Mesopotamia, Civilization And The Sumerians: The Cradle and the Fertile Crescent
Map of Mesopotamia
Where is Mesopotamia?
Mesopotamia is often quoted on the news and in books without a specific definition of where or indeed what Mesopotamia is. Mesopotamia is an area in the middle east stretching from the Persian gulf to the Mediterranean, encompassing parts of modern day Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. It mostly follows the routes of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries and in fact the name "Mesopotamia" means "land of rivers" or "land between rivers". Some of the most famous cities of the old testament were located in Mesopotamia, such as Babylon and Nineveh. It is often credited with being the cradle of civilisation, for reasons which I shall explore in this article.
The oldest known civilization, as defined by the invention of writing, were the Sumerians, focused in Sumer where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet, creating much fertile land. Here, some of the first major cities were founded, between 4500 and 3100 BC. During this period, mass agricultural and industrial ideas began to appear and were heavily implemented, further driving the need for focus, structure, control and indeed, civilization.
Sumerian writing used cuniform symbols for keeping records and accounting systems. These emerged around 4000 BC, coinciding with the rise of the major Sumerian city states. The large numbers of concentrated population required new methods of record keeping and population management. The Sumerians had knowledge of pottery and music and are credited with perhaps the single most important invention in history: The Wheel. Their military technology for the time included mainly missile weapons, such as spears and arrows. They did not use swords, though daggers were common.
At the end of this period, the Sumerian dynastic period began, bringing to the fore some almost mythical figures, such as Gilgamesh. During this period (3100 - 2300 BC) Sumer became much more like an empire than a collection of city states. War became more common and cities without large stone walls became the exception rather than the rule.
Although Babylon is often associated with Sumer and this period, at the time of the rise of the Sumerian city states, Babylon was little more than a small town, and was certainly not in the same class as cities such as Uruk, Akkad or Ur, which by this time housed tens of thousands. It did not rise to any significant status until around 1700 BC. Although the Babylonians could rightly claim to be a Sumerian civilization, their importance is more in their attachment to biblical reference rather than their influence on the beginning of civilization. This significance cannot be underestimated when taking into account the profound effect Christianity has had on the globe as it is today.
The Akkadian Empire
The rise of the Akkadians
Around 2300 BC, a new power emerged in Mesopotamia: the Akkadians. The Akkadians were very much like the Romans of their time, becoming the most influential force in the region for the following 1000 years. The Akkadian language became the official language of the region, and continued to be used for official purposes long after it ceased to be the language of the common man. Sumerian was, however, still used for religious ceremonies and some administration during this period. Bilingualism was common in the region, and although Sumerian had much influence on Akkadian, the latter gradually replaced the former until Sumerian disappeared around the beginning of the first millennium AD.
The sudden expansion of the influence of the Akkadians can be attributed almost wholly to King Sargon of Akkad, a northern Sumerian city from which the empire takes its name. In the 24th century BC, Sargon came to power and began subjugating the local Sumerians. Gradually the Akkadian people, language and culture spread throughout the entire region through a combination of war and economic hegemony. This expansion continued beyond the borders of Mesopotamia and extended right to the Mediterranean, perhaps even as far as Cyprus. They maintained a strong administration, collecting taxes, stockpiling food and organising society. They are often considered to be the first empire, though this is disputed by some.
As quickly as the Akkadians rose, in a prime example of a lesson history often teaches us, they fell. Only 180 years after the meteoric rise of Sargon, barbarians overran the empire, creating chaos and destruction. The Gutians, as they were known, had little regard for the civilised methods of the Akkadians. They kept no official records and destroyed much of the infrastructure put in place by the Akkadians. As a result, Mesopotamia entered its own equivalent of the dark ages, which did not end until the Gutians were cleared out by the Sumerian King Ur Nammur in the late 22nd century BC.
Single or Multiple Cradles?
Much is made of the Multiple cradle theory. This theory postulates that there was not one cradle, rather many, in different areas of the globe, such as the Meso-american, Egyptian, Indus valley and Asian civilizations. However these civilizations were all much later than the Sumerians(The closest being the Egyptians at around 3000 BC).
Certainly from a western point of view, no civilization can claim to have had such a profound effect on the shape of the modern world. The civilizations of Mesopotamia are ensconced in biblical lore, which has since given rise to the ethical and moral system that has formed most western civilizations. It was also the birthplace of the other main abrahamic religions, Islam and Judaism, making it the only civilization that can truly claim to still have a global influence on all societies.
In summation, although other civilizations have had a great effect, there is no one single one that can claim one so long lasting or far reaching; The Meso-american civilizations stagnated for centuries, resulting in their disappearance as soon as their isolation from the rest of the world ended. Their influence on modern society is generally more one of historical interest, rather than any truly far-reaching direct effect.
Western European and north African civilizations were all directly influenced by the earlier Mesopotamian. In south Asia, the Harappan civilization traded directly with the older Sumerian, and gained much of their technology (notably the wheel) through this contact.
The only civilization that was not directly influenced by the Sumerians but still has a large effect on modern society, was that of the Xia dynasty in China. This civilization was not as old, dating between 2070 and 1600 BCE, almost a thousand years after the initial formation of a Sumerian empire. While it's influence could still be said to be reasonably significant, it did not have the same truly global effect as the Sumerians, and is never cited as a possible cradle.
For these reasons, along with the fact that it is the oldest known to us, only Mesopotamia can truly claim to hold the title "cradle of civilization". You can explore more information about mesopotamia here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/cultures/mesopotamia_gallery.shtml