All dates are BCE unless otherwise stated.
3500 – 3100
Late Uruk Period
The “Uruk phenomenon” sees the appearance of the earliest states and large cities, as well as the invention of cuneiform writing.
3100 – 2900
Jemdet Nasr Period
The cuneiform writing system gradually develops further and begins to be used more widely for administration and trade.
2900 – 2350
Early Dynastic Period
Southern Iraq is ruled by a series of independent city states, with Sumerian and Akkadian being spoken side by side. The earliest known literary texts, such as the Instructions of Shuruppak, date to this period.
2350 – 2150
Old Akkadian Period
The Sumerian cities are united under the empire founded by Sargon, which sees great technological and cultural innovations but also frequent turmoil, especially under Naram-Sîn. Enheduana serves as high priestess in Ur.
2150 – 2000
Ur III Period
After a chaotic interregnum, power passes to the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), a highly centralized, bureaucratic state. The period sees a renaissance of Sumerian literature, especially at the court of King Shulgi. At the turn of the millennium, Sumerian dies out, while Akkadian splits into Babylonian to the south and Assyrian to the north.
2000 – 1600
Old Babylonian Period
The Isin-Larsa Period (2017–1763) sees the cities of southern Iraq scrambling for power. Hammurabi of Babylon emerges victorious, founding the First Babylonian Dynasty, which rules until the Hittites sack Babylon in 1595. Sumerian becomes a medium of learning, and literature begins to be composed in Akkadian too.
Old Assyrian Period
A great mercantile flourishing across upper Iraq and Anatolia—which sees massive amounts of good traded in a proto-capitalist system—is ended by the conquest of Shamsi-Adad I in 1808. The cities of Mari and Eshnunna rise to power, but are then conquered by Hammurabi.
1600 – 1000
Middle Babylonian Period
Southern Iraq is controlled by a dynasty of Kassite-speaking kings. They are defeated in c. 1150 BCE, when the kings of Isin seize power. Their rule sees a major program of literary collection and reediting, creating many of the classic works of Babylonian literature.
Middle Assyrian Period
The ancient Near East is controlled by various “Great Powers,” incl. Egypt, the Hittites, Mitanni, and Elam, and in the 1300s, the Assyrians establish themselves as one of these powers. Akkadian serves as a lingua franca throughout the region.
911 – 609
The Assyrian Empire conquers vast stretches of land from Iran to Egypt, culminating in the rule of the Sargonid dynasty (722–609). Scientific and literary scholarship reaches new levels of sophistication at the emperors’ court, and major advances are made in astronomy.
626 – 539
A coalition of Babylonians and Medes topples the Assyrian Empire, leading to the founding of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, a highly cosmopolitan state. In a process that had begun already in the 8th century, Aramaic replaces Akkadian as the main language of the region.
539 BCE – 100 CE
Late Babylonian Period
Babylonia falls under the control of first the Persian Empire (539–330); then, after the conquest of Alexander, the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty (330–141); and then Parthian Empire (141 BCE–224 CE). The cuneiform tradition is gradually restricted to a few surviving centers of learning.