The fertile lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris were the home land of rich and complex societies. The word 'Mesopotamia' is Greek meaning ‘land between the rivers’ derived from Greek mesos (middle) and potamos (river), thus 'land between the rivers'.
Flowing south out of Turkey, the Tigris and Euphrates are 250 miles apart. The Euphrates runs south and east for 800 miles and the Tigris flows south for 550 miles. The two rivers join and stretch to the Persian Gulf as the Shatt al Arab. The area that now comprises most all of modern Iraq and part of Syria.
Mesopotamia's richness attracted neighbors and its history is a pattern of infiltration and invasion. Although there were meager rainfalls in most of the region, the land was well irrigated by canals. The fertile soil yielded rich food and heavy crops of date palms, useful fiber, wood, and fodder. Both rivers have fish, and the southern marshes contain wildfowl. Being a land of plenty, commerce, and strategic worth the river valleys and plains of Mesopotamia were often attacked from the rivers, the northern and eastern hills, the Arabian Desert, and Syrian plains.
Most of the conflicts were internal to the region and small skirmishes between warring tribes and factions. It was not until Persia (Iran) invaded and defeated the Chaldeans, the last rulers of the region, that the area is forever lost to foreigners.
Early Mesopotamian States
The need for self-defense and irrigation led the ancient Mesopotamians to organize and build canals and walled settlements. After 6000 B.C. the settlements grew, becoming cities by the 4th millennium B.C.. The oldest settlement in the area is believed to be Eridu, but the best example is Erech (Uruk) in the south, where mud-brick temples were decorated with fine metalwork and stonework, and growing administrative needs stimulated the invention of a form of writing, cuneiform.
The Sumerians were probably responsible for this early urban culture, which spread north up the Euphrates. Important Sumerian cities, besides the two mentioned above, were Adab, Isin, Kish, Larsa, Nippur, and Ur.
About 2330 B.C. the region was conquered by the Akkadians, a Semitic people from central Mesopotamia. Their king Sargon I, called the Great (reigned about 2335-2279 B.C.), founded the dynasty of Akkad, and at this time the Akkadian language began to replace Sumerian. The Gutians, tribespeople from the eastern hills, ended Akkadian rule about 2218 B.C., and, after an interval, the 3rd Dynasty of Ur arose to rule much of Mesopotamia.
In Ur, Sumerian traditions had their final flower. Influxes of Elamites from the east eventually destroyed the city of Ur about 2000 B.C.. These tribes took over the ancient cities and mixed with the local people, and no city gained overall control until Hammurabi of Babylon (reigned about 1792-1750 B.C.) united the country for a few years at the end of his reign. At the same time, an Amorite family took power in Ashur to the north; both cities, however, fell soon after to newcomers.
A raid launched in around 1595 B.C. by the Hittites from Turkey brought Babylon down, and for four centuries it was controlled by non-Semitic Kassites. Ashur fell to the Mitanni state, set up by Hurrians from the Caucasus, who were presumably relatives of the Armenians. The Hurrians had been in Mesopotamia for centuries, but after 1700 B.C. they spread in large numbers across the whole of the north and into Anatolia.
Chaldea (612-539 B.C.E)
Beginning about 1350 B.C., Assyria, a north Mesopotamian kingdom, began to assert itself. Assyrian armies defeated Mitanni, conquered Babylon briefly about 1225 B.C., and reached the Mediterranean about 1100 B.C.. Aramaean tribes from the Syrian steppe halted Assyrian expansion for the next two centuries and, with related Chaldean tribes, overran Babylonia.
To secure itself, Assyria fought these tribes and others, expanding again after 910 B.C.. At its greatest extent (around 730-650 B.C.) the Assyrian Empire controlled the Middle East from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. Conquered regions were left under related client kings or, if troublesome, annexed.
Following ancient practice, rebellious subjects were deported, resulting in a mixture of peoples across the empire. Frequent revolts demanded a strong military machine, but it could not maintain control of so vast a realm for long. Internal pressures and attacks from Iranian Medes and Chaldeans from Babylonia caused Assyria to collapse in 612 B.C..
The Medes took the hill country, leaving Mesopotamia to the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar II. The Chaldeans ruled Mesopotamia until 539 B.C., when Cyrus the Great of Persia, who had conquered Media, captured Babylon. The fall of Babylon, left the Chaldeans as the last of the indigenous people of the region to control Mesopotamia.
Under the Persians, Mesopotamia became the satrapies of Babylon and Ashur, Babylon having a major, although not capital, role in the empire. The Aramaic language, widely spoken earlier, became the common language, and the imperial government brought stability; it was oppressive, however, and Mesopotamia's prosperity declined.
Hellenistic and Roman Times
After Alexander the Great's conquest in 331 B.C., the Greek dynasty of Seleucus I held Mesopotamia. A dozen cities were founded—Seleucia on the Tigris being the largest—bringing Hellenistic culture, new trade, and prosperity.
A major new canal system, the Nahrawan, was initiated. About 250 B.C. the Parthians (Parthia) took Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. The Parthian rulers (Arsacids) organized their empire so that several autonomous vassal states developed, in which Greek and Iranian (Persian) ideas mingled.
After rebuffing Roman attacks, the Parthians fell (ad 224) to the Sassanids (Persia), whose domain extended from the Euphrates to present-day Afghanistan. Effective government with a hierarchy of officials and improved irrigation canals and drainage brought prosperity.
Intermittent conflict in the northwest with the Roman province of Syria—part of the Eastern Roman (later Byzantine) empire after 395—and with Arabs in the desert border areas led to disaster when insurgent Arab tribes destroyed Sassanian Persia in 641, bringing with them a new religion, Islam.
Despite this defeat, the Sassanid dynasty lasted until 651, when the last Sassanid ruler died.
Medieval and Modern Times
For the next century Mesopotamia was ruled by the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus. Hordes of tribespeople settled in the land, and the Arabic language displaced Greek and Persian. Conflicts divided the Muslims, and Baghdād became the center of the Islamic empire under the Abbasid caliphs.
The caliphs introduced Turkish bodyguards, who gradually took control, establishing dynasties of their own in the area. After the Mongol sack of Baghdād in 1258, administrative decay and further attacks by Bedouins and Mongols led to the deterioration of the canal system, restricting agriculture and souring the soil.
The sultans of the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid rulers of Persia vied for control of Mesopotamia from the 16th to the 18th century, when family dynasties controlled Baghdād and other Mesopotamian cities.
The Ottomans (modern day Turkey) eventually prevailed. During World War I British troops took the area after much hard fighting. The League of Nations then mandated Iraq to Great Britain and Syria to France.
Iraq became independent in 1932, Syria in 1945.