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Ancient Mesopotamia


Around 4000 B.C. farmers living between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers built canals to try to control flooding. They also built cities and developed a system of writing. Eventually, a strong ruler, Sargon, united the region into a kingdom called Sumer. Much later Hammurabi conquered Sumer and wrote a code of laws. The movement of the Hebrews into Canaan led to the development of Judaism.



Geography of the Fertile Crescent

Focus Activity


In what ways did two great rivers affect life in this region?


• plateau

• drought


• Fertile Crescent

• Tigris River

• Euphrates River

• Mesopotamia

Read Aloud

"For six days and seven nights the wind blew, flood and tempest [storm] overwhelmed the land; when the seventh day arrived, the tempest [and] flood ... blew themselves out. The sea became calm, the ... wind grew quiet, the flood held back.... Silence reigned, for all mankind had returned to clay."

These words come from an ancient western Asian story about a flood that destroyed most of humanity. Ancient stories like this one later influenced people all around the world.


Around 4000 B.C. Egyptian farm communities were growing along the Nile River in Africa. Another civilization was also developing in a vast region to the northeast. This region, in western Asia, was later called the Fertile Crescent. A crescent shape looks like a quarter moon. Find the Fertile Crescent on the map on the next page. It covers the present-day countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

Much of this land was either rocky mountains or desert. Parts of the Fertile Crescent, however, were lush and green. Two rivers, the Tigris (TI grihs) and the Euphrates (yoo FRAY teez), made life in these areas possible. Like the Nile in Egypt, these rivers affected the people living along the banks. As you can see from the story above, the rivers' effects were not always positive.



The region between the Tigris and the Euphrates is known as Mesopotamia (mes uh puh TAY mee uh). In Greek, Mesopotamia means "Land Between Two Rivers." This area is now known as Iraq. Mesopotamia included several types of physical regions. Follow the course of the two rivers on the map. Let's see how Mesopotamia's northern and southern regions differ.

From Mountains to the Sea

Both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers begin in the snow-capped Taurus Mountains of what is today Turkey. The rivers rush down narrow canyons to the valleys below. Then the Tigris and Euphrates reach the plateau (pla TOH) of present-day northern Iraq. A plateau is an area of elevated flatland. In southern Iraq the rivers continue to flow to lower land. Here they make their way to the Persian Gulf.


As in Egypt, early communities in Mesopotamia depended on river deposits of silt. Silt made the region a good place for farming. Early farmers had to meet several challenges, though.

Mesopotamia's yearly floods did not come as regularly as those in Egypt. In fact, they often came at just the wrong time for farmers. The Tigris and the Euphrates did not flood during planting season, when dry fields needed to be softened and prepared for new growth. Instead, the floods often burst through fields just as crops were about to be harvested. Such deadly floods cost not only crops, but lives and homes as well.

Farmers had to protect their fields from flood damage. They also had to keep their crops watered in the hot, dry climate. Southern Mesopotamia rarely received more than a few sprinkles of rain each year. Droughts, or long periods of dry weather, were a constant threat to farmers and their crops in southern Mesopotamia.

Northern Mesopotamia, in contrast, usually had enough rain to make some farming possible. Yet the rocky earth of the northern plateau had only pockets of fertile soil. The flooding rivers did not leave behind as much silt here in the north as to the south. For this reason southern Mesopotamia became better known for its fertile fields than northern Mesopotamia.



In the fall farmers in southern Mesopotamia needed water to plant and raise new crops. Unfortunately, fall was the time when the Tigris and the Euphrates were at their lowest. Spring was harvest time in ancient Mesopotamia. However, it was also the time when the rivers flooded their banks. Then farmers often got more water than they wanted.

To solve these difficulties, ancient farmers learned to build water-control and irrigation systems. Look at the diagram shown above to see how these systems worked.

Farming in Ancient Mesopotamia

Early Mesopotamian farmers grew many different crops. If you were able to go back there in time, you would see fields of wheat and barley. These were the region's most important crops. You would also see gardens of beans, onions, lettuce, cucumbers, and spice plants. Ancient farmers also grew date palm, apple, and pomegranate trees. Because crops and trees need plenty of water, Mesopotamian farmers often planted them along canal banks.

In the distance, on the edges of village farmland, you might see shepherds caring for sheep and goats. Shepherds also had to ward off attacks from wild animals such as lions and jackals. Sheep were especially prized in Mesopotamia for their milk and wool. Ancient Mesopotamians also valued cattle. Cattle were good work-animals, besides being used for milk, leather, and meat.



The region called Mesopotamia is not naturally an inviting place to live. Yet it was here that one of the world's earliest civilizations developed. Water and soil brought by the Tigris and the Euphrates helped to make this civilization possible. Even more important were the farmers of ancient Mesopotamia. These early farmers figured out how to use the two rivers to make the land more fertile.

As in some other early cultures, the farmers of Mesopotamia produced surplus crops. These surpluses allowed for specialization, which in turn led to the growth of towns and cities. The early cities formed a great civilization. As you will see, the legacy of early Mesopotamian civilization reaches even into our own times.


High Water!

Do floods still destroy people's homes and property today?

Unfortunately, despite the existence of modern dams, the answer is yes. In 1997, after an unusually harsh winter, melting snow caused severe spring flooding of the Red River in North Dakota. Volunteers worked together to build dikes, sometimes in the middle of town, to stop the river from overflowing further into their neighborhoods. The federal government committed over $150 million to help North Dakotans rebuild their lives.

Find another example of a flood in modern times. When and where did this flood occur? Your teacher can show you how to research recent newspapers to learn more about current events.

Reviewing Facts and Ideas


• Mesopotamia is the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is divided into a rugged plateau to the north and fertile plains to the south.

• Like the Nile River, the Tigris and the Euphrates flooded each year. These floods brought water and silt to Mesopotamia.

• Unlike those in Egypt, floods in Mesopotamia were often destructive and badly timed for farmers.

• Mesopotamian farmers used canal systems to control dangerous flooding, making their land productive.


1. What were the main crops grown in ancient Mesopotamia? What other foods were grown there?

2. Why was the timing of spring floods so important to farmers in ancient Mesopotamia? What could happen to crops if the floods came a little earlier than expected?

3. FOCUS In what ways did Mesopotamian farmers adapt to and change their environment?

4. THINKING SKILL Suppose you lived in ancient Mesopotamia. Write a poem about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from a farmer's point of view.

5. GEOGRAPHY Where is the Fertile Crescent located?



Sumer and Babylon

Focus Activity


What changes did the development of writing bring to ancient Mesopotamia?


• cuneiform

• city-state

• ziggurat

• polytheism

• code of law


• Sargon

• Hammurabi


• Sumer

• Babylonia

Read Aloud

This is an ancient Mesopotamian riddle. See if you can solve it.

"He whose eyes are not open enters it.

He whose eyes are wide open comes out of it. What is it?

The solution is: It's a school."

How might school `open your eyes"?


You have read about southern Mesopotamia's large surpluses. These allowed an increasing number of people to live as skilled workers in cities. By 3000 B.C.— around the time that Menes unified Egypt—about a dozen small cities dotted southern Mesopotamia. This region was also known as Sumer (SOO mur).

The people of Sumer's cities valued their independence highly. They often fought against being ruled by other cities. However, all Sumerians shared a rich cultural heritage. They worked hard to control the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to produce food crops. They worshiped similar gods. The Sumerians made some of the world's first wheeled vehicles and sailboats. They also made simple machines, such as pottery wheels. In addition, early Sumerians explored new ideas in math and science.

The invention of writing helped to bring the ancient cities together. Laws, letters, records, stories, instructions, riddles, and proverbs could all be widely shared, thanks to cuneiform (kyoo NEE uh fawrm). Cuneiform was the system of writing invented in Sumer.



Some historians believe that cuneiform was first developed to record farm surpluses. Ancient Sumerians used sharp reeds to scratch the records into wet clay tablets. The dried tablets became permanent records.

In 3500 B.C.—the time of the oldest tablets that have been found—cuneiform symbols looked like the things they described. Over time, however, Sumerian scribes developed faster ways to write. They simplified their figures so they could be formed more quickly. Look at the chart on this page for examples.

About 500 signs were regularly used! These signs could also be combined to form more complex words. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform signs represented sounds and ideas as well as objects. The sign for "arrow," called ti (TEE), looked like this. Since ti also meant "life," the symbol could ,stand for this word too.

School in Sumer

As in ancient Egypt few people could write. Even kings usually could not. It was an honor to be able to go to school and learn to be a scribe. Boys and, very rarely, girls spent years studying in local schools. First they learned how to make clay tablets and reed "pens." Then students practiced over and over how to write the basic signs of cuneiform. Scribes in Sumer also had to study mathematics so they would be able to keep accurate records.

Trained scribes could and did write almost anything. They even wrote love letters for people and sealed them in clay "envelopes"! Scribes also recorded stories, laws, and songs.

The sturdy ancient tablets have survived thousands of years. They have helped historians to piece together a detailed picture of early Mesopotamia.

Scribes (left) filled an important role in ancient Sumer. They were record keepers, since most people could not write.


This chart shows how some Sumerian symbols changed over time.

The photo on page 108 shows a cuneiform symbol found on this chart. What is this symbol? Is it early or later cuneiform?



Cuneiform writing first appeared in about 3500 B.C. Over the next thousand years, Sumerian life centered around the city-states of southern Mesopotamia. A city-state is a self-governing city that also governs surrounding villages. Find the city-states Ur, Uruk, and Eridu on the map.

Through cuneiform we know about an early Sumerian mythical hero named Gilgamesh (GIHL guh mesh). Read the following passage about Gilgamesh. Think about what made him a hero to the ancient Sumerians.

The great Gilgamesh was one who knew everything. He had seen all there was to see and done all there was to do. He had built the walls of the city, Uruk. Look at its brickwork! Nobody could build a better wall. It was made of copper and burnt brick, and was wide enough to walk upon.

Gilgamesh was part god and part [man], and as strong as an ox. He was the strongest in the land, and the best fighter.

Living in a Sumerian City

City-states often went to war to gain control of precious river water. For this reason strong walls were built to protect against attack. Large gateways in city walls allowed people and goods to et into and out of cities. City gates ere also where people gathered to buy fresh vegetables and other goods. goods were brought to the cities by farmers and traders.

The king's palace could be seen from almost everywhere in a city. The palace was where a city-state's planning and


decision making took place. Kings served as generals, judges, and canal overseers. Unlike Egyptian pharaohs, though, Sumerian kings were not considered to be gods.

Religion in Ancient Sumer

In the center of most ancient Sumerian cities stood a towering mud-brick building. That building was a ziggurat (ZIHG oo rat). A ziggurat was a large building with a temple on its peak.

Since these temples were located in the center of cities, historians believe that religion was very important in Sumer. Like the Egyptians, Sumerians' religious beliefs involved polytheism. Polytheism is a belief in many gods and goddesses. Each city-state had a special god or goddess. That god or goddess was worshiped at the city's ziggurat. People also worshiped other gods and goddesses at home. One favorite was Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Another was Enki, the god of water.

Uniting the City-States

In time the city-states were united under one ruler—Sargon, king of the city-state Kish. Sargon rose to power about 2300 B.c. His rule began a new period in Mesopotamia's history. Sargon expanded his empire to the northern end of the Fertile Crescent, in what is present-day Syria.

Along the Mediterranean Sea, Sumerians traded with the ancient seafaring people called Phoenicians (fih NEE shunz). The Phoenicians also traded with merchants from Egypt. Phoenicians sent wine and timber to Sargon's city-states. In return they received Mesopotamian farm products and other goods.

Cuneiform writing spread through the Fertile Crescent along with trade goods. Other cultures began using cuneiform to write out their own languages. Because cuneiform was used throughout his empire,

Sargon could send instructions and govern over great distances.

Sargon, king of Kish, led the world's first empire. Ziggurats (below) dominated most Sumerian cities around 2000 B.C.



Sargon's rule lasted about 56 years, until about 2279 B.C. Then the city-states rebelled against the empire. Almost 500 years would pass before another empire controlled Mesopotamia.

During those years a group of people from the Syrian desert moved into northern Mesopotamia. They created a small kingdom centered around a city-state called Babylon.

A Northern Empire

About 1800 B.C. Babylon's king, Hammurabi (hah moo RAH bee), began a drive to gain control over the old city-states of Sumer. Hammurabi and the Babylonians dammed key parts of the Euphrates. This gave them the power to cut off the flow of water or cause terrible floods downstream. Next, Hammurabi's armies attacked the weakened Sumerians. Hammurabi also won control of the city-states around Babylon. He created a huge empire. Find Babylon and the Babylonian empire on the map on page 110.

The empire of Babylonia under Hammurabi became rich and powerful. Shipments of silver, copper, timber, and wine poured into Babylonia. These goods came from people in what are today Turkey, Iran, and Syria. In exchange people in Babylonia sent grain and fruits. Servants even floated ice from distant mountains down rivers to refrigerate food and drink.

Under Hammurabi Mesopotamia's center of power shifted north to Babylon. Yet many Sumerian traditions remained. Babylonians used cuneiform to communicate in writing. In fact the world's first dictionaries were created so Babylonians could adopt Sumerian culture and language.

This dagger and sheath are typical of the weapons used by soldiers in Mesopotamia. The mosaic (below), known as the Standard of Ur, was found in a king's grave in the city of Ur.



When Hammurabi gained control of Sumer, he set out to act as the Sumerian kings had done. He oversaw projects to build and repair canals. Hammurabi also acted as a judge. He used some of the laws that Sumerians had written down hundreds of years before him.

In '1901 archaeologists found a large stone pillar from ancient Babylon. The pillar was inscribed with over 200 laws written in cuneiform. Imagine historians' excitement when they realized that the laws had actually been formed by Hammurabi himself. They had been written almost 4,000 years before they were discovered!

The Code of Hammurabi is one of the world's oldest codes of law. A code of law is a written set of laws that apply to everyone under a government.

The pillar shows that slavery existed in Babylonia and that not everyone was treated equally under the law. Copies of the pillar were also found outside of Babylon. This suggests that Hammurabi meant for his laws to be followed throughout the empire. Cuneiform made this possible. How important is writing in our own civilization? What other ways do we have to communicate over long distances?

Read the following excerpt from the Code of Hammurabi. What does it tell you about what justice meant to Hammurabi and other Babylonians?



Excerpt from The Code of Hammurabi, c. 1800 B.C.

[So] that the strong may not [abuse] the weak, to give justice to the orphan and the widow, I have inscribed my precious words. . . .

If a Freeman has put out the eye of another Freeman, they shall put out his eye.

If he breaks the bone of another Freeman, they shall break his bone.

If he puts out the eye of a Poor Man, or breaks the bone of a Poor Man, he shall pay 1 mina [17.5 ounces] of silver. If he puts out the eye of the Slave of another Freeman . . . , he shall pay half his price.



After Hammurabi died, about 1750 B.C., Babylonia began to fall apart. The city-states in the south rebelled again, much as they had against Sargon. Powerful armies from the mountains to the north and east began taking the empire's territory. Throughout western Asia new powers overthrew old ones.

During this time of change, however, Babylon remained one of the most powerful cities in the Fertile Crescent. Just as Hammurabi had used Sumerian ideas, new rulers respected the history of "Old Babylonia." They worshiped its gods and passed down its legends—many of which had begun in Sumer.

In 689 B.C. Babylon was destroyed by powerful rulers from a northern Mesopotamian city called Nineveh. About 60 years later the Babylonians were able to rebuild Babylon and make it the capital of an even stronger empire.


What did you call me?!

Words are often "borrowed" when different cultures come into contact. Some historians this. modern English may have been affected by ancient Mesopotamian languages! On an ancient cuneiform tablet, one student insults another, calling him a "clever fool." Ancient Greeks probably borrowed the phrase for their compound word sophos-moros—clever fool. Modern English takes the word from the Greeks. When you reach your second year of high school, you will be known as a sophomore!

Most dictionaries show how some English words came from other languages. Look up the English meaning of sophomore. What are the meanings and origin of cuneiform?

The "New" Babylon

The new Babylon soon became the world's largest city. It grew famous for its great beauty and technology. Two massive walls and a moat now protected Babylon. The city was split in two by the Euphrates River but was connected by a movable bridge and an underwater tunnel! At the center of the city stood a huge ziggurat. It was 200 yards wide and rose 100 yards into the sky. Elsewhere were grid-style streets, sewer and water systems, and three- and four-story homes. Babylon was also known for its marvelous "hanging gardens." Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what they looked like.

Sorrow in Babylon

Not everyone thought of Babylon as a wonderful place. To some who were brought to the great city, Babylon was anything but beautiful and certainly not home. One poet wrote:

By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat,

sat and wept,

when we thought of [home].

These newcomers were prisoners. They were brought from what is today Israel.


The carving shows a Sumerian husband and wife. The ruins (above) are all that remain of the ziggurat of Ur. It was dedicated to the storm god, Enlil.


One cuneiform tablet reads:

The gods alone live forever under the divine sun. But as for [humans], their days are numbered. All their activities will be nothing but wind.

It is hard to believe that the ruins of an ancient Mesopotamian city-state were once home to thousands of people. Yet this land was covered with green fields and bustling cities. The people who lived here shared many of the same concerns that we have today.

The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians left records of their civilizations in cuneiform writing. Ideas formed in ancient times—about schools, literature, science, and law—echo into our own time. Despite the ancient scribe's prediction, the legacy of Mesopotamia has not been lost.

The modern countries of the Fertile crescent are Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Like the ancient empires, these countries are also covered with farms and cities.

Reviewing Facts and Ideas


• Cuneiform probably developed as a way to keep track of farm supplies and surplus. The system was later expanded to communicate more complex ideas as well.

• Mesopotamia was not always unified into a single empire. Both government and religion greatly shaped life on a local level.

• Cuneiform writing helped Sargon, king of Kish, to rule over great distances.

The rise to power of Hammurabi made Babylon one of the world's richest and most powerful cities in ancient times.


1. Why was it an honor to become a scribe in Mesopotamia?

2. How was Egyptian culture similar to the culture of Mesopotamia? How was it different?

3. FOCUS How did cuneiform help Sargon to create and rule an empire in Mesopotamia?

4. THINKING SKILL Look at the excerpt from the story of Gilgamesh on page 110. Make conclusions about what was important in ancient Sumer.

5. WRITE Write a one-paragraph response to the laws found in the Code of Hammurabi. How did they protect the people of Babylon?





How did you get to school this morning? If you did not walk, you probably used a vehicle with wheels. Can you imagine what life would be like if the wheel had never been invented?

Most archaeologists believe that ancient Mesopotamians invented the wheel. Some of the first wheels were used on farm carts and war chariots. Over time, people found other uses for the wheel.

The wheel still plays an important role in transportation. There are wheels turning in machines in our homes and factories, too. You can find them winding the film on a movie projector or spinning a compact disc. The wheel has proven to be one of the most important inventions in human history!

Some of the earliest wheels found were used on Sumerian war chariots like this one. This 6,000-year-old chariot was pulled by a donkey. The solid wood wheels made it very heavy and difficult to steer.


The turning motion of interlocking wheels, or gears, is a key part of many machines. The gears in this watch turn at just the right speeds to keep accurate time. What other machines can you think of that use gears?

The wheel can be put to practical use or it can be used for fun. Originally called a pleasure wheel, this ride is named after the man who built the largest one ever for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893: George Ferris.

Countries all over the world have built vast networks of roads and highways. Millions of people travel these roads each day. Bicycles and cars share this street in Beijing, China.


Thinking Skills

Identifying Cause and Effect





By about 3000 B.C. Sumerians had built their first city-states on the plains of southern Mesopotamia. At about the same time, craftworkers in what is today Syria learned how to make a useful and beautiful new material. They mixed together and then heated sand and a certain kind of plant ash. In this way they created the world's first known glass.

The development of glass brought many changes in the ways people lived. These changes interest historians, who analyze cause and effect connections. A cause is something that makes something else happen. What happens as a result of a cause is called an effect. Historians study causes and their effects to understand why events happened the way they did.

Mesopotamian craftworkers were among the first to make glass and bronze goods.


Now practice tracing a cause, such as the invention of glassmaking, to its effects.

By Hammurabi's time glassmaking was just being introduced in Mesopotamia. As time passed, craftworkers figured out how to make elegant vases and other containers from glass. These beautiful glass products attracted the eyes of the empire's rich people. Remember, up until now they had seen only clay and metal containers.

People began buying the new glass goods and using them. The glass items also became popular outside the empire. They


were traded in such faraway places as what are today Iran and Greece. Some historians also think that glassmakers from the Fertile Crescent may have gone to work in Egyptian workshops. There they introduced their skill to Egyptian craftworkers. It is thought that the art of glassmaking spread from Egypt and Mesopotamia to areas in India, Russia, Spain, and China.

Do you see a cause in the above paragraphs? It is the invention of glass in Mesopotamia. One effect, in this case, was the development of different uses for the new material. Another effect was the spread of glassmaking technology to other parts of the world. As you can see, one cause can have more than one effect. It works the other way around too—an effect can have more than one cause.

Can you trace a cause to all of its effects in this example? Try numbering the events in the order in which they happened. The invention of glass happened first—it is a cause. Related events that happened later are effects of that cause.


As you read the following passage, look for cause-and-effect connections. Refer to the Helping Yourself box for help in finding the connections between events.

Glass was not the only material that craft-workers in ancient Mesopotamia experimented with. Around 2000 B.c. Mesopotamians were among the first in the world to blend copper and tin to make bronze.

Bronze brought many changes to life in Mesopotamia. For one thing, bronze was much harder than the copper products that were used until that time. Because it was harder, bronze made better tools and sharper weapons. This improvement in technology was a help to farmers, craftworkers, and soldiers alike.

Molten [melted] bronze was also easier to pour than the metals used earlier. Craftworkers could pour the hot liquid metal into more varied and detailed molds. As a result, these craftworkers were able to make finer arrows, ax-heads, statues, bowls, and other objects.

More and more tin was needed as the demand for products made from bronze increased. Historians believe that traders brought the tin needed to make bronze from distant regions.

In what ways did the invention of bronze affect trade between Mesopotamia and its neighbors?

Helping Yourself

• A cause makes something else happen. The result of a cause is an effect.

• Arrange events in the order in which they happened.

• Look for long and short term cause-and-effect connections.


1. What are some ways to go about identifying cause-and-effect connections?

2. In the passage on the invention of bronze, what were some different causes and effects?

3. How does finding cause-and-effect connections help you to understand historical events?



The Beginnings of Judaism

Focus Activity


How did the writings in the Torah shape Judaism?


• Judaism

• Torah

• monotheism

• Ten Commandments

• Sabbath

• Diaspora


• Abraham

• Moses


• Jerusalem

Read Aloud

"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone." This short passage from the Bible expresses the basis of Jewish religious belief. In this lesson you will read about the great meaning it would have for the ancestors of the Jewish people in the changing world of the Fertile Crescent.


Hammurabi ruled the Babylonian empire in the late 1700s B.C. Meanwhile people were on the move throughout the Fertile Crescent. Phoenician port cities along the Mediterranean Sea were expanding their trade with Egypt and cities across the sea. Merchants were traveling along the dusty roads that connected Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Some information about this exciting time comes from a source that millions of people continue to read today. That source is the collection of books known as the Hebrew Bible. Its original language was Hebrew. It has been translated into almost every language on Earth. Its writings are sacred to more than 17 million Jews today. Christians and Muslims also read and honor the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible is the Jewish people's record of their history and their religion, which is called Judaism. In this lesson you will follow the Bible's account of Judaism's beginnings.



The first book of the Bible tells of a family that lived in Mesopotamia. This family came from the city-state of Ur. In this city people worshiped the Sumerian moon goddess. However, this family worshiped a different god. The Bible tells about a man named Abraham and his wife Sarah:

The Lord said to Abraham: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. . . ." (So] Abraham took his wife, Sarah . . . and they set out for the land of Canaan.

The Covenant

To reach the land of Canaan from Mesopotamia, the travelers would have set out on the trade routes that linked major cities of the Fertile Crescent. Look at the map on this page to see their route. The journey would have taken months, and it would have been hard to be a stranger in a new place. When Abraham arrived in Canaan, the Bible says that God made a covenant, or special agreement, with him.

I am God Almighty. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant with you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous. . . . I assign the land you sojourn [rest] in to you and your offspring to come . . . I will be their God.

This covenant is considered by the Jewish people to be the beginning of their history. Later, their descendants would become known as people of Israel, or Israelites, after Abraham's grandson Israel. They also came to be known as Jews.

Going to Egypt

As time passed, the Bible says, Abraham's children and grandchildren prospered as shepherds in Canaan. Then came a time of poor crops and terrible hunger. The people of Israel went to Egypt, where food could be found.

Here the people of Israel were welcomed. As time passed, things changed. "A new king arose over Egypt," the Bible says. This pharaoh "set taskmasters over [the people of Israel] to oppress them with forced labor." Like others in ancient Egypt, the people of Israel had become slaves.


This family celebrates Passover by praying and sharing a traditional meal. The foods on the plate are symbolic of an ancient story.


Fortunately for the Israelites, a man named Moses rose to leadership. According to the Bible, Moses was born to Israelite parents but was adopted as a baby by the pharaoh's daughter. Raised in the royal household, Moses experienced all the wealth and power of Egypt. Yet he would someday become leader and teacher to enslaved Israelites who lived all around him.

Becoming a Prophet

One day, the Bible says, Moses saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. Moses looked around, and seeing no one about, he killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand.

Moses was wanted for murder by the pharaoh. He fled to the land of Midian, which was probably in present-day Saudi Arabia. There he remained for years until God called to him,

"Come . . . I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."

At first Moses protested, saying, "Please, 0 Lord, I have never been a man of words. . . . I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." In the end, however, the Bible says, he obeyed God and made the long trek back to Egypt. Moses was now seen as a prophet, or a person who speaks for God. Moses walked the halls of the pharaoh's court once again. There he tried to convince


the pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves. Moses wanted to lead them to safety.

The Bible describes how Moses, with the help of God, led the Israelite captives from Egypt. To this day Jews celebrate the Passover festival each year to remember their freedom from slavery.

The Torah

According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness of eastern Egypt. There they wandered for 40 difficult years. Early in their journey the Israelites traveled to a mountain called Mount Sinai. There, the Bible says, God gave Moses five books of laws and teachings. These five books are the first books of the Bible. In Hebrew they are known as the Torah, which comes from the word meaning "to teach."

Some of these laws are very similar to laws that were common in Babylonia. Like the Code of Hammurabi, for example, the Torah also had laws that forbade stealing and hurting others. In I one very important way, however, the Torah was different. The God of the Hebrews forbade them to worship any other gods. This belief in only one God became known as monotheism. It set the Israelites apart from the other peoples living in the Fertile Crescent.

Among the laws that God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai were the Ten Commandments. These commandments became the core of the Jewish religion and teachings. In what ways do the Ten Commandments differ from Hammurabi's laws?



The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14).

I the Lord am your God. . . . You shall have no other gods besides Me.

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below. . . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them.

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.

Remember the Sabbath [day of rest] and keep it holy.

Honor your father and your mother.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet [desire] .. . anything that is your neighbor's.

Many of the scrolls that hold the Torah are beautifully decorated. The Torah shown here is written in Hebrew.


Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and a religious center. Jews gather at the Western Wall to pray.


After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan. The Bible says that Moses spoke to his people one last time before he died.

This is the Instruction—the laws and the rule—that the Lord your God has commanded me to impart to you .. . so that you, your children, and your children's children may revere [worship] the Lord your God .. . to the end that you may long endure [survive].

The Bible says that after hearing Moses' final words, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. There they defeated several kings and set up a nation of their own, called Israel. Now the Israelites were not only a people defined by their religious beliefs. They were a nation with a land, as well.

A Nation of Israel

For the people of Israel, the Torah was the basis of life and faith. It commanded people, for example, to "remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy." The Sabbath is the weekly day of rest, prayer, and study. It falls on Saturday. The instructions of the Torah reminded Israelites of their closeness to God. They continue to do so today.

According to the Bible, Israel became a powerful kingdom under the leadership of King David. He made the city of Jerusalem his capital about 1000 b.c. Jerusalem became even more important to Israel when David's son Solomon built a great temple there. Jerusalem became a center of both religious and political life.


Exile to Babylonia

After Solomon's death, about 928 b.c., the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The southern kingdom was called Judah. This is where the name Jews comes from. The kingdom of Judah survived until 586 B.C. When Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon's temple, many Jews were led away to Babylon. This would not be the last time the Jews were exiled, or forced to leave their homeland. The scattering of the Jews to many parts of the world is called the Diaspora (di AS pur uh).



Lonely sits the city

Once great with people! .. .

Take us back, 0 Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back;

Renew our days as of old!

These words from the Bible record the despair felt by the Jews. However, even in the Diaspora, many Jews would continue to live by the Torah. They would also remember the covenant described in the Bible so many lifetimes earlier.

A Jewish boy studies the Torah in preparation for his bar mitzvah. After this ceremony he will be recognized as an adult.

Reviewing Facts and Ideas


• Trade and movement of people in the 1700s B.C. helped link major cities of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt.

• The Bible says Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and passed on laws from God regarding how they should live.

• Monotheism—the belief in one God—set the Hebrews apart from other groups around them.

• Sacred writings, called the Torah, form the heart of Judaism.


1. What role did Abraham play in the history of Judaism?

2. Why do Jews still celebrate Passover?

3. FOCUS How were Moses and the teachings of the Torah important to the beginnings of Judaism?

4. THINKING SKILL According to the Bible, what was the cause of the Israelites' move to Egypt?

5. WRITE Briefly compare and contrast polytheism and monotheism.




Each of the following statements contains an underlined vocabulary word. Number a sheet of paper from 1 to 5. Beside each number write T if the statement is true and F if the statement is false. If the statement is false, rewrite the sentence using the vocabulary word correctly.

1. Monotheism is a belief in many gods.

2. A ziggurat is a long, pointed weapon used by Sumerian warriors.

3. The system of writing invented in Sumer is cuneiform.

4. The Diaspora is the trip Jews made to live in Israel.

5. An area of fertile land near the coast that is good for farming is called a plateau.


1. What is the Fertile Crescent?

2. Who were two of the Sumerian gods?

3. How did Hammurabi create his powerful empire?

4. Where was Nineveh? Why was it famous?

5. According to the Bible, what was the covenant with Abraham? Why is it important in Jewish history?

5. Who invented the wheel? How was it used?

7. What did early Mesopotamian farmers grow?

8. What is the Hebrew Bible? Why is it important?

9. Who was Sargon and what did he accomplish?

10. According to the time line above, about how many centuries before Solomon did Hammurabi live? How many centuries before Hammurabi did Sargon live?




Write a comparison of the governments and rulers of ancient Egypt and Sumer. How were they similar? How were they different?


Write two or three paragraphs about the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments. Explain why they are regarded as important steps forward in civilization.


Write one paragraph about two of the following people: (1) Sargon, (2) Hammurabi, (3) Abraham, and (4) Moses.



1. What is a cause? What is an effect?

2. Can you think of an example from the chapter of an effect having two or more causes?

3. Name as many causes as you can for the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia.

4. Name two or more effects of the invention of the wheel. Can you think of another example from the chapter of a cause having more than one effect?

5. How do cause-and-effect connections help historians understand the past?

Summing Up the Chapter

Copy the main idea chart below on a separate piece of paper. Then review the chapter to find information for each category on the chart. When you have filled in the chart, use the information to answer the question "What contributions did the peoples of the Fertile Crescent make to civilization?"


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