch and musical instruments.”

Whilst the Me bound people together, they needed deities upon whom they could direct their religious devotion. So the people of early Sumer, the name of area where this emerging culture and language was being shared between the first cities, created a supernatural world inhabited by many gods. 

Each city adopted its own deity and Eridu’s was named Enki. 

The ziggurat at Eridu today (image: David Stanley)
The ziggurat at Eridu today (image: David Stanley)

Inanna, meanwhile, was the goddess of Uruk, the second city and the one from which modern Iraq probably derives its name.

Inanna in turn derived her personality from conditions within her city:

“Densely packed together in unsanitary conditions, the people who thronged the narrow lanes between high walls, cheek by jowl with the poultry and livestock from which most human epidemics spread, did not live long. We have no records from ancient Sumer, but in Roman Oxyrhynchos in Egypt, a city of probably equivalent size to Uruk, ‘one-third of all babies perished before their first birthday; half of all children died before they turned five; roughly one-third of the population was under 15; fewer than 10 per cent were over 55… up to one-third of children lost their fathers before reaching puberty; over half before the age of 25; the average ten-year-old had only a one in two chance of having any grandparents alive.’ In southern Mesopotamia, the slow-moving or stagnant waters of the marshes, canals and ditches must have kept the prevalence of mosquito-borne disease, malaria and swamp-fever, at a constant high.”


“Libido, the urge for sex, was of paramount importance in maintaining the population. The powers of Inanna, who controlled the compulsion to copulate, whom in these more decorous days we describe as the Goddess of Love, was all that stood between survival and extinction. Make babies, was the rule, or disappear.”

The ’less decorous’ description of Inanna was as a revered godly whore, or, as the scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky described her, the “cosmic cunt”. According to John Robertson, author of ‘Iraq: A History’, Inanna, or Ishtar, as she was later known, had remarkable sexual stamina:

“An early second-millennium BCE mythological tale about this goddess says, ‘sixty then sixty satisfy themselves in turn upon her nakedness. Young men have tired, Ishtar will not tire’.”

Headdress of an ancient Sumerian woman at the British Museum (image: writer’s collection)

Inanna’s ‘cosmic cuntery’ was also a central feature in the religious origin story of the creation of Uruk.

Just as the notion of a city deity spread from Eridu, so too did the ‘Me’ that kept it running. In a story that might sound to us slightly reminiscent of Dr Evil stealing Austin Powers’ ‘mojo’, Inanna used her whorish powers to seduce Enki, Eridu’s god, and steal from him his essence – his ‘Me’ - so that Uruk could also be built and prosper.

Yet the Me, even if they were encouraging of a good roll in the hay for those at Uruk, weren’t all that much fun.

Uruk’s worldview was religiously totalitarian, Soviet-like in the sense that life was controlled and planned and very hierarchical.

Temples were of supreme importance and they had gardens and orchards requiring care and water.

This meant that hydraulics, irrigation and flood protection all had to be carried out.

Sheep, goats and oxen were also herded and pottery, baskets and clothes produced, as were jewellery and luxury items made of copper, then tin, and eventually bronze.

The neo-lithic or late stone age is a bit of a misnomer, as people did begin to use copper and tin during it.

Eventually, when sufficient deposits of these were discovered and trade routes developed to convey them to places like Mesopotamia, lacking as it was in many natural resources, the two metals could be fused into bronze.

This was a much hardier metal and the ‘bronze age’ would begin around 3,300 BCE.

Despite what we can safely assume must have been oppressive and trying conditions Uruk, and the disease mentioned earlier, Inanna’s newly incorporated Me did work. Uruk prospered - Kriwaczek tells us that:

“Towards the end of the fourth millennium BCE, at about the time that writing was being invented but before it is able to tell us much, Uruk had already spread over some 400 hectares, greater in size and population than Periclean Athens or Republican Rome three millennia later.”

Uruk defence imagery RAF picture
The ruins of Uruk today

Looking at the dusty, rocky remains of Uruk today it can be quite humbling to contemplate that, just like our modern cities, it was once a hive of activity:

“Uruk was a place of intense activity, a city of vibrant public life, where coracles and punts laden with produce bumped along canals that did service for main streets, as if in an antediluvian Venice; where porters bearing giant loads on their backs elbowed their way through alleyways thronged with priests and bureaucrats, students, workers and slaves; where processions and celebrations vied for space with prostitutes and street gangs.”

With a focus on the new over the old, Urukians were always building and rebuilding and the city, with all the shouting and banging from brick-makers and layers, scaffolders, carpenters, masons, plasterers and the like must have made the whole place seem like a giant construction site.

It wasn’t all hustle and bustle though. City planners clearly valued and provided places of aesthetic beauty and religious contemplation too:

“From the remains of conduits and tanks built of waterproof kiln-baked bricks, some scholars believe there were also green and shady public gardens.

Temples, public buildings, shrines and gathering-places clustered around the precinct called Eanna, the House of Heaven, known in later times as the earthly residence of the goddess Inanna –as also around a nearby secondary religious focus, where Anu, the sky god, was honoured.”

Kriwaczek references Gwendoyn Leick, whose research shows these temples were not closed off and exclusive, but open, well-planned public spaces.

They also became colossal and utterly imposing, as a central feature of all cities in Mesopotamia made its debut at Uruk – the ziggurat.

These eventually became seven-story structures in the city centre that featured a number of temples.

Naturally, the temple on the top belonged to the city deity, whose house was to be kept clean by the city priests. 

Just as architecture was developing, so was the technology to produce it.

The wheel also made its debut in ancient Mesopotamia and Kriwaczek refers to scholars who think that pottery turntables moved and rolled on their sides may have been the inspiration. 

Ruins_from_a_temple_in_Naffur or nippur US gov military picture
Ruins at Nippur, another Mesopotamian city from the ancient past

Soon, the culture created at Uruk was being replicated throughout Sumer and wider Mesopotamia, with temples built in the same fashion everywhere, using bricks made in the same manner as they were at Uruk.

So too were the food preferences, the bowls they were eaten from, and the administrative methods used to organise the city and make the conveyance of provision of that food possible.

In fact, Uruk itself developed smaller satellite cities throughout the region.

Some have seen this as imperialistic, though Kriwaczek argues that true empire necessarily lay in the future.

Writing was in its infancy, and efficient transport hadn’t yet been created or any notable beasts of burden brought into the region and tamed.

All of these, he says, were pre-requisites for a true empire.

Perhaps we can assume, then, that the Urukian way of life was spreading more through the ‘soft power’ of cultural influence at this stage (4,000 and 3,000 BCE) and that other scholars may have mistaken rudimentary military preparations as signs of widespread empire. 

Sumerian Battlewagon - see Osprey site for label info, useful
Sumerian battlewagon, though from a later date (post 2,000 BCE) as horses weren’t available until them (image from ‘Bronze Age War Chariots’ by Nic Fields © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Whatever the case militarily, Uruk was certainly coming together linguistically with neighbouring cities as dialects merged into a common Sumerian language.

Likewise, written language was also emerging. The system eventually devised by the Sumerians was named Cuneiform, which means ‘wedge-shaped’ (after the indentations made in clay tablets).

This process started as logograms (pictures) of things – mountains, a star, a sheep etc.

From there single symbols might be extended to mean different things in different contexts – i.e. the symbol representing a foot might mean ‘foot’, but it could also mean ‘walking’, ‘kicking’, ‘standing’ and ‘going somewhere’. 

Hybrids were created to illustrate more difficult ideas. For example: food bowl + head = eating; woman + mountain = foreign woman/female slave.

There was also play as well as practicality.

‘Fury’, for instance, was symbolised by a head with a mass of hair on end; ‘woman’ was depicted by a pubic triangle, and ‘man’ seems to have been summed up by an ejaculating penis. From the bronze age to the jet age, some things never change.

The first major literary work also came out of Uruk – ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. 

It’s been almost 20 years since I delved into this text in Professor Crane’s history class at university, but thankfully John Robertson provides a handy summary from which the outline of the story can be derived:

4,000 years ago, Uruk is ruled by a great king named Gilgamesh who part man and part god.

Although he is great, Gilgamesh has to problems: Firstly, he is afraid of death (immortality being one aspect of his godly inheritance he apparently lacks); secondly, he’s a bit of a tyrant who sometimes forces himself sexually on his new brides. (#MeToo wasn’t a thing then).

So the gods create and send a great wild man named Enkidu to civilise Gilgamesh, though Enkidu himself needs civilising first so the gods arrange a nice, long shag with a prostitute to calm him down.

He’s then ready to go to Uruk to civilise Gilgamesh… not like he was ‘civilised’, mind, but by beating him up. 

Naturally, after a good fight, the pair become fast friends and go off adventuring together.

On their first outing, they kill a monster guarding a mountain forest before then encountering the very powerful Bull of Heaven.

The gods, rather cross by this point that Gilgamesh has still not been sufficiently civilised, have sent this creature to do what Enkidu failed to do: Kick Gilgamesh’s butt. 

Instead, the Bull is beaten and, to top it all off, the goddess Ishtar (or Innana) now has the hots for Gilgamesh.

He, however, turns down her marriage offer, as does Enkidu. 

Not willing to countenance such an affront to the ‘Cosmic Cunt’, the gods decide to strike down Enkidu, whose corpse is guarded by the fiercely loyal Gilgamesh until maggots begin dropping from its nose. 

This makes Gilgamesh more acutely aware of his own mortality and he sets off on another quest to find the only man to have ever had immortality bestowed upon him by the gods, Utnapishtim.

When he finds him, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he may achieve immortality if he can complete the task of staying awake for six days and seven nights, something Gilgamesh fails to do. 

In consolation, and at the prompting of his wife, Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh the chance to restore his youth instead by retrieving a special plant from the bottom of the sea.

This he manages, but when he falls asleep a snake eats it and he returns to Uruk defeated.

There, at the end of the story, Gilgamesh is instead reminded of (and comforted by) his earthly achievements as he takes in the splendour of the city walls he has built. He finally accepts that death and decay is the fate of all men.

4Y1A6598 Louvre, Gilgamesh and Lion by Ninara
Statue illustration of Gilgamesh next to an Assyrian winged bull, held at the Louvre (image: Ninara)

In a way, though, Gilgamesh did live on, or at least parts of the story did. During the tale, Utnapishtim’s backstory of how he achieved immortality is related.

Years before, the gods had become annoyed with mankind and decided to destroy them with a great flood.

But one of their number, Ea (known in Sumerian as the god ‘Enki’) tips off Utnapishtim, who builds a great boat and fills it with animals and then rides out the storm.

When the flood waters recede Enlil, the leader of the gods, is angry with Ea for allowing Utnapishtim to escape, but when the other gods shame him he backs down and grants Utnapishtim (and his wife) immortality. 

Sound familiar? It’s obviously the inspiration for the Noah story in Genesis, one of a number of Mesopotamian influences that found its way into the Bible.

It’s not hard to see why such a tale came from early Iraq – floods were obviously an intricate part of irrigation-dependent early Mesopotamian life.

It’s easy to imagine, what with the food supply and survival of the entire population being dependent upon them, that floods might have taken on a frightening or sinister role in future stories.


Gilgamesh and the Bible, though, would come later.

Before all that, not long after the birth of writing, between 3,000 and 2,900 BCE, there is evidence of both hostility and common cause between the city states of southern Mesopotamian plateau. Kriwaczek states:

“In spite of repeated attempts to call an end to the destructive rivalry, during much of the third millennium BCE the conflicts all too often led to the ruin of entire cities and the massacre of their inhabitants. Yet the contenders for Sumerian superiority were well aware, even proud, of sharing a common culture and a common history... there was even at times a coalition or confederation… a league of neighbours, focused on the temple of the supreme god Enlil at Nippur (who we met in the Gilgamesh story), which collected together supplies, material, and even armed men, for the common defence of a Kengir (Sumerian) League.”

And from whom would they need to defend themselves? 

At first, raiders from the mountains in the east, or deserts in the west, and isolated tribes.

Early Iraqi history is replete with various ethnic and tribal groups posing a threat to and then being absorbed by the wider Mesopotamian culture – there were Amorites from Canaan, the land eventually settled by the Jews, Gutians from the Zagros mountains in the north, Chaldeans more locally, Medes and Elamites from what is now Iran, and many others.

These large external threats may be, Kriwaczek tells us, the reason for the emergence of kings.

The specialised trades and subsequent class divisions made possible by the rise of cities and civilisation did, themselves, make the emergence of professional armies possible.

The world was moving on from one in which every hunter or early city dweller was also a part-time warrior, as needed, and into a place where professional fighting forces could be assembled. 

That, though, took money, and therefore rich ‘big men’ with land and workers they could spare for professional military training. 

There was also a second economic factor that drove this trend:

“The products of the bronze-smith would, at least at first, have been very costly, available only to the wealthiest.

And if the original use for bronze was the manufacture of weapons, as it probably was, those who controlled the technology, organized the transport and paid the armourers, soon acquired monopoly power.”

Yet, a military force could always be used for offensive as well as defensive ventures, and it was common for the Lugans to serve as both when animal grazing rights brought land between cities into contest.

(Animal herds chew their way through a lot of land, and can leave it desolate for years afterwards).

So the next obvious question is what was warfare in this period was like?

Fragments from ‘The Stele of the Vultures’, a stone monolith from the period currently held at the Louvre, give some indication.

Dating back to around 2,500 BCE, the tablet depicts combat between the cities of Lagash and Umma, two prime competitors at the time.

The Stele_of_Vulture held at Louvre by Eric Gaba
A section from ‘The Stele of the Vultures’, held at the Louvre (image: Eric Gaba)

In this portion of the monument, combat is depicted as consisting largely of troops packed tightly into some kind of phalanx, with shields up and spears bristling.

This was only half the story, though. Priwaczek refers to archaeological evidence of sophisticated missile use during this period. 

Whilst there would have been formations of tightly packed foot soldiers, they’d have been supported by other bodies of troops using slingshots, hurling sharpened stones up to half a kilometre and spinning them in such a way that they may have even pierced armour, travelling with a velocity of over 100 metres per second. (A bullet from a .45-calibre pistol travels at 150). 

Again, as far as the story of David and Goliath goes, this puts the Bible in context. 

The end result of all this was that the ‘big men’, the kings of Sumer’s city-states, achieved tremendously elevated status.

Like the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang and his impressive horde of terracotta warriors, treasures followed Sumerian kings to the grave.

In fact, in the case of the city Ur, excavated in the 1920s and 30s for the British Museum by Leonard Woolley and his assistant Max Mallowan (aka Mr Agatha Christie), human sacrifice was also part of the king’s elaborate burial.

Kriwaczek lists some of the artefacts unearthed at Ur:

“...deftly engraved cylinder-seals, finely wrought jewellery of lapis lazuli and carnelian (deep blue and dark orange precious stones). There were curiously fashioned musical instruments: harps and lyres, decorated with white shell inlay on a background of black bitumen and finished with bulls’ heads marvellously modelled in precious metal, and oddly adorned with false beards of precious stone.

"There were weapons of copper and flint, and a profusion of silver and gold, including a golden helmet, in the form of a wig, delicately chased as if with waves, plaits, and locks of hair, which Woolley declared ‘the most beautiful thing we have found in the cemetery’.”

The ‘beautiful golden helmet’ was one of the items swiped from the museum in Baghdad during the post-invasion looting of 2003. It hasn’t been seen since. (The ‘Daily Show’s’ Jon Stewart later dubbed post-invasion Iraq ‘Mess-o-potamia’).

Leonard Woolley and death pit at Ur
Leonard Woolley during his excavation at Ur, and artist A. Foriester’s impression of burial pit preparations, including soldiers and what appears to be the people about to sacrifice themselves - pictures at the British Museum (image: writer’s collection)

For the most part, though, the average citizen’s contact with his ruler did not take place in war or, happily, as at Ur, through human sacrifice. Instead, citizens in Sumer were constantly reminded of their rulers by one thing above all others: Taxes.

When a herder brought his sheep to the palace for shearing, he paid five shekels (or two ounces) of silver to the authorities.

When a man divorced his wife, he paid six shekels; as a perfumer, when he created a new scent, it cost seven shekels.

The priesthood were no less corrupt than the monarchs, and were well within their rights to trespass onto a poor man’s property, cut down his trees and take his fruit.

Death, the other certainty, brought taxes of its own: The family of the deceased had to pay the religious authorities in possessions (a garment, a bed and a stool), bread (420 loaves of it), barley and beer (seven whole jars).

Onerous as that sounds, barley, and therefore beer, were ubiquitous.

This may have been the age of the city, but any walk outside the city limits would have revealed barely fields as far as the eye could see.

With a higher salt tolerance than wheat, it was a better crop to bet on in the salination-prone Mesopotamian floodplains.

That same salination made wells unusable and without the kinds of natural springs that could be found in the mountains that left Sumerians with one main beverage: Beer.

Rivers and other waterways were, after all, already dirty and made even more so by the, albeit impressive, downhill plumbing system that conveyed human waste away from the city and out into the rivers.

So an alcoholic beverage that went some way to killing off the germs was preferable - ale was also drunk widely by medieval Europeans for the same reason.

Barley by Oleksil Leonov
Barley as far as the eye can see, a common sight in ancient Mesopotamia (image: Oleksil Leonov)


If people in Sumer were getting bored of barley and beer, they must have welcomed the trading revolution that came to Mesopotamia after 2,300 BCE: 

“Valuables, goods and materials from the entire wider region poured in. Ships from as far afield as Bahrain… Oman… and even the Indus… docked at… quaysides and unloaded their treasures; foreign mariners speaking in strange accents thronged the streets near the harbours.

Barges laden to the gunwales with grain from distant rain-watered farms far (away)… daily arrived in the harbour, unshipped their cargoes, and were promptly dismantled, the wood destined for recycling in expansive local building projects.”

Not only that, but the new king would claim to have even made it over the Mediterranean (‘the western sea’). This sounds like boasting until one considers that a seal was discovered on Cyprus in the 1870s. Its inscription read:

“Apil-Ishtar, son of Ilu-bani, servant of the Divine Naram-Sin.”

So who was this ‘Apil-Ishtar, son of Ilu-bani’? 

We know him by a different name: Sargon of Akkad. 

Unlike the present-day YouTuber, the original Sargon didn’t have the internet. He became famous because his kingdom is widely considered to be the first of its kind - an empire, expanding far beyond its regional Sumerian rival, Uruk. Sargon…

“…marched on Uruk, demolished the famous walls built by King Gilgamesh, easily vanquished a massed defence by fifty Sumerian city governors and, according to an inscription on the pedestal of a statue… captured (King) Lugalzagesi himself (and dragged) him back ‘in a neck-stock to the Enlil gate’ at (the city of) Nippur.”

And that was the point. Sargon’s empire would bring huge economic benefits to its inhabitants, but like all empires its trade routes were fiercely acquired and defended.

History often shows us that ‘free’ trade is a misnomer.

The British Empire, like its rivals, practised gunboat diplomacy, promptly chucking out rulers under its thumb that it didn’t approve of; likewise, it was the US that forced Japan to abandon isolationism and enter the global marketplace, something that eventually set both countries on a course to war.

And even in our more civilised world today, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, one of the most vocal proponents of globalisation, has referred to our modern system of international capitalism as ‘the golden straightjacket’ – whereby a certain amount of national sovereignty is lost whilst benefits are gained from world trade.

Back in Sargon’s day, many of the same issues that affect us in matters of regional or global trade also played out then.

He had to work to standardise the language, weights and measures and even the culture in and around the cities of Mesopotamia.

This bureaucratic impulse would have required that the Sumerian tradition of taxes be continued, and also that a strong military be raised and maintained to crush any resistance.

‘The Chronicle of Early Kings’, which dates to Babylon later in the Mesopotamian story, said of Sargon that he:

“…had neither rival nor equal. His splendour was diffused over the lands. He crossed the sea in the east. In the eleventh year he conquered the western land to its farthest point. He brought it under one authority. He set up his statues there and ferried the west’s booty across on barges. He stationed his court officials at intervals of five double hours and ruled in unity the tribes of the lands.”

That definitely sounds imperial. 

Sargon’s rule also shifted the emphasis in the relationship between man and the gods.

He certainly respected existing deities but Sargon’s aim clearly seems to have been to bring the various gods, their temples and their clergy together where he could influence them. And yet:

“That is not to say that Sargon ignored the divine powers. He chose to put himself under the protection of Ishtar, descendant of the prehistoric Great Goddess, model for Greek Aphrodite and Latin Venus, who had, like other divinities of southern Mesopotamia, Enki and Ea of the sweet waters, Nanna and Sin of the moon, Utu and Shamash of the sun, fused with her Sumerian equivalent, in this case Inanna. Her composite powers over war and love, fighting and procreation, aggression and lust, made her the ‘adrenaline goddess’, deity of fight, flight and frolic, the perfect heavenly dominatrix and protectress for a Bronze Age warrior hero.”

Sargon of Akkad empire by Nareklm
Sargon of Akkad’s empire in 2,300 BCE (image: Nareklm)

Ignoring the gods just wasn’t an option, no matter how godlike Sargon might have believed himself to be.

John Robertson puts this in perspective by comparing the religious ideas of ancient Mesopotamians with our own. 

We think of religion as a specific sphere, and monotheism (worship of one god) as being what religion naturally is.

But for the Mesopotamians there was no ‘religion’ in the sense of it being a separate sphere of life – what we call religion, to them, WAS life. 

Not only that, but, before Judaism, Christianity and then Islam became the major religions, both in the Middle East and the West, polytheism, worship of many gods, was the norm.

So it was, with diplomatic cunning, that Sargon also worked to increase his influence behind the scenes, making his daughter, Zirru (or Enheduana), a high priestess.

In this role, she wrote religious poetry that came to influence the Hebrew Bible and Greek literature, as well as making herself the first identifiable author in history.

One particularly notable text from her is the ‘Sumerian Temple Hymns’.

Ambitious in scope, it brings the various temples from different cities together into one reverential piece of text, as this section illustrates:

“O Isin, city founded by the god An [god of the sky] 

which he has built on an empty plain! 

Your exterior is mighty, your interior artfully built, 

your divine powers are those which An has decreed. 

O low dais which Enlil loves, 

O place where An and Enlil determine all destinies, 

where the great gods dine, filled with great awesomeness and terror… 

Your lady, the great healer of the Land, 

Nininsina, the daughter of An, 

has erected a house in your precinct, O house of Isin, 

and taken her seat upon your dais”.

The point of all this was to draw the various stands together, to fuse the different gods and centres of worship into a single religious community.

And it was in the process of doing this that man displaced the gods as the centre of things.

Whereas before, the holy realm had been the important one, and life on earth a mere sideshow, now man was in the ascent.

Sargon of Akkad and Victory Stele of Naram Sin
Sargon of Akkad (left) and the Victory Stele of Naram Sin, held at the Louvre (image: Jastrow)

This is illustrated perfectly, Kriwaczek explains, in the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, who was the grandson of Sargon and whose celebratory monolith contrasts with the earlier Stele of the Vultures.

As noted, King Eannatum of Lagash also had his victory over his enemies at Umma depicted on the Stele of the Vultures, but the gods are portrayed more prominently. Eannatum is great, but is also their agent on earth.

Conversely, Naram-Sin’s victory stele not only places him front and centre, but also deifies him, showing him wearing the horned helmet signifying divinity, and his name preceded by a star, a cuneiform symbol used to denote a god.

Thousands of years later, in the modern era, Sargon was still being honoured. In 1990, a Time Magazine journalist witnessed Saddam Hussein’s elaborate birthday celebrations which featured crowds dressed in ancient Mesopotamian costumes and a live diorama of a baby (meant to be Saddam) placed in a basket and sent floating down a stream.

The journalist was confused as to why Saddam would want to associate himself with Moses, leader of the Jews, for this was his origin story. Except that the origin of the origin story was actually Mesopotamian mythology, and it had Sargon as the baby at the centre of the tale. 

This passage, written 1,000 years after the time of Sargon, though still pre-Hebrew Bible, will sound familiar to anyone who has read the story of Moses (or has seen the movie ‘Willow’):  

“My mother was a priestess, I did not know my father. 

My father’s kin live out on the steppeland.             My city is Azupiranu, on the banks of the Euphrates. 

My priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. 

She set me in a basket of rushes and sealed my lid with bitumen. 

She cast me into the river which rose over me. 

The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.

Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me.

Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. 

While I was a gardener, [the goddess] Ishtar granted me her love.”

In this case, the story weaved together myth with reality, for Sargon is believed to have been a court official – a gardener – before he became a king and emperor.

Yet for all the myth and godly grandeur, the world’s first imperial project would not last long.

As if the hubristic impulses of Sargon’s successors had displeased the gods, disaster struck the Akkadian empire in around 2,200 BCE. 

Ancient Mesopotamians may not have been using fossil fuels and causing mass climate change like we are, but the climate has always been sufficiently fragile as to sometimes alter on its own.

And it’s believed that desertification (in other words, natural climate change) may have strained the food supply.

To make an obvious pun, it seems the Akkadian empire had bitten off more than it could chew, stretching its territory beyond the point that its bureaucracy could manage. 

And just as it has been suggested that some kind of internal collapse might have finally allowed the ‘barbarian hordes’ to overrun Rome, so too did warring groups, or in this case one main warring group, close in on the capital, Akkad:

“The guilty party was named by the ancients as the Gutians, who swept down from the upper Diyala Valley leaving devastation in their wake (the Diyala is a tributary of the Tigris river)... the god ‘Enlil brought out of the mountains those who do not resemble other people, who are not considered part of the Land, the Gutians, an unbridled people, with human intelligence but with the instincts of dogs and the appearance of monkeys’.”

In the end, the Akkadian story came full circle.

The ‘less sophisticated’ yet more robust ‘provincial’ city-states outlasted Sargon’s empire.

The ‘arrogant’ humanism was survived by the rulers of independent cities who held their gods in higher esteem than themselves.


The period following the demise of Sargon’s empire would be one of fusion.

That’s because the idea of a unified Mesopotamian empire was resurrected in an effort to overthrow the Guti, but this time it would be a restrained and humble version.

The ‘arrogant humanism’ of Sargon’s time was to be swapped out with an outlook shaped by suitable reverence for the gods. (At least, that was how it started out).

Uta-hegal was the new hero king and he led a successful removal of the Guti, though claimed his victory only happened because the gods willed it - especially Enlil, the leader of the gods, and Innana/Ishtar. 

Whether Uta-hegal was a genuine believer or just a shrewd political operator is very difficult for us to know. What was certain is that once he had the gods on his side the people were sure to follow.

The pendulum swung back the other way at some point, and in the 21st Century, BCE King Shulgi of Ur didn’t so much de-emphasise the gods as promote himself amongst them.

Ur_Iraq by Aziz1005
Ur today (image: Aziz1005)

Kriwaczek offers us a snapshot of what the Great Ziggurat at Ur and the surrounding area must have looked like at the time: 

“In ancient times the scene would have appeared very different. What is now a dusty wilderness trembling with mirages under a merciless sun, would have been a green and gold vista as far as the eye can see: fields of grain criss-crossed by glittering threads of waterway, fringed by date palms, willows and alders, the fallow fields cropped by flocks of fleecy sheep and herds of fat cattle.”

Then the ziggurat would have come into view, the design of which was meant to combine the puny human world with the grand scale of the gods:

“In the distance, the ziggurat rises above the horizon, as if keeping a watchful eye over its lands, the exterior rendered with lime plaster, either left a dazzling white, or more probably coloured, each level painted a different hue. Had you been permitted to mount to the top – which no ordinary mortals were – you would have seen another similar ziggurat rising, twelve miles away, over the first Sumerian city Eridu.”

Video reconstruction of ancient Ur done by Zero One Animation in collaboration with the Melbourne Museum

And yet this new resurgent Sumer, with Ur at the helm, also collapsed, this time because of raiders from what is now Iran. 

When the Elamites smashed their way through Ur’s gates, they dragged King Ibbi-Sin off with them (he was never seen again). 

They also sacked the city:

“People littered the outskirts like broken potsherds. The walls were breached. The people groaned.”

It got worse inside:

“On its lofty city-gates where people once promenaded, dead bodies lay about. On the boulevards where festivals had been held, heads lay scattered. In all the streets where people had once promenaded, corpses were piled. In the places where the festivities of the Land had taken place, people were stacked in heaps.”

This sacking allowed another group of raiders from the north, the Amorites, to sweep in as well.

But unlike the Elamites, they would settle and become a permanent part of the population.

In the meantime, the collapse of Sumerian order meant that the whole area entered a kind of warring states period, in which warlord kings, which Paul Kriwaczek says were Godfathers of their day, came to dominate:

“For a few hundred years the political kaleidoscope shook – all over Mesopotamia. Westerners, Amurru (Amorites) in Akkadian, arrived in an unstoppable flood. These were not all one nation; their names tell us that they spoke at least two different west-Semitic dialects. Other peoples entered from the east and the north. They frequently fought against each other. Dynasties rose and fell. Power rewarded intrigue and assassination. City strove against city for superiority. Great battles were fought. Kings took to the field. Some prevailed; some died.”

To put what was going on into perspective, Sargon of Akkad’s reign is thought to have lasted for 50 years.

The city-state of Kurda had four rulers in 10 years, as did the city of Shubat-Enlil; Ashakkum had five in five years.

The sheer political volatility and uncertainty seems to have pushed rulers of the period into a kind of paranoid superstition. There’s certainly some schadenfreude to be derived from descriptions of kings who, because of a bad omen such as an eclipse, might hastily place a commoner on the throne. The idea was to let the hapless replacement suffer whatever misfortune the gods had in store before reoccupying the throne once they were dead… except that whatever curse was anticipated evidently often failed to materialise, and so the ‘commoner king’ was just put to death after the danger was thought to have passed.

One instance where such a scheme backfired was in around 1860 BCE.

Irra-Imitti, the king of Isin, was replaced by an Enlil-Bani, a gardner, due to a bad omen. 

But, alas, “fate was not as blind as she is usually described and seems to have been perfectly able to distinguish the fake royal from the real: ‘Irra-Imitti died in his palace after swallowing boiling broth.

"Enlil-Bani… did not relinquish (the throne) and so was established as king”.

Of course, Kriwaczek points out, this may have just been a cover story for a palace putsch.

The reason we know there was so much political upheaval during this time is that the royal palace at Mari, which is now just inside the Syrian border, was at a crossroads of much royal correspondence.

Correspondence that was preserved for posterity when Mari was later burnt to the ground and its clay tablets baked and made hard and ultra durable.

And a lot of what was subsequently uncovered was exchanges between an assortment of various ruffians – “strongmen, warlords and mafia bosses who now dominated Mesopotamia”. 

One of those quoted complains that he is not getting enough respect.

The complainant was writing to none other than the King of Ekallatum, who was himself the eldest son of Shamshi-Adad, a ‘capo did tutti capi’, or ‘boss of all bosses’ – a strongman, in other words.

Ancient Iraq
The Assyrians, who would rise to prominence later in the Mesopotamian story, certainly embodied the strongman ideal – (image from ‘Ancient Warfare’ issue V-4 © Karwansaray Publishers/Johnny Shumate)

Mari, as it turns out, was controlled by another one of Shamshi-Adad’s sons, who is chastised on one tablet for having not been militant enough:

“How long do we have to guide you in every matter? Are you a child, and not an adult? Don’t you have a beard on your chin? When are you going to take charge of your house? Don’t you see that your brother (the king of Ekallatum who screwed the complainant above out of a full complement of silver) is leading vast armies? So, you too, take charge of your palace, your house.” 

Then we get to nub of the problem:

“While your brother here is inflicting defeats, you, over there, you lie about amidst women. So now, when you go to Qatna with the army, be a man! As your brother is making a great name for himself, you too, in your country, make a great name for yourself.”

It’s easy to imagine this conversation in modern-day Sopranos vernacular: 

‘Don’t be a p***y and stop thinking with your d**k!’

In the end, Mari was taken over by a man (or as Shamshi-Adad might have put it, ‘more of a man’) named Zimri-Lin.

The unearthed tablets reveal him to have been humorous, pious, curious, fully engaged in governing but also a little vain.

This is extrapolated from exchanges about explorations of foreign lands, orders for garments that had to be meticulously cut, detailed questions about the workings of the government, as well as requests from him for any ‘messages’ from the gods. 

Bureaucratic infighting meant to get his attention is also in evidence – a lot like contemporary descriptions of the Trump Whitehouse in Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury’.

It isn’t known how Zimri-Lin died, but when he did, for whatever reason, the warring states-like period ended. 

In its place came a new empire, centred at the city of Babylon.

Establishing this new order would not be easy. Ethnic divisions from all the migrations and political turbulence had sprung up and blood feuds were commonplace. 

Mesopotamia map
Mesopotamia under Babylonian dominance, during the time of Hammurabi (image: MapMaster)

It is from this period that we get Hammurabi’s code, strict laws laid down and enacted by King Hammurabi that were meant to bring about the necessary social order. Kriwaczek observes that this all makes sense, and that it has contemporary resonance: 

“Just as today the sterner social system of the USA, with its abhorrence of collective provision of public services and commitment to the death penalty expresses its identity as a nation of immigrants and deportees from many countries and backgrounds, in contrast to the predilection for social market solidarity and justice tempered by mercy in continental Europe, until very recently a far more ethnically homogenous realm.”

I myself observed this contrast when I emigrated to the US at 16 and spent one of my high school years in Mississippi.

One of my classmates did a persuasive speech justifying the death penalty by referencing the Old Testament’s ‘Eye for an eye’ maxim.

As an agnostic, I was not well versed in the Bible but was curious why the harsher Old Testament should take precedence over the more forgiving tone expressed in the New Testament.

We were clearly both influenced in what we felt was a more intuitive ‘correct’ interpretation of the Bible by our respective cultures, mine, the south-eastern UK, and his, the south-eastern US.

Again, like prior Mesopotamian inventions, Hammurabi’s code would go on to heavily influence the Old Testament.

Whilst the ‘eye for an eye’ principle originated there, so too were many rules for dealing with debt.

This is because ancient Babylon had another parallel with the present day: Complex financial instruments. 

It would seem that monetary deals akin to today’s commodity futures were being traded and they too were valued around anticipated future trade earnings.

And, like today, this all took place within a context of extreme inequality and privatised wealth.

Unlike today, when private debt overwhelmed people they often ended up in slavery. 

This is why Hammurabi’s laws also codify the class system, which was split into three groups: awilum, ‘freeman’/’gentleman’, mushkenum, commoners, as it were, and slaves, which were known as wardum.

Mushkenum were liable to become wardum, as were their children, if private debts were not repaid.

Hammurabi’s contribution was to limit this kind of indentured servitude to ‘only’ five years.

Yet, just as vast ballooning and then bursting debt packages risked tipping our global economy into a second great depression in 2008 (austerity aside, it was private and not public debt that caused the crisis), so too did the commercialisation and exploitation of private debt prove politically disruptive in ancient Babylon.

In the end, debt forgiveness was introduced, and this too found its way into the Bible (Deuteronomy 15).

As much as people at the bottom of society must have got sick of being pushed around by avaricious debt merchants and had their lives disrupted by greedy businessmen, some Mesopotamians also appear to have found some humour in their situation.

When Ur was divided by a canal that placed a palace on one side and a cramped ghetto on the other, a satirical description was committed to tablet to make fun of what it was like trying to help a stranger navigate the incredibly narrow and complex network of anonymous streets. (This too was uncovered by Leonard Woolley):

“You should enter by the Grand Gate and pass a street, a boulevard, a square, Tillazida Street, and the ways of Nusku and Nininema to your left.

"You should ask Nin-lugal-Apsu, daughter of Ki’agga-Enbilulu, daughter-in-law of Ninshu-ana-Ea-takla, a woman gardener of the Henun-Enlil gardens, who sits on the ground in Tillazida selling produce. She will show you.”

There were five kings after the reign of Hammurabi, each ruling for at least 20 years, but the culture of old Babylon would go through some kind of decline, perhaps brought on by a military incursion into Mesopotamia by the Hittites of Anatolia (Turkey). 

The vacuum after the fall of the Old Babylonian Empire was filled by the Kassites, “a new ruling class of recent immigrants from the east” and:

“For the next half millennium, the wellsprings of innovation and enterprise were to be found far north of the burning Babylonian plain, in the rain-watered homeland of the Assyrians, who would sustain the tradition of Mesopotamian civilization by giving it great clunking fists and the sharpest of teeth.”

ancient iraq map
A map of Mesopotamian empires alongside the Egyptian empire around 1,450 BCE (image: Свифт/Svift)


I might not remember much of anything from my reading of ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ almost 20 years ago, but one thing I do remember from Dr Crane’s history class was this line:

“The Assyrians were what historians call… very nasty.”

That may be, though according to Kriwaczek, they didn’t start out that way.

Assyria, from which modern Syria derives its name, was made up of Syria, but also northern Iraq and eastern Turkey.

This placed it at the centre of important trade routes, with high-quality fabrics coming up from Babylon, copper passing through from Eastern Europe and tin arriving from further afield, such as Afghanistan (recall that bronze is made by combing the two). 

The normal pattern was for the men to go out to trade whilst their wives held things together at home.

Kriwaczek says that a common complaint from wives stuck at old Ashur, the Assyrian capital, was that they were not being sent enough money. This one sounds particularly dire:

“It is true that you sent me half a pound of gold… but where are the bracelets that you (are meant to) have left behind? When you left, you did not even leave me one shekel of silver… Since you left, famine has struck the City.

"You did not leave me a single litre of barley. I need to keep on buying barley for our food… Where is the extravagance that you keep on writing about? We have nothing to eat. Can we afford indulgence? Everything I had available I scraped together and sent to you.

"Now I live in an empty house and the season is changing. Make sure that you send me the value f my textiles in silver so that I can at least buy ten measures of barley…”

Like Akkad, it was the protection of trade routes that played a role in militarising Assyria.

They were required to muscle in on a status quo that currently favoured four major players: The Mittani (or Mitanni, or Khanigalbat) in the north, the Egyptians, whose empire now stretched all the way to the eastern Mediterranean, the Babylonians in the south, and the Hittites to their north-west.

The Hittites were also relatively recent major players who were an early iron-age power.

They too had been on the make during the bronze age, as Eric Cline’s ‘1177 BC’ makes plain:

“We are told at one point that a Hittite king named Mursili I… marched his army all the way to Mesopotamia, a journey of over one thousand miles, and attacked the city of Babylon in 1595 BC, burning it to the ground and bringing to an end the two-hundred-year-old dynasty made famous by Hammurabi ‘the Law-Giver’.

"Then, instead of occupying the city, he simply turned the Hittite army around and headed for home, thus effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history.”

Ancient Turkey
A night attack on a city by the Hittites from Anatolia (image from ‘Hittite Warrior’ by Trevor Bryce © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

This is what allowed the Kassites, a previously obscure ethnic group, to then take over Babylon and rule it from there.

So this was the world the Assyrians were attempting to enter into. Their transition to major military player also brought them a harsher internal legal framework. Hammurabi may have had an eye for an eye, but the Assyrians had capital punishment by impalement on a stake and by being flayed alive.

These harsh penalties are notable for apparently being disproportionately applied to women. Impalement was prescribed for having an abortion. Others were laid down for what we’d consider some very unusual offences:

“If a woman has crushed a gentleman’s testicle in a brawl, they shall cut off one finger of hers. If the other testicle has become affected along with it by catching the infection even though a physician has bound it up, or she has crushed the other testicle in a brawl, they shall tear out both her eyes.”

Other law codes sound familiar too, and went on to inspire some very strict Islamic cultures:

“If a gentleman has caught another gentleman with his wife, when they have prosecuted and convicted him, they shall put both of them to death… But if he cuts off his wife’s nose, he shall make the gentleman into a eunuch and they shall mutilate his whole face.”

Another one states:

“Neither wives nor widows nor women who go out on the street may have their heads uncovered.”

This, though, was reserved for higher-class women. Slave girls found covering themselves, and thereby unduly elevating their status, would have their ears cut off.

The fact that later strict Muslim cultures applied veiling uniformly was actually seen as positive for women, promoting them all to the same high status.

Naturally, the fundamental clash between some strict Islamic and western cultures today is over the requirement for women to dress this way.

Still, it is instructive for westerners to realise that the tradition was meant to have been adopted from Assyria in a way that was seen as respectful to women, based on the standards of the time.

As far as punishments went, they were also applied to anyone who saw but did not report a crime, including men.

This went as far as palace life, where contact with women (the king’s harem, essentially) was very tightly controlled.

Any breach of protocol was met with the severest sanction and those who witnessed such lawbreaking but didn’t report it would be thrown into a hot oven.

So, all in all, just like Dr Crane said - very nasty.

Assyrian helmet
Assyrian armour
An Assyrian helmet and armour held at the British Museum (images: writer’s collection)

Although, it isn’t fully known to what extent these unspeakable cruelties were actually carried out by the Assyrians. They did, after all, deliberately cultivate a reputation as savages because they wished to scare the life out of their enemies. 

Yet, circumstances would still demand more of them, at least militarily.

Sometime in the early 12th Century, BCE, some kind of enormous disruption caused massive migration in and around the Middle East.

Some stories attribute this to invasions of the ‘sea peoples’ of the Mediterranean, but whilst large scale raiding no doubt did occur it is more likely this was a symptom than a cause of the turmoil.

At least that’s the argument put forward by Eric Cline, the full title of his book being ‘1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed’.

In it, Cline argues that the most likely explanation is actually a perfect storm of disasters, including a storm of earthquakes, or, more precisely, an earthquake storm.

This is where one major seismic event triggers a whole series.

This, combined with climate change, drought and famine may have caused a freak chain reaction that in turn caused enormous economic disruption.

There is considerable evidence that, despite warfare between them, the cultures of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean were all interlinked via elaborate trade networks.

These created mutually dependent symbiotic relationships that led to large-scale turmoil following the collapse of these trading routes – a lesson he says has relevance for our own highly globalised and increasingly environmentally fragile world economy.

Ancient Turkey
The Hittite capital Hattusa in the late Bronze Age (image from ‘Ancient Warfare’ issue IX-3 © Karwansaray Publishers/Rocio Espin)

The Assyrian response to this mess was another militarily upgrade, something they were enabled to do by the emergence of iron-age technology.

This made tougher armour, spears, swords and shin plates for boots; and horses, which they used for their chariots and, for the first time in Mesopotamia, as cavalry.

With a force of up to about 50,000 men, the Assyrian army was now, very likely, the most lethal on the planet, and they used it to ruthlessly enforce their new imperial borders.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just holding fast, as Paul Kriwaczek reminds us:

“Assyria soon discovered a painful truth: empires are like Ponzi schemes: financial frauds in which previous investors are paid returns out of new investors’ deposits. The costs of holding imperial territory can only be underwritten by loot and tribute extracted by constant new conquests; empires must continue to expand if they are not to collapse.”  

ancient iraq
Assyrian warriors (image from ‘Ancient Warfare’ issue VII-4 © Karwansaray Publishers/Angel Garcia Pinto)


One way of mitigating this risk was to enforce uniformity – to pre-emptively shutdown uprisings before conditions were right for them to emerge.

Captured populations would become forced migrants, the logic being that if they were divorced from their original homelands and absorbed into the empire, they would lose any prior sense of belonging and, sufficiently culturally disoriented, they’d be unable to rebel.

Trouble was this very process brought with it a ticking time bomb, a slow-motion linguistic coup. 

That’s because one group the Assyrians transplanted into their empire were Aramaic speakers, and they brought with them the seeds for an idea that would germinate and overwhelm not just Assyrian language and culture, but also that of Mesopotamia more generally.

To understand this it is worth bearing in mind a key idea in Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene’.

In the final chapter, Dawkins introduces the idea of memes and explains the concept by comparing them to DNA.

Genes, he says, are units of biological replication that pass through our bodies, whilst memes are units of cultural replication that pass from one brain to another.

Language is memetic, and any language that is more user-friendly is likely, over time, to out-compete alternative linguistic systems. 

Those Aramaic speakers brought with them the Phoenician alphabet, the basis for our modern alphabets today.

It was developed by workers in Egypt who devised it as a simple way to get around the incredibly complex and inaccessible system of hieroglyphics. 

It soon spread and when it was transported to Assyria it proved far easier than the written cuneiform language used by scribes there too.

Mesopotamia British Museum
Ashurbanipal, one of the last big emperors of Assyria, created a huge store of cuneiform texts to preserve the language and culture (image: writer’s collection)

The irony is that the very success of the Aramaic language and Phoenician alphabet led to their under-representation, in fact, near absence, from the historical record.

Whilst cuneiform texts were horded in an effort to preserve Mesopotamian language and culture, the more casual use of Aramaic on the by-now commonly used papyrus (early paper) meant that these forms of correspondence would not survive in anywhere near the same volume.

Paper rots, whereas clay hardened by fire can last for millennia.

Still, modern scholastic tragedies still strike more robust clay cuneiform tablets too.

On the one hand, whilst the perversely nihilistic death cult that is ISIS leads it to deliberately destroy anything pre-Islamic, miscalculation can also lead to the ruin of some ancient texts:

“…Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities unparalleled tablet collection of more than 100,000 documents… was looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein: the wooden boxes storing the collection were broken open and the catalogues recording their contents were burned. There is no great hope of getting much back. ‘You put these things in the back of a truck and drive over a bumpy road,’ lamented one archaeologist, ‘and pretty soon you have a sackful of dust’.”

And dust is precisely what Assyria’s capital cities – first Ashur, and then Ninevah – were eventually be pounded into.

Whilst their culture and language was being rapidly eclipsed from within, external military contenders also eventually come calling.

Kriwaczek points out that the maxim Oderint dum Metuant, ‘let them hate so long as they fear’, had one obvious drawback: That once the fear had been overcome the hatred would remain.

Like ‘Game of Thrones’, the Assyrians had tried all sorts of tricks to dominate neighbours like Babylon. King “Tiglath-Pileser III, imposed direct rule, creating a dual monarchy by nominating (himself) as King of Assyria and Babylon; other rulers tried placing a close – and hopefully loyal – relative on Babylon’s throne; yet others selected a native Babylonian as client-king.

None of these choices was ultimately successful; rebellions and revolts were frequent, and were put down with great severity”.

During this period Sargon would make a return – Sargon II, that is – as ruler of Assyria, and he battled with Babylon.

The Bible’s Merodach Baladan sought to rule Babylon for 10 years in defiance of Sargon, who eventually managed to remove and send him into exile in neighbouring Elam (western Iran).

Mesopotamia British Museum
An Assyrian lion hunt - tablets housed at the British Museum (images: writer’s collection)

When Sargon died in battle – an occupational hazard, particularly for an Assyrian king – Merodach Baladan resumed the throne in Babylon, much to the annoyance of Sargon’s son and successor Sennacherib, who subsequently attacked and drove him towards the Gulf. 

He then put a native Babylonian on the throne – a man named Bel-Ibni, who he expected to be loyal.

But Bel-Ibni soon rebelled against the Assyrians as well, so Sennacherib replaced him with his own son.

This ought to have done the trick, except that the king of neighbouring Elam took advantage of the new King of Babylon’s military engagement with Merodach Baladin in the wetlands near the Gulf.

He attacked the city, carrying Sennacherib’s son away in chains.

So, Sennacherib marched back to Babylon, captured the new Elamite puppet king, then, presumably for good measure, went on to attack Susa (the Elamite capital) as well.

While he was off on this crusade, a native Babylonian swiped the throne for himself, prompting vicious retribution:

“In a great rage, Sennacherib laid siege to the city for fifteen months, and when he finally broke through the walls, (he) carried off the pretender, (the family of the new king and other nobles) into captivity, looted their palaces and temples of all their valuables, and dragged off the statue of the god Marduk, protector and ruling deity of Babylon. He then had canals dug right through the city centre and flooded the entire urban area, so that nobody should ever live there again.”

In other words, if he finally decided that if he couldn’t have Babylon, nobody would. 


It was not to be happily ever after for Sennacherib. Games of Thrones, Series Two would begin with a palace coup that saw him assassinated and replaced by his son Esarhaddon, who was decidedly less belligerent.

Soon, like Europe’s cities decades after World War 2, 60 years following its ‘destruction’, Babylon was flourishing again.

Esarhaddon did try to improve Babylon-Assyrian relations by controlling both kingdoms simultaneously though.

He made his son Ashurbanipal (the one who would go on to store vast hordes of cuneiform texts) next in line for the throne of Assyria; meanwhile, another son, Shamash-Shumu-Ukin, was installed as ruler of Babylon. Unfortunately, this deft move did not have quite the legacy he’d intended.

Mark Twain is quoted as having said (perhaps apocryphally) that, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes’.

He was wrong – in ancient Mesopotamia, history frequently did just did repeat itself:

“Soon after Esarhaddon’s death, a bitter civil war broke out between the brothers, which ended only when Ashurbanipal besieged Babylon, broke through the gates and unleashed his forces on the populace. Shamash-Shumu-Ukin died in his burning palace. Ashurbanipal installed a new puppet king and then turned on his rebellious brother’s allies.”

One of these was the ruler of Elam, whom Ashurbanipal sought to punish next, storming into Susa, looting its palaces, destroying its ziggurat and other temples and tearing down the statues of former Elamite kings.

As if that wasn’t spiteful enough, he also desecrated their resting sites. 

Had he known what was in store during Season Three of Game of Thrones, he might well have treated Susa’s dead Elamite rulers with a bit more respect. It turns out they had been doing Ashurbanipal a favour.

With Elam gone, there was now no buffer between Assyria and more powerful empires further east – the Medes, and later, the Persians.

Babylon joined forces with them and Assyria was soon overwhelmed, its territory parcelled out to the victors: The Medes gobbled up Anatolia (Turkey) whilst the entire fertile crescent fell to the Babylonians. 

Winged bull-man gateway from the palace of Sargon II at the Louvre – Assyrians believed evil spirits could enter through doorways and these statues were protection against them, though not against Medians (image: MCAD Library)

They also inherited Judea (southern Israel today) and, after a revolt there, blinded the Judean King Zedekiah, killed off his heirs in front of him, and forced the ruling elite to relocate to Babylon.

Priwaczek quotes the Biblical account of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ by the Prophet Jeremiah.

Note that it refers to the Babylonians as Chaldeans, who were originally an outside tribe that, by this point, had been absorbed into and were identified with Babylon:

“And the Chaldeans burned the king’s house, and the houses of the people, with fire, and breake down the walls of Jerusalem.

“Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive into Babylon the remnant of the people that remained in the city, and those that fell away, that fell to him, with the rest of the people that remained.

“But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left of the poor of the people, which had nothing, in the land of Judah, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time. (Jeremiah 39:8-10)”.

So here we see an appreciation of the Babylonians on one hand, because the Judean poor had benefited from their invasion – carried out by Nebuzaradan, but the policy of his king Nebuchadnezzar II.

On the other hand, there are also numerous negative accounts of this episode in the Bible, borne out of the forced migration and exile of Jewish elites.

Still, as John Robertson explains:

“The captivity was not to last all that long. Less than fifty years later, in 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon, brought an end to the line of Chaldean kings, and granted the exiles from Judah permission to return there, where they re-established themselves and soon began to build a new temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem.”

In the end, many elected to stay and, until the 20th Century, Mesopotamia/Iraq would have the largest Jewish subpopulation in the Middle East. Furthermore: 

“…during that period of exile in Babylonia, many of the priests, scribes, and scholars who had been affiliated with the temple and the royal court in Jerusalem set to work collecting and editing manuscripts they had brought with them –manuscripts containing accounts and stories of their ancestors, kings, and laws. Thus began the process of assembling that body of literature that we know today as the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.”

Kriwaczek goes further:

“Without Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest and deportation, Judaism as we know it, and therefore Christianity and Islam in their turn, could never have come to be.”

There is also another great legacy left by Nebuchadnezzar II and his city, and that is Babylon itself – it was stunningly majestic and thought to have been nothing less than the most sophisticated place in the world of the 6th Century BCE.

Robertson describes the city as having a “greater area (that) covered about 850 hectares, with an inner city of about four hundred hectares that could have sustained a population of around eighty thousand”.

Those 80,000 were “a teeming, industrious population comprising people of various social stations and ethnicities: Babylonians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Egyptians, Arameans, Iranians, and Jews.

They occupied mud-brick houses that could be quite large, of two or three stories with a central courtyard”.

Impressive temples dotted the city, not least those held aloft on the central ziggurat known as Etemenanki – dedicated to the city deity Marduk.

An imposing 91-metres tall, this enormous structure required 32,000,000 to 45,000,000 bricks and immense effort from its multilingual workforce to construct. This may have something to do with it possibly being the inspiration for the Bible’s ‘Tower of Babel’.

And all of this was surrounded by defensive walls that were between 23 and, according to some ancient sources, 102 metres tall.

That last figure is hard to believe, though, in actual fact, it’s the city’s most famous feature that may be misattributed to it.

When the Forces Network contacted Professor Robertson, he advised that the video reconstruction above looks to be fairly accurate. (Indeed, it does accord with his descriptions).

But he pointed out that work by Oxford’s Stephanie Dalley has indicated that the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ (which were more likely a terraced amphitheatre circling a central pond) may have been at Ninevah – the Assyrian capital city that was completely destroyed.


As noted, the Persian king Cyrus the Great swept into Babylon in 539 BCE. 

Accounts of this vary widely, with Greek historian Herodotus describing Cyrus’ forces as quietly diverting the city canals before sneaking into the city and overwhelming the inhabitants.

They are said to have been distracted by a religious festival.

Yet that same festival, Akitu, sort of a Babylonian Christmas in terms of its importance, is at the heart of a very different version of events. 

In this telling, Babylon’s unpopular king, who is said to have only become regent through murder, has been away from the city for years when his presence is required for the festival to be done properly.

His worship of Shamash (the sun) and Sin (the moon) has also displaced other deities revered by the populace.

So when Cyrus the Great shows up offering to not only protect Babylon from his looting troops but also to restore Marduk and other gods to their former glory, he is welcomed with open arms

And, as Kriwaczek reminds us, to the residents of the greatest city on earth, this must have seemed fairly routine anyway:

“In the course of her long history, the land of Sumer and Akkad had been ruled by kings of many nationalities: Amorites, Kassites, Elamites, Assyrians, Chaldeans. All had assimilated to Mesopotamian culture and become more Akkadian than the Addakians, more Babylonian than the Babylonians. Now the throne was to be occupied by an ethnic Persian. What difference could that make? It could not displace the country from its position – as maps showed – at the very centre of the Universe, nor its role as the greatest engine of progress that history had ever known.”

Babylon Iraq
The ruins of ancient Babylon seen from Saddam Hussein’s palace

Well, it may have been the greatest, but by this point Mesopotamia had plenty of competitors – Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and others. Cyrus’ capital, Persepolis, remained in Persia and Mesopotamia became a province.

When it was later incorporated into Alexander the Great’s empire, Macedonian/Greek (or Hellenistic) culture crept into the region:

“…long before their millennial traditions fully disappeared, Mesopotamians had already begun their induction into an entirely new world, with new Hellenist cities springing up everywhere, with new kinds of public buildings under feverish construction: colonnaded temples, basilicas, gymnasiums; with a bewilderingly cosmopolitan population: Persians, Indians, Greeks, Egyptians and Jews living cheek by jowl with Babylonians, Assyrians, Armenians and Scythians; and with entirely new classes of people, with no equivalent in the old order: shady entrepreneurs, charismatic adventurers, mercenaries, unattached thinkings and writers, freelance priests, religious revolutionaries.”

In other words, ancient Mesopotamia wasn’t destroyed, it just gradually faded away.

It seemed eternal because it was the very first civilisation and because it lasted for so long, about 5,000 years from the establishment of Eridu.

It must also have been made to feel permanent because it had absorbed so many different tribal groups, and because it hosted and witnessed the rise and fall of so many kingdoms and empires: The Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and finally neo-Babylonians. 

The lifetimes of empires are, of course, easier to appreciate than that of civilisations and was something that the former British officer and amateur historian John Glubb tried to codify in his book ‘The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival’. 

He says that empires, if they don’t crumble prematurely, usually last for a maximum of about 250 years (unless they are reborn somehow, as Rome was when it transitioned from a ‘republic’ to an empire proper).

This process lasts for about 10 generations, who express and are dispersed across six different stages: The Age of Pioneers (and outburst), the Age of Conquest, the Age of Commerce, the Age of Affluence, the Age of Intellect and the Age of Decadence.

Glubb’s ideas are featured in the documentary ‘Four Horsemen’, which proposes that the United States is an empire currently going through decadence and decline, the features of which are, a bit ominously: “…the debasement of the currency (from the gold standard)… the conspicuous display of wealth, a massive disparity between rich and poor, a desire to live off a bloated state… an obsession with sex… (and  an undisciplined, over-extended military)”.

The Iraq War is shown as an example of this.

Whether or not the US and its allies are in danger of some kind of imperial decline or collapse in the near future, the important thing to remember, as expressed by Eric Cline in his book, is that we are not immune (and therefore, that we must not be complacent). If the history of Mesopotamia can teach us anything, it is surely that.

Click here for part 2 of this story.

Article produced with the kind assistance of Professor John Robertson

To learn more, read ‘Babylon’ by Paul Kriwaczek, ‘Iraq: A History’ by John Robertson and ‘1177 BC: The Year Civlization Collapsed’ by Eric H Cline.

Also visit Karwansaray Publishers for more great titles, and read their volume ‘Ancient Warfare’ for a rich pictorial approach to military history.

For military history illustrations read ‘Bronze Age War Chariots’ and ‘Hittite Warrior’ from Osprey Publishing.

Join Our Newsletter


Amazing view from RAF Voyager supporting Typhoons from XI Squadron

Gurkha recruits face chemical attack test in most arduous training to date

Veterans wear long-awaited Nuclear Test Medals in public for first time