Four to five thousand years after the Neolithic Revolution, the
first full-blown civilizations arose in the Middle East and on the
subcontinent of India.
between the [Tigris &
Part of larger area known as Fertile
A series of ancient civilizations –
Sumer, Babylon, Persia – thrived here.
Written record begins with Sumer, in
southern part of Mesopotamia, where
by 3000 BCE perhaps 100,000 people
Sumer developed as a collection of city-states,
surrounded by fields of barley and wheat. Water from
the rivers – which flooded often and unpredictably –
was central to the civilization.
Shared culture but separate governments: each city-
state (Ur, Uruk, Kish, etc.) had own ruler, own god.
Sumerians were polytheistic (worshipped more than
one god), believing natural events were caused by
the gods ⇒ harsh life, frequent flooding and
invasions transmitted to a religion of “rough” gods.
To the temple
called ziggurats to
appease their angry
controlled by temple
priests … but by third
millennium BCE there
emerged a lugal, or “big
Scholars still debate the
function and symbolic
meaning of ziggurats, which
were made of mud-brick and
approached by ramps and
From the top down
The “big man” was what we would call a king.
The idea of royalty emerged, and kings soon
assumed many responsibilities:
upkeep and building of temples and proper performance of
religious ritual (Sumerians believed in magic);
maintaining city walls and defenses, and warding off foreign
extending and repairing irrigation channels;
guarding property rights; and
The Sumerian social order
Some kings claimed divinity but they usually
portrayed themselves as the deity’s earthly
Practice of hereditary succession emerged.
Below the kings were priests and priestesses
(often related to the king).
Lower down the social order were free commoners
(peasants, builders, craftsmen) and then dependent
clients (owned no property), both of whom paid
taxes with surplus or labor.
Slavery from the very beginning
At the very bottom of the Sumerian social
pyramid were the slaves, who worked as
agricultural laborers or domestic servants.
Note that from the earliest civilization on record, slavery has
existed in one form or another. It is a significant social and
economic continuity throughout most of human history. Slaves
were often made of conquered enemies, and some people even
sold themselves into slavery. Later on, we’ll see how the Atlantic
slave trade was especially pernicious and unique.
The role of women
Males dominated the position of scribe, and what
they wrote mostly reflects elite male activity.
Scholars theorize that women lost social standing
and freedom with the spread of agriculture.
Bearing and raising children and maintaining the
home became primary occupation of many women …
but some worked in primitive textile factories and
breweries, or as prostitutes, tavern keepers, bakers
Women had some rights: they could own property,
maintain control of their dowry (property a woman
brings to her husband at marriage) and engage in
Mesopotamian science and
Historians believe Sumerians invented the
wheel, the sail and the plow.
Other Mesopotamian advancements:
Cuneiform – a system of writing on clay tablets, using graphic
symbols to represent sounds, syllables, ideas, physical objects.
Math & geometry – developed a number system in base 60,
from which we get modern units for measuring time and the
degrees of a circle (60 seconds, 360 degrees).
Metallurgy – bronze and then iron by 1000 BCE.
The Epic of Gilgamesh – (c. 2000 BCE)
Mesopotamia’s greatest work of literature, it was an
epic poem of about 3,000 lines that addressed
Mesopotamia’s mythic answer to the most profound
question of all: What is the meaning of life and
Myth – a vehicle through which prescientific societies
explain the workings of the universe and humanity’s
place within it.
Terrifying conditions & visions
Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian hero, is confronted
with “terrifying visions of the afterlife: disembodied
spirits of the dead stumbling around in the darkness
of the Underworld for all eternity, eating dust and
clay, and slaving for the heartless gods of that realm.”
– The Earth and Its Peoples, p. 33
As you reflect on Mesopotamia and Egypt,
consider how their respective environments
shaped their worldviews and religious
practices. How was the Mesopotamian view
of the afterlife different from the Egyptian?
War and trade
Mesopotamian peoples quarreled often but also
traded with one another – as well as other
civilizations – extensively.
Trade networks, in fact, extended far and wide:
Donkey caravans to Anatolia (tin and textiles for silver),
Lebanon (for cedar wood), Egypt (for gold) and northern
India (for semiprecious stones).
Watercraft sailed through the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea:
Sumerian merchants shipped woolen textiles, leather goods,
sesame oil and jewelry to India in exchange for copper,
ivory, pearls and semiprecious stones.
By 1700 BCE Sumerian civilization had been completely
overthrown, but subsequent conquerors adopted many
Sumerian traditions and technologies.
Supplanting the Sumerians, in succession:
Akkadians – speakers of a Semitic language (Semitic refers to a
family of languages spoken in western Asia and northern Africa,
including Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician and modern-day
Arabic), who developed first known code of laws.
Babylonians – Code of Hammurabi (King of Babylon) was
first major step toward the idea of the “rule of law,”
distinguishing between major and minor offenses and applying it
to nearly everyone.
After Sumer (cont.)
Hittites – dominated region* by 1500 BCE, becoming a military
superpower because of their use of iron in weapons.
Assyrians – learned to use iron technology from the Hittites and
established an empire across the Fertile Crescent; ruthlessly
sent large groups into exile after uprisings (which further
enhanced cultural diffusion – the process by which a product
or idea spreads from one culture to another).
* Remember, with the succession of Summer, Akkad, Babylon,
etc., we’re still talking about Mesopotamia.
After Sumer (cont.)
Chaldeans – King
rebuilt Babylon as a
culture, only to see
his empire fall to a
new civilization called
Empire – a major
world force we’ll
discuss later on.
At roughly the same time as
civilization emerged along
the Nile River, the world’s
Narrow region along the
banks supports lush
vegetation amid surrounding
Upper Egypt to the south,
Lower Egypt to the north.
Predictable flooding = stable
The impact of natural environment
Egypt’s natural isolation
fostered a unique
culture with long periods
of relative stability.
Basic features of
society and politics took
shape during Early
BCE) and Old Kingdom
The Nile River
From old to new
Civil war brought about First Intermediate Period
Middle Kingdom lasted from 2040-1640 BCE, after
which the Hyksos conquered it.
A century later, the New Kingdom (1532-1070
BCE) was established, during which the ancient
Egyptians reached their peak, militarily conquering –
especially under Ramses II (1304-1237 BCE) – vast
territories in northern Africa and the Middle East,
including Palestine, Syria and parts of Asia Minor.
Even more so than the Mesopotamians, the ancient
Egyptians developed centralized society, presided
over by a monarch called a pharaoh and a small
caste of priests.
The pharaoh was considered the living incarnation of
the chief deity, the sun god Re (“ray”).
The benevolent rule of the pharaoh and the
Egyptians’ conception of a divine king as the source
of law and order may explain the absence of an
impersonal law equivalent to Hammurabi’s Code.
From the top down
Egyptian social structure
Pharaoh –Pharaoh – owned all the land andowned all the land and
goods produced on it.goods produced on it.
Merchants and skilled artisansMerchants and skilled artisans
Peasants –Peasants – expected to give over half of what they produced toexpected to give over half of what they produced to
the kingdom.the kingdom.
Slaves –Slaves – limited and of little economic significance; usually prisoners oflimited and of little economic significance; usually prisoners of
war or their descendents.war or their descendents.
You can take it with you
Egyptians were polytheistic, having an elaborate
religion that included the idea of life after death.
Egyptian Book of the Dead – the most important
religious text, detailing what happens to the soul and
how to reach a happy afterlife.
The afterlife was central to the most famous aspects
of Egyptian civilization: mummification (the art of
preserving bodies after death) and the building of
gigantic tombs (including the pyramids, which were
meant to provide resting places for pharaohs after
The Pyramids of
These pyramids – the largest of which,
the Great Pyramid, is nearly 500 feet tall
– are thought to have taken more than
80,000 laborers 20 years to build.
In addition to building great pyramids,
Egyptians were talented makers of bronze
tools and weapons.
They developed great knowledge of
medicine, mathematics and astronomy … and
devised the 365-day calendar that, with minor
modifications, is still used today.
The Egyptian writing system consisted of a series of
pictures (hieroglyphs) that represented letters and words.
We can read ancient Egyptian writing only because of the
19th-century CE discovery of the Rosetta Stone, a 2nd-
century BCE inscription that gave hieroglyphic and Greek
versions of the same text.
Papyrus, a paper-like product that could be
written on with ink, was invented in Egypt and
exported in large quantities for scribes
throughout the ancient world.
Made with the stems of papyrus reeds, which grew
abundantly in the Nile marshes: laid in a grid pattern,
moistened, then pounded with a soft mallet until they
adhered into a sheet.
History’s first known female ruler was Queen
Hatshepsut (22-year reign during New Kingdom),
who is credited with greatly expanding Egyptian trade
Women had relatively high status in ancient Egypt –
they could express themselves more freely than
Mesopotamian women; could buy, sell, inherit and
will property as they chose; could dissolve their
marriages – but were still expected to be subservient
Ancient Egypt was less urban than Mesopotamia,
and – because of its relatively isolated location – was
at less of a trading crossroads. Nevertheless, over
time they did build up cities and a sizable economic
They needed a constant supply of timber and stone
for building projects, and their culture prized luxuries
such as gold and spices.
Egyptian art reflects societal values
“Because the Egyptians had no feeling that
events of the moment were transitory, they
viewed the present as eternal. The world was
static; what seemed like change was only
recurrence of the eternal order. Thus,
Egyptian literature does not contain careful
records of the deeds, or distinctive
characteristics of the pharaohs. Rather they
are portrayed as the divine ideal, always just,
wise, bold, strong, and victorious. (continued)
“Neither did artists depict events to be
remembered for their uniqueness;
instead they tried to show the
typical and ideal. The aim of the
artist was to portray the eternal
nature of his subject, independent
of time and space, and this aim
eventually crystallized into a set of
stylistic formulas. Each figure was
painted partly in profile, partly in
frontal view … not pictorially but
symbolically … The static quality of
Egyptian art was heightened by the
absence of perspective.”
From Antiquity, by Norman
Cantor, p. 62.
Wall painting of an
The Indus Valley Civilization
Discovered in the early
20th century, this
civilization (c. 2500-
1500 BCE) stretched for
more than 900 miles
along the Indus River in
the northwestern part of
the Indian subcontinent,
which is present-day
Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro
Archaeologists have found as many as 1,500
communities that thrived along the Indus River, which
was an excellent transportation system that provided
access to the Arabian Sea.
Two biggest urban sites, supporting 30-40,000
inhabitants: Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, from which
we get the term Harappan civilization (or society).
All of what we know of this civilization comes from the
archaeological record because its writing system of
more than 400 signs has not been deciphered.
Cities on a grid
In contrast to early Mesopotamian cities, which were
jumbled mazes of irregular buildings made of sun-
dried mud bricks, Harappan cities were more
buildings and streets laid out in precise grids.
buildings constructed with oven-baked bricks cut in standard
extensive and modern-looking indoor plumbing, with
showers and toilets with wooden seats, and pipes
connecting each house to an underground sewer system.
A look at the modern-
day excavation of
street, above, and an
Industrious people on the Indus
Cities were built on mud-brick island platforms and
surrounded by levees, or earthen walls, to keep
Consistent width of streets and length of city blocks,
and uniformity of construction techniques suggest
strong central authority – perhaps a theocracy
housed in the citadel, an elevated, enclosed
compound with large buildings.
Well-ventilated structures near citadel may have
stored grain for local use and export (grain also
collected as taxes).
Presence of barracks may point to some
regimentation of skilled artisans.
Metal for everyone!
Unlike in other regions, tools and other
useful objects were valued more so
than decorative pieces like jewelry, and
metal itself was more democratized in
the Indus Valley – it wasn’t just an elite
Housing – with functional rather than creative
architecture – suggests social divisions were
not great, but there was a clear difference
between rich and poor.
Scarcity of weapons suggests limited conflict
or threat of invasion (recall the geography of
the Indian subcontinent, capped by the
world’s largest mountains).
Harappan artifacts such as clay
and wooden children’s toys, and
games, such as the chessboard
above, suggest prosperity and time
for leisure activities.
Harappan culture (cont.)
Relatively little has
survived that reflects
creativity of Harappan
peoples, but their
painted pottery rivals
Sculpture was clearly
their highest artistic
vitality of expression.
of a young
Scholars believe the society was a theocracy
(government headed by divine authority), but no
temples have been found.
Although it’s still speculative, some scholars see links
between Harappan religious artifacts and Hinduism,
which later emerged in India:
Figures show what may be early representations of Shiva, a
major Hindu god (“destroyer of the world”).
Other figures may relate to a mother goddess, fertility
images and the worship of the bull – all of which became
part of subsequent Indian civilization.
Harappan agriculture and trade
Although Harappan society remained primarily based
on agriculture (harvested wheat, barley, rice, peas;
took meat from cattle, sheep and goats; first to
domesticate chickens), trading contacts were
widespread throughout the Indus Valley, as the
river provided excellent means of transportation.
Cotton may have been cultivated as early as 5000
BCE, and fragments of dyed cloth from around 2000
BCE suggest textile industry.
Harappans obtained gold, silver, copper, lead, gems
from neighboring peoples in Persia (through the
Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush Mountains).
Traded with Mesopotamians, mostly via watercraft
along the Arabian Sea and through the Persian Gulf,
as evidenced by Harappan seals on objects
discovered in the Tigris-Euphrates region.
Harappan decline (c. 1900-1500 BCE)
Harappan civilization remains an enigma in part
because we don’t fully understand why it died out …
or to what extent its peoples were subsumed by
subsequent Indian civilizations.
Some evidence suggests the region was once much
wetter and underwent a significant climate change.
Other perhaps more persuasive evidence points to
another cause: the courses of rivers shifted due to
tectonic forces such as earthquakes, leaving the
original communities no longer hospitable.
In some places there’s also evidence of violence,
which suggests it fell to invaders (Aryans were
migrating down to India at about the same time).