Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
Lisa M. Lane 2008
The text and audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
>> Teacher: All right. Lecture today is going to cover Mesopotamia and Egypt. It's a little bit awkward, of course, because we read about it last week. It seems unfair of me to ask you about geographical [inaudible] this week. Okay, I want to get you back in the Mesopotamia and Egyptian zone. I do not have notes and words I'm going to put up on the screen today. About a half hour before class I threw together these slides if you want to call them something [inaudible] slide. It's not really [inaudible]. We have a number of spatial and visual learners in here, and I need something to keep me on track and make sure I cover the main points I want to cover for this lecture. So the way this is going to be setup today I'm going to use a compare and contrast model of Ancient Egyptian civilization and Ancient Mesopotamia civilization. So, I'll be referring to things that are in your book, but I'm not using the pattern of the chapter and I'm not exactly telling a story either but rather covering some key points. The first key point, and I will list these on the board, has to do with geography again. The characteristics of these rivers.
[ Writing on board ] All right. You need to be [inaudible] the left hand side is Egypt and the right hand side is Mesopotamia. So, what you have here is the Nile River up here on the left and the Euphrates River, as it happens that's what I was able to find a picture of most easily, on the right. At this point, they both look very calm, which is deceptive because the idea I want you to get here they're both rivers obviously. They both have water in them, okay, we're on the compare part, what else would these rivers have in common in terms of historical use of the river? Tony?
>> Student: Trading.
>> Teacher: Trade can go up and down these rivers [inaudible] material goods. Yeah?
>> Student: Irrigation systems.
>> Teacher: Irrigation for?
>> Student: Crops.
>> Teacher: The crops, okay. So, both of them are used to irrigate crops. That's important because you've got these sedentary societies settled down into cities and towns without a food surplus there is no trade. That is the basic anthropological fact. If everybody has to work to eat, then there's nothing left over to trade. So, the specialization of jobs only comes about really when you are settled down in a place and have a reliable way to access food. Yes?
>> Student: Fresh water.
>> Teacher: Fresh water for drinking, bathing and washing and all the things that we use fresh water for because the river [inaudible] in their [inaudible], but they are very different -- there's the contrast -- in their character in the way that they behave and, therefore, how they have to be managed. The Nile is a very consistent river in terms of its behavior. It floods annually over the flat lands to the either side of the river flooding the land depositing silt that is full of minerals and good things for plants and then withdrawing and it does that at the same time every year. In fact, it was so predictable that it was possible for the scientists, they called them priests then, that the scientists were able to track exactly when the Nile was going to rise to the point where they could stage a ceremony where the Pharaoh was able to stand up on a structure above the river, hold his hands up while everybody sang and danced and did this stuff and do this and appeared to make the Nile rise. It was that tight. You could set it up on the day for the Pharaoh to be making the Nile rise. This is consistent and that consistency means that Egyptians were able to use the Nile well to have somewhat minimal irrigation technologies to control it because they knew where it was going to flood to, and if you look at the very long chronology of Egyptian history, the disruptions that happened like where dynasties are going for, you know, 13, 14 dynasties of the same dynasty and then all of a sudden there's a switch or there's a problem or there's an intermediate period as they call them in the Egyptian timeline, it usually is somehow related to a disruption of the Nile River. It's very, very rare that anything weird happens with the Nile. They even had, and you can see that it's possible to do that just by how close the structures here are built to the water, they know exactly what it's going to do and they were able to keep a track the Niloeometer historians call it of the exact height that the flood rose and know exactly what the crop was going to be that year based on how high the flood was. So they had this river down and that influences everything. There's a theory. Some people call it geographic determinism.
[ Writing on board ] This says your geography determines how you're going to live, what type of people you're going to have. We live in [inaudible] Southern California. [Inaudible] anything about us? What? How are we? What do we do, think, wear? How does that relate to where we live?
>> Student: [Inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yeah, we have trouble especially if you're from here or have lived here more than a decade with handling temperature extremes. When you go skiing and you bundle up all your stuff, but other than that it's a little bit, we get a little bit [inaudible] because our environment is [inaudible].
>> Student: [Inaudible]
>> Teacher: Yeah. We get to dress in lighter clothes. We don't have huge winter wardrobes and summer wardrobes that have to be swapped out in the garage; that kind of thing. And we don't have parts of our houses, right, that are for taking off all your wet gear. Yes?
>> Student: We have a culture influenced by the [inaudible].
>> Teacher: Very much so. The water itself, the weather conditions here. Our casual dress. No one in here is dressed up including me. Our casual dress is seen to be related to our local geography as well. Harsher environments people tend to dress differently and deal with each other differently. Our personality tends to be a little more open and very much more casual than in different climates. So it really does make a difference. Whether it determines it or not that's something that you could argue certainly, but there is a relationship between the consistency of the Nile River and the way that Ancient Egyptians saw everything. Not just the way that they dress, but everything. How would you view the Gods, for example? Religion, if you were living in a place where the Nile flooded consistently and manageably making agriculture really easy.
>> Student: [Inaudible].
>> Teacher: Benevolent. These guys are benevolent. So that's an example, and we'll talk about the Gods in just a minute and how that happened, but they tend to see the whole universe as sort of full of benevolent forces. This is a nice place. It's a good place. Now, contrast that with the Mesopotamian situation because the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are extremely nasty. They flood without warning; it's impossible to determine how much or where; sometimes there's a drought; you have no idea why it happens. They are nasty rivers. They're unpredictable. It looks pretty calm here, but you can even kind of tell by the earth forms around it that it's been beaten up a bit. Both rivers are like that. So, although the uses were the same and the needs were the same, the rivers themselves didn't behavior in a predictable fashion. What kind of world view then do you figure Mesopotamians are going to have? Yes?
>> Student: [Inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yes. Yeah, there's a lot of evil forces and those evil forces tend to not be predictable. All religious systems had some sort of evil force in them or some sort of balance to the good, but in Mesopotamian cultural, those forces are not necessarily predictable. They're very fickle. Things happen for no reason. Stupid things happen for no reason and they see it that way. What about in terms of technology? Which culture do you figure would be more technologically minded?
>> Student: The Mesopotamians.
>> Teacher: The Mesopotamians. Why do you say so?
>> Student: The rivers were uncontrollable [inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yeah. In order to control nature, they need better technology. The Mesopotamians are constantly going to be messing with stuff. It will not be, it will not show Egypt in a bad light because they had plenty of scientists who were trying to understand the wonderful world around them and the Egyptians will develop sophisticated military technologies and measuring technologies and astronomic technologies. No problem. But in terms of the actual down and dirty stuff where you're building things and tinkering because it works or it doesn't work and you have to make this happen, the Mesopotamians were doing that all the time. Continual change. The two societies think differently. They think because of the rivers. In Egypt, change is a destructive force. It's something bad. It's something you don't want to have happen. Change indicates something is wrong, something is out of balance. Balance is a very important Egyptian concept. In Mesopotamia, change is how things are. It happens all the time. There's nothing you can do about it so you better learn to adapt. You better build the technologies, you better make yourself flexible. Two completely differently conceptions of how the world works and what a human role is in it may derive from the differences in the river systems. It's just basically how these life forms have to deal with the geography around them. Questions on that concept or the rivers themselves? Anything I mentioned so far? Okay. The first big important thing geographically is to understand how these river systems differ. The geography will be important to every region we're going to study. As you go into the next unit and you start looking at some of the West Asian areas, keep that in mind, take a look. Is this place mountainous? Are they close to the sea? Because those things do influence how people think and how they live. The Gods.
[ Writing on board ] As we said, Egyptian Gods like a Neubus here on the left, are seen as benevolent, they are seen as helpful. They do bad things, but you know which ones are going to do the bad things and what kind of things they're going to do. A Neubus, and if you're into spelling.
[ Writing on board ] It's always got the jackal's head. The Neubus is there to help people when they die move into the proper afterlife and receive the proper judgment. Afterlife is very important to the Egyptians and the afterlife that they see that they have is a continuation of the wonderfulness here on earth. So, the afterlife has a river, it's got date trees, it's a lovely place. We know this because they painted them on the insides of the tomb what the afterlife was going to look like where this particular person was going. Originally the afterlife was only for kings. You had to be elite. So, if you're studying Egypt and you're looking at say the old kingdom or the middle kingdom, you're looking at tombs that are really only for very wealthy or very important people, but as time went on and Egyptian civilization evolved, change there, of course, happens very, very slowly. That's on purpose. Gradually something occurs that historians call the democratization of the afterlife. What do you suppose that means? Yes?
>> Student: [Inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yeah. Everyone gets an afterlife. Everyone gets the option of having a nice afterlife and the way you get there is to have your heart weighed against the feather of justice to see whether you've been a good person. There's a moral element here. If it's weighed correctly, everyone has the opportunity. It doesn't mean everybody gets the good afterlife. If you've been a bad person, forget it, but it means that everybody has the opportunity to be judged. Everybody has the opportunity to have a Neubus help prepare their body to cross over. Everybody has that option by the time you get to the end of the new kingdom. Helpful Gods then who are there to assist you, who are there to help you analyze whether you're doing right or wrong, who are there to help you understand what justice is. They are friendly and they are here for you. Do you figure the Mesopotamian Gods are like that? Not at all. The lovely lady in the upper right is Ishtar. Charming woman. Goddess of love.
[ Writing on board ] And all the stuff that goes along with love like jealousy and sex and lust, revenge. She fell in love with Gilgamesh. She's a God, he's a normal. He turned her down so she sent this lovely animal here to go kill him, and he had to fight it because he wouldn't sleep with her. Unpredictable. Human like, very human life, fickle behavior. This is not a God like a Neubus who stands back and is there to assist. This is a God who is interfering in human affairs asserting her own lust, dominating the scene in her own way, and you know, sending down bulls to kill people. This is not the sort of thing Egyptian Gods would be doing. This wouldn't make any sense in the Egyptian way of thinking. So the Gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh the Gods in the Mesopotamian culture are much more human like than the Egyptian Gods, which are very much of another phase. The afterlife then if it's really nice for the Egyptians, what is it do you figure for the Mesopotamians?
>> Student: [Inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yes. It's nasty. A nasty place, right? Death [inaudible] you become a slave, you go around as zombie kind really. [Inaudible] afterlife you turn into a zombie. You've seen zombie movies, right? What are zombies missing? [Inaudible]?
>> Student: [Inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yes, conscience, brain, heart, you know, any kind of empathy, understanding, I mean there's no person there anymore. It's just a body wandering around. That's the Mesopotamian afterlife. You are a zombie and you eat Gods for breakfast. Sounds really thrilling. Makes people really comforted, of course, about where they're going after death. The point of view here then about death, I mean nobody likes to die, obviously, it's not that the Egyptians like to die any better than the Mesopotamians like to die, but the Mesopotamians I think you have a certain urgency to eat, drink and be merry now because ain't nothing good happening later so it's party time now. Mesopotamians and Egyptians, for example, both brewed beer, but we figure the Mesopotamians probably drank a lot more. The celebration that you see there has a certain kind of desperation. We've got to do it now because something is going to happen and maybe that something is not going to be so good. So, you see that reflected in the religious system and it helps explain why the Epic of Gilgamesh is a wonderful, heroic story, but this poor guy he's fighting against the God and it's an unfair arrangement. Most of the literature we have that comes out of Egypt are [inaudible] to the Gods of the wonderfulness that's going on and all the conflict documents that you get out of Egypt, things that actually show things going wrong, are people against people, you know, the temple workers go on strike because they're not being paid. That kind of documentation; those kind of stories come out of Egypt, but when it's related to religion, all the documents are very nice, very pleasant, very [inaudible] things whereas in Mesopotamia you get the Epic of Gilgamesh. Human beings have to struggle really hard to be able to defeat the forces that they have to encounter, right? That's one of the messages of an Epic like Gilgamesh is you've got to be an extraordinary person with extraordinary understanding to tackle all the crap that's going to come at you. There are then in the story and societally we're a lot more Mesopotamian than we are Egyptian. I believe I mentioned to you I'm not sure why we study Egypt at all. I mean it's, the way that it thinks, the way that civilization thinks and operates and looks at the world is so different from anything that becomes western thought whereas the Mesopotamian way of looking at things, you know, fix it with technology; it's going to be bad, figure out what to do. Your heroes are people who defeat the forces that come at them. That's very much western thinking. We're a lot more Mesopotamian in this regard. Law.
[ Writing on board ] I just picked a Pharaoh, any Pharaoh. This just happens to be Rames the Second here on the left so that's the law. [Inaudible] why would the Pharaoh be the law?
>> Student: He's a God.
>> Teacher: He's a God. He's not just you and me. He's not even a rich version of you and me or an important version of you and me, he's not like you and me at all. He's half life you and me and the other half is a God and so you don't question [inaudible]. There are very few law codes in Egyptian history that applied to everybody. There were lots of laws, individual things written down by the Pharaoh's secretary saying you're going to do things this way, you're going to do things this way, but you don't have a situation where everybody knows and studies the law because it's completely unnecessary. The law could change tomorrow if the Pharaoh changes his mind. He's a God, there's no questions about what the law is, which makes the people who work for him, of course, very, very important because they work in the name of a God; not just an ordinary guy who has a lot of power, but in Mesopotamia, it's very different. This is the symbol here on the upper right, Hammurabi giving out a Babylonian Code of Laws. We call it the Code of Hammurabi. It wasn't necessarily him who created all the laws. In fact, what we think he did was take a whole bunch of different law codes and had his scholars pick out the ones that made the most sense and put them all together. So, he's a compiler rather than an originator. This is not the first law code in history either. It just happens to be a big one that still exists and the reason it still exists and we know so much about it is that it was written on these big stone [inaudible] and put all over the place so that nobody could miss it. It's a completely different idea of law than the Egyptians had. Yeah?
>> Student: What was the code?
>> Teacher: The Code of Hammurabi. So, they call it, they name it after him because he happened to be the king and he was the one who had it put together.
[ Writing on board ] And, again, Hammurabi is from the Babylonian period. Their law codes had [inaudible] like a bar maid who waters down the beer, you know, will be weighted with a stone and thrown into the river. That kind of thing, yeah. Serves her right. Okay. It also has, a lot of the codes in it are very much eye for an eye, you know. If you put somebody's eye out and he's of the same social standing as you, your eye will be put out, you know. If you injure somebody's hand and he's of the same social standing as you, then your hand is going to be, it's very, very much specific justice. Whatever you've done will be done to you. Yes?
>> Student: What kind of writing is that?
>> Teacher: What kind of writing is this?
>> Student: [Inaudible]
>> Teacher: Yeah. And you have a little chart in here, yeah? In the book. I seem to recall a lovely graphic. Do we have the lovely graphic? What page is the lovely graphic on?
>> Student: Thirteen.
>> Teacher: Ah, it is indeed on 13 and that should look similar to what you're seeing here on the code because the writing itself evolved from pictographic writing, but it becomes symbolic writing that you see here. We'll be talking more about that next week in the writing system, but yeah, so that is Cuneiform, wedge writing, made with the end of a reed, lots of reeds popping up around the river, pressed into wet clay. Lasts a long time. And they put these law codes, the whole thing, it's like hundreds of provisions up on these giant stone things in every town, nobody is going to miss it. This is necessary. This type of law is necessary because he's not a God. The law has to be known by everybody; not just a few people, and it has to be followed to keep order because his godliness doesn't keep order. He's not a God. He can try to rule in the name of the Gods and they did, you know, and there was a whole ceremony when you became a king in Mesopotamia you had to have sex with the priestess of the temple in order to get some diviness [inaudible] in you, you had to do that. You couldn't just be an ordinary guy. You had to have something special so that's what you had. That was special. That also ties the whole religious system into the, it's clever isn't it? Ties the whole religious system and the whole temple structure into the politics, but it doesn't make them interdependent necessarily. The only real dependence there is that the king has to do that to become the king. From then on, you know, heavens will smile on him you hope, but he's just a guy. He's not a God. So, he's got to have these laws and everybody has to know what they are. Because circumstances change all the time the laws got lots of revisions and any time you read a law code, you can tell what people are actually doing, right? I mean laws are to prevent you from doing things, right? So, if there's a law against bar maids watering drinks, what's happening in Ancient Mesopotamia?
>> Student: [Inaudible]
>> Teacher: Yeah. People are getting stiffed on the drinks. If there's a law in the Code of Hammurabi, and there is, that if a couple commits adultery they both could be killed, what's going on in Ancient Mesopotamia?
>> Student: Adultery.
>> Teacher: Adultery. Lots of it all over the place. You don't have a law for anything that's not happening do you? Do we have laws for things that aren't happening? No. Of course not. That doesn't make any sense. You have laws to prevent things. So, if there's laws about people stealing property, which there is, then there's a lot of property theft going on. If there's laws about killing each other's animals, that's happening. If there's laws about single women running off with men to another town and that's against the law, then women are doing that. Any law code tells you what the action is in the place that you are studying and Hammurabi's code is no different. Buildings. What are these? Recognize any of these buildings?
>> Student: Pyramids.
>> Teacher: Yeah. Pyramids are up there on the left. Typically they're both pyramids, right? I mean they are pyramidal, the shape is the shape of a pyramid whether you got steps or not and some Egyptian pyramids had steps, too. So that's not really the difference. There's not really a difference in shape. Pyramids are pyramids. They point upward, you can get into philosophically stuff about, you know, up towards the sky and the Gods are in the sky if you want to, that's fine. So they are the same in that regard. Their shape is the same, they go up to the sky, the Gods are up there. Egypt and Mesopotamia have that in common. These are Egyptian pyramids on the left and a Mesopotamian ziggurat on the right.
[ Writing on board ] Okay so what's different about them then?
>> Student: [Inaudible]
>> Teacher: They had levels. You can't really see, but [inaudible] also have levels and doorways and sections, too, but the reason for the levels might be somewhat different, yes?
>> Student: The ziggurat seems to be more like a temple; something that might be used every day. The pyramid is more like tomb like you don't use every day.
>> Teacher: Yeah, right. What do you think the pyramid is used for? Exactly. Yeah, you put bodies in them, right? They are tombs. Yeah.
>> Student: The ziggurat [inaudible], too.
>> Teacher: It does. Both have rooms. It's just dead people are on one side of the room and live people on the other side. I mean [inaudible] is not the difference. It's the use. The use is completely different. Pyramids have one use. They are for putting dead bodies in to help them cross over and they are for engaging in all the ceremonies of death that are so important to the Egyptians, but ziggurats are about life. You can see these pyramids in Egypt they are way out there. They are out of the way from the centers of life. The only people who live near these are the tomb workers. There are villages of tomb workers out there, but nothing else, but ziggurats are in every town, they're in the center of town, they're the heart of the town, they're [inaudible] between the new king and the priestess, that happens here at the ziggurat. [Inaudible] it's where the law is given, it's where ceremonies take place, it's where the parties happen, it's usually in the middle of a huge temple-like structure where all the priests and priestesses live. There's a market there at the base. Ceremonies are taken place there. Worship of the local Gods. Every town had its own. That takes place here. The pyramids aren't used that way. The pyramids are for the dead. So, again, to extend this, there's a difference in perspective that's being reflected by all of these by the way the rivers work, by the way the Gods are seen in the religious system, by the way the law is created in each system, and even by the structure, the architectural structure that both civilizations have we can see a really clear contrast between the Mesopotamian way of looking at the world and the Egyptian way of looking at the world. All right. Questions? Yes?
>> Student: Is there a difference in [inaudible].
>> Teacher: Yeah. I thought of showing you an Egyptian step pyramid, but I was afraid it would confuse us. So many people have seen the ones with the smooth side, but there's lots and lots of Egyptian step pyramids also. So they're not all smooth sides and plain like that and the outsides have worn down. You can see, see the top of the middle one there it's kind of smooth and then it looks sort of chunky as you go down? That's because the original thing was covered completely with very expensive stone. I mean it may have been smooth and so maybe it doesn't look ornate to us, but it's ornate in the same way the expensive Scandinavian furniture is ornate. It's extremely expensive material to create those very smooth surfaces. So, people would have looked at the pyramids then and gone, wow, why did somebody spend too much money out here in the desert, you know? So, actually in terms of expense and fanciness the pyramids kind of trump the ziggurats. They do. Yeah?
>> Student: Were the ziggurats also [inaudible]?
>> Teacher: Yeah, actually both societies have [inaudible]. Both societies have a [inaudible] and so in both cases both of these are constructed by [inaudible]. Absolutely. Yeah. That's not a difference. That would be a compare rather than a contrast. Good. Compare/contrast questions? Any questions [inaudible] are really good for the writing portion of the [inaudible]. Right? If there's things that it wouldn't make sense to break apart something like this, multiple choice questions, but it does sense to talk about it because essentially what I've given you here, we're not done, what I've given you here is an interpretation, my interpretation of my understanding of the differences and similarities between these two cultures based on my understanding and my research. That's my interpretation. It's arguable because it's an interpretation. Somebody else could argue it, but that's the structure in which I presented this issue, this particular, you could have done it from many different ways, but this is the one I chose. Okay. Let's see.
==== Transcribed by Automatic Sync Technologies ====