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The character and influence of ancient Mesopotamia


Questions as to what ancient Mesopotamian civilization did and did not accomplish, how it influenced its neighbours and successors, and what its legacy has transmitted are posed from the standpoint of 20th-century civilization and are in part coloured by ethical overtones, so that the answers can only be relative.

Modern scholars assume the ability to assess the sum total of an "ancient Mesopotamian civilization"; but, since the publication of an article by the Assyriologist Benno Landsberger on "Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt" (1926; "The Distinctive Conceptuality of the Babylonian World"), it has become almost a commonplace to call attention to the necessity of viewing ancient Mesopotamia and its civilization as an independent entity.

Ancient Mesopotamia had many languages and cultures; its history is broken up into many periods and eras; it had no real geographic unity, and above all no permanent capital city, so that by its very variety it stands out from other civilizations with greater uniformity.

The script and the pantheon constitute the unifying factors, but in these also Mesopotamia shows its predilection for multiplicity and variety. Written documents were turned out in quantities, and there are often many copies of a single text. The pantheon consisted of more than 1,000 deities, even though many divine names may apply to different manifestations of a single god. During 3,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization, each century gave birth to the next. Thus classical Sumerian civilization influenced that of the Akkadians, and the Ur III empire, which itself represented a Sumero-Akkadian synthesis, exercised its influence on the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC.

With the Hittites, large areas of Anatolia were infused with the culture of Mesopotamia from 1700 BC onward. Contacts, via Mari, with Ebla in Syria, some 30 miles south of Aleppo, go back to the 24th century BC, so that links between Syrian and Palestinian scribal schools and Babylonian civilization during the Amarna period (14th century BC) may have had much older predecessors. At any rate, the similarity of certain themes in cuneiform literature and the Old Testament, such as the story of the Flood or the motif of the righteous sufferer, is due to such early contacts and not to direct borrowing.


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