Elliot Fernandez

4th and 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia and Egypt

The history of the old Mesopotamia is documented from 10000 BC to 637 AD (Muslim conquest). The most important period is, however, that which goes from 3100 to 538 BC, during which it was the birthplace of three civilizations: Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-05-22 | Updated on 2023-01-06

The first Neolithic culture dated around 9000 BC is located in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Jericho, in Palestine, is believed to have been the world's first city (settled around 9600 BC and fortified around 6800 BC). This region, along with Mesopotamia defined to the east of the Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, amalgamated a complex reality of cultures from before the Bronze Age, which is why the area has been called the Cradle of civilization. In this article, we will deepen the analysis of the civilizations settled in this territory in the 4th and 3rd Millennium before Christ.

The geographical area of ​​Mesopotamia, the Middle East and the Nile Valley

Ancient Mesopotamia was located in the river basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This name was given by the ancient Greeks to define a territory that hosted the first human civilizations, among which there are SumerianAkkadianAssyrian and Babylonian. In Mesopotamia born the first human civilization, characterized by city-states, great infrastructure works and agriculture advances, among others.

Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East
Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East

Geographically, Mesopotamia was bounded on the North by the Iranian plateau. The border with present-day Iran was the great Zagros Mountains, inhabited by nomadic pastors. To the West, between the Euphrates River and Egypt lies the current Syrian-Palestinian region, which was a cultural reality different from Mesopotamia, with smaller fertile areas.

Between the Anatolian peninsula (present-day Turkey) and Mesopotamia, the limit was represented by Taurus Mountains. Geographically, the center of Anatolia is a great plateau and the coastline is very rough. In that mountains, small agricultural communities settled.

The Nile Valley was the heart of Ancient Egypt, which shared many features of Mesopotamia, even if it has been isolated from the rest of the Ancient world.

We can establish the following classification accordingly with the languages spoken by each ethnic group living in these territories:

From the "agricultural revolution" to the "urban revolution": The Fertile Crescent

The Nile River had always been the element that made possible the existence of Egypt (the Low, Middle, and Upper Egypt). The fertile space of Egypt is still nowadays on both sides of the river. Egypt flourished thanks to the agricultural improvements in the Nile Valley. Notwithstanding, we have few written documents regarding this part of the Egyptian history that refer to the people employed in agriculture. Despite this, we know that all the human life was developed around the river.

The tombs were on the edge of the desert: this explains why the only constructions preserved has been those made for the dead. All but the importance of Egypt, the first written language was the Sumerian.

Origin of livestock and agriculture. Appearance of the first cities

The conditions necessary for agriculture to appear are determined by the climate. Following the theory of oasis formulated by the anthropologist Vere Gordon Childe, in the Near East at origins there was an abundance of plants and animals. Agriculture was not necessary because nature was abundant. Then, a climate change occurred, and the before redundant nature is now restricted to a limited area (the Levant Mediterranean, in the present territories of Syria, Palestine and Jordan). Because of this climatic change, the fertile areas became small oasis within very arid territories. As the only useful territory to be feed were oases, resources had to be better exploited and people who lived there had to create a method to grow their own vegetables and to breed animals in captivity.

Because of these new imperative needs, agriculture is born. The first land useful to agriculture had been: from the Zagros Mountains, the Tigris area up to the Mediterranean coasts. It's all this area that is historically known as the “Fertile Crescent”. There, people learned how to grow cereals or how to breed goats, sheep and pigs.

Map of the Fertile Crescent
Map of the Fertile Crescent
Source: Wikipedia.org

The territory of the Fertile Crescent, with different traditions than the other areas in which the beginning of the Neolithic revolution had taken place, was the setting where the development of the Neolithic momentum led to an evolution that would spark to the emergence of the first statehood organizations, the rise of first organized civilizations. 

That was the base to the evolution towards a more productive economy. These communities already used precise tools at 10,000 BC, and they had specialized in the collection of cereals. These common characteristics are those that will allow the evolutionary leap: from subsistence to productive agriculture. Sedentary communities are now established.

Thanks to the specialization in the cultivation of cereals, these societies are no longer in need to look for other food. And this could only happen in areas suitable to be cultivated.

Why did it get to agriculture in the Nile Valley and the Tigris and Euphrates?

They were apt territories for agriculture since the water could be obtained easily from river Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. And because many people were needed to manage the rivers, these settlements converted fast in the first cities of the Ancient world. The first city to be established had been Uruk.

Lands in Mesopotamia and Egypt allow a much larger development than the lands situated in the hills of Zagros and Taurus. When agriculture was practiced in the low valleys, the emergence of social structures brought to the creation of cities and a culture that was a reflection of this new social organizations: language and traditions flourished... This is how a society is born! Mesopotamia had been the incubator of the first dense net of cities in the World history, and the incubator of the culture that expressed this human density.

The theory of the urban Revolution of Gordon Childe

According to the anthropologist Gordon Childe, the evolution that occurred during the 4th millennium in Mesopotamia had so much transcendence that it can be said that it was revolutionary. To build the cities, it was necessary:

Childe does not spend much importance on social aspects. Instead, anthropologist Elman R. Service insists more on the social factors to differentiate the city-state:

The cities of Mesopotamia united in community or through conquests. The name received by the rulers of these cities was:

The origin of writing

In Mesopotamia arose the first written civilization, Sumer. The more complex the city became, the more necessary to express in some way the dreams of men. Writing arose when people who did not know each other started to interact socially, for example in the exchange of artifacts or food.

Writing arises from the need to control commercial exchanges. In the tablets they used for exchanges, they put mud on top so that nobody could modify them. Thus, the seals and the glyphic were born. The more complicated the message was, the more complex the writing had to be.

At first, the writing of messages was related to a symbol. But in the stones it is hard to write and in the mud you can not make curved figures. Curved figures are passed to the straight lines: the cuneiform writing was born. Since mud supports forced to idealize the message with pictograms and ideograms (ideas), and thus the hieroglyphic writing was born.

The advantage of hieroglyphic writing was that it could be understood by people who did not know the same language. As disadvantages, the number of signs was enormous. It resulted very difficult to learn it. Only a small part of the population could understand it

In order to save signals, the phonogram was born (use of syllables).

The referential was created to know it was a pictogram, an ideogram or a phonogram. It only tells you how to read the sign. 

Cuneiform language and hieroglyphs 

Half a million tablets from this age have been preserved. These tables are mainly of an administrative nature: they tended to have a useful life of 1 year. Other non-administrative texts had a longer life, for example, texts to the deities. Egypt, thanks to abundant papyrus and stone, used these support to write; Mesopotamia used mud tablets. 

The most ancient fragments are from the 7th millennium BC. During the 4,000 BC, the seals on the mud appear to ensure that the messages were not modified. Seals were placed on the doors and in the leather bags. Cuneiform writing on tablets appeared around 3,200 BC. The oldest we know are from the city of Uruk. They were vital images for the life of city-states: hunting, housing construction... There were also more elaborate messages about the temples, as the prior element that organized societal life.

This type of writing was a form of administrative control. It disappeared from the memory of humanity because it stopped to be used. Until the nineteenth century, these texts weren't deciphered. The document that helped decipher the Sumerian language was the "Behistu Inscription" (found in the city of Ecbatana). It was an inscription engraved on a cliff. Trilingual text in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. The three writings used the cuneiform symbols.

Behistun Inscription
Behistun Inscription, which describes the conquests of Darius the Great in ancient Persian and Elamite (ancient Babylonian languages). These reliefs and texts are engraved on a cliff on Mount Behistun (present-day Kermanshah Province, Iran). Photo: Wikipedia.org

The Persian texts used 40 signs, Elamite 100 and Akkadian 500. It has been deduced that the first text was written in an alphabetical or syllabic language. Then archaeologists deduced that that text had to contain the name of the great Persian kings: Cyrys IDarius the Great and Xerxes I, all names containing R letter. From the letter R they were able to decipher the Persian cuneiform. It turned out to be a simplified syllabary, where some ideograms were used.

Elamite was also discovered to be syllabary, but with a wider use of pictograms and ideograms. The Akkadian could be deciphered because it was a Sumerian language, which used less syllable cases, that is why it needed more signs.

There was an added problem with the Akkadian:

Why did Akkadians give a phonetic value to symbols not corresponding to their language? Perhaps the Akkadians were not the inventors of this writing: Akkadians took their writing from Sumerian.

From the city to the State: Sumer and Ebla

Sumer was a region south of ancient Mesopotamia, between the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. There, the first historical cities of humanity appeared. These political centres (3200-2300 BC) had vital needs to seek outside their territories. The only means of communication was the river. Soon cities like Assur and Mari appeared, Sumerian cities created as administrative centres. Since those establishments, Sumerian culture will reach the Mediterranean.

Those city-states were based on an agricultural economy: to nurture its citizens, it was needed to go abroad to find food. Soon after the Sumerian nucleus appeared, populations that spoke another Semitic language, the Akkadians. To the North of Mesopotamia lied the Akkadians, and to the South the Sumerians.

Sumer blasts the wheel, the candle, the plough, the ceramic lathe and the writing. Around these new nuclei of power, the temples arose. All the cities depended on the maintenance of the river. If one city changed the channel system, the river could affect another city. The internal struggles within cities end with a strong power that emerged in the city of Kix. Akkad created the Akkadian Empire. Years later, the hegemony will be exercised by Babylon.

Stele of the Vultures
Stele of the Vultures: series of engravings on the victory of King Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, at the end of the Archaic Dynastic Period.

At that time, it was urgent to take over new lands and peasants were required to work them. Permanent armies appeared with specialized people, the soldier, to guarantee order and success in the battles. In the Stele of the Vultures, these facts appear symbolically represented. That Stele describes societies organized around a temple and a dynasty. It represented Sumerian cities as united since the origins: this representation wanted to show Mesopotamia as a united and eternal country. Nippur was the sacred land of the Sumerians and the place of union among all peoples.

The Kingdom of Ebla

At Ebla there was a palace, but there was no central temple that would agglutinate all religious life. In this palace there was an EN, great priest, without a temple. The title of EN at Ebla was equivalent to the title of a king. He was not a hereditary king, it was instead an elective one. There was also a council of elders, a sort of court named Abba. The nobles lived outside the city. The Lugals were ranchers (chief of clans), and decided on the issues related to the surplus.

The king had the function of organizing the surplus trade, taking advantage of relations with the Sumerians. The Sumerians had a lot of interests in the Ebla area (now Syria).

The Akkadians of the III Millennium arrive at Ebla and destroy it. The first king of Akkadians, Sargon, created on the ruin of Ebla a new city, Akkad.

Akkad and the third dynasty of Ur

Akkadian Empire (2335-2160 BC)

All of it started in the city of Kish. It explains the legend, that there was a priestess consecrated to the goddess Ishtar. She had a son, and she left him on the river. The child was picked up by poor people. When the child grew older, the goddess told him that his mission was to create an empire. The character was called Sargon. This is the legend that explains the creation of the Akkadian Empire.

The empire will end up being very broad. He extended from Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean. It was a weak empire insofar, as the difference between its areas was very marked. There was a core, the centre of power: it went from the city of Kish up to the North of the Tigris. The cities had enough autonomy, and they paid a tribute to the king.

Extension of the Akkadian Empire
Extension of the Akkadian Empire in the time of King Narâm-Sîn (2254-2218 BC). Source: Wikipedia.org

The North of the empire was too large to be controlled. There were fortifications to control the most important mountain passes. The Akkadians suppressed the power of Ebla in this area and managed its resources. They wanted to control directly these sources of wealth.

The empire fell from inside. Naram-Sin, grandson of Sargon, to the extent that he was aware of his weakness, tried to take the power from local elites. Naram-Sin fought against the local resistance, and to do so he destroyed the temple of Kish.

All the Sumerian-Akkadian cities, despite their high competitiveness, shared economic and political structures. That common policy led to the unification by the hand of the city of Ur: it started the Third Dynasty of Ur. It only affected the cities of Sumer and Akkad, and it results in a much better unified and organized State. A state organization was born, expressed through cadastral treaties (calculation of the cultivated lands in order to control the taxes), normalization of weights and measures and the attempt to unify the laws.

The weakness of this empire came from the peoples of the South, the Amorites, a Semitic people who pushed into Lower Mesopotamia to occupy lands. To defend from those assaults, the city of Ur was forced to build a defensive line at the height of Kish and Babylon. What caused the fall of the III dynasty of Ur? The cause was the instability produced by the separation from Ur of the Sumerian cities, the internal revolts and the invasion of the Elamites which gave the final blow to the Empire between the years 2112 and 2004 BC.

The Amorites were the protagonists of the II Millennium. They had their core in the city of Babylonia, with an economy based on agriculture (cereal, wheat, barley, rye and oats but no rice). These cereals could be conserved during several years, and these cereals were the mean used to pay the taxes.

The farmers were forced to cultivate cereal, because it was the way to maintain them under control. Date was cultivated in a great oasis, where there could be up to one thousand palm trees. Nearer to the city they were grown vegetables, pulses, lentils, beans, turnips, leeks, apples, peaches... Amorites had neither olives nor grapes.

Lower Mesopotamia was very rich in food. Having no oil for food, everything had to be boiled. Oil was the basic lighting source for the houses. Livestock was made the most for milk, wool and leather. Amonites consumed very little meat, except poultry. The main animal used for transport was the donkey. Then from outside, in 2000 BC, it was introduced the horse as animal useful to mean of transport. Finally, in 1000 BC, the dromedary made its appearance.

The oven was used for multiple functions, depending on the temperature served by:

The higher the temperature, the more products you could get. It was very expensive to reach high temperatures. There should have been constant expeditions to look for materials such as wood to get energy.

The first dynastic period in Egypt 

III Millennium. Ancient / Archaic Dynastic Period (3050-2695 BC)

During the ancient dynastic period, the process of union of the country begins, as well as the construction of the figure of the Pharaoh. The unification took place from the South towards the North (High Egypt, zone of the Delta). The reasons are not clear. The Delta had always been richer (better land and hydraulic resources). The South had an interest in controlling the North. The North did not need the South.

Map of the cities and archeological sites of the Pre-Dynastic period of Egypt
Map of the cities and archaeological sites of the Pre-Dynastic period of Egypt
Source: Wikipedia.org

We have documentation from the Archaic Period in which there was a territorial entity in the South, but unification still did not exist. We know from archaeology that before the Neolithic, but later than in Mesopotamia, there were small communities of farmers (mostly in the North) who used irrigation systems. The North allowed the comfortable life of hunting-collectors. 

Little by little, the Nomes (type of administrative unit as a province) had born throughout the course of the river. The Nomes, when they grow up, want to conquer the neighbours, provoking constant conflicts between them. Thinis, Naqada and Hieracompolis, are the ones with the most outstanding clashes.

In Hieracomopolis we find the first documents, such as the Scorpion Macehead. Central figure, has a scorpion (proto-hieroglyphic) next to it. Above there are animals sacrificed (hanged). There is a water course. The monarch has a peak in his hand. The scorpion king wants to be shown himself as a benefactor.

Narmer Palette
Narmer Palette

Narmer Palette. The sovereigns of both images are dressed equally. But they are not the same person. The one on the bottom palette is Narmer. There was already a fixation of monarchic signs at the time of King Scorpion: signs that fixed the symbols of the royal institution.

The Scorpion King must have reigned Thinis, Nakada and Hiercomopolis. Some successors had to make expeditions to the North and gain ground. Pharaoh Narmer is submitting in the Palette somebody (each figure has a hieroglyphic one). Hawk figures with an arm, god Horus. Hold a sign of papyrus with a head, a sign from Lower Egypt, subjected to Narmer. There is also a kind of butler next door, which brings the sandals and the drink: this scene means that Pharaoh turns chaos into order. The Scorpion King's mace shows a scene of peace.

The successors of Narmer are those who succeeded the real unification during the 1st Pharaonic Dynasty. Other documents referred about Pharaohs Hor-Aha and Menes.

Hor-Aha appears as the first Pharaoh in the Palermo Stone, in which are listed the first Egyptian Pharaohs. It is doubtful that Hor-Aha was the Narmer’s successor But the first Egyptian historian, the Egyptian priest Manetho, author of Aegyptica, the first Pharaoh is called Menes. It is often considered that Hor-Aha was the same as Narmer, leaving Memes as the first Pharaoh.

It is estimated that in Egypt, at the maximum moment (New Empire) it had about 4/5 million inhabitants. It currently has 94 million citizens. Thanks to the Nile, Egypt is able to support a far superior population than its neighbouring areas.

The ancient Egyptian kingdoms

1st and 2nd Dynasties (3000-2664aC)

The capital of the dynasty was in Thinis. The necropolis was situated in Abydos. The Pharaohs founded a new capital city, Memphis and another necropolis, in Saqqara (2 capitals and 2 necropolis). They wanted to control the resources of the Sinai Peninsula and to secure gold supply from the southern region of the Nile. They started the exploration of the Red Sea coasts. Egypt lacked of minerals.

3rd dynasty (2664-2181 BC 3rd and 4th dynasties)

This period goes from a cult centred on the god Horus to the god Ra. This change emerged in the city of Heliopolis. These changes marked the fundamental features of the new Pharaohs. Moreover, a new type of burial arised: the pyramid.

4th dynasty

Pyramids of Keops, Khafre and Menkaure. Before the pyramids, Pharaohs were buried in mastabas, a kind of “house of the eternity”. The tomb was in the palace of the dead Pharaoh, to remembered his civil power. Why did it change to the pyramids? Pharaoh happened to be related to the sun, that is ubiquitous. The pyramids represented the sublime relationship between the sun and the earth, a divine power, a supernatural being.

This change occurred in Heliopolis, because of local priests. There was a stone, Benben. This stone was believed to had been arisen from the primordial Ocean Nu. It was believed that the emergence of Benben stone was due to the god Hatum, the mythical founder of Heliopolis. This stone has a pyramidal form and on that stone was the place where the first rays of the rising sun fell was a moment in the sun. This fact was linked to the believing in the god Bennu, the phoenix linked to creation and rebirth: it was thought that Bennus was self-created (creation of the world) being the soul of Ra divinity. It was also able to rebirth, as a symbol of Osiris, the divinity of the afterlife.

To build a pyramid, 3 basic things were needed:

This is the foundation of the first world’s centralized economy ever.