Mesopotamia: Crash Course World History #3


Hi there. I’m John Green, you’re watching
Crash Course World History, and today we’re going to talk about “Iraq” No, you purportedly
smart globe. We’re going to talk about Mesopotamia. I love Mesopotamia because it helped create
two of my favorite things: Writing and taxes. Why do I like taxes? Because before taxes,
the only certainty was death. Mr. Green. Mr. Green, did you know that you’re
referencing Mark Twain? I’m not referencing Mark Twain, me from
the past, I’m referencing Benjamin Franklin, who was probably himself quoting the unfortunately
named playwright Christopher Bullock. Listen. You may be smart, kid, but I’ve been smart
longer. By the way, today’s illustration points out that an eye for an eye leaves the
whole world monocular. [theme music] So 5,000 years ago in the land meso, or between,
the Tigris and Euphrates potomoi, or rivers, cities started popping up much like they had
in our old friend the Indus River valley. These early Mesopotamian cities engaged in
a form of socialism, where farmers contributed their crops to public storehouses out of which
workers, like metalworkers or builders or male models or whatever—would be paid uniform
“wages” in grain. So, basically— MR GREEN MR GREEN WERE THERE REALLY MALE
MODELS? CAN YOU DO BLUE STEEL? Oh younger version of myself, how I hate you. Oh the humiliation I suffer for you
people… that was my best Blue Steel. That was as close as I can get. So anyway, if you lived in a city, you could
be something other than a shepherd, and thanks to this proto-socialism you could be reasonably
sure that you’d eat– STAN, Is there any way we could get another
globe in here? I feel like this shot is inadequately globed.
Yes, much better. You know you can tell the quality of the historian
by the number of his or her globes. But even though you could give up your flock,
a lot of people didn’t want to. One of the legacies of Mesopotamia is the
enduring conflict between country and city. You see this explored a lot in some of our
greatest art such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance,
and the showdown between Enkidu and Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is one
of the oldest known works of literature and I’m not gonna spoil it for you—
there’s a link to the poem in the video info—but suffice it to say that in the showdown
between country and city, the city wins. So what were these city states like? Well,
let’s take a look at one such city-state, Gilgamesh’s home town of Uruk, in the Thought
Bubble: Uruk was a walled city with an extensive canal system
and several monumental temples, called ziggurats. The priests of these temples initially had
all the power, because they were able to communicate directly with the gods. That was a useful talent, because Mesopotamian
gods were moody and frankly pretty mean—like, according to Gilgamesh they once got mad at
us because we were making too much noise while they were trying to sleep so they decided
to destroy all of humanity with a flood. The Tigris and Euphrates are decent as rivers
go, but Mesopotamia is no Indus Valley, with its on-schedule flooding and easy irrigation. A lot of slave labor was needed to make the
Tigris and Euphrates useful for irrigation; they’re difficult to navigate and flood
unpredictably and violently. Violent, unpredictable, and difficult to navigate: Oh, Tigris and Euphrates,
how you remind me of my college girlfriend. So I mean given that the region tends to yo-yo
between devastating flood and horrible drought, it follows that one would believe that the
gods are kind of random and capricious, and that any priests who might be able to lead rituals that
placate those gods would be very useful individuals. But about 1000 years after the first temples
we find in cities like Uruk, a rival structure begins to show up, the palace. The responsibility for the well-being and
success of the social order was shifting from gods to people, a power shift that will seesaw throughout
human history until…um, probably forever actually. But in another development we’ll see again,
these kings, who probably started out as military leaders or really rich landowners, took on
a quasi-religious role. How? Often by engaging in “sacred marriage”
— specifically skoodilypooping with the high priestess of the city’s temple. So the priests were overtaken by kings, who
soon declared themselves priests. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So how do we know
that these kings were skoodilypooping with lady priests? Because they made a skoodilypooping
tape and put it on the internet. No, because there’s a written record. Mesopotamia gave
us writing, specifically a form of writing called cuneiform, which was initially created
not to like woo lovers or whatever but to record transactions like how many bushels
of wheat were exchanged for how many goats. I’m not kidding, by the way; a lot of cuneiform
is about wheat and goats. I don’t think you can overestimate the importance
of writing but let’s just make three points here: 1. Writing and reading are things that not
everyone can do. So they create a class distinction, one that in fact survives to this day. Foraging
social orders were relatively egalitarian; but the Mesopotamians had slaves and they
played this metaphorically resonant sport that was like polo except instead of riding
on horses you rode on other people. And written language played an important role
in widening the gap between classes. 2. Once writing enters the picture, you have actual
history instead of just a lot of guesswork & archaeology. 3. Without writing, I would not have a job,
so I’d like to personally thank Mesopotamia for making it possible for me to work while
reclining in my lay-z-boy. So why did this writing happen in Mesopotamia?
Well the fertile crescent, while it is fertile, is lacking the pretty much everything else.
In order to get metal for tools or stone for sculptures or wood for burning, Mesopotamia
had to trade. This trading eventually led Mesopotamia to develop the world’s first
territorial kingdom, which will become very important and will eventually culminate in
some extraordinarily inbred Hapsburgs. So the city state period in Mesopotamia ended
around 2,000 BCE, probably because drought and a shift in the course of rivers led to
pastoral nomads coming in and conquering the environmentally weakened cities. And then
the nomads settled into cities of their own as nomads almost always will unless—wait
for it— …You are the Mongols. These new Mesopotamian city states were similar
to their predecessors in that they had temples and writing and their own self-glorifying stories
but they were different in some important ways. First, that early proto-socialism was replaced
by something that looked a lot like private enterprise, where people could produce as
much as they would like as long as they gave a cut, also known as taxes to the government.
We talk a lot of smack about taxes but it turns out they’re pretty important to creating
stable social orders. Things were also different politically because
the dudes who’d been the tribal chiefs became like full-blown kings, who tried to extend
their power outside of cities and also tried to pass on their power to their sons. The most famous of these early monarchs is
Hammurabi or as I remember him from my high school history class, “The Hammer of Abi”.
Hammurabi ruled the new kingdom of Babylon from 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE. Hammurabi’s main claim to fame is his famous
law code which established everything from like the wages of ox drivers to the fact that the punishment
for taking an eye should be having an eye taken. Hammurabi’s law code could be pretty insanely
harsh. Like if a builder builds a shoddy building and then the owner’s son dies in a collapse,
the punishment for that is the execution of the builder’s son. The kid’s like, that’s not fair! I’m
just a kid. What did I do? You should kill my dad. All of which is to say that Hammurabi’s
law code gives a new meaning to the phrase tough on crime, but it did introduce the presumption
of innocence. And in the law code Hammurabi tried to portray himself in two
roles that should sound familiar: shepherd and father. “[I am] the shepherd who brings peace. My
benevolent shade was spread over the city, I held the peoples of Sumer and Akkad safely
on my lap.” So again we see the authority for protection
of the social order shifting to men, not gods, which is important, but don’t worry, it’ll
shift back. Even though the territorial kingdoms like
Babylon were more powerful than any cities that had come before, and even though Babylon
was probably the world’s most populous city during Hammurabi’s rule, it wasn’t actually
that powerful, and keeping with the pattern it was soon taken over by the formerly-nomadic
Kassites. The thing about Territorial kingdoms is that
they relied on the poorest people to pay taxes, and provide labor and serve in the army, all
of which made you not like your king very much so if you saw any nomadic invaders coming
by you might just be like “Hey nomadic invaders! Come on in; you seem better than the last
guy.” Well, that was the case until the Assyrians
came along, anyway. The Assyrians have a deserved reputation for being the brutal bullies of
Mesopotamia. But the Assyrians did give us an early example of probably the most important
and durable form of political organization in world history, and also Star Wars history,
the Empire. The biggest problem with empires is that by definition they’re diverse and multi-ethnic,
which makes them hard to unify. So beginning around 911 BCE, the neo-Assyrian
Empire grew from its hometowns of Ashur and Nineveh to include the whole of Mesopotamia,
the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean and even, by 680 BCE, Egypt! They did
this thanks to the most brutal, terrifying and efficient army the world had ever seen.
More adjectives describing my college girlfriend. For one thing the army was a meritocracy.
Generals weren’t chosen based on who their dads were, they were chosen based on if they
were good at Generalling. Stan, is generalling a word? [pauses, two
thumbs up w answer] It is! Also, they were super mean. Like they would
deport hundreds of thousands of people to separate them from their history and their
familes and also moved skilled workers around where they were most needed.Also the neo-Assyrians
loved to find would-be rebels and lop off their appendages. Particularly their noses
for some reason. And there was your standard raping and pillaging and torture, all of which
was done in the name of Ashur, the great god of the neo-Assyrians whose divine regent was
the King. Ashur, through the King, kept the world going,
and as long as conquest continued the world would not end. But if conquest ever stopped,
the world would end and there would be rivers of blood and weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You know how apocalypses go. The Assyrians spread this world view with
propaganda like monumental architecture and readings about how awesome the king was at
public festivals, all of which were designed to inspire awe in the Empire’s subjects. Oh that reminds me, ITS TIME FOR THE OPEN
LETTER. An Open Letter to the Word Awesome: But first lets see what’s in the Secret
Compartment today. Oh, Stan is this yellow cake uranium? You never find that
in Mesopotamia… Dear Awesome, I love you. Like most contemporary
English speakers in fact, I probably love you a little too much. The thing about you, awesome, is that
awesome is just so awesomely awesome at being awesome. So we lose track of what you really
mean, awesome: You’re not just cool, you’re terrifying and wonderful. You’re knees-buckling,
chest-tightening, fearful encounters with something radically other- something that
we know could both crush and bless us. That is awe, and I apologize for having watered
you down. But seriously, you’re awesome. Best wishes,
John Green So what happened to the Assyrians? Well, first
they extended their empire beyond their roads, making administration impossible. But maybe even more importantly, when your
whole world view is based on the idea that the apocalypse will come if you ever lose
a battle, and then you lose one battle, the whole world view just blows up. That eventually
happened and in 612 BCE, the city of Nineveh was finally conquered, and the neo-Assyrian
Empire had come to its end. But the idea of Empire was just getting started.
Next week we’ll talk about mummies — oh, I have to talk about other things too? Crap,
I only want to talk about mummies. Anyway, we’ll be talking about [tapping stylus to
talking globe replying Sudan] No! Dangit! We’ll actually be talking about [taps globe
to reply Egypt] Thank you, Smart Globe. See you next week. Today’s episode of Crash Course was produced and
directed by Stan Muller. Our Script supervisor is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher Raoul Meyer with some help from myself. and our graphics team is Thought Bubble. Last week’s phrase of the week was “Better
Boyfriend.” If you want to take a guess at this week’s phrase of the week, you can
do so in Comments where you can also suggest new phrases of the week. And if you have any questions about today’s
show, leave them in Comments and our team of semi-professional quasi-historians will
endeavor to answer them. Thanks for watching and as we say in my hometown:
Don’t forget to be awesome.

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