Egypt and Mesopotamia Compared

The Origins Of Civilizations

Edited By: Robert Guisepi



Ancient Egypt


     Besides Mesopotamia, a second civilization grew up in northeastern Africa, along the Nile

River. Egyptian civilization, formed by 3000 B.C., benefited from trade and

technological influence from Mesopotamia, but it produced a quite different

society and culture. Because its values and its tightly knit political

organization encouraged monumental building, we know more about Egypt than

about Mesopotamia, even though the latter was in most respects more important

and richer in subsequent heritage.


Basic Patterns Of Egyptian Society


     Unlike Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where an original river-valley

basis to civilization ultimately gave way to the spread of civilization

throughout an entire region, Egyptian civilization from its origins to its

decline was focused on the Nile River and the deserts around it. The Nile

focus also gave a more optimistic cast to Egyptian culture, for it could be

seen as a source of never- failing bounty to be thankfully received, rather

than a menacing cause of floods. Egyptian civilization may at the outset have

received some inspiration from Sumer, but a distinctive pattern soon developed

in both religion and politics.


     Farming had been developed along the Nile by about 5000 B.C., but some

time before 3200 B.C. economic development accelerated, in part because of

growing trade wi,h other regions including Mesopotamia. This economic

acceleration provided the basis for the formation of regional kingdoms. Unlike

Sumer, Egypt moved fairly directly from precivilization to large government

units, without passing through a city-state phase, though the first pharaoh,

Narmer, had to conquer a number of petty local kings around 3100 B.C. Indeed

Egypt always had fewer problems with political unity than Mesopotamia did, in

part because of the unifying influence of the course of the Nile River. By the

same token, however, Egyptian politics tended to be more authoritarian as well

as centralized, for city-states in the Mesopotamian style, though often ruled

by kings, also provided the opportunity for councils and other participatory



     By 3100 B.C. Narmer, king of southern Egypt, conquered the northern

regional kingdom and created a unified state 600 miles long. This state was to

last 3000 years. Despite some important disruptions, this was an amazing

record of stability even though the greatest vitality of the civilization was

exhausted by about 1000 B.C. During the 2000-year span in which Egypt

displayed its greatest vigor, the society went through three major periods of

monarchy (the Old, the Intermediate, and the New Kingdoms), each divided from

its successor by a century or two of confusion.


     In all its phases, Egyptian civilization was characterized by the

strength of the pharaoh. The pharaoh was held to be descended from gods, with

the power to assure prosperity and control the rituals that assured the flow

of the Nile and the fertility derived from irrigation. Soon, the pharaoh was

regarded as a god. Much Egyptian art was devoted to demonstrating the power

and sanctity of the king. From the king's authority also flowed an extensive

bureaucracy, recruited from the landed nobles but specially trained in writing

and law. Governors were appointed for key regions and were responsible for

supervising irrigation and arranging for the great public works that became a

hallmark of Egyptian culture. Most Egyptians were peasant farmers, closely

regulated and heavily taxed. Labor requisition by the states allowed

construction of the great pyramids and other huge public buildings. These

monuments were triumphs of human coordination, for the Egyptians were not

particularly advanced technologically. They even lacked pulleys or other

devices to hoist the huge slabs of stone that formed the pyramids.


     Given the importance of royal rule and the belief that pharaohs were

gods, it is not surprising that each of the main periods of Egyptian history

was marked by some striking kings. Early in each dynastic period leading

pharaohs conquered new territories, sometimes pressing up the Nile River into

present-day Sudan, once even moving up the Mediterranean coast of the Middle

East. One pharaoh, Akhenaton, late in Egyptian history, tried to use his power

to install a new, one-god religion, replacing the Egyptian pantheon. Many

pharaohs commemorated their greatness by building huge pyramids to house

themselves and their retinues after death, commanding work crews of up to

100,000 men to haul and lift the stone. The first great pyramid was built

around 2600 B.C.; the largest pyramid followed about a century later, taking

20 years to complete and containing 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing 5

1/2 tons.


     Some scholars have seen even larger links between Egypt's stable,

centralized politics and its fascination with an orderly death, including

massive funeral monuments and preservation through mummification. Death

rituals suggested a concern with extending organization to the afterlife,

based on a belief that, through politics, death as well as life could be

carefully controlled. A similar connection between strong political structures

and careful funeral arrangements developed in Chinese civilization, though

with quite different specific religious beliefs.


Ideas And Art


     Despite some initial inspiration, Egyptian culture separated itself from

Mesopotamia in a number of ways beyond politics and monument building. The

Egyptians did not take to the Sumerian cuneiform alphabet and developed a

hieroglyphic alphabet instead. Hieroglyphics, though more pictorial than

Sumerian cuneiform, were based on simplified pictures of objects abstracted to

represent concepts or sounds. As in Mesopotamia the writing system was

complex, and its use was, for the most part, monopolized by the powerful

priestly caste. Egyptians ultimately developed a new material to write on,

papyrus, which was cheaper to manufacture and use than clay tablets or animal

skins and allowed the proliferation of elaborate record keeping. On the other

hand, Egypt did not generate an epic literary tradition.


     Egyptian science focused on mathematics and astronomy, but its

achievements were far less advanced than those of Mesopotamia. The Egyptians

were, however, the first people to establish the length of the solar year,

which they divided into 12 months each with three weeks of ten days. The week

was the only division of time not based on any natural cycles. The achievement

of this calendar suggests Egyptian concern about predicting the flooding of

the Nile and their abilities in astronomical observation. The Egyptians also

made important advances in medicine, including knowledge of the workings of a

variety of medicinal drugs and some contraceptive devices. Elements of

Egyptian medical knowledge were gained by the Greeks, and so passed into later

Middle Eastern and European civilizations.


     The pillar of Egyptian culture was not science, however, but religion,

which was firmly established as the basis of a whole world view. The religion

promoted the worship of many gods. It mixed magical ceremonies and beliefs

with worship, in a fashion common to early religions almost everywhere. A more

distinctive focus involved the concern with death and preparation for life in

another world, where in contrast to the Mesopotamians the Egyptians held that

a happy, changeless well-being could be achieved. The care shown in preparing

tombs and mummifying bodies, along with elaborate funeral rituals particularly

for the rulers and bureaucrats, was designed to assure a satisfactory

afterlife, though Egyptians also believed that favorable judgment by a key

god, Osiris, was essential as well. Other Egyptian deities included a creation

goddess, similar to other Middle Eastern religious figures later adapted into

Christian worship of the Virgin Mary; and a host of gods represented by

partial animal figures. Egyptian art focused heavily on the gods, though

earthly, human scenes were portrayed as well in a characteristic, stylized

form that lasted without great change for many centuries.


     Stability was a hallmark of Egyptian culture. Given the duration of

Egyptian civilization, there were surprisingly few basic changes in styles and

beliefs. Egyptian emphasis on stability was reflected in their view of a

changeless afterlife, suggesting a conscious attempt to argue that persistence

was a virtue. Change did, however, occur in some key areas. Egypt was long

fairly isolated, which helped preserve continuity. The invasions of Egypt by

Palestine toward the end of the Old Kingdom period (about 2200 B.C.) were

distinct exceptions to Egypt's usual self-containment. They were followed by

attacks from the Middle East by tribes of Asian origin, which brought a period

of division and chaos, including rival royal dynasties. But the unified

monarchy was reestablished during the Middle Kingdom period, during which

Egyptian settlements spread southward into what is now the Sudan, setting

origins for the later African kingdom of Kush.


     Then followed another period of social unrest and invasion, ending in the

final great kingdom period, the New Kingdom, around 1570 B.C. During this

period trade and other contacts with the Middle East and the eastern

Mediterranean, including the island of Crete, gained ground. These contacts

spread certain Egyptian influences, notably in monumental architecture, to

other areas. It was during the New Kingdom that Egyptians first installed

formal slavery, subjecting people such as the Jews. It was also in this period

that the pharaoh Akhenaton tried to impose a new monotheistic religion,

reflecting some foreign influence, but his effort was renounced by his

successor Tutankhamen, who restored the old capital city and built a lavish

tomb to celebrate the return to the traditional gods. After about 1150 B.C.,

new waves of invasion and internal conspiracies and disorganization, including

strikes and social protest, brought fairly steady decline. It was around this

period that one people, the Hebrews, followed their leader Moses out of Egypt

and into the deserts of Palestine.


Egypt And Mesopotamia Compared


     The development of two great early civilizations in the Middle East and

North Africa encourages a first effort at comparative analysis. Because of

different geography, different degrees of exposure to outside invasion and

influence, and different prior beliefs, Egypt and Mesopotamia were in contrast

to one another in many ways. Egypt emphasized strong central authority, while

Mesopotamian politics shifted more frequently over a substructure of regional

city-states. Mesopotamian art focused on less monumental structures, while

embracing a pronounced literary element that Egyptian art lacked.


     These cultural differences can be explained partly by geography:

Mesopotamians lacked access to the great stones that Egyptians could import

for their monuments. The differences also owed something to different

politics, for Egyptian ability to organize masses of laborers followed from

its centralized government structures and strong bureaucracy. The differences

owed something, finally, to different beliefs, for the Mesopotamians lacked

the Egyptian concern for preparations for the afterlife, which so motivated

the great tombs and pyramids that have made Egypt and some of the pharaohs

live on in human memory.


     Both societies traded extensively, but there was a difference in economic

tone. Mesopotamia was more productive of technological improvements, because

their environment was more difficult to manage than the Nile valley. Trade

contacts were more extensive, and the Mesopotamians gave attention to a

merchant class and commercial law.


     Social differences were less obvious because it is difficult to obtain

information on daily life for early civilizations. It is probable, though,

that the status of women was greater in Egypt than in Mesopotamia (where

women's position seems to have deteriorated after Sumer). Egyptians paid great

respect to women at least in the upper classes, in part because marriage

alliances were vital to the preservation and stability of the monarchy. Also,

Egyptian religion included more pronounced deference to goddesses as sources

of creativity.


     Comparisons in politics, culture, economics, and society suggest

civilizations that varied substantially because of largely separate origins

and environments. The distinction in overall tone was striking, with Egypt

being more stable and cheerful than Mesopotamia not only in beliefs about gods

and the afterlife but in the colorful and lively pictures the Egyptians

emphasized in their decorative art. Also striking was the distinction in

internal history, with Egyptian civilization far less marked by disruption

than its Mesopotamian counterpart.


     Comparison must also note important similarities, some of them

characteristic of early civilizations. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia emphasized

social stratification, with a noble, landowning class on top and masses of

peasants and slaves at the bottom. A powerful priestly group also figured in

the elite. While specific achievements in science differed, there was a common

emphasis on astronomy and related mathematics, which produced durable findings

about units of time and measurement. Both Mesopotamia and Egypt changed only

slowly by the standards of more modern societies. Details of change have not

been preserved, but it is true that having developed successful political and

economic systems there was a strong tendency toward conservation. Change, when

it came, was usually brought by outside forces - natural disasters or

invasions. Both civilizations demonstrated extraordinary durability in the

basics. Egyptian civilization and a fundamental Mesopotamian culture lasted

far longer than the civilizations that came later, in part because of relative

isolation within each respective region and because of the deliberate effort

to maintain what had been achieved, rather than experiment widely.


     Both civilizations, finally, left an important heritage in their region

and adjacent territories. A number of smaller civilization centers were

launched under the impetus of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and some would produce

important innovations of their own by about 1000 B.C.


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