Trade Patterns, Networks, and Routes
Early Mesopotamian City-States

Mesopotamian trade can be divided into two main categories: internal inter-city trade and external foreign trade; this section will cover both in detail. (Crawford 233). Moreover, this section will also examine important trade cities/networks, and the routes which were used to establish contact. It is important to note, however, that Mesopotamian trade was not a static entity, but in fact an ever-fluctuating process reliant on many contributing factors.

Internal Trade Patterns:

Inter-city trade consisted of trade between the various city-states that existed within the Mesopotamian region. During the late Uruk period, which dates from 3800 BCE to 3100 BCE, various city-states competed with one another to control the available resources (Algaze 199). For instance, the city-state Tello, also known as Girsu, controlled the fish and perfumed ointments trade, whereas Sippar specialized in paint (233). Tello's monopolization of the fish trade enabled it to trade extensively with other Mesopotamian city-states, of which included Adab, Der, Nippur, Umma, and Uruk (233). As the above example demonstrates, a pattern existed where "individual southern polities exploit[ed] rich [...] localized ecological niches" (Algaze 199). However, as Mesopotamia continued to develop internally throughout the fifth and fourth millennia BCE, the need for foreign resources emerged. As such, some of its city-states - Uruk being a prime example- expanded their territorial borders and established trade outposts in areas as disparate as Syria, Anatolia, and Iran. (Oates 403). These outposts essentially functioned as colonies, and sought to secure raw commodities - timber and metal especially - that were lacking in the Mesopotamian region.

External Trade Patterns:


Egyptian Variation of a Mesopotamian Cylinder Seal

Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations relied primarily on overland routes for trade relations. The region of Western Asian known as the Levant was the main conduit for trade (Feldman). In addition, small buffer states - both in the Syria-Palestine and Arabian Peninsula regions - were used as intermediaries (Feldman). Water routes were utilized as well, as archaeological evidence shows that the "kings and merchants of Mesopotamian cities [...] operated a long distance maritime route in the Red Sea (Stieglitz 138).

These two unique civilizations first began to trade with one another during Egypt's predynastic period (Kantor 239). This era of Egyptian history coincides with the Late Uruk period of Mesopotamia (Feldman). Based upon the archaeological evidence, the trade appears to have been initially one-sided, with Egyptians favoring Mesopotamian items and not vice-versa (239). Egypt imported not only items - such as the cylinder seal - from Mesopotamia, but also customs, such as the construction of "niched-brick buildings," which the Egyptians used to build their own niched patterns and false doors (239). Other favored items included "ivory knife handles," and "slate palettes" (Feldman). Nevertheless, by the time of the Middle Kingdom - which dates from 2080 BCE to 1640 BCE -Egypt relied less on imports from Mesopotamia, preferring instead to craft their own devices, such as the use of the scarab as a seal instead of the Mesopotamian cylinder (239). In fact, as Marian Feldman writes "the trend reversed, and Egypt became the primary donor [to Mesopotamia]," throughout the subsequent centuries (Feldman).


Mesopotamian trade with Iran may have begun as early as in the fourth millennium BC, during a period in which southern Mesopotamia experienced a major surge in urbanized settlements (Potts 382). Owing to its proximity to Mesopotamia, merchants were able to travel back and forth between the two region with ease, thus facilitating trade relations. Many sites located within the Iranian plateau, such

Susa - An Early Mesopotamian Trade Outpost
A Map of Mesopotamia's Eastern Trade Partners

as the ancient city of Susa, became focal points for emerging Mesopotamian trade networks (382). Occasionally, these trade cities integrated Mesopotamian cultural practices into their respective societies, and - as in the case of Susa - became essentially Mesopotamian in character . In excavating these areas, archaeologists have found items that bear a strong resemblance to those used in Mesopotamian methods of organization (383). The most commonly-unearthed items include clay commodity tokens, bullae, and numerical tablets (384). These symbols were gradually replaced by a native Iranian script known as Proto-Elamite (384). Still, trade with Mesopotamia continued into and throughout the third millennium BC. (384). During this time period, Mesopotamia appears to have exported "hard, dark igneous stones" from Iran, which was then shaped by Mesopotamian craftsmen into
funerary ornaments (387). In addition, semi-precious stones such as lapis-lazuli and carnelian were brought into Mesopotamia via an overland route known as the "Great Khorsan Road," which stretched from the area of Badakhshan to Mesopotamia (389-90).


Although numerous Mesopotamian texts stress the importance of the country of Dilmun as a trading partner, the exact location of this area has long remained a mystery. Moreover, the borders of the territory appeared to have fluctuated throughout its existence (Eidem & Hojlund 441). Nevertheless, Dilmun "is considered generally [to have included] the islands of Bahrain and Failaka, and the adjacent East Arabian coast" (Howard-Carter 210). Dilmun had a long history of contact with Mesopotamia; it first surfaced in Mesopotamian texts sometime around the late fourth millennium BC (441). Yet, paradoxically, archaeological research has demonstrated that "no imports from Mesopotamia which antedate 2200 BC have been discovered," suggesting that either the trade was one-sided, as in the case with Egypt, or that the country of Dilmun changed its location at one time or another (210). Its main exports to Mesopotamia seemed to have consisted of copper, carnelian, and ivory (441). However, in addition to supplying Mesopotamia with its own native goods, Dilmun aided in the transport of items from afar . In the words of the archaeologists Jesper Eidem and Flemming Hojlund, "Dilmun seems to have operated as [an] emporium for goods deriving from further down the Gulf and Indus area, and as the point of transfer for the import of such goods into Southern Mesopotamia" (443). The Persian Gulf was the primary route for trade relations between Dilmunian and Mesopotamia, as records from that era mention the extensive use of Dilmun ships for those purposes (Stieglitz 138).


As with Dilmun, the area of Magan remains subject to speculation. T.F. Potts, however, along with a number of scholars, "accept[s] the identification of the Oman peninsula with the land known in cuneiform sources as Magan" (423). The items that this country obtained from and exported to Mesopotamia are somewhat unclear. It was previously hypothesized that Magan imported barley from Mesopotamia during the third millennium BC (Potts 423). Yet, new archaeological research has proved this assertion to be false (435). Instead, it appears that a certain type of oil was exported to Magan from southern Mesopotamia during that time frame - sesame oil, perhaps (425). Concerning exports, scholars speculate that the copper sold by the country of Dilmun to Mesopotamian traders must have originated in Magan (432). Archaeological evidence suggests that Magan sustained contact with Mesopotamian throughout the third and second millennia BC, despite the absence of the cuneiform for Magan in the textual record (435). As for known trade routes used, the presence of a pendant which depicts a "sewn reed boat" suggests that the Persian Gulf functioned as a major trade route for Mesopotamian and Magan merchants (437).


Meluhha, too, has provoked debate amongst scholars concerning its appropriate location. Nonetheless, a tentative hypothesis has come forth that "identif[ies] [it] with the Indus Civilization and its adjacent areas," based upon "various geographic clues and the general nature of Meluhhan articles of commerce" (Parpola, Parpola, and Brunswig 129). Archaeological evidence indicates that the trade was mutual, with Mesopotamia exporting textiles to Meluhha (157). Likewise, "[m]ore than thirty seals" have been found in the Mesopotamian region that strongly resemblance those used by the Indus Civilizations (131). Mesopotamian textual references also mention the importation of "Meluhhan raw materials and pieces of art"; the specific materials imported - which may have been metals such as tin and copper - remain uncertain, as none have survived throughout the centuries (133). However, these same textual sources fail to acknowledge if these items "were obtained by direct trade-contact with the Meluhhans themselves" (133). As discussed earlier, Dilmunian merchants may have obtained items from Meluhha, and then subsequently sold them to Mesopotamians. Still, evidence exists that attests to the presence of Meluhhan ships; Parpola, Parpola, and Brunswig assert that an "inscription of Sargon refer[s] to Meluhhan ships docked at his capital, the city of Akkad (130). Therefore, some Meluhhan merchants are known to have used the Persian Gulf as a trade route.


This wikipage has attempted to demonstrate the complexity underlying the Mesopotamian trade process. Trade patterns are never set in stone, and often change rapidly as a result of many unique factors. Though we may never know the exact nature of Mesopotamian trade, nevertheless, archaeological excavations and historical sources have provided much insight into this subject. Thus, in this day and age of globalized trade, it helps to study ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, who encountered this issue and observe how they dealt with it. Perhaps by doing so, we can learn from them how to deal successfully with any problems that might arise from this challenging issue.


Algaze, Guillermo. "Initial Social Complexity in Southwestern Asia: The Mesopotamian Advantage." Current Anthropology, 42 (2) (2001), pp. 199-202.

Crawford, H. E. W. "Mesopotamia’s Invisible Exports in the Third Millennium B.C." World Archaeology, 5 (2) (1973), 232-41.

Eidem, Jesper & Flemming Hojlund. "Trade or Diplomacy? Assyria & Dilmun in the 18th Century BC." World Archaeology, 24 (3) (Feb., 1993) pp. 441-48.

Feldman, Marian H. "Mesopotamia." The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2005. <>

Howard-Carter, Theresa. "The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun." Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 33 (3-4) (Jul-Oct 1981) pp. 210-230

Kantor, Helene. "Further Evidence for Early Mesopotamian Relations with Egypt." Journal of New Eastern Studies, 11 (4) (Oct, 1952), pp. 239-250. University of Chicago Press.

Oates, Joan. "Trade and Power in the Fifth and Fourth Millennia BC: New Evidence from Northern Mesopotamia. World Archaeology. 24:3, (Feb, 1993). pp. 403-22.

Parpola, Simo, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, Jr. "The Meluhha Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harrapan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 20 (2) (May, 1977), pp. 129-165

Potts, T. F. "Patterns of Trade in Third-Millennium BC Mesopotamia and Iran." World Archaeology, 24 (3) (Feb., 1993), pp. 379-384.
--- "Rethinking Some Aspects of Trade in the Arabian Gulf." World Archaeology, 24 (3), 423-40.

Stieglitz, Robert. "Long Distance Seafaring in the Ancient Near East." The Biblical Archaeologist , 47 (3) (Sep., 1984), pp. 134-142

Pictorial Sources: