Ancient Mesopotamia, “the land between the rivers” was the world’s first civilization. This region that lay along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq is also nicknamed the “Fertile Crescent” for its crescent moon shape and cultivable land. This fascinating civilization is where the world’s first city-states and empires began along with advances in irrigation, writing, art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics... even the invention of the wheel! This teacher guide utilizes the popular G.R.A.P.E.S. acronym for teaching about ancient civilizations and focuses on the geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy and social structure of Ancient Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia was in the Middle East between Europe, Africa, and Asia. It comprised much of Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and parts of Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran. Because it was the site of the world's earliest civilization, it is nicknamed: The Cradle of Civilization.
The Ancient Greeks named the region Mesopotamia which means "Land Between the Rivers" in Greek. These first city-states grew in the fertile, crescent-shaped land among the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The land was flat with low plains. While the area was semi-arid, when it did rain the rivers would flood, and would deposit silt onto the soil making it rich for farming. Mesopotamians developed irrigation systems and grew barley, wheat, vegetables, and fruit. The mud along the rivers was good for making bricks. Frogs, toads, turtles, birds and fish also lived in and around the rivers.
The Syrian and Arabian Deserts lie to the south of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and are home to dromedary camels as well as sand cobras, scorpions, the jackal and other animals.
The Zagros Mountains to the north and east form a natural barrier between Iran and Iraq (in ancient times, Mesopotamia and Persia). The foothills have mild weather and sufficient rain for farming, the forests provided lumber and rocks for making tools. The Taurus Mountains in the northwest provide another natural barrier to modern day Turkey (Anatolia).
Ancient Mesopotamians practiced polytheism, meaning they believed in many gods and goddesses. They believed that natural disasters and other events were caused by the gods and therefore it was important to live life in a way that pleased the gods. They honored the gods with sacrifices (including human sacrifices in some ceremonies) and building massive temples called ziggurats. Ziggurats were enormous step pyramids with a flat top. It was believed that the gods resided in the uppermost temple and only priests were allowed to enter.
In the earliest city-states, priests were the leaders because they were the ones who could communicate with the gods. Later, kings ruled and the priests served as the king’s advisors. It was believed that kings came from the gods. They often solidified their power by marrying priestesses. Each city-state had a patron god. The patron god of Babylon was Marduk. He was the lord of all the gods and goddesses and the god of thunder. His star was Jupiter and his sacred animals were horses, dogs, and the dragon. Ancient Mesopotamians’ religious beliefs influenced every part of their daily life. They believed in more than 3,000 gods and goddesses!
Ancient Mesopotamian artisans created instruments, pottery, sculptures and jewelry. They made intricate carvings and mosaics of stones and shells. They developed technologies such as metalworking, glassmaking, and textile weaving. Some of the metals they used were gold, copper and bronze. They were among the first to use bronze in the world. Their art was used as beauty, decoration, and function. It often honored the gods, their kings, and their conquests. Some famous works of art include:
Ancient Mesopotamians made strides in architecture building enormous structures like ziggurats, the temples to the gods, palaces, and other buildings in large city-states. They built massive walls stretching for miles surrounding their city-states to keep out invaders. The huge, intricate Ishtar Gate in Babylon was constructed around 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II.
To deal with intermittent periods of flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and periods of drought, Mesopotamians built systems of irrigation. They dug canals, built levees, and dug out large storage basins to hold water. Because they were able to water their crops year round, they created a stable food supply allowing them to specialize in other fields. For example, Sumerians are also credited with inventing the wheel around 3500 BCE and the plow in 3100 BCE. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed in 600 BCE at the behest of King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, which were a feat of irrigation engineering.
Sumerians invented cuneiform, a system of writing around 3500-3000 BCE, using a wedge-shaped tool called a stylus to carve pictographs into wet clay. This is arguably their greatest accomplishment, as it allowed them to keep detailed records of their crops and other economic transactions, record history, and write stories. The Epic of Gilgamesh was an epic poem considered the world’s first work of literature, about a Sumerian King who went on many adventures, written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets in 2100 BCE.
Babylonians made advances in mathematics creating a base 60 system: 60 second minute, 60 minute hour, 360 degree circle. They also excelled in astronomy: mapping the stars and dividing the year into 12 months, each named after the 12 most prominent constellations. They also created a 7 day week named for their 7 main gods who were derived from the 7 most observable planets.
Hammurabi’s Code was put into place by Babylonian King Hammurabi in 1772 BCE. It is the oldest written code of laws in history. There were 282 laws written in cuneiform in an "if, then" format. He had the laws written onto a 7 foot tall stele with a carved image of Hammurabi receiving the laws from Shamash, the sun god at the top.
Priests in Mesopotamia wielded much power because they were the conduit to the gods and Mesopotamians believed that the gods controlled natural disasters and other events in their lives. There was tension over power between priests and kings. Kings would even marry a priestess to secure their power. As city-states grew, they were ruled by kings such as Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, a Sumerian city-state. Later, Akkadian King Sargon the Great, conquered much of Mesopotamia creating the world's first empire. Conquering lands and increasing their power over the region was a constant and was seen as their god-given right. Akkadian King Naram-Sin’s conquest over the people in the Zagros mountains is depicted on the victory stele, likening Naram-Sin to a god.
Southern Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates was the site of the first city-states. The region was called Sumer. The Sumerians had made great strides in farming by creating irrigation systems such as levees and canals to bring water from the rivers to their crops. This created a surplus food supply for the people and they were able to specialize and create in other areas, for example: creating the world’s first system of writing, cuneiform around 3500-3000 BCE. The first Sumerian city-states included Kish, Uruk, Ur and Lagash.
The region north of Sumer was called Akkad. Around 2350 BCE, Akkadian king Sargon led his armies to conquer the region of Sumer and much of Mesopotamia, creating the world’s first empire.
Around 1900 BCE, the region was conquered again by the Babylonians. One of the most famous Babylonian kings was Hammurabi who created the first code of laws, Hammurabi’s Code, in 1754 BCE.
The Assyrians were the next to rise to power and around 1300 BCE they built an empire in northern Mesopotamia that expanded all the way to Egypt by 671. Assyrians were known for their ruthlessness in battle and new weapons of war, such as battering rams and moveable towers. The Assyrian empire fell in 609 BCE.
Babylonians regained control of Mesopotamia creating the Neo Babylonian Empire. King Nebuchadnezzar II was famous for the innovative architecture created under his rule, such as the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He is also noted in the Bible for his conquest of the city of Jerusalem where he took most of the Hebrew citizens captive and forced them to Babylonia, never to return. The Neo Babylonian empire fell to the Persian armies in 539 BCE. Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 330 BCE after which the Mesopotamian region was ruled successively by the Greeks, then Romans, Arabs and Turks. Mesopotamia became Iraq in 1921.
The invention of irrigation systems and tools like the first plow made agriculture the main source of the economy. Staple crops in ancient Mesopotamia were barley and wheat, also peas, beans and lentils, cucumbers, leeks, lettuces, garlic, grapes, apples, melons, and figs. Cuneiform writing kept detailed records. They also raised livestock like goats and used animals like donkeys to carry loads.
Mesopotamia's central location with the sea routes from the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf as well as the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers allowed for ample trade and fishing.
Potters, sculptors, jewelers, metal-smiths, carpenters and stone masons all crafted incredible works of art that were used for music, decoration, and to honor kings, gods, goddesses and depict important events and daily life.
Scribes were highly respected and were important record keepers as well as poets, writers, and teachers. The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the earliest surviving work of literature and describes the life and adventures of the demigod Sumerian King of Uruk.
Merchants traded food, clothing, jewelry, wine and other goods between the cities using a system of barter. For example, a farmer might trade goats or fruit in exchange for pottery or furniture. The exchanges were very official and were often "signed" using the impression of a cylinder seal in clay.
Enslaved people did much of the labor in ancient Mesopotamia working to build the massive city-states. They were often prisoners of war and were forced to live under brutal conditions and had no rights.
Early on, priests held the most power but as city-states expanded, secular kings were at the top of the social pyramid. Priests were important advisors who communicated with the gods. The upper class had government officials and scribes. The middle class had soldiers and workers such as craftsmen, merchants, civil servants. Women who were royalty could be educated and become priestesses. The lower class had farmers, laborers, and women whose options were housework or weaving. Enslaved people had harsh lives and no rights.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about Ancient Mesopotamia. They’ll become familiar with the environment, resources, technologies, religion, and culture of Ancient Mesopotamia and be able to demonstrate their knowledge in writing and illustrations.