Egypt and Mesopotamia Compared

and sanctity of the king. From the kings authority also flowed an extensive

Egyptians did not take to the Sumerian cuneiform alphabet and developed a

far longer than the civilizations that came later, in part because of relative

being more stable and cheerful than Mesopotamia not only in beliefs about gods

economic systems there was a strong tendency toward conservation. Change, when

pharaohs conquered new territories, sometimes pressing up the Nile River into

its centralized government structures and strong bureaucracy. The differences

technological influence from Mesopotamia, but it produced a quite different

social stratification, with a noble, landowning class on top and masses of

womens position seems to have deteriorated after Sumer). Egyptians paid great

embracing a pronounced literary element that Egyptian art lacked.

god, Osiris, was essential as well. Other Egyptian deities included a creation

the power to assure prosperity and control the rituals that assured the flow

the great tombs and pyramids that have made Egypt and some of the pharaohs

Mesopotamia in a number of ways beyond politics and monument building. The

Narmer, had to conquer a number of petty local kings around 3100 B.C. Indeed

Farming had been developed along the Nile by about 5000 B.C., but some

influence, and different prior beliefs, Egypt and Mesopotamia were in contrast

time before 3200 B.C. economic development accelerated, in part because of

by kings, also provided the opportunity for councils and other participatory

hallmark of Egyptian culture. Most Egyptians were peasant farmers, closely

Christian worship of the Virgin Mary; and a host of gods represented by

focus also gave a more optimistic cast to Egyptian culture, for it could be

Egyptian civilization, there were surprisingly few basic changes in styles and

was marked by some striking kings. Early in each dynastic period leading

throughout an entire region, Egyptian civilization from its origins to its

hieroglyphic alphabet instead. Hieroglyphics, though more pictorial than

exhausted by about 1000 B.C. During the 2000-year span in which Egypt

Palestine toward the end of the Old Kingdom period (about 2200 B.C.) were

The pillar of Egyptian culture was not science, however, but religion,

promoted the worship of many gods. It mixed magical ceremonies and beliefs

its successor by a century or two of confusion.

a happy, changeless well-being could be achieved. The care shown in preparing

the Egyptian concern for preparations for the afterlife, which so motivated

last 3000 years. Despite some important disruptions, this was an amazing

internal history, with Egyptian civilization far less marked by disruption

and careful funeral arrangements developed in Chinese civilization, though

attacks from the Middle East by tribes of Asian origin, which brought a period

record of stability even though the greatest vitality of the civilization was

Both civilizations, finally, left an important heritage in their region

rituals suggested a concern with extending organization to the afterlife,

made important advances in medicine, including knowledge of the workings of a

part because of the unifying influence of the course of the Nile River. By the

basis to civilization ultimately gave way to the spread of civilization

Given the importance of royal rule and the belief that pharaohs were

decline was focused on the Nile River and the deserts around it. The Nile

other areas. It was during the New Kingdom that Egyptians first installed

with worship, in a fashion common to early religions almost everywhere. A more

Unlike Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where an original river-valley

Some scholars have seen even larger links between Egypts stable,

complex, and its use was, for the most part, monopolized by the powerful

information on daily life for early civilizations. It is probable, though,

peasants and slaves at the bottom. A powerful priestly group also figured in

gods, it is not surprising that each of the main periods of Egyptian history

were, however, the first people to establish the length of the solar year,

regional kingdom and created a unified state 600 miles long. This state was to

same token, however, Egyptian politics tended to be more authoritarian as well

emphasized in their decorative art. Also striking was the distinction in

it came, was usually brought by outside forces – natural disasters or

Egyptian medical knowledge were gained by the Greeks, and so passed into later

distinct exceptions to Egypts usual self-containment. They were followed by

Both societies traded extensively, but there was a difference in economic

for the rulers and bureaucrats, was designed to assure a satisfactory

North Africa encourages a first effort at comparative analysis. Because of

period that one people, the Hebrews, followed their leader Moses out of Egypt

and adjacent territories. A number of smaller civilization centers were

monuments were triumphs of human coordination, for the Egyptians were not

Middle Eastern and European civilizations.

growing trade wi,h other regions including Mesopotamia. This economic

Stability was a hallmark of Egyptian culture. Given the duration of

20 years to complete and containing 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing 5

launched under the impetus of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and some would produce

new waves of invasion and internal conspiracies and disorganization, including

invasions. Both civilizations demonstrated extraordinary durability in the

tone. Mesopotamia was more productive of technological improvements, because

particularly advanced technologically. They even lacked pulleys or other

afterlife, though Egyptians also believed that favorable judgment by a key

period trade and other contacts with the Middle East and the eastern

of this calendar suggests Egyptian concern about predicting the flooding of

Mesopotamians lacked access to the great stones that Egyptians could import

A project by History World International

variety of medicinal drugs and some contraceptive devices. Elements of

to install a new, one-god religion, replacing the Egyptian pantheon. Many

carefully controlled. A similar connection between strong political structures

about Mesopotamia, even though the latter was in most respects more important

politics, for Egyptian ability to organize masses of laborers followed from

Besides Mesopotamia, a second civilization grew up in northeastern Africa, along the Nile

construction of the great pyramids and other huge public buildings. These

Sumerian cuneiform, were based on simplified pictures of objects abstracted to

Egyptian science focused on mathematics and astronomy, but its

Comparison must also note important similarities, some of them

owed something, finally, to different beliefs, for the Mesopotamians lacked

was the only division of time not based on any natural cycles. The achievement

society and culture. Because its values and its tightly knit political

supervising irrigation and arranging for the great public works that became a

the elite. While specific achievements in science differed, there was a common

city-states. Mesopotamian art focused on less monumental structures, while

reflecting some foreign influence, but his effort was renounced by his

East. One pharaoh, Akhenaton, late in Egyptian history, tried to use his power

displayed its greatest vigor, the society went through three major periods of

to maintain what had been achieved, rather than experiment widely.

of the Nile and the fertility derived from irrigation. Soon, the pharaoh was

Then followed another period of social unrest and invasion, ending in the

organization encouraged monumental building, we know more about Egypt than

characteristic of early civilizations. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia emphasized

spread certain Egyptian influences, notably in monumental architecture, to

formal slavery, subjecting people such as the Jews. It was also in this period

based on a belief that, through politics, death as well as life could be

around 2600 B.C.; the largest pyramid followed about a century later, taking

Social differences were less obvious because it is difficult to obtain

respect to women at least in the upper classes, in part because marriage

Mediterranean, including the island of Crete, gained ground. These contacts

achievements were far less advanced than those of Mesopotamia. The Egyptians

as centralized, for city-states in the Mesopotamian style, though often ruled

monarchy was reestablished during the Middle Kingdom period, during which

skins and allowed the proliferation of elaborate record keeping. On the other

distinctive focus involved the concern with death and preparation for life in

for their monuments. The differences also owed something to different

Egyptian religion included more pronounced deference to goddesses as sources

massive funeral monuments and preservation through mummification. Death

alliances were vital to the preservation and stability of the monarchy. Also,

Egyptian settlements spread southward into what is now the Sudan, setting

received some inspiration from Sumer, but a distinctive pattern soon developed

represent concepts or sounds. As in Mesopotamia the writing system was

hand, Egypt did not generate an epic literary tradition.

that the status of women was greater in Egypt than in Mesopotamia (where

about units of time and measurement. Both Mesopotamia and Egypt changed only

was a virtue. Change did, however, occur in some key areas. Egypt was long

successor Tutankhamen, who restored the old capital city and built a lavish

partial animal figures. Egyptian art focused heavily on the gods, though

emphasis on astronomy and related mathematics, which produced durable findings

and the afterlife but in the colorful and lively pictures the Egyptians

that the pharaoh Akhenaton tried to impose a new monotheistic religion,

than a menacing cause of floods. Egyptian civilization may at the outset have

These cultural differences can be explained partly by geography:

origins for the later African kingdom of Kush.

another world, where in contrast to the Mesopotamians the Egyptians held that

units, without passing through a city-state phase, though the first pharaoh,

fairly isolated, which helped preserve continuity. The invasions of Egypt by

tombs and mummifying bodies, along with elaborate funeral rituals particularly

which was firmly established as the basis of a whole world view. The religion

isolation within each respective region and because of the deliberate effort

beliefs. Egyptian emphasis on stability was reflected in their view of a

tomb to celebrate the return to the traditional gods. After about 1150 B.C.,

slowly by the standards of more modern societies. Details of change have not

Despite some initial inspiration, Egyptian culture separated itself from

to one another in many ways. Egypt emphasized strong central authority, while

River. Egyptian civilization, formed by 3000 B.C., benefited from trade and

bureaucracy, recruited from the landed nobles but specially trained in writing

basics. Egyptian civilization and a fundamental Mesopotamian culture lasted

with quite different specific religious beliefs.

devices to hoist the huge slabs of stone that formed the pyramids.

100,000 men to haul and lift the stone. The first great pyramid was built

and environments. The distinction in overall tone was striking, with Egypt

the Nile and their abilities in astronomical observation. The Egyptians also

of division and chaos, including rival royal dynasties. But the unified

earthly, human scenes were portrayed as well in a characteristic, stylized

monarchy (the Old, the Intermediate, and the New Kingdoms), each divided from

regarded as a god. Much Egyptian art was devoted to demonstrating the power

By 3100 B.C. Narmer, king of southern Egypt, conquered the northern

The development of two great early civilizations in the Middle East and

been preserved, but it is true that having developed successful political and

contacts were more extensive, and the Mesopotamians gave attention to a

strength of the pharaoh. The pharaoh was held to be descended from gods, with

regulated and heavily taxed. Labor requisition by the states allowed

papyrus, which was cheaper to manufacture and use than clay tablets or animal

priestly caste. Egyptians ultimately developed a new material to write on,

Mesopotamian politics shifted more frequently over a substructure of regional

present-day Sudan, once even moving up the Mediterranean coast of the Middle

changeless afterlife, suggesting a conscious attempt to argue that persistence

goddess, similar to other Middle Eastern religious figures later adapted into

Comparisons in politics, culture, economics, and society suggest

acceleration provided the basis for the formation of regional kingdoms. Unlike

centralized politics and its fascination with an orderly death, including

pharaohs commemorated their greatness by building huge pyramids to house

form that lasted without great change for many centuries.

strikes and social protest, brought fairly steady decline. It was around this

and law. Governors were appointed for key regions and were responsible for

Egypt always had fewer problems with political unity than Mesopotamia did, in

Sumer, Egypt moved fairly directly from precivilization to large government

civilizations that varied substantially because of largely separate origins

important innovations of their own by about 1000 B.C.

seen as a source of never- failing bounty to be thankfully received, rather

which they divided into 12 months each with three weeks of ten days. The week

final great kingdom period, the New Kingdom, around 1570 B.C. During this

In all its phases, Egyptian civilization was characterized by the

different geography, different degrees of exposure to outside invasion and

themselves and their retinues after death, commanding work crews of up to

their environment was more difficult to manage than the Nile valley. Trade

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