Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Course No. 3180
Professor Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College
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Course No. 3180
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Course Overview

What pieces of the distant past drift before your mind's eye when you think of ancient Mesopotamia? Perhaps it's the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon. Or is it entire populations paralyzed by fear before a ruthless invader? Maybe it's priests making sacrifices to the gods who rule over and protect their city.

Any of these images may come to mind, but each one is part of the legacy of a region from which our own culture has drawn many essential aspects, including writing, codes of law, cities, and even epic poetry.

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia takes you on an insightful journey through the area bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from Neolithic times to the age of Alexander the Great and into the lives of mighty emperors, struggling farmers, ambitious merchants, and palace servants. In 36 fascinating lectures, award-winning Professor Alexis Q. Castor reveals new insights into the real history of this region and demonstrates that all cultures lie in the shadow of Mesopotamia.

A Foundational Time and Place

Mesopotamia, a name coined by the Greeks, means "the land between the rivers" and refers to the region now mostly encompassed by the borders of modern Iraq. Originally, the area was home to a succession of peoples, from Neolithic villagers to the vast empires of Assyria and Persia.

The beginnings of cities and urban lifestyles during the 5th millennium B.C. are only two of the many factors that make ancient Mesopotamia such a foundational time and place in history. The region was marked by the changing roles and representations of rulers and by recurring regional instabilities and upheavals. East and West collided when the Persian Empire first tried to conquer Greece and then itself became the final conquest of Alexander the Great.

Examine Life in Mesopotamia

Between the Rivers looks back to the time when the first cities arose in Mesopotamia and kings created complex bureaucracies to rule their expanding territories, thus fostering the invention of writing and other technologies. You peer into the lives and fortunes of Mesopotamia's people and learn about the birth of the urban lifestyle, which was destined to become increasingly sophisticated as cultures expanded and cities evolved into the forms we know today. Cities, as you discover, became increasingly important to the Mesopotamian identity.

The 5th-millenium B.C. city of Uruk, 140 miles south of what is now Baghdad, was in fact civilization's first city, hidden until the early years of the 20th century, when it was unearthed by German archaeologists.

With a population estimated between 20,000 and 50,000, maintaining the well-being of Uruk posed different challenges than those faced by smaller fishing villages. The large population had to develop new ways to sustain itself, producing and acquiring food and other necessities on a scale never before imagined. There would be security issues as well, and in order to solve these issues, an enclosing wall was eventually built around the city.

Throughout the lectures, Professor Castor creates a detailed image not only of larger Mesopotamian society but of life on the level of the individual Mesopotamian as well. Among the many fascinating insights into daily Mesopotamian life you examine are:

  • how they ate, worked, learned, worshipped, married, and reared children
  • how their scientific ideas helped them order and understand the natural world
  • how they engaged with their powerful neighbors in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey)
  • how they waged war and experienced peace
  • how they endured the collapse of their cities

Unearth Unique Historical Finds

Scholars have come to know the details of ancient Mesopotamia through numerous archaeological discoveries, ancient documents, and important literary works, many of which you explore throughout the course. Excavations in Iraq have shaped Western ideas about ancient Mesopotamia, from the myth of the Hanging Gardens to important concepts about how Eastern cultures differed from Western cultures.

These profound historical records offer a wealth of fresh information about ancient Mesopotamian culture—new perspectives now made possible by the tireless efforts of archaeologists and historians. Among the many examples you consider are:

  • The 16 royal graves found at Ur: Excavated between 1927 and 1929, the royal graves from this southern city contained lavish quantities of gold, silver, semiprecious stones, and richly crafted artifacts—and also evidence of human sacrifice or ritual suicide. The overwhelming display of wealth and its grisly accompaniment offers an extraordinary demonstration of the power wielded by a Mesopotamian king and queen.
  • The Amarna letters: Named after the Egyptian city in which the tablets were discovered, this trove of 14th-century B.C. correspondence includes 40 pieces of official communication between the Egyptian ruler Akhenaten (or his father) and his contemporary rulers in the Near East. Written at a time of unusually peaceful cooperation among neighboring rulers, the letters consistently reveal an attention to the niceties of Mesopotamian diplomacy, as the correspondents acknowledged gifts, proposed royal marriages, or dispatched their own personal physician to the aid of a fellow monarch.
  • The 20,000 tablets found at Kanesh: Discovered at an outpost of Assyrian trade in what is now Turkey, these tablets are the most extensive documentation of merchant activity ever recorded from the ancient world. Dating from the early 2nd millennium B.C., they offer scholars a detailed portrait of the Mesopotamian trading community, including intimate glimpses into how goods were traded and the impact of long-distance trade on family life at home.

Embark on a True Adventure

Professor Castor has twice been named Most Influential Professor by Franklin & Marshall College's senior class. Experienced both in the classroom and on archaeological excavations, she plunges you into the daily life of Mesopotamia's vast range of cultures and animates peoples such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Medes.

In a land where the real history is even more astounding than its legends, the journey you take through ancient Mesopotamian life in Between the Rivers is a true adventure of exploration and discovery—and one you are not likely to forget.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Iraq Museum
    Artifacts looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad remind us of the extraordinary culture that once flourished in Mesopotamia and that contributed to human civilization the earliest cities, complex economies, the first writing system, and the first empires. x
  • 2
    Geography and Environment
    This orientation to Mesopotamia's diverse geography and environment includes an examination of how some factors unique to the region may have encouraged agriculture and urbanism, and how geography shapes cultural and political organization. x
  • 3
    Discovering Mesopotamia
    In this first of two lectures on archaeology, we ask why the discipline is important to our understanding of Mesopotamia, and how early excavations helped shape Western ideas about the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. x
  • 4
    Archaeological Methods
    This lecture analyzes some of the methods that archaeologists use, the artifacts they find, and the methods used to interpret them, providing us with a framework for understanding not only why we know what we know, but also those facts that we cannot know. x
  • 5
    Farming and Early Settlements
    Recognizing that many questions about the prehistoric era remain unanswered, we speculate about the events that led people to settle in the first villages, finishing with a look at some early evidence of social complexity. x
  • 6
    The Uruk Phenomenon
    Early cities developed in their fullest form about 5,000 years ago. The city of Uruk—the earliest and largest city in southern Mesopotamia—has come to represent the rise of the city. x
  • 7
    Writing
    We trace early forms of record keeping, considering whether they contributed to the development of writing, and examine the technology of writing, the development of cuneiform script, and the modern-day translation of cuneiform. x
  • 8
    Temples
    This lecture looks at how and why temples were built, how they filled their religious purposes, their economic function within an urban setting, and how temples and rulers filled each others' needs and justified their respective roles in the city. x
  • 9
    Mesopotamian Deities
    We meet some of the gods who were honored in temples, discussing their powers, their relationships with each other and with their human worshipers, and the rituals necessary to encourage their favor. x
  • 10
    Gilgamesh—Hero and King
    We shift our focus from the gods to individuals, specifically heroes, as represented in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's first epic description of a hero and his adventures. x
  • 11
    The Early Dynastic Period
    The idea of the city spreads quickly, and a string of them soon reaches up to central Mesopotamia. This lecture examines contemporary historical texts to see the emergence of political structures and rulers in these cities and examines their relationships with regions outside Mesopotamia. x
  • 12
    Warfare and Diplomacy
    Having learned that documents recording contemporary events are preserved for the Early Dynastic period, we turn to the subject of warfare to see how disputes were represented in written sources and images. x
  • 13
    The Royal Cemetery at Ur
    Burials were a final opportunity to display the strength and control of a king, and we examine one of the most spectacular and widely publicized examples, revealing much about the funerary customs for members of the political, religious, or social elite. x
  • 14
    The Akkadians
    We move from the kings of cities to the first ruler who could legitimately claim his mastery over northern and southern Mesopotamia: Sargon of Akkad, whose rise marks the beginning of a new dynasty. x
  • 15
    Ideology of Kingship—Naram-Sin and Gudea
    The reign of Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, shows, for the first time, a ruler worshiped as divine during his lifetime. With the reign of Gudea, the first ruler of a new dynasty, we see the king's representation return to a more traditional style. x
  • 16
    The Ur III Dynasty
    The end of Akkadian control sees the newly independent city-state of Ur come to dominate Babylonia. Ur's rulers organize a much more centralized government that effectively controls the region for more than 100 years. x
  • 17
    Life in a Mesopotamian City
    We return to the theme of urbanism to see what developments have occurred since we last explored the topic in the Uruk era, extrapolating from several centuries and sites to create a picture of urban life. x
  • 18
    Food and Drink
    This lecture examines food and drink from prehistory to the time of Alexander the Great, drawing on evidence ranging across artistic representations, archaeological discoveries, scattered written references to feasts sponsored by temples or rulers, and even poetry. x
  • 19
    Assyrian Trade Networks
    A mammoth archaeological find of 20,000 tablets found at an Assyrian merchant outpost allows us to study trade not as part of a statewide bureaucracy, but as a private enterprise, with evidence of an international trade network in textiles, tin, silver, and gold. x
  • 20
    Hammurabi of Babylon
    A long reign gives a new ruler time to found a new and impressive kingdom, forging a strong personal rule largely concerned with justice for his people and bringing peace to the era. x
  • 21
    Zimri-Lim of Mari
    We will discuss the turbulent closing decades of the rich state of Mari—destroyed by Hammurabi's final major campaign—which was controlled first by the Assyrians and then by the last of its rulers, Zimri-Lim. x
  • 22
    Laws
    We survey the types of Mesopotamian laws that have survived, from the very end of the 3rd millennium B.C. to Hammurabi's laws of the 18th century, to the 11th-century Middle Assyrian precepts that regulated the appea and behavior of the royal court. x
  • 23
    Medicine, Science, and Math
    This lecture examines scientific thought and how science helped order and explain the natural world for Mesopotamian cultures. We will discuss medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and divination—the most challenging and important science in the Mesopotamian world. x
  • 24
    Poetry and Literature
    We look at poetry and literature that explores a range of themes—including creation, the deeds and personalities of the gods, suffering, and divine justice—and also examine proverbial wisdom, jokes, love poems, and the use of magic spells. x
  • 25
    Internationalism
    We return to our survey of the political history of the region by looking at the Near East as a whole, with much of our insight coming from a collection of letters between kings discovered at an Egyptian site known as Tell el-Amarna. x
  • 26
    Assyrian Expansion
    We focus on two 9th-century B.C. rulers, Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, whose leadership and innovations were essential to the expansion of the Assyrian Empire. x
  • 27
    Sargon II
    This lecture traces the remarkable spread of the Assyrian empire in the second half of the 8th century B.C., beginning with the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III and continuing with that of Sargon II, six years later. x
  • 28
    Ideology of Empire
    Using both literary and visual sources, we look at several features of Assyria's rulers and military that characterized the empire and contributed to its dominance. x
  • 29
    Control and Revolt
    In the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., Assyria is in firm control of an enormous empire, ranging from Mesopotamia to Egypt. But certain trouble spots, especially in Babylonia, reveal weaknesses that will contribute to its unexpected collapse in the late 7th century. x
  • 30
    Medes and the Neo-Babylonian State
    When Assyria falls, it is at the hands of the Babylonians and their king, Nabopolassar, who were aided by the Medes, a tribal people. We look at both of these peoples, including Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar, whose building successes exceed even his political and military accomplishments. x
  • 31
    The Rise of the Achaemenids
    This lecture focuses on the Achaemenids, or Persians, an Iranian culture that blended elements of earlier cultures to rule the empire, using a variety of methods, including a new language, coinage, and road network, to control the area. x
  • 32
    Persians in Egypt and Greece
    We look at Persia's excursions against both Egypt and Greece, the latter of which—likely an attempt by the Persian king, Darius, to gain access to the riches of the West—results in a stunning defeat far from home. x
  • 33
    Xerxes’s Invasion of Greece
    Ten years later, Greece again repels a Persian invasion. This lecture focuses on descriptions of the Persian king, Xerxes, by the Greek historian Herodotus, who compares Greeks with Persians as representative of a democratic versus tyrannical way of life. x
  • 34
    Persian Art and Culture
    This lecture considers an array of artifacts, from small seal stones to massive palace architecture, to illustrate the blend of many artistic and cultural themes to create a new, identifiably Persian, style of art. x
  • 35
    Alexander the Great
    Alexander defeats the Persians in 331 B.C. and quickly captures Babylonia. Welcomed as a legitimate successor, he often behaves as a traditional Mesopotamian ruler might, rebuilding temples and seeking to expand the empire, ultimately dying without naming a successor. x
  • 36
    After Alexander
    This final lecture glances ahead at the history of the region after Alexander's campaigns in light of the course's major themes. x

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Your professor

Alexis Q. Castor

About Your Professor

Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College
Dr. Alexis Q. Castor is Assistant Professor of Classics at Franklin & Marshall College, where she teaches ancient history, archaeology, and Greek. She earned her her B.A. in History from George Mason University and M.A. and Ph.D. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College. She also completed graduate courses in Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history at The George Washington University. Professor...
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Reviews

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 97.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good overview A good overview of the ancient history of the area from the view of archaeological information that has been found. It was interesting to have the procedures involved in finding historical data covered as well as what was found. It is a shame there was no video course available, although it did encourage further research to find pictures of the artifacts that were evocatively described.
Date published: 2018-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A superb presentation of complex material I just finished 'Between the Rivers' by Dr. Alexis Castor. She does a great job of organizing and presenting historical and cultural data from the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian cultures. The course spans an impressive 3,000 years of history but Prof. Castor provides a good mix of grand organizing ideas and concepts with very human (and sometimes humorous) stories and examples that illustrate her points. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2018-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite Great Courses I teach humanities part-time and bought this course years ago to learn more about the history and culture behind the artifacts discussed in my course. It has become one of my favorite Great Courses. Prof. Castor is engaging, thorough, and a pleasure to listen to. I've listened to the course in its entirety more than once (the lecture on Gilgamesh, about five times). I highly recommend the course to anyone interested in the cultures of the Ancient Near East. I wish I had bought the DVD instead of the CDs.
Date published: 2018-04-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from appropriate wait. wait. Sir Flinders Petrie discovered King Tut's Tomb????? Am I missing something? What else is inaccurate? Fair overview. Quite general in content.
Date published: 2018-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview The Professor's Presentation is a bit dry, but this does not make the course hard to follow. The course covers an incredibly wide span of history and material, making a very complex subject intelligible.
Date published: 2018-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Things We Uncover Castor knows her stuff and presents it well. I especially appreciated her discussions of our own archeological methods and assumptions—of how the things we uncover can only be viewed through today’s lenses. Good teaching should always acknowledge its own assumptions and possible biases, and these lectures offer examples of a fine teacher doing just that.
Date published: 2018-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Introductory Overview I had little knowledge of the near East and this was quick and easy. I drive a lot for work, so having the audio download allowed me to learn the material without having to spend any extra time. If you're already an expert on the subject, this is too basic for you. But I was a beginner and it was GREAT.
Date published: 2017-09-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not enough analysis/in-depth discussion I had a hard time getting into this course. While the topic intrigues me and the professor seems like a pleasant person, I just don't think it got into any deep analysis or thought-provoking concepts. I would expect more from a 36 lecture course focusing on one region. In a way it was too simple. I don't consider myself an expert in ancient Mesopotamian history but I honestly am not sure if I learned much from this course. And that is rare for me to say after 60+ courses. The professor has a clear, steady speaking style which is helpful but the downside is she seems to be so concerned with avoiding filler words ("um", "Uh") that she pauses in strange locations when delivering a sentence as if she is grasping for the right word and at times it is hard to understand what she is trying to accent. I also had a hard time following the organization/structure of the course. There were lectures on the political/military narrative as well as those concentrating on everyday life in Mesopotamia but I didn't sense a rhythm in bringing these lectures together. It was as if the course was struggling for an identity: is it more focused on one or the other? Sure the answer can be "both" but the synthesis of it all seemed to be off. What were the main learnings/topics/themes of this course? And how does the everyday life and political narrative bring it together? If you're interested in Mesopotamia I would instead recommend "History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective". The professor was spectacular and did justice to the various empires he covers (one of the few 5 star courses in my view). However, be warned that due to the breadth of the course you will not find an in-depth survey on the region. It looks like other possibilities would be "Ancient Empires Before Alexander" and "Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations" (I have not taken these courses).
Date published: 2017-09-16
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