Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mesopotamia: The Social and Economic Structures of Mesopotamian Life

Mesopotamia, in Greek, means the land between the rivers, in this case the Tigris and the Euphrates (see map). It is a hot, fertile flood plain, most of which falls within the borders of modern Iraq. Summer high tem­peratures reach 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and no rain falls from May to late October. Winters are more moderate, but only Assyria in the north receives enough rainfall to support agriculture without irriga­tion. In the lower valley, everything depends upon wa­ter supplied by the two rivers. Of the two, the Tigris carries by far the larger vol­ume of water. The Euphrates on the east has fewer trib­utaries and loses more of its flow to evaporation as it passes through the dry plains of Syria. In April and May the melting of snow in the Zagros Mountains causes massive flooding throughout the region. This provides needed water and deposits a rich layer of alluvial silt, but the inundation presents enormous problems of management. The floods must not only be controlled to protect human settlement, but water also must some­how be preserved to provide irrigation during the rain­less summer. To make matters worse, both rivers create natural embankments or levees that inhibit the flow of tributaries and over time have raised the water level above that of the surrounding countryside. If spring floods wash the embankments away, the river changes its course, often with disasterous results. The biblical story of Noah and the Flood originated in Mesopotamia, though there was probably not one flood but many (see document 1.1). The first known settlements in the region were vil­lage cultures possibly speaking a Semitic language dis­tantly related to the more modern Hebrew or Arabic. They grew wheat and barley and were established as far south as Akkad, near modern Baghdad, by 4500 B.C. Other Semitic peoples continued to migrate into the region from the west and southwest until the Arab inva­sions of the ninth century A.D., but by 3000 B.C.the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people who may have come originally from India, had achieved dominance in the lower valley. They introduced large-scale irrigation and built the first true cities. Sumerian cities were usually built on a tributary and dominated a territory of perhaps a hundred square miles. Their inhabitants cultivated cereals, especially barley, and had learned the secret of making beer. Sumerian homes, made of sun-baked brick, originally were small and circular like a peasant’s hut but gradually expanded to become large one-story structures with square or rectangular rooms built around a central courtyard. Governance seems to have been by elected city councils. Each city also had a king who ruled with the assistance of a palace bureaucracy. The precise divi­sion of powers is unknown, but the later Babylonian council had judicial as well as legislative authority.

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