Mesopotamia and Egypt

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Mesopotamia and Egypt

The early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were very similar, but they were also different in some ways. Both Mesopotamia and Egypt developed their civilizations centered on rivers, but these rivers were polar opposites. Mesopotamia was between two rivers called the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Egypt’s civilization developed around the Nile River. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers differed from the Nile River. The Nile River was calm, and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were wild and very unpredictable. Since these rivers had opposite behaviors, Mesopotamia’s specialty was in irrigation, while Egypt was a more agricultural society. Mesopotamia and Egypt were very similar in their roots, but they also had distinctive forms of social organization and religious observance that developed because of the rivers that surrounded them. Mesopotamia’s social organization was a way to differentiate between rulers and those who were commoners. Each city-state in Mesopotamia had elders and young men that made decisions for the community. Rulers protected their access to both political and economic resources by creating systems of bureaucracies, priesthoods, and laws.

Priests and bureaucrats served their leaders well, defending and advocating rules and norms that validated the political leadership. Lists of professions were passed around so each person could know his or her place in the social order. The king and priest were at the top of the social structure followed by bureaucrats who were scribes, supervisors, and craft workers. The craft workers were jewelers, gardeners, potters, metal smiths, and traders; this was the largest group of the social structure. The craft workers were not slaves but they depended on their employer’s households. People rarely moved from one social level to another. Not only was there organization between society in general, but there was also specific organization between families. In families, the senior male became the patriarch. A family was made up of a husband and a wife who was bound by a contract that stated that the wife would provide children, preferably male, and the husband would provide support and protection. If there was no male child, a second wife or slave could bear children to serve as the couple’s offspring. In families, sons would inherit the family’s property and the daughters would receive dowries.

Priests were at the top of the social organization with the king because they lived in temples, which represented the cities’ power. Bureaucrats were at the top of the social structure underneath the main people of power because they were scribes. Mesopotamia was the world’s first city to keep records and read, developing a writing system. Writing became important to the development of cities and enabled people to share information across greater distances and over longer periods of time. Scribes played a significant role in developing a writing system that people anywhere and in the future could decipherer. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers served as major communication and transportation routes for Mesopotamia. The need for a system of record keeping developed because farmers and officials needed a way to keep track of the distribution of goods and services. It was important to keep track of goods and services because long-distance trade was very important to Mesopotamia since it lacked many raw materials that were crucial to developing the city. On the other hand, in Egypt, the social organization was similar to Mesopotamia, but differed just slightly.

At the top was a Pharaoh or also called a king was the center of Egyptian life followed by priests, scribes, craftsmen, and lastly farmers and slaves. The Pharaoh was at the center of life and had the responsibility to ensure that flooding of the Nile River continued without interruption and had the responsibility to develop a vibrant economy. Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh was a descendant from the gods. Egypt had one advantage that Mesopotamia did not have, the Nile River. The Nile River was navigable and provided annual floods. These annual floods allowed for regular moisture. Even though the Nile River did not fertilize the fields as wells as the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the yearly floods meant that the topsoil was renewed every year, making the soil easy to plant in. Egypt also had the sun that allowed a bountiful agriculture. Egypt, similarly to Mesopotamia, was a scribe nation. Since little people were literate in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, a scribes’ social status was increased automatically. However, even though both Mesopotamia and Egypt were scribal cultures, Egypt appeared to be more literate. This could be because Egypt developed later than Mesopotamia, and they may have used it more since Egypt had the Nile River. The Nile provided for good harvest allowing Egypt’s economy to flourish.

Since Egypt had good harvest, they may have needed to keep better track of goods and services because they had more goods to keep track of since they had better harvest than Mesopotamia. Social structure in Egypt and Mesopotamia was not the only thing that was affected by the rivers. Another aspect of early civilization that was affected by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia was religion. Mesopotamians had beliefs in gods that molded their political organizations and controlled everything. They believed the gods controlled weather, fertility, harvests, and the underworld. They had to respect their gods, but they also feared them because they were powerful. A major way for Mesopotamians to worship their gods was through the temples. Temples were gods’ homes and were the cities’ identity. To demonstrate cities’ power, rulers would elaborately decorate temples. The priests and other officials lived in the temples and worked to serve gods, the most powerful immortal beings to the Mesopotamians. Temples ran productive and commercial activities and those that were close to the river would hire workers to hunt, fish, and collect.

The temples were a way for people to worship their gods and show their faithfulness to them. Therefore, since the Mesopotamians believed that the gods controlled everything including weather and harvest, two important aspects in Mesopotamia civilization, it was important that they stay faithful to their gods since they did not have the best rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would flood if there was heavy rainfall during the height of the agricultural season. Thus, if they worshiped their gods frequently, the Mesopotamians may believe that the gods will bestow good weather eliminating floods more often, creating a better year of harvest. Like Mesopotamia, each region in Egypt had its own god. In addition, Egypt also had temples to worship their gods. In Egypt, gods were inactive and the kings, or pharaohs, were active. The pharaoh had responsibility to uphold cults while the priests were to uphold regular rituals. The pharaoh acted as a mediator between the gods and the people of the city. He supported the gods through rituals held in temples, which the Egyptians contributed many resources to.

Since trade from the Nile River allowed the city of Egypt to prosper economically, they had more resources to build more elaborate temples and later on pyramids. Pyramids were unique to Egyptian culture. The pyramids became a place for state rituals and were very important to Egyptian culture. Since Egypt prospered because of its location next to the Nile, they had an abundance of resources that was necessary to build the intricate temples. Both Mesopotamia and Egypt were riverine cultures. Each city had its own unique social organization and religious beliefs, but they had similar roots. Both civilizations were scribal cultures, but since Egypt had the Nile River, the two civilizations differed. Since both civilizations were scribal, scribes attained great social status under the king and priests. Egypt prospered greatly from the resources that the predictable Nile River offered.

Mesopotamia had the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that were unpredictable, but still provided for irrigation and allowed the city to advance in irrigation technology and opened the city up to the surrounding cities. Mesopotamia and Egypt both had polytheism and worshiped their gods in temples. Instead of referring to the king like in Mesopotamia, Egypt refers to the pharaoh. Egypt believed that the pharaoh communicated with the gods. The rivers in both Mesopotamia and Egypt opened these areas up to the rest of the world and allowed for great economic growth.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 16 March 2016

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