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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

Like many Mesopotamian dynasties before and since, the Seleucid crumbled in the face of a challenge from the east. This was the Parthian kingdom (circa 100 BC - 224 AD), founded in Turkestan, and including the area southeast of the Caspian Sea.

Parthia began to extend westward, threatening the Seleucids. The struggle over Mesopotamia intensified between 161-140 BC, as Mithradates I conquered the entire Iranian plateau, and by 126 BC, Mesopotamia was in Parthian hands except for a brief period of Roman rule under Emperor Trajan, circa 117 AD, during the lengthy wars between Rome and Parthia.

By the time Parthian rule was secure, Babylon was a virtual ruin. But the Parthians did restore the city, and traces of a large building with a pillared hall have been found near the temple of Marduk, and the theater was rebuilt.

A few cuneiform texts were still produced during this time by the very last generation to use this writing system, mainly mathematical and astronomical documents, with the latest known dated text from Babylon about 75 AD. After that — and some 5000 years on continuous existence— the cuneiform as a form of communication is abandoned forever.

Kish, Nippur and even Sumerian Girsu show some traces of Parthian occupation, and in Assyria, sites like Kalhu were inhabited again, and Assur was rebuilt anew.

Uruk in particular still continued to thrive under yet another foreign dynasty, with more new temples built, a small one more Roman than Greek in style, dedicated to the Iranian god Gareus, and a large apsidal building believed to be a temple of Mithra. This mixture of architectural styles and religious diversity attests to the many foreign populations and religious gaining hold.

Beneath a relatively small Parthian aristocracy were Greek, Persian, Iranians, Macedonian, Jews who chose not to return to Jerusalem under Cyrus, and Arabs, following a wide variety of religious faiths. At Dura Europos on the Euphrates, residents could patronize two Greek temples, a Christian chapel, and Aramean sanctuary, a Jewish synagogue, and numerous shrines of local gods.

The Parthians established as their main city Ctesiphon, across the Tigris River from Seleucia. Their rule was light-handed, and they allowed a number of client kingdoms to flourish, most notably Hatra, a small prosperous old caravan city west of Assure, which became the center of a state known as Araba.

On the site were found remains of temples and public buildings with loft vaulted chambers open on one side (iwan style) and decorated with elaborate stucco moldings, and magnificent statuary.

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Superb horsemen and archers, the Parthians fought incessantly with the Romans, who sought to annex the region as a buffer to protect the more valuable Roman possessions along the eastern Mediterranean from Parthian incursion.

The emperors Trajan (reign: 98-117) and Septimius Severus (reign: 193-211) both briefly seized the region, and battled again and again to capture and hold Mesopotamia. A Roman Legion laid seige to Hatra (without success), and captured the cities of Seleucia on the Tigris, Babylon and Ctesiphon. But holding and occupying any part of Mesopotamia, with primitive logistics and supply lines stretched to the breaking point, was beyond the Romans' abiity.

The Parthians eventually held the Romans at bay. Yet, ironically, after so much focus on enemies from the west, the Parthians' undoing resulted from a new regional power that had emerged in Persia farther to the east, the Sassanians.

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Sassanian (Persian) Rule (224-633 AD). Controlling an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus River, the Sassanians revitalized the traditions of the Achaemenid dynasty in an attempt to create a truly Persian national identity. Although Zoroastrianism was their official religion, other sects such as Nestorian Christianity in the West and Buddhism and Hinduism in the East were tolerated and fared well.

The Sassanians’ military identity and strategic position on the Iranian plateau, along the eastern border of the Roman Empire, made them a natural rival of the Romans, against whom they waged many campaigns. Sassanian monarchs defeated and captured several Roman emperors.

While their major imperial cities (Persepolis and Susas, among others) were in Persia, Ctesiphon in present-day Iraq was their primary center in Mesopotamia, which still has the remains of a magnificent Sassanian palace.

Another more modest Sassanian palace has also been found at Kish. And at Uruk, still holding on under the same name since ancient times, a local Sassanian ruler has been found buried with a crown of gold leaves not far from the walls that Gilgamesh built thousands of years earlier.

Sassanian rule notwithstanding, some traditionally Mesopotamian themes still prevailed, such as the cult of kingship that would have been admired by Akkadian and Ur III rulers. Sassanian engineers aso engaged in elaborate irrigation projects, much like the ancients had done, including the building of transverse canals linking the Tigris and Euphrates. Royal statuary and metalwork from the Sassanian period found in Mesopotania are nothing short of magnificent.

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After Rome fell, the Sassanians became implacable enemies of the Byzantine Empire and continued their campaigns toward the west, causing Mesopotamia to fall into neglect, a marginalized peripheral outpost with a dwindling population. At last the old cities that had risen and the canals that had spread along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and flourished for millennia were abandoned for good. 

During the early seventh century, the superpowers had virtually fought themselves to a standstill, with the Sassanians almost taking Constantinople, and the Byzantine emperor occupying Ctesiphon. Neither would have imagined that the true threat would be the Arab tribes, now united under the banner of the Islamic faith. And so it happened, at the battle of Caddishly in the year 637, the Arabs triumphed, bringing the last Iranian Zoroastrian dynasty to an end.

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