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  • Ancient Greek Religion › Origins
  • Mesopotamia › Origins

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Mavia › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 12 March 2018
West Church, Umm el-Jimal (Jordan) (Michael Gunther)
Mavia (rc 375-c. 425 CE) was a warrior-queen of the semi-nomadic Tanukhid Arab tribe of Syria and Jordan who led a successful insurrection against Rome in 378 CE. She is also known as Maowiva, Mu`awiya, Mauia, Mania, and Mawiyya. Her control of southern Syria into Jordan seems certain but how far she extended that control beyond is contested. She rose to power after the death of her husband (whose identity is unknown) described as either a “king” or “phylarch” (meaning “ruler of a tribe”), and is only known through her rebellion against Rome in which she emerged triumphant and was able to dictate terms.
Although she is referred to as “Queen of Syria”, this designation is not accurate. Mavia never ruled Syria itself but led a coalition of Arab tribes in that region. The causes of her revolt are unknown but may have had something to do with Rome's demand for men from her lands as auxiliaries in their army.
Following her victory, Mavia was powerful enough to be able to dictate the terms of negotiations. She demanded that a certain orthodox Christian monk, Moses, be named as bishop over her people. This seems to have been the only stipulation for terms which some have interpreted as meaning Mavia and her people were Christian. The ancient historians, however, clearly suggest that they were not. They were most likely pagans who admired Moses for his devotion to his god and wanted him as their spiritual leader.
Her demand was met and Moses negotiated the peace; afterwards he became bishop of the tribes. Mavia gave her daughter in marriage to the Roman commander-in-chief Victor, to seal the peace, and later sent troops from her coalition to guard the city of Constantinople following the Roman defeat by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in August 378 CE.


She is assumed to have ruled until at least c. 425 CE, though this is disputed, and nothing is known of her death. She is frequently compared to the more famous queen Zenobia of Palmyra (rc 270-272 CE) who also challenged Rome.


The primary source for her story is Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 345-411 CE) who provides the only contemporary account of her revolt in his Ecclesiastical History Book XI.6. Socrates Scholasticus (c. 380-439 CE) narrates the same story in his Ecclesiastical History Book IV.36. The historian Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393-c.458 CE) also records Mavia's rebellion ( Ecclesiastical History Book IV.20) and his account is followed by Sozomen (c. 400-450 CE) who calls the queen Mania and expands on the story in his History (Book VI:38).
Any later accounts of Mavia's rebellion draw on these four authors as well as the text known as the Ammonii Monachi Relatio(between c. 373 and c. 377 CE) which gives an account of the massacre of monks by Saracens at the monasteries of Mt. Sinai and Rhaithou. This work mentions a monk “Moses” which some scholars suggest is the same man Mavia so admired. This Moses is spared in the Saracen attack but no reason is given and it is also unclear what prompted the massacre. Although the Ammonii Monachi Relatio has been tentatively dated to c. 373 CE, it makes more sense to date it at c. 377 or 378 CE, closer to the time of Mavia's rebellion in the area which it seems to be narrating.


Mavia's tribe, under her husband's leadership, were foederati of Rome. The foederati were nation-states or tribes who served as auxiliaries in the Roman army in exchange for certain benefits Rome provided. This arrangement was brokered by the king or phylarch of a nation-state or tribe and the emperor of Rome but seems to have only held good during the reigns of those leaders who had entered into it. A successor had no obligation to provide the same service unless a new arrangement was made when they came to power.


The Tanukhids had migrated to the region of modern-day Jordan sometime in the 2nd century CE but there is evidence that there were members of the tribe there earlier on who shared in the prosperity of the Kingdom of Nabatea (c. 168 BCE-106 CE). When the Nabatean kingdom fell, the region was annexed by Rome and the tribes which had formed the Nabatean coalition aligned with or against Rome; the Tanukhids chose Rome though it is unclear precisely why or when. All that is known for sure is that they were Roman foederati under Mavia's husband.
Foederati were expected to fight for Rome when called upon and this policy would have been adhered to by Mavia's husband.After his death, however, she seems to have had the right to call for negotiations to form a new agreement and this right may have been ignored by Rome who perhaps assumed she would continue to meet her late husband's obligations.


Rome in the 4th century CE was battling a number of different incursions and, under emperor Valens (r.364-378 CE), was having difficulty dealing with the Goths. The Goths had first appeared in Roman territories in 238 CE and made periodic, and destructive, raids afterwards; the most famous being under the Goth king Cniva (c. 250-c. 270 CE) who killed the Roman emperor Decius (249-251 CE) and his successor at the Battle of Abritus in 251 CE.
Valens had fought the Goth king Athanaric (d. 381 CE) between 367-369 CE and had welcomed Athanaric's rival king Fritigern (d. 380 CE) into Roman territories when the latter had requested asylum from the invading Huns. Once inside Rome's borders, however, provincial governors treated the Goths under Fritigern so poorly that they revolted, instigating the First Gothic War of 376-382 CE. Valens required manpower to put down this revolt and called on his foederati to supply troops.Mavia most likely refused because she had not been contacted prior to this demand to negotiate a new deal for the Tanukhids as foederati of Rome. It should be noted, however, that no clear reason for the revolt is given by the ancient historians.


The accounts do make clear that Mavia's insurrection was well organized and that she was a very capable military commander who destroyed large areas of the region and scattered any opposition sent against her. Mavia led her armies personally and ravaged the region from Syria throughout the Levant. Sozomen's description is the most detailed of the accounts:
About this period, the king of the Saracens died and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mania [Mavia], the widow of the late monarch, after attaining to the government of her race, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine, as far as the regions of Egypt lying to the left of those who sail towards the source of the Nile, and which are generally denominated Arabia. This war was by no means a contemptible one, although conducted by a woman.
The Romans, it is said, considered it so arduous and so perilous that the general of the Phoenician troops applied for assistance to the general of the entire cavalry and infantry of the East. This latter ridiculed the summons and undertook to give battle alone. He accordingly attacked Mania, who commanded her own troops in person, and he was rescued with difficulty by the general of the troops of Palestine and Phoenicia. Perceiving the extremity of the danger, this general deemed it unnecessary to obey the orders he had received to keep aloof from the combat; he therefore rushed upon the barbarians and furnished his superior an opportunity for safe retreat, while he himself yielded ground and shot at those who fled, and beat off with his arrows the enemies who were pressing upon him. This occurrence is still held in remembrance among the people of the country and is celebrated in songs by the Saracens. (Book VI:38)
According to the ancient accounts, Mavia's army was invincible as she swept through the region. Rufinus writes that she “disturbed” the regions of Palestine and Arabia and “lay waste to neighboring provinces” (XI.6) while Socrates Scholasticus claims that “all the regions of the east were at that time ravaged by the Saracens” (IV.36) and Theodoret relates how “At this time, the Ishmaelites [Saracens] were devastating the country in the neighborhood of the Roman frontier. They were led by Mavia, a princess, who regarded not the sex which nature had given her and displayed the spirit and courage of a man” (IV.20).
Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra

When the Romans realized they could not defeat her, they sought terms of peace and, according to all the accounts, Mavia had only one: she wished a certain monk of her region to be made bishop of her people. Although this demand has been interpreted to mean that Mavia and her people were Christian, this is not necessarily so and, as noted, is not supported by the ancient accounts.


Those who argue that Mavia was an orthodox Christian claim that she was opposed to the ordination of an Arian Christian bishop over her Nicene Christian tribe. Valens was an Arian Christian and so were many of the bishops and clerics then serving the church of Rome; Moses was a Nicene Christian and so, it is assumed by some scholars, were Mavia's people.
Arians were Christians who claimed that Jesus was a created being, begotten of God, while orthodox Nicene Christians believed he was one with God, never created, and eternal. The difference in these beliefs is that the Arians were claiming Jesus was a demi-god while the Nicene Christians held he was God. It is clear from the accounts that Moses was an orthodox Christian but this does not mean that Mavia or her tribe were. Sozomen makes clear that there were few Christians in Mavia's tribe when Moses became their bishop and he converted them after he had made peace between them and Rome.
Moses is described as an Arab Christian who lived a life of seclusion and it has been established that Christian monks, by living blameless lives of devotion, had a significant impact on the conversion of pagan Arabs to Christianity at this time. It is far more likely that Mavia chose Moses as her tribe's spiritual leader based on his personal merits rather than that she was an orthodox Christian objecting to an alleged proposal by Rome that she accept an Arian bishop.
Theodosius I Solidus

Theodosius I Solidus

The original accounts of the rebellion, and Moses as negotiator, mention the Arian bishop Lucius of Alexandria as the man who would have to ordain Moses as bishop. They do not, however, emphasize the conflict between Arian and Nicene Christians so much as Moses' personal disdain for Lucius. Socrates Scholasticus notes how, after the Romans and Mavia had agreed to terms:
Moses was accordingly seized, and brought from the desert to Alexandria, in order to be initiated in the sacerdotal functions: but on his presentation for that purpose to Lucius, who at that time presided over the churches in that city, he refused to be ordained by him, protesting against it in these words: “I account myself indeed unworthy of the sacred office; but if the exigencies of the state require my bearing it, it shall not be by Lucius laying his hand on me, for it has been filled with blood.” When Lucius told him that it was his duty to learn from him the principles of religion, and not to utter reproachful language, Moses replied, “Matters of faith are not now in question; but your infamous practices against the brethren sufficiently prove the inconsistency of your doctrines with Christian truth. A Christian is no striker, reviles not, does not fight; for it becomes not a servant of the Lord to fight. But your deeds cry out against you by those who have been sent into exile, who have been exposed to the wild beasts, and who have been delivered up to the flames. Those things which our own eyes have beheld are far more convincing than what we receive from the report of another.” (IV.36)
Here, Moses says nothing of Arianism; his objection is entirely to Lucius' personal behavior. He refuses to be ordained by Lucius and is instead consecrated as bishop by orthodox Christians living in exile. There is nothing to suggest Mavia's Christianity and nowhere in the accounts is there any mention that Valens or anyone else intended to place an Arian bishop over Mavia's tribe.
Mavia most likely rebelled against Rome because she had been slighted as queen. The Romans had assumed she would honor her husband's agreement with them but did not show her the respect of negotiating with her directly. After their treatment of the reaching of the peace accord, the accounts do not mention Arian or Nicene Christians in the equation. To finalize the peace, Mavia gave her daughter in marriage to a Roman officer named Victor, commander-in-chief of the army, and the narrative of her rebellion ends.


Once peace was made, and Valens no longer had to worry about a widespread insurrection in the region, he turned his attention to the Goths. He met Fritigern and his army at the Battle of Adrianople where he was killed and the Roman army defeated in August 378 CE. In the aftermath of the battle, when Rome feared imminent attacks by the Goths on their cities, Mavia sent cavalry to defend Constantinople.
Theodosius I (379-395 CE) negotiated peace with the Goths sometime around 382 CE but the terms seem to have been so favorable that the Tanukhids felt betrayed and revolted again in 383 CE. Mavia is not mentioned in this revolt and it is possible she had already died and her unknown successor raised the insurrection. It is believed, however, that she was still queen in c.425 CE based on an inscription dated to that year which bears her name.
Scholar Irfan Shahid is the main proponent for accepting this date but other scholars have noted that "Mavia" was a common name at that time and the inscription could be referencing another woman. Shahid, however, points out that the inscription is more likely to refer to the famous queen than an unknown woman of the same name; his claim has more or less been accepted.
How she reigned and what happened to her after the revolt is unknown but she is depicted as a brilliant and ruthless queen and military commander. The ancient accounts all explicitly mention or imply that she was initially dismissed by the Romans because she was a woman and how their assumption that a woman could be no threat cost them dearly. There is almost a note of satisfaction in Sozomen's tone as he describes the arrogance of the Roman commander who has to be rescued by his subordinate from Mavia's onslaught. Whatever her final fate may have been, she made a significant impression on her enemies whose historians immortalized her in often glowing phrases.

Ancient Greek Religion › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 13 March 2018
Panathenaic Procession ()
In the ancient Greek world, religion was personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. With formal rituals which included animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of mankind and give the gods a human face, temples which dominated the urban landscape, city festivals and national sporting and artistic competitions, religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. Whilst the individual may have made up their own mind on the degree of their religious belief and some may have been completely sceptical, certain fundamentals must have been sufficiently widespread in order for Greek government and society to function: the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship.


Polytheistic Greek religion encompassed a myriad of gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition, and even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom could have their own personification. The most important gods, though, were the Olympian gods led by Zeus. These were:
  • Athena
  • Apollo
  • Poseidon
  • Hermes
  • Hera
  • Aphrodite
  • Demeter
  • Ares
  • Artemis
  • Hades
  • Hephaistos
  • Dionysos
These Olympian gods were believed to reside on Mt. Olympos and would have been recognised across Greece, albeit, with some local variations and perhaps particular attributes and associations.


In the Greek imagination, literature, and art, the gods were given human bodies and characters - both good and bad - and just as ordinary men and women, they married, had children (often through illicit affairs), fought, and in the stories of Greek mythology they directly intervened in human affairs. These traditions were first recounted only orally as there was no sacred text in Greek religion and later, attempts were made to put in writing this oral tradition, notably by Hesiod in his Theogonyand more indirectly in the works of Homer.


Gods became patrons of cities, for example, Aphrodite for Corinth and Helios for Rhodes, and were called upon for help in particular situations, for example, Ares during war and Hera for weddings. Some gods were imported from abroad, for example, Adonis, and incorporated into the Greek pantheon whilst rivers and springs could take on a very localised personified form such as the nymphs.
The temple ( naos - meaning dwelling place in reference to the belief that the god dwelt in that place, or at least temporarily visited during rituals) was the place where, on special occasions, religion took on a more formal tone. Gods were worshipped at sacred sites and temples in all major Greek communities in ceremonies carried out by priests and their attendants.
Temple of Hephaistos & Athena, Athens

Temple of Hephaistos & Athena, Athens

At first, sacred sites were merely a simple altar in a designated area, but over time massive temples came to be built in honour of a particular god and these usually housed a cult statue of the deity, most famously the huge statue of Athena in the Parthenon of Athens or Zeus at Olympia. In time, a whole complex of temples to lesser gods could spring up around the main temple, creating a large sacred complex, often built on an acropolis dominating a city or surrounding area. This sacred area ( temenos ) was separated from the rest of the community by a symbolic gate or propylon, and in fact, it was believed that this area belonged to the particular deity in question. Sacred sites also received financial donations and dedications of statues, fountains and even buildings from the faithful, often to celebrate a great military victory and give thanks to the gods, and larger sanctuaries also had permanent caretakers ( neokoroi ) who were responsible for the upkeep of the site.


The temple itself, though, was not used during religious practices as these were carried out at a designated altar outside the temple. Ancient authors often show a reluctance to go into explicit details of religious ceremonies and rites as if these were too sacred to be publicised in the written word. What we do know is that the most common religious practices were sacrifice and the pouring of libations, all to the accompaniment of prayers in honour of the god. The animals sacrificed were usually pigs, sheep, goats or cows and always the same sex as the god which was being honoured. The meat was then either burnt completely or cooked, with part offered to the god and the rest eaten by some or all of the worshippers or taken away to be eaten later. The actual killing of the animal was carried out by a butcher or cook ( megeiras ) whilst a young girl sprinkled seeds onto the animals head, perhaps symbolic of life and regeneration at the moment of the animal's death. Other such rituals included examining the entrails of sacrificed animals to ascertain signs which could help predict future events.
Priests then, orchestrated the religious ceremonies and delivered prayers. The position was generally open to all and once assuming the role, particularly when wearing the sacred headband, the body of the priest became inviolate. Priests served a specific god but they were not necessarily religious experts. For theological questions, a citizen could consult an exegetes, a state official, who was knowledgeable in religious affairs. Women could also be priests, which is perhaps surprising given their lack of any other public role in Greek society. Often, but not always, the priest was the same sex as the god they represented.Priestesses did have the added restriction that they were most often selected because they were virgins or beyond menopause. Worshippers, on the other hand, could be both sexes and those rituals with restrictions could exclude either men or women.



In addition to the formal and public religious ceremonies there were also many rites which were open to and known only by the initiated who performed them, the most famous example being the Mysteries of Eleusis. In these closed groups, members believed that certain activities gave spiritual benefits, amongst them a better after-life.
Places could also acquire a divine connection; the great oracles such as that of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Dodona may well have begun as places considered particularly good to receive signs from the gods. Such places became hugely important centres with their priest oracles consulted by both individuals and city-states so that the rather vague and ambiguous proclamations might help guide their future conduct.


Athletic Games and competitions in music (especially playing the kithara and lyre ) and theatre (both tragedy and comedy) were held during festivals such as the City Dionysia of Athens and the Panhellenic games at the most important sacred sites of Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia to honour a particular god. These events were attended by visitors from all over Greece and the experience was perhaps more akin to a pilgrimage rather than that of a mere sports fan. Illustrating their sacred status, warfare was prohibited during these events and pilgrims were guaranteed free-passage across Greece.However, there were also much smaller festivals, sometimes only attended by a very select number of individuals, for example, the Arrhephoria in Athens, where only priestesses and a maximum of four young girls participated.
Greek Chariot

Greek Chariot


Although the historical record reveals much about formal religious occasions and ceremony, we should remember that Greek religion was in fact practised anywhere, at any time, by private individuals in a very personal way. Not only temples but also the hearth in private homes was regarded as sacred, for example. Individuals could also visit a temple anytime they wanted to and it was customary to say a prayer even when just passing them in the street. People left offerings such as incense, flowers, and food, no doubt with a hopeful prayer or in gratitude for a past deed. Individuals could also organise their own private sacrifice if they had the means to do so, and these have been commemorated in thousands of stone relief markers found at sacred sites. In addition, temples were often visited in order to seek healing, especially at those sites associated with Asclepius the god of medicine, notably at Epidaurus.
People also looked for signs from the gods in everyday life and to interpret these signs as indicators of future events. Such signs could be birds in the sky or a spoken word between friends said at a particular moment or even a simple sneeze which might be interpreted as an auspicious or inauspicious omen.
Such beliefs and, indeed, certain aspects of religion such as the immorality of the gods as portrayed in the arts, were severely criticised by intellectuals, artists, and philosophers from the 5th century BCE, but these may or may not reflect the commonly held views of the wider populace, and it is difficult to believe from the wealth of archaeological and written records that religion was anything but a fundamental part of life for the ordinary inhabitants of the ancient Greek world.

Mesopotamia › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 14 March 2018
Assyrian Lion Hunt (Jan van der Crabben (Photographer))
Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning 'between two rivers') was an ancient region located in the eastern Mediterranean bounded in the northeast by the Zagros Mountains and in the southeast by the Arabian Plateau, corresponding to today's Iraq, mostly, but also parts of modern-day Iran, Syria and Turkey. The 'two rivers' of the name referred to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and the land was known as 'Al-Jazirah' (the island) by the Arabs referencing what Egyptologist JH Breasted would later call the Fertile Crescent, where Mesopotamian civilization began.


Unlike the more unified civilizations of Egypt or Greece, Mesopotamia was a collection of varied cultures whose only real bonds were their script, their gods, and their attitude toward women. The social customs, laws, and even language of Akkad, for example, cannot be assumed to correspond to those of Babylon ; it does seem, however, that the rights of women, the importance of literacy, and the pantheon of the gods were indeed shared throughout the region (though the gods had different names in various regions and periods). As a result of this, Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilizations rather than any single civilization. Even so, Mesopotamia is known as the “cradle of civilization” primarily because of two developments that occurred there, in the region of Sumer, in the 4th millenium BCE:
  • the rise of the city as we recognize that entity today.
  • the invention of writing (although writing is also known to have developed in Egypt, in the Indus Valley, in China, and to have taken form independently in Mesoamerica).
The invention of the wheel is also credited to the Mesopotamians and, in 1922 CE, the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered “the remains of two four-wheeled wagons, [at the site of the ancient city of Ur ] the oldest wheeled vehicles in history ever found, along with their leather tires” (Bertman, 35). Other important developments or inventions credited to the Mesopotamians include, but are by no means limited to, domestication of animals, agriculture, common tools, sophisticated weaponry and warfare, the chariot, wine, beer, demarcation of time into hours, minutes, and seconds, religious rites, the sail (sailboats), and irrigation. Orientalist Samuel Noah Kramer, in fact, has listed 39 `firsts' in human civilization that originated in Sumer. These include:
The First Schools, The First Case of `Apple Polishing', The First Case of Juvenile Delinquency, The First ` War of Nerves', The First Bicameral Congress, The First Historian, The First Case of Tax Reduction, The First ` Moses ', The First Legal Precedent, The First Pharmacopoeia, The First `Farmer's Almanac', The First Experiment in Shade-Tree Gardening, Man's First Cosmogony and Cosmology, The First Moral Ideals, The First `Job', The First Proverbs and Sayings, The First Animal Fables, The First Literary Debates, The First Biblical Parallels, The First `Noah', The First Tale of Resurrection, The First `St. George', The First Case of Literary Borrowing, Man's First Heroic Age, The First Love Song, The First Library Catalogue, Man's First Golden Age, The First `Sick' Society, The First Liturgic Laments, The First Messiahs, The First Long-Distance Champion, The First Literary Imagery, The First Sex Symbolism, The First Mater Dolorosa, The First Lullaby, The First Literary Portrait, The First Elegies, Labor's First Victory, The First Aquarium.
Lion of Babylon

Lion of Babylon

Archaeological excavations starting in the 1840s CE have revealed human settlements dating to 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia that indicate that the fertile conditions of the land between two rivers allowed an ancient hunter-gatherer people to settle in the land, domesticate animals, and turn their attention to agriculture. Trade soon followed, and with prosperity came urbanizationand the birth of the city. It is generally thought that writing was invented due to trade, out of the necessity for long-distance communication, and for keeping more careful track of accounts.



Mesopotamia was known in antiquity as a seat of learning, and it is believed that Thales of Miletus (c. 585 BCE, known as the 'first philosopher') studied there. As the Babylonians believed that water was the 'first principle' from which all else flowed, and as Thales is famous for that very claim, it seems probable he studied in the region.
Intellectual pursuits were highly valued across Mesopotamia, and the schools (devoted primarily to the priestly class) were said to be as numerous as temples and taught reading, writing, religion, law, medicine, and astrology. There were over 1,000 deities in the pantheon of the gods of the Mesopotamian cultures and many stories concerning the gods (among them, the creation myth, the Enuma Elish). It is generally accepted that biblical tales such as the Fall of Man and the Flood of Noah (among many others) originated in Mesopotamian lore, as they first appear in Mesopotamian works such as The Myth of Adapa and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world. The Mesopotamians believed that they were co-workers with the gods and that the land was infused with spirits and demons (though `demons' should not be understood in the modern, Christian, sense).
The beginning of the world, they believed, was a victory by the gods over the forces of chaos but, even though the gods had won, this did not mean chaos could not come again. Through daily rituals, attention to the deities, proper funeral practices, and simple civic duty, the people of Mesopotamia felt they helped maintain balance in the world and kept the forces of chaos and destruction at bay. Along with expectations that one would honor one's elders and treat people with respect, the citizens of the land were also to honor the gods through the jobs they performed every day.
Map of Mesopotamia, 2000-1600 BC

Map of Mesopotamia, 2000-1600 BC


Men and women both worked, and “because ancient Mesopotamia was fundamentally an agrarian society, the principal occupations were growing crops and raising livestock” (Bertman, 274). Other occupations included those of the scribe, the healer, artisan, weaver, potter, shoemaker, fisherman, teacher, and priest or priestess. Bertman writes:
At the head of society were the kings and priests served by the populous staff of palace and temple. With the institution of standing armies and the spread of imperialism, military officers and professional soldiers took their place in Mesopotamia's expanding and diverse workforce. (274)
Women enjoyed nearly equal rights and could own land, file for divorce, own their own businesses, and make contracts in trade. The early brewers of beer and wine, as well as the healers in the community, were initially women. These trades were later taken over by men, it seems, when it became apparent they were lucrative occupations. The work one did, however, was never considered simply a `job' but one's contribution to the community and, by extension, to the gods' efforts in keeping the world at peace and in harmony.


The temple, at the center of every city (often on a raised platform), symbolized the importance of the city's patron deity who would also be worshipped by whatever communities that city presided over. Mesopotamia gave birth to the world's first citieswhich were largely built of sun-dried brick. In the words of Bertman:
The domestic architecture of Mesopotamia grew out of the soil upon which it stood. Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia –especially in the south– was barren of stone that could be quarried for construction.” The land was equally devoid of trees for timber, so the people “turned to other natural resources that lay abundantly at hand: the muddy clay of its riverbanks and the rushes and reeds that grew in their marshes. With them, the Mesopotamians created the world's first columns, arches, and roofed structures. (285)
Simple homes were constructed from bundles of reeds lashed together and inserted in the ground, while more complex homes were built of sun-dried clay brick (a practice followed later by the Egyptians). Cities and temple complexes, with their famous ziggurats (the step- pyramid structures indigenous to the region), were all built using oven-baked bricks of clay which were then painted.


The gods were thought to be present in the planning and execution of any building project and very specific prayers, recited in a set order to the proper deity, were considered of utmost importance in the success of the project and the prosperity of the occupants of the home.
Whichever kingdom or empire held sway across Mesopotamia, in whatever historical period, the vital role of the gods in the lives of the people remained undiminished. This reverence for the divine characterized the lives of both the field worker and the king. The historian Helen Chapin Metz writes:
The precariousness of existence in southern Mesopotamia led to a highly developed sense of religion. Cult centers such as Eridu, dating back to 5000 BCE, served as important centers of pilgrimage and devotion even before the rise of Sumer. Many of the most important Mesopotamian cities emerged in areas surrounding the pre-Sumerian cult centers, thus reinforcing the close relationship between religion and government. (2)
The role of the king was established at some point after 3600 BCE and, unlike the priest-rulers who came before, the king dealt directly with the people and made his will clear through laws of his own devising. Prior to the concept of a king, the priestly rulers are believed to have dictated the law according to religious precepts and received divine messages through signs and omens; the king, while still honoring and placating the gods, was considered a powerful enough representative of those gods to be able to speak their will through his own dictates, using his own voice.
Shalmaneser III

Shalmaneser III

This is most clearly seen in the famous laws of Hammurabi of Babylon (r. 1792-1750 BCE), but a ruler claiming direct contact with the gods was quite common throughout Mesopotamian history, most notably in the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (r. 2261-2224 BCE) who went so far as to proclaim himself a god incarnate. The king was responsible for the welfare of his people and a good king, who ruled in accordance with divine will, was recognized by the prosperity of the region he reigned over.
Still, even very efficient rulers, such as Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE), had to deal with perpetual uprisings and revolts by factions, or whole regions, contesting his legitimacy. As Mesopotamia was so vast a region, with so many different cultures and ethnicities within its borders, a single ruler attempting to enforce the laws of a central government would invariably be met with resistance from some quarter.


The history of the region, and the development of the civilizations which flourished there, is most easily understood by dividing it into periods:
Pre- Pottery Neolithic Age
Also known as The Stone Age (c. 10,000 BCE though evidence suggests human habitation much earlier). There is archaeological confirmation of crude settlements and early signs of warfare between tribes, most likely over fertile land for crops and fields for grazing livestock. Animal husbandry was increasingly practiced during this time with a shift from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agrarian one. Even so, the historian Marc Van De Mieroop notes:
There was not a sudden change from hunting-gathering to farming, but rather a slow process during which people increased their reliance on resources they managed directly, but still supplemented their diets by hunting wild animals. Agriculture enabled an increase in continuous settlement by people (12).
As more settlements grew, architectural developments slowly became more sophisticated in the construction of permanent dwellings.
Pottery Neolithic Age (c. 7,000 BCE)
In this period there was a widespread use of tools and clay pots and a specific culture begins to emerge in the Fertile Crescent. Scholar Stephen Bertman writes, “during this era, the only advanced technology was literally 'cutting edge'” as stone tools and weapons became more sophisticated. Bertman further notes that “the Neolithic economy was primarily based on food production through farming and animal husbandry” (55) and was more settled, as opposed to the Stone Age in which communities were more mobile. Architectural advancements naturally followed in the wake of permanent settlements as did developments in the manufacture of ceramics and stone tools.
Reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur

Reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur

Copper Age (5,900 – 3,200 BCE)
Also known as The Chalcolithic Period owing to the transition from stone tools and weapons to ones made of copper. The rise of cities began in this period, most notably in the region of Sumer in which thrived the cities of Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Kish, Nuzi, Lagash, Nippur, and Ngirsu, and in Elam with its city of Susa. The earliest city is often cited as Uruk, although Eridu and Ur have also been suggested. Van De Mieroop writes, “Mesopotamia was the most densely urbanized region in the ancient world” (as cited in Bertman, 201), and the cities which grew up along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as those founded further away, established systems of trade which resulted in great prosperity.
This period saw the invention of the wheel (c. 3500 BCE) and writing (c. 3000 BCE), both by the Sumerians, the establishment of kingships to replace priestly rule, and the first war in the world recorded between the kingdoms of Sumer and Elam (3,200 BCE) with Sumer as the victor. Increased prosperity in the region gave rise to ornate temples and statuary, sophisticated pottery and figurines, toys for children (including dolls for girls and wheeled carts for boys), and the use of personal seals (known as Cylinder Seals) to denote ownership of property and to stand for an individual's signature. Cylinder Seals would be comparable to one's modern-day identification card or driver's license and, in fact, the loss or theft of one's seal would have been as significant as modern-day identity theft or losing one's credit cards.
Early Bronze Age (3,000 – 2119 BCE)
During this period, bronze supplanted copper as the material from which tools and weapons were made. The rise of the city-state laid the foundation for economic and political stability which would eventually lead to the rise of the Akkadian Empire (2350 BCE) and the rapid growth of the cities of Akkad and Mari, two of the most prosperous urban centers of the time. The cultural stability necessary for the creation of art in the region resulted in more intricate designs in architecture and sculpture, as well as the following inventions or improvements:
a number of specific and momentous inventions: the plough and the wheel, the chariot and the sailboat, and the cylinder-seal, the single most distinctive art form of ancient Mesopotamia and a pervasive demonstration of the importance of property ownership and business in the country's daily life. (Bertman, 55-56)
The Akkadian Empire of Sargon was the first multi-national realm in the world and Sargon's daughter, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), the first author of literary works known by name. The library at Mari contained over 20,000 cuneiform tablets (books) and the palace there was considered one of the finest in the region.


Middle Bronze Age (2119-1700 BCE)
The expansion of the Assyrian Kingdoms ( Assur, Nimrud, Sharrukin, Dur, and Nineveh ) and the rise of the Babylonian Dynasty (centered in Babylon and Chaldea) created an atmosphere conducive to trade and, with it, increased warfare. The Guti Tribe, fierce nomads who succeeded in toppling the Akkadian Empire, dominated the politics of Mesopotamia until they were defeated by the allied forces of the kings of Sumer. Hammurabi, King of Babylon rose from relative obscurity to conquer the region and reign for 43 years. Among his many accomplishments was his famous code of laws, inscribed on the stele of the gods. Babylon became a leading centre at this time for intellectual pursuit and high accomplishment in arts and letters.This cultural centre was not to last, however, and was sacked and looted by the Hittites who were then succeeded by the Kassites.
Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BCE)
The rise of the Kassite Dynasty (a tribe who came from the Zagros Mountains in the north and are thought to have originated in modern-day Iran) leads to a shift in power and an expansion of culture and learning after the Kassites conquered Babylon.The collapse of the Bronze Age followed the discovery of how to mine ore and make use of iron, a technology which the Kassites and, earlier, the Hittites made singular use of in warfare.
The period also saw the beginning of the decline of Babylonian culture due to the rise in power of the Kassites until they were defeated by the Elamites and driven out. After the Elamites gave way to the Aramaeans, the small Kingdom of Assyria began a series of successful campaigns, and the Assyrian Empire was firmly established and prospered under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser I (r. 1115-1076 BCE) and, after him, Ashurnasirpal II (r. 884-859 BCE) consolidated the empire further. Most Mesopotamian states were either destroyed or weakened following the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE, leading to a short "dark age".
Ashurnasirpal II Wall Relief

Ashurnasirpal II Wall Relief

Iron Age (1000 – 500 BCE)
This age saw the rise and expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE) and that Empire's meteoric rise to power and conquest under the rule of great Assyrian kings such as Sargon II (722-705 BCE), Sennacherib(705-681 BCE), Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (c. 668-627 BCE, who conquered Babylonia, Syria, Israel, and Egypt). The Empire suffered a decline as rapid as its rise due to repeated attacks on central cities by Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians.
The tribes of the Hittites and the Mitanni consolidated their respective powers during this time which resulted in the rise of the Neo- Hittite and Neo-Babylonian Empires. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem (588 BCE) during this period and forced the inhabitants of Israel into the “Babylonian Exile”. He was also responsible for extensive construction in Babylon, creating famous buildings such as the Ishtar Gate and the Great Ziggurat (the "Tower of Babel "). The fall of Babylon to Cyrus II of Persia in 539 BCE effectively ended Babylonian culture.


Classical Antiquity (500 BCE – 7th century CE)
After Cyrus II (d. 530 BCE) took Babylon, the bulk of Mesopotamia became part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and this period saw a rapid cultural decline in the region, most notably in the loss of the knowledge of cuneiform script. The conquest of the Persians by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE brought Hellenization of the culture and religion but, even though Alexandertried to again make Babylon a city of consequence, its days of glory were now in the past. After his death, Alexander's general Seleucus took control of the region and founded the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled until 126 BCE when the land was conquered by the Parthians who were, in turn, dominated by the Sassanians (a people of Persian descent). Bertman writes, “Under Sassanian domination, Mesopotamia lay in ruins, its fields dried out or turned into a swampy morass, its once great cities made ghost towns” (58).
By the time of the conquest by the Roman Empire (116 CE), Mesopotamia was a largely Hellenized region, lacking in any unity, which had forgotten the old gods and the old ways. The Romans improved the infrastructure of their colonies significantly through their introduction of better roads and plumbing and brought Roman Law to the land. Even so, the region was constantly caught up in the wars various Roman emperors waged with other nations over control of the land.
The entire culture of the region once known as Mesopotamia was swept away in the final conquest of the area by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century CE which resulted in the unification of law, language, religion and culture under Islam. Bertman notes, “With the Islamic conquest of 651 CE the history of ancient Mesopotamia ends” (58). Today the great cities that once rose along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are largely unexcavated mounds or broken bricks on arid plains, and the once fertile crescent has steadily dwindled to a wasteland due to human factors (such as overuse of the land through agricultural pursuits or urban development) and also due to climate change.
Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night


The legacy of Mesopotamia endures today through many of the most basic aspects of modern life such as the sixty-second minute and the sixty-minute hour. Helen Chapin Metz writes,
Because the well-being of the community depended upon close observation of natural phenomena, scientific or protoscientific activities occupied much of the priests' time. For example, the Sumerians believed that each of the gods was represented by a number. The number sixty, sacred to the god An, was their basic unit of calculation.The minutes of an hour and the notational degrees of a circle were Sumerian concepts. The highly developed agricultural system and the refined irrigation and water-control systems that enabled Sumer to achieve surplus production also led to the growth of large cities. (4)
Urbanization, the wheel, writing, astronomy, mathematics, wind power, irrigation, agricultural developments, animal husbandry, and the narratives which would eventually be re-written as the Hebrew Scriptures and provide the basis for the Christian Old Testament all came from the land of Mesopotamia.
As noted, Kramer lists 39 `firsts' from Mesopotamia in his book History Begins at Sumer and yet, as impressive as those `firsts' are, Mesopotamian contributions to world culture do not end with them. The Mesopotamians influenced the cultures of Egypt and Greece through long-distance trade and cultural diffusion and, through these cultures, impacted the culture of Romewhich set the standard for the development and spread of western civilization. Mesopotamia generally, and Sumer specifically, gave the world some of its most enduring cultural aspects and, even though the cities and great palaces are long gone, that legacy continued into the modern era.
In the 19th century CE, archaeologists of varying nationalities arrived in Mesopotamia to excavate for evidence which would corroborate the biblical tales of the Old Testament. At this time, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world and the stories found in its pages were thought to be original compositions. The archaeologists who sought physical evidence to support the biblical stories found exactly the opposite once cuneiform was deciphered by the scholar and translator George Smith (1840-1876 CE) in 1872 CE. The story of the Great Flood and Noah's Ark, the story of the Fall of Man, the concept of a Garden of Eden, even the complaints of Job had all been written centuries before the biblical texts by the Mesopotamians.
Once cuneiform could be read, the ancient world of Mesopotamia opened up to the modern age and transformed people's understanding of the history of the world and themselves. The discovery of the Sumerian Civilization and the stories of the cuneiform tablets encouraged a new freedom of intellectual inquiry into all areas of knowledge. It was now understood that the biblical narratives were not original Hebrew works, the world was obviously older than the church had been claiming, there were civilizations which had risen and fallen long before that of Egypt and if these claims by authorities of church and schools had been false, perhaps others were as well.
The spirit of inquiry in the late 19th century was already making inroads into challenging the paradigms of accepted thought when Smith deciphered cuneiform but the discovery of Mesopotamian culture and religion encouraged this further. In ancient times, Mesopotamia impacted the world through its inventions, innovations, and religious vision; in the modern day it literally changed the way people understood the whole of history and one's place in the continuing story of human civilization.


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