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Ancient Mesopotamia 101 | National Geographic


(soft music)
– [Narrator] The story of writing,
astronomy, and law.
The story of civilization
itself begins in one place.
Not Egypt, not Greece, not Rome.
But Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia is an
exceedingly fertile plain
situated between the Tigris
and the Euphrates Rivers.
For five millennia,
the small strip of land
situated in what is today
Iraq, Kuwait and Syria
fostered innovations that
would change the world forever.
Inhabited for nearly 12,000 years,
Mesopotamia’s stable climate, rich soil
and steady supply of
fresh water made it ideal
for agriculture to develop and thrive.
About 6,000 years ago,
seemingly overnight,
some of these agricultural
settlements blossomed
into some of the world’s first cities.
In the period between 4,000 and 3,100 BC,
Mesopotamia was dotted
with a constellation
of competing city states.
At one point, they were unified under
the Akkadian Empire and then broke apart
forming the empires of
Assyria and Babylon.
Despite near constant warfare,
innovation and development
thrived in ancient Mesopotamia.
They built on a monumental scale
from palaces to ziggurats,
mammoth temples served as ritual locations
to commune with the gods.
They also developed advanced mathematics,
including a base 60 system that created
a 60-second minute, a 60-minute hour
and a 360-degree circular angle.
The Babylonians used
their sophisticated system
of mathematics to map and study the sky.
They divided one earth
year into 12 periods.
Each was named after the
most prominent constellations
in the heavens, a tradition
later adopted by the Greeks
to create the zodiac.
They also divided the
week into seven days,
naming each after their seven gods
embodied by the seven
observable planets in the sky.
But perhaps the most impactful
innovation to come out
of Mesopotamia is literacy.
What began as simple pictures
scrawled onto wet clay
to keep track of goods and wealth
developed into a
sophisticated writing system
by the year 3,200 BC.
This writing system would
come to be called cuneiform
in modern times and
proved so flexible that
over the span of 3,000
years, it would be adapted
for over a dozen different major languages
and countless uses including
recording the law of the
Babylonian king Hammurabi,
which formed the basis of a
standardized justice system.
But Mesopotamia’s success
became its undoing.
Babylon in particular
proved too rich a state
to resist outside envy.
In 539 BC, the Persian king
Cyrus conquered Babylon
and sealed his control over
the entirety of Mesopotamia.
For centuries, this
area became a territory
of foreign empires.
Eventually, Mesopotamia
would fade like its kings
into the mists of history.
And its cities would sink
beneath the sands of Iraq.
But its ideas would
prevail in literacy, law,
math, astronomy and the
gift of civilization itself.

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