If humor equals tragedy plus time, then few places in history were funnier than ancient Mesopotamia. Or should we say Messed-up-otamia? (Here, tragedy plus time equals dad joke.) This wasn’t just any old place, but the birthplace of civilization, situated in the Tigris and Euphrates river system where present-day Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq now reside, per History. This pivotal region gave us Gilgamesh, massive marvels of architecture, and a major legal philosophy. Ancient Mesopotamia might also give you nightmares about brutal rulers, apocalyptic disasters, and unsurvivable diseases. You know — comedy fodder.
For those of you longing to explore the dark side of early civilization, this article can help fulfill that need. Sadly, it won’t be very comedic, but at least you know the sadness will eventually be hilarious. In the meantime, while you won’t find any gut-busting punchlines, you might get hit with some facts that make your stomach feel funny. Here are some of the messed up things that took place in ancient Mesopotamia.
Ur’s death pit
If ancient Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilization, then Sumer (located in present-day Kuwait and southern Iraq) was where civilization learned to walk, write, and ride a bike. Admittedly, bikes didn’t exist yet, but according to History, the Sumerians likely invented the world’s first two-wheeled chariot, the first writing system, mass-produced bricks, the foundations of mathematics, metallurgy, and other world-changing inventions. Sumer is also where Earth’s first cities were likely built, per the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Sumer’s capital was Ur, which some believe was home to the biblical patriarch Abraham before he resettled in Canaan. It was also home to patriarchal kings who linked themselves to gods and superhuman figures like Gilgamesh and likened their subjects to children. Ur’s royalty commanded so much devotion and obedience that when monarchs died, the members of their court were forced to die, too, in what an anthropologist Dr. Janet Monge compared to "mass murder."
These royal corpses received elaborate burials, the largest example of which was the "Great Death Pit," according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Some experts have argued that the guards and servants who were killed on behalf of dead monarchs died "serenely" after drinking poison. But that still sounds awful, and more importantly, there’s evidence that these victims were stabbed in the head with a spike, which sounds the opposite of serene.
Babylon’s bloodthirsty judges and unequal justice
National Geographic called Babylon the "jewel of the ancient world." The city boasted stunning structures such as the Hanging Gardens, which were so unreal that they likely never existed. Located 60 miles south of present-day Baghdad, Babylon overtook Ur as the most powerful city in southern Mesopotamia during the second millennium B.C. It would be sought and conquered by some of history’s greatest rulers, including Alexander the Great. Babylon’s first batch of kings came from nomadic clans known as the Amorites, the greatest of which was Hammurabi.
Hammurabi has become synonymous with the expression "an eye for an eye," known more formally as "lex talionis," the law of retributive justice, according to History. That tit-for-tat philosophy was embodied in the Code of Hammurabi, the first legal code ever written. In principle it sounds simple: blind two people, and you’ll somehow have four of your eyes gouged out. In practice it was horrific. Penn State University observed that Babylonian judges "were particularly enthusiastic" about handing out severe punishments, which included hacking off hands, cutting off noses, and ripping out hearts.
Despite the "eye for an eye" mindset, justice wasn’t blind. The level of retribution an offender faced depended on the social status of the criminal. A doctor who killed a wealthy patient might have a hand chopped off, but if the deceased was a slave, the doctor only owed monetary compensation.
The poisoned fields of Mashkan-shapir
Mashkan-shapir doesn’t have the same name recognition as a historical juggernaut like Babylon. But as the New York Times detailed, this ancient Iraqi city once rivaled Babylon in importance. Lying 90 miles southeast of modern-day Baghdad, Mashkan-shapir was technically controlled by the city-state Lasara but emerged as a militarily strategic location and a bustling hub of trade of manufacturing. Its economic heyday started around 2050 BC and lasted for about three centuries. But Mashkan-shapir lost its rivalry with Babylon and became a lost city in general.
The place went out in a blaze, but not a glorious one. One of the contributors to Mashkan-shapir’s demise was the very irrigation system that helped it thrive. As outlined in The Triangle of Trade: In the Cradle of Civilization, "irrigation [had] a Catch-22 characteristic." Irrigation waters left to settle in the fields evaporated, resulting in a salty residue that poisoned plants. But attempting to drain the water would have caused erosion.
The death blow to Mashkan-shapir was arguably dealt by death itself. The city fell into Babylonian hands in the 18th century B.C. Babylonian emperor Hammurabi died in 1750, inciting insurrections throughout the region, according to UPI. "Dikes and dams were destroyed and cities, including Mashkan-shapir, were burned."
Ancient Mesopotamia’s child sacrifices and infanticide
Life in ancient Mesopotamia was cruel from cradle to grave. For babies born with deformities, the cradle and the grave were pretty much synonymous. Per the Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesopotamia, infants with missing limbs, conjoined twins, and intersex children were usually assumed to be cursed and thus thrown into the river. According to the Encyclopedia of Death and Human Experience, Babylonian babies with abnormalities "were thought to be the offspring of witches and animals and were left to die by the side of the road."
Children and teenagers also died in apparent ritual homicides. Live Science reported that in 2014, archaeologists made a macabre discovery at Basur Höyük in southeastern Turkey: a Bronze Age tomb containing the carefully buried bodies of two 12-year-olds surrounded by ornaments and what looked like eight human sacrifices. These bodies "were buried between 3100 and 2800 BC," according to the Natural History Museum. Six of the sacrifices died exceedingly young by modern standards, their ages ranging from 11- to 20-years-old. An 11th body was also found but might have been an earlier burial.
The evidence pointed to death by stabbing in at least two instances, but the precise purpose of these slayings was unclear. Dr Brenna Hassett, who led the excavation of the site, theorized that such sacrifices served as a means of population control.
The Akkadian Empire of ancient Mesopotamia died a dry death
Before the Akkadians came along, the world had no empires. Their unprecedented society would bloom in "the lush valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Syria and Iraq," per the LA Times. The Akkadian Empire enjoyed a hundred-year run, which kicked off with Sargon of Akkad around 4,300 years ago. The Ancient History Encyclopedia noted that the Akkadians created the first successful large-scale government bureaucracy. Under their rule, roads were built and Mesopotamia saw advancements in trade and irrigation. But after a century of success fate rained on their parade — or rather, it stopped raining.
According to Newsweek, the Akkadian Empire stretched across territories with different climates. Over time, Akkadia’s southern populations became reliant on agricultural activity in the north, which proved ruinous when a crippling drought hit northern farmers. Famine and fighting ensued as the desperate farmers who once fed the south headed there for help, only to be faced with fierce, violent resistance. The southerners built walls to keep out migrants from their own empire.
According to some experts, these drought-driven conflict precipitated the downfall of the Akkadians, but the theory has been met with resistance over the years. However, a 2019 study published in PNAS showed that the drought argument (ironically) holds water. The Akkadian collapse coincided with a sudden drought that lasted 290 years.
Ashurnasirpal II built a pillar of human flesh in ancient Mesopotamia
The Assyrian Empire reigned supreme in the Middle East from roughly 900 to 612 BC, per the Guardian. Assyrian kings ruled with a crimson fist, seeming to delight in wanton slaughter and torture. Among these ancient thrill killers was Ashurnasirpal II, whose grandfather, Adad-Nirari II, ushered in the resurgence of the Assyrian Empire, per the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Thanks to Adad-Nirari and his successor, Tukulti-Ninurta (Ashurnasirpal’s father), Ashurnasirpal inherited an expansive, stable empire and the means to raise a hellacious army. With that army he would unleash hell on any subjugated city that defied him.
Ashurnasirpal’s claim to infamy was making examples of would-be insurrectionists. He wrote of one quelled rebellion, "I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins." He burned, blinded, and beheaded rebels, set "maidens" ablaze and condemned opposing soldiers to die of dehydration in the desert. According to Britannica, people taken prisoner in these various conflicts were forced to resurrect the ruined city of Calah (present-day Nimrud in Iraq). That would become the site of Ashurnasirpal’s famous grand palace, and weirdly, where he founded a monkey colony, according to Live Science.
Ashurbanipal’s brother burned himself to death
Ashurbanipal was an Assyrian king who ruled like a serial killer from approximately 668 BBC until sometime between 631 and 627 BC. Reliefs from his reign contain "some of the most appalling images ever created," according to the Guardian. They capture beheadings, people being skinned alive, and prisoners being forced "to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed in the streets." Ashurbanipal’s brags made him sound like a sadistic trophy hunter who collected human pelts. Per Der Spiegel, he declared, "I will hack up the flesh [of my enemies] and then carry it with me, to show off in other countries." He also took great pride in killing lions for sport, apparently fighting them at close range to demonstrate his "superhuman virility."
Homicidal vitality wasn’t Ashurbanipal’s only superpower. He was also allegedly super literate. As the Ancient History Encyclopedia explained, the king claimed he could read Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform. He erected an impressive library, which held the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. That library would be buried under the rubble of Ashurbanipal’s palace, which burned down during the collapse of the Assyrian Empire.
That collapse began with a civil war between Ashurbanipal and his twin brother, Sin-shar-ishkun. Sin-shar-ishkun mounted a failed uprising and fled to Babylon, where Ashurbanipal laid siege for four years. Things got so dire that starving residents ate their own children. Sin-shar-ishkun, fearing the torture that awaited him, set himself on fire.
Assyrian soldiers likely suffered from PTSD
The Ancient History Encyclopedia described the Assyrian army as the most dominant fighting force of its day. They had better weapons, better battle tactics, and better engineering capabilities than their rivals. They even boasted Earth’s first professional army, established by the king Tiglath Pileser III. But the key ingredient to Assyrian military dominance was "complete ruthlessness." The army was employed to slaughter whole cities, peel the skin off of people, and dole out slow, agonizing deaths to rebels. As a result Assyrian soldiers were widely despised. They were also traumatized.
Citing research by Dr. Walid Abdul-Hamid of Queen Mary College London and Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes of Anglia Ruskin University, the BBC reported that Assyrian soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress. Hughes elaborated: "They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle — and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat."
These symptoms couldn’t have been helped by the grueling three-year regimens that Assyrian soldiers adhered to. They would spend a year on arduous building projects such as making roads and bridges, followed by a year at war and then a year with their families before the cycle started anew. So every third year they were forced to create more ghosts or become ghosts themselves.
Ancient Mesopotamia’s bride auctions and the deadly river dance
The institution of marriage has always had a strange connection to the concept of property. That’s even true of modern marriages based on love, which can mutate into legal obligations to give someone money or a house if those lovey-dovey unions end in divorce. In antiquity, husbands often owned their wives. Thus was the case in ancient Mesopotamia, where "marriage was a legal contract between the father of a girl and another man … or, more commonly, between two families, which functioned as the foundation of a community," according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
One of the ways to get hitched in Mesopotamia was a bride auction. Described by the historian Herodotus as annual village events, bride auctions involved gathering all the marriageable females in a single space, where they were surrounded by a circle of male bidders. The women deemed most beautiful would be sold first to the richest men, "while the commoners, who were not concerned about beauty, received the uglier women along with monetary compensation." After being forced into marriage, women were often forced to be faithful under penalty of death. Under the Code of Hammurabi instituted by the Babylonians, a wife who committed adultery could be thrown into the river with her paramour to drown. If a husband chose to spare his wife’s life, the male lover would be saved as well.
The blinding of Zedekiah and the Babylonian Exile
The name Nebuchadnezzar II means different things to different people. To some, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ is that nifty ship from the Matrix movies. To others, Nebuchadnezzar is the dude who created the Hanging Gardens, a marvel of engineering, not unlike that ship from the Matrix movies. And to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, he "was the greatest king of ancient Babylon." But as far as the Bible is concerned, Nebuchadnezzar was "an enemy of God."
Babylon’s greatest king attained the status of unholy scourge in the early sixth century B.C. As recounted by the Jewish Virtual Library, in 597 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, the capital of the Kingdom of Judah. From there he installed Zedekiah as Judah’s new king. According to Britannica, Zedekiah’s nine-year reign ended after he began planning an uprising, incurring Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. The Babylonian king forced Zedekiah to watch the executions of his own sons, which was one of the last things he would ever see. Afterward Zedekiah "was blinded and carried in chains to Babylon." He would die a prisoner.
His vengeance not yet complete, Nebuchadnezzar reduced Jerusalem to rubble, burned its temple. In keeping with Mesopotamian tradition, he also deported thousands of Jews to Babylon, an event dubbed the Babylonian Exile/the Babylonian Captivity. As the Jewish Virtual Library described, the exile left deep psychological scars. Jews in Babylon questioned their covenant with God and blamed "their own impurity" for their plight.
In ancient Mesopotamia, people’s illnesses were blamed on sins
Whoever said ignorance is bliss didn’t know what they were talking about. Ignorance is terrifying, especially when you’re sick. Unfortunately for ancient Mesopotamians, doctors knew next to nothing about how human bodies worked and even less about the illnesses that killed those bodies. This was partly due to "religious taboo," the Ancient History Encyclopedia explained. Religious norms prevented doctors from dissecting human corpses, which is ironic, considering that if a physician failed to cure an illness, their hand might be amputated as punishment. Docs could slice and dice dead animals, but "Mesopotamians dissected only the liver and lungs of perfectly healthy animals for divinatory purposes."
Diseases were treated as acts of divine retribution for wrongdoing. When someone fell ill, a doctor’s first course of action was to determine what sin the patient committed so that they could hopefully find a way to appease the upset deity, which was by no means guaranteed. This must have added an extra layer of horror to the already awful diseases that ravaged Mesopotamian populations. As described in Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, tuberculosis devastated the region around the second millennium BC. People were also often afflicted with the pneumonic and bubonic plagues, typhus, and smallpox. The highly populous south suffered the most. To give a sense of just how dire their plight was, the Akkadian word for epidemic translated to "certain death."
Sumerians used gods to justify slavery in ancient Mesopotamia
History is littered with examples of people using superstition and religion to lord it over other human beings. Time noted that American slaveholders tried to justify slavery by citing the Bible story about Canaan being cursed with servitude after seeing his father Noah (of Ark fame) drunk. King James I asserted that kings are divine in their own right and that its seditious to disagree with them. Go back even further and you’ll find that this tactic is as old as civilization itself.
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago observed that ancient Mesopotamia was "among the earliest civilizations" to have a god-king. The first Mesopotamian ruler to proclaim himself a god-king was Naram-Sin of Akkad, who ruled the Akkadian Empire sometime around 2300 BC. That’s extremely convenient, considering that Mesopotamians believed "human beings were created as co-laborers with the gods to maintain order and hold back chaos," according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. That mindset might also explain the Sumerians’ views on slavery.
Penn State University wrote kings deployed "bands of men out to plunder neighboring city-states in the hill country in order to acquire slaves," whose back-breaking labor formed the backbone of empire-building. Rulers relied on the rationale that the gods had effectively given them dominion over "inferior people," as demonstrated by successful conquest. The rest is history repeating itself.