The ancient Near East captured much of the region between modern day England and Western Asia, including much of Northern Africa and Mesopotamia. From this domain, arose early civilizations that made significant contributions that paved the way to how we live our lives today. Two very distinct civilizations arose from the Neo-lithic period that initiated the basis for a great many people’s political structure, religion, society, and culture. Mesopotamian civilization occupied the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, while the Egyptian civilization formed a prosperous society along the Nile River. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians, unique in their own right, laid the foundations of a flourishing civilization in the region.
Mesopotamians, particularly the Sumerians, helped lead the transition from nomadic living to urban folk after the Neolithic Period. As more people began living a settled life, numerous towns sprang up, ushering a new way of life and the earliest forms of government. The towns, diverse and populous, developed a central authority governed by laws that brought about order and peace. In addition to forming one of the earliest forms of government, Mesopotamian’s invented writing that helped unify their society and the spread of their culture and ideas to a broader world by making communications easier. New advances in mathematics helped bring about the building of cities, palaces, temples, and canals.
Even before Christianity, the Mesopotamians had originated religious beliefs, believing that many gods brought order to the world and life itself. They acknowledge that though there were many deities, each had a specific task, such as overlooking music, victory, law, and sex. They, however, found that gods themselves were not equal to one another and offered sacrifices to the more powerful deities, often building their cities around shrines, which made it easier for them to worship the gods. Similar to many religious beliefs of a world built by a higher entity, the Sumerians believed that the Heaven and earth were united and gave birth to Enlil, their foremost god who powered over the entire cosmos. This myth by the Mesopotamians became one of the earliest attempts to account for the creation of the universe.
In addition to creating an early form of government and religious ideas, the ancient Mesopotamians also established the basic social patterns of their ancient world. Their society consisted of nobles, clients, commoners, and slaves. Elected into power by the citizens, the king and his family was the head of the noble class. Clients were free individuals who received portions of land in the kingdom from the noble class in return for labor. Commoners were citizens who had a voice in political affairs and could own land in their own right, unlike the slaves who were often prisoners of war, forced into labor by their owners but possessed the opportunity to purchase their freedom.
Much like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptian civilization was able to develop a political structure, worshipped gods, established social classes, and possessed a unique culture. Often referred to as the “gift of the Nile”, ancient Egyptians looked to the Nile as the lifeblood of their civilization, not only shaping their everyday lives, but their society and history as well. The Nile provided the people raw materials for pottery, jewelry, ornaments, architectures, sculptures, and many other applications. Because of the fertile Nile, Egyptians didn’t have much reason to look to the outside world and rather flourished within their region.
The period known as the Old Kingdom ( 2660-2180 b.c.e.), gave birth to new innovations and ideas, particularly religious ideas. Similar to the Mesopotamian civilization, the Egyptians believed in many gods and often developed contradictory ideas of their gods. They also believes some gods to be mightier than others, with the most powerful gods being Amon and Ra, the sky and sun god respectively. Like Enlil, Amon reigned over the cosmos. Ra also played a significant role in that he was considered the creator of life and associated with the falcon-god Horus. Similarities in their roles eventually led to Egyptians worshiping both gods as the single deity, Amon-Ra. Other deities such as Osiris, the fertility god, Anubis, the jackal-headed god, and Isis, Osiris’s wife, were also worshipped by the people and were key figures to their belief of an afterlife.
Much of Egypt’s political and social structure revolved around the pharaoh. This king, was believed by the people to be the Human form of Horus, and would be the only to integrate the people with their gods. The pharaoh controlled everything from wealth to the people themselves and of course, stood alone at the top of the political, social, and economic scale. Slaves and peasants occupied the bottom of the social class, above them the serfs, then ordinary folks, and officials. Peasants and slaves were forced to labor and were forced to work on pyramids. Able-bodied young men served the pharaoh either in his army or labor force, sometimes both. Farmers tended the land, and in some cases, faced brutal tax collection.
In conclusion, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations possessed qualities that distinguished themselves from one another but also bore similarities between the two. Both civilizations were polytheistic, established social and political structures, and brought about ground breaking new innovations and ideas. The Mesopotamian’s gave us writing, the wheel, and the foundations for settled life, while the Egyptians gave us the great pyramids, still mysterious and marvelous to this day.
McKay, John P., et al. A History of World Societies. 8th ed. Vol. I: To 1715. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.
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