Between the rivers: How the people of Mesopotamia established the first human civilisations

Sumeria cuts right through the heart of modern-day Iraq, as far south as the Persian Gulf, where it connects to the Indian Ocean. It was one of the first regions where mankind's new itch to control nature extended into the business of building artificial worlds in the form of cities and states. It is also where experts believe writing emerged.

Sumeria was a perfect dwelling place for early settled communities of humans. By 10,000 years ago, sea levels had risen by nearly 130m from their low point, and in this part of the world the climate was wetter, and therefore better for growing crops, than it is now. It is only in the last 5,000 years or so that temperatures have increased and rainfall reduced to make the Middle East the sandy, barren land that we know today.

A wetter climate was ideal for growing crops, such as wheat, barley and grapes that need winter rainfall. And just the right kind of wild animals – those perfect for domestication, such as goats, sheep and oxen – lived on the slopes and hillsides of the region. Such animals could be used as a source of food, as power for pulling ploughs and carts, and to provide raw materials for making clothes, bottles and leather goods.

The ancient region in which the first Sumerian cities emerged is called Mesopotamia. In Greek it means "between the rivers". The Euphrates and the Tigris proved ideal for supplying water to nearby land through systems of man-made irrigation channels, dykes, reservoirs and dams. These meant people could purposely flood their fields to provide just the right conditions for their artificially chosen crops to thrive. The river valley also provided a large, long, flowing superhighway to carry people and their possessions from one riverside city to the next.

It is now known that a writing system developed in ancient Sumeria about 5,000 years ago, thanks to a remarkable archaeological discovery made in the 1840s by a young amateur British archaeologist called Austen Layard. Layard discovered the remains of the ancient city of Nineveh, including many thousands of clay tablets and stone slabs inscribed with the obscure form of ancient writing that came to be known as cuneiform.

Probably the most famous tablets from the Nineveh hoard are those that tell us of the adventures of an early king of Sumeria called Gilgamesh. He ruled over one of the first Sumerian cities, called Uruk, situated on the east bank of the Euphrates (now in southern Iraq). At its height, as many as 80,000 people lived in Uruk, making it then the largest city in the world.

The tablets tell us an enormous amount about life in Ancient Sumeria, notably in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which, along with other stories found among the inscriptions, provides fascinating insights into how the Sumerian people viewed the world – including some of the first written evidence of religious beliefs.

The Sumerians believed that the gods met each New Year's Day to decide what fateful events would happen in the coming year. Their decisions resulted in all manner of disasters, such as droughts and floods, as well as unexpected good fortune like bumper harvests and military success. Aside from these annual fates everything else was, they believed, predetermined by the stars.

The Sumerians and their successors in Assyria and Babylon believed that the world rested on a flat disc, surrounded by water on all sides. Above the sky was a tin roof punctured with small holes through which the celestial fires of heaven could be seen. They studied these holes (the stars), and watched them rotate each night along a predictable path. They discovered that five large stars behaved in a different, unexplained way. They believed these were the stars of the gods – we know them today as the five planets visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The Sumerians dedicated one day of the week to each of the five randomly moving stars – with the Sun and the Moon, that made seven. The names we use in English, derived from the Latin language later used by the Romans, shows the legacy we still owe to the Sumerian system: Saturday (for Saturn), Sunday (for the Sun), Monday (for the Moon). The link is clearer in French for the other weekdays: Mardi (Mars), Mercredi (Mercury), Jeudi (Jupiter) and Vendredi (Venus).

The Sumerians constructed towers, called ziggurats, so they could be closer to the heavens. These were terraced pyramids built from sun-baked clay bricks. The top of each tower was flat, and a shrine or temple to a god would be built on it. Only priests were allowed inside them, since these were believed to be the dwelling places of the gods.

It isn't just our seven-day week that we owe to these ingenious people. They were also prodigious mathematicians. Amongthe clay tablets found by Layard is evidence of complex arithmetic, with different combinations of vertical strokes and V-shapes used to represent the numbers one to nine. The Sumerians developed a system of mathematics based on the number 60, because there are so many ways of dividing it up (by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30).

Their genius for astronomy and mathematics was matched by their inventiveness at making things with their hands. These people are credited with inventing the wheel. These weren't used for carts or chariots, although they were to come soon after. They were wheels for making clay pots – pottery wheels. It didn't take long for the wheel to be adapted as a device for transporting goods. Tamed asses were used to pull the first carts. Solid wooden wheels were later replaced by spoked wheels that could carry more weight, making them ideal to support chariots of war.

Like all human civilisations, even the ingenious Sumerians could not survive forever. They learnt that living a life in one fixed location, rather than moving from place to place, as hunter-gatherers do, came at a considerable price. After many generations of intensive farming the land became less fertile, owing to increasing levels of salt which spread to the fields through artificial irrigation. To start with, the people responded by switching from growing wheat in favour of barley, which could tolerate higher salt levels. But before long, even that crop just withered away as the soil turned sour.

By about 2000BCE, the land around the mouths of the Euphrates and the Tigris had become impossible to farm, and cities such as Ur and Uruk fell into permanent decline.

Their misfortune meant opportunity for others. The mighty Assyrian king Sargon the Great (who ruled c2270–2215BCE) built one of the world's first empires around Akkad, a city located hundreds of miles further up the Euphrates, where the land was still rich and fertile. A seventh-century BCE clay tablet describes how Sargon's mother cast him off as a baby in a basket of rushes. Eventually, he was found and cared for by the king's water-drawer, Akki, and reared as his son. This echoes the story of Moses, who it is said in the Bible came from the Sumerian city of Ur.

As the southern Sumerian cities declined, they fell victim to Sargon's conquests, becoming part of his enormous new domain that stretched from south-west Iran to the Mediterranean coast. Cultures diffused two ways. While the Akkadian language gradually started to replace Sumerian cuneiform, the Sumerians' knowledge of craftsmanship and technology spread far and wide across the vast Akkadian empire.

By evolving a system of writing, the Sumerian civilisation allowed recorded history as we know it to begin. The written word meant that knowledge could be transferred, without error or change, from one part of the world to another, and from one generation to the next. It was one of the most potent tools for organising the construction and administration of man's first artificial worlds.

The man who found Gilgamesh

Modern knowledge of the civilisation of ancient Sumeria is largely attributable to a remarkable young British lawyer called Austen Layard (above). An amateur archaeologist, he decided in the 1840s that, rather than stick around in London to practise law, as was his training, he would head off for a life on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which was then under British rule.

Layard never got to Ceylon. He stalled in the Middle East, in Persia, where he became fascinated by the history of the region, and in particular by a strange large mound near the town of Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris in Ottoman Iraq. He was so curious about this odd, man-made hill covered in dust and sand that he persuaded the British Ambassador in Turkey to pay for an archaeological dig to see what lay beneath it.

On 9 November 1845, Layard, with a team of local tribesmen, started excavations. Within hours their brushes and spades revealed the walls of an ancient palace covered with stone slabs, each one tightly inscribed with a curiously shaped form of unknown ancient writing.

This wasn't just a fancy royal palace with a few old graffiti marks that Layard and his team had stumbled across. After a series of excavations, two palaces and a huge royal library had been unearthed on the site, which turned out to be what remains of the ancient biblical city of Nineveh.

Layard and his team uncovered a staggering 20,000 clay tablets including king lists, histories, religious texts, mathematical and astronomical treatises, contracts, legal documents, decrees and royal letters, as well as the now-celebrated "Epic of Gilgamesh", which describes the adventures of an early king of Sumeria.

These tablets provide a fascinating insight into ancient times that has transformed our understanding of when and where the first civilisations emerged, and what they were like.

peopleTop Gear presenter and all-round controversialist is at it again
Life & Style
techHow a 'grey brick' took over the world of portable gaming
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Coren Mitchell, who is the daughter of the late broadcaster Alan Coren and is married to comedian David Mitchell, produced a hand to make poker history at the 98th EPT main event.
peopleJournalist and TV presenter becomes first ever two-time winner of the European Poker Tour
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players