Mesopotamian history: the basics

All absolute dates given below follow the Middle Chronology. Reconstructing an absolute chronology, that is measuring the exact chronological distance to present time, is still problematic for ancient Mesopotamia. Several systems have been proposed, of which the "Middle Chronology" is the most frequently used. This puts the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon at 1792-1750 BC (Before Christ) or BCE (Before Common Era).

Periods (Dates BC) Selected important events and kings
Late Uruk period (ca. 3500-3200/3150) First city-states; urbanism; complex administration; invention of writing ('proto-cuneiform'), possibly Sumerian
Jamdat Nasr Period (ca. 3150-2900) Breakdown of Uruk-networks; evolution of writing
Early Dynastic Period I-II (ca. 2900-2600) Growing importance of city-states; archaic texts from Ur
Early Dynastic IIIa (ca. 2600-2500) Conflicts between city states; cuneiform writing used more extensively (e.g. first literary texts, both in Sumerian and a Semitic language); archives from Fara (ancient Šurrupag) and Tell Abū Ṣalābiḫ.

Prominent king
Mesanepada c. 2500
Early Dynastic IIIb (ca. 2500-2340) City-states fight one another for hegemony over southern Mesopotamia; archives of Tello (ancient Girsu); Lagaš-Umma border conflict; Lugalzagesi succeeds in briefly conquering large parts of Mesopotamia.

Prominent king
Lugalzagesi c. 2350
(Old) Akkadian (ca. 2340-2200) First World Empire; Sargon of Akkad founded dynasty, defeats Lugalzagesi, conquers large parts of Near East; power centre shifts to north; Akkadian, oldest Semitic language, becomes language of administration in some areas. Narām-Sîn of Akkad, his grandson, defeats a rebellion of southern Mesopotamian city states and is deified in response.

Old Akkadian Dynasty
Sargon I 2323-2278
Maništušu 2269-2255
Naram-Sin 2254-2218
Šar-kali-šarri 2217-2193
Guti/Post-Akkadian (ca. 2000-2112) It is unclear how long this period lasted and what happened during this time. In the city-state of Lagaš, Gudea, famous for his statues and the cylinders, ruled; he was probably a contemporary of Ur-Namma of Ur.

Lagash (Post-OAKK/Guti)

Lagash II
Ur III / Third Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2112-2004) Ur-Namma of Ur rebuilds large territorial state, succeeded by Šulgi; this period is sometimes called a 'Sumerian renaissance,' because Sumerian became once more the language of administration. The Ur III kings, almost all of whom were deified, left a large literary legacy, in particular of self-laudatory hymns.

Main rulers
Ur-Namma 2112-2095
Šulgi 2094-2047
Amar-Suen 2046-2038
Šu-Sin 2037-2029
Ibbi-Sin 2028-2004
Old Babylonian Period (ca. 2004-1595) Some historians call this phase the 'Amorite' age, because a North-West-Semitic peoples called the Amorites became part of the ruling elites.
The first two centuries are dominated by the city-states of Isin and Larsa, who vie for hegemony over Mesopotamia.
In 1763 Hammurabi of Babylon conquers Larsa and once more builds an empire that stretches as far as northern Syria. Yet his empire was short-lived and soon collapsed. Akkadian becomes more important as the written language of choice.
In 1595 the Hittites raided and destroyed Babylon.

Dynasty of Isin
Iddin-Dagan 1974-1954
Išme-Dagan 1953-1935
Lipit-Eštar 1934-1924
Ur-Ninurta 1923-1896
Enlil-bani 1860-1837

Dynasty of Larsa
Sin-iddinam 1849-1843
Sin-iqišam 1840-1836
Warad-Sin 1834-1823
Rim-Sin I 1822-1763

First Dynasty of Babylon
Sumulael 1880-1845
Hammurabi 1792-1750
Samsuiluna 1749-1712
Ammiṣaduqa 1646-1626
Samsu-ditana 1625-1595

Mari rulers
(Yasmah-Addu c.1800)
Yahdun-Lim c.1800

Upper Mesopotamian rulers
Šamši-Adad I c.1850
Yasmah-Addu c.1800
'Dark Age' until ca. 1475 (?) No written sources.
Kassite Dynasty (ca. 1475 (?) – 1155) Kassites, an originally nomadic people, rule over Babylonia and adapt to Babylonian culture.

Main rulers
Kurigalzu I ?
Kadašman-Enlil I (1374)-1360
Kurigalzu II 1332-1308
Kadašman-Enlil II 1263-1255
Middle Assyrian dynasty (ca. 1350-1000) Assyria, the northern part of Mesopotamia, expands into territorial state, largest success under Tukulti-Ninurta I, becomes an important political and military power.

Main rulers
Shalmaneser I 1273-1244
Tiglath-Pileser I 1114-1076
Second Dynasty of Isin (ca. 1157-1026) Nebuchadnezzar I has short-lived military success, he conquers Elam (SW Iran) and puts an end to the Elamite dynasty.

Prominent king
Nebuchadnezzar I 1125-1104
'Second Dark Age' (ca. 1100-900) Lack of sources; this dark age lasted for different periods of time in different regions.
In the 8th century, Hebrew and Aramaic appear, Aramaic and its script became more and more important.

Undetermined Dynasty
Nabû-apla-iddina c.880
Neo-Assyrian Period [] (ca. ca. 900-612) Assyrian kings begin expanding their state. The period of the Neo-Assyrian empire is set at 744-612, during which Assyria became the most important political power in the ancient world, conquering not only all of Mesopotamia but also parts of Anatolia and even for a brief time Egypt. In 612 the Assyrian capital Ninive is destroyed, ending the Assyrian dominance.
Aramaic begins to replace Akkadian as a spoken language.

Neo-Assyrian Dynasty
Aššurnaṣirpal II 883-859
Adad-nirari III 810-783
Shalmaneser V 726-722
Sennacherib 704-681
Esarhaddon 680-669
Aššurbanipal 668-627
Sin-šar-iškun -612
Neo-Babylonian Dynasty (ca. 625-539) Babylon regains its former glory for the brief period of the Neo-Babylonian empire; Nebuchadnezzar II, who completely rebuilt the city of Babylon, was its most famous king. The last ruler, Nabonidus, is famous for having been in 'exile' for ten years.
The Neo-Babylonian dynasty is the last native Mesopotamian dynasty.

Main rulers
Nabopolassar 625-605
Nebuchadnezzar II 604-562
Nabonidus 555-539
Persian/Achaemenid Empire (ca. 538-331) Persian kings conquer Mesopotamia and incorporate it into their empire, the largest empire to date. Scholarly, religious, and literary texts [] continue to be written in Akkadian, for example at the temple library in Sippar.
Macedonian rulers (ca. 330-307) Alexander the Great of Macedon finally succeeds in defeating the Persian empire during the famous battle of Gaugamela and includes all of its territories, including Mesopotamia, into his own empire. Alexander dies in 323.
Seleucid Empire (ca. 305-64) Seleucus, founder of the Seleucid dynasty, a former general of Alexander the Great, rules over the Near East, Iran, and parts of Central Asia.
Seleucid Dynasty

Antiochus I Soter 281-261
Parthian or Arsacid Empire (ca. 250 BCE – 224 CE) The successor to the Seleucid empire, the Parthians, was a dynasty based in ancient Persia. It was probably around 70 AD, the last document was written in cuneiform, ending the ancient Mesopotamian cultural heritage until its rediscovery beginning in the 16th century CE.

Further reading

The following books offer basic introductions into the history of ancient Mesopotamia:

Nicole Brisch

Nicole Brisch, 'Mesopotamian history: the basics', Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2019 []

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