The Neolithic Revolution, also known as the Agricultural Revolution, occurred about 12,000 years ago. For those, like me, who are not the best at math, that is around 10,000 BCE. There was a global trend away from nomadic hunting and gathering and towards sedentary farming. It appears to have arisen independently in multiple places in the Middle East, as well as in China and Papua New Guinea. Egypt and the Indus River Valley may have independently developed agriculture as well, or gotten the idea and the seeds from the Middle East or China.
Cereals, like barley in the Middle East and rice in China, were likely the first to be domesticated, eventually supplemented by protein-rice plants like peas and lentils. As people began to settle down they also domesticated animals. The earliest archaeological evidence of sheep and goat herding comes from around 10,000 BCE in the Iraq and Anatolia. Animals could be used as labor in the fields, or as sources of additional nutrients and calories to supplement the new cereal-heavy diet.
The Neolithic Revolution did not happen everywhere, and not all at once. And there remain a variety of hypotheses as to why humans stopped foraging and started farming. Population pressure may have caused increased competition for food and the need to cultivate new foods; people may have shifted to farming in order to involve elders and children in food production; humans may have learned to depend on plants they modified in early domestication attempts and in turn, those plants may have become dependent on humans. Whatever the reason, the Neolithic Revolution changed humanity – and our world – for good.
This arch and the attached façade are the only remains of the once-great metropolis of Ctesiphon. Perched on the banks of the Tigris River, Ctesiphon reigned for eight hundred years as the capital of first the Parthian and then the Sassanian Empire. But the city quickly declined after the Arabic conquests in the mid-600s CE, and was completely abandoned by the 700s.
As new empires rose and fell, and the world moved on, Ctesiphon slowly crumbled into the desert.
The Newly Discovered Tablet II of the Epic of Gilgamesh:
IN 2011 CE, the Sulaymaniyah (Slemani) Museum in Iraqi Kurdistan purchased a large number of clay tablets. After the dramatic fall of Saddam’s regime on April 9, 2003 CE and the ransacking of the Iraq Museum as well as other museums, the Sulaymaniyah Museum (guided by the Council of Ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan) started an initiative, as part of an amnesty program. The museum paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archaeological artefacts on their journey to other countries. No questions were asked about who was selling the relic or where it came from. The Sulaymaniyah Museum believed that this condition kept smugglers from selling their merchandise to other buyers (locally) or antiquities dealers (outside Iraq), as they would have otherwise done so with ease and without any legal consequences.
A large cache of clay tablets came from southern Iraq through illegal excavations after April 2003 CE. None of them was looted from the Iraq Museum, as no tablet bore an Iraqi Museum acquisition number, storage number, or even an excavation number. Therefore, their precise provenance remains a mystery. However, sometimes one can apply the ‘best guess’ conjecture depending on the cuneiform text a tablet has. This proved true occasionally; some scholars were quite sure that some tablets were unearthed in Larsa (modern-day Tell as-Senkereh, in Dhi Qar Governorate, Iraq) by the plunderers.
At that time, luckily present at the museum, professor Farouk Al-Rawi (of the Department of Languages of Cultures of the Near East, SOAS, University of London), immediately spotted that one of the tablets turned out to be Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh; the tablet was transliterated and an article was published about it in June 2014 CE by Al-Rawi and George. Recently Professor Al-Rawi visited the Governorate of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan to do research about some clay tablets acquired by the Sulaymaniyah Museum. I met him many times and we chatted a lot. Professor Al-Rawi and my dear friend, Hashim Hama Abdullah (the Director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum), told me that Professor Al-Rawi spotted another tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (among that cache) and he has completed the transliteration.
In 2011 CE, as part of that large collection of clay tablets, the Sulaymaniyah Museum acquired a small fragment, somewhat triangular in shape. Its final price was about 300 USD after some negotiation. After some cleaning, the overlying cuneiform text became very clear. “It is part of Tablet II of the Epic of Gilgamesh”, professor Al-Rawi said. On April 7, 2019 CE, I interviewed him about this tablet and what it conveys.
ASSYRIA began as a small trading community centered at the ancient city of Ashur and grew to become the greatest empire in the ancient world prior to the conquests of Alexander the Great and, after him, the Roman Empire. While the Assyrians’ administrative skills were impressive, and they could be adept at diplomacy when necessary, these were not the means by which the empire grew to rule the ancient world from Egypt in the south, through the Levant and Mesopotamia, and over to Asia Minor; it was their skill in warfare.
The Assyrian war machine was the most efficient military force in the ancient world up until the fall of the empire in 612 BCE. The secret to its success was a professionally trained standing army, iron weapons, advanced engineering skills, effective tactics, and, most importantly, a complete ruthlessness which came to characterize the Assyrians to their neighbors and subjects and still attaches itself to the reputation of Assyria in the modern day. A phrase oft-repeated by Assyrian kings in their inscriptions regarding military conquests is “I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire” those cities, towns, and regions which resisted Assyrian rule.
A chador clad militia woman, armed with a uzi submachine gun, controls a demonstration against Iraq. The poster reads “Yesterday’s friends, Today’s enemies”. Taken by Abbas Attar in Tehran, Iran, June 1979.
The seven-day week has no correspondence to astronomy – unlike the presence of the sun giving us days, or phases of the moon giving us months. Historians generally think the seven-day week was “invented” by Mesopotamians and/or Jews. Both thought the number seven had mystic significance. Sumer had a (mostly) seven-day week system since at least the 21st century BCE. The Jewish weeks may have developed independently or been influenced by their Fertile Crescent neighbors.
From the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa the seven-day week spread around the Old World. The Greeks and Persians adopted the Babylonian system, and fro Persia it spread to India and China in various forms. In Japan, for instance, seven-day weeks were mainly used by specialist astrologers until the 1800s. In Europe, it was officially adopted by the Roman Empire in the 300s CE, but it was already in common use throughout the empire.
The ancient Sumerians are known for having created one of the earliest agricultural civilizations in the world. A new discovery in southern Iraq suggests they also conducted some of the earliest maritime trade.Remains of brick ramparts, docks, and an artificial basin created to be the town’s port have been found at the site of Abu Tbeirah since 2016. That suggests they knew how to build boats and fish, at least. But what about maritime trade?
At the same site, researchers found some unusual artifacts that show the ancient Sumerians almost certainly had long-distance contacts, likely by sea. Vases made of alabaster, a stone not found in Mesopotamia. Carnelian beads from India. A necklace in the style of the Indus River Valley; the Indus River Valley civilization flourished at the same time as Sumer.
Ancient Sumerian texts mainly talk about agriculture, and little about maritime trade. The is understandable. Agriculture required the most organization, and effort by the state. Archaeology is uncovering a relatively hidden aspect of ancient Sumerian life. They had farmers, yes, but also sailors.