I’m doing these as separate pages on the blog site so that they don’t interrupt the flow of more “ordinary” content. Without further ado, here’s a lesson on the very first civilizations found in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.
We spoke a bit on agriculture and how it changed things in our last lesson, namely how scarcity of original food sources forced humans to start experimenting with agriculture around 10,000 BCE. We discussed how many hunter-gatherers would not have turned to farming and agriculture were it not for this scarcity of the food they originally depended upon. They perfected agriculture at around 8,000 BCE and began to settle in villages like Jericho and Catal Huyuk. There were some interesting consequences to these peoples’ actions.
First, since these early practitioners of agriculture didn’t have to pursue their food and instead had learned to grow it themselves, they began to settle down, for lack of a better word. These settlements grew into villages. A second result of this newfangled agriculture thing is that population boomed. This population was also stable. A third consequence is that since they now had enough food to feed a village (and even more at times), not everyone had to work on growing food anymore. They could then engage in something called specialization of labor, where some people become builders, some become craftspeople, others become cooks, etc.. It’s kind of like today where we don’t have everyone doing the same thing as a profession and there are new industries opening up every day. The same theme of expansion went for the people in these early villages – the possibilities were endless now that everyone and their dog (yes, there were dogs then) didn’t have to hunt, gather, or work the fields.
Now that humanity was able to establish stable agriculture, they could take a massive step forward. They began to form cities, which would evolve into states, which would evolve into civilizations.
This process involved a lot of experimentation, for as more and more people inhabited the same space, they had to learn how to get along more and more. I think of it like what would happen if your family has been alone for some time in a neighborhood that’s still under construction and then you get these REALLY OBNOXIOUS neighbors that throw parties a lot right next door. You have to learn to at least be civil to them or else you’ll get in trouble with the law, right?
Not entirely for them. For them, they had to figure out what law even was. This led to the creation of law and order and caused the settlements to recognize authority and form states.
Our first state is Sumer in the region of the world known as Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia: What is it? Why is it important?
Question: Why do you think rivers are important to early civilizations? How many other civilizations do you think are also based around large rivers?
Mesopotamia is the region of very fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It covers roughly the modern state of Iraq and then some. Its name is Greek for “land between two rivers.” It is there that the first civilizations were born. The true original is Sumer.
Sumer sprung up on the southern end of the region where the early farmers had learned to master the rivers with man made irrigation systems. This allowed for an explosion in food production, so the human population grew around this fertile area. By 3,000 BCE, there were more than 100,000 people in Sumer. They built the first cities, which carried more weight than the towns before them because they were places of authority that influenced a great bit of the areas around them. These inhabitants needed to get their lives in order and quickly in order to prevent widespread disorder. This required a more powerful central government than those that came before it, and along with keeping law and order, these governments sponsored huge public works projects. These projects included temples, defensive structures, and public buildings, and all of these were made possible by labor that the city governments organized and paid for.
They also sponsored irrigation systems that would not have been possible before. Because the government had the only say in how these irrigation systems worked, they still needed oversight in case something like a dispute arose. Since Sumer was so wealthy and prosperous, every surrounding country wanted a piece of it. Now, Mesopotamia on the whole is a very flat area with few barriers to entry. This made invading cities in Sumer a piece of cake. Faced with the threat of invasion, the city governments were forced to further extend their power and recruit, train, and equip an army to defend the cities they called home.
As far as structure goes, the government started off being made up of councils of prominent people from Sumerian society, but when crises emerged, the councils turned the power over to an individual who often usurped power permanently after the crisis was over. Many Sumerian kings were elected at first, but the kings soon made sure that the power remained in the family.
I realize that this is a bit of a wall of text with some pictures in between, so here’s a recap.
To Recap, Pt. 1
Agriculture creates a massive upheaval in human societies. People in Mesopotamia, a valley between two rivers in the Middle East, became masters of irrigation and made the rivers do what they want. This caused them to grow a ton of food, so the population was able to grow and flourish. Because the population was growing and the food source was stable, not everyone had to spend time growing food. Due to this, we have discovered that labor began to be more specialized. People joined all sorts of trades that were not related to farming and were able to accomplish some cool stuff. As people began to live closer together, they had to find ways to get along. This was difficult and so they began to rely on the first city governments to maintain law and order. These governments also used their power to orchestrate large public works projects, like temples, irrigation expansions, defensive structures, and public buildings. As humans are known to do, they want what isn’t theirs. Such was the case with people wanting a piece of Sumer, the first real civilization found in Mesopotamia. These same governments were faced with the task of training and maintaining armies. In times of crisis, the councils that governed Sumer turned to an individual for help, and that individual declared himself king more often than not.
On to Egypt, we’ll come back to this soon!
The Gift of the Nile
Question: Why do you think Egypt remained something close to a nation for most of its ancient history as opposed to Mesopotamia?
When the ancient historian Herodotus went to Egypt, he declared it the Gift of the Nile. Egypt is an interesting place geographically, especially when compared to Mesopotamia. It’s largely protected by the bodies of water that surround it, namely the Mediterranean Sea to the north, while Mesopotamia was left largely defenseless by its surroundings. Perhaps the most interesting geographical feature (and reason for the nickname) there is the Nile itself. It is a very long river that collects snowmelt and rain near its start, and before the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1974, it caused the river to flood when it reached the delta where most of Egyptian civilization was located. The muck the floods left was highly fertile, and it ended up fueling Egyptian agriculture.
Around 5,000 BCE, Egyptians began to experiment with agriculture. After the annual floods receded, the cultivators essentially planted the crops, stood back, and harvested them when they were ready.
This led to a huge population boom in the style of Mesopotamia, and as this population grew, they needed more and more food. These early farmers were required to protect the crops from floods with dikes, and other protective technologies soon followed. Agriculture was a huge hit, and settlements began to spring up along the shores of the Nile.
Increasing population density required a new source of law and order as in Sumer, and even though they didn’t need much military protection at the time, they still created states and gave them authority.
Authority was first given to Menes, who conquered most of ancient Egypt around 3100 BCE and built a capital at Memphis. There were other important cities, like Thebes, an administrative center, and Tanis, the gateway to the Mediterranean. Perhaps Menes’ most important achievement was the creation of a centralized government, ruled by a pharaoh. These early pharaohs claimed to be gods walking the earth and as such demanded absolute power. The art of the time often depicted them like they depicted the god Horus, the sky god – with a hawk.
The pharaohs enjoyed their greatest power in the first millennium of Egyptian history, the periods of time known as the Archaic Period (3100-2660 BCE) and the Old Kingdom (2660-2180 BCE). The most famous works of architecture from that time are the Pyramids at Giza. Most of them were built between 2600-2500 BCE. They demonstrate the great power and divine significance these rulers had. The largest pyramid, known as the pyramid of Khufu, is made up of 2,300,000 limestone blocks averaging 2.5 tons each. It’s thought that 84,000 laborers working 80 days per year for twenty years. That’s a lot of time and a lot of limestone.
Next up is the Middle Kingdom, (2080-1640 BCE), a time of turmoil and confusion for the Egyptian civilization. Local rulers got fed up and challenged the pharaohs’ rule, allowing the kingdom to fall to those with horse drawn chariots, a thing that the Egyptians didn’t have. The most notable of these peoples were the Hyksos, which ruled for a time until the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom kicked them out. Done with the situation at hand, the pharaohs invaded their neighbors in hopes of preventing more invasion trouble.
Question: Why is creating a centralized government so important when building an empire or a large nation?
As humans do, the inhabitants of these early cities wanted to own more than just their city, so they set about conquering the lands around them.
The first successful conquerer was Sargon of Akkad. He was a gifted administrator as well as warrior, and he united most of Mesopotamia under his rule. The more he conquered, the better his armies got, and no single city could withstand their onslaught. He also seized the means of production, making sure everyone had to rely on him. Because of this, he was able to levy taxes that allowed him to continue beefing up his military. It was kind of an imperial snowball. The more lands and cities Sargon conquered, the more resources he gained, which allowed him to conquer more lands, so on and so forth. Sargon (and generations that followed, actually) owned all of Mesopotamia by the time of Sargon’s death. The empire declined many years later due to continual rebellions and vanished completely by 2100 BCE. Sargon set a shining example to other conquerers because he was spoken of highly in legends and also because he used propaganda, which is used even now to sway the opinions of the general populace.
The most notable of the conquerors that Sargon inspired was Hammurabi of Babylon. He clearly thought very highly of himself, because he called himself “king of the four quarters of the world.” He gave his all to back up that claim. If you think Sargon’s use of administration was good, Hammurabi’s was better. Hammurabi taxed his subjects in a regular fashion and made his government more centralized.
Something cool about Hammurabi was that he ruled from one location – Babylon, near where Baghdad is today – instead of going around his empire with an army constantly. He must have learned that that was a waste of time and manpower, so he stationed deputies in the newly conquered lands and controlled the people through them.
Another interesting thing is that Hammurabi’s armies did not plunder the lands they conquered and hoard the wealth all at once. Instead, they levied taxes that helped spread the costs of war and bureaucracy more evenly throughout the empire.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Hammurabi did for his people, though, is provide them with a uniform law code.There were other law codes before his, but he compiled and unified them, adding and subtracting where needed. This law code was not gentle, but it was fair, and it helps a student of history learn a lot more about what the people were like and what they dealt with at the time. The same goes for other law codes, as well. What laws a culture has tells those who study the culture what the people struggle with, what their values are, and what they hold dear. Hammurabi’s law code would be seen as harsh to us today, and this type of law system even has a name: lex talionis, or law of retaliation. This phrase is the rough equivalent of the more well known phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Essentially, what you do to someone else the law gets to do to you in return. It took into account the offender’s social standing and also established women as mostly inferior to men.
Despite Hammurabi’s best efforts, the Babylonian Empire fell to the Hittites, a group of people from modern day Turkey with iron on their side. The Egyptians also made a valiant effort towards empire at this same time, with pharaohs of the New Kingdom seizing lands in Syria and Palestine. They were done with being invaded.
After the Hittites came the Assyrians, the bullies of Mesopotamia. They came from the north part of the land and were belligerent, ruthless, war driven people. They expanded on the work of Sargon and Hammurabi, but included an even more beefy military in the process. The Assyrian military was far from a disorganized group of people relying on brute force. It was instead a meritocracy where only the skilled became officers. They had to earn their rank rather than be born into it, and their military might was respected and feared.
They also used the horse drawn chariot to their great advantage – their foes almost literally never saw it coming. It was a new invention. The Hittites discovered how to work iron, the Assyrians learned to use it. Because of this huge amount of firepower, they not only ruled Mesopotamia, but also Syria, Palestine, and a good deal of Egypt. As previously stated, they were bullies, only they took land instead of lunch money. Their empire fell in 612 BCE due to rebellion that was, for lack of a better word, provoked by Assyrian overlords, along with external threats.
New Babylon ruled Mesopotamia for another fifty years (600-550 BCE) before its foreign neighbors got powerful and smart and started to take it over. Lookin’ at you, Achaemenid Persia.
A brief note on empire
After studying history for a long while, I have discovered that the quickest way to get an empire to fall is to get it to fight itself. If you have a kingdom and your people are, say, breaking into increasingly polarized factions and are unable to get anything done due to their squabbling, what on this green earth are you going to do when your greedy next door neighbor wants a piece of your kingdom? Nothing, because you can’t. The infighting will bring your kingdom down before your greedy neighbor will. Worse, your next door neighbor could play the sharply divided factions off against each other as we will see with the fall of the Aztec empire. It’s always in a nation’s best interest to get along unless it wants to rip apart at the seams. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The Making of Complex Societies
Question: Why do you think that the civilization with more advanced technology usually wins in a war?
We have spoken before about specialization of labor after agriculture really took root, but there are two things we haven’t really touched on: metalworking, the wheel, and trade. We talked a bit about how the Hittites had iron on their side, but we didn’t go into much detail. Let’s go into more detail now.
Before about 1000 BCE, almost all metalwork was done with bronze. There was bronze everything after the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt and the Egyptians learned their expensive secret. I say expensive because copper and tin (the two metals that are alloyed to make bronze) were costly to produce and use. The Egyptian elites watched the metalworkers who worked the bronze like hawks to make sure none went missing. But then somebody in the Hittite kingdom got smart and decided to mix iron with carbon and then everybody was making iron weapons that were very strong. They then proceeded to dominate their enemies with their new discovery, as humans are known to do. This changed the world. Those whose nations were run over with iron started making their own iron weapons, and the world went on.
Another invention happened that changed humanity – the invention of the wheel. Nobody quite knows for sure when the wheel exactly came into being, but we know that the Sumerians had wheeled carts when they started forming city-states at about 3200 BCE. The wheel caught on quickly. Soon everyone was using it.
Both Egypt and Mesopotamia knew how to build boats and use them, too, and they used all of the resources at their disposal to trade for resources they did not have originally. The Pharaohs liked Lebanese cedar, so they imported it in huge quantities. Sumer didn’t have many natural resources, so they traveled even as far out as the Indus Valley to trade and get what they needed.
If you can read this, thank the Phoenicians!
Questions: Why is the invention of an alphabet so important? How did it change the world?
Do you remember the dividing line between prehistory and history? It’s the emergence of a writing system that draws that line between them, and Sumer is where it happened. Somewhere around 3100 BCE, there were symbols representing actual words being used in Mesopotamia with phonetic sounds appearing in 2900 BCE, and scholars consider this to be the advent of a writing system. This is called cuneiform, a phrase meaning “wedge shaped” in Latin.
The Egyptians also had a writing system called hieroglyphics, but these were tedious. To adapt hieroglyphics to everyday use, they used a script called hieratic, which was a cursive form of the hieroglyphs. When the Greek alphabet arrived, they adopted their language to it, resulting in the invention of Coptic texts.
North of modern day Palestine, there was a little nation called Phoenicia. The Phoenicians didn’t have many materials of their own, so they turned to the seas and became masters of trade. One might be quick to dismiss them as a Mesopotamian imitator because their traditions closely followed those of Mesopotamia, but something came out of Phoenicia that changed the world – alphabetic writing.
The Phoenicians took the very complex Mesopotamian writing system and broke it down into 22 easily recognizable symbols. Learning 22 symbols is far easier than learning hundreds, right? The world certainly thought so. The Phoenicians didn’t keep their creation to themselves. They shared it and the world made use of it, ultimately doing away with cuneiform.
What’s next? We’ll travel to India and Pakistan to learn about some other really cool river valley civilizations! See you soon…