Monday, September 6, 2010

The Political Organization of Mesopotamia


The larger cities of Mesopotamia--Kish, Ur, Urak, Adab, Erider, Akkar, Nippur, and eventually Babylon--were all dominated politically by Sumerians (with the lone exception of Akkar), but were not a unified political entity known as Sumer, or even Mesopotamia (which is the Greek name for the region). The kings that ruled in these "city-states"--as we have come to call them--only ruled in their own cities and the hinterland that immediately surrounded the city. The residents in these cities might identify themselves as citizens of their neighborhood or their city, as well as part of a family group, but they had no larger group. Why did Mesopotamian societies develop in this way?

A. Earliest Mesopotamia--Mesopotamia was not a country (even though it is contained in much of present-day Iraq); our present day used of the word comes to us from the Greeks, who used it to designate that area to their east that "lie between two rivers."

1. Rise of the city-state--the region we refer to as Mesopotamia consisted of a series of "city-states"--independent cities not belonging to a large political entity, along with their adjacent "sphere of influence." For thousands of years from their emergence to their demise, these city-states were often at war with one another, as one king or another attempted to increase the size of their sphere of influence--or attempted to obtain a ready supply of some needed material that was becoming scarce.

2. Lack of a National Identity--early Mesopotamian people had no national identity; in fact, during the course of this study we will find few people have any sense of a truly "national" identity. This only really comes about after the invention of the printing press, and then only with the production of books and newspapers and magazines in a vernacular language. For most of the people living in this region during this time period, their main identity lie with their family, then their extended family (or clan), and then to their village or maybe the city they lived in

B. Farming and Civilization

1. Farming in Mesopotamia--climatic changes contributed to the development of farming. As the climatic changes continued to occur, they also necessitated changes in farming techniques, like the development of irrigation.

2. Urban settlements--started as small farming villages, with people sharing tools and work with neighbors that they were usually related to. As farming fostered a growing population, these villages often grew together. This especially became the case after climatic change necessitated the development of irrigation, since the construction of irrigation channels and their upkeep took up a great deal of time.

a. Hierarchical ordering of society--with the advent of irrigation, societies also became more hierarchical in their structure, since the organization of labor for the construction of the irrigation system required greater amounts of planning.

3. Urban settlement and social stratification--urban settlements helped to generate the creation of different social classes, since it fostered  the ability of some to exploit the labor of others.

a. Free land-owning class--consisted of royalty, high-ranking officials, warriors, priests, merchants, some artisans, and shopkeepers.

b. Dependent farmers and artisans--were tied by obligations to royal, temple, and private estates that restricted their personal freedom of movement  in  the society.

c. Slaves--a relatively small class of people in Mesopotamia, especially when compared to later Roman society.

C. Civilization and Religion

1. The Nature of Mesopotamian Religion--religion, in general, helps people make sense of the world around them, and assures them that even though life in this world seems random and chaotic, that there is an overarching plan that can be discerned, eventually.

2. Anthropomorphic gods--in Mesopotamia (as in most other parts of the world), early gods had a human appearance, as well as many human personality traits and desires--food and sex were among the most prominent, as a matter of fact.

3. Local focus--each of the Mesopotamian city-states had a particular deity that they viewed as the patron of their city, and whom they believed was just a little more powerful than the other gods.

a. Priest class--maintained the temples, interceded with the gods to whom the temple was dedicated. People made donations to particular temples seeking favors from a god, and the accumulation of this wealth allowed priests to gradually become wealthy, themselves. Priests passed on religious ritual and knowledge to their sons, which allowed these families to remain wealthy.
b. Building temples--priests argued that the only way to continue to received special favors from a particular god--or, at least, not to provoke their anger--was to build ever-more elaborate temples honoring them, which the priests enjoyed, as well.

D. Peoples of Mesopotamia

1. Sumerians--we are not sure where the Sumerians originated from, in part because we have not  been able to figure out the origin of their language. Sumerians dominated early political life in Mesopotamia, however.

2. Semitic peoples--seem to have originated west and southwest of Mesopotamia. The probably moved into Mesopotamia when the began farming, and brought these farming techniques--and the language to explain it--with them.

3. Peaceful co-existence--the Sumerians and Semitic peoples lived together peacefully for thousands of years, with Semitic people often moving into positions of political influence in the Sumerian power structure.

E. The Struggle for Dominance--as resources continued to grow more scarce, we see more conflict between the city-states.

1. Emergence of the lugal--around 3000 BCE we see the emergence of the "big man"  or lugal (what we would recognize as a king) in a number of Sumerian city-states. The most plausible theory for this happening is that the men chosen to lead armies during times of war were able to extend their authority in peacetime, and to assume by political, judicial, and religious functions greater claims to authority over society. In Mesopotamia, these kings claimed  to be the earthly representatives of the gods, and saw that proper ritual practices were performed and the temples were properly maintained;  gradually this influence spread to other areas of life to include the defense of the city, improving and maintaining irrigation channels, and guarding property rights.

2. Sargon--became the leader of the city-state of Akkad (and therefore leader of the Semitic people called the Akkadians), and was the first king in the region to unite many cities under one king and one capital--and to maintain this unity for about 120 years. Sargon was able to accomplish this through his military, utilizing new military techniques, and by bureaucratic innovations that he instituted.

a. Earlier, Sargon served as the cupbearer for the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa--a position much greater in importance than the modest title suggests. In the Sumerian power structure, the cupbearer was the king's righ-hand-man, and tasted the king's food in order to assure the king that he was not plotting against him.

b. Lugalzeggesi of Urak--the king of Urak during this ear (around 2300 BCE) was making a bid to consolidate the four most important Sumerian cities under his rule, and was then advancing upon Kish.

c. Ur-Zababa, growing suspicious of Sargon's loyalty, send him to the advancing Lugalzegessi, with a secret not, which bades Lugalzegessi to murder Sagon; Lugalzegessi ignores the request, and after letting Sargon go free, continued on to Kish.

d. While Lugalzegessi is conquering Kish, Sargon has gathered an army of his own, advanced on Urak, and quickly conquers the city.

e. When Lugalzegessi gets word of this development, he immediately turns to advance on his own city; Sargon is waiting for him, however, defeats his army, and takes Lugalzegessi captive. He puts a yoke around his neck,  and marches him to the Sumerian holy city of Nippur, where he marched him through the gate of that city dedicated to the god Enil, whom Lugalzegessi claimed to have a special relationship with.

f. Sargon probably benefited from the increasing stratification of Sumerian society. The story of his birth emphasized his humble origins, and therefore his connection to the common Sumerian. The cities that Sargon quickly conquered seemed to put up little resistance to his army.

g. In the vast area that Sargon conquered, he placed his fellow Akkadians in positions of power, removed walls from those cities (which would make the reconquest easier, should conditions warrant that), banished local garrisons while placing troops loyal to him in those cities. These innovations meant that he and his four successors were able to control this vast region for 120 years.

F.  Code of Hammurabi

1. Fall of Akkad--around 2150 BCE, Sargon's heirs lost control of Akkad to Elmite invaders from the north, through much of the area into chaos, since many kings attempted to step into the power vacuum that was left.

2. Rise of Hammurabi--assumed control of Babylon, a relatively new city near the now destroyed Akkad. Hammurabi, acutely aware of his relative weakness at this point in comparison to his neighbors, made diplomatic overtures to keep the peace,  while invading lands his neighbors had little interest in, and making infrastructure improvements to his land so the population would be able to support a larger and better-equipped army.

3. Hammurabi's Code--after successfully conquering his neighbors and extending his kingdom, after years of waiting, Hammurabi next promulgated a code of laws and behaviors, which is credited with sparking the idea of rule of law, rather than the arbitrary decisions of human beings.

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