Historically, Iraqi society boasts a number of fi rsts: Ancient Mesopotamia was the site of the world’s first cities, first irrigation systems, fi rst states, first empires, first writing, fi rst monuments, and fi rst recorded religions. The archaeological sites that dot Iraq’s landscape—and those still buried under telltale mounds all over the country—are witness to great, but often brutal, civilizations that organized men and women into hierarchies, groups, and classes and created order out of chaos, instilling meaning where there was none and devotion and piety in place of an existential void.

Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians built and rebuilt large, well-organized civilizations whose cultural underpinnings were so novel and yet at the same time so enduring that they still link Eastern to Western civilization today and give meaning and structure to the way we see our past and, of course, ourselves.

Cultural Unity in Ancient Iraq

The term Iraq is used in this book to defi ne a territory that corresponds to the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the region once called Mesopotamia, most of which encompassed what is now modern-day Iraq but which at various times also stretched into present-day Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Fluid borders are one of the striking features of the region, so much so that it is estimated that in certain periods, ancient Iraq even included parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Paradoxically, while Iraq’s shifting territorial frontiers were one facet of its historical development, the other was its inherent unity. The notion that ancient Iraq was unifi ed culturally and economically, if not always politically, over most of its history has staunch supporters in academic circles. Georges Roux, one of the pioneers of the history of this ancient land, states that the region “forms a large, coherent, well-defi ned, geographical, historical and cultural unit” (Roux 1992, xvii).

McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago, asserts that although political unity was rare and more often than not imposed by centralized empires, shared cultural, economic, and social features continued to mark the region even after the collapse of political dynasties (in Inati 2003, 26–30). For instance, trade routes continued to thrive and prosper, and “southern” artistic genres survived and were refi ned for northern tastes.

At the same time, religious customs and rituals in both the north (Assyria) and the south (Babylonia) developed broad similarities, and administrative methods traveled to where they found the best reception, which was often at the courts of rival dynasts. Cultural unity took on added force with the discovery of writing. Unlike those of other cultures, the clay tablets created in ancient Iraq were durable and long lasting. Thus hundreds of thousands of Mesopotamian texts have survived into this century, and the great variety and complexity of the works produced in ancient Iraq have been a boon to archaeologists, art historians, anthropologists, and historians alike.


No culture throughout the long span of history has arrived prepackaged, least of all the fi rst civilization on earth. The prehistory of Iraq is in some ways intimately tied into the prehistory of southwest Asia as a whole, and especially to the advance of the two other great river civilizations, that of the Indus and Nile Valleys. Continuities in culture and technology, religious rites, and social structure tied these subregions together, as did language codes based on symbols and signs.

Regional customs and variations traveled far and wide and made their mark on different societies. For example, historians have theorized that the Sumerian language, considered to be the fi rst language in the world, was itself nourished by other, unrecorded languages over millennia, enriching Sumerian vocabulary and deepening its structure.

Moreover, precisely because the region’s absorbent borders were never sealed, a constant wave of immigrants bringing new ideas and technologies poured into ancient Iraq and contributed to its economic growth, architectural heritage, and overall culture. Arguably, however, the larger unities that drew Iraq within the Asian orbit seem to have converged on the domestication of plants and animals and their distribution, along with the technologies and systems that propagated their growth all over the region.

These wider patterns of social change and economic development ultimately led to the agricultural revolution that gradually began to change the organization of work, the patterns of human consumption, and the relationship of humans to the environment.During the Pleistocene era, which began about 2 million years ago and ended in 1000 B.C.E., the reconfi guration of the region’s physical, economic, and technological features began to take shape.

During this period, a radical transformation of Iraq’s climate and geography took place, a change so eventful that it eventually led to the emergence of the fi rst human settlements in Iraq’s agricultural northern belt and along its southern riverbanks. In or around 7000 B.C.E., agricultural settlements were established in northern Iraq, where clusters of stone houses have been uncovered, littered with fl int utensils and obsidian tools. In good years, a combination of rain-fed agriculture and plentiful game allowed those villages to fl ourish.

Jarmo, in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, was one of the largest agricultural villages in the region. Jarmo’s inhabitants lived in solid, many-roomed mud houses; ate with spoons made of animal bone; possessed spindles to weave fl ax and wool; domesticated sheep, cattle, pigs, and dogs; and even made necklaces and bracelets of stone. Besides hunting for meat, Jarmo’s inhabitants also grew wheat, barley, lentils, peas, and acorns.

The most noticeable feature of the village was its organized character: Its population had learned to live together as a community, banding together to defend their land, and working together to harvest the crops. Even though individual farms seemed to have been the norm, the evidence suggests that Jarmo’s inhabitants were not averse to joining together in small communes, where sociability and ties of kinship cemented neighborly relations, and survival depended on group cohesion.

Meanwhile, the combination of water and good alluvial soil brought forth similar settlements in the southernmost tip of the country, the land called Sumer. Although still an infl uential thesis, the notion that the earliest cities arose in the alluvial mud left by desiccated rivers is now coming under question (Postgate 1994, 20–21). Nonetheless, some scholars still believe that around 14,000 B.C.E. the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers formed two broad waterways that fl owed directly into the Gulf, depositing a large amount of silt on the riverbanks.

During the last ice age (20,000 to 15,000 B.C.E.), the sea level changed. Global warming dried up the Gulf bed, leading some scholars to theorize that the fl atlands thereby created inspired early humans to experiment with the growing of crops in marshlands or districts bordering the sea. Irrigation agriculture, the mainstay of southern Iraq, had drawn immigrants from the north, who founded several villages in marshy areas of the Euphrates, invented the plow and the stone-wheeled carriage, and built the fi rst reed ships.

Eventually, the aridity of the climate led to the desiccation of the tributaries of the Euphrates River, and the need to do more with very little forced the organization of the fi rst settlements. The scarcity of fertile land and the necessity to redistribute precious water in turn led to the emergence of planned and fortifi ed communities, a centralized government structure, organized religion, and bureaucracies. And so it was that over the thousands of years that preceded the development of the first cities, archaeological evidence suggests that the model for all later civilizations had already begun to make its mark in the rudimentary settlements of southern Iraq that were dependent on subsistence agriculture as well as hunting and fi shing.

The Ubaid period (ca. 5000 B.C.E.), which takes its name from the Sumerian-speaking peoples that inhabited the area of Tell al-Ubaid, near Ur, is the fi rst record of human settlement in southern Iraq. Even though not much is known about the Ubaid colony, what we do know throws into relief certain features that were shared by all of the succeeding settlements in the region.

The Ubaid constellation of villages set the tone for the settlements that came afterward: They were differentiated by size and number, grouped around each other for self-defense, and set apart by the fact that many of their inhabitants carried out specialized nonagricultural occupations. The Ubaid period is remarkable because it is the first link in the chain of civilization, which in all probability was early Sumerian.

Seemingly arriving full blown in southern Iraq (although there is evidence that religious and architectural currents from Samarra, in the northeast, had partly infl uenced their development), the most famous Ubaid villages were situated on the banks of the Euphrates. They were built of reeds and mud bricks and concentrated around a temple, with characteristic pottery that set them apart from other, northern cultures, even though they had interacted with them for millennia.