Early Empires of Mesopotamia


2234 – 1000 B.C.E.

Most of the world’s early great civilizations were located in river valleys. Rivers provided a regular supply of water, which is necessary for survival. Also important is the that the lowlands around rivers tend to be covered with soil that is loaded with nutrients, which are deposited when the river recedes after floods to nourish the soil. Rivers were also a vital means of transportation.

Civilizations are large areas of land with large populations and distinct, organized cultures, as opposed to the smaller farming communities that characterized earlier time periods. Social, economic, and political developments led toward early civilizations. Many early civilizations were composed of loosely connected city-states, which were sometimes combined into one because they shared common cultural characteristics; but they were also independent of each other in many ways and often competed with each other.

Mesopotamia literally means “land between the rivers”; the rivers were the Tigris and Euphrates. A series of ancient civilizations – most notably Sumer, Babylon, and Persia – thrived along their banks. Mesopotamia is part of a larger area of relatively arable land known as the Fertile Crescent, which extends westward from Mesopotamia toward the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was very unpredictable, so some early settlements were frequently washed away. But soon people learned to build canals and dikes, and began to build their towns farther uphill, enabling large city-states to emerge. By 3000 B.C.E., Ur, Erech, and Kish were the major city-states of the first major civilization of Sumer.

Rule of Empires

From the 2300s B.C.E., the rule of city-states in Mesopotamia was replaced by the rule of empires. These early empires were generally unstable and short-lived, their success depending greatly on the strength of their rulers. Conquered states were forced to pay tribute, but were not actually occupied, so, in times of weak rule, they could assert their independence by stopping payments. Mesopotamian empires also faced threats from beyond their borders. Peoples such as the Kassites and Amorites from neighboring regions were attracted by the wealth of Mesopotamia and the land, with its undefendable frontiers, was frequently attacked.

Sargon of Akkad


The first great empire in history was founded by Sargon I of Akkad in 2334. Around this time, Sumer had become divided into two lands: Akkad (north) and Sumer (south). Sargon began his career as an official in the court of King Ur-Zababa of the Akkadian city of Kish. He overthrew the king to become the ruler of Kish. Then, in three hard-fought battles, he defeated Umma, the dominant city-state of Sumer. Sargon went on to conquer the rest of Sumer, Akkad and Elam before leading an army to a series of victories that extended his empire to cover parts of modern-day Iran and Turkey.

To celebrate his victories, Sargon built a magnificent capital city called Akkad. An outstanding military leader, Sargon also proved himself an able administrator, governing the empire for 56 years until his death in 2279. Sargon was a Semite, a person who spoke a Semitic language such as Arabic or Hebrew, and during his rule, Semites replaced the Sumerians as the dominant people of Mesopotamia. Their language came to be called Akkadian.

Sargon’s empire lasted a further 60 years under his successors, reaching its zenith during the reign of Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin (reigned 2254-2218). After this, it declined, collapsing in 2193, probably due to invasions by Gutians from the Zagros Mountains and the nomadic Amorites from the Syrian desert. For the next 80 years, individual city-states once again competed for dominance



In 2112, the Sumerian city of Ur came to hold sway over the region. Its ruler, Ur-Nammu, built an empire that extended from Assyria in the north to Elam in the south-east. Ur-Nammu created a system of regional governors and tax collectors to help administer his empire. Under his reign, the first ziggurats were built. From 2034, the empire came under attack from the Amorites and was finally destroyed in 2004 when Ur was sacked by the Elamites.



For the next 200 years, city-states fought each other without any achieving lasting dominance. Then, in 1813, an Amorite leader called Shamshi-Adad took control of  the northern state of Assyria, and a new power emerged in the region. Assyria had established itself as a significant trading power since around 2000, with colonies in Anatolia trading tin and cloth for silver and gold. With Shamshi-Adad’s accession, the Assyrians expanded their territory to encompass western Syria, northern Mesopotamia and the borders of Akkad. Shamsi-Addad’s empire was short-lived, however, as he came under increasing attack from the Elamites and the Akkadian city-state of Eshnunna, and was already in decline by the time of his death in 1781.



By 1757, most of Assyria was under the control of Babylonia, the new regional power, centered on the City of Babylon had been ruled by an Amorite dynasty since 1894, and with the accession of the powerful king Hammurabi in 1792, it asserted control over the whole of Akkad, which would soon become known as Babylonia. In 1787, the belligerent Hammurabi conquered Sumeria to the south. After taking over Assyria, he completed his conquest of Mesopotamia with his capture of Eshnunna in 1755.

Code of Hammurabi

Picture To keep control of his many subjects, Hammurabi created one of the earliest written collections of laws, known as the Code of Hammurabi. The code, which he based on older collections of Sumerian and Akkadian laws, consisted of 282 laws. Thease dealt with many aspects of Babylonian life, including work disputes, divorce, treatment of children and punishment of criminals. One law stated that if a house fell down, its architect would be sentenced to death. Another decreed that a man who stole from a burning house would be burned alive. The code was carved on stone tablets and placed in temples around the empire.


Hurrians and Hittites


In the 17th century B.C.E., new external powers emerged to threaten the Babylonian Empire under King Hammurabi. In about 1680, the Hurrians, a people from Armenai, took over Assyria and began to spread through northern Mesopotamia. Then, in 1650, the Hittites, an Indo-European people originally from Thrace in south-eastern Europe, established themselves as a powerful kingdom in Anatolia. The Hittites, under their king Mursilis, invaded and sacked the city of Babylon in 1595.


About historymartinez

Social Studies Department Chair, Room A305 Tutoring Mondays @ 4:15 pm & Wednesdays @ 8:00 a.m.
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