Part 2:
The Rise of Civilizations














3      The Invention of the City



Around the fourth millennium BC, a number of small villages in modern-day Iraq grew into large and powerful city-states, some with populations of over 10,000 people. Each city had a large temple at its center and was surrounded by strong defensive walls. At the head of each city was a king who ruled on earth and a city-god who ruled from heaven.

The rise of these city-states coincided with a number of world-altering inventions, including the wheel, writing, the plow, the pottery wheel, and bronze, marking the beginning of the Bronze Age. With urban development, strong social stratification, centralized administrations, and writing in place, these city-states are classified as the first civilization in history, known as the Sumerian civilization.


The Sumerian Civilization

The term “Mesopotamia” was coined by the Greeks, meaning “the land between rivers,” referring to the Tigris and Euphrates. These two rivers run alongside each other through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq for about 700 km (see Fig. 38). The ground around these rivers was so fertile that farmers began to produce enormous surpluses. As a result, villages grew and grew, turning into the first true cities in the fourth millennium BC. Agricultural produce was further increased through a number of crucial inventions and improvements. Irrigation channels, which had existed in simpler form before, were now extended to supply water to more distant fields and were in some cases made large enough to carry boats, facilitating the transport of goods. The invention of the ox-drawn plow (c. 3500 BC) allowed farming on soil too tough to plow by hand. In Fig. 64, we see a sophisticated plow, known as the seed plow, that appeared somewhere in the 3rd millennium BC. It was made of bronze and had a funnel to drop seeds straight into the ground. The Bronze Age in Mesopotamia started around 3300 BC, when the use of bronze became widespread, although earlier bronze artifacts have been found. We aren’t certain where the plow and bronze were first discovered, as evidence from approximately the same time has been found in various locations throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Fig. 64 – An ox-drawn plow with a funnel for seeds (c. 14th century BC) (Albert Clay)

The invention of the wheel also aided in the transport of goods. Wheels appear both in Europe and the Middle East around 3500 BC. Especially impressive are the wagon graves in the steppe grassland of Russia and Ukraine. About 250 of these graves have been found, dated between 3000 and 2000 BC (see Fig. 65).


Fig. 65 – Early wagons preserved in the Ostannii kurgan grave 1 in Southern Russia (3300-2900 BC) (From Новотиторовская культура by A. Гей)

Fig. 66 – A cart with solid wheels from the Standard of Ur (c. 2500 BC) (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, CC BY-SA 4.0; British Museum)

As a result of these inventions, a large amount of food entered the city, paving the way for many workers to focus on other activities besides farming. These men became rulers, bureaucrats, craftsmen, artisans, soldiers, tradesmen, scribes, and priests.

The enhanced complexity of city life also increased the need for regulation. Each city formed a central administration tasked with collecting taxes, organizing state labor, forming armies, and punishing crimes. As the economy grew, economic transactions also became more numerous and warehouses for the storage of goods expanded. To keep track of all this effectively, the Sumerians initially used stone tokens that stood in for one or more tradable items, but around 3400 BC this system developed into the first script. At first, the script consisted of tiny pictures pressed into clay. Over time, these pictures evolved into simpler symbols made from wedge-shaped marks known as cuneiform (see Fig. 67 and Fig. 68). Only a small percentage of the population of Sumer was able to read and write, and being a scribe was considered a high-status job.

Fig. 67 – The evolution of writing from pictograms to abstract cuneiform (S. P. Dinkgreve,

Fig. 68 – Cuneiform           

The complexity of maintaining a large city also required some basic arithmetic. The practical nature of mathematics at the time is nicely exemplified by the following math problem from the early first millennium BC:

A man earns two pounds of barley for one day of work. In one day he digs a trench four feet deep, two feet wide, and eight feet long. What will the cost be in barley and the time needed for eight men to dig a canal 6 feet deep, 6 feet wide, and 260 feet long? [19]


Fig. 69 – The sexagesimal number system (Josell7, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fig. 70 – Tablet YBC 7289 giving an example of the Pythagorean theorem. The diagonal gives 1.414213, which is the hypothenuse of a triangle with sides 1. The diagonal also gives 42.42639, which is the hypothenuse of a triangle with sides 30 (1800-1600 BC) (Yale Peabody Museum, CC0 1.0)

To write down numbers, the Mesopotamians introduced a sexagesimal number system, which has a base of 60 instead of 10 (see Fig. 69). Numbers over 59 were written by combining these symbols in place-value notation. Remarkably, no symbol for zero existed. Instead, a space was left open in larger numbers as a placeholder for zero (for instance, 60 became “1 space”, 61 became “1 space 1”). Since spaces at the end of numbers are not detectable, it was impossible to distinguish between 1 (“1”) and 60 (“1 space”). The system did have one major advantage. It simplifies mental arithmetic, as 60 can be divided without a calculator by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, and so on. A remnant of this system still remains in our measurements of angles (360 degrees in a full circle) and our measurement of time (60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour). The calendar was also related to this system. The year was conceptualized as having 360 days (6 × 60) plus five additional days. Strangely, we find the same idea in Egypt, in India (in the Rig Veda), and in the Maya calendar.

Over the centuries Mesopotamian mathematics greatly increased in complexity. They learned how to use exponents and roots, were able to solve equations (which they wrote down in words instead of symbols), and they knew how to calculate the circumference and area of a circle, using 3 as a rough estimate for pi. They also must have known about the Pythagorean theorem. Most spectacularly, Fig. 70 shows a tablet where the length of the diagonal of a square is given as “1.414213” (√2), which is equal to the hypotenuse of a triangle with sides of length “1”. This number is so accurate (correct up to 7 decimal places) that they must have had a deep understanding of the theorem. Further evidence of the use of Pythagoras can be found on the Plimpton 322 tablet, which gives a list of Pythagorean triples, for instance 120, 119, and 169, which are related according to the theorem: 1202 + 1192 = 1692.


The first city

The Mesopotamians traced the invention of the city and kingship to a place named Eridu, which in reality was more like a large village. One document in which Eridu is featured prominently is the Sumerian King List from about 2100 BC (see Fig. 71), which lists names of both mythological and historical kings, combined with the cities they governed and the duration of their rule. Each of the mythological kings is claimed to have ruled for many thousands of years and the kings are organized into those who lived before and after “the flood” (more on this in the next chapter). Eridu is mentioned in the first line of the text:

After kingship had descended from Heaven, Eridu became the first seat of kingship. [20]

Fig. 71 – The Sumerian King List on four sides of the cuboid-shaped Weld-Blundell Prism (c. 2100 BC) (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The legendary status of Eridu as the first city was taken over by the Babylonians, who took over in the 19th century BC. In their creation myth, the Enuma Elish, we find a description of the creation of the first city by Marduk, the Babylonian king of the gods:

A holy house, a house of the gods in a holy place, had not been made, reed had not come forth, a tree had not been created, a brick had not been laid, a brick mold had not been built, a house had not been made, a city had not been built, a city had not been made, a living creature had not been placed [therein]. […] All the lands were sea. Then Eridu was made, […] The holy city, the dwelling of their hearts’ delight, they call it solemnly. [21]

Eridu was located in the marshlands of southern Mesopotamia, with easy access to a large body of fresh groundwater, which the Sumerians referred to as the absu. With almost no rainfall, it was a vital source of water and therefore seen as sacred. The absu was so important that it got an important place in Sumerian cosmology. They saw the earth as a flat disk surrounded by salt water oceans. The freshwater absu was located beneath the earth, and below it was the underworld. The sky was imagined as a vault that held back another body of water, which could (occasionally) fall in the form of rain.

The earliest cuneiform tablets from Eridu are from the 3rd millennium BC and mention the god Enki, the legendary founder of Eridu and also the god of wisdom, crafts, magic, and fertility, who lived “in the depth of absu.” Enki was also believed to have built the temple of Eridu, called the E-absu (“House of the Absu”). These Sumerian temples were conceptualized as mountains, connecting heaven and earth. In the inner shrine of the temple, called the “holy of holies,” Enki was believed to be literally present in the form of a statue. These god statues were treated as though they were real gods. They were not only worshiped, but also “fed” meals, clothed in expansive garments woven with gems, entertained with music, and so on. A god might also have his wife-goddess statue in a separate room, complete with a marriage bed. Sometimes even a vizier god and servants gods were present. Only high priests and priestesses were allowed to enter the temples to make sure everything went according to plan.

Excavations at Eridu reveal a long history of shrine building. The first shrine was a little mud-brick room of perhaps only 3 square meters and has been dated to about 5000 BC. When the temple started to deteriorate, which happens relatively quickly when building in mud-brick, they filled the temple up with sand and built the next one straight on top. This was repeated 17 times, with each temple being slightly bigger and more intricate than its predecessor.  On top we find the remains of a stepped pyramid known as a ziggurat built in the 21st century BC.

Enki was also named Nudimmud, “the one who creates,” as he was believed to have used his craftsmanship and intellect to create human beings from the life-giving clay of the absu, often with the assistance of various goddesses. According to the Atrahasis Epic, we read that the purpose of his creation was to relieve the lower gods of hard labor:

The Anunnaki of the sky [Anu (god of heaven), Enlil (god of earth), and Enki (god of freshwater)] made the Igigi [the lower gods] bear the workload. The gods had to dig out canals. […] The gods dug out the Tigris and then dug out the Euphrates. [22]

When the lower gods refused to continue, the god Enki convinced Enlil to create human beings to do their work instead:

Let the birth-goddess create offspring and let man carry the toil of the gods. You are the birth-goddess, creator of mankind. Create man that he may bear the yoke. Let him bear the yoke assigned by Enlil. Let man carry the toil of the gods. [23]

Besides creating human beings, Enki also brought civilization to earth (in some stories with the help of the Apkallu, seven half-human, half-fish sages who serve Enki in the absu. See Fig. 72). We read: “I brought the arts and crafts from the E-kur, the house of Enlil, to my Absu in Eridu.” In this role, Enki was also the guardian of curious objects known as “me.” The mes, although clearly described as physical objects, were actually concepts and inventions essential to civilization, including kingship, priestly offices, crafts, the script, music, justice, peace, intelligence, old age, sex, prostitution, and even negative aspects such as slander and perjury. In Enki and the World Order we read that the mes were given to him by the god Enlil, enabling Enki to distribute powers among the gods. But then the goddess Inanna came to him complaining that she was not given enough. In Enki and Inanna, we read that Inanna went to Enki’s temple, got him drunk and stole his mes. She then brought them to her own city Uruk. Enki attempted to retrieve the mes, but failed. It is plausible that this story was designed to explain the transfer of power from Eridu to Uruk, which became the first true city in the world.

Fig. 72 – One side of a water basin from Assur depicting Enki surrounded by streams of water and flanked by two Apkallu in fish cloaks (c. 700 BC) (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, CC BY-SA 4.0; Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

The earliest true city was Uruk. By 3500 BC, it had grown far beyond any previous settlement, with at its peak an estimated population of 40,000 inhabitants. To protect against invaders, it was surrounded by a nine-kilometer-long city wall, which was seven meters tall and complete with gates and towers. As we will see in the next chapter, these walls were a source of great technological pride for the Sumerians. The city also housed two major temples. One was dedicated to Anu, the god of heaven. The temple of Anu was called the White Temple and was placed on top of Uruk’s ziggurat of which only the ruins remain today (see Fig. 73). It could be seen from a great distance, as it was covered with white plaster, which strongly reflects sunlight. The other temple, the E-anna (“House of Heaven”), was dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, Inanna (see Fig. 74).


Fig. 73 – Remains of the Anu ziggurat that used to be topped by the White Temple of Anu (4th millennium BC) (Tobeytravels, CC BY-SA 2.0, Iraq)

Fig. 74 – Part of the front of the E-anna temple of Inanna (4th millenium BC) (Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 3.0; Pergamon Museum, Berlin)


The Sumerian kings

Each of the cities of Mesopotamia was ruled by a king, called a lugal. Since most kings ruled over just a single city, we call them city-states. These kings planned and led military campaigns, levied taxes, and led building programs. They also maintained contact with their neighbors by sending messengers and diplomats, and they forged alliances, made treaties, and offered gifts. To stabilize the alliances, they regularly gave their daughters in marriage to neighboring kings.

The early kings of Mesopotamia also raised proper armies. In the Stele of the Vultures, from about 2,450 BC, we see soldiers equipped with identical pikes, shields, and helmets (see Fig. 75). These were not yet standing armies but were made up of farmers who had time to leave their farmland during the winter months.

Fig. 75 – The stele of the Vultures (c. 2450 BC) (Eric Gaba, CC BY-SA 3.0; Louvre Museum, France)

In the previous chapter, we read that larger communities are generally more hierarchical. Following this pattern, the power of Sumerian kings must have been near absolute. As was stated earlier, it was believed that “kingship had descended from heaven.” The throne was believed to be instated by the supreme god Enlil himself, giving the king divine authority. Yet, unlike the Egyptian Pharaohs, most Mesopotamian kings did not consider themselves gods. Instead, the king was often called the “servant” or “slaveof the gods and was expected to do his duty maintaining the cosmic order for the gods.

The increased importance of the king was also reflected in the new pantheon of gods. The earth goddess, who had been so prominent in earlier days, now became just one among many gods and goddesses. The pantheon was led by the king of the gods, who ruled over the lower gods just as the king ruled over his subjects (this was Enlil for the Sumerians and Marduk for the Babylonians). In this way, the Mesopotamians created a strong correspondence between heavenly and earthly hierarchies. Since the gods had a king, it was only natural for human beings to also have a king. Conveniently, this myth legitimized their rule.

Fig. 76 – Drawing of the Great Death Pit from Ur (PG 1237). The pit contained 74 bodies. Two lyres and a harp are depicted on the lower left side (C. Woolley)


The burial at Ur

Ritualistic human sacrifice did not disappear when the first civilizations formed. In fact, it rose to a new level in most early civilizations across the world. The most dramatic examples from Mesopotamia were found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur from about 2500 BC. The cemetery contains hundreds of graves. Most of them are relatively simple, but a few consist of stone-built chambers filled with expansive provisions for the afterlife and sacrificed attendants. For instance, the Great Death Pit contained the skeletons of 6 male soldiers and 68 female servants (see Fig. 76). Most women were adorned with gold, silver, and lapis lazuli and had cups and shells near them containing cosmetic pigments. Several women were also found near two lyres and a harp.

The famous tomb and death pit of Queen Puabi was much better preserved. Her body was covered in jewelry made of beads of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and agate, and she wore a crown made of layers of gold ornaments shaped in intricate floral patterns (see Fig. 78). The death pit above her tomb contained 21 attendants, a lyre, a chest, and a sledge (used for the transport of goods since before the invention of the wheel).


Fig. 77 – Remains of an attendant with jewelry, found in the Great Death Pit at Ur.

Fig. 78 – The headdress and jewelry of Queen Puabi (PG 800) (Penn Museum, Unites States)

Evidence for these types of burials is also found in early literature. In the short story called The Death of Gilgamesh, we read that when the king died, his wife, members of his family, and members of his court willingly went down into his tomb to accompany him to the next world. To ensure a good reception in the underworld, he presented gifts to Ereshkigal, the goddess of death, and laid himself down. The doorway was sealed with a great stone, and the Euphrates was made to run over the tomb, hiding it from the world. The text states:

The lord Bilgames is lying down never to rise again. […] His beloved wife, his beloved child, his beloved senior wife and junior wife, his beloved minstrel, steward and […] his beloved barber, […] his beloved attendants and servants, his beloved goods […] were laid down in their places […]. He lay himself down […] he poured [an offering of] water. […] They took […] inside [the tomb], they [sealed] its doorway. They opened the Euphrates, its waters swept over. His [resting place] the waters removed [from view]. […] O Bilgames, lord of Kullab [a part of Uruk], sweet is your praise! [24]

Bull's head of the Queen's lyre from Pu-abi's grave PG 800, the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Southern Mesopotamia, Iraq. British Museum 

Fig. 79 – Lyre with a bull head found in Queen Puabi’s pit (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, CC BY-SA 4.0; British Museum)

Fig. 80 – The goddess Inanna depicted with weapons, holding a lion on a leash (c. 2200 BC). (Daderot, CC0 1.0; Oriental Institute, Chicago)


Inanna and Dumuzi

The myth of the periodically dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god also persisted. One of the oldest Mesopotamian myths centered around Inanna the goddess of love, sexuality, brides, prostitution, but also war and destruction. She was known for her tumultuous love affairs and violent temper. In this early story, she descended into the underworld, where her evil sister, Ereshkigal, ruled. During the descent, Inanna had to pass through seven gates. Before entering each gate, she was told to remove one piece of clothing or jewelry, identified as her mes. With every item she removed, she lost some of her power. When she finally arrived in front of her sister, she was completely naked and powerless. She then met the Anunnaki, in this story the seven judges of the dead, who shouted at her in anger and looked at her with the “look of death.” Once dead, her corpse was hung on a hook. Because of the risky nature of her journey, Inanna had asked the gods to rescue her if she did not return after three days. The god Enki sent two beings to retrieve her and bring her back to life. As the beings were bringing her back to the surface, Ereshkigal sent demons after her, who demanded Inanna find a substitute to stay in the underworld in her place.

Inanna chose Dumuzi, her husband, because he had not mourned her death. Shortly after making her decision, the demons dragged him down into the underworld. Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, the goddess of agriculture, mourned his death, and Inanna soon felt regret and did the same. Geshtinanna finally decided to swap places with Dumuzi during the summer months so that he could spend time with Inanna. When his six months were over, Dumuzi was again killed and dragged into the underworld. His death was linked to the cutting of grain during harvest. The mourning of the goddesses was ritually reenacted across Mesopotamia. It even makes its appearance in the Old Testament:

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house […]; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz [Dumuzi]. [25]

When Dumuzi returned in spring, Inanna’s sorrows disappeared, and the grains would grow again.

Interestingly, a number of historical kings were identified with Dumuzi, making them the lovers of the goddess Inanna. The first king to do this was King Sulgi of Ur (c. 2094–2047 BC). Their sexual encounter is described quite explicitly. The goddess invited him into her “sacred bed” and from her own perspective described: “on my pure vulva he laid his hands” and “the hair of my lap he [ruffled] for me.” She finally rewarded his good lovemaking by decreeing a “good fate” on him.

Cultures surrounding Mesopotamia also had their resurrecting vegetation gods. Take for instance the god Adonis from the Levant (not to be confused with the later Greek mortal hero of the same name). Women would plant gardens in his name and when these plants died, women would mourn his death. In Christian accounts, he is also described as rising from the dead in the form of vegetation. The Christian scholar Origen (c. 185–253 AD) wrote: “Adonis is the symbol of the fruits of the earth, which are mourned when they are sown, but which rise, thereby causing joy among the farmers when they grow up.” [26]

Another example is the Semitic god Baal, whom we will meet again in the chapter on Judaism. Baal was a weather and storm god who descended into the underworld, which was linked to the beginning of the summer drought season. There he was killed by the god Mot. The goddess Anat later found his body and buried him and then went on to attack Mot in order to release Baal. The killing of Mot was stated in agricultural terms: “With a sword she splits him, with a sieve she winnows him, with a fire she burns him, with millstones she grinds him. In a field she sows him.” The return of autumn rain is then given as the sign that Baal has returned to his throne. [26]

Another important example of the dying-and-resurrecting god is Osiris. His story will be discussed in a later chapter.


The Akkadian Empire

In time, kings became interested in ruling over more than just their own city-states. King Lugalzagesi (23rd century BC) was the first to conquer Sumer, calling himself “king of the land.” Not long after, his land was conquered by Sargon of Akkad (24th century BC), the king of Agade. Sargon was not a Sumerian but an Akkadian king, speaking a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic. His victory over Sumer made him ruler over what by some definitions counts as the world’s first empire. In his royal inscription, we read:

Sargon, king of Agade, solicitor of Ishtar, king of the universe, anointed priest of An, king of the Land, governor of Enlil. He won in battle with Uruk. […] He conquered the city, and tore down its walls. And he captured Lugalzagesi, king of Uruk, in battle, and led him in a neck-stock to the gate of the temple of Enlil. [27]


Fig. 81 – A Sumerian man in prayer. A typical Sumerian statue (c. 2500 BC) (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, CC0 1.0, The Netherlands)

Fig. 82 – Head of an Akkadian king (c. 2250 BC) (National Museum of Iraq)

Sargon cleverly used politics to solidify his power. In each conquered region, he declared the local gods had given him control, making him the “legitimate king.” He also resettled populations within his kingdom to avoid rebellion, gave land to influential Sumerians who supported him, and made his daughter the high priestess of the temple of Ur. He was also the first to develop a standing army, which was available year-round.

As the Sumerian dynasty gave way to the Akkadian dynasty, art became less stylized and more individualistic. The greatest example of this is the bronze head of an unknown Akkadian king, possibly Sargon himself (see Fig. 82). Notice the attempt to portray a real man and not just a stereotype.



To avoid rebellion, several Mesopotamian kings did their best to maintain a good relationship with their subjects by promising justice. Already around the 24th century BC, King Urukagina of Lagash proclaimed himself “the righter of social wrongs and defender of the weak.” King Ur-Nammu (21st century BC), the first king of the second Sumerian dynasty, ended his royal inscription with, “I eliminated enmity, violence, and cries for justice. I established justice in the land.” Ur-Nammu also created the first known legal code, which contained over 30 laws. Among them, we read, “if a man commits a homicide, they shall kill that man” and “if a man divorces his first-ranking wife, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.” Ur-Nammu also constructed a number of important pyramid-like structures known as ziggurats. We will read more about them in the next chapter.

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Fig. 83 – The code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC) (Luestling; Louvre Museum, France)

The most famous legal code from Mesopotamia was written around the 18th century BC by the sixth Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810–1750 BC). He carved his law text, now called the Code of Hammurabi, on stone steles, which he set up across his empire for the public to see (see Fig. 83). The code includes 282 laws, among them laws about murder, rape, theft, divorce, compensation for property losses, and so on. In this text, Hammurabi presented himself as “the good shepherd” who would bring peace and prosperity to his people:

The great gods have called me, and I am indeed the good shepherd who brings peace, with the just scepter. My benevolent shade covered my city. I have carried in my bosom the people of Sumer and Akkad. Thanks to my divine protection, they have prospered. I have not ceased to administer them in peace. By my wisdom, I have harbored them. In order to prevent the powerful from oppressing the weak, in order to give justice to the orphans and the widows. [28]

Hammurabi claimed to have established his laws because the Babylonian god Marduk had asked him to “enhance the well-being of the people.” We read:

When Marduk had given me the mission to keep my people in order and to make my country take the right road, I installed in this country justice and fairness in order to bring wellbeing to my people. [28]

The Mesopotamians also wrote many other legal documents, among them wills, marriage contracts, slave contracts, loan contracts, and so on. These documents were legally binding and required witnesses. If no witnesses were present, a person might be asked to swear an oath before the gods. This method was believed to be foolproof since it was unthinkable that someone would lie in front of the gods.


Marduk, king of the gods

The city of Babylon (meaning “Gate of the Gods”) started out as a small city among many, but its ruler took over Mesopotamia in the 19th century BC. The Greeks counted the Hanging Gardens of Babylon among the seven wonders of the world, although evidence of these gardens has yet to be found. It was said that water machines raised water to multiple stacked terraces on which a wide variety of plants grew. The closest we have come to evidence of such a construction comes from Nineveh, where we do find talk of a water-raising screw and a relief shows a garden built on a bridge with several arches.

The Babylonians changed Sumerian mythology to conform to the changing times by placing their warrior-god Marduk at the head of the pantheon. Marduk was the main character from the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish (2nd millennium BC). The account speaks of two sources of water that existed at the beginning of time. One of them was the god Absu (freshwater) and the other was the goddess Tiamat (saltwater). Through their mating, all other gods were born. Absu soon regretted his creation since the new gods disturbed him by making too much noise. As a result, he wanted them destroyed. Yet Enki got to Absu first and killed him. This angered Tiamat, who wanted revenge. The son of Enki, Marduk, accepted her challenge and killed her in an intense battle. He filled Tiamat with air so she couldn’t close her mouth and then shot an arrow down her throat into her heart. Marduk then dismembered her body and used the parts to create the different parts of the cosmos. With this act, he became the king of the gods. He also took from her the Tablet of Destinies, on which the individual destinies of both gods and humans were written.

Clearly, the story of the dying god had changed dramatically since Neolithic times. In the earlier stories, a goddess (or god) was cut up, sometimes voluntarily, to form the world. Because the goddess was divine, so was the world. In the Babylonian myth, the emphasis was instead placed on her killer, the warrior-god Marduk, and the earth became the lifeless body of a monster. The earth became nothing more than a dead piece of clay that could be crafted in any form at will. Even humans were believed to have been formed from clay, which Enki had mixed with the life-giving blood of the god Kingu, the son of Tiamat. The emphasis on clay reflects the importance of masonry in Mesopotamia. As the shaper of the world, Marduk was often depicted as a mason.

Marduk was also the central figure in the Babylonian New Year’s festival, called the Akitu. The focus of the ritual was on the statue of Marduk at the main temple of Babylon. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the statue was made of solid gold, but there is no other evidence to confirm this. During the festival, a priest purified himself, recited prayer, and read the Enuma Elish to Marduk’s statue. After a few days, the king was allowed to enter the temple, where a priest removed the symbols of his kingship and slapped him on the cheek. The king then bowed to Marduk, swearing an oath of loyalty to both the god and his city. The priest then asked Marduk to bless the king and destroy his enemies. Finally, the statue was brought out to the public, where the king shook its hand. The statue was then placed in a chariot alongside the king, at the head of a procession that included god statues from other cities. Marduk and the other gods were then brought to a temple outside the city, where the gods held a divine assembly. Afterward, the gods returned to their cities and the universe was deemed safe for another year.


The Assyrians

In the 14th century BC, the Assyrians gained control over Mesopotamia. Their army employed horse-driven war chariots (see Fig. 84), which were invented in the steppes of Russia, where the horse was domesticated around 2000 BC (more on this in a later chapter). The Assyrians also star in the Bible, since they conquered Israel and deported many Israelites to other parts of the empire. The Bible describes them as harsh oppressors.


Fig. 84 – Depictions of King Ashurnasirpal II hunting lion (Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0; British Museum)

Fig. 85 – Depictions of King Ashurnasirpal II hunting lion (Gtoffoletto, CC BY-SA 4.0; British Museum)

One of the most important Assyrian kings was Ashurnasirpal II (9th century BC), who moved the capital to Nimrud, where he built many temples and a large ziggurat. His crowning achievement was his palace, which was adorned with vast reliefs that surpassed all previous artworks. Particularly renowned are depictions of the king hunting lions (see Fig. 84 and Fig. 85). Ashurnasirpal did not refer to himself as the “shepherd of the people,” but instead saw himself as a “strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes, trampler of all enemies, he who smashes the forces of the rebellious.” Clearly, his power was so great that he didn’t need to appease the masses to stay in charge.


Abandoned by the gods

In the Assyrian period, we also find the first text with complaints against divine inaction. In the Ludlul bel nemeqi (13th century BC), we read of a man who questions why the gods are tormenting him, while he has always been faithful to them. As a result, he feels forsaken by the gods:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared, my goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance. The good angel who walked beside me has departed. [29]

The story ends well. In a dream, the angels of Marduk come to him and promise to end his misfortune.

It has been hypothesized that the gods in this period came to be seen as more distant. We can also see this in art. Compare, for instance, Fig. 83, where we see King Hammurabi directly conversing with the god Marduk, with Fig. 86, from a few centuries later, where King Tukulti-Ninurta I (c. 1243–1207 BC) kneels before his god’s empty throne. What we might see here are examples of the early stages of the secularization of humanity.


Fig. 86 – Tukulti-Ninurta I in two poses before the empty throne of the god Nuska, as described underneath the relief, from the Temple of Ishtar at Assur (c. 1230 BC) (Hermann Junghans, CC BY-SA 3.0; Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

Fig. 87 – The Gate of Ishtar (c. 575 BC) (Rictor Notron, CC BY 2.0; Pergamon Museum, Berlin)


The Neo-Babylon Empire

In the seventh century BC, the Assyrian empire fell, giving way to another Babylonian dynasty. Around this time, Babylon became the largest city of the world. The most well-known king from this era is Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 605–562 BC), who also stars in the Bible. He conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and deported many Jews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is also known for undertaking massive building projects in Babylon. Among them was a beautiful palace and a ziggurat with seven levels called the Etemenanki, or the “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth,” which stood about 90 meters tall. The top level was likely covered with blue-glazed bricks. At the end of a processional way, he also built the famous blue Gate of Ishtar (see Fig. 87).


The Persians

The Persian King Cyrus (c. 600–530 BC) captured Babylon in 539 BC. In one of his royal inscriptions, we read that he did so without a fight. The people of Babylon welcomed him, “bowed to him, and kissed his feet.” According to Cyrus, this occurred because his Babylonian predecessor had neglected to perform the New Year’s festival. We read:

An incompetent person was installed to exercise lordship over his country [...] Irreverently, he put an end to the regular offerings. [...] By his own plan, he did away with the worship of Marduk, the king of the gods; he continually did evil against his city.

[Marduk] surveyed and looked throughout all the lands, searching for a righteous king whom he would support. He called out his name: Cyrus, king of Anshan. [Marduk] delivered Nabonidus, the king who did not revere him, into his hands [...] [The people of Babylon] rejoiced at (Cyrus’) kingship and their faces shone. [...] They greeted him with gladness and praised his name. [30]

Cyrus cleverly described himself with Mesopotamian titles, calling himself “king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters.” Only after these titles did he refer to himself as king of Anshan (Persia). Cyrus seems to have been a kinder ruler than many of his predecessors. He also allowed the exiled Jews to return to their homeland.