Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, the land of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, contains the heritage of several of the world's oldest civilizations.


Fertile Crescent archaeological sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, circa 7500 BC.

Mesopotamia is in the Middle East, mainly in present-day Iraq, with parts of it in Syria, Turkey and Kuwait. The name translates literally as 'between rivers', and an alternate term is the Land of the Two Rivers. The non-desert land between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf — Mesopotamia plus parts of the Levant — is called the Fertile Crescent, especially when referring to ancient history; however, due to erosion and overgrazing in modern times, the Fertile Crescent is less productive today than it was in ancient times.

Many experts believe Mesopotamia was the main center of the Neolithic Revolution, when agriculture, irrigation and cities were first developed. All count it as one of the first Bronze Age civilizations, along with Ancient Egypt, Ancient China and the Indus Valley Civilisation. All these arose at and around rivers, and were highly dependent on them for farming, water supply, and transportation. Mesopotamia may have been first to have innovations such as writing, mathematics, natural science, measurements of time, the wheel, watercraft, urban planning and centralized government.

Many empires rose and fell here—Sumeria, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria are the best-known in historical circles today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a famous piece of ancient Mesopotamian literature, and one of its stories, the story of Utnapishtim, is a great flood story that resembles the story of Noah in the Bible.

Mesopotamia has a prominent role in the Abrahamite 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.

The land later became a subject under many global empires: the Hittites, the Hellenic Empire, the Roman Empire, various incarnations of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, the Mongol Empire, the Caliphate of Baghdad (see Islamic Golden Age), the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. Mesopotamia has been devastated by war more than once in history, and Iraq and Syria are, as of 2023, dangerous destinations Many archaeological sites have been torn down.


Map of Ancient Mesopotamia
A bronze found in Nineveh

A UNESCO World Heritage Site near Nasiriyah in the marshes of southern Iraq includes the ruins of several Sumerian cities: Ur, Larsa and Eridu.

  • 1 Eridu. Possibly the world's oldest city, dating to about 5400 BCE. Eridu (Q210065) on Wikidata Eridu on Wikipedia
  • 2 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
  • 3 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

The later empires of the region had their main cities further north. Most of these were smashed by the Medes around 610 BCE; all became part of the Persian Empire around 540 BCE and were taken by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE.

  • 4 Babylon. This ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is often associated with Biblical history. Babylon was the center of an empire circa 1900-1600 BC and other empires ending with Chaldean Empire 626-539 BC. Later it was briefly Alexander the Great's capital. Babylon (Q5684) on Wikidata Babylon on Wikipedia
  • 5 Nippur. A major city in both Sumerian and Babylonian empires, now an archaeological site with several temples and a ziggurat. Nippur (Q188395) on Wikidata Nippur on Wikipedia
  • 6 Assur (Ashur). 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
  • 7 Nineveh (across the Tigris from Mosul). Nineveh was an important Assyrian city, at one point likely the world's largest city, and it is mentioned in the Biblical book of Jonah. It replaced Assur as the capital in later Assyrian Empires. Nineveh (Q5680) on Wikidata Nineveh on Wikipedia
  • 8 Nimrud. This was an important Assyrian city circa 1350-610BCE 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 in a region that is now mainly in northern Syria, known from about the 12th century BCE. The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered them in the 8th century BCE and relocated them all over the empire.
    They spoke a Semitic language, Aramaic, which 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.
    Arameans (Q28151255) on Wikidata Arameans on Wikipedia
Citadel of Erbil
  • 9 Erbil (Arbela). The history of this town goes back to the 5th millennium BCE. 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
  • 10 Harran (Carrhae) (near Urfa in Turkey). Possibly originally a Sumerian trading post before 2000 BCE. Local legend has it as the birthplace of both Abraham and Job. The usual story of Abraham's journey has him starting from Ur, and travelling via Harran. The alternate 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

Some cities in Mesopotamia were built after the region fell to Persia around 539 BC.

  • 11 Seleucia (Seleucia on the Tigris) (near today's Baghdad). Founded around 305 BC by Alexander's general Seleucus Nicator as the capital of his Seleucid Empire. Later absorbed into Ctesiphon. Seleucia (Q7447929) on Wikidata Seleucia (Sittacene) on Wikipedia
  • 12 Ctesiphon (near Seleucia). Built by the Parthians about 120 BCE. Capital of both the Parthian and Sasanaian Empires at different times. Abandoned about 800 CE. Ctesiphon (Q192541) on Wikidata Ctesiphon on Wikipedia

See also[edit]

This travel topic about Ancient Mesopotamia is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.