Copyright, John T. Stevenson, 2000
"Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live forever with glorious Shamash, but as for men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind." (Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 2).
"Thus it was that the gods took me and placed me here to live in the distance, at the mouth of the rivers." (Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 5).
The greatest mountain region in the world stretched in a long line from the Pyrenees on the edge of the Atlantic through the Alps, the Balkans, the Anatolian Highlands, the Zagros and the Himalayas. To the south of this great mountain chain runs a series of dry lands and deserts.
This desert system is interrupted by a narrow crescent-shaped oasis created by three major rivers and several minor ones. The three major rivers are the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is these last two rivers which will concern us in this chapter, for they run parallel to each other, emptying out into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf.
The land between these two rivers was known to the Jews as Aram Naharaim, meaning "Aram of the two rivers." The Greeks knew it as Mesopotamia, the "land between the rivers."
THE GEOGRAPHY OF MESOPOTAMIA
1. The River Valley Concept.
It is a fact of history that people tend to settle along rivers and waterways. The relatively fertile land which was produced by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers attracted settlers to this area. They learned to irrigate the lands around these two rivers and a whole system of canals and waterways began to be constructed. Thousands of years later, the Psalmist would sing of the "Rivers of Babylon."
The Euphrates and Tigris, along with their tributaries, carry a great deal of sediment down along their courses. This sediment is deposited in the southern areas of the valley, bringing a higher fertility to the soil.
2. The Isolation Concept.
The Mesopotamian Valley is hemmed in on the east by the Zagros Mountains of Iran and on the west by the vast Arabian Desert. To the north, the valley opens up into the wide Syrian plains. It is from this quarter that most of the outside invaders have come.
This easy access into the Mesopotamian Valley had a very striking effect upon the attitudes, the culture, and the outlook of the inhabitants. They learned early on that their very existence was a struggle.
3. The Climate Concept.
The climate of Mesopotamia is haphazard. Summer temperatures range from 110 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Eight months out of the year are dry and the Tigris and Euphrates turn to muddy eddies of sluggish brown. The winter is the rainy season. In the spring, melting snows from the Taurus and Zagros Mountains add their waters so that the Tigris and Euphrates flood, often in a destructive manner.
In Northern Mesopotamia, the channels of the rivers have cut deep into the limestone riverbeds and the course of the rivers has remained unchanged throughout antiquity. On the other hand, the riverbeds of Southern Mesopotamia have laid down thousands of years of sediment. These soft riverbanks are often overrun in times of flooding, changing the entire course of the rivers.
The irregular flooding of the Mesopotamian Rivers can been seen in contrast to the Nile River which had a system of regular flooding. The people looked at the Nile as a benevolent river. As a result of this outlook, the gods of the Egyptians were seen as benevolent. On the other hand, the gods of Mesopotamia were untrustworthy and to be feared.
CONTRAST BETWEEN EGYPT AND MESOPOTAMIA
Legalistic in their religious outlook, looking more to the letter of the law.
More of an ethical outlook on life with a focus on the spirit of the law.
Art and literature reflects a gloomy, pessimistic outlook on life.
Demonstrates a cheerful resignation to the problems of life.
Euphrates and Tigris flooded unexpectedly and often killed those who were caught. These rivers came to be feared.
The Nile flooded on a regular cycle and the Egyptians came to expect and depend upon its flooding. They eventually began to worship the Nile.
Surrounded by hostile forces on all sides. People lived in constant fear of invasion.
Egypt has natural boundaries in the sea and the desert which usually kept out invaders.
Lived from day to day always in fear of invasion and death.
Looked forward to immortality and a life after death.
Selfish and practical.
Giving and idealistic.
Both of these cultures progressed in ethical theory and social justice (systems of morality) to the extent that they codified laws. At the same time, both became involved in the evils of polytheism, slavery, imperialism, oppressive kings and greedy priests.
AN OUTLINE OF EARLY MESOPOTAMIAN HISTORY
1. The Pre-literary Period.
The earliest sources of information of human habitation come to us from the study of tools and pottery. It can be difficult to establish dates exclusively by these means since later cultures might exhibit primitive styles due to lack of proper materials in times of war, flooding or other catastrophe.
2. Proto-Literary Period.
Our earliest samples of writing begin around 3500 B.C. This writing is found in the form of round cylinders which were impressed with a message and then baked. There are two main uses:
a. Religious and cultic uses.
b. Cooking recipes.
This tells us something about the people of the ancient world. They are essentially like us. Even though the product of differing cultures and times, they have the same basic needs and desires. And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant to people in all cultures.
The earliest writing was in the form of pictographs where a single picture would represent a single object. These developed into ideographs and from there to a system of wedge-shaped characters made on soft tablets of clay with a triangular stick or cunios. This writing became known as cuneiform.
3. Early People Groups.
There were four major people groups which settled in and around the Mesopotamian Valley.
They were a Hamitic race who tended to be dark-skinned, but not Negroid. They settled in the southern end of the valley. It was the Sumerians who demonstrated the first cultural achievements.
This was a Semitic group who were concentrated in the north end of the valley.
c. The Medes.
An Indo-European tribe which settled in the Zagros Mountains to the northeast of Mesopotamia.
d. The Elamites.
A Semitic group which settled south of the Medes and to the west of the Mesopotamian Valley. They were strongly influenced by Sumerian culture and were originally under Sumerian dominance. But they later became independent and formed their own kingdom.
These people groups were not unified at this early date. They consisted of a number of independent city-states. Each city-state held domain over its small area.
4. The Early Dynastic Period.
From 3000 B.C. to about 2300 B.C. various city-states gained supremacy over their neighbors, establishing short periods of suzerainty.
It was during this period that Gilgamesh became king of Erech (2650 B.C.). Myths and legends grew of his exploits. The "Gilgamesh Epic" recounts his quest for immortality and his conflicts with monsters and enemies along the way.
This was the "golden age" of Sumerian civilization. Its works of art were unparalleled in later ages.
"So far as we know, the fourth millennium before Christ saw Sumerian art at its zenith. By the First Dynasty of Ur, if there is any change, it is in the nature of a decadence, and from later ages we have nothing to parallel the treasures of the prehistoric tombs." (C. Leonard Wooley, The Sumerians, 1965, pg 44).
As there were advances in the arts, so there were also advances in the modes of war. Infantry tactics developed which involved phalanxes of soldiers carrying short spears and supported by lightly armed skirmishers.
5. Sargon the Great (Died 2330 B.C.).
A text written in the 7th century B.C. describes Sargon's birth and early life in terms very similar to that of Moses:
Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
My mother was a changeling, my father knew me not.
The brothers of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a blanket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid.
She cast me into the river which rose up over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his water.
Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me.
According to the legend, his mother placed him in a pitch-covered basket in the Euphrates River. By chance a farmer drawing water to irrigate his field found the basket and raised the child as his own.
Sargon went on to become the cup bearer to the king of Kish and eventually overthrew the king and placed himself on the throne, taking for himself the name "Sargon."
Sargon means "legitimate prince." Why did he call himself this? Because he wasn't. He was a usurper who had taken the throne by force.
Over the next few years, Sargon conquered all of the cities of Mesopotamia marching southward to "wash his weapons in the Lower Sea" and then turning westward to the Mediterranean and capturing the silver mines of Tarsus and sending ships to Cyprus and Crete.
His empire continued to be ruled by his son and his grandson, but eventually fell prey to a group of invaders known as the Gutti who held sway over Mesopotamia from 2220 to 2120 B.C. This marked the Dark Ages of Mesopotamia and came to an end with the rise of the city of Ur.
6. The Third Dynasty of Ur.
This was to be the last Sumerian dynasty to rule in Mesopotamia. It would rule from 2100 to 2000 B.C. Under these kings, Sumer was restored to much of her former glory. All branches of the arts saw a period of renaissance as economic prosperity became the order of the day.
a. The Ziggurat.
The Ziggurat of Ur was a giant, semi-pyramidal structure of brick covering an area of 200 by 140 feet. It was composed of three terraced stages and crowned by a small shrine towering 90 feet above the city.
Although it looked something like the pyramids of Egypt, the purpose of the ziggurat was widely different.
This seems to have been what was in view in the Biblical account of the building of the Tower of Babel. Ziggurats were not unique to Ur. They were found throughout Mesopotamia. The original seems to have been the one described in the pages of the Bible.
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.
And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly." And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.
And they said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:1-4).
The phrase whose top will reach into heaven can be translated, "its top unto the heavens" and have the sense, not of a means to get into the sky, but a temple which would allow the worshiper to approach God on his own terms.
b. The Law-code of Ur.
Ur developed a law code with four essential ingredients which would later carry over into the famous Code of Hammurabi.
Penalties were graded according to the rank of both the victim and the offender. The killing of an aristocrat was considered a much more serious offense than the killing of a slave. Moreover, an aristocrat was punished more severely than a man of inferior caste would be for the same crime.
c. The Fall of Ur.
Near the close of the 21st century, a people known as the Amurru (Biblical Amorites) began to move into Mesopotamia from the northwest, conquering the cities of Babylon, Isin and Larsa. The armies of Sumer managed to hold them off for a time, but then the Elamite provinces in the east declared their independence. Many of the provincial governors took this opportunity to revolt. Thus weakened, Ur fell to the assault of Elam and her king carried off into captivity.
With the destruction of Ur, the dominance of the Sumerian people came to a close. But their culture lived on as it was adopted by the Assyrians in the north and the Amorites in the south. These and succeeding kingdoms adopted the Sumerian pantheon as well as their cuneiform methods of writing, adapting it to their own languages.
7. Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960).
Nearly everything that we know of Ur was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley during his 12 year excavation of the site. He began excavating in 1922.
A few nights after Woolley set up camp, a group of six armed Arabs robbed the camp, killing one of Woolley's guards in the process. When the murder threatened to start a blood feud, the thieves turned themselves. Woolley's possessions were returned, and the thieves were put in jail for two years, after which Woolley hired them as workers. Woolley's finds included:
"The total destruction of the human race is of course not involved, nor is even the total destruction of the inhabitants of the delta - thus some at least of the antediluvian cities survive into historic times - but enough damage could be done to make a landmark in history and to define an epoch." - Woolley, The Sumerians, 1965, pg 32).