The name Mesopotamia was given to the Middle Eastern civilisation that existed between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The source of these rivers lies in modern Turkey and they cross Syria before ending in Iraq, where they unite. Mesopotamia is Greek for ‘a land between two rivers’. The Middle East is mostly dry and sandy. However, Mesopotamia is different because the two rivers kept the land fertile through regular flooding of the area. Like the Nile River in Egypt, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers allowed the Mesopotamians to grow crops and to settle between these two rivers.
By the 7th century BC small farming settlements of people were established. Later on in southern Mesopotamia, people began to develop irrigation agriculture instead of just relying on the flooding of the two rivers. This led to the first of Mesopotamian towns called Eridu and Uruk. The economy of these two cities depended on improving irrigation methods, to grow enough food to keep up with the demand of the people in Mesopotamia.
Water was very important for the survival of these communities. The Mesopotamian people therefore had a great respect for the rivers that supported them. They believed in a God of water that controlled the rivers. They accepted the idea that the Gods created people to work for them. The role of people was to cultivate the land and give some of its fruit to their Gods as a sacrifice. The gods were represented on earth by the king and his nobles. It was the king who received all the sacrifices on behalf of the Gods. As the people believed that it was their responsibility to clothe and house their Gods, they built large temples for them, as well as palaces for their representatives, the kings.
One of the Gods worshipped in the city of Eridu was called the House of Water, or Enki. He became a major God for the people of Mesopotamia because he was linked with creation and keeping the soil fertile. He was also important for the development of astrology when people were beginning to observe that the rivers flooded at the same time as the appearance of particular patterns of stars in the night sky. They used this knowledge to plan crop planting. The people also worshipped Enki as a god of knowledge.
Mesopotamia supported two main civilisations in the area, namely the Sumerians in the south and the Akkadians in the north. There were also other important civilisations in the region, namely the Chaldeans and the Babylonians. The Sumerians were the first to develop a stronger civilisation that dominated the region from around 3500 BC to around 2350 BC, when they were defeated by the Akkadians. Their capital in Uruk was one of the largest capitals in the world. The Akkadian conquest brought different city-states under a single kingdom with a single administration. They also introduced Akkadian language as an official language. Later, the Sumerian language was replaced as the dominant language of the region.
But the Akkadian conquest did not destroy Sumerian civilisation. The Akkadians absorbed the Sumerian civilisation into their own and called it the Sumer-Akkad. After 150 years of Akkadian rule, the Sumerian city of Ur began to reassert itself. They were able to overthrow the Akkad kingdom and establish a new Sumerian kingdom under King Ur-Nammu. Under King Ur-Nammu, the Sumerian language was revived and many buildings were built. The most famous of these buildings were the ziggurat. Ziggurats were similar in shape to the pyramids, but they were not used as tombs. Instead, they were used as shrines or temples for their gods.
The Sumerians were once again invaded, this time by the Babylonians who destroyed many of their buildings. They also rebuilt some of the Sumerian buildings to reflect the influence of new rulers. Mesopotamia was later conquered by the Roman Empire under Emperor Alexander the Great. The Romans were interested in the silk trade route that made Mesopotamia a very rich land. The Romans ruled Mesopotamia until they were replaced by the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Mesopotamia was very difficult to defend against foreign invasions. Unlike Egypt, it did not have a natural border to protect it. As a result, the Mesopotamian civilisation carries many different influences from the west and east.
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The name China comes from the early Chin dynasty that once ruled the area covering modern China. The Chin dynasty is important because it united all of China under one emperor. Chinese civilisation developed around 5000 years ago. China has a recorded history of more than 3600 years and another early 2000 years of unrecorded history. Chinese civilisation produced many things that are still in use today. Things like paper, the compass, and gunpowder. This was used in fireworks, another Chinese invention. It was only later that the Europeans adapted it for use in guns.
Chinese civilisation spread to many parts of Asia, influencing the development there. For example, Chinese beliefs influenced Japan and the Far Eastern region of Asia. At the same time Chinese civilisation was open to influences from outside. For example Buddhism developed in India. Chinese civilisation depended on irrigated farming and long distance trade. Chinese people had a trade relationship with the Mesopotamians, the people from the Indus River valley, and the Swahili from the eastern coast of Africa.
China held many cultural groups or ethnic divisions. More powerful groups absorbed other, smaller ones. The different climates across the country resulted in people living differently. The people of China are divided into inner Chinese and outer Chinese people. The Inner China is the eastern area of China close to the coastal regions. Two major rivers, the Yellow River and Yan Tse River together with small rivers provide plentiful water. These help keep the fertility of the soil. Outer China is the western region, the highest parts of China. The area is far from the sea, is mountainous and in some parts desert. As a result, very few people live here compared with Inner China.
The people of China have strong and rich religious beliefs. The dominant religion is Buddhism, started by Indian prince Siddharta Gautama Buddha. Though the religion spread widely in China many people still held on to their traditional beliefs. Like many African societies, Chinese people worship their ancestors. Another traditional practise was nature worship. Chinese emperors encouraged the idea that they were God sent semi-divine or heavenly emperors.
This allowed the emperors to go on conquering other independent ethnic groups in China. Many of the Chinese beliefs and rituals are still practised today. It could be said that Chinese civilisation is the only ancient one still existing today.
The Indus civilisation
The Indus civilisation was made up of two cities located 400 kilometers from each other. The one city was Mohenjo-Daro, “hill of the dead”, and the other was called Harappa. Together these cities made up the Indus Valley civilisation, named after the Indus River, one of the longest rivers in south Asia which runs below the Himalayan Mountains in modern Pakistan and northeastern India. This civilisation was at its peak around 2500 and 3500 BC. During this period the people of the Indus Civilisation constructed many advanced buildings with almost modern drainage and water storage systems.
The Indus civilisation rested on the farming activities that thrived in the Indus climate. The Indus River waters the area and so distributes fertile soil evenly from the Himalayan Mountains. The seasonal melting snow ensures that the Himalayan region has plenty of water. The Indus civilisation used this to support a strong agricultural economy.
The people who developed this civilisation and even their language are unknown. This has not prevented historians from learning more about these people and their achievements. Like the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Nubian civilisation, the Indus River civilisation was dependant on farming. They also had a well-developed irrigation system, which meant that they did not have to rely on rain to grow their crops. A large portion of the harvest was given to public granaries for storage.
The Indus people also traded with other civilisations like the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. Many of their pottery and seals were found in Sumerian cities. Through trade the Indus people were able to expand their culture and introduce many things into their civilisation. This includes things like gold, jade from southern India and copper from modern Afghanistan.
The beliefs of the Indus civilisation allowed them to divide their society into the common people, rich people, and their rulers. It is not known whether rulers in Indus civilisation were regarded as representatives of the gods like Egyptian rulers. The Indus people did not bury their dead with highly valued materials like gold and graves different from other graves were not found in this civilisation. The living family members inherited this valued material. However, the Indus people did believe in an after-life. As a result, they buried their dead with food containers. The food was for the trip on the way to the after life.
Indus civilisation ended after a central ruler was deposed. The civilisation was organised into local units making it difficult for people to continue the way of life as it had been. It also made them defenseless against their enemies. Climate change seems to have been a bigger factor in their decline. Some of the rivers dried out. This forced people to move out in search of farmland. Excessive flooding has also been blamed for destroying the Indus civilisation. These floods were caused by the changing flows of the river. Constant flooding destroyed the irrigation system that this civilisation was dependent on.
The Mesoamerican empires (South and Central America)
The Americas (North, South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean Islands) were home to some of the most advanced ancient civilisations. In some ways, these civilisations were even further developed than our modern civilisation. For example, the Mayan calendar was more refined and accurate than the one that was used in Europe at that time. Many of these civilisations lasted for hundreds, even thousands of years. But they became gradually weakened by civil wars. Then, when the Spaniards and Portuguese came to the Americas to conquer the ‘New World’, as it was called, the last remaining American empires were brought to the ground within a few years.
Many people are still not aware of the great legacy from the native people of the Americas. To read about them and how they were finally conquered by the Europeans, go to our Grade 10 lesson, Transformations in America.