HIST 1111 – Ancient Civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant

HIST 1111 – Ancient Civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant


This is world history; my name is Dr. Long. This video addresses ancient Mesopotamia,
Egypt, and the Levant. Some of the earliest civilizations in the
world arose during the Bronze Age, from 4000 to 1000 BCE. This was a period in which bronze was the
dominant metal. Some particularly noteworthy civilizations
during the Bronze Age began in three areas that were geographically close to one another
– namely, Mesopotamia; Egypt; and the Levant. Mesopotamia is a term that means ‘the land
between the rivers’ – namely, the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers. Mesopotamia is present-day Egypt is located
in the northeast corner of Africa. Right next to Egypt is Levant, a territory
comprising a present-day Israel; Palestine; Jordan; Lebanon; and Syria. These three areas – Egypt; the Levant; and
Mesopotamia – are sometimes known as the Fertile Crescent, for the rich agricultural
resources and their crescent-like shape. The earliest of these three civilizations
arose in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers. Beginning around 3500 to 3000 BCE the Sumerians
built the first civilization in Mesopotamia. More specifically, the Sumerians created a
host of independent city states. A city state is a city that is an independent
country; it generally includes the countryside around the city, which in turn supplies food
to the city. The Sumerian city states were ruled by kings. Sumerians built large cities with huge mudbrick
buildings. They also built ziggurats; ziggurats were
large tower and temple structures to worship their gods. The Sumerians were polytheistic. Now the Sumerians also created one of the
first written languages, and used cuneiform – wet clay that was hardened in the sun,
to write on. Culturally and linguistically the Sumerians
were a Semitic people, as were the Hebrews and the Arabs. The Tigress and Euphrates River valleys provided
rich agricultural land for the Sumerians to have agriculture and irrigation. In addition, boats also could move goods;
people; and messages up and down the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers. However, the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers
were very prone to flooding, and their flooding was unpredictable. This made Mesopotamian life unpredictable. Flooding became a central part, and a traumatic
part, of their life. Flooding often showed up in Mesopotamian myths. A good example of this is the most famous
myth and work of literature from ancient Mesopotamia, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which incidentally
loosely resembles the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays the gods as
fickly and vengeful, unpredictable – like Mesopotamia’s own rivers. Gilgamesh, the main character, is seen as
on a quest for eternal life. Another character, Enkidu, is seen as an uncivilized
brute, who is finally tamed after six days and seven nights of sex with a prostitute
named Shamhat. So The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about
flooding, eternal life, civilization – many of the issues that Sumerians dealt with. Mesopotamia’s geography also made it open
to invasion, which were frequent, with new peoples invading; conquering; and mixing with
those already living in Mesopotamia. In 2300 BCE, another Semitic people called
the Acadians, led by their King Sargon, invaded Mesopotamia and took over the Sumerian city
states. However, the Acadian Empire was short lived;
it only lasted for about a hundred and fifty years, and it was then overrun by the Babylonians. The most famous king of the Babylonians was
King Hammurabi. Hammurabi is particularly noted for his law
code, Hammurabi’s Code. This was one of the earliest forms of systematic
laws, and it would influence many law codes for years to come. Hammurabi’s Code was very strict and is
known for its eye-for-an-eye types of punishments for lawbreakers. Nonetheless, it was very influential, and
one of the first systems of laws. Now in contrast to the civilizations that
arose in Mesopotamia, civilization in Egypt was much more stable. Egyptian civilization began around 3000 BCE
and thus is slightly younger than the Sumerian city states. Egypt was a kingdom largely shaped by its
geography – namely, it grew up along the Nile River, a very large river that runs for
thousands of miles through Africa and empties into the Mediterranean. The territory along the Nile in Egypt had
very rich farmland. The Nile is also a very predictable river;
it rises in the fall and leaves a rich deposit of silt and fall is thereafter. Because the Nile made Egypt so rich agriculturally,
its people clustered along the river, forming settlements and cities. The Nile also united Egypt as it provided
a fast means of water transportation. Besides the Nile, Egypt also has deserts to
the east and the west of the Nile, and this gave Egypt natural barriers for invasion as
it was very difficult for invading armies to get through these deserts. Now Egypt was invaded from time to time, but
compared to Mesopotamia successful invasions of Egypt were fairly rare and this made Egypt
a stable civilization for about three thousand years. The Egyptians produced their own writing;
their own art; and their civilization – in some respects – seemed changeless. In terms of religion, the Egyptians were polytheistic
with many gods and goddesses – some of whom were considered part human and part animal. The Egyptians built many temples to worship
their gods and goddesses, and ritual worship was important to please the gods – also
magic was important. The Egyptians believed in a soul and an afterlife,
and to a degree were obsessed with death – or rather, how to prolong life after the grave. At first, a good afterlife was only thought
possible for the pharaohs. However, as time went along, Egyptians also
believed that commoners could have a good afterlife as well, that they would be judged
by their deeds, by the god of the underworld, Osiris, after they died. Egyptians also believed that the souls of
the dead returned to their bodies from time to time, so proper burials were very important
for Egyptians. Mummifying the dead was thought of as a way
to preserve the body so the spirit might come back to it one day. In Egypt, the pharaoh was the all-powerful
king, and by far was the most important figure in ancient Egyptian society, both politically
and religiously. The pharaoh’s ruled with uncontested power
during the Bronze Age, and they were also religious figures; their prayers and rituals
were seen as necessary for the Nile to function properly. Below the pharaoh were nobles and provincial
administrators; warriors; and priests. Most Egyptians, however, were farmers – and
Egypt also had a small artisan and merchant class as well. The pharaohs ruled Egypt – as I’d mentioned
– with absolute power; they also claimed to be gods in human form – something that
reinforced their power. Another thing that reinforced the power of
the pharaohs were the pyramids. The pyramids were constructed as tombs for
the pharaohs; the idea is their spirits might return to their bodies in the pyramids. The building of the pyramids were enormous
construction projects; they consumed many resources – financial; labor; and otherwise. Some Egyptians even paid their taxes by working
on the pyramids. The largest pyramid built in Egypt, the Great
Pyramid of Giza, was four hundred and eighty-one feet tall, or nearly fifty stories high. Now this is a really impressive structure,
and it’s considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was also the tallest structure built by
humans in the world until the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of modern
skyscrapers built out of steel and glass. The fact that Egypt was united, stable, and
wealthy allowed it to build great structures such as the pyramids; in contrast Mesopotamia’s
instability meant that it could not build such large structures. By way of comparison, the Great Pyramid of
Giza is four hundred and eighty-one feet tall; the Sumerians largest ziggurat, the Great
Ziggurat of Ur, was only a hundred feet tall. So Egypt became one of the greatest ancient
civilizations in the Fertile Crescent. Next I want to turn to the last area in the
Fertile Crescent, the Levant. The Levant also had fertile farmland, but
not the sort of rich river valleys found in Egypt or Mesopotamia. That meant that the population and civilizations
of the Levant were typically not as large as in Egypt or Mesopotamia. Geographically, the Levant is between Egypt
and Mesopotamian, and so this made the Levant a crossroad for trade and cultural content. Two Semitic peoples in Levant were particularly
important and noteworthy during the Bronze Age. The first were the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a trading people in present-day
Lebanon and Syria. The Phoenicians – because they were so involved
in trade, and written languages were important for them – invented the first alphabet around
1300 BCE, and this would influence many other alphabets that came afterwards. Next the Hebrews, who deliver up Judaism,
a monotheistic religion that worships one god who the Hebrews called Yahweh. Judaism came to feature is own sacred scripture,
the Hebrew Bible, which consists of twenty-four books with genres such as epic historical
narratives; poetry; wisdom literature; prophecy; and law – and Judaism would have its own
unique ethical code, such as found in the Ten Commandments. A religion that worships one god with a strong
ethical code is known as ethical monotheism, and Judaism is a prime example of this. Later Judaism would have an influence on the
rise of Christianity and Islam. So both the ancient Phoenicians and Hebrews
were numerically small people, but they would have a tremendous influence on cultures in
the ancient world and beyond. So let’s draw some conclusions. Some of the earliest civilizations in the
world emerged in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant. These civilizations had some similarities,
such as agriculture; government; buildings; written language; and religion. They also had contact with each other. They were part of one of the earliest human
webs of cooperation and competition as historians J.R. McNeill and William McNeill argue. However, geographical differences, from a
stable Nile River in Egypt to an unstable Tigress and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia
to a lack of river valleys altogether in Levan, led to many governmental; cultural; and religious
differences in these areas as well. This also suggests that geography has a major
role in world history, and the development of civilizations, and this is the thing that
we will come back to in many of these videos. I’ll end on this note about the importance
of geography in world history. Thanks for watching.

One thought on “HIST 1111 – Ancient Civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant

  1. Globekli Tepe preceded Sumer/Mesopotamia

    …there is more history than the books contain. More than Academics seem to be ready to accept – much Bigger Past.

    We are in no way the most intelligent to have experienced life on this planet.

    Dig deeper – enjoy the finds…

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