Monday, March 26, 2007

Mesopotamian Societies

The organization of Sumerian society was probably much like that of earlier Neolithic communities, and its political institutions reflect the ancient idea of chief­tainship. More is known about it only because the Sumerians were the first Western people to create a written language. Their political and economic rela­tionships had reached a level of complexity that re­quired something more than the use of movable clay tokens to record transactions, a practice characteristic of many earlier cultures. Though the Sumerian lan­guage was apparently unrelated to any other and was used only for ritual purposes after the second millen­nium B.C., all later Mesopotamian cultures adopted its cuneiform system of writing.
Cuneiform refers to the wedge-shaped marks left by a stylus when it is pressed into a wet clay tablet. Sumeria was rich in mud, and slabs of clay were perfect for recording taxes, land transfers, and legal agree­ments. When the document was ready, the tablet could be baked hard and stored for future reference.

The Sumerians, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria
Even with written records, political relations between the Sumerian city-states are difficult to reconstruct. As populations increased, struggles over boundaries and trading rights grew more violent, and by 2300 B.C. inter-city conflicts engulfed all of Mesopotamia. At times, a king would claim to rule over more than one city or over Sumer as a whole. There may therefore have been no Sumerian Empire, or if there was, its exis­tence could have been brief. According to his inscrip­tions, Lugalzaggeszi of Umma (c. 2375 B.C.) achieved control over the entire region only to have it taken from him by a non-Sumerian, Sargon of Akkad (reigned
c. 2350–2300 B.C.).
The Akkadian triumph marked the beginning of a new imperial age. The unification of southern and cen­tral Mesopotamia provided Sargon with the means to conquer the north together with Syria. Though Akka­dian rule was brief, it transmitted elements of Mesopotamian culture throughout the Middle East, and Akkadian, a Semitic language, became standard throughout the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. But the brevity of Sargon’s triumph set a pattern for the politi­cal future. For a millennium and a half, the rulers of dif­ferent regions in succession achieved hegemony over all or part of Mesopotamia. This was normally achieved by force combined with the careful manipulation of al­liances and ended when the ruling dynasty fell prey ei­ther to the divisive forces that had created it or to invasions by people from the surrounding highlands. Throughout its history, Mesopotamia’s wealth and lack of natural defenses made it a tempting prize for conquerors.
After the overthrow of Sargon’s descendents by a desert people known as the Guti and a brief revival of Sumerian power under the Third Dynasty of Ur, Baby­lon became the chief political and cultural center of the region. Under Hammurabi (ruled c. 1792–1750 B.C.) the Babylonians achieved hegemony over all of Mesopotamia, but a series of invasions after 1600 B.C. led to a long period of political disorder. The invaders, the most important of whom were Hittites, an Indo-European people from central Asia Minor. Their influence was otherwise impermanent, but a rivalry soon developed between Babylon and Assyria, a king­dom in the northern part of the valley centered first on the city of Ashur and later on Nineveh.
The Assyrians, a fierce people who spoke a dialect of Akkadian, may have been the first people to coordi­nate the use of cavalry, infantry, and missile weapons. Not only were their armies well organized, but their grasp of logistics also appears to have surpassed that of other ancient empires. Though in other respects a highly civilized people whose literary and artistic achievements continued the traditions of Sumer and Babylon, they waged psychological warfare by cultivat­ing a reputation for horrific cruelty. They eventually defeated the Babylonians and after 933 restored the achievements of Sargon by establishing an empire that stretched from Egypt to Persia. In spite of these violent political alterations, Mesopotamia remained culturally homogeneous for nearly three thousand years.

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