Full civilizations emerged first in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, by 3500 B.C.E., and in Egypt by 3000 B.C.E. along the Nile. The two very different civilizations had distinct political and cultural characteristics which influenced both neighboring and distant succeeding generations. Both civilizations encountered difficulties around 1000 B.C.E. as the rivervalley period ended, but by then they produced offshoots in neighboring regions.
Setting the Scene: The Middle East by 4000 B.C.E. The first civilizations developed through gradual agricultural consolidation and technical advance. The resulting more complex economy created the need for more developments in government, communication and record-keeping..
Agriculture and the Rise of Civilization. Civilization gradually emerged in the Middle East and northeast Africa along great river systems as sedentary agricultural societies increased production and developed new forms of social organization. Rights over property stimulated improvements that passed on to heirs and led to more extensive government. Irrigation projects along major rivers required cooperation among farmers, a large labor supply, and political and economic organization to manage the systems.
Innovation, Specialization, and Productivity. New inventions created the surpluses making civilization possible. . The potter's wheel facilitated faster and higher quality pottery for more secure food storage. Specialized workers produced pots and exchanged them for food from other communities. Better tools improved wood or stone products. The invention of the wheel allowed movement of huge stones for monumental construction. The Middle East was the first region to move from the stone tool age to the Bronze Age. The improved tools and weapons increased food production and stimulated commerce.
Civilization in Mesopotamia. The first civilization appeared around 3000 B.C.E. and generated the characteristic features of writing, expanded cities, complex social structure, and distinctive religious beliefs and artistic styles.
The Sumerians. Civilization began in the Fertile Crescent, the arable plain of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. The rivers deposited fertile soil in a rainfall scant region. Irrigation and technological advances produced food surpluses for population growth. Sumerians, migrating from the north about 4000 B.C.E., mixed with local groups to establish Mesopotamian civilization.
Sumerian Political and Social Organization. Political organization was based on city-states; their leaders - kings and local councils - ruled agricultural hinterlands. The government defined state boundaries, regulated and enforced religious duties, and provided court systems for justice. Kings were responsible for defense and warfare, and, along with priests, ; controlled land worked by slaves. Political stability and the use of writing allowed urban growth, and agricultural, commercial, and technological development
Sumerian Culture and Religion. Around 3500 B.C.E. the Sumerians introduced writing to meet the needs of recording religious, commercial, and political matters. Writing, called cuneiform, evolved from pictures baked on clay tablets which eventually became phonetic elements. Its complexity confined its use mostly to specialized scribes. Writing helped to produce a more elaborate culture. The world's oldest story, the Gilgamesh epic, portrayed a hero constantly defeated by the gods. In art, statues and painted frescoes adorned temples and private homes. The Sumerians created patterns of observation and abstract thought, such as the science of astronomy and a numeric system based on units of 12, 60, and 360, still useful to many societies. Their religion, based upon a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods intervening arbitrarily in human affairs, produced fear and gloom among believers. Each city had a patron god. Priests were important because of their role in placating gods and in making astronomical calculations vital to the running of irrigation systems. Many Sumerian religious ideas influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
What Civilization Meant in Sumeria. Sumeria established the definition of civilization. Its society was based upon economic surplus and was able to support priests, government officials, merchants, and artisans. The spreading irrigation systems made regional coordination vital. A clearly defined government emerged. Most individuals lived in the countryside, but cities were created. Their residents amassed wealth and power; they exchanged ideas encouraging technological innovation and artistic development; they promoted specialization in trade and manufacture. Writing allowed increased political and economic organization and more elaborate intellectual life. Commercial and manufacturing information was more accessible. We must remember that civilization does not produce a monopoly on higher values and controlled behavior. It brings losses as well as gains. In the Middle East distinctions based on class and wealth increased, while greater inequality between men and women emerged. Both civilized and noncivilized societies have the capacity to regulate human behavior, or not, as they endeavor to satisfy human needs.
Later Mesopotamian Civilization: A Series of Conquests. The Sumerians were not able to create a unified political system able to resist pressure from invaders. Around 2400 B.C.E the non Sumerian city of Akkad, led by Sargon I, the first clearly identified individual in world history, conquered the region and founded an Akkadian empire. Its military forces ranged as far as Egypt and Ethiopia. During 200 years of rule the Akkadians directed a unified empire with a strong military and bureaucracy. They were the first civilization to produce literary works. Through Akkadian rule Sumerian derived civilization spread widely in the Middle East. Around 1800 B.C.E. a new state, the Babylonian empire, unified Mesopotamia. Its ruler, Hammurabi, became famous for codifying the laws of the region. Sumerian cultural traditions were maintained and, in science and mathematics, extended. Indo European invaders, the Hittites, overthrew the Babylonians about 1600 B.C.E. Later. from 1200 to 900 B.C.E. smaller kingdoms struggled for mastery.
Ancient Egypt. Egyptian civilization, formed by 3000 B.C.E., benefited from contacts with Mesopotamia, but produced a very different society. Egyptian civilization flourished for 2000 years before beginning to decline around 1000 B.C.E.
Basic Patterns of Egyptian Society. Farming had developed along the Nile River by 5000 B.C.E. Before 3200 B.C.E. the Egyptians, with trade and commercial influence from Mesopotamia, formed their very different civilization. Largely because of the unifying influence of the desert surrounded Nile, the Egyptians moved directly from sedentary agricultural communities to large governmental units without experiencing city states. Political organization remained authoritarian and centralized. The unified state created in 3100 B.C.E. lasted for 3000 years. The three major periods, the Old, Intermediate, and New Kingdoms, were characterized by the power of a ruler descended from gods and regarded as a god, the pharaoh. He assured the prosperity of the Nile agricultural system. An extensive bureaucracy trained in writing and law upheld his authority. Appointed regional governors supervised irrigation and the building of great public works, like the pyramids, by drafted peasant workers. One pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, without success attempted to replace the many gods with a monotheistic religion under a single deity, Aton - hence his new name, Akhenaton
Egyptian Ideas and Art. The Egyptians developed their own hieroglyphic alphabet based upon pictograms. They used papyrus rather than clay tablets. The complex system was monopolized by priests and never developed an epic literary tradition. Egyptian science, focused on mathematics and astronomy, was less advanced than in Mesopotamia, but they were the first to establish the length of the solar year, dividing it into 12 months. Important advances were made in medicine. Religion was the pillar of Egyptian culture. Many gods were worshipped. Elaborate funeral rituals and mummification were part of a distinctive focus on death and a satisfactory afterlife. Art, in unchanging and stylized form, focused upon the gods. Changes did occur in this stable society. Invasions from Palestine about 2200 B.C.E. ended the Old Kingdom and brought disorder and rival kingdoms. The Intermediate Kingdom restored unity and spread settlements into present day Sudan. New invasions and social unrest led to the New Kingdom, around 1570 B.C.E. Commercial and other contacts spread Egyptian influence in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. Slavery became a formal institution.. After 1150 B.C.E. invasions and internal disorder brought steady decline.
Egypt and Mesopotamia Compared. Thc two civilizations had important differences and similarities. In political life the Mesopotamians developed regional city states while the Egyptians lived under a strong, centralized government. Both had stratified social classes. Mesopotamia developed an epic literary tradition lacking in Egypt. With better access to building materials, the ability to organize masses of laborers, and a strong belief in an afterlife, the Egyptians focused more on monumental structures than did the Mesopotamians. Both societies traded widely. Mesopotamia, because of its more difficult environment, produced more technological advances. Its trade contacts were more extensive, and greater attention was given to the merchant class and commercial law. Egypt's different environment contributed to its stable and cheerful society, both on earth and in the afterlife. In social organization women probably held higher status in Egypt. Both societies had a noble landowning class, powerful priesthoods, and masses of peasants and slaves. In science both emphasized astronomy and mathematics. Aided by relative regional isolation, the two conservative civilizations resisted change until pressured by natural disaster or invasion.
Analysis: Women in Patriarchal Societies. Agricultural societies were patriarchal, awarding men primary position in political, economic, and cultural life. Egyptian society allowed upper class women more influence than they held in Mesopotamia, but they clearly remained a subordinate group. The decline in the status of women probably occurred because their labor became less important than it had been in hubting-and-gathering and early agricultural societies. Some women achieved influence through religious functions, by the emotional hold gained over husbands and sons, and through their important role in managing household operations..
Civilization Centers in Africa and the Eastern Mediterraen. A number of partially separate civilization centers developed between 20000 and 1000 B.C.E. They were influenced by the achievements of the major civilizations and developed their own lasting characteristics..
Kush and Axum: Civilization Spreads in Africa. Around 1000 B.C.E. partially separate civilization centers emerged on the fringes of the civilized world. Kush developed along the southern reaches of the Nile on the frontiers of Egyptian influence. Kush was an independent polity by 1000 B.C.E.; by 730 B.C.E. it conquered and ruled Egypt. When the Assyrians invaded Egypt Kush turned southward and established a capital at Meroe; the kingdom's greatest period was from 250 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. It was defeated by Axum around 300 C.E. Kush became a key center of iron technology. Kushite writing and political organization were influenced by Egypt. The kingdom traded extensively with other African regions, but it's influence beyond neighboring peoples is unknown.
Cultures in the Mediterranean Region. Many small centers sprang up after 1500 B.C.E., mixing their cultures with Mesopotamian influences.
The Hebrews and Monotheism. The Hebrews, a Semitic people, moved into the southeast corner of the region around 1600 B.C.E. Jewish tradition relates that Moses led them from Egypt to Palestine in the thirteenth century B.C.E. Their distinctive achievement was the development of a monotheistic and ethical religion. They regarded themselves as a chosen people under their god Yahweh's guidance. Their religious ideas were written down in the Torah and other writings. Two important features were the idea of an overall divine plan in history and the concept of a divinely organized morality. The Jews were not important politically, but their written religion enabled them, even when dispersed, to retain cultural identity. The Jews did not try to convert other peoples, but the later proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam incorporated their ideas.
The Minoans developed a civilized society in Crete around 1600 B.C.E. They traded with Egypt and Mesopotamia. Egypt influenced Minoanarchitectural forms, mathematics, and writing, and with Mesopotamia, influenced centralized, bureaucratic political forms. The Minoans conquered parts of the Greek mainland and established its first civilization at Mycenae. Both Crete and Greece were conquered by Indo Europeans around 1000 B.C.E., but the Minoans left a legacy for later Greek civilization.
The Phoenicians around 2000 B.C.E. settled on the Lebanese coast. Primarily a commercial society, they gained important influences from major civilization centers. Around 1300 B.C.E. they devised a simplified alphabet that became the ancestor of the Greek and Latin lettering systems. Phoenicians established colonies on the shores of the Mediterranean; the North African settlement at Carthage later became a major political and economic power. They sailed into the Atlantic, settling on Spanish and Portuguese shores; their search for tin brought them as far as Britain. Phoenicia fell to the Assyrians by the 6th century B.C.E., but their colonies long survived.
The End of the Early Civilization Period. By 1000 B.C.E. river valley civilization ended in both the Middle East and Egypt. The smaller related civilizations by then had spread the original developments more widely into the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Indo European invaders, hunters and herders from central Asia, form a transition point. The Indo Europeans, beginning with the Hittites, introduced iron use for weaponry. The Assyrians utilized iron weapons to conquer by 665 B.C.E. the civilized Middle East and Egypt. In their large empire they assimilated past cultural achievements and moved populations, as the Jews, to maintain control. The Assyrian state fell because of internal revolt and invasion in 612 B.C.E. The invasions altered the development patterns of the early civilizations. Indo Europeans changed political patterns. They rejected beliefs in the divine attributes of kings, instead selecting their ruler in councils formed by nobles and the army. Egypt faded as a major power. In the Middle East more centralized empires emerged. They were able to spread influences more widely than their predecessors.
Conclusion: The Issue of Heritage. The two distinct civilizations beginning in the Middle East and North Africa created enduring different cultures. They produced a basic apparatus of civilization which passed on to their successors. The apparatus includes writing, calendars, scientific and mathematical knowledge, improved technologies (irrigation, iron use, more productive grain seeds, the potter's wheel, and the wheel), medicinal drugs, the use of money, and written law codes.
The Question of Cultural Impact. The cultural heritage included the flood story of Mesopotamia, vocabulary, music instruments and scales, and architectural forms. In politics the legacy is divine kingship and regional city states. A possible transmission is the Mesopotamian view that humans were separate from nature, that they could observe and exploit it for their benefit. Middle East religions encourage action and anxiety in contrast to the tranquillity and harmony present in India and China. Women, as in many other world cultures, were regarded as inherently inferior.
KEY TERMS Mesopotamia: literally "between the rivers"; the civilizations that arose in the alluvial plain of the Tigris Euphrates river valleys.
potter's wheel: a technological advance in pottery making; invented ca. 6000 B.C.E.; encouraged faster and higher quality ceramic pottery product.
Sumerians: people who migrated into Mesopotamia ca. 4000 B.C.E.; created the first civilization within region; organized area into city states.
cuneiform: a form of writing developed by the Sumerians using a wedge shaped stylus and clay tablets.
city-state: a form of political organization typical of Mesopotamian civilization; consisted of agricultural hinterlands ruled by an urban based king.
Epic of Gilgamesh:the first literary epic; written down ca. 2000 B.C.E.; included story of the Great Flood.
ziggurats: massive towers usually associated with Mesopotamian temple connections.
animism:a religious outlook that recognizes gods in many aspects of nature and propitiates them to help control and explain nature; typical of Mesopotamian religions.
Sargon I of Akkad: ruler of city state of Akkad; established the first empire in Mesopotamian civilization ca. 2400 B.C.E.
Babylonian Empire:unified all of Mesopotamia ca. 1800 B.C.E.; collapsed due to foreign invasion ca. 1600 B.C.E.
Hammurabi:the most important Babylonian ruler; responsible for codification of the law.
Aknenaton: Egyptian pharaoh of the New Kingdom; attempted to establish monotheistic religion replacing the traditional Egyptian pantheon of gods.
pyramids:monumental architecture typical of Old Kingdom Egypt; used as burial sites for pharaohs.
mummification: act of preserving the bodies of the dead; practiced in Egypt to preserve the body for enjoyment of the afterlife.
hieroglyphs:form of writing developed in ancient Egypt; more pictorial than Mesopotamian cuneiforrn.
patriarchate: societies in which women defer to men; societies run by men and based upon the assumption that men naturally directed political, economic, and cultural life.
Kush: African state that developed along the upper reaches of the Nile ca. 1000 B.C.E.; conquered Egypt and ruled it for several centuries.
Yahweh: the single god of the Hebrews; constructed a covenant with Jews as his chosen people.
monotheism:the exclusive worship of one god; introdueed by Jews into Middle Eastern civilization.
Minoans:a civilization that developed on Crete ca. 1600 B.C.E.; capital at the palace complex of Knossos.
Mycenae:the 1st civilization to emerge on the Greek mainland; destroyed ca. 1000 B.C.E.
Phoenicians: seafaring civilization located on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean; established colonies throughout the Mediterranean.
Hittites: an Indo European people who entered Mesopotamia ca. 1750 B.C.E.; destroyed the Babylonian Empire; swept away ca. 1200 B.C.E.
LECTURE SUGGESTIONS 1. Discuss the innovations and technological advances that made possible the transition from sedentary to agricultural societies. Begin with conditions at places like Jerico and Çatal Huyuk and then move on to the larger populations typical of civilization. Factors to discuss are the spread of sedentary agriculture through the Middle East, the growth of the concept of private property, the need for new laws and enforcement, the development of more complex government, the building of irrigation systems, the status of women, and the invention of new tools.
2. Compare and contrast the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The following factors can be compared to illuminate the differences between the two civilizations: social stratification (the roles of land-holding nobles, priests, agricultural workers, slaves), emphasis on astronomy and related sciences, conservatism to change, the degree of political centralization, monumental architecture, literary traditions, technological development, status of women.
CLASS DISCUSSION QUESTIONS 1. What is the importance of private property in civilization?
2. What is the connection between irrigation systems and civilization?
3. Why did the earliest civilization emerge in Mesopotamia?
4. How did the Sumerians politically organize early Mesopotamia?
5. What factors defined civilization in Sumerian culture?
6. Why were cities important in Mesopotamian civilization?
7. Was writing indispensable to civilization?
8. What are some of the great social losses associated with civilization?
9. What was the form of political organization in ancient Egypt?
10. What other early centers of civilization developed in the Middle East and Africa
besides Mesopotamia and Egypt?
THE INSTRUCTOR'S TOOL KIT Map References Danzer, Discovering World History through Maps and Views
Source Maps: S4-S6, S8. Reference Maps: R2, R24.
Video/Film Iraq: Stairway to the Gods. Compton Film Distributors