Mesopotamia (mĕs´əpətā´mēə) [Gr.,=between rivers], ancient region of Asia, the territory about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, included in modern Iraq. The region extends from the Persian Gulf north to the mountains of Armenia and from the Zagros and Kurdish mountains on the east to the Syrian Desert. From the mountainous north, Mesopotamia slopes down through grassy steppes to a central alluvial plain, which was once rendered exceedingly fertile by a network of canals.

Earliest Cultures

The south was long thought to be the cradle of civilization until earlier settlements (which probably date from about 7000 BC) were found in N Mesopotamia; Jarmo, the earliest of these, was superseded by a succession of cultures: Tell Hassuna, Samarra, and Tell Halaf. Tell Halaf, the most advanced of these early cultures, is famous for Halaf ware, the finest prehistoric pottery in Mesopotamia. It is found at such sites as Nineveh and Tepe Gawra. While these advances were being made in the north, civilization was just beginning in the south, particularly at Eridu. The Al Ubaid culture that followed flourished in both N and S Mesopotamia, at Tell Zeidan and Tepe Gawra (N) and Ubaid, Eridu, and Oueili (S). Irrigated agriculture became widespread, and social stratification developed in this early urban period.

The Proto-Literate and Early Dynastic Phases

During the next period (called the proto-literate phase) the south was the important region, and the transformation of the village culture into an urban civilization took place. Uruk (modern Tall al Warka), the foremost site at the beginning of this period, has yielded such monumental architecture as the temple of Inanna and the ziggurat of Anu. Also found at Uruk were tablets including the earliest pictographic writing. At the same time and apparently independently, smaller organized settlements arose at sites such as Tell Hamoukar and Tell Brak in NE Syria and Hacinebi and Arslantepe in SE Turkey.

The early dynastic phase that followed saw the development of city-states all over the Middle East as far as N Syria, N Mesopotamia, and probably Elam. The famous sites of this period are Tell Asmar, Kafaje, Ur, Kish, Mari, Farah, and Telloh (Lagash). The Sumerians (see Sumer), the inhabitants of these city-states of S Mesopotamia, were unified at Nippur, where they gathered together to worship Enlil, the wind god. The famous first dynasty of Ur came at the end of the early dynastic period.

Dynasties and Empires

Sargon founded (c.2340) the Akkadian dynasty, the first empire in Mesopotamia, whose example of empire building was later followed by the old Babylonian dynasty and late Assyrian Empire (see Babylonia; Assyria). There was also a great cultural exchange between the Mesopotamians and the Elamites (and other Iranians), who for centuries had threatened each other. Mesopotamia still had prestige at the time of Alexander the Great, but later it was generally a part of the Roman Empire. The Arabs took it from the Sassanid Empire, and it rose to great prominence after Baghdad was made (AD 762) the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. This glory was destroyed when the Mongols under Hulagu Khan devastated the area in 1258, destroying the ancient irrigation system.

The Region in Modern Times

In the centuries following, Mesopotamia never regained its former prominence. In World War I, however, it was an important battlefield. The kingdom of Iraq was formed in 1921 (Iraq became a republic in 1958) and is of international importance because of its rich oil fields, but its status in the world is enhanced by the rich archaeological finds of the incredibly distant past.


See H. Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (1951, repr. 1968); S. N. Kramer, Cradle of Civilization (1967); D. Oates, Studies in the Ancient History of Northern Iraq (1968); L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1968); H. J. Nissen and P. Heine, From Mesopotamia to Iraq: A Concise History (2009).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Mesopotamia: Selected full-text books and articles

The Legacy of Mesopotamia
Stephanie Dalley; A. T. Reyes; David Pingree; Alison Salvesen; Henrietta McCall; Stephanie Dalley.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape
Guillermo Algaze.
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Mesopotamia before History
Petr Charvát.
Routledge, 2002
Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia
Zainab Bahrani.
Routledge, 2001
The Pre-Islamic Middle East
Martin Sicker.
Praeger Publishers, 2000
The Pantheon of Uruk during the Neo-Babylonian Period
Paul-Alain Beaulieu.
Brill, 2003
Mesopotamia and Classical Antiquity
Hudson, Michael.
The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 59, No. 5, December 2000
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times
David S. Landes; Joel Mokyr; William J. Baumol.
Princeton University Press, 2010
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Neo-Babylonian Entrepreneurs"
The Art of the Middle East Including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine
Leonard Woolley.
Crown Publishers, 1961
Early Civilizations of the Old World: The Formative Histories of Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, India, and China
Charles Keith Maisels.
Routledge, 2001
The Birth of Civilization in the Near East
Henri Frankfort.
Indiana University Press, 1951
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "The Prehistory of the Ancient Near East" and Chap. III "The Cities of Mesopotamia"
Origins of Economic Thought and Justice
Joseph J. Spengler.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1980
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Mesopotamia and the Beginning of Economics"
The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, C. 5000-323 BC
Michael Rice.
Routledge, 1994
Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature
Gwendolyn Leick.
Routledge, 1994
The Mesopotamian God Image, from Womb to Tomb
Hurowitz, Victor Avigdor.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123, No. 1, January-March 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World
Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 120, No. 3, Fall 2013
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.