Mesopotamia (from the Greek, the ancient words “meso,” means between or in the middle of, and “potamos,” means river) was an ancient region located in the eastern Mediterranean bounded in the northeast by the Zagros Mountains and in the southeast by the Arabian Plateau, corresponding to modern-day Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria, Kuwait, and Turkey and known as the Fertile Crescent and the cradle of civilisation.
The ‘two rivers’ of the name refer to the Tigris and the Euphrates and the land was known as ‘Al-Jazirah’ (the island) to the Arabs as a fertile land surrounded by water. The term “Fertile Crescent” was coined by Egyptologist J.H. Breasted (l. 1865-1935) in 1916 to describe the region at the north-end of the Persian Gulf, associated with the biblical Garden of Eden.
Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilisations rather than any single civilisation. Even so, Mesopotamia is known as the “cradle of civilisation” primarily because of two developments that occurred there, in the region of Sumer, in the 4th millennium BCE:
- the rise of the city as recognised today.
- the invention of writing (although writing is also known to have developed in Egypt, in the Indus Valley, in China, and to have taken form independently in Mesoamerica).
The invention of the wheel is also credited to the Mesopotamians and, in 1922 CE, the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered “the remains of two four-wheeled wagons, [at the site of the ancient city of Ur] the oldest wheeled vehicles in history ever found, along with their leather tires” (Bertman, 35). Other important developments or inventions credited to the Mesopotamians include, but are by no means limited to, domestication of animals, agriculture and irrigation/ Hydraulic Engineering (they designed complex systems of canals, with dams constructed of reeds, palm trunks and mud whose gates could be opened or closed to regulate the flow of water), common tools (in a matter of metallurgy – the Sumerians were some of the earliest people to use copper to make useful items, ranging from spearheads to chisels and razors, according to the Copper Development Association. They also made art with copper, including dramatic panels depicting fantastical animals such as an eagle with a lion’s head), sophisticated weaponry and warfare, the chariot, wine, beer, demarcation of time into hours, minutes, and seconds, religious rites, the sail (sailboats), and legal codes (Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who is credited with first codifying laws. Written in cuneiform, the 282 laws dealt with marriage, family, employment, and other issues of the day while enforcing draconian punishments for infractions as a deterrent).
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