The Rise Of Civilization In The Middle East And Africa

Edited By:  Robert Guisepi

Date:       1998




     The first full civilization emerged by 3500 B.C. in the Tigris-Euphrates

valley in the Middle East. Relatively soon thereafter civilization developed

along the Nile in Egypt, and later spread to other parts of the Middle East

and one region in Africa. The advent of civilization provided a framework for

most of the developments in world history. Additionally, the specific early

civilizations that arose in the Middle East and Africa had several distinctive

features, in political structure and cultural tone, for example. These

features secured the evolution of these societies until the partial eclipse of

the river-valley civilizations after about 1000 B.C. The early civilizations

in the Middle East and North Africa served as generators of a number of

separate and durable civilization traditions, which can still be found in

civilizations around the Mediterranean, in parts of Europe, and even across

the Atlantic.


     Both of these early civilizations formed around major rivers - the Tigris

and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Nile in northeastern Africa. Explaining

how civilizations emerged in the Middle East and then Africa requires a

reminder of the conditions that contributed to change after 4000 B.C. and a

more precise definition of civilization. Once that is done, we can turn to the

characteristics of Mesopotamian civilization, from its origins around 3500

B.C. until it experienced an important period of disunity around 1000 B.C.

Next comes Egypt, the world's second civilization in time, which again can be

traced until about 1000 B.C. The two early civilizations had very different

cultures and political structures reflecting their very separate origins. By

1000 B.C. both of these two early civilizations produced offshoots in eastern

Africa, southern Europe, and additional centers in the Middle East. These

smaller centers of civilization made important contributions of their own, for

example, the monotheistic religion created among the Jewish people in



Early Civilization In Mesopotamia


     Even the technological innovations that shaped the context for the rise

of civilization took many centuries to win full impact. Soon after 4000 B.C.

however, conditions were ripe for a final set of changes that constituted the

arrival of civilization. These changes were based on the use of economic

surplus and the growing needs of a coordinated regional network of villages.


The Sumerians


     The scene for the first civilization was the northeastern section of what

we today call the Middle East, along the great rivers that led to the Persian

Gulf. The agents were a newly-arrived people called the Sumerians.


     The first civilization developed in a part of the Middle East slightly

south of the hilly country in which the first agricultural villages had

emerged several thousand years earlier. Between the northern hills and the

deserts of the Arabian peninsula, running from the eastern Mediterranean coast

to the fall plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, lies a large swath of

arable land called the Fertile Crescent. The rivers rise in the spring,

depositing immensely fertile soil. Rainfall was scant in the region, so as

population pressure increased, farming communities began to find ways to tame

and use the rivers through irrigation ditches. Construction of the ditches

required improved tools that were not available much before 4000 B.C., and

from that point onward developments in the region were swift. Irrigation plus

the fertility of the Tigris-Euphrates region generated substantial food

surpluses promoting population growth and village expansion, as well as

increasing trade and specialization. The region was vulnerable in one respect:

It was so flat that it was open to frequent invasion.


     By 3500 B.C. farmers in Mesopotamia, as the Tigris-Euphrates region is

also called, were benefiting not only from rich agriculture, but also from

flourishing pottery and obsidian tool production. The wheel had been

introduced, and community coordination was steadily improving to support the

irrigation network.


     The final boost toward establishing civilization was provided by the

Sumerians, a people who had migrated into the area from the north around 4000

B.C. They settled in an area of about 700 square miles where they mixed with

other local races in a pattern of cultural mingling that has remained

characteristic of the region. Sumerian culture early developed important

religious values with centers of pilgrimage and worship. Well before 3000 B.C.

many of these centers were provided with elaborately decorated temples, built

with mud brick. Sumerians were impressed with the power of grim gods who

ultimately controlled human destiny.


Sumerian Culture And Politics


     Into this rich economy and culture writing - the most important invention

between the advent of agriculture and the age of the steam engine - was

introduced around 3500 B.C. The Sumerian invention of writing was probably

rather sudden, based on new needs for commercial, property, and political

records including a celebration of the deeds of proud local kings. Writing was

preceded by the invention of clay cylinder seals, on which little pictures of

objects could be recorded. The earliest Sumerian writing simply evolved from

these pictures baked on clay tablets, which were turned into symbols and

gradually transformed into phonetic elements. The early Sumerian alphabet -

set of symbols representing sounds - may have had as many as 2000 symbols

derived from the early pictures. Before long writers began to use more

abstract symbols to represent sounds which allowed Sumerians and their

successors to reduce the alphabet to about 300 symbols. Sumerian writers used

a wedge-shaped stick to impress the symbols on clay tablets. The resulting

writing is called cuneiform, meaning "wedge shaped," and it was used for

several thousand years in the Middle East for many different languages.

Cuneiform writing was difficult to learn, so specialized scribes monopolized

most of it, but the Sumerians in fact believed that every object in nature

should have a separate name to assure its place in the universe; knowing the

name gave a person some power over the object. Writing, in other words,

quickly took on essentially religious purposes, allowing people to impose an

abstract order over nature and the social world.


     Sumerian civilization lasted intact until about 2000 B.C. Its political

organization was based on tightly organized city-states, where the

agricultural hinterland was ruled by an urban-based king who claimed great

authority. In some cases local councils advised the king. One of the functions

of Sumerian states was to define boundaries, unlike the less formal

territories of precivilized villages in the region. The government helped

regulate religion and enforce its duties. It also provided a system of courts

for justice. Kings were originally war leaders whose leadership of a trained

army in defense and war remained vital in Sumerian politics where fighting

loomed large. Kings, the noble class, and the priesthood controlled

considerable land. Slaves, conquered in wars with nearby tribes, were used to

work this land.


     Sumerian political and social organization set up traditions that would

long endure in this region. City-state government established a tradition of

regional rule, that would often be overlaid by larger empires but would

frequently return as the principal organizational form. The reliance on slaves

was maintained in the economy of many successor civilizations. Use of slaves

along with the lack of natural barriers to invasion help explain recurrent

warfare, for war was often needed to supply labor. At the same time, slavery

in the Middle Eastern tradition was a variable condition, and many slaves were

able to earn their own keep and even buy their freedom.


     The Sumerians, aided by regional political stability and the use of

writing, added to their region's economic prosperity. Agriculture gained as

farmers learned how to cultivate date trees, onions, and garlic. Oxen were

used to pull plows, donkeys to carry goods. Wheeled carts helped transport

goods as well. The Sumerians introduced the use of fertilizer and adopted

silver as a means of exchange for buying and selling. Major cities expanded -

one city reached a population of over 70,000 - with substantial housing units

in rows of flat-roofed, mud-brick shops and apartments. More commonly, cities

contained as many as 10,000 people. The Sumerians improved the potter's wheel,

which expanded the production of pottery. Because of the skill level and

commercial importance involved, men began to take the trade away from women.

The Sumerians also invented glass. Trade expanded to the lower Persian Gulf

and to the western portion of the Middle East along the Mediterranean. By 2000

B.C. the Sumerians had trading contacts with India.


     The Sumerians also steadily elaborated their culture, again using writing

to advance earlier forms. By about 2000 B.C. they managed to write down the

world's oldest story, the Gilgamesh epic, which went back at least to the 7th

millennium B.C. in oral form. Gilgamesh, a real person who had ruled a

city-state, became the first hero in world literature. The epic describes a

great flood that obliterated humankind except for a favored family who

survived by building an ark and producing descendants who formed a new race of

people. The overall tone of the epic and of Sumerian culture (perhaps

reflecting the frequently disastrous floods of the region) was somber.

Gilgamesh does great deeds but constantly bumps up against the iron laws of

the gods, ensuring human failure as the gods triumph in the end.


     The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their

     waxing and waning. Men will say, "Who has ever ruled with

     might and with power like Gilgamesh?" As in the dark month,

     the month of shadows; so with-out him there is no light.

     O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were

     given the kingship, such was your destiny; everlasting life

     was not your destiny . . . Gilgamesh, why do you search? The

     life you seek you will never find. When the gods created the

     world, they made death a part of human fate.


     Along with early literature, Sumerian art developed steadily. Statues and

painted frescoes adorned the temples of the gods, and statues of the gods

decorated individual homes. Sumerian science aided a complex agricultural

society, as people sought to learn more about the movement of the sun and

stars - thus founding the science of astronomy - and to improve their

mathematical knowledge. The Sumerians employed a system of numbers based on

units of 12, 60, and 360, which we still use in calculations involving circles

and hours. They also introduced specific systems, such as charts of major

constellations, that have been used for 5000 years in the Middle East and

through later imitation in India and Europe. In other words, Sumerians and

their successors in Mesopotamia created patterns of observation and abstract

thought about nature on which a number of later societies, including our own,

still rely.


     Religion played a vital role in Sumerian culture and politics. Gods were

associated with various forces of nature. At the same time gods were seen as

having a human form and many of humanity's more disagreeable characteristics.

Thus the gods often quarreled and used their power in selfish and childish

ways - which made for interesting stories but also created a fear that the

gods might make life difficult and hard to control. The gloomy cast of

Sumerian religious ideas also included an afterlife of suffering - an original

version of the concept of hell. Because gods were believed to regulate natural

forces such as flooding in a region where nature was often harsh and

unpredictable, they were more feared than loved. Priests played a central role

because of their responsibility for placating the gods through proper prayers,

sacrifices, and magic. Priests became full-time specialists, running the

temples and also performing the astronomical calculations necessary to run the

irrigation systems. Each city had a patron god, and erected impressive shrines

to please and honor this god and other deities. Massive towers, called

ziggurats, formed the monumental architecture for this civilization. Prayers

and offerings to prevent floods as well as to protect good health were a vital

part of Sumerian life. Sumerian ideas about the divine force behind and within

natural objects - in rivers, trees, and mountains - were common among

agricultural peoples. A religion of this sort is known as animism. More

specifically, Sumerian religious notions, notably their ideas about the

creation of the earth by the gods from a chaos of water and about divine

punishment of humans through floods, continue to have force in Jewish,

Christian, and Muslim cultures, all of which were born much later in the

Middle East.


     Sumerian activities in trade and war spread beyond the regional limits of

the civilization in the Middle East. The adoption of portions of the Gilgamesh

tale in later literature such as the Jewish Bible developed well to the west

of Sumer. Even after Sumer itself collapsed, the Sumerian language was still

used in religious schools and temples, showing the power of this early culture

and its decidedly religious emphasis.


What Civilization Meant


     The emergence of the world's first civilization in Sumer brought to

fruition the key features of this form of organization. Sumerian society

certainly met the basic criterion of civilization in that it built on fairly

regular economic surpluses. Sumerian farmers produced enough that they could

be taxed in order to support a small but crucial number of priests and

government officials. They produced enough to allow some trade and

specialization, thus encouraging groups of artisans and merchants who did not

farm. The Sumerian economy also stretched out along the great irrigation

systems of the Tigris-Euphrates. One of the tasks of regional government was

to elaborate and maintain these systems: regional coordination was thus a

vital feature.


     The advent of civilization in Sumer also involved additional innovations

building on the key features of surplus and coordination: the creation of

cities beyond the scope of individual centers, such as Jericho, where at least

several thousand people lived and considerable specialization developed; and

the invention of writing. While these innovations were not found in all

civilizations, they were vital in Sumer and other early centers such as Egypt

and the Indus River.


The Importance Of Cities


     In Middle-Eastern agricultural civilization (all civilizations were

fundamentally agricultural until about 200 years ago), most people did not

live in cities. The cities that existed were crucial, however, because they

amassed wealth and power; allowed relatively easy exchange of ideas,

encouraging intellectual and artistic changes; and promoted further

specialization in manufacture and trade. Early Middle-Eastern cities radiated

considerable influence and power into surrounding countrysides. Cities also

relied on broader attributes of civilization, the most notable being

relatively extensive trade and political organization. Cities could not be

founded until the Middle East produced a significant agricultural surplus

above what farmer families needed to live on and had groups - merchants - to

organize trade that brought food to the city and carried urban-made goods to

the countryside and other cities. Cities could not be founded until there was

a sufficiently solid political organization - a government, with some

recognized legitimacy, and some full-time officials - that could run essential

urban services, such as a court system for disputes, and help regulate the

relationship between cities and the countryside.


     Saying that early Middle-Eastern civilizations were based on cities,

then, even when most people remained in the countryside as agricultural

producers, is partly saying that civirizations had generated more elaborate

trade and political structures than initial agricultural societies had

managed. This helps explain, also, why civilizations generally covered a

fairly wide area, breaking out of the localism that described the economics

and political activities of the initial agricultural communities.


The Importance Of Writing


     The second key ingredient that emerged in the Middle East after 4000 B.C.

was the invention of writing. Some historians and anthropologists urge against

focusing too much on the development of writing, because concentrating only on

this aspect, albeit important, can leave out some civilizations, such as the

civilization of the Incas in the Andes region of South America, that produced

significant political forms without this intellectual tool. We now appreciate

the sophistication societies can attain without writing, and rate the division

of early human activities between hunting and gathering and agriculture as

more fundamental than the invention of writing.


     Writing was a genuinely important development even so. Societies with

writing can organize more elaborate records including the lists essential for

effective taxation. Writing is a precondition for most formal bureaucracies

which depend on standardized communication and the ability to maintain some

documentation. Societies with writing can also organize a more elaborate

intellectual life because of their ability to record data and build on past,

written wisdom. For example, it is no accident that with writing many early

civilizations began to generate more formal scientific knowledge. Societies

before the development of writing typically depended on poetic sagas to convey

their value systems, with the poetry designed to aid in memorization. With

writing, the importance of sagas such as Gilgamesh might at first have

continued but usually the diversity of cultural expressions soon increased

with other kinds of literature supplementing the long, rhymed epics. Some

experts argue that the very fact of becoming literate changes the way people

think - encouraging a greater sense that the world can be understood by

organized human inquiry as opposed to a belief in whimsical magical spirits.

Writing, in other words, can produce more abstract religious thinking and also

secular thinking that seeks to describe nature and human affairs in

nonreligious terms.


     Writing, like the existence of cities, certainly helps explain how

civilizations could develop more extensive trading and political systems than

those of most earlier agricultural societies. As a basis for even small

bureaucracies - and as a basis of record-keeping for merchant dealings beyond

purely personal contacts - writing played a considerable role in extending the

geographical range of key civilizations and in developing new forms of

economic and political organization. It is vital to recognize, however, that

the advent of writing in the early history of civilizations also created new

divisions within the population, for only a small minority of people - mainly

priests, scribes, and a few merchants - had time to master writing skills.


Kush And The Eastern Mediterranean


     Toward the end of the early civilization period, a number of partially

separate civilization centers sprang up on the fringes of the civilized world

in Africa and the Middle East, extending also into parts of southern Europe.

These centers built heavily on the achievements of the great early centers.

They resulted from the expansion efforts of these centers, as in the Egyptian

push southward during the New Kingdom period and from new organizational

problems within the chief centers themselves; in the Middle East, separate

societies emerged during the chaotic centuries following the collapse of the

Hittite empire.


Kush And Axum: Civilization Spreads In Africa


     The kingdom of Kush sprang up along the upper (southern) reaches of the

Nile. Kush was the first African state other than Egypt of which there is

record. This was a state on the frontiers of Egyptian activity, where Egyptian

garrisons had been stationed from time to time. By 1000 B.C. it emerged as an

independent political unit, though strongly influenced by Egyptian forms. By

730 B.C., as Egypt declined, Kush was strong enough to conquer its northern

neighbor and rule it for several centuries, though this conquest was soon

ended by Assyrian invasion from the Middle East. After this point the Kushites

began to push their frontiers farther south, gaining a more diverse African

population and weakening the Egyptian influence. It was at this point that the

new capital was established at Meroe. Kushites became skilled in iron use and

had access to substantial African ore and fuel. The use of iron tools extended

the area that could be brought into agriculture. Kush formed a key center of

metal technology in the ancient world, as a basis of both military and

economic strength.


     Kushites developed a form of writing derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics

(and which has not yet been fully deciphered). They established a number of

significant cities. Their political organization, also derived from Egypt,

emphasized a strong monarchy with elaborate ceremonies based on the belief

that the king was a god. Kushite economic influence extended widely in

sub-Saharan Africa. Extensive trade was conducted with people to the west, and

this trade may have brought knowledge of iron making to much of the rest of

Africa. The greatest period of the kingdom at Meroe, where activities centered

from the early 6th century onward, lasted from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 50. By

this time the kingdom served as a channel for African goods - animal skins,

ebony and ivory, gold and slaves - into the commerce of the Middle East and

the Mediterranean. Many monuments were built during these centuries, including

huge royal pyramids and an elaborate palace in Meroe. Much fine pottery and

jewelry were produced. Meroe began to decline from about A.D. 100 onward and

was defeated by a kingdom to the south, Axum, around A.D. 300. Prosperity and

extensive political and economic activity did not end in this region, but

extended into the formation of a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia.


     The outreach of Kush is not entirely clear beyond its trading network set

up with neighboring regions. Whether African peoples outside the Upper Nile

region learned much from Kush about political forms is unknown. Certainly

there was little imitation of its writing, and the region of Kush and Ethiopia

would long remain somewhat isolated from the wider stream of African history.

Nevertheless, the formation of a separate society stretching below the eastern

Sahara was an important step in setting the bases for technological and

economic change throughout much of upper Africa. Though its achievements flow

less fully into later African development, Kush holds for Africa what Sumer

achieved for the Middle East - it set a wider process of civilization in



The Mediterranean Region


     Smaller centers in the Middle East began to spring up after about 1500

B.C. Though dependent on the larger Mesopotamian culture for many features,

these centers added important new ingredients and in some cases also extended

the hold of civilization westward to the Asian coast of the Mediterranean. The

smaller cultures also added to the diversity of the Middle East, creating a

varied array of identities that would continue to mark the region even under

the impetus of later empires, such as Rome, or the sweeping religion of Islam.

Several of these smaller cultures proved immensely durable and would influence

other parts of the world as well.


The Jews


     The most important of the smaller Middle Eastern groups were the Jews,

who gave the world one of its most influential religions. The Jews were a

Semitic people (a population group that also includes the Arabs). They were

influenced by Babylonian civilization but also marked by a period of

enslavement in Egypt. They settled in the southeast corner of the

Mediterranean around 1600 B.C., probably migrating from Mesopotamia. Some

moved into Egypt where they were treated as a subject people. In the 13th

century B.C., Moses led these Jews to Palestine, in search of a homeland

promised by the Jewish God, Yahweh. This was later held to be the central

development in Jewish history. The Jews began at this point to emerge as a

people with a self-conscious culture and some political identity. At most

points, however, the Jewish state was small and relatively weak, retaining

independence only while other parts of the Middle East were disorganized. A

few Jewish kings were able to unify their people, but at many points the Jews

were divided into separate regional states. Most of Palestine came under

foreign (initially Assyrian) domination from 722 B.C. onward, but the Jews

were able to maintain their cultural identity and key religious traditions.




     The distinctive achievement of the Jews was the development of a strong

monotheistic religion. Early Jewish leaders probably emphasized a particularly

strong, creator god as the most powerful of many divinities - a hierarchy not

uncommon in animism - but this encouraged a focus on the father God for prayer

and loyalty. By the time of Moses, Jews were urged increasingly to abandon

worship of all other gods and to receive from Yahweh the Torah (a holy Law),

the keeping of which would assure divine protection and guidance. From this

point onward Jews regarded themselves as a chosen people under God's special

guidance. As Jewish politics deteriorated due to increasing foreign pressure,

prophets sprang up to call Jews back to faithful observance of God's laws. By

the 9th century B.C. some religious ideas and the history of the Jews began to

be written down in what would become the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament of

the Christian Bible).


     Besides the emphasis on a single God, Jewish religion had two important

features. First was the idea of an overall divine plan. God guided Jewish

history, and when disasters came they constituted punishment for failures to

live up to divine laws. Second was the concept of a divinely organized

morality. The Jewish God demanded not empty sacrifices or selfish prayers, but

righteous behavior. God, though severe, was ultimately merciful and would help

the Jews to regain morality. This system was not only monotheistic but also

intensely ethical; God was actively concerned with the doings of people and so

enjoined good behavior. By the 2d century B.C., these concepts were clearly

spelled out in the Torah and the other writings that were formed into the Old

Testament of the Bible. By their emphasis on a written religion the Jews were

able to retain their identity under foreign rule and even under outright

dispersion from their Mediterranean homeland.


     The impact of Jewish religion beyond the Jewish people was complex. The

Jews saw God's guidance in all of human history, and not simply their own.

Ultimately all peoples would be led to God. But God's special pact was with

the Jews, and there was little premium placed on missionary activity or

converting others to the faith. This limitation helps explain the intensity

and durability of the Jewish faith; it also kept the Jewish people a minority

within the Middle East though at various points substantial conversions to

Judaism did spread the religion somewhat more widely. Jewish monotheism,

though a landmark in world religious history, is noteworthy for sustaining a

distinctive Jewish culture to our own day, not for immediately altering a

wider religious map.


     Yet the elaboration of monotheism had a wide significance. In Jewish

hands the concept of God became less humanlike, more abstract - a basic change

not only in religion but in overall outlook. Yahweh had a power and a planning

quality far different from the attributes of the traditional gods of the

Middle East or Egypt. The gods, particularly in Mesopotamia, were whimsical

and capricious; Yahweh was orderly and just, and individuals could know what

to expect if they adhered to God's rules. The link to ethical conduct and

moral behavior was also central. Religion for the Jews was a system of life,

not merely a set of rituals and ceremonies. The full impact of this religious

transformation on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization would come

only later, when Jewish ideas were taken up by the proselytizing faiths of

Christianity and Islam. But the basic concept formed one of the legacies of

the twilight period from the first great civilizations to the new cultures

that would soon arise in their place.


The Minoans


     The Jews were not alone among the distinct societies popping up in the

eastern Mediterranean. Around 1600 B.C. a civilized society developed on the

island of Crete. This Minoan society traded widely with both Mesopotamia and

Egypt, and probably acquired many of its civilized characteristics from this

exchange. Minoan society, for example, copied Egyptian architectural forms and

mathematics, though it developed important new artistic styles in the colossal

palace built in the capital city, Knossos. The alphabet, too, was adapted from

Egypt. Political structures similar to those of Egypt or the Mesopotamian

empires emphasized elaborate bureaucratic con- trols, complete with massive

record keeping, under a powerful monarch. Minoan navies at various points

conquered parts of the mainland of Greece, eventually leading to the

establishment of the first civilization there. Centered particularly in the

kingdom of Mycenae, this early Greek civilization developed considerable

capacity for monumental building, and also conducted important wars with

city-states in the Middle East, including the famous conflict with Troy.


     Civilizations in Crete and in Greece were overturned by a wave of

Indo-European invasions, culminating around 1000 B.C., that temporarily

reduced the capacities of these societies to maintain elaborate art or

writing, or extensive political or economic organizations. While the

civilization that would arise later, to form classical Greece, had somewhat

separate origins, it would build extensively on the memories of this first

civilized society and on its roots in Egyptian and Mesopotamian achievements.


The Phoenicians


     Another distinct society grew up in the Middle East itself, in what is

now the nation of Lebanon. Around 2000 B.C. a people called the Phoenicians

settled on the Mediterranean coast. Like the Minoans, they quickly turned to

seafaring because their agricultural hinterland was not extensive. The

Phoenicians used their elaborate trading contacts to gain knowledge from the

major civilization centers, and then in several key cases improved upon what

they learned. Around 1300 B.C. they devised a much simplified alphabet based

on the Mesopotamian cuneiform. The Phoenician alphabet had only 22 letters,

and so was learned relatively easily. It served as ancestor to the Greek and

Latin lettering systems. The Phoenicians also upgraded the Egyptian numbering



     The Phoenicians were, however, a merchant people, not vested in extensive

cultural achievements. They advanced manufacturing techniques in several

areas, particularly the production of dyes for cloth. Above all, for

commercial purposes, they dispersed and set up colonies at a number of points

along the Mediterranean. They benefited from the growing weakness of Egypt and

the earlier collapse of Minoan society and its Greek successor, for there were

few competitors for influence in the Mediterranean by 1000 B.C. Phoenician

sailors moved steadily westward, setting up a major trading city on the coast

of North Africa at Carthage, and lesser centers in Italy, Spain, and southern

France. The Phoenicians even traded along the Atlantic coast of Europe,

reaching Britain where they sought a supply of tin. Ultimately Phoenicia

collapsed in the wake of the Assyrian invasions of the Middle East, though

several of the colonial cities long survived.


The End Of The Early Civilization Period


     The proliferation of spin-off civilizations brought important innovations

within the framework set by the achievements of the great progenitors in

Mesopotamia and Egypt. The simplified alphabet, the major cultural shift

described by the first great monotheistic system, and a number of quite

practical improvements - the introduction by another Mediterranean coastal

peoples, the Lydians, of coined money - considerably advanced the level of

civilization itself. The spread of civilization into Kush and into some

European portions of the Mediterranean, fed by deliberate expansion and

growing trade, also set the basis for the development of major civilization

centers beyond the original core. By 1000 B.C. the civilization zone initially

established by separate developments in Mesopotamia and Egypt had fanned out

widely, sketching the basis for later societies in the Middle East, Africa,

and parts of Europe.


     No sharp line divides the long early phase of the development of

civilization in the Middle East and North Africa from the next, classical

period; there was no total overturning by invasion, as would characterize the

first civilization in India. Developments such as the spread of the Kushite

kingdom, the survival of the Egyptian kingdom, or the elaboration of the

Jewish religion continued well into the final centuries B.C. Successive

empires in the Middle East would revive or preserve many features of the

Mesopotamian pattern.


     Around 1000 B.C., and for several centuries thereafter, there was a

somewhat pervasive pause in the development of civilizations in this general

region. The pause did not disrupt the Phoenician or Kushite expansion on the

fringes, nor did it shatter all civilized forms. But Mesopotamia did undergo

an unusual several-century span in which regional city-states and considerable

internal warfare brought political chaos. Egyptian politics were also

deteriorating. Early civilizations in Greece were overwhelmed (almost as

completely as their counterpart in India) by waves of invasions by

Indo-Europeans from eastern Europe. These invasions for a time reduced

politics to essentially tribal levels and virtually destroyed cultural

activities that depended on writing or elaborate workmanship.


     The waves of Indo-European invasion form the clearest breaking point.

These invaders were hunters and herders initially from central Asia, who

pressed into western Asia and Europe in successive waves. The Hittites were an

Indo-European people capable of assimilating Mesopotamian values to the extent

of setting up a major empire. They also pushed back the Egyptian sphere of

influence, launching the decline of the New Kingdom and also freeing up the

southeastern Mediterranean corner for the rise of smaller states such as the

Jewish kingdom. But by 1200 B.C. the Hittites were swept away by another

invading force of Indo-Europeans (the same group that interrupted civilization

in Greece).


     The Indo-Europeans, beginning with the Hittites, introduced iron use

which gave rise to more powerful weaponry and the possibility of

geographically more extensive empires based on military power. The first group

to exploit this new weaponry were the Assyrians, who began a pattern of

conquest from their base along the Tigris River. By 665 B.C. they had

conquered the whole of the civilized Middle East down to the Persian Gulf as

well as Egypt. This was a cruel people, eager to terrorize their enemies. The

Assyrians used iron, a strong and widely available metal, to arm more men more

cheaply than societies relying on bronze were able to do. Their empire was

unprecedentedly large and also unusually systematic as they collected tribute,

assimilated diverse cultural achievements, and even moved whole peoples (as

they did the Jews) in order to maintain control. The Assyrian state was not

long lived. By 612 B.C. it fell to a combination of pressures from invading

frontier tribes and internal revolt. A number of smaller successor kingdoms

followed, until another great eastern empire, the Persian, arose in 539 B.C.


     The key points are these: The characteristic boundaries of the early

civilizations that had lasted so long amid a relatively slow pace of change

were beginning to yield. Invading peoples brought new ideas. The

Indo-Europeans, for example, ignored the Mesopotamian or Egyptian beliefs

about the divine attributes of kings. Rather, kings were selected by councils

formed by nobles and the army. Also, where Indo-European culture took deep

root, as in Greece, political patterns would begin to diverge from those set

in the earlier civilizations of the region. Geographical boundaries were

shifting too. Egypt faded as a major independent actor, while the Middle East

was open to new empires with greater unifying potential than ever before; and

new centers of vitality were beginning to be sketched in Africa and along the

European coast of the Mediterranean.


     The stage was beginning to be shaped for the emergence of a new set of

civilizations, such as in Persia and Greece, that would build on earlier

precedents in many ways but advance new cultural and political forms. Based on

the new military technology brought by iron and on steady improvements in

shipping, these new civilizations would reach out to wider regions than the

early civilizations had usually managed. More extensive civilization zones and

new cultural and political principles, though both prepared by developments in

the early civilization period, would define the era of classical civilizations

in the Middle East and Mediterranean that began to emerge by about 800 B.C.

with the recovery of civilization in Greece and, soon, the rise of the great

Persian empire.


Civilization: Drawbacks And Limits


     Because civilizations are by definition well organized compared to the

societies that preceded them, it is not surprising that almost all history is

about what has happened to civilized societies. We know most about such

societies, and we are likely to be particularly impressed by their great art

or powerful rulers. It is also true that civilizations tended to be far more

populous than noncivilized societies. Because civilizations depend on some

trade, they allow greater specialization that increases productivity and

sustenance of larger populations. Their political structure allows whole

regions or even a number of regions to be unified. But the history of

civilization does not embrace everybody. In the days of the river-valley

civilizations, even long after Sumer, most inhabited parts of the world were

not in the civilization orbit.


     There is inevitable confusion between defining a society as a

civilization and assuming that civilization produces a monopoly on higher

values and controlled behavior. In the first place, civilization brings losses

as well as gains. As the Middle East moved toward civilization, distinctions

based on social class and wealth increased. This was clearly the case in

Sumer, where social structure ranged from slaves, who were treated as

property, to powerful kings and priests. Civilizations typically have firmer

class or caste divisions and greater separations between ruler and ruled than

"simpler" societies. Civilizations also often create greater inequality

between men and women than noncivilized societies do. Many early

civilizations, including those of the Middle East, went to considerable pains

to organize the inferiority of women on a more structured basis than ever

before, treating women as the property of fathers or husbands. Finally, as

Sigmund Freud noted, civilizations impose a host of restraints on people in

order to keep them organized in a complex social unit. Such restraints can

create a great deal of personal tension and even mental illness.

"Civilization," then, should not be taken as a synonym for "a `good' or

`progressive' society."


     Furthermore, people in noncivilized societies may be exceptionally well

regulated and possessed of interesting, important culture. They are not

"merely" barbarians or uncouth wild men. Some societies that were most eager

to repress anger and aggression in human dealings, such as several Eskimo

groups, were not part of a civilization until recently. In contrast, many

civilized societies produce a great deal of aggressive behavior and build

warlike qualities into their list of virtues. While some noncivilized

societies treat old people cruelly, others display respect and veneration. A

civilized society does not invariably enhance the human capacity for

restrained, polite behavior or an interest in the higher values of life.

Civilizations do not even clearly promote greater human happiness.


     The development of civilization continued the process of enhancing human

capacity for technological and political organization, and the production of

increasingly elaborate and diverse artistic and intellectual forms. In this

quite restricted sense, the term has meaning and legitimately commands the

attention of most historians. Because of the power and splendor civilizations

could provide, they did tend to spread as other societies came under their

influence or deliberately tried to imitate their achievements. Early

civilizations, however, spread slowly because many peoples had no contact with

them and because their disadvantages, such as greater social inequality, might

be repellent. Thus the initial advent of civilization, while an important

historical milestone, came in clearly circumscribed regions like the

Tigris-Euphrates valley. The history of early civilization focuses attention

on the generation of the first forms of civilized activity - writing and city

administration - and on the construction of linkages in medium-sized

geographical units.


The Course Of Mesopotamian Civilization: A Series Of Conquests


     The general characteristics of civilization, from economic surplus to

writing, cities, and social inequality, are vital, but must be combined with

the specific qualities of particular civilizations such as those of

Mesopotamia, where writing was of a certain style; social organization was

distinctive, for example, in the power of priests; and overall culture had

some special qualities.


     A key ingredient of Mesopotamian civilization was frequent instability as

one ruling people gave way to another invading force. The Sumerians,

themselves invaders of the fertile river valleys, did not set up a

sufficiently strong and united political force to withstand pressures from

outside, particularly when other peoples of the Middle East began to copy key

achievements, such as the formation of cities.


Later Mesopotamian Empires


     Shortly after 2400 B.C. a king from a non-Sumerian city, Akkad, conquered

the Sumerian city-states and inaugurated an Akkadian Empire. This empire soon

sent troops as far as Egypt and Ethiopia. The initial Akkadian ruler, Sargon

I, the first clearly identified individual in world history, set up a unified

empire integrating the city-states into a whole, and added to Sumerian art a

new style marked by the theme of royal victory. Professional military

organization expanded since Sargon maintained a force of 5400 troops.

Extensive tax revenues were needed to support his operations. The Akkadians

were the first people to use writing for more than commercial and temple

records, producing a number of literary works. The Akkadian empire, however,

lasted only about 200 years, and then it was overthrown by another invading

force. Sumerian regional states reappeared, in what turned out to be the final

phase of this particular civilization. It was then that the Epic of Gilgamesh

was written. By this time, around 2000 B.C., kingdoms were springing up in

various parts of the Middle East, while new invading groups, including Indo-

European tribes that came from the Balkans in southeastern Europe, added to

the region's confusion. A civilization derived from Sumerian culture spread

more widely in the Middle East, though political unity was rarely achieved in

the expanded setting.


     Another new empire arose around 1800 B.C., for the first time unifying

the whole of Mesopotamia. This Babylonian Empire was headed by Hammurabi, one

of the great rulers of early civilized history. Hammurabi set up an extensive

network of officials and judges, while maintaining a separate priesthood. He

also codified the laws of the region, to deal with a number of criminal,

property, and family issues. Large cities testified to the wealth and power of

this new empire. At the same time, Sumerian cultural traditions were

maintained and elaborated. The famous Hammurabic code thus was built on

earlier codifications by Sumerian kings.


     A Babylonian poem testified to the continued sobriety of the dominant

culture: "I look about me and see only evil. My troubles grow and I cannot

find justice. I have prayed to the gods and sacrificed, but who can understand

the gods in heaven? Who knows what they plan for us? Who has ever been able to

understand a god's conduct?"


     Finally, Babylonian scientists extended the Sumerian work in astronomy

and mathematics. Scholars were able to predict lunar eclipses and trace the

paths of some of the planets. Babylonians also worked out mathematical tables

and an algebraic geometry of great practical utility. The modern 60-minute

hour and 360-degree circle are heritages of the Babylonian system of

measurement. The study of astronogy is another Babylonian legacy.


     Indeed, of all the successors of the Sumerians, the Babylonians

constructed the most elaborate culture, though their rule was not long-lived.

The Babylonians expanded commerce and a common cultural zone, both based on

growing use of cuneiform writing and a shared language. During the empire

itself, new government strength showed both in the extensive legal system and

in the opulent public buildings and royal palaces. The hanging gardens of one

king dazzled visitors from the entire region.


     The Babylonian empire fell by about 1600 B.C. An invading Hittite people,

pressing in from central Asia, adapted the Sumerian cuneiform script to their

own Indo-European language and set up an empire of their own. The Hittites

soon yielded, and a series of smaller kingdoms disputed the region for several

centuries, between about 1200 and 900 B.C. This period allowed a number of

regional cultures, such as the Hebrew and the Phoenician, to develop greater

autonomy, thus adding to the diversity and the achievements of the Middle

East. Then, after about 900 B.C., another series of empires began in the

Middle East, including the Assyrian Empire and later the Persian Empire based

on invasions of new groups from central Asia. These new invaders had mastered

the production of iron weapons and also used horses and chariots in fighting,

sketching a new framework for the development of empires and a new chapter in

the history of the Middle East and of civilization more generally.


[See Head Of Sargon: This bronze head of Sargon, founder of the Akkadian

dynasty, dates from about 2350 B.C. The elaborate metalwork displays the

artistic talent acquired by leading craftsmen.]


Document: Hammurabi's Law Code


     Hammurabi, as king of Babylon, united Mesopotamia under his rule from

about 1800 to 1750 B.C. His law code, the earliest such compilation still in

existence, was discovered on a stone slab in Iran in A.D. 1901. Not a

systematic presentation, it was a collection of exemplary cases designed to

set general standards of justice. The code provides vital insights into the

nature of social relations and family structure in this ancient civilization.

Examples of the Hammurabic code follow:


     When Marduk commanded me to give justice to the people of the land and to

let [them] have [good] governance, I set forth truth and justice throughout

the land [and] prospered the people.


At that time:


If a man has accused a man and has charged him with manslaughter and then has

not proved [it against] him, his accuser shall be put to death.


If a man has charged a man with sorcery and then has not proved [it against]

him, he who is charged with the sorcery shall go to the holy river; he shall

leap into the holy river and, if the holy river overwhelms him, his accuser

shall take and keep his house; if the holy river proves that man clear [of the

offense] and he comes back safe, he who has charged him with sorcery shall be

put to death; he who leapt into the holy river shall take and keep the house

of his accuser.


If a man has come forward in a case to bear witness to a felony and then has

not proved the statement that he has made, if that case [is] a capital one,

that man shall be put to death.


If he has come forward to bear witness to [a claim for] corn or money, he

shall remain liable for the penalty for that suit.


If a judge has tried a suit, given a decision, caused a sealed tablet to be

executed, [and] thereafter varies his judgment, they shall convict that judge

of varying [his] judgment and he shall pay twelve-fold the claim in that suit;

then they shall remove him from his place on the bench of judges in the

assembly, and he shall not [again] sit in judgment with the judges.


If a free person helps a slave to escape, the free person will be put to



If a man has committed robbery and is caught, that man shall be put to death.


If the robber is not caught, the man who has been robbed shall formally

declare whatever he has lost before a god, and the city and the mayor in whose

territory or district the robbery has been committed shall replace whatever he

has lost for him.


If [it is] the life [of the owner that is lost], the city or the mayor shall

pay one maneh of silver to his kinsfolk.


If a person owes money and Adad [the river god] has flooded the person's

field, the person will not give any grain [tax] or pay any interest in that



If a person is too lazy to make the dike of his field strong and there is a

break in the dike and water destroys his own farmland, that person will make

good the grain [tax] that is destroyed.


If a merchant increases interest beyond that set by the king and collects it,

that merchant will lose what was lent.


If a trader borrows money from a merchant and then denies the fact, that

merchant in the presence of god and witnesses will prove the trader borrowed

the money and the trader will pay the merchant three times the amount



If the husband of a married lady has accused her but she is not caught lying

with another man, she shall take an oath by the life of a god and return to

her house.


If a man takes himself off and there is not the [necessary] maintenance in his

house, his wife [so long as] her [husband is delayed], shall keep [herself

chaste; she shall not] enter [another man's house].


If that woman has not kept herself chaste but enters another man's house, they

shall convict that woman and cast her into the water.


If a son strikes his father, they shall cut off his forehand.


If a man has put out the eye of a free man, they shall put out his eye.


If he breaks the bone of a [free] man, they shall break his bone.


If he puts out the eye of a villain or breaks the bone of a villain, he shall

pay 1 maneh of silver.


If he puts out the eye of a [free] man's slave or breaks the bone of a [free]

man's slave, he shall pay half his price.


If a man knocks out the tooth of a [free] man equal [in rank] to him[self],

they shall knock out his tooth.


If he knocks out the tooth of a villain, he shall pay 1/3 maneh of silver.


If a man strikes the cheek of a [free] man who is superior [in rank] to

him[self], he shall be beaten with 60 stripes with a whip of ox-hide in the



If the man strikes the cheek of a free man equal to him[self in rank], he

shall pay 1 maneh of silver.


If a villain strikes the cheek of a villain, he shall pay 10 shekels of



If the slave of a [free] man strikes the cheek of a free man, they shall cut

off his ear.

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