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According to many prominent scholars and historians that study the civilizations that arose in the ancient Near East, exactly how and why the state of human society which we now call civilization began is not certain, but it is known exactly where and when it first occurred. Since the beginning of the 20th century, archeologists have been uncovering numerous sites in the Near East where this enormous transformation began and have pushed back its date as far as 8000 B.C.E., some six thousand years before the birth of Christ.
One of the major events that marks the beginning of true civilization from the earlier years of human history is the development of agriculture which was made possible by the presence of three important rivers–the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the so-called “Cradle of Civilization,” and the great Nile River in Egypt, where one of the greatest civilizations first appeared some five thousand years ago. As pointed out by Wolfram Von Soden, the area now known as the Near East, comprised of Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, “dried out into desert and semi-desert regions after the last retreat of the glaciers which compelled the inhabitants to move to the fertile valleys” that are bound to the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile Rivers (67). But due to some recent archeological discoveries, this view may be too simple and may no longer be a tenable answer as to why this huge region of the world was initially settled. The oldest communities are found not in the river valleys but in the grassy uplands bordering them and these regions obviously provided the necessary preconditions for the development of agriculture. Species of native plants, such as wild wheat and barley, were very plentiful, as were herds of animals that could be domesticated and used for various purposes associated with farming and husbandry; there was also sufficient rain for the raising of crops that would feed and at times help to clothe the inhabitants.
It was only after the village/farming life was well developed that settlers, attracted by the greater fertility of the soil, moved into the river valleys and deltas. It was here that civilized societies, such as the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hittites and the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and the Egyptians in the Nile River valley, first originated and designed such things as government, law and formal religions, not to mention several important techniques like writing, measurement and calculation, weaving, metalwork and pottery.
Since the early years of archeological studies, it was thought that these developments occurred concurrently, meaning that they were devised and utilized at approximately the same time; however, recent archeological research has forced this view to change, for it is now clear that “Mesopotamia and its environs were far ahead of Egypt, at least temporarily, some five thousand years ago” (Snell, 178). Numerous village/farming communities in present-day Iraq date back to the mid seventh millennium B.C.E., and the remarkable fortified town of Jericho appears to be even older. In Egypt, the oldest settlements, located near the delta of the Nile River, do not seem to have been founded much before 4500 B.C.E., and furthermore, an urban society like those found in Mesopotamia seems to have never developed there. The invention of writing in Mesopotamia preceded that in Egypt by at least several hundred years, and it may be a fact that the entire development of the Egyptian civilization was the direct result of influence from Mesopotamia.
Of course, all great civilizations, whether highly ancient or of modern extraction, are heavily dependent on their various environments. In the case of Mesopotamia and Egypt, both of these societies relied upon the naturally-occurring materials for the construction of their homes and buildings, such as mud and water resources for bricks and pottery, lumber for furniture and other utensils, metals like iron ore and copper for tools and weapons, and soil for the cultivation of various types of food for human consumption and for their domesticated animals. As Robert J. Braidwood maintains the presence of agriculture, “being so firmly linked with the environment, proves that the societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt were in advanced stages which presupposes a long and complicated development” (289).
Sometime in the early 4th millennium B.C.E., a very critical event took place in Mesopotamia, namely, the settlement of the great river valleys associated with the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was after this event that writing, art, monumental architecture and new political forms were introduced in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but with striking differences in function. Thus, not one, but two civilizations emerged from this area, each with its own special character and culture. From this time forward, world history would record the birth, development and disappearance of many civilizations and the rise and decline within them of peoples, states, and nations. In the words of Bruce Trigger, “it is with these mighty, contrasting civilizations bordering the eastern Mediterranean region that the drama of Western mankind truly begins, due to the environments which made it all possible” (127).
In the fertile lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, ancient man may have found the equivalent of the Garden of Eden celebrated in Genesis and also in the traditions of Mesopotamia. Once man had learned to utilize the rivers for irrigation and to a degree control flooding, the possibility of creating a great oasis was before him. The turbulence associated with the history of Mesopotamia strongly suggests “that this region of land, with its promise of a then unknown life of abundance, was enormously attractive to all the peoples who eventually settled and conquered its at times harsh environments” (Snell, 192).
At the dawn of recorded history, the lower Mesopotamian valley was occupied by the Sumerians whose origins are still one of the great puzzles of ancient history. As a culture, the Sumerians were an agricultural people who learned to control floods and built strong-walled cities, such as Uruk and Lagash, from the natural elements of stone, mud and lumber. In some regions of Mesopotamia, prehistoric caves have yielded evidence of man’s effort to control his environment by picture magic. With the appearance of the Sumerians, the older magic was replaced by gods that personified the forces of nature that often interfered with man’s hopes and designs. In the fertile valley, the fiery heat of summer and the catastrophic floods and droughts made it extremely difficult to construct cities and towns. Yet one of the most important architectural designs that was made possible by the forces of nature was the ziggurat, a huge, multistoried brick structure similar to the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Most of the ruined cities of the Sumerians, such as Ur, Warka, Nippur, and Eridu, are still dominated by their eroded ziggurats. The one at Ur, for example, demonstrates how the Sumerians used sun-dried mud bricks, taken from the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers, to construct a “stairway to Heaven,” being an artificial mountain linked with the widespread belief that mountain peaks were the homes of the gods.
In contrast to the civilizations that arose and perished in the “Cradle of Civilization,” the Nile River defined the culture that lived by virtue of its presence–ancient Egypt. Originating deep in Africa, the Nile River descends through many cataracts to sea level at the delta in Egypt, where in its annual flooding, rich soil is deposited. Hemmed in by its narrow valleys, the Nile flows through regions that may not have a single drop of rainfall in a decade (Von Soden, 103). Yet crops grow luxuriantly from the fertilized silt, just as they did in ancient times. Thus, the great Nile made life possible and allowed the peoples of Egypt to build one of the greatest civilizations of all time.
In the days of the Pharaohs, the land of Egypt was dotted with marshes and island ridges, and what is now arid desert valley was grassy meadows well suited for grazing cattle, hunting and, of course, the erection of buildings. The fertility of Egypt, as Braidwood recounts, “was proverbial, and at the end of its history, when Egypt had become a province of the Roman Empire, it was the granary of the Mediterranean world” (356).
However, before settled communities could be built along the wide banks of the Nile River, it was necessary to control the annual flooding. This was done with dams and the communal effort needed for their construction provided the basis for the growth of Egyptian culture, just as the irrigation projects in the Mesopotamian valleys had furnished the civilizing impetus for that region a few centuries earlier. A prime example of Egyptian art which illustrates the link between people and environment can be found in a wall painting from the late pre-dynastic period at a shrine in Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt. This painting shows men, animals and boats in a setting that is obviously joined with the Nile River. The boats, symbolic of the journey across the Nile of life and death, are painted white and seem to carry a cargo associated with tombs. Also shown are a heraldic grouping of two lions on either side of a human figure, gazelles, and men in combat. This grouping, usually depicted by Mesopotamian art, suggests that by the time of the pre-dynastic period that influences from Mesopotamia not only had reached Egypt but had already made the thousand-mile journey upstream.
In addition, the naturally-occurring rock outcrops in Egypt, such as those found in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens in Lower Egypt, played a very important role in Egypt’s ability to construct buildings and tombs. And like the Mesopotamians, the Nile River also provided mud for bricks and pottery that was made by the local peoples for their own homes mostly situated along the banks of the Nile, where soil for cultivation and water for drinking and irrigation was plentiful.
Of course, the most prominent use of stone in ancient Egypt was for the construction of tombs and buildings associated with various religious beliefs. The mastaba was a rectangular brick or stone structure with sloping sides erected over a subterranean tomb chamber and connected with the outside by a shaft. With this design, it is significant to note that in Mesopotamia there was a relative indifference to the cult of burial and to the permanence of the tomb, while in Egypt, such matters were considered to be of the first importance. About 2750 B.C.E., another important structure appeared on the wind-swept plains of Egypt, being the Stepped Pyramid of King Zoser of the 3rd dynasty. Raised at Saqqara, this pyramid stood as the compromise between the mastaba and the later true pyramids at Gizeh and resembles in part the great ziggurats of Mesopotamia.
It should also be mentioned that stone, as it was found lying about the open spaces or chiseled from the solid walls of the valleys, made it possible for Egypt to reign supreme in the field of sculpture. Even though wood, clay and bronze were used, mostly for images of the common person, stone was the primary material–limestone and sandstone from the cliffs of the Nile River, granite from the cataracts of the Upper Nile, and diorite from the desert.
At Gizeh, across the Nile River from modern Cairo, stands the three pyramids of the pharaohs that reigned during the 4th dynasty–Khufu, Khafre and Menkure. Built after 2700 B.C.E., these pyramids are the penultimate examples of how Egypt’s environment facilitated the use of stone and other building materials for the construction of huge complexes usually associated with religious beliefs; in Mesopotamia, similar construction was done using similar materials that were readily available in the outlying regions of the country. The limestone that was used to construct these monuments was quarried from the eastern Nile cliffs and floated across the Nile during the seasonal floods. This serves as another example of how the environment influenced the way that temples, tombs and the pyramids at Gizeh were constructed, for without the cliffs of stone and the ability to use the Nile as a means of transport, these massive contributions of ancient Egypt would never have been built.
The scenes in painted limestone reliefs that decorate the walls of many tombs typifies the impact of the environment on the culture and development of ancient Egypt. These scenes, for the most part, often portray agriculture and cultivation of the land which represents “the fundamental human concern for nature and the environment in which the Egyptians lived and died” (Trigger, 267). One such relief shows men moving through the marshes, hunting hippopotami, in a dense growth of towering papyrus, a plant that was used for many things, especially as a material for recording in writing the events of the day.
In conclusion, Jack Sasson, in his introduction to Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, points out that the civilizations “that spanned the continents later called Africa and Asia” were highly important in matters pertaining to culture and human society. The influence of Egypt that “reached across the vast, arid expanses,” and that of Mesopotamia, which contained “a vastly influential complex of peoples and politics,” would not have been possible without the environments found in these two locales (xxv). One would imagine that the physical environments of Mesopotamia and Egypt might not be so favorable to the quality and sophistication that came from the cultures situated in the “Cradle of Civilization” and the “Land of the Pharaohs.” However, it is abundantly clear that the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians fully understood the natures of their environments and utilized them in order to create and develop their own individual societies that literally changed the world forever.
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