Some of the first cities developed in ancient Mesopotamia. Social life in many ways has not changed in 4,000 years. There were social classes with a few holding most of the wealth and power and most being poor. Girls played with dolls. Boys wrestled. Families play board games. Men and women tried to look their best, using perfumes and makeup. It sounds very familiar; wouldn’t you say?
Mesopotamia means the “land between two rivers,” primarily covering modern day Iraq. It is known as the “cradle of civilization” because the first cities were formed there. Cities made life more complicated, including a complex social life. Let’s travel back in time and take a look.
Cradle of Civilization
The first major civilization in Mesopotamia was established by the Sumerians in about 5000 BCE. Civilization brought with it the written word, which is the beginning of written history.
Cities also began to form, providing a much more complicated society.
Abraham, believed to be a patriarch or founder of the Jewish and Islamic people, lived in Mesopotamia about 3,000 years ago.
City life led to the development of classes of people with different jobs, expectations and rights.
Mesopotamia was not a society where each person was accepted as equal in society and under the law. However, some people were able to rise to a higher status by hard work, strategic marriages, political connections, and other ways. Sounds a bit familiar?
 Upper Class
The leader of the community was the king. He had a special connection to the gods.
Priests also were in the upper class. They not only were in charge of religious rites, but were the first healers — the first physicians and dentists. Early on, men and women were priests, but it eventually became much more a job for men.
Other wealthy and powerful positions were scribes (few people knew how to read and write) and those with various high level governmental positions.
 Middle Class
A small middle class existed. It was made up of minor governmental workers, merchants, and craft workers. They played an important role in day-to-day affairs.
One sign of class status, like today, would be the type of house one lived in. The middle and lower classes lived in mud brick (good for insulation, keeping homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter) homes with flat roofs where people would sleep during hot, long summers.
The upper classes had more elaborate homes, often two or three stories high.
 Lower Class
Lower classes were made up of such people as laborers, farmers, soldiers, and sailors.
The lower classes, the so-called “commoners,” were an important part of a thriving community. They were taxed a part of their labor and goods, for example paying with a portion of their crops. They also were occasionally required to help with public work projects and to serve in the military.
The poor might not be able to afford things like wooden beds and slept on mats on the floor.
The lower class did not have a role in the governing of society, but was the largest group. Punishment for breaking the law was also different for the lower class (See Hammurabi’s Code). If the lower class was not happy, there could be trouble.
The lowest class were slaves. Mesopotamian slaves were not of any specific race or ethnicity. People could become slaves in a variety of ways: prisoners of war, payment of debts, punishment for a crime (compare: the Thirteenth Amendment), and being kidnapped to sold into slavery.
They often had the hardest job, such as building roads and temples. There were some more educated slaves who taught or did jobs such as jewelry making and accounting. Slaves could also have special responsibilities, such as running a household. They had diverse roles.
Both men and women were slaves. Slaves sometimes were able to work for their freedom.
Only men were expected to go to school, though there was no law against women learning how to read and write. Girls stayed home and helped their mothers. Girl play, including with dolls, prepared them for their adult lives.
Shortly after puberty, a girl’s father arranged a marriage for her. Women were expected to do the household tasks such as raising children, cleaning, cooking and weaving.
Women, unlike many communities at the time, did have various rights. They were allowed to leave their houses and go to the market, own property, and divorce their husbands in cases of abuse or adultery. Some women also took part in various businesses.
Men were allowed basically a “no fault” divorce. Men alone also were allowed to have concubines (lovers) and to go to prostitutes. Prostitution was more acceptable in Mepotatamian times than it is in our society today. For instance, temple prostitutes took part in religious rites.
Toys and Games
Children had lots of toys.
They were usually carved from bone or wood, and look like many toys children play with today. Carved animals, tops, and jump ropes were most popular. Boys played with slingshots and chariots, the cars of the day. Girls played with dolls and miniatures of household objects.
Families also played board games (an ancient form of Parcheesi was very popular) as part of family fun time.
Storytelling was also very important. Mesopotamia did not have television, so “watching stories” was actually just that. Listening to a good story, while enjoying beer (very popular in Mesopotamia, even for upper classes who could afford wine), was a good way to relax.
Stories were passed down through the generations and written down by scribes. An early epic poem, one of the first stories, was about a great hero named Gilgamesh.
Art and poetry was a big part of the wealthier cities. Both often had religious themes, a means to honor the king and the gods.
Music sung and performed by drums, lyres, flutes, and harps also were popular entertainment. The historian Stephen Bertman wrote of the love of music by a queen from Abraham’s home:
So great, in fact, was a queen of Ur’s love of music, she could not bear the thought of being in the afterworld without it; so, with the help of a sleeping potion in the tomb, she took her royal musicians with her into the beyond.
The more wealthy often had slaves to serve their entertainment needs. The rich had many large feasts. But, others could enjoy music as well, even, without even having iTunes!
Sports seem to primarily have involved males, and the most popular were wrestling and boxing among the lower classes and hunting among the upper classes. They also played majore, a game similar to the sport rugby, but played with a ball made of wood.
Clothing was usually made of sheepskin or wool. Cotton came later on, around 700 BCE. Richer people were able to afford a lighter linen outfit for the hottest months.
Men either wore a kilt-like skirt (like the traditional Scottish male outfit) which reached to their ankles or a long robe (often the outfit for the older male). A soldier would wear a special uniform with hooded capes. Kings, soldiers, and sometimes scribes also wore colorful outfits.
Women wore longer robes, more colorful, with their shoulders bare. If they could afford it, the outfits were decorated with glass beads, precious stones, or fine gold or silver threads.
Both women and men wore sandals. Women often had more fancy sandals.
Men and women shared various fashion choices.
Men and women, for instance, used an early form of mascara. The “kohl” eye makeup also had practical value, including protecting eyes from dust, insects, and (even if they did not know this exactly) bacteria. They also used lipstick and blush on their face.
Perfumes were used by both sexes after bathing. The hot climate without air conditioning made this helpful. The recipes of popular perfumes were a carefully held secret.
Men and women preferred long braided hair. Some men were clean-shaven, but many had long beards. Both men and women wore jewelry, especially (for those who can afford them) rings with precious stones. Women decorated their hair with ribbons and headdresses.
Breakfast, prepared by the women (perhaps slaves for the well-off) in the household by sunrise, might be such things as a porridge flavored with onions and garlic or fruit, bread and beer.
Mesopotamians were the first to make beer and wine. Beer was a staple for all. Beer was so important that it could be used to pay a worker’s wage. A thick beer could be a basic part of a mid-day meal. People also drank wine and water.
Mesopotamia’s climate allowed for a diverse diet. Animals such as sheep, pigs, and fish. A range of fruits (apples, pears, figs, apricots and melons) and vegetables (cabbage, peas, beans and cucumbers) also completed a healthy diet. Sweet cakes were eaten for special occasions.
Most houses had wooden tables and chairs. Those with more money paid for more elaborate touches, such as metal finishing and fancy carvings. Meals would be at a table much like today.
Mesopotamia was where history began. It was the “cradle of civilization.” And, social life was in various ways much like it is now. The basics of life have not changed too much. For instance, even today, there are different classes of people. Men and women care about their appearance.
There were various differences, including a more class based society with the presence of slavery. Women had many rights, but were seen as less equal than men. But, like today, a look at social life is a helpful means to understand the times.
By Joe Cocurullo
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