Ancient Iraq

Ancient Iraq, also known as Mesopotamia, was home to several cultures that grew and declined over millennia, including especially the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures.

What these three cultures have in common is that they all used the cuneiform script, the world’s oldest writing system: It was invented in the fourth millennium BCE and survived until the first century CE. This script was used to represent several languages, including Sumerian and Akkadian, which was the language spoken by the Babylonians and Assyrians. These cultures are therefore known as the cuneiform cultures.

The Sumerian and Babylonian cultures were centered on the cities of southern Iraq. Each city had a strong sense of local identity, which typically included a city god or goddess, their own traditions, system of administration, and so on. For example, the city of Isin was renowned as a center of medicine, Nippur was known as a religious center, and Kish was known as a political powerhouse.

Map of Mesopotamia, Wikimedia Commons.

The cities were originally independent states, but were repeatedly brought under a single rule. The history of ancient Iraq saw numerous empires rising to dominate the various cities, then collapsing again and giving way to a new one, as with the Old Akkadian empire under which Enheduana lived.

The history of ancient Iraq is generally divided into three main periods, conveniently coinciding with one millennium each: the third, second, and first millennium BCE (see also the timeline). The third millennium saw the intermixing of two cultural groups, the Sumerians and the Akkadians, and the gradual emergence of city states, empires, and the foundational elements of the cuneiform tradition.

At the turn of the second millennium, the Sumerian language died out, and the region came to be dominated by Babylonian culture to the south and Assyrian culture to the north. This period is characterized by the rise of large states, the appearance of Akkadian literature, and eventually the standardization of the cuneiform tradition.

The first millennium is best known for its huge empires: the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Persian empires. This period saw great developments in literature and science, but also the gradual decline of cuneiform culture, as it was first supplanted and then overtaken by Aramaic, Greek, and Persian culture.

Further reading

Van de Mieroop, History of the Ancient Near East.

Foster and Foster, Civilizations of Ancient Iraq.

Radner and Robson, The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Cultures.

Radner, Moeller, and Potts, The Oxford History of the Ancient Near East.