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Lesson summary: Ancient Mesopotamia

An overview of ancient Mesopotamia.

Key terms

cuneiforma writing system developed in Mesopotamia that was primarily used to record economic transactions, but was also used for literature and legal codes
Epic of Gilgameshone of the world’s first works of literature, this story was written in cuneiform, and various pieces and versions of this story were recorded throughout early Mesopotamian civilization
Code of Hammurabilaw code written during the reign of the Hammurabi in Babylon that consisted of 282 laws and punishments for breaking them; the punishments varied depending on the crime and the social status of the people involved.
zigguratslarge platforms for Mesopotamian temples dedicated to the gods that people in each city worshiped; these structures required large amounts of resources and coordination to build.
empirea state with control over people with diverse ethnicity, language or culture
dynastya line of rulers who are members of the same family, often with children succeeding their parent as the ruler

Key dates

c.4000 BCE—c.2330 BCEDuration of Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia
c.3000 BCEDevelopment of cuneiform writing in Sumer
c.2330 BCE—c.2150 BCEDuration of the Akkadian Empire, the first Mesopotamian empire
c.2000 BCE—612 BCEDuration of the Assyrian Empire
1792 BCE—1750 BCEReign of Hammurabi in Babylon, during which Code of Hammurabi was created
626 BCE—539 BCEDuration of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which was conquered by Persian leader, Cyrus the Great

Key themes

Environment: Many early civilizations appeared in river valleys. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia facilitated successful agriculture by providing a stable source of water. Many cities created irrigation systems, and building these large projects was correlated with having centralized states that could control large amounts of labor and resources.
State building: Agriculture and the development of cities gradually led to the development of states. In many states, rulers solidified their power by claiming divine connections. Religious leaders and monumental architecture, such as ziggurats often reinforced this power structure.
Social structures: Social hierarchies developed along with civilization. Ancient Mesopotamians developed cuneiform writing, which they used to record transactions and also to write out legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi. The ability to record laws made enforcement more consistent for everyone, but also supported hierarchies by basing punishments on social status.
Map of the Akkadian Empire, which conquered most of Mesopotamia in the late third millennium BCE.
Map of the Akkadian Empire, which conquered most of Mesopotamia in the late third millennium BCE. The region in brown is roughly equivalent to the extent of Mesopotamia. Image credit: Wikimedia.

Review questions

  • What environmental factors contributed to the rise of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia?
  • How was the emergence of centralized states related to the creation of monumental architecture and other public building projects?
  • Did written legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, do more to maintain or to challenge social hierarchies?

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