The name Mesopotamia comes from two Greek words meaning ‘between the rivers.’ The rivers that is sits between are the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Mesopotamia of the Bible is situated in present day Iraq and the term Mesopotamia refers to the plain that is on either side of the Tigris and Euphrates. This whole region forms something of a rectangle which measures about 600 miles long and 200 miles wide. Although it is bordered by mountains on the north and east, the elevation of most of Mesopotamia is less than 600 feet above sea level.
The two rivers are the central physical features of the area. They made irrigation possible and were responsible for a stable agricultural economy in the land. Both of the rivers originated in the mountains of Ararat which is in present day Turkey. These are two of the four rivers that flowed through the Garden of Eden. The northern stretches of the rivers cut deeply into permanent beds of rock and have remain unchanged since early times, but the riverbeds in the plains have been changed numerous times because of flooding and it’s almost impossible to tell where the original rivers lay.
One of the most striking features of both rivers is the heavy content of silt they carry. Most of it is deposited on the huge plain of which Mesopotamia is composed. They both also have smaller streams that feed them as they wind their way southward to the Persian Gulf, and 100 miles north of the Gulf they meet and form one huge river called Shatt al- Arab.
Both rivers are prominent in Biblical history and the Euphrates was known as “the River” in Joshua 24:3 and serves as one of the boundaries of the Promised Land. Its length is 1,700 miles long and it served as the main travel route for trade purposes.
An understanding of the climate of Mesopotamia helps one to appreciate the importance of the two rivers. In its plain, July and August temperatures reach 120°F (108° in the shade). Since this plain get no more than four to eight inches of rain annually, the fertility of the whole region depends on the seasonal flooding of the rivers. The peak flood time is in April and May due to the run off from the mountains. The flooding was controlled in ancient times by a vast network of dikes and canals which required the people to work together as one to get the most from the rainfall. The climate was inhospitable, though and over time there was a buildup of salt from all the runoff of water. There was not enough rainfall to wash it into the ground and it prevented the people from growing good crops. Eventually they started moving northward and the area declined rapidly.
Their economy was good in spite of having to migrate northward. They raised camels, sheep and goats and grew wheat, barley and dates. It is reported that over 18 million date trees of 300 different varieties line the riverbanks of the region. They also had an abundance of clay and made bricks to sell. Wool and flax provided material for clothing and boats and rafts were made from the giant reeds that grew in the swampy regions.
From the viewpoint of Biblical history, Mesopotamia had two geographical centers – Assyria and Babylon. The Assyrians occupied the northern part of the region and the Babylonians occupied the southern part. Both of these ancient powers were oppressors and invaders of Israel. In Assyria the land is hilly and mountainous and at a higher elevation than in the south. They had access to timber and stone and could farm without irrigation. Assyria was first governed by independent kings which often fought for control over Mesopotamia with the rulers of Babylon.
The earliest civilization at the extreme southern part where the rivers unite to flow into the Persian Gulf was inhabited by the Sumers. City-States were established there because of the need to work together to control the river with the need to work together. They continued to prosper here and in 1894 B.C. the First Dynasty of Babylon was established. Babylon soon became a prosperous capital and trading center. This is where Hammurabi set up a copy of his now-famous code. It was later captured by Assyria and then by Persia.
The Fertile Crescent is noted for having some of the oldest cities of ancient civilization. Here are a few of the ones which are talked about in the Bible.
It was the capital of ancient Sumer, and the reputed early home of Abraham. It was located in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates River and about halfway between Babylon and the Persian Gulf. It was a prosperous trading and commercial center because it was in a good location on the main travel route. Many ships came into its ports containing riches from Egypt, Ethiopia and India.
It was also an important religious center. The moon god named Nanna was the most important deity of the city. They believed that the gods dwelt in the mountains to the north, and since there were no mountains around them they built the ziggurats to give the gods a dwelling place close to them. The three-staged structure was made of mud-brick and measured 200 X 150 feet and was 70 feet tall. The terraces of the pyramid were planted with trees and at the top there was a one-room temple that enabled the moon god to dwell in a “mountain shrine.”
The city of Ur is also noted for its legal and literary achievements and for its famous law code that was made three hundred years before that of Hammurabi. This code deals with such matters as weights and measures, the protection of orphans and widows, and problems associated with the oppression of the poor. It was certainly no insignificant place, yet this was the city that Abraham left at God’s command “not knowing where he was to go”.
Ancient Babylon was located on the east bank of the Euphrates and was about 150 miles northwest of Ur and 50 miles south of modern Baghdad. It was founded by a descendant of Noah named Nimrod. The original name of the city was Babel, which is the one described in the Bible. The Greek form of that name is Babylon. The city rose to great heights of glory and became the most important city of Mesopotamia before it started to decline and was invaded by other peoples. The “hanging gardens of Babylon” were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The famous Ishtar Gate was decorated with enameled bricks and gave access to the “processional way” leading to the most sacred part of the city. The Euphrates ran through the middle of the city and in 539 B. C. Cyrus the Great was able to conquer the city by diverting the river at night and entering the city through the river channel.
Nineveh lives 250 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River. The city was a royal residence for Assyrian rulers and was finally established as the capital of Assyria by Sennacherib. Magnificent palaces were built there. In the book of Jonah judgment was averted by the people because they repented, but a century later judgment fell on the city and it was almost completely destroyed because of idolatry. The walls of the ancient site have been found to have a circumference of over seven miles. Five gates have been excavated that led to the city, and archaeologists have discovered a royal library containing more than 16,000 clay tablets and fragments, that made up about 10,000 texts. The throne room of Sennacherib’s palace has also been excavated that depicts a lot of the king’s conquests. Many of these items are in museums today.
Haran is located about 600 miles northwest of Babylon and 150 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. It was on the main route from Nineveh to the Euphrates. Trade routes extended out from the city in several directions. An ancient Egyptian official named Sinuhe described the area as a “good land with figs and grapes, and more wine than water. Plentiful was its honey, and abundant its olives. There was barley there and no limit to its cattle.” The moon god, Nanna was worshiped at Haran. They may have learned of this god through the travelers from Ur. That may have been why Abraham’s father, Terah decided to dwell in the land. Terah was a worshiper of many idols and this was the land that Abraham grew up in and lived in until he was 75 years old, when God told him to leave the land and go to a place where he would show him. Below is a map of Mesopotamia.