Lecture: Ancient Peoples

The Hebrews

According to the Hebrew Bible, Abraham and Sarah moved from Mespotamia to Canaan, the land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. This made them the first "Hebrews", or river-crossers. They were dedicated to one god only, as were their descendants. The kingdom of Israel and its neighbor kingdom of Judah probably emerged in the 8-9th century BC. The Israelites moved to Egypt during a time of famine and were treated as slaves. They left under God's guidance during the Exodus, led by a prophet named Moses. Rabbinic tradition calculates that the Exodus took place in 1313 BC.

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By the 11th century BC Hebrew kingdoms had become more powerful. The "golden age" in Israel is seen to be under Kings Saul (circa 1079 BC – 1007 BC), David and Solomon. The construction of a great temple, detailed in the Bible, took place during Solomon's reign. It was said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the original Mosaic tablets with God's commandments. 587 BC saw its destruction by the Neo-Babylonians. Political and religious leaders in Judah were deported to Babylon, an event referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. Given the freedom and scholarship in the cosmopolitan city of Babylon, it is possible that the Hebrews' stories, from the covenant with God to the Exodus, were compiled there, creating the first five books of the Bible, the Torah (Hebrew) or Pentateuch (Greek). When the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, the Jewish leaders were allowed to return to Canaan. The Second Temple was constructed around 520 BC. Although the cohesiveness of Judaism was threatened by Greek and Hellenistic ideas, then Roman persecution, from the 4th century BC to AD 2nd century, the religion survived and provided a foundation for a number of important ideas in Western Civilization.

1. An invisible god

The gods of ancient Egypt, Mespotamia, Babylonia, and elsewhere in the ancient world were highly visible. There were statues of them in public squares and private homes. But the Hebrew God was too powerful to be looked on directly, and could not be portrayed in an image. As a result, the Hebrew God was portable - he could be taken anywhere and thus, survive anywhere.

Talmud2. The study of the law of God

Although early Judaism had priests who performed rituals as in other faiths, as time went on the more important role for Jewish continuity was taken by the Rabbis, scholars of the law of God. The Torah held not only a story, but ethical and moral truths, and an insistence on the separateness of those who worshipped the one God. Rabbis became responsible for interpreting these revelations in light of changing times. They subjected the Torah to intense study, writing commentaries and commentaries on the commentaries, creating volumes of interpretation such as the Talmud. The law of God, then, was seen as both immutable and flexible at the same time. Studying it was a task of humans, as it is today in our case law and legal precendents.

Here is a page of the Talmud, with Biblical text at the center, commentary around it, and commentary on the commentary in the margins.

3. Cohesion without a country

Despite the fixed kingdoms of Israel and Judah, much of Jewish history includes movements and dislocations, plus military occupation and scattering of Jews (known as Diaspora). Most of the history of the eastern Mediterranean is made up of occupations by foreign powers, such as Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, and Rome. In most places, local religions tended to combine with those of the occupiers, and many disappeared all together. Judaism was different. It was able to survive despite threats from without and within (such as during the Hellenistic Era). This may be attributed to the portable, invisible God, or the rabbinic focus on cohesion, or the development of a driving historical narrative.

4. The Messianic ideal

In the Hebrew tradition, a Messiah is a human being who emerges when needed to lead the community during a time of strife. Many of the prophets who led the Jews during troubled times were considered to be Messiahs. Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor, was considered a Messiah for his permission to rebuild the Temple. The concept itself, in a larger sense, implies progress over time. The world tomorrow will be better than today. Although many cultures do not consider progress to be inevitable, much of Western culture continues to do so. It's possible that our very idea of progress originated with the Hebrews.

The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians lived along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, and created a commercial empire based on shipping and trade. Their most important contributions to Western Civilization, in addition to founding the Carthaginian Empire that fought the Romans, were the ships they engineered and the language they wrote.

Phoenician ship


Writing underwent a transformation with the Phoenicians.

If we look at ancient Egypt, we see heiroglyphics. Heiroglyphics are pictographs -- the pictures represent words. In Mespotamia, such pictographs evolved into a more symbolic writing called cuneiform (wedge-writing, referring to the wedge made by the end of a reed pressed into clay).

Evolution of Cuneiform (animations courtesy of Robert Fradkin of University of Maryland)

cuneiform animation

Thus pictures that represented words turned into symbols representing words. What the Phoenicians did was to move away from symbolic words into writing that represented sounds. This "phonetic" (based on the word Phoenician) alphabet (based on letters for sounds) is the foundation of writing throughout the West.

Although simplified, the evolution went something like this:

Latin alphabet

descriptive text of animation

Hittite empireThe Hittites

The Hittites emerged in what is now Turkey around 2000 BC and dominated as a kingdom until about 1180 BC. They ushered in the Iron Age through their development of iron weapons and tools, which were superior to bronze. When I was first taught this in college, I assumed that the superiority of iron to bronze was based on the hardness of the weapon. If you hit a bronze sword with an iron sword, the bronze is softer and will be made useless. But I understood wrongly.

Iron was important because it was cheap and easy to manufacture. Bronze takes greater skill based on scarcer resources (it's an alloy of copper and tin), so it was expensive and its use was limited to elite warriors. Iron could be mass-produced and supply entire armies, not just elite warriors. So in some ways, iron is symbolic of a shift from wars fought by aristocratic elites to wars fought by mass armies of ordinary people. Both metals continued to be used, however -- bronze was considered an elite weapon, used by officers in the armies of the Roman Empire, while ordinary infantry used iron.

The region in which the Hittites emerged is significant, and has several names. The geographic region is referred to as Asia Minor, because it hangs off of the continent of Asia. It's also called West Asia, for the same reason. The Greek name for the region is Anatolia. The region is signficant in Western history -- after the Hittites, the Greeks will found colonies there, including the famous city of Troy. Later, it was taken over by Romans and then was home of much of the Byzantine Empire, until the Seljuk Turks migrated and created their empire. These Turks were attacked by European Crusaders during the Middle Ages, after which the Ottoman Turks occupied the European side of the Bosporus, providing motivation for the voyages of Columbus. Anatolia, though not in Europe, thus plays a major role in Western History.


Lessons of History

1. The Hebrew tradition provided the origin of ideas of progress and religious cohesion as well as monotheism.

2. In addition to creating a trading empire, the Phoenicians created the foundation of our written language.

3. The Hittites can be used to represent the Iron Age, and their region of Anatolia plays a role in Western history.


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