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A Very Short History of the Ancient World

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Mesopotamia (Greek for "Between the Rivers")


Often called the "cradle of civilization," Mesopotamia has a history that backs up this claim very well.

A fertile plateau that has cool temperatures and receives some rain, this area was first settled by people coming from the north before 4000 B.C. They gradually moved south along both rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates) to the swampland next to the Persian Gulf.

The Summerians

Sometime after that, the Sumerians, who originated in what is now Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia, moved into southern Mesopotamia and started building towns and draining much of the swampland in the south. They began forming large city states around 2900 B.C. By 2700 B.C., the Sumerians had formed a flourishing civilization in southern Mesopotamia centered around cities such as Ur, Lagash & Eridu, the southernmost of the three. One of the main contributions of the Sumerians to civilization was developing a form of writing with wedge- shaped symbols called cuneiform writing beginning around 3200 B.C. This is the oldest known form of writing. Originally a pictographic (picture writing) system like the hieroglyphics of Egypt, it evolved into a more abstract series of wedges and hooks.

The Sumerians made a number of other contributions to civilization besides their writing system. They developed a monarchial form of government with a highly developed bureaucracy that involved detailed records and a system of mathematics to keep track of all those records. They originated a calendar based on lunar months with a "leap month" every three years to keep things on track. The Summerians also invented the wheel and used mathematics on a base 60 (360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in an hour).

Perhaps most importantly, the Summerians developed a system of law. This was formalized in the Code of Hammurabi, issued by a Babylonian monarch about 1780 B.C. in the twelfth year of his 42-year reign. The code was based on Lex Talionis or the law of retribution -- in the words of Hebrew scripture, "an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; an arm for an arm; and a life for a life." But under this code, retribution was not delivered by the aggrieved party, but rather was administered by a central authority -- thus preventing escalation into a cycle of mutual revenge.

The Sumerians, who spoke a language unrelated to any other human language, were constantly at war with each other and other peoples because of water -- a scarce and precious commodity in the area. And while this Sumerian civilization was growing, it would face another threat, the Akkadians, who were moving up from the southwest from the Arabian peninsula. The Akkadians were a Semetic people, who spoke a language similar to Arabic and Hebrew. By 2340 B.C., under the great Akkadian military leader Sargon I, the Sumerians lost control of the city-states they had created and fell under the control of an Akkadian empire that was based around Akkad, a city that was later to be known as Babylon.

This empire, extending over most of the Sumerian city-states and extending as far west as Lebanon, lasted until 2125 B.C. when the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia successfully rose up in revolt and temporarily threw out the Akkadians.

But although the Sumerians were conquered, they were, like many another subjugated populace, victorious in the end. For the Akkadians abandoned much of their own culture, adopting in its stead much of the culture of the Sumerians, including their writing, law, city- living, economy, government structure and religion. Thus, while the Sumerians disappear from the history books about 2000 B.C., the invaders who conquered them adopted their culture and become, defacto, Sumerians themselves!

The Guti Century

In the meantime, from about 2230 to 2130 B.C., much of the area was ruled by the Guti, a mountain people from the central Zagros Range about whom little is known. Around 2230 B.C., they swept down into Babylonia in the southern part of Mesopotamia and took control over most of the region during the ensuing century until they were defeated by King Utu-hengal of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.

The Early Semites

Semites made up nearly all the empires that controlled Mesopotamia between 2340 and 539 B.C., including the Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean Empires. (The term "Semite" is a modern designation taken from the Hebrew scriptures; Shem was a son of Noah and the peoples descended from Shem were considered to be the Semites).

The Amorites

After the last Sumerian dynasty fell around 2000 B.C., Mesopotamia drifted into conflict and chaos for almost a century. Around 1900 B.C., a group of Semites called the Amorites managed to gain control of most of the Mesopotamian region. Although they probably originated in Arabia, these fierce nomadic warriors, who worshiped a god called Amurru, had migrated to an area encompassing modern-day Syria. From there, they mounted their successful invasion eastward against the Sumerian city-states. Like the Akkadians, the Amorites centralized the government over the individual city-states and based their capital in Babylon.

Among the great literary achievements of the Amorites in what is known as the Old Babylonian period (1900-1600 B.C.) was the compilation of a series of Sumerian stories surrounding the legendary king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who ruled around 2750 B.C. This collection tells how this king destroyed the demon of the Lebanese cedar forests; defied the gods; and discovered the secret of the flood and its survivor.

The Hittities

Next came the Hittites, whose invasion spelled the end of the Old Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia, and was marked by the sack of Babylon in 1595 B.C. The Hittites, who originally came from an area around the Black Sea, had migrated westward into central Turkey and northern Syria. They spoke a language from the Indo-European language family, which includes English, German, Greek, Latin, Persian and the languages of India. Famous for their skill in building and using chariots, the Hittites are also thought to have been the first people to smelt iron, thus initiating the Iron Age. But like so many others before them, the invaders soon adopted the ways of the conquered. After the conquest of Mesopotamia, the Hittites adopted the laws, religion and the literature of the Old Babylonians, thus continuing the long heritage of Sumerian culture.

Their empire was at its greatest from 1600-1200 B.C. and, even after the Assyrians gained control of Mesopotamia after 1300 B.C., some Hittite cities and territories thrived independently until 717 B.C., when they were finally conquered by the Assyrians and others. The Egyptians regarded the Hittites as barbarians and the two peoples fought wars that drained both empires tragically until a peace treaty was signed between Egypt's Ramses II and the Hittite king Hattusili III in 1258 B.C.

While the fall of the Hittite Empire around 1193 B.C. was sudden -- possibly due to large-scale migrations that included the Sea Peoples -- many small independent principalities and city-states in southern Turkey and Syria retained their Hittite identity for another five centuries until they eventually were incorporated into the Assyrian Empire by 710 B.C.

Because their empire was so large and because their primary activity was commerce, the Hittites greatest contribution was transmitting Mesopotamian thought, law, political structure, economic structure and ideas around the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Greece. Thus, when the Hebrews migrated to Canaan under Moses, they found a people, the Canaanites, who were, culturally speaking, Mesopotamian.

The Kassites

However, the Hittites didn't control the city of Babylon for very long before another Indo-European people, the Kassites (whose original homeland was in the Zagros Mountains in western Iran), roared in and dominated a large part of central Mesopotamia. Although the Hittite Empire continued for several hundred years, the Kassites would dominate the center of Mesopotamia both militarily and commercially.

But by 1200 B.C., all the great Indo-European kingdoms were weakened by the incessant troubles of war and invasion, and the Assyrians, a Semitic people in the northern part of Mesopotamia, angered by Indo-European domination, returned the area to Semitic control. The last Kassite king was driven from the Babylonian throne in the 12th century B.C.

The Assyrians

Starting in 1235 B.C., Assyria began its first conquests, in this case the conquest of Babylon. The Assyrian dream of an expanded empire began with the monarch Tiglat-Pileser I (1114-1076 B.C.), who extended Assyrian dominance to Syria and Armenia. But the greatest period of conquest occurred between 883 and 824 B.C., under the monarchies of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) and Shalmeneser III (858-824 B.C.), who conquered all of Syria and Palestine, all of Armenia, and, the prize of prizes, Babylon and all of southern Mesopotamia. The Assyrian army was the largest standing army ever seen in the Middle East or Mediterranean area. War brought forth technological innovation that made the Assyrians almost unbeatable: Iron swords and lances, metal armor and battering rams made them a fearsome foe in battle.

The Assyrians also developed a new policy towards the conquered. To prevent nationalist revolts, the Assyrians forced the people they conquered to migrate in large numbers to other areas of their empire. Besides guaranteeing security, these mass deportations in the Middle East, Mesopotamia and Armenia turned the region into a melting pot that mixed diverse cultures, religions and languages. Whereas there was little cultural contact between the conquered and the conquerors in early Mesopotamian history, under the Assyrians the entire area became a vast experiment in cultural mixing.

It was the Assyrian monarch, Sargon II (722-705 B.C.), who first forcefully relocated Hebrews after the conquest of Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. Although this was a comparatively mild deportation and perfectly in line with Assyrian practice, it marks the historical beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. This chapter of the Diaspora, however, never has been really written, for the Hebrews deported from Israel at that time seem to have blended in with Assyrian society and, by the time Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Judah (the southern Hebrew kingdom) in 586 B.C., the Israelites deported by Sargon II have disappeared nameless and faceless into the sands of northern Mesopotamia.

The monarchs of Assyria, who hated Babylon with a passion since it constantly contemplated independence and sedition, destroyed that city (although they later rebuilt it) and set up their capital in Nineveh. The last great monarch of Assyria was Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.), who not only extended the empire, but also began a project of assembling a library of tablets of all the literature of Mesopotamia. Thirty-thousand tablets still remain of Ashurbanipal's great library in the city of Nineveh. These tablets represent our single greatest source of knowledge of Mesopotamian culture, myth and literature.

After Ashurbanipal, the great Assyrian Empire began to crumble with the greatest pressure on the empire coming from their old and bitter enemies, the Babylonians. Aided by another Semitic people, the Medes, the Babylonians led by Nabopolassar eventually conquered the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and burned it to the ground, forever ending Assyrian dominance in the region.

The odd paradox of Assyrian culture was their focus on war, invasion and conquest coupled at the same time with a dramatic growth in science and mathematics. Among the great mathematical inventions of the Assyrians were the division of the circle into 360 degrees in 1250 B.C. They were among the first to invent longitude and latitude in geographical navigation. They also developed a sophisticated medical science that greatly influenced medical practices as far away as Greece.

The Elamites

The Elamite Empire, located in southwest Iran, was a constant threat to whoever controlled southern Mesopotamia. Reaching its height of power under the Shutrukids (1210- 1100 B.C.), in 1158 B.C., the Elamite king Shutruk-Nakhkhunte defeated the Kassites (who withdrew to the Zagros Mountains). With the capture of Babylon, the Elamites carried off the stela on which the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed, a statue of the Babylonian god Marduk, and occupied Babylon for three years before withdrawing. But thereafter, the Elamite military empire began to shrink rapidly. A Babylonian attack against Elam under Nebruchadrezzar I (1124-1103 B.C.) was just barely beaten off, but a second Babylonian attack succeeded, and the whole of Elam was overrun. With this defeat, Elam disappears into obscurity for more than three centuries.

The Chaledeans

The city of Babylon, suffering mightily under the Assyrians, finally rose up against its hated enemy, the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh, which was burned to the ground in 612 B.C.

The first Chaldean king, Nabu-apla-user (Nabopolassar in Greek), was succeeded by his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.), who was the equal of all the great Mesopotamian conquerors, from Sargon I onwards. He not only prevented major powers such as Egypt and Syria from making inroads on his territory, he also conquered the Phoenicians and the state of Judah (586 B.C.), the southern Hebrew kingdom that remained after the earlier Assyrian subjugation of the northern kingdom of Israel. In order to secure the territory, Nebuchadnezzar brought Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, the two kings of Judah (in succession) and held them in Babylon. In keeping with Assyrian practice, the "New Babylonians" or Chaldeans forced a large part of the Hebrew population to relocate to Babylon. Numbering possibly up to 10,000, these Jewish deportees were largely upper class people and craftspeople; this deportation marks the beginning of the Exile in Jewish history.

Nebuchadnezzar raised Babylonia to another epoch of brilliance after more than a thousand years of eclipse. By defeating the Egyptians in Syria, Nebuchadnezzar ended that nation's hopes of re-creating its empire's former boundaries. Nebuchadnezzar reconstructed Babylon, making it the largest and most impressive city of its day. The tremendous city walls were wide enough at the top to have rows of small houses on either side. In the center of Babylon ran the famous Procession Street, which passed through the Ishtar Gate. This arch, which was adorned with brilliant tile animals, is the best remaining example of Babylonian architecture.

The immense palace of Nebuchadnezzar towered terrace upon terrace, each resplendent with masses of ferns, flowers and trees. These roof gardens, the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were so beautiful that they were regarded by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Built around 600 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar is reported to have constructed the gardens to please his sick wife, Amytis of Media, who longed for the trees and fragrant plants of her homeland Persia. The gardens were destroyed by several earthquakes after the 2nd century B.C.

Nebuchadnezzar was the last great Mesopotamian ruler, and Chaldean power quickly crumbled after his death in 562 B.C. The Chaldean priests -- whose interest in astrology so greatly added to the fund of Babylonian astronomical knowledge that the word "Chaldean" came to mean astronomer -- continually undermined the monarchy. Finally, in 539 B.C., they opened the gates of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian, thus fulfilling Daniel's message of doom upon the notorious Belshazzar, the last Chaldean ruler: "You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting" (Daniel 5:27).

The Persians Arrive on the Scene

Until the 6th century B.C., they were a people shrouded in mystery. Living in an area east of Mesopotamia in present-day Iran, the Persians were a distinct group of Indo-European tribes, some nomadic, some settled, that were developing their own culture and religion unique from that of the great cities to their west. Sometimes history is about ideas, and nothing more clearly emphasizes this aspect of history than the sudden eruption of the Persians onto the world stage. For the sudden rise of Persian power has its center of gravity in a new set of ideas around a new religion.

The Persians throughout their early history lived peacefully in the region just north of the Persian Gulf (modern-day Iran). For the most part, they were isolated from the epic power struggles broiling to the west in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. They were Indo-European peoples who spoke a language similar to Sanskrit and who worshiped gods very similar to the gods of the Vedic period in India. Life was hard in the region they controlled; the coastline afforded no harbors and the eastern region was mountainous. In part because of the geography, the Persians never really united into a single people but rather served as separate vassal states to the Medes, who, from their capital at Ecbatana, controlled the area east of the Tigris river.

In this area, somewhere around 650 B.C., a new religion suddenly took hold. While we know little or nothing about the Persians in this period, we know the man behind this new religion. Called Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), his new religion and new gods captivated the spiritual and social imagination of the Persians. In its roughest outlines, Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion -- with the universe supposedly under the control of two contrary gods: Ahura- Mazda, the creating god, who is full of light and good, and Ahriman, the god of dark and evil. These two evenly matched gods are in an epic struggle over creation; at the end of time, Ahura- Mazda and his forces will emerge victorious. All of creation, all gods, all religions, and all of human history and experience can be understood as part of this struggle between light and dark, good and evil. Zoroastrianism, however, is a manifestly eschatological religion; meaning and value in this world is oriented towards the end of history and the final defeat of Ahriman and all those gods, humans and other animate forces arrayed on the dark side of creation.

It's impossible to underestimate how Zoroastrianism changed the Persian world. If the world and human history could be understood as an epic struggle between good and evil, a struggle whose ultimate goal is the establishment of good throughout the universe and the defeat of evil, then one's own role in the world becomes vastly different. This political role in the world was put together by Cyrus, called The Great.

Cyrus was a first in human history, for he gave birth to an idea that would forever fire the political and social imaginations of the people touched by the Persians. That idea? Conquer the world!

Up until Cyrus, territorial conquests, like monarchical power, were justified on religious grounds to a certain degree, but these religious grounds never gave rise to the notion that one's religious duty was to conquer the whole of the world as you knew it.

The Persians became the largest and most powerful empire ever known up until that point in human history. By 486 B.C., the Persians would control all of Mesopotamia and, in fact, all of the ancient world from Macedon northeast of Greece to Egypt, from Palestine and the Arabian peninsula across Mesopotamia and all the way to India.

In 559 B.C., Cyrus became the chief of an obscure Persian tribe in the south of Persia. A devout Zoroastrianism, he believed that his religious duty was to bring about the "end of the world" promises of Zoroastrianism through active warfare. If the universe was an epic struggle between the forces of Ahura-Mazda and the forces of evil, Cyrus' job was to personally bring about the victory of his god. As an extension of this, Cyrus would bring Zoroastrianism to all the peoples he conquered.

He would not force them to become Zoroastrian, though. For Zoroastrianism recognized that all the gods worshiped by other peoples were really gods; some were underlings of Ahura- Mazda and some were servants of Ahriman. Cyrus saw as his mission the tearing down of religions for evil gods and the shoring up of religions of gods allied with Ahura-Mazda.

By 554 B.C., Cyrus had conquered all of Persia and defeated the Medes for control of the region. He soon conquered Lydia in Asia Minor, Babylon in 539 B.C., and, by the time he died in 529 B.C., he had conquered a vast territory -- in fact, he probably was the greatest conqueror in human history.

As one aspect of the religious eclecticism of Zoroastrianism and Cyrus' intentions, the conquest of Babylon led to the immediate freeing of the Hebrews who had been brought in captivity to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus claimed to have been visited in a dream by Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews. Aligned with Ahura-Mazda, Yahweh demanded to be worshiped in the land of Judah. So Cyrus freed the Hebrews with the specific intruction that they reintroduce the proper worship of Yahweh in the Temple at Jerusalem, which they were to rebuild.

Although the internal structure of the Persian imperial government was somewhat shaky, the conquests and fire for conquest continued after Cyrus's death. His son, Cambyses, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C., but the Chaldeans revolted in Mesopotamia and the Medes revolted east of the Tigris. Cambyses's son, Darius I (522-486 B.C.) or Darius the Great, quelled the Chaldeans and Medes and worked on firming up the empire. His great innovation was to divide the huge empire into more or less independent provinces called satrapies. Darius extended the Persian Empire to its farthest reaches, extending his conquests all the way into Macedon just northeast of Greece.

When the Greek cities of Asia Minor revolted against the high tributes demanded of them by the Persian Empire, the Athenians joined in and conquered and burned Sardis, the capital of Lydia, in 498 B.C.. The Athenians, however, lost interest in the Greek struggle against Persia in that area and, by 495 B.C., Darius had reconquered Asia Minor. Eager to prevent any future threats to the Persian Empire by Athens or any other Greek city, Darius set out to conquer the whole of Greece. And he almost made it.

In 490 B.C., the Persians launched an expedition against Athens. They were met, however, by Miltiades, who had been an outstanding soldier in the Persian army but had run for his life when he angered Darius. Unlike other Athenians, he knew the Persian army and he knew its tactics. The two armies, with the Athenians led by Miltiades, met at Marathon in Attica where the Athenians soundly defeated the invading Persian army. This battle, the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), is perhaps the single most important battle in Greek history. Had the Athenians lost, the Persians would have installed Persian government and culture as the norm in Greece long before the classical period in Greek history occurred. All subsequent culture influenced by the Greeks would have been Persian culture.

Only a decade later, Xerxes I, the successor to Darius I, was driven out of Europe completely by the Greeks. Over the next few years, all of the Greek cities in Asia Minor would become independent, and Athens, which had led the fight against the Persians, would become the dominant political force in the Greek world. The Persian empire, however, hung on for another century and a half, surviving numerous revolts and succession problems. In 340 B.C., Alexander the Great set out to conquer the Persians in his own punitive expedition. Even though the ruler of Persia, ironically named Darius II, had a much superior force, Alexander managed to win battle after battle against the Persians until, in 331 B.C., he crossed the Euphrates into Mesopotamia. In 330 B.C. he entered Babylon after Darius II had fled (eventually to be assassinated) and the infinitely long history of Mesopotamia folded into a new history, that of the Hellenistic period and Greek and later Roman domination of the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

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Mesopotamian Timeline:

  • Before 4000 B.C. - People from the north (Turkey, Syria?) settle in the area.
  • 3000 B.C. - Sumerians from the Arabian penninsula invade and establish city-states
  • 2700 B.C. - Flourishing Sumerian civilization
  • 2340 B.C. - Akkadians (Semetic people from the Arabian penninsula) under Sargon I conquer Sumeria
  • 2230-2130 - Incursion by the Guti peoples from the east (Zagros Range)
  • 2125 B.C. - Sumerian city of Ur revolts; Akkadian Empire falls
  • 2000 B.C. - Sagas of Gilgamesh, written about the legendary king of Uruk who ruled around 2750 B.C.
  • 1900 B.C. - Amorites take over (Old Babylonian period: 1900-1600 B.C.)
  • 1780 B.C. - Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) issued
  • 1600-717 B.C. - Hittites from the northwest (central Turkey, northern Syria; Indo- European language) rule off & on; great trading people; good charioteers; first smelters of iron
  • 1530-1170 B.C. - Incursion of the Kassites (another Indo-European people from the east)
  • 1170-612 B.C. - Assyrian rule (Semetic people from northern Mesopotamia)
    • 1158 B.C. - Elamites (from southwest Iran) occupy Babylon for 3 years
    • 883-824 B.C. - Ashurnasirpal II & Shalmeneser III conquer Syria, Palestine & Armenia
    • 721-705 B.C. - Sargon II relocates Hebrews after defeat of the Kingdom of Israel
    • 670 B.C. - Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • 668-626 B.C. - Ashurbanipal assembles great library of Nineveh
  • 612 B.C. - Rule of Chaldeans (Semetic people from southern Mesopotamia)
  • 605-562 B.C. - Nebuchadnezzer II conquers Phoencia & the Kingdom of Judah
    • 600 B.C. - Hanging Gardens of Babylon constructed (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World)
    • 586 B.C. - 10,000 Hebrews relocated to Babylon; Babylon rebuilt in splendor
  • 539 B.C. - Persians (Indo-European people from present-day Iran) conquer under Cyrus the Great
  • 538 B.C. - Cyrus returns Hebrews in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple
  • 525 B.C. - Cyrus' son Cambysis conquers Eqypt
  • 522-486 B.C. - Darius I extends Persian Empire to its greatest limit, extending into Asia Minor and Macedon northeast of Greece
  • 490 B.C. - Greeks defeat Darius I at the Battle of Marathon
  • 479 B.C. - Greeks defeat Xerxes I; Persians driven out of Europe
  • 405 B.C. - Egypt overthrows Persian rule
  • 331 B.C. - Alexander the Great conquers Persia

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