Mesopotamia’s primary source of wealth was surplusproducing agriculture; the geophysical conditions of the land made it singularly devoid of mineral or metal resources. Since mountainous regions to the north (Anatolia) and the east (Iran) were inversely endowed, this stimulated active exchanges of goods beginning with the Paleolithic period, when worked and unworked flint and obsidian from Anatolia were distributed widely across the ancient Near East. Due to the considerable mobility of human groups, moving either from camp to camp in a form of transhumance or as nomads, raw materials and technologies were disseminated relatively quickly right through the Chalcolithic period. Such informal but effective networks of exchange and distribution became considerably more organized and centralized in the Uruk period. The urbanization of Mesopotamia allowed for a concentration and specialization of crafts that relied on regular supplies of raw materials and a skilled workforce. The far-flung outposts of the Uruk culture in western and southwestern Iran and southern Anatolia, with their warehouses and literate personnel, were responsible for the smooth movements of goods in and out of southern Mesopotamia. Gold, copper, silver, and minerals such as hematite and lapis lazuli, as well as other hard stones, were worked into jewelry, artifacts used for ritual purposes, and the display of status.
   With the emergence of wealthy Mesopotamian city-states in the Early Dynastic period, the demand for such commodities rose to new heights, as the fabulous equipment of the so-called Royal Graves at Urshow. Of particular importance were gold and lapis lazuli. Two literary texts written in Sumerian (from the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur) describe how the city of Uruk began its trade with the fabled city called Aratta, situated in the Iranian highlands, and the main center of the lapis lazuli import from its source in Badashkan (Afghanistan). The king of Uruk wishes to beautify the temple for the city-goddess Inanna, who is also worshipped at Aratta, and asks her to induce its ruler to send “gold, silver, and lapis lazuli,” as well as skilled artisans. In one text, he sends an army to force Aratta into submission; in the other, the two cities begin a form of contest that leads to regular contacts and the delivery of grain to the famished Arattians. Diplomacy and exchange between friendly polities as well as military aggression were employed by Mesopotamian rulers to ensure the supply of precious metals and stones. In centralized states, such as the Akkad Dynasty or the Third Dynasty of Ur, long-distance trade was supervised and regularized by the state. Sargon of Akkad boasts of having ships from Magan and Meluhha moor at his capital, and foreign merchants thronged the streets. The government invested in quays, warehouses, tow paths for the river traffic, and the maintenance of overland roads and rest houses, as Shulgi, the king of Ur, reports. Mercantile activities were duly taxed and became an important source of revenue. As the countries around Mesopotamia also developed their own stratified states and affluent elites, demand grew for luxury items produced in Mesopotamia. These were textile goods (woolen cloth, finished garments, embroidered robes), leatherwear, wooden and inlaid furniture, bronze weapons, highly crafted metal, and stone artifacts and jewelry. Such products were exported all over the Near East, including Egypt, during the second millennium and then again during the Neo-Babylonian period.
   While the state could be instrumental in opening trade routes through warfareor diplomacy and by maintaining infrastructure, the actual business of import and export was left to merchants who had their own institutional body, the karum or “quay.” The word derives from the mercantile quarter of Mesopotamian cities, which was usually just beyond the city walls, at a convenient landing place by the main waterway. Each karum had its own regulatory body that would liaise with a state official. There are at present very few texts from any karum within Mesopotamia, and the most important source of mercantile documents comes from an Assyrian trade colony in Anatolia (see KANESH), which flourished in the early second millennium B.C. The business was run by Assyrians, who raised capital at home to buy tin from an as yet unclear source outside Anatolia, which they transported to Cappadocia on donkeys, a journey lasting some three months. They also exported Assyrian textiles, which were much in demand. In return they imported silver. The cuneiform tablets detail the administrative organization of the karum, the initial investments, profits, and expenses incurred for transport, gifts, and taxes (which had to be paid at Assur and at the local palace in Anatolia). The volume of trade and the trade routes at any given time depended on a variety of factors, such as internal and external political stability, economic prosperity, and competition over primary resource areas. It fell markedly during the difficult centuries of tribal unrest and political upheaval between the 12th and the 9th centuries B.C. but flourished in the early Old Babylonian period, the mid-Kassite period, and during Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian imperial expansion. Within Mesopotamia, the rivers and canals were the most important means of transporting bulk items as well as passengers. Cities on the Euphrates, such as Sippar, Mari, or Babylon, had access to Syria and the Mediterranean in the west, importing wine, aromatics, ivory, and copper from Cyprus. Those on the Tigris and its sidearms (Nineveh, Assur, Eshnunna) were better placed for the eastern and northern highlands and their resources in silver and precious stones. Seaborne shipping from the Persian Gulf went eastward to the mouth of the Indus and westward to the Arabian peninsula and the Sudanese coast, bringing gold, precious stones, and pearls, known as “fish-eyes.” The southern city of Ur was long the most active trade city, due to its proximity to the Gulf. Maritime trade only declined when the Parthiansblocked access to the sea to encourage the northern east-west link, later known as the Silk Road. The domestication of the camelin the late second millennium B.C. opened up trade traffic across the Arabian desert, especially for the incense and aromatics export.
   See also ECONOMY.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.


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