Ancient Near East Unit Vocabulary

In your notebook or on Quizlet, be sure to copy the words and the definitions for our Mesopotamia/Ancient Near East Unit. You only need to copy the definition, not the example sentence.

1. Agriculture:
Agriculture means the growing of crops and the raising of animals for food (also called farming).

The discovery of agriculture was a huge development for humans. Instead of hunting and gathering and having no permanent homes, agriculture allowed people to build cities and to produce more food than they needed to survive.

2. Domesticate:
To domesticate means to make plants and animals more useful to humans.

At the same time humans started to farm, they also domesticated animals, including chicken and pigs for food, cows for pulling plows, bees for making honey, and sheep for wool.

Here's an illustration of the development of domesticated cattle.

Here's an illustration of the development of domesticated sheep.

3. Surplus:
A surplus is an extra of something, especially crops.

Because early farm towns produced a surplus of food, people were able to have different jobs like priests, builders, government officials, artisans, and merchants. One town could also trade surplus food to another town for products they needed.

4. Scarcity:
Scarcity means not having enough of something.

In difficult years with not enough rainfall, early towns would suffer from a scarcity of food. This could lead to either trading, or to unrest and one town attacking another town.

5. Irrigation:
Irrigation is a way to bring water to farmlands by using pipes, ditches, canals, and pools.

Because it almost never rained in Sumer, the people dug irrigation canals from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to bring river water into the farmland to help them grow crops of all kinds.

In this typical Mesopotamian village scene, notice the irrigation ditches bringing water from the river.

6. City-state:
A city-state is an independent city and its surrounding farmland.

One of the first city-states in history was called Ur, in Sumer, and it was ruled by priest-kings who organized the people into classes, and collected taxes. 

7. Civilization:
A civilization is an advanced society.

There are five elements of civilization:

  • a stable food supply
  • specialized jobs
  • a system of government
  • social classes
  • a highly developed culture

We know that the earliest true civilization developed in Sumer, in southern Iraq, where the Sumerian people built towns, temples, developed a writing system, government, and produced surplus food. 

8. Empire:
An empire is a civilization and the other civilizations it has conquered.

The great warrior-king Sargon of Akkad created the world's first empire by conquering all of the surrounding cities in southern Mesopotamia. When he finished, he washed his weapons in the Persian Gulf to symbolize that he was done conquering. 

9. Polytheism:
Polytheism means a belief in many gods.

The ancient Sumerians believed that thousands of gods affected their everyday lives. Being polytheistic meant that they celebrated and honored many gods in different ways and in different temples.

10. Monotheism:
Monotheism means a belief in a single god.

Among ancient civilizations, the Israelites and the ancient Zoroastrians were unique in that they each were monotheistic cultures-- Yahweh was the god of the Israelites and Ahura Mazda was the god of the Zoroastrians.

11. Scribe:
A scribe was a professional writer and record-keeper

Learning to read and write the language of the Sumerians took 20 years, and scribes were a high-status but small group of workers. 

12. Cuneiform:
Cuneiform was the wedge-shaped writing used by many ancient civilizations of the Ancient Near East.

Cuneiform included hundreds of characters pressed into small clay tablets, and often recorded transactions, tax collections, crop counts, and even early Sumerian mythology.

This famous tablet includes a cuneiform inscription and a simple Babylonian map of the world, one of the oldest maps known to exist.

13. Ziggurat:
Ziggurats were large temples built by the Sumerians that had ramps, stairs, and several levels.

The great ziggurat of the city of Ur was built as a temple to the moon goddess Nanna, and served as a political and economic center of the city. 

Click here to read a bit more about ziggurats...

The great Ziggurat at Ur would most likely have looked like this, though no one is exactly sure.