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The Culture of Ancient Mesopotamia

Babylonia under the Conquerors

The Persian conquest and the loss of Babylonia’s independence did not mean the end of Mesopotamian civilization. For the Babylonians themselves, the arrival of the Persians may have seemed at first just another change in the ruling dynasty. The former greatness and glory of Babylon was enough for the locals not to feel a sense of inferiority and inferiority before the conquerors. The Persians, for their part, also treated the shrines and culture of the peoples of Mesopotamia with due respect.

Babylon maintained its position as one of the greatest cities in the world. Alexander the Great, having defeated the Persians at Gavgamela, entered Babylon in October 331 BC, where he was “crowned”, offered sacrifices to Marduk and ordered the restoration of the ancient temples. According to Alexander’s plan, Babylon in Mesopotamia and Alexandria in Egypt were to become the capitals of his empire; in Babylon, he died on June 13, 323 BC, after returning from an eastern campaign. Babylonia, which had suffered greatly during the forty-year war of the Diadochi, was left to Seleucus, whose successors held it until 126 BC. B.C., when the country was invaded by the Parthians. From the defeat inflicted by the Parthians on Babylon for the Hellenistic sympathies of its inhabitants, the city never recovered.

Lion. Decor of the street leading to the Ishtar gate. Tiles. Babylon. Beginning of the IV century BC.

Lion. Decor of the street leading to the Ishtar gate. Tiles. Babylon. Beginning of the IV century BC.

Thus, the ancient Mesopotamian culture existed for another half a millennium after the collapse of the Mesopotamian statehood proper. The arrival of the Hellenes in Mesopotamia was a turning point in the history of Mesopotamian civilization. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, having survived more than one defeat and assimilated more than one wave of newcomers, this time faced a culture that was clearly superior to their own. If the Babylonians could feel on an equal footing with the Persians, they were inferior to the Hellenes in almost everything that they themselves realized and that fatally affected the fate of Babylonian culture. The decline and eventual demise of the Mesopotamian civilization should be explained not so much by economic and environmental reasons (salinization of soils, changes in riverbeds, etc.), which obviously had a full impact only in the Sasanian era (227-636 AD), but by socio-political ones:

  • the absence of a” national ” central government interested in maintaining old traditions,
  • the
    influence and rivalry of the new cities founded by Alexander the Great and his heirs,
  • and, most importantly, the profound and irreversible changes in the ethno — linguistic and general cultural situation.

By the time of the arrival of the Hellenes, the Arameans, Persians, and Arabs made up a large percentage of the population of Mesopotamia; in living communication, the Aramaic language began to displace the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian as early as the first half of the first millennium BC.Under the Seleucids, the old Mesopotamian culture was preserved in ancient communities that united around the largest and most revered temples (in Babylon, Uruk, and other ancient cities). Its original bearers were learned scribes and priests. It was they who for three centuries preserved the ancient heritage in a new spirit, much more rapidly changing and” open ” world. However, all the efforts of Babylonian scientists to save the past were in vain: Mesopotamian culture had outlived its usefulness and was doomed.

The victory of Hellenism in Mesopotamia

The dragon sirrush. Decoration of the gate of the Goddess Ishtar

The dragon sirrush. Decoration of the gate of the goddess Ishtar. Tiles. Babylon. Beginning of the IV century BC.

Indeed, what could Babylonian “learning” mean to people already familiar with the works of Plato and Aristotle? Traditional Mesopotamian ideas and values were outdated and could not meet the demands of the critical and dynamic consciousness of the Hellenes and Hellenized inhabitants of Mesopotamian cities. The complex cuneiform script could not compete with either Aramaic or Greek; Greek and Aramaic served as a means of “interethnic” communication, as elsewhere in the Middle East. Even the apologists of ancient traditions among the Hellenized Babylonians were forced to write in Greek if they wanted to be heard, as did the Babylonian scholar Berosus, who dedicated his Babyloniacus to Antiochus I. The Greeks showed a remarkable indifference to the cultural heritage of the conquered country –

  • Mesopotamian literature, accessible only to experts in cuneiform, went unnoticed;
  • art that followed the patterns of thousands of years ago did not appeal to the Greek taste;
  • local cults and religious ideas were alien to the Hellenes,
  • even the past of the Two Rivers, apparently, did not arouse much interest among the Greeks. No Greek philosopher or historian has ever studied cuneiform writing.

Perhaps only Babylonian mathematics, astrology, and astronomy attracted the attention of the Hellenes and became widespread.

At the same time, Greek culture could not fail to appeal to many of the non-conservative Babylonians. Among other things, belonging to the culture of the conquerors opened the way to social success. As in other countries of the Hellenistic East, in Mesopotamia Hellenization took place (carried out and accepted) consciously and affected first of all the upper classes of the local society, and then spread to the lower classes. For the Babylonian culture, this obviously meant the loss of a considerable number of active and capable people who “converted to Hellenism”.

However, the impulse given by the Greeks weakened over time and as it spread, while the reverse process of barbarization of the alien Hellenes was increasing. It began with the social base of the settlers, was spontaneous and at first probably not very noticeable, but eventually the Greeks disappeared into the mass of the local population. The East has won, though the East is no longer Babylonian, but Aramaic-Iranian. In fact, the ancient Mesopotamian cultural heritage was perceived by subsequent generations in the East and West only in a limited volume, often in a distorted form, which is inevitable in any transmission through second and third hands. This, however, does not detract from our interest in it, nor from the importance of studying ancient Mesopotamian culture for a better understanding of the general history of culture.

The origin and development of Mesopotamian culture

The transition from “primitive” culture to “ancient”

Mesopotamian civilization is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the world. It was in Sumer at the end of the IV millennium BC that human society almost for the first time emerged from the stage of primitiveness and entered the era of antiquity, from here begins the true history of mankind. The transition from primitiveness to antiquity, “from barbarism to civilization” means the formation of a fundamentally new type of culture and the birth of a new type of consciousness. Both the first and the second are closely related

  • with urbanisation,
  • with complex social differentiation,
  • with the formation of statehood and “civil society”,with
  • the emergence of new types of activities, especially in the field of management and training,
  • with a new nature of relations between people in society.

The existence of a boundary separating primitive culture from ancient culture has long been felt by researchers, but attempts to determine the inner essence of the difference between these different cultures have only recently been made. Pre-urban non-written culture is characterized by the impracticality (absence of abstract thinking, reasoning only about the observed) of information processes taking place in society; in other words, the main activities did not require any independent communication channels; training in economic, trade and craft skills, ritual, etc. was based on the direct connection of the trainees to practice.

The thinking of a person of primitive culture can be defined as “complex”, with the predominance of objective logic; the individual is completely immersed in activity, bound by the psychological fields of situational reality, is not capable of categorical thinking. The level of development of the primitive personality can be called pre-reflexive. With the birth of civilization, the marked impracticality is overcome and “theoretical” textual activity arises, associated with new types of social practice (management, accounting, planning, etc.). These new types of activities and the formation of “civil” relations in society create conditions for the emergence of categorical thinking and conceptual logic.

In essence, in its foundations, the culture of antiquity and the accompanying type of consciousness and thinking do not differ fundamentally from modern culture and consciousness. Only a part of the ancient society was involved in this new culture, probably very small at first; in Mesopotamia, the new type of people who carried such a culture seems to have been best represented by the figures of the Sumerian official — bureaucrat and the learned scribe. The people who managed the complex temple or royal economy, who planned major construction works or military campaigns, those who were engaged in forecasting the future, accumulating useful information, improving the writing system and training the shift-future administrators and “scientists” – were the first to break out of the eternal circle of non-reflexive, almost automatic reproduction of a relatively limited set of traditional patterns and patterns of behavior. By the very nature of their occupation, they were placed in different conditions, often found themselves in situations that were impossible before, and new forms and methods of thinking were required to solve the tasks they faced.

Throughout the entire period of antiquity, the primitive culture was preserved and co-existed side by side with the ancient one. The impact of the new urban culture on the various strata of the Mesopotamian population was not the same; the primitive culture was constantly “ionized”, was subjected to the transformative influence of the culture of the ancient cities, but nevertheless successfully survived until the end of the ancient period and even survived it. Residents of remote and remote villages, many tribes and social groups were not affected by it.

The emergence of writing

The head of the statue of the worshipper from the Square Temple

The head of the statue of the worshipper from the Square Temple. Gypsum. Eshnunna. Around 2700 BC.

An important role in the formation and consolidation of the new culture of ancient society was played by writing, with the advent of which new forms of storage and transmission of information and “theoretical”, i.e. purely intellectual, activity became possible. In the culture of ancient Mesopotamia, writing has a special place: the cuneiform script invented by the Sumerians is the most characteristic and important (at least for us) of what was created by the ancient Mesopotamian civilization. When we say “Egypt” we immediately imagine pyramids, sphinxes, and the ruins of majestic temples. In Mesopotamia, nothing like this has survived — grandiose structures and even entire cities have blurred into shapeless hills-telli, the traces of ancient canals are barely discernible. Only written monuments, countless wedge-shaped inscriptions on clay tablets, stone tiles, steles and bas-reliefs speak of the past. About one and a half million cuneiform texts are now stored in museums around the world, and every year archaeologists find hundreds and thousands of new documents. The clay tablet, covered with cuneiform symbols, could serve as a symbol of the ancient Two Rivers, as the pyramids are for Egypt.

Mesopotamian writing in its most ancient, pictographic form appears at the turn of the IV-III thousand BC. Apparently, it was formed on the basis of a system of “accounting chips”, which it replaced and replaced. In the IX-IV thousand BC, the inhabitants of Middle Eastern settlements from Western Syria to Central Iran used three — dimensional symbols for accounting for various products and goods- small clay balls, cones, etc.In the IV thousand BC, sets of such chips that registered some acts of transfer of certain products began to be enclosed in clay shells the size of a fist. On the outer wall of the “envelope”, all the chips enclosed inside were sometimes stamped, so that they could keep accurate calculations without relying on memory and without breaking the sealed shells. The need for the chips themselves, thus, was eliminated — only the prints were enough. Later, the prints were replaced with scribbled stick icons-drawings. This theory of the origin of ancient Mesopotamian writing explains the choice of clay as a writing material and the specific, pillow – or lens-shaped shape of the oldest tablets.

The head of a statue from a Square Temple

The head of a statue from a Square temple. Gypsum. Eshnunna. Around 2700 BC.

It is believed that in the early pictographic writing there were more than one and a half thousand signs-drawings. Each sign meant a word or several words. The improvement of the ancient Mesopotamian writing system went along the lines of unification of icons, reducing their number (in the New Babylonian period there were just over 300), schematization and simplification of the script, as a result of which cuneiform (consisting of combinations of wedge-shaped impressions left by the end of a three-sided stick) signs appeared, in which it is almost impossible to recognize the original sign-drawing. At the same time, the phonetization of the letter took place, i.e., icons began to be used not only in the original, verbal meaning, but also in isolation from it, as purely syllabic. This made it possible to transmit precise grammatical forms, write out proper names, etc.; cuneiform became an authentic writing, recorded by living speech.

The most ancient written messages were a kind of puzzles, clearly understandable only to the compilers and persons present at the recording. They served as “memos” and material confirmation of the terms of transactions, which could be presented in the event of any disputes and disagreements. As far as can be judged, the oldest texts are inventories of products and property received or issued, or documents registering the exchange of material values. The first votive inscriptions also essentially record the transfer of property, the dedication of it to the gods. Among the oldest are also educational texts-lists of signs, words, etc.

Unification of the written language and its dissemination among other peoples

The developed cuneiform system, capable of transmitting all the semantic shades of speech, was developed by the middle of the third millennium BC. The scope of application of cuneiform is expanding: in addition to documents of economic reporting and bills of sale, there are extensive construction or mortgage inscriptions, cult texts, collections of proverbs, numerous “school” or “scientific” texts – lists of signs, lists of names of mountains, countries, minerals, plants, fish, professions and positions, and, finally, the first bilingual dictionaries.

Sumerian cuneiform is widely used: having adapted to the needs of their languages, it has been used since the middle of the third millennium BC by the Akkadians, the Semitic-speaking inhabitants of Central and Northern Mesopotamia, and the Eblaites in Western Syria. At the beginning of the second millennium BC, cuneiform was borrowed by the Hittites, and around 1500 BC, the inhabitants of Ugarit based on it create their own simplified syllabic cuneiform, which may have influenced the formation of the Phoenician script. From the latter, the Greek and, accordingly, the later alphabets originate. The Pylos tablets in archaic Greece probably also date back to the Mesopotamian model. In the first millennium BC, cuneiform was borrowed by the Urartians; the Persians also created their own ceremonial cuneiform script, although more convenient Aramaic and Greek were already known in this era. Cuneiform writing, therefore, largely determined the cultural appearance of the Central Asian region in ancient times.

The prestige of Mesopotamian culture and writing was so great that in the second half of the second millennium BC, despite the decline of the political power of Babylon and Assyria, the Akkadian language and cuneiform became the means of international communication throughout the Middle East. The text of the treaty between Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite king Hattusili III was written in Akkadian. Even to their vassals in Palestine, the Pharaohs write not in Egyptian, but in Akkadian. Scribes at the courts of the rulers of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt diligently study the Akkadian language, Cuneiform script, and literature. These scribes were tormented by someone else’s complicated writing: some tablets from Tell Amarna (ancient Akhetaton) show traces of paint. It was the Egyptian scribes who tried to divide the continuous lines of cuneiform texts into words (sometimes incorrectly).

1400-600 BC— the time of the greatest influence of the Mesopotamian civilization on the surrounding world. Sumerian and Akkadian ritual,” scientific ” and literary texts are being transcribed and translated into other languages throughout the Cuneiform area.


Ancient Mesopotamian Sumerian-and Akkadian-language literature is relatively well known — about a quarter of what was the “main stream of tradition”, i.e., was studied and copied in ancient schools-academies, has been preserved. Clay tablets, even unburned ones, are perfectly preserved in the ground, and there is reason to hope that in time the entire corpus of literary and “scientific” texts will be restored. Education in the Two Rivers has long been based on copying texts of various contents — from samples of business documents to “works of art”, and a number of Sumerian and Akkadian works have been restored from numerous student copies.

At schools-academies (edubba) libraries on many branches of knowledge were created, there were also private collections of”clay books”. Large temples and palaces of rulers also often had large libraries in addition to economic and administrative archives. The most famous of them is the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, discovered in 1853 during the excavation of a hill near the village of Kuyunjik on the left bank of the Tigris. The collection of Ashurbanipal was not only the largest for its time; it is almost the first real, systematically selected and arranged library in the world. The king personally supervised its completion: on his orders, scribes throughout the country made copies of ancient or rare tablets stored in temple and private collections, or delivered the originals to Nineveh.

Some works are presented in this library in five or six copies. The lengthy texts consisted of entire “series”, sometimes including up to 150 tablets. Each such “serial” plate had its serial number; the title was the initial words of the first plate. On the shelves of the “books” were placed on certain branches of knowledge. Here were collected –

  • the texts of the “historical” content (“annals”, “Chronicles” and others),
  • hymns,
  • prayer
  • charms and spells,
  • epic poem
  • “scientific” texts collections of omens and divinations, medical and astrological texts, recipes, Sumero-Akkadian dictionaries, etc.).

Hundreds of books, which are “deposited” all knowledge, the whole experience of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. Most of what we know about the culture of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians was obtained by studying these 25,000 tablets and fragments recovered from the ruins of the palace library that perished in the destruction of Nineveh.

Ancient Mesopotamian literature includes both monuments of folklore origin — “literary” treatments of epic poems, fairy tales, collections of proverbs, and works of authorship representing the written tradition. The most outstanding monument of Sumerian-Babylonian literature, according to modern researchers, is the Akkadian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, which tells about the search for immortality and raises the question of the meaning of human existence. A whole cycle of Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh and several later Akkadian versions of the epic have been found. This monument, obviously, enjoyed a well-deserved fame in ancient times; its translations into Hurrian and Hittite languages are known, and there is a mention of Gilgamesh in Elian.

Of great interest are the Old Babylonian “Poem about Atrahasis”, which tells about the creation of man and the world flood, and the cult cosmogonic epic ” Enuma Elish “(“When above…”). There is also a poem from Mesopotamia-a fairy tale about the tricks of a cunning man who took revenge on his offender three times. This fairy-tale plot is well represented in world folklore (type 1538 according to the Aarn-Thompson system). The motif of the flight of a man on an eagle, first found in the Akkadian “Poem about Ethan”, is also widely spread in world folklore. Sumerian “Teachings of Shuruppak” (middle of the third millennium). B.C.) include a number of proverbs and maxims, repeated later in many Middle Eastern literatures and among ancient philosophers.

Dedicatory inscription on a stone tablet

Dedicatory inscription on a stone tablet. Sumer or Akkad. XXV century BC.

From the works of non-folklore, originally written, author’s origin, it is necessary to indicate several poems about the innocent sufferer, the so-called “Babylonian Theodicy” and “The Conversation of the master with the Slave”, anticipating the themes of the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Some penitential psalms and the lamentations of the Babylonians also find parallels in the biblical psalms. In general, it can be argued that ancient Mesopotamian literature, its themes, poetics, and the very vision of the world and man had a significant impact on the literatures of neighboring peoples, on the Bible, and through it — on the literatures of Europe.

Apparently, the Aramaic “Tale of Ahikar” (the oldest record dates back to the V century BC), translated in the Middle Ages into Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and Slavic languages (“The Tale of Akir the Wise”), also had Mesopotamian origins.

Astronomy and Mathematics

Sumero-Babylonian mathematics and astronomy have left a deep mark on modern culture. To this day, we use the positional system of numbers and the Sumerian hexadecimal account, dividing the circle by 360 degrees, the hour by 60 minutes, and each of them by 60 seconds. Especially significant were the achievements of Babylonian mathematical astronomy.

The most creative period of Babylonian mathematical astronomy falls on the V century BC. At this time, there were famous astronomical schools in Uruk, Sippar, Babylon and Borsippa. From these schools came two great astronomers: Naburian, who developed a system for determining the lunar phases, and Kiden, who established the duration of the solar year and even before Hipparchus discovered solar precessions. A major role in the transmission of Babylonian astronomical knowledge to the Greeks was played by the school founded by the Babylonian scientist Berosus on the island of Kos around 270 BC. Thus, the Greeks had direct access to Babylonian mathematics, the level of which in many respects was not inferior to the level of Europe of the early Renaissance.

Plate with pictorial signs

A sign with pictorial signs. Schumer. XXIX century BC.

Political traditions

The heritage of Mesopotamian civilization in the fields of political theory and practice, military affairs, law and historiosophy is interesting. The administrative system that developed in Assyria was borrowed by the Persians (the division of the country into satrapies, the division of civil and military power in the provinces). The Achaemenids, and after them the Hellenistic rulers and later the Roman Caesars, adopted much of the court routine adopted by the Mesopotamian kings.

Born, apparently, at the turn of the III-II millennium BC. e. the idea of a single true “royalty”, passing over time from one city-state to another, has survived for millennia. Entering the Bible (Book of Daniel) as the idea of changing “kingdoms”, it became the property of early Christian historiosophy and served as one of the sources of the theory of “Moscow — the third Rome”that emerged in Russia at the beginning of the XVI century. Russian Russian and Byzantine authors claim that the insignia of the Byzantine emperors and Russian tsars originated in Babylon.

“When Prince Vladimir of Kiev heard that Tsar Basil (Emperor of Byzantium 976-1025) received (from Babylon) such great royal things, and an ambassador to him, his ambassador, to give him something. Tsar Basil, for the sake of his honor, sent Prince Vladimir to Kiev in dareh carnelian krabitsa and Monomakhov’s cap. And since that time, the Grand Duke Vladimir of Kiev — Monomakh has been heard. And now that hat is in the Moscow state in the cathedral church. And as there is a power-setting, then for the sake of the rank they raise it to the head, “we read in the” Legend of Babylon-city” (according to the list of the XVII century).

Despite the fact that in the Old Testament and Christian traditions there was a clearly hostile attitude towards Babylon and Assyria, Babylon remained in the memory of many generations as the first “world kingdom”, the successor of which was the subsequent great empires.


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