Teaching world history: from StudentsFriend.com
Cradles of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt

LOCATIONS: the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Israel, Palestine, Mediterranean Sea, Sahara Desert, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Egypt, Nile river, Cairo

13. agriculture

     Before the Neolithic period, most humans made their living by hunting and gathering, which meant that humans were constantly on the move following wild game herds. This began to change about 12,000 years ago when people in the Middle East discovered they could plant and harvest a wheat plant they found growing wild. At about the same time, people began to domesticate wild animals, raising them for food and as a source of power that could pull wagons and plows. (Agriculture means farming and raising livestock.)

     People no longer had to follow the wandering animal herds; they could settle in one place, grow crops, and eventually build towns and cities. With permanent homes, people could collect more possessions, which encouraged the invention of new technologies such as pottery making and looms for weaving. Because agriculture could support more people per square mile than hunting and gathering, human population jumped from about two million people during the early Stone Age to about 60 million during the late Stone Age.

     Farmers learned to grow more food than they needed for their own use, resulting in a surplus. Agricultural surpluses made it possible to accumulate wealth, and they led to job specialization because not everyone had to raise food to make a living. Some people could specialize in non-agricultural work—like making pottery, or becoming priests or government officials—and be supported by others from the agricultural surplus. Agriculture became the main source of wealth in most societies until the industrial age.

14. Jericho (JAIR-uh-koe)

     Agriculture and irrigation began in an area of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent. Villages grew near farmlands, and the world's first known city developed at Jericho in Palestine around 8,000 BC. Walls were built around Jericho to protect its agricultural surplus from nomadic raiders. Warfare, too, might have begun at Jericho. Agriculture later developed independently in China and in the Americas.

     Hunting and gathering declined as agriculture became the way most humans made their living. Agriculture and other technologies spread fastest in Eurasia for several reasons: much of the Eurasia lies in a temperate zone suitable for agriculture; Eurasia had more plants and animals that could be raised by humans, and it had more people. Diseases, which often come from contact with animals, spread fastest in Eurasia too.

15. civilization

     Agriculture made civilization possible because it permitted humans to settle permanently in one place, build cities, and develop complex societies. Large groups of people living together encouraged job specialization, the development of government, and written language, all of which are important features of civilization. Writing probably began as a way to record business dealings, especially the exchange of agricultural products. Cities and writing are often considered the primary indicators of civilization. When people started to write, prehistoric times ended, and historic times began.

     Not everything about civilization was positive. Complex societies usually meant greater separation of people into classes based on social position or wealth. Often a wealthy class of aristocrats controlled the land and collected rents from poor farmers. Society became divided between the "haves" and the "have nots." Civilized societies were probably more patriarchal (male dominated) than hunter-gatherer bands in which everyone helped to supply food that ensured the group's survival.

16. the Middle East

     The Middle East is a popular term for a region that includes southwest Asia and northeast Africa, extending from Libya in the west to Afghanistan in the east. The terms Near East or Southwest Asia are sometimes used to identify parts of this region. We can trace Western culture back to the beginnings of civilization in the Middle East. It was also the birthplace of three major world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

     Today the Middle East is important as the major oil-producing region of the world and as a hot spot of international tension including the Arab-Israeli conflict and two recent wars fought by the United States in Iraq.

17. Mesopotamia

     Located in the modern country of Iraq, Mesopotamia is known as the "cradle of civilization" because it is here that civilization first began around 3500 BC, a date considered the beginning of ancient times. Mesopotamia is a region, not a country, within the larger region of the Middle East. Regions are the basic units of geography. A region is an area of the earth with consistent cultural or physical characteristics. Regions may be large like the Middle East, or they may be smaller like Mesopotamia.

     Mesopotamia lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; the name Mesopotamia means "between the waters" in Greek. Here farmers learned to build irrigation systems that turned the dry valley into a prosperous center of agriculture supporting many people. This is an early example of how humans can change the natural environment.

     As settlements in southern Mesopotamia grew into busy cities, this area called Sumer became the world's first civilization. The Sumerians built walled cities and developed the earliest-known writing called cuneiform, in which scribes (record-keepers) carved symbols onto wet clay tablets that were later dried. The Sumerians are credited with writing the world's oldest story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, about the life of a Sumerian king. The Sumerian number system was based on 12, which explains why we have 60-minute hours, 24-hour days, 12-month years, and 360-degree circles.

18. religion

     We can find the beginnings of religion in Neanderthal burials that included food and tools, presumably for use in the afterlife. Religion may have begun as a way to cope with misfortune and with the human awareness of death. Early religions usually worshiped several gods, a practice called polytheism.

.     Religion was extremely important in Sumer where priests were originally the most powerful people in society. Later, warrior kings would take control. Priests supervised the worship of seven great gods: earth, sky, sun, moon, salt water, fresh water, and storm. Sumerians believed their gods lived in statues housed in temples including large pyramid-like structures called ziggurats. Priests clothed the god statutes and fed them daily.

19. Code of Hammurabi

     Because the fertile valley of Mesopotamia had no natural barriers for protection, its wealth attracted many raiders and conquerors over the centuries. Civilizations came and went amid much warfare. One of the most powerful civilizations to arise in Mesopotamia was Babylon (1900 to 500 BC).

     Hammurabi was an early king of Babylon who created an empire by bringing much of Mesopotamia under his control. (An empire is a collection of states [countries] controlled by one government.) Hammurabi helped unite the Babylonian empire by publishing a set of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi, history's first known written laws. He had the 300 laws of the code carved onto stone pillars for all to see, which meant that nobody was above the law; it applied to everyone. The goals of Hammurabi's Code included, "stable government and good rule...that the strong may not oppress the weak."

     Babylon later became known for its hanging gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and for the decadent life-style of its people; "a Babylon" now means a place of corruption and sin. The Bible mentions the Tower of Babel, probably a ziggurat, that the builders hoped would reach to heaven. In response to their arrogance, God confused the builders' language so they could no longer understand one another's speech. The Bible says this is how the people of the world came to babble in different languages.

20. Hebrews

     The Hebrews were an ancient people of the Middle East who established the kingdom of Israel at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea about 1000 BC. There they founded the religion of Judaism. Judaism was unusual because it worshipped only one God (monotheism). It was also a universal religion that could be worshipped anywhere; it was not tied to a particular place like the gods of Sumer.

     The Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians in the 500s BC and taken to Babylon in chains. During the exile in Babylon, Jewish scribes began to write the Bible in an effort to preserve Hebrew culture and religion. Laws contained in the Bible such as "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" have a basis in the Code of Hammurabi. (The Jewish Bible is what Christians call the Old Testament.) Over the centuries since then, Jews have settled in many parts of the world, but they have maintained their identity as a people.

.     In an effort to regain their Ancient homeland in the Middle East, Jews took over Arab lands in Palestine following World War II, which resulted in years of conflict between Jews and Arabs that still continues.

21. Bronze Age

     The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age when people learned to make bronze tools, ornaments, and weapons. Bronze is made by combining copper with tin, which produces a harder metal than copper alone, and it holds an edge much longer. The Bronze Age was a time of great invention; the wheel, plow, writing, money, cities, armies and chariots all came into use during the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia.

     The Bronze Age is important in history as the period when civilization and writing began, marking the end of prehistoric times and the beginning of ancient times. In Mesopotamia, the Bronze Age lasted from roughly 4000 BC to the beginning of the Iron Age around 1000 BC.

22. Egypt

     Not long after the world's first civilization arose between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, civilization spread west to the Nile River valley of Egypt. Egyptians probably learned about irrigation, the plow, writing, and other technologies from Mesopotamia. Egypt is said to be a "gift of the Nile" because the river provided irrigation water, fertile soils due to annual floods, and easy transportation by boat. Boats on the Nile were pulled north by the Nile's current, and they sailed south with the prevailing winds. Egyptians considered the river sacred; it separated the "land of the living" on the east bank (where the sun rises) from the "land of the dead" on the west bank (where the sun sets).

     Egypt's two main geographic features are the Nile and the Sahara Desert. Ancient Egypt was a long, narrow oasis along the river in the desert. It has been said, "geography is destiny," and perhaps this was true in Egypt where the Nile was the lifeblood of the country, and the desert provided natural barriers to enemies permitting ancient Egyptian civilization to last for 3,000 years, the longest in history (3100 BC to 30 BC).

     Ancient Egyptians had a polytheistic religion; their important gods included Ra, god of the sun and creator of life, and Osiris, god of rebirth. The struggle between Osiris and his evil brother Set represented the eternal struggle between good and evil. Many works of art, literature, and architecture survive from ancient Egypt including huge tombs of the pharaohs, the Sphinx, and the great pyramids near Cairo, which is Egypt's modern day capital city. The ancient Egyptians also developed a 365-day calendar based on the solar year. Their calendar was adopted by the Roman Empire and became the calendar we use today.

23. pharaohs

     Pharaohs were the kings of ancient Egypt who were worshipped as gods. Their wealth came from the bountiful agriculture made possible by the Nile. Egypt's Pharaohs controlled strong central governments that built massive public works such as the irrigation systems that tamed the Nile's floods allowing agriculture to flourish in the desert. The pharaohs also built impressive temples and monuments that still stand today. Notable among Egypt's pharaohs were Ramses II (Ramses the Great) who was a warrior as well as a builder of great temples and statues, and Queen Hatshepsut, the first important woman ruler in history. Cleopatra was the last queen of the thirty-one dynasties, or ruling families, of Egypt.

     The best-known pharaoh is Tutankhamen, or King Tut, who died at the age of eighteen. Although his reign was not very important, he became famous in our time for the discovery of his unplundered tomb in the 1920s, the only tomb of a pharaoh found intact. Grave robbers looted the other tombs centuries ago. Although Tutankhamen was a minor king, his tomb contained fantastic riches: over 5,000 objects in four rooms including a spectacular life-like mask of solid gold that covered the head and shoulders of his mummy (his preserved body). King Tut's tomb is one of the most impressive archeological discoveries of all time.

24. government

     As societies grew larger, government became necessary to provide an orderly way to make decisions, to maintain public order through police and courts, and to supply services that were not provided by merchants. In the hot Egyptian desert, for example, lack of water could mean starvation and death. Only government could ensure that all farmers received their fair share of water and that all farmers maintained their ditches so irrigation systems did not break down.

     Today, governments still maintain public water systems, and they perform other functions not provided by business such as national defense and education. Major types of governments in history have included monarchies (kings & queens) based on rule by a royal family or dynasty, democracies based on rule by the people, and dictatorships in which one person takes control of a nation, usually with help from the military.

25. pyramids

     Ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with religion and the afterlife. The status of priests in Egyptian society was just below that of pharaohs. For a person to enter the next life, the body had to be preserved through mummification and religious rituals performed by priests. Skilled embalmers prepared the body by removing the vital organs, then drying and wrapping the body in strips of linen. Eventually, ordinary Egyptians were mummified, and archeologists have even discovered an ancient Egyptian cemetery filled with mummified cats. All Egyptians, including pharaohs, had an incentive for doing good during their lives; the Egyptian religion held that good works were necessary to enter the afterlife.

     The most famous burial tombs of ancient Egypt are the great pyramids at Giza near Cairo. These and other tombs were built to house the bodies of pharaohs for the afterlife. The pyramids are the oldest and the only remaining examples of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Without iron tools or wheeled vehicles, workers cut, moved, and lifted millions of limestone blocks weighing an average of 2.5 tons each. Archeologists believe the workers who built the pyramids were not slaves, but valued members of society who lived in a nearby community with their families. Standing guard over the pyramids at Giza is the Sphinx, a great rock sculpture with the head of a pharaoh and the body of a lion. The age of pyramid building in Egypt lasted from about 2700 BC to 1000 BC.

26. hieroglyphics

     This was the ancient Egyptian system of writing that used pictures to represent words or syllables. Hieroglyphics preserved records of ancient Egyptian culture for thousands of years. Egyptians carved hieroglyphics into stone, and they wrote on papyrus made from a reed plant that was pressed and dried to make a paper-like material. Paper gets its name from papyrus. Papyrus was rolled onto scrolls, which made written records lightweight, compact, and portable.

     Modern people did not understand Egyptian hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt by Napoleon's armies in the late 1700s. Carved into the Rosetta Stone was a message written in hieroglyphics along with a translation in Greek. Modern scholars understood Greek and used it to break the code of hieroglyphics. Now we can read about details of life in ancient Egypt ranging from love poems to surgical procedures. A "Rosetta Stone" has come to mean the key to understanding a difficult problem.

27. Africa

     Egypt is located in the northeast corner of Africa, which is the second-largest continent after Asia. Africa's major geographic features include the Sahara Desert in the north, the Kalahari Desert in the south, and tropical rain forests centered on the Congo River basin in south-central Africa. In eastern Africa are the Great Rift Valley, the Nile river, and Africa's highest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. The savanna is a large land area in central and southeast Africa with grasslands and scattered trees. The savanna is home to many of the famed wild animals of Africa including lions, giraffes, and elephants.

     The Nile is the longest river in the world. It originates in the highlands of central Africa and flows north for more than 4,000 miles to the Mediterranean Sea where it forms a wide triangle-shaped delta in northern Egypt. Deltas are flat areas of land that sometimes form at the mouths of rivers where the rivers deposit sediment as they flow into the sea. Because of their abundant wildlife and plant life, deltas have always attracted humans. Egypt's two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, are located on the Nile River delta.

28. Sahara Desert

     The Sahara Desert is about the size of the United States, which makes it the largest dry desert in the world. It extends from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Red Sea on the east, and it is still expanding to the south. The Sahara separates North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa borders the Mediterranean Sea and includes the Sahara and lands lying to the north of the desert including the Atlas Mountains and the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

     Sub-Saharan Africa is the land that lies south of the desert. It has sometimes been called "black Africa" because people living there have darker skins than North Africans. Dark skin appears to be an adaptation to climate. People living in the tropics need more skin pigment to protect them from intense rays of the sun, while people living closer to the earth's poles have paler skins to absorb more sunlight. People with black skins also live near the equator in India and Australia. It's been estimated that it took roughly 20,000 years for skin color to change from black to white as humans spread north out of Africa.


Student's Friend Part 1

Unit 1 - Overview, Basic Concepts, Prehistory

Unit 2 - Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

Unit 3 - Ancient India and China

Unit 4 - Ancient Greece and Rome

Unit 5 - Early Middle Ages: 500 to 1000

Unit 6 - Late Middle Ages: 1000 to 1500

Student's Friend Part 2

Unit 7 - 1500s and 1600s: Early Modern World

Unit 8 - 1700s: Enlightenment and Revolution

Unit 9 - 1800s: Industrialism and Imperialism

Unit 10 - 1900 to 1950: World at War

Unit 11 - 1950 to Present: Cold War and Space Age

Unit 12 - Current Issues: A Changing World Order

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Unit 2- Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt