The present-day Near East is the cradle of the world's oldest and largest historical empires. It is also an area greatly influenced by Western imperialism ideologies and upheavals since the 19th century. The Western perspective is even evident in the region's name: instead of referring to it as West Asia, we now commonly use the term "Near East." This name began to be used in geopolitical discussions in the early 1900s. Historically, the region has been referred to as al-Mashriq in Arabic, meaning "the East," in contrast to the African part of the Arab world, known as al-Maghrib, meaning "the West."
Numerous important inventions have emerged from the Near East. It is where agriculture and sedentary lifestyles, as well as cities and the earliest major empires, developed. The Near East is known for having the earliest writing systems, monetary systems, coins, and astronomy. We have come to understand these through archaeological remains and historical documents. As people moved from one area to another, ideas, knowledge, and science also spread. In the Near East, temples and royal palaces served as centers of scientific activity thousands of years before the common era. Within extensive networks of scholars, texts and knowledge crossed cultural and even political borders. Some rulers of ancient Near East actively gathered knowledge; when they conquered a new place, they ordered scientific writings from city libraries and archives to be taken to the royal palace.
Babylon had a long tradition of mathematics and astronomy research spanning thousands of years. Babylonian discoveries and research have influenced Persian, Egyptian, and Greek studies up to the present day. The division of an hour into 60 minutes and a circle into 360 degrees originated in Babylon. The Babylonian calendar was based on the movements of the moon, and the observation of celestial bodies was important for understanding the intentions of the gods as well as for timing important agricultural activities. Numerous clay tablets with precise observations of celestial events over extended periods have been found in Babylon. The world's oldest strategic board games have also been discovered in the current Near East region. Originally, these games were not just entertainment but were also used for divination and exploring the afterlife.
During the first millennium BCE, three major empires exerted their influence in the Near East: the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. These empires controlled vast territories ranging from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, and at their peak, even extending to India and the Danube. Many of their significant cities were located in the vicinity of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The palaces in their respective capitals were ruled by a tight-knit elite, whose power was considered to be ordained by the gods. However, outside the cities, among the nomadic populations of the steppes and deserts, the impact of local administrations was notable.
Neo-Assyrian Empire 911–609 BCE
The core territory of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was located around the cities of Assur, Nineveh, and the site known today as Nimrud. The kings acted as representatives of the god Assur on Earth, and sought to expand the empire in his honor. At its greatest extent, the empire stretched from Egypt to the Persian Gulf and encompassed various peoples, such as the Arameans, Urartians, Elamites, and Syrian-Luwians. However, Assyrian religion was not forcibly imposed, and the conquered nations formed a multi-lingual and multi-cultural empire.
Neo-Babylonian Empire 626–539 BCE
The kings of Babylon, together with the Medes, conquered the heartland of Assyria. Despite occasional political instability, the Neo-Babylonian Empire thrived economically as the population grew. War spoils were used for large-scale construction projects, such as the creation of irrigation canals to promote agriculture and trade. Cultivated lands were allocated to immigrants who, in turn, paid taxes and participated in military service.
Achaemenid Persian Empire 550–330 BCE
Anshan, a small kingdom in the present-day region of Iran, was conquered by King Cyrus II, who then went on to subdue the Babylonian Empire and regions including Anatolia, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. The successors of Cyrus II continued their conquests as far as the Danube. The Persian Empire was the largest of the preceding empires in the Middle East and required extensive road and postal networks for its functioning. The gardens built in cities and palaces not only pleased the eye but also spoke of the influence and vitality of their creators. The origin of the word "paradise" can be traced back to these gardens.
Babylonian mathematics was not based on counting with ten fingers, but relied on the joints of the fingers, which were counted using the thumb. Each of the four fingers has three joints, totaling twelve. If you keep track of each set of twelve using the five fingers of the other hand, the total becomes sixty. That's why this numeral system is called sexagesimal, based on the number sixty, instead of decimal. In Mesopotamia, all calculations (time, lengths, areas, volumes) were based on units divisible by sixty. This is still reflected in our modern time system, where hours are divided into two sets of twelve, which further consist of sixty minutes composed of sixty seconds each. The base-60 system is also used in calculations involving angles and coordinates.
Although the number zero was not yet in use among the Mesopotamians, their mathematics was still advanced. Proper timing of agricultural phases with the help of astronomy and the architectural calculations required for the construction of temples and palaces demanded proficiency in complex mathematical theorems. Test for yourself how counting can be done using the thumb and the joints of the fingers!
Humans have been intrigued by the question of where, why, and when writing was developed. There is no definitive answer to this. Alongside the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform writing is the world's oldest known writing system that can be deciphered. The earliest Mesopotamian clay tablets containing pictorial script date back to the Late Uruk period, around 3300 BCE. The earliest texts are administrative in nature and deal with the distribution of resources among temple personnel. However, early symbol systems are known to have existed even in the Paleolithic or early Stone Age. Later, during the Neolithic or later Stone Age, more complex symbol systems with connections to spoken language emerged. Since these languages are unknown and unreadable, they are referred to as proto-writing. Examples of such systems include the Vinča-Turdaș culture in the Danube Valley and the Jiahu culture in China, dating back to around 6600 BCE. These systems testify that the invention of writing was not a singular flash of insight in human history but rather the result of a long and intricate process.
Cuneiform script acquired its wedge-like appearance around 2600 BCE when Sumerian scribes, instead of drawing or scratching the signs, began impressing them onto clay tablets with a reed stylus (Latin: cuneus). The tip of this reed pen was cut diagonally into a triangular shape, allowing for the formation of more complex signs derived from four basic impressions. This enabled the writing of smaller-sized signs neatly and swiftly. The adoption of this new writing technique left a lasting impact on the appearance of the signs, gradually distancing them from their original pictographic form.
In cuneiform writing, signs can serve different functions: Approximately 60-100 signs can be used as syllabic signs, forming actual words and names. For example, the signs A and ŠUR4 can combine to form the name Assur. Most signs can be used as logographic signs, where a single sign or a combination of signs represents concepts such as writing, seeing, temple, water, or wisdom. Many logograms have multiple meanings and can refer to several different concepts, requiring the intended meaning to be inferred from the context. Cuneiform writing was considered a craft skill taught through apprenticeship, often within the same family. Over time, this led to the emergence of prestigious scribal families.
Cuneiform script was used to write various languages, including Sumerian, Akkadian, and Old Persian. In addition to clay tablets, texts were written on clay prisms, clay nails, and reliefs adorning palace walls.
Enheduanna, the daughter of Akkadian king Sargon, is the first known author and scribe. Enheduanna served as the high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the city of Ur, with the purpose of joining together Akkadian and Sumerian traditions in this esteemed religious and political role. She sought the same unity in her literary works, a lion's share of which was dedicated to Inanna, the Akkadian counterpart of the Sumerian goddess Ishtar. As the high priestess, Enheduanna acted as the embodiment of the goddess Ningal, the wife of Nanna.