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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Gilgamesh

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Copper Bull's Head with Lapis Lazuli Eyes. Sumerian, 27th c. BCE (Saint Louis Art Museum)Copper Bull's Head with Lapis Lazuli Eyes. Sumerian, 27th c. BCE (Saint Louis Art Museum)

“For more than four millennia, Mesopotamia and Egypt were the two most highly developed, complex societies in the ancient Near East.... The term Mesopotamia, first used by the ancient Greeks, means “the land between the rivers” and designates the geographical area defined by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (roughly equivalent to present-day Iraq).... Mesopotamia's alluvial plain needed irrigation for widespread agricultural production, but in the north, rainfall permitted dry farming; in the south, the people of the marshes supported themselves by fishing and herding. Lacking such natural resources as minerals, stone, and hardwood, the Mesopotamian economy depended almost entirely on agriculture and animal husbandry. From the rivers, mud and clay were abundant and were used extensively for ceramics, building, artistic expression, and as the medium for the cuneiform writing system—the earliest known.”

Excerpted From: 

Marian H. Feldman. "Mesopotamia,"  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2001



Sumer and Akkad

“From [around 2400 to 2300 B.C.]... southern Mesopotamian history can begin to be reconstructed. Texts from that time reveal that the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia divided their country into southern and northern regions, which they referred to as Sumer and Akkad respectively, with the dividing line at the city of Nippur (Nuffar)....
During the third millennium, most of the inhabitants of Sumer, the southern region, spoke Sumerian, a language that is related to no known language, living or dead; in Akkad a significant proportion, if not a majority, of the population spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Arabic, Hebrew, and a host of other languages. The Sumerians were present in the land at least from the late fourth millennium, and were almost certainly there much earlier....”

Excerpted From:

James A. Armstrong. "Mesopotamia," The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press


Stele of Hammurabi. 18th c. BCE  (Columbia University Image Bank)Stele of Hammurabi. 18th c. BCE (Columbia University Image Bank)


“A Mesopotamian city situated slightly southwest of the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Babylon (Babel in Hebrew) is well known from textual and archaeological evidence. Babylon first rose to political prominence under King Hammurabi ( 1792 – 1750 BCE ). It remained the dominant city in southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia) for about two hundred years until the invasion of the Hittite King Mursilis I in the early sixteenth century BCE. Its next rise to greatness came under Nebuchadnezzar I ( ca. 1124– 1103 BCE ) when, after his defeat of Hultaludish-Inshushinak of Elam, it became the major power in southern Mesopotamia. Babylon's dominance faded again with the rise of Assyria. Babylon and Assyria remained rival forces until 609 BCE when Assyria and its capital Nineveh fell to Babylon, which had long since come under Chaldean (Aramean) domination. Babylon itself fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great in 538 BCE , an event recorded in the prophecies of “Second Isaiah.” The city of Babylon continued to exist for hundreds of years thereafter, finally disappearing with the advent of Islam.”

Excerpted From:

Victor Avigdor Hurowitz. "Babylon,"  Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Oxford University Press, 2008



“...The Assyrian heartland consists of a roughly triangular stretch of land around the upper Tigris.... At the height of its power the Assyrian empire embraced the entire Fertile Crescent, extending from southern Armenia in the north, the Arabian Desert in the south, Egypt in the southwest, and the Persian Gulf in the east. Assyrian political power ended with the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE , although certain elements of Assyrian culture and administrative practices lived on in various parts of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian empires that succeeded it.”

Excerpted From:

 Victor Avigdor Hurowitz. "Assyria,"  Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Oxford University Press, 2008