Lecture: Mesopotamia and Egypt

Geographic Determinism

There is a notion that where people live determines the kind of culture they create.

Ancient Mesopotamian religion

Mespotamia mapUsing this theory, the geography of Mesopotamia would influence its culture. The region is surrounded by desert and mountains that are difficult to traverse.The Tigris and Euphrates rivers (which did not meet before the Gulf in ancient times) were unpredictable. Sometimes they would flood, and other times there would be drought. This made agriculture difficult, and the development of irrigation technology necessary. As a result, Mespotamians got very good at fighting nature, creating dikes and canals to control water and suing each other over water rights.

It was natural, then, that ancient Mesopotamian gods reflected nature's mood: they were fickle and human-like, and were as likely to cause trouble for humans as to be helpful. Indeed, human beings were often like playtoys. The legend of Gilgamesh, although written down much later, tells us a lot about the Mesopotamian views of nature and religion.

First, see an excerpt from early in the story, where the gods cause a flood but there's someone they want to save:

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Gilgamesh himself was a king, but had to directly fight the power of the gods.

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In this excerpt, we see both the human-like nature of the jealous Ishtar, and the view of the Mesoptamian afterlife as seen by the dream Enkidu had before he died.

The power of myths and storytelling

For a story like Gilgamesh to have survived so long, it must contain universal truths. Certainly Gilgamesh tells us about the nature of Mesopotamian gods, and the ideals of manhood and heroism, and the view of the afterlife. Stories from the past not only help us understand old civilizations, they also can also teach us what cultures have in common (the flood story, for example, is like the one in the Hebrew Bible). Certain plot devices and story lines appear again and again, underscoring the commonality of the human experience. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation in the 1990s noted the connection, here overcoming a language barrier with the story.

Darmok link.

Kings and law

Primary sources can also be very telling about the power of rulers and the type of society that existed in history. Law codes are particularly useful. They seem dry at first, but keep in mind that no one makes a law unless that particular thing is happening a lot. Take a look at the Code of Hammurabi:

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From this, it would appear that ancient Mesopotamia had to deal with many of the same problems we do: liability issues, violence, theft, fraud. We will see these issues again in the Hebrew Bible -- they seem to be universal too.

A lengthy, detailed law code like Hammurabi's also implies that legal means were necessary to keep people in line, and they had to be practical. This was partly because the kings in this society were mortal. They were tied to the divine through a ceremony - the king was not considered legitimate until he'd copulated with the priestess from the temple. This earthly tie was necessary because the society did not see kings as representing divine forces.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt mapAgain using the theory of geographic determinism, Egypt seems to provide an opposite case. The Nile is a highly predictable river: each year it floods its banks at the same time, leaving behind fertile silt. It was so predictable that the Pharoah (informed by his data-driven priests, of course) could perform a ceremony where he appeared to make the river rise to start the planting season.

Ma'atThe gods in ancient Egypt were helpful to mankind, and the afterlife was a good place to be (at first the afterlife was only for pharaohs, but by the New Kingdom many people were building their own tombs).The god Anubis helped prepare the dead for the afterlife. The goddess Ma'at (pictured left) weighed the heart of the dead person to determine how good they were in life -- the feather she wears represents justice. The very idea of balance and continuity between life and death seems to have permeated the Egyptian view of the world.

The Pharoah was considered to be both human and god, with a direct connection to the divine. Priests were thus highly respected and valuable as administrators as well as shamans. The transition from one pharoah to another had to be smooth to reflect the continuity of the heavens. In Egyptian history, every interruption in the line of kings or in human events is considered a sign of trouble.

One big disruption to the continuity of the divine occurred when the pharoah Akhenaton ruled. He had been Amenhotep IV ("Amen" being a common part of a pharoah's name, since that was the name of one of the lead gods), but he became dedicated to the worshop of Aton (or Aten), the god of the sun disk. He ordered worship of only Aton, which undermined the entire priestly class.

AkhenatonSome historians have seen this as evidence of monotheism. Akhenaton died around 1336 BC. Rabbinic sources calculate the time of Moses around this time, so the idea is that one tradition influenced the other. This is unlikely, since under Akhenaton, he himself remained a god. So in Egypt it was really 1.5 gods, not one (and in the relief of him worshipping Aton, left, his wife Nefertiti is shown with the goddess' Isis' headdress, implying her own status as a goddess).

Akhenaton is interesting in other ways. He insisted that he be pictured as he really looked, big belly and all. That was unusual. There were artistic traditions for portraying pharoahs, including the headdress (which represented both upper and lower Egypt together) and the ceremonial beard. These traditions were so set that even female pharoahs (we know of one - Hatshepsut - but there may be others) were shown with the beard. But Akhenaton looks different.

TutAfter his death, his heir Tutankaten (see the "aten"?) took over but he was very young, and it's likely the priests dominated him. He died as Tutankhamon and was buried in great splendor (which has always made me suspicious). The panoply of gods and goddesses, and their priestly representatives, regained power.

The problem of Egypt

As enchanting as the history of ancient Egypt is, I don't understand its role in a Western Civilization course. If the purpose of studying Western Civ is to see where our own traditions came from, I can't find anything significant that originated in Egypt. Divine kings, an almost circular timeframe reference based on continuity, predictable environmental conditions, none of this came down through Western Civilization. They had few law codes, since the pharoah was divine (what he declared to be law was law). Other elements of Egyptian life (beer, labor strikes, science, slavery) were mainly brought into the tradition via ancient Greece, which though it likely derived knowledge from Egypt, significantly altered the perspective to focus more on the natural world.

Lessons of History

Some possibilities here:

1. Even if the idea of geographic determinism is going too far, it is clear that the topography and resources of a region do influence the way a society develops.

2. Laws can be useful tools for telling what a society was like, since they list the things the culture was dealing with.

3. The coverage of ancient Egypt in a Western Civilization course is something of a mystery.

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