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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


    [This entry provides a broad survey of the history of Mesopotamia as known primarily from archaeological discoveries. It is chronologically divided into four articles:

    • Prehistoric Mesopotamia
    • Ancient Mesopotamia
    • Mesopotamia from Alexander to the Rise of Islam
    • Mesopotamia in the Islamic Period

    In addition to the related articles on specific subregions and sites referred to in this entry, see also History of the Field, article on Archaeology in Mesopotamia.]

    Prehistoric Mesopotamia

    The geographical area that will be treated in this article roughly corresponds with the territory of modern Iraq, where in the middle of the fourth millennium the southern part (Babylonia) and slightly later, the northern part (Assyria) became the scene of the emergence and development of Mesopotamian urban civilization. In the earlier periods, however, Mesopotamia was tied to larger developments in the Near East, in particular in Syria, Anatolia, and Iran. For the beginning of the domestication of plants and animals, of sedentary life, the evidence is better documented in other areas. The scant material recovered in Mesopotamia's northeastern mountain zones suffices only to show that people did live there and took part in the general cultural changes.

    For the early millennia the carbon-14 dates used for all of the Near East are not always reliable. However, because the many dates available for the end of the Aceramic Neolithic seem to converge at about 6000 BCE, this may be a relatively secure anchor. It is only with the last cultural phase that will be discussed, the Late Uruk period, that through close parallels with early Egypt, dates become more stable, placing the end of the Uruk period at about 3100 BCE. The dates used in this discussion are at present the ones most commonly accepted.

    Ecologically, Mesopotamia is highly diversified. The north and northeast share with other regions of the Near East those features that made possible the domestication of plants and animals and the controlled migration patterns that led toward sedentary life: highly adaptable, and thus domesticable, plants and animals and small-scale environments with sharp differences in climate and thus in different exploitable flora and fauna. The region's landscape forms (topography) range from narrow valleys in the high mountains to small plains in the piedmont to the alluvial plain. Thus, each level of agricultural ability found its appropriate landscape: mountain valleys are surrounded by a diversified environment, permitting survival by food gathering when agriculture failed; at the other end of the spectrum, the alluvial plain was open to those agricultural specialists who accumulated profound experience over thousands of years. The existence of an ever more demanding topography to challenge people, whenever their experience and resourcefulness rose to a point where higher social and economic risks could be faced, seems largely responsible for the continuity of early development in Mesopotamia and throughout the Near East.

    Life is determined by the accessibility of water. Like hunters and gatherers early agriculturalists also depended upon areas with sufficient rainfall. Techniques of supplying additional surface water to enhance the growth of plants became necessary once advanced experience allowed the occupation of areas that were larger and more fertile but had less stable rainfall patterns, or never got enough rain. [See Irrigation.] The accessibility of water divides Mesopotamia. While a large part of Assyria lies in an area of sufficient precipitation, agricultural production in Babylonia depends entirely on an artificial supply of water.

    The area's paleoclimate has been shown on average to have been similar to today's, but with shorter or longer deviations. While the fifth millennium seems to have been moister than average, another change, resulting in a slightly cooler and dryer climate, seems to have begun in the mid-fourth millennium and probably became influential in the formation of early urban society toward the end of that millennium.

    Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic Periods.

    Evidence for the presence of paleolithic life in Mesopotamia is scarce but exists and, as elsewhere, is restricted to the mountainous zones. Best known is the Shanidar cave, with its burials of Mousterian Neanderthal-type humans. [See Shanidar Cave.] Stray finds dating to this period as well as to the Upper Paleolithic (the local name for the period in the Zagros Mountains is Zarzian) attest to its presence throughout the mountain ranges. From about 16,000 BCE onward (the Epipaleolithic period), flint tools tended to become more specialized, while the diet became more diversified perhaps a result of more efficient tools being used in hunting and gathering. In the Zarzian period, at the Shanidar and Zarzi caves, eastern Anatolian obsidian appears, attesting to long-distance contacts.

    Aceramic Neolithic (c. 9,000–7,000 BCE).

    Sites showing the salient features of the Neolithic: incipient domestication and sedentarization, but no pottery, are few in Mesopotamia and lack the sequence of layers that would allow a sketch of the cultural development between the Epipaleolithic and the Pottery Neolithic. There is only Jarmo, with its aceramic layers beneath early pottery ones, that testifies to the latest part of that time-span. By that time, food production was already well advanced, and there is no doubt about an all-season occupation. In every respect, aceramic Jarmo is part of the greater Zagros horizon. [See Jarmo.]

    Pottery Neolithic (c. 7,000–6,000 BCE).

    The best representative for the Pottery Neolithic part of the greater Zagros development is also the site of Jarmo. As elsewhere, the introduction of pottery vessels is not accompanied by major changes in the tool kit or the diet. Pottery, with its ability to adapt to minute changes in taste or needs to differentiate, and its ubiquity, henceforth becomes an indispensable tool in comparing or contrasting temporal and spatial cultural entities through similarities in shape and decoration.

    Although basal Umm Dabaghiyeh, southwest of Mosul, seems to be contemporary with Pottery Neolithic Jarmo, other sites, like Hassuna or the lowest levels at Tell Soto, Matarrah, Shamshara, and Nineveh begin later. [See Hassuna; Nineveh.] In contrast to the others that still lie in hilly (ecologically diversified) terrain, Nineveh is the first lowland site, settled in the area of rain-fed agriculture. [See Agriculture.] Multiple storerooms combined with the evidence from paleobotanical and paleozoological analyses, seem to indicate that Umm Dabaghiyeh was a specialized hunting place; too little is known of the other sites to be more specific.

    Ḥalaf (c. 5,500–5000 BCE).

    While the eponymous site of Ḥalaf lies in modern Syria, the area in which this specific kind of pottery is found also includes the northwestern part of Mesopotamia. [See Ḥalaf, Tell.] In fact, the finest specimens come from the site of Arpachiyah, northeast of Mosul. Other sites settled in this period are Yarim Tepe and basal Tepe Gawra. [See Tepe Gawra.] Pottery production reveals an advanced technology in the Ḥalaf period: the firing process could be controlled. The result was a firing-induced polychromy and lustre, on complex shapes with carinations and pedestals.

    In architecture, besides small, multiroomed dwellings round structures are found that often have a long-rectangular antechamber attached. No public buildings of character can be singled out either by size or plan in this period. In the art of the Ḥalaf period animal figurines seem to strive for realism whereas human figures are abstract in style. Peculiarly shaped clay “counters” and stamps with linear incisions are part of the Ḥalaf cultural horizon. They indicate a kind of economic situation where it was necessary to keep records and mark items as personal property.

    Samarra (c. 6,000–5,000 BCE).

    Unlike Ḥalaf, the Samarra cultural horizon is more confined to Mesopotamia, though Baghouz on the Syrian Euphrates, close to the Iraqi border, and Chogha Mami on the Iranian piedmont zone of the Zagros mountains indicate a possibly larger distribution. The few instances of the overlapping of the two zones do not allow greater specificity beyond indicating that these entities were contemporaneous, at least partially. The Samarra ceramic assemblage shows a matt painting on mostly simple, open shapes. The pottery is completely different from that of Ḥalaf, as is the architecture. Houses that are similar in size and plan prevail; they are large enough to be called dwellings of extended families, which may indicate a higher level of division of labor and social stratification than seen before or at contemporary Ḥalaf. There are again, however, no indications of public buildings. Small decorated statuettes of humans and animals in stone or clay were found both in the houses and private graves. [See Grave Goods.] It is only at Tell es-Sawwan in the area of Samarra that a wall and a moat were found surrounding the settlement. However, as yet no other settlement of the period has been explored as extensively as Samarra. [See Samarra.]

    Eridu and Hajji Mohammed (c. 6,000–5,000 BCE).

    So far, all cultural developments have occurred either in the mountainous zones or in those areas in which rain-fed agriculture was possible. There is no indication that up to this point the southern plain took part in the steps toward sedentary life. The pottery found on a site close to Uruk (Uruk-Warka Survey no. 298) and matched by pre-Eridu material from basal Tell el-'Oueili, southeast of Larsa, is contemporary with Samarra, as is the material from the lower parts of the sequences at Eridu and Tell el-'Oueili. The corpus is enriched for the later part of the period by pottery from the short-lived Hajji Mohammed, southwest of Uruk. [See Uruk-Warka; Eridu; ῾Oueili, Tell el-.] Initially using simple, mostly open shapes the phase of Hajji Mohammed pottery adds a sharp carination to deep bowls, reminiscent of Ḥalaf shapes. Patterns of painted decoration, however, differ from both Ḥalaf and Samarra pottery. The Eridu–Hajji Mohammed sequence is seen as contemporary with Ḥalaf/Samarra. To date, the occurrence of Eridu pottery is restricted to the extreme south of Mesopotamia and only the Hajji Mohammed pottery from Ras al-Amiya, south of Kish, suggests a larger distribution.

    The areas excavated at Eridu/Hajji Mohammed were too small to reveal any architectural contexts, except in the temple sounding at Eridu where, in the second-lowest layer, a small freestanding square building was found. In the next phase, it received a niche opposite the entrance, which is usual for shrines in later Mesopotamian tradition. Measuring barely 3 × 3 m, it may not be a public building; but neither is it a dwelling. The level of subsistence and the economy more or less equal that of the contemporary periods in the north.

    Ubaid (c. 5,000–4,000 BCE).

    Wares similar to those first identified in southern Babylonia at Ubaid, Ur, Eridu, and Uruk were subsequently found over large areas of the Near East. Simple open and closed forms bear a dark, monochromatic decoration of multiple concentric bands alternating with geometric designs like hatching, wavy lines, and garlands. The patterns were applied to the vessel rotated on a pivotted platform. Early wares with the full range of this complex decoration (Standard Ubaid) are followed by vessels with simplified designs, often restricted to one or two concentric bands (Late Ubaid). Because such elements are already found in the Eridu/Hajji Mohammed assemblages, Ubaid pottery is assumed to be a sequel to those groups, and hence, a native development of Babylonia.

    The sequence of temples at Eridu is continued in the Ubaid period. Temples were set on platforms for the first time. A central space was expanded with subsidiary rooms, indicating a specific order for the rituals conducted in it. Platforms in front of a niche in the rear wall may have served as altars (cf. the similar so-called Anu-Ziggurrat at Uruk). [See Ziggurat.]

    The architecture at Tell Abada in the Hamrin dam salvage area differs markedly from that attested in earlier periods. The houses are of the Central Hall type (irregular smaller rooms attached to an elongated space) beginning a tradition found systematized in the large so-called temples of the Late Uruk period at Uruk-Eanna. A central building with a similar configuration was found, but because of its size and artifacts, a cache of clay counters, it may have been used for economic activities. As in the earlier periods, artistic expression is confined to small figurines of animals and erect humans.

    To the north, at Tepe Gawra, east of Mosul, levels containing pottery resembling that of the Ubaid period were found overlying Ḥalaf levels. Although the shapes differ from those found in the south, as do the paste and the basic color, they share the principle of rotary decoration: their Ubaidlike appearance may be the result of a transformation of the local tradition by means of the new technique for applying decoration to a rotating vessel. This development shows a similar problem awareness, as this new technique certainly was an answer to a mutual challenge by the growing division of labor.

    The architecture at Tepe Gawra uses the same type of central hall structure as the main component of what seems to have been large compounds composed of sheds and storage facilities. No public building was immediately evident, and a large round structure situated inside the habitation area remains enigmatic.

    Early Uruk (c. 4,000–3,500 BCE).

    Though presumably of major importance, the Early Uruk phase is known only from a deep sounding at Uruk with limited exposures; hence, no broad architectural context was recovered. At first, this phase seems to mark only the rather sudden fading of Ubaid-style painted pottery and the emergence and rapid increase in the use of unpainted pottery made largely on the true potter's wheel, which enabled a different set of vessel shapes.

    Late Uruk is the first urban civilization. It features monumental buildings and art, a high level of economic and political organization and the first script. These features were not present in late Ubaid. Yet, when they appear they are fully developed, without a sign of initial hesitation, so that the basic steps must have taken place in the Early Uruk phase.

    Although not much has been recovered in excavations, Early Uruk pottery is an established entity identified in archaeological surface surveys, like Late Uruk. Based on such data, a major increase in settlement activity is noted in middle, and probably northern, Babylonia in the Early Uruk phase; the southern region, notably the hinterland of Uruk, remained at the low level of settlement activity of the Late Ubaid. Unfortunately, none of these Early Uruk sites has been explored.

    In the northern part of Mesopotamia, the Ubaid pottery tradition passed over into local developments without apparent ties to the south. This is demonstrated by the stratigraphic sequence of Tepe Gawra, which, because it was excavated on a large scale, revealed some interesting architectural features. Of particular importance is a rectangular square surrounded by four public structures, that, on the basis of contemporary structures at Eridu, proved to be temples. Most conspicuously, this square occupies a quarter of the surrounding habitation area. Its size indicates that it was more than the center of the settlement. It is thus assumed that this central feature served a large surrounding area suggesting the existence of a structured settlement system.

    Late Uruk (c. 3500–3100 BCE).

    A full array of archaeological evidence becomes available in the latest phase of the Late Uruk sequence at Uruk, or, in archaeological terms, in level IVa of archaic Eanna. Excavated on a large scale, Eanna features a number of monumental public buildings. Thousands of fragments of clay sealings and written tablets found there proved to be the means of control for an expanding economy. This area is characterized as the seat of a central economic (and political?) administration. [See Seals; Tablet.]

    In order to provide a growing number of administrators with personalized seals, the stamp seal was replaced by the cylinder seal. Its larger surface increased the artistic range of the designs. Most written documents dealt with the transactions of a powerful economic administration. The complexity of those transactions is amply illustrated in the contents of the tablets: large herds of animals had to be supervised; thousands of units of barley had to be booked as either entering stores or handed over to someone. Monthly and yearly accounts were computed from daily records; there was traffic between various departments, as the brewing department had to calculate how much barley or groats it needed for so many liters of beer in order to place the proper request with the barley and groats store; and thousands of employees received daily rations of barley, using the mold-made bowls, known as beveled-rim bowls, that turn up by the thousands at every site, a usage illustrated by the pictorial sign for “allotment” composed of the bowl's image with its characteristic rim and a stylized human head.

    Simpler media had prepared the way for cuneiform script, a versatile means of storing information which turns up by Uruk IVa or slightly earlier. [See Cuneiform.] Thus, tablets are found incised with numerical notations that record quantities only—from Chogha Mish in Khuzistan and Jebel Aruda and Habuba Kabira (South) in Syria. [See Habuba Kabira.] In addition to the information on numbers, the sealed clay balls yielded information on the individual responsible via the seal employed. An expanding economy needed a better means of administrative control, which made the rapid disposition of a writing system desirable. [See Writing and Writing Systems.]

    Lists of words and signs mark the effort to order the universe. They are as much precedents of later Babylonian science as are the calculations of field sizes for later mathematics. The stratification of society in the Late Uruk period is illustrated both by a list of titles and professions arranged in ranking order and in pictorial scenes like the one on the cult vase from Uruk, now in Baghdad. Fragments of major works of art, including nearly life-sized statues of individuals, probably date to the Late Uruk period although they were found in later dumps only. In the shaping of these innovations within the 250–300 years of the Late Uruk period a considerable acceleration of a process can be seen that resulted in the expansion of Uruk to cover an area of at least 2.5 sq km (1.5 sq. mi.), making it the center of a settlement system of more than one hundred settlements in an area that previously had only eleven.

    The shift to a dryer climate in the fourth millennium (see above), may have lessened the amount of the flooding of the rivers and the size of the marshes. The opening of the alluvium to large-scale settlement resulted in an unprecedented population density that accelerated the process of developing organizational means to cope with the social and economic problems that ensued. Apparently, one outcome was strict hierarchization, on the level of settlements (centers; settlement systems), of economic and political administration, or on the social level.

    Local traditions had prevailed in northern Mesopotamia during the Early Uruk period, until, by Late Uruk, some settlements had adopted the Babylonian Late Uruk set of traditions, its pottery (including the ration bowls) and the use of cylinder seals. Architectural contexts are lacking because of limited excavation and insufficient evidence; yet where there has been a larger exposure at sites as in modern Syria, the architecture exactly matches Babylonian models. This adoption is part of a larger process in which Babylonian urban features spread into neighboring regions. Even Egypt produced cylinder seals and niched facades, like those found in Buto/Tell Fara'in, demonstrating a close link between Late Uruk and predynastic Egypt. Urban civilization was the culmination of a long period of development toward higher forms of social, economic and political organization. The Late Uruk period also marks the beginning of the long life of Mesopotamian civilization, characterized by splendid creations in the fields of art, literature, architecture, and the sciences.


    • Adams, Robert McC. Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago, 1981.
      Summary of archaeological surface surveys in Babylonia
    • Algaze, Guillermo. The Uruk World System. Chicago, 1993.
      Deals specifically with the Uruk period of the second half of the fourth millennium
    • Bernbeck, Reinhard. Die Auflösung der häuslichen Produktionsweise. Berlin, 1994.
      Discussion of the early pottery periods in Mesopotamia, with a special focus on changes in social and economic life
    • The Cambridge Ancient History. Vols. 1 and 3. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1970–1976. Vols. 3.1–2. 2d ed. Cambridge, 1982–1991.
      Each chapter by a leading expert
    • Ehrich, Robert W., ed. Chronologies in Old World Archaeology. 2 vols. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992.
      Amply documented chronological tables with pertinent archaeological evidence, carbon-14 tables, and bibliographies, from the Mediterranean to East Asia, 7000–1500 BCE
    • Gebel, Hans G., and Stefan Kozlowski, eds. Neolithic Chipped Stone Industries of the Fertile Crescent: Studies in Early Near Eastern Production, Subsistence, and Environment. Berlin, 1994.
      Detailed discussion of Aceramic Neolithic evidence
    • Henrickson, Elizabeth F., and Ingolf Thuesen, eds. Upon This Foundation: The ῾Ubaid Reconsidered. Copenhagen, 1989.
      Most recent and comprehensive coverage of the Ubaid phenomenon
    • Mellaart, James. The Neolithic of the Near East. London, 1975.
      Though in need of supplements, a still valuable account of the older evidence
    • Nissen, Hans J. The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000–2000 B.C. Chicago, 1988.
      Covers the Neolithic period to the Third Dynasty of Ur
    • Nissen, Hans J., et al. Archaic Bookkeeping. Chicago, 1993.
      Comprehensive discussion of the emergence of writing and the contents of early documents
    • Nützel, Werner. “The Climate Changes of Mesopotamia and Bordering Areas.” Sumer 32 (1976): 11–24.
      Summary of marine geological research in the Persian Gulf
    • Oates, Joan. Babylon. Rev. ed. London, 1986.
      Well-written account of Mesopotamian history and archaeology
    • Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London, 1994.
      Covers the period 3000–1500 BCE, mostly from a philogical perspective
    • Redman, Charles L. The Rise of Civilization: From Early Farmers to Urban Society in the Ancient Near East. San Francisco, 1978.
      Intended as a textbook for American anthropology departments, this is a splendid account of the period from an anthropologist's point of view
    • Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. New York, 1990.
      Well-written and amply illustrated coverage from the Neolithic period to Alexander
    • Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. Before Writing. 2 vols. Austin, 1992.
      Documentation of the means of information storage before writing
    • Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients. Wiesbaden, 1977–1994. Collection of 210 physical and historical maps of the Near East and Egypt, from prehistoric to modern times.
    • Ucko, Peter, and G. W. Dimbleby, eds. Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals. London, 1969.
    • Ucko, Peter, et al., eds. Man, Settlement, and Urbanism. Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

    Hans J. Nissen

    Ancient Mesopotamia

    Shortly before 3000 BCE, the first stage of urbanization was completed with the formulation of the innovations and institutions that henceforth would characterize Mesopotamian civilization. Whereas before, Babylonia and Assyria had participated in the cultural development of the larger Near East, including notably the west Iranian (Zagros) mountains, in the Uruk period, Babylonia took a markedly different turn, eventually followed by Assyria. For some centuries to come, the pace of development accelerated in Babylonia until, in the mid-second millennium BCE, a balance of power was reached again between the various forces in the Near East. As a consequence, Babylonia relinquished its role as the driving agent. By the first millennium, empires were formed that reached even beyond the Near East proper.

    While the shift to a slightly dryer climate in the fourth millennium seems to have had no consequences for northern Mesopotamia, the danger of flooding was reduced in Babylonia, in the south. In the large-scale occupation that ensued, daily life came to be described as urban. In the beginning, there was enough water alongside the fields to irrigate without canals; however, the continuing decrease in water for another millennium made it necessary to built canals to feed the areas then left dry. [See Irrigation.] However, because increasingly all water was used to irrigate, leaving no excess to wash away the natural salts of water and soil, irrigation had the effect increasing salinization of the soil. By the end of the third millennium, both water shortage and salinization, plus the population increase, had in created an economically tense situation. Ecological conditions seem to have ameliorated in the second millennium. The center of power shifted to northern Babylonia, accompanied by neglect of the hydraulic systems of the south. The result was a permanent loss of power in the south, except for some enclaves along the Euphrates River.

    Because ethnic groups in antiquity can be identified only through their language, the bearers of early cultural development in Mesopotamia and the Near East remain anonymous. Early writing does not help identifying ethnic affiliation because texts largely employ word signs that could be read in any language. Not until either grammatical elements are written pointing to a particular language, or signs are used with their phonetical value can there be certainty about the language expressed. This stage was reached in mid-third millennium BCE texts from Babylonia. They represent a language whose main element was Sumerian with an admixture of words from other languages. [See Sumerian.] Texts from Ebla from the same period are the first to make full use of the potential of employing signs with their phonetic values. [See Ebla Texts.] From this time onward, the representation of bound language enabled the composition of texts other than economic records. [See Writing and Writing Systems.]

    Later in the third millennium speakers of Semitic languages under the various designations of Akkadian, Babylonian, Amorite, Assyrian, and Aramaic dominated the scene. Speakers of other languages, such as Kassite and Hurrian, at times played a greater role in political life, but like the Old Iranian of the Achaemenids, the languages never succeded in matching the political influence of their speakers. [See Akkadian; Aramaic; Hurrian.]

    Jemdet Nasr/Early Dynastic (c. 3100–2350 BCE).

    Though additional data come from Jemdet Nasr, Nippur, and the Diyala region, Uruk remains the best source for the turn from the fourth to the third millennia. [See Jemdet Nasr; Nippur; Diyala.] There, a huge terrace is built to incorporate the former Anu Ziggurrat while in Eanna, instead of large buildings on ground level, a single platform, presumably surmounted by a temple, surrounded by auxiliary buildings, marks the center. [See Ziggurat.] This internal realignment did not affect other aspects of society, such as writing which in the style of the script and arrangement on the tablets, shows that it was responsive to the need for easier usage and fuller representation for more complex problems. [See Tablet.] Such tablets were also found in northern Babylonia at sites such as Jemdet Nasr and those in the Diyala region. These discoveries point, at least in this phase, to widespread economic and cultural uniformity in Babylonia.

    Within at most two hundred years, by Early Dynastic I, Uruk had more than doubled its size, to cover almost 6 sq km (4 sq. mi.) within the new city-wall and beyond. In general, fewer but larger settlements housed an increased population, until by the later part of the Early Dynastic period, the number of large cities had grown at the expense of rural settlements. This population shift must have enforced pressure to enhance the existing rules of administration and conflict management in order to ensure orderly everyday life. Thus, among the texts, which subsequently were no longer confined to economic data, legal procedures are found treated in a way that presupposes a long consolidation phase. According to royal inscriptions the excessive growth of cities resulted in territorial conflicts between the various city-states ruled by local dynasties. For the first time, the representation of a bound language allows Sumerian to be identified as the language of the texts.

    Fabulous wealth, including many exotic materials, is shown by the grave gifts in the royal tombs of the cemetery at Ur. [See Ur; Grave Goods.] Prosperity, however, was not confined to the ruling class, as indicated by the find in Eshnunna and Khafajeh of hundreds of stone statues buried alongside small neighborhood shrines, where they originally had been placed in supplication by donors. [See Eshnunna; Khafajeh.] Apparently, ordinary people could afford to treat themselves to statues of imported material.

    Based on a number of texts, a form of government has been suggested in which the city god was the actual ruler and the king his earthly substitute. Probably, however, this was only a local form since all evidence comes from texts from a single city (Lagash), pertaining only to a limited number of years. Yet, there certainly was more variation, both contemporaneously and before. Increasingly local rulers attempt to control larger parts of Babylonia; none of these efforts, however, survived the reigns of their initiators.

    First Empires (c. 2350–1900 BCE).

    After gaining control over all of Babylonia, Sargon, an Akkadian from preponderantly Semitic northern Babylonia, established a central state, that remained with his dynasty for several generations. Measures to enforce centrality, like monopolizing the sea trade with Oman and the Indus River valley, or keeping a standing military force at their disposal, help. Apart from being preoccupied with permanent internal rebellions, Sargon and his grandson Naram-Sin campaigned in distant lands, such as Syria and the Iranian highlands. Their fame remained vibrant into much later periods.

    The art of the period reflects a profound change in concept: unlike earlier archetypal renderings of the human form, Akkadian art individualizes figures by placing them in front of a background and adding anatomical details, allowing them natural proportions. The outstanding monument in this style is a stela commemorating Naram-Sin's victory over the mountain tribe of the Lullubi (now in the Louvre, Paris).

    The Semitic Akkadian begins to appear in official inscriptions, a political decision, not a reflection of a population shift. With the Akkadians stronger in the north and the Sumerians in the south, occasionally signs of both groups' self-awareness are found, but there is no indication of major tensions or even conflicts between them. However, both rebellious cities and attacks by mountain tribes (Guti) caused the Akkadian state to shrink in the end to the size of but one of several city-states, always threatened by the menace of a Gutian foothold.

    Ur-Nammu, founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, capitalizing on the prestige of his father, Utuhegal, as victor over the Gutians, was able to reunite Babylonia by 2100 BCE. Both he and his son Shulgi furthered the kind of organization necessary for a central state, such as creating districts with local civilian and military representatives. They returned to Sumerian as the official language, bringing about the so-called Neo-Sumerian period in the history of Mesopotamian literature. An encompassing reform in Shulgi's twenty-first regnal year ordering that almost all economic transactions had to be recorded, was intended to counter growing economic difficulties. Desiccation, salinization, and a growing population had combined to create serious supply problems. A remedy was sought in the tightening of controls to an extent that nothing would escape the official system of re-distribution. The increased need for scribes had the side effect that Ur III became one of the most literate societies in the ancient world, as demonstrated not only by the emergence of new literary genres, but by the fact that on seals, inscriptions partly take over the function of identifying the owner.

    Opposition to this omnipresent control combined with old resentments against the central state, started a rebellion in northern Babylonia. The capital was caught at its weakest point: because of its largely salinized fields, Ur depended on shiploads of grain from the north. Decisively weakened, Ur was raided by its eastern neighbor, Elam, and Ibbi-Sin, the last king, was taken prisoner. Once again, like at the end of the Akkadian period, the local element had proven strong enough to thwart a central government (Elamites).

    Assyria had always been part of a larger complex with northeastern Syria and, in the first half of the third millennium, had kept its traditional pace in spite of short-term affiliations with Babylonia. This eventually changed. Statues from the late Early Dynastic Ishtar temple at Aššur show close ties with Babylonia, which remained valid through the Akkad and Ur III periods. [See Aššur.]

    Early Second Millennium.

    Against measures to stop them, the Amorites had succeeded in invading Babylonia, to an extent that the spokesman of the anti-Ur III forces was the Amorite ruler of the Babylonian city of Isin. [See Amorites.] Isin's hope to retain central rule was soon challenged by the Amorite dynasty of Larsa, which in turn gave the Amorite dynasty of Babylon the opportunity to gain power. [See Larsa.] Hammurabi, the sixth ruler of the dynasty, finally succeeded in controlling all of Babylonia by starving Rim-Sin of Larsa. By intensifying irrigation schemes in northern Babylonia, and by founding many new settlements, the seat of power irrevocably shifted there. The conquest of Mari on the Euphrates, Eshnunna, and even Aššur, however, proved to be fateful: Hammurabi had destroyed the buffer zones facing the Kassites who were waiting to invade. [See Mari.] With the loss of these new possessions during the reigns of Hammurabi's successors in the seventeenth century BCE, Babylon became just another political entity between a dynasty of the Sealand, somewhere in southern Babylonia; Elam; the Kassite foothold-kingdom of Khana close to Mari; Aššur; and, finally, the rising power of the Hittites. [See Hittites.] The final blow came when the Hittite ruler Muršili, prolonging his raid on Halab (Aleppo), followed the Euphrates downstream until he sacked Babylon, in 1595 BCE.

    Also from this period there are many documents telling us that the despotic rule of Ur III administration had given way to a decentralized form of economic administration though from many letters it is known that politically everything was decided in Babylon; even legal cases of minor importance were brought to the attention of Hammurabi.

    Though the older order of the gods still prevailed, there was a tendency to favor the sun god Shamash and to promote the city god of Babylon, Marduk, as head of the pantheon. Particular mention should be made of the many surviving mathematics texts, which show a well-advanced mastery of that field.

    While a later king-list begins with “rulers living in tents,” unknown otherwise, sources only testify to the existence of a local power in Aššur after the beginning of the twentieth century BCE. Shortly thereafter, Assyrian merchants made Aššur an emporium from which merchandise from several directions was forwarded to other trading partners. This information comes from thousands of tablets from Anatolia, where a network of trading colonies was established. That trade was ended by events connected with the Hittite invasion by 1700 BCE; no accounts exist from Aššur. [See Anatolia; article on Ancient Anatolia.] Better coverage is available only for the reigns of Shamshi-Adad I and his son Ishme-Dagan. Of Amorite origin, they conquered the are of Aššur and expanded their territory to include Mari and the Upper Khabur area, where they resided at Shubat Enlil, modern Tell Leilan. [See Khabur; Leilan, Tell.] After their expulsion, historical information is resumed only in the fifteenth century BCE. Seen in the light of political development, this is a period when, with Babylonia deposed from the first rank, new powers formed in Syria and Elam and among the Hittites. The stage was set for the next phase of rival territorial states.

    Late Second Millennium.

    The fall of Babylon opened a period of unknown length, the so-called “dark age” for which no details are available except that a later compilation lists Kassite kings supposed to have ruled then. [See Kassites.] Only by the end of the fifteenth century BCE is information provided by the so-called Amarna letters found in pharaoh Akhenaten's new capital Akhetaten/Tell el-Amarna. [See Amarna Tablets.] A few, addressing the Kassite kings Karaindash, Kadashman-Enlil I, and Burnaburiash II, fix the regnal dates to the first half of the fourteenth century BCE.

    Best known of the Kassite kings is Kurigalzu II (1345–1324 BCE) for the building of his new capital, Dur Kurigalzu/῾Aqar Quf, north of Sippar, and for his restoration of temples at the old Sumerian centers. [See ῾Aqar Quf.] Care for tradition is also shown by the use of Sumerian in Kassite official inscriptions and by the collecting and copying of traditional literature, which survived in that canonized form into the first millennium BCE. Their own language was never written extensively and is hardly known. Kassite rule over Babylonia was never really challenged and was relatively peaceful, except for latent conflicts with Aššur. The Elamite ruler Shutruk-Nahhunte finally put an end to Kassite rule by raiding Babylonia in 1160 BCE. It is, in addition, the first certified case of looting the cultural heritage of an enemy and adorning one's own capital with the booty.

    The might of Assyria reappears when the death of the Mitannian ruler Tušratta gave Ashur-Uballit (1365–1330 BCE) the chance to consolidate the independence won by his father, Eriba-Adad. Like him his successors were constantly campaigning in the regions to the east, north, and west. This certainly reflects the necessity of protecting borders, in the absence of natural boundaries, but it also shows the need to secure additional resources for an area devoid of metal or precious stones and with a limited agricultural capacity.

    Under Shalmaneser I (1274–1245 BCE), Assyrian imperial ideology became apparent: the city god Ashur was converted into a god of war, who ordered the conquest of neighboring regions and was thought to march in front of the Assyrian army; this represents warfare as a divine decree, legitimizing the atrocities of war, so vividly described in Assyrian royal inscriptions and depicted in their palace reliefs.

    Large-scale building activities are known, especially for the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208 BCE), the first of the Assyrian rulers to build himself a new capital, Kar-Tu-kulti-Ninurta, opposite Aššur on the east bank of the Tigris River. [See Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta.] None of the various main forces of this period in the Near East—the Hittites, the Hurri-Mitanni, Aššur, Babylon, or Elam—outweighed the others. A balance of power prevailed that also prevented Assyria from becoming too powerful.

    Neo-Assyrian Empire.

    From the end of the tenth century BCE onward, Assyria became militarily active again, following a period in which it had been barely able to defend its borders. Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) resumed campaigning in the west using improved military strategies; he even collected tribute from the Phoenician cities. [See Phoenicians.] At the same time, political strategy began to change: the tendency was to turn conquered areas into permanent Assyrian provinces. Assyria's main opponents were the Aramean principalities in Syria, founded there after the fall of the Hittite Empire. [See Arameans.] Yet, area after area was added in the west to Assyrian territory until under Sargon II (721–705 BCE) the Mediterranean was reached and part of Palestine turned into the province of Samaria. Egypt was added by Esarhaddon in 671 BCE, but it was lost by 655 BCE during the reign of Ashurbanipal. Assyria's northward expansion was obstructed by the state of Urartu, which, under the impact of constant Assyrian attacks, Sardur I was able to unite in 832 BCE. [See Urartu.] Urartu even expanded westward, frustrating Assyrian ambitions. Following raids by the Cimmerians, however, Sargon was able to eliminate Urartu in 714 BCE. [See Cimmerians.] The process of rallying took longer in the eastern mountains, however. Though the lands of Parsua and the Medes are mentioned as early as the ninth century BCE it was not until much later that Medes and Persians entered the political arena. [See Medes; Persians.]

    Because the cultural superiority of the south was recognized, and many gods worshipped in Assyria had their cultic centers there, Assyrian relations with Babylonia were always exceptional. For a long while Babylonia was taboo for Assyrian military aspirations. However, after the Babylonian south fell to hostile Aramean and Chaldean tribes, Assyria's attitude changed, culminating in the sack of Babylon by Sennacherib in 688 BCE. [See Chaldeans.] The picture would, however, be incomplete without emphasizing the enormous building activities of nearly every king after Ashurnasirpal, each one erecting a splendidly decorated palace for himself. [See Palace.] Sargon even founded his own city, along with a palace, while Sennacherib enlarged the old city of Nineveh to cover 7 sq km (4 sq. mi.), watered by a canal that at one point needed an aqueduct to bridge a valley. [See Nineveh.] Apart from superb palace reliefs, certainly one of the lasting Assyrian achievements was the compilation of the library housed in the palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.

    Only two years after the first attacks, Aššur fell, in 614 BCE, to the Medes; then Nineveh fell in 612 BCE to a combined Median-Babylonian army. Harran was a last refuge until 609 BCE. Given the formerly unrivaled power of the Assyrian Empire, the end came quickly. The probable explanation is that by this time Assyria was finished economically. As it had been an expansionist empire, its economic balance could be secured only as long as it could tap new resources. When expansion was no longer possible, the system was bound to collapse. That is, when Assyrian expansion reached the Mediterranean coast, and the attempt to circumvent it by conquering Egypt proved to be too costly.

    Chaldean Empire.

    Following the texts called the “Babylonian Chronicle,” Kassite rule counts fifty-one kings before the Chaldean Nabopolassar became king of Babylon in 626 BCE, taking advantage of the turmoil following Ashurbanipal's death. Allying himself with Cyaxares of Media, they accomplished the final defeat of Assyria in little time, leaving Nabopolassar with large parts of the Assyrian heritage. His son, Nebuchadrezzar, consolidated Babylon's rule in the west using Assyrian strategies. He is best known for his deportation of the Jews following his conquest of Jerusalem in 597 BCE; his plans to conquer Egypt failed, however. [See Jerusalem.]

    Immense tributes and booty from conquests enabled Nebuchadrezzar to conduct large building programs in Babylon and other centers. His works include the holy precinct of Babylon, comprising the ziggurat (Tower of Babel), the processional way and Ishtar Gate, and his palace, which was especially famous for its Hanging Gardens regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Nebuchadrezzar also built the exceptionally high and wide city wall of Babylon.

    Following brief reigns by other family members, a former official, Nabonidus, was appointed king in 555 BCE. Barely enough is known to characterize this enigmatic figure who, out of his sixteen-year reign, spent ten years in the Arabian oasis Tayma', far from Babylon. [See Tayma'.] His favoring of the moon god Sin over Babylon's Marduk is the only piece of evidence for explaining the opposition of the priests and people of Babylon to Nabonidus. When he returned to Babylon in about 540 BCE, the Persian king Cyrus was already on his way to the city, having defeated the Medeans and the Lydians under king Croesus. [See Medes.] On 12 October 539 BCE Cyrus seized Babylon without resistance.

    To judge from the number and size of the settlements inhabited under Chaldean rule, it had been a thriving period for all of Babylonia, as well as the highlight of Babylonian culture—in literature, religion, and the sciences. Especially noteworthy are the astronomy texts (diaries) that, in addition to plotting daily observations, give information on weather and the prices of commodities.

    Achaemenids and Mesopotamia.

    Under the Achaemenids, Mesopotamia was only one district in a vast empire; yet, Babylon was highly respected and chosen to be one of the empire's capitals. Under Darius, a large palace was built on top of the ruins of Nebuchadrezzar's palace. Even after Xerxes responded to a rebellion in 482 BCE by destroying the city's walls and holy district, Babylon remained a main center.

    Cyrus's proverbial tolerance, best known for allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, left life in Babylonia largely unchanged, a policy maintained by his successors. Later years, however, witnessed the large-scale decline of Babylonia, caused by paying the enormous yearly tribute demanded by the royal administration and from the resultant neglect of the irrigation systems. Following Alexander the Great's final victory over the Persian army at Gaugamela in 331 BCE, he took residence in Babylon, ordering the temple of Marduk to be rebuilt. Plans to make Babylon the capital of his empire were thwarthed as he died on 10 June 323 BCE in the palace in Babylon that Darius had errected over the ruins of the one built by Nebuchadrezzar.


    • Adams, Robert McC. Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago, 1981.
      Summary of the archaeological surface surveys in Babylonia
    • Brinkman, John A. A Political History of Post-Kassite Babylonia, 1158–722 B.C. Rome, 1968.
    • Brinkman, John A. Materials and Studies for Kassite History, vol. 1, A Catalogue of Cuneiform Sources Pertaining to Specific Monarchs of the Kassite Dynasty. Chicago, 1976.
    • Brinkman, John A. Prelude to Empire: Babylonian Society and Politics, 747–626 B.C. Philadelphia, 1984.
      Excellent presentations of material and discussions of a neglected period
    • The Cambridge Ancient History. Vols. 1 and 3. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1970–1976. Vols. 3.1–2. 2d ed. Cambridge, 1982–1991. Each chapter by a leading expert.
    • Cooper, Jerrold S. Reconstructing History from Ancient Inscriptions: The Lagash-Umma Border Conflict. Malibu, 1983. The material for, and the problems with, reconstructing late Early Dynastic history.
    • Ehrich, Robert W., ed. Chronologies in Old World Archaeology. 2 vols. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992.
      Amply documented chronological tables with pertinent archaeological evidence, carbon-14 tables, and bibliographies, from the Mediterranean to East Asia, 7000–1500 BCE.
    • Jacobsen, Thorkild. Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture. edited by William L. Moran. Harvard Semitic Series, vol. 21. Cambridge, Mass., 1970.
      Collection of Jacobsen's writings, including his pioneering article, “Early Political Development in Mesopotamia” (1957)
    • Lamprichs, Roland. Die Westexpansion des neuassyrischen Reiches. Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1995.
      Excellent discussion of the Assyrian Empire as expansive system, based on written and pictorial accounts
    • Larsen, Mogens T. Old Assyrian Caravan Procedures. Istanbul, 1967.
      Full discussion of the trade network of the Old Assyrian merchants
    • Liverani, Mario. Prestige and Interest: International Relations in the Near East ca. 1600–1100 B.C. Padua, 1990.
      In-depth discussion of the power politics of this period
    • Liverani, Mario, ed. Akkad, the First World Empire. Padua, 1993.
      The most up-to-date accounts of the various aspects of the first central state in Mesopotamia
    • Nissen, Hans J. The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000–2000 B.C. Chicago, 1988.
      Covers the Neolithic period to the Third Dynasty of Ur
    • Oates, Joan. Babylon. Rev. ed. London, 1986.
      Well-written account of Mesopotamian history and archaeology
    • Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago, 1964.
      Ingenious essays on various aspects of Mesopotamian culture
    • Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London, 1994.
      Covers the period 3000–1500 BCE, mostly from a philological perspective
    • Redman, Charles L. The Rise of Civilization: From Early Farmers to Urban Society in the Ancient Near East. San Francisco, 1978.
      Intended as a textbook for American anthropology departments, this is a spendid account of the period from an anthropologist's point of view
    • Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. New York, 1990.
      Well-written and amply illustrated coverage from the Neolithic period to Alexander
    • Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients. Wiesbaden, 1977–1994.
      Collection of 210 physical and historical maps of the Near East and Egypt, from prehistoric to modern times

    Hans J. Nissen

    Mesopotamia from Alexander to the Rise of Islam

    The death of Darius III in 330 BCE and Alexander the Great's conquest of the Achaemenid Empire mark the beginning of the so-called late periods in Mesopotamia and the Near East. The combined Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods lasted almost a millennium, until the Arab conquest in the second quarter of the seventh century CE. These late periods are characterized by the transmission and assimilation of Hellenistic and Persian ideas, fashions, arts, and crafts into flourishing local economies and, in Mesopotamia, the continuity of the long-established indigenous cuneiform recording system as late as the first century CE. [See Cuneiform.] The spoken languages included Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic—although Parthian and Middle Persian became the official languages during the Parthian and Sasanian periods. [See Greek; Latin; Aramaic; Syriac; Mandaic.] During these two periods, there were periodic clashes between Rome and Persia, primarily over the control of Mesopotamia and its routes and resources. There is, accordingly, a greater variety and number of historical sources relating to Mesopotamia than, for instance, to many areas of highland Iran (Frye, 1984). Mesopotamia continued to exercise a crucial role in the wider Near Eastern economy throughout these late periods, owing to its rich agricultural resources and strategic position controlling routes from Syria and the eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf and western Iran.

    Alexander and the Seleucids.

    Following campaigns across the Iranian plateau as far east as Central Asia and the Indus River, Alexander returned with his army to Mesopotamia, where he selected Babylon as his capital. [See Babylon.] Alexander's earlier triumphal entry into Babylon following the battle of Gaugamela was commemorated on a cuneiform diary of astronomical and meteorological phenomena observed from 331 to 330 BCE. He ordered the restoration of the ziggurat in the central Etemenanki precinct, although this remained unfulfilled after his premature death in Babylon in June 323 BCE. [See Ziggurat.] A mound of brick rubble on part of the site known as Homera is thought to represent debris from this project, but only the brick core of the ziggurat itself survives. Nearby construction from this period includes a theater with a Greek dedicatory inscription recording “Dioscurides (built) the theater and a stage.” [See Theaters.] An adjacent peristyled building may represent a gymnasium. A third-century BCE ostracon also attests a local garrison officered by men with Greek names; other Seleucid finds from the site include stamped amphorae and terracottas (Koldewey, 1914).

    After Alexander's death, Seleucus Nicator (321–281 BCE) established himself as “Ruler of the East,” ruling over Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, and Anatolia. He ensured political legitimacy by minting coins at important Achaemenid centers, including Persepolis, as well as at new foundations. [See Persepolis.] Seleucus continued Alexander's policy of founding new cities, itself a well-developed ancient Near Eastern royal prerogative. The most important of these was Seleucia on the Tigris, situated on the eastern end of a large canal called the Nahar Malcha (“royal canal”). This canal linked the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers a short distance below the point where they enter the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia. [See Seleucia on the Tigris; Euphrates; Tigris.] Seleucia remained the eastern Seleucid capital until it was captured by the Parthians in the first century BCE. Thereafter, it continued to be occupied until the Sasanian foundation of Veh Ardashir (“New Seleucia”) drew the population away.

    The site of Seleucia was said to have a population of 600,000 (Pliny 6.30), appears to have been fortified, and was bisected by two major canals (initially misidentified as roads). The street plan was based on a grid, first revealed by aerial photographs. A depression at the eastern end of the city may represent a harbor, whereas a prominent mound called Tell ῾Umar, at the northern edge of the city, probably represents later Sasanian construction. The mound is located immediately north of a large three- or four-sided agoralike complex referred to by its Italian excavators as the Archives Building (Invernizzi, Negro Ponzi Mancini, and Valtz, 1985). This name reflects the discovery of a hoard of seal-impressed clay bullae; two additional hoards of bullae were recovered from University of Michigan excavations at Seleucia, mostly dealing with the administration of a local salt tax. Other identified public buildings include a theater and two temples. American excavations near the center of the city revealed an insula (a block of housing separated by streets) with remains of painted stuccoes and molded brick decoration (Hopkins, ed., 1972). [See Wall Paintings.] Burials were interred within intramural family-sized subterranean brick vaults, a burial method that reflects the continuation of a two-thousand-year-old mortuary tradition in Mesopotamia. [See Burial Sites; Burial Techniques.]

    Local religious cults enjoyed royal patronage under the Seleucids, with large-scale construction and renovation in the Bit-Resh and Irigal temple complexes at Uruk (now called Orchoi). [See Cult; Uruk-Warka.] Despite the predominant use of parchment, clay tablets written in cuneiform continued to be used at major religious centers in southern Mesopotamia. [See Parchment; Tablet; Writing Materials.] The tablets provide the primary dated historical sources for Seleucid history and chronology, in addition to matters relating to temple administration, particularly at Uruk (McEwan, 1981; Sherwin-White and Kuhrt, 1993). More unusual are a small number of Late Seleucid or Early Parthian tablets, known as the Graeco-Babyloniaca series. These were inscribed with Greek transcriptions of cuneiform lexical and literary texts, including incantations and a Description of Babylon (Black and Sherwin-White, 1984).

    Little is known in detail about rural settlement in Mesopotamia during this period. However, archaeological surface surveys in the northern Jezireh and excavations for the Saddam Dam Salvage Project at sites such as Tell Deir Situn (Curtis, Green, and Knight, 1987–1988) demonstrate a peak in rural settlement densities during the third-second centuries BCE, plus the appearance of new forms of bell-shaped underground silos and imported basalt grinding stones. [See Granaries and Silos.] The impact of Western styles of ceramics and, presumably, cuisine on Mesopotamia are reflected by the appearance of distinctive “fish plates” with overhanging rims, low ring bases, and a central interior depression that was used to contain dressing. Continuing cultural dichotomy between northern and southern Mesopotamia is demonstrated by the different methods of preferred ceramic surface treatment: whereas southern fish plates were either glazed or left plain, northern equivalents were typically decorated with reddish-brown or black slip. Mold-made ceramic lamps, sometimes with palmette handles, and classical styles of molded terra-cotta figurines also appear throughout Mesopotamia during this period, again suggesting a relatively high degree of hellenization (Oates and Oates, 1958; Hannestad, 1983).


    Seleucid control of Mesopotamia ended with the defeat and death of Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 BCE) and the arrival of a Parthian army commanded by Phraates II (c. 138–128 BCE). The Parthians established a garrison town and later a capital at Ctesiphon, opposite Seleucia, on the left bank of the Tigris, thus controlling a major route to western Iran via the Diyala River corridor. [See Ctesiphon.] Southern Babylonia broke away under Hyspaosines of Charax, who instigated direct commercial links with Palmyra via the Middle Euphrates corridor. [See Palmyra.] Palmyrene-style tombs on Kharg Island, in the Gulf, probably reflect these new ties. Ceramics excavated at Failaka, near the head of the Gulf, are thought to be Characenian products, although the Characenian capital of Charax Spasinu, identified with the site of Jabal Khayabir at the junction of the Karun and Tigris Rivers, remains unexcavated (Hansman, 1967). [See Failaka.]

    Characene was reduced to vassal status by Mithradates II (c. 123–87 BCE), who also seized Adiabene and established a more secure western Parthian frontier on the Euphrates after capturing the town of Dura by 113 BCE. [See Dura-Europos.] This site, also known in antiquity as Europos, provides an important corpus of Parthian architectural remains, sculpture, pottery, glass, and textiles. [See Glass.] However, its poorly excavated stratigraphy has resulted in a mixture of Seleucid and Roman material (Hopkins, 1979). Seleucus V (125 BCE) continued to campaign in Babylonia and Media but failed to regain control of those regions. Babylonia was later lost to a usurper called Gotarzes I (c. 91–80 BCE) and the Parthian Empire fell victim to internal struggles until the accession of Vologases I (c. 51–80 CE). During this brief interregnum, the kingdom of Commagene flourished in southeast Turkey before being swallowed by Rome. Rome also attempted to play an important role in Parthian politics until the Parthian general Suren crushed a Roman army commanded by Emperor Crassus at the battle of Carrhae, in southeast Turkey, in 53 BCE.

    The first century CE witnessed the emergence of a more distinctive Parthian material culture in Mesopotamia, including the replacement of Aramaic for Greek and a fire altar for the figure of an archer on the coins of Vologases I. Vologases also founded a rival city to Seleucia called Vologesocerta (Vologesias). Its location has been disputed but probably corresponds to a substantial unexcavated site called Abu Halefija, situated due southeast of Seleucia on another junction of the royal canal and the Tigris. In 115 CE, the Roman emperor Trajan succeeded in sacking Ctesiphon before reaching Charax and the head of the Gulf. However, his claims to Mesopotamia were rapidly dropped by his successor, Hadrian. Vologases and Osroes battled for control over southern Mesopotamia. A massive fortress excavated at Nippur may belong to this phase of Parthian history.

    Seleucia and Ctesiphon were later captured twice by Roman armies commanded by C. Avidius Cassius in 165 CE and Septimius Severus in 197 CE—although the American excavators of Seleucia reported few traces of destruction that could be associated with these events. Septimius Severus was also responsible for extending direct Roman military control down the Euphrates corridor and establishing a network of forts commanding routes to and from the Tigris, the Jabal Sinjar, and the Khabur basin. Several of these Severan forts have been partially excavated, including ῾Ain Sinu-Zagurae, Seh Qubba, Bijan, and Kifrin (Oates and Oates, 1959; Valtz, 1985). This military frontier remained substantially intact until Sasanian military advances during the mid-third century.

    Archaeological excavations are providing useful groups of Parthian pottery and other finds. As in Iran, there continues to be marked regional variation in ceramic assemblages from northern, central, and southern Mesopotamia: important groups have been recovered from Dura-Europos, ῾Ain Sinu, Nineveh, Seleucia, and Tell Aswad (Oates and Oates, 1959; Debevoise, 1934). [See Nineveh.] Elaborate stuccoes have been recovered from Aššur, Babylon, Seleucia, and Uruk. [See Aššur.] Columned architecture has been excavated at Babylon (Tell Amran), Nippur, and Seleucia, but a significant innovation is the large barrel-vaulted iwan architecture found at Aššur and Hatra. [See Nippur; Hatra.] Babylonian-style shrines are also attested from Khiut Rabbu'a (on the outskirts of Baghdad) and Nineveh, the latter being dedicated to Hermes. Limestone and bronze statues of Herakles and figurines of Eros have been found at several other sites, including Dura, Aššur, Hatra, Seleucia and Uruk. In addition to pottery, glassware, terra-cottas, and other objects, a limestone statue of a seated Herakles, inscribed “Diogenes made (this). Sarapiodorus son of Artemidorus (dedicated this) in fulfilment of a vow” was excavated at Nineveh (Invernizzi, 1989). A stone lintel showing a pair of sinuous-bodied griffins drinking from a vase, found near the south-east corner of this mound, closely parallels contemporary Parthian temple cornices from Hatra (Curtis, 1989, p. 60).

    There is widespread archaeological evidence for Parthian mortuary customs in Mesopotamia. The norm appears to have been intramural burial, the deceased being interred in a ceramic or wooden coffin placed in a vault or in a simple earth-cut shaft. Glazed ceramic “slipper coffins” were a particularly distinctive type that were popular at Babylon, Nippur, and Uruk during the first-second centuries CE (Curtis, 1979). However, large extramural cemeteries with a wide variety of types of burials are also known from Abu Skhair-Umm Kheshm (Negro Ponzi, 1972). Parthian grave goods from these and other sites included gold face masks, eye covers, mouth covers, headbands, funerary wreaths, jewelry, local and imported Roman glassware, bone “dolls,” painted alabaster and ceramic statuettes, and blue-, green-, or white-glazed pottery (Curtis, 1979). [See Grave Goods.] The statuettes usually belong to nude or partially clothed female figures, either reclining or standing, with one hand holding a veil, or reclining male figures holding a cup in one hand (Van Ingen, 1939; Karvonen-Kannas, 1995). Finally, a rock-cut set of caves at Al-Tar, on the edge of the western Iraqi desert, appears to have been used as a burial place for nomads living on the Arabian fringe of the Parthian state; a large number of textiles are unusually preserved at this site owing to the arid local conditions (Fujii, ed., 1976).


    The last Parthian king was Artabanus V. The end of his reign was marked by a nobles' revolt led by Ardashir I (224–240 CE), who came from the province of Fars on the Iranian plateau. In 241 Hatra was sacked and Jovian ceded five trans-Tigridian provinces under the terms of a peace treaty signed between the empires. Henceforth, northern Mesopotamia as far as the Khabur headwaters fell within the Persian Empire, the actual border running from Nisibis to Singara and Bezabde. Ardashir took the throne and adopted the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. Zoroastrianism was adopted as the state religion, although there were other important religious communities in different parts of the empire. The Byzantine emperor Zeno's expulsion of the “Edessa school” of Christian scholars, in 489, led directly to the founding of the “Persian church” across the border, with an archbishop at Ctesiphon, to urban bishoprics and rural monasteries, and to an influential school of philosophers at Nisibis (Fiey, 1965–1969). [See Monasteries.] Between the third and fifth centuries, Jews living in central Mesopotamia compiled the Babylonian Talmud, a fundamental Jewish legal code and a useful historical source for reconstructing details of Sasanian agriculture (Newman, 1932; Oppenheimer, 1983). [See Agriculture.] Various Gnostic sects are attested, including the Mesallyene, Manichaeans, and Mandaeans. Several pagan cults are also attested from Syriac sources, who accuse them of worshiping trees and snakes (Morony, 1984).

    The Sasanian Empire extended from northern Mesopotamia into the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Pakistan. Frontier zones appear to have been stiffened with Persians drawn from cities such as Isfahan and Istakhr on the Iranian plateau. [See Isfahan.] The desert borders were closely guarded through a combination of “long walls,” forts, and regular mounted patrols. Official traffic between the Persian and Byzantine empires was restricted to a single route from Nisibis to Dara (Morony, 1984).

    Heavy investment in the Mesopotamian irrigation networks was linked to large new trunk canals constructed between the Tigris and Euphrates and a massive canal network linking the Tigris and Diyala known as the Nahrawan/Katuli Kisrawi system. [See Irrigation; Diyala.] Surface surveys suggest optimum exploitation of central and southern Mesopotamia during this period (Adams, 1981). Systematic settlement programs appear to have been carried out then, for which possible archaeological evidence has been detected on the Upper Tigris. Several rural settlements have been partially excavated in northern and central Mesopotamia, including Tell Abu Sarifa (Adams, 1970). At the site of Tell Abu Shi'afeh, in the Hamrin basin, a large number of sealed clay bullae were found in a storeroom inside a small administrative building; they had originally probably been attached to parchments, which usually do not survive. [See Hamrin Dam Salvage Project; Seals; Parchment.]

    Palaces and large private houses were decorated with elaborate stuccoes, wall paintings, and occasionally mosaics; villas have been excavated at Ctesiphon and Kish (Kröger, 1982). [See Palace; Mosaics; Kish.] The major military and economic rival of Rome, and later of Byzantium, the Sasanian Empire had contacts with the Far East via overland trade through Central Asia. Far eastern silks and other goods were highly valued, and fine cotton cloth was produced at Merv and possibly in other Sasanian cities. Identifiable western imports are negligible, being limited to a handful of coins and some lamps from Nineveh and Veh Ardashir, thus giving the impression of a well-developed and self-sufficient Sasanian economy. High-quality cut glassware was manufactured in Sasanian workshops, some of which was traded as far as China, Korea, and Japan. There is evidence from excavation and survey for large-scale industrial development, including glass factories, pottery workshops, and brick industries, some of which appear to have been deliberately sited on countryside canals in order to take advantage of the improved water-borne transport network (Adams, 1981).

    Decorative silver vessels, often with partial gilding, were another characteristic Sasanian product, although no examples have yet been excavated in Mesopotamia. Sasanian pottery was mass produced, yet the forms occasionally copy metalwares. A distinctive range of decorative stamp-impressed jars was made and traded in central and northern Mesopotamia. The longest sequence of excavated Sasanian pottery comes from the city of Veh Ardashir/Coche, opposite Ctesiphon (Venco Ricciardi, 1984), but important groups of Early, Middle, and Late Sasanian pottery have also been recovered from Tell Mahuz, Kish, Telul Hamediyat, and Khirbet Deir Situn (Venco Ricciardi, 1970–1971; Moorey, 1978). These suggest a strong thread of cultural continuity from Late Parthian to post-Sasanian periods, with occasional new forms stimulated by developments in contemporary Sasanian metalwork.

    Weakened by internal strife and additional wars with Byzantium, the Sasanian Empire finally fell to repeated Muslim Arab attacks, culminating in the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century. However, the Sasanian administration served as a model for the new rulers, and Sasanian art and architecture continued to have a profound effect on Early Islamic developments.

    [See also Parthians; Sasanians; Seleucids.]


    • Adams, Robert McC. “Tell Abū Sarīfa: A Sasanian-Islamic Ceramic Sequence from South Central Iraq.” Ars Orientalis 8 (1970): 87–119.
    • Adams, Robert McC. Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago, 1981.
    • Black, Jeremy A., and Susan Sherwin-White. “A Clay Tablet with Greek Letters in the Ashmolean Museum, and the ‘Graeco-Babyloniaca’ Texts.” Iraq 46 (1984): 131–140, pl. 9.
    • Curtis, John E. “Loftus' Parthian Cemetery at Warka.” Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran 6 (1979): 309–317.
    • Curtis, John E., et al. “Preliminary Report on Excavations at Tell Deir Situn and Grai Darki.” Sumer 45 (1987–1988): 49–53.
    • Curtis, John E. Ancient Persia. London, 1989.
    • Debevoise, Neilson C. Parthian Pottery from Seleucia on the Tigris. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1934.
    • Fiey, J. M. Assyrie chretienne. 3 vols. Beirut, 1965–1969.
    • Frye, Richard N. The History of Ancient Iran. Munich, 1984.
    • Fujii, Hideo, ed. Al-Tar I: Excavations in Iraq, 1971–1974. Tokyo, 1976.
    • Hannestad, Lise. The Hellenistic Pottery from Failaka: With a Survey of Hellenistic Pottery in the Near East. Ikaros: The Hellenistic Settlements, vol. 2. Aarhus, 1983.
    • Hansman, John. “Charax and the Karkheh.” Iranica Antiqua 7 (1967): 21–58, pls. 5–8.
    • Hopkins, Clark, ed. Topography and Architecture of Seleucia on the Tigris. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1972.
    • Hopkins, Clark. The Discovery of Dura-Europos. New Haven, 1979.
    • Invernizzi, Antonio, et al. “Seleucia on the Tigris.” In The Land between Two Rivers: Twenty Years of Italian Archaeology in the Middle East. The Treasures of Mesopotamia, edited by Ezio Quarantelli, pp. 87–99. Turin, 1985.
    • Invernizzi, Antonio. “L'Heracles Epitrapezios de Ninive.” In Archaeologia Iranica et Orientalis: Miscellanea in honorem Louis Vanden Berghe, edited by Léon De Meyer and E. Haerinck, vol. 2, pp. 623–636. Ghent, 1989.
    • Karvonen-Kannas, Kerttu. The Seleucid and Parthian Terracotta Figurines from Babylon in the Iraq Museum, the British Museum, and the Louvre. Florence, 1995.
    • Koldewey, Robert. The Excavations at Babylon. London, 1914.
    • Kröger, Jens. Sasanidischer Stuckdekor. Mainz am Rhein, 1982.
    • McEwan, G. J. P. Priest and Temple in Hellenistic Babylonia. Wiesbaden, 1981.
    • Moorey, P. R. S. Kish Excavations, 1923–1933. Oxford, 1978.
    • Morony, Michael. Iraq after the Muslim Conquest. Princeton, 1984.
    • Negro Ponzi, M. M. “Glassware from Abu Skhair (Central Iraq).” Mesopotamia 7 (1972): 215–237, figs. 19–22.
    • Newman, Julius. The Agricultural Life of the Jews in Babylonia between the Years 200 CE and 500 CE. Oxford, 1932.
    • Oates, David, and Joan Oates. “Nimrud 1957: The Hellenistic Settlement.” Iraq 20 (1958): 114–157, pls. 16–30.
    • Oates, David, and Joan Oates. “Ain Sinu: A Roman Frontier Post in Northern Iraq.” Iraq 21 (1959): 207–242, pls. 52–59.
    • Oppenheimer, Aharon. Babylonia Judaica in the Talmudic Period. Wiesbaden, 1983.
    • Sherwin-White, Susan, and Amélie Kuhrt. From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire. Berkeley, 1993.
    • Valtz, Elisabetta. “Kifrin, Fortress of the Limes.” In The Land between Two Rivers: Twenty Years of Italian Archaeology in the Middle East. The Treasures of Mesopotamia, edited by Ezio Quarantelli, pp. 111–141. Turin, 1985.
    • Van Ingen, Wilhelmina. Figurines from Seleucia on the Tigris Discovered by the Expeditions Conducted by the University of Michigan with the Cooperation of the Toledo Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1927–1932. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1939.
    • Venco Ricciardi, Roberta. “Sasanian Pottery from Tell Mahuz (North Mesopotamia).” Mesopotamia 5–6 (1970–1971): 427–482, figs. 87–96.
    • Venco Ricciardi, Roberta. “Sasanian Pottery from Choche (Artisans' Quarter and Tell Baruda).” In Arabie orientale: Mésopotamie et Iran méridional, de l'Âge du Fer au début de la période islamique, edited by Rémy Boucharlat and Jean-François Salles, pp. 49–57. Paris, 1984.

    St. John Simpson

    Mesopotamia in the Islamic Period

    The Sasanian hold on Mesopotamia was broken at the battle of Qadisiyha in 637 CE, a result confirmed at Nihawand in 642. From this time onward, the Arabic term al-῾Iraq was used to refer to Mesopotamia from the Gulf to Samarra, and al-Jezireh (‘the island’) designated the region from Samarra to Mosul and Aleppo. The Islamic armies, mainly composed of tribesmen from eastern Arabia, were settled not at the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon, but in two new garrison cities (Ar, misr; pl., amsar), at Kufah, close to the pre-Islamic capital of the Lakhmids at al-Hira, on the desert bank of the lower Euphrates, and at Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf. The type of settlement, with a central mosque and governor's residence surrounded by quarters allocated to each tribal unit, seems to have drawn its inspiration from Arabian multitribal settlements, such as Medina (Yathrib). The practice of founding new garrison cities, established in Iraq, was followed in all the conquered territories except Syria. At Kufah, the mosque of the Umayyad period (661–750) survives in part, and the Umayyad governor's residence (Dar al-῾Imarah) has been excavated (Mustafa, 1956). At Old Basra, much has been excavated, but nothing published. Iraq was administered from Kufah until the middle of the Umayyad period, when, in response to the continual rebellions there, the Iraqi army was demobilized, and a Syrian garrison installed at a third new garrison city at Wasit, south of Kut, where only the mosque has been excavated. Finally Mosul was built opposite to Nineveh on the Tigris.

    These Arab-Muslim garrisons were supported by the already-existing agricultural economy of the Sasanian period, notably the well-developed irrigation network. Only a little archaeological work has been done on the Umayyad period in Iraq (e.g., Finster, 1976); not even the ceramic typology has been clearly established. What little has been accomplished tends to confirm the picture from Syria and Jordan that new development was largely on the desert edge. However, by the ῾Abbasid revolution in 750 Arab and non-Arab were increasingly integrated, partly by conversion to Islam and partly by Arab ownership of land. The rate of conversion to Islam is shown by the excavations at Ana on the Euphrates, where, in this strongly Christian town, only a small mosque was built in the Umayyad period, replaced by a large congregational mosque in the ninth century.

    Real integration of the Mesopotamian state tradition and Islam was achieved by the ῾Abbasids, who settled in Iraq, notably by the second ῾Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (754–775). A new capital was established at Baghdad in 762–766, only 30 km (18.5 mi.) from Ctesiphon, in the northern part of the alluvial plain, a region with excellent access to routes to Iran, Syria, and the Gulf. The urban type was evolved from the amsar with the addition of a fortified palace and administrative quarter, the Round City, with the military cantonments divided ethnically. Robert McC. Adams observes that the striking increase in the proportion of urban to cultivated area in the Diyala basin at this time may be understood as reflecting the metropolitan nature of the Baghdad area, which no longer depended solely on its hinterland (Adams, 1965, pp. 98–99). Although ῾Abbasid Baghdad has disappeared, the character of the architecture can be seen at the sole ῾Abbasid desert castle at Ukhaidir, west of Karbala, a plan based on iwans and apartments in the form of houses around courtyards, and more particularly at Samarra, the second ῾Abbasid capital built on steppe land 125 km (77.5 mi.) north of Baghdad by al-Mu῾tasim in 836 and abandoned after 892. Here the entire range of ῾Abbasid construction has been preserved, from palaces to small houses and industrial structures, with the exception of the markets. [See Baghdad; Samarra, article on Islamic Period.]

    The success of the ῾Abbasid caliphate led to a cultural dominance of the Iraqi style in the Islamic world, from the spiral minaret of the mosque of Ibn Ṭulun in Cairo, copying Samarra, to the luster tiles on the miḥrab (niche oriented toward Mecca) of the mosque of Kairouan (Qayrawan) in Tunisia. The islamization of the pottery typology in Syria and Jordan and possibly in Egypt, represents in fact the introduction of Iraqi types. Although glazed pottery had always been more significant in Mesopotamia, early ῾Abbasid Iraq produced first monochrome glaze over surface decorations and then the first polychrome-glazed wares about 800, stimulated probably by new types imported from China. Cobalt painting on white glaze, splash-lead glaze, and lastly luster painting were produced in southern Iraq, possibly at Basra, and spread rapidly around the Islamic world and beyond. [See Ceramics, article on Ceramics of the Islamic Period.]

    Although the wealth of the ῾Abbasid state was based on the Sasanian irrigation network, the system was developed and extended; in particular two additions were made to the Nahrawan system by Harun al-Rashid (786–809) and al-Ma'mun (813–833), although there was retrenchment of the limits of cultivation, particularly in the south of Iraq, demonstrated by the surveys of Adams (1965, 1981). However, with the slowly cumulating problems of the ninth century and the complete political collapse of the second quarter of the tenth century, a widespread abandonment of the irrigation network occurred, and no new expansion occurred before modern times. Formerly the financial base of the caliphate and its wealthiest province, Iraq became a poor relation of surrounding territories. However, more accurate pottery dating shows that Adams placed this transformation too early (Adams, 1965, p. 103); sgraffito ware, which appears in the terminal deposits of many sites, was not introduced until the first half of the tenth century. Although the tenth and eleventh centuries were certainly periods of political instability, the essential problem may have been that the quasi-feudal medieval states, which emerged at this time, were incapable of the organizational and financial effort to maintain or replace the Sasanian canals, which may have been damaged as much by natural as by human agency. For example, movements of the beds of the Tigris and Euphrates could leave whole districts without water.

    The political collapse of the ῾Abbasids installed the Iranian Shi῾i Buyids in Baghdad (945–1055) and Arab tribal principalities on the desert edge and in the Jezireh. Although little work has been done on the archaeology of this period, the regional surveys become less reliable because the areas settled are those still occupied today. The archaeological record becomes more visible again after the twelfth century. Contemporary with the medieval high culture in Syria and Iran, a fine tradition of brick architecture developed at Baghdad (al-Mustansiriyah) and Mosul. An Iraqi fine-glazed ware has been excavated at Wasit, Ana, Samarra, and elsewhere. Metalwork was made at Mosul, and miniatures painted at Baghdad and Mosul. The Mongol conquest of Iraq in 1258 marked the end of Iraqi political independence.

    [See also ῾Abbasid Caliphate; Umayyad Caliphate.]


    • Adams, Robert McC. Land behind Baghdad: A History of Settlement on the Diyala Plains. Chicago, 1965.
    • Adams, Robert McC. Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago, 1981.
    • Creswell, K. A. C. Early Muslim Architecture, vol. 2, Umayyads, Early ῾Abbasids, and Tulunids. Oxford, 1940.
    • Djait, Hichem. Al-Kufa: Naissance de la ville islamique. Paris, 1986.
    • Donner, Fred McGraw. “Tribal Settlement in Basra during the First Century AH.” In Land Tenure and Social Transformation in the Middle East, edited by Tarif Khalidi, pp. 97–120. Beirut, 1984.
    • Finster, Barbara. Sasanidische und frühislamische Ruinen im Iraq. Baghdader Mitteilungen, 8. Berlin, 1976.
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    • Kennedy, Hugh. The Early ῾Abbasid Caliphate: A Political History. London, 1981.
    • Kervran, Monik. “Les niveaux islamiques du secteur oriental du tépé de l'Apadana.” Cahiers de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Iran 7 (1977): 75–162.
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    • Lassner, Jacob. The Topography of Baghdad in the Early Middle Ages: Text and Studies. Detroit, 1970.
    • Morony, Michael. “Continuity and Change in the Administrative Geography of Late Sasanian and Early Islamic al-῾Irāq.” Iran 20 (1982): 1–49.
    • Morony, Michael. Iraq after the Muslim Conquest. Princeton, 1984.
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    • Northedge, Alastair, et al. Excavations at ῾Ana, Qal῾ a Island. Warminster, 1988.
    • Northedge, Alastair. “Archaeology and New Urban Settlement in Early Islamic Syria and Iraq.” In Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam II: Settlement Patterns in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, edited by G. R. D. King and Averil Cameron, pp. 231–265. Princeton, 1994.
    • Safar, Fuad. Wasit, the Sixth Season's Excavations (in Arabic). Cairo, 1945.
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    Directorate-General of Antiquities. Excavations at Samarra, 1936–1939. 2 vols. Baghdad, 1940.

    Alastair Northedge

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