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Ruins of a tower at Nimrud, near Kirkuk, referred to as
Tower of Babel
Courtesy Matson Collection
Mesopotamia, for 2,000 years a stronghold of Semitic-speaking
peoples, now fell to Indo-European rule that persisted for 1,176
years. Cyrus, one of history's truly great leaders, ruled with a
firm hand, but he was also well attuned to the needs of his
subjects. Upon assuming power, he immediately replaced the
savagery of the Assyrians with a respect for the customs and the
institutions of his new subjects. He appointed competent
provincial governors (the predecessors of the Persian satraps),
and he required from his subjects only tribute and obedience.
Following Cyrus's death, a brief period of Babylonian unrest
ensued that climaxed in 522 B.C. with a general rebellion of
Between 520 and 485 B.C., the efficient and innovative
Iranian leader, Darius the Great, reimposed political stability
in Babylon and ushered in a period of great economic prosperity.
His greatest achievements were in road building--which
significantly improved communication among the provinces--and in
organizing an efficient bureaucracy. Darius's death in 485 B.C.
was followed by a period of decay that led to a major Babylonian
rebellion in 482 B.C. The Iranians violently quelled the
uprising, and the repression that followed severely damaged
Babylon's economic infrastructure.
The first Iranian kings to rule Iraq followed Mesopotamian
land-management practices conscientiously. Between 485 B.C. and
the conquest by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., however, very
little in Babylon was repaired and few of its once-great cities
remained intact. Trade also was greatly reduced during this
period. The established trade route from Sardis to Susa did not
traverse Babylonia, and the Iranian rulers, themselves much
closer to the Orient, were able to monopolize trade from India
and other eastern points. As a result, Babylonia and Assyria,
which together formed the ninth satrapy of the Persian Empire,
became economically isolated and impoverished. Their poverty was
exacerbated by the extremely high taxes levied on them: they owed
the Iranian crown 1,000 talents of silver a year, in addition to
having to meet the extortionate demands of the local
administrators, and they were responsible for feeding the Iranian
court for four months every year.
Iranian rule lasted for more than 200 years, from 551 B.C. to
331 B.C. During this time, large numbers of Iranians were added
to Mesopotamia's ethnically diverse population. The flow of
Iranians into Iraq, which began during the rein of the
Achaemenids, initiated an important demographic trend that would
continue intermittently throughout much of Iraqi history. Another
important effect of Iranian rule was the disappearance of the
Mesopotamian languages and the widespread use of Aramaic, the
official language of the empire.
By the fourth century B.C., nearly all of Babylon opposed the
Achaemenids. Thus, when the Iranian forces stationed in Babylon
surrendered to Alexander the Great of Macedon in 331 B.C. all of
Babylonia hailed him as a liberator. Alexander quickly won
Babylonian favor when, unlike the Achaemenids, he displayed
respect for such Babylonian traditions as the worship of their
chief god, Marduk. Alexander also proposed ambitious schemes for
Babylon. He planned to establish one of the two seats of his
empire there and to make the Euphrates navigable all the way to
the Persian Gulf, where he planned to build a great port.
Alexander's grandiose plans, however, never came to fruition.
Returning from an expedition to the Indus River, he died in
Babylon--most probably from malaria contracted there in 323 B.C.
at the age of thirty-two. In the politically chaotic period after
Alexander's death, his generals fought for and divided up his
empire. Many of the battles among the Greek generals were fought
on Babylonian soil. In the latter half of the Greek period, Greek
military campaigns were focused on conquering Phoenician ports
and Babylonia was thus removed from the sphere of action. The
city of Babylon lost its preeminence as the center of the
civilized world when political and economic activity shifted to
the Mediterranean, where it was destined to remain for many
Although Alexander's major plans for Mesopotamia were
unfulfilled, and his generals did little that was positive for
Mesopotamia, the effects of the Greek occupation were noteworthy.
Alexander and his successors built scores of cities in the Near
East that were modeled on the Greek city-states. One of the most
important was Seleucia on the Tigris. The Hellenization of the
area included the introduction of Western deities, Western art
forms, and Western thought. Business revived in Mesopotamia
because one of the Greek trade routes ran through the new cities.
Mesopotamia exported barley, wheat, dates, wool, and bitumen; the
city of Seleucia exported spices, gold, precious stones, and
ivory. Cultural interchange between Greek and Mesopotamian
scholars was responsible for the saving of many Mesopotamian
scientific, especially astronomical, texts.
In 126 B.C., the Parthians (or Arsacids), an intelligent,
nomadic people who had migrated from the steppes of Turkestan to
northeastern Iran, captured the Tigris-Euphrates river valley.
Having previously conquered Iran, the Parthians were able to
control all trade between the East and the Greco-Roman world. For
the most part, they chose to retain existing social institutions
and to live in cities that already existed. Mesopotamia was
immeasurably enriched by this, the mildest of all foreign
occupations of the region. The population of Mesopotamia was
enormously enlarged, chiefly by Arabs, Iranians, and Aramaeans.
With the exception of the Roman occupation under Trajan (A.D. 98-
117) and Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211), the Arsacids ruled
until a new force of native Iranian rulers, the Sassanids,
conquered the region in A.D. 227.
Little information is available on the Sassanid occupation,
which lasted until A.D. 636. The north was devastated by battles
fought between Romans and Sassanids. For the most part, the
Sassanids appear to have neglected Mesopotamia. By the time the
enfeebled Sassanid Empire fell to Muslim Arab warriors,
Mesopotamia was in ruins, and Sumero-Akkadian civilization was
entirely extinguished. Sassanid neglect of the canals and
irrigation ditches vital for agriculture had allowed the rivers
to flood, and parts of the land had become sterile. Nevertheless,
Mesopotamian culture passed on many traditions to the West. The
basic principles of mathematics and astronomy, the coronation of
kings, and such symbols as the tree of life, the Maltese cross,
and the crescent are part of Mesopotamia's legacy.
Data as of May 1988