Ancient Period (3500 - 500 BC)

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The story begins around 3500 BC, when peoples in West Asia and north Africa settled into the Neolithic pattern of agriculture. It continues through the development of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, and the rise of the Hebrew peoples.

Map of Mesopotamia

Sumeria: symbolic writing
The earliest Mesopotamian civilization, centered in the south, developed a symbolic writing system. Although they began as pictographs, Sumerian cuneiform evolved into a written language based completely on abstract symbols.

Assyrian Relief

Military Empire
Mesopotamia's geographic exposure to its neighbors left it open to attack. The result was the development of militarized states, including the most brutal, that of the Assyrian Empire. This empire was destroyed in 612 BC by a combined force of Babylonians and Medes.


Geography  Dominated by the unreliable and violent Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamian were subject to droughts and floods. This gave them a pessimistic view of religion, where human-like gods played with people like toys. The afterlife was a ghastly place where souls ate dust and were slaves to the gods. It also gave them a penchant for change, and an impetus for developing sophisticated technologies.


Kings and law
Mesopotamian kings were mortals who needed to unify their rule through written law. One of the most famous collections of law is called Hammurabi's Code, which instituted punishments based on a person's rank in society.

Map of Egypt

Egypt was polytheistic, with many gods. But one pharoah, in a combination of personal spirituality and an effort to destroy the power of the priestly class, developed a cult to the worship of one god, Aton. When he died, his nephew Tut (originally Tutankaton, then Tutankamen) became pharoah. He died young and was buried in extraordinary splendor.

Tut Death Mask



Unlike Mespotamia, Egyptian geography was stable. The Nile River reliably rose and fell each year, leaving behind rich silt on either side for planting. This gave the Egyptians a benign view of the supernatural, with gods that helped humans. The afterlife was a pleasant continuation of life on earth.

Head of Pharoah

Egyptian kings were also part god, and thus had little need for written codes. If the pharoah said it was law, then it was law.

Egyptians relied on continuity to guide their lives, thinking of time as cyclical rather than linear. Change was seen as meaning discontinuity and strife. Although later creating an Empire of her own, originally Egypt relied on trade and diplomacy. An era of Nile droughts and unpredictability led to an era of empire.

Map of Palestine

The Hebrew belief in messiahs, people who rose to lead during times of trouble, led to a forward-looking faith in progress. Times past were seen as behind us, and the future stretched ahead as a time of promise where justice would be achieved and things made right. This is the origin of our idea of progress.

Solomon's Temple

Solomon's Temple
Despite nomadic origins, the Hebrews founded stable kingdoms in Palestine.They preserved their culture despite takeover by large empires like Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome.


The Hebrews became a people when Abraham left Mespotamia for the eastern Mediterranean. Abraham and his followers believed in one god, and that the Hebrews had been given a special mission of worship.

Invisible God
Unlike the civilizations that surrounded them, the one God of the Hebrews was everywhere, thus there were no images of him. He was invisible, which made religion portable. This separated the ceremonies of worship (performed by priests) from prayer (performed by believers). The Jewish religion was the first loyalty of a Hebrew, regardless of where s/he was living.

Study of the law
Priests would gradually fade from Judaism as the emphasis grew on studying the laws of God. During the Babylonian Empire, Jewish priests and rabbis (scholars) had been forcibly relocated to Babylon. Prophets and scholars living in Babylonian codified the laws of Moses and provided a textual base for studying God's law and interpreting it for future generations.


To the Classical Age