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The Ancient Near East: The First Civilizations


After reading and studying this chapter, students should be able to:

  • Explain the distinction between Paleolithic and Neolithic societies and identify the key characteristics of each.

  • Discuss the development of early cities and large-scale civilizations in the Near East, some reasons why it developed where it did, and some of its essential characteristics.

  • Identify specific features of Mesopotamian civilization and discuss its origins, the role of the Sumerians, and the characteristics of Mesopotamian religion, law, economics, and culture.

  • Describe the geography and environment of Egypt and how they affected Egyptian religious, political, economic, and cultural life through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms.

  • Discuss the rise of imperial powers such as Persia, and explain the particularly effective features of Persian imperial organization.

  • Articulate the differences between the scientific and the myth-making approaches to reality, and explain the main contributions of the ancient Near East to later Western civilization.


I0. Prehistory

A0. Prehistory

10. The Paleolithic Age or Old Stone Age (3 million–10,000 years ago)

a0) The hunting and food gathering of Paleolithic people shaped their social development

b0) Paleolithic people developed:

(1)0 Spoken language

(2)0 Bone, wood, and stone tools

(3)0 Control of fire

(4)0 Mythic-religious ideas to explain nature, birth, sickness, and death

(5)0 Burial practices

(6)0 Artistic representations of animals on cave walls, sympathetic magic

20. The Neolithic Age began 10,000 years ago in the Near East

a0) Neolithic people developed the following important achievements, referred to as the Neolithic Revolution:

(1)0 Farming

(2)0 Domestication of animals

(3)0 Villages

(4)0 Polished stone tools

(5)0 Pottery and woven cloth

b0) Agriculture and domestication of animals revolutionized life, as farmers altered their environment and established permanent settlements

c0) Changes that came with the Neolithic transition to agriculture include:

(1)0 New food surplus freed people to specialize in certain skills

(2)0 Trade was fostered, sometimes across long distances

(3)0 Awareness of private property emerged

(4)0 Emergence of a ruling elite with wealth and power

(5)0 Daily routine of toil and obedience to ruling elite

30. Archaeologists have recently discovered Neolithic villages established as early as 8000 B.C., including:

a0) Çatal Hüyük (pronounced sha-TAL HOO-yuk) in modern-day Turkey

b0) Jericho in Palestine (c. 2,000 inhabitants in 8000 B.C.)

c0) Jarmö in eastern Iraq

40. Scholars disagree as to when and where the first cities emerged

a0) Some claim that the first cities emerged in Sumer c. 3000 B.C.

b0) Others argue that early settlements like Jericho were the first urban centers because of large populations, trade activities, and public works

50. Neolithic technological advances included:

a0) Shaping and baking clay for pottery containers, potter’s wheel

b0) Grinding stone tools on rock

c0) Wheel and sail

d0) Plow and ox yoke

e0) Use of copper for tools and weapons

f0) Combining copper and tin to make bronze

II0. The Rise to Civilization

A0. The Rise to Civilization

10. Civilization arose 5,000 years ago in the Near East (Mesopotamia and Egypt)

20. The emergence of civilization was characterized by the emergence of:

a0) Cities that were larger, more populous, and more complex than Neolithic villages

b0) Invention of writing (records and laws)

c0) Monumental architecture

d0) Organized and complex religious life, with powerful priesthood

30. Religion was the central force in these primary civilizations

a0) Explained workings of nature

b0) Eased fear of death

c0) Justified rules and morality

d0) Sanctified law as a commandment of the gods

e0) United people in common enterprises such as irrigation and food storage

f0) Promoted creativity in art, literature, and science

g0) Bolstered authority of rulers, regarded as gods or their agents

40. Factors helping Sumerians/Egyptians make the creative leap to civilization include:

a0) Significance of river valleys to early civilizations

(1)0 Deposit fertile silt on field

(2)0 Provide water for crops

(3)0 Serve as avenues for trade

b0) Human thought and cooperative activity

(1)0 Drain swamps; clear jungles; and build dikes, reservoirs, and canals

(2)0 Construct and maintain irrigation works

(3)0 Formulate and obey rules

(4)0 Develop administrative, engineering, and mathematical skills

(5)0 Keep records and build bureaucracy

50. Civilization also had a dark side

a0) Epidemic disease

b0) Slavery

c0) Warfare and destructive conflicts

d0) Aggressive attitude toward other groups

III0. Mesopotamian Civilization

A0. Mesopotamian Civilization

10. Mesopotamia is the Greek word for “land between the rivers”

20. First civilizations began here in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers

30. Around 3000 B.C., Sumerians developed urban civilization in Mesopotamia, characterized by:

a0) Cuneiform writing

b0) Brick houses, palaces, and temples

c0) Bronze tools and weapons

d0) Irrigation works

e0) Trade with other peoples and an early form of money

f0) Religious and political institutions and schools

g0) Religious and secular literature and varied art forms

h0) Codes of law, medicinal drugs, and lunar calendar

B0. Religion: The Basis of Mesopotamian Civilization

10. Religion lay at the center of Mesopotamian political, religious, social, legal, and literary life

a0) Myths explained the origins of the human species

b0) Mesopotamian cities were sacred communities with ziggurats

c0) Most residents of the city worked for temple priests

d0) Gods and goddesses were thought to control the entire universe but to care little for humanity

20. Mesopotamian life was characterized by uncertainty and danger

a0) Unpredictable waters and flooding

b0) Failure of crops

c0) Great windstorms and thunderstorms

d0) No natural barriers to protect Mesopotamia (unlike Egypt)

30. Attitude of fear and dread depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh

40. Mesopotamian pessimism extends to the notion that little could be hoped for in the afterlife

C0. Government, Law, and Economy

10. Kingship (granted by gods) was the central institution of Mesopotamian society

20. The king administered laws and was believed to come from the gods

a0) Code of Hammurabi (c.1792–c.1750), Babylonian ruler, reveals:

(1)0 Gender divisions: men as head of family, women (and children) subservient

(2)0 Severity of punishments

(3)0 Centrality of class distinctions

(4)0 Importance of trade

30. Mesopotamian economy depended on trade

a0) Private enterprise, not state bureaucracy as in Egypt

b0) Governments made regulations to prevent fraud

c0) Merchants imported resources (stone, silver, timber) and exported textiles and handicrafts

D0. Writing, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine

10. Sumerians established schools to train upper-class sons

a0) Teachers compiled textbooks and a dictionary of Sumerian-Akkadian

b0) Students were employed as administrators for the temple, palace, law courts, or merchants

20. Mesopotamians advanced in mathematics and astronomy

a0) Developed multiplication and division tables, cubes, and cube roots

b0) Calculated the area of right-angle triangles and rectangles and divided the circle into 360 degrees

c0) Established basic principles laying groundwork for later Pythagorean Theorem

d0) Observed and recorded planets and constellations

e0) Created calendar based on cycles of the moon

f0) Yet astronomy remained the mythical interpretation of the will of the gods

IV0. Egyptian Civilization

A0. Egyptian Civilization

10. Herodotus called Egypt “the gift of the Nile” because of the river’s reliable fertility

B0. From the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom

10. Old Kingdom (2686–2181 B.C.), Pyramid Age, essential forms of Egyptian civilization

a0) Pharaoh was believed to be a man and god who:

(1)0 Controlled the floodwaters of the Nile

(2)0 Kept irrigation works in order

(3)0 Maintained justice in the land

(4)0 Expressed the will of heaven

(5)0 Helped living subjects after his death

b0) Over time, increasingly powerful nobility undermined royal authority

c0) First Intermediate Period (2181–2040 B.C.) sees civil war between rival families disrupt unity of kingdom

20. Middle Kingdom (2040–1786 B.C.) strong kings reassert pharaonic rule

a0) Pharaohs extend control south over Nubia

b0) Trade with Palestine, Syria, and Crete

c0) Second Intermediate Period (1786–1570 B.C.) brings disruption again

(1)0 Nobles regain some power

(2)0 Nubians break free of Egyptian control

(3)0 Hyksos invade Egypt

(4)0 First invasion by Hyksos spurs Egyptian aggression

30. New Kingdom (1570–1085 B.C.) empire building emerges as response to invasion

40. Egyptian culture looked to past, believing in changeless universe and not progress

C0. Religion: The Basis of Egyptian Civilization

10. Religious beliefs formed the basis of Egyptian art, medicine, astronomy, literature, and government

a0) Pyramids were tombs for pharaohs

b0) Magical phrases pervaded medicine

c0) Astronomy was used to select the correct time for rites and sacrifices

d0) Earliest literature was entirely religious

e0) Ethical treatises, like the Book of Instruction, encourage social behavior based on religious ideas

20. Polytheism (worship of many gods) took many forms, especially great powers in nature

30. The afterlife was key to Egyptian religion

a0) Mummification preserved the dead

b0) Funerary art showed yearning for eternity

c0) Hieroglyphics (picture writing) or pyramid texts help king ascend to heaven

d0) Belief that afterlife brought earthly pleasures

D0. Divine Kingship

10. Basic institution of Egyptian civilization

a0) Power of the Pharaoh extended to all aspects of society; all Egyptians were subservient

b0) Responsible for rendering justice

c0) Divine kingship provided sense of security and harmony

d0) Pharaonic rule seen in accordance with Ma’at, or justice, law, right, and truth

E0. Science and Mathematics

10. Egyptians make practical advances, like Mesopotamians

a0) Engineering skills to build pyramids

b0) Planning to control the Nile

c0) Astronomic observation to create solar calendar

d0) Medical acuity to diagnose and treat illness, prevent contagion, and perform operations

F0. The New Kingdom and the Decline of Egyptian Civilization

10. New Kingdom begins in 1570 B.C.

20. War with the Hyksos gives rise to new and intense Egyptian militancy.

30. Creates basis of Egyptian empire building, as aggressive pharaohs conquer territory and extend authority by:

a0) Expanding bureaucracy to administer empire

b0) Creating professional army to protect acquisitions

c0) Increasing power of priests

d0) Acquiring foreign slaves for new building projects

e0) Formation of empire ends Egyptian isolation.

40. New cosmopolitanism from foreign interaction is paralleled by new monotheism

a0) Amenhotep IV (c.1369–1353 B.C.) replaces polytheism with worship of god Aton

b0) Takes name Akhenaton, and, with wife Nefertiti, devotes self and society to Aton

c0) Historians unsure why Akhenaton made the radical break with tradition

50. Weakened Egypt abandons empire in late thirteenth century B.C. due to strikes from abroad

a0) Egypt dominated by a series of invaders until losing independence to Greece in the fourth century B.C.

V0. Empire Builders

A0. Hittites

10. Hittites (1450–1200 B.C.) ruled Asia Minor, raided Babylon, and challenged Egypt

20. Successful due to well-trained army with horse-drawn chariots

30. Hittites borrow features of Mesopotamian civilization, including:

a0) Cuneiform

b0) Legal principles

c0) Literary and art forms

d0) Religion, blended with Indo-European beliefs

40. Hittites developed substantial iron industry for tools and weapons, as well as ritual

50. Hittites fall c. 1200 B.C., probably to Indo-European invaders from the north

B0. Small Nations

10. Phoenicians

a0) Settled in coastal Mediterranean of Tyre, Byblos, Beirut, and Sidon

b0) Maritime explorers and great sea traders

c0) Devised the first alphabet, crucial for transmitting Near Eastern culture to western Mediterranean

20. Aramaeans

a0) Settled in Syria, Palestine, and northern Mesopotamia

b0) Caravan traders who carried goods and cultural patterns across Near East

C0. Assyria

10. Ninth-century B.C. Assyrians resume empire building using siege weapons, chariots, and soldiers with armor and iron swords

20. Assyrians storm Babylonia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt c.1200–1100 B.C.

30. Assyrian king ruled absolutely with help from nobles, administers territories by:

a0) Improving roads

b0) Establishing messenger services

c0) Engaging in large-scale irrigation projects

d0) Using terror and deporting troublesome subjects

e0) Relocating people for economic purposes

40. Yet war-based Assyrians also copied and spread culture and literature

50. Weakened by war and revolt, Assyria’s capital (Nineveh) was sacked in 612 B.C.

D0. The Neo-Babylonian Empire

10. Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 B.C.) leads Chaldean empire (Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, and Palestine)

20. New Babylon was rebuilt with magnificence, including famous Hanging Gardens.

30. Chaledean Empire ended by civil war and threat of Persians

E0. Persia: Unifier of the Near East

10. Persian leader Cyrus the Great and son conquer between Nile and Indus (550–525 B.C.)

20. Persian king deemed absolute monarch bearing divine approval

30. Persian administration, based on Assyrian model, gave stability and allowed statesmanship

a0) Empire divided into 20 provinces (satrapies)

b0) Each satrapy administered by a governor (satrap) responsible to emperor

c0) Special agents function as “the eyes and ears of the emperor”

40. Persian kings allow significant self-rule and respect local traditions in exchange for taxes and service

50. Empire bound together by:

a0) Aramaic language used by officials and merchants

b0) Network of roads

c0) Postal system

d0) Common system of weights and measures

e0) Empire-wide coinage

f0) Fusion of various Near Eastern cultural traditions

g0) Zoroastrian religion based on belief in Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord) and Ahriman (spirit of Darkness)

VI0. The Religious Orientation of the Near East

A0. A Mythmaking World-View

10. Mythopoeic (mythmaking) view central to Near Eastern civilizations

20. Myths narrate deeds of gods, expressed in rites, ritual dances, feasts, and ceremonies

30. Mythical thinking fundamentally different from modern scientific outlook:

a0) Physical nature as a living “thou” vs. an inanimate “it”

b0) Belief in erratic behavior of gods vs. expectation of universal rules

c0) Reliance on imagination and perception vs. emphasis on analysis and reason

40. Near Eastern people engaged in rational thought and behavior, but did not develop a self-consciously rational method of inquiry into physical nature and human culture

B0. Near Eastern Achievements

10. Civilization emerged due to creative and intelligent acts and advances

20. Many elements of ancient Near Eastern civilizations were passed on to the West

a0) Wheeled vehicle, plow, and phonetic alphabet

b0) Drugs, splints, and bandages

c0) Egyptian geometry and Babylonian astronomy later used by Greeks

d0) Concept of royal power from divine source

30. Hebrews and Greeks will later borrow Mesopotamian literary themes, such as:

a0) Biblical stories such as flood, Cain and Abel, and Tower of Babel

b0) Greek and Mesopotamian mythologies have parallels

40. Egyptian and Mesopotamian achievements assimilated by Greeks and Hebrews

50. Rejection or transformation of Near Eastern traditions key to development of Western civilization

0LECTURE suggestions

Throughout the lectures, make sure to stress the answers to the questions “what?” “where?” “when?” “why?” and “so what?” for each major civilization presented. Students need to have each culture situated in space and time, understand some reasons for the emergence of each one, and (especially) know why each was important for later ages. Include maps on the overhead projector or have students keep their atlases open during the lecture.0

10. Why do we call the ancient societies presented in the chapter civilized? What assumptions are inherent in that term? Can civilization include elements such as human sacrifice and the aggressive behavior of the Assyrians? Ask the class to mention five or six features that they think illustrate the essence of civilization, and put them on the board. Are they all present in the United States today? To what extent is this a complicated term for historians to employ?

20. Compare the geography and environment of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations and how they affected the cultural course of each society. Why did early societies emerge near rivers? Why did Egypt’s relative isolation so affect its ethical, religious, and literary expressions?

30. Provide more information about some of the individual figures mentioned in the chapter, such as Cyrus the Great of Persia, who rose from the lowly position of shepherd to ruler of a vast empire, or discuss the family life of Akhenaton.

40. Discuss some of the influential women of ancient Egypt, including Nefertiti and the Pharaoh Hatshepsut (save Cleopatra for a later class). Explore the relationship between agricultural societies and gender or class hierarchies—why does a settled agricultural existence lend itself to specialization and then to socioeconomic inequalities?

50. Investigate the seafaring expeditions of the Egyptians. How far down the African coast did they venture? In what other directions did they sail? Could they have reached South America, as suggested by Thor Heyerdahl? Do any of the political systems discussed in this chapter resemble those of any modern states? What are the similarities and differences?

60. What characteristics of Near Eastern religion seem to be common to all religions and which are peculiar to the societies in which they emerged? Why do early civilizations so powerfully associate rulership with the divine?


10. After dividing the class into groups, have the students in each group make lists of the advantages and disadvantages of life in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria, and Persia. Then have them decide in which society they would find it most congenial to live and why. Which seems, to them, least agreeable? Do all the groups agree? How much disagreement is there on what constitutes a good society?

20. After dividing the class into groups, assign each group a river-based region from the chapter (i.e., Tigris/Euphrates, Nile, or an imaginary one) and tell them to develop an early agriculture-based civilization. What will they need to consider for farming? What tools will they need? Who will make them, and what kind of labor specialization will they require? Who will lead them, what kinds of rules must be developed, and why? What kind of god(s) will they worship and why? What sort of structures will they build, and what resources will such efforts require? To what extent do geography, environment, and the basic issues of food and shelter drive the development of cultures?

30. Give the class fair warning, during your lectures, that you expect them to pay attention to geography, and call their attention to the maps included in the text and the atlas. Then divide them into groups and distribute blank maps of the region. Ask them to write in place names from the blackboard on one of the maps; include Egypt, Assyria, Phoenicia, Babylonia, and any other places you want them to know.

00analyzing primary sources

Refer to the Primary Sources boxed feature, located at the end of Chapter 1 in the textbook, to answer the following questions.

I0. Classroom Discussion Suggestions0

A0. In what terms do these Mesopotamian excerpts personify salt and fire and why? With what different characteristics and powers is each associated?

B0. What do these texts tell us about the relationship that Mesopotamian people felt with the natural world around them?

C0. To what extent are myths, prayers, poems, and other forms of literature useful historical sources? What are the challenges of drawing on them to learn about the past?

II0. Cooperative Learning Activities0

A0. Have the students work in pairs or small groups to identify the natural elements of their local world that affect their lives. Ask them to share and compare their selections with the team next to them. Then, as a large group, come back and discuss/compare the selections. To what extent are there similarities and differences? What could one learn about our society through these lists?

B0. Ask the students to write a short poem or appeal based on the world around them – in other words, to bring a mythopoeic eye to their own context. What does this exercise help one understand about the Mesopotamian world-view?

00001Map Activity

Using the outline map of the Near East provided below, locate the following:



Tigris River

Euphrates River



Nile River

Mediterranean Sea

Lower Egypt

Upper Egypt






Using the maps in your textbook, answer the following questions about geography.

10. On Map 1.1, locate Mesopotamia and Egypt. What modern country is located in the Mesopotamian area? Which of the two ancient civilizations appears less vulnerable to invasion and why?

20. On Map 1.2, identify the regions occupied by the Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, and Phoenicians. Compare the area shown on the map with a modern map showing the countries that now exist there.

30. From studying Map 1.2, indicate what natural defenses the Egyptian territory possessed. From what neighbors do you think the Assyrians might be in danger?

40. Map 1.3 depicts two great empires, the boundaries of which changed considerably in the course of their history. Which was larger? Which do you think would be easier to unify and control and why?

0audiovisual BIBLIOGRAPHY (Film and CD-Rom)0

10. The Royal Archives of Ebla. 58 min. Color. Films, Inc. Shows the recently discovered Ebla Palace in Syria and its contents.

20. Iraq: Stairway to the Gods. 27 min. Color. Compton Film Distributors, Ltd.

30. Iran: Landmarks in the Desert. 27 min. Color. Compton Film Distributors, Ltd.

40. Ancient Egypt. 51 min. Color. Time Life Films. A survey of many facets of the life and beliefs of the people.

50. Egypt: Cradle of Civilization. 12 min. Color. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

60. Mysteries of the Great Pyramid. 50 min. Color. Wolper Productions, Inc.

70. Egypt: Gift of the Nile. 29 min. Color. Coronet International Films.

80. R. D. Barnett and D. J. Wiseman, Fifty Masterpieces of Ancient Near Eastern Art (1969).

90. J. B. Pritchard, The Ancient East in Pictures, 2nd ed. (1969).

100. A Cave Beneath the Sea. 28 min. Color. Films for the Humanities, Inc. On recently discovered prehistoric paintings.

110. Forgotten Mummies. 28 min. Color. Films for the Humanities, Inc.

120. Ancient Egypt. Projected Learning Programs, Inc.

130. The Road to Ancient Egypt. Projected Learning Programs, Inc.

00001suggested readings

  • David, Rosalie A. The Ancient Egyptians (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982). Focuses on religious beliefs and practices.

  • Moscati, Sabatino. The Face of the Ancient Orient (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982). An illuminating survey of the various peoples of the ancient Near East.

  • Oates, Joan. Babylon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979). A survey of the history of Babylon from its origin to Hellenistic times; includes a discussion of the legacy of Babylon.

  • Saggs, H. W. F. Civilization Before Greece and Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). Focuses on culture and society.

  • Snell, Daniel. Life in the Ancient Near East (New Haven: Yale University Press,1997). An excellent synthesis.

  • Stiebing, William H., Jr. Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture (New York: Longman, 2003). A sound general introduction for students.

  • Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992). Daily life of Egyptians; lavishly illustrated.

  • Von Soden, Wolfram. The Ancient Orient (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994). A thematic treatment of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

00001internet resources

10. Paleolithic tools

20. Cave Art at Lascaux and Chauvet (http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/) (http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/)

30. Excavations at Çatal Hüyük (http://www.catalhoyuk.com/)

40. Sumerian Art site (http://www.dl.ket.org/humanities/connections/class/ancient/mesopart.htm)

50. Electronic texts of Sumerian literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/index.html)

60. The Louvre (http://www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home_flash.jsp)

70. Egypt’s Golden Empire (http://www.pbs.org/empires/egypt/)

80. British Museum on Ancient Egypt (http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/)

90. The Akhenaten Temple Project (http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/d/b/dbr3/)

100. Ancient Persia (http://www.ancientpersia.com/)

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