Egypt and Mesopotamia (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.1)

For most of the time we have existed humans have been nomads. Nomads are people who move around from place to place rather than building cities, towns, and farms in one area and settling there permanently. These nomads would follow the animals and search out the plants they used for food. Around 12,000 years ago, however, people began to plant gardens and farms of their own. They probably got the idea by watching nature very closely and trying to imitate the way that wild animals and plants live and grow. About 5000 years ago these groups of people who had settled into one place began to form the first civilizations. Most of these civilizations formed around rivers. Rivers provided a source of drinking water for people as well as the plants and animals they raised. Early civilizations also used the water of these rivers for transportation. Travel over land was very difficult before cars and roads, especially when that land might involve things like deserts and mountains. In China, civilization began along the Yellow River. In India, the members of the earliest civilization built their cities along the Indus River. In Egypt, the first cities were built along the Nile. In Mesopotamia, a place whose name means “land between two rivers,” the people built their cities in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

All of these civilizations started at almost the same time. Egypt and Mesopotamia, though, are the ones that are most important to us. These are the places that Western Civilization began.  Both of these places are located in the region that we now refer to as the Middle East. It was here that some of the basic ideas of Western Civilization first developed. Among the ideas that began in the Middle East nearly 5000 years ago are the ideas of immortality, writing, law, and the city-state. Each of these ideas has been important to the history of Western Civilization and each of them is still important today.

The Egyptians are probably most famous for their pyramids. The pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs, the kings of ancient Egypt. Inside of each of them was placed the mummified body of a pharaoh. Their internal organs had been carefully removed, their bodies wrapped in bandages, and special prayers and spells said over their bodies. The coffins of these kings were often decorated with expensive gold and jewels. The walls of the tomb were painted with scenes of parties, fishing and hunting, and feasts with tables full of foods and drinks. These structures are sometimes very large and have lasted a very long time. While the pyramids themselves are both important and interesting it is the idea they represent that makes them especially important. These giant tombs were built because the Egyptians believed in immortality, the idea that people continue to be alive even after the death of their bodies.

This idea of immortality had a big effect on the way people thought about themselves and other humans. The Egyptians believed that a person’s place in the afterlife, the life you live after you have died, would be determined by how they behaved while they were living this life. After death, the god Osiris, who ruled the world of the dead, judged each person by weighing their heart. If it was heavy with sin and evil, the person would be eaten by a creature that was a combination of a crocodile, a lion, and a hippopotamus, three animals that were especially feared by the Egyptians. If his heart was not weighed down with sin, the person would be allowed to enter into the kingdom of the gods and enjoy all of eternity in paradise. With this judgment after death in mind, Egyptians were encouraged by their beliefs to live moral lives.

We would not know about the Egyptian idea of immortality, however, if they had not developed another very important idea, the idea of writing. The Egyptians were able to write books about their views of life and death because they had developed a writing system. The Egyptian writing system, called hieroglyphics, consisted of a set of small, simple pictures that represented words and sounds. The Egyptian word for “bird,” for example, was represented by a small picture of a bird. The Egyptians developed their own unique and complex writing system, but they were not the first ones to develop the idea of writing. They learned about the idea from the people of Mesopotamia.

The first writing system was developed by the people of Mesopotamia shortly before 3000 BC. The idea probably developed because they needed to remember things that were too difficult for the human mind to remember on its own. The earliest written texts include lists of items a person has sold or bought, myths and other stories, and religious rituals and prayers. These are all things that it would be very important to remember but that it might be difficult for people to remember if they rely only on their mind. A person who sells things, for example, needs to keep track of what he has in stock and how much he wants to charge for it. A priest has to remember the rituals and prayers he is supposed to say in the temple. And the entire community wants to be able to tell the stories of their gods and heroes in their myths.

Another important use for writing was making sure that everyone knew the rules. Even today we use writing on speed limit signs and stop signs to make sure everyone knows the rules for using a road. One Mesopotamian king, Hammurabi, used writing for exactly this purpose. Early on, the Mesopotamians had been divided up into several city-states. Although they shared a common culture, including a similar language, religion, and way of life, they did not have one king over all of them. Instead, each city-state had its own king who ruled over it.

In about 1792 BC, however, Hammurabi became the king of Babylon, one of these Mesopotamian city-states. He then led the warriors of Babylon in a conquest of all of Mesopotamia. When the city-states of Mesopotamia had ruled themselves, each had its own code of laws. Now that Hammurabi was in charge of all of the cities of Mesopotamia, he decided that all of the cities would have the same laws because they were all part of one empire. In 1772 BC, Hammurabi wrote his code of laws, called the Code of Hammurabi, and had it written on large stone tablets he placed throughout the conquered cities. By doing this Hammurabi used writing to make sure that everyone in Mesopotamia knew he was their king and these were the laws they had to follow.

The importance of law is another idea that comes to us from Mesopotamia. For the people of Mesopotamia, laws were very important. They believed that having a set of laws that everyone followed made it possible for society to work well. Imagine trying to play basketball with a group of people who do not know the rules. They would all be double-dribbling, traveling, and fouling while you were trying to play the game; it would be chaos! That is the way Mesopotamians thought about laws. If there are no laws or if people do not follow the laws then society will be chaos and nothing will get done.

All of these ideas that began in Egypt and Mesopotamia 5000 years ago had a big effect on later developments in Western Civilization, as we will see when we move on to later times. All of them are still important to us today as well. The idea of immortality, which began in Egypt, is still the belief of most people in the United States today. The idea of writing is the reason why you are able to read this right now! The ideas of the city-state and of law eventually led to our ideas of government and liberty and had a big effect on the development of our laws today. As we continue, we will see the way that the ideas of Egypt and Mesopotamia acted as the seeds for our civilization.


Review Questions

1. List and define all four of the ideas we get from Egypt and Mesopotamia which are discussed in this chapter.

2. Choose one of those ideas and write a paragraph about some ways it is important to us today.


Vocabulary Words

City-state – a city that rules itself independent of any outside power

Hieroglyphics – a writing system in which words and sounds are represented by small, simple pictures

Immortality – the idea that life continues after the death of the body

Mesopotamia – an ancient Greek word meaning “land between two rivers” that refers to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq

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