Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide



Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide


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Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide


"Mesopotamia" means "the land between the rivers" or "the land between two rivers." Ancient Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the present-day Middle Eastern country of Iraq

Sumerians established the world's first civilization around 3500 B.C. Mesopotamia has hot dry climate and seasonal flooding. The farmers learned to control the flooding rivers and produce many different kinds of fruit and vegetable crops in that fertile land. As a result, a stable food supply existed, and the Sumerian villages evolved into self-governing city-states like Ur, Uruk, Babylon, Khorsabad…

At the centre of each city-state was a temple surrounded by courts and public buildings. Then there were houses, different according to the wealth or importance of the people. The city-state also included the fertile farming land outside the city wall. There wasn't any building stone and very little timber in Sumer, so the people constructed their homes, public buildings, and city walls out of sun-dried mud brick.

Many times city-states would war with each other because boundary disputes existed. Sometimes a city-state would attack a neighbouring city-state just to prove its strength.

The ziggurat (temple-tower), made of mud bricks, housed each city-state's patron god or goddess. Only priests were permitted inside the ziggurat; as a result, they were very powerful members of Sumerian society.

As the Sumerian city-states' wealth increased, government officials realized that an efficient method of keeping records had to be developed. Sumerian cuneiform emerged as the world's first writing system. The term cuneiform means "wedge-shaped." due to the shape of the reed pen, or stylus, that was used. The Sumerians wrote on clay tablets that would either be dried in the sun or fired in kilns to make the writing permanent.
Cuneiform was learned in Sumerian schools called edubbas, or tablet houses. Only a select group of boys were able to attend Sumerian schools. The boys were usually sons of the very wealthy.
Once a student successfully completed twelve years of schooling, he was an official scribe, or writer. This was a prestigious position in Sumerian society. Scribes were very valuable in order to maintain and improve the record keeping.

In early Sumerian history, priests were also the kings of the city-states. Gilgamesh was one of the most heroic priest-kings of this time. He was the priest-king of Uruk. The oldest written story in the world describes Gilgamesh's legendary deeds. In the story, Gilgamesh is characterized as being both human and divine.

Sargon I was from Akkad located in the north of Mesopotamia. When the power of the Sumerian city-states began to collapse due to their constant battling, Sargon I attacked the southern region of Mesopotamia with his armies. After conquering all the Sumerian city-states, Sargon I united them with Akkad, and created the world's first empire.

Sargon I ruled Mesopotamia for approximately fifty years. When he died, the empire crumbled. The individual city-states again rose to power.
About 1800 B.C., the Amorites migrated to Mesopotamia and constructed their own city-states. One of the city-states built was named Babylon, and it was ruled by a king named Hammurabi. As Hammurabi rose to power, he began conquering the city-states of Mesopotamia.
He too, began uniting the city-states, but he was much more successful than Sargon I because he made many new reforms that improved society. For example, he improved the irrigation system, tax system... He also united the people under one religion, but the reform for which Hammurabi became renowned was his code of law. (p. 146). Hammurabi of Babylon was a great ruler; the time he reigned is called the "Golden Age of Babylon".

The ancient Sumerians created the world's first civilization where people settled together in one area known as the city-state. This is why it is the "cradle of civilization."
Another contribution is the Sumerians' creation of a writing system. Other inventions include the water clock, the twelve-month calendar based on lunar cycles, the wheel, the plough, and the sailboat. All these inventions improved the daily life of the Sumerians.


1. SAME/DIFFERENT ASSOCIATIONS - Read each pair of words. If the terms are related, place a (S) on the blank line. If the terms are unrelated, place a (D) on the blank line.

2. +/- ASSOCIATIONS - Read each pair of words. If the terms are related, place a (+) on the blank line. If the terms are unrelated, place a (-) on the blank line.

3. CLOSE-ENDED SORTS - Read each group of words, draw a line through the word that does not belong in the group.

4. CATEGORY SORTS - Group the following terms into the appropriate categories: EDUCATION, RELIGION, and EMPIRES.

5. TERMS: Sargon I, ziggurat, priest, Gilgamesh, scribe, Akkad, armies, Hammurabi, edubba, cuneiform, god, stylus.








SAME/DIFFERENT ASSOCIATIONS - Print a (S) on the blank line if the terms are related. Print a (D) on the blank line if the terms are unrelated.
CLOSE-ENDED SORTS. Draw a line through the term that does not belong to the group.
MULTIPLE CHOICE - Read each statement carefully. Decide what answer best completes the statement. Circle the letter of the correct answer.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers begin in eastern Turkey, flow in a southeast direction, converge in southeast Iraq, and empty in the Persian Gulf. In ancient times, the land between the twin rivers was called Mesopotamia which was the site of the world's first civilization.
Mesopotamia means "the land between the rivers" or "the land between the two rivers." This was the site of the world's first civilization, Sumer.
Mesopotamia is often referred to as the "cradle of civilization" because the world's first civilization occurred there.
Sumer was the world's first civilization. It was located in the southern area of Mesopotamia where the twin rivers converged. The people who lived in this area were called Sumerians.
In order to control the destructive seasonal flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the ancient Sumerians constructed levees, or raised areas of earth, in order to hold back the floodwaters.
The ancient Sumerians irrigated, or watered, their crops by using a system of irrigation canals. By devising such a irrigation system, the ancient Sumerians were able to successfully establish a permanent civilization.
The ancient Sumerians organized themselves into competing city-states. A Sumerian city-state consisted of the city, the surrounding mud brick wall, and the surrounding farmland.
The ziggurat was a temple. It was located in the center of each Sumerian city-state. It housed the city-state's patron god. The term ziggurat means "mountain of god" or "hill of heaven." Since the ziggurat was a sacred place, only priests could enter it.
The ancient Sumerians created the world's first writing system known as cuneiform. The term cuneiform means "wedge-shaped." Sumerian writing is wedge-shaped because of the the type of instrument that was used to create it.
The ancient Sumerians used a stylus to write. A stylus is a wedge-shaped instrument made out of reed. The Sumerians wrote on wet clay tablets with a stylus.
An edubba is a Sumerian school where young boys learned reading, writing, and arithmetic.
After graduating from a Sumerian school, a young man became a scribe, or a writer.
In early ancient Sumerian history, the powerful priests were also the kings of the city-states.
Gilgamesh is one of ancient Mesopotamia's most legendary historical figures. He was a heroical priest-king from the Sumerian city-state of Uruk.
An empire is a collection of kingdoms under the power of one powerful ruler.
Around 2300 B.C., Sargon I created the world's first empire in the area of ancient Mesopotamia. Since he was from the northern reaches of Mesopotamia known as Akkad, the world's first empire was Akkadian.
About 1800 B.C., the Amorites moved into Mesopotamia. They established their own city-states, and Hammurabi was the king of Babylon. He conquered the Akkadians and ruled all of Mesopotamia. His reign is often described as the "Golden Age of Babylon"because he established many new reforms.


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Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide


Ancient Sumerian Civilization Study Guide

  1. What does the name Mesopotamia mean?

~land between two rivers


  1. Describe a Sumerian city-state.

~Early Sumerian cities were walled settlements surrounded by farmland. The strong city walls were built of sun baked bricks. Moats, or ditches filled with water, surrounded the walls.


  1.  Why did the Sumerians have moats and walls?

~They protected the city-states from attack


  1. What change, caused by farming in northern Mesopotamia, led people to move south?

~The population increased, and there wasn't enough food.


  1. What did Sumerians use to control the amount of water in the valley?

~Canals, dams, and levees


  1. What happened when people from many villages used Sumerian irrigation systems?

~They got clogged and the people in the villages had to work together to take
care of the system.


  1. Why were Sumerian settlements called city-states?

~Each settlement had its own ruler and farmland.  They were self-sufficient.


  1. Why didn't Sumerians continue living in small villages, as their ancestors had?

~They had to live together to protect themselves from outsiders.


  1. What made it harder to live in Sumer than in the Zagros foothills?

~Sumer lacked natural barriers to keep out enemies.


  1.  What was the biggest problem the Sumerian farmers faced?

~uncontrolled water supply

  1.  Name two inventions of the Ancient Sumerians that helped them maintain a stable food supply.

~Plow, irrigation system

  1.  How were Sumerian religion and government connected?

~Sumerians believed that the king got power from the gods.

12.  What did the Sumerians invent that made it possible for their armies to use chariots?

13.  Whose duty was it to do these jobs: build temples, lead the army, and enforce laws?
~The king’s

  1.  Name the seven characteristics of a civilization

~Stable food supply           ~Social structure       
~Government                    ~Religion          
~The Arts                       ~Technology             


  1.  Give one piece of evidence for each of the characteristics of a civilization that shows that ancient Sumer was a civilization.

~Stable food supply (irrigation system, plows)        
~Social structure (wealthy people had fancy houses, lower classes had small brick houses)
~Government (written laws, kings)
~Religion (ziggurats, temples to gods)
~The Arts (sculptures and music)         
~Technology (wheels, plow)                
~Writing (records on clay tablets, stone seals with Cuneiform)

  1. Describe the housing and location of farmers in ancient Sumer.

~Small, mud bricked, edge of city


  1.  Describe the housing and location of government officials in ancient Sumer.

~Large, luxurious, two stories, whitewashed mud walls, center of city


  1. Describe the housing and location of craft people and merchants in ancient Sumer.

~Middle sized, contained some luxuries, mud walls, middle ring of the city


  1.  What is one problem the city-states of Sumer faced by remaining independent?

~they were unable to defend themselves against larger, stronger groups.

  1.  List the four early Mesopotamian empires in order.

~Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian


  1.  What type of power did the Akkadians use to conquer Sumer?


  1.  What is Hammurabi best known for?

~his code of laws, they are believed to be one of the first written codes, they unified and strengthened his empire

  1.   Describe the lives of women and slaves in the Babylonian empire.

~women were allowed to own property but couldn’t pick their own husbands
~slaves were owned by a master but could buy their freedom


  1.  After the fall of Sumer, all four Mesopotamian empires had the same problem.  What was this problem?

~It was difficult to control such a large area of land


  1.   Why did the Assyrians build palaces on tall mounds?

~They looked up to their leaders and placed them above the common folks


  1.  Below are drawings of four trophies, one for each of the Mesopotamian empires.  Fill in the plaque on the base of each trophy with two important achievements from that empire.

~Akkadians – creating the world’s first empire, sculpting steles
~Babylonians – developing a written code of laws, developing Babylon as a trading center, postal service, roads
~Assyrians – new weapons and war strategies (battering rams, siege warfare, moveable towers), bas-relief
~Neo-Babylonian – sundial, astronomy, building protective walls and a moat around Babylon, building the hanging gardens of Babylon



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Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide

Sumerian Civilization of Mesopotamia WS

SETTING THE STAGE   Two rivers flow from the mountains of what is now Turkey, down through Syria and Iraq, and finally to the Persian Gulf. Over six thousand years ago, the waters of these rivers provided the lifeblood that allowed the formation of farming settlements. These grew into villages and then cities.

Environmental Challenges  People first began to settle and farm the flat, swampy lands in southern Mesopotamia before 4500 B.C. Around 3300 B.C., the people called the Sumerians arrived on the scene. Good soil was the advantage that attracted these settlers. However, there were three disadvantages to their new environment.

Unpredictable flooding combined with a period of little or no rain. The land sometimes became almost a desert.
With no natural barriers for protection, a Sumerian village was nearly defenseless.
The natural resources of Sumer were limited. Building materials and other necessary items were scarce.

Solving Problems Through Organization 
Over a long period of time, the people of Sumer created solutions to deal with these problems.
•            To provide water, they dug irrigation ditches that carried river water to their fields and allowed them to produce a surplus of crops.
•            For defense, they built city walls with mud bricks.
•            Sumerians traded their grain, cloth, and crafted tools with the peoples of the mountains and the desert. In exchange, they received raw materials such as stone, wood, and metal.
These activities required organization, cooperation, and leadership. It took many people working together, for example, for the Sumerians to construct their large irrigation systems. Leaders were needed to plan the projects and supervise the digging. These projects also created a need for laws to settle disputes over how land and water would be distributed. These leaders and laws were the beginning of organized government–and eventually of civilization.


What environmental challenges did Sumerians face?


What solutions did they create?


Why was an organized government necessary to solve the environmental challenges faced by the people of Sumer?


Sumerians Create City-States
The Sumerians stand out in history as one of the first groups of people to form a civilization. As you learned in Chapter 1, five key characteristics set Sumer apart from earlier human societies: (1) advanced cities, (2) specialized workers, (3) complex institutions, (4) record keeping, and (5) improved technology. All the later peoples who lived in this region of the world built upon the innovations of Sumerian civilization.
By 3000 B.C., the Sumerians had built a number of cities, each surrounded by fields of barley and wheat. Although these cities shared the same culture, they developed their own governments, each with its own rulers. Each city and the surrounding land it controlled formed a city-state. A city-state functioned much as an independent country does today. Sumerian city-states included Uruk, Kish, Lagash, Umma, and Ur. As in Ur, the center of all Sumerian cities was the walled temple with a ziggurat in the middle. There the priests and rulers appealed to the gods for the well-being of the city-state.
Priests and Rulers Share Control  Sumer's earliest governments were controlled by the temple priests. The farmers believed that the success of their crops depended upon the blessings of the gods, and the priests acted as go-betweens with the gods. In addition to being a place of worship, the ziggurat was like a city hall. From the ziggurat the priests managed the irrigation system. Priests demanded a portion of every farmer's crop as taxes.
   In time of war, however, the priests did not lead the city. Instead, the men of the city chose a tough fighter who could command the city's soldiers. At first, a commander's power ended as soon as the war was over. After 3000 B.C., wars between cities became more and more frequent. Gradually, Sumerian priests and people gave commanders permanent control of standing armies.
In time, some military leaders became full-time rulers. These rulers usually passed their power on to their sons, who eventually passed it on to their own heirs. Such a series of rulers from a single family is called a dynasty. After 2500 B.C., many Sumerian city-states came under the rule of dynasties.
Why might early governments have been controlled by priests?


What functions did the ziggurats serve?


Why do you think dynasties might have evolved from military leaders?

The Spread of Cities  Sumer's city-states grew prosperous from the surplus food produced on their farms. These surpluses allowed Sumerians to increase long-distance trade, exchanging the extra food and other goods for items they needed.
   By 2500 B.C., new cities were arising all over the Fertile Crescent, in what is now Syria, northern Iraq, and Turkey. Sumerians exchanged products and ideas, such as living in cities, with neighboring cultures. This process in which a new idea or a product spreads from one culture to another is called cultural diffusion.
What makes trade possible?

What are the benefits of trade?


Sumerian Culture
The belief systems, social structure, technology, and arts of the Sumerians reflected their civilization's triumph over its dry and harsh environment.
A Religion of Many Gods  Like many peoples in the Fertile Crescent, the Sumerians believed that many different gods controlled the various forces in nature. The belief in more than one god is called polytheism (PAHL•ee•thee•ihz•uhm). Enlil, the god of storms and air, was among the most powerful gods. Sumerians feared him as "the raging flood that has no rival." Demons known as Ugallu protected humans from the evil demons who caused disease, misfortune, and misery.
   Sumerians described their gods as doing many of the same things humans do–falling in love, having children, quarreling, and so on. Yet the Sumerians also believed that their gods were both immortal and all-powerful. Humans were nothing but their servants. At any moment, the mighty anger of the gods might strike, sending a fire, a flood, or an enemy to destroy a city. To keep the gods happy, the Sumerians built impressive ziggurats for them and offered rich sacrifices of animals, food, and wine.
   Sumerians worked hard to earn the gods' protection in this life. Yet they expected little help from the gods after death. The Sumerians believed that the souls of the dead went to the "land of no return," a dismal, gloomy place between the earth's crust and the ancient sea. No joy awaited souls there. A passage in a Sumerian poem describes the fate of dead souls: "Dust is their fare and clay their food."
   Some of the richest accounts of Mesopotamian myths and legends appear in a long poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh.
What type of religion did Sumerians have?


What were Sumerian gods like?
Life in Sumerian Society  With civilization came the beginning of what we call social classes. Kings, landholders, and some priests made up the highest level in Sumerian society. Wealthy merchants ranked next. The vast majority of ordinary Sumerian people worked with their hands in fields and workshops. At the lowest level of Sumerian society were the slaves. Some slaves were foreigners who had been captured in war. Others were Sumerians who had been sold into slavery as children to pay the debts of their poor parents. Debt slaves could hope to eventually buy their freedom.
Social class affected the lives of both men and women. Sumerian women could work as merchants, farmers, or artisans. They could hold property in their own names. Women could also join the priesthood. Some upper-class women did learn to read and write, though Sumer's written records mention few female scribes. However, Sumerian women had more rights than women in many later civilizations.
Draw the Sumerian social hierarchy here:


What was the status of Sumerian women versus Sumerian men?
Sumerian Science and Technology  Historians believe that Sumerians invented the wheel, the sail, and the plow and that they were among the first to use bronze. Many new ideas and inventions arose from the Sumerians' practical needs.

Arithmetic and geometry In order to erect city walls and buildings, plan irrigation systems, and survey flooded fields, Sumerians needed arithmetic and geometry. They developed a number system in base 60, from which stem the modern units for measuring time (60 seconds = 1 minute) and the 360 degrees of a circle.
Architectural innovations Arches, columns, ramps, and the pyramid shaped the design of the ziggurat and permanently influenced Mesopotamian civilization.
Cuneiform Sumerians created a system of writing. One of the first known maps was made on a clay tablet in about 2300 B.C. Other tablets contain some of the oldest written records of scientific investigations in the areas of astronomy, chemistry, and medicine.

List Sumerian inventions mentioned:


What was the most important Sumerian invention in your opinion?  Why?


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Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide

           People in the ancient Mesopotamian region are given credit for the foundations of our Western law codes, religious rituals, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and writing. Even the calendar and wheel are technologies that these people are given recognition for introducing. Whether all these ideas originated with the civilization that grew up in the lowlands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, (Mesopotamia is Greek for the land between the rivers) scholars are continually debating. On-going archaeological work in this region and other areas of the world is uncovering fascinating facts regarding our ancient ancestors. As more evidence is being uncovered, it appears that the advent of civilization, whereby people settled into specific structures of government, agriculture, and religious festivals and beliefs, keeps getting older. Many other parts of the world are now vying for the honor of being the oldest site for the beginning of civilization. Until there are more consensuses on another place, ancient Mesopotamia will retain its honored number one place.
           What did the land and society look like around 4000-3500 b.c.e. when the number of people increased significantly enough to become an urban society and civilization? The people who came into the region came as farmers, because of the rich alluvial soil created by the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, did not find it an easy place to civilize like ancient Egypt because the flooding was unpredictable. This region received no rainfall for eight months of the year, and then came torrential spring showers that produced flooding of such magnitude that irrigation with canals was essential. Especially conducive to farming, the soil was neither rocky nor tree-laden. Cooperation and leadership were needed to harness the rivers and build canals, which then allowed the people to produce enough excess crops to sell. This allowed some of the farmers to venture into the production of goods that could be exchanged for food, and so the artisan crafts developed. This area is now in southern Iraq, and many of the marsh inhabitants of this region still live in almost identical housing and fish from almost identical boats. They tend their crops and flocks just like in ancient times.  Over time this area developed into the modern countries of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
           The sources available to us for reconstructing the lives of women in these ancient times are few in number, but lengthy in size. There are two famous works from these early centuries. One, The Epic of Gilgamesh, can give us some descriptive details on women, and the other, The Code of Hammurabi, can give us quite a lot of prescriptive passages regarding women’s legal standing. More law codes from later periods of history also give us additional information, including the Middle Assyrian Laws, from the fifteenth to the eleventh centuries b.c.e. More than twenty thousand clay tablets with writings on them have been uncovered, mainly from the city-state of Mari, but only recently have historians been analyzing them for women’s history. Included in these extant tablets are business dealings, poetry, songs, and laments.
           Scholars refer to this oldest civilized area as Sumer, which was inhabited beginning around 4000 b.c.e. Over time, a city-state form of government was developed into twelve independent kingdoms covering an area the size of the state of Massachusetts. Uruk, Lagash, and Ur were some of their important cities ruled by a theocracy. Their priest/king led the army, administered the economy, served as judge, and was the intermediary between the people and their deities. Because there were no natural barriers as in ancient Egypt, quarrels over water rights and land led to the desire for conquest, making war endemic. The world’s first woman ruler came from the city-state of Kish. She was Kubaba, circa 2450 b.c.e. Apparently she started out as a tavern keeper. Many royal women helped legitimize the king’s succession to the throne, a practice found all over the world throughout history. Not only rulers, but their spouses were included in the records. Some queens had their own independent courts complete with ministers. This is attested to by their own seals and documents dated with their particular ruling years.
           The Sumerians are given credit for the invention of the first written language in a cuneiform alphabet pattern. While the Sumerian language is neither Semitic nor Indo-European, their alphabet was used by those cultures following them into the region.
           Women’s Legal Status in the Hammurabi Law Code
           There are nearly three hundred laws to regulate society in Hammurabi’s Code, circa 1750 b.c.e. There were earlier law codes, but Hammurabi, the Akkadian ruler of a large Mesopotamian region, put together this uniform law code for the entire empire. This system of law codes was not being equaled until the Romans developed theirs nearly fifteen hundred years later. Hammurabi was praised by his subjects at the promulgation of this code: “he established justice in the land.” The two most famous principles underlying the code are “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and “Let the buyer beware.” The code has definite class guidelines for nobles, commoners, and slaves; great emphasis was placed on the protection and maintenance of the family. Over one-fourth of the law codes have direct or indirect influence on women. Some of the areas of interest to women are adultery, divorce, rape, and business transactions. Interspersed in this chapter are incidents and conditions relating to the Hammurabi Code’s treatment of women. These law codes, however, cannot ferret out specific events, but we can use them as indicators for circumstances involving women. At the end of this chapter are those specific codes pertaining to women.

Women’s Role in the Family
Marriages were arranged by the prospective groom and father of the future bride, a practice that continued for thousands of years in most all cultures throughout the globe. Both a bridal gift and a dowry were part of the marriage. The groom-to-be offered the father a bridal gift, usually money. If the man and his bridal gift were acceptable then the father provided his daughter with a dowry, which belonged to her after the wedding ceremony although the husband usually administered it. Then a contract was made and engraved on a tablet, with the bride and groom signing it with their cylinder seals. This contract spelled out the duties of each spouse, and the penalties the husband was liable for if he decided to divorce his wife. Either party could break off the arrangement; the prospective groom having to forfeit the bridal gift money, and if the bride changed her mind then the groom could recover twice the amount. If the daughter was still very young, then she either lived with her father or her father-in-law. Once she and her husband came of age then they set up their own house.
The actual wedding was a time of rejoicing and celebration, lasting for days or even weeks. During the ceremony itself the bride wore a veil, but once married she did not. By the time of the Assyrians, their law codes circa 1076 b.c.e. mandated that married women must wear a veil in public and no veiling for prostitutes. This practice was followed by most all the ancient and medieval civilizations in the west and near east. After sexual intercourse, the bloody sheet was displayed to prove the bride’s virginity, an extremely important condition for marriages.
The husband legally could have a second wife, a concubine and slaves for a variety of reasons, including his sexual desires, and to ensure descendants if his wife was barren or ill. It was the childless wife’s responsibility to provide a concubine for her husband so that he could have children. This other woman served also as a slave/servant for the wife. Examples of this practice are in the Hebrew Bible, and were undoubtedly part of the indigenous culture of Mesopotamia. There is also evidence that if the concubine gave birth to a son, her status was raised, and even the potential for her freedom. Polygamy was an option for the rich. There is evidence of polyandry circa 2350 b.c.e., but the rulers condemned the practice and sought its extirpation.   The sources indicate another interesting custom called a levirate marriage occurred. When the husband died, his brother married his widow to keep the dowry and property in the family. Following the wedding ceremony, the husband was legally recognized as the head of the family, with absolute power over his household. To honor a debt, the husband could pawn or sell his wife and children into slavery for up to three years.
Divorce for the husband was easy. He merely had to declare that his wife was barren, spent too much, or ridiculed him. For the wife to seek a divorce was a deadly gamble. The Hammurabi Code provided that she submit to an investigation: “If she has been discreet and has no vice and her husband has gone out and has greatly belittled her, she shall take her marriage portion and go off to her father’s house. But if she has been found indiscreet and has gone out, ruined her house, belittled her husband, she shall be drowned.” This same punishment was meted out to the wife if she was convicted of adultery: “If the wife of a man has been caught while lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water.” A husband could save his wife from drowning if he obtained a pardon for her from the king. Then too the husband could accuse his wife of adultery even if he had not caught her in the act. The wife then could go before the City Council, who investigated the charge. If she was found innocent, then she could take her dowry and leave her husband.
Extant evidence from ancient Mesopotamia indicates that women were knowledgeable about contraceptive and birth control measures including abortions and infanticide. Apparently anal intercourse was practiced by priestesses and prostitutes to avoid pregnancies. Infanticide, which continued for centuries, appeared to be by abandonment. There were even treatments for infertility and prenatal care. During the labor process, a variety of magical and efficacious methods were employed. Motherhood brought an added security to wives, but this was true only if they had sons, not daughters. A wife was still considered barren if she had daughters, but no sons. As in most other ancient cultures, the son was expected to support his parents in their old age and perform the proper rites after their death. After giving birth, the mother was declared ritually unclean for thirty days. Death in childbirth and infant mortality were two dangers that women faced then and for thousands of years thereafter. During her monthly period she was also ritually unclean, and it was thought that she contaminated everything she touched, including the bread she made. This idea that the monthly courses caused contamination continued up to the twentieth century.
One of the customary leitmotifs in ancient and medieval cultures was society’s responsibility for taking care of poor widows and orphans. Sacred scriptures in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and the Koran, all charge their societies with being responsible for their care. It appears that this responsibility was first advocated in Sumerian times, where a ruler was to show compassion by charitable acts. It was the sons that inherited from their father’s estate, not his widow, but he could leave some of his property for her maintenance. This token provision was formalized over the centuries to be one-third, but not nearly what it was to become in the twentieth century. The widow was entitled to her dowry though, and could continue operating her husband’s business by herself, a custom that continued for a long time.

Women’s Rights of Property
Women could own, purchase, and inherit property. They could serve as witnesses in court.

Religion and Goddesses in Ancient Mesopotamia
Polytheism was practiced by the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, but the Sumerians believed in four main gods of heaven, air, earth, and water, with one reigning supreme. Usually the anthropomorphic deities were responsible for one or two areas, and their names were transformed as the languages were changed from Sumerian to Akkadian, and then to other Semitic dialects. At first the most powerful was An, ruler of the heavens/sky together with his consort Antum, circa the third millennium b.c.e. Enlil, initially the national god of Sumer, was lord of the wind, and his consort, Ninlil, was Lady of the Wind. Inanna was the goddess of love and sexuality, but she took on other gods’ power and was then called the Lady of Myriad Offices. When the Akkadians conquered and their language dominated, then Inanna’s name was transformed to Ishtar, whose name became the generic word for goddess. Ishtar was the most widely worshiped deity in the Old Babylonian period.
In these early centuries, practices were set for the ways these deities were worshiped and honored. Necklaces, pendants, rings, and amulets, carved out of wood, stone, gold, and silver of these goddesses were worn by the devotees. Statues of these goddesses and gods were placed inside the temples, where their followers would come to pray to them as if they were in the presence of the actual deity. These rituals to honor the deities were repeated for thousands of years.

Women’s Role in the Economy
Women worked in a wide variety of occupations, including food and cloth production, temple complexes, and slavery based on their social status.
The upper class women worked too, but in the highest status professions. Being a priestess was the most prestigious position for females, which meant that they were the chief attendants to the goddesses and gods. As was done later in Christianity, wealthy families sent one daughter with a considerable dowry, to be sequestered in the temple, whose duty was to offer up prayers for her family’s health and well-being. As the high priestess to the moon god, Nanna, at Ur and to An, the heaven god at Uruk and to Inanna, the goddess of love and war at Uruk, Enheduanna, circa 2300 b.c.e. was the earliest known priestess, and one of the most famous women in ancient history. While she was appointed by her father, the ruler Sargon the Great, her ability and administration of her duties was superb. As chief priestess she presided over a huge temple complex, including a library, granaries, schools, hostels, and large land ownership. The stepped mud-brick pyramidal structures were called ziggurats and could be as big as cathedrals. For instance, the temple in the city-state of Lagash circa 3000 b.c.e. provided daily bread and ale for 1200+ people. The temple to Nanna at Ur is extant. One of the chief priestess’s duties was to communicate the deity’s wishes to humans by way of omens. These omens could be found in the shape of the liver in sacrificed sheep. Failure to revere and propitiate the deities could bring catastrophes like floods, drought, pestilence, and enemy raids. It was Enheduanna’s devotion and composition of hymns to Inanna that has brought her lasting fame. In Enheduanna’s eulogies of Inanna, she described her as the equal in rank to the deity An, who became head of the Sumerian pantheon sometime in the third millennium, supplanting Inanna. Enheduanna wrote forty-two hymns to Inanna. In her Exaltation of Inanna, she relates how Inanna rescued the tree of life (like the biblical tree of knowledge) from the world flood and planted it in her garden.  As the first known author by name, her poetry was copied and studied, greatly influencing the development of literature in the ancient Near East. While most literature from ancient Sumer was written in Sumerian, there was a special dialect called “language of women,” used for speeches of women and goddesses in various types of genre, including love poetry between the genders. Ten royal priestesses followed Enheduanna over the next five hundred years (some sources say one thousand years), with each holding office for life like Enheduanna. Written tablets exist recording the commercial activities of the priestesses, indicating their business acumen. Probably this relates to the middle and upper classes.
There were other types of priestesses and religiously- connected women, indicating the complexity of the religious practices of this polytheistic culture. Women composed music used in the dances and songs performed at the religious temples. There were several communities of celibate women in ancient Mesopotamia, but we do not know what their religious function was. Some of these women could marry, but still had to maintain their virginity. Later on in history, the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome lived in a cloistered community too; whether there is any similarity or not between the ones in Mesopotamia are unknown at this time. There is indication that poor widows gave their children to the temples to save them from starvation, and other children, including orphans, might become slaves at these religious sites.  
Lower-status women wove wool into cloth for sale in the important textile production. Apprenticeship programs were available, and it was the women of the highest status who were the supervisors and business owners in this textile trade. Even the queen mother participated in the export of finished cloth. The textile industry was a major source of wealth in much of the area. Weaving was a job compatible with child care as it could be interrupted when necessary without damage.
The perfume and other aromatic substances industry was another important employer of women. Medicines and cosmetics both utilized scents in their products. For the perfume-making process, women authored some of the recipes.
Brewing and selling of beer and wine were activities engaged in by women. Ninkasi was the goddess of ale making, and a recipe from these ancient times was found and successfully made into a date-flavored brew by a San Francisco micro brewery. Women managed the wine shops and taverns too.
In the health care field, women served as midwives, and there is a mention of a woman doctor, but there is not the information available as in ancient Egypt.
Some women were forced into labor gangs to work on public work projects. Other women plied their prostitution trade, dressing to attract customers in a special type of leather jacket. Wearing of distinctive clothing to distinguish a prostitute from another woman was done right up to modern times. Art renderings of these harlots early on became stereotyped as a woman leaning out of a window. There was no stigma for prostitutes in Sumerian times or in the later Babylonian era. Included in the written record of female professions, was that of a prostitute. The parents of a daughter could sell her into prostitution. Part of the temple complex included sacred prostitutes. While the exact purpose of sacred prostitution is obscure, it may well have had its origin in fertility rituals. Sacred prostitutes did not sell their sexual services, but represented the goddesses and their sexual union with the king to ensure the prosperity of the kingdom. This is similar to ancient India where the professional dancers served the various deities, and were called prostitutes. These women were also referred to as sacred courtesans, who were not allowed to marry. If they retired or resigned from their position, then they could marry. Many did resign to look after their children they had during the course of their career.
The Epic of Gilgamesh relates how the ancient Sumerians dealt with sexual relations and prostitution. In the first part of the tale, Gilgamesh’s amorous adventures are condemned: “His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the nobleman.” To take his mind off these sexual exploits, the goddess Aruru creates Gilgamesh a companion, Enkidu. As Enkidu symbolizes the uncivilized male from the nomadic tribes, huge and hairy, Gilgamesh’s solution was to send a “harlot from the temple of love, a child of pleasure” to tame him. “...for six days and seven nights they lay together and afterward Enkidu was grown weak...and she led him like a mother” away from the hills and down to the plains of civilization. Another way to perceive these events is that a woman is the one that brings civilization to a man. In ancient Egypt the goddess Isis was the inventor of marriage to make men settle down, and ancient Mesopotamia appears to be no different.
Of the various laws against rape, all stated that the injured party was the husband or the father of the raped woman, not the victim herself. The victim was obligated to prove she had resisted rape by struggling or shouting, otherwise she was guilty of fornication or adultery. If the rape occurred in the countryside or another isolated place, then the rapist was guilty not the victim. Other areas concerned with sexual relations had to do with incest. Hammurabi law punished incest between a mother and her son with death for both parties, but a father who committed incest with his daughter was only banished -- a sure sign of the double standard in operation. These double standard sexual relationships have continued into modern times.
Women’s status and economic contributions declined as the cultures changed. The ancient Sumerians allowed women the most freedom, and some historians conjecture that this was due to the higher status of goddesses. The next culture was Akkadians, or Old Babylonians, and there is a noticeable depreciation of women’s role. By the time of the Assyrians and New Babylonians, women definitely had less status. Women no longer could own property. All respectable women had to be veiled and secluded into harems, including queens. The crime of adultery had more severe repercussions for women. Under the Hammurabi Code, the wife could be let off if the husband chose, but in the Assyrian law code if the husband spared his wife’s life, then he could still cut off her nose, and then mutilate the lover with castration and disfigurement of his whole face. Cutting off a wife’s nose and castration of the male will be continued through the middle ages.
What caused the decrease in women’s status? Some historians state that as trade and wealth increased, patriarchal attitudes were reinforced. Increased warfare and permanent kingship, where women did not participate, further alienated women from positions of power. As the population steadily grew, then war and the struggle for political dominance perpetuated the need to protect one’s property, including the women. In tandem with the structure of society, in the religious realm, male gods took over from the goddesses more honored previous position.

The farther back we go, it appears that women had a higher status and more civil rights.


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Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide

Chapter 2:  Early River Civilizations
Source: Ancient Civilizations Reference Library. Ed. Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell. Vol. 1: Almanac Volume 1: Egypt-India. Detroit: UXL, 2000. p49-82.
Mesopotamia, often called "the Cradle of Civilization," was the birthplace of the world's first civilization, Sumer. Mesopotamia was home to some of the world's greatest civilizations as well—not only of Sumer and the related culture of Akkad but also of Babylonia and Assyria. From these countries came the world's first legal system, the Code of Hammurabi, and the first great tale in Western civilization, the Gilgamesh Epic. The cuneiform (pronounced cue-NAY-i-form) of Sumer was the first known form of writing and probably influenced Egyptian hieroglyphics. Israel felt the influence of Mesopotamia: Tales from the region provide the source for many of the great stories in the early chapters of the Bible, and later the Israelites would become captives of the Assyrians and Babylonians. From the mud of Sumerian huts to the stars mapped by the astronomers of Babylon, there were few aspects of ancient life not touched by the brilliant cultures of Mesopotamia.
Where to find Mesopotamia
The name Mesopotamia is Greek for "between rivers." On the eastern edge of this region, located in southwest Asia, is the Tigris (TIE-griss) River; to the west is the Euphrates (you-FRAY-tees). The rivers flow out of the mountains in southeastern Turkey and ultimately come together before emptying into the Persian Gulf. Today the whole of Mesopotamia lies inside the nation of Iraq (ear-OCK), which has continued to be a focal point for the world's attention. It is a dry, parched land, but once its soil was so rich that historians refer to Mesopotamia as part of "The Fertile Crescent." The Fertile Crescent describes a strip of land that included the Nile Valley in Egypt as well as Mesopotamia. The region is so named because a line in the shape of a crescent, or half-moon, would join the two regions. Today the area surrounding Mesopotamia is called the Middle East.


Sumer (3500–2000B.C.)

Even though historians tend to treat Egypt as the world's first major civilization, in fact civilization first developed in the region of Sumer (SOO-mur). No one knows quite when this happened: the first settlers could have arrived anywhere between 6000 and 4500 B.C.
This first group was the Ubaid (oo-BYE-ad) culture, which settled in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia—an area that remains marshy today. Historians know little about the Ubaidans, but they seem to have had a fairly sophisticated knowledge of irrigation, or methods of keeping crops watered. They also knew how to make pots of baked clay, and built their houses of reeds from the nearby marshes. At some point their area was invaded by Semitic (seh-MIT-ick) tribes from the southwest, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, but the two groups eventually became one through marriage.
By about 3500 B.C., the intermarriage between various groups produced the people known as the Sumerians. The Sumerians in turn established virtually all the essentials of civilization over the next 800 years.

An explosion of knowledge (3500–2750 B.C.)

The Sumerians developed the plow, which could be drawn by an animal such as an ox. Before that time, people had planted and tended crops with simple handheld tools such as hoes. The plow made it possible to cultivate (plant crops on) a much larger area of ground in a much shorter period of time. This invention in turn made possible a well-developed agricultural economy, one of the main ingredients of civilization. Beginning from this basis in farming, Sumerian society emerged.
Thanks to the plow, the Sumerians progressed beyond subsistence agriculture, or farming just to produce enough food to stay alive. As a result, there came to be a division of labor, meaning that not everybody had to do the same work for survival—another key ingredient of civilization. Some people, for instance, became craftsmen, or skilled workers who produced items according to their specialty. A craftsman might fashion clay pottery, for instance, or he might be a brick mason who built houses. In Egypt, masons built with stone, but Mesopotamia had very little rock. It also lacked other natural resources such as metals and timber; therefore, the people of Sumer became involved in trade with people in other parts of the Middle East.
The term trade refers to the exchange of goods for units of value (money, for instance, or gold) between two individuals or two countries. A tradesman is a merchant or shop-owner, another class of people that developed in Sumer as business-people sold various goods. In those days, trade really meant trading, since there was not yet such a thing as money in the form of coins. Instead, people might barter (exchange) a bronze tool for grain with which to make bread or another Sumerian specialty, beer.
With such a highly organized society, it is not surprising that the Sumerians established the world's first cities, or rather city-states, self-contained political units that were not part of a larger nation. These apparently resulted from people's mutual need to protect themselves from outside invasion. Of the dozen Sumerian city-states, the two most important were Ur and Uruk (OO-rook). By modern standards, these city-states were not large: Uruk, for instance, took up less than half a square mile and contained only a few thousand people.

At the center of the Sumerian city-state of the 3000s B.C. was what one might describe as history's first skyscrapers: a ziggurat (ZIG-uh-raht). These were temple towers as tall as seven stories, each story of which was smaller than the one below. Thus they may have influenced the pyramids of Egypt, which began to appear about nine hundred years after the beginnings of Sumerian civilization: indeed, the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zoser, resembled a ziggurat. The infamous Tower of Babel in the Bible's Book of Genesis was most likely a ziggurat; and in coming centuries, successive Mesopotamian cultures would perfect the ziggurat form.
Ziggurats may have been at the physical center of Sumerian life, but the spiritual center lay with the gods, and with the political system. In most cultures, ancient and modern, the prevailing religious beliefs (or the lack of them) are closely linked with the form of government; and initially in Sumer, there was little distinction between the two. At the highest level in Sumerian society was the ensi, a priest who also served as leader and claimed to rule under the direction of the gods.
Sumer developed a sophisticated religion with many gods.  This type of religion is known as polytheistic which is a Greek word meaning, many gods.  Instead of having one god that was responsible for everything, many early religions had many separate jobs with each god responsible for different forces of nature.  Sumer’s four primary gods and goddesses supervised various aspects of creation. Second-rung deities such as Inanna (ee-NAH-nuh), the goddess of love and procreation (that is, having children), were typically linked with the notion of sustaining life.  In all, Sumer worshipped over 2000 different gods and goddesses.
Yet there was something in Sumer more splendid than its religion, its government, its cities, or its ziggurats. It was perhaps their most wonderful contribution to civilization: writing.


Without writing, the only way to communicate ideas is verbally, which means that a thought can only travel so far. Only through writing can people convey complex thoughts and pass on detailed information, across time and space.
Even before the Egyptians first used hieroglyphics, the Sumerians of the fourth millennium B.C. produced the first form of written language, cuneiform (cue-NAY-i-form). The name cuneiform is Latin for "wedge-shaped." Indeed its symbols do look like wedges placed at various angles to one another.
Cuneiform may have influenced the development of hieroglyphics, with which it shared many similarities. As with hieroglyphics, the earliest cuneiform symbols were pictograms, or pictures of the thing they represented: a picture of a man, for instance, for "man." Some of these pictograms came to stand for other concepts related to the function of the object depicted. Thus a foot could symbolize walking, or symbols could be joined to produce a new idea. Hence the combination of pictograms for mouth and water meant drink. Eventually the Sumerians developed phonograms, symbols that stood for sounds or syllables. This made writing much easier. Before the introduction of phonograms, cuneiform had as many as 2,000 symbols. Later, the number was reduced to 600—which is still a large number compared to the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet.  Because Sumerian writing was so complicated, it was performed by job specialists, called scribes. If you wanted to become a scribe you had to start attending a special school, called an Edubbas, as a child.  Thus Sumerians also developed the first schools.
The Sumerians used cuneiform to record the great Gilgamesh Epic (GIL-guh-mesh). It is the oldest recorded story in history and is about a great legendary king of Ur, named Gilgamesh.  They also developed a much more practical use for cuneiform: keeping track of money. Using a sharp stick called a stylus, a Sumerian accountant would make an impression in a soft clay tablet, recording the details of who paid what to whom. Later the tablet would be baked and would harden, a permanent record of a business transaction. Thousands and thousands of years later, when archaeologists examined the ruins of Sumer, some of the first evidence of Sumerian culture that they found were what people today would call receipts!

The Early Dynastic Period (2750–2300 B.C.)

Eventually the ensi became greedy and began to oppress the people, who looked to powerful landowners for leadership. A man who owned a great deal of property was called a lugal, which literally meant "great man," and in time the lugals became like kings. Thus the theocracy (thee-OCK-ruh-see; government controlled by religious leaders) was replaced by a monarchy, or rule by a king. Whereas the ensi were priests who became political leaders, the lugals were kings who became religious leaders as well. In order for a Sumerian ruler to have legitimacy, or the right to rule, he needed to have the approval of the gods: therefore it was necessary to combine political and religious functions.
Historians refer to this period of some four centuries as the Early Dynastic Period, "dynastic" (die-NASS-tick) being a form of dynasty. The dynasties of Sumer were different from the dynasties of Egypt, established around the same time: the Sumerian dynasties were much shorter and less powerful, and they spent much of their time at war with one another.
Sumer, at least during this phase, would never become a single country in the way that Egypt was—not until it was invaded by a brilliant conqueror from a neighboring land, named Sargon I. He came from the nation of Akkad (AH-kahd) in the north.

The Akkadian Empire (2300–2150 B.C.)

The Akkadians had come to Mesopotamia with the Semitic tribes who had migrated to the region centuries before. Their culture was similar to that of the Sumerians. When Sargon (SAHR-gahn; c. 2334–2279 B.C.) conquered Sumer, he was not so much destroying a civilization as he was unifying two related peoples.
Sargon was not born to royalty; he came from among the people, the son of a single mother who had been forced to give him away when he was an infant. Raised by a fruit grower, he ultimately rose to power, but he never forgot his roots. He worked hard to promote the interests of the working class and the growing middle class by keeping taxes low and encouraging trade.
Around 2300 B.C., he conquered the city-states of Sumer and united them under one system, perhaps the first empire in history. Under Akkadian rule, cuneiform developed further. The Akkadians began to produce works of literature. Sargon also moved the government of Sumer further away from a theocracy: now the word ensi came to mean not a representative of a god but a representative of a king.
Despite Sargon's achievements, his successors had a hard time holding on to power. His grandson Naram-Sin (NARahm SIN) declared himself "The Lord of the Four Quarters," which was another way of saying "king of the world," but in fact he faced rebellions among the Sumerians. Later Akkadian kings also had to deal with an uncivilized group called the Gutians (GOO-tee-uhns), who invaded from the mountains to the north in about 2150 B.C.

Renewal in Ur (2150–2000 B.C.)

After a period of unrest, in about 2150 B.C. a group of lugals in the city-state of Ur reestablished order. Unlike Sargon, they favored a highly centralized government, with the other cities under the control of authorities in Ur. The economy, which had been allowed to run free under the Akkadians, was now placed under state control, with priests in charge. Despite the harsh nature of this system, it restored order and allowed for a renewal of Sumerian culture.
This period is known as the Third Dynasty. In about 2000 B.C., however, this final chapter of Sumer's history came to an end when Mesopotamia was overrun by a group from the west called the Amorites (AM-uh-rites.) The Amorites would in turn establish the next great Mesopotamian civilization in Babylon.


Babylonia (3000–539 B.C.)

One of the most brilliant cities of the ancient world was Babylon (BAB-uh-lahn). In its legal codes and its sciences, it stood at the furthest advances of human understanding. Its Hanging Gardens were among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Founded by the Amorites, a previously nomadic (noMAD-ick; wandering) people from Arabia, it existed as early as 3000 B.C. For nearly a thousand years, it remained under the control of Ur and later the Akkadians. But the invasion of Ur in 2000 B.C. was an indication that the Amorites were on the move, and in 1894 B.C., an Amorite chieftain named Sumu-abu (SOO-moo AH-boo) took over Babylon. A century after Sumu-abu would come the only truly great leader in early Babylonia—and one of the great figures of human history.

Hammurabi's reign (1792–1750 B.C.)

Hammurabi (hah-moo-ROB-ee) began ruling in 1792 B.C. and quickly distinguished himself as a leader of great power. He thwarted, or frustrated, the ambitions of a neighboring king to take over Isin (EE-zin), an important neighboring city, and over the next thirty years defeated the kings of all surrounding regions. Eventually the empire of Hammurabi stretched from Babylon, in the southern part of modern-day Iraq, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea far in the west. He also built many ziggurats and great fortifications (defensive walls) to protect his nation from foreign conquest. But the greatest achievement of Hammurabi was his legal code, or system of laws.

Stele depicting King Hammurabi dispensing Code of Laws. Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

He was probably not the first leader to create laws, but Hammurabi's is certainly the oldest surviving code, and it continues to influence the law of modern times. The law was written on a stele (STEE-lee), a great stone pillar which bore at the top a carved picture (or a relief sculpture) of Hammurabi receiving the laws from Shamash (SHAH-mosh), the god of justice.
Aspects of Hammurabi's code might not seem very fair to modern people. Its justice is built around the idea of "an eye for an eye," and its punishments relate to a person's social rank. Babylonian society was sharply divided according to classes—rich, middle class, and slaves. The rich, or free people, were by far the smallest (but also the most influential) group in society. Next came the common people or middle class, which were a somewhat larger but much less powerful force in Babylonia. At the bottom rung were the slaves, who were the most plentiful group and the lowest-ranking but who nonetheless enjoyed some rights.
The Code of Hammurabi clearly established more harsh penalties for a wrong done to a rich person than for one done to a slave, but it was a remarkable legal code because it offered some protection for the more unfortunate members of society. Nor was Hammurabi's code the only great achievement of Babylonia, which made many advances in mathematics and science as well as law.

Mathematics, science, and religion

It might seem odd to group religion with mathematics and science, because to modern people they are usually separate. But to ancient peoples such as the Babylonians, these concepts were linked. Indeed, Babylonian achievements in astronomy, the scientific study of the stars' movements, resulted from their interest in astrology.
Astrology is the study of the position of stars and planets that, according to believers in astrology, have a direct effect on a person's everyday life. Like people of ancient times, modern people read horoscopes, or astrological charts, in hopes of finding out who they will marry, or whether they will get rich, or what other things fate has in store for them. Astrology was and is an unscientific belief system, more like a superstition than a science. Yet it makes use of scientific data or information, and therefore the Babylonians' astrological studies yielded some advances in learning.
Though they did not have telescopes, which are essential to the work of a modern-day astronomer, Babylonian astrologers charted the movements of the heavenly bodies they could see with the naked eye. Each of these had an association with a god. The Moon was Sin, a deity (DEE-ih-tee) first worshiped by the Sumerians; the Sun was Shamash, who drove across the sky in a fiery chariot; and so on all the way to Jupiter, which they equated with the supreme god Marduk (MAR-duke).
By the time of Nebuchadnezzar II centuries later, Babylonian astronomy had progressed a great deal. The Babylonians were the first to recognize that planets and stars were not the same thing, and they made detailed observations of the Earth's movement around the Sun. They figured that the Earth took 360 days to revolve around the Sun. Their calculation of a year's length was off by 5.25 days, but the number 360 made for easy division. From the Babylonians comes the idea of a circle as having 360 degrees, each degree of which is divided into sixty minutes, which in turn are divided into sixty seconds.
These terms are still used for measuring angles and portions of a circle—but of course minutes and seconds are also used for measuring time in a day, which is one of the most notable of all Babylonian contributions to modern life. The Babylonians also divided the period of the Earth's movement around the sun into twelve signs of the astrological zodiac (ZOE-dee-ack) and divided the year into twelve months. Theirs were lunar months, however, meaning that they were based on the twenty-eight day cycle of the Moon.
  Therefore in some years they had to add a thirteenth month to make the calendar work out right. To divide the month, they used the four phases of the Moon as it goes from a new moon to a full moon and back again. A twenty-eight day month divided by four yields a seven-day week—yet another Babylonian contribution to everyday life.



A series of invasions (1749–625 B.C.)

Although Hammurabi was a strong leader, it would be many centuries before another king of similar strength emerged in Babylonia. In fact, the nation entered a period of decline soon after his death, and the next thousand years would be characterized by a series of invasions from all sides.
Hammurabi's son fought off an attack from a nation called the Kassites (KASS-ites), who came from the mountains to the east. The Kassite invasion did not succeed then, but they would return. In the meantime, a group known as the Sealand people swept into Babylonia from the south, taking over cities and establishing their own dynasty. Historians know little about the people of the Sealand, who were much less civilized than the Babylonians and made little cultural impact, but they remained a threat to Babylonia for many years. In 1600 B.C., the Hittites came down from the northwest and sacked, or destroyed, Babylon. Strangely, however, they did not remain in the area, and soon after they departed, the Kassites seized control of Babylonia in 1595 B.C.





Words to Know: Mesopotamia

Accounting: Maintaining a record of income and expenses. Accountants perform this function for businesses.
Assimilate: To be mixed into a larger group of people.
Astrology: The study of the stars and planets in the belief that their movement has an effect on personal events.
Astronomy: The scientific study of the stars and other heavenly bodies, and their movement in the sky.
Barter: Exchange of one item for another.
Cabinet: A group of key advisors to a leader.
Campaign: A military operation conducted with the aim of conquering an area.
Centralized government: Government that is strongly controlled, usually by leaders in a capital city.
Chariot: A small and highly mobile open-air wagon drawn by horses.
City-states: A city that is also a type of self-contained country.
Craftsmen: Skilled workers who produce items according to their specialty.
Crescent: The shape of a partial or half-moon.
Cultivate: To plant and tend crops on an area of ground.
Cuneiform: A type of wedge-shaped writing used in Mesopotamia.
Deity: A god.
Deportation: Forced removal of a person or a group of people.
Divert: To change the course of something.
Division of labor: A situation in which different people in a group do different types of work, which enables the larger group to achieve more.
Drought: A period of time when there is not enough water in a given area.
Dynasty: A group of people, often but not always a family, who continue to hold a position of power over a period of time.
Empire: A large political unit that unites many groups of people, often over a wide territory.
Epic: A long poem that recounts the adventures of a legendary hero.
Excavation: Digging up something that is buried, as for instance, at an archaeological site.
Fortifications: Defensive walls.
Horoscopes: Astrological charts.
Infamous: Having a bad reputation.
Ingenious: Extremely clever.
Innovation: A new and usually better way of doing things.
Ironic: When something is intended to be one way but turns out to be quite different from what was intended; especially refers to the use of words to express the opposite of the words' meaning.
Irrigation: A method of keeping crops watered, often by redirecting water supplies.
Islam: A faith that arose in Arabia in the A.D. 600s, led by the prophet Muhammad (A.D. 570?–632.)
Legitimacy: The right of a ruler to hold power.
Lingua franca: A common language by which people of two different native languages can communicate.
Lunar: Related to the Moon.
Mason or brick mason: A type of craftsman who builds with brick.
Middle class: A group in between the rich and the poor, or between the rich and the working class.
Millennium: A period of a thousand years.
Muslim: A believer in Islam.
Mutual: Shared or common between two people or things.
Natural resources: Materials from nature, such as trees or minerals, that are useful to the operation of business or a society.
Neo-: New or renewed.
Nomadic: Wandering.
Phonograms, pictograms: Two types of written symbols. The first type which looks like the thing it represents; the second represents a specific syllable.
Polytheism:  Worship of many gods.
Prevailing: Most common or general.
Procreation: Parenting children.
Prologue: An introduction to a written work.
Relief sculpture: A carved picture, distinguished from regular sculpture because it is two-dimensional.
Scribes: A small and very powerful group in ancient society who knew how to read and write.
Semitic: A term describing a number of groups in the Middle East, including the modern-day Arabs and Israelis.
Siege: A sustained military attack against a city.
Smelting: Refining a metal, such as iron.
Standing army: A full-time, professional army.
Stele (or stela): A large stone pillar, usually inscribed with a message commemorating a specific event.
Subsistence agriculture: Farming in which the farmers produce just enough food to stay alive, without any surplus to sell.
Tell: A small mound of earth heaped over layers of ruins.
Theocracy: A government controlled by religious leaders.
Thwart: To frustrate or stop somebody from doing something.
Trade: The exchange of goods for units of value (money, gold, or other goods) between two individuals or two countries.
Usurp: To seize power.
Vassal: A ruler who is subject to another ruler.
Western: A term referring to the cultures and civilizations influenced by ancient Greece and Rome.
Working class: A group between the middle class and the poor, who typically earn a living with their hands rather than behind a desk.
Zodiac: An imaginary circle in the sky, divided into twelve constellations or astrological "signs" such as Libra.


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Sumerian civilization of mesopotamia summary and study guide

 Ancient Mesopotamia


Unit Vocabulary:
Students should write these words in their vocabulary journal and write their meaning with pictures (when possible) as we come across them in our readings.

  • Neolithic Revolution
  • Agricultural Revolution
  • Fertile Crescent
  • Civilization
  • Cradle of Civilization
  • Fertile
  • Mesopotamia
  • Irrigation
  • Tigris and Euphrates
  • Cuneiform
  • Innovation
  • City-States
  • Monarchy
  • Democracy
  • Babylonia
  • ziggurat
  • Hammurabi
  • Caravan
  • Marduk          
  • Tablets
  • Site
  • Phoenicia
  • dye


Mesopotamia > Geography

           The Fertile Crescent is an area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today the country of Iraq in Southwest Asia.  Human beings have been living in the Fertile Crescent for over 12,000 years.  The first people moved to the Fertile Crescent because of the available water and good farmland between the two rivers.  The first people moved around in small groups sometimes hunting and sometimes farming.  Beginning around 10,000 BC to around 4,000 BC there was the Neolithic Revolution.  The Neolithic Revolution was when these groups of people developed new farming methods and made new stone tools.  It is sometimes called the Agricultural Revolution.  Because of these new inventions, farming became easier.  As a result, people did not have to move around as much.  They could stay in one place and build large villages and towns.  This was the beginning of some of the world’s oldest civilizations.  Civilizations are when people not only live together, but they also build big cities, develop religion, develop government and develop art and education.
              The area between the Tigris and Euphrates is known as the “cradle of civilization” because it was where some of the earliest civilizations in the world began.  Again, this was because the land between the Tigris and Euphrates was so fertile(good for farming).  The Greeks called the Fertile Crescent Mesopotamia. Just like the Nile was a gift to the people of Egypt, The Tigris and Euphrates were gifts to the people of this region.   Many thousands of years ago, early settlers wandered into the land between two rivers.  Natural vegetation and wildlife kept the people well fed. The rivers provided fresh drinking water, and a place to bathe. These early people settled down, invented a system of irrigation and began to farm.
Trade routes brought distant travelers into new lands. With them they carried the technologies, ideas and cultures from one land to another.  Sitting in the middle of these trade routes were the civilizations of the Middle East.  Mesopotamia was the site of three great civilizations beginning around 3,500 BC and ending around AD 600.  The three great city-state civilizations in order were Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria.  A city-state was a city with a government that controlled the land and people around it.  They were not as big as countries or empires.  
In Northern Mesopotamia, the land is fertile. There is seasonal rain. The rivers and streams are fed from the hills and mountains of the region. 
In Southern Mesopotamia, the land is mostly flat and barren. Temperatures can rise over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There is very little rainfall. Storms do blow in from the Persian Gulf, which cools things off. The area does have slight seasons. It can get quite cool at certain times of the year. 
Essential Questions:

  • Why was the Fertile Crescent known as the cradle of civilization?
  • What were the three great civilizations of Mesopotamia?
  • How do you think the geography of Mesopotamia was similar to Ancient Egypt and in what ways did the geography influence civilization?

Assignment: Write 7 questions and answers.  Your questions must be information questions.  They must begin with a “Wh” word (who, what, when, where, how, why or which)

The People and Civilizations of Mesopotamia

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided the perfect location for these peoples to settle. These two large rivers run along side each other, and span hundreds of miles. Between these rivers are found a crescent shaped landscape where the soil is fertile. This area is known as the Fertile Crescent.
Some of the first civilizations on Earth formed in the Fertile Crescent. Many of these cities banded together forming small kingdoms. Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria were the most prominent civilizations of the land we call Mesopotamia.

Map Questions- Look at the map on the next page and answer the following questions.

  • What body of water do the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers empty?
  • Where is Ancient Egypt in relation to Mesopotamia (What direction)?
  • What desert is south of the Fertile Crescent?
  • What sea is to the west?
  • Which seas are north?


In about 3500 B.C., a people known as the Sumerians migrated from Asia into Mesopotamia. These people founded a city located in the Sumer Valley.  In the beginning, they were an agricultural community. They grew crops and stored food for times of need. The ancient Sumerians were very smart. They invented the wheel, the sailboat, frying pans, razors and the first written language called cuneiform.  Other important innovations included plows and plow seeders for farming, hammers, axes, pottery, bronze tools and kilns for cooking.  They invented a system of mathematics based on the number 60. Today, we divide an hour into 60 minutes, and a minute into 60 seconds. That comes from the ancient Mesopotamians.
By around 3000 B.C., the Sumerians had formed a number of complex city-states. A city-state is a large city along with any surrounding territory that is ruled by a single entity or ruler. It is believed that there were at least 12 Sumerians City-States in the Fertile Crescent. The people of these city-states shared a common culture and religion with one another. However, their rulers had complete autonomy from one another. They ruled their city-states without any interference from the leaders of other city-states.
The ancient Sumerians built many cities along the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. Archaeologists believe that their largest city, the city of Ur, had a population of around 24,000 residents.  The ancient Mesopotamians created a government that was a combination of monarchy and democracy. Kings ruled the people. Elected officials who served in the Assembly also ruled the people. Even kings had to ask the Assembly for permission to do certain things.
Law held a special place in their civilization. Sumerian laws were not written down, but people knew what they were and they knew what could happen to you if you broke the law. The Sumerian laws clearly said how you had to behave and what your punishment would be if you did not behave correctly. The laws that were later written down by the ancient Babylonians were, for the most part, laws first created by the ancient Sumerians. 
Around 2,000 B.C., the Sumerian city-states were conquered and united by a succession of rulers and empire builders from Akkad. The first great ruler was a man by the name of Sargon of Akkad.  Legend suggests that Sargon was abandoned by his mother. Placed in a reed basket, he was pushed into the Euphrates River where he was found by a farmer in the kingdom of Akkad.  Eventually Sargon grew up and became the ruler of Akkad. He immediately began a military campaign in which he united all the Sumerian city-states. Following the death of Sargon’s grandson, the empire that he had built collapsed.
About a thousand years later, the Babylonians took over Sumeria in the south, and the Assyrians took over in the north, but the Sumerian culture lived on.
Essential Questions:

  1. Name 5 important inventions of the Sumerians and state what you think was the significance.
  2. Explain what a Sumerian city-state was.  How would you contrast a Sumerians view of loyalty to our own. 

Other Questions:

  1. What did all Sumerian city-states have in common?  How were they different?
  2. Explain how Mesopotamia was considered both a democracy and a monarchy.
  3. Who was Sargon and what impact did he have on Mesopotamian city-states?


About a thousand years after the ancient Sumerians settled in the land between two rivers, two new civilizations arose.  One was the warrior civilization of the Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia. The other was the ancient civilization of Babylonia. Babylonia was located in southern Mesopotamia, near the Persian Gulf.  Babylonia had a long history. The people achieved a high level of civilization. 
3500 years ago, Babylon was an impressive place. It was a massive walled city, with a network of canals and vivid green crops. Even from a distance, visitors could see the top of the 300-foot high ziggurat long before they reached the huge city.  Babylonian religious activities were centered around the temple, the ziggurat. Like the Sumerians, the Babylonians held elaborate festivals and had many different kinds of priests. Their priests spent most of their time driving away evil spirits.  

Hammurabi’s Code
The most powerful and most famous Babylonia ruler was King Hammurabi.  We know a good deal about the great king Hammurabi. Babylonian culture was based on law. Everybody had to obey the law. Hammurabi wrote down and unified all the laws of ancient Babylonia so that everyone had to obey the law equally, rich and poor alike.  
The Sumerians had created the first written cuneiform. Using this written language, Hammurabi created the first written set of laws.  In Hammurabi's court, it did not matter if you were rich or poor. If you broke the law, and were found guilty, you would be punished. Since the laws were clearly written down, everyone was expected to obey them.
Hammurabi (ca. 1792 - 1750 BC) was successful in uniting all of Mesopotamia under his forty-three year reign of Babylon.  Hammurabi’s Code consisted of two hundred eighty-two laws concerning a wide variety of abuses.  Below are 12 examples of his code.  Read for yourself and see what you think.   
The Code of Hammurabi

  • (196) If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
  • (197) If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken
  • (199) If he put out the eye of a man’s slave or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.
  • (200) If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
  • (188) If an artisan has undertaken to rear a child and teaches him his craft, he cannot be demanded back.
  • (121) If anyone store corn in another man’s house he shall pay him storage at the rate of one gur for every five ka of corn per year.
  • (109) If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern keeper shall be put to death.
  • (53) If anyone be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition and does not so keep it,: if then the dam breaks and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.
  • (3) If anyone bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if be a capital offense charged, be put to death.
  • (6) If anyone steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.
  • (22) If anyone is committing robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.
  • (14) If anyone steal the minor child of another, he shall be put to death.


  • What are three offenses in which one can be put to death?
  • Rephrase law 188 in your own words.
  • What can one infer from laws 199 and 200 about society equity?
  • What was the purpose for writing these laws?
  • What conclusion can you draw about Hammurabi’s society?

One of the most important aspects of Babylonian religion was the ziggurat.
Ziggurats were huge "stepped" buildings.  They were temples to worship their gods.


The Assyrians also lived in the land between two rivers. Their home was in northern Mesopotamia towards the mountains. They were famous traders. Their donkeys and caravans were known throughout the Mesopotamian area. Their religion was similar to that of Sumer and Babylon. They worshiped many of the same gods. But they had their own language and their own lifestyle. 
The Assyrians were always at war with somebody. The warriors could be extremely brutal and cruel to the people they conquered. Conquered nations were heavily taxed to support the Assyrian empire. They tried to conquer the southern regions of Mesopotamia, with an eye especially on controlling Babylonia, but their revolts were put down. They were much more successful attacking and conquering the people to the east and west.  
Assyrian artists were very talented. We know a great deal about life in ancient Assyria because of the wonderful legacy of art discovered by archaeologists. Talented artisans used art to tell stories of battles and war heroes with scenes painted on ceramics. There are scenes of warrior camps, men striding in armor, and war chariots, and baked bread. Bread must have been very important to these ancient people. 
Eventually, around 1200 BCE, the Assyrians were able to conquer Babylon.  Babylon was the greatest city of the age. Rather than take over the city for their own use, the Assyrians leveled it. They hated the Babylonians. Before they destroyed the town, they forced all the people to move to various places in Assyria. That's what the Assyrians always did when they conquered a new people. They moved them around so the conquered people would find it difficult to revolt.  
After they leveled the Babylon, the Assyrians began to worry. What if Marduk, the great god, thought they were attacking him? They worried and worried, and finally decided to rebuild the city, so that Marduk would not punish them for destroying a city built in his honor. They really had no use for the city. They rebuilt Babylon, but left it an empty city. Eventually, people found the empty city and moved in. Babylon would actually rise again to become great. 
Around 600 BCE, before the people of ancient Mesopotamia were conquered by the great Persian Empire, the last Assyrian king started a project. He began collecting a library of clay tablets of all the literature of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria.  No one knows how many tablets he actually collected, but when this library was discovered in modern times, over 30,000 tablets still remained in the great Library at Nineveh, his capital city.   These tablets are our single most important source of knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia. The tablets include the Story of Gilgamesh, Hammurabi's Code, and many other important documents and stories created by these amazing people - the ancient Mesopotamians. 
Essential Question

  • What were Assyria’s major accomplishments?


    • For each paragraph write down 2 important ideas and details.
    • Use your notes to write a paragraph that summarizes the accomplishments of Assyria

Conclusion:Accomplishments of Mesopotamian Civilizations
Mesopotamian people had an advanced society.  When a group of people have time to develop other things besides farming and hunting in their society, then they become a civilization.  A civilization has and makes advancements in things such as religion, law, government and education.  Mesopotamian people have been given credit for many accomplishments.  They had many accomplishments in technology.  One of the most important was in irrigation.  Irrigation refers to watering crops by bringing in water through canals or pipes.  Mesopotamian people built irrigation canals that led from the rivers to their farms.  This is what allowed them to settle in one place permanently without having to move around constantly searching for food.  Once they were able to produce enough food, the people had time to develop other things for society.  For example, if there is enough food for everyone then not everyone has to be a farmer.  People can do other things, like architecture (designing buildings).  
Soon the Mesopotamians had organized governments, which had armies to protect the people.  Governments also collected taxes.  These taxes were used to pay for roads, buildings, armies, etc.  One of the most important rulers was a man named Hammurabi, ruler of Babylon.  Hammurabi of Babylon became so powerful that he ruled all of Mesopotamia.  To keep order he came up with a set of laws called the Code of Hammurabi.  The laws were carved in pieces of stone and placed all around Mesopotamia so everyone would know them.  This was important because Hammurabi was one of the first to write down his laws for all to see.  Mesopotamian city-states also made advancements in architecture, government, mathematics and writing. It would also be in Mesopotamia where three of the world’s great religions would develop: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Essential Questions:

  • What do all civilizations have in common?
  • Name three accomplishments of Mesopotamian city-states.
  • Who was Hammurabi and why was he important?

Assignment: Write 7 questions and answers.  Your questions must be information questions.  They must begin with a “Wh” word (who, what, when, where, how, why or which)

Other Early Civilizations
for and changing nature of codified system of laws and punishment) in various civilizations, societies and regions.
The Phoenicians

Mesopotamia was the site (place) of some of the earliest civilizations but there were other significant early civilizations as well.  Phoenicia began along the eastern banks of the Mediterranean Sea in Southwest Asia (Middle East). Today it would be the country of Lebanon.  Phoenicia (foh-NEE-shee-ah) is the Greek name for the Amorites.  These people settled in what are today Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.  They were later called Canaanites or Phoenicians. Because their civilization was located on the Mediterranean Sea, the Phoenicians became excellent seamen and shipbuilders.  They became powerful by trading throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians colonized many areas along the Mediterranean Sea including Cyprus and Carthage.  The Phoenicians were most powerful from about 1200 B.C. to 900 B.C.
The Phoenicians had many accomplishments.  The Phoenicians developed a written alphabet.  They were the best shipbuilders and seaman of their time.  They learned to work with metal to make tools and weapons.  They also became excellent at making glass and ceramics.  They are most remembered for learning how to make dye for clothing, especially purple.  Dye is what gives clothes color.  Dye was made from plants, animals and fish.  Because they were excellent seamen, the Phoenicians traded goods all around the Mediterranean region (see map).
The Phoenicians lived in city-states.  A city-state was a city with a government that controlled the land and people around it.  Each Phoenician city-state had its own ruler.  Sidon, Tyre and Byblos were the most famous cities in Phoenicia.  The cities were centers of business, industry and navigation.  These city-states traded with each other and spoke the same language but they never came together to form one nation to protect one another.  Eventually more powerful nations such as the Persians would defeat these city-states.
Essential Questions:

  • Where was Phoenicia?
  • How did the Phoenicians become powerful and how did they use their environment?
  • List 3 accomplishments of the Phoenicians.

Assignment: Write 7 questions and answers.  Your questions must be information questions.

The Hittite Empire and the Persian Empire

           Another early civilization was the Hittite Empire.  Between 1450 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. the Hittites ruled it is today modern Turkey and Syria.  Although their civilization occurred during the Bronze Age, the Hittites were one of the first to produce iron weapons and tools.  This was well before the Iron Age.  The use of iron allowed the Hittites to conquer less technologically advanced civilizations in Mesopotamia including the Babylonians.

              The Persian Empire was yet another important civilization located in Southwest Asia.  It began in what is today Iran but eventually took control over most of the Middle East including Mesopotamia.  By about 550 B.C.E. led by Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire became the most powerful.  Because it was so large, the Persian kings divided their empires into provinces (territories).  The king then appointed a satrap (governor) to rule the province.  The Persians had great skill in government.  They were able to control large numbers of people and large territories by delegating power to satraps who were still under the authority of kings and emperors.  The Persians built roads to connect the different parts of their empire.  This allowed people to travel, to collect taxes and to trade.

Essential Questions:

  • Where were the Hittite and Persian Empires?
  • How did the Hittite and Persian become powerful and how did they use their environments?
  • List 3 accomplishments of the Hittites and Persians.

The Indus Valley Civilizations and the Aryans

           Like Egypt and Mesopotamia, The Indus River Valley civilization was another important civilization that began along a river.  The Indus River flows through what is today Pakistan and India in South Asia.  Harappa and Mohenjaro-Daro were the two most significant cities built by the Indus Valley people between 2,500 B.C.E. and 1,500 B.C.E. 
As with both the Nile River and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, The Indus River flooded yearly leaving behind rich nutrients in the soil.  The land was excellent for farming and the river water was used for irrigation.  The abundance of food allowed Harappan and Mohenjaro-Daron cities to flourish.  The cities were very advanced.  There is even evidence they had sewers and toilets to carry away sewage.
Little else is known about Indus Valley civilizations but many historians and archaeologists believe another group of people known as the Aryans migrated into the region took control. 
The Aryans were extremely important because their culture influenced modern India’s culture even to this day.  They brought with them the belief in a caste system, the Sanskrit language and a collection of religious writings and prayers known as the Vedas and Upanishads.  All of these later developed into the Hindu religion which we will study in much more detail later.
Essential Questions:

  • Where were the Indus Valley civilizations?
  • How did the Indus Valley civilizations become powerful and how did they use their environments?
  • List accomplishments of the Indus Valley civilizations.
  • Who were the Aryans and why were they important?

The Olmec Civilization

       Across the globe, on the other side of the world the Olmecs of Mesoamerica became a powerful civilization around 1,200 B.C.E.  Mesoamerica includes present day Mexico and Central America.  In their warm humid climate they were able to grow enough maize (corn), beans and squash to feed large numbers of people.  The Olmecs were expert farmers and practiced a type of farming known as slash-and-burn farming. They would cut the trees of a forest down and wait a period of several months as the trees dried out. They would then light the trees on fire, burning them all into ashes. These ashes acted as a fertilizer, making the soil more fertile. These farmers then farmed the land a few years until it was no longer fertile, at which point they moved on to the next forest.
The Olmecs built cities with large buildings and statues of giant heads and jaguars. The jaguars had a human body and a jaguar head.  Most archaeologists feel the heads and jaguars represented Olmec gods.  Like the Egyptians, The Olmecs built pyramids that were most likely used as religious temples.  Also like the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the Olmecs had a glyph writing system, a calendar and numbers.  The cities of San Lorezo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes are still cities today that were actually founded by the Olmecs. Eventually the Olmec civilization gave way to another great Mexican civilization known as the Mayans.  However, the Olmecs are considered a cultural hearth.  In other words, the Olmec civilization influenced other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs.


Essential Questions:

  • Where was the Olmec civilizations?
  • How did the Olmec civilization become powerful and how did they use their environments?
  • List accomplishments of the Olmec civilization.


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