Early Societies in Southwest Asia 

        Mesopotamia (from the Greek: "between the Rivers")  refers to the fertile lands in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  It receives little rainfall, but the rivers themselves often flood and bring large amounts of fresh water into the area.  As early as 6,000 B.C.E., the residents of the area learned to irrigate crops with waters from the rivers.  They grew barley, wheat, and peas.  The area prospered and food supplies blossomed, which supported a rise in the population, and also attracted other peoples to the area.

    Growth was especially fast in an the area of Sumer in in southern Mesopotamia.  The people who occupied the area are denominated as Sumerians.  They were irrigating crops as early as 5,000 B.C.E, and by 3000 B.C.E. Sumer had a population in excess of one hundred thousand people.  They were the dominant people of Mesopotamia.

    The Sumerians built the worlds first cities around 4,000 B.C.E. Among the Sumerian cities were: Ur, Kish, Babylon, and Nippur.  They were different from Neolithic villages, such as Catal Huyuk in two important particulars:


The cities were the center of political and military authority.


Jurisdiction of the cities extended to surrounding areas; it did not stop at the city walls. 


City officials commissioned work which benefited the entire community:  palaces, temples, city walls, were built by workers recruited by government authorities.

    Among the building projects of the cities, each had a Ziggurat, a stepped pyramid with a temple on top dedicated to the local deity.  

    The Old Testament states that Abraham, the father of both Jews and Arabs, was born in the land of Ur before he moved to another land promised to him.  The land promised was the land of Canaan, which will appear shortly.  There is also some argument that the Tower of Babel mentioned in Genesis was in fact a Ziggurat.

    As the cities grew, they extended their irrigation systems, and wealth accumulated.  This made the cities attractive targets for those who would carry away their riches if they could get away with it.  The area has no natural defense features, so protection from invaders became more and more important.  An adequate defense could be mounted with recognized authority which could recruit, train, and supply soldiers.  This need for authority led to the institution of kingdoms.  By 3000 B.C.E., each  Sumerian city was ruled by a King with absolute authority.

Sumerian Empires

    As cities grew and the authority of kings expanded, the people of Mesopotamia ventured beyond their own cities to establish some control or order over areas outside their own city.  As a result, regional empires developed.

    Among those who built empires were the Akkadians and Babylonians of Northern Mesopotamia.  The Akkadian empire was established by Sargon of Akkad, (2370 - 2315 B.C.E.) He gradually subdued all other cities in the region, and built a large and wealthy empire that stretched all of Mesopotamia, to the shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. His empire lasted until 2000 B.C.E. when corruption from within and attacks from outside ended it.

    A later notable ruler was Hammurabi of Babylon, (reigned 1792-1750 B.C.E) who called himself "king of the four corners of the world." Hammurabi centralized control in Babylon, and appointed governors to rule in his stead.  He also imposed a system of taxation.  Taxation was not new, but it had often been ruinous.  Hammurabi's system was more consistent, and created less resistance. Hammurabi also proposed the first known code of laws ("code" is from the Latin codex meaning "tablet.")   He proclaimed that he had been chosen by the gods to "promote the welfare of the people...to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and evil, so that the strong might not oppress the weak , to rise like the sun over the people and to light up the land."  His code of laws became known as the Code of Hammurabi: the oldest known codification of law.  

    By modern standards, the Code of Hammurabi is harsh. Death was the proper sentence for theft of false accusations, and often death was imposed by means considered appropriate:  Examples:

  If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser. 

If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

 If fire break out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.

    Two important points about Hammurabi's code should be emphasized:


It relied on the principle of lex talionis - the law of retaliation.  Under this principle, the punishment fits the crime.  A prime example of lex talionis is in the Old Testament Pentateuch:  "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a foot for a foot, and a burn for a burn."


Social distinction was recognized, and punishment accorded differently dependent upon class distinction. Example:  If a commoner were to injure a nobleman, he was put to death; yet if a nobleman injured a commoner, he paid a fine in silver.

    Hammurabi's code established common standards for the Babylonian civilization and thereby established communal harmony and  cultural harmony.  The kingdom flourished, and as a result, soon attracted those who wished to plunder its riches.  Among those who attacked the empire were the Hittites who destroyed the Babylonian empire about 1595 B.C.E. 

    Hittites are mentioned several times in the Old Testament.  King David's wife Bathsheba had previously been married to Uriah the Hittite, before the latter was killed in battle.

    No single empire dominated Southwest Asia after the destruction of Babylon for several hundred years.  However, about 1300 B.C.E.. the Assyrian  Empire became dominant. At its height, the Assyrian Empire encompassed Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and a large portion of Egypt and Anatolia.  Among their accomplishments:


They built the cities of Assur and Nineveh.


They built a powerful military by organizing troops into standard units commanded by professional officers. Officers were chosen on the basis of skill and merit rather than birth or wealth.  


They used cavalry in addition to foot soldiers, and also used the Chariot, which they had adapted from the Hittites.  The Chariot proved to be a powerful war machine. Archers rode beside a driver in the chariots, and were able to fire arrows while moving rapidly.  It was devastatingly effective.

    Although the Assyrian emperors ruled from lavish courts, the empire was too large to rule effectively from one central location, and people under their dominion were constantly revolting.  In 612 B.C.E., after almost 700 years of domination, the Assyrian empire collapsed, and for fifty years (600 to 550 B.C.E.) the New Babylonian Empire (often called the Chaldean Empire) ruled under King Nebuchadnezzar.  Under his rule, the city of Babylon was famous for its gigantic walls (reportedly so thick that a four-horse chariot could turn around on them) and for the hanging gardens of Babylon, terraced gardens which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  By the end of the sixth century B.C.E., however, invaders from outside Mesopotamia had developed sophisticated weapons and means of governing large territories, and soon the area fell under foreign control.

    Accomplishments of the Mesopotamian Cultures


A system of writing, known as cuneiform. ((from the Latin: "wedge shaped.")  It consisted of wedge shaped markings made with a reed on wet clay. When the clay hardened, a permanent record was created.  An important element of cuneiform was that it represented a phonetic alphabet, based on sounds, syllables, and ideas, as well as physical objects.  It was a combination of pictographs and symbolic writing.


With writing came an expansion of knowledge and scholarship.  Mesopotamians studied astronomy and mathematics. The Mesopotamian numerical system was based on 60.  They had a twelve month calendar, and divided the hours of the day into 60 minutes and minutes into sixty seconds.


The most famous writing to survive from Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a superhero who was two thirds divine and one third human and who survived a great flood. Moral teachings in Sumerian culture were frequently based on the Epic.


An expanded population in cities allowed craftsmen and others to refine and perfect their skills, and thus specialize even more than before.  About 4000 B.C.E. the Sumerians perfected a technique to combine Copper and Tin to create Bronze. Bronze was stronger and more durable than either of the two elements alone.  Swords previously made of copper were now made of Bronze.


About 1000 B.C.E., Hittite craftsmen perfected the ability to forge tools and weapons from Iron.  The Assyrians quickly adopted this practice, and Iron became the element of choice for weapons, including Chariots. 


About 3500 B.C.E. Sumerians developed the use of the wheel, the most useful machine ever invented by humans. It enabled tradesmen to carry large quantities over larger distances than had  been possible previously.  Use of the wheel was quickly adopted by surrounding civilizations.

    Among the ironies of development, the Indian Civilizations which developed in North and South America never developed either a system of writing (other than hieroglyphics found on some Aztec and Mayan temples), and never learned the use of the wheel.


The Sumerians experimented with water transportation also.  By 2300 B.C.E. they had established regular trading routes through the Persian Gulf, and as far as India.


Sumerian merchants established regular caravan trade routes which enabled them to trade throughout the region.

The Development of Stratified Society

        Mesopotamian society recognized the preeminence of adult men in whom were trusted authority in all affairs, public and private. Such a society, where men are dominant and preeminent, is known as a patriarchal society.  Men had the power to sell their wives and children into slavery. A wife who committed adultery could be punished by drowning; whereas a man was allowed to consort with prostitutes and even to keep concubines. During the early stages of Mesopotamian society, women enjoyed some public status. Some became priestesses and scribes, as well as shopkeepers, brewers, and bakers. However, by 1500 B.C.E., men had regained control. As the control of society by men deepened, women were required to wear a veil when they appeared in public so as not to attract the attention of a man who was not her husband.

    With specialization, the accumulation of wealth developed.  Wealth became the defining characteristic to distinguish between social groups.  


At the top of the social ladder were the ruling class: kings and noblemen.  At one time, leaders where chosen because of their military prowess, but eventually the position became hereditary.  Over time, legends developed that the Kings were descendants of the Sumerian Gods.  


Next were the priests and priestesses, typically younger members of the ruling class who, because they were not firstborn, were not in line to become King.  Their chief responsibility was to intervene with and communicate with the Gods, and thus insure the good fortune of the community. Temples also served as banks where wealth of individuals could be stored.  They also provided for widows and orphans, supplied food in times of famine, and provided ransom if necessary to redeem a captured leader.


Free Commoners owned their own land, and cultivated it, or might work within the city as artisans or merchants.


Dependent Clients did not own land, and were forced to work for others as tenant farmers.  Both Free Commoners and Dependent Clients paid taxes.  Taxes were usually paid in the form of agricultural produce.


Slaves were at the bottom of the social pyramid.  They were either prisoners of war, convicted criminals, or may have sold themselves (or been sold by the family patriarch) in payment of debt.  Most were household servants, and were freed after a number of years of service, often with a financial stipend.  In some cases, slaves were allowed to own slaves themselves, and accumulate wealth.

Mesopotamian Influence on Contemporary Societies

        The Sumerians developed a system of writing as early as 4,000 B.C.E. which was used to keep track of commercial transactions and tax collections.  Their first form of writing was pictographs,  which represented animals and agricultural products. Later, symbols representing specific words appeared.  By about 2900 B.C.E. they developed a system known as cuneiform (from two Latin words, meaning "wedge-shaped") which was practiced by marks on soft clay with a reed.  The reed left wedge-shaped marks on the clay which hardened, and thus formed a permanent record.

    Although writing was first used to record tax and business transactions, it led to the rapid expansion of knowledge.  Mesopotamian scholars studied astronomy and mathematics, as both were important to agriculture.  Astronomy helped accurately predict the duration of seasons; mathematics allowed them to accurately determine the allocation of lands. Among the innovations of Mesopotamian scholars was the twelve month calendar and the sixty minute hour, together with the sixty second minute.    

    With the further expansion of writing and accumulation of knowledge, writing was used to express abstract ideas, thus the beginning of literature.  A prime example of this is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which deals with such ideas as friendship, the meaning of life and death, and the relationship of man to the Gods. The Epic also contains the story of an ancient flood which destroyed the known world; only Gilgamesh and his family survived.  This story bears unique and fascinating parallels to the story of Noah and the flood.

    Education in ancient Sumeria was primarily vocational, intended to teach one his life's vocation, typically by means of an apprenticeship.  However, some formal schools were formed, for the training and education of scribes, priests, engineers and architects.  

Mesopotamian Influence on Other Societies

   The wealth and culture of Sumerian society attracted the interests of various other surrounding cultures. Many of those countries selectively adapted elements of Sumerian culture and fashioned them into their own unique cultures. None became carbon copies of the original.  Among the societies bearing heavy Mesopotamian influence:

A.  Hebrews, Israelites and Jews: Although the three are closely related, some minor distinctions exist: Hebrews were the descendants of the patriarch Abraham who, according to Genesis, was born in Ur. They spoke a unique language known as Hebrew.  A number of them settled in Palestine, and became known as Israelites, after another Hebrew Patriarch, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  Later in their history, a group of them settled in the southern portion of Palestine and formed a nation known as Judah (sometimes called "Judea" in the Bible).  They became known as Jews.

Among the Mesopotamian influence notable in Hebrew culture:


Adoption of the principle of lex talionis: The law of the Hebrew Patriarch Moses states: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a foot for a foot, and a burn for a burn."


Hebrew tradition speaks of a flood, similar to that mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh.


Although originally organized as twelve separate tribes, the Hebrews adopted a monarchical form of government with a King, similar to the Mesopotamian rulers.  The first ruler of the kingdom of Israel was Saul. Under Saul's successors, King David and King Solomon, the Israelite Kingdom spread throughout Syria and the Sinai Peninsula.

    The Hebrews originally worshiped many of the same gods worshiped by the Mesopotamians.  However, the Israelite Patriarch Moses embraced the worship of one God, Yahweh (Jehovah). He taught that all other gods were figments of the imagination and did not really exist.  When an Israelite capital was established at Jerusalem, a temple, rather than a ziggurat, was built to accommodate the worship of their God.

    After the death of King Solomon, the kingdom was divided into a Northern Kingdom of Israel and a Southern Kingdom of Judah.  In 722 B.C.E, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, and many of its inhabitants carried away to other areas. Many of the former Israelites lost their cultural identity in this way. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians, who had conquered the Assyrians, also conquered Judah, and sent many of its inhabitants into exile.  However, unlike the Israelites, the inhabitants of Judah maintained their cultural and religious identity.  They were the fathers of contemporary Jewish culture.

    B.  The Phoenicians:  The Phoenicians called themselves Canaanites, and the land in which they lived (between the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanon Mountains, and later Northern Africa) Canaan.  They spoke a Semitic tongue, closely akin to the Mesopotamian languages, and built a kingdom c. 3000 B.C.E.  (The term Phoenician is actually of Greek origin.)

    The Phoenicians were more interested in trade and building wealth through commercial means than in political power. Quite often, they were a portion of greater empires controlled from Egypt of Mesopotamia.  The lands which they occupied were too small to develop a large agricultural base, so they developed a substantial maritime trading network, preferring to trade rather than cultivate.  Much of the materials used in the construction of the Israelite Temple was furnished by the Phoenicians.  Among other things, they imported food, glass, pottery, textiles, even works of art.  They were able to produce brilliant red and purple textiles, as well as cedar logs for shipbuilding and construction.

    They were excellent shipbuilders and sailors, and dominated Mediterranean trade from 1200 B.C.E to 800 B.C.E.  Their voyages in search of markets took them as far as the British Isles and the Azores Islands, and as far down the African coast as the Gulf of Guinea.

    The Phoenicians adopted many elements of Mesopotamian religion, primarily a series of Gods associated with natural phenomena.  Among their gods was a female, Astarte, (Known as Ishtar in Babylon, and often mentioned in the Old Testament as Asteroth). She was the goddess of fertility and of agriculture.  Her consort was Baal, who had the head of a bull but the body of a man, and who was the god of the storm and of rain.  The Phoenicians believed that the coupling of these two was necessary for crops and animals to be fertile. As a result, their religion often employed temple prostitutes, and had decidedly sexual overtones.  

    The influence of Phoenician (Canaanite) religion on the Hebrews can be seen in the book of Exodus when the Israelites prevailed upon Moses' brother Aaron to fashion a god for them, which he did in the form of a golden calf.  Among the Phoenician beliefs was that rain was the means by which Baal impregnated Astarte, and thus brought forth plentiful crops.

    They also developed their own system of alphabetic writing, consisting of an alphabet composed of twenty two consonants. (There were no vowels in either Phoenician or early Hebrew writing:  The name of God, Yahweh, has no vowels in Hebrew but loosely translates to "Jehovah" in English.  The consonants each were symbols for a particular phonetic sound, (it is entirely likely that the word "phonetic" originated from "Phoenician." and words were formed by building symbols.  This was much less cumbersome than cuneiform, in which each symbol represented a particular word or idea.  There were hundreds of symbols in cuneiform.   Because it was much easier to use, more people became literate than ever before.    

     The widespread travel and trade of the Phoenicians caused their alphabetic system to also spread widely and to be adapted by other cultures.  By 900 B.C.E., it was adopted by the Greeks who added symbols representing vowels.

The Indo-European Migrations

Origins: Indo-European is a term used to describe a family of languages with common roots. They have notable similarities in vocabulary and grammatical structure. This family of languages includes Sanskrit, Old Persian, Greek and Latin as well as well as most European languages. Among the sub-groups of Indo-European languages are Germanic, Italic, Celtic, Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic. English, primarily a Germanic language, is one of these. Similarities are demonstrated by the following table:

English                German                Spanish                Greek                Latin                Sanskrit

father                           vater                               padre                            pater                           pater                        pitar

one                               ein                                   uno                             hen                              unus                         ekam

fire                                feuer                                fiego                           pyr                               ignis                        agnis

field                              feld                                  campo                         agros                           ager                         ajras

sun                              sonne                               sol                               helios                          sol                            surya

king                            könig                                 rey                               basileus                      rex                            raja

god                             gott                                   dios                             theos                           deus                        devas

Linguistic scholars have determined that the similarity in these languages strongly indicates a common ancestry of those who speak these languages. The original speakers of the Indo-European dialect would then have migrated from their native land and established their own communities; would eventually lose touch with one another, and linguistic differences would develop over time, although they would retain their common grammatical structure and vocabulary. 

The most likely origin of Indo-European peoples was the steppe lands of modern day Ukraine and southern Russia, north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Since they originated in the area of the Caucasus mountains, their descendants are often called Caucasian. The earliest Indo-European societies developed between 4500 and 2500 B.C.E., and were herders of cattle, sheep, and goats, but also grew small quantities of barley and millet. The hunted horses for food, but later domesticated them. By 3000 B.C.E., they had developed knowledge of bronze metallurgy, possibly from the Sumerians with whom they had some degree of contact. From the Sumerians, they also learned the use of the wheel and devised ways to hitch horses to carts, wagons, and chariots. The earliest Indo-European languages have words for wheels, axles, shafts, harnesses, and linchpins; all learned from the Mesopotamians.

the domestication of the horse gave the Indo-Europeans a tremendous military advantage over the peoples they encountered and may have been a significant factor in the development of a sense of superiority over other ethnic groups, an attitude that often still exists among peoples of Caucasian ancestry. The terms Aryan, Iran, and Eire (the official name of the Republic of Ireland) all derive from an Indo-European  word, aryn, meaning "nobleman" or "lord."

Indo-European Expansion:  As Indo-European people flourished, their populations exploded, and about 3000 B.C.E., they begin to break up and migrate to new areas. This movement was not a mass migration, but was rather a gradual and incremental movement to new areas which established Indo-European communities in new lands, and became themselves the foundation for further growth and expansion. The most influential of these migrants were the Hittites, who migrated to the central plain of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) shortly after 2000 B.C.E., and soon imposed their language and rule in the area. They traded with the Babylonians and Assyrians, adapted cuneiform writing to their own languages, and added many of the Mesopotamian deities to their own pantheon of Gods. In 1595 B.C.E. the Hittites defeated the Babylonians, and ruled the area for several centuries. The Hittite state collapsed under the weight of foreign invasions about 1200 B.C.E., but their identity and language survived.

The Hittites were responsible for two important technological innovations: the construction of light, horse-drawn chariots, and the refinement of iron metallurgy. The Sumerians had used heavy chariots with wooden wheels, which were of limited value. The Hittites developed the use of spoked wheels, which were lighter and more maneuverable. Their chariots were effective in their campaign to establish a state in Anatolia. The Mesopotamians soon adapted spoked wheels for their chariots and chariot forces soon became the elite fighting force for their armies. Charioteers became the elite fighting force from Rome to China.

Iron metallurgy, developed about 1300 B.C.E., enabled the Hittites to produce more effective weapons cheaply and in large quantities. Their method involved heating iron in a bed of charcoal and hammering it into shape. Others had attempted to pour it into molds, which left it brittle. With the collapse of their empire and the dispersion of Hittite craftsmen, their practice of iron metallurgy was dispersed throughout Eurasia.

The Hittites were not the first people to use Iron, rather they improved upon practices previously adapted by the people of Mesopotamia. Iron metallurgy was independently discovered also by the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.

Some Indo-European migrations traveled East into modern western China by 2000 B.C.E. Recent archaeological finds have revealed specimens that are remarkably preserved. They survived for almost 1000 years, but were ultimately absorbed by Turkish speaking peoples. Others moved west into modern Greece about 2200 B.C.E. and into central Italy by 1000 B.C.E. Another migration moved them into central Europe (modern Germany and Austria), to modern France by 1200 B.C.E., the British Isles, Baltic region and the Iberian peninsula. Almost all these migrants practiced pastoral lifestyles. These Indo-Europeans were known as Celts. None built cities or organized large states. Still, they dominated most of Europe north of the Mediterranean, speaking similar languages and worshiping similar gods.

There were three distinct groups within Indo-European society. A ruling elite, who were primarily military; a small group of priests, and the common folk, who were the largest class. The commoners were primarily herdsmen and farmers, but also worked as miners, craftsmen, and producers of metal goods. The Celtic people traded copper, tin and handcrafts throughout a great deal of Europe.

A later migration moved Southward into modern Iran and India. The Medes and Persians migrated into the Iranian plateau c. 1500 B.C.E., while Aryans moved into northern India. They also were herdsmen and farmers and divided themselves into classes of rulers, priests, and commoners. Unlike the Celts, the Medes and Persians and Aryans built powerful states on the strength of their horse-based military and skill at producing iron weapons.