Chapter 2

First Civilizations of Africa and Western Asia

In This Chapter

• The wonders and achievement of Egypt

• The rise of the Tigris and Euphrates River civilizations

• The contributions of the Phoenicians and Lydians

• The kingdom of Israel

Two centers of civilization sprang up amidst the desert sands of northern Africa and western Asia to produce wondrous pyramids and complex urban centers. The civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were soon followed by the other smaller but no less significant civilizations of the Phoenicians, Lydians, and Israelites.

The Nile and Early Egypt

The area around the Nile River has the geographical features to make a great starting point for a civilization. The river itself is 4,160 miles long and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The advantage the length offers comes from the rich black soil that covers the banks and the delta of the river. More important, the fertile black soil is replenished frequently by annual and predictable flood waters that allowed for the cultivation of wheat, barley, and papyrus.

Because of the agricultural value of the region, settlements and small kingdoms began to form on the banks of the Nile as early as 5000 B.C.E. By around 4000 B.C.E., two kingdoms—the Lower kingdom in the north and the Upper kingdom in the south—dominated the Nile River valley. They eventually united under the direction of King Menes around 3000 B.C.E. and built a capital city at Memphis. From that point, historians have traditionally divided Egyptian history into three time periods.

The Old Kingdom (2700-2200 B.C.E.)

The Old Kingdom in Egyptian history spanned from about 2700 to 2200 B.C.E. Egypt developed a strong national government that ruled centrally from the capital city of Memphis. Each king ruled as a theocrat holding both religious and political power. (Strange, the leadership of early civilizations had this tendency.) With that religious and political power, the kings of Egypt directed large public works. The most famous were and still are the Step Pyramid at Saqqara built under King Djoser and the Pyramids at Giza started under King Khufru.

Notable Quotable

"The Sun god has placed king N in the land of the living for eternity and all time; for judging mankind, for making the gods content, for creating Truth, for destroying evil. He gives offerings to the gods ….”

—”The King as Sun Priest,” Anonymous

The Middle Kingdom (2200-1786 B.C.E.)

The Middle Kingdom was not quite as industrious or peaceful as the Old Kingdom. From 2200 to 2050 B.C.E., Egypt experienced a time of internal civil wars and upheaval. Eventually, King Mentuhotep II united the country again under a strong central government and moved the capital to the city of Thebes. This physical and political move was followed by internal peace and prosperity that lasted until about the 1700s B.C.E.

Then trouble began with local nobles who challenged the kings’ authority. Those challenges worked to erode the kings’ power and Egypt’s ability to defend itself.

During this time of weakness in Egypt, the Hykos, a nation of people from the region of Syria-Palestine, invaded and conquered Egypt with the use of horse-drawn chariots.

The New Kingdom (1600-945 B.C.E.)

After a short period of outside rule by the Hykos, the Egyptian prince Ahmose drove the invaders from Egypt using the same horse-drawn chariot technology. Eventually Ahmose united and restored Egypt under one central government, and new leadershipwas created called the “pharaoh,” which means “great house of the king.”

The pharaohs’ religious power also expanded as they adopted the view that they were gods on Earth. During this period, Ramses the Great ruled Egypt for 67 years. His greatness not only lay in his ability to rule the Egyptian Empire longer than most pharaohs, but also the conquests that he made to expand the empire into the Middle East.

Of course, with expansion comes contraction—or, what goes up must come down. During the 1100s B.C.E., Ramses III (no direct relation to the great Ramses!) lost several wars in neighboring Syria, which spelled the beginning of the end of the New Kingdom period and the Egyptian Empire. By 945 B.C.E., the Egyptian Empire was sufficiently weakened that the Libyans from the south and the Kushites from the north were able to divide and conquer the territory, ending the glory of the Egyptian Empire.

Egyptian Society and Religion

The Egyptian Empire developed some very sophisticated social and religious systems. There were several classes of people within Egyptian society. At the top were the royal families, nobles, and priests. Below them were the merchants, artisans, scribes, and tax collectors. The lower class, predominantly farmers, made up the majority of the population. Finally, on the very bottom, were the slaves who came from the people conquered by the Egyptians. (You might remember the Israelites were once slaves, according to the Bible.)

Religiously the Egyptians were polytheistic, although some gods were more important than others. Some of those important gods included Ra, the sun god; Osiris, the god of life and death; and Isis, the wife of Osiris.


Polytheism refers to the societal worship of many different gods.

As part of Egyptian religion, hieroglyphics were created to cast spells for help in the afterlife—another religious belief the Egyptians held. Hieroglyphs are symbols that stand for objects, ideas, and/or sounds. The Egyptians placed the hieroglyphs in the tombs of the mummified dead to take advantage of the magical powers they felt the hieroglyphs had.

Belief in the afterlife was also central to the preparationof the body after death because the body was the house of the soul. The process of mummification started because of the perceived need to protect that house. The process itself was very long—sometimes up to 70 days. The dead body was sufficiently dried and wrapped in cloth to be preserved for centuries.

What in the World

During the late nineteenth centuryand early twentieth century there was a huge market for mummies in Europe. Some people even ground up mummy parts for medicinal purposes.

Egyptian Accomplishments

Religion was the engine that pushed the Egyptians to some very important achievementsin science. They created the 365-day calendar to track the stars for religious purposes and for the flooding of the Nile. Math and engineering were developed to build the various pyramids because the pharaohs’ bodies had to be housed in a great monument for the pharaohs to find when their spirit returned to their bodies. The Egyptians detailed the anatomy of the human body—a reference for countless civilizationsthrough the centuries—all because of the mummification process linked to the belief in the afterlife. Those achievements would not be lost in the Egyptian sands of time. Western and world civilization learned from the Egyptians long after their empire had disappeared.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were the location for several other significant human civilizations that appeared in 3500 B.C.E. The Tigris and Euphrates River valleyis the geographical area around and between the rivers as they flow from modern day Turkey into the Persian Gulf, including parts of Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It is an excellent area for agriculture and has been justly called the “Fertile Crescent” because of this and its crescent shape. You may also hear it called Mesopotamia, which in Greek means “land between two rivers.”

Mesopotamia’s advantages are all associated with its agricultural benefits. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flood often in an unpredictable fashion. This might appear at first to be a bad thing, but it wasn’t. The receding flood waters left deposits of silt, which made great soil for agriculture. Of course, the trick was to control the flood waters, which the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia did by building dams and ditches. The other benefit of this activity was the advanced restructuring of society to performthe task of controlling the flood waters.

A Summary of the Sumerians

The first group to settle in the Fertile Crescent was the Sumerians in 3500 B.C.E. The word “Sumerians” was derived from the region of the lower Euphrates River called Sumer. They did not think of themselves as “the Sumerian civilization,” although historians have referred to them as such. By 3000 B.C.E., the Sumerians had created 12 city-states in the region.

Each city-state ruled itself and the territory immediately around it. The center of the city was dominated by the ziggurat—a massive stone structure topped with a temple dedicated to the god each city-state worshipped. The Sumerians worshipped many gods, who generally ruled over natural forces or human activities. By 2700 B.C.E., most of the city-states had developed a monarchical form of leadership. Those kings also served as the high priest to the god of the city-state, making the king the link between the god and the people. (Hopefully, you can see where that path can lead!) Thus, in Sumerian civilization, religion and politics operated together to maintain a stable city-state.

The stability of the city-states and the relative peace of the region (the city-states did fight from time to time) allowed for some impressive achievements. In 3100 B.C.E. the Sumerians developed the first form of writing, called cuneiform. Cuneiform writing was created by using a reed to make hundreds of wedge-shaped marks on wet clay tablets. These tablets were later hardened in ovens, making them “set in stone,” or unchangeable. A separate class of people called scribes emerged from the development of cuneiform. The scribes did most of the writing, which included keeping records, recording history, and writing myths. Other Sumerian inventions were generally associated with agricultural production or the prediction and/or control of the flood waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These include the wagon wheel, arch, potter’s wheel, sundial, the metal plow, a 12-month calendar, and a number system based on 60.

What in the World

Our modern system of math comes directly from developments in the math of Mesopotamia.The Sumerian need for math grew out of the need for record-keeping in administration and trade. One mathematical development we continue to use is the number system based on 60. We use it for telling time!

The Action of the Akkadians

Akkad was a typical city-state of the Fertile Crescent until the reign of Sargon I. Born a sheep herder’s son, Sargon was abandoned in a reed basket in the Euphrates River by his mother (maybe the story sounds familiar). Despite those obstacles, or perhaps because of them, Sargon ambitiously climbed to the political top as the king of the city-state of Akkad in 2300 B.C.E. Not satisfied with his power as king, Sargon launched an aggressive campaign of conquest against the other city-states of Mesopotamia. He conquered all of the city-states save one and created the Akkadian Empire. Sadly, Sargon I did not prepare well for succession to the throne of his empire—or maybe he was so confident he thought he would not die! The Akkadian Empire fell apart soon after his death, with the help of the one city-statethat he hadn’t conquered: Ebla.

The city-state of Ebla was powerful enough to resist the attacks of Sargon I. After Sargon’s death, Ebla counterattacked, possibly in its own defense, and eventually dominated the Fertile Crescent. Of course, all good things have to come to an end, and this was the case with the Sumerian city-states. The region was very fertile, which made it very valuable, which encouraged other groups to try to conquer and dominate the region. By 2000 B.C.E., the Amorites, outsiders from west Syria who saw the value of the lands of the Fertile Crescent, conquered Ebla. With few natural barriers,and the independent nature of the city-states, the rest of the region would soon be conquered as well.

Hammurabi and the Babylonians

After conquering Ebla, the powerhouse of the region, the Amorites continued to expand across the Fertile Crescent and overran most of the city-states, including the city-state of Babylon. To the Amorites, Babylon looked like a great place to be— or at least a central place from which to oversee a new empire. So Babylon became the capital city for their new empire and from then on the Amorites were called Babylonians. The Babylonians borrowed much of their culture from the region they conquered. They adopted the Sumerian language and cuneiform writing. Babylonian social structure also retained much of the Sumerian look. Generally there were three classes of people in the society. The kings, priests, and nobles were at the top. The artisans, merchants, and farmers were in the middle. But don’t think of them as the middle class—that’s a completely different concept. And slaves who came from the conquered peoples were at the bottom of the class structure.

The Babylonians greatest achievements occurred under the rule of their most powerfuland memorable king, Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792-1750 B.C.E. He conquered the entire Fertile Crescent to bring order to the region. After his conquests, Hammurabi reorganized the tax structure for easier collection of revenue. He didn’t tax the people for selfish intent, but worked to increase the economic prosperity of the people of Mesopotamia, using the collected taxes to repair irrigation canals and increase the agricultural productivity of the land.

Hammurabi’s crowning achievement was the code of laws that he assembled. Hammurabi collected laws from across the Fertile Crescent to create one unified law code for the entire Babylonian Empire. The Code of Hammurabi was stricter than old Sumerian laws by exacting an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Although it did not treat different classes equally, the code was a movement toward equality under the law.

Of course, like the other empires of the Fertile Crescent, the Babylonian Empire eventually went into decline. This decline began with the death of Hammurabi and lasted until the empire fell to the Hittites in the 1600s B.C.E.

More Civilizations

After the Babylonian empire, other groups came to dominate the Fertile Crescent. They were the Hittites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Persians. The Hittites migrated to Mesopotamia from the area of the Black Sea, and by 2000 B.C.E. they dominated most of Asia Minor. In 1650 B.C.E., the Hittites built a capital city at Hattusas from which to launch campaigns of conquest. By 1595 B.C.E., with the use of light chariots and iron weapons, the Hittites conquered the Babylonian Empire and the region. But their rule did not last long, ending around 1200 B.C.E.

The Hated Assyrians

Following the Hittites were the Assyrians, who originated in the northern regions of Mesopotamia. Around 900 B.C.E. they migrated and conquered the entire Fertile Crescent. The Assyrians used a variety of military technologies and techniques to gain success at warfare. During battle they used men on horses to shock opposing soldiers, as well as chariots,iron weapons, and battering rams to break down city-state doors and walls.

After battle, the Assyrians were notorious for treatingpeople who resisted them very cruelly (the movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be tame entertainmentto the Assyrians!). This reputation, so to speak, preceded their armies, which caused many opposing forces to surrender without a fight. By 650 B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire reached its height, with Nineveh as its capital.

Notable Quotable

"I slew their warriors with the sword ... In the moat I piled them up, I covered the wide plain with the corpses of their fighting men, I dyed the mountains with their blood like red wool.”

Royal Annul, Assyrian king Shalmaneser III

During its existence the empire created a very efficient central government and improved the network of roads in the region. But, like others before, their rule came to an abrupt end in 612 B.C.E., when the Chaldeans from the city-state of Babylon successfully rose up against the Assyrians.

The New and Improved Babylonians

The Chaldeans from Babylon (sometimes called Neo-Babylonians or New Babylonians) knew something about controlling Mesopotamia; they were descendants from Hammurabi’s Babylonian Empire. They were able to not only regain control of their own city-state from the Assyrians but extend control over the Fertile Crescent.

What in the World

King Nebuchadnezzar created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World— for his wife to remind her of her home in the mountains of Media in northwestern Iran.

The greatest ruler to come out the Neo-Babylonian Empire was King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled from 605 to 562 B.C.E. He added to the might and power of Babylon with new building projects and worked to extend and maintain the borders of the empire. The Neo-Babylonians are noted for their fascinationwith the stars, which resulted in the practice of astrology and even early charting of the movements of the night heavens. The Neo-Babylonians were conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.E.

The Pretty Persians

The Persians emerged from central Asia around 2000 B.C.E. and migrated into present-dayIran. After some time the Persians became powerful and ambitious enough to conquer most of the Middle East under the leadership of King Cyrus. In addition to the Middle East, in 525 B.C.E., King Cambyses, Cyrus’s son, conquered Egypt.

But neither of these men is considered by most historians to be the greatest ruler of the Persians. That title is reserved for King Darius I, who ruled the Persian Empire from 522 to 486 B.C.E. During his reign he divided the empire up into provinces called “satraps,” which were ruled by governors or “satrapies.” This made the empire more manageable. King Darius also built the city of Persepolis into the most magnificentcity of the empire, and created the Royal Road, which spanned 1,500 miles and aided communication across the whole of the empire. Finally, King Darius created a common currency for trade, which expanded the role of commerce in the empire a great deal.

All of this advancement slipped into decline beginning with King Xerxes, the son of Darius. In an effort to expand the empire further, Xerxes tried and failed to conquer the Greek city-states in 480 B.C.E.

The Z-Man and His Religion

During the stable time of the Persian Empire, a new religion took shape that would influence other religions of Western civilization. Zoroastrianism was a religion that developed from the teachings of a prophet named Zoroaster and a collection of texts based on his teachings called theAvestas.

In the Avestas, Zoroaster taught that there was only one god to be worshipped: Ahura Mazda, or the “wise lord.” There was also another god, Ahriman, the god of darkness,who existed but should not be worshipped. The events (good or bad) of the world were the result of the cosmic struggle between these gods.

Although Zoroastrianism was only a partial commitment to monotheism, historians have argued that it had a decisive influence on the monotheism found in Judaism and Christianity. Regardless, Zoroaster’s teachings gained widespread appeal in the Persian Empire and outlived it.

Other Civilizations of Note

A few other civilizations emerged out of the western Asia and Africa that also contributedto Western civilization and world civilization.

The Phoenicians

Although historians are not exactly sure of the Phoenicians’ origin, it is known that they settled in Canaan around 3000 B.C.E. Canaan is located in parts of present-day Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. The Phoenicians created a network of trade around the Mediterranean Sea with the use of strong, fast ships that were made of cedar and used sails. In addition, they built large trading cities on the Mediterranean coast of Canaan at Tyre, Byblos, Sidon, and Berytus.

These cities and expanded trade network brought the Phoenicians to the peak of their power from 1200 to 1100 B.C.E. Also with this expansion of trade the Phoenicians colonized the Mediterranean Sea rim. Their most famous colony was Carthage. (Its importance will be discussed later in Chapter 6.)


An alphabetic script is a type of written communication in which symbols represent speech, sounds, and/or letters.

The lasting contribution of the Phoenicians to world civilization originated in commerce. This was an alphabetic script for trading developed around 1000 B.C.E. The script had 22 letters and was later adopted by the Greeks and modified by the Romans. From there it became the alphabet that most of the world still uses.

The Lydians

Another civilization of note was the Lydians, who migrated into Asia Minor and by the 600s B.C.E. developed into a wealthy civilization. Like the Phoenicians before them, the Lydians depended on trade and commerce to acquire their wealth and power. To become more efficient at their livelihood, the Lydians dismantled the bartersystem (trading goods for goods) and created a system based on currency or coins. This system made a lasting impression on world civilization and is used by most countries today.

The Israelites

The last notable civilization were the Israelites, who, like the Phoenicians, were located in the region of Canaan. Most of the history of the civilization of Israel has come from the Bible and archaeological records.

Around 1900 B.C.E., Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, left the city-state of Ur in the Fertile Crescent and settled in Canaan. The Israelites believed that their god, a monotheistic god, made a covenant, or promise, with Abraham at this time to sustain his descendants in the land of Canaan.

Later, Jacob, Abraham’s son, raised 12 sons, who become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel. During a period of drought in Canaan, the tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt and later were enslaved by the Egyptians.

Sometime after the 1200s B.C.E., a leader named Moses (who was also, oddly enough, found in a basket floating in a river, like the earlier Sargon) led the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert of Sinai. While in the desert, Moses introduced a moral code of conduct for the tribes of Israel called the Ten Commandments. This code became one of the foundational law codes of Western civilization. By the 1000s B.C.E., the Israelites returned to Canaan, displacingthe Philistines and the Canaanites.

Notable Quotable

"I am the Lord thy God .... Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Exodus 20:2-3

Davidic Monarchy

During a period of 100 years called the Davidic monarchy, the Israelites reached the height of their power. In 1020 B.C.E., the 12 tribes of Israel united under one king named Saul. This united kingdom was strengthened by the next king, David, who made Jerusalem the capital, organized the central government further, and enlarged the kingdom of Israel.

By 961 B.C.E., King Solomon, the son of David, constructed a temple for the Israelite god in Jerusalem, which became the focal point of the Israelite religion, called Judaism.

The decline of the kingdom of Israel began in 922 B.C.E. when it broke into two kingdoms:Israel in the North and Judah in the South.

In 722 B.C.E., the Israelites (sometimes called the Jewish people), divided and weakened, were conquered by the Assyrians of the Fertile Crescent. Eventually the Assyrians relinquished control of the region, but in 586 B.C.E. the Neo-Babylonians invaded a still weak and divided region and enslaved the Jewish people. Their enslavement ended when, in 539 B.C.E., the Persians conquered the Neo-Babylonians and permitted the Israelites to return to Canaan. Still unable to catch a break, the Jewish people were conquered by the forces of Alexander the Great and later the Roman Empire.

The Jewish Legacy

Although it appears that the Israelites were one of the least powerful civilizations we have examined to this point, their impact on Western and world civilization was immense.

First and foremost, the Israelites developed a truly monotheistic religion—a first for humankind. This monotheistic belief in the god Yahweh, or Jehovah, who intentionally formed a covenant with a chosen people, the Israelites, was another unique human development. The covenant, and the law code found in the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the Jewish holy writings, made the Israelites accountablefor their actions. They also introduced a better sense of equality for all people because, in Yahweh’s eyes, every human being had infinite worth. All of these ideas became a key part of Western civilization’s ethical, intellectual, and cultural foundation.

The Least You Need to Know

• Civilizations developed in western Asia and Africa along the river valleys of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates.

• The people of Mesopotamia and Egypt struggled with many problems to organizetheir civilizations.

• The Phoenicians and Lydians contributed to civilization with an alphabet and coinage.

• The Israelites developed a new monotheistic religion called Judaism, which continuesto impact world civilization.

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