Mesopotamia — 3500 BC to 539 BC


At around 3500 BC, in Mesopotamia, there arose several important cities and civilizations. The Sumerians lived in southern Mesopotamia, an area known as Sumer, around 100 miles upriver from the Persian Gulf in what is now Iraq. In central Mesopotamia were a group called Akkadians. The Assyrians, a third group, lived in northern Mesopotamia. A key area of population growth for the Assyrians was in and around the city Assyria, later called Nineveh, located on the Tigris River, near Mosul in modern Iraq.

The Sumerians invented writing around 3100 BC. They first used pictrgrams and then cuneiform signs that consisted of around 600 wedge-shaped elements representing Sumerian syllables and numbers. Later Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians used these cuneiform signs to transcribe their languages. Cuneiform was the writing system used in Mesopotamians for over 300 years, with the last known cuneiform text written by Babylonians in the 2nd century AD.

Around 2004 BC the Amorites, a group of Semitic people from the west of Mesopotamia in Arabia invaded Sumer and established several of their own city states in the region. In 1894 BC on the Euphrates river in what was then Akkadia, the Amorites made their capital Babylon. Hammurabi, an Amorite, became king of Babylon around 1792 BC. He established his reign over the area until around 1750 BC. During that time Hammurabi conquered cities throughout Mesopotamia creating the Babylonian empire.

During the 9th century BC the Assyrian kings gradually took over all of Mesopotamia, eventually extending their kingdom southward to the Mediterranean sea and Egypt. The Assyrian kingdom reached its height under kings Sennacherib (reign 705-681 BC) and Assurbanipal (r. 668-631, BC). Assurbanipal collected a library of around 25,000 clay tablets in his palace at Nineveh. The tablets included letters, legends, dictionaries, histories, astronomical observations, and medical texts—all a source for historians to access the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia.

When Ashurbanipal died in 631 BC the Assyrian empire weakened. In 612 BC the Babylonians along with the Medes, a group of ancient Iranians, conquered the Assyrains and divided the empire between them. Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king, (reign 605-562) rebuilt and enlarged Babylon and made it his capital city. He started a museum there that contained objects and statues from his and earlier empires.

In 608 BC Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, rebelled against his grandfather, the Mede King Astyages, and took over his kingdom. In 539 BC Cyrus captured Babylon, making it part of his Persian empire.

Medicine and disease in ancient Mesopotamia

There were three types of medical activities performed by healers in ancient Mesopotamia: divination, incantations and exorcisms, and medical practices such as bandaging and surgeries.

Divination is the art or technique of gaining knowledge of future events or distant states by means of observing and interpreting signs. Various objects or events may serve as media of divination. Another aspect to divination was for the diviner to ask for divine intervention to ward off evil. Those healers who used divination saw diseases and their accompanying symptoms as arising from demon spirits. A Babylonian medical text of about 650 BC, for example, describes epileptic seizures as being caused by demons:

If at the time of his possession, while he is sitting down, his left eye moves to the side, a lip puckers, saliva flows from his mouth, and his hand, leg and trunk on the left side jerk like a slaughtered sheep it is migtu. If at the time of possession his mind is awake, the demon can be driven out; if at the time of his possession, his mind is not so aware, the demon cannot be driven out (Porter, 1997, p. 46).

Different demons were associated with different diseases. The demon Asakkyu brought fever to the head and Namtar brought the plague. Utukku attacked the throat, Alu the breast, Gallu the hand, and Rabisu the skin. The most dreaded demons were the spirits of the dead. Deviners and seers warded away demons in a variety of ways, including producing special amulets, saying prayers, and by performing incantations and exorcisms (Van Dijk, Goetze, Hussey, 1986).

Another common method for getting rid of evils was hepatoscopy, a practice in which the liver of a sacrificed animal was examined to determine the will of the gods. The liver was considered the source of the blood and as the seat of life by the Mesopotamians, so diviners examined the liver of a sacrificed sheep to discover such things as what deity was responsible for the disease, what sin was being punished, and what the course of the disease might be.

A third type of medical intervention in Mesopotamia was that done by physicians. In some of the ancient Babylonia medical writings, diseases were associated in head to toe order with a particular limb or organ. Physicians in ancient Mesopotamia were the healers who administered drugs. A wide range of drugs was used, both internally and externally (Nutton, 1996, p. 53). Most of the drugs were made from vegetables and minerals (Porter, 1997, p. 46). The clay tablets of the time listed medicinal ingredients of things such as fats, oils, honey, wax and milk. Senna and caster oil were used as laxatives, and wounds were dressed using mixtures of wine dregs, salt, oil, beer, juniper, mud or fat. Fecal ingredients were used to contend with and drive away demons.

Physicians who practiced medicine in Babylonia during the time of Hammurabi (1728-1686 BC) the sixth king of first dynasty of Babylon had to conform to his strict legal and medical laws. The Code of Hammurabi contained 282 laws dealing with the regulation of society, family life, medical practice, and occupations. In it were medical instructions for physicians, including fees for treatment and punishments for incompetence. For example, the code promotes a sliding fee scale based on the patients’ ability to afford the service. It also specified severe penalties for a healer who failed, with some penalties being as severe as amputating the physician’s hands.

As seen in the following excerpt, the severity of punishments for physicians differed depending upon the status of the patient. Hammurabi divided his subjects into three distinct classes: the nobles (seigniors); merchants and ordinary farmers (members of the commonality); and slaves.

If a physician performed a major operation on a seignior with a bronze lancet and has saved the seignior's life, or he opened the eye-socket of a seignior with a bronze lancet and has saved the seignior's eye, he shall receive ten shekels of silver. If it was a member of the commonalty, he shall receive five shekels. If it was a seignior's slave, the owner of the slave shall give two shekels of silver to the physician. If a physician performed a major operation on a seignior with a bronze lancet and has caused the seignior's death, or he opened the eye-socket of a seignior and has destroyed the seignior's eye, they shall cut off his hand. If a physician performed a major operation on a commoner's slave with a bronze lancet and caused (his) death,he shall make good slave for slave. If he opened up his eye-socket with a bronze lancet and has destroyed his eye, he shall pay one-half his value in silver.

The most extensive of the Babylonian medical texts was the Diagnostic handbook created in Babylonia in the middle of the 11th century BC. It was edited and recopied by many authors throughout the first millennium BC, most notably by physician Esagil-kin-apli), who reorganized it according to the parts of the body. In the Diagnostic handbook the authors assume that by inspecting the symptoms displayed on the body of the patient, one can diagnose a disease, determine its etiology and future development, and predict whether the person will live or die. For the Babylonians, the etiology of the disease was in the realm of the gods. (Heeßel, 2004, p. 99).

Oratory and rhetoric in ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian cultures, like all ancient civilizations had a strong emphasis on oral performance and communication. While later cultures wrote down their history and their cultural stories, the earlier ones passed them on orally. For example one of the classic stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, thought to date back to 2500 BC, was passed orally down through the generations through trained bards. Written versions of the epic poem from 800 BC still survive. Bards, or theatrical performers of the day, would have learned stories such as Gilgamesh from a teacher, usually a relative. After having memorized formulaic refrains, phrases, expressions and story themes, the bard would perform it before an audience, adjusting the story to fit their own preferences and tailoring them to particular audiences.

Some historians have used evidence from formulaic openings and sections that are done by a chorus to argue that Gilgamesh may have been liturgical drama, performed in a theater with musical accompaniment (Maier, 1997, p. 319).

Other examples of the stories of the time were those written by Enheduana, the daughter of Sargon, an Akkadian king who ruled from 2371 to 2316 BC. She is the first known author to write in first person. En-hedu-Ana was a High Priestess who worshipped the Moon-god Iananna.

Disability in ancient Mesopotamia

The temples in Mesopotamia provided support for widows, orphans, old people, especially old women, sterile and childless women, cripples, and those who were blind or deaf (Gelb, 1972). These people worked in different jobs in the temple, attending to the needs of the gods. Those whose disabilities arose from intentional injury from another received financial and food compensation, including potential lost wages and rehabilitative costs.

Ancient Mesopotamian myths also reflected that culture’s notion that man, both able-bodied and disabled, were created by gods to do the work of the gods. This is evidenced in the Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninmah, two gods in charge of creating humans and assigning them work. Enki assigned one man, who “could not bend his outstretched weak hands”, to be servant of the king. A second man, who was blind, became a musician. A third man, one with paralyzed feet, was given the job of silversmith, and a fourth, who was intellectually impaired (or perhaps deaf), became a courier (Walls, 2007, pp. 17-18).

A less hospitable fate was in store for Mesopotamians with severe disabilities. They were often considered to be dangerous to society either because their disease, such as leprosy, were contagious or because their disease might be genetically transmitted. These people were typically put to death (Walls, 2007, p. 21-23).

One is hard put to find specific examples of people with communication disabilities in the literature on Ancient Mesopotamia. However, one should not take from this that people with communication disabilities didn’t exist--as did Wendell Johnson mistakenly did when talking about mentions of stuttering among the American Indians (Johnson, 1944). They certainly did. Take for example this rare report of a communication disability of a Hittite king, Mursilis (1344-1320). A clay tablet with cuneiform inscriptions was found in which Mursilis described his own loss of speech:

Thus spoke His majesty Mursilis, the great king: “I rode to Til Kunnu […] and suddenly a thunderstorm broke out, whereupon the Storm god caused terrible thunder and I became afraid and the speech faded away in my mouth and the words rose up with some difficulty. These happenings I forgot completely. But as the years came by and passed by, it happened that this matter repeatedly occurred in my dreams and the hand of God struck me during a dream and my mouth went askew. (Houwink ten Cate, 1966, p. 34 cited in Prins and Bastiannse, 2006, p. 765).

Education in Ancient Mesopotamia

Schools were first begun in Mesopotamia to teach upper class male students to write using the cuneiform alphabet. Later subjects of mathematics, law, biology, astronomy, divination, poetry, economics, agriculture, and language were added to the curriculum. Students would spend their mornings in school copying myths and epics. Their afternoons focused on critiquing and refining their writing.

Schoolhouses were attached to the main temple in the town. A head teacher and teacher assistants worked to help students maintain focus. Assistants would prepare clay tablets for writing, and at times also discipline the students. The discipline was strict. Students were continually reprimanded for mistakes, often humiliated, and occasionally beaten.

Teaching methods in Mesopotamian schools involved memorization, oral repetition, copying models, and individual instruction. It is believed that the exact copying of scripts was strenuous and exacting and proficiency was highly emphasized as a goal of Mesopotamean education.

(For a version of this essay translated into Latvian by Arija Liepkalnietis go here.)