Lessons from the Past: Ancient Mesopotamia

Arsh Tikku

July 21, 2023

"In the land between the rivers, wisdom flows like the currents of the Tigris and Euphrates." Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, is nestled between the enchanting Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It once served as a unifying land where people from various regions came together to live and thrive. Located in modern-day Iraq, this historic region was home to some of the oldest civilizations in the world. Characterized by tremendous innovation and growth, they significantly shaped human history. Ancient Mesopotamia continues to influence the modern world through its writing systems, legal code, and literature.

Mesopotamia is an ancient region that is the birthplace of several ancient societies. The most notable civilizations were the Sumerians, who were the first to settle in the region, developing the Cuneiform writing system and establishing city-states. The Akkadians followed, creating the first empire in human history and unifying a large population in Mesopotamia. The Assyrians, successors of the Akkadian empire, were pioneers in military technology. They expanded their territory while establishing administrative laws and constructing libraries. After the Assyrians, the Babylonians were among the first civilizations to develop a code of law while contributing to astronomy and mathematics. These civilizations emerged starting from 4500 BCE with the creation of Sumer and lasted until 540 BCE with the fall of Babylon. Mesopotamia, surrounded by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, provided fertile soil for agriculture, facilitated travel by boat, and allowed people to settle and thrive in the region.

The first form of innovation created by the ancient Mesopotamians is the writing system Cuneiform, which the Sumerians developed in the third millennium BCE and used until the third century AD. Cuneiform utilizes a logo-syllabic script with 600-1000 characters. The characters were written by imprinting them onto wet clay tablets, which then dried in the sun, imprinting the writing onto the stone. The Mesopotamians had numerous uses for Cuneiform, including administrative records, literature, legal documents, religious texts, and educational teachings. Along with the demands from the Mesopotamians, Cuneiform has also influenced several languages used in the past, most notably Old Persian and Aramaic. These languages, in turn, have influenced languages used in the modern day, such as Farsi, Arabic, and Tajik.

The second form of innovation enhanced by the ancient Mesopotamians was literature and epic poetry. The ancient Mesopotamians had a large variety of literature, including poetry, wisdom literature, mythology, historical fiction, legends, incantations, hymns, prayers, meditations, and didactic tales. Mesopotamian literature also influenced religious texts. For example, the famous story of Noah's Ark in the Bible replicates the story of Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Utnapishtim was a man who built a boat to preserve human and animal life from the flood warned by the gods. The literature from ancient Mesopotamia has shown to be diverse while setting the stage for stories for millennia to come.

The final form of innovation enhanced by the Mesopotamians was the system of laws. One of the first known codes of law in human history traces back to ancient Babylon. Written by King Hammurabi, it is now known as "Hammurabi's Code." Hammurabi's Code addresses a range of topics, including slander, trade, slavery, the responsibilities of workers, theft, liability, and divorce. This code is notorious for its brutal punishments, the most famous being "Lex Talionis," often called "an eye for an eye." In Lex Talionis, the penalty of a wrongdoer resembles the offense committed. Lex Talionis is just one example of the code that went on to inspire laws for other civilizations in the future. Hammurabi's Code influenced societies throughout history, including the Hittite Empire, Biblical Law, the Greek Empire, and the Roman Empire, through Lex Talionis, property and contract law, and case law. Hammurabi's Code has even influenced the laws of the United States of America, from suspects being innocent until proven guilty, to the government taxing the citizens, and even to the laws of marriage. Ancient Mesopotamian laws have continued to influence countries' laws throughout history.

Ancient Mesopotamia proves itself to be a substantially influential time in human history. We still see traces of Mesopotamian innovation in the letters we use to write, the literature we read, and the legal codes that keep society composed. This period happened millennia ago, but it still created knowledge that influenced surrounding cultures and society until today. From writing and literature to laws and societal culture, the legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia is still visible in our world.