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Ancient Egypt vs. Mesopotamia Essay

The Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies are two of the oldest civilizations in the history of the world. The Egyptian and Mesopotamian political, social, and cultural parts of their lives developed differently, but there is a similar basis between the two. Although they had similar political systems in that they both were ruled by kings, the way they viewed their kings and the way that they both constructed their power differed. Both civilizations constructed their social classes similarly in that they had kings at the top, followed by other officials and merchants, and at the bottom the slaves and peasants. They both had their own form of writing; Mesopotamia had cuneiform, and Egypt had hieroglyphics and cursive script, respectively. While they are similar in many different political, social, and cultural activities and ideas, they have enough contrast to be viewed as different societies.

Politically, because they were geographically open to envision, Mesopotamia culture created compact self-governing political units- the city-states. By the third millennium B.C.E. the concept of king (lugal) developed, quite possibly because of increased quarrels over resources. The power of religious leaders decreased as the power of kings increased. And although the kings took over control of temples, Mesopotamian kings did not claim divine power. Political changes occurred in Mesopotania because of the succession of people that followed the initial Sumerian people, like the Akkadians, the Kassites Medes and Persians who established their temporary political dominance. By 1750 B. C. E., the written law code of King Hammurabi, was used to maintain political authority and continuity.In sharp contrast is the continuity of political history in ancient Egypt. Legendary King Menes united Upper and Lower Egypt into one nation that lasted with continuity of culture from 3,100-1070 B. C. E. with thirty dynasties. Unlike Mesopotamian kings, the Egyptian king was represented as Horus and as the son of Re, and fit into the pattern of the dead returning to life and the climatic renewing life of the sun-god. As Egypt’s chief priest, he intervened with the gods on behalf of his people and land. No written law code was developed in Egypt. The pharaoh governed the country through a large efficient bureaucracy.

In highly urbanized Mesopotamia, specialization of function, centralization of power, and use of written records enabled certain groups to amass unprecedented wealth. Women could own property, maintain control of their dowry, and even engage in trade but men monopolized political life. Some women worked outside the home in textile factories, breweries or as prostitutes, tavern keepers, bakers, or fortune tellers. Inside the home women grew wove baskets, had vegetable gardens, cooked, cleaned, and fetched water. For the most part, their writings reflect *elite male activities. Temple leaders and the kings controlled large agricultural estates, and the palace administration collected taxes from subjects. The lowest class of people tended the fields and used their strength in the off-season to build large public works like ziggarets. Women were subordination to men and had no property rights. In Mesopotamia by the second millennium B. C. E. merchants had gained in status and in power through gilds. In the Old Babylonian period, the class of people who were not dependent on the temple or palace grew, the amount of land and other property in private hands increased, and free laborers became more common. The Mesopotamian civilization had 3 social classes: 1. free landowning class- royalty, high-ranking officials, warriors, priests, merchants, and some artisans and shopkeepers; 2. the class of dependent farmers and artisans, whose legal attachment to royal or temple, or private estates made them the primary rural work force; and 3. the class of slaves, primarily used in domestic service.

Egyptian class structure was less defined and more pyramid in shape. Compared to Mesopotamia, a far larger percentage of the Egyptian population lived in farming villages and Egypt’s wealth derived from a higher degree from cultivating the land. When not need for agriculture the peasants labored to build the tombs of the pharaoh. Slavery existed on a limited scale and was of limited economic significance. In contrast to Mesopotamia, Egyptian merchants had a low social status. For women subordination to men is evident but they are represented with dignity and affection in tomb paintings. Legal documents show that Egyptian women could own property, inherit from their parents, and will their property to whomever they wished. Marriage, usually monogamous, arose from a couple’s decision to establish a household together rather than for legal or religious ceremony. Both parties could dissolve the relationship, and women retained rights over her dowry in case of divorce. In general, the limited evidence suggests that women in ancient Egypt enjoyed greater respect and more legal rights and social freedom than women in Mesopotamia and other ancient societies.

Despite some initial inspiration, Egyptian culture separated itself from Mesopotamia in a number of ways beyond politics and monument building. The Egyptians did not take to the Sumerian cuneiform alphabet and developed a hieroglyphic alphabet instead. Hieroglyphics, though more pictorial than Sumerian cuneiform, were based on simplified pictures of objects abstracted to represent concepts or sounds. As in Mesopotamia the writing system was complex, and its use was, for the most part, monopolized by the powerful priestly caste. Heiroglyphics were written on papyrus paper while cuneiform was written on clay tablets with a blunt reed called a stylus. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform was written in both rows and columns although cuneiform was only written from left to right.

The Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies were very similar in many aspects of their lives. They both developed two of the earliest forms of writing in hieroglyphics and cuneiform, with both forms differing greatly from each other. They also contained strikingly similar social classes and structures, as with many other civilizations. They were both ruled by “kings”, but many parts of their political system were drastically different due to the way that they were constructed and administered. Egyptian civilization and a fundamental Mesopotamian culture lasted far longer than the civilizations that came later, in part because of relative isolation within each respective region and because of the deliberate effort to maintain what had been achieved, rather than experiment widely.

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