The earliest civilizations that arose in the world developed in the late fourth and the third millennia BC in parts of Asia and north Africa. The three large alluvial systems of the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile and the Indus supported three great ancient civilizations. Other urban communities also arose during this time. For example, settlement mounds known as tells or tepes, occur in almost all major valleys between Iraq and Pakistan in one direction and between the Caspian Sea and the Indian Ocean in the other and many that have been explored are known to have been occupied in the same period. However, unlike the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Indus, these communities did not form part of a unified economic system, and these small units, though clearly able for a time to support large, wealthy and organized societies, were much weaker than the vast civilizations of the alluvial lowlands.

A Time-Table of the Emergence of the First Civilizations

Of the three great civilizations, that of Mesopotamia (first the Sumerian and later the Babylonian and Assyrian) is both the earliest in origin and in many ways the best understood, accessible through archaeology and through written documents. The Mesopotamian culture though separated from us by more than 4,000 years, the inheritance of ancient Sumer can still be recognized in today's traditions. Since many of the practices and beliefs of Sumer were passed on to the Babylonians and Assyrians and hence through contact and deliberate borrowing to the Hittites, the Phoenicians and finally the Greeks, some have reached today's culture. Specific traits that we can trace back to Sumer include, in the field of mathematics, positional numeration where the value of a number is determined by its position in a sequence of numbers (as in the decimal system), and the sexagesimal system by which we divide the clock and the circle, and in the world of religion, the concept of the creative power of the divine word and the story of the Universal Flood.

Archaeology has now established that civilization appeared earlier in southern Mesopotamia than anywhere else. Urban conglomerations of populations, monumental architecture and writing were all in existence by 3500 BC, whereas they did not appear in Egypt for several centuries after this. In the Valley even the Pre-Harappan or Early Harappan phase, with its small fortified towns, these did not begin till shortly before 3000 BC and writing is not known before the mature Harappan phase which cannot be dated before 2500 BC. Sumer undoubtedly has the chronological priority and therefore it is possible that both the Egyptian and the Indus civilization, as well as all the later civilizations of western Asia, were derivatives of Sumer. Here one must consider the evidence in favor of the view that civilization was diffused from this early center and weigh it against the evidence for the independent development of civilization in different areas. The two great civilizations of Egypt and the Indus Valley will be dealt with first, and later with the smaller centers of urban life in western Asia.

Firstly it must be made clear that there is no question of Egyptian or Indus civilization being established by colonists from Sumer. There are no close similarities of culture of any kind; indeed it is hard to emphasize sufficiently the differences between these civilizations. What similarities exist are all on the conceptual level: the practice of irrigation agriculture, the existence of cities, of monumental art and architecture, of writing, the use of mud-brick and so on. The actual nature of the irrigation works, the form of the cities and their buildings and the nature of the written script are completely different in all three areas.

In Sumer there were 15-20 large cities, each surrounded by smaller towns, villages and hamlets. In the Indus area, by contrast, there were two enormous metropolises and a host of smaller settlements, with no medium-sized towns in between. In Egypt we do not know of any cities of the early period, but the later pattern was one of a few major cities and both medium-sized and small settlements in between, arranged in this case in a linear pattern (imposed by the nature of settlement along the single valley of the Nile, in contrast to the pattern arising in the dual river system of Mesopotamia or the multi-river system of the Indus area). The cities themselves were very different too: the rigid, almost military looking layout of the Indus cities on their gridiron plan contrasts sharply with the look of the Mesopotamian cities, with their winding lanes and their appearance of having grown up as circumstances required, without benefit of a preconceived town plan.

The writing systems also provide an excellent example: the earliest writing in all three areas was basically pictographic, but the actual symbols chosen to represent a particular object were completely different. The art styles of the three civilizations are also totally dissimilar. It is indeed difficult to find any similarities at all, except on the general level mentioned above. Moreover there is remarkably little direct evidence for contact between the three civilizations, or, to be precise, between Mesopotamia and either of the others; for there is no evidence at all for contact between Egypt and the Indus. In Egypt there is evidence for contact with Mesopotamia in the period immediately before the First Dynasty (which began in about 3100 BC). The only actual imports that have been identified are three cylinder seals of late Uruk or protoliterate type. After this time the Egyptians used cylinder seals themselves (but as amulets, not as seals, for which they had no use as they did not use clay for writing), engraved with local designs, and their use is usually attributed to Mesopotamian influence.

The situation in the Indus Valley is different. There is evidence of contact between the Indus area and Mesopotamia during the period of the mature Harappan civilization (2500-1900 BC), which corresponds with the later Early Dynastic Sargonid, Third Dynasty of Ur and Larsa periods of Sumer. However, this contact takes the form mainly of Indus manufactures in Mesopotamia: there are only a very few Mesopotamian objects in the Indus area and very slight hints of Mesopotamian influence in art motifs and in the appearance of a few cylinder seals.

What all this portrays is three fundamentally independent processes of the development of civilization in the alluvial valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus system. There were contacts between Mesopotamia and the other two areas but these had no more than peripheral influence, affecting some aspect of the style of the developing civilizations.

In the past, many scholars have felt that the invention of writing was of such a special nature that it must have been invented once (in Sumer, since it appeared earliest there) and then spread to other areas. However, the Egyptian and Indus scripts are totally different from that of Mesopotamia, not only from the developed cuneiform, but also from the earlier pictographic script.

Upper Paleolithic man who scratched abstract symbols on pieces of bone had the 'idea of writing', as did his Mesolithic successor who painted signs on pebbles. What they lacked was any kind of social need for an organized system of writing. This appeared only with the development of complex economic and social organizations, which, was part of the Urban Revolution. When the need arose, the Sumerians, the Egyptians and the Indus population each in their turn invented writing to cope with it. The pictures and abstract signs that they were accustomed to using for decorative purposes were taken over and given standard conventional meanings and a primitive script was born. Only in Mesopotamia the script in its early primitive shape is seen, but this is probably an accident of archaeological survival, arising from the different writing materials used in the three civilizations. However, further excavations in the future may find evidences showing early examples of Egyptian and Indus scripts in the process of formation.

So the Egyptian and Indus civilizations developed to all intents and purposes independently of Mesopotamia. However, the towns of the Persian Gulf, highland Iran and Afghanistan and Turkmenia are different. These towns arose in the first two areas as a result of the demand that arose in the great civilizations of the valleys for raw materials available in these coastal and highland areas. In this sense the towns of these areas were secondary, but they should not be regarded as simple derivatives of Sumer or the Indus civilization.

There are two points that should be emphasized in this connection. The first is that none of these towns were colonies from Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley (in contrast to the Assyrian colony at Kultepe in Anatolia in the second millennium BC) : they were local communities that took advantage of an opportunity to enrich themselves through exploitation of some of the demands of the great civilizations. The second point is that these communities had achieved a considerable level of social and economic development (though short of full civilization) before they became great towns through participation in trade with Mesopotamia and the Indus.

The archaeological evidence indicates that the raw materials so much in demand in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley had been discovered and exploited (though on a modest scale compared with the later development) by the local communities before the late fourth millennium BC when the Mesopotamian demand first became really active. Thus the rise of towns in the Persian Gulf and highland Iran and Afghanistan was due in part to local development which was then given an additional stimulus by the growth of trade in the raw materials needed by the great civilizations. However, this explanation does not really apply to the development of towns Turkmenia. It seems more probable that this area was another center of independent development of urban life, although here the development never reached the level achieved in Mesopotamia, Egypt or the Indus Valley.

Towns elsewhere in western Asia which arose rather later, in the second millennium BC, were more obviously based on those of Mesopotamia. The Hittite towns of Anatolia, for instance, or the towns of the Levantine coast such as Ugarit and Byblos, although having a markedly local character, show many traces of Mesopotamian influence. For instance, Akkadian cuneiform was used in both areas (as well as local scripts) and the art styles in both evidence many Mesopotamian characteristics; in the Levant, Egyptian influence was also apparent. And in western Iran, the Elamite civilization, which developed out of the Proto-Elamite cities described earlier, became more Mesopotamian in character as time progressed, finally adopting the cuneiform script in place of the earlier pictographic Proto-Elamite, though using it for the local language. These later civilizations of western Asia consciously borrowed many Mesopotamian practices and ideas especially the Hittites and the Phoenicians, and through them these were transmitted to the present culture.

Extracted from, 'The First Cities', Ruth Whitehouse, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1977.


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