Towering ziggurats of mud brick, sandal trodden paths and people in colourful flounced dresses and wraps. Vast cities supported by grain, cattle, and the water of the Tigris and Euphrates. This is where civilization began. Today’s history students are well versed in the impact of modern empires. The imperial activities of Britain, France, Spain, and other European countries impacted most of the globe and enmeshed it into Europe’s sphere of influence. With these empires came colonialism, genocide, and slavery on a disastrous new scale. To properly understand empires, however, we must examine the earliest empires of the ancient world. This takes us to ancient Mesopotamia: the cradle of civilizations.
The Akkadian Empire: The First Civilization of Ancient Mesopotamia
The Akkadian Empire lasted from 2350-2150 BCE. It was based in Akkad in ancient Mesopotamia, though the Akkadians themselves are theorised to be Semitic people from the regions south of ancient Mesopotamia. Studies of Akkadian language revealed connections to South Arabian and Early Egyptian language, indicating the Akkadians may have originated there.
Akkad was the first empire in ancient Mesopotamia. It was one of the earliest empires in history, beaten only by ancient Egypt. Before the Akkadian empire, ancient Mesopotamia consisted largely of city states. Therefore, Akkad was one of the original sources of inspiration for all other empires in the region. The ideas of Sargon, the founder of the Akkadian Empire, had a great impact on how later ancient Mesopotamian empires were run.
With him, Sargon bought his daughter Enheduanna. She was given the position of En-priestess in the city state of Ur. This made her the head priestess of An, the king of all gods within the Sumerian pantheon. Part of this role was creation and recitation of original hymns and poems.
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Being an outsider to Sumerian culture allowed her to bring her own uniqueness to the position. This included using first person perspective, identifying herself as the author, and autobiographical elements. Every previously written document before Enheduanna lacked an attributed author, making her the earliest identified author in all human history. All others before her are lost to obscurity.
Enheduanna herself identifies the importance of her work in her temple hymns:
“The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”
Giving his daughter this position ensured that he and his family were incorporated into the local culture of the Sumerians. The majority of Southern Mesopotamia consisted of Sumerian city states before the Akkadian Empire. Though Sumerians and Akkadians were neighbours and had things in common, they were dissimilar enough that Sargon needed to integrate his rule into their culture to legitimise himself.
The Babylonian Empire
The first Babylonian empire was forged by Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE. He was a king of Babylon, though he and his successors called it Mat Akkadi– the country of Akkad. This was a deliberate throwback to the Akkadian Empire. After multiple campaigns, he had conquered several ancient Mesopotamian cities and states including Elam, Mari, and Larsa. He was left with control over most of Mesopotamia, from the Persian Gulf almost to the Mediterranean Sea.
Hammurabi’s conquests left him with the same problem faced by administrators throughout time. How was one meant to keep this many people organised and orderly? This problem was perhaps one motivation behind his empire’s major achievement: the Code of Hammurabi.
Fragments of the same text have been found throughout ancient Mesopotamia, indicating it was widely distributed as a general standard throughout the empire. The most famous and largely complete copy is found today in the Louvre Museum. This copy is inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform on an obsidian stele 2.5 metres high.
Hammurabi’s Code isn’t famous without reason. It is one of the first places where the theory of innocent until proven guilty is stated. It also sets out laws based on principles of fairness and equality, e.g., the famous ‘an eye for an eye’.
Despite the longevity of Hammurabi’s reputation, his empire only lasted around 300 years. It fell to the Kassites in the 1500s BCE.
The Neo Assyrian Empire
The Assyrian state existed continuously from 2500 to the 500s BCE. Its size and power fluctuated over time, even achieving the status of empire in multiple periods. Most notable of these was the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This period began in the first half of the first millennium BCE with a series of militaristic rulers who expanded their territory. They ravaged nations throughout the ancient Near East, including Babylonia and Persia.
A battle with the Assyrians was a war against fear itself. They were known for cutting off the heads of rebel leaders and the hands of rebels. The leaders’ heads were left on the rebels’ town gates as a stark reminder: cross the Assyrians and die.
Their siege techniques were innovative and therefore terrifying. In the siege of Lachish, for example, they built an earth ramp scaling the entirety of the city walls. They then rolled siege towers up the ramps and devastated the city from the inside out. They are also recorded climbing over walls, breaking them down with siege engines, and digging under the walls all at the same time. Combined with their highly trained cavalry and infantry, the Neo-Assyrian Empire made a formidable opponent.
Amongst bible scholars, the Neo-Assyrians are known as instigators of the Jewish Diaspora. The emperor Sargon II captured the Kingdom of Israel in ca. 722 BCE, subsequent to taking the Israelite capital Samaria. The dispossessed 30,000 Israelites from their homes and relocated them throughout his empire. This was part of the empire’s policy of mass deportation for rebel subjects. The goal here was to end nationalistic zeal, and break people’s old state-based identities in favour of a single, new identity: Assyrian.
Achaemenid Persia was one of the last great empires of Mesopotamia. It endured from 559 to 330 BCE. It was only brought to an end by Alexander the Great. At its height, it encompassed the majority of the ancient Near East and even beyond into Central Asia and Anatolia.
Its founder’s name, Cyrus the Great, still echoes through the annals of history. Cyrus is notable for his treatment of the Israelites, who had been exiled from the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in ca. 722 BCE and from the Kingdom of Judea by the Neo-Babylonians in ca. 586 BCE.
Their lament over their exile is captured in Psalm 137:1-4.
“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?”
Cyrus allowed the Jewish population to return to Israel, issued an edict for the Great Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt, and returned items looted from Israel and the temple by Babylonians.
This was just one example of Cyrus’s tolerance and respect of religious and ethnic diversity within his empire. Each satrapy (province) was given leave to set their own laws and religious values, contrasting to the deportation policies of the Neo-Assyrians. It has been suggested that Cyrus’s tolerance was partly born from necessity. To force a single identity upon many unique nations and cultural groups would have destabilized his territory. Instead, he positioned himself as protector of all sanctuaries.
This spirit of cultural coexistence within an empire is epitomized by the Apadana staircase reliefs from the Persian emperor Darius’s palace at Persepolis. This staircase, called the Staircase of All Nations, depicts envoys from nations around the empire bringing tribute. The differences in the cultures and ethnicities of the envoys are emphasized through their different hairdos, garments, and appearances. Demonstrating their differences drew attention to the vastness of the empire. In doing so, it demonstrated that the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire valued difference.
Ancient Mesopotamia & the Macedonian Empire
In 330 BCE the last Achaemenid Emperor, Darius III, was assassinated by Persian dissenters. With him, the Achaemenid empire disintegrated and was officially under the thumb of Macedonia’s greatest conqueror: Alexander the Great.
As Alexander romped through the Persian territory building the Macedonian Empire, he brought death and destruction with him. His military actions led to the destruction of many Zoroastrian temples and other important cultural spaces. When the inhabitants of the Zeravshan valley in Sogdiana sheltered a rebel leader he killed most of its population – about 120,000 people. While in the Persian homeland, he burnt down the capital city of Persepolis. It is unknown whether or not this was intentional, but the fact remains that the wonders of Persepolis are lost forever.
Alexander’s extensive campaigning drastically altered the political makeup of Mesopotamia. The Achaemenid satrapy system was retained, but now with satraps (rulers) aligned to Alexander. This included Macedonians who were unfamiliar with the customs and culture of previously Achaemenid regions. After Alexander’s death his grand empire fell apart, and the Mesopotamian satrapies fell under the jurisdiction of the Seleucid Empire.
Hellenistic empire building meant soldiers and Greek immigrants were deposited throughout ancient Mesopotamia. These new connections with Greece enabled a greater flow of information, goods, and cultural exchange which meant ancient Mesopotamia was inextricably enmeshed in the Hellenistic world.