Search This Blog

Friday, 8 January 2016

World History: The Three River Civilizations

Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley civilizations are two of the three oldest 'civilizations' from around the world. Located in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East they represent some of the earliest examples of large scale trade, social hierarchy, law and even warfare. These Bronze Age civilizations show the earliest development of modern day cultures being developed around 5000 years ago. We shall start with the Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation.

Indus Valley/Harappan Civilization
 The Harappan Civilization has left vast amounts of architecture left since being founded around 3300 BCE. They were a very literate culture leaving vast amounts of pictographic inscriptions have been found (about 2000) each portraying small inscriptions. Unfortunately we have no clue about what these inscriptions say due to it being a completely separate language from anyone spoken today. It also disappeared before the development of Latin and they never interacted with the Greeks so unfortunately we lack a Harappan equivalent of the Rosetta Stone which was used to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. Thanks to this we know little about their political, religious and social life.

As shown in the above images the seals often portrayed images of animals with cattle being a portrayed often. Tigers and elephants also were often shown indicating some sort of importance of these three animals in Harappan life. We do know that the Harappan civilization had large amounts of social cohesion. The top image of the archaeological site is of Mohenjo-Daro which was a city 60 hectares in size and is thought to have had a population of 40,000 when it was in use. The city was laid out in grid patterns and the buildings themselves were made of baked bricks, already a vast difference from the stone used to make Jericho 7000 years before. The Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro is to be noted as it is the oldest known public water tank of the ancient world. At 2.43 meters deep it is also one of the largest. It seemed that the Harappan people enjoyed hot water baths just as much as the Greeks and Romans would later do thousands of years later. Very few weapons have been found at Harappan civilization sites indicating that their culture was largely peaceful but the presence of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, cylinder seals from Mesopotamia and Indus seals being found in Mesopotamia show us that they were proficient traders. A large trade work must have been operated out of Harappan cities such as Mohenjo-Daro something which would not be replicated until the rise of Rome or the creation of the Silk Road. Our ancestors close to 5000 years ago were performing large scale trade. Around 2000 BCE the Harappan civilization seemed to vanish and to be replaced by agricultural and pastoral camps and villages. We know it was a gradual decline because the later Vedic religion and possibly even Hinduism had inspirations from the religion of the Harappan people (a possible god named Pashupati is said to resemble that of Shiva). Archaeologist Mortimor Wheeler had hypothesized that invasion had ended the civilization but we now know that this is not true. Recent theories have cited a dip in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia and a series of severe droughts caused the decline of one of the world's first city based cultures.

Mesopotamia was home to various successive cultures including Sumer, Assyria, Akkadia and Babylon. Unlike the Harappan civilization where most of what we know is down to speculation we know much more about the cities of Mesopotamia. Hence this week we'll look only at the first of these civilizations and go over the others in an ensuing World History post. Sumer is the oldest of the Mesopotamian civilizations and was founded sometime between 5500 to 4000 BCE. While in the Indus Valley we only had two cities that we currently know of Sumer instead had more known cities. There were at least five major cities and thirteen smaller cities including Ur and Akkad. The Sumer cities were each ruled by either a king or a religious governor where each city had a unique but similar religion. Located in the fertile plains between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers agriculture allowed these cities to thrive. However unlike the Indus river the Euphrates and Tigris were much more volatile. The rivers could dry up causing crop failure or burst their banks flooding the crops. With their lives at stake the Sumerians turned to their gods offering sacrifices to appease them in order to keep the two rivers flowing smoothly. As a result we see far more religious fervor in Sumer than we do Harappan. 
This tablet depicts Enlil, one of the Sumerian gods
With religion so important to Sumerian people it is understandable that the cities were ruled by either priests or kings who claimed to be the descendants of the gods. Before we balk at this idea we must remember how integrated religion was and continues to be in our lives. In many countries you must swear on a religious books in court, in the UK bishops sit in the House of Lords, Iran's Head of State is a cleric and until 1945 the Emperor of Japan was historically said to be descended from Amateratsu. Cities often revolved around the large temples known as Ziggurats (the top photo) with some, such as the Ziggurat of Ur, being three stories high! Warfare was common with the cities as evident by the fact that the cities were all surrounded by defensive walls. These walls were far large than the ones which surrounded Jericho during the Neolithic. Diplomacy however was very important between the cities. By 3500 BCE the city of Uruk had become a major trader with its pottery being found all across Syria and Susa. They even traded with the Indus Valley Civilization from all the way across the Iranian Plateau! Many of the Sumerian innovations we use today. Around 3500 BCE the wheel was invented to create the much desired pottery to be traded which was soon implemented into farming which revolutionized agriculture. They developed irrigation and were possibly the first people to drink beer. They developed metrology and by 2600 BCE were writing multiplication tables on stone slabs and around the same time the abacus was developed. Sumerian cuneiform is also one of the oldest written languages in the entire world predating both the inscriptions on Harappan seals and Egyptian hieroglyphics. They also developed calendars, chariots, saws, nails, chisels, boots, hoes and countless other innovations. Around 2500 BCE the Mesopotamian world would be changed. A language of a city replaced Sumerian as the main language and the ruler of the city started to conquer the other city states. By 2270 BCE what is regarded as the world's first empire was founded: the Akkadian Empire.

What we refer to as the Egyptian civilization lasted close to 3000 years and most of its history shall be left for a later World History post. Historians have conveniently divided Ancient Egypt into 32 dynasties which are grouped together into tidier blocks of time: the Early Dynastic (first and second dynasties, 3100-2686 BCE), the Old Kingdom (third to six dynasties, 2686-2181 BCE), the First Intermediate Period (seventh and eighth dynasties, 2181-2040 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (eleventh to thirteenth dynasties, 2040-1730 BCE), the Second Intermediate Period (the rest of the thirteenth to the seventeenth dynasties, 1730-1550 BCE), the New Kingdom (the eighteenth to twentieth dynasties, 1550-1069 BCE), the Third Intermediate Period (the twenty-first to twenty-fifth dynasties, 1069-664 BCE) and finally the Late Period (the twenty-fifth to thirty-second dynasties, 664-332 BCE). Today we'll focus on the Early Dynastic period and leave the rest for a future post. 

Although the first and second dynasties do not have the awe inspiring structures which characterized later Egyptian dynasties, such as Abu Simbel, the early dynasties are nonetheless still impressive. The above art which Egypt is now famous for started in the first dynasty and was continued throughout the entirety of the thirty-two dynasties. The famous hieroglyphics were firmly developed during the Old Dynasties and like the characteristic art style they were continued throughout the dynasties. The rulers of Egypt, the pharaohs, had deep religious significance. Unlike the Sumerian rulers who were either the voice of or were descended from the gods the Egyptian pharaohs were seen as literal gods. They were the god Horus incarnate and thus were deeply venerated by the Egyptians. This was so much that it was believed that the pharaoh could influence the lifeblood of Egypt, the Nile. Under the first dynasty the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt were unified under one ruler, the first being Menes, with a capital being at Memphis. Here the efficient bureaucracy of Egypt through scribes first developed which would stretch throughout Egyptian history until being conquered by Alexander the Great.

Why this is important
The first three civilizations (what we commonly refer to a civilizations that is) occurred upon the Indus, Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers all of which produced fertile land. Three civilizations rose independently of each other based through population growth spurred on by the success of agriculture in these areas. This helps us understand how our societies developed and how our cities developed. All three cities show social cohesion, the development of hierarchical religions vastly different from what was being worshiped in Europe or the Americas, the creation of bureaucracies which offered a blueprint for our governments today and most importantly trade. Thousands of years before the rise of Rome people were trading with one another over staggering distances which directly influenced one another. A decline in trade helped cause the collapse of the Harappan civilization just as how a decline in trade due to stock market collapse wrecked the fledgling German democracy in the 1920s and how China's current stock fluctuation are causing trade issues right now. All of this can be found in the three river civilizations.

The sources that I have used are:
The Times Complete History of the World by Richard Overy,
A History of the World by Andrew Marr,
People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory by Brian Fagan,
CrashCourse World History Mesopotamia, Indus Valley Civilization and Ancient Egypt (,,,
Thank you for reading. The next World History post will be about Mesopotamia after Sumer including the world's first empire. Now I will leave you with Sargon of Akkad, the forger of this empire.

No comments:

Post a Comment