Over 5,000 years ago, the world’s first civilizations were born, each with their own unique set of features and developments. Some aspects of these civilizations were similar due to cultural diffusion and the migration of people across Europe, Africa and Asia. Other aspects were unique to certain civilizations based on geography and resources. Though these early civilizations all differed, they all played an important role in the development of the modern world.
The earliest known civilization was located in the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and was known as Mesopotamia. Its location made it easy for farming due to the nearby rivers and the population grew steadily. As the population grew, the civilization created a monarchial government and social classes were molded based on various aspects of everyday life. Hereditary rulers remained at the top while priests and nobles remained a close second. Commoners were next on the social pyramid and comprised the majority of the population. As the population developed, specialization of labor became an important part of society. Specialization created a more efficient and diverse society which allowed for expansion to occur at a much faster rate. As the civilization grew, the idea of male dominance grew and a patriarchal society was formed.
The presence of iron and bronze helped the Mesopotamians prosper as well as advance their technology. They formed a series of trade networks with various other civilizations in the Indus river valley and Anatolia. Trade led to the exchange of ideas and customs as well as the expansion of the civilization due to new resources and tools. As the civilization grew, leaders created one of the first forms of writing to record transactions and important information. This writing was called cuneiform and consisted of a variety of pictographs and characters. As their writing system was developed, the idea of education spread and Mesopotamians began to study subjects such as math and astronomy. Along with this knowledge came the idea of religion. The Mesopotamians were polytheistic and worshiped more than 2,100 different gods and deities.
Eventually, the civilization became so large that the government needed a form of written law to maintain peace throughout Mesopotamia. Hammurabi, who ruled Mesopotamia between 1792 and 1750 B.C.E., compiled previous laws and rules into the world’s first written law code. This was by far the greatest achievement of the Mesopotamian’s because it created a set of guidelines to maintain order in the civilization. Hammurabi’s code contained 282 different laws that established high standards of behavior and outlined punishments to violators.
Another early civilization that thrived during this time period was Egypt. The Egyptian civilization was built around the Nile River, which provided the river banks with annual floods that brought mineral rich soil. These floods helped the people of Egypt grow crops easily while the surrounding land was becoming a vast and growing desert. Life in Egypt was led by the divine rule of the Pharaoh’s who acted as political and religious figures. As the population grew, specialization of labor as well as trade became an important contributor to the civilizations growth. Trade in Egypt occurred primarily along the river which limited their access to other civilizations. As trade grew, Egyptians created their own form of writing called hieroglyphics and created a form of paper called papyrus to record records and important information.
Religion in ancient Egypt varied throughout its existence. Several different religious cults affected the religious beliefs of the Egyptians. The largest cult was the Cult of Aten, led by the leader Ahkenaten. Throughout the cult, Ahkenaten forced monotheism onto all of the people of Egypt. The Cult of Aten was short lived due to the fact that the people of Egypt were not happy with having their religious beliefs suppressed. One of the primary traits of religion in ancient Egypt was the belief in the afterlife. High powered officials often received extensive burial honors and their bodies were carefully preserved for the afterlife.
The biggest achievement of the Egyptians was their ability to organize public work projects. The Pharaoh’s of the Old Kingdom organized thousands of skilled workers to construct pyramids to house their bodies after death. These projects took many years to complete and required a great deal of planning and labor. Once the pharaoh had passed away, the pyramid would act as a pathway to heaven and back. Several pyramids were constructed during the Old Kingdom and many of these pyramids are still around today.
Around the same time in East Asia, the Chinese civilization was forming. Located between the Yellow and Yangzi River’s, the Chinese civilization also relied on the rivers to stimulate farming. Unfortunately, unlike the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, the Yellow river had irregular flooding and often devastated those living near the rivers’ edge. As the civilization grew, the government began forming dynasties, which were families who ruled for hundreds of years at a time. These dynasties were formed after an attempt to create a decentralized government failed due to lack of communication and involvement.
The Chinese civilization took advantage of bronze. The new metal was stronger than previous materials and helped create a stronger military and improved trade. The use of horses and chariots also increased their mobility and trade capabilities. While organized religion did not play a major role in China, ruler’s used the mandate of heaven to serve as a link between heaven and earth. Instead of focusing on religion to guide society, the Chinese relied on future telling through the use of oracle bones, which would help predict the future. Not only were they important for future telling, but they helped establish a written language through the use of symbols and pictographs, many of which are similar to those used today.
The greatest achievement of the Chinese civilization was the idea that family was the central institution. Since formal religion was not present, families looked to their ancestors as their guardians who would watch out for them and protect them. Families would pay respect to their deceased ancestors in return for their protection. This idea of family importance is still a common practice in China today.
Though all three civilizations had several differences, they share several similarities as well. They were all located near a river to provide irrigation to their crops. They all created trade routes with other cities and civilizations which led to the mix of ideas and customs. They also all created their own form of writing to record history. These are all characteristics of a civilization and they are why these three civilizations prospered for so long.