Thursday, September 6, 2007

The History of Civilization

Chapter Two: Mesopotamia (3500 - 3000 BC)

The earliest civilizations arose independently in three areas: in the Indus Valley in India, the Amazon river system in South America, and most famously, in Mesopotamia: the "land between the rivers" Tigris and Euphrates (modern Iraq). One of the earliest known civilizations is the Sumerian Empire. To the Sumerians we owe the first written language, the first calendar, the plow, pottery, wheeled carts, sailing ships, and a host of other "firsts".

Agriculture remained the basic way of life for 80-90% of the population, but farmers could no longer live by themselves. They shared the cities with potters, merchants, smiths, warriors, priests, and kings. They also had to dedicate a portion of their crops and their own labor to communal projects such as digging canals and building city walls.

The early Mesopotamian outlook was gloomy at times. It is amazing to see the rise of many critical problems which have been enduring issues in all subsequent civilized societies. Social classes, for example, became differentiated. Economic exploitation and social unrest followed. Law developed both to regulate behavior and to prevent undue oppression. One mark of this situation is the appearance of slavery. Interstate warfare appeared, and led to imperialism.

To conclude that the ruling classes were simply parasites would be unjust: for these upper elements held together the state, harbored its reserves, organized its workforce, and expanded its strength. Yet they did draw profit from their superior position, and the rest of society now fell into a dependent status.

Looking back, the story of man's advancement from the first Neolithic villages to the city-states of Mesopotamia must strike us as one of the most amazing achievements of mankind.

To be continued...

If you're especially interested in Sumeria and the rise of the city-state, check out A History of the Ancient World, by Chester J. Starr. A bit scholarly, but it's worth the effort.

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