Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is in the Middle East, mainly in present-day Iraq, with parts of it in Syria and Turkey and influence extending into what are now Iran and the Persian Gulf states. The name translates literally as 'between rivers', and an alternate term is the Land of the Two Rivers. The rivers involved are the Tigris and Euphrates; both rise in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia, run more-or-less parallel, then join near Basra to form the Shatt al-Arab which flows into the Persian Gulf.

The region had several of the world's earliest civilizations and has dozens of archeological sites, including many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Unfortunately, many have been damaged or destroyed by Da'esh, the so-called Islamic State.

As of mid-2023, most of the region is too dangerous to visit; see warnings in the Syria and Iraq articles.


Mesopotamia forms part of a historically important region called the Fertile Crescent; the other main part is the Levant. The region was one of the cradles of civilisation, where farming and cities first arose.

Mesopotamia was one of the great Bronze Age civilizations, along with Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Indus Valley Civilisation and others. All of those built cities and empires, and developed or imported innovations such as bronze-working, irrigation, writing, glass, mathematics, natural science, measurements of time, city planning, and the wheel. Historians debate who was first with each, and Mesopotamia is a candidate for most of them.

Many empires rose and fell here—1 Sumer Sumer on Wikipedia, 2 Akkad Akkadian Empire on Wikipedia, 3 Babylon Babylonia on Wikipedia, and 4 Assyria Assyria on Wikipedia are the best-known.

A Lammasu (protective spirit)
Neo-Assyrian period, circa 700 BCE

Nearby ancient kingdoms which they influenced, traded with, sometimes invaded, and sometimes were invaded by included 1 Elam Elam on Wikipedia and the Medes Medes on Wikipedia in what is now Iran (the Mede capital 2 Ecbatana Ecbatana on Wikipedia is now Hamadan), and 3 Urartu Urartu on Wikipedia around Lake Van. The 4 Mitanni Mitanni on Wikipedia or Hurrians originated further west, but at one point their empire extended into northeast Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia has a prominent role in the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and a shared history with the Holy Land. The Israelites' exile in Babylon around 600 BCE is well described in the Old Testament, and is one of the oldest Biblical events supported by historical records. Like many other ancient empires, Babylon primarily became known among Europeans through the Bible.

Most languages native to the region — including Akkadian which was the main language of the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires, and Aramaic which became important later — were from the Semitic family which includes Arabic and Hebrew. Sumerian — spoken in Sumer and used by priests and scholars for centuries after Akkadian replaced it in general use — was a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language.

  • Tower of Babel. It is not clear whether this Bible story has any historical basis, but if it does the tower was certainly in Mesopotamia. Possibilities include Etemenanki in Babylon and the Great Ziggurat of Ur. Some have suggested Sumerian was mankind's original tongue, before the Babel incident. Tower of Babel (Q41213) on Wikidata Tower of Babel on Wikipedia

The land later became a subject under many empires: the Hittites, the Hellenic Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Roman Empire and its successor the Byzantine Empire, various incarnations of the Persian Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Caliphate of Baghdad (see Islamic Golden Age), the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire.

Mesopotamia has been devastated by war many times in history, and Iraq and Syria are, as of 2023, dangerous destinations.


This article focuses on the great Mesoptamian civilisations of the Bronze Age; see Fertile Crescent for archeological sites dating back before those.


Map of Ancient Mesopotamia

A UNESCO World Heritage Site near Nasiriyah in the marshes of southern Iraq includes the ruins of several Sumerian cities:

  • 1 Eridu. Possibly the world's oldest city, dating to about 5400 BCE. Eridu (Q210065) on Wikidata Eridu on Wikipedia
  • 2 Uruk. Important center during the urbanisation of Sumer, circa 4000-3200 BCE. Probably the world's largest city (40,000 plus suburbs) around 3100 BCE. Uruk lasted a long time and was finally abandoned in the 7th century CE. Uruk on Wikipedia
The Epic of Gilgamesh. This is the oldest known piece of literature, a great epic about a king who ruled Uruk in the 27th century BCE. One of its stories, the story of Utnapishtim, is a great flood story that resembles the story of Noah in the Bible.
  • 3 Ur (Ur of the Chaldees). Capital of the Sumerian Empire — the first empire in the region and possibly first anywhere — from about 2600 BCE. The town is mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 11:28 and 11:31) and the usual interpretation is that Abraham set off from there on his journey to find the Promised Land. Ur (Q5699) on Wikidata Ur on Wikipedia
  • 4 Larsa. Known from about 2500 BCE, and an important city in several empires. It had its own small empire circa 2000-1700 BCE. Larsa (Q244746) on Wikidata Larsa on Wikipedia
  • 5 Lagash (Tell al-Hiba). Lagash was an independent city-state under two dynasties, circa 2550-2300 and 2230-2110 BCE. In between it was part of the Akkadian Empire, and later of Ur's empire. Nowadays it is one of the largest archaeological sites in Mesopotamia. Lagash (Q207330) on Wikidata Lagash on Wikipedia

Not far from those were other Sumerian cities:

  • 6 Nippur. A important city in Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian empires, partly because it was a major center of their religion. Now an archaeological site with many temples and a ziggurat. It lasted longer than other Sumerian cities, and was finally abandoned somewhere around 1000 CE. Nippur (Q188395) on Wikidata Nippur on Wikipedia
  • 7 Kish (near Babylon). Occupied from the Ubaid period (c.5300-4300 BCE), important in several empires, abandoned sometime after 750 CE, now only ruins. Kish (Q132272) on Wikidata Kish (Sumer) on Wikipedia
  • 8 Isin (Ishan al-Bahriyat). Goes back to at least the Early Dynastic Period, 2900-2350 BCE. At times it had its own rulers, even a small empire, but mostly it was part of various other empires. Isin (Q501259) on Wikidata Isin on Wikipedia
  • 9 Mari (Tell Hariri) (near Deir-az-Zur). Originally a Sumerian city, from around 2500 BCE, on the Euphrates. Sometimes the capital of small empires, at other times part of the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. Abandoned and forgotten during the Hellenistic period. Mari (Q244762) on Wikidata Mari, Syria on Wikipedia
Citadel of Erbil
  • 10 Erbil (Arbela). Once a Sumerian town, Erbil remained important in all the later empires. it has a citadel from the Neo-Assyrian period which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today it is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and has population around 1.6 million. It has several museums, some with exhibits from ancient times. Erbil (Q132754) on Wikidata Erbil on Wikipedia
  • 11 Harran (near Urfa in Turkey). Probably originally a Sumerian trading post before 2000 BCE.
    Local legend has it as the birthplace of both Abraham and Job, and the Cave of Abraham is a pilgrimage site for Muslims. One version (e.g. in the King James Bible) of Abraham's journey has him starting from Ur, and travelling via Harran. Another version has his family immigrating from Ur to Harran, then Abraham being born there and starting his journey there.
    Later it became an Aramean city then one of the most important in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It remained an important trading center until it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1271 CE. Today there is just a village with some ruins, including an impressive medieval castle.
    Haran (Q3660711) on Wikidata Harran (biblical place) on Wikipedia

Akkad, Babylon and Assyria[edit]

Akkadian bronze found in Nineveh

Around 2270 BCE, the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadian Empire. The later empires of the region all spoke Akkadian and had their main cities north of Sumer.

Many of the cities listed were smashed by the Medes around 610 BCE as the Assyrian Empire fell. The whole region became part of the Persian Empire around 540 BCE and was taken by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE.

  • Akkad. This city was the capital of an empire that dominated southern Mesopotamia for several centuries before 2000 BCE. Its location is not known with certainty. Akkad (city) on Wikipedia
  • 1 Babylon (on the Euphrates). This ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is often associated with Biblical history. Babylon was the center of an empire circa 1900-1600 BCE and other empires ending with the Chaldean Empire (or Neo-Babylonian Empire) 626-539 BCE. Later it was briefly Alexander the Great's capital. Babylon (Q5684) on Wikidata Babylon on Wikipedia
  • 2 Assur (Ashur) (on the Tigris). Capital of several empires, circa 2000 BCE to 609 BCE. Both the city itself and its empire, Assyria, were named for the town's main God. Today there are only ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Assur (Q200200) on Wikidata Assur on Wikipedia
  • 3 Nineveh (across the Tigris from Mosul). Nineveh was an important Assyrian city and it is mentioned in the Biblical book of Jonah; it replaced Assur as the capital in later Assyrian Empires. Around 700 BCE it was among the world's largest cities, probably the first with population over 100,000. Nineveh (Q5680) on Wikidata Nineveh on Wikipedia
  • 4 Nimrud. This was an important Assyrian city circa 1350-610 BCE Nimrud (Q237614) on Wikidata Nimrud on Wikipedia

Both Nimrud and Nineveh were severely damaged by the so-called Islamic State during the 2014-17 Civil War.

  • Arameans. These were originally a nomadic pastoral people, but many of them settled by about the 12th century BCE. Their main center was a region called Aram — mentioned in the Bible, and including most of today's Syria and parts of northern Israel — but there were also other Aramean states, mostly in what is now Turkey. The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the region in the 8th century BCE and relocated the Arameans all over the empire. Later the Semitic name Aram was replaced by the Greek Syria. Arameans (Q28151255) on Wikidata Arameans on Wikipedia
  • Aramaic (Classical Syraic). This Semitic language was originally spoken by Arameans, but later became the lingua franca of the region, used in administration by the Neo-Babylonian Empire (612–539 BCE) and the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire (539–330 BCE). It remained important under later Greek and Roman rule, and was likely Jesus' native language. Aramaic and its descendant Syraic have been spoken for over 3,000 years, but today other languages dominate in the region and Syraic is considered endangered. It mainly survives today as a liturgical language in the Syriac churches. Aramaic languages (Q28602) on Wikidata Aramaic on Wikipedia
  • 5 Kirkuk (Arrapha). This city was part of the Akkadian and Assyrian empires, and for a few centuries around 1500 BCE, it was the capital of a Mittani Empire. It still exists today; tourists attractions include Kirkuk Citadel from 858 BC. Kirkuk (Q173310) on Wikidata Kirkuk on Wikipedia
  • 6 Nuzi (Gasur) (modern Yorghan Tepe). Founded during the Akkadian Empire, later part of the Mittani Empire. Nuzi (Q584605) on Wikidata Nuzi on Wikipedia
  • 7 Mardin (near the Tigris). This city was part of the Akkadian and Assyrian empires, and later a center of Assyrian or Syriac culture, and of the Syriac Church. Today it is in Turkey, but many of its people are Assyrians, and the Syriac language, descended from Aramaic, is still spoken. It is an extremely scenic town with many fine old stone buildings. Mardin (Q188022) on Wikidata Mardin on Wikipedia
  • 8 Hasankeyf. An old town on the Tigris, probably founded in Assyrian times. Its main tourist attractions are cliff dwellings built in caves starting about 1000 BCE and various later buildings including churches, mosques and a castle. Much of it has now been flooded by a dam project. Hasankeyf (Q756957) on Wikidata Hasankeyf on Wikipedia

After the Persian conquest[edit]

Some cities in Mesopotamia were built after the region fell to Persia around 539 BCE, or even after Alexander conquered the Persians around 330 BCE.

  • 1 Seleucia (Seleucia on the Tigris) (near today's Baghdad). Founded around 305 BC by Alexander's general Seleucus Nicator as the first capital of his Seleucid Empire; later the capital was moved to Antioch. Seleucia (Q7447929) on Wikidata Seleucia (Sittacene) on Wikipedia
  • 2 Ctesiphon (near Seleucia). Built by the Parthians about 120 BCE, it absorbed Seleucia. Capital of both the Parthian and Sassanian Empires at different times. Abandoned about 800 CE. Ctesiphon (Q192541) on Wikidata Ctesiphon on Wikipedia

See also[edit]

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