Ancient Near East Essay, Research Paper
Ancient Near East
Essay written by David Roy Harmon
Millions of years ago the procreant low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris was probably the home of some animal life, but no great civilizations. However, things change over time, and just a few thousand years ago the same fertile low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris became the home of a very rich and complex society. This first high society of man was located in what some still call Mesopotamia . The word Mesopotamia is in origin a Greek name meaning land between the rivers. The name is used for the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Iraq and part of Syria. South of modern Bagdad, this alluvial plain was called the land of Sumer and Akkad. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad, where the Euphrates and Tigris are closest to each other. This first high, Mesopotamian society arose as a combined result of various historical, institutional, and religious factors. The reality of these factors occurring at a specific place within the fabric of space / time indeed established the basis for this first high civilization. Items like irrigation, topography, and bronze-age technical innovations played a big part along with the advent of writing and the practice of social conditioning (through the use of organized religion) in this relatively early achievement of man.
The factors of irrigation, inherent topography, and useful bronze-age technical innovations paved the way for the agricultural revolution to occur in the land of Sumer and Akkad. The people of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, the ancient Sumerians, using the fertile land and the abundant water supply of the area, developed sophisticated irrigation systems and created what was probably the first cereal agriculture. This historical factor resulted in an excess of production of cereals, dates, and other commodities. The consequence of excess is the emergence of a productive peasant agricultural system and a redistributive economy that fuels the progress of civilization.
Without a doubt, the Sumerians were highly innovative people who responded creatively to the challenges of the both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Not just any spot on the planet is a good prospect for irrigation, and it is the topography of the land and the intelligence of the people that allowed efficient irrigation systems to develop. The precipitation in the mountains to the north is large and rainfall-agriculture is possible, but in the low lands, precipitation is slight and rain is concentrated in shortly lasting showers in the winter period of December-February. Without irrigation, agriculture in this area is not possible. The gentle sloping topography of the California- like valley affords numerous irrigation possibilities. The topology is not perfect, and because the riverbeds are actually raised as a result of sedimentary precipitation, the river can change its course as the result of a flood. Attesting to this fact are the ruins of many famous ancient cities, like Eridu, Ur, Nippur and Kish that are now far from the river, but were in the past situated at the banks. Successful irrigation can not be underestimated.
Bronze-age technical innovations played a big part in the advancement of civilization. The metallurgical qualities of malleability and hardness made bronze a good choice for construction tools. The bronze tools expedited the construction of public buildings necessary for evolving civilization and government. Furthermore, tools of bronze aided in the erection of fortifications surrounding the cities, like security walls. Tools and related mechanical innovations like the wheel fueled the progress of early civilization, but metallurgy and tools were just part of the formula.
In looking at the big picture of possible historical factors, one must not forget the effects of climatic determinism. Many attempts have been made to explain the course of history because of large-scale climatic change. These theories are called climatic determinism, but again this is just part of the picture. In the name of determinism let the record show that the climate of this era was at least conducive to irrigation of a desert valley because of snow and rain in the northern and eastern mountains. Furthermore, as far as determinism goes, the term economic determinism should not be viewed as a good descriptor for the factors surrounding the rise of high civilization. A better term is economic facilitation . This describes the path of irrigation and excess production of wealth as it leads to full-blown civilization with a command economy. It is made possible by this act of facilitation.
Certain institutional establishments and sociopolitical structures attest to the status of First High Civilization for Sumer and Akkad. It is true that the Sumerians were the first people known to have devised a scheme of written representation as a means of record keeping and communication, but analysis reveals the true status importance of the institutions of literature and education. The people responsible for the first monumental temples and palaces, for the founding of the first city-states and most likely for the invention of writing (all in the period of 3100-3000 BCE) are the Sumerians. The first written signs are pictographic, so they can be read in any language and one cannot infer a particular language. A pictogram of an arrow means `arrow in any language. A few centuries later, however, these signs were used to represent Sumerian phonetic values and Sumerian words. It seems that the bean counters or accountants first used their written scheme to keep accounting records, but the system did not stop with accounting. The system evolved into full-blown cuneiform, a way of arranging impression stamped on clay by the wedge-like section of chopped-off reed that eventually allowed the existence of actual written stories and literature. Much is known today because of the important Sumerian legacy of recording literature.
With the rise of early cities, and the actual advent of urban life, came changes in social organization. Urban life necessitated changes in social organization: loyalties were redirected from kin to kings (Knapp, 62). One of these changes was the reliance upon the institutional establishment of kingship. It seems inevitable in every society that a ruling class will eventually evolve, and the leaders in this case evolved to be kings. The institutions of education, writing, literature and a religious priesthood also show the advanced level of this society. The civilization worked well, and the king lead a redistributive economy fueled by peasant agricultural labor. The educators and priests were taken care of because of the accumulation of wealth. In a true high civilization, some of the members of society do have time to pursue literature, art, and religion.
When temple structures were built, independence became a deep-rooted cultural norm, reinforced by the belief that each Sumerian city-state was the individual, inviolable estate of a particular god (Knapp, 68). The existence of religion resulted in the construction of temples and the early literature points to the inner workings of the religion. According to Jacobson, starting with the forces of nature (Numen), and then personalizing these forces as gods create myths or mythic gods. The gods are natural forces that reflect the environment or local surroundings. The gods play many roles in early civilization. They start out as providers, become temple gods or rulers, and finally serve to represent quasi-benevolent parents of the society at large. They come to eventually represent caring, nurturing providers who are personal protectors in an impersonal world. Ishtar s descent is an example of this.
Filled with complex abstraction and emotional expression, The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld reflects the intellectual sophistication of the educated citizens of this early high civilization. The story takes place in a universe seen as a stratification of three layers. It seems to consist of heaven, sky and earth. This supernatural universe of Ishtar reeks of divine beings, gods, and demons. Ishtar is portrayed in an anthropomorphic way as superior human, imaging the ruling class of society. She is, however, more powerful, and is viewed as the cause of seasonality and fertility because of her ritual journey to and from the dark house.” The action in the story reflects the patriarchal society of the times. The story has many levels. In one sense, it tries to explain the natural force of seasonality on earth. In their religion, starting with a force of nature (birth and seasonality), and then personalizing this force as a goddess create the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar the goddess represents natural forces that reflect the environment and local surroundings in a society that observes life and death in the seasons, and asks the big question, Is there life after death? She is Venus, or the goddess of fertility, and she is good evidence of an exceptional religion that had not yet reached the stage of monotheism.
In conclusion, modern, western behavioral schools of thought would emphasize historical sociological changes as dominant in the process of forming the first high civilization, but it seems that a combination of these and additional factors play a significant role in explaining the essential elements of man s first high civilization. It is the combination of cultural changes, technological innovations, new tools, and other factors like societal conditioning via religion that make up the true achievement that is Sumer and Akkad. This crowning achievement is indeed the first high civilization known to man, and must be viewed as a major turning point in the civilized evolution of man.
Knapp, Bernard. The History and Culture of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt. 1988, The Dorsey Press. New York.