Ancient Mesopotamian Economy

Thousands of years ago, the fertile low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris were the home land of a rich and complex society. Mesopotamia, in its Greek terms, means “land between the rivers”. The name is used because the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Iraq and part of Syria. In the third millennium, the south of modern Bagdad, the alluvial plains of the rivers was called the land of Sumer and Akkad. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad where the Euphrates and Tigris are close to each other. In the second millennium, both regions together are called Babylonia, a mostly flat country. The territory in the north (between the rivers Tigris and the Great Zab) is called Assyria (Kreis, 2006). The alluvial plains of the Mesopotamia were very suitable for high food production. It was even called as the “fertile crescent” for its fertile lands. Its economy was basically dependent on agriculture (Heise, 1996). In this paper, the economy of ancient Mesopotamia will be discussed briefly while giving emphasis on the time period between 1900 B.C and 900 B.C.

Beginnings of the Mesopotamian Civilization

Between 9000 B.C. and the beginning of the Christian era, western civilization came into being in what historians call Ancient Western Asia which comprises of modern-day Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, southwestern Russia, Iraq and Iran. The earliest permanent settlements were found to be occurring between 9000-6000 B.C. Also, this time was accompanied by the domestication of plants and animals. Between 4000-3000 B.C., population growth pressured the formation of the first cities (Kreis, 2006).


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Around 10,000 B.C., there were many hunter-gatherers “living along the coastal plains of modern Syria and Israel and in the valleys and hills near the Zagros Mountains between Iran and Iraq” (Kreis, 2006) started to devise special strategies that directed the way to a transformation in the human community. “Rather than constantly traveling in search of food, people resided in one region and exploited the seasonal sources of food, including fish, grain, fruits and game.” (Kreis, 2006). One example is the community of Jericho, where people built and rebuilt their mud brick and stone huts rather than moving on different locations as had their ancestors. In general, these communities began to focus on seasonal food sources and so were less likely to leave in search of new sources (Kreis, 2006). This transformation led to a variety of problems that resulted in different theories. One problem would be that if the people concentrated in a relatively small number of plants or animals; it could spell disaster during times of famine. Some scholars have argued that the transformation of agricultural development was greatly attributed to the increasing population and the developing political hierarchy. In settled communities, infanticide decreased and life expectancy rose (Kreis, 2006). Kreis explained that infanticide decreased because the settled community became less demanding. Furthermore, he said that the “children can now be used in rudimentary agricultural tasks” (2006). The growing population pressured the local food industry to produce more crops. Eventually, more coordination and organization was promoted by the gathering activities that led to the development of political leadership.

Mesopotamian Agricultural Revolution

The settlements were the one responsible for the encouragements in the agriculture of the land. The growth of crops such as barley and lentils were promoted; also, domestication of farm animals such as pigs, goats, and sheep was developed. This ability to domesticate farm animals and to cultivate grains and vegetables promoted the change in human communities “from passive harvesters of nature to active partners with it.”(Kreis, 2006) Moreover, the ability of the people to expand their food production paved the way for the expansion of permanent settlements which are of greater size and complexity.

The economy was anchored in agriculture, mainly the cultivation of barley. Barley was used as means of payment for wages in kind and daily rations. Barley was also the basis for the natural beverage: beer. There are other agricultural products that include sesame seed oil, linseed oil, flax, wheat and horticultural products. Sheep and goats are abundant during out of season periods (Heise, 1996). Wool production was large and converted to an assortment of textile fabrics.

Creation of Social Hierarchies

While the agricultural development was unstoppable, division of labor was promoted into occupational categories. There existed a wide range of occupational categories that formed the “backbone of a sophisticated urban economy and society: kings, priests, landowners, architects, astronomers, scribes, long-distance traders, local merchants, artisans, cooks, farmers, soldiers, laborers, and slaves.” (Spodek, 2005).

Trade, Economy, and Artisans in Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia was not an abundant land to begin with. There were few natural resources, that is why people who lived there need to trade with their neighboring lands to acquire the resources that they need to live (Spodek, 2005). Examples would be the trade of grain, oils and textiles from Babylonia to other countries in exchange for timber, wine, precious metals and stones. Riverboats were used to transport goods for trade. At that time, money was not usually used to pay for goods that were traded. A barter system was formulated in which goods were directly exchanged for other goods. If money had to be used, it was usually in the form of small silver disks (Trade, Economy, and Artisans in Ancient Mesopotamia, n.d.).

As the communities grow a systematic form of trade, the economy eventually grew. It was such that “Sumerians had the privilege of a free economy, and strict records were kept of all business transactions. These documents were the first written artifacts recovered by archaeologists and helped contribute to Sumer also being known as “the birthplace of economics”.” (Trade, Economy, and Artisans in Ancient Mesopotamia, n.d.)

Temples were the key economic recruiter that time. It was the main location for the most commercial activity. In addition, temples were the chief employer. Artisans, scribes, priests, local administrators, and teachers all were employed by the temple. They gained their economic strength based on their vast real estate holdings. They were the largest single land owner in the city-state. “The ownership of land was so valued that even kings had to buy land. People of all classes had the opportunity to own land, however. Many of the people who were considered poor by Sumerian standards owned houses, gardens, and fishery ponds.” (Trade, Economy, and Artisans in Ancient Mesopotamia, n.d.)

Craftsmanship is a very important aspect of the Mesopotamian economy. The most important craftsmen were the copper and bronze workers. “These artisans were responsible for making most of the tools that farmers, shepherds, soldiers, and other workers needed for survival. Hoes, axes, and plows, as well as knives, daggers, and spears were made from copper and bronze which were plentiful and easy to work with.” (Trade, Economy, and Artisans in Ancient Mesopotamia, n.d.)

Carpentry was also extremely important. Wood was imported to make furniture, carts, boats, and chariots. Hides from different animals were used by leather workers to make fashion harnesses, saddles, shoes, and water bags. “Basket weavers were also an important part of Sumerian life. Baskets were used by Sumerians for many purposes including carrying food and goods from one place to another, storing items in houses, and for holding infants as they slept.” (Trade, Economy, and Artisans in Ancient Mesopotamia, n.d.). There was a time when the land lack stone. This signaled the end of Stone Age. Timber and stone are needed in the construction of buildings. Metals also were increasingly important. It is a fact that good quality timber can only be found in dense forests in the far away land of Lebanon or somewhere near the mountains of Iran (Heise, 1996).

There are two basic methods that are used by the people to obtain the required fundamental materials that they need. These are through war or through trade. Most of the time, these fundamental materials are often demanded as a tribute or as loot after a military expedition (Heise, 1996). Military expeditions were performed after the harvest period – often on a yearly basis, in particular in the first millennium – when farmers are available as soldiers. Minerals such as copper, tin, silver, etc. were only available in remote parts of the area, “for which a military action would take too long, would be too vulnerable and probably would be too expensive. Then trade is the only way” (Heise, 1996). In texts from the 19th century BCE, it appears that trade was performed in a professional, capitalistic way, barter by boat over the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf and with regular caravans by donkeys to Anatolia (modern Turkey) (Heise, 1996).

Apart from cereals, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia themselves had very little to offer. Cereals were indeed exported. These were too bulky for donkey transport over long distances. Imported material from elsewhere was again exported. Tin was exported to Anatolia; a major center of metal industry, where in extensive forests wood was abundantly available to fuel the furnaces. Other products that were sold were dates, sesame oil and in particular craft materials. Babylonia had an extensive wool industry. On the other hand, silver and gold were imported from Anatolia (Heise, 1996).


Mesopotamia is a land of few natural resources. It is very fortunate that the Mesopotamian people learned to make the most out of what they have and cultivate them. Thus, the formation of successful trading and organization was deployed. The economy of Mesopotamia is based on agriculture. Plantation of a few crops and domestication of some farm animals were the most effective way of survival. In the later years, Craftsmanship and carpentry went to a booming industry. The trade and economy of Mesopotamia is a very successful, if not the first successful economy in the world.

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