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History & Culture
Dawn of Civilization
he Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire
Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Collapse
Achaemenid Rule
In the Wake of Alexander
Parthian & Sassanian Rule
The Rise of Islam
Rediscovering the Past
Significant Sites
Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage


Before the arrival of Cyrus the Great (576- 530 BC), who occupied the Achaemenid throne in Persepolis and became the dominant power in the region, Mesopotamian civilization had seen many dynasties come and go, and had absorbed or assimilated all of them. Yet by the end of the first millennium, the once-remarkable absorptive powers of the Mesopotamian “sponge” had begun to run out.

With Cyrus at the helm, the Achaemenid Empire leveraged its rule over the Iranian Plateau as the successor state of the Median Empire to expand both east and west, from present-day Turkey, Lybia and Egypt, to the shores of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, through central Asia to-present-day Pakistan.

In Mesopotamia, Achaemenid rule was light-handed after the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, with a high degree of religious tolerance, stemming from the Persians’ Zoroastrian faith. Most local officials were kept in power, with governors called satraps installed in the various provinces.

Some Mesopotamians benefited from the extensive and expansive Achaemenid administration. For example, ancient records show that the Murashu family, a banking family at Nippur, who farmed out land awarded to Persian officials and administrators in a kind of share-cropping arrangement, made loans at 40-50 percent interest rates to those who needed to pay off debts or taxes under Achaemenid rule.

Seven years after the death of Cyrus the Great in 529 BC, his son (Cambyses II) died in battle in Eqypt. His successor Darius I assumed the Achaemenid throne in 522 BC and made Aramaic the lingua franca across the empire. As a result, one of the great unifying factors of Mesopotamian cultural tradition — the cuneiform writing system, which had endured for thousands of years — gave way to the more efficient and easy-to-use Aramaic alphabet. Aramaic, the language of the Achaemenid court, consisted of only 22 letters, versus the more than 600 symbols found in even the most basic cuneiform tablet.

With the decline of Sumerian and Akkadian languages and the rise of Aramaic as the official language of the region, the absorptive power of Mesopotamian culture, which gave birth to the very concept of civilization on this part of the planet, began to fade away. 

By the time Alexander the Great swept through this region and defeated the Achaemenid army under Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, most of the ancient practices and cultural expressions characteristic of Mesopotamia had become little more than a memory.


Cyrus cylinder, from Babylon, c. 539-530 BC