Where Is Mesopotamia?

An Assyrian king hunting
An Assyrian king, likely Ashurbanapal, hunting in Mesopotamia. William Henry Goodyear via Wikimedia

Literally, the name Mesopotamia means "the land between the rivers" in Greek; meso is "middle" or "between" and "potam" is a root word for "river," also seen in the word hippopotamus or "river horse." Mesopotamia was the ancient name for what is now Iraq, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It has sometimes also been identified with the Fertile Crescent, although technically the Fertile Crescent took in parts of what are now several other countries in southwest Asia.

Brief History of Mesopotamia

The rivers of Mesopotamia flooded on a regular pattern, bringing plenty of water and rich new topsoil down from the mountains. As a result, this area was one of the first places where people lived by farming. As early as 10,000 years ago, farmers in Mesopotamia began to grow grains such as barley. They also domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle, who provided an alternative food source, wool and hides, and manure for fertilizing the fields.

As the population of Mesopotamia expanded, the people needed more land to cultivate. In order to spread their farms into the dry desert areas farther from the rivers, they invented a complicated form of irrigation using canals, dams, and aqueducts.  These public works projects also allowed them a degree of control over the annual floods of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, although the rivers did still overwhelm the dams fairly regularly.

In any case, this rich agricultural base allowed cities to develop in Mesopotamia, as well as complex governments and some of humanity's earliest social hierarchies. One of the first big cities was Uruk, which controlled much of Mesopotamia from about 4400 to 3100 BCE. During this period, the people of Mesopotamia invented one of the earliest forms of writing, called cuneiform.

 Cuneiform consists of wedge-shaped patterns pressed into wet mud tablets with a writing instrument called a stylus.  If the tablet was then baked in a kiln (or accidentally in a house fire), the document would be preserved almost indefinitely.

Over the next thousand years, other important kingdoms and cities arose in Mesopotamia. By about 2350 BCE, the northern part of Mesopotamia was ruled from the city-state of Akkad, near what is now Fallujah, while the southern region was called Sumer. A king called Sargon (2334-2279 BCE) conquered the city-states of Ur, Lagash, and Umma, and united Sumer and Akkad to create one of the world's first great empires.

Sometime in the third millennium BCE, a city called Babylon was built by persons unknown on the Euphrates River. It became a very important political and cultural center of Mesopotamia under King Hammurabi, r. 1792-1750 BCE, who recorded the famous "Code of Hammurabi" to regularize laws in his kingdom. His descendants ruled until they were overthrown by the Hittites in 1595 BCE.

The city-state of Assyria stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Sumerian state and the subsequent withdrawal of the Hittites. The Middle Assyrian period lasted from 1390 to 1076 BCE, and the Assyrians recovered from a century-long dark period to become the preeminent power in Mesopotamia yet again from 911 BCE until their capital of Nineveh was sacked by the Medes and Scythians in 612 BCE.

Babylon rose to prominence again in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II, 604-561 BCE, creator of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. This feature of his palace was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

After about 500 BCE, the region known as Mesopotamia fell under the influence of the Persians, from what is now Iran. The Persians had the advantage of being on the Silk Road, and thus getting a cut of the trade between China, India and the Mediterranean world. Mesopotamia would not regain its influence over Persia until some 1500 years later, with the rise of Islam.