By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
With the spread of agricultural sedentism, the lives of the people of Mesopotamia became increasingly alike. By 3000 B.C. or the Bronze Age period, so named because bronze had begun to replace stone as the preferred material for tools and weapons, the people living in Mesopotamia shared a great deal in common with one another. What was life like in Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. and what were the commonalities?
Mesopotamians Lived in Cities
A large percentage of the people in Mesopotamia lived in what we call cities, by 3000 B.C. The earliest city in the region may well be Uruk, modern-day Warka, on the banks of the Euphrates. It was part of the ancient so-called kingdom of Sumeria in southern Iraq and flourished from 3500 B.C.
The kingdom of Sumeria was a loose confederation of city-states, some of which exercised sovereignty over others. Each city had its own king, but no king managed to establish dominion over the whole of Sumeria.
We certainly shouldn’t be thinking of nations with political boundaries on this date. Uruk probably numbered about 10,000 people. It wasn’t the first city to be founded. That distinction goes to Jericho on the West Bank, which was settled as early as 9000 B.C.
Learn more about daily life in the ancient world.
The City of Catal Hüyük in Turkey
Catal Hüyük in Turkey, which was founded around 7500 B.C., was another city that came into existence before Uruk. Catal Hüyük is a reminder that humans aren’t genetically programmed to found cities.
Catal Hüyük didn’t have streets. All the houses were bunched together, so if someone wanted to get to a house at the center, they’d have to climb over the ones at the periphery. It’s not clear that they had doors either. And, of course, there were no places to gather and no public squares.
Catal Hüyük flourished for about 1,000 years, largely due to its trade in obsidian, a volcanic stone.
Uruk Was the First Proper City
In contrast to Catal Hüyük, Uruk is the first settlement that has unambiguously been identified as a focus for administrative, religious, and civic expression—a city or city-state in the fullest sense of the word. It had surrounding walls made of brick that was six miles in circumference.
Like other Sumerian city-states, we should probably think of Uruk as an irrigated oasis, surrounded by desert. As you strolled through the streets—yes, it had streets—you would have seen residential areas, canals, palaces, and temples.
Looking up, you would have had an impressive view of the main temple, which was established at the highest point of the city. This was a terraced or step pyramid with receding platforms, known as a ziggurat. A ziggurat was believed to be the dwelling place of a god because by this point in time people believed that the gods could be encouraged and enticed to dwell among them.
It was built out of sun-dried bricks, faced by fired bricks. There were thick walls, also made of mudbrick, six miles in circumference, pierced by gates, surrounding the city.
It’s difficult not to feel in complete awe of these first cities—and of the people who built them. They were light years ahead of the caves and the small villages that preceded them. They represented a bold new experiment in human living. In this context, it’s worth remembering that the concept of city-dwelling had had to be invented.
Learn more about daily life in Mesopotamia.
This Was a Period of Intensive Trading
As early as 9500 B.C., Mesopotamians were trading with one another. From 3000 B.C. onwards, however, their trading became far more intensive. It was one of the chief reasons why the region was culturally homogeneous.
Exports included barley and wheat, wool, textiles, and silver. Imports included ivory, tin, copper, and gold, as well as lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Goods often traveled vast distances, changing hands many times along the way. At first, oxen, donkeys, and wild ponies knew as onagers were used to pull sleds that dragged along the ground.
Then sometime between 3500 and 3200 B.C. the wheel was invented, first made out of solid wood and later out of spokes. Around 2000 B.C. onwards, horses began to be used for transportation and then camels from around 1500 B.C.
The Mesopotamians also shared a number of technologies in common with one another. These included copper manufacture—copper was invented around 4000 B.C. and used for making axes and arrowheads—glass-making, and textile weaving. Of course, scholars can detect differences between one culture and another, but to the untrained eye examples of metalwork and jewelry throughout the region bear a strong family resemblance.
Mesopotamians Shared Cuneiform Writing in Common
Besides urbanization, another thing the Mesopotamian people shared in common is cuneiform writing, which they used primarily for administrative purposes. The earliest example comes from the temple complex of Eanna at Uruk.
The word ‘cuneiform’ derives from ‘cuneus’, which is Latin for ‘wedge’. It’s so named because of the wedge shape of the writing signs. Writing seems to have been discovered independently in Central America, China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia all around the same time, that’s to say around 3300 B.C. How that came about is a mystery. At the moment scholars think that the Mesopotamians were just ahead, but that view may change.
Egyptians wrote mainly on papyrus, whereas the Chinese wrote mainly on bamboo. Both of these materials are highly perishable, so it may be that the earliest examples of their writing have simply not survived. The Mesopotamians, on the other hand, wrote on moist clay tablets using a pointed reed stylus. They simply scooped up the clay from the riverbanks, in the same way, that they scooped up the clay to fashion mud bricks.
The tablets were generally left to dry in the sun, although some were deliberately baked. Once they’d dried, they’re pretty well indestructible, and as a result thousands upon thousands have survived. There are 130,000 such tablets in the British Museum alone.
The earliest ones are inscribed with pictographs—images or symbols of the objects they represent. Later, however, the Mesopotamians came to realize that a symbol could also represent the sound of the thing itself—in other words, that a writing system could be phonetic. And eventually these symbols evolved into abstract signs that were made out of various combinations of cuneiform impressions. And then we have a real writing system.
It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of writing for the development of the human mind. It enables it to keep track of things, to record historical events, to create imaginary worlds and landscapes, to engage in complex thinking, to undertake higher mathematics, and so much more besides.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of cuneiform tablets were used for administrative purposes. In other words, they served the function of what we might call bean-counting. But some also served a literary purpose.
Mesopotamian people from 3000 B.C. onwards shared a similar belief system, accompanied by shared mythology and a shared set of rituals. We know about their belief system because their tablets, which were inscribed in a number of languages found all over Mesopotamia, tell us stories about the gods and their interactions with human beings.
Learn more about living in Mesopotamia.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The most celebrated story is the so-called Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, who is king of Uruk, wants to leave a great name behind him, like any aspiring young person. He does so, but at great cost. The cost is the life of his dearest friend, Enkidu. He also wants to become immortal, but he hasn’t the strength to stay awake—so how can he become immortal? What he can be, however, is a good king to his people. And that in the end is enough.
The poem is all about learning the limitations of human existence at a time when you feel that you’ll live forever. So by around 2150 B.C., the date of the earliest cuneiform tablets relating to Gilgamesh, human beings were pondering in a sophisticated way their place in the order of existence, the meaning of life, their relationship with the gods, their responsibility to others, and so on.
Codifying Law and Recording History
There’s a further use to which writing was put in Mesopotamia: the codification of law and the keeping of historical records. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, law codes was promulgated by a Babylonian king called Hammurabi around 1760 B.C. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of laws for the development of human society. It means that ordinary people know where they stand. They’re no longer subject to arbitrary punishment.
However, it’s worth noting that the punishments set by Hammurabi were pretty severe. For instance, if you were caught breaking into someone’s house, you were to be put to death in front of the place where you broke in and then walled-up inside the breach. What’s also interesting is that the law code replicated a number of the laws that we find in the Hebrew Bible—in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. This suggests that the law codes were widely used throughout the Near East, albeit no doubt with local variants.
Common Questions about Life in Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age
Catal Hüyük, in modern-day Turkey, was one of the first cities to be founded, in around 7500 B.C. Catal Hüyük didn’t have streets, and all the houses were bunched together. So if someone wanted to get to a house located at the center, they’d have to climb over the ones at the periphery. The city didn’t have places to gather and there were no public squares either. The city flourished for about 1,000 years, primarily because of the trading of a volcanic stone called obsidian.
Uruk was the first proper city in Mesopotamia, and probably the world. Without any doubt the focus of the city was administrative, religious, and civic expression. It had surrounding walls made of brick that were six miles in circumference, and within the city were residential areas, canals, palaces, and temples. Uruk represented a bold new experiment in human living.
Cuneiform is believed to be the first form of writing in the world or at the very least one of the first forms of writing along with those independently found in Central America, China, and Egypt. It was invented around 3300 B.C. and was used in Mesopotamia. Unlike the Egyptians, who wrote mainly on papyrus, and the Chinese, who wrote mainly on bamboo, the Mesopotamians wrote on moist clay tablets using a pointed reed stylus. This is the reason why such a large number of clay tablets with cuneiform writing survived, whereas the writings on papyrus and bamboo perished naturally. There are 130,000 such tablets in the British Museum alone.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the most famous Mesopotamian story in the form of an epic poem. It’s the story of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, who wants to leave a lasting mark on the world. It’s important because the poem teaches us about the limitations of human existence at a time when you feel that you’ll live forever. More importantly, it’s proof that human beings were pondering in a sophisticated way their place in the order of existence, the meaning of life, their relationship with the gods, their responsibility to others, and so on, as far back as 2150 B.C.