20120208-queen of nigh Ishtar elief_bust.jpg
Ishtar, Queen of Night
The custom of handshaking has been traced back to ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics, dating back to 2800 B.C., representing the verb "to give," show an extended hand. Kings in ancient Babylon and Assyria grasped the hands of statues of their major Gods during important celebrations and festivals. A 9th century Assyrian relief is the first known depiction of people shaking hands.

Tablets from Nuzi also indicate it was customary for males to sell their birthright to their brothers, as Esau did to Jacob. In one case a brother agreed to exchange his inheritance for "three sheep immediately from his brother Tupkitilla."

The Sumerians simply tossed their rubbish in the streets, gradually raising the level of their cities as garbage accumulated over hundreds of generations.

Categories with related articles in this website: Mesopotamian History and Religion (35 articles); Mesopotamian Culture and Life (38 articles); First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (50 articles) Ancient Persian, Arabian, Phoenician and Near East Cultures (26 articles)

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site; British Museum ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news; Past Horizons, online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Mesopotamian Homes

Houses in Mesopotamia tended to be small and crowded. They were often clustered around the central temple or on narrow lanes. Most Mesopotamians lived in mud-brick homes. The mud bricks were held together with plaited layers of reeds. They were made in molds, dried in the sun and fired in kilns. The houses of the poor were built of reeds plastered with clay.

The Sumerians used bitumen mortar. The sticky black substance helped preserve structures such as the ziggurat of Ur. The tar was one of the first uses of southern Iraq's oil fields.

The first known bedrooms were in a Sumer palace, dated to 3500 B.C. In Sumerians homes there was usually only one bedroom irregardless of the size of the size of the family and household. The master of the house usually slept in the bedroom while family members and servants slept on couches and longues and on the floor in other rooms scattered around the house. There were pillows but they were usually made from wood, ivory or alabaster and they designed primarily to keep elaborate hairdos from getting messed up.

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“Houses were let usually for the year, but also for longer terms, rent being paid in advance, half-yearly. The contract generally specified that the house was in good repair, and the tenant was bound to keep it so. The woodwork, including doors and door frames, was removable, and the tenant might bring and take away his own. The Code enacted that if the landlord would re-enter before the term was up, he must remit a fair proportion of the rent. Land was leased for houses or other buildings to be built upon it, the tenant being rent-free for eight or ten years; after which the building came into the landlord's possession. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911]

See Architecture

Mesopotamia Possessions, Air Conditioning and Everyday Life

stuff from Uruk

The Sumerians used mats made of dry stalks and tendrils to cover dust and stone floors. They had wooden furniture. The first mirrors were no doubt puddles, ponds and lakes with still water. By 3500 B.C. mirrors were fashioned from polished metal in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians made mirrors with ivory, wood and gold handles.

The earliest lamps were made from sea shells. These were observed in Mesopotamia. Lamps made from man-made materials such as earthenware and alabaster appeared between 3500 and 2500 B.C. in Sumer, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Metal lamps were rare. As technology advanced a groove for the wick was added, the bottom of the lamp was titled to concentrate the oil and the place where the flame burned was moved away from the handle. Mostly animal fats and vegetable and fish oils were burned. In Sumer, seepage from petroleum deposits was used. The wicks were made from twisted natural fibers.

Umbrellas were used in Mesopotamia as early as 1400 B.C. for protection from the sun not rain and they were also symbols of status and rank.

Clay tablets show banquets, family gatherings, women preparing food. Items found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi included jewelry, seashells with cosmetics, a four-foot gold drinking straw, pins, wreaths, diadems, gold tweezers, and translucent alabaster bowls.

A wealthy Babylonian merchant used ice in 2000 B.C. to make the world's first air-conditioned house. The ice was made using a technique discovered by the Egyptian as early as 3000 B.C. that takes advantage of a natural phenomena that occurs in dry climates. Shallow trays of water left out at night in shallow clay trays on a bed of straw would freeze as a result of evaporation into the dry air and sudden temperatures drops even though the temperature was well above freezing. People also sprayed water on exposed walls and floors, with the evaporation producing a cooling effects.

Book: “Life in the Ancient Near East” by Daniel Snell

Hittites and Oil

Lamps for the ancient Near East

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr wrote in “Oil in Hittite Texts”: “Oil was one of the minimal essentials in ancient Near Eastern life. This has been noted in connection with ancient Israel, but it is also true in Hittite Anatolia. That being the case, oil is included among the elementary needs of the poor which compassionate people are enjoined to meet. Several texts whose composition goes back to the Old Hittite period mention this: to the hungry give bread, to the thirsty water, to the naked clothes, to the dried out/desiccated. The same situation is reflected in a passage from the new Hurro-Hittite bilingual, where the god Teshub is poor and must be helped by his fellow deities. They give food to the hungry god, clothes to the naked god, and oil to the hurtant- god. [Source: Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Oil in Hittite Texts,” Internet Archive, from Emory/Biblical Archaeology /=/]

“Oil in Hittite texts can be from an animal or a vegetable source. Oil from plants includes olive oil, sesame oil, cypress (or juniper) oil/resin, and oil extracted from nuts. Oil from animals includes lard (i.e., oil/fat from pigs) and sheep fat. Güterbock enumerated the various oil-bearing plants known to the Hittites, which included the olive, sesame, and several plants which are probably nuts. /=/

“Sheep fat or tallow, is placed in or on a KUSkursa-, which has been interpreted as either a "hunting bag" or a "fleece," which in turn is suspended from an evergreen eya-tree as a symbol of the prosperity given by the gods. That Ì.UDU was a solid substance is also clear from the fact that it is used alongside wax to make magic figurines. The purpose of making the figurines out of wax and sheep tallow is that they will represent evil and will be destroyed in the course of the subsequent ritual. The exact manner of destroying the symbols is unclear. The verb in the ritual text is arha sallanu-, which probably means "to melt down". /=/

Hittite Uses of Oil

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr wrote in “Oil in Hittite Texts”: “In a prayer of King Mursili II, the king asks that the sweet cedar oil may "call" or "summon" the god Telipinu. As part of this concept that the gods were attracted or "lured" by sweet oil, the rituals sometimes mention sprinkling "paths" of sweet oil (Ì.DÙG.GA) to attract the deities: "See, I have sprinkled your paths, O Telipinu, with sweet oil. So set out, O Telipinu, on the path which has been sprinkled with sweet oil!" (KUB 17.10 ii 28-30). In another ritual, the "seer-exorcist" (LÚHAL) takes oil, honey, thick bread, and libation and goes to appease the mountain gods (KUB 30.36 ii 1-2). [Source: Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Oil in Hittite Texts,” Internet Archive, from Emory/Biblical Archaeology /=/]

“In a "wisdom" text originating in Babylonia and translated into Hittite, we read of a prostitute who wears a borrowed garment and anoints herself with oil taken as a wage. As part of a vow to a deity, a Hittite queen gave three harsiyalli-vessels (large storage vessels, pithoi) containing respectively oil, honey, and fruit (KUB 15.1 iii 14-16; de Roos 1984). In the "Song of Hedammu," another myth of the Kumarbi cycle, a fragmentary passage describing the creation and raising of the monster Hedammu seems to say: "They place him/it in oil É they place him/it in water." Perhaps this is a method for rendering him invulnerable. One is reminded of the Greek legend of Achilles' heel. /=/

“Two interesting uses of Ì.DÙG.GA are found in the funerary ritual for deceased royalty. After the deceased's body was burned on the funeral pyre, his bones were collected and placed to soak in a large silver vessel filled with fine oil (Ì.DÙG.GA). After they had soaked in the oil, the bones were removed, wrapped in a fine linen cloth, and placed on a chair or stool. There follow various rites, including animal sacrifices, and then the bones are brought to the mausoleum (called the "Stone House"). It is here that we see the second interesting use of the oil. The text reads: "In the inner room of the mausoleum they spread bedding, take the bones from the chair, and put them on the spread bedding. They place a lamp [weighing É] shekels, filled with fine oil (Ì.DÙG.GA) in front of the bones." This is a rare example of Ì.DÙG.GA used as fuel for a lamp. If it is "perfumed oil," the odor might have been considered appropriate, as would incense, in a funerary setting.

“Oil, fat, or grease may also have been used to seal the interstices of baskets to make them waterproof. In the famous story of the Queen of Kanesh who set her seventy infant sons adrift in baskets to float down the river to the Black Sea, where they were recovered by the gods and raised, the queen first prepares the baskets by "filling" them, i.e., their interstices, with oil/grease. Students of the Bible will recall the waterproofing of the basket in which the baby Moses was placed in the shallow water of the Nile according to the story in chapter one of the Book of Exodus.18 Moses' mother smeared the basket with bitumen. Oil or grease (Akkadian samnu) are used to caulk boats. Since until recently it was not known that the crucial word sa-g‡n-da could be interpreted other than a form of sakkar "dung," the passage was thought either 1) to attest the use of dung in waterproofing the baskets (a very implausible procedure), 2) a filling of the baskets with dung as a cushioning bed for the infants, or 3) as a symbolic action implying that the Queen of Kanesh was undoing a curse upon herself manifested by her ominous birth of seventy boys. None of these options seems now as plausible as the possible interpretation given above. Oil, grease, or perhaps even resin (sagn-) was used to caulk the baskets and prevent them from sinking before they could carry their human cargos down the river to their divinely intended destination. This understanding also fits the parallels in the other ancient Near Eastern stories much more closely.

ancient lamps from the Near East

Hittite Anointing Oil

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr wrote in “Oil in Hittite Texts”: “The toilet of the upper classes must be reflected in the treatment of the cult statues of the deities. One text tells how eight representations of the Sun goddess of Arinna-three statues and five solar disks-were bathed and then anointed with oil. In a letter of the Hittite king to his mother, he complains that he has no Ì.DÙG.GA for anointing himself. In the text of a legal deposition, a man named mdISTAR-LÚ gives testimony in which he mentions that a woman gave him oil and instructed him to anoint himself with it when he worshipped the deity.(15) In a letter from the Pharaoh to the King of Arzawa, written in Hittite, the Egyptian monarch speaks of having his servant anoint with oil the head of the woman chosen to become a wife of the king (VBoT 1 obv. 14). The Hittite king was also anointed with oil as part of the ritual of accession to the throne and the priesthood of the Sun goddess of Arinna. This custom is also reflected in the rite of the substitute king, who consequently is anointed with the "oil of kingship". Singer (1987) also quotes an Akkadian letter written by Hattusili III to the Assyrian king in which Hattusili complains that the Assyrian monarch failed to send him the traditional coronation gifts, which included ceremonial garments and fine oil for anointing (Goetze 1940:27ff.). [Source: Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Oil in Hittite Texts,” Internet Archive, from Emory/Biblical Archaeology /=/]

“An entry in a tablet catalogue describes a ritual performed by a woman physician named Azzari. On the occasion when a commander was going to lead troops into battle, the physician consecrated í.DôG.GA by pronouncing a spell over it and then used it to anoint the commander, his horses, his chariot(s), and all his weapons. In an oracle inquiry, it was determined that the deity was angry because the temple personnel had neglected or omitted to give to the deity í.GIS and í.DôG.GA.

“In the first tablet of the Kikkuli horse-training manual, trainers are described as anointing/rubbing horses with í.NUN (butter, ghee) on the fifth day, after four days of daily washing. The use of "butter" or "ghee" for this purpose seems strange. In the "Song of Ullikummi," a myth of the Kumarbi cycle, oil (Ì.DÙG.GA) is used to anoint the horns of the bulls which draw the cart of the god Teshub. Apparently the horns of male animals were also anointed with oil prior to sacrificing the animals. This practice is clearly documented in the case of goats and rams. “Similarly, in a ritual text, oil is brought to the deity so that he may lubricate his chariot with it. In a purification ritual, animal-shaped vessels16 are overturned in the river and washed, then oil is dripped into the river, and finally the washed vessels are anointed (isk-) with oil. Applying oil to the vessels after they have been washed is analogous to the practice of humans anointing themselves after bathing. In another text, oil is smeared on a door.

Burning Oil, Cooking and Oil in Daily Life

“One of the principal uses of oil in ancient times was as a fuel for lamps or torches. The texts, however, offer little evidence for this. Only recently, with the discovery of the syllabic writing of the principal Hittite word for "oil," sagn-, has it become possible to recognize that the meaning of the adjective sakuwant- frequently modifying torches (GISzuppari) is "oil-soaked" (Hoffner 1994). The construction of a Hittite torch is unclear. It might have consisted of a stick with the upper end wrapped in cloth, in which case the cloth would have been soaked in oil as fuel. [Source: Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Oil in Hittite Texts,” Internet Archive, from Emory/Biblical Archaeology /=/]

“Lamps were called (DUG)sasanna, It is possible that the wick was called lappina-. Only two passages give any indication of lamp fuel:"two measuring vessels of butter/ghee for lamps" and "They set out in front of the bones a lamp[É] of [x] shekels (filled) with fine oil." There are other references to the burning of oil. A mixture of honey and oil was burned to produce a pleasant odor for the gods which by smelling the same they could be said to eat and drink. Another ritual text also mentions burning cedar, í.NUN, honey, and other materials to produce a sweet odor. In still another passage, honey and olive oil are poured into a clay cup and a tiny chip of wood floating on the surface is ignited and burns, perhaps absorbing the oil in which it floats like a wick.”/=/

Urban Life and Mesopotamia Cities

The expression “urban revolution “ has been used to describe the creation of the world’s first cities in Mesopotamia and the development of all the institutions and system that could keep these cities going. As urban life developed, society became more complex.

Mesopotamian cities tended to be located on strategic sites near water. Around the town were planted fields of grain and herds of goats and sheep. In the middle of cities were ziggurats. After a city was sacked, the city tended to be rebuilt on the same site. Some weaker cities were sacked about once a generation.

Many of the first Mesopotamia cities were first occupied around 5500 B.C. and developed into cities between 3500 and 2500 B.C. The largest cities in Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C. had only around 20,000 or 30,000 people. The Sumerians built their cities on artificial mounds so they were protected from flood waters.


A cuneiform tablet described a Mesopotamian city as a "mighty fortress in the heart of the land." A typical Mesopotamian city was surrounded by a high wall, guarded by elite troops and occupied by various kinds of public buildings, including a royal palace, with workshops, grain storage areas, and rooms for the musical education of the royal daughters.

The main temple was often located at the center of city. Around it were workshops for pottery makers, beer brewers, bread makers, leatherworkers, spinners, weavers, clothes makers, metalworkers, tool and weapons makers, and jewelers.

City dwellers in Mesopotamia drew water from the river for irrigation canals and had no drains. In contrast, the people in the Indus valley had sophisticated sewers and drainage systems.

Mesopotamian Drugs

The Egyptians and Sumerians were probably using opium 4,000 years ago. Poppy extract was used ancient Egypt to quiet crying children. The oldest known opium cultivators were people who lived around a Swiss lake in the forth millennium B.C.

Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian texts refer to the medicinal uses of opium beginning around 4,000 years ago. Some believe the Sumerian had opium around 3,000 B.C. suggested by the fact they seem to have an ideogram for it which also meant joy or rejoicing.

The first written record of opium use was in a 5,000-year-old Sumerian text.

LSD, a man-made drug, was first synthesized from ergot, a common fungus, also known as rye mold, in 1938. The Assyrians used ergot in ancient times as a treatment for controlling bleeding caused from childbirth.

Mesopotamian Clothes and Footwear

Genie poppy at
Dur Sharrukin
Clothes made from leather, wool and flax. The Egyptians used linen to wrap mummies. Beads of various kinds were worn on necklaces and other adornments. Over the years they evolved from mollusk shell lips drilled for pendants, found in 9th millennium B.C. Syria; stone stamp seals found in northern Syria, dated to 7000-4000 B.C.; tubular bone beads with loops found in northern Syria, dated to 3000 B.C.

Based on images in sculptures and statuettes, Sumerian men wore kiltlike skirts, and were naked above the waist. Based on images in reliefs, Babylonian and Assyrian men wore fringed robes, heavy make up and jewelry Gods. were often depicted wearing horned crowns. Sumerian women wore long dresses and left their right shoulder bare. Babylonian women in 1500 B.C. wore dog-collar necklaces, bracelets and rope-like belts.

Herodotus wrote in 430 B.C.:“The dress of the Babylonians is a linen tunic reaching to the feet, and above it another tunic made in wool, besides which they have a short white cloak thrown round them, and shoes of a peculiar fashion, not unlike those worn by the Boiotians. They have long hair, wear turbans on their heads, and anoint their whole body with perfumes. Every one carries a seal, and a walking-stick, carved at the top into the form of an apple, a rose, a lily, an eagle, or something similar; for it is not their habit to use a stick without an ornament. I.196: [Source: Herodotus, “The History”, translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862]

Sandals were the primary form of footwear in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The first boots were developed by Assyrians around 1100 B.C. primarily for use in warfare. They came up to mid-calf, and had a laced leather front. The soles and were reinforced with metal. There is evidence that the Assyrians and Hittites made both right and left boots.

Hebrews and Assyrians pledged a sandal as symbol of good faith when making a deal. Tossing a shoe onto a piece of land meant that you claimed it.

Mesopotamian Beauty and Hairstyles

There was evidence of manicuring among nobleman found in tombs in Ur. Based on images in sculptures and statuettes, Sumerian men had both shaved heads and long hair and beards. They also shaved their faces. On Sumerian sculpture hair looks the foam pads on which a carpets are laid. Sumerian women often had shorter hairstyles than the men or wore their hair in long elaborately- entwined braids.

The Assyrians are regarded as the first true hair stylists. Their prowess at cutting, curling, dying and layering hair was admired by other civilizations on the Middle East. Hair and beards were oiled, tinted and perfumed. The long hair of women and the long beards of men were cut in symmetrical geometrical shapes and curling by slaves with curl bars (fire-hearted iron bars).

The Sumerians and Assyrians as well as Egyptians, Cretans, Persians and Greeks all wore wigs. In Assyria, hairstyles often defined status, occupation and income level. During important proceeding high-raking Assyrian women sometimes donned fake beards to show they commanded the same authority as men. Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs of Egypt, did the same thing.

Sumerian Eye Makeup, Conjunctivitis and the 'Evil Eye'

Reconstructed Sumerian
headgear necklaces
John Alan Halloran wrote in “The Sumerian language has preserved a record of their battles against conjunctivitis, also known as 'pink eye', an eye condition which the Sumerians called igi-hulu, 'evil eye'. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the eyeball, which can be brought on by bacteria, viruses, or inadvertent soap in the eye. You can read about this potentially dangerous condition here: [Source: John Alan Halloran, January 27, 2014 ***]

“There is a Sumerian expression that indicates that this condition had already become a subject of fear and superstition in Sumerian times — igi-hul...dim2: to put the evil eye (on someone) ('eyes/face' + 'evil' + 'to fashion'). In most traditional cultures there is an extreme fear of the 'Evil Eye'. They recite incantations, give signs, and will do everything possible to avoid its fateful curse. ***

“The Sumerians were like many other peoples in having traditions about the medicinal use of different plants and herbs, some of which have antiseptic properties. These traditions are preserved in the vocabulary of their language. When Logogram Publishing publishes the English-Sumerian index to my Sumerian Lexicon (2006) book, it will be easier for researchers to look up what are these plants and herbs. But the Sumerian natural remedies were largely the same as are used today among the inhabitants of Iraq and Arabia. ***

“The Sumerian vocabulary confirms that the practice of eye makeup originated for eye protection, not for cosmetic reasons. It also shows that the practice of applying protective eye makeup was not limited to the ancient Egyptians. Here are two entries from my Sumerian Lexicon (2006) book: 1) šembi, šimbi: kohl, i.e., a cosmetic, mascara, or eye-protection paste originally made from charred frankincense resin and later from powdered antimony (stibium) or lead compounds (cf., šem-bi-zi-da, 'kohl'; šim, 'perfumed resin'; šim-gig, 'frankincense'; im-sig7-sig7, 'antimony paste'). 2) šem-bi-zi-da: kohl; a paste originally made from charred frankincense resin and later from powdered antimony (stibium) or lead compounds; a darkening eye cosmetic with antibacterial properties - used as a protection against eye disease as well as giving relief from the glare of the sun ('kohl' + 'good; true' + nominative; Akk., guhlu, 'kohl' - cf., igi-hulu, 'evil-eye'). ***

“The etymology shows that Akkadian guhlu is a loanword from Sumerian, where it evolved through vowel harmony from the Sumerian term for 'evil-eye' into our word 'kohl'. Furthermore, according to Stephan Guth, Professor of Arabic at the University of Oslo, our word 'alcohol' "is derived from the Arabic al-kuhl, which means 'kohl'. When the Europeans became familiar with this substance in Andalusia, which was also used for medical purposes, they referred to it and gradually all other fine powders, and subsequently all kinds of volatile essences, as alcohol." So the etymology of 'alcohol' can now be traced through a circuitous path all the way back to ancient Sumerian igi-hulu, 'evil-eye'. ***

“Frankincense resin has such strong antibiotic properties that the ancient Egyptians used its oil to clean the body and organs during mummification, helping to prevent putrefaction. A Google search for "charred frankincense" returns almost a thousand results. Frankincense, however, was rare and expensive, having to be imported from Arabia, which explains why the Sumerians learned to substitute powdered antimony or lead compounds for it in their eye makeup.” ***

Mesopotamian Hygiene and Perfume

Dagon and the fishes

In the dry climate of Mesopotamia and Egypt, cleanliness, washing and bathing was not given a high priority. Sumerians washed themselves in alkali solutions while the Hittites cleaned themselves with ash of the soapwart plant suspended in water. Soaplike material has been found Babylonian clay jars dated at 2800 B.C. The first true soap, made of boiled goat fat water and ash with a lot of potassium carbonate, was developed by the Phoenicians around 600 B.C.

The ancient Mesopotamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Sumerians are believed to have created the first deodorant about 3500 B.C.

The word "perfume," a Latin word meaning "through smoke" comes to use from the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, who used to burn the resin from desert shrubs such as myrrh, cassia, spikenard and frankincense for their aromatic fragrance or simply toss them in a fire.

The earliest perfumes were not used for cosmetic purposed but rather as offering to god. In some cases they were used as a kind of deodorizer for sacrificed animals. By 3000 B.C., Egyptians and Mesopotamians were using perfumes as body scents and bathing oils rather than incense. They were also used in exorcisms, healing treatments, and after sex.

Mesopotamian Correspondence

Dice from the Akkadian period

Harvey Weiss, an archeologist at Yale, who found the ancient city of Shubat Enlil, and looked for correspondence between the king of Shubat Enlil and his son, the governor of Mari. Shubat Enlil and Mari were two once-great cities on the plains of Mesopotamia. ago. Mari was excavated in 1933, providing clay tablets that are half the correspondence. Weiss found what he believes was Shubat Enlil beneath the village of Tell Leilan in northeastern Syria, 175 miles north of Mari. He began digging there in 1979, and discovered a cache of some 1,100 clay documents, written in the ancient Semitic language of Akkadian, in the late 1980s. [Source: New York Times, January 10, 1988]

Dated by year, month and day, the tablets were written between 1739 and 1726 B.C. Most are administrative documents that deal with the distribution of the year's barley harvest and the royal supply of beer and wine. The period in which they have been written is just 40 years after the reign of Shamshi-Adad, the king whose letters were discovered at Mari.

Shamshi-Adad, one of the most important figures in Mesopotamian history, was a contemporary of Hammurabi, the great lawgiver and king of Babylon to the south. Shamshi-Adad controlled northern Mesopotamia for 30 years, and his character is vividly conveyed in his correspondence. In one letter to his son at Mari he writes: ''While your brother here is inflicting defeats, you, over there, you lie about amidst women. So now, when you go to Qatanum with the army, be a man!''

Games, Toys and Pets in Mesopotamia

tablet with a Kurdish mastiff

Based on texts from cuneiform tablets and images on Mesopotamian art, the Sumerians had big parties; Assyrian warriors appeared to have swum the crawl; and oryxes and other kinds of antelope were kept as household pets.

In 1920, British archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered what is believed to be the world's oldest board game among the ruins at Ur. Dated to 3000 B.C., the game consisted of six pyramidal dice, three white and three lapis lazuli, and seven marked pieces moved by the players. The rules of the game are unknown.

Tops were used in Babylonia as early as 3000 B.C. Clay tops, etches with images of animals of human figures, have been found in children’s graves dating back to that period.

Many of the animals that we think of as existing only in sub-Sahara Africa — like antelopes, hyenas, and lions — were found in Mesopotamia 4000 years ago. Tigers roamed Iran and cheetahs were found in India. It doesn’t seem far-fetched they they were found in Mesopotamia too.

Recreation in Mesopotamia

Hunting was perhaps the most popular recreational activity among the upper classes and royalty. Friezes from Nivenuh show the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal II riding a chariot, hunting a lion with a bow and arrow and killing a lion with a spear while another lion tries to leap on a horse. Royal hunts depicted in these images were ceremonial affairs in which w lion was released from a cage and surrounded by soldiers who forced it to fight with the king and no doubt stepped in if it looked as if the lion was going to get the upper hand.

:King Ashurbanapal in Lion Hunt and pouring Libations over Four Lions killed in the Hunt” on an alabaster slab “is one of a large series illustrative of the royal sport in Assyria—hunting lions, wild horses, gazelles, and other animals...Ashurbanapal with his attendants behind him is pouring a libation over four lions killed in the hunt. An altar is in the centre, and a pole or tree such as is often seen on the seal cylinders when sacrificial scenes are portrayed. The musicians to the left precede the attendants carrying a dead lion on their backs...These slabs formed the decoration of portions of the walls in the large halls of the palace of Ashurbanapal at Kouyunjik (Nineveh). They were found by Layard and are now one of the great attractions of the British Museum. As specimens of the art of Assyria they are of deep interest, but no less as illustrations of life and manners, supplemented by the equally extensive series of slabs which illustrate the campaigns waged by this king. Similar martial designs in the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad illustrating his campaigns. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

Describing what a royal banquet might have been like 2700 years ago in the palace at Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, Laura Kelley wrote in Saudi Aramco World: “As you arrive, the scent of lilies and roses fills the air. Musicians play harps and pipes, sing songs and recite poems. You snack on fresh pistachios and walnuts as you wait for the entrance of the king. The woman next to you stirs, and her red linen tunic crinkles slightly against her fine cotton shawl. Her gold earrings softly jingle as she moves. With her, you discuss your admiration for King Ashurbanipal, a learned man and, as you see him, a benevolent ruler. He is a generous patron of artists, astronomers and mathematicians in his court. On military and diplomatic missions, he has directed that his envoys collect plants, seeds, animals or anything unusual from the foreign lands they pass through; when they return, their finds have been placed in palace gardens, zoos and rooms filled with curiosities. [Source: Laura Kelley, Saudi Aramco World, November/December 2012, ]

Royal Game of Ur

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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