Chapter 2. Writing and City Life

Mesopotamia and its Geography
• Iraq is a land of diverse environments. In northeast lie green, undulating plains, gradually rising to tree-covered mountain ranges with clear streams and wildflowers, with enough rainfall to grow crops.
• To east, tributaries of Tigris provide routes of communication into mountains of Iran. The south is a desert – and this is where first cities and writing emerged.
• After Euphrates river has entered desert, its water flows out into small channels. These channels flood their banks, and, in past, functioned as irrigation canals: water could be let into fields of wheat, barley, peas or lentils when necessary.
• Not only agriculture, Mesopotamian sheep and goats that grazed on steppe, north-eastern plains and mountain slopes produced meat, milk & wool in abundance.

The Significance of Urbanism
• Urban economies comprise food production, trade, manufacturing and services.
• There must be a social organisation in place. Fuel, metal, various stones, wood, etc., come from many different places for city manufacturers.
• There are deliveries of grains and other food items from village to city, and food supplies need to be stored and distributed.
• However rich food resources of Mesopotamia were, its mineral resources were few. Most parts of south lacked stones for tools, seals & jewels; wood of Iraqi date-palm and poplar was not good enough for carts, cartwheels or boats; and there was no metal for tools, vessels or ornaments.
• Besides crafts, trade & services, efficient transport is important for urban development. If it takes too much time, or too much animal feed, to carry grain or charcoal into cities on pack animals or bullock carts, city economy will not be viable.
• The canals and natural channels of ancient Mesopotamia were in fact routes of goods transport between large and small settlements.

Development of Writing
• All societies have languages in which certain spoken sounds convey certain meanings.
• The first Mesopotamian tablets, written around 3200 BCE, contained picture-like signs and numbers.
• Mesopotamians wrote on tablets of clay. A scribe would wet clay and pat it into a size which he could hold comfortably in one hand.
• The sound that a cuneiform sign represented, was not a single consonant or vowel (such as ‘m’ or ‘a’ in English alphabet), but was syllables (say, -put-, or -la-, or -in-).
• Very few Mesopotamians could read and write.
• The connection between city life, trade & writing is brought out in a long Sumerian epic poem about Enmerkar, one of earliest rulers of Uruk.

Urbanisation in Southern Mesopotamia: Temples and Kings
• From 5000 BCE, settlements had begun to develop in southern Mesopotamia. The earliest cities emerged from some of these settlements.
• These were of various kinds: those that gradually developed around temples; those that developed as centers of trade; and imperial cities.
• Temples were residences of various gods: of Moon God of Ur, or Inanna, goddess of Love and War.
• The god was theoretical owner of agricultural fields, fisheries, and herds of local community. In that time, processing of produce (for example, oil pressing, grain grinding, spinning, & weaving of woollen cloth) was done in temple.
• The natural outlet channels of Euphrates would have too much water for one year which used to flood crops, and sometimes they would change course altogether.
• War captives and local people were put to work for temple, or directly for ruler.
• Hundreds of ration lists have been found, which have details against people’s names, like quantities of grain, cloth or oil allotted to them.
• Bronze tools came into use for various crafts. Architects learnt to construct brick columns, there being no suitable wood to bear weight of roof of large halls.
• There was a town cemetery at Ur in which graves of royalty and commoners have been found, but a few individuals discovered buried under floors of ordinary houses.
• After 2000 BCE, royal capital of Mari flourished.
• Herders need to exchange young animals, cheese, leather & meat in return for grain, metal tools, etc., & manure of a penned flock is of great use to a farmer.
• Through Mesopotamian history, nomadic communities of western desert filtered into prosperous agricultural heartland.
• The kings of Mari were Amorites whose dress differed from that of original inhabitants and who respected not only gods of Mesopotamia but raised a temple at Mari for Dagan, god of steppe.
• Mesopotamian society and culture were thus open to different people and cultures, and vitality of civilisation was perhaps due to this intermixture.
• The kings of Mari, however, had to be vigilant; herders of various tribes were allowed to move into kingdom, but they were watched.
• Mari is a good example of an urban centre prospering in trade.
• Boats carrying grinding stones, wood, wine & oil jars, would stop at Mari on their way to southern cities.
• Most important, tablets refer to copper from ‘Alashiya’, island of Cyprus, known for its copper, and tin was an item of trade.
• As bronze was main industrial material for tools and weapons, this trade was of great importance. Thus, although kingdom of Mari was not militarily strong, it was extremely prosperous.
• The most poignant reminder to us about pride Mesopotamians took in their cities, comes at end of Gilgamesh Epic, which was written on twelve tablets.

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