Lecture: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Ancient Peoples

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:

 Click here to open document in new window

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

 Click here to open document in new window

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:

 Click here to open document in new window

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 for Mesopotamia and Egypt

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.


Ancient Peoples

You should see a button for audio below. If you do not, please use another browser. The audio is me reading the lecture. You will need to read the documents and view the animations from this page.

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.

 Click here to open document in new window

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

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 for Ancient Peoples

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.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.