a bird's eye view (important time periods, famous city names, dynasties, terminology). See the literature on the Ancient Near East.

I. Mesopotamia, general introduction

Millennia ago the fertile low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris were the home land of a rich and complex society. These civilizations were saved from oblivion by the unexpected discovery in the previous century of complete libraries in the archeological remains. Thousands of clay tablets, written in a cuneiform writing system, are buried deep under the ruins of ancient cities, when they were sacked and set into fire. The clay tablets, usually only sun-dried and stored on (inflammable) wooden shelves, are often inadvertently baked while a city was destroyed and treasures were removed. Clay was not valuable to treasure hunters and robbers in later times and clay tablets (at least until the 19th century CE) were left untouched and thus saved for eternity.

The branch of science dealing with the study of ancient civilizations in the Near East is called Assyriology, named after an Assyrian empire uncovered by the first archeological excavations. This empire is now known as the New Assyrian empire in the first millennium BCE.


1. Geography

Mesopotamia. The word 'Mesopotamia' is in origin a Greek name (mesos 'middle' and potamos 'river', so 'land between the rivers'). The name is used for the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Irak and part of Syria. South of modern Bagdad, the alluvial plains of the rivers were called the land of Sumer and Akkad in the third millennium. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad, where the Euphrates and Tigris are close to each other. In the second millennium both regions together are called Babylonia, a mostly flat country. The territory in the north (between the rivers Tigris and the Great Zab) is called Assyria, with the city A ur as center. It borders to the mountains.

Neighboring regions. The region roughly containing the Asian part of modern Turkey are referred to as Anatolia. The countries along the east-Mediterranean coast (modern Syria, the Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) bounded on the east by the Syrian desert and extending north towards Mesopotamia will be called Syria-Palestine. Modern Iran is roughly equivalent to Persia and including in its southwestern part ancient Elam.

Human use of the rivers. Man have been attracted to both rivers since prehistoric times. As water ways they make inland navigation possible. The rivers yearly flood its banks, producing fertile land. The character of Euphrates and Tigris are different.
The Tigris is rough and fast flowing. 'Tigris' is the Greek pronunciation of the Akkadian name idiqlat, (initial vocal disappears and l>r), Sumerian idigna meaning 'fast as an arrow'. The upper course in particular is difficult to pass. The river cuts deep in the surrounding land and the water flow can hardly be used for irrigation.
The Euphrates is a lifeline. It can more easily be used by ships. The banks are lower, suitable for irrigation, with less violent floods. Precipitation in the mountains to the north is large and rainfall-agriculture is possible. In the Babylonian low lands precipitation is low and moreover rain is concentrated in shortly lasting showers in the winter period December-February. Intensive sunshine after a short spring parch the soil in the summer. Without irrigation agriculture is not possible.

Change of river flow and shore line. In the last few hundred kilometer in the lower course, the river drops only of order 10 meter. Consequently the river flow has changed significantly in the course of time. The ruins of many famous ancient cities, like Eridu, Ur, Nippur and Kish are now far from the river, but were in the past situated at the river banks. The location of the sea shore is determined by the extend of silk deposition in the Persian Gulf and the rising of the sea level. The river delta has probably gained territory over the Persian gulf. The coastal line has moved further south or at least lagoons and estuaries in the past have now become silted up. The city of Eridu, home of the water god (in Sumerian Enki, Akkadian Ea, one of the top three deities in the pantheon) was in the past situated at a lagoon near the sea and had a famous port.

The change in course of many arms of the river has had great consequences in the past. A breakthrough somewhat more north in the plains of Mesopotamia could drain several river arms and render a network of irrigation channels useless. It has been a question of constant debate, struggle and war between early Sumerian cities.

Euphrates vs. Nile delta. The Euphrates reaches its highest water levels at the end of March to the beginning of May, the Tigris a few weeks earlier. In both cases the crops are already growing on the field. The river flood can only be used for agriculture when the fields are shielded by a system of dams, dikes and canals. This contrasts with the Nile in Egypt. High water in the Nile are a result of the summer monsoon in Central Africa and has is highest water levels in September-October. The Nile fertilizes the land in the autumn and the crops can grow in (early) spring when no floods occur. Moreover the Nile, fed by rivers in a large area, has a more constant flow and carries the soluble salts and lime into the sea. The Euphrates is more easily prone to salination.

Irrigation. The irrigation system is attested already in very ancient times, the earliest around 6000 BCE. Through a system of dikes, dams and canals the precipitation in the mountainous region in the north is used in the south. This required a high level of organization of the society and collective efforts for the construction, maintenance, supervision and adjustments of the irrigation network. Over-irrigation and limited drainage gradually brackished the fields, often causing ecological crisis. Together with the change of river flow, it stimulates throughout the Mesopotamian history the foundation of new settlements and cities.
Our knowledge about the history of irrigation networks is limited by the difficulty of dating most of the water works.


2. Climate and environment

Climate in the Pleistocene. The motor of the general atmospheric circulation is the heating of the tropics and the evaporation of the tropical seas. The pleistocene is the geological period of cold climates (glaciers in the mountains and at high latitudes) that coincides with the cultural period, the paleolithic (Old Stone Age). Atmospheric circulation and the evaporation of the tropical seas, is 'in low gear'. The monsoonal rains now watering the southernmost margins of the Near East, are retracted to lower latitudes and mid-latitude westerly storms carry little moisture. The ice-age at the latitude of the Near East is characterized by low evaporation and thus little precipitation. The large quantities of water held in the form of ice lowered the sea level to typical ~100 meter below present sea level.

The Wrm ice-age made its last attack around 8000 BCE. The geological epoch starting then is called Holocene. Within a fairly short time (of order 1000 year) the world climate is basically the same as nowadays, with fluctuations on a large time scale. Recovery to normal temperature after an ice age is generally fast. It was even warmer and wetter than it ever has been since. The optimum of the warm and wet period (called Atlanticum, one of the subdivisions of the Holocene) is around 5000 BCE. It is the era in which England becomes an island again and northern Europe changes in marshland by the heavy rainfall. Modern shorelines are approximately reestablished. Coastal settlements earlier than 5000 BCE are now under water. During the Atlanticum westerly rainstorms stray deep into the desert zones of North Africa and the Near East. The present-day steppe areas were turned into green land. Many lakes are seen, in particular in Africa, that are now always dry. The distribution of the precipitation is the same as nowadays, only the absolute values change.

The fertile crescent. Because of the shape of this distribution in the Near East (almost absent precipitation in the central desert regions and high rainfall in the mountains around it), the area is called the fertile crescent. The total precipitation is indirectly known from the deposit of organic material in the sediments on the sea floor in the Gulf of Persia, from radiocarbon dates in lake sediments. The ratio of the Oxygen-18 isotope in lake sediments is an indicator of the total lake volume of water. There is no systematical trend (e.g. it is not getting dryer and dryer) in the last 5000 years (historical times), but there are three large scale dry periods effecting the entire Near East: 3200-2900, 2350-2000 and around 1300 BCE.

Local and temporal climatic anomalies. Local anomalies in the climatic history are important to mankind, but not always seen in the data (which have a coarse resolution). In arid environment, where water resources are at a premium, climate local anomalies are of real significance and may cause abandonment of settlements and movements of nomadic groups.

Agriculture. After 8000 BCE Near Eastern environments become substantially more attractive for human settlements. The Atlanticum is the period in which agriculture developed in the Near East, around the Nile in Egypt and in the Indus valley in India. The use of agriculture is expanding gradually further to the north and west. The Atlanticum is followed by a climate of lower temperature and precipitation. One of the relative cold and dry periods (4000-3000 BCE) coincides with the expansion of cities in Mesopotamia and the foundation of the first Egyption dynasty.

Climate determinism. Many attempts have been made (particularly in the early parts of this century) to explain the course of history as a result of large scale climatic change. These theories are called climate determinism. The modern equivalent of this is an explanation from an ecological perspective, in which still external influences (change in natural environment, now including e.g. deforestation etc) are the driving factor. Another school emphasizes the interhuman relations and sociological changes as the dominant process. It is now clear that a combination of these and additional factors play a significant role (cultural changes, technological innovations, new tools). However, a new hot and dry period, starting around 500 BCE, which hastens environmental changes (overgrazing and deforestation) probably did contribute to weaken the Mesopotamian civilization and caused the ''center of civilization'' to move to northern latitudes.
Karl W. Butzer, 'Environmental Change in the Near East and Human Impact on the Land', in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, J.M.Sasson (ed.), p.123-p.151, Vol.I. with extensive references


3. People

Two cultural groups form the principle elements in the population of Mesopotamia before the beginning of history and in the millennium thereafter (the 3rd millennium BCE). These are the Sumerians and the Akkadians. They lived peacefully together and created in mutual fertilization, by symbiosis and osmosis, the conditions for a common high civilization. Mesopotamian sources in all periods seem to be free of strong racial ideologies or ethnic stereotypes. Enemies, both groups and individuals, may be cursed and reviled heavily, but this applies more strongly to the ruler of a nearby city than to one of a remote territory.


The people responsible for the first monumental temples and palaces, for the founding of the first city states and most likely for the invention of writing (all in the period of 3100-3000 BCE) are the Sumerians. The first written signs are pictographic, so they can be read in any language and one can't infer a particular language. A pictogram of an arrow means 'arrow' in any language. A few centuries later, however, these signs were used to represent Sumerian phonetic values and Sumerian words. The pictogram for an arrow is now used to represent ti, the Sumerian word for 'arrow', but also for the phonetic sound ti in words not related to 'arrow'. So it is generally assumed that the Sumerians were also responsible for the pictographic signs, or possibly together with (or with a large influence of) the contemporaneous Elamites. If the Sumerians aren't the ones who actually invented writing than they are at least responsible for quickly adopting and expanding the invention to their economic needs (the first tablets are predominantly economic in nature).

The name 'Sumer' is derived from the Babylonian name for southern Babylonia:
mt umeri 'the land of Sumer'. (construct state of mtum 'country' followed by genitive of Sumer; unknown meaning in Akkadian)
The Sumerians called their country 'civilized land', their language eme.gir and themselves 'the black-headed ones'. [the consonant in between brackets appears in writing depending on following sounds. Compare e.g. French 'les Francais' where in both words the final -s are not pronounced, but they are explicitly heard if a vowel follows, e.g. in 'les Anglaises'.]

The Sumerian language is not Semitic. It is a so called agglutinating language, like Finnish and Japanese (and in fact like the majority of languages in the world). This is a term in the typology of languages that contrasts with inflecting languages, like the Indo-European and Semitic languages. In an agglutinating (or agglutinative) language words are composed by stringing forms together, often into quite lengthy sequences. In inflecting languages the basic element (the root) of the word may change (like 'foot', 'feet' and sing, sang, sung, called internal inflection).

Sumerian has no known relation to any other language. There seems to be a remote relationship with Dravidian languages (like spoken by the Tamils, now in the south of India). There is evidence that the Dravidian languages were spoken in the north of India, being displaced by the arrival of the Indo-European invaders around 1500 BCE. Because of the term 'the black-headed ones', it is possible (but far from proven) that the Sumerians are an early branch of one of the people now living in southern India.

Sumerian/Elamite inventions: Cylinder seals (French Sceaux-cylindres, German Zylindersiegel) are small (2-6 cm) cylinder-shaped stones carved with a decorative design in intaglio (engraved). The cylinder was roled over wet clay to mark or identify clay tablets, envelopes, ceramics and bricks. It so covers an area as large as desired, an advantage over earlier stamp seals. Its use and spread coincides with the use of clay tablets, starting at the end of the 4th millennium up to the end of the first millennium. After this time stamp seals are used again. Cylinder seals are important to historians: they literally give First Impressions (title of a book by D. Collon, see literature below)
Purpose. The seals are needed as signature, confirmation of receipt, or to mark clay tablets and building blocks. The invention fits with the needs caused by the general development of city states.
Geographical spread:
Inscriptions are mostly carved in reverse, so as to leave a positive image on the clay with figures standing out. Some are directly carved and leave a negative imprint.
See references to images of cylinder seals on the Web:
Dominique Collon, 'First Impressions, cylinder seals in the Ancient Near East', British Museum Publications, London, 1987, ISBN 0-7141-1121-X



The origin of the Sumerians is unknown. The intriguing question keeps returning into the literature but has so far unsatisfactory answers. The Sumerians were not the first people in Mesopotamia. They were not present before 4000 BCE, while before that time village communities existed with a high degree of organization. The ''principle of agriculture'' was not discovered by the Sumerians. This is evident from words the Sumerians use for items in relation to the domestication of plants and animals.

substrate languages. A language (in particular as it appears in proper names and geographical names) may show signs of so called substrate languages (like the influence of Celtic on ancient Gaul; compare some Indian geographical names in the US attesting the original inhabitants). Some professional names and agricultural implements in Sumerian show that agriculture and the economic use of metals existed before the arrival of the Sumerians.
Sumerian words with a pre-Sumerian origin are:

These words must have been loan words from a substrate language. The words show how far the division in labor had progressed even before the Sumerians arrived.

Some craftsmen have Sumerian names.



(Semi-)nomads in the Near East. Even at the time that a large part of the population in Mesopotamia had a sedentary (non-migratory) life in settlements, large groups of people (nomads) at the same time are migrating. Nomads roam from place to place in search for pasture and moving with the season. Semi-nomads graze their small live stock near the fields of the settlements, often trading for goods obtained elsewhere and having all kinds of other interactions. This characteristic is still present in the Near East today. Nomads leave little archeological trace and are illiterate, so not much is known about them by direct means. However, some description does appear in written form: recorded by the Sumerians and later by the Akkadians. Some of the (semi-)nomads, either as individuals or as groups, mix with the sedentary population and become sedentary themselves. In times of political or economical crisis they may do so by force, but they adapt quickly to the current civilization and even to the dominant language. Their increased influence on the society is manifested by a change in type of personal names. Sometimes the names are the only remains of their original language. In their new positions, they often stimulate further cultural development.

Akkadians, speaking a Semitic language, may have been present in Mesopotamia since the time the Sumerians arrived, or they may have diffused into the region later. Their culture intermingled and they must have been living peacefully together. On Sumerian clay tablets dated around 2900-2800 BCE found in Fara, Semitic (Akkadian) names are attested for the first time. It concerns the names of kings in the city Kish. Kish is in the north of Babylonia where according to the Sumerian King Lists 'kingship descended again from heaven' after the great Flood. The proper names often contain animal names like zuqiqpum 'scorpion' and kalbum 'dog'. Kings with Semitic names are the first postdiluvial kings to rule Kish. They started the first historical period called the Early Dynastic Period.

A few centuries later the first Akkadian king Sargon of Akkad ruled over an empire that included a large part of Mesopotamia. Apparently Semitic speaking people have lived for centuries amidst the Sumerians and gradually became an integral part of the Sumerian culture. We don't hear much about them in the first part of the 3rd millennium, because the (scholarly) language used in writing is Sumerian.



Mesopotamia has no natural boundaries and is difficult to defend. The influence of neighboring countries is large. Throughout the history of Mesopotamia trade contacts, slow diffusion of foreign tribes and military confrontations have been of great influence.


Neighbors in 3rd millennium

In the east: Elamites

In the west: city of Ebla The discovery in 19.. of the 3rd millennium city Ebla took Assyriologist by surprise. The extend of the Sumerian culture in the 3rd millennium was not known, but not expected to go so far west. Ebla is situated at Tell Mardikh 65 km south of Aleppo in Syria and appeared to be an urban culture in the middle of the 3rd millennium in the far west of Mesopotamia. The site shows impressive archeological remains (royal palace) and has a rich archive of cuneiform tablets which attests a new (western) Semitic language (called Eblaite) different from and even slightly older than Old Akkadian.

The Ebla archive is found as a shelved room with ~2100 clay tablets. Subjects range from administration, textile- and metal accounting, tax deliveries, temple offerings, letters, state reports and scribal exercises. Texts and excavations show Ebla to be a complex mixture of (Sumerian) borrowings and local traditions. From ~2600-2350 BCE a good deal of Sumerian literacy and school tradition had been assimilated by Ebla scribes and in addition they used cuneiform for their own language. Ebla's power depended on political hegemony over a local territory with autonomous minor urban centers. Hundreds of villages are named in the archives, mention is made of large (~6700 animals) heards, wool industry, and large quantities of gold and silver. During at least 26 years tribute is paid to Mari (an important city on the Middle Euphrates), with which Ebla usually had a friendly relation (exchange of gifts). From the lack of long distance ventures it is concluded that Ebla probably was not a commercial empire, but merely profited of the strategic position at the crossroads of major trade routes.

Ebla ended by a fire in ~2350, probably in a conflict with Sargon of Akkad, the first Mesopotamian empire. It was rebuilt and flourished again during the Ur-III dynasty and in a period roughly coinciding with the Old Babylonian Period. A final destruction took place by a Hittite king ~1600 BCE, after which Ebla remained a small village.
Lucio Milano, 'Ebla, A Third-Millennium City-State in Ancient Syria', in 'Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, J.M.Sasson (ed.)', Vol. II, p.1219-p.1230, with further references



Robert M. Whiting, 'Amorite Tribes and nations of Second-Millennium Western Asia' in 'Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, J.M.Sasson (ed.)', Vol. II, p.1231-p.1242 , with further references


Neighbors in 2nd millennium



Sea people



Neighbors in 1st millennium




4. The Divine World

The Mesopotamian view on the supernatural is an inextricable mixture of Sumerian and Akkadian origin, influenced by an unknown substrate population. Most Sumerian literature is written by Akkadian speakers when Sumerian was an extinct language. The religious ideas evolved in time and since most texts are dated in the 2nd and 1st millennium, it is not always clear how 2nd millennium views represent 3rd millennium opinions.

The universe basically is seen as a stratification of two or three layers. Usually it consists of 'heaven' (Sumerian an, Akkadian sham) and 'earth' (Sumerian ki, Akkadian erSetum) or in other traditions as a tri-partition, either:
'heaven', 'earth' and 'Netherworld' or
'heaven', 'sky/atmosphere' and 'earth'.
The symbol for 'heaven' dingir AN has evolved from a pictographic representation of a star. Heaven is thus the upper level of the universe, all that is 'high' or 'elevated', and apparently associated with the celestial sphere.


Antropomorphic gods. The supernatural universe is populated with divine beings: gods and demons. They are portrayed in an antropomorphic way as superior humans, imaging the ruling class of society. They are, however, more powerful, freed from human miseries and mishaps and they live endless lifes. The Sumerian word for 'god' is dingir, Akkadian ilu. The sign dingir to represent this, is the same as AN 'heaven', and also used as a determinative (classifier) attached to the name of the deity to indicate his/her divine nature. In transcription the sign is represented with a d from dingir in superscript, like dEnlil. It is not pronounced. Deities live in a temple, Sum. , Akkadian btum, which is also the word for 'house'. In the temple they are represented by a sculpture. Some deities have in addition a representation on the celestial sphere by a constellation or a star. Gods have human appearance, they have a body, they need food, want to be washed and dressed, want to travel, carry weapons etc. Each god has a well defined character, representing the scala of human characters. They may be ill-tempered, aggressive, cheerful, clever, just, ambitious, skillful, merciful and graceful, etc. Some are better disposed to mankind than others.

Male and female gods. A god is either male or female. The Sumerian language does not have gender as noun class, so sometimes the gender is unknown of some older deities, or may change according to tradition. Gods can have all kinds of attitudes associated with gender. Their behaviour reflects the patriarchal society. They have spouses (Akkadian ashshatum, 'wife') and created offspring which in one tradition may be different from another, depending on which epic one reads. Often the family relationship are purposely altered to reflect a change in status of the god. A goddess may be a sister of a god in one tradition and be his spouse in another (later) tradition, it doesn't necessarily means that the god married his sister. Gods can have concubines, they can rape (even the supreme god Enlil raped the goddess who eventually became his wife Ninlil), they may seduce and sometimes dispose of their lovers in the most awful ways.

Epithets (< Gr. epithetos 'supplemented'). In the texts divine names (and royal names) are often accompanied by an expression giving a quality, attribute or a significant appelation, called epithet. Compare e.g. from other era 'Charles, the Bald', 'Louis, the Sun King', 'Achilles, the swift-footed', 'Jezus Christ' (< Gr. christos 'anointed'). A person may be referred to, using his epithet: 'Sun King' in stead of Louis XVI or 'Christ' in stead of Jezus. An epithet may thus become indistinguishable from an actual or original name. Names of many deities are used as epithet to other deities, thus adding the quality of the first to the latter. In the course of time they merge into one personality. It is often unknown whether a name used in an epithet originally referred to a separate deity.
Another, kind of inverse process, in which a quality becomes personalized as a deity, is called hypothasis (< Gr. hupostasis, hupo 'under'; litt.: 'what stands under'). This is in religious studies the term used for personalization (substantization). Qualities, properties and concepts are personalized, represented as persons who speak and take actions. Some deities are seen as the hypothasis of one of the qualities of another god. Some personalizations are ad hoc, not generally accepted and only seen in a particular epic for a particular purpose.

Epithets form a fixed connection with the personal name. When the god Enlil is mentioned for the first time in a text, one writes e.g. 'Enlil, Lord of heaven and earth' as his standard epithet, identifying him as the chief god. Deities have many epithets. The choice in a particular texts refers to the quality of the deity in relation to the subject of the text. E.g. shamash is the Sun god, but in most texts his dominant quality is
shamash bl dnim 'lord of justice' (construct state of blum 'lord'; genitive of dnum 'verdict', 'judgment').
He is also (together with Adad) god of the divination (as Sun god he is all-seeing, and also sees the future). In that quality he has the epithet
shamash bl brim 'Lord of divination' (construct state of blum 'lord'; genitive of brum 'divination').

Syncretism in general is the synthesis of cultural elements. In the religious sphere it results in the equation, identification or unification of deities in the different cultures. This happens in all cultures with polytheism. One is with respect to religion very tolerant and recognize one's own deitie in the pantheon of other nations. To mention a simple example: Jupiter (Lat. Iuppiter), the Roman supreme god (probably himself taken from the Etruskians) is by syncretism identified with the Greek supreme god Zeus (in fact, the Romans took almost the entire Greek pantheon and mythology, but used Roman names). The Greeks themselves interpreted whenever possible an Eastern deity with an existing Greek deity. This particular form of syncretism is called with a Latin term interpretatio graeca. E.g. the Greeks identified the Akkadian supreme god Anu with the Greek supreme god Zeus. In a similar way there is an interpretatio hurritica of the Hittite pantheon etc.

In the Sumero-Semitic syncretism of the third millennium the process of identification (unification) of deities had already taken place before the majority of records were written. Numerous God Lists exist of the type an = Anum. So we are not well informed about the exact difference between these deities. The largest number of gods, however, have Sumerian names. Often syncretism is the result of political changes. Originally each city has its own pantheon but when dominated by another city analogous gods unify into one. The strongest personality absorbs the weaker ones, at most keeping their names and epithets (see e.g. the goddess Inanna/Ishtar). In this way the number of gods decreased considerably in the course of time.



Number of deities.

Organization; the chief deities Anum and Enlil. The organization of the divine world parallels the political organization of the society. There is a hierarchy, on top of which are Anum, god of Heaven (Sumerian an) and Enlil (Lord Atmosphere, god of the Sky). Anum and Enlil are both supreme gods, king of heaven and earth. In the divine world Kingship is shared, as appears both in pictures (on kudurru's, boundary stones mid 2nd millennium) and in the texts. In tables of deities Anum and Enlil are listed first in hierarchy, followed by Enki (Akkadian Ea), some name of the mother goddess and three astral gods Sn (Moon), Shamash (Sun) and the goddess Ishtar (Venus).
In pictures Anum and Enlil carry 10 pair of horns, the same emblem for both of them, showing their equal (high) rank. In some texts (like in the prologue of the Codex Hammurabi) there appears a division of tasks, where Anum is 'King of the gods' and Enlil is 'Lord of heaven and earth'.

Assembly of the gods. The gods take their decisions in an assembly (TBW)

Igigi and Anunnaki

d Anunnaki is a collective name for the gods of heaven and earth, and in other contexts only for the gods of the Netherworld, the empire of the death (in particular beginning in the second half of the second millennium). It is a loan word (plural only) from Sumerian a.nun.(n)a(k) 'semen/descendants of the (-ak) monarch (nun) and refers to the offspring of the King of Heaven An/Anum. The gods together are called Anunnaki and in the text one might specifically add
d Anunnaki sha sham u erSetim, 'the Anunnaki of heaven and earth'.

Sometimes a differentiation is made in the indication of the totality of the gods, the d Igigi and the d Anunnaki. The Igigi in that case are the gods of heaven, while the Anunnaki refer to the gods of the Netherword, the empire of the death.

d Igigi is a term with unknown origin and meaning. It ended up by indicating in some instances the entirety of the gods, and sometimes more commonly those that occupied heaven. The use of the word may be interchanged with 'Anunnaki' with literary freedom. In the Creation Epic (Ee IV-20) Marduk has a question to the Anunnaki, while the Igigi answer him (Ee IV-27:)
pulshuma d Igigi il rabtu
'the Igigi, the great gods, answered him'
[first word is the verb in preterite 3rd person plural of the G-stem infinitive aplu 'to answer' + suffix shu 'him' + enclitic particle -ma]

Igigi is usually spelled as
i gi4 gi4 , i-gi4-gi4
but in late orthography one also finds in a playful way
i2 gi3 gi3 -g-g
in which = ia (the word for five in Sumerian) also stands for '5' and twice g = dish stand for either '2' or '2x60', so as a number it could mean either 5+1+1=7 (number of Great Gods) or 5x2x60 = 600 ("total number of gods" in some traditions).

Number of Igigi and Anunnaki. In the later tradition of the Babylonian Epic of Creation the supreme god at that time, Marduk, divided all deities into Anunnaki and Igigi, but the words for Anunnaki and Igigi are used almost interchangeably elsewhere in the text. 'Marduk, King of the gods, divided....
d Anunnaki gimratsunu elish u shaplish
'the Anunnaki, their totality, (over the regions) above and below'

Their total number is 600 (300 Anunnaki and 300 Igigi):
ina sham u erSetim 600 (gish-u) ushtshib
litt.: '(and so) he [Marduk] caused 600 (deities) to sit in heaven and earth'
or: '(and so) he [Marduk] gave 600 (deities) residence in heaven and earth'
[the verb is the so called sh-perfect stem (causative sh) of the infinitive in the G-stem washbum 'to sit']

Igigi and Anunnaki in the Atrahass-epic. The epic of Atrahass (Poem of the Supersage) is a long epic, probably composed around 1700 BCE, which deserves more attention than given here. In this epic heavenly society is divided into two classes. The labour on the fields was carried out by gods of second rank, the Igigi, on behalf of the more important gods, the leaders, called the Anunnaki. The story starts with a revolt by the Igigi. They bang the door and went on strike, protesting before their chief employer Enlil. No work on the fields eventually means famine, so the gods panic and convene a general assembly, this time presided by the chief Anu himself. The solution proposed by the intelligent Ea is to create mankind who would have as prime duty to work on the fields, to fulfill the role of servants towards the gods. Men feed, cloth and shelter the gods and thus replace the labour done previously by the Igigi, and this is why men has to work so hard...... Their sole purpose is to be devoted to the gods.
It is possible that the Igigi represent the younger gods of the Akkadians and the Anunnaki the older Sumerian gods. Between the lines of the Epic one could read a struggle for equal rights, possibly reflecting such a struggle between the Sumerians and the Akkadians. Other theories (e.g. due to von Soden) deny the resulting settlement and agreement between the gods. It is said that in fact the Igigi seized power over the Anunnaki. They, the Igigi, gods of the heaven, become at the top and are the consulting gods in the assembly, eventually dominated by four or seven 'Great Gods'. In this theory the Igigi dislodge the Anunnaki to the Netherworld.

Temple Lists. There are several ancient Temple Lists. They group temple names according to different ordering principles (geographical, deities etc.). One of them apparently list the temples in hierarchical order, according to importance (fame, cosmological importance or supposed antiquity). An important List is nowadays called the Canonical Temple List. It lists Babylonian temple names and is dated in the 12th century BCE. Temple Lists contain two or three columns, e.g. with respectively temple name (like .babbar.ra 'the White House', 'Shining House), in the second column a description (like bt d shamash 'house/temple of Shamash' (the sun god) and in the third column a geographical indication (like sh Sipparki 'that of (the city) Sippar' (ki is determinative for 'city').
A.R. George, 'House Most High, The temples of Ancient Mesopotamia', 1993, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana, ISBN 0-931464-80-3, volume 5 in the series 'Mesopotamian Civilizations' (193p.), basically a gazetteer of the ceremonial names (alphabetically listed) of the temples of Sumer and Akkad, and of Babylonia and Assyria, with a short introduction.


The great gods

The term 'Great Gods' is often used in the texts. In a wide sense it refers to the consulting gods that constitute the assembly of gods. They are the deities with a certain importance, mostly the city gods (god and goddess as a married couple) of the major cities in Mesopotamia. Their number is often set to 50.
In a more narrow sense the 'Great Gods' are the seven Fates, the gods/goddesses of destiny, the top of an hierarchical list. These are the gods that determine the destinies of king, state, country, men and mankind. Anum, god of Heaven, and Enlil the Sky god, are listed first in hierarchy, followed by the water god Enki (Akkadian Ea), some name of the mother goddess and three astral gods Sn (Moon), Shamash (Sun) and the goddess Ishtar (Venus).

d Anum, the god of Heaven.
d Anum is a supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon and shares the title 'king of heaven and earth' with Enlil. He is in mythology a somewhat dim personality. He doesn't figure very often in epics and even when he does, he has little specifics in his character, apart from possibly a 'fatherly attitude'. Anum is the head of the divine dynasty, but he leaves the exercise of sovereign authority to Enlil. Only in times of crisis (e.g. when the gods are on strike, see the Atrahass epic) it is Anum himself who presides the general assembly of the gods.
Anum is at home in Uruk, together with the (city) goddess Ishtar. In a late first millenium composition, called 'the exaltation of Ishtar, it is described how she obtaines the status of Antum, the spouse of Anum.
In prayers one may call Anum (in the vocative):
d A num an e
d A-num AN-e ; d Anum sham
'O Anum of the heaven'
(Note the usage of the same sign d, first as a determinative (classifier) to identify Anum as a deity and secondly as a logogram an for 'heaven', supplemented with -e as phonetic complement). In a third usage, the sign an stands for the logogram Anum, without the determinative for a deity. The above mentioned beginning of a prayer could have been written with only three signs an an-e).
In the epilogue of the Codex Hammurabi he is called
Anum rab abu il 'The great Anum, father (ancestor) of the gods'
In the Creation Epic Enma elish it is told how Anu transfers his power to Marduk (city god of Babylon), who gradually becomes the new supreme god in the blooming days of the city Babylon. In the Seleucid era (331 - 125 BCE) Anu is identified with the Greek supreme god Zeus.
(After the Old Babylonian period the final -m in case endings falls off. So Anum is spelled A-nu, Anu).

d Enlil, the Sky god
(pronounced by assimilation as d Ellil at least in later times), 'Lord Atmosphere' is the city god of Nippur, the Sumerian sacred city and religious center. Although Anum and Enlil both are supreme gods and 'king of heaven and earth', it is Enlil who presides the assembly of the gods, carries out the decisions and in fact exercises sovereign authority. Enlil resides in the famous Ekur temple (Sumerian .kur 'House Mountain') in Nippur. This temple ranks number one on hierarchical ordered (according to importance) Temple Lists.

An important task of Enlil is to decree the destinies (Sumerian nam.tar or shortly nam, Akkadian shmtum) of mankind (kings, countries, ordinary people, etc.). The destinies have been determined in the assembly of the gods, presided by Enlil. They are divine decisions written on the tablet of destinies. The procedure again mimics the function of a king, who decreed his orders and wrote them on clay tablets.

In mythology Enlil has a definite character and is central in many epics. He is stern, strict, and behaves in a authoritarion way.

Enki/Ea the water god in the ABZU/Aps-temple
The Sumerian god d ENKI, Akkadian d Ea is the third deity mentioned in god lists and as such depicted in illustrations. He is disposed to mankind and plays a central role in many epics, so his character and abilities are well known: he represents intelligence and technical capabilities. He is a master craftsman,
bl nmeqi 'Lord of cunning/skill'
referring to the body of experience, knowledge, skills, and traditions which are the basis of a craft or occupation and form the basis of civilization as a whole.
The Sumerian name ENKI seen as "Lord Earth" (en 'lord', ki 'earth') is a case of (ancient) folk etymology, because the name is originally enki(g), with -g appearing in connections. The meaning of this name is uncertain, possibly 'Lord Kindness'.
Enki/Ea is the god of the sweet waters. His realm are the rivers, lakes and the subterranean waters, together called the ABZU (Akkadian Aps, see next paragraph). These waters fertilize the land and Enki/Ea is also called
en.uru 'Lord Reed-sheaf'
One of the epithets of Enki/Ea is
bl nagb 'Lord of the sources' (construct state of blum 'lord'; genitive of nagbum 'well', 'source')
and another epithet
shar aps 'king of the Aps' (construct state of sharrum 'king')
On cylinder seals one sees Ea sitting on a thrown with water streams out of his shoulders.

Because of his connection with water, Enki/Ea is also the patron god of the (hand-)washing and purifying rituals and of white magic: he is the patron god of the exorcists.

Enki/Ea is the city god of Eridu, one of the most ancient Sumerian cities in the southern part of Mesopotamia. In ancient time Eridu is situated on a large lake or lagoon near the Persian gulf and surrounded by reed-lands and marshy areas, with swamps and half-floating islands, where almost literally the earth (fertile land) is created by the interplay between the sweet water (Aps) and the salt water (the sea Timat) as stated in the first few lines of the Epic of Creation Enma elish. In Eridu Ea resides in his temple -abzu (Aps House). This is a prestigious temple, ranking as number four in a hierarchical ordered (according to importance) Temple Lists.
He is worshiped in many other cities, such as Ashshur, Babylon, Borsippa, Lagash, Larsa, Kish etc.

In mythology Enki/Ea is most of all the god of wisdom, of craftsmanship and arts. He is
d Ea ershu 'the wise Ea'
and the genius behind most technical concepts. Ea creates man (modeled in clay) in collaboration with the mother goddess Ninmah (which, in the later Epic of Creation, he does so conform the idea of Marduk).
Enki/Ea has the epithet Mummu meaning 'genius' e.g. in:
d Ea Mummu bn(i) kal 'Ea, the Mummu (genius, clever man) who created everything'
In the Creation Epic Enma elish Mummu is the third primeval being, the vizier of Aps and ad hoc personalized as if to show how Ea obtained his well known epithet Mummu.
The temple workshop/studio where the statue of the gods for the temples were made and restored, is called
bt Mummu 'workshop' ('the house of Mummu')
In practice this is done by craftsmen, in mythology by Enki/Ea and his mates, some of which are
d Nin-zadim 'Lord Stonecutter'
d Gushkin-banda 'Lord Goldsmith' and
d Nin-ildu 'Lord Cabinetmaker/Carpenter'
d Nin-kur(ra) 'Lord Mountain'
(the mountains are the source of supply of precious stones used as decoration for statue of deities).


The Sumerian word ABZU is described in the The Sumerian Dictionary, see ' What ABZU Means'.
The subterranean waters are called ABZU, Akkadian Aps, the domain of the water god Ea. His temple (residence of the god) is -abzu. (Sumerian 'house', 'temple'; temple names in Akkadian are always the Sumerian names) in the city Eridu. One conceives the subterranean waters as an enormous reservoir of water on which the ground floats. After all, if you dig a hole anywhere in the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia, you find water. Still nowadays in the marshlands of modern southern Iraq (where now the Marsh Arabs live/lived?) much of the fertile land is on islands actually floating on the water. The liquid underground of the surface of the Earth, the Below, is usually distinguished from and situated above the Netherworld, the empire of the death. Sometimes however, Aps also includes the Netherworld.
The Aps feeds the continuous water supply of the rivers, controlled by Ea. Rain itself and the seasonal change of the water level is controlled by the weather god Adad. Ea and Adad both are responsible for the fertility of the fields.

In the Babylonian Epic of Creation 'Enma elish' Aps is the second primeval being that existed before the creation of heaven and earth. He is the male personification of subterranean waters and represented as having enormous dimensions. The personification of Aps (as somebody who acts and speaks) is unique in the Epic of Creation, probably induced by the more common personification of Timat, the first primeval being and female personification of the sea/salt water). In the epic he is called
Aps zri il rabitim 'Aps, the begetter of the great gods'
In other texts Aps is used in the objective/impersonal sense as the 'underground water', representing the depot of precipitation and mineral water, something that can be reached by digging a hole.

Shamash, the Sun god, and the White House.
Sumerian d UTU, Akkadian d shamash, is the Sun god. He is, together with the moon god Sn, a popular deity throughout the Mesopotamian history. His name also refers to the sun as an object in the celestial sky, either written with or without the determinative for deity, also as shamshu. The worship of d shamash should not be seen as worship of the sun. Gods in Mesopotamia were already detached from the phenomena of nature. He is foremost the 'judge of heaven and earth' and in this capacity concerned with the protection of the poor. So he is
shamash bl dnim 'Lord of justice' (construct state of blum 'lord'; genitive of dnum 'verdict', 'judgment').
To this order he gives oracles intended to guide and protect mankind. Therefor he is also (together with Adad) god of the divination (as Sun god he is all-seeing, and also sees the future). In that quality he has the epithet
shamash bl brim 'Lord of divination' (construct state of blum 'lord'; genitive of brum 'divination').

d UTU/d shamash is the city god (patron deity) of the cities Larsa and Sippar (on the Euphrates, southeast of Babylon, the ruins are modern abu habba). He resides together with his spouse Aya in temples called (in both cities):
E2 UD .BABBAR 'White House', 'Shining House' ( 'house', 'temple')
The cuneiform sign UD stands for a variety of phonetic values and logograms, related to 'sun', 'day', 'white' like
babbar peS 'white', 'shining'
ud, u4 mu 'day'
UTU shamash the sun god

so the name of the -babbar temple has on a graphical-etymological level the same name as the god whose residence it is. Sumerians/Akkadians liked such coincidences. The -babbar in Sippar is an important temple, listed as number two on a hierarchical ordered Temple List. The White House in Larsa ranks number 7 in this list.

In mythology d UTU/d shamash also acts as judge and arbiter.

Sn the moon god.
The Sumerian god d su.en (unknown etymology), later also called nanna(r), Akkadian Sn, is the Moon god. His name also refers to the moon as an object in the celestial sky. The worship of Sn should not be seen as worship of the moon. Gods in Mesopotamia were already detached from the phenomena of nature. Sn is the city god of the city Ur, which had often a dominant position. Therefor Sn is one of the more important general deities in Mesopotamia. Together with the sun god, he maintains his popularity throughout the Mesopotamian history. He resides in the temple kishnugal ( 'House', gishnu '(moon-)light', gal 'to be', 'to exist'; so 'House where the (moon-)light is'). It is an important temple, listed as number six on a hierarchical ordered Temple List.

Family relations. Sn was the son of the chief god Enlil. His children are shamash the sun god, the goddess Ishtar and the weather god Adad. His wife is 'the Great Lady'.

Moonlight is important in the night. Sn has the epithet
Sn nannru shpu 'Sn the brilliant/shining/splendid (moon-)light'
which is at the same time a play on words because of the analogy between Akkadian nannru 'light' and his Sumerian name nanna(r).

Because the moon renews himself every month after New Moon and is waxing and waning, Sn is also the god of fertility. Sn has a regular appearance ('month') in the celestial sphere and is of extreme importance for the calender.

Inanna/Ishtar, goddess of Love and War.
The Sumerian goddess d Inanna (Sumerian (N) 'Lady of the Heaven' or 'Sister of an') has the Akkadian name Ishtar (with unknown meaning). She was originally the goddess of Love, the celestial Courtisan. She is sometimes also called the divine Prostitute although it is not very clear from the texts, what her relation to temple prostitution actually is. By the previously described process of 'syncretism' she was already early in history identified/unified with a divinity of the planet Venus (delebat spelled as dil.bat) and a god of quarrels and of war. She was an important goddess and she had quit a complicated character because of this syncretism. She is also goddess of fertility, but different from the Mother goddess, more emphasizing the erotic aspects. In pictures (iconography) she can either be completely dressed up or depicted naked.

Inanna/Ishtar is the city goddess of Uruk, together with the supreme god of heaven Anum. Her temple in Uruk is -anna (, with 'house', 'temple', an either 'heaven' or the god an and -(n)a from the Sumerian genitive, so the temple name either means 'House of Heaven', or 'House of an'). There are at least five temples in other cities also called -anna. She was also the patron deity and city goddess in a number of other cities further north in Mesopotamia, like Akkad, Kish, Girsu, Mari, Ashshur. In each city she manifests different qualities of here personality, which are locally worshiped

In mythology Inanna/Ishtar figures in many myths. She is an independent and whimsical woman, who attracts to men and disposes easily of them. Famous myths are
Inanna's descent to the Netherworld
Inanna and Enki
Inanna and Sukalletuda
Inanna and Bilulu
and she plays a role in e.g. the legend of Gilgamesh.

Beginning in the 2nd millennium she monopolized a number of female deities to such an extend that later the word ishtaru or ishtartu (with or without the determinative of deities) stands for a noun having the general meaning 'goddess', 'female deity', in particular as someone's personal patron deity, the goddess that mediates between an individual and the other gods. The wife of a god as personal god makes a sensible choice, because she is supposed to have a great influence. For the personal gods one may write the combination
il u ishtar 'my [personal] god and goddess'
(following a consonant, - (long i) is the suffix for the possessive pronoun 1st person singular 'my')

Adad, the weather god.
Akkadian d Adad is the weather god, the god of rain and storms. His symbol is the thunderbolt, the flash of lightning. His voice is the thunder. As a noun his name also stands for 'rain', 'shower', 'downpour'. He is probably to be identified with the Sumerian deity Ishkur. d Adad is mainly a deity of the northern part of Mesopotamia. He is not the city god of one of the cities in the plains of Mesopotamia. d Adad gives the fertilizing rains and as such is donor of abundance and prosperity. He is lock-keeper of heaven and earth and controls together with the water god Enki/Ea the sweet waters. d Adad is responsible for the wax of the river and its seasonable changes. For unknown reasons he shares, together with the sun god shamash the responsibility as patron god of divination and has in later times the same epithet:
d Adad bl brim 'Lord of divination' (construct state of blum 'lord'; genitive of brum 'divination').


Lesser gods



5. Economy, trade and natural resources

The alluvial plains in Mesopotamia are perfectly suitable for high food production. The economy was based on agriculture, predominantly the cultivation of barley. Barley was used as means of payment for wages in kind and dayly rations. Barley was also the basis for the natural beverage: beer. Other products are oil (sesame seeds, linseed), flax, wheat and horticultural products. Heards of sheep and goats graze the meadows outside the season. Cattle pasture when sufficient water is available. Wool production was large and converted to an assortment of textile fabrics. The extreme south of Mesopotamia has always had a different economy (dates and fishing).

No stones = end of Stone Age. In the vast clay field there is a fundamental lack of natural resources, materials that are indispensable for an urban society. The lack of stone may literally be seen as attributing to the end of the Stone Age. Timber and stone are needed for the construction of buildings, metals become increasingly important. A roof span of 10 meters requires strong rafters, but timber made from date palm trees is too flexible. Good timber was only available in the forests (at those times) in far away Lebanon or somewhat nearer in the mountains of modern Iran. The mountains are also rich in minerals, stones and metals. If you don't have it, go and get it. History hasn't changed in five millennia.

Tribute and loot. There are two basic methods to obtain the required fundamental materials: by war or by trade. These materials were often demanded as tribute or taken as loot after a military expedition. An old Sumerian epic (accounts of the legendary king Gilgamesh, king of Uruk 'who build the walls', 'who goes to the cedar forests'). Others tell about the victories by king Lugalbanda, the tributes and the exchange of grain for precious stones.

Trade and barter. Military expeditions were performed after the harvest period (often on a yearly basis, in particular in the first millennium) when farmers are available as soldiers. Minerals (like copper, tin, silver, a black stone called diorite, etc.) were only available in remote parts of the area, for which a military action would take too long, would be too vulnerable and probably would be too expensive. Then trade is the only way. In texts from the 19th century BCE, it appears that trade was performed in a professional, capitalistic way (at least during a period of almost a century in the Old Assyrian period): barter by boat over the Euphrates and the Persian Golf and with regular caravans by donkeys to Anatolia (modern Turkey).

Merchandise. Apart from cereals the inhabitants of Mesopotamia themselves had little to offer. Cereals were indeed exported but was too bulky for donkey transport over long distances. Imported material from elsewhere were again exported. Like tin, an important metal for bronze, that in those times probably came out of Afghanistan (although there are many Tin-routes). It was exported to Anatolia, a major center of metal industry, where in extensive forests wood was abundantly available to fuel the furnaces. Other merchandise were dates, sesame oil and in particular craft materials. Babylonia had an extensive wool industry. Coupons of 4 by 4.5 meter were in the 19th century BCE transported by the hundreds. From Anatolia silver and gold was imported (see Kltepe and process of commerce).


6. Assyriology

Decipherment of Akkadian.

First excavations in the Near East. During excavations in 1843 and 1845 CE large collections of clay tablets were found carrying cuneiform signs. They pointed to a forgotten Assyrian civilization which was hinted at in the bible and in Greek scripts (Herodotus). The decipherment of the language was in essence completed in 1851 and the language was first called Assyrian. Nowadays Assyrian is considered a dialect of Akkadian. The branch of science dealing with the language and the civilization was called Assyriology. The name now applies to a much wider field: the study of all the civilizations in Mesopotamia and all related questions. Assyriology rests on information from archeological excavations on the one hand and on the study of written documents by philologists on the other hand.

Discovery of libraries of clay tablets. The discovery in 1854 CE of the library of A urbanipal (mid 7th century BCE) in Nineveh, halfway the Euphrates river, stirred great interest. This Kuyunjik-collection (called after the discovery site near Nineveh) is at the British Museum. These clay tablets are identified with a K-number.

Discovery of Sumerian. The writing system didn't seem to be well adopted to the needs and specifics of Semitic languages (with many consonants not used in other languages). It was at the start already suspected that cuneiform developed from another hitherto unknown language. A decisive clue came from a special type of tablets. Some of tablets appear to be Lexical Lists, written in two or three columns. In some lists the middle columns is an Akkadian logogram, the last column gives apparently the Akkadian meaning written phonetically and corresponding to the logogram. The first column points to another language. These lists confirm the existence of a pre-Assyrian writing system now called Sumerian. It is a language that probably has not been spoken anymore since almost two millennia (the era of Sargon of Akkad, around 2350 BCE). It was a scholarly and liturgical language, like Latin was used for many centuries after native speakers existed. Presently the understanding of Sumerian writing is still growing. Modern translations sometimes deviate significantly as compared to translations made a few decades or longer ago.

Because some Mesopotamian kings use the title 'king of Sumer and Akkad' and because 'Akkad' is known from the bible (Gen.10:10) the new language in the first column of the lexical lists was called 'Akkadian' (different from what is now known as Akkadian), until some deceniums later (1889) it appeared that the ancient scribes called the extinct language
li-a-an u-me-ri 'the language/tong of Sumer'
and they called themselves 'Akkadians'. A philologist studying Sumerian is called a Sumerologist. S.N.Kramer is one of the first Sumerologists who has written a number of popular books on Sumer (and an autobiography In the world of Sumer, in 1988 at the age of 91 years).


7. Tell, tepe or hyk

Human habitation is often build on the debris of previous habitation, using the remains as rubble foundation. Villages nowadays are sometimes seen on a hill up to 10 meter high. The Near East is dotted with such hills, called (in Arabic and Hebrew) tell, (in Persian) tepe or (in Turkish) hyuk (all words for 'hill') either with or without present day habitation on top. They are often covered with sand by the high desert winds. The area of the hill can be larger than 10000 m2. The deepest layers may be dated to the end of the Mesolithic (10000 BCE). Some tells have not been used since millennia. The absence of habitation can often be related to a change in the local climate or in the course of a river, which could make the surrounding fields less suitable for agriculture. This is true in particular when many surrounding tells show the same absence of habitation.

In excavations the strata are numbered with Roman numbers. The layers are sometimes subdivided. E.g. archeologists speak about a finding of clay tablets in the layer Uruk-IVa, used as relative dating system. From artifacts (human made objects) this layer can be dated to the end of the 4th millennium (3100-3000 BCE). Many impressive tells are seen in the Near East, whose origin is unknown or only conjectured. Modern scientific excavations are slow and expensive, because of careful methods applied.