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Ancient Mesopotamia

Why is Mesopotamia considered the "cradle of civilization"? Sal explains the history of the early empires on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In other videos, we talk about how 10 to 15,000 years ago. You have the emergence of agriculture primarily around river valleys, and it's no surprise that agriculture first came about around river valleys because the rivers would flood, making the soil around them fertile. They would provide fresh water for crops and for the people who would live near them. Later on, the rivers could be useful for transporting things like crops, and so it's not surprising that our first significant civilizations also emerged where the first agriculture emerged. And our first civilizations we'll see in ancient Egypt along the Nile. We will see it in the Indus Valley along the Indus River. We'll see it in China along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, and we'll also see it in Mesopotamia along the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers. And what we're gonna focus on in this video in particular is Mesopotamia. Now, the word Mesopotamia literally come from meso, between, and potamos. I'm probably not pronouncing it right, rivers. So it's the area between rivers is literally what Mesopotamia is referring to. And it's primarily modern day Iraq. Now the reason why this is particularly interesting and it's called the cradle of civilization, is not only is it one of or perhaps the first place that agriculture developed, it was at the crossroads of many other early civilizations. Notice it's right in between the Indus Valley civilization here, and then the ancient Egyptians, and other civilizations that were emerging in the area. And so it's not surprising that this was a geography that had significant developments in terms of technology, in terms of architecture, in terms of religion, in terms of writing. And the first civilization we believe that emerged in Mesopotamia are the Sumerians. Sumerians. And Sumeria and Sumerians, it's most associated with this region right over here of, let me circle it, this region right over here of southern Mesopotamia. And we currently think that this civilization started to emerge around 4000 BCE. You can see it on this timeline here in orange, and they developed things as basic as the wheel. The first wheel that was ever discovered was 3500 BCE in Sumeria. They're famous for their architectural structures. This is a picture here of a ziggurat, which was at the center of many of these Sumerian and as we'll see Mesopotamian cities. This would require an incredible amount of labor to produce, and at the top of these they had temples to their Gods and their Gods, they had a polytheistic religion, and their Gods took human form. Also amongst the Sumerians is where we think one of the first written languages developed. It wasn't the first. You also have the Egyptian hieroglyphics and written language emerged amongst the Harappans and the Indus Valley civilization and amongst the Chinese, but it was one of the first languages. This right over here is an example of a cuneiform tablet. This is a cuneiform tablet written in the script. Cuneiform developed by these ancient Sumerians. Now, when you talk about Mesopotamia, you'll talk about Sumerians, but we'll also talk about other civilizations that emerge. In particular, let me write them all down. You have the Sumerians. You'll also hear something called Akkadian, and as we'll see, Akkadian is both a language and an empire that will emerge. In Mesopotamia over the roughly 3,000 years BCE, the two primary languages are Akkadian, which is considered a Semitic language. It's related to modern Semitic languages, like Arabic and Hebrew, and the reason why they're called Semitic is because they're spoken or they're reported to be spoken by the descendants of Shem, who was Noah's son, in the Hebrew bible. So, you have the language Akkadian, which is Semitic, and then you have the other language, which is Sumerian. And as we get into the third millennium BCE, the Sumerians start to have a lot of interaction with Akkadian speaking people, and Akkadian speaking people are initially associated primarily with northern Mesopotamia, and we believe the first empire, true empire, perhaps the first empire in the world emerged from Acadia, and it was called the Akkadian Empire. And if we scroll down over here, we can see how the Akkadian Empire spread. We believe that the town of Akkad, which the Akkadian Empire is named for, some place in this region right over here, and the first significant ruler who really spread that empire was Sargon, often referred to as Sargon the Great. And you can see, you can see that that would have been established around the middle of the 23rd, or actually the 24th century BCE. So around 2350, you have Sargon establishing what might be the first Dynastic empire in the world, the Akkadian Empire, and he was able to take control of both northern and southern Mesopotamia, so even the Sumerians were under the control of the Akkadians. As we'll see over time, you have a lot of mixing between the Akkadian language, the Sumerian language. Akkadian gets written in the Cuneiform script, and starting at around this period, Sumerian starts to die as a spoken language and Akkadian really becomes dominant. Now, the Akkadians rule for a little over 100 years, and then you have several other empires. It can get confusing. The way I have structured this timeline is this top line right over here is southern Mesopotamia and this bottom line right over here is northern Mesopotamia so this orange shows you where the Sumerians were reigning. Some people think that they might have been the first empire. This bottom line here, you can see the Akkadian speakers, but they were fragmented until you have Sargon the great establishing the Akkadian Empire. Now, you briefly then have a short-term neo-Sumerian empire, but the next significant empire that's often talked about when associated with Mesopotamia is the Babylonian Empire. So Babylon, the Babylonian Empire was centered at Babylon, right over here, and it really became a significant empire under the ruler Hammurabi. And Hammurabi is perhaps most known, you can see how he was able to spread the empire. The dark brown is what he had with this empire when he took rule, and the light brown is what he was able to spread it to, so once again, both north and south, and he's perhaps most famous for his famous code of Hammurabi, which is depicted here, and it wasn't the first written code, but it was one of the earliest, and you could view it as almost a proto-constitution, and it was based on things that the Sumerians had before, but they've even influenced things like biblical laws, things that come down to modern codes of law today. Now, after the Babylonians, the other significant empire that would have control over significant portions of Mesopotamia is the Assyrian Empire. And the Assyrian Empire is named for their, I guess you could say their home base, the town of Assur. You can see it in this map here, where we showed the Akkadian Empire. And both the Babylonians and the Assyrians were Akkadian speaking, so at this point now, and as we get into the later Assyrian period, we'll start to have Aramaic be a more significant language, another Semitic language, but as you can see here, the Assyrian Empire at its peak controlled much of the modern day Middle East. Now, the Assyrian Empire would eventually collapse in the seventh century BCE, and it would be taken over by the Neobabylonian Empire. I have a map of that right over here, which also controlled much of the modern middle east. Probably the most famous ruler of the Neobabylonian Empire was Nebuchadnezzar II from the Hebrew bible famous for taking the early Jewish people captive, the famous Babylonian captivity, but eventually they would be overthrown, and they would be overthrown in the sixth century BCE by the Persians and Cyrus the Great, and that'll actually be the end of the Babylonian captivity according to biblical accounts. But the big picture is that Mesopotamia is called the cradle of civilization for a good reason. Not only do we have these technological and architectural advancements, their religion, their writing has influenced civilization since, for the last five, six, 7,000 years. Well, I'd say definitely the last 5,000 years, and a lot of these ideas that came out of Mesopotamia, like written codes of law and the technologies and all the rest follow with us today.