Ancient Iraq

The fertile crescent, Iraq is home to some of the earliest cities in the world, where writing may have first developed between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Assyrian Soldiers via History of Costume (1860-80)
The Ancient World of Mesopotamia

Bronze head of a king, Bronze head of a king, perhaps Sargon of Akkad, from Nineveh, Akkadian period, c. 2300 BCE.

The two great empires, Assyria and Babylon, which grew up on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, can be separated as little historically as geographically. From the beginning their history is closely intertwined; and the power of the one is a measure of the weakness of the other. This interdependence of Assyrian and Babylonian history was recognized by ancient writers, and has been confirmed by modern discovery. But whereas Assyria takes the first place in the classical accounts to the exclusion of Babylonia, the decipherment of the inscriptions has proved that the converse was really the case, and that, with the exception of some seven or eight centuries, Assyria might be described as a province or dependency of Babylon. Not only was Babylonia the mother country, as the tenth chapter of Genesis explicitly states, but the religion and culture, the literature and the characters in which it was contained, the arts and the sciences of the Assyrians were derived from their southern neighbors, and as such they were similar in race and language and the ancestors of Iraqi peoples.

The First City States of Sumer

Head of a woman found at Nimrud, Assyrian Culture

Sumer, possibly Biblical Shinar) was a civilization and a historical region located in Southern Iraq (Mesopotamia), known as the Cradle of civilization. It lasted from the first settlement of Eridu in the Ubaid period (late 6th millennium BC) through the Uruk period (4th millennium BC) and the Dynastic periods (3rd millennium BC) until the rise of Babylon in the early 2nd millennium BC. The term “Sumerian” applies to all speakers of the Sumerian language.

Although other cities pre-date Sumer (Damascus,Jericho, Çatalhöyük and others, either for seasonal protection, or as year-round trading posts) the cities of Sumer were the first to practice intensive, year-round agriculture (from ca. 5300 BC). The surplus of food stores created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place instead of migrating after crops and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density, and in turn required an extensive labor force and division of labor. This organization led to the necessity of record keeping and the development of writing (ca. 3500 BC).

The Sumerian city states rose to power during the prehistorical Ubaid and Uruk periods. Sumerian history reaches back to the 26th century BC and before, but the historical record remains obscure until the Early Dynastic III period, ca. the 23rd century BC, when a now deciphered syllabary writing system was developed, which has allowed archaeologists to read contemporary records and inscriptions. Classical Sumer ends with the rise of the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century. Following the Gutian period, there is a brief “Sumerian renaissance” in the 21st century, cut short in the 20th century BC by Amorite invasions. The Amorite “dynasty of Isin” persisted until ca. 1700 BC, when Mesopotamia was united under Babylonian rule.

After the fall of D`mt in the fifth century BC, the plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms, until the rise of one of these kingdoms during the first century BC, the Axumite Kingdom, ancestor of medieval and modern Ethiopia, which was able to reunite the area. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time.

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History of Babylon

One of the winged lions from the ancient city gates of Babylon

Babylon was an ancient city on the left bank of the Euphrates, about 70 m. S. of Bagdad. “Babylon” is the Greek form of Babel or Bab-ili, “the gate of the god” (sometimes incorrectly written “of the gods”), which again is the Semitic translation of the original Sumerian name Ka-dimirra. The god was probably Merodach or Marduk, the divine patron of the city. In an inscription of the Kassite conqueror Gaddas the name appears as Ba-ba-lam, as if from the Assyrian babalu, ” to bring”; another foreign Volksetymologie is found in Genesis xi. 9, from balbal, ” to confound.” A second name of the city, which perhaps originally denoted a separate village or quarter, was Su-anna, and in later inscriptions it is often represented ideographically by E-ki, the pronunciation and meaning of which are uncertain. One of its oldest names, however, was Din-tir, of which the poets were especially fond; Din-tir signifies in Sumerian “the life of the forest,” though a native lexicon translates it “seat of life.” Uru-azagga, “the holy city,” was also a title sometimes applied to Babylon as to other cities in Babylonia. Ka-dimirra, the Semitic Bab-ili, probably denoted at first E-Saggila, “the house of the lofty head,” the temple dedicated to Bel-Merodach, along with its immediate surroundings. Like the other great sanctuaries of Babylonia the temple had been founded in pre-Semitic times, and the future Babylon grew up around it. Since Merodach was the son of Ea, the culture god of Eridu near Ur on the Persian Gulf, it is possible that Babylon was a colony of Eridu. Adjoining Babylon was a town called Borsippa.

The Dragon of Marduk, an important symbol to the ancient Babylonians, from the Ishtar gate

The Dragon of Marduk, an important symbol to the ancient Babylonians, from the Ishtar gate

The earliest mention of Babylon is in a dated tablet of the reign of Sargon of Akkad (3800 B.C.), who is stated to have built sanctuaries there to Anunit and Ae (or Ea), and H. Winckler may be right in restoring a mutilated passage in the annals of this king so as to make it mean that Babylon owed its name to Sargon, who made it the capital of his empire. If so, it fell back afterward into the position of a mere provincial town and remained so for centuries, until it became the capital of “the first dynasty of Babylon” and then of Khammurabi’s empire (2250 B.C.). From this time onward it continued to be the capital of Babylonia and the holy city of western Asia. The claim to supremacy in Asia, however real in fact, was not admitted de jure until the claimant had “taken the hands” of BelMerodach at Babylon, and thereby been accepted as his adopted son and the inheritor of the old Babylonian empire. It was this which made Tiglath-pileser III. and other Assyrian kings so anxious to possess themselves of Babylon and so to legitimize their power. Sennacherib alone seems to have failed in securing the support of the Babylonian priesthood; at all events he never underwent the ceremony, and Babylonia throughout his reign was in a constant state of revolt which was finally suppressed only by the complete destruction of the capital. In 689 B.C. its walls, temples and palaces were razed to the ground and the rubbish thrown into the Arakhtu, the canal which bordered the earlier Babylon on the south. The act shocked the religious conscience of western Asia; the subsequent murder of Sennacherib was held to be an expiation of it, and his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city, to receive there his crown, and make it his residence during part of the year. On his death Babylonia was left to his elder son Samas-sum-yukin, who eventually headed a revolt against his brother Assur-bani-pal of Assyria. Once more Babylon was besieged by the Assyrians and starved into surrender. Assur-bani-pal purified the city and celebrated a “service of reconciliation,” but did not venture to “take the hands” of Bel. In the subsequent overthrow of the Assyrian empire the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance.

A reconstruction of the Ishtar gate

A reconstruction of the Ishtar gate

With the recovery of Babylonian independence under Nabopolassar a new era of architectural activity set in, and his son Nebuchadrezzar made Babylon one of the wonders of the ancient world. It surrendered without a struggle to Cyrus, but two sieges in the reign of Darius Hystaspis, and one in the reign of Xerxes, brought about the destruction of the defenses, while the monotheistic rule of Persia allowed the temples to fall into decay. Indeed part of the temple of E-Saggila, which like other ancient temples served as a fortress, was intentionally pulled down by Xerxes after his capture of the city. Alexander was murdered in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar, which must therefore have been still standing, and cuneiform texts show that, even under the Seleucids, E-Saggila was not wholly a ruin. The foundation of Seleucia in its neighborhood, however, drew away the population of the old city and hastened its material decay. A tablet dated 275 B.C. states that on the 12th of Nisan the inhabitants of Babylon were transported to the new town, where a palace was built as well as a temple to which the ancient name of E-Saggila was given. With this event the history of Babylon comes practically to an end, though more than a century later we find sacrifices being still performed in its old sanctuary.

Our knowledge of its topography is derived from the classical writers, the inscriptions of Nebuchadrezzar, and the excavations of the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft, which were begun in 1899. The topography is necessarily that of the Babylon of Nebuchadrezzar; the older Babylon which was destroyed by Sennacherib having left few, if any, traces behind. Most of the existing remains lie on the E. bank of the Euphrates, the principal being three vast mounds, the Babil to the north, the Qasr or “Palace” (also known as the Mujelliba) in the centre, and the Ishan `Amran ibn `Ali, with the outlying spur of the Jumjuma, to the south. Eastward of these come the Ishan el-Aswad or “Black Mound” and three lines of rampart, one of which encloses the Babil mound on the N. and E. sides, while a third forms a triangle with the S.E. angle of the other two. W. of the Euphrates are other ramparts and the remains of the ancient Borsippa.

A carving of an Anunnaki, an ancient Mesopotamian deity of the underworld

A carving of an Anunnaki, an ancient Mesopotamian deity of the underworld

We learn from Herodotus and Ctesias that the city was built on both sides of the river in the form of a square, and enclosed within a double row of lofty walls to which Ctesias adds a third. Ctesias makes the outermost wall 360 stades (42 m.) in circumference, while according to Herodotus it measured 480 stades (56 m.), which would include an area of about 200 sq. m. The estimate of Ctesias is essentially the same as that of Q. Curtius (v. 1.26), 368 stades, and Clitarchus (ap. Diod. Sic. ii. 7), 365 stades; Strabo (xvi. 1.5) makes it 385 stades. But even the estimate of Ctesias, assuming the stade to be its usual length, would imply an area of about loo sq. m. According to Herodotus the height of the walls was about 335 ft. and their width 85 ft.; according to Ctesias the height was about 300 ft. The measurements seem exaggerated, but we must remember that even in Xenophon’s time (Anab. iii. 4. io) the ruined wall of Nineveh was still 150 ft. high, and that the spaces between the 250 towers of the wall of Babylon (Ctes. 417, ap. Diod. ii. 7) were broad enough to let a four-horse chariot turn (Herod. i. 179). The clay dug from the moat served to make the bricks of the wall, which had loo gates, all of bronze, with bronze lintels and posts. The two inner enclosures were faced with enameled tiles and represented hunting-scenes. Two other walls ran along the banks of the Euphrates and the quays with which it was lined, each containing 25 gates which answered to the number of streets they led into. Ferry-boats plied between the landing places of the gates, and a movable drawbridge (30 ft. broad), supported on stone piers, joined the two parts of the city together.

The account thus given of the walls must be grossly exaggerated and cannot have been that of an eye-witness. Moreover, the two-walls – Imgur-Bel, the inner wall, and Nimitti-Bel, the outer – which enclosed the city proper on the site of the older Babylon have been confused with the outer ramparts (enclosing the whole of Nebuchadrezzar’s city), the remains of which can still be traced to the east. According to Nebuchadrezzar, Imgur-Bel was built in the form of a square, each side of which measured “30 aslu by the great cubit”; this would be equivalent, if Professor F. Hommel is right, to 2400 meters. Four thousand cubits to the east the great rampart was built “mountain high,” which surrounded both the old and the new town; it was provided with a moat, and a reservoir was excavated in the triangle on the inner side of its south-east corner, the western wall of which is still visible. The Imgur-Bel of Sargon’s time has been discovered by the German excavators running south of the Qasr from the Euphrates to the Gate of Ishtar.

The exquisite gold helmet found at Sumer

The exquisite gold helmet found at Sumer

The German excavations have shown that the Qsar mound represents both the old palace of Nabopolassar, and the new palace adjoining it built by Nebuchadrezzar, the wall of which he boasts of having completed in 15 days. They have also laid bare the site of the “Gate of Ishtar” on the east side of the mound and the little temple of Nin-Makh (Beltis) beyond it, as well as the raised road for solemn processions (A-ibur-sabu) which led from the Gate of Ishtar to E-Saggila and skirted the east side of the palace. The road was paved with stone and its walls on either side lined with enameled tiles, on which a procession of lions is represented. North of the mound was a canal, which seems to have been the Libilkhegal of the inscriptions, while on the south side was the Arakhtu, “the river of Babylon,” the brick quays of which were built by Nabopolassar.

The site of E-Saggila is still uncertain. The German excavators assign it to the `Amran mound, its tower having stood in a depression immediately to the north of this, and so place it south of the Qasr; but E. Lindl and F. Hommel have put forward strong reasons for considering it to have been north of the latter, on a part of the site which has not yet been explored.

A tablet copied by George Smith gives us interesting details as to the plan and dimensions of this famous temple of Bel; a plan based on these will be found in Hommel’s Grundriss der Geographie and Geschichte des alten Orients, p. 321. There were three courts, the outer or great court, the middle court of Ishtar and Zamama, and the inner court on the east side of which was the tower of seven stages (known as the House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth), 90 metres high according to Hommel’s calculation of the measurements in the tablet; while on the west side was the temple proper of Merodach and his wife Sarpanit or Zarpanit, as well as chapels of Anu, Ea and Bel on either side of it. A winding ascent led to the summit of the tower, where there was a chapel, containing, according to Herodotus, a couch and golden table (for the show bread), but no image. The golden image of Merodach 40 ft. high, stood in the temple below, in the sanctuary called E-Kua or “House of the Oracle,” together with a table, a mercyseat and an altar – all of gold. The deities whose chapels were erected within the precincts of the temple enclosure were regarded as forming his court. Fifty-five of these chapels existed altogether in Babylon, but some of them stood independently in other parts of the city.

There are numerous gates in the walls both of E-Saggila and of the city, the names of many of which are now known. Nebuchadrezzar says that he covered the walls of some of them with blue enameled tiles “on which bulls and dragons were portrayed,” and that he set up large bulls and serpents of bronze on their thresholds.

The Babil mound probably represents the site of a palace built by Nebuchadrezzar at the northern extremity of the city walls and attached to a defensive outwork 60 cubits in length. Since H. Rassam found remains of irrigation works here it might well be the site of the Hanging Gardens. These consisted, we are told, of a garden of trees and flowers, built on the topmost of a series of arches some 7 5 ft. high, and in the form of a square, each side of which measured 400 Greek ft. Water was raised from the Euphrates by means of a screw (Strabo xvi. 1.5; Diod. ii. io. 6). In the Jumjuma mound at the southern extermity of the old city the contract and other business tablets of the Egibi firm were found.

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The Kingdom of Akkad

The Great Ziggurat of Ur, was built by the Sumerian King Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi in approximately the 21st century BCE

The Great Ziggurat of Ur, was built by the Sumerian King Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi in approximately the 21st century BCE

Akkad, a Hebrew name, mentioned only once in the Old Testament, for one of the four chief cities, Akkad, Babel, Erech and Calneh, which constituted the nucleus of the kingdom of Nimrod in the land of Shinar or Babylonia. This Biblical city, Akkad, was most probably identical with the northern Babylonian city known to us as Agade (not Agane, as formerly read), which was the principal seat of the early Babylonian king Sargon I. (2argani-Sarali), whose date is given by Nabonidus, the last Semitic king of Babylonia (555-537 B.e.), as 3800 B.C., which is perhaps too old by 700 or 1000 years.’ The probably non-Semitic name Agade occurs in a number of inscriptions 2 and is now well attested as having been the name of an important ancient capital. The later Assyro-Babylonian Semitic form Akkadu (“of or belonging to Akkad”) is, in all likelihood, a Semitic loan form from the non-Semitic name Agade, and seems to be an additional demonstration of the identity of Agade and Akkad. The usual signs denoting Akkadu in the Semitic narrative inscriptions were read in the non-Semitic idiom uri-ki or ur-ki, ” land of the city,” which simply meant that Akkadu was the land of the city par excellence, i.e. of the city of Agade of Sargon I., which remained for a long period the leading city of Babylonia.3 It is quite probable that the non-Semitic name Agade may mean “crown (aga) of fire (de)” 4 in allusion to Istar, “the brilliant goddess,” the titular deity of the morning and evening star and the goddess of war and love, whose cult was observed in very early times in Agade. This fact is again attested by Nabonidus, whose record 5 mentions that the Istar worship of Agade was later superseded by that of the goddess Anunit, another personification of the Istar idea, whose shrine was at Sippar. It is significant in this connection that there were two cities named Sippar, one under the protection of Shamash, the sun-god, and one under this Anunit, a fact which points strongly tothe probable proximity of Sippar and Agade. In fact, it has been thought that Agade-Akkad was situated opposite Sippar on the left bank of the Euphrates, and was probably the oldest part of the city of Sippar.

In the Assyro-Babylonian literature the name Akkadu appears as part of the royal title in connection with Sumer; viz. non Semitic: lugal Kengi (ki) Uru (ki) = sar mat Sumeri u Akkadi, ” king of Sumer and Akkad,” which appears to have meant simply “king of Babylonia.” It is not likely, as many scholars have thought, that Akkad was ever used geographically as a distinctive appellation for northern Babylonia, or that the name Sumer denoted the southern part of the land, because kings who ruled only over Southern Babylonia used the double title “king of Sumer and Akkad,” which was also employed by northern rulers who never established their sway farther south than Nippur, notably the great Assyrian conqueror Tiglath pileser III. (745-7 2 7 B.C.). Professor McCurdy has very reasonably suggested 6 that the title “king of Sumer and Akkad” indicated merely a claim to the ancient territory and city of Akkad together with certain additional territory, but not necessarily all Babylonia, as was formerly believed.

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