Rise of Civilizations and Empires in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley

By Maghan Keita 

Historians often write of world history in terms of the development of civilizations defined by a characteristic empire. What defines an empire and what does the building of empire suggest? The regions of Mesopotamia, Egypt (the Nile Valley), and the Indus Valley are three rich areas for studying how people and ideas come together to create civilizations and empires.

Imagine three spaces that are sparsely populated, yet well watered and fertile, in a time before written history. Two are river valleys, another lies between two rivers forming a rich plain. Imagine that humans settle in these regions and domesticate plants and animals. The domestication made possible by these riverine territories and the success of that domestication—farming and grazing—lure increasingly greater human and animal migration to these spaces. As these populations increase, so do their needs. These needs give rise to the social and political economic formations that characterize the ancient urban spaces and states of Mesopotamia and the Indus and Nile valleys.

Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Indus Valley civilizations are noted for their dense populations, urbanization processes, and cultural innovation. These elements are tied to the growth of commerce and broader cultural interaction. That is, as empires these civilizations can be thought of as collections of peoples, goods, and ideas whose existence and dynamism were built on movement and exchange. This can be seen in the movement and exchange of people, the movement and exchange of goods, and the movement and exchange of ideas.

The collections of peoples, goods, and ideas suggest difference and diversity and are also the hallmarks of empires. The human, material, and intellectual richness of the regions created the need to organize. The organizational necessity was the result of innovation, communication, and the movement of populations.

Movement of People

The initial formation of these civilizations is based on the movement of peoples into the river valleys and plains. These people were nurtured by these spaces. They often described their environments as god-like and characterized their nearby rivers as life-giving. The transformation of these valleys and plains into to places capable of physically nurturing the various peoples who moved into them was one of the first acts of cultural innovation and exchange. A simple illustration of this exchange is seen in the technologies of food production. The types of food in a region, where the food could be grown, and, under what conditions, all gave rise to innovation.

The use of these valleys’ soil and water were signs of innovation and exchange. Though we lack significant insight into the technologies of the Indus Valley, we know that for the Mesopotamians, the key to making the Fertile Crescent fertile was the technology of irrigation. In fact, irrigation became the key feature of the civilization. As a result of the need for irrigation, religious and legal codes in many Mesopotamian societies focused on water use.

Egypt and the Nile Valley civilizations were defined by the rich alluvial soils that annual floods deposited along the Nile banks and in the delta and the flood plains. The use of water and the timing of flood seasons gave rise to a number of technological innovations, such as the calendar. These cultural and technological innovations also guaranteed the growth of large populations and increased the possibility that some of those populations would be located in central urban centers.

These societies’ agricultural and ecological technologies drew immigrants and travelers who often brought goods and ideas that contributed to the culture of these civilizations. As people moved in, the issue of population density arose. The ability of these areas to sustain population—an ability that can be thought of as a richness—attracted more peoples.

Some of these peoples entered the areas peaceably. Others used force to maintain or expand geographic and cultural spaces, indicating imperial activity. An interesting pattern emerges here in that some urban centers were constructed to protect against invading forces, as seen in the walled settlements of the Indus Valley and early Mesopotamia. However, as much as these walled settlements repelled invaders, they also attracted them. The river valleys and the plains, and their agricultural richness, supported the formation of cities. The cities themselves—cities such as Harappâ in the Indus, Ur of Mesopotamia, and Memphis in Egypt—became representative of the regions’ richness. The cities became emblems of their respective empires and either allowed for the extension of the empire or resisted the threats of other powers.

Over centuries, these three civilizations developed through movement, mingling, and settlement in rich river valleys and plains; through population growth and increased density; and through the expansion of settlements into cities, and later, often into city-states, states, and empires. Again, the movement and exchange of people, goods, and ideas—sometimes peaceably, sometimes through force—is assured.

Disbursement of Ideas and Goods

The historical activities of the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Egypt indicate that various peoples moved in and out, contested the regions' spaces, and sought to control other peoples, their goods, and their resources. This interaction had profound consequences on how those involved thought about themselves and each other. Their ideas were tested, challenged, and in many instances, changed. These regions’ cities probably were seen as symbols of wealth; therefore, groups in and outside of the region often sought to control them. Cities in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley can be seen easily in terms of a richness in population. Richness is understood as the population's ability to produce goods and services in quantity-not just agriculture, but skills such as metalworking, pottery, or commerce. Thus, richness in population meant surpluses allowed the cities and the areas they controlled to support a ruling and administrative class, and maybe an army. Frequently, product surpluses were exchanged, providing wealth for the area and drawing other peoples to it. The Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Egypt all experienced the results of a rich and productive population.

The point is illustrated by the movement of various peoples across Mesopotamia, from the Akkadians through the Assyrians and the Chaldeans, as well as the social, political, and economic structures they created. The ways in which these peoples entered Mesopotamia, and the ways in which they added to it and gained from it, indicate movement and exchange.

New language patterns, such as the early substitution of the Akkadian tongue for Sumerian, demonstrate the innovations encouraged by movement and exchange. Shifting power also was a key result of movement and exchange; as when the Elamites, who followed the Akkadians, controlled Mesopotamian urban life and mixed with the local populations. The conglomeration of peoples, languages, and cultures was part of the creation of a world view, albeit, a limited one.

By 700 BC, the extent of the Assyrian Empire literally linked it to the activities of the Egyptian quest for empire status. That linkage can be expressed as interaction and exchange. Diplomatic exchange as well as military struggle resolved conflict over the empires’ boundaries and areas of control. Marriage was a highly visible form of diplomacy and amounted to an exchange between ruling families that linked them politically and economically.

The relationship between the Egyptians and the Hittites illustrates the point. In the 13th century BC, the two parties concluded hostilities through a peace treaty in which the ruler of the Hittites gave his daughter in marriage to the Egyptian pharaoh. Hittite and Assyrian examples indicate that such marriages were part of the diplomatic and political fabric. These arrangements often resulted in the cessation of hostilities, greater regional stability, and greater economic exchange. Marriages across the ruling classes of these societies offer one way to conceptualize the world. By looking at the blending of societies, at the upper levels we find some documentation of interaction that repudiates modern notions of race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Political marriages and royal hostages both provided for the sharing of culture across religious and ethnic divisions and differences that may well have contributed to humankind’s history. In this case, the ancient world is illustrated and documented in these relations that transcend modern notions of cultural and ethnic divisions.

Matrimonial unions, from the Tigris and Euphrates west to the Nile Valley, also reveal the same types of alliances taking place from the Mediterranean coast into the African interior. The interactions between Egypt and Nubia (often called Ethiopia or Kush) illustrate the point. Herodotus tells of the Pharaoh Psammetichus’s Egyptian troops who went into exile in Nubia. There they declared their loyalty to the Nubian throne and were given Nubian wives. Josephus Flavius wrote of Egypt's conflict with Nubia under the ruler Seti, and how Moses' Nubian bride, the Princess Tharbis, resolved the conflict by delivering her city to her husband-to-be. These examples serve to illustrate the much broader dynamics of movement and interaction that characterized the region.

Movement and interaction also are seen in the clash of armies, which may have meant technological and cultural innovation. For instance, many historians believe that the clash between the Hyksos and the Egyptians resulted in the exchange of important military innovations for the Egyptians. Through this conflict, the Egyptians discovered the advantages of iron weaponry over bronze and the superiority of the chariot as an assault weapon.

Interaction between the Egyptians and the Nubians resulted in many shared characteristics. Similarities in the societies’ key features have given rise to considerable discussion about which has precedent over the other. The monumental architectures of the two regions, particularly their pyramids and temples, are strikingly similar. The hieroglyphs of Nubia are clearly reminiscent of Egyptian forms and are believed to be derivatives of them. The institutions of kingship in the two states and the religious orders that surrounded them are clearly similar. So much so that at different times, Egyptians sat on the Nubian throne, and Nubians ruled Egypt. At the upper levels of the two societies, culture and political forms were shared with vigor. All of this activity, in its various manifestations, centered on controlling access to resources—the riches of the area.

Trade between Empires

Within the movement and exchange that epitomized the Indus, Mesopotamian, and Nile civilizations, rising empires imposed a stability that occasionally resulted in greater interaction between states and peoples because of the inherent security of the empire. The most striking example of this greater interaction is trade. Many scholars argue that the collection of peoples in certain areas and changes in demographic concentration are related to patterns of trade. Urban growth can be explained by looking at the spaces where trade was possible and the ways in which that trade might have drawn together people and their goods or services. Those spaces necessitated some authority to provide order and security. From here we might speculate on the rise of urban space and the institutions and people who might have administered it.

The goods and security offered by these urban spaces lured the merchants not only to travel from place to place carrying goods and ideas but also often to become residents in distant places, establishing new communities within communities. At times, some of these merchants served as ambassadors. They presented information that was important to maintaining good relations between their home societies and those they adopted through trade. They also helped resolve issues that might be problematic for their fellow countrymen. Many of these transplanted merchants settled in their adopted societies, adding another element of interaction and mixture.

In this light, some of the states that existed in this broad space from the Indus to the Nile were known as merchant states and known by the reputations of their merchants. Commercial activity was simply one more component that helped to knit the area together as an intercontinental community.


We might select any of the salient points of these three areas and see them replicated in some form across the others. The reason for this replication, and its differences, reiterates that the establishment of empires, and the civilizations they represented, was not the creation of discrete imperial space so much as a way of ordering interaction between possible discrete spaces.

The structures of these civilizations—these empires, states, cities—did not stop the interaction and the flow of goods, people, and ideas. On the contrary, they encouraged it. That encouragement resulted in the earliest formations of what has been called the Afro-Eurasian Old World—the interaction between the Indus, Mesopotamian, and Nile river systems.

About the author: Maghan Keita is an associate professor of history at Villanova University. He is the author of Riddling the Sphinx: Race, the Writing of History, and America's Culture Wars among numerous other publications.

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