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The Growth of Egyptian and Mesopotamian Civilization

People satisfy their important needs in different ways. For example, most of you obtain water merely by turning on a faucet in your home. The water is pumped from large reservoirs and piped considerable distances before reaching your home. Many however, get water from wells. The water is raised in a variety of ways — by pumps operated by hand, by windmills, by gasoline engines, or by electric motors. In earlier times the well sweep, or pole with a bucket at one end, was often used.

If you should travel along Egypt’s Nile River today, you might see a farmer on the bank dipping up water with a bucket attached to a long pole. The pole rests on an upright support. At the Opposite end of the pole there is a heavy weight which balances the water-filled scoop. This device, which is called a shadoof, is like the American well sweep. It helps the farmer to raise his filled bucket and to empty it into an irrigation ditch that is above the river level. Egyptian farmers are thus able to irrigate fields that otherwise would be baked hard and dry under Egypt’s intense sun.

Mesopotamian civilization

The shadoof has been in use for more than 5000 years. Egyptians today have more efficient methods for irrigating their fields, but the shadoof has not completely disappeared. It is a link between Egypt today and Egypt in ancient times.

The Nile is not the only great river where you could see reminders of the long ago. On the muddy Tigris River, beside the great city of Baghdad in Iraq, you might see men floating along in great round watertight baskets used as boats. These boats, called gufas, have been in use for thousands of years.

There are other, more impressive links with the distant past in both these river valleys. Visitors to the valleys of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates see the remains of many ancient buildings and tombs of the dead. These relics tell the story of the past as clearly as words spoken by a guide.

We learn about the early civilizations in the Nile valley and the Tigris-Euphrates valley, civilizations to which we owe much. As you read, you will find answers to these questions:

  1. What was life like among the ancient Egyptians? 2. What did the Egyptians achieve in religion, art and science? 3. How did Mesopotamia become an early centre of civilization? 4. What were the contributions of Mesopotamia in law, the arts and science?
Mesopotamian civilization
3500 B.C. – 500 B.C.

1. What Was Life Like Among the Ancient Egyptians?

Why do so many towns nestle in valleys or grow up along rivers? The answer to this question is obvious. In river valleys there are good water supplies and farm lands. Travel is easier than over rugged mountains or across wide deserts. As you will find again and again, location and climate have been important influences in shaping the course of a nation’s history. This is what happened in Egypt.

The Nile River is Egypt’s most important geographic feature. The Nile is one of the world’s longest rivers. It rises in central Africa and flows northward 4000 miles before its muddy waters join the blue Mediterranean Sea. On its way, other lesser rivers pour their waters into the Nile. The map shows you that for its last 600 miles — about the same as the airline distance between Washington D.C. and Chicago — the Nile cuts its narrow twisting way northward through Egypt.

The part of Egypt where people can live looks like a kite with a long tail. The kite is the low-lying, flat land surrounding the five mouths of the Nile. It is called the delta because it is triangular in shape, like the Greek letter, delta. The tail is the narrow valley of the Nile stretching southward from the delta to the first rapids. It forms a green ribbon of plant life bordered by brown, barren and rocky deserts. The Nile, on which boats travel easily both upstream and downstream, is the natural highway that unites valley and delta.

Without the Nile, Egypt would be a desert. There is little rain in Egypt. Yet the green fields on either side of the Nile in southern Egypt and the flat delta farms in northern Egypt have deep, rich soil. This soil has been brought by the Nile’s flooding waters from regions far to the south. Each year the heavy rains and melting snows in Africa’s high mountains pour into the Nile and its branches. Northward roll the flood waters, reaching Egypt in June and continuing until October.

Today a series of dams holds back the high waters and assures the country a regular supply of water all through the year. In ancient times, however, the flood waters swept over the narrow valley and broad delta lands. When the floods receded, they left a deposit of new, rich soil on the soaked fields. High floods meant bumper crops. Part of an old Egyptian poem about the river reads as follows:

They tremble that behold the Nile in full flood.
The fields laugh and the river banks are overflowed.
The visage [expression on faces] of men is bright,
And the heart of the gods rejoiceth.

You can understand why an ancient Greek wrote that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” He meant that without the river’s water and new soil deposits, Egypt would be a dry, desert-like waste.

The deserts protected early Egypt from invaders. Geography favoured the early development of civilization in Egypt in other ways. The map shows you that a part of the vast desert called the Sahara borders Egypt on the west. To the east, between the Nile River valley and the rugged mountains that border the Red Sea, is another desert area. In early times these deserts formed natural barriers which protected Egypt from attack by enemy peoples from the west or from the east. Only at the delta, near the Nile’s mouth, could Egypt easily be invaded.

The Nile helped to unite Egypt. In contrast to the deserts, which acted as barriers, the Nile helped to bring together the people who lived along its banks. Was not the river the thread upon which the many villages along the river were strung like beads? At first, of course, village often quarrelled with village. Then came a time when all the villages and towns in Lower or Delta Egypt were united under one government. Likewise, all the villages and towns in southern or Upper Egypt were brought under another government. Finally, about 3200 BC, a strong ruler united Lower and Upper Egypt into a single kingdom. This kingdom of Egypt was the first of any size in this part of the world and had a longer life than any other. It lasted for almost 3000 years.

Mesopotamian civilization
Pharaohs of Egypt were at the height of their power when they ruled over the area outlined in colour. (1) Why did Egypt itself follow the Nile so closely? (2) With what lands did Egyptians trade?

Egyptians were ruled by Pharaohs. Stone Age people, as you read in Chapter 1, started simple types of government. As ways of living became more advanced, people changed their government and improved it to meet new needs. The Egyptians developed a system of government that became quite elaborate.

At the head of the government was a king and so sacred was he to his humble people that they dared not say his name or mention his title. So, they called him “Pharaoh”, a term that means “Great House.” The Egyptians believed their Pharaohs were gods on earth to whom they owed unquestioning obedience. In other words, the Pharaoh’s word was law. This notion of unlimited kingly power lasted in some countries, Japan among them, down to our time.

In spite of such vast power, the Pharaohs were expected to rule according to the laws and customs of Egypt and to protect the country from its enemies. Their job was far from easy. A well-known authority wrote these words about the Pharaoh:

The Pharaoh did not live the life of a luxurious despot [king]. . . He had as a prince already seen . . . service in the superintendence of quarrying and mining operations, or he had served his father as vizier or prime minister, gaining invaluable experience in government before his succession to the throne. He was an educated and enlightened monarch, able to read, write and not infrequently taking his pen in hand personally to indite [write] a letter of thanks and appreciation to some deserving officer in his government. He constantly received his ministers [chief assistants] and engineers to discuss the needs of the country, especially in the conservation of the water supply and the development of the system of irrigation. He read many a weary roll of state papers, or turned from these to dictate dispatches to his commanders. . .  The monarch rode out… to inspect his buildings and public works and his hand was everywhere felt in all the important affairs of the nation.


How did the Pharaohs live? What did a Pharaoh look like when dressed for important occasions? We are able to answer this question because there are many statues, carvings and paintings that Egypt’s dry climate has preserved for thousands of years. Some of these remains show the Pharaoh wearing the double crown –the red crown of Lower or Delta Egypt and the white crown of Upper Egypt — indicating that he ruled both lands. On his forehead, held there by a band around his head, was a little image of the sacred snake of Lower Egypt. The Pharaoh’s clothing was simple, made of thin white cotton or linen.

The ruler lived in a palace of brick and wood which was usually built near the location of his great tomb. This fact may surprise, but the Pharaoh wanted to keep an eye on the construction of the building where he thought his spirit was to dwell forever. So important was it to provide for life after death that a Pharaoh’s tomb was a grander place than his palace.

Egypt’s Pharaohs ruled over foreign lands. The Pharaohs not only governed Egypt but undertook the conquest of foreign lands. In part this was due to an ambition for power and glory; in part, to a desire to obtain needed goods. Although Egypt was rich in crops and cattle, it lacked such materials as gold, silver, copper and wood for building. The Pharaohs tried to obtain these goods not only by trade but also by force. They sent armies southward up the Nile and northeast into Syria. They built navies which sailed along the Mediterranean coast. Victorious Egyptian forces saw to it that defeated peoples paid tribute to their Pharaoh in goods and Products. By their victories the Pharaohs brought other lands and other peoples under Egyptian control and so created what we call an empire.

It is not necessary here to tell the whole story of the ebb and flow of Egyptian power. When the government was strong and the country prosperous, Egypt ruled an empire; when the Pharaohs were weak, the conquered peoples regained their freedom. The greatest Egyptian empire lasted from the mid-1500‘s B.C. to about 1100 B.C. At its height the Pharaohs ruled over all the lands shown on the map. The Timetable gives an outline of the history of ancient Egypt.

There were many government officials. No one person could handle the many tasks connected with ruling the vast kingdom of Egypt. The Pharaohs, therefore, appointed local governors and other officials to assist them. These officials were responsible for enforcing laws, for flood control, irrigation and for collecting taxes. The high officials in time came to form a class of nobles. Nobles lived in elegant houses, enjoyed fine foods and other luxuries, were waited on by many servants. The priests, who carried on the worship of the gods, were another privileged class in ancient Egypt.

Most Egyptians found life hard. Life was luxurious for the Pharaohs and nobles but was far from pleasant for most Egyptians. There was no large and prosperous middle class of merchants, businessmen or lawyers. Most of the common people were farmers. Good soil and sunshine aided them, but they had to work hard to keep up their irrigation ditches and water their fields when the Nile flood receded. They raised wheat, barley, flax for linen thread, date palms and grapes. They kept herds of cattle, sheep and goats.

A primitive sailboat carries a cargo of passengers and grain across the Nile River. Today, as in past ages, the Nile plays an important role in Egyptian life. CAPTION

Unlike most farmers of today, however, few Egyptians actually owned their land. During much of Egypt’s long history, the Pharaohs claimed most of the land as their own. Farmers who tilled this land had to pay a large portion of their crops as rent. At times the Pharaohs gave huge tracts of land to nobles, or to temples to provide for the worship of the gods. These lands also were tilled by farmers who worked for the landholders. Moreover, the common people were often forced to help construct canals, temples, tombs, or other public works.

Mesopotamian civilization

Egyptians suffered from heavy taxes. Not the least of the common man’s burdens were heavy taxes. The Pharaohs, despite their use of forced labour for digging canals and building palaces and monuments, always needed more income to maintain their armies and navies and to pay the many government workers. Taxes were paid in farm products, for the Egyptians had no coins or other forms of regular money and because of burdensome taxes and rents, most of the common people lived in great poverty. Their only chance to better themselves was to enter the Pharaoh’s service or to become priests.

There were also slaves in Egypt. Although most of the work was done by the free poor, there were many slaves in Egypt. These were mostly prisoners captured in war by the Pharaoh’s troops. Slaves were used as household servants and as workers in the royal and temple workshops. Able slaves might win their freedom; they might even become responsible government officials. The Bible story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt and who rose to be the Pharaoh’s chief officer, shows what might happen to a loyal and able slave.

Egyptian craftsmen were highly skilled. It would be a mistake to think that all Egyptians tilled the soil. The discoveries of archaeologists have shown that there were many craftsmen in ancient Egypt and that they possessed great skill. From the pith of the papyrus reed which grew in swamps and marshlands, craftsmen made a paper-like material on which stories were written and records were kept. From flax other craftsmen wove fine linen cloth. Still others fashioned jewellry out of gold, silver and enamel. The ancient Egyptians also made utensils of copper, bronze and clay, beautiful leather goods and fine household furniture. The stonecutters and masons who worked on the Great Pyramid fitted some of the huge blocks of stone together so carefully that even today You would find it hard to slide a knife into the seams between some of the blocks. Yet those craftsmen had only crude saws, drills and chisels with which to do this work.

A pyramid is a good symbol of how Egypt and other ancient kingdoms were organized. At the top was the sacred, all-powerful ruler. Other people were grouped in classes, one below the other. The majority were at the bottom, supporting the privileged few.

Egyptian wares were widely distributed. Other Egyptians were traders. Egyptian wares were in great demand among outside peoples and traders from foreign lands came to Egypt to exchange their own products for them.

The Pharaohs themselves took an active interest in getting foreign products. There is an account of an Egyptian queen named Hatshepsut who sent an expedition to the mysterious land of Punt (known today as Somaliland) in north-eastern Africa. Back came her five ships, says the story, loaded with “myrrh resin [used in perfume], with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory . . . with cinnamon wood . . . with apes, monkeys, dogs, skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children.” Hatshepsut had a series of pictures of this voyage carved on temple walls. The Pictures are there to this day. So also are the holes cut in the courtyard pavement where she ordered the myrrh trees planted.

Products such as those brought back by the Queen’s expedition probably had been trickling into Egypt for many years. Traders carried them by land and sea routes. In any case, we know that Egyptian officials made long journeys up the Nile, beyond the rapids and into the region called the Sudan. Traders from Syria, at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, came to Egypt by land and sea. They took back Egyptian goods to be used at home or to be sent on to the Tigris-Euphrates valley or to Asia Minor. Still other traders sailed across the Mediterranean Sea from the islands of Crete and Cyprus. Egyptian kings exchanged gifts with Asian rulers. The map shows where Egyptian wares went.

2. What the Egyptians achieve in Religion, Art and Science?

If you were describing life in the United States today to a visitor from some foreign country, you would undoubtedly start by telling how Americans are governed and how they make a living, but you would not stop at that point; you would go on to tell about their churches, their books, their art, music and their scientific achievements. If you are to obtain a clear picture of ancient Egypt, you need to learn something about the accomplishments of the Egyptian people in each of these fields.

Religion held an important place in Egyptian civilization. Like most ancient peoples, the Egyptians worshiped many gods. Some gods were worshiped throughout Egypt, others were local gods. Chief among the gods was the Sun, symbolized in ancient Egypt by a disk with a hawk’s wings. Another god was the Moon. Still another was the Sky itself.

The local gods, Egyptians believed, appeared in the form of animals such as crocodiles, bulls and cats. The particular animal in whose form the god was thought to appear was treated with reverence. Priests cared for it at the god’s temple. When the animal died, the priests conducted a funeral while the villagers mourned. Of course, another animal was found to take its place, for the god could not die — or so the people thought. In each district, all animals belonging to the same species as the god-animal were considered sacred. Anyone who harmed such an animal was judged to have committed a serious crime and might even be killed by the enraged villagers.

Religious ideas were deeply rooted in Egyptian thinking and life. The Egyptians took their religion seriously and any interference with it. When a young Pharaoh named Ikhnaton tried to convince Egyptians that one god the Sun, was the source of good for all men, he ran into trouble. Although this Pharaoh used force to prevent the priests and the people from worshiping the old gods, he could not change their beliefs. When Ikhnaton died, the worship of the old gods was restored.

Egyptians believed firmly in a life after death. Egyptians believed that a man’s spirit continued to live even after death, but just where and how did this spirit live? Egyptians thought it lived on in the dead body. So they made great efforts to preserve the body and to place it in a permanent resting place. To preserve the body, they treated it with salty chemicals and resin and wrapped it in many yards of linen cloth. This preserved body or mummy, was then placed in a casket or coffin and buried in a tomb. In certain museums around the world you can see mummies in their caskets. Some of them are more than 4000 years old.

Food and drink, the earthly possessions of the dead person, or pictures and models of objects he had owned were placed in the tomb. The walls of the tomb were decorated with paintings, drawings and carvings which showed the tomb’s owner supervising his workers, hunting in the Nile marshes, or enjoying himself with his family. Such preparations were intended to delight the spirit of the dead person and to keep it in comfort forever. Today these tomb furnishings and decorations give us an interesting and detailed picture of ways of living in ancient Egypt.

Of course, only the Pharaohs and wealthy Egyptians could provide such expensive arrangements for their afterlives. Less fortunate people had graves with plain stone markers instead of richly decorated tombs.

Egyptians believed in a judgement of the dead. After a long time, the belief arose that a fine tomb and a well-preserved mummy were not enough. Eternal or everlasting life would be granted only to people who lived a good life. Buried with a mummy were papyrus rolls on which were written collections of magic charms or spells, known as “The Book of the Dead.” They were intended to aid the soul of the dead person on a supposed journey to the hall of Osiris, the god who judged the dead. The Egyptians came to believe that the heart of the dead person was weighed by Osiris. If the scales showed the person had been a wrongdoer, his soul was devoured by monstrous demons, but the spirit of a good person went on to everlasting happiness in the Land of the Blessed.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu towers over a village near the Nile. The sketch of the interior of the Pyramid shows the location of the chamber where the Pharaoh’s body lay and the passage that led to this room.

These ideas of judgment and of punishment or reward after death tell us that the ancient Egyptians understood the difference between right and wrong. They were learning to live just and helpful lives.

Egyptian tombs and temples were built with great care. If the gods lived forever, so must their dwelling places -the temples — stand forever. Likewise, if the person’s spirit lived forever, so must the tomb which housed the body where the spirit rested. So temples and tombs were built of durable stone. The most famous tombs are the pyramids, built by the Pharaohs between 4000 and 5000 years ago.

The Great Pyramid is the largest stone building ever made by man. Greatest of all the pyramids is the one built by the Pharaoh Khufu. Originally it stood 476 feet high. No modern building contains nearly so much stone as this pyramid. Why? Because modern buildings consist chiefly of rooms, but the pyramids, except for a few chambers and passages, were solid stone. At its base the Great Pyramid measured 764 feet on each of its four sides — more than twice the length of a football field.

The picture shows what this vast tomb looks like. It was constructed of receding layers of great limestone blocks, weighing on the average about two and a half tons each. The outside surfaces of these massive stones were originally covered by a smooth outer layer of glistening white limestone, but in later times this outer coating was removed. For centuries the carefully built secret doorway battled desert robbers who could not find their way inside. A hidden passage leads to the royal burial chambers in the centre. The diagram shows where these chambers and other passages are. No one is sure of the purpose of the shaft-like passage deep in the Pyramid’s base.

Men’s muscles built the pyramids. The ancient pyramids are all the more remarkable because of the tremendous amount of labour required to build them. The great blocks of stone used in the Great Pyramid were cut in quarries east of the Nile. Workmen loaded the stones onto barges and floated them across the Nile. Then they dragged these mighty loads up to the higher land where the pyramids now stand. There were no modern machines to lift these two and three ton stones into place. Sheer manpower moved the blocks, with the aid of ropes crowbars and rollers. Up sloping ramps of earth, built against the growing pyramid, the toiling workmen tugged and shoved the stones to the required height. Then masons squared them and fitted them into place with great exactness.

Other royal tombs were dug in rocky hillsides. In later years, Pharaohs built less costly tombs in the cliffs of the “Valley of the Kings” near Thebes. These tombs were hollowed out of the rocky cliffs which form the valley wall. Court officials as well as Pharaohs built tombs in this area, though on a smaller scale. Entrances to all rock tombs were concealed and many a tomb’s location was in time forgotten. In recent years, archaeologists have found several very large tombs, notably that of the youthful King Tutankhamen. This tomb contained priceless relics of ancient Egypt.

Statues of Ramses II line the court of an ancient temple. More than 3000 years ago this Pharaoh built more temples and monuments than any other Pharaoh in order to glorify his name.

The Egyptians also built magnificent temples. Their strong interest in religion led Egyptians to build imposing temples, whose ruins still stand in many parts of the country. Each town had one or more temples for the worship of its gods. The most magnificent temples were built in the great days of the Egyptian Empire when triumphant Pharaohs offered generous gifts to the gods from the spoils of war.

As a rule, the whole temple area was enclosed by a massive wall of sun-dried bricks and was approached by a long avenue lined with stone figures of various kinds of animals. Within the wall were several buildings grouped around the temple. These buildings served as houses for the priests, dining halls, offices, staterooms and workshops. The temple itself was built of stone. It had one or more roofless courts surrounded by pillared porches. The courts led to the flat-roofed hall where stood the image of the temple god. The walls of the temples were usually decorated with sculptures and brightly coloured paintings.

Egyptian architects were pioneers in building with stone. Only skillful architects and builders could construct such great temples and magnificent tombs as those of ancient Egypt. Egyptians were the first to use stone columns and pillars. They also devised a means of letting daylight into interiors of large buildings. In so doing the Egyptians pointed the way for the great cathedrals of western Europe in later centuries.

Egyptian architects also developed the obelisk. An obelisk is a tall, tapering shaft of stone, with a pyramid like top. It was in a single piece and weighed up to 1000 tons. A great deal of skill was needed to quarry an obelisk with only stone hammers, wooden wedges and bronze saws to say nothing of floating it on a raft down the Nile to the place where it was to be set up. Such a monument was apparently erected to celebrate the triumph of a ruler. One of these obelisks was brought to New York and stands in Central Park. Unfortunately, its carvings, thousands of years old, were worn away in less than a century by the damp climate of New York.

Painting and sculpture reached a high degree of excellence. Egypt also produced able sculptors and painters. As you have learned, the walls of tombs and temples were richly decorated with sculptured or painted scenes. Egyptian art followed a set of fixed rules which determined what subjects should be drawn and which regulated the position and size of human and divine figures. As a result, Egyptian drawings seem to us somewhat stiff and unnatural. If we understand the rules, we can better appreciate the work of these artists. Sculptors worked in wood, bronze and many kinds of hard stone. Some of their statues are huge. The man standing at the base of the statue shown will give you an idea of its size.

These hieroglyphics tell of the death of an Egyptian princess. Egyptians believed that spirits in the afterworld, even those of royal persons, took part in activities like plowing, as the princess is shown doing here.

Egyptians developed a system of writing. The Egyptians had a complicated system of writing. As among other peoples, writing in Egypt began with the use of pictures representing well-known objects. After a time, these pictures came to stand for particular ideas and words. For example a picture of two eyes meant “to see”. The next step was to use a sign to represent the sound of a whole word or its first syllable. (If we wrote in this way today, a circle representing the sun might mean a man’s son, or pictures of a fountain pen and a flour sifter or sieve might be used for the word pensive meaning “thoughtful.”) Finally, Egyptians developed a group of 24 signs. Each sign stood for the sound of a consonant and a vowel combined, as in ka or ba. This was a long step toward an alphabet, in which each letter stands for a single consonant or vowel sound.

A great deal of Egyptian writing has been found on the stone walls of temples and tombs. Such writing we call hieroglyphics meaning “sacred writing”. For years archaeologists puzzled over old inscriptions, baffled in their attempts to decipher hieroglyphics. About 150 years ago a young French scholar named Champollion after long study discovered the key to the problem. An ancient stone tablet, the Rosetta Stone, was dug out of the sands and carried to England. On it were inscriptions in ancient Greek, hieroglyphics and a simplified form of Egyptian writing. Champollion guessed that the inscription in the different languages actually said the same thing. Through his knowledge of Greek he was able to translate the hieroglyphics.

Educated persons were in demand. Their system of writing was complicated, only a few Egyptians were able to read and write. Those who could had excellent opportunities, for their skill was greatly in demand. They could enter the Pharaoh’s service or the priesthood, or they might become architects, engineers or doctors. Some were professional secretaries or scribes, who made a business of writing for those who could not do so. An old record suggests the advantage of being a scribe:

Be a scribe who is freed from forced lab and protected from all work. He is released from hoeing . . . and need not carry a basket . . . The soldier when he goes up to Syria… knows not whether he will return or die. . .  The foe lies hidden . . . and the enemy stands ready for battle… When the baker stands …and lays bread on the fire, his head is inside the oven, and his son holds fast his feet. If he slips from his son’s hand, he falls into the blaze. But the scribe, he directs every work that is in this land.

Egyptians wrote poems and stories. What we would call “books” of many kinds were produced in ancient Egypt. (Ofcourse they were not like our books, for they were handwritten on long rolls of papyrus.) Priests wrote down old myths about the world’s creation and the first gods of Egypt. Pharaohs, generals and traders described the foreign lands they invaded or visited. Stories of adventure and romance were popular, too. Much poetry was written, including hymns to the gods and popular songs. There were likewise many collections of wise sayings or proverbs. Egyptians were fond of such sayings as:

He who giveth good counsel is an artist, for speech is more difficult than any craft. . .  Quarrel with no man, great or small, for that is an abomination. . .  To listen kindly comforteth the heart. . .  Wrongdoing hath never brought its venture safe to port. . . A man shall thrive if he be truly righteous.

Egyptians made wide use of mathematics. Although science did not play the important role in ancient times that it does today, the Egyptians made definite progress in several branches. One of these was mathematics. Accounts had to be kept of royal income and of temple receipts. Tax collectors had to know how much farm produce to collect from the taxpayers. So the Egyptians developed a system of weights and measures. For example, the cubit, or measure equal to the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, was first used in Egypt. The Egyptians invented a form of arithmetic and solved problems by addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They also used geometry to measure the size and area of their fields and in the planning of their pyramids, temples and other public works.


Egyptians were also astronomers. Even uncivilized peoples have noticed the changes in the positions of the sun, moon and stars at different times of day, night and year. The Egyptians went further and kept records of these changes for many centuries. On the basis of their observations, before 2800 B.C. they had worked out a calendar year of 365 days. This year consisted of 12 months of 30 days each. They added five additional days following the twelfth month to bring the total to 365.

Although this Egyptian year was six hours and fifteen minutes shorter than an actual sun year, it was the forerunner of our own calendar year. To help record the passing of time, the Egyptians divided day and night into twelve hours each. They measured time during the day by a kind of sundial. They also had a water clock which worked like an hourglass, the level of the water giving a rough idea of the time.

Great attention was paid to medicine and surgery. In Egypt, medicine was a priestly art and medical schools were maintained at many temples. We know a good deal about Egyptian medicine, for papyrus rolls dealing with medicine and surgery have been preserved. These indicate that Egyptian doctors were familiar with most of the diseases common in that part of the world today. Their treatments, however, were not very scientific. They put a great deal of faith in charms and magical rites, for they believed that illness was caused by evil spirits who had to be overcome by these means. Apparently, then as now, there were specialists; for an old Greek historian wrote of these Egyptian doctors that “each physician applies himself to one disease only. . . . Some are for the eyes . . . others for the teeth . . . and others for internal disorders.” The surgeons used skillful and effective ways of curing wounds, setting broken bones and treating other injuries. Yet their “Book of Surgery” describes some kinds of cases better left alone and “not to be treated.”

Soldiers enter the city of Babylon through the Gate of Ishtar. To the right in the background of this painting are Nebuchadrezzar’s palace, noted for its Hanging Gardens and the Temple of Marduk.

In brief, then, the ancient Egyptians, aided by favourable geographic conditions, developed a civilized way of life. They made remarkable progress in government, religion, engineering, architecture, writing and science including mathematics. Many of their ideas were taken up by the peoples which they conquered. Egyptian ideas and customs were also spread by means of the trade which merchants from foreign lands carried on with Egypt. Egyptians in turn learned from other peoples with which they came in contact. Long after the power of the Pharaohs had waned, the influence of Egyptian civilization continued to be felt.

Yet Egyptian civilization was not the only early one in this part of the world. Other ancient peoples, notably in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, were developing ways of living quite as advanced as those which the Egyptians created.

3. How Did Mesopotamian Civilization become an Early Centre of Civilization?

Beka, the young Egyptian merchant, stood and stared. His friends in the caravan had not been joking after all, for Babylon was truly a great city. There, looming high against the sky, was the great white temple of the god Marduk with its lofty red tower, nearly as tall as the Great Pyramid in far-off Egypt. The temple of Marduk was not the only marvel. Around the City of Babylon Beka had seen mighty double walls and towers, surrounded by deep ditches filled with water from the Euphrates River. The walls, he had heard, were pierced by seven gates besides the one through which he had entered.

Beka’s friends had told him that he must be sure to see the marvellous gate of the goddess Ishtar with its two sets of twin towers. These towers were faced with enamelled bricks showing figures of the bull of Adad and the dragon of Marduk in red and white on a background of blue. On both sides of the avenue leading up to the gate were tawny-coloured enamel brick figures of the lion of Ishtar. Beka must also see the famous Hanging Gardens, built by King Nebuchadrezzar to please his Queen. This series of terraces, covered with all manner of flowers and shrubs, was one of the wonders of the world. Yes, Beka the Egyptian had much to see and learn in Babylon, for it was a city whose civilization was as old and great as his own.

Nebuchadrezzar is the way this king’s name was written in Babylonian records and copied in Greek and other ancient languages. Nebuchadnezzar is the form found in the King James version of the Bible, which accounts for its widespread use.

Babylon was the chief city in Mesopotamia. Babylon, the ancient city which our imaginary Beka was visiting, was located in old Mesopotamia. Today if you were visiting the same region, you would call it Iraq. Mesopotamia means “between rivers” and refers to the broad flat plain lying between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In ancient times the two rivers entered the Persian Gulf separately and not by a common mouth as today. Also, since 3000 B.C. the soil carried down by the rivers has pushed the shore line of the delta over 125 miles out into the Gulf.

The Tigris-Euphrates valley, shown within the coloured circle, was the centre of Mesopotamian civilization. How did Mesopotamian traders travel to neighbouring regions?

Except along the banks of the rivers, upper Mesopotamia is not very fertile, but the delta or lower Mesopotamia, which extends inland over 500 miles from the Persian Gulf, has wonderfully fertile soil and plenty of water for irrigation. In ancient times the delta region took its name from the city of Babylon and was known as Babylonia. It was here that Mesopotamian civilization began about 5000 years ago.

Ancient Mesopotamia had no natural defenses. Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia lies open to invaders from all sides. Locate the wide Syrian Desert on the map shown.  During ancient times, bands of shepherds roamed that region with their herds, just as they do now. When rains failed to fall, the scanty grass on the Syrian Desert withered and died. Naturally herdsmen drove their thirsty, hungry livestock to the nearby greener pastures of Mesopotamia.

Down from the mountainous country north of Mesopotamia came other invaders. Often these invading people from desert and mountain remained in the warm, rich plains of Mesopotamia. Over the years the population of Mesopotamia became a mixed one.

Among early arrivals were the Sumerians. Between 4000 and 3000 B.C. a people called Sumerians moved into the delta region of Mesopotamia. Probably they came from a high-land region in Persia (now called Iran), between Mesopotamia and India. The Sumerians drained the marshlands of Babylonia and built dikes to keep flood waters from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from pouring over their farms. They dug hundreds of miles of irrigation ditches. In time the Sumerians became prosperous farmers and herdsmen.

Remains of at least a dozen Sumerian cities have been found in Babylonia. Each was enclosed within a wall of brick. These little cities with their surrounding farm and grazing lands became tiny independent nations, which we call city-states.

Mesopotamia was ruled by different peoples at different times. Compare the territory ruled by the Assyrians with that ruled by the Chaldeans.

Many kingdoms rose and fell in Mesopotamia. Frequent wars arose among these Sumerian city-states. Cities wanted more land or more water to meet the needs of their growing populations. So stronger city-states seized control of weaker ones. In this way kingdoms arose, some of which at times included all Babylonia, but those kingdoms were broken up by rebellions within or by invaders from outside. In fact, the history of ancient Mesopotamia is a complicated story of one ruling people after another. Some of the more famous of these ruling groups were the Amorites, the Assyrians and the Chaldeans. Each new invader humbled the former rulers and in turn were humbled by a newer invader. Often these conquerors established huge and sprawling empires. The warlike Assyrians at the height of their power, for example, ruled not only all Mesopotamia but in addition a large part of Asia Minor, Armenia and Iran, the eastern Mediterranean coast and Egypt itself. The Timetable gives an idea of the different groups which at one time or another ruled ancient Mesopotamia. Gaps in the time column mean periods of confusion when there was no single, powerful leading people.
The shift of power from one group to another was accompanied by cruel warfare. Warlike though most of these people were, the Assyrians were particularly feared for their military skill. Their armies were well organized. Most of the troops fought side by side on foot, one line close behind another. Some of the foot soldiers were armed with iron spears and swords; others were skilled bowmen. For protection they wore copper or bronze helmets and carried large shields of leather and wood. Kings and high nobles on the other hand, rode to battle in low-slung war chariots which were sometimes equipped with projecting scythe-like blades.

The Assyrian armies showed little mercy to their defeated enemies. When a city was taken, the victorious army plundered it and often levelled it to the ground. Some prisoners were made slaves; others were butchered, often with cruel tortures. Sometimes whole peoples were deported to distant lands by victorious kings. One Assyrian ruler boastfully recorded that —

Trusting in Assur my lord, I assembled my chariots and armies. . .  The mountains . . . I crossed. . .  With their 20,000 fighting men and their five kings I contended. A destruction of them I made. . .  Their corpses I spread over the valleys and the high places of the mountains. . .  Their heads I cut off. At the sides of the cities I heaped them like mounds. Their spoil, their property, their goods, to a countless number I brought forth.


4. What Were the Contributions of Mesopotamian Civilization in law, the Arts and Science?

Mesopotamian civilization showed the influence of the Sumerians. In ancient times, as we have learned, the control of Mesopotamia changed hands many times. Yet, in spite of the frequent arrival of new peoples from nearby lands, civilization in the ‘Land Between the Rivers’ developed along the same lines as it had during Sumerian times. Later peoples merely changed what they found to meet their own needs. The civilization of Mesopotamia remained basically Sumerian in character.

Rulers possessed absolute power. Egypt’s Pharaohs were supposed to be gods themselves. Rulers of Mesopotamia generally made no such claim. Instead, they declared that they were the high priests of the gods and therefore ruled in the name of the gods. For example, Babylon’s kings considered themselves the chief servants of the god Marduk; Assyrian rulers gave the credit for their bloody victories to “Assur, my lord.” As a practical matter, however, it made little difference whether rulers claimed that they were gods or that they represented gods. Both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia the rulers were all-powerful.

To rule their great kingdoms, the kings of Mesopotamia employed many officials to carry out their orders. These rulers also drafted large armies to uphold their authority. By no means were all of them bloodthirsty, luxury-loving monarchs. Many of them felt they were responsible for the peace and prosperity of their people, just as did many Pharaohs of Egypt.

Hammurapi was a great administrator. One of the ablest rulers of Mesopotamia was a Babylonian king named Hammurapi. Letters and records show that Hammurapi kept a watchful eye on his officials. He personally supervised every branch of his government, spread as it was over a wide area. He even supervised the systems of irrigation and flood control. He is most justly famous for his collection of laws. In earlier times each Sumerian city had its own code of laws, so that its people understood their rights and obligations under the law. Hammurapi realized the need for a single code of laws which would apply to all peoples under his control. The original of this code of laws was found about fifty years ago, carved on a stone pillar.

Hammurapi’s laws were harsh. To you this collection of laws would seem most severe. For example, if a house fell in and killed its owner, the builder was liable to be put to death. Likewise, according to Hammurapi’s Code, “If a man has caused a man of rank to lose his eye, One of his own eyes must be struck out.” All people, however, were not treated alike under this law; for the same offense the rich person paid a different penalty from that paid by the poor man. According to our standards, therefore, Hammurapi’s Code not only was harsh but was not just. Yet it was a step in the direction of greater justice and served as a model for later codes. Moreover, these laws were written down, so people had an opportunity to know them.

Many gods were worshiped in Mesopotamia. As in Egypt, religion held an important place in the lives of the people. The Sumerians believed that each city had its own god. He was its real ruler and protector. The king of the city, was supposed to be the chief priest and representative of the city’s god. Invading peoples brought their own religious ideas and gods to Mesopotamia, adding gods of their own to those already worshiped there. For example, after the Sumerians were conquered they had to worship Marduk, chief god of Babylon. The Sumerians could keep their own gods, but these ranked below the mighty Marduk. The gods were thought to have human forms and to think and act as human beings.

Ideas of an afterlife were gloomy. The Egyptians, came to believe that a person who had lived a good life would be rewarded in the hereafter. In Mesopotamia most people did not have this idea. The dead, they believed, went to a huge, dark cave-like place where their unhappy spirits lingered forever, lightless, foodless and joyless. There was no happy future for mankind. A happy life in eternity was a privilege reserved for gods.

People cannot live in freedom safely without laws. One of the first codes of for a whole country was drawn up by Hammurapi. King of Babylonia, about 1700 B.C. It was carved in lasting stone and set up for everyone to see. The Code of Hammurapi. The righteous laws which Hammurapi, the wise king, established and by which he gave the land pure government . . . that the strong might not oppress the weak and that they should give justice to the orphan and the widow… Let any oppressed man who has a cause…read the inscription on my monument. . .  And may my monument enlighten him as to his cause and may he understand his case. . .  In the days that are yet to come, for all future time, may the king who is in the land observe the words of righteousness on my monument.


In old Mesopotamia, therefore, religion had more in it of fear than of hope. The gods had created men to please them and men who failed to win the favour of the gods would have all sorts of misfortunes. So each person chose one god to act as his special protector who would plead for him with the greater gods. By prayers, offerings and the use of charms, people thought they could please the gods and gain their help. Many priests served the gods and costly temples were built in their honour.

Builders in Mesopotamia used clay and brick. This was because wood and stone were scarce in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. The people in ancient times (as they still do today) built their houses and public buildings of clay bricks. For ordinary purposes they were satisfied with sun-dried blocks or bricks. These crumbled away when exposed to wind and rain or to raging floods. The people, therefore, learned to harden the clay and make it moisture-proof by baking it, just as they baked their pottery. Baked bricks came into use for foundations and for doorways and arches. Brightly coloured bricks were used to face the walls of important buildings such as temples and palaces. Stone in small quantities was obtained from the hills bordering the upper Tigris. This stone was used by the Assyrians for foundations of buildings and for the great carved statues of winged bulls and lions with heads of men at the gates of palaces.

Processions of colourful lions like this one lined the walls along the avenue leading through the Gate of Ishtar.

Pictures in glazed brick decorated walls. The builders in the old Land Between the Rivers did remarkable things with their colourful baked bricks. Notice the picture of a lion. The original of this picture was done with glazed yellow bricks, just right for a lion’s coat. You can readily see that the artist knew how to picture a lion. The swing of the tail, the rippling muscles and the proud stride are lifelike. Many such coloured pictures of beasts, men and gods were built into the walls of temples and palaces. For all their splendid work in glazed pottery, however, the Mesopotamian people did not produce such fine sculpture or colourful paintings as did the Egyptians.

Mesopotamia had its temples and palaces. In the highland country from which they had come, the Sumerians had worshiped their gods on the hilltops. In Mesopotamia, therefore, they built a lofty brick temple tower in each city to take the place of the hilltop. These towers were called ziggurats.

Best preserved of these temple towers is the one on the site of the old city of Ur in Babylonia. It is a solid mass of brick about 200 feet long and 150 feet wide and originally about 70 feet high. The walls slope inward and up to a broad, flat terrace. Two smaller brick platforms rose from this terrace, one above the other. On the highest platform stood the shrine of the god. Three giant stairways led from the ground to a gateway on the main terrace. From this platform another outside stairway went up the shrine. The most famous ziggurat was erected in the city of Babylon to honour the god Marduk. This was the Tower of Babel described in the Old Testament. Its seven terraces rose to the height of about 300 feet. In building their ziggurats Mesopotamian architects pioneered in the use of setback or receding upper stories familiar in tall modern buildings.

In Mesopotamia, as in Egypt, the temples stood within brick walls. In this enclosure, besides the great temple tower, were several one-story buildings. Some were places of worship; some were houses for the priests and temple employees. Still others were shops, storehouses and offices for the management of temple properties and industries operated by the temple.

In addition to their white-walled temples with tall red towers, the Mesopotamians constructed red-brick palaces for their kings. The common people, of course, lived much as they do in Iraq to this day, in small one-story houses built of sun-dried clay.


Writing was important in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, as we have seen, developed codes of law. They also carried on trade and business extensively. The market places near the city gates were bustling centres of activity, where people came to buy and sell, to lend and borrow. Busy also were the temple courtyards where businessmen gathered. Written records were necessary for all this business activity, for the law said that all such agreements must be put down in writing and signed by the people concerned.

Mesopotamian peoples wrote on clay. Business documents and other records were written not on papyrus or paper but on clay. Tablets on which Mesopotamians wrote are still being found in great numbers. Notice the shape of the written strokes or characters in the picture. They are short, wedge-like lines made with a stylus, a short stick sharpened to a triangular tip. For this reason we call this kind of writing cuneiform, or “wedge-shaped,” from the Latin word cuneus meaning “wedge.” These wedge-shaped marks were made in the clay before it was dried out or hardened by baking.

Hammurapi’s Code was written in cuneiform characters. So also were treaties and other agreements between rulers, as a collection of cuneiform tablets found in Egypt shows. Besides these are records of marriages, bills of sale, contracts, wills and letters. Such everyday documents as these tell us a great deal about how the people of old Mesopotamia lived.

Cuneiform inscriptions, written on clay were baked or dried to permanent hardness. This document, reporting a gift of land, is 3000 years old. Compare the writing with the hieroglyphics.

How were the secrets of cuneiform writing uncovered? Archaeologists found the clue to cuneiform writing in much the same way as they found the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics. High on a cliff near Bisitun in Iran, they discovered a great cuneiform inscription cut into the rock. It was in three languages, one of which was Old Persian and another Babylonian. As in the case of the Rosetta Stone, language experts guessed that the three portions of the Bisitun inscription told the same story. From a list of known Persian cuneiform signs, it was possible to read the Old Persian. The Persian cuneiform signs in turn gave the clue to reading Babylonian. With what they had learned from the Bisitun inscription scholars were able to translate Assyrian and the older Sumerian writings.

Cuneiform characters did not represent the sounds of separate letters. Instead a character stood for a whole syllable, like “bah,” “bib,” or “bob.” About 600 such syllable signs were used by the Sumerians in writing their language. The Assyrians added about 200 more.

You can see that it was not easy to learn how to read and write cuneiform symbols. In Mesopotamia, as in Egypt, there were schools where reading and writing were taught. Clay tablets on which school children practiced their writing have been unearthed. Most people, however, were uneducated. They had to depend on scribes. People who were unable to write used seals instead of signatures in agreements and letters. Today we use seals on many kinds of documents, such as diplomas, stock certificates and licenses.

Religious poems and stories were popular. Cuneiform writing on clay was not entirely confined to business dealings and legal matters. The Sumerian priests wrote long poems expressing their notions of the gods and the beginning of the world. Other Mesopotamian peoples rewrote the tales of the Sumerians. In time these religious poems and stories were written down on clay tablets which can be read today. One poem describes a great flood which the gods sent to destroy all mankind. From this flood, the family of one man alone escaped. He had been forewarned by one of the gods and had built a large boat or ark which he filled with animals of all kinds. This and other Mesopotamian stories resemble some of those told by the ancient Hebrews and included in the Old Testament.

Royal libraries were established. It may seem difficult to picture whole libraries of clay tablets. Nevertheless such libraries were established by kings interested in records of the past. These libraries contained religious poems, laws, treaties, materials on science and accounts of military campaigns. A famous Assyrian king, Assurbanipal, collected a library of over 20,000 clay tablets.

Practical mathematics was well developed. Some of the writings which have been preserved indicate that the Mesopotamians made great progress in the use of practical mathematics. Even now we follow some of their practices. We divide each day into two parts of 12 hours each, each hour into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60 seconds. We divide a circle into 360 degrees and divide each degree in the same way that we divide an hour. We divide a foot into 12 inches. When we do these things, we are following old Sumerian customs. The people of Mesopotamia used plane geometry as well as arithmetic in planning canals, dikes, city walls, temples, and palaces. The earliest known plans of cities as well as maps of larger areas came from Babylonia.

Astronomy received great attention. The Mesopotamians carried on careful study of the heavenly bodies. The Babylonians recognized the difference between planets and fixed stars. They identified Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. They recorded eclipses of the sun and moon and calculated the time of their return. They also developed a calendar of months according to the changes of the moon. Each month ran from one new moon to the next. But this calendar, they saw, fell short of the sun’s annual circuit. They therefore added a “leap” month from time to time. Time was told by means of sundials and water clocks as in Egypt.

The study of the stars not only advanced to the science of astronomy, but led to the false science called astrology. Priests taught that the stars were the book of heaven in which the future could be read. They tried to develop rules by which they could foretell coming events from the movements of heavenly bodies. Astrologers also wrote horoscopes, that is, imaginary life histories of persons based on the position of the planets at the time of their birth. Astrologers were regularly consulted by rulers on important matters. From Babylonia, belief in astrology spread over the ancient world.

Surgeons performed operations. The people of Mesopotamia were well advanced in medical science. Clay tablets describing symptoms and suggested treatments have been found. The practice of medicine was regulated by law. Fees paid by the rich for operations differed from those paid by the poor. Moreover, the Code of Hammurapi says:

If a physician has treated a man of rank with a bronze lancet for a severe wound and caused the nobleman to die… or has removed a cataract from the eye of a nobleman and caused the loss of the eye — let his hands be cut off.

Assyrian rulers built the magnificent palaces in this painting more than 2500 years ago in their capital city of Nineveh on the Tigris River. Notice the ziggurat at the left and the stairways which led to boat landings on the riverbank.

There were distinct social classes. In Mesopotamia, as in Egypt, there were nobles, common people and slaves. The nobles were officials who served the king. Priests also ranked as nobles. Among the common people were soldiers, merchants, craftsmen and farmers. Women had more privileges than in many ancient countries.

There were many slaves. Some slaves were captives taken in war; others were people who could not pay their debts. In addition, there were temporary slaves– people who had agreed to serve others for a period of years in return for a loan of goods or land. Poor parents sometimes sold their children into slavery. Slaves worked as labourers, craftsmen, household servants and secretaries. Some became trusted business representatives.

Farming was the chief occupation. Sumerians raised large crops of wheat and barley; so did the later peoples of Mesopotamia. Herds of sheep, goats and cattle fattened on the pastures watered by the great irrigation systems stemming from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Most of the land was owned by the king, the temples and high officials. Tenant farmers paid part of their crops as rent to landowners.

Industry and business flourished. There were many industries in Mesopotamia. Brickmaking and boatbuilding were busy trades. Craftsmen produced fine woven cloth, pottery, jewellry and objects of copper and bronze. In earliest times, as in Egypt, goods of one kind were traded for those of another sort. It was soon found useful to have a common article in which the value of all sorts of things could be calculated. At first this medium of exchange was barley and goods were valued as so many measures of barley. Later on, gold, silver, and (in Assyria) lead were used as standards of value, but because it was not coined into money, the metal used for each payment had to be weighed. Temples served as banks and loaned metal or grain for business and industrial needs. Interest rates were high.

Traders of Mesopotamia travelled far. The Mesopotamians were great traders. Their ships sailed the Persian Gulf and the lower parts of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Swift currents in the upper portions of these rivers kept ships from going far upstream, although it was possible to float rafts of lumber downstream with the current. Traders using pack trains or caravans of donkey and later of camels, travelled to upper Mesopotamia and to more distant places. We know that traders went to Syria, Asia Minor and ports on the Black and Caspian Seas. Apparently, they even had contacts with the people in cities of the far-off Indus valley, for products from there have been found in Babylonia. Probably these came by sea from the mouth of the Indus.

In closing the story of Egypt and Mesopotamia we should keep in mind the following points: (1) Though life today may seem far removed from conditions in the ancient world, it was on the foundations which the Egyptians and Mesopotamians and other early peoples established that later nations have been able to build. (2) The civilizations in the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates valleys, were actually developing at about the same time. (3) Peoples in these two valleys were able to develop faster than others, principally because of favourable geographical conditions. Elsewhere men were groping more slowly toward advanced ways of living.

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