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Lecture: Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant

One definition of "civilization" is the culture that surrounded the creation of cities. There is also an implication that "civilization" refers to cultures that are not only urbanized, but that have organizations and structures for many areas of life, including politics and religion. We also tend to assume that these cultures keep records of themselves, not through pictures, but through writing. In ancient times, technology was based on fulfilling the need for social organization, including the structures connecting civilizations with the forces of nature.


The region of Mesopotamia is now modern-day Iraq, but in ancient times it was the location of three different civilizations. 

mapThe Tigris and Euphrates Rivers drain into what is now called the Persian Gulf. Nowadays they meet up and form one stream to the Gulf, but archaeologists discovered that in ancient times the shoreline was much further to the north. The ancient town of Uruk, now far inland, was on the sea. Over the centuries, silt carried down the rivers has built up the land and moved the shoreline southward.

Geographically, the rivers dominate the area, but they are not easy to work with. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers don't have predictable cycles - they flood unexpectedly, and there are years of drought where the rivers don't rise at all. Since the fertile, watered areas are closest to the rivers, this situation presented a challenge for early agriculture. 

The theory of geographic determinism supports the idea that early Mesopotamian cultures were inventive, pessimistic, and warlike, all because of the rivers. The insecure environment for agriculture meant that a certain amount of creativity was called for, particularly in designing irrigation. The pessimism can be seen in the Mesopotamian view of the afterlife, a dark, dusty place where souls ate dirt and were shadows of their former live selves. It can also be seen in the Mesopotamian view of the gods - fickle, powerful forces who played with humans for their own purposes and really didn't care what happened to them. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar falls in love with the human king Gilgamesh, and wants him for her lover. He has no desire to become one in a long line of discarded men, so he tells her no. She complains to her father, who sends the Bull of Heaven down to kill Gilgamesh's whole town. 

Gilgamesh and his lieutenant Enkidu ultimately slay the bull, but Enkidu dies in the process. They are heroes for standing up to the Bull, the tool of the gods sent to destroy them. Thus it is possible to triumph over supernatural forces, but at a human cost. This seems to reflect Mesopotamians' view of the natural world - a place where unpredictable, fickle forces make life difficult. 

The Sumerians, who gave us this story, emerged in the south. Among their achievements was the development of cuneiform writing, "wedge writing" made by pressing the end of a reed into wet clay. Unlike the pictographic writing of other cultures (such as the hieroglyphics of Egypt), cuneiform came to be more abstract and symbolic. While certainly not the first writing system, symbolic cuneiform marks a shift in literacy. Pictographs, though limited in number, can be interpreted easily because they look like the word they represent. Cuneiform came to look like just shapes in different patterns. Thus, to learn Sumerian, one would have to learn thousands of different symbols, or combinations of wedge strokes. Literacy, then, would be confined to people who had time to learn how to read. 

steleNevertheless, by the time of the second great civilization in Mesopotamia, cuneiform was being used to make sure everyone knew the law. Babylonia was ruled in the 18th century BC by king Hammurabi. Hammurabi (or more likely his scribes) compiled many of the disparate law codes of the region into one. Hammurabi's Code was then written on stone stellae, carved into monoliths and mounted in the center of towns. The punishments were often harsh, as befits a society that lives for today.

The punishments in Hammurabi's Code vary by the status of the offender. Typically, slaves had to pay with a body part (for example, stealing leads to your hand being cut off) while wealthier free citizens can pay a fine in silver. Crimes of slaves against free people were punished more harshly. 

When we study a law code, we are looking at what I call a "prescriptive" source. It tells people what they're supposed to do. That must mean they aren't doing it. There would be no reason for a law unless a number of people were doing the thing forbidden by the law. So prescriptive sources can tell us a lot about what's really going on in a culture.

So because it was forbidden, we know that people in ancient Mesopotamia were stealing, allowing their animals to trample others' property, sleeping with people they weren't supposed to, watering down drinks in bars, and striking each other a lot. We know that men tried to abandon wives who were sick, because the law forbids it. We know there was adultery, with the punishment that if caught in the act, the couple was tied together, weighted with a rock, and drowned in the river.

But we also know from the architecture that the reason for this harshness was to preserve the community. The ziggurat was the great architectural achievement of ancient Mesopotamia. The ziggurat itself was a kind of stepped pyramid with a temple at the top, and it was surrounded by the temple services. Located in the center of town and dedicated to the town's particular god, the ziggurat was a center for life and ceremony. 

Kings were mortal (unlike in Egypt), and when they died the new king was proclaimed at the ziggurat. In order to affirm his connection to the supernatural, he had to have sex with the top priestess of the temple to confer legitimacy. That's another reason why law codes were necessary and very detailed - in Egypt, there were few law codes because the pharaoh was a god, and thus his word was simply the law in any particular matter. A mortal king must lay out the rules in advance.

Nimrud lensThe Babylonian Empire put a special emphasis on knowledge and sophistication, and it is here we get good calculations of the size of the earth, solid astronomical records, and construction methods for elaborate palaces and gardens....

In the 19th century, a piece of glass now called the Nimrud lens was discovered in Iraq. Dating back 3000 years, it is likely from the Neo-Assyrian empire, a brutal warrior culture which was nevertheless known for its accurate astronomical calculations. This has led to the suggestion, made by Professor Giovanni Pettinato of the University of Rome, that it is possible the Neo-Assyrians had a telescope. This is a controversial conclusion - the lens may have been used just for magnification. But since the Neo-Assyrians viewed Saturn (whose rings cannot be seen with the naked eye) as a god surrounded by a ring of serpents, they may have had more sophisticated technology.


Unlike Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt was highly stable. The Nile River, which flows from the south to the north into the Mediterranean, was so predictable that it was possible to measure its rise exactly, and determine what it would be in the future. The flat lands on either side of the Nile contains the fertile silt from the river, and when it rises each year it floods the land, leaving moisture and more good soil. Agricultural life was thus easy in Egypt. 

ma'atAs a result, Egyptian gods were seen as helpful and dependable. The goddess Ma'at brought justice by weighing the heart of the accused against a feather of truth. Anubis, the jackal-headed god, helped people pass into the afterlife, a place of peace and joy. 

At first, this lovely afterlife was a gift only for pharaohs and very important elites, but as time went by the idea evolved that ordinary people deserved the trappings of an afterlife also. 

The Great Pyramids were constructed to assure this afterlife for the pharaohs. Technology in Egypt was thus at the service of a deep spirituality. Unlike ziggurats, pyramids were places of death, and the ceremonial reanimation of life as the pharaoh entered the next world. As the afterlife was "democratized", more and more workers were employed in the funeral industry, constructing pyramids, painting the interior walls, carving the stone.

The Egyptians also excelled in astronomical observation, needed for proper worship and holidays. Their personal care was complex enough to qualify as technology. They created makeup that was in demand on the trade routes, and even invented the vaginal sponge for birth control. This sponge was made of real sponges from the Mediterranean, soaked in lactic acid from the tips of acacia trees, embedding them with spermicide. We know about these methods because of the Ebers Papyrus, which dates from about 1500 BC. It contains information on various remedies, such as herbal inhalations for asthma and various laxatives, and a treatise on the heart indicating an understanding of the circulatory system.

Egyptians also produced papyrus, an inexpensive "paper" made from reeds. Although they held to a pictographic writing system, the abundance of papyrus meant that much knowledge was written for future generations.

The Alphabet

Most early writing, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, were pictographic - each symbol meant a word, and each symbol looked like a picture of what it represented. Sumerian writing had been symbolic, in that gradually pictographs developed into abstract symbols:

animated gif

The Phoenicians, however, broke with tradition, creating symbols that represented sounds instead of words. The Greeks adopted this "alphabet" idea from the Phoenicians, and (although vastly simplified) the evolution of alphabet technology then went something like this:

Latin alphabet

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The Hebrew People

The Hebrews emerged in the eastern Mediterranean as a pastoral group, and it is unclear when they became monotheistic. What we do know is that the belief in one god became the base of their culture and the source of their difference from other cultures. Among the contributions of the Hebrews to our civilization include a belief in progress and the idea of a portable god, one who is invisible and not tied to a particular place.

When looking at the technology of the Hebrews, we can find some in the Bible (the measurements for the ark and the Tabernacle, for example), but I believe the most significant is text glossing. A core Jewish belief is that the word of God, as represented in the Hebrew Bible after the 9th century or so, is meant to be studied and examined. While the books themselves are precious and special, the ongoing examination and analysis of the Bible (and, indeed, all Jewish texts) is a particular responsibility. Although the Hebrews had priests, the role of these priests over time was reduced to that of ceremonial leaders. The spiritual leadership devolved to the rabbis, the ones who studied the text.

Talmud page

This page from the Talmud shows the text being analyzed in the middle, then commentary around it, then commentary on the commentary. This organizes the material and analysis visually, creating deeper study. So I guess the innovation here is rabbinical learning. The concept of "glossing" the text creates resources for later analysis. This allows for the development of law by precedent, where cases can be decided by looking back to previous analysis and determining the extent to which it may apply to a current circumstance.


Writing itself, as I mentioned with prehistoric narratives, is a self-conscious act for any society. Whether on stone stele or papyrus or parchment, the recording of commercial transactions, dynastic succession, calenders and other events in writing suggests a sense of history. Writing means we mean to preserve something beyond a single person's lifetime, for others to learn or benefit from. Gadgets and inventions, individual pieces of technology, may be interesting in themselves, but they only become important when they reflect or represent a system of some kind. The system itself, whether writing, or irrigation, or embalming, tells us more about how people lived long ago than any single piece of engineering.


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.