The Ancient World
Antiquity to Alexander the Great
Origins of Western civilization are often deemed to have been in the Middle Eastern region called Mesopotamia, the then-fertile plain located, as the name implies, between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, and beyond their confluence into the Persian Gulf. This region ten thousand years ago was markedly less arid than it is today—mostly savannah grasslands on the plains, groves of trees in protected areas, and upland forests—and lent itself to cultivation, fenced grazing, and the establishment of permanent communities. Villages made of mud-brick buildings sprang up in this part of the world, literally laying the foundations for cities to follow. From these simple villages came cottage industries, because in part there were now cottages for them to develop in rather than the tents of nomadic herders, and permanent markets from which the goods of cottage industries could be traded, making the Middle East the home of one of the first major centers of commerce. Subsistence farming and farm crafts as an economic base worked well enough for a time, but gradually the advantages of towns became apparent, and villages grew in size and social complexity, stratifying the population even as the cities reached beyond their limits for markets and goods. Mercantilism quickly led to the need to protect the merchandise, and that created a new kind of tension among the various cities, based on the perceived menace of commercial rivals.
That is not to say that commerce was the sole component of the burgeoning of civilization and military regularization: traditional regional warfare, local pillaging, and the slave trade were also crucial to the increasing importance of cities, which provided defense and shelter for more inhabitants than did the mud-brick walls of villages. Cities also provided places for the development of professions, where crafts could become something more than an adjunct to farming, and where skilled labor could be the means of earning a living. Still, the demands of agriculture were uppermost: all but the most ambitious wars were waged seasonally, so as not to interfere with producing crops, and resembled organized raiding skirmishes more than even so ancient a battle as the long campaign at Troy. Very few of the first cities could afford to have fighting men away for more than a few months at a time, and only the wealthiest could afford the considerable cost of supplying and maintaining a standing army.
Taking in the lands from the Caspian Sea to Libya, from the Mediterranean to the mountains of Afghanistan, and from Ukraine to Sudan, and occasionally including Greece, the Balkans, the Carpathians, and what is now Crimea, the Middle East has been a crucial link between East and West since the earliest days of established walled cities. The names of these cities still excite the imagination: Ashur, Eridu, Uruk, Sumer, Ur, and Babylon. Beyond Mesopotamia lay, eastward, Susa and Rhagae, to the west, Ebla, Petra, Jericho, and Egypt, as well as Hattushash and Troy in what is now Turkey, where the Hittites came to prominence. During this emergent period, in most places there were campaigns to establish and enforce hegemonies; over time this gave way to diplomacy and gradually alliances were made from which the early empires emerged.
One of the factors that gave the Middle East such a rapid start in the matter of establishing permanent settlements was that whereas most regions had just one or two, the Middle East had three major domestic animals to exploit: the camel, the ass, and the goat. Dogs had long since made their alliance with humans and were found ubiquitously; cats had yet to condescend to deal with people. Two of these major domestic animals—the camel and the ass—were hardy beasts of burden; all three were sources of milk, meat, hide, and hair, and their use in all aspects of settled life enlarged the range of trade and travel for the growing villages and made cities a viable proposition. Sheep and horses were soon brought into the region by trade with the steppes of Central Asia, cattle came along the earliest trade routes from northern India and eastern Persia, and pigs arrived from the Balkans. When these food sources were combined with the fowl and fish already in the area, a varied and dependable diet high in protein and grains was by the third millennium b.c. within reach of all but the poorest people; with these additional animals added to the three already established, confined agriculture was launched and permanent towns expanded into cities; for the first time, division of labor and nonagricultural or nonaquatic occupations became not only possible but also desirable. Secondary professions became primary ones, and a layered economy emerged.
These ancient beginnings created some startling new developments in human culture, from regularized weights and measures, to official legal codes, to writing and mathematics, to astronomy and calendars. These cultures were aware of the usefulness of record keeping, and of standardization of all sorts, and although they tended to view studies of what we now consider scientific or mathematical material as mysterious disciplines possessing mystical properties, they nonetheless encouraged their study and supported those who pursued such knowledge. Religions expanded from ancient fertility-weather-and-agriculture cults and embraced all secondary sorts of learning, so that most of what are now intellectual subjects were considered part of religion and were the province of priests, not professors or accountants or attorneys; in Egypt particularly, the recording of events reached truly epic proportions, as the huge friezes and walls of hieroglyphics show to this day. These various disciplines, as well as the more pragmatic matters of exchange and compensation, were recorded and retained by the various jurisdictions of the cities; as a result, now, as we unearth the past, we can have a glimpse into those long-vanished times. That the Middle East provided fertile soil in which to plant human ingenuity is obvious; what is less apparent is the means by which they kept and enlarged their holdings.
Another development of these very early city-based societies was raiding warfare: as neighbors’ fortunes waxed and waned, the inclination to fight for what was available became intrinsic to the social organization of the period; tribal and clan alliances became formalized, and kinship bonding soon developed into the cultural mainstay it is in most Middle Eastern societies to this day, identifying the clan and tribe members within the kinship bonds above individual personalities for any but those in positions of leadership. Beginning with volunteers willing to makes forays into neighboring territories for goods, food, slaves, and animals, over time these parties became more organized and selective, trained in the use of arms and paid for their work, and professional armies arose.
Some fifty-four hundred years ago, Pharaonic Egypt began at the city that became Memphis, named for the Pharaoh who brought Upper (in the south) and Lower (in the north) Egypt together: Menes. Egypt had had permanent settlements for well over a thousand years before Menes, spurred on by the need to irrigate fields as the post-ice-age climate-shift continued to dry out the savannah, took on the unification of the country and the regulation of its economy and the centralization of religious institutions, which were also the distribution mechanism for the general provision of the inhabitants. Although predynastic Egypt did have a fair number of these permanent settlements, it is also apparent that the earliest towns had very simple infrastructures, and although priests of various gods codified and monitored order and distribution of water and foodstuffs within these communities, they were not yet part of the complex bureaucracy that would mark Egyptian culture for more than two millennia.
The evidence is a bit shaky, reliable records being few and far between, but it appears that village warfare was comparatively rare in predynastic Egypt, and once the country was united, the need for such clashes diminished: Egypt had the Nile as its water source, and so long as it flooded its valley every year, agriculture was safe and more or less uniformly accessible. Until roughly forty-four hundred years ago, the range of arable land was significantly broader than it is now, although for some centuries the land had become steadily drier. After forty-four hundred years ago, the climate shift in northern Africa was more dramatic, and so it is after that point that the Nile became even more important to Egypt, for as much of the scrublands turned to desert, water became the most crucial factor in survival, and the life of Egypt concentrated along the banks and floodplain of the river: everything from the Egyptian calendar, to the cycle of religious rites, to major markets was planned around the annual innundation of the Nile, which determined not only feast or famine but the possibility of trade up and down the river.
It was roughly 2980 b.c. when Djozer, or Tsothros, became the first Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty and, through the genius of his prime-minister and physician, Imhotep, developed a building program that has marked Egypt as profoundly as the Nile: Imhotep invented the constructed pyramid, and after Djozer, for three centuries or so, Pharaohs built pyramids in profusion, improving the construction over time. Snofru, or Snefre, the last Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, expanded Egyptian trade and developed copper mines and extensive quarrying, leading Egypt in a time of heightened prosperity, as well as ordering not one but two pyramids to mark his reign. By about 2900 b.c., the Great Pyramid of Khufu, or Cheops, was under construction on the Giza plateau, and within fifty years or so the second Giza pyramid, of Khafre, or Chephren, had risen near the first, and at about that time the Sphynx joined them, although some dispute this date. In another fifty years, the third Giza pyramid, that of Menkure, or Monchoros, was erected and Fourth Dynasty Egypt had the symbols by which it would be known from that time down to the present day.
In the Mesopotamian region, however, water rights were far less predictable than they were in Egypt, leading to a volatility that did not often touch the land of the Pharaohs; for the various cities in the region water was more a matter of gaining control of wells and rivers and meting out water to others in the form of irrigation. Because of that, intercity warfare, particularly over water, was fairly common. From this, a complicated system of village/tribal alliances developed that continues in the cultures of the region to this day, which still maintain strong kinship alignments within the society for many generations.
Copyright © 2007 by T. C. F. Hopkins. All rights reserved.