Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day


  Illustrated History of the World

First Empires - ca. 7000 B.C. - 200 A.D.
First Empires

ca. 7000 B.C. - 200 A.D.

The Early States of Mesopotamia



In contrast to the desert of the Arabian Peninsula to the south and the rugged mountain ranges to the north, Mesopotamia ("land between the rivers"), situated between the Tigris and Euphrates provided fertile land for cultivation. Early inhabitants, therefore, called their home 1 Sumer ("cultivated land"). One of the earliest civilization of the Near East developed here. Complex societies flourished and were later organized into city-states like Uruk. Over time, great empires developed who managed to extend their power well beyond the two rivers.

The discovery of the treasures of ancient Ur put the Sumerians once again in a prominent position on the world stage. They had been absent for more than 4,000 years. The Sumerians were the people who transformed the vast, flat lower valley between the Tigris and Euphrates into the Fertile Crescent of the ancient world. Sparsely inhabited before the Sumerians, this area is now southern Iraq. In the fourth millennium все, the Sumerians established the first great urban communities and developed the earliest known writing system.

1 The bust of a Sumerian lady of the court at Ur wearing headgear and other jewelry, 300 B.C.


The City-States of Sumer

The advancement of hydraulic engineering led to the formation of the city-states, which were distinguished by functioning administrations.

The first communal settlements grew along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in response to the development of organized irrigation systems. These settlements merged about 3000 B.C. to form irrigation and flood control provinces. Around 2800-2400 B.C.— the Early Dynastic period—centrally controlled city-states arose and competed with each other for political and economic dominance of the region.
The most significant of these were Ur, Uruk, Umma, Lagash, Adab, Nippur, and Kish—whose rulers are known to us through the surviving "kings lists."

Tombs with valuable 3, 6 burial objects testify to the high standard of living of the upper social level of the city-states, as well as the 4 hierarchical nature of these societies, which were dominated by princes, kings, priests, and state officials.

3  A Sumerian helmet made of gold from an Ur
king's tomb (third century B.C.)

6 "Tree of Life" sculpture, third с. в.с.

4 A mosaic from Ur, depicting groups of differing social status within the hierarchy

In addition to agriculture as the main economic engine, the mass production of pottery is apparent in archaeological finds. Minerals and raw material initially served as payment for the labor. Later, 2 cylinder seals provided a useful instrument for commercial control and the verification of the delivery of goods. Seals and counter markers served a well-organized food storage system and also property allocation by officials.

2 Cylinder seal, second century B.C., and modern molding

Some cities had seaports that later filled with sand as the water level dropped in the Persian Gulf. Through sea and land trade routes, the Sumerian culture expanded into northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria.




In 1977 adventurer Thor Heyerdahl proved that the ancient Sumerians were capable of constructing seaworthy ships by sailingareed boat replicated from the specifications of an original Sumerian boat.




Ancient Sumer was not a unified nation; rather, it was made up of a dozen or so independent city-states. Each was thought to be under the protection of a different Mesopotamian deity. The Sumerian rulers were the gods' representatives on earth and the stewards of their earthly treasure. The rulers and priests directed all communal activities, including canal construction, crop collection, and food distribution. The development of agriculture to the point where only a portion of the population had to produce food made possible such an organization of the labor force. Some members of the community could thus specialize in other activities, including manufacturing, trade, and administration. Such labor specialization is the hallmark of the first complex urban societies. In the city-states of ancient Sumer, activities that once had been individually initiated became institutionalized for the first time. The community, rather than the family, assumed functions such as defense against enemies and against the caprices of nature. Whether ruled by a single person or a council chosen from among the leading families, these communities gained permanent identities as discrete cities. The city-state was one of the great Sumerian inventions.

The Sumerian city plan reflected the central role of the local god in the daily life of the city-state's occupants. The god's temple formed the city's monumental nucleus. It was not only the focus of local religious practice but also an administrative and economic center. It was indeed the domain of the god, whom the Sumerians regarded as a great and rich holder of lands and herds, as well as the protector of the city-state. The vast temple complex, a kind of city within a city, thus had both religious and secular functions. A temple staff of priests and scribes carried on official business, looking after both the god's and the ruler's possessions.

The White Temple at Uruk towers over all other vestiges of that ancient city, but a fragmentary white marble female head is also an extraordinary achievement at so early a date. The lustrous hard stone had to be imported at great cost. The head is actually only a face with a flat back. It has drilled holes for attachment to a head and body, possibly of wood. Although found in the sacred precinct of the goddess Inanna, the subject is unknown. Many have suggested that the face is an image of Inanna, but a mortal woman, perhaps a priestess, may be portrayed.

Often the present condition of an artwork can be very misleading, and the Uruk head is a dramatic example. Its original appearance would have been much more vibrant than the pure white fragment archaeologists uncovered. Colored shell or stone filled the deep recesses for the eyebrows and the large eyes. The deep groove at the top of the head anchored a wig, probably made of gold leaf. The hair strands engraved in the metal fell in waves over the forehead and sides of the face. The bright coloration of the eyes, brows, and hair likely overshadowed the soft modeling of the cheeks and mouth. The missing body was probably clothed in expensive fabrics and bedecked with jewels.


The Invention of Writing

he oldest written documents are Mesopotamian records of administrative acts and commercial transactions. At first, around 3400-3200 все, the Sumerians (in Iraq) and their contemporaries, the Elamites (in Iran), made inventories of cattle, food, and other items by scratching pictographs (simplified pictures standing for words) into soft clay with a sharp tool, or stylus. The clay plaques hardened into breakable, yet nearly indestructible, tablets. This accounts for the existence today of thousands of documents dating back nearly five millennia. The Sumerians wrote their pictorial signs from the top down and arranged them in boxes they read from right to left. By 3000-2900 все, they had further simplified the pictographic signs by reducing them to a group of wedge-shaped (cuneiform) signs. The development of cuneiform marked the beginning of writing, as historians strictly define it. By 2600, cuneiform texts were sophisticated enough to express complex grammatical constructions.

The Sumerian and Elamite languages do not belong to any of the major linguistic groups of antiquity and are unrelated to each other, yet historians do not doubt that these early peoples were a major force in the spread of civilization. Thousands of cuneiform tablets, for example, testify to the far-flung network of Sumerian contacts reaching from southern Mesopotamia eastward to the Iranian plateau, northward to Assyria, and westward to Syria. Trade was essential for the Sumerians, because despite their land's fertility, it was poor in such vital natural resources as metal, stone, and wood.

The Sumerians also produced great literature. Their most famous work, known from fragmentary cuneiform texts, is the late-third-millennium Epic of Gilgamesh, which antedates Homer's Iliad and Odyssey by some 1,500 years. It recounts the heroic story of Gilgamesh, legendary king of Uruk and slayer of the monster Huwawa. Translations of the Sumerian epic into several other ancient Near Eastern languages attest to the fame of the original version.




One of the most powerful Sumerian city-states was Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.

From its founding around 4000 B.C. until about 2000 B.C. 7 Uruk was an important trading center. In the center of the city stood many great public buildings that probably served as meeting places and religious buildings.

7 A vase from Uruk decorated wlth animal depictions, ca. 3000 в.с.

Later these were built upon to create the chief shrine Eanna for the city's goddess 8 Inanna.
The oldest known written tablets, presumably concerned with commerce management, are from this period. At the time there were approximately 20,000 people living in Uruk and a further 15,000-20,000 in the immediate area.

8 Gilgamesh in battle with two bulls and a lion; modern molding of a cylinder seal from the third century B.C.

Depictions on cylinder seals testify to armed conflicts with neighboring peoples and the punishment of prisoners. The city was completely reconstructed between 3100 and 2900 B.C. A terrace was raised in the city center, upon which the main temple was built. The terraced temple became the predecessor of later temple towers of the Babylonians, the ziggurats. Writing also evolved, with pictographs transforming into cuneiform.

The outstanding preserved example of early Sumerian temple architecture is the 5,000-year-old White Temple at Uruk, the home of Gilgamesh. Usually only the foundations of early Mesopotamian temples can still be recognized. The White Temple is a rare exception. Sumerian builders did not have access to stone quarries and instead formed mud bricks for the superstructures of their temples and other buildings. Almost all these structures have eroded over the course of time. The fragile nature of the building materials did not, however, prevent the Sumerians from erecting towering works, such as the Uruk temple, several centuries before the Egyptians built their stone pyramids. This says a great deal about the Sumerians' desire to provide monumental settings for the worship of their deities.

Enough of the Uruk complex remains to permit a fairly reliable reconstruction drawing. The temple (whose whitewashed walls lend it its modern nickname) stands on top of a high platform, or ziggnrat, 40 feet above street level in the city center. A stairway on the far side, not shown, leads to the top but does not end in front of any of the temple doorways, necessitating two or three angular changes in direction. This "bent-axis" approach is the standard arrangement for Sumerian temples, a striking contrast to the linear approach the Egyptians preferred for their temples and tombs.

Like other Sumerian temples, the corners of the White Temple are oriented to the cardinal points of the compass. The building, probably dedicated to Anu, the sky god, is of modest proportions (61 X 16 feet). By design, it did not accommodate large throngs of worshipers but only a select few, the priests and perhaps the leading community members. The temple has several chambers. The central hall, or cella, was set aside for the divinity and housed a stepped altar. The Sumerians referred to their temples as "waiting rooms," a reflection of their belief that the deity would descend from the heavens to appear before the priests in the cella. How or if the Uruk temple was roofed is uncertain.

The Sumerian idea that the gods reside above the world of humans is central to most of the world's religions. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew God, and the Greeks placed the home of their gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. The elevated placement of Mesopotamian temples on giant platforms reaching toward the sky is consistent with this widespread religious concept. Eroded ziggurats still dominate most of the ruined cities of Sumer. The loftiness of the great temple platforms made a profound impression on the peoples of the ancient Near East. The tallest ziggurat of all, at Babylon, was about 270 feet high. Known to the Hebrews as the Tower of Babel, it became the centerpiece of a biblical story about the insolent pride of humans.

Uruk is thought to have been the home of the 5, 9 legendary ruler Gilgamesh, the hero of the most important ancient Sumerian epic.

Gilgamesh is said to have ruled sometime between 2600 and 2700 B.C. and is counted among the kings of the first dynasty of Uruk (ca. 2700-2350 B.C.). Besides numerous heroic deeds, Gilgamesh is credited with the construction of Uruk's six-mile-long (9,7 km) protective city wall. The epic, handed down in a number of ancient Near Eastern languages and in various versions from the third to the first millennia в.с, in some passages shows parallels to the Old Testament story of Noah and also to the saga of Hercules.

9 Facade of a temple of Inanna in Uruk, 15th/14th century B.C.

5 Statue of Gilgamesh with a lion,
from an Assyrian palace, eighth century B.C.


The Construction of the City Wall by


"[The hero Gilgamesh] built the wall of Uruk-Haven ...
Look at its wall, which gleams like [copper?]...
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not [even the core of] the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick?"

(Gilgamesh epic, first tablet)

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian

see also:

Gilgamesh Epic


Lagash and Umma

The history of the Sumerian city-state Lagash in southern Mesopotamia, which competed fiercely with neighboring Umma, is well documented. The rivalry between the city's princes and the priesthood are typical of the political conditions in the Sumerian city-states. Under the reign of Gudea the city enjoyed a period of great prosperity.

King Eannatum of the first dynasty of Lagash (ca. 2494-2342 B.C.) succeeded in temporarily subjugating Umma. The famous 1, 5 "Vulture Stele" depicts the vanquished enemy in a net cast by the city god Ningirsu. Internally Eannatum fought the influence of the priest caste, which won the battle by helping the usurper Lugalanda to power. Social tensions lay behind the ascension to the throne of Urukagina, who promptly canceled the debts of the poorer classes and cut back the income of the priests. With the help of these disgruntled clergymen, Lugalzaggesi of Umma then conquered Lagash somewhere around 2250 B.C .

He also controlled the cities of Urukand Adab, and thus declared himself "king of Uruk and of the Land of Sumer." His plans to unite Mesopotamia brought Lugalzaggesi into conflict with the powertul ruler of Akkad, Sargon I, who defeated him before going on to realize the project himself.

Lagash experienced its final period of prosperity during the 20 year reign of 3 Gudea.
His rule is associated less with military adventures than with the building of systematic irrigation works and temples of worship.

1 Vultures pick at the bodies of vanquished enemies;
detail from the "Vulture Stele," ca. 2454 B.C.


5 King Eannatum of Lagash leads his army in the battle against the city Umma,
fallen enemies lying on the floor; extract from the "Vulture Stele," ca. 2454 B.C.

3 Statue of Gudea of Lagash, 2141-2122 B.C.



Proto-Elam and Elam

2 Valley in Lunstan, southwest Iran

Concurrently with Sumer, another early high culture emerged
in the 2 southwest of present-day Iran.
The Elam kingdom produced the oldest known inter-state treaty.



This little-known culture, identifiable only by a form of script used around 2900 B.C., is referred to as Proto-Elam. Out of it rose the later kingdom of Elam, perhaps as early ac. 2700 b.c. Around 2300 B.C. the Akkadians occupied the empire until Elam regained its independence in 2240 through an inter-state treaty—the oldest surviving in the world. Several royal dynasties followed, with a supreme monarch—resident in the capital Susa—ruling over several vassal kings.

Women generally played a larger role in Elamitic society than in neighboring Sumer and Akkad. The wife, and often the sister, of the king was a prominent figure. Upon his death, she married his successor. Occasionally successors in the female line predominated.

4 Women spinning, eighth с. в.с.

In the history of Elam, periods of rule by foreign powers alternated with times of Elamite expansion. Around 2004 B.C. the Elamites destroyed Ur. Six hundred years later Elam came under the rule of the old Babylonian Empire.

Then in 1155 B.C., the Elamites expelled the Kassites from Babylon, ruling until 1100 when Nebuchadressar I of the second dynasty of Isin pushed the Elamites back out of Babylon and pillaged their capital 6 Susa.

Only in 646 B.C. was Elam finally destroyed by the Assyrians. The area then fell to the Persians and became the central province of the vast empire forged by the powerful Achaemenid dynasty.

6 Reconstructed fortification of Susa, Iran



The Kingdom of Akkad and the Third Dynasty of Ur

The Kingdom of Akkad (ca. 2334-2154 B.C.) was the first large territorial state in Mesopotamia.

7 Sargon of Agade founded the Kingdom of Akkad in 2334 в.c. Не also founded the new capital city of Akkad, which gave the kingdom its name. Sargon, which comes from the Akkadian title of Sharrukenu ("legitimate king"), conquered Kish.

He broke Uruk's domination of Sumer and extended his kingdom to the Mediterranean, Lebanon, and Аsiа Minor in numerous 8, 9 military campaigns, ruling over many city-states and territories.

With his royal title of "King of the Four Corners of Earth," Sargon made perhaps the first claim to world dominance. Domestically, he trained administrators— the "sons of the palace"—and was the first monarch to maintain a standing army. The decline of the Akkadian kingdom began around 2250 B.C. The Guti, a mountain people from Iran, then gained dominance over Mesopotamia between 2230 and 2130. Subsequently, the kings Ur-Nammu and Shulgi of the third dynasty of Ur (ca. 2112-2004 B.C.) ruled the most important cities of Sumer and a large part of the Kingdom of Akkad, pronouncing themselves the "Kings of Sumerand Akkad."

The third dynasty of Ur strictly supervised the economy. Huge numbers of laborers and craftsmen were employed in the service of the state in the "grand households," which included the great temples and palaces. The chancelleries produced documentation which bears witness to complex administrative processes. A standardized form was established for the high temples—multi-storied structures with a central flight of steps—called ziggurats. This form was used for the religious edifices erected by and for the kings. The dynasty ended in 2004 B.C. with the destruction of Urby the invading Elamites. However, the administrative structures survived and were adopted and integrated by the new rulers who established themselves in the dynasty's place.

7 Bronze head of an Akkadian ruler, presumably Sargon of Akkad, 2334-2279 B.C.
8 Stele celebrating the victory of an Akkadian king, ca. 2200 B.C.
9 Procession of Akkadian prisoners, ca. 2340-2320 B.C.


Sargon of Akkad

"To Sargon, the king of the land, Enlilgave no enemy from the upper
to the lower sea.... Sargon, the king of the land, restored Kish, their
city he gave them as their abode... to Sargon, the king, Enlil allowed
no enemy to form. 5400 warriors daily eat their meal before him."

(Text from the Tablet of the Sargon)