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CBSE Notes | Class 11 | Social Science | History | Chapter 2 - Writing and City Life

The chapter introduces students to Mesopotamian culture, geography etc. It also enlists the development and the importance of writing. We also highlight the urbanisation process that began in southern Mesopotamia.

What is Mesopotamia?

Mesopotamia comes from the Greek words Mesos, which means middle, and potamos, which means river. The territory is located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that is now part of Iraq's Republic

Mesopotamian Civilisation

Mesopotamian civilisation is known for its wealth, city life, extensive and rich literature, as well as mathematics and astronomy. After 2000 BCE, its writing system and literature spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, northern Syria, and Turkey. 

The kingdoms of that region were writing to one another and to Egypt's Pharaoh in Mesopotamia's language and script.

Urbanised Centres

  • Sumer and Akkad were the names of the land given to the urbanised areas.

  • Babylon became a significant city after 2000 BCE, and the term Babylonia was applied to the southern region, later known as Assyria in 1100 BCE when the Assyrians established their kingdom in the north. 


  • Sumerian was the land's first known language.

  • When Akkadian speakers arrived around 2400 BCE, they gradually replaced it. This language flourished until around the time of Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE), with some regional variations. 

Aramaic began to appear around 1400 BCE. After 1000 BCE, the language, which was similar to Hebrew, became widely spoken. Still spoken in some parts of Iraq.

The Significance of Uruk & Mari

In Mesopotamia, archaeology began in the 1840s at Uruk and Mari, where there are not only statues, buildings, or ornaments, but also a large number of written documents to study Mesopotamia's history.

How did the geography of Mesopotamia influence various practices?


  • Between 7000 and 6000 BCE, agriculture began in Iraq, a land of diverse ecosystems. 

  • In the northeast, green, undulating plains give way to tree-covered mountain ranges with clear streams and wildflowers, all of which receive sufficient rainfall to grow crops.

Animal Hearding

In a stretch of upland known as steppe in the north, where sheep and goats feed on the grasses and low shrubs that grow here after the winter rains, animal herding provides a better livelihood than agriculture. 


  • The Tigris' tributaries provide access to Iran's eastern mountains. The south of the river is followed by a desert, and it is here that the first cities and written language were founded.

  • The Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which originate in the northern mountains and carry silt, could sustain cities (fine mud). When they flood or when their water is released onto the fields, fertile silt is deposited.

  • Once the Euphrates enters the desert, its water flows out in small channels. These channels flood their banks and served as irrigation canals in the past, allowing water to be released as needed into wheat, barley, pea, or lentil fields.

Way Forward

Despite a lack of adequate rainfall for crop cultivation, southern Mesopotamia's agriculture was the most productive.

Meat, milk, and wool were plentiful among Mesopotamian sheep and goats that roamed the steppe, northeastern plains, and mountain slopes.

Additionally, rivers contained fish, and date palms produced fruit during the summer.

What metals were used by the Mesopotamians?

The first cities in Mesopotamia date from around 3000 BCE, during the bronze age. Utilizing bronze necessitated the transportation of these metals over great distances.

Precision carpentry, drilling beads, carving stone seals, and cutting shells for inlaid furniture, all of these required metal tools. 

Mesopotamian weapons were also made of bronze.

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Economic Expansion

Cities and towns are not simply densely populated areas; when an economy develops in sectors other than agriculture, it becomes advantageous for people to cluster in towns. Apart from food production, urban economies include commerce, manufacturing, and services.

The city's inhabitants lost their self-sufficiency and become reliant on the products or services of other (city or village) residents.

The division of labour happened to be a mark of urban life.

  • Also, fuel, metal, various stones, wood etc. came from many different places for city manufacturers. As a result, organised commerce and storage were required. 

  • Grain and other food items are transported from the village to the city, and food supplies must be stored and distributed. 

  • In such a system, some individuals issue commands to which others must adhere, and urban economies frequently require the maintenance of written records.

Movement Of Goods Into Cities

Limited Resources

Mesopotamia had limited mineral resources. Stones for tools, seals, and jewels were scarce in the majority of the south. There was no metal available for tools, vessels, or ornaments, and the Iraqi date palm and poplar wood was unsuitable for carts, cartwheels, or boats.

Trade Across the Gulf

The ancient Mesopotamians exchanged wood, copper, tin, silver, gold, shell, and various stones with Turkey and Iran, or across the Gulf. Minerals abound in these areas, but agricultural land is scarce.

Regular exchanges were facilitated by social organisations, which facilitated the provisioning of foreign expeditions.

Transport Efficiency

Transportation efficiency was critical, for urban development 

The city economy will collapse if grain or charcoal transportation via bullock carts takes an excessive amount of time. With boats loaded with grain sacks propelled by the river's current, the river proved to be the most cost-effective mode of transportation. The animals were also transported by boat.

Goods were transported between ancient Mesopotamia's large and small settlements via canals and natural channels.

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The Development Of Writing

Clay Tablets

Around 3200 BCE, the first Mesopotamian tablets were written with pictorial signs and numbers.

Mesopotamians drew on clay tablets. An artist patted wet clay into a shape that could be held in one hand. To smooth out the rough edges, he'd use a fine-tooth comb. By pressing wedge-shaped marks onto the moistened surface with the sharp end of a reed cut obliquely

The sun would harden the clay, resulting in tablets that were nearly as durable as pottery. Because signs could not be pressed onto a tablet once it had dried, each transaction required the use of a separate written tablet.

Sumerian Script

  • The alphabet had evolved into cuneiform by 2600 BCE, and the language had become Sumerian.

  • More than just keeping records, the writing was now being used to create dictionaries, legalise land transfers, recount kings' deeds, and announce changes to the land's customary laws.

  • The Sumerian language was gradually replaced by Akkadian, the earliest known Mesopotamian language, after 2400 BCE. Over 2,000 years of Akkadian cuneiform writing were used until the first century CE.

The System Of Writing

A cuneiform sign did not represent a single consonant or vowel (like m or an in the English alphabet), but rather syllables (like -put-, -la-, or –in-).

As a result, a Mesopotamian scribe had to learn hundreds of signs, and one also had to be able to write on a wet tablet before it dried.

The writing was a skilled craft, but it was also an enormous intellectual achievement, conveying the system of sounds of a particular language in visual form.


Few Mesopotamians could read or write, so the literacy rate was low. Hundreds of signs to learn, many of the complex.

This was recorded in one of the king's boastful inscriptions if he could read! Writing, however, generally mirrored speaking.

The Uses Of Writing

A long Sumerian epic poem about Enmerkar, one of Uruk's earliest rulers, highlights the link between city life, trade, and writing.

Uruk was considered as the city par excellence. According to the epic ' the ruler, Enmerkar is linked to the organisation of Sumer's first trade.

Why was lapis Lazuli required?

Enmerkar required lapis lazuli, a gemstone and precious metals for the decoration of a city temple. He dispatched a messenger to obtain them from the chief of Aratta, a faraway land.

The messenger eventually became 'weary of mouth.' As he jumbled up all of the messages. Then, Enmerkaar scribbled the words on a clay tablet.

As there was no evidence of writing down the messages, the ruler of Aratta was amazed to see that clay tablet. It can be inferred that kingship was responsible for organising trade and writing in Mesopotamia.

The writing was also regarded as a sign of Mesopotamian urban culture's superiority.

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Urbanisation In southern Mesopotamia: Temples And Kings 

Mesopotamian Development 

The development in southern Mesopotamia began around 5000 BCE. The earliest cities emerged from some of these settlements.

These were of various kinds:

  • Cities that gradually developed around temples

  • Cities that developed as centres of trade

  • Imperial cities.

Early settlers began to build and rebuild temples at selected spots in their villages. The earliest known temple was a small shrine made of unbaked bricks.


Temples were the residences of various gods: of the Moon God of Ur, or of Inanna the Goddess of Love and War. Constructed in brick, temples became larger over time, with several rooms around open courtyards.

The temple was the house of a god with their outer walls going in and out at regular intervals, which no ordinary building ever had.

  • People brought grain, curd, and fish for the god, who was the centre of worship (the floors of some early temples had thick layers of fish bones). The god was also the theoretical owner of the local community's agricultural fields, fisheries, and herds.

  • Produce processing (such as oil pressing, grain grinding, spinning, and woollen cloth weaving) was done in the temple at one point.

  • The overseer of production at a higher level, the employer of merchants, and the keeper of written records of grain distributions and allotments, plough animals, bread, beer, and fish, among other things.

  • The temple's activities grew over time, and it eventually became the most important urban institution. However, there was another factor at play.


Agriculture was also subject to hazards, the natural outlet channels of the Euphrates would have too much water one year and flood the crops, and sometimes they would change course altogether.

Throughout Mesopotamian history, villages were periodically relocated. Those who lived upstream of a channel could divert so much water into their fields that villages downstream went dry. 

Alternatively, they may neglect to clean out the silt from their stretch of channel, obstructing water flow further down.

Conflict at Countryside

Land And Water Disputes

Land and water disputes were common in early Mesopotamia. During times of constant warfare, victorious chiefs could reward their supporters by distributing spoils and capturing defeated groups' prisoners as guards or servants.

Some victorious chiefs began to beautify the community's temples. They would send men to gather precious stones and metals for the god and community and manage the temple's wealth by tracking what came in and went out.

The Growth of Uruk

Around 3000 BCE, when Uruk grew to an enormous size of 250 hectares – twice as large as Mohenjo-Daro would be in later centuries – dozens of small villages were deserted, according to archaeological surveys.

A major population shift occurred. Uruk was among the first cities to construct a defensive wall.

The site was continuously occupied from 4200 BCE to 400 CE, and by 2800 BCE had grown to 400 hectares. People were forced to work for the temple or the ruler. 

Ration & Agricultural Tax

The agricultural tax was mandatory.

The people were forced to work and received rations in return. Hundreds of ration lists have been found, listing the grain, cloth, and oil allotted to individuals. Five years and ten hours per day, 1500 men built the temples. 

Around 3000 BCE, rulers of Uruk commanded people to fetch stones or metal ores, come and make or lay bricks for a temple, or go to a distant country to fetch suitable materials.

Way Forward

  • Bronze was used in many crafts. Because large halls' roofs could not be supported by wood, architects learned to build brick columns.

  • Hundreds of people worked to bake and paint clay cones that were pushed into temple walls to create a colourful mosaic.

  • The sculpture was superb, not in clay, but in imported stone. Then there was the potter's wheel, a technological landmark suitable for a city economy.

  • The wheel can produce dozens of identical pots at once.

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The Importance of Writing

Why is Mesopotamia considered the greatest contributor in the field of writing?

Mesopotamia's greatest contribution to the world is its scholarly tradition of timekeeping and mathematics.

Tablets with multiplication and division tables, square- and square-root tables, and tables of compound interest date from around 1800 BCE.

1 + 24/60 + 51/602 + 10/603 was given as the square root of two.

If you do the math, the answer is 1.41421296, which is only slightly different from the correct answer, 1.41421356.

Students were given problems to solve, such as calculating the volume of water in a field of area x that is covered one finger deep in water.

The Mesopotamians invented everything we take for granted today, including the division of the year into 12 months based on the moon's revolution around the earth, the month's division into four weeks, the day's division into 24 hours, and the hour's division into 60 minutes.

These time divisions were adopted by Alexander's successors and passed down to the Roman world, then to the Islamic world, and finally to mediaeval Europe.

The year, month, and day of each solar and lunar eclipse were recorded. The positions of stars and constellations in the night sky were also observed.

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