Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Course No. 3166
Professor Amanda H. Podany, Ph.D.
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
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Course No. 3166
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What Will You Learn?

  • how the world's first justice system protected even the most vulnerable members of society.
  • why personal letters offer key political insights and reveal the minutia of daily life and family dynamics.
  • about the rise and fall of great kingdoms and the kings, queens, priests, and priestesses who wielded power.
  • how people traded, traveled, and negotiated over long distances and interacted with the world around them.

Course Overview

Welcome to Mesopotamia, the ancient name for the region that is now Iraq and Syria, a remarkably advanced civilization that flourished for two-thirds of the time that civilization has existed on Earth. Mesopotamians mastered irrigation agriculture; built the first complex urban societies; developed writing, literature, and law; and united vast regions through warfare and diplomacy. While civilizations like Greece and Rome have an unbroken tradition of written histories, passed along by scholars through the generations, the rich history of Mesopotamia has only been recently rediscovered, thanks to the decipherment of Mesopotamia’s cuneiform writing less than 200 years ago. In this course, you’ll fill in the blanks of your historical understanding as you plunge into some of the newest information historians have gathered from hundreds of thousands of ancient cuneiform tablets and other artifacts.

When we imagine what life might have been like thousands of years in the past, the images we often conjure are primitive ones: reed and mud huts or plain brick dwellings, cooking pits, villagers, and simple farms. That was indeed what life was like in the earliest settlements, but by five thousand years ago, life in some places had become much more sophisticated than we might think. Impressive achievements—like stepped temples that towered like mountains, elaborate palaces (some with bathrooms and plumbing), and complex houses—were also a part of life for people who lived in cities that arose thousands of years ago, particularly in the fertile region that emerged along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization is taught by one of the leading authorities on the region, Professor Amanda H. Podany. These 24 revealing lectures uncover events and advances that have had a profound influence on the world at large. Riveting stories about kings and priestesses as well as ordinary people from all walks of life transport you back in time, giving you invaluable insights into the history of a landmark region that has long been known as the cradle of civilization.

Creating Order Out of Chaos

Professor Podany begins with the Neolithic era, when early settlers began domesticating animals, planting crops, and crafting complex stone tools, and continues all the way through to the Iron Age, when the Persians conquered the region and ended Mesopotamia’s long era of independence.

Along the way, you will see why our notion of progress is something of an illusion. Each era of Mesopotamian history experienced immense change, and sometimes what many may consider “progress” when looking back into the past—like the shift from hunting and gathering to farming—proves to have been more complicated. While hunters and gatherers lived a relatively relaxed existence, often with abundant resources for their needs, farming actually added new and unpredictable complications to their way of life, even as it helped shape the future of the region. You’ll discover how the Mesopotamians adjusted to this new lifestyle and thrived under new circumstances.

The advent of agriculture may have contributed to a more predictable way of life in some ways, but unpredictable forces still raged through the lives of early Mesopotamians, from disease and famine to foreign invasion and natural disasters. Professor Podany demonstrates how the Mesopotamians, to compensate for all the uncontrollable factors at play, focused on the things they could control, creating orderly societies, shared social norms, and effective judicial systems. With her guidance, you will discover, for example, an early example of this type of organization and coordination: the extraordinary construction of the stone monuments to the gods at Gobekli Tepe, 12,000 years ago.

From temples to irrigation canals, you’ll witness many complex construction projects that required extensive organization and cooperation to accomplish. Additionally, the Mesopotamians were masters of trade who transported fine textiles and other goods across thousands of miles, trading them for metals, timber, and semi-precious stones.

You’ll also learn how religion functioned as a major unifying force that was interwoven in all aspects of society. Kings were believed to be chosen by the gods; all good and bad luck came from the gods, and the gods oversaw all judicial proceedings, treaties, and oaths. Religion was so omnipresent that they didn’t even have a word for it; they couldn’t conceive of it as something separate from other aspects of life.

Experience the Exciting World of Kings and Queens

Kings and queens have existed ever since the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, and Professor Podany explores how they attempted to be considered legitimate and to control their subjects. They did this by trying to be loved or feared, or sometimes both. This was not just an early form of public relations campaigns; the kings had to maintain the respect of their subjects and truly lead if they hoped to keep the throne. Official documents and fascinating letters exchanged between royals, all preserved on clay tablets, reveal:

  • Major responsibilities undertaken by kings, such as building temples to the gods, leading armies, levying taxes, and more;
  • The kings’ belief that the gods supported them and their decisions;
  • The graceful diplomatic language with which kings and queens communicated with one another internationally;
  • How diplomacy (conducted by envoys, and including exchanges of gifts and dynastic marriages) was used to form alliances and prevent wars;
  • Royal outliers who rose from humble origins, including a king whose story shares features with that of Moses in the Hebrew Bible; and
  • A range of ruling styles from the tyrannical to the benevolent.

While no two rulers may have been alike, one thing was constant: the rise and fall of kingdoms. Daily life for Mesopotamians was often surprisingly peaceful compared to much of the world in the same era, but it was often punctuated by periods of warfare. Professor Podany will help you trace this journey from one of the earliest-known examples of organized warfare, when the ancient site of Hamoukar was conquered, to the conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at the hands of the Persians.

As you explore the relationships and conflicts among the peoples of Mesopotamia, Professor Podany highlights the perceived link between religion and wartime successes (and failures); points out some influential theories as to why great empires fell; and reveals the ways that times of prosperity could often be marred by natural disasters, infighting, and foreign invasion. Despite the ever-present threat of war, in many cases, kingdoms managed to avoid bloodshed through diplomacy. Stories of how kings leveraged resources and built relationships offer valuable examples of ancient wisdom and statecraft.

Explore Diverse, Tight-Knit Communities

Equally fascinating are the lives of ordinary people. With her warm and engaging style, Professor Podany personalizes each lecture and paints vivid pictures with her words, as when she imagines the everyday activities within a community with this evocative description: “…no doubt children ran from one house to another and women chatted while winnowing grain on the rooftops. Families must have eaten together and then slept on the flat roofs of their houses, enjoying the cool night air and staring up at the infinite stars overhead.”

Throughout Ancient Mesopotamia, you will journey through communities small and large, from the Neolithic town of Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, where houses without doors were crammed so close together that occupants had to enter by ladder from the roof, to one of the earliest and (for its time) largest cities, Uruk, featuring temples with dazzling geometric mosaics. Some of the things you will survey include:

  • How extended families functioned as a safety net;
  • How society was structured into social classes and professions;
  • How people divided their time between work and pleasure; and
  • The roles played by men, women, and children.

You’ll also learn how Mesopotamia was a cosmopolitan society that offered incredible diversity in terms of cultures and languages, which included (to name a few) Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, and Aramaic. Its rich farm land and flourishing cities attracted immigrants from far and wide. Unfortunately, the newcomers were sometimes viewed with suspicion, and during the Ur III period, one king even built a wall to keep them out.

Trace the Transformation of the Written Word

Fortunately for scholars today, literate people in Mesopotamia mostly wrote on clay, allowing their writing to be preserved through the centuries. In fact, around a quarter of a million tablets have been uncovered and there are many that have yet to be studied and translated. Professor Podany charts the evolution of writing from purely transactional to the complex form of expression we recognize today. While their writing system initially communicated primarily in pictures, over the years it transformed into a means for expressing sounds, allowing people to keep records and keep in touch with one another.

Especially revealing are the practical and official documents that detail everything from tax records to lists of cargo. While they may seem mundane on the surface, these documents provide an insider’s look at how people lived, worked, and traded with one another. More than 120,000 cuneiform tablets from the Third Dynasty of Ur (22nd and 21st century BCE) teach us:

  • How society was built around households;
  • The range of professions people held, from officials to merchants to farmers to artisans; and
  • The architectural details of major construction projects such as temples, as well as the size of the immense workforces required to build them.

Our knowledge of Mesopotamian culture is continuing to expand as more artifacts are examined and tablets are translated. While access to some of these amazing objects is still limited by modern-day conflicts in the Mesopotamian region, every new discovery sheds further light on an immensely influential and fascinating civilization.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    Uncovering Near Eastern Civilization
    Although Egypt, Greece, and Rome may be better known to the public, in fact more written evidence survives from Mesopotamia, home to many of the great powers of the ancient world. As you embark on a journey through over 3,000 years of history, you will understand the ways we uncover ancient historical knowledge, and learn why Mesopotamia’s “rediscovery” is so valuable. x
  • 2
    Natufian Villagers and Early Settlements
    The spread of any technology tends to be slow. While today we may see the enormous value of plant and animal domestication, here you will discover the surprising theories about the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture and the challenges that farming presented. Also, gain valuable perspective on the cultural sophistication of pre-agrarian peoples. x
  • 3
    Neolithic Farming, Trading, and Pottery
    Though travel was dangerous, people transported valuable goods, like obsidian for knife blades, across hundreds of miles, perhaps via chains of merchants. Plunge into everyday life in Neolithic Mesopotamia, where homes and villages reflect a simple, unstratified society, but evidence of intricate pottery shows that technology was advancing and people cared about aesthetics. x
  • 4
    Eridu and Other Towns in the Ubaid Period
    The Ubaid people constructed the earliest monumental buildings, standardized some measurements, and must have had some sort of formal leadership to care for and control their populations. See how the people of the Ubaid coordinated their efforts to develop irrigation systems, despite a lack of written language. x
  • 5
    Uruk, the World's Biggest City
    Witness the rise of urban civilization 5,500 years ago, a mere 200 generations before modern times. Discover how and why the first writing system developed and examine the earliest-known evidence of warfare. x
  • 6
    Mesopotamia's First Kings and the Military
    Why did people accept the rule of monarchs? This lecture reveals the fascinating world of the first kings, including their numerous important duties—from conducting diplomacy to levying taxes—and explores how they believed that the gods supported and chose them. x
  • 7
    Early Dynastic Workers and Worshipers
    In a period where the causes of disease and natural disasters were not widely known, gods were believed to be the cause of, and the solution to, instability in life. Learn how evidence found in tombs suggests a belief in the afterlife, and discover just how large a workforce was employed by the grand temples where the gods were believed to live. x
  • 8
    Lugalzagesi of Umma and Sargon of Akkad
    Meet King Lugalzagesi who controlled several city-states in southern Mesopotamia. His much more powerful successor, Sargon, had a mysterious origin, but was able to build an empire and expand trade over a wider region than ever before. x
  • 9
    Akkadian Empire Arts and Gods
    The Akkadian Empire was a high point for artistic achievement in Mesopotamia. Depictions of humans were believed to possess some of the life force of the people they represented. Professor Podany shows how the many gods had differing roles and powers and were as much a part of everyday life as one's family. Examine an emotional hymn by a priestess, who is the world's first-known author. x
  • 10
    The Fall of Akkad and Gudea of Lagash
    Learn some of the theories behind the fall of the Akkadian Empire. Major kings during this time run the gamut from Naram-Sin, one of the few Mesopotamian kings who claimed to be a god, to Gudea, a pious and benevolent king who may have served as a model for later leaders. x
  • 11
    Ur III Households, Accounts, and Ziggurats
    Although rulers during this period attempted to create a “cult of the kings,” local leaders, merchants, and especially households performed essential roles in society. Cuneiform records reveal a remarkable level of organization, from taxes to diplomacy. x
  • 12
    Migrants and Old Assyrian Merchants
    An influx of immigrants greatly enriched the Mesopotamian region, and we see other issues that have echoes in today's world. This was a time of frequent warfare but also of increased literacy and private enterprise. Join merchants on their 800-mile caravans as they delivered tin and textiles in exchange for silver. x
  • 13
    Royalty and Palace Intrigue at Mari
    Here you'll gain an intimate glimpse into the lives of royal families in the mid-second millennium BCE, from diplomatic marriages to extravagant gifts to family squabbles. Archival letters show us how royal women served as informants for their fathers, while sometimes dealing with abusive husbands. x
  • 14
    War and Society in Hammurabi's Time
    Meet the mighty King Hammurabi, who ruled for an incredible 43 years. You'll also discover how the family can be viewed as a microcosm for Mesopotamian society, with each member playing an important role. Delve into the daily lives of families and the laws (both official and unspoken) governing their behavior. x
  • 15
    Justice in the Old Babylonian Period
    The Babylonians had a sophisticated legal system that emphasized evidence and truthfulness. Two trials provide an insider's look into the workings of this system. Uncover what court records reveal about the types of crimes prosecuted, as well as the people's most pressing concerns regarding family and finance. x
  • 16
    The Hana Kingdom and Clues to a Dark Age
    The kingdom of Hana and an intriguing Kassite text provide clues to a mysterious dark age, which may have lasted for 100 years. Few records survive from this period, so Professor Podany illuminates historians' detective work to fill in the gaps. x
  • 17
    Princess Tadu-Hepa, Diplomacy, and Marriage
    Discover how the kingdom of Mittani maintained a peaceful relationship with Egypt through the power of diplomacy. Letters between King Tushratta and the pharaoh demonstrate the roles of envoys in transporting letters and gifts over hundreds of miles, negotiating royal marriages, and defusing arguments. x
  • 18
    Land Grants and Royal Favor in Mittani
    In a world before mass media, learn how Mittanian kings maintained visibility and control across vast distances and large populations without much need for force. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the story of a gold statue reveals the decline of Mittani's golden era. x
  • 19
    The Late Bronze Age and the End of Peace
    This dramatic installment details the end of a period of peace and stability between great powers, as a result of possible natural disasters, attacks on cities, and movements of the mysterious Sea Peoples. The era that followed was one of smaller kingdoms that left few written records. x
  • 20
    Assyria Ascending
    Learn about the grand state of Assyria with its huge palaces and iconic winged lion sculptures. The long and stable dynasty of Assyrian kings always longed to expand the boundaries of the empire, believing that their great god, Assur, had instructed them to do so. Their kings could be brutal in putting down rebellions, but they were also effective in administering the growing empire, and were even generous, like throwing a 10-day banquet for almost 70,000 people, for example. x
  • 21
    Ashurbanipal's Library and Gilgamesh
    Here, discover the intellectual King Ashurbanipal whose library is one of the first in recorded history. In it, find clay tablets recording omens from the gods, as well as the world's oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh. x
  • 22
    Neo-Assyrian Empire, Warfare, and Collapse
    Discover how the Assyrian empire was restructured by Tiglath-Pileser III, how the Assyrians struggled to keep Babylonia within their empire, and how they even attempted to conquer Egypt. Hear of the mysterious hanging gardens that sat magically on roofs. Bear witness to the fall of the Assyrian Empire at the hands of angry enemies, including the Babylonians. x
  • 23
    Babylon and the New Year's Festival
    Hear the glory of the Babylonian creation story involving Marduk and the evil goddess Tiamat. Through ancient records, relive the 12-day Akitu religious festival that involved priests, singers, artisans, musicians, and the king. You'll also explore the ritual humiliation of the king at the heart of the festival. x
  • 24
    End of the Neo-Babylonian Empire
    Finally, arrive at the end of the independence of Mesopotamia with the conquest of the Neo-Babylonian empire by the forces of the powerful Persian king, Cyrus the Great. Witness religious changes that were taking place across the Near East. Mesopotamian culture gradually died out, but it left an incredible legacy. x

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Your professor

Amanda H. Podany

About Your Professor

Amanda H. Podany, Ph.D.
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Amanda H. Podany is a Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where she has taught since 1990. She earned her M.A. in the Archaeology of Ancient Western Asia from the University of London and her Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern History from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Professor Podany’s research specialties include the Hana kingdom in present-day Syria as well as legal...
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Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 28.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and comprehensive I've always been curious about when us hominids decided to stop our hunter-gatherer lifestyles and start living together in communities. This course goes a long way in explaining that event and some of the causes of it. The presenter was also excellent and nearly all Great Courses presenters are. A definite 5-star winner!
Date published: 2018-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great content and delivery. Having very little knowledge of the subject, Dr. Podany shed light in a clear and interesting way on this most ancient of civilizations. I was completely hooked and 'binge-listened'. The course overview booklet is also very comprehensive and well done. My only disappointment was that while the earlier periods are covered in great depth, th elater ones (like neo-Assyria and Babylonia) are more just about the political and military events. But this was probably due to time constraints.
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Babylon I finally know where the fabled Babylon is located(modern day Iraq). This is a wonderful review about a time that while "ancient" they had the same hopes and dreams and worries as we do today. The professor does a wonderful job of explaining this time period.
Date published: 2018-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A thorough update on our species' roots! These lectures add immeasurably to our modern understanding of early civilizations in the Tigres-Euphrates.
Date published: 2018-09-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civil I love the history of Mesopotamia and these courses are complete. They cover everything from the writing, kings, gods, dinastías. It A wealth of knowledge.
Date published: 2018-09-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Ancient Mesopotamia I love the content of this course and the professor is interesting and easy to understand. I would suggest adding more visuals (maps, pictures of relics, interview with archaeologists, etc); I think it would make the lectures more interesting and enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-09-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoy the course The professor is very knowledgeable and enjoy the lecture.
Date published: 2018-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very detailed, lots of information I've only watched the first six episodes, but learned a lot. There is a wonderful amount of information here. It's nice learning things I didn't know.
Date published: 2018-07-18
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