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The Empires of Mesopotamia

Updated on May 5, 2014
The Akkadian Empire
The Akkadian Empire | Source

The Akkadian Empire 2334–2193 BC

There were four great empires in what we call Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq in ancient times. The first of these empires started from a simple city-state called Akkad. The exact location of Akkad within the many independent city-states is not known, as its ruins have never been found. Some historians speculate that it could be under Baghdad, the capital of Iraq today. Enshakushanna the first king of the Second Dynasty of Uruk, claims to have conquered Akkad during his rain, and it is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Genesis 10:10.

Ishtar/Inanna Goddess of Love and War
Ishtar/Inanna Goddess of Love and War | Source

When the Akkad king Sargon defeated the Uruk city-state, it was the beginning of his building the first empire in Mesopotamia. So who was Sargon? Even in his time, that was a bit of a mystery. He hinted that his mother was a priestess to the goddess Ishtar/Inanna, the goddess of love and war, or possibly the goddess herself. He claims to have never known his father and that he lived outside of a designated city. All of this could have been a story to ensure his position, as a man who was a "nobody" would never have been allowed to lead an empire.

He started his career as a servant to the king of Kish, another powerful city-state. He eventually became a gardener. The legend of his rise to power states that the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa had a dream that he shared with Sargon. The details of the dream are lost, but we know that it involved the goddess Inanna and the king drowning. After speaking with Sargon, he grew fearful that the gardener would have something to do with his death, so he ordered the local blacksmith to kill him. The blacksmith failed because Inanna, favoring Sargon, prevented it. When Sargon returns to the palace, Ur-Zababa sends him with a cuneiform note, that apparently Sargon cannot read, that asked the king of Uruk, Lugal-Zage-Si, to kill Sargon. Again, the details of what happened are missing, but somehow Sargon took control of Uruk then went on to conquer Kish, the remaining city-states and neighboring territories in Anatolia and Syria.

Just as Alexander the Great would do in the future, Sargon replaced the rulers of each of his conquered city-states with a trusted member of his original government. By the end of his reign, the king had spread his empire in every direction. He was the first to employ a full-time military ready to defend his empire at a moment's notice. This allowed him to put down every attempted revolt in his vast empire.

The Sargon Legend (story of his birth and rise to power) in Cuneiform
The Sargon Legend (story of his birth and rise to power) in Cuneiform | Source
Sargon of Akkad or his grandson Naram-Sin
Sargon of Akkad or his grandson Naram-Sin | Source

Despite a revolt late in his reign, which he quickly put down, his empire grew successful and established a large trade network throughout the land. The fertile soil around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provided a wealth of food for the empire while wood and precious metals like gold and silver were abundant in other areas.

As a result of this united government, the Akkadian language was used throughout the empire and became the official language for the entire Mesopotamian area for centuries to come. Cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks cut into soft clay then baked dry, was the official written language. With it, Sargon was the first to start recording history.

Following his death, after a debated 56 year rule, his son Rimush came to power and easily put down the attempts to break up the empire. His rule lasted 9 years. His brother, Manishtushu, became king and ruled for 15 years until his death, which was brought about by his own son Naram-Sin who became king and ruled for 56 years. Naram-Sin's son Shar-Kali-Sharri was his father's successor for about 25 years but apparently had no heir. After a short time of fighting for the position, a man named Dudu ruled for 21 years followed by his son Shu-Turul, who ruled for 15 years at which time, the Akkadian Empire ended.

The Babylonian Empire
The Babylonian Empire | Source
King Hammurabi
King Hammurabi | Source

The Babylonian Empire 1894 - 1595 BC

When the Akkadian Empire collapsed after the rule of Shu-Turul, the city-state of Ur became the dominant ruler of southern Mesopotamia while the Assyrians took control of the northern portion. When Ur fell in 2002 BC, the Assyrian king, Ilushuma, stepped in like a big brother to protect his southern neighbors because of their past unity through the Akkadians. His successor, Sargon I, showed no such brotherly-love. When the Amorites, from Syria, attacked again, southern Mesopotamia fell.

A group of Amorites started the city-state of Babylon in 1894 BC. After a century of existence and being controlled by Elam in the west, everything changed when a new king named Hammurabi came to power. Hammurabi drove the Elamites out of Mesopotamis then took control of the surrounding city-states like Ur, Uruk and Kish. Since Hammurabi had established a strong government in Babylon, that security spread throughout the new empire.

Now Hammurabi's empire was big enough to expand and he set his sights on the Elamites in the east and the Levant (Syria) in the west. Eventually, though it was not easy, Hammurabi took control of Assyria which included parts of Anatolia.

Replica stele of Hammurabi's Code
Replica stele of Hammurabi's Code | Source

Now that he controlled such a large empire, Hammurabi set about spreading his ideas throughout the empire. He established trade with the Amorite and Canaanite people not under his control, but Hammurabi's greatest accomplishment was his code of law. In what would become known as the Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws that would apply to rich and poor alike were posted throughout the empire. It should be noted, however, that though the free men and women were punished for breaking the law, slaves were still treated like property.

The most famous of the hundreds of laws is number 196. It reads, "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one mana of silver. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price." - Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi's Code included laws that were common in various city-states in Mesopotamia, but being one of the most comprehensive and fair among all free people made it stand out from the others. It is also the one of which the most copies survived. Many of the laws from the Hebrew Torah's Ten Commandments can be found in the earlier written Code of Hammurabi.

During Hammurabi's time, not only were government dealings recorded in Cuneiform, but literature was written as well. Much of this was in the form of poems. Some of these are still around today including the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered the oldest written literature in existence. See for entire story.

Though Babylon soared during his lifetime, it could not survive the death of Hammurabi. An Akkadian governor reclaimed the southern territory and the Assyrians refused to follow the new leadership as well. Over time, more and more of the central Mesopotamian land was lost to the Assyrians. In the end, Babylon was almost exactly the same size as when it started.

The Assyrian Empire
The Assyrian Empire | Source
Assyrian Siege Tower with Built-in Battering Ram
Assyrian Siege Tower with Built-in Battering Ram | Source

The Assyrian Empire 911-627 BC

For almost 700 years after the death of Hammurabi, the entire Mesopotamian region faced turmoil and constant change. There was never a large united territory again until the Assyrians became powerful enough in 911 BC to build their own empire. At this time, there were many kingdoms in the Mediterranean region including the Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks and Phoenicians. It would be the war-minded Assyrians who would gain control of much of this territory including all of Mesopotamia.

It was through a technique called siege warfare that the Assyrians were able to conquer almost every city they came up against. The process was a simple one in which the attacking military would set up camp outside of the city. They would continue to attack the city while cutting them off from supplies until the city eventually fell. They also used battering rams and siege towers to defeat a city's walls. Once a city was taken, the citizens would be dispersed throughout the kingdom or forced into slavery, and the Assyrians readily spread tales of their own violence to terrify the cities that lay in their path. Even the kingdoms that the Assyrians did not conquer were forced to pay tributes, or gifts, to the Assyrians to keep them away.

A Lamassu (human-headed winged-bull) from the Palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin
A Lamassu (human-headed winged-bull) from the Palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin | Source

Although they were some of the most brutal rulers in the Mediterranean region, the Assyrians, like those before them, were deeply religious and very artistic. Many of the sculpted panels from the walls of their temples and palaces still exist today. These were called bas-relief and were two dimensional, as they were raised off the walls. Many of these were from the largest city in the empire, Nineveh.

While the Assyrian's had the largest empire known to that date, they were burdened with civil wars for hundreds of years because they never had one extremely powerful ruler and ruling family like many of the previous empires. Eventually, parts of the empire started to break away. Egypt was able to break away from the empire but remained allies, and neighbors like Persia stopped paying their tributes. Once free of Assyrian rule, many of the former conquests became allies to one another and started attacking Assyria. Despite the assistance of Egypt, who wanted to keep the Assyrians between them and the attacking armies, Assyria fell.

Neo-Babylonian Empire
Neo-Babylonian Empire | Source

Neo-Babylonian Empire 626 - 539 BC

Though once a great leader of the entire Mesopotamian region, Babylonians had lived under the rule of the Assyrians for hundreds of years but were growing tired of not controlling their own fates. As Assyria sank deeper into trouble, the Babylonians saw a chance to grab the power back for themselves and took it. In 627 BC, under the control of a ruler from The Levant territory in Syria known as the Chaldeans, they teamed up with rulers from Media and attacked the Assyrians. They eventually took the Assyrian capital Nineveh and regained control of what had been the last of the Assyrian Empire. That ruler was a man named Nabopolassar.

After about twenty years of battling with the Assyrians, who were infighting among themselves as well as fighting him, then battling the Egyptians, who were trying in a last ditch effort to assist the Assyrians, King Nabopolassar was ruling over the new Babylonian Empire.

Artist Rendition - Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Artist Rendition - Hanging Gardens of Babylon | Source

Upon his death, Nabopolassar's son Nebuchadnezzar II became the king of Babylon. He quickly worked to rebuild Babylon not just to its prior glory but to even greater splendor. This building effort, according to some historians, would result in what was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is debated as to where the actual hanging gardens were located, as proof of their existence has never been found, but legend placed them in Babylon having been built at the command of King Nebuchadnezzar. Though the gardens do not actually hang, they are an example of terrace farming at its finest.

Artist Rendition - The Tower of Babel
Artist Rendition - The Tower of Babel | Source
Artist Rendition - Temple of Solomon
Artist Rendition - Temple of Solomon | Source

Another famous building project that most historians attribute to Nebuchadnezzar and/or his father Nabopolassar was the Etemenanki, a ziggurat built as a temple to the god Marduk. Marduk was a latecomer to the list of Mesopotamian gods and was specifically the patron god of Babylon. So, you may be wondering why you have never heard of this building if it is so famous. Perhaps you know it by its other name, The Tower of Babel. This is the tower that the Hebrew Bible says was built to reach the sky so that the people of the city could make a name for themselves, but god was not please, and though all of the people in the city of Babel spoke the same language, he made it so they could not understand one another and were then scattered across the land. The tower was destroyed by Alexander the Great when he entered Babylon in 323 BC and found that the repairs he had instructed two years earlier had not even been started.

Nebuchadnezzar was not just a builder, as he led several successful military campaigns as well against the likes of the Phoenicians, Syrians and Hittites. In 597 BC, he even took control of Jerusalem. It was under Nebuchadnezzar's command that Solomon's Temple was destroyed, the first time, after a rebellion in 587 BC. He forced many people into slavery and was vilified for this in the Hebrew Bible since many of them were Jews.

After a 42 year reign, the family of Nebuchadnezzar had a hard time maintaining power in the empire. The king's son, Amel-Mardurk, only ruled two years before his brother-in-law, Neriglissar, killed him and took the throne ruling only four years himself. When his young son, Labashi-Marduk took the throne, he survived only about nine months before someone killed him. With no more sons in the family, the people had to choose a new king.

Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus
Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus | Source

It was Nabonidus who assumed the throne, but he was not well liked. As in modern times, it was religion that would be his undoing. Babylon had long been associated with the Mesopotamian god Marduk, but Nabonidus associated himself with the moon god Sin. It is speculated that his mother was a priestess in the temple to Sin in the city of Harran. For whatever the reason, the new king tried to replace Marduk with Sin which prompted many Babylonians to welcome the intervention of Cyrus the Great from Persia. Nabonidus tried to stop the Persians before they reached the city by sending his son Belshazzar, another well known Biblical name, to stop them but when he failed, Cyrus took the city without a fight.

The Babylonian Empire was now under Persian control and would remain that way despite a few short lived attempts at independence until 332 BC when a young man named Alexander literally strolled into town and became King of Persia.


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    • profile image

      Anita Smith 

      4 years ago

      I agree, things might have taken forever to get done, but they accomplished amazing things. Thanks for reading my work.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 years ago from Chicago Area

      I am constantly amazed at the accomplishments of ancient civilization! Think of all they were able to do without the modern communication and innovative tools we have today. Great review of these incredible empires!


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