Fast Facts About Mesopotamia

History books call the land now called Iraq "Mesopotamia". The word does not refer to one specific ancient country, but an area that included various, changing nations in the ancient world.

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Fast Facts About Mesopotamia - Modern Iraq

Map of IRAQ and surrounding neighbors
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Meaning of Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia means the land between the rivers. (Hippopotamus—river horse—contains the same word for river potam-). A body of water in some form or other is essential to life, so an area boasting of two rivers would be doubly blessed. The area on each side of these rivers was fertile, although the larger, general area was not. The ancient residents developed irrigation techniques to take advantage of their value, but a very limited natural resource. Over time, irrigation methods changed the riverside landscape.

Location of the 2 Rivers

The two rivers of Mesopotamia are the Tigris and the Euphrates (Dijla and Furat, in Arabic). The Euphrates is the one on the left (west) in maps and the Tigris is the one closer to Iran -- to the east of modern Iraq. Today, the Tigris and Euphrates join up in the south to flow into the Persian Gulf.

Location of Major Mesopotamian Cities

Baghdad is by the Tigris River in the middle of Iraq.

Babylon, the capital of the ancient Mesopotamian country of Babylonia, was built along the Euphrates River.

Nippur, an important Babylonian city dedicated to the god Enlil, was located about 100 miles south of Babylon.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet somewhat north of the modern city of Basra and flow into the Persian Gulf.

Iraq Land Boundaries:

total: 3,650 km

Border countries:

  • Iran 1,458 km,
  • Jordan 181 km
  • Kuwait 240 km
  • Saudi Arabia 814 km
  • Syria 605 km
  • Turkey 352 km

Map courtesy of CIA Sourcebook.

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Invention of Writing

Iraq - Iraqi Kurdistan. Sebastian Meyer / Contributor Getty

The earliest use of written language on our planet began in what is today Iraq long before the Mesopotamian urban cities developed. Clay tokens, lumps of clay shaped in different forms, were used to assist trade perhaps as early as 7500 BCE. By 4000 BCE, urban cities had blossomed and as a result, those tokens became much more varied and complex.

About 3200 BCE, trade extended long outside of Mesopotamia's political borders, and Mesopotamians started placing the tokens into clay pockets called bullae and sealing them shut, so that recipients could be certain that they got what they ordered. Some of the merchants and accountants pressed the token shapes into the outer layer of the bullae and eventually drew shapes with a pointed stick. Scholars call this early language proto-cuneiform and it is a symbology—the language still didn't represent a particular spoken language so much as simple drawings representing trade goods or labor.

Full-fledged writing, called cuneiform, was invented in Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE, to record dynastic history and to tell myths and legends.

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Mesopotamian Money

Humanity's First Gold Exhibition At Dordrechts Museum
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Mesopotamians used several types of money—that is to say, a medium of exchange used to facilitate trade—beginning in the third millennium BCE, by which date Mesopotamia was already involved in an extensive trade network. Mass-produced coins were not used in Mesopotamia, but Mesopotamian words such as minas and shekels which do refer to coins in Middle Eastern coinage and in the Judeo-Christian Bible are Mesopotamian terms referring to weights (values) of the various forms of money.

In order from least valuable to most, the money of ancient Mesopotamia was

  • barley,
  • lead (especially in northern Mesopotamia [Assyria]),
  • copper or bronze,
  • tin,
  • silver,
  • gold.

Barley and silver were the dominant forms, which were used as common denominators of value. Barley, however, was difficult to transport and varied more in value across distances and time, and so was used mainly for local trade. Interest rates on loans of barley were substantially higher than on silver: 33.3% vs 20%, according to Hudson.


  • Powell MA. 1996. Money in Mesopotamia. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 39(3):224-242.
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Reed Boats and Water Control

Bolivia Daily Life
Giles Clarke / Contributor Getty

Another development by the Mesopotamians in support of their massive trade network was the invention of deliberately constructed reed boats, cargo ships made of reeds that were made waterproof with the use of bitumen. The first reed boats are known from the early Neolithic Ubaid period of Mesopotamia, about 5500 BCE.

Beginning about 2.700 years ago, the Mesopotamian king Sennacherib built the first known stone masonry aqueduct at Jerwan, believed to be a result of dealing with the intermittent and irregular flows of the Tigris river. 

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Gill, N.S. "Fast Facts About Mesopotamia." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Fast Facts About Mesopotamia. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Fast Facts About Mesopotamia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).