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1.5: Tigris and Euphrates River Valley

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    At the end of this section, the student will be able to

    • Identify the major causes and describe the major effects of the events from 8000 BCE to 500 BCE: the development of the river valley civilizations.
    • Summarize the impact of the development of farming (Neolithic Revolution) on the creation of river valley civilizations.
    • Identify the characteristics of a civilization.
    • Describe the major political, religious/philosophical, and cultural influences of Persia, India, China, Israel, Greece, and Rome, including the development of monotheism, Judaism, and Christianity.

    The Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Ur

    Mesopotamia literally means "(land) between rivers" in ancient Greek. The oldest known occurrence of the name Mesopotamia dates to the 4th century BCE when it was used to designate the land east of the Euphrates in North Syria. Later it was more generally applied to all the lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris, thereby incorporating not only parts of Syria but also almost all of Iraq and South Eastern Turkey. The neighboring steppes to the West of the Euphrates and the Western part of the Zagros Mountains are also often included under the wider term Mesopotamia.

    Throughout the centuries, historians have used these powerful words to describe the Middle East.

    In the ancient Middle East, many great civilizations rose and fell. The religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each trace their origins back to this part of the world.

    All of these civilizations arose in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent stretches from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Zagros Mountains in the east. It is bordered in the north by the Taurus Mountains and in the south by the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert. Its shape resembles a crescent moon.

    One area within the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the region's most powerful empires and grandest cities. This area was Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

    Map showing the extent of Mesopotamia

    The Fertile Crescent is the region in which humans first began farming and herding, around 8,000 BCE. This dramatic change from nomadic hunting and gathering allowed early humans to settle into permanent villages and to begin accumulating a surplus of food.

    With such a surplus, labor began specialization; not everyone needed to be a farmer anymore. Some of these early villagers became priests, scribes, merchants, artists, teachers, and government officials. They began to build cities, and before long, they were establishing empires. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Phoenicians all built great empires, each of which rose to glory in the Middle East.

    Because they were constantly interacting through war and trade, the societies in the Middle East borrowed from each other. They modified newly acquired ideas and technologies to suit their own needs. Often, these changes were improvements. Over time, many aspects of various societies throughout the ancient Middle East began to resemble each other.

    The Middle East is also the crossroads of the ancient world. It is located at the intersection of three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Many travelers who journeyed from one continent to the next passed through the Middle East, absorbing its culture and introducing new ideas to the region. Throughout the centuries, its prized location became the source of conflict. Its goods became the source of envy.

    And its ideas became the source of faith.

    The Sumerians were firmly established in Mesopotamia by the middle of the 4th millennium BCE, in the archaeological Uruk period, although scholars dispute when they arrived. It is hard to tell where the Sumerians might have come from because the Sumerian language is a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language. Their mythology includes many references to the area of Mesopotamia but little clue regarding their place of origin, perhaps indicating that they had been there for a long time. The Sumerian language is identifiable from its initially logographic script which arose last half of the 4th millennium BCE.

    By the 3rd millennium BCE, these urban centers had developed into increasingly complex societies. Irrigation and other means of exploiting natural resources were being used to amass large surpluses. Huge building projects were being undertaken by rulers, and political organization was becoming ever more sophisticated. Throughout the millennium, the various city-states of Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Lagash vied for power and gained hegemony at various times. Nippur and Girsu were important religious centers, as was Eridu at this point. This was also the time of Gilgamesh, a semi-historical king of Uruk, and the subject of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh. By 2600 BCE, the logographic script had developed into a decipherable cuneiform syllabic script.

    The chronology of this era is particularly uncertain due to difficulties in our understanding of the text, our understanding of the material culture of the Early Dynastic period, and a general lack of radiocarbon dates for sites in Iraq. Also, the multitude of city-states made for a confusing situation, as each had its own history. The Sumerian king list is one record of the political history of the period. It starts with mythological figures with improbably long reigns, but later rulers have been authenticated with archaeological evidence. The first of these is Enmebaragesi of Kish, c. 2600 BCE, cited by the king list to have subjected neighboring Elam. However, one complication of the Sumerian king list is that although dynasties are listed in sequential order, some of them actually ruled at the same time over different areas.

    Enshakushanna of Uruk conquered all of Sumer, Akkad, and Hamazi. The following king, Eannatum of Lagash, reconquered Sumer. He used force and intimidation liberally (see the Stele of the Vultures), and soon after his death, the cities rebelled and the empire again fell apart. Sometime later, Lugal-Anne-Mundu of Adab created the first, if short-lived, empire to extend west of Mesopotamia, at least according to historical accounts dated centuries later. The last native Sumerian to rule over most of Sumer before Sargon of Akkad established supremacy was Lugal-Zage-Si.

    During the 3rd millennium BCE, a very intimate cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the 3rd millennium as a sprachbund.

    Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BCE (the exact dating is a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary, and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century CE.

    The reconstructed facade of the Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq

    The first writing system. The plow. The sailboat. The first lunar calendar.

    These accomplishments and more were the products of the city-states of Sumer, which arose on the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now modern-day Iraq. The Sumerians began to build their walled cities and make significant advances beginning around 3500 B.C.E.

    Sumerians also developed high-quality crafts, evidence of which was found in the royal tombs of Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. Trade also helped the Sumerians secure vital commodities such as timber from Lebanon and luxury goods such as the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli from the Indus River Valley.

    Because of the surplus grain, the government grew in size to support numerous officials and priests. It also paid thousands of workers with barley while they were building canals, city walls, and ziggurats or while they were fighting to defend their city-state or extend its influence over the region. Barley was collected as tax from farmers. Farmers were also required to give some time to the government to work on projects. Slaves and hired workers also contributed.

    As the government and economy grew in size and complexity, officials and merchants required a sophisticated writing system to record transactions. First came numerical markings and simple pictograms; the early writing system used pictures to represent physical objects or ideas (such as a picture of the Sun to represent the Sun).

    As trade and government activity increased, the writing system began to incorporate more abstract pictograms and phonograms, or symbols representing sounds. These new forms provided greater flexibility and speed in writing. They were adopted by other cultures (such as the Assyrians) who did not even speak Sumerian.

    Sumerian Wisdom

    The Sumerians wrote on clay tablets, using a reed pen called a stylus. Once dried, these tablets became hard and, fortunately for today's researchers, endured for millennia in the hot, dry climate.

    Thousands of these tablets have been unearthed. Some libraries have even been discovered with over 10,000 of these clay tablets. And although the vast majority of these tablets contain records of goods collected and distributed by the governments and trade transactions, some contain myths, stories, and letters. These documents have provided much information about the culture and history of the Sumerian people.

    With their ingenuity, the Sumerian people developed complex irrigation systems and a written language. They were the first people to use the plow to lift the silt-laden soil of their crop fields, and they invented the sailboat. They were the first people to design a calendar based on the phases of the moon and they developed a numerical system, based on the number 60, that is still used to measure seconds and minutes.


    Gilgamesh was likely an actual king of Uruk in Babylonia who lived about 2700 BCE.

    Sumerians recorded stories and myths about Gilgamesh, which were written on clay tablets. The stories were combined into an epic tale. Versions of this tale were translated into other languages including Akkadian, which was spoken by the Babylonians.

    The fullest surviving version is derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, which was found stored in the famous library at Nineveh of Assyrian King Assurbanipal.

    The epic relates the heroic deeds of Gilgamesh, based upon the actual king of Uruk. However, the Gilgamesh in the epic is clearly fantasy. According to the epic, his father is mortal and his mother is a goddess. Since Gilgamesh is part mortal, he knows he must die one day. However, he longs for immortality, whether through doing great deeds or discovering the secret of eternal life. He roams the earth on this quest and meets Utnapishtim, the only human granted eternal life by the gods. He tells Gilgamesh many stories, including one of a great flood that covered the Earth.

    What happens to Gilgamesh? Read the tale and find out. The following is an excerpt from Gilgamesh.

    "O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu: Tear down the house and build a boat! Abandon wealth and seek living beings! Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings! Make all living beings go up into the boat. The boat which you are to build, its dimensions must measure equal to each other: its length must correspond to its width. Roof it over like the Apsu." From Tablet XI — translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, 1998

    Paving the way

    A culture of many firsts, the Sumerians led the way for other societies that followed them. The Babylonians used the innovations of the Sumerians, added to them, and built an empire that gave the world, among other things, codified laws, a tower that soared above the earth, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

    Babylonian language evolved from pictographs to cuneiforms throughout the life of civilization.

    Geographically, the empire of Babylonia occupied the middle and southern part of Mesopotamia. Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, it stretched from the present-day city of Baghdad south to the Persian Gulf.

    In 1901, Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, a member of an expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan, found the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi in what is now Khūzestān, Iran (ancient Susa, Elam), where it had been taken as plunder by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in the 12th century BCE.

    The Code of Hammurabi on a clay tablet

    The Code of Hammurabi is the oldest surviving text from the Old Babylonian period. The code has been seen as an early example of a fundamental law regulating a government — i.e., a primitive constitution. The code is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence, and it also suggests that both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence. The occasional nature of many provisions suggests that the Code may be better understood as a codification of Hammurabi's supplementary judicial decisions, and that, by memorializing his wisdom and justice, its purpose may have been the self-glorification of Hammurabi rather than a modern legal code or constitution. However, it was copied in subsequent generations, indicating that it was used as a model of legal and judicial reasoning.

    "Hammurabi, the king of righteousness, on whom Shamash has conferred the law, am I."

    "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

    "An eye for an eye ..." is a paraphrase of Hammurabi's Code, a collection of 282 laws inscribed on an upright stone pillar. The code was found by French archaeologists in 1901 while excavating the ancient city of Susa, which is in modern-day Iran.

    Hammurabi is the best known and most celebrated of all Mesopotamian kings. He ruled the Babylonian Empire from 1792 - 1750 B.C.E. Although he was concerned with keeping order in his kingdom, this was not his only reason for compiling the list of laws. When he began ruling the city-state of Babylon, he had control of no more than 50 square miles of territory. As he conquered other city-states and his empire grew, he saw the need to unify the various groups he controlled.

    A Need for Justice

    Hammurabi keenly understood that to achieve this goal, he needed one universal set of laws for all of the diverse peoples he conquered. Therefore, he sent legal experts throughout his kingdom to gather existing laws. These laws were reviewed and some were changed or eliminated before compiling his final list of 282 laws. Despite what many people believe, this code of laws was not the first.

    Oldest Code Known

    The oldest known evidence of a law code comes from tablets from the ancient city Ebla (Tell Mardikh in modern-day Syria). They date to about 2400 BCE — approximately 600 years before Hammurabi put together his famous code. These codes come from similar cultures in a relatively small geographical area, and they have passages which resemble each other.

    The prologue or introduction to the list of laws is very enlightening. Here, Hammurabi states that he wants "to make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak." The laws themselves support this compassionate claim and protect widows, orphans, and others from being harmed or exploited.

    The phrase "an eye for an eye" represents what many people view as a harsh sense of justice based on revenge. But, the entire code is much more complex than that one phrase. The code distinguishes among punishments for wealthy or noble persons, lower-class persons or commoners, and slaves. The code of laws was arranged in orderly groups so that everyone who read the laws would know what was required of them.

    Review Challenges

    1. Conduct a SPICES Analysis on Mesopotamia. Complete a SPICES chart and identify at least one characteristic for each category in the acronym.
    2. Research and describe what life was like in Mesopotamia.
    3. Read The Epic of Gilgamesh and describe its influence on World History.
    4. Read the Code of Hammurabi and describe the philosophy it is based on. Is it a fair legal system?

    Discussion and Study Questions

    1. What were the major accomplishments of early River Valley Civilizations?
    2. How does religion contribute to the development of government and writing?
    3. What types of government were common in River Valley Civilizations?
    4. What are the characteristics of a civilization?
    5. How do civilizations develop from a village to a city/civilization?
    6. How did the roles of women and families changes as civilization rose?
    7. How did geographic factors affect the location of early River Valley Civilizations?
    8. How did humans manipulate their environment to build a civilization?


    Quizlet Flashcard Vocabulary for River Valley Civilizations

    Code of Hammurabi
    a law code enacted by a Babylonian king, with scaled punishments depending on social status. The famous phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" originated from this code
    a system of writing with wedge-shaped symbols, invented by the Sumerians around 3000 BCE
    a ruling family that passes its authority and power down through many generations
    an ancient Egyptian writing system in which pictures were used to represent ideas and sounds
    "land between two rivers" - the region located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq
    a government in which power is in the hands of a single person
    a belief in a single, all-powerful god
    a belief in many gods
    a people of Mesopotamia that created the first large, complex society in human history
    a government controlled by religious leaders; a form of government in which the ruler is viewed as a divine figure
    Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
    These are the major rivers that flow through Mesopotamia. They were critical to the development of Mesopotamian civilization.
    a religious, stepped-pyramid built by the Mesopotamians

    Internet Sources

    This page titled 1.5: Tigris and Euphrates River Valley is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation.

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