© Bob Denton, 2016
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Neolithic Revolution
Source: Pierre-Louis Violet,
Water Engineering in Ancient Civilizations

Between 9,000 and 7,000 BCE a Neolithic Revolution emerged as populations grew and spread through the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The starting point for this civilizing wave was the Levantine Core, shown in the darker shade above, the effect had spread by two millennia later to include the lighter shaded area.

Mesopotamia map – showing Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The major religions’ scriptures (Bible, Qu’ran and Torah) all refer to a great flood legend that most academics now suggest happened around 8,000 BCE in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria). This is also the place and time that is usually cited as the origin of human civilization, despite the prior existence of Jericho discussed above.

BRIEFER: The name Mesopotamia is from the Greek literally meaning ‘between rivers’, the rivers in question being the Euphrates and Tigris.

The earliest communities emerged in the Zagros Mountains where they were safely located above flooding river valleys. It was once they had evolved and tested techniques for irrigation and flood relief that the settlements moved down on to the great river plains. So it is unsurprising that the world’s earliest drainage system has been found in El Kowm, an oasis in the Syrian mountains – where a 450,000 year old Homo erectus skull was discovered.

As early as 6,500 BCE it appears that houses in the region installed gulleys that ran between rooms and holes to vent any fluids, storm water and waste from indoors to the outside. The streets then had ditches to handle storm water and to wash away the household waste.

ASIDE: When I bought a Spanish villa and installed gardens and a pool I never once thought about flash floods, I am English! It took just a few months before my garden was deposited into the pool by the first storm. I had to install gulleys and overflows – just like the Sumerians.

It is believed that a group called the Ubadians occupied the area and were the first to drain the marshes of the region for agriculture. They set up early trading routes while developing skills in pottery, leatherwork, metalwork…

Then between 5,500 and 4,000 BCE in Mesopotamia the first serious civilization emerged and flourished, the Sumerians – this lasted for twenty-six centuries! Various theories exist as to where these Sumerian-speaking folk came from, however the lack of any recorded history of the region prior to 2,600 BCE ensures that they remain theories.

It is clear that Sumeria was founded upon agriculture and grazing, taking full advantage of the richly fertile soil created by regular deposits from the flooding of its two rivers. Floods were a real issue for these early settlements but times of water shortage could be just as damaging to fragile early communities.

The Sumerian settlements’ development of agriculture followed a series of processes – first selecting and propagating suitable crops, then separating them from intruding plants (aka weeding), providing the crops with enough water and guarding them against too much. Irrigation projects like these required a large commitment of people-power and time.

The Sumerians raised earthworks and ditches that controlled the rivers’ floods which expanded the area that could be cultivated. Regular maintenance was undertaken to dredge and clean the channels of silt and weeds. The need for mass effort to create effective irrigation techniques led these isolated early ‘farmers’ to coalesce into towns and later these grew into proto-cities to be able to provide greater community security.

The settlements soon became engaged in a rivalry, fighting over land and water-rights.

BRIEFER: The word ‘rival’ derives from the Latin rivalis meaning ‘of the same brook’ or ‘one who uses the same stream’. This then was the very earliest form of rivalry, squabbles between settlements over water-rights with others upstream, downstream or on the opposite bank. This is still an issue today – the River Jordan is shared by Israel, Jordan and Syria; the Mekong by Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam; seven major rivers emerge from the Himalayas to serve China and India, two super-state rivals, and others.

If a settlement was successful in its rivalry then it could take prisoners and dragoon these in to becoming slaves who would shoulder the brunt of the earth-working and maintenance.

BRIEFER: Lagash was a southern Mesopotamian Sumerian city a little northwest of where the Euphrates and Tigris come together and to the east of Uruk. It regularly fought with Elam and other local peoples. When, in the 25th century BCE, the King of Lagash, Eannatum, built canals and water storage around his city it meant that little water arrived in the city of Umma. They had a battle in 2450 BCE immortalised in the limestone stele ‘of the Vultures’ (the carrion birds are featured on the stele, seven fragments are now held in the Louvre). Lagash was the victor. The earliest recorded incident of a ‘Water War’ (something expected to recur in the future).

Many larger Sumerian communities developed religions, building temples to worship and implore their local gods for good harvests, to save them from floods or droughts and so on.

The priests’ authority and their gods served to spiritually sustain and give a sense of purpose to the large numbers required for these massive undertakings. The appeal and success of gods/priests would draw further settlements to support their cause and continued the steady expansion of urban centres. The religious authority of their priests evolved so that they would become local arbitrators and law-givers.

The Sumerian god, Enki (and the Akkadian god Ea – more later) was associated with the supply of water. Babylon later ‘published’ its creation myth the Enuma Elish, on seven clay tablets. It suggests that water already existed before Man. Apsu was the male god of freshwater and Tiamat, his wife, the goddess of salt water. Intriguingly they believed the gods created Mankind to do the hard work of creating irrigation channels and canals – so to the Sumerians humans were all navvies (a 19thc English term for canal labourers).

Eventually this effort in irrigation would effectively direct the water of the Euphrates via channels across their agricultural land and drain away to the lower-level Tigris.

The oldest known canals were irrigation canals built in Mesopotamia at around 4,000 BCE. During the excavation of the Temple of Bel at Nippur in Babylonia it was discovered that they had developed baked-clay piping and the required joints to interconnect them. For this reason Babylonia is often referred to as the ‘birthplace of pipe’.

Plumbing knee and T-joints
from 4000 BCE from the Temple of Bel at Nippur, Babylon Source:

In the lower reaches of the Zagros Mountains they also created water storage tanks and reservoirs that could be released to extend growing periods.

One providential benefit of the cereal crops they grew, wheat and later barley, was that they had a good ‘shelf-life’ and so in times of plenty crops could be stored for future use and accumulate a community wealth. Large clay-brick buildings housed the surpluses for trading purposes and for their own use in lean periods.

The settlements’ success permitted ever-larger populations to accumulate and grow into proto-cities. The market potential of these larger communities attracted traders from afar, a necessary development because they lacked mineral resources in their region for the required fabrication of tools and weapons. They later developed sea-going boats to pursue their trade around the Mediterranean and the Gulf areas.

From around 4,000 BCE the Sumerians are credited with simultaneously inventing the wheel-and-axle. This appears to have happened independently but simultaneously with the Maykop culture in the north Caucasus (today’s southern Russia between the Black and Caspian seas) and with communities in Central Europe around today’s Poland and Slovenia.

Sumerian wheels were originally fitted to ox carts to transport their crops and in the trading of goods, but the invention soon found a martial purpose too, as the chariot.

Their invention of the wheel was also used to develop the potter’s wheel. Their wealth and the concentrated populations permitted some to have the time, resource and clientele to become artisans, creating a broad range of arts and crafts. The resulting products adorned the palaces and temples and also proved valuable in trading with others.

From 3,500 BCE, Sumeria entered what archaeologists term as their Early Dynastic Period, some eighteen city-states had evolved by this time, including Uruk and Ur – the latter that great favourite of cruciverbalists (crossword solvers).

Onager (wild ass) drawn chariot from 2500 BCE Ur Source: Wikimedia Commons

By 3,000 BCE to their north a separate empire had emerged, the Akkadian civilization. The two vied but then settled for a symbiotic relationship, power ebbing and flowing between the two ‘empires’. Akkadians spoke a different language but in most other ways mirrored the Sumerian lifestyle, religion and systems. The city of Kish was the forward base between the Sumerians and Akkadians and became a strategic goal for the warring city-states.

Ruins of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, Nasiriyah, Iraq 

Each Mesopotamian city-state commanded a large territory of irrigated farms, gardens and orchards, with grazing land for their cattle, goats and sheep. Forms of taxation were levied in return for the city providing physical security and spiritual direction. These funds were used in the construction of grand palaces and temples.

They created ziggurats, square, rectangular or oval terraced or stepped-pyramids. While their core was built with fired-clay bricks, the outside bricks were glazed and often coloured. Their tops formed a plateau which is thought to have been the location for a religious shrine, but they also offered refuge from floods and provided a useful militarily defensible position. These complexes evolved until they could house and protect perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

Mesopotamian city Source –

Early hygiene

The Mesopotamians were thus the first to develop technologies to improve hygiene.

Eshnunna was a minor Early Dynastic city in the north of Sumeria (today’s Tell Asmar in Iraq). Archaeology has revealed it had street drainage, brick sewers and water-flushed latrines from as early as 2,500 BCE. Pipes were made of clay mixed with shredded straw.

Babylonian pipework c 4,000 BCE

Mesopotamians also became regular shavers, holding their barbers in the highest regard, somewhat akin to the respect later civilizations afforded to a doctor. Each town had a street or an area where a number of barber shops could be found.

4thC BCE razors had slate handles and contained obsidian blades. These barbers took great care of the general public by shaving their clients daily with razors and pumice stones then massaging perfumed oils and lotions into their skin.
7,000 BCE obsidian blades from Jarmo, Mesopotamia

Babylon also appears to have been the first civilization to use soap from 2,800 BCE. A clay tablet from 2,200 BCE defined the formula as cassia oil (from cinnamon), an alkali and water. By the time of Nabonidus (556–539 BCE), the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the recipe had become cypress oil, sesame seed oil and uhulu ashes.

Sunlight Chambers, Dublin Source:

Counting and Writing

From as early as 4,000 BCE the Mesopotamians had become the first community to need a method for counting and recording tallies. Their systems were used to count slaves or produce. For the latter they developed a system of quantities, weights, volumes and so on. 

They scribed pictograms for these onto clay tablets with a wedge-shaped stylus and this subsequently evolved in to a linear system of cuneiform writing.

Replica of a Sumerian cuneiform tablet, listing herders and cows in the goddess Inana’s fields c 2100 BCE
Source: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Bizarrely they had a notation for one sheep or one day but no general symbol for the concept of ‘one’. Over a millennium they progressively merged twelve or more separate systems into one and this was the system that was later adopted by the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians.

BRIEFER: Their system was based on the root of 60 (sexagesimal), a very useful base number as it has a wealth of divisors – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30 and 60 itself.

Sumerians’ basic unit of distance was a cable, with a league being thirty cables long and the cable sub-divided into sixty rods.  Their unit of area was a garden with 1,800 gardens being termed an estate.  The unit of volume was a bowl, and sixty of these formed a bushel.

For the measurement of time their basic unit was a day with thirty days in a month, 360 days to a year.  Of course this is the basis for our expression of time and angles using this root of 60.


The Mesopotamians living cheek-by-jowl in such numbers led to the need for laws and social codes for its populace.

The city-state of Nippur boasted a number of temples because it was dedicated to the Sumerian supreme god, Enlil, the creator of their cosmos and of mankind. The city-state that controlled Nippur not only gained kudos but also controlled the income from pilgrimages to these temples. Archaeologists found some 40,000 clay tablets here, inscribed in Sumerian and Akkadian that provide insight into their beliefs, their laws, medical records and school texts. These tablets also describe the extent of their trading with Egypt and Greece in the west and to Persia and the Indus Valley in the east.

Investigations since the 1930s in Eshnunna has uncovered some 1500 cuneiform tablets including two that set out the laws of the city dating to around 2,500 BCE. These laws had five categories that seem to suggest life was not so very different back then, these were theft, distraint (seizure of property), sexual offences, physical injury and damages.

But our best source for these laws comes from later, between 2,100 and 1,700 BCE, a period of decline as Mesopotamian population dropped by sixty percent. Over-irrigation of their lands had led to salinity and like subsequent civilizations this heralded their demise. In the meantime civilizations and cities were emerging in Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

Code of Hammurabi stele
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was towards the end of that difficult period, in 1,754 BCE, that the sixth Babylonian king published his laws, known as ‘The Code of Hammurabi’, and these were duly inscribed on a stele – that has survived. A set of 282 laws defined the basis of his administration. These were based essentially upon contract law, defining both sides’ obligations and the payment terms. They also set out the punishments for infringement, which were graduated not to their severity but instead according to the social status of the miscreant.

Hammurabi prescribed in writing that their irrigation canals needed to be maintained and dredged constantly, and new ones added as deemed appropriate. He also introduced water regulations so that water was only to be taken in proportion to the acres farmed.

Water clock calculations, clay cuneiform tablet
Source: Wikimedia commons

Sargon’s Palace and Babylon

The next stage in Mesopotamian cities’ evolution was a series of wars waged between cities and external foes. This led to a change in the ruling authority with the power being vested more with the palace and progressively less with the temple. Though the temporal leaders were often derived from members of the priesthood. This development led to the communities becoming military city-kingdoms.

While Babylon is recorded as existing as early as 2,900 BCE, it was in 2,300 BCE that it first became a kingdom, around the same time that the city came to be ruled by the Akkadians. Their first king was Sargon the Great (2,334-2,279 BCE).

Sargon of Akkad Source:

Sargon’s palace has been extensively archaeologically investigated and it was found to have included a raft of innovations in our subject area.  For instance it boasted a well which used a continuous loop of clay pots that slaves could turn to raise the water, there was even space for a man to be lowered in for routine maintenance.

Sargon had a clay bath fabricated for his personal use and there appears to have been six latrines with raised seats, disgorging their contents via drains to a sewer rather than a cesspit, the latter being the approach used elsewhere in his realm. The sewer was a brick-built one-metre high tunnel running for 50 metres, running beneath a pavement and terminating outside the wall of the palace.

Some of the drains found in the palace revealed animal traces, suggesting there had been sacrifices during rituals with their bodily fluids poured away through the clay pipes and drains. Of course by this time copper and bronze was becoming more available and metalworking techniques would later replace all those clay-based items.

From around 2,286 BCE Babylon had achieved independence and grew rapidly along both sides of the Euphrates, becoming the capital city of Mesopotamia. Between 1,770 and 1,670 BCE and again between 612 and 320 BCE it was the largest city in the world; its population at its peak was 200,000.

The Ishtar Gate, Babylon

Babylon’s water management was extremely innovative using embankments, dams, canals, drains and basins for agricultural irrigation. This was of course vital to feed that population.

The Babylonians mastery of water is said to have allowed them to create the Hanging Gardens, one of the Ancient World’s Seven Wonders. These were said to maintain plants from all over the known world, Nebuchadnezzar had one section provide all the plants from his wife’s homeland, Media (north-western Iran/south-east Turkey).

Imagined view of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were said to have sat upon arches built 25 metres high using baked bricks waterproofed with bitumen. These were covered with soil deep enough for large trees to be grown and were irrigated by raising water some 24 metres (79 feet). It is suggested by some authorities that they used norias (see later) and distributed the water through channels of clay/bitumen, bronze or lead.

The river appears to have been located a little way east of the gardens’ location but to-date  no trace of them have been found. This leads some to assume it was confused with the gardens at Nineveh which have provided archaeological evidence. Babylon and its gardens were said to have been sacked and destroyed by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, in 689 BCE (see Assyria).

Personal water-use was effected by the use of pottery jars, slaves or family members fetching the water from the river. These clay jars were porous allowing a degree of evaporation which kept the water cool in the heat of summer. Jars to hold oils were internally coated with bitumen to stop the porosity.

Houses were mud-brick built. The affluent often building up to three storeys high and adding a timber roof covered with reeds/mud. The less fortunate had circular mud huts with a central pole and reed/mud roof.

The increasing population exacerbated the cities’ need for waste management, human waste in particular became an issue. Bathing and excretion was initially performed as an outdoor activity, using ditches rather than reservoirs for the purpose. Of course the rich could perform their ablutions indoors and a slave would dispose of their output.

City sanitation left a great deal to be desired. Their roads were unpaved and arranged in a chequerboard parallel or perpendicular to the river – they simply threw rubbish and excrement out into the streets. For their infrequent rainfalls they did build storm drains of baked bricks to vent their streets, these were often coated or repaired with bitumen. The drains were not very efficient for carrying the street waste off to the river.

They did not clear the streets, instead they threw clay on top of the rubbish from time to time. This led to road-levels rising, ever-‘practical’ they built stairs to their houses or raised the levels of houses to keep pace with the ever-growing height of the road.

The affluent soon applied their water management skills to supplying water to their homes and added bathrooms. There had certainly been clay baths created in the region (as mentioned above), but few of these Babylonian bathrooms had a formal bath. Rather these were a small interior room that appeared to be more akin to a slave-driven shower than a bath with water manually poured over the bather. The room’s walls were lined with baked brick, the floor bricks were waterproofed with bitumen and/or ground limestone.

The bathing process involved washing off dirt and oils with soap made from naturally available plants. After the ‘shower’ fresh oils were applied to their body. The run-off would follow a glazed brick/tile gulley and drain to pits or cesspools. There are also reports of holes in the ground that may have been used as toilets, presumably venting the affluent effluent into the same pit or cesspool.

Etemenanki ziggurat, Babylon

Babylon’s massive Etemenanki ziggurat, literally meaning ‘Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth’ was destroyed in 689 BCE and is, by some sources, considered to have been the inspiration for the Bible’s Tower of Babel.

In King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace there was an anteroom with a basin and drain that suggests that those seeking an audience with the king were expected to wash before being admitted into the presence. Nebuchadnezzar (634-562 BCE) travelled to Jerusalem several times and in 586 BCE destroyed its first temple driving Judeans (including the Jews) from their lands, some to Egypt, others were dispersed around Mesopotamia – notably the Bible mentions Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as being based in Babylon.

© Bob Denton, 2016
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