The first full civilizations that arose in the Tigris-
Euphrates and Nile valleys were both dependent on the river
systems around which they were organized, but Mesopotamian
civilization differed from Egyptian in significant ways. By
1000 B.C.E. both of these formative civilizations had begun
to decline, but they produced smaller civilizations dependent
on their initial contributions.
- The Middle East by 4000 B.C.E.
Civilizations emerged as a result of complex transformations
associated with the consolidation of agricultural economies
and the technological advances of the fourth millennium.
- Agriculture and the Rise of Civilization
The establishment of sedentary agricultural communities did
not lead immediately to civilization, but new forms of social
organization emerged. Sedentary communities often recognized
the concept of property, which in turn promoted introduction
of innovation and investment. Property also implied
enforcement of ownership and the development of systems of
law and government.
In areas of the Middle East, the need for irrigation
encouraged political organization that could arrange
cooperation, distribute supplies of water, and protect the
irrigation works. Along major river systems, irrigation
required the use of great gangs of laborers and an increase
in the scale of political and economic organization.
- Innovation, Specialization, and Productivity
Among the most important technological advances were the
potter's wheel, wheeled vehicles, improved shipbuilding, and
the introduction of bronze tools. Each of these inventions
gave rise to greater economic specialization, improved
productivity, and greater surpluses.
- Civilization in Mesopotamia
Mesopotamian civilization emerged about 3500 B.C.E. It
developed features characteristic of many civilizations, including
writing, large cities, social stratification, and economic
specialization. Invasions and the subsequent collapse of
empires interrupted the course of Mesopotamian civilization.
- The Sumerians
Civilization emerged in the Middle East in the region called
the Fertile Crescent. Although the area is served by rivers,
the climate is arid. As population increased, the need for
irrigation prompted technological advances and economic
specialization. The Sumerians, who migrated into Mesopotamia
around 4000 B.C.E., developed important religious centers.
Sumerian political organization was based on city-states that
controlled the surrounding agricultural fields. The city-
states were ruled by kings who set boundaries, regulated
religion, provided justice, and led the armies. The elite
kings, priests, and nobles controlled much of the land, which
was worked by slaves. Sumerian civilization established the
basic traditions for all Mesopotamian civilizations.
Although larger political empires occasionally coalesced, the
city-state remained the elemental principle of political
organization in Sumeria. The economy continued to rely on
Technological advances facilitated agricultural development
and trade. Economic expansion produced large cities
including one with a population of more than 70,000. The
Sumerians developed a writing system, cuneiform, around 3500
B.C.E. to make possible records of trade and property.
Writing also had a religious function of granting scribes
power over the natural world.
Around 2000 B.C.E., the Sumerians recorded the oldest
literary epic, the story of Gilgamesh. Sumerian sculpture
and painting were used to decorate religious precincts. The
Sumerians were particularly advanced mathematicians who used
their calculations to help understand the movement of the sun
and stars. Sumerian religion was essentially gloomy.
Anthropomorphic gods were associated with forces of nature
over which humans had little or no control. The Sumerian
concept of an afterlife was filled with pain and suffering.
Priests attempted to placate the gods through sacrifice and
Monumental temple structures, ziggurats, formed the basis for
monumental architecture. Other civilizations adapted aspects
of Sumerian science, literature, art, and religion to suit
their own purposes.
- What Civilization Meant in Sumeria
As in other cases, Sumerian civilization was predicated on
the existence of agricultural surpluses that supported
economic specialization, social stratification, and trade.
Sumerian civilization developed, in addition, a clearly
defined state and significant urbanization that depended on a
regional system of collection and redistribution. Sumerian
civilization also created a writing system that permitted
more elaborate records and facilitated taxation and trade.
Writing also contributed to a more diversified intellectual
life. Urban life was critical to Sumeria, because cities
facilitated government, trade, production, social
stratification, and economic specialization. Cities in
Sumeria extended their influence over much of the
The emergence of civilization in Sumeria, as elsewhere,
involved both gains and losses. Civilizations create greater
social inequities based on both perceived social status and
gender. Civilizations, because of their greater resources,
often become more aggressive and violent. Despite their
intellectual prowess, advanced technologies, and more stable
political structures, civilizations spread slowly in
relatively isolated regions.
- Later Mesopotamian Civilization: A Series of Conquests
Mesopotamian civilization was politically fragile. It was
common for one group to form a state temporarily, only to be
swept away by subsequent invaders. Around 2400 B.C.E.,
Sargon I of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city-states and
inaugurated the first Mesopotamian empire.
Military organization funded by state taxation expanded
under Sargon and his successors. The Akkadian empire lasted
for about two centuries before disintegrating in the face of
other invasions. The Sumerian city-states briefly reasserted
their independence. Around 1800 B.C.E., the Babylonian
Empire united all of Mesopotamia. The most important of the
Babylonian rulers, Hammurabi, created a formal bureaucracy
and issued a law code based on previous Sumerian
codifications. Babylonian culture advanced the Sumerian work
in astronomy and mathematics.
The Babylonian Empire was able to establish a unified trade
and cultural zone incorporating much of the Tigris and
Euphrates valleys. About 1600 B.C.E., Hittite invaders from
Asia Minor crushed the Babylonians and established their own
empire. The Hittites, in turn, were displaced by a series of
smaller kingdoms that disputed the control of Mesopotamia
between 1200 and 900 B.C.E. During this period smaller
regional cultures, such as the Hebrew and Phoenician,
flourished. After 900 B.C.E., a new series of empires the
Assyrian and Persian controlled the region.
- Ancient Egypt
Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile River after
3000 B.C.E. Isolated by the surrounding deserts, Egyptian
civilization was more stable than Mesopotamian.
- Basic Patterns of Egyptian Society
Unlike Mesopotamian civilization, which spread from the river
valleys throughout much of the Middle East, Egyptian
civilization was clearly focused on the Nile River valley.
Sometime before 3200 B.C.E., growing trade with other regions
accelerated development in agricultural communities along the
Nile. Egypt moved directly to unified political structures
without the intermediary stage of city-states. The Nile
ecological system was a strong factor in promoting unity. By
3100 B.C.E., Narmer, king of southern Egypt, conquered the
northern rulers to create a unified government. Despite some
disruptions, the Egyptian state lasted for nearly 3,000
Egyptian chronology is typically divided among the Old,
Middle, and New Kingdoms. The Egyptian political system was
dominated by a semi-divine pharaoh, who was believed to
control the rituals critical to the annual flooding of the
Nile on which the Egyptian economy depended. The pharaohs
commanded a bureaucracy trained in writing and law and
appointed governors to supervise irrigation and public works
in critical regions. The majority of Egyptians were farmers
whose labor could be commandeered in support of public works
and monuments. Because of the central position of the
pharaohs in Egyptian society, it is not surprising that the
most famous of these public works, the pyramids, were
constructed to house the rulers and their households after
their deaths. Elaborate death rituals associated with the
pyramids and mummification may suggest the Egyptians'
fundamental belief in social and political organization
continued even after death.
- Egyptian Ideas and Art
The Egyptians developed a distinctive form of writing, called
hieroglyphics, much different than the Mesopotamian
cuneiform. Egyptians wrote on papyrus, cheaper to produce
than other materials. The Egyptians did not develop an epic
literary tradition. Like Mesopotamian civilization, the
Egyptians understood mathematics and astronomy, but were not
as advanced as the Mesopotamians in these sciences. Egyptian
scientists were more progressive in use of medical
techniques. It was not science, but religion, that dominated
the Egyptian world view. Egyptian religion was polytheistic
and focused on the afterlife, where the deceased were
believed to enjoy a happy existence.
Egyptian art concentrated on depictions of the deities,
although human subjects were not uncharacteristic. Given the
stable political system, it is not strange that Egyptian
culture remained relatively static. Foreign invasions
brought the Old Kingdom to a close around 2200 B.C.E., but
unity was restored under the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom.
Another round of invasions ended the Middle Kingdom dynasties
and resulted in the eventual establishment of the New
The dynasties of the New Kingdom were the most expansionist
in Egyptian civilization. Trade and commerce were
established with other civilizations in the Middle East and
eastern Mediterranean. It was during the New Kingdom that
the pharaoh Akhenaton attempted to found a new religion, but
failed. After 1150 B.C.E., internal disputes and foreign
invasions brought on the decline of the New Kingdom.
- Egypt and Mesopotamia Compared
Egypt and Mesopotamia differed in many ways. Political
authority in Egypt was more centralized, while in Mesopotamia
imperial government overlay a substructure of regional city-
states. Mesopotamian culture featured less monumental
architecture than Egypt, but did develop an epic literary
tradition that Egypt lacked. In part these differences can
be explained by Egypt's greater access to building materials
and the ability of the pharaohs to commandeer huge numbers of
laborers. Egyptian religion focused on the afterlife and
provided a rationale for the development of monumental
structures lacking in Mesopotamia.
Given its more challenging environment, Mesopotamian society
made more technological advances than did that of Egypt.
Mesopotamian merchants established a wider commercial orbit
and were a more significant component within their society
than were their counterparts in Egypt. Women may have
enjoyed a somewhat higher social status in Egypt than in
Mesopotamia. There were some similarities between Egypt and
The livelihood of both was dependent on their management and
control of river systems. Both featured social
stratification with a priestly and landowning elite
overlaying a social substratum of peasants and slaves. Both
civilizations made advances in the sciences, particularly
mathematics and astronomy. Conservatism in both
civilizations may have resulted in greater longevity than
later civilizations. Egypt and Mesopotamia were the starting
points for many derivative civilizations that followed them.
- Civilization Centers in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean
Separate but derivative civilization centers sprung up on the
borders of Egypt and Mesopotamia around 1000 B.C.E.
- Kush and Axum: Civilization Spreads in Africa
The first African state outside of Egypt was Kush, which
emerged as an independent political unit after 1000 B.C.E.
Around 730 B.C.E., Kush was sufficiently strong to conquer
Egyptian civilization, but the Assyrian invasion of the Nile
valley broke Kush's hold on its northern neighbor.
Subsequently, Kush expanded southward and eventually
established a permanent capital at Meroe.
The development of iron technology within Kushite culture
became a source of both economic and military strength. Kush
was urbanized and did develop a system of writing. Political
organization, based on a semi-divine ruler, was similar to
Egypt. At its height from 250 B.C.E. to 50 C.E., Kush served
as a conduit for African goods to the Middle East and
Mediterranean. Kush fell around 300 C.E. to Axum, an African
kingdom to the south. It is uncertain how much influence
Kushite culture had in the rest of Africa.
- Cultures in the Mediterranean Region
The most important of the Middle Eastern cultures that
emerged on the fringes of Mesopotamia was that of the
Hebrews. They probably migrated from Mesopotamia around 1600
B.C.E. and settled in the southeastern corner of the
Mediterranean. Some of the Hebrews may have migrated to
Egypt, where they were subjugated until Moses led them to
Palestine. Separate political identity began to emerge
around 1100 B.C.E. For most of their history, the Hebrew
states were divided and small. Political independence of the
Hebrew states ended after 722 B.C.E. What distinguished
Hebrew culture was the development of strict monotheism out
of what was probably originally a hierarchy of divinities.
According to Mosaic tradition, Jews were commanded to worship
only one god and to recognize their special position as a
In addition to monotheism, Judaism emphasized two important
concepts: the idea of an overall divine plan and a divinely
organized morality. By the second century B.C.E., these
concepts were written out in the Torah and other writings
that came to comprise the Old Testament of the Bible. The
lack of emphasis on evangelism within Judaism kept the Jewish
people a minority in the Middle East, but the concept of
monotheism and the linkage of god to ethical behavior were
important components later adopted from Judaism by both
Christianity and Islam.
Minoan society emerged on the island of Crete around 1600
B.C.E. Minoan civilization traded extensively with both
Egypt and Mesopotamia. Cultural influences from the two
older civilizations were critical on Crete. The Minoan trade
network extended to the Greek mainland, where another early
civilization was created, including the kingdom of Mycenae.
Indo-European invasions culminating around 1000 B.C.E.
disrupted civilizations on the Greek mainland and on Crete.
Cultural levels fell in both areas.
Phoenician civilization developed around 2000 B.C.E. Like
the Minoans, the Phoenicians controlled an extensive trade
network. Most Phoenician cultural achievements were directly
related to commerce. The Phoenicians established colonies
throughout the Mediterranean. After the decline of Minoan
and Greek civilizations, there were few trade rivals. The
Phoenician alphabet was the ancestor for both the later Greek
and Latin alphabets.
- The End of the Early Civilization Period
River valley civilizations came to an end in both Egypt and
Mesopotamia around 1000 B.C.E. After that date, smaller
civilization centers added to the cultural contributions of
the region with coined money, a monotheistic religion, and a
simplified alphabet. Civilization moved beyond the original
core areas to other regions of the Middle East, Africa, and
Waves of invasions by Indo-Europeans marked a break with the
more ancient civilizations. Hunters and herders from central
Asia, the Indo-Europeans introduced the use of iron and more
powerful weaponry. The Assyrians made use of this technology
to conquer much of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Within fifty years
of completing its conquest, the Assyrian empire disintegrated
into smaller successor kingdoms. The disruption of the
ancient civilizations brought new ideas: elective kingship
and new political constitutions. The centers of new
civilizations expanded beyond the Middle Eastern core.
- Conclusion: The Issue of Heritage
The ancient civilizations left a mixed heritage including
regional diversity, monotheism, and distinctive monumental
architecture. One lasting heritage was the basic apparatus
of civilization the idea of writing, calendars, basic
mathematics, improved technologies such as irrigation and
iron, more productive grain seeds, the potter's wheel, the
wheel, money, and written law which did not have to be
reinvented in this part of the world.
The direct cultural contributions of the ancient
civilizations are harder to trace. Some architectural and
literary traditions were retained, although in modified form.
The political traditions of divine kingship and regional
city-states resurfaced in later civilizations. Some
historians maintain that civilizations derived from the
ancient Near Eastern cultures viewed nature as separate from
humanity and largely antagonistic to it. Such a viewpoint
diverged from early civilizations in Asia that posited a
universal harmony of all things.