Ancient History & Civilisation

III. PASSAGE TO EGYPT

Sumerian influence in Mesopotamia—Ancient Arabia—Mesopotamian influence in Egypt

Nevertheless, we are still so near the beginning of recorded history when we speak of Sumeria that it is difficult to determine the priority or sequence of the many related civilizations that developed in the ancient Near East. The oldest written records known to us are Sumerian; this, which may be a whim of circumstance, a sport of mortality, does not prove that the first civilization was Sumerian. Statuettes and other remains akin to those of Sumeria have been found at Ashur and Samarra, in what became Assyria; we do not know whether this early culture came from Sumeria or passed to it along the Tigris. The code of Hammurabi resembles that of Ur-engur and Dungi, but we cannot be sure that it was evolved from it rather than from some predecessor ancestral to them both. It is only probable, not certain, that the civilizations of Babylonia and Assyria were derived from or fertilized by that of Sumer and Akkad.69 The gods and myths of Babylon and Nineveh are in many cases modifications or developments of Sumerian theology; and the languages of these later cultures bear the same relationship to Sumeria that French and Italian bear to Latin.

Schweinfurth has called attention to the interesting fact that though the cultivation of barley, millet and wheat, and the domestication of cattle, goats and sheep, appear in both Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back as our records go, these cereals and animals are found in their wild and natural state not in Egypt but in western Asia—especially in Yemen or ancient Arabia. He concludes that civilization—i.e., in this context, the cultivation of cereals and the use of domesticated animals—appeared in unrecorded antiquity in Arabia, and spread thence in a “triangular culture” to Mesopotamia (Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria) and Egypt.70 Current knowledge of primitive Arabia is too slight to make this more than a presentable hypothesis.

More definite is the derivation of certain specific elements of Egyptian culture from Sumeria and Babylonia. We know that trade passed between Mesopotamia and Egypt—certainly via the isthmus at Suez, and probably by water from the ancient outlets of Egyptian rivers on the Red Sea.71A look at the map explains why Egypt, throughout its known history, has belonged to Western Asia rather than to Africa; trade and culture could pass from Asia along the Mediterranean to the Nile, but shortly beyond that it was balked by the desert which, with the cataracts of the Nile, isolated Egypt from the remainder of Africa. Hence it is natural that we should find many Mesopotamian elements in the primitive culture of Egypt.

The farther back we trace the Egyptian language the more affinities it reveals with the Semitic tongues of the Near East.72 The pictographic writing of the predynastic Egyptians seems to have come in from Sumeria.73 The cylindrical seal, which is of unquestionably Mesopotamian origin, appears in the earliest period of known Egyptian history, and then disappears, as if an imported custom had been displaced by a native mode.74 The potter’s wheel is not known in Egypt before the Fourth Dynasty—long after its appearance in Sumeria; presumably it came into Egypt from the Land between the Rivers along with the wheel and the chariot.75 Early Egyptian and Babylonian mace-heads are completely identical in form.76 A finely worked flint knife, found in predynastic Egyptian remains at Gebel-el-Arak, bears reliefs in Mesopotamian themes and style.77 Copper was apparently developed in western Asia, and brought thence to Egypt.78 Early Egyptian architecture resembles Mesopotamian in the use of the recessed panel as a decoration for brick walls.79 Predynastic pottery, statuettes and decorative motives are in many cases identical, or unmistakably allied, with Mesopotamian products.80 Among these early Egyptian remains are small figures of a goddess of evident Asiatic origin. At a time when Egyptian civilization seems to have only begun, the artists of Ur were making statuary and reliefs whose style and conventions demonstrate the antiquity of these arts in Sumeria.81*

Egypt could well afford to concede the priority of Sumeria. For whatever the Nile may have borrowed from the Tigris and the Euphrates, it soon flowered into a civilization specifically and uniquely its own; one of the richest and greatest, one of the most powerful and yet one of the most graceful, cultures in history. By its side Sumeria was but a crude beginning; and not even Greece or Rome would surpass it.

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