This site has been archived for historical purposes. These pages are no longer being updated.

Architectural Marvels of Ancient Mesopotamia

The land between the rivers

Some of the cities of the Fertile Crescent

Sites of Ancient Mesopotamia

I - THE ANCIENT PERIOD (3,000 - 538 BC)

Early Dynastic Period (3000 - 2340 BC) at Warka (Uruk)
The white temple
Akkadian Period (2340 - 2180 BC) at Ur
The royal tombs

Neo-Sumerian Period (2125 - 2025 BC) at Ur
The ziggurat

Isin Larsa Period, Tel Harmal
Early Babylonian Period (Hammurabi)

3 KASSITE DYNASTY (1600 ­ 1100 BC)
Agarguf (Dur-Kuri-Galzu)
4 ASSYRIAN PERIOD (1350 - 612 BC)
Assur - Nimroud - Nineveh - Khorsabad
Babylon and the Hanging Gardens

(538 BC - 637 AD)

Babylon and the Greek Theatre


Kufa and its famous Mosque
2 UMMAYAD PERIOD ( 661 AD - 750 AD)
Wasit (Mosque and Dar-al-Imara)
3 ABBASIDE PERIOD (750 AD - 1258 AD)
Early Abbaside Period (Baghdad I, Ukhaidir)
Middle Abbaside Perlod Samarra
Iate Abbaside Period (Baghdad II).

Jesuit interest in Later Mesopotamia

In 1583 three Jesuits went on a mission to Mesopotamia to resolve the Nestorian schism (and possibly other schisms). However, they were not successful. Around 1870 two more Jesuits went to Baghdad, from St. Joseph University in Beirut, to see if the time was ripe to start a mission in Iraq. They were robbed on their way over across the Syrian desert and also were robbed on theie way back to Beirut. They reported that: "The time was not yet ripe for a Jesuit mission to Baghdad." In 1921 the Chaldean Patriarch requested Rome to send Jesuits to start a "college" in Baghdad. Four men arrived in March, 1932 and started a college that fall which gradually grew into a high school/junior college with 1,100 Iraqi students (roughly half of whom were Muslin and half Christian). Later a Jesuit university (Al Hikma) was started in 1956. This Jesuit mission ended 30 years ago in 1969 as the last Jesuits were expelled from their two schools by the Baathi Socialist party, who put an end to ALL private education in Iraq.

Some animadversions concerning early Mesopotamian cultures

Iraq has a history that fascinates anyone even slightly interested in the civilized world, since civilization was born in the city-states of Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago. To adapt one of Ben Johnson's sayings: "To be tired of Iraq is to be tired of life". Here one finds the first traces of agriculture and the trading that ensued, the beginnings of organized religion, the development of mathematical methods, the flowering of the arts and architecture. Here is found the first form of writing and the beginnings of literature (including the first story of creation and the flood) which made possible the pursuit of knowledge and economic order within an organized government. Later civilizations were all influenced by Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia - the cradle of civilization The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, it is said, hosted the legendary Garden of Eden - if it existed anywhere. To emphasize this the ancient village of Al-Qurna singled out a tree ("Adam's tree") with a sign - in Arabic and English. On this holy spot where the Tigris meets the Euphrates this holy tree of our father Adam grew symbolizing the Garden of Eden. Abraham prayed here 2,000 years B.C. Throughout Iraq loom ziggurat temples dating from 3,000 B.C. which recall the story of the Tower of Babel. One such ziggurat is Aqar-Quf (a suburb of present day Baghdad) marking the capital of the Cassites. In the south lie the ruins of Sumer where were found tens of thousands of stone tablets from the incredible Sumerian culture which flourished 5,000 years ago. On some of these tablets, which were used for teaching children, are found fascinating descriptions of everyday life, including the first organized and detailed set of instructions on when to plant and when to harvest. Also in the south lie the ruins of Ur from which at God's prodding Abraham set out for the promised land. Here the Akkadians introduced chariots to warfare. Nearby on the west bank of the Shatt-el-Arab lies Basra which later became the home port of Sindbad the Sailor. The Marsh Arabs (Ma'dan) are found at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in the south. In the north of Iraq the gates of Ninevah the Assyrian capital with their imaginative stone winged-bulls mark the place where the prophet Jonah is said to have preached penance to the wicked inhabitants, all of whom repented, much to Jonah's chagrin. Later neighboring Mosul became the crossroads of the great caravan routes. Kirkuk is the oil center of the north and boasts of the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. The city of Mosul has given us the cloth that bears its name "muslin" as well as building materials, alabaster and gypsum cement with its remarkable strength and rapid-drying properties.

Maps showing the territories ruled by successive dynasties
The Map of MesopotamiaMap of the Akkadian dynasty (2340 - 2180 BC)
Map of the Babylonian dynasty (2000 -323 BC)The Map of Assyria (1350 - 612 BC)

In the middle of Iraq lie the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Babel) close to the place where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego sang their hymn of praise in the midst of the fiery furnace. Here Daniel read the mysterious Aramaic handwriting on the wall "mene tekel peres" (counted, weighed, divided) in the Aramaic or Chaldean language for Nebuchadnezzar and under the later rule of Darius, the biblical Daniel sat unharmed in the lions' den. The Old Testament "Daniel" story, probably written between 167-164 B.C., was borrowed from Babel and Persian literature and adapted for Jewish readership.

Judaism had been a presence in Mesopotamia since the Babylonian captivity from 586 to 538 B.C. Nearby, Xenophon and his 10,000 fought against the Persians and in 1700 B.C. Hammurabi composed his famous collection of laws. After conquering the world, Alexander the Great, at the age of 32 died an untimely death at Babel in 323 B.C. The Sassanid settlement of Selucia-Ctesiphon (Ma-da-in) boasted of a giant arch (the only remnant of the palace still standing) which was believed to have been the widest span of pure brickwork in the world. The Arch of Ctesiphon (Taq-ki-sra near Baghdad) testifies to the skill of its third century builders.

On this panel from the gates of Balwat, Jehu, the king of Israel, is shown bowing to Shalmaneser 111 (859- 824 BC) who forced Tyre, Sidon and Israel to pay tribute to him.

Early Mesopotamian science
In "History Begins at Sumer", Samuel Kramer tells of the third millennium B.C Sumerian astronomers living along the Tigris River who noticed that there were roughly 360 days in the year. The missing five days were declared occasional holidays. This number 360 was very convenient since it was divisible by many smaller numbers, so they divided each day into 360 gesh, which were later changed by the Babylonians to 24 hours with two levels of subdivisions. Present day use of minute and second is traced to the Latin translations of the Babylonian designations for these subdivisions: small bits (minuta -> minutes) and secondary small bits (secunda minuta -> seconds). Around 2400 B.C. the Sumerians developed an ingenious sexagesimal system to represent all integers from 1 to 59 using 59 different patterns of wedges (cunei . . . cuneiform) which were usually imprinted in soft clay and later hardened. Integers from 60 to 3600 were then represented by a different symbol for 60 which was combined with the other 59 patterns. Like our decimal system it was positional so that the successive symbols were assumed to be multiplied by decreasing powers of 60. For instance, the number 365 in the decimal system would, in the sexagesimal system, be written 6 5 (= 6 times 60 + 5 times 1), just as 65 in our decimal system of base ten means 6 times 10 plus 5 times 1.

An adventuresome, determined and curious reader with a calculator can verify that the Babylonian number 4 23 36 (equals {4 times 60 times 60} + {23 times 60} + {36 times 1}) represents 15,816 in our decimal system. In their grasp of the workings of arithmetic the Babylonians were far superior to the Greeks of later centuries. The latter used letters for numbers (so 888 would be wph) and they would have trouble multiplying a simple problem like 12 times 28 which would be ib times kh. The multiplication rules for letters were beyond the reach of an ordinary person.

Kramer uses as his main source the content of tens of thousands of Sumerian tablets, uncovered in this century from 1902 on, which date back to 2,400 B.C. and reveal a rich literature long before Greek civilization. These remarkable tablets gave us the first Farmer's Almanac filled with astronomical and mathematical data, proving that Sumerian schoolboys were learning the Pythagorean theorem 1,800 years before Pythagoras (circa 585-500 B.C.) was born. In this mainstream of our own cultural background, the Mesopotamian civilization, a fortuitous event in the evolution of arithmetic symbols occurred through the adoption of Sumerian "cuneiform" symbols by the Akkadians to represent their semitic language as it became more popular in Mesopotamia.

Later Mesopotamian cultures

Christian presence since the first century
Iraq's Christian community dates back to Apostolic times. In The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors (p. 24), John Joseph relates the traditions claiming that the Apostles Jude Thaddeus, Bartholomew and Simon first planted the Christian faith in the north of Iraq. Also he notes the belief that St. Thomas stopped in Mesopotamia on his way to India. In the third century the Nestorian and Jacobite Christians became the most important advisors to the rulers of Mesopotamia. Their influence and ability to spread Christianity lasted for centuries.

The dominant rite now is that of the Chaldean Catholics. Others represented to a lesser degree are: Jacobites, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic (Melkite), Nestorians and Latin Catholic. The totality of Christians constitutes a small minority of less than 5% of Iraqis. The multiplicity of rites, however, in this small minority has led to friction, jealousies, and disputes which have prevented the Christian presence from being an effective Christian witness. After Vatican II, however, there has been a marked growth of the ecumenical spirit.

Three major seminaries were founded in Iraq during this century. One is at Dora just south of Baghdad and two are in Mosul, St. Peter's for the Chaldeans conducted by Chaldean priests and St. John's Syrian Seminary conducted by French Dominicans who also run a high school in Mosul. The Chaldean Sisters are the Daughters of the Immaculate Conception who had a number of schools for girls. In the first part of this century native Dominican Sisters ran 10 schools with 2,500 students. Chaldean Antonian monks in the monastery of St. Hormiz near Alqosh and the Carmelite Fathers do parochial work.

In the early days of the Society of Jesus while St. Ignatius was still alive, Jesuits passed through Baghdad on their way to the China mission. Recorded in the Monumenta Historica Societatis Jesu are the travels of Jesuits Gaspar Barzée and Raymond Pereira sometime between 1549 and 1567 and later Nicolas Trigault between 1612 and 1614. During the 17th century several dozen Jesuits made such a journey including one of the greatest Jesuit missionaries, Alexander de Rhodes, who labored in Indochina and who eventually was buried in Ispahan, Iran. Jesuit Brothers Bernard Sales and George Berthe died in Baghdad in 1661 and 1664. During this century the time had come for the Jesuits to return to Baghdad.

Islamic civilization
In the seventh century came the Muslim Conquest and the Baghdad Caliphs had more to offer than Sindbad, Scheherazade with her 1,001 stories, Aladdin and his wonderful lamp, Ali Baba and the forty thieves. The city of Baghdad became a center of Muslim power, the capital of the Abbasid Empire for five centuries (750-1258 A.D.), and the center of a flourishing Arab culture. In 1232 A.D. the Caliph Al-Mustansir founded, in the middle of Baghdad, Al Mustanseria, one of the earliest universities. However, later in the 13th century Baghdad was plundered by the Mongols and stagnated for centuries.

Baghdad then endured four centuries of Ottoman domination and mismanagement which ended with the British occupation following World War I. After this long ordeal Baghdad grew steadily into a modern city, especially after World War II. Among the significant events which shaped modern Iraq were the discovery of oil, the establishment of the Hashemlte Monarchy, the overthrow of this same Hashemlte monarchy and the establishment of the Republic in 1958.

The majority of Iraqis are Arabs. There is a large minority of Kurds and a lesser percentage of Turks, Iranians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Armenians. According to the 1965 census about 95 percent of the eight million (in 1990 eighteen million) inhabitants were Muslims. The Muslims of Iraq are divided into Sunnites and Shiites, with the latter forming the majority. Southwest of Baghdad lies Najaf and the city of Karbala which is the shrine of the imam El-Hussein ibn Ali and an important pilgrimage site for Shiites.

About the middle of the ninth century Bait Al-Hikma, the "House of Wisdom" was founded in Baghdad which combined the functions of a library, academy, and translation bureau. A very conspicuous creative work of the Arabs lies in mathematics and astronomy. Arab astronomers have left quite a discernible impact on maps of the heavens and given us such words as azimuth, nadir, and zenith. Our mathematical vocabulary includes such borrowed terms as algebra, algorithm (from al-Khwarizmi), cipher, surd, and sine.
The "House of Wisdom" turned toward the ancient Babylonians in order to return to primary sources instead of relying on Greek translations. It continued for several centuries and eventually took in boarding students from Europe and all over the known world. Bait Al-Hikma flourished long before Paris, Salamanca, Bologna, Prague, or Oxford.

Brief descriptions and pictures of some major Mesopotamian centers

Sumer (4000 - 2000 BC) southern region of ancient Mesopotamia, and later southern part of Babylon, now south central Iraq. An agricultural civilization flourished here during the 3rd and 4th millennia BC. The Sumerians built canals. established an irrigation system, and were skilled In the use of metals (silver, gold, copper) to make pottery. jewelry. and weapons. They invented the cuneiform system of writing. Various kings founded dynasties at Kish, Erech. and Ur. King Sargon of Agade brought the region under the Semites (c. 2600 BC). who blended their culture with the Sumerians The final Sumerian civilization at Ur fell to Elam, and when Semitic Babyloma under Hammurabi (c 2000 BC) controlled the land the Sumerian nation vanished.

Ur (3000 - 250 BC) ancient Babylonian city and birthplace of Abraham. Settled in the 4th millennium BC it prospered during its First Dynasty (3000-2600 BC), and during its Third Dynasty, it became the richest City In Mesopotamia. A century later it was destroyed by the Elamites only to be rebuilt and destroyed again by the Babylonians. After Babylonia came under the control of Persia the city was abandoned (3rd cent. BC).

Pictures of the art and architecture of ancient Mesopotamia found in the books listed below
The Painted Temple at SumerTwo Sumerian tablets: (c 2000 BC)
The first prescrition and the Great Physician
The golden head of a bull on the front of a lyre found at Ur (c. 2685 BC)The ram and the schrub from the Royal Cemetery at Ur
Ur at peace: one side ot the Standard of Ur
found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur
Ur at war: the other side of the Standard of Ur
(c. 2685 BC)
Model of the zigurat at Ur with the ascents partly restoredThe zigurat at Ur (c. 2250 BC)
Drawing of the zigurat at Ur: the moon-god NannaThe zigurat at Ur which was restored by successive rulers
The White Temple at UrukModel of the Temple at Warka (Uruk)

Parthia (2500 BC - 226 AD), ancient country in W. Asia: originally a province in the Assyrian and Persian empires. It was the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great. and the Syrian empire Led by Arsaces, its first king, it freed itself from the rule of the Seleucids (c 2500 BC) and refined the height of its power under Mithridates (first century BC) The empire was overthrown c AD226 by Ardashir, the first Sassanid ruler of Persia.

Babylon (2000 - 323 BC), an ancient city of Mesopotamia located on the Euphrates River about 55mi (89km) south of present day Baghdad. Settled since prehistoric times. it was made the capital of Babylonia by Hammurabi (1792 ­ 1750 BC) in the 18th century BC. The city was completely destroyed in 689 BC by the Assyrians under Sennacherib. After restoration it flourished and became noted for its hanging gardens, one of the seven wonders of the world. In 275 BC the city was abandoned when the Seleucid dynasty built a new capital at Seleucia.

Assyria (1530 - 612 BC) reached its greatest extent in the 7th century BC. during Ashurbanipal's reign He subjected its people to merciless repression inflicted by his army in whose ruthlessness he gloried and ruled through an efficient administrative system supervised by the central government. Assyrian rule collapsed and was followed by a brief resurgence of Babylonian rule

The top of the Hamurabi stele shows the king
worshipping before a seated god.
Detail of part of the inscription
on the stele of Hamurabi's code
Harmal (c. 1800 BC)Tel Harmal: temple, palace and school
Temple tower of Agar Guf in the Kassite city of Dur Kurigalzu: Traces of the staircase have been found.An alabaster relief of an Arab - Assyrian battle
found near Ninevah (c. 660 BC)
Plan of Ashur (1385 - 1045 BC) Model of Ashur: the double temple of Anu and Adad
Plan of Khorsabad under Sargon (721 - 705 BC)Khorsabad palace in the middle of the picture
The winged Bull of KhorsabadRelief on palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883 - 859 BC) with the winged god at Nimrud
Relief of lion hunting found at NimrudLion killing a slave found at Nimrud
Model of the city of BabylonRuins of Babylon today
Plan of the Hanging gardens of BabylonWall of Hanging gardens of Babylon still standing
Ishtar gate of Babylon built by Nebuchadnezzar II
(604 - 562 BC) now in the Berlin Museum
Plan of the palace at Babylon centering at the Ishtar gate

Sassanids, or Sassanians, last native dynasty of Persian kings.founded by Ardashiric AD226. There were approximately 25 Sassanid rulers the most important after Ardashir being Shapur II (309-79): Khosrau I (531-79), who invaded Syria: and Khosrau 11 (590-628) whose conquest of Egypt marks the height of the dynasty's power. The line ended when Persia fell to the Arabs in 641 AD.

Baghdad (762 - AD), capital city of Iraq, on the Tigris River. Established in 762 as capital of Abbaside caliphate. It grew to be a cultural and financial center hub of caravan trade between India, Persia, and the West. Destroyed by the Mongols in 1258: in the early 20th century Iraq gained independence from Turks and Baghdad became the capital (1921), and now is the modern administrative. transportation. and educational center.

Model of two Parthian shrines at Hatra (141 - 224 AD)
Hatra was an ally of Rome which led to its destruction at the hands of the Sassanians in 226 AD
Part of the arch of Ctesiphon still stands: the greatest arch of the ancient world (30 meters high). It was built in the fourth century, the middle of the Sassanian period (224 - 637 AD)
Plan of the circular city of Baghdad (c. 766 AD) by Caliph Al-Mansoor: the innermost circle had a diameter of 2000 yards. The four gates led to Khorasan (NE), Basra (SE),
Kufa (SW) and Syria (NW)
Drawing of the city of Baghdad with the Tigris in the background: done from memory by a visitor in 1638
The Abbaside caliph's plan of Samarra (836 AD): the city was 34 km long with a great esplanade 7 km longModel of the Abbaside palace of Ukhaider (8th cent. AD)
It was located SW of Kerbala


Samuel M. Ronaya, Lecturer, Al-Hikma University, Baghdad




HISTORY BEGINS AT S U M E R, by Samuel Noah Kramer
Doubleday Anchor Books: Garden City, New York: 1959


Return to Home Page