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Ancient Mesopotamia
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Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia within the Tigris-Euphrates river system.

It corresponds roughly to most of modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Eastern Syria, and Southeastern Turkey. The term Mesopotamia comes from the ancient Greek words meso (middle) and potamos (river). So it means “between rivers” in ancient Greek. The region points the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. 

The Cradle of Civilization

Mesopotamia housed several cultures throughout history. Although their gods, writing systems, and their attitude toward women are similar, their social customs, laws, and language do not resemble. Mesopotamia produced several empires and civilization. The Sumerians and Akkadians (including Assyrians and Babylonians) dominated the region from the beginning of written history until the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. Mesopotamia stayed under control of Achaemenid Empire until 332 BC when Alexander the Great conquered the region. After his death, it became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire. Around 150 BC, it was under the control of the Parthian Empire. Later, the western parts of the region became under Roman control. Sassanid Persians conquered the eastern regions in 226 AD. Then Muslims conquered Mesopotamia in the 7th century.

Culture and Technology of Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia was one of the earliest seats of learning. First philosopher Thales of Miletus studied there. There were so many schools that taught reading, writing, religion, law, medicine, and astrology. We can attribute many technological advances to the Mesopotamians. Urbanization, trade, domestication of animals, the chariot, irrigation, the plough, wine, beer, demarcation of time into hours, minutes, and seconds, religious rite, the sail, clay bricks, the potters wheel, metal-working, writing, accounting, filing, glass and lamp making, weaving are amongst them. There were over 1,000 deities in the pantheon of the gods of the Mesopotamian cultures. Many stories about gods, the creation myth, even the biblical tales such as the Fall of Man and the Flood of Noah first appeared in Mesopotamian works such as The Myth of Adapa and the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story in the world.

The Invention of Writing Systems

Generally, scholars agree that writing was developed in ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia between 3400 and 3300 BC. It was still a very ancient period, part of the Bronze Age. As Sumerian towns grew into cities, they needed a way to keep track of their records. So they began marking symbols into clay tablets.

Cuneiform

Cuneiform is the term to refer to the writing system that the ancient Sumerians developed. The term comes from the Latin word cuneus meaning ‘wedge’ from the shape of symbols. Scribes would use reed sticks called stylus and press them into soft clay. Once they mark the symbols, they would let the clay harden so that they had a permanent record. All of the great Mesopotamian civilizations used cuneiform until they abandoned it in favor of the alphabetic script after 100 BC. After Mesopotamia, writing systems also arose in Egypt (in the form of Hieroglyphics) around 3100 BC and in China around 1200 BC. But historians dispute whether these civilizations developed their writing systems independently or not.

Art of Ancient Mesopotamia

Many stone and clay figures and few paintings by Mesopotamian cultures survived. The Mesopotamian sculpture comes in all sizes and appears. It depicts animals such as goats, rams, bulls, and lions, as well as mythical creatures such as lions and bulls with men’s heads. They also depict gods and goddesses, as well as worshippers. Assyrian and Babylonian sculptures have colossal form. They also built rectangular temples which became taller and taller in time. Eventually, they built a massive structure called ziggurat. 

Music of Ancient Mesopotamia

The cuneiform tablets excavated from Mesopotamian sites provide us with ample evidence for the uses of music in ancient Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and their neighbors in Anatolia. Pictorial representations of musical instruments, singers, religious rituals, dancers show us the importance of music in these ancient civilizations.

Mesopotamian Music Theory

According to some cuneiform sources, the Mesopotamians seem to have utilized a heptatonic lydian scale. Heptatonic means that the scale had seven pitches. The lydian scale is the regular major scale but with a raised fourth. From a cuneiform tablet containing a hymn, we know that they may have devised a basic system of musical notation. On that tablet, there were clear instructions for how to perform music, similar to chord progression today.

Instruments of Ancient Mesopotamia

Instruments of Ancient Mesopotamia include harps, lyres, lutes, reed pipes, flutes, rattles, and drums. The harps had four to eleven strings. Mesopotamians also had horn instruments similar to today’s French Horn and Trumpet. They didn’t play their drums with sticks, instead they played them with their hands. Many of these instruments were also used by their neighboring cultures. Egypt borrowed several instruments from Mesopotamia Contemporary East African lyres and West African lutes have many features of Mesopotamian instruments.

Lyres of Ur

Lyres of Ur

Lyres of Ur or Harps or Ur are the world’s oldest surviving stringed instruments. In 1929, the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley and his team discovered these instruments at the excavation site of the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The team discovered pieces of three lyres and one harp in Ur. They are over 4,500 years old. The Lyres of Ur are box lyres with boxlike bodies. Scholars believed that ancient Mesopotamians used these lyres in burial ceremonies. Each lyre has 11 strings to play by plucking their strings in an upright position.

Uses of Music

Ancient Mesopotamians used music for both a religious and a social aspect. Their music consisted of love and drinking songs, hymns to gods and kings, and lamentations for the dead.

Hurrian Hymns

Hurrian Hymns
Hurrian Hymns

The Hurrays hymns or Hurrian songs are a collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets that were excavated from the Royal Palace at the ancient city of Ugarit (Present day Ras Shamra, Syria). They date to approximately 1400 BC. One of these tablets is nearly complete and it contains the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal (a Semitic goddess of orchards) or simply h.6. Since the tablet h.6 contains the lyrics for the hymn, instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed harp or a lyre, it is the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world. We don’t know the names of the composers of these songs. So they are anonymous works.

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Gökhan Damgacı

Gökhan Damgacı is a pianist, composer, field recordist, sound designer, and author of sound and music-related books. All his life revolves around nature, art, books, and of course coffee. In his opinion, knowledge grows when shared. It is why, in his spare time, he likes to share what he learns and knows with others.

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Gökhan Damgacı

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Gökhan Damgacı is a pianist, composer, field recordist, sound designer, and author of sound and music-related books. All his life revolves around nature, art, books, and of course coffee. In his opinion, knowledge grows when shared. It is why, in his spare time, he likes to share what he learns and knows with others.

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