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History of Mesopotamia is the history of the region in southwestern Asia where the world's earliest civilization developed. The name comes from a Greek word meaning "between rivers," referring to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but the region can be broadly defined to include the area that is now eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and most of Iraq. The region was the centre of a culture whose influence extended throughout the Middle East and as far as the Indus valley, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. In the narrow sense, Mesopotamia is the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, north or northwest of the bottleneck at Baghdad, in modern Iraq; it is Al-Jazirah ("The Island") of the Arabs. South of this lies Babylonia, named after the city of Babylon. However, in the broader sense, the name Mesopotamia has come to be used for the area bounded on the northeast by the Zagros Mountains and on the southwest by the edge of the Arabian Plateau and stretching from the Arabic Gulf in the southeast to the spurs of the Anti-Taurus Mountains in the northwest. Only from the latitude of Baghdad do the Euphrates and Tigris truly become twin rivers, the rafidan of the Arabs, which have constantly changed their courses over the millennia. The low-lying plain of the Karun River in Persia has always been closely related to Mesopotamia, but it is not considered part of Mesopotamia as it forms its own river system. Mesopotamia, south of Ar-Ramadi (about 70 miles, or 110 kilometres, west of Baghdad) on the Euphrates and the bend of the Tigris below Samarra' (about 70 miles north-northwest of Baghdad), is flat alluvial land. Between Baghdad and the mouth of the Shatt al-'Arab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, where it empties into the Arabic Gulf) there is a difference in height of only about 100 feet (30 metres). As a result of the slow flow of the water, there are heavy deposits of silt, and the riverbeds are raised. Consequently, the rivers often overflow their banks (and may even change their course) when they are not protected by high dikes. In recent times they have been regulated above Baghdad by the use of escape channels with overflow reservoirs. The extreme south is a region of extensive marshes and reed swamps, hawrs, which, probably since early times, have served as an area of refuge for oppressed and displaced peoples. The supply of water is not regular; as a result of the high average temperatures and a very low annual rainfall, the ground of the plain of latitude 35 N is hard and dry and unsuitable for plant cultivation for at least eight months in the year. Consequently, agriculture without risk of crop failure, which seems to have begun in the higher rainfall zones and in the hilly borders of Mesopotamia in the 10th millennium BC, began in Mesopotamia itself, the real heart of the civilization, only after artificial irrigation had been invented, bringing water to large stretches of territory through a widely branching network of canals. Since the ground is extremely fertile and, with irrigation and the necessary drainage, will produce in abundance, southern Mesopotamia became a land of plenty that could support a considerable population. The cultural superiority of north Mesopotamia, which may have lasted until about 4000 BC, was finally overtaken by the south when the people there had responded to the challenge of their situation. The present climatic conditions are fairly similar to those of 8,000 years ago. An English survey of ruined settlements in the area 30 miles around ancient Hatra (180 miles northwest of Baghdad) has shown that the southern limits of the zone in which agriculture is possible without artificial irrigation has remained unchanged since the first settlement of Al-Jazirah. The availability of raw materials is a historical factor of great importance, as is the dependence on those materials that had to be imported. In Mesopotamia, agricultural products and those from stock breeding, fisheries, date palm cultivation, and reed industries--in short, grain, vegetables, meat, leather, wool, horn, fish, dates, and reed and plant-fibre products--were available in plenty and could easily be produced in excess of home requirements to be exported. There are bitumen springs at Hit (90 miles northwest of Baghdad) on the Euphrates (the Is of Herodotus). On the other hand, wood, stone, and metal were rare or even entirely absent. The date palm--virtually the national tree of Iraq--yields a wood suitable only for rough beams and not for finer work. Stone is mostly lacking in southern Mesopotamia, although limestone is quarried in the desert about 35 miles to the west and "Mosul marble" is found not far from the Tigris in its middle reaches. Metal can only be obtained in the mountains, and the same is true of precious and semiprecious stones. Consequently, southern Mesopotamia in particular was destined to be a land of trade from the start. Only rarely could "empires" extending over a wider area guarantee themselves imports by plundering or by subjecting neighbouring regions. The raw material that epitomizes Mesopotamian civilization is clay: in the almost exclusively mud-brick architecture and in the number and variety of clay figurines and pottery artifacts, Mesopotamia bears the stamp of clay as does no other civilization, and nowhere in the world but in Mesopotamia and the regions over which its influence was diffused was clay used as the vehicle for writing. Such phrases as cuneiform civilization, cuneiform literature, and cuneiform law can apply only where people had had the idea of using soft clay not only for bricks and jars and for the jar stoppers on which a seal could be impressed as a mark of ownership but also as the vehicle for impressed signs to which established meanings were assigned--an intellectual achievement that amounted to nothing less than the invention of writing.


Babylonian Bab-ilu, Old Babylonian Bab-ilim, Hebrew Bavel, or Babel, Arabic Atlal Babil, one of the most famous cities of antiquity. It was the capital of southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia) from the early 2nd millennium to the early 1st millennium BC and capital of the Neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) Empire in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when it was at the height of its splendour. Its extensive ruins on the Euphrates River about 55 miles (88 kilometres) south of Baghdad lie near the modern town of al-Hillah, Iraq.Though traces of prehistoric settlement exist, Babylon's development as a major city was late by Mesopotamian standards, no mention of it occurring before the 23rd century BC. After the fall of the 3rd dynasty of Ur, under which Babylon had been a provincial centre, it became the nucleus of a small kingdom established in 1894 BC by the Amorite king Sumuabum, whose successors consolidated its status. The sixth and best known of the Amorite dynasts, Hammurabi (1792-50 BC), conquered the surrounding city-states and raised Babylon to the capital of a kingdom comprising all southern Mesopotamia and part of Assyria (northern Iraq). Its political importance, together with its favourable geographical position, made it henceforth the main commercial and administrative centre of Babylonia, while its wealth and prestige made it a target for foreign conquerors. After a Hittite raid in 1595 BC, the city passed to the control of the Kassites (c. 1570), who established a dynasty lasting more than four centuries. Later in this period, Babylon became a literary and religious centre, the prestige of which was reflected in the elevation of Marduk, its chief god, to supremacy in Mesopotamia. In 1234 Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria took Babylon, though subsequently the Kassite dynasty reasserted itself until 1158, when the city was sacked by the Elamites. Babylon's acknowledged political supremacy is shown by the fact that the dynasty of Nebuchadrezzar I (1124-03) made it their capital, although they did not originate there. This dynasty endured for more than a century. Just before 1000, pressure from Aramaean immigrants from northern Syria brought administrative dislocation inside Babylon. From this period to the fall of Assyria in the late 7th century BC, there was a continual struggle between Aramaean or associated Chaldean tribesmen and the Assyrians for political control of the city. Its citizens claimed privileges, such as exemption from forced labour, certain taxes, and imprisonment, which the Assyrians, with a similar background, were usually readier to recognize than were immigrant tribesmen. Furthermore, the citizens, grown wealthy by commerce, benefitted by an imperial power able to protect international trade but suffered economically from disruptive tribesmen. Such circumstances made Babylon usually prefer Assyrian to Aramaean or Chaldean rule. From the 9th to the late 7th century Babylon was almost continuously under Assyrian suzerainty, usually wielded through native kings, though sometimes Assyrian kings ruled in person. Close Assyrian involvement in Babylon began with Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) as a result of Chaldean tribesmen pressing into city territories, several times usurping the kingship. Disorders accompanying increasing tribal occupation finally persuaded Sennacherib (704-681 BC) that peaceful control of Babylon was impossible, and in 689 he ordered destruction of the city. Esarhaddon (680-669 BC) rescinded Sennacherib's policy, and, after expelling the tribesmen and returning the property of the Babylonians to them, undertook the rebuilding of the city; but the image of Marduk, removed by Sennacherib, was retained in Assyria throughout his reign, probably to prevent any potential usurper from using it to claim the kingship. In the mid-7th century, civil war broke out between the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and his brother who ruled in Babylonia as sub-king. Ashurbanipal laid siege to the city, which fell to him in 648 after famine had driven the defenders to cannibalism. After Ashurbanipal's death, a Chaldean leader, Nabopolassar, in 626 made Babylon the capital of a kingdom that under his son Nebuchadrezzar II became a major imperial power. Nebuchadrezzar undertook a vast program of rebuilding and fortification in Babylon, labour gangs from many lands increasing the mixture of the population. Nebuchadrezzar's most important successor, Nabonidus, campaigned in Arabia for a decade, leaving his son Belshazzar as regent in Babylon. Nabonidus failed to protect property rights or religious traditions of the capital and attempted building operations elsewhere to rival Marduk's great temple of Esagila. When the Persians under Cyrus attacked in 539 BC, the capital fell almost without resistance; a legend (accepted by some as historical) that Cyrus achieved entry by diverting the Euphrates is unconfirmed in contemporary sources. Under the Persians, Babylon retained most of its institutions, became capital of the richest satrapy in the empire, and, according to Herodotus, the world's most splendid city. A revolt against Xerxes I (482) led to destruction of its fortifications and temples and the melting down of the golden image of Marduk. In 331 Babylon surrendered to Alexander the Great, who confirmed its privileges and ordered the restoration of the temples. Alexander, recognizing the commercial importance of the city, allowed its satrap to issue coinage and began construction of a harbour to foster trade. In 323 Alexander died in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar; he had planned to make Babylon his imperial capital. Alexander's conquest brought Babylon into the orbit of Greek culture, and Hellenistic science was greatly enriched by the contributions of Babylonian astronomy. After a power struggle among Alexander's generals, Babylon passed to the Seleucid dynasty in 312. The city's importance was much reduced by the building of a new capital, Seleucia, on the Tigris, to which part of Babylon's population was transferred in 275.


In 600 Iraq was a province of the Persian Sasanian empire, to which it had belonged for the previous three centuries. It was probably the most populous and wealthy area in the Middle East, and the intensive irrigation agriculture of the lower Tigris and Euphrates and of tributaries such as the Diyala and Karun formed the main resource base of the Sasanian monarchy. The term Iraq was not used at this time; in the mid-6th century the Sasanian empire was divided by Khosrow I into four quarters, of which the western one, called Khvarvaran, included most of modern Iraq.

The term Iraq is widely used in the medieval Arabic sources for the area in the centre and south of the modern republic as a geographic rather than a political term, implying no precise boundaries. The area of modern Iraq north of Tikrit was known in Muslim times as Al-Jazirah, which means "The Island" and refers to the "island" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To the south and west lay the Arabian deserts, inhabited largely by Arab tribesmen who occasionally acknowledged the overlordship of the Sasanian kings. Until 602 the desert frontier had been guarded by the Lakhmid kings of Al-Hira, who were themselves Arabs but who ruled a settled buffer state. In that year Khosrow II Parviz rashly abolished the Lakhmid kingdom and laid the frontier open to nomad incursions. Farther north the western quarter was bounded by the Byzantine Empire. The frontier more or less followed the modern Syria-Iraq border and continued northward into modern Turkey, leaving Nisibis (modern Nusaybin) as the Sasanian frontier fortress while the Byzantines held Dara and nearby Amida (modern Diyarbakr).

The inhabitants were very mixed. There was an aristocratic and administrative Persian upper class, but most of the population were Aramaic-speaking peasants. There were a considerable number of Arabs, most of whom lived as pastoralists along the western margins of the settled lands, but some lived as townspeople, especially in Al-Hira. In addition, there were Kurds, who lived along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, and a surprisingly large number of Greeks, mostly prisoners captured during the numerous Sasanian campaigns into Byzantine Syria.

Ethnic diversity was matched by religious pluralism. The Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, was largely confined to the Persian ruling class. The majority of the population, especially in the northern part of the country, were probably Christians. These were sharply divided by doctrinal differences into Monophysites, linked to the Jacobite church of Syria, and Nestorians. The Nestorians were the most widespread and were tolerated by the Sasanian kings because of their opposition to the Christians of the Roman Empire, who regarded the Nestorians as heretics. The Monophysites were regarded with more suspicion and were occasionally persecuted, but both groups were able to maintain an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the Nestorians had an important intellectual centre at Nisibis. The area around the ancient city of Babylon by this time had a large population of Jews, both descendants of the exiles of Old Testament times and local converts. In addition, in the southern half of the country there were numerous adherents of the old Babylonian paganism, as well as Mandaeans and Gnostics.

In the early 7th century the stability and prosperity of this multicultural society were threatened by invasion. In 602 Khosrow II Parviz launched the last great Persian invasion of the Byzantine Empire. At first he was spectacularly successful; Syria and Egypt fell, and Constantinople itself was threatened. Later the tide began to turn, and in 627-628 the Byzantines, under the leadership of the emperor Heraclius, invaded Iraq and sacked the imperial capital at Ctesiphon. The invaders did not remain, but Khosrow was discredited, deposed, and executed. There followed a period of infighting among generals and members of the royal family that left the country without clear leadership. The chaos had also damaged irrigation systems, and it was probably at this time that large areas in the south of the country reverted to marshlands, which they have remained ever since. It was with this devastated land that the earliest Muslim raiders came into contact.

The first conflict between local Bedouin tribes and Sasanian forces seems to have been in 634, when the Arabs were defeated at the Battle of the Bridge. There a force of some 5,000 Muslims under Abu 'Ubayd ath-Thaqafi was routed by the Persians. In 637 a much larger Muslim force under Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas defeated the main Persian army at the battle of Al-Qadisiyya and moved on to sack Ctesiphon. By the end of the following year (638), the Muslims had conquered almost all of Iraq, and the last Sasanian king, Yazdegerd III, had fled to Iran, where he was killed in 651.

The Muslim conquest was followed by mass immigration of Arabs from eastern Arabia and Oman. These new arrivals did not disperse and settle throughout the country; instead they established two new garrison cities, at Al-Kufah, near ancient Babylon, and at Basra in the south. The intention was that the Muslims should be a separate community of fighting men and their families living off taxes paid by the local inhabitants. In the north of the country, Mosul began to emerge as the most important city and the base of a Muslim governor and garrison. Apart from the Persian elite and the Zoroastrian priests, whose property was confiscated, most of the local people were allowed to keep their possessions and their religion.

Iraq now became a province of the Muslim Caliphate, which stretched from North Africa and later Spain in the west to Sind (now southern Pakistan) in the east. At first the capital of the Caliphate was at Madinah (Medina), but, after the murder of the third caliph, 'Uthman, in 656, his successor, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law 'Ali, made Iraq his base. In 661, however, 'Ali was murdered in Al-Kufah, and the caliphate passed to the rival Umayyad family in Syria. Iraq became a subordinate province, even though it was the richest area of the Muslim world and the one with the largest Muslim population. This situation gave rise to continual discontent with Umayyad rule; this discontent was in various forms.

In 680 'Ali's son al-Husayn arrived in Iraq from Madinah, hoping that the people of Al-Kufah would support him. They failed to act, and his small group of followers was massacred at Karbala', but his memory lingered on as a source of inspiration for all who opposed the Umayyads. In later centuries, Karbala' and 'Ali's tomb at nearby An-Najaf became important centres of Shi'ite pilgrimage and are still greatly revered today. The Iraqis had their opportunity after the death in 683 of the caliph Yazid I when the Umayyads faced threats from many quarters. In Al-Kufah the initiative was taken by al-Mukhtar ibn Abi 'Ubayd, who was supported by many mawali, non-Arab converts to Islam who felt they were treated as second-class citizens. Al-Mukhtar was killed in 687, but the Umayyads realized that strict rule was required. The caliph 'Abd al-Malik (685-705) appointed the fearsome al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf as his governor in Iraq and all of the east. Al-Hajjaj became a legend as a stern but just ruler. His firm measures aroused the opposition of the local Arab elite, and in 701 there was a massive rebellion led by Muhammad ibn al-Ash'ath. The insurrection was defeated only with the aid of Syrian soldiers. Iraq was now very much a conquered province, and al-Hajjaj established a new city at Wasit, halfway between Al-Kufah and Basra, to be a base for a permanent Syrian garrison. In a more positive way, he encouraged Iraqis to join the expeditions led by Qutaybah ibn Muslim that between 705 and 715 conquered what is now Central Asia for Islam. Even after al-Hajjaj's death in 714, the Umayyad-Syrian grip on Iraq remained firm, and resentment was widespread.

Opposition to the Umayyads finally came to a head in northeastern Iran (Khorasan) in 747 when the mawla Abu Muslim raised black banners in the name of the 'Abbasids, a branch of the family of the Prophet, distantly related to 'Ali and his descendants. In 749 the armies from the east reached Iraq, where they received the support of much of the population. The 'Abbasids themselves came from their retreat at Humaymah in southern Jordan, and in 749 the first 'Abbasid caliph, as-Saffah, was proclaimed in the mosque at Al-Kufah. This " 'Abbasid Revolution" ushered in the golden age of medieval Iraq. Khorasan was too much on the fringes of the Muslim world to be a suitable capital, and from the beginning the 'Abbasid caliphs made Iraq their base. By this time Islam had spread well beyond the original garrison towns, even though Muslims were still a minority of the population.

During the period from 1055 to 1534, the term "Iraq" ('Iraq) referred to two distinct geopolitical regions. The first, qualified as Arabian Iraq ('Iraq 'arabi), denoted the area roughly corresponding to ancient Mesopotamia or the modern nation of Iraq and consisted of Upper Iraq or Al-Jazirah and Lower Iraq or As-Sawad ("The Black [Lands]"). The town of Tikrit was traditionally considered to mark the border between these two entities. The second region, lying to the east of Arabian Iraq and separated from it by the Zagros mountain range, was called Persian Iraq ('Iraq 'ajami) and was more or less identical with ancient Media or the Umayyad and 'Abbasid province of Jibal. Together these regions became known as "the Two Iraqs," in contradistinction to the previous usage of the term in reference to the towns of Basra and Al-Kufah, the two major urban settlements of Lower Iraq in early Islamic times. In addition, Arabian Iraq was subdivided into three political spheres: Upper Iraq, centred on the town of Mosul; Middle Iraq, or the area around Baghdad; and Lower Iraq, whose major centres were the towns of Al-Hillah, Wasit, and Basra. Upper Iraq had strong political ties to the provinces of Diyar Bakr and Diyar Rabi'a in eastern Anatolia and northern Syria as well as with Azerbaijan; Middle and Lower Iraq were bound politically both to Azerbaijan and to Persian Iraq. Traditionally all three spheres were subject to pressures from the greater powers of the Iranian plateau and the Nile valley.

When the Ottoman Empire was dismembered following World War I and the boundaries of the 20th-century state of Iraq were drawn, they bore little resemblance to those of the provinces of Ottoman Iraq. Nor had the name Iraq been attached to any of those provinces. Ottoman Iraq was roughly approximate to the Arabian Iraq of the preceding era, but without clearly defined borders. The Zagros Mountains, which separated Arabian Iraq from Persian Iraq, now lay on the Ottoman-Iranian frontier, but that frontier shifted with the fortunes of war. On the west and south, Iraq faded out somewhere in the sands of the Syrian and Arabian deserts. The incorporation of Arabian Iraq into the Ottoman Empire not only separated it from Persian Iraq but also reoriented it toward the Ottoman lands in Syria and Anatolia, with especially close ties binding the province (eyalet) of Diyar Bakr to the Iraqi provinces. For administrative purposes, Ottoman Iraq was divided into the three central eyalets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, with the northern eyalet of Shahrizor, east of the Tigris, and the southern eyalet of Al-Hasa, on the western coast of the Arabic Gulf. These provinces only roughly reflected the geographic, linguistic, and religious divisions of Ottoman Iraq. Most of the inhabitants of Mosul and Shahrizor in the north and northeast were Kurds and other non-Arabs. Pastures and cultivated fields benefited from the plentiful rainfall and melting winter snows of this largely mountainous region. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing through the central and southern plains created an irregular belt of irrigated farmlands bounded by desert and merging into the marshlands around the head of the Arabic Gulf. The people of the plains, marshes, and deserts were overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking. Few Turkish speakers were to be found outside of Baghdad, Kirkuk, and some other towns. Centuries of political upheavals, invasions, wars, and general insecurity had taken their toll on Iraq's population, especially in the urban centres. Destruction and neglect of the irrigation system had restricted settled agriculture to a few areas, the most extensive of which were between the rivers north of Baghdad and around Basra in the south. As much as half of the Arab and Kurdish population in the countryside was nomadic or seminomadic. Outside the towns, social organization and personal allegiances were primarily tribal, with many of the settled cultivators having retained their tribal ties. Baghdad, situated near the geographic centre, reflected within itself the division between the predominantly Shi'ite south and the largely Sunnite north. Unlike Anatolia and Syria, Iraq's non-Muslim communities were modest in size, but there was an active Jewish commercial and financial element in Baghdad, and Assyrian Christians were prominent in Mosul. Absorbed piecemeal by the Ottoman sultans Selim I and Süleyman I in the 16th century, this region on the empire's eastern periphery was the battleground in recurrent struggles between the Sunnite Ottomans and the Shi'ite rulers of Iran and was subject to frequent Arab and Kurdish tribal disturbances. It was never as thoroughly integrated into the empire or as directly administered by the Ottomans as was the western half of the Fertile Crescent. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the destruction, chaos, and fragmentation that had beset the region in the preceding centuries, the expansion of the vast Ottoman political and economic sphere to include Iraq brought with it certain advantages. Under the watchful eye of Süleyman I's government, local administration was reorganized; trade increased; the economic and living conditions of most of the inhabitants improved; and the towns, especially Baghdad, experienced some growth and new building. The Ottomans at first attempted to rule the Iraqi provinces directly, but in the 17th and 18th centuries a weakened government in Istanbul was obliged to concede extensive autonomy to the governors, and some areas were beyond the reach of Ottoman authority for extended periods. This trend was reversed in the 19th century when administrative centralization and reorganization, undertaken by the Ottoman government as part of a comprehensive reform and modernization program, were extended to Iraq. The reassertion of direct rule by the sultan's government did not, however, halt the increasing penetration of Iraq by British and other European interests.






This site was last updated 01/05/07