1. Chronology of Ancient Mesopotamian History
2. An overview of ancient mesopotamian History
3. Why mesopotamian Myths?






5500 BCE

First village settlements in the South


3500 BCE

Uruk period

first pictographic texts

3000 BCE

Early Dynastic Period (ca. 2800-2270)

Old Sumerian literature

2500 BEC

Sargonic Dynasty (ca. 2270-1083)

Neo Sumerian period (c.2100-1004)

Old Akkadian

2000 BCE

3rd Dynasty of Ur/Isin-Larsa

Old Babylonian Period (c. 2000-1760)

Middle Babylonian period (c. 1600-1000)

Royal hymns, courtly love poetry

1500 BCE

Kassite dynasty


1000 BCE

Second Dynasty of Isin

Neo Assyrian period


500 BCE

Neo Babylonian period

Fall of Nineveh 621

Babylon captured in 539 by Cyrus



Dr. PAUL COLLINS, PhD Archaeology University College London, UK - BRITISH MUSEUM GALLERY LECTURER

Mesopotamia is a Greek term meaning ‘ between the rivers’, and refers to the land bordered by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. In modern political terms this covers the country of Iraq and parts of Syria and Turkey. Mesopotamian region was (and still today is) very diverse: undulating plains in the North, where wheat growing and cattle rearing could be practised; further South, the rivers were rich in marine life and the river banks jungles of vegetation where lions prowled and wild boar could be hunted. The rich wildlife was probably what first attracted humans to the Mesopotamian plain. The Southern plain, outside the area of rain, fed agriculture, but, over the millennia, the rivers have laid down thick deposits of very fertile silt and, once water is brought to this soil in ditches and canals, it proves a very attractive area to farmers. For materials such as wood, stone and metals, however, people have to look North and East, to the mountains where the first settlers had originated.

 As far as we can tell, farmers and fishermen started to settle the Mesopotamian plain around 5,500 Before Common Era. Over time, their small villages grew into large settlements. The focus of these communities appears to have been the temple of the town’s patron god or goddess. The rich farmland provided a surplus of agricultural goods and any wealth generated was invested in monumental temple buildings, such as those found at Eridu, Uruk and Ur. Temples and ordinary houses were built using the reeds and mud that line the river banks. Centuries of rebuilding using sun-dried mud-bricks resulted in high mounds, or Tells, rising above the fields and canals. These now dominate the flat Mesopotamian plain and, when abandoned by people, are the sites chosen by archaeologists for their excavations.

 At the end of the fourth millennium, Uruk was probably the largest city in the world (estimated by some scholars at 400 hectares - the size of Rome in the first century of our Common Era). Centred on the important temple of Inanna (the Great Goddess of Love and War), the city has produced beautiful stone sculptures depicting the temple flocks of sheep and goats. Of more significance, however, is the discovery at Uruk of the world’s earliest recorded writing. Using a reed stylus to draw on tablets of clay, the temple administrators recorded the movement of agricultural produce and out of the temple storerooms including beer, bread and sheep. Initially the records took the form of pictures of the objects being counted together with signs representing numerals. Gradually, these pictographs became more stylised and wedge-like or cuneiform (Latin for wedge = cuneus) and adapted to write the local language, or Sumerian. The ability to write allowed the Sumerians to record not only lists of goods but also events around them. This development therefore takes us from pre-history to history.

 Uruk was not the only large settlement in Southern Mesopotamia. The wealth of one of these city-states is demonstrated by the Royal Graves of Ur, which date to around 2600 BCE. Of the thousands of graves excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur in the 1920s, sixteen were particularly rich. Woolley called them ‘Royal’ because he believed they were the graves of Ur’s queens and kings. The most remarkable aspect of these burials is the large number of human bodies found in the pits. These are interpreted as sacrificial victims, accompanying their leader in death, and it would appear that they died relatively peacefully. The excavations found cups close to some of the bodies: where these perhaps poison chalices? The victims are identified as soldiers, harpists and serving ladies on their rich clothes and ornaments - made from gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian and shell.

 Around 2350 BCE the southern city states were united into one empire by Sargon, king of the city of Akkad (also read as Agade). The administration was centralised and the Semitic language Akkadian (named after Sargon’s capital) was introduced as the official language in preference to Sumerian. Akkad has not been located but the period produced some astonishing works of art, including fine cylinder seals.

Sargon and his sons ruled Mesopotamia for 150 years. The last of the great Akkadian emperors was Naram-Sin. Later stories present this man very unfavourably. He is said to have angered the Air God Enlil by taking his army into the god’s temple. Enlil then sent against Naram-Sin a people from the mountains bordering Mesopotamia who, we are told, destroyed the capital Akkad. The location of the city remains unknown to this day.

The Akkadian Empire had collapsed and Mesopotamia was in turmoil. The southern cities began to reassert their independence. Chief among these was the city of Ur. Under king Ur-Nammu, the city established itself as the capital of an empire that rivalled that of the Akkadian rulers. Sumerian (although no longer a spoken language) was reintroduced as the official written language of the dynasty known to historians as the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Ur-Nammu was a prodigious builder. The most impressive monument of his reign was the ziggurat at Ur. Although similar in shape to the pyramids of Egypt, ziggurats were not tombs but made of solid brickwork. Often, as at Ur, three staircases led up one side of the tower to several stages. At the summit was a shrine to the god. One of the most famous ziggurats was built in the city of Babylon and gave rise to the story of the Tower of Babel.

Like the earlier kings of Akkad, the rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur had to fight with groups of people moving into Mesopotamia from the surrounding mountains and deserts, attracted by the wealth of the country. Under Ur-Nammu’s grandson, Ibbi-Su (around 2028-2004 BCE), the empire collapsed as Amorite and Hurrian tribes established themselves throughout Mesopotamia. At the same time, the Akkadian language replaced Sumerian, which continued to be used by scribes only for monumental inscriptions and religious literature. For the next three hundred years the cities of Lower Mesopotamia, chiefly Isin and Larsa, competed for control of the region.

Further North lay the city of Ashur on a rocky promontory overlooking an important crossing of the River Tigris. From here the city dominated the caravans of donkeys carrying metals and rare materials from the east and west, and the boats moving to and from the cities of Sumer to the South. As an important trading centre, Ashur had by 1900 BCE established commercial colonies in Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Cloth and Iranian tin were exchanged for Anatolian silver and records of these activities on clay tablets have been found at a number of sites in Turkey. The letters were often protected by an envelope of clay on which the recipient’s name was written and sealed with a cylinder seal. In other examples, a copy of the letter was written on the envelope as a safeguard.

At the end of the nineteenth century BCE an ambitious solder called Shamshi-Adad brought Ashur under his control. He established an empire which stretched across the North of Mesopotamia. Around 1780 BCE, Shamshi-Ada died and his sons lacked their father’s abilities. The empire collapsed and Ashur and the North were now open to attack. When attack came, it came from the South.

As king of the small town of Babylon, Hammurapi united Southern Mesopotamia into a single empire. In the second half of his reign, he marched North and received the submission of Northern kingdoms, including the rulers of the kingdom of Ashur. As with Shamshi-Adad, however, Hammurapi’s death caused his empire to fall apart. Despite this, the city of Babylon was to remain the capital of a Southern kingdom. Hammurapi is best remembered for his code of laws (the famous stela of Hammurapi is now in the Louvre in Paris). In 1595 BCE the dynasty of Hammurapi was brought to an end. It is possible that the Hittites from Anatolia made a lightning raid down the Euphrates, sacked Babylon and captured the statue of Marduk, patron god of Babylon.

For the next 150 years or so, there is little information to reconstruct events. When evidence becomes available, it is clear that Mesopotamia is dominated by two major powers: the Kassites ruling Babylon and a Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni in the North. What little that is known of these two empires often comes from areas outside Mesopotamia, such as the New Kingdom Egypt and Hittite Anatolia.

Around 1350 BCE, however, it is clear that the kingdom of Mitanni collapsed under increasing pressure from the Hittites to the West. With the fall of Mitanni, Assyria reasserted her independence and began a process of consolidation which would lead the country to create a vast empire during the first millennium BCE.

Around 1250 BCE the Near East faced general conflict and devastation. The Hittite Empire collapsed as part of a general movement of people (the so-called Peoples of the Sea - a mixture of dispossessed people, brigands and mercenaries) moving around the Mediterranean coast looking for areas to settle. In the course of these disturbed times several unsuccessful raids were made by the Sea Peoples against Egypt under the Pharaohs Memeptah and Rameses III. Tribes of Arameans were, meanwhile, moving into Mesopotamia from the west, pushing the boundaries of Assyria back to the capital Ashur.

 The first millennium revealed a Near East markedly changed politically. The Mediterranean coast, North of Egypt, was now settled by Philistines. Further inland, Hebrew tribes were settling in the hill country. In the North (modern Syria), traditions of the now vanished Hittite Empire were maintained, known today as Neo-Hittites. In Mesopotamia, various Aramean and Chaldean tribal groups competed for supremacy in Babylonia while the Assyrians maintained a firm hold on their homeland, slowly moving against the groups which had settled in the region.

 At the beginning of the 9th century BCE, Assyrian kings started sending military expeditions west in an attempt to control important trade routes and receive tribute from less powerful states. Among the first important kings of this so-called Neo-Assyrian period was Ashurnasirpal II. He moved away from Ashur and built himself a new capital city at Kalhu (Biblical Calah, modern Nimrud).

 To commemorate their achievements and glorify their names, the kings of Assyria built huge palaces and temples in their capital cities, which they decorated with stone reliefs. Some of the most spectacular examples of this type of decoration are displayed on the ground floor of the British Museum, in London, England. They also used brightly coloured glazed tiles showing the king participating in state ceremonies. Ivory, often carved with scenes similar to those on the bricks, was also used to decorate furniture and small exotic objects.

 The movement of the Assyrian armies towards the Mediterranean continued under Ahurmasirpal’s successors but there was no real attempt to incorporate conquered territories into an empire. In 745 BCE, however, Tiglath-pileser III came to the throne after a rebellion at court. The new king initiated changes in the administration of Assyria, including the annexation of countries into an empire. Over the following one hundred years, kings such as Sargon, Sennacherib and Esarhaddon not only built new capitals (Khorsabad and Nineveh), but also expanded the empire until Assyrian control stretched from Iran to Egypt. On his death in 668 BCE, Esarhaddon was succeeded by his son Ashurbanipal, who, though faced with trouble in Babylonia and Egypt, boasts of a peaceful and prosperous reign, allowing the king time to learn to read and write as well as engage in the royal sport of lion hunting.

 However, within 20 years of Ashurbanipal’s death around 627 BCE, Assyria was faced with internal strife and destruction. To the East, (in modern day Iran) lay the empire of the Medes. In 614 BCE a Median army under Cyaxares invaded the Assyrian homeland, attacked Nineveh and destroyed the ancient city of Ashur. Tow years later the combined forces of Cyaxares and the king of Babylon, Nabopolassar, captured Nineveh. The Assyrian court fled west to the town of Harran where they were finally defeated in 609 BCE by Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar. While the Medes withdrew to consolidade their conquests in the east, the Assyrian empire passed into the hands of the kings of Babylon.

 Sixty years of Babylonian supremacy was threatened during the reign of king Nabonidus, when Mesopotamia was faced with the expansion of yet another eastern power, the Persians. In 539 BCE, the armies of the Persian king Cyrus (a member of the Achaemenid family) marched upon Babylon and captured the city and with it all the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This, in effect, brought to an end three thousand years of self-rule in Mesopotamia. While many of the traditions and way of life in the region continued under the new rulers, Mesopotamia was now part of the much greater empire of the Persians which stretched from Egypt to India. Over the next 200 years the region would see the advance of Greek civilisation and the eventual destruction of the Persian Empire at the hand of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great.


The importance of Ancient Mesopotamia to understand our own present-day civilisation cannot be underestimated. It was Mesopotamia the home of some of the world’s earliest cities and the place where writing was invented. For these two major developments, namely to have originated a society both urban and literate, Mesopotamia might be rightly called ‘ the cradle of civilisation’, as well as its literature, religious philosophy and art can be placed firmly as direct ancestor to the Western world and the Judeo-Christian tradition in special.

Indeed, it is possible to trace back to Mesopotamia pieces of wisdom found later in Jewish, Phoenician, Egyptian (especially Alchemy) and even Greek tradition, and these similarities, whenever they take place, will be highlighted in the myths amd essays that follow.

For example, Sargon, the Akkadian, the king who unified Sumer, has a childhood in many aspects similar to Moses, the leader who conducted Israel out of Egyptian slavery. Sargon was found in a reed basket flowing upon a river and raised by a man of faith, probably a priest of Enki, the Sweet Waters Lord and god of Magic and Wisdom, under the protection of the local high priestess of Inanna, most certainly a royal princess herself. Adapa, the wise priest king, much before Solomon of the Jews, preferred Wisdom to life-everlasting in the myth that bears his name. In Enki and Ninhursag, we have the exact reversal of the myth of the Genesis in the Old Testament Bible, and it is quite clear that the Mesopotamian myth is wholer, much more fun and passionate, lacking the guilt that is a trademark of its Jewish counterpart. The tale of the floods, of Sumerian origin, predates other versions of the same phenomenon, which seemed to have affected a large area of the Near East in ancient times. And, naturally, the most romantic chapter of the Bible, the Song of Songs, a masterpiece of love poetry, can have its origins traced back to the Bridal Songs and Courtly Love Poetry which marked the Sumerian revival and glory of the Third Dynasty of Ur. In Mesopotamian Courtly Love Poetry, the archetypal couple are Inanna/Ishtar, the Goddess of Love and War, and her consort, Dumuzi/Tammuz, the priest-king and shepherd of the land, who had his kingship conferred by the goddess represented by her high priestess. Courtly love poetry is both earthly and spiritual, because human partners represented their Divine Counterparts: lovemaking was seen as a religious experience to be shared in all levels, by everyone in the land, especially during the time of the Sacred Marriage Rite. Moreover, the Mesopotamian formula for prayers and incantations normally contains the expression "by the bond of heaven and earth" (or duranki), as well as "from the Great Above to the Great Below" is another very common expression. We believe this is the Mesopotamian way of saying "as above, so below", much before the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt, Ki being the wondrous lapis, the Earth Queen, Beloved of Anu and Mother of all Creation. These are only a few examples of the importance of Mesopotamian mythology, which shaped up the psyche, religion, culture and values of the peoples who had some contact with them.

In what follows, we will unearth passionate stories inscribed in clay with the cuneiform system of writing invented by the ancient Mesopotamians, many dated from pre-biblical times. The presentation and retelling of such great myths in this work is intended to demonstrate the timelessness and profound wisdom for present day generations embedded in such age-old stories.

 Myths can be described as the narratives by which civilisations continually struggle to make their experience intelligible to themselves by means of large, evoking images that carry philosophical meaning to the facts of life, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Fundamentally, myths show dramatic representations of human aspirations and awareness of the universe. They also carry political and moral values of the source culture, and at the same time provide the means for interpreting individual and collective experiences within a universal perspective. Furthermore, as the poet W.B. Yeats put so well:

it is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endlessly inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres (Comments on Blake that carry organising value experienced by living fibres (comments on Blake, quoted by Block:15).

In perfect harmony with Yeat’s quotation introduced above, it is the purpose of this work to cover three aspects of the countless ‘ one thing ‘ that make myths worth telling through the ages. These are the following: 1) to present the chosen myths in a loose chronological sequence, as far as present day sources allow, through the lineage and ancestry of gods and goddesses, and mortal men and women who interacted with them; 2) to establish the possible links with developments of the Ancient Near East history and politics as far as archaeological data and findings are concerned (under construction, and conclusions will be presented as essays involving where myth and history dance and play), and 3) to show the joy, passion and values embedded in such narratives that reveal themselves as amazingly valid for our present-day generations.

Thus, join us on a Journey that will take you through the Gates of the Everlasting Babylon of all Mysteries, Magic, Passion and Healing. By the bond of Heaven and Earth, may your Journey be safe, may the words that were sung by so many take you to all homes where your Soul may have once belonged, and may they take you back to everyday reality, here and now, to live the Truths you experienced in the Realms of Beyond!


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