River valley civilizations

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The first civilizations appeared between the Tigris and the Euphrates River Valleys in Mesopotamia.  The second in the Nile River Valley in Egypt, then in the Indus Valley of India and the Shang River Valley of China. All are described as "Bronze Age Cultures": they had developed metals.


  • Mesopotamia was a name given to the region by the Romans and Greeks, it means "land between the waters." Mesopotamia was divided into two regions, Sumer in the south, and Assyria in the north, and these areas would give their names to its two significant early civilizations.

  • Area settled in villages since Neolithic times, centrally located.  By 4000 BC, the inhabitants had already invented the wheel, bronze and copper, and pottery.  By about 3500, writing appeared, the oldest example of writing.

  • Appearance of the Sumerians: the oldest cities in Sumer were founded around 3000 BC.  By the third millennium (2800-2370), Sumerian dynastic city-states had appeared; they fought a lot. Eventually they were consolidated by war into a unified kingdom, and then conquered by the people upstream from them.

  • The Assyrians, a Semitic people (their language group),  absorbed Sumerian culture, and established their capital at Akkad —near the later site of Babylon.  They were henceforth known as the Akkadians.  The Akkadians were powerful warriors, and conquered in every direction under the command of their greatest king, Sargon.

  • By 2000 BC, when Akkadian civilization fell to yet another group of outsiders, the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures had merged into one cultural group.  Sumerian/Akkadian culture was swept aside by a massive invasion; which put an end to the Sumerians as an identifiable group. Sumerian society was preserved after the fall of their kingdoms in the written language of their priesthood; a sacred language known only to priests and scribes.


In 1900 BC, a group of people called the Amorites established the Old Babylonian Dynasty, near the  location of the old city of Akkad. It lasted for 300 years. Its high point was reign of its most famous king, Hammurabi (r. ca. 1792-1750 BC).

A. Code of Hammurabi: Hammurabi is best known for a set of law codes that bear his name. They are the fullest law code we have from Mesopotamia, and show a society rigidly divided by class, in which different types of punishments were meted out to different social orders, and capital offenses were common. The basic philosophy was summed up in the phrase "an eye for an eye," although this strict justice was only in cases where the victim and the perp. were of equal rank. The code also shows a faith in supernatural forces to enforce morality, as in a provision whereby an accused could prove his or her innocence by jumping into the river. The Babylonians apparently couldn't swim; if the river carried you to safety, this was accepted as proof of your innocence. Ancient Babylonian society was quite possibly a strong influence on the ancient Israelites, as the philosophy of justice depicted in the Old Testament is very similar.


The Sumerians from earliest times, were apparently ruled by a priest-king who personally led the army, and served as intermediary between the people and the gods. The kingship probably developed out of a powerful priest class; people seen as having special favor with the gods. The economy was centralized and managed by the kings and the priests. The Sumerians used silver as currency in trade.  These patterns of society generally continued under Babylonian rule.

Under the Sumerians, the study of the stars developed into the field of astrology: star charts became the basis of their calendar, and predictions based on the heavens guided both political affairs and agriculture.
 Mesopotamian agriculture was not easy, and required an exact knowledge of planting and irrigation times. This helped lead to the invention of writing by the priestly class. Literacy cemented their power — Mesopotamian writing was difficult, so that only a few would have time to learn it. The writing style was known as cuneiform — it was wedge writing, done on clay tablets.  The priestly class also developed a system of complicated mathematics.


  • Gods were pictured as human, with human foibles, and were usually identified with natural phenomenon. The religion seems to have been somewhat gloomy and focused on predictions; the Sumerians invented astrology as means of divining gods' will, which was something else that required a large body of well-trained scribes.

  • Religion in form of myths were central to Mesopotamian life, and the Mesopotamians possessed a creation myth very similar to the one in the Old Testament, which had a great flood destroying almost all life, and early humans expelled from paradise for eating forbidden fruit. Sumerian temple towers, called ziggurats, were run by the priestly class to honor town dieties.

  • Because of writing, and the survival of clay tablets, we have a much more detailed picture of the lives of Mesopotamians and their culture. Society divided into nobles, commoners, and slaves. Slavery was based on debt, punishment, or capture in warfare. Based on Hammurabian Code, commerce was highly important, and there is a strong sense of private ownership and rights to property. Agriculture and crafts, and the professional classes ae also clearly important, but the largest category of laws relates to the family and its preservation.


  • About 1600 BC, Babylonian society fell apart under the strain of invasions by northern and eastern groups known as the Hittites and Kassites. Note both these dates: roughly around 1900-1700, and then again around 1600-1500, are two of the large-scale invasion waves, related to changes in technology: the nomads were first learning to hitch horses to chariots, and then learning to ride horses.


  • Ancient Egyptian society developed around the Nile River, which was geographically different from the Tigris and Euphrates —it was a much more navigable and more predictable river. The Nile flooded regularly but predictably, as opposed to the Tigris and Euphrates, which had more erratic schedules and more dangerous floods. However, the Nile's flooding season meant that crops had to be planted on an exact  timetable. Egypt, unlike Mesopotamia, was also sitting in the middle of a desert which made it much harder to attack. Egypt as a result was a much more peaceful society than ancient Mesopotamia

There were two distinct cultures at first —Lower Nile and Upper Nile. The extension of agriculture beyond the riverbedrequired a complicated system of irrigation ditches, which when completed resulted in the highest agricultural prosperity in the ancient world.  The Nile River acted like a highway, and by 3100 BC, the Upper and Lower Nile were one united kingdom.The span of Ancient Egyptian civilization is long: 3,000 years.  Ancient Egyptian society is traditionally separated into three periods.

Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC)Middle Kingdom (2025-1786 BC)New Kingdom (1575-1087 BC)

1. Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC): Egyptian kings achieved complete control of their unified, prosperous, peaceful kingdom. They were seen as divinities. Pharaohs governed by using their families as administrators, and could place and remove officials at will. The peasants were carefully regulated and taxed heavily. All of the land belonged to the pharaoh; the people were his servants.  Unlike in Mesopotamia, the kings had no need of law codes, since they were the source of all law and authoirty, and their authority was ultimately religious.

Religion was the dominant force in Egyptian life. Like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians were polytheistic, and worshiped many gods. Egyptian gods took the forms of humans, animals, and natural forces. Eventually the sun god came to be dominant, but initially there was little order to the pantheon.


We have a much clear sense of what the Egyptians believed about life after death than we do about the Mesopotamians. Egyptians had elaborate burying rituals.  The pharaohs were considered immortal, and under ancient Egyptian religion a dead king could bring his faithful retainers with him to serve him in the underworld — which meant that one's hope of immortality for the rest of society lay with staying in the king's good graces. The Egyptians supplied graves with food and equipment for the underworld, and bodies were elaborately preserved. The Pyramids, huge tombs, were built during Old Kingdom.  The blocks of the tombs could weigh as much as 2.5 tons each; and showed the vast wealth and manpower the Egyptian kings could command.  Elaborate supplies, including the occassional full-size ship, were placed in the royal tombs for use in the after-death voyage.


Egyptians developed writing not long after Sumerians, and apparently independently of them —the two forms don't seem to be related. Egyptian writing was called  hieroglyphics. It was generally done with pen and ink on papyrus reeds, but most of the preserved writing was done on wall paintings and carvings.

2. Middle Kingdom (2025-1786 BC): The Old Kingdom collapsed about 2200 BC.  After period of confusion ("The First Intermediate Period"), the Middle Kingdom was restored in about 2052 by rulers of Upper Egypt, centered in Thebes.



    • The nobles and priestly classes had grown in power. Provincial Governorships ("nomes") became hereditary. Priests and nobles gained more power. Rulers of the nomes were never completely brought under control.

    • The Middle Period kings were no longer actually gods, but were seen more as representatives of the gods.

3. New Kingdom (1575-1087 BC): From 1786-1575, the rise of the nobility led to a period of instability and collapse ("Second Intermediate Period").  Around 1700, a people called the Hyksos conquered Nile Delta.  Around 1575, the Hyksos were driven out, beginning the period of the New Kingdom, or Empire. 

    • Egyptians natives had learned military tools and tactics from the Hyskos —resulted in a period of military might. Egyptian rulers built up the military and pushed back Egypt's borders. These were the first Egyptian kings to be referred to as pharaohs —it means "great house." The Egyptian Empire grew until it finally bumped up against the powerful Hittite empire of Asia Minor

    • The New Kingdom of Egypt persisted until 1087 BC.


Mesopotamia's history was one long struggle between Indo-Europeans and Semitic peoples for control of the valley. Despite the parade of empires, civilization there remained basically the same.  The civilization held strong property rights; cuneiform developed to record economic transactions.

Egyptian life in contrast to Mesopotamia was imperial rather than urban, and had longer periods of unity.  Like the Mesopotamians (with whom they traded), they had sophisticaled archtecture and artwork.  Egyptian mathematics were highly advanced; from the Ancient Egyptians we also get the 24-hour day.

Their economy was much more heavily dominated by the king, who technicaslly owned everything, as opposed to Mesopotamia, where a business class and private property existed.  Egypt was unified in 3100 BC; and not conquered until taken by the Persians in 525 BC. In 2,500 years, there were only 3 empires, with relatively short intervening periods.  Egyptian civilization was stable, conservative, and more optimistic than Mesopotamian civilization.  Egyptian society was also religious to the core.  Unlike Mesopotamia, there was overwhelming state domination of all aspects of economic life.




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