Ancient Mesopotamian Customs and Traditions

The Sumerians were pantheistic; their gods more or less personified local elements and natural forces. In exchange for sacrifice and adherence to an elaborate ritual, the gods of ancient Sumer were to provide the individual with security and prosperity. A powerful priesthood emerged to oversee ritual practices and to intervene with the gods. Sumerian religious beliefs also had important political aspects.

Decisions relating to land rentals, agricultural questions, trade, commercial relations, and war were determined by the priesthood, because all property belonged to the gods. The priests ruled from their temples, called ziggurats, which were essentially artificial mountains of sunbaked brick, built with outside staircases that tapered toward a shrine at the top.

Information on Mesopotamian marital customs is obtained from ancient legal documents and other archaeological evidence. During the marriage ceremony, the husband veiled his bride in the presence of witnesses and solemnly declared ‘she is my wife’. Then perfume was poured on the head of the bride and other presents were also given by the groom.

The groom and his father in law agreed to enter into a contract which stipulated a price for the maiden’s hand. If the marriage did not produce children or if the wife died, the money had to be returned to the groom. The husband was allowed to keep a concubine, apart from the wife. But the position of a concubine was never equal to that of a wife. She always had an inferior status.

During the three millennia from about 3300 to 331 B.C.E. the region was inhabited by a wide variety of ethnic groups, each with their own customs and traditions, speaking a polyglot of often unrelated languages; some were wandering nomads, others permanent residents of villages, towns, and cities.

Nonetheless, Mesopotamia’s agricultural, urban, and literary traditions, some with roots deep in the prehistoric period, tended to level the differences among contemporary ethnic groups and create a remarkable, though certainly not absolute, level of uniformity throughout the period.

The Bible tells us a great deal about Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire, which destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC and exiled the Jews to Babylon for 70 years. Well, ancient Babylon has now been uncovered, comprising nearly 3,000 acres about 55 miles south of current-day Baghdad in Iraq. The ruins include the famous ziggurat structures, the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar, and the enormous walls that measured 80 feet thick.

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Ancient Mesopotamian Customs and Traditions