Term Paper: Early Civilization

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¶ … Civilizations

Singers of an ancient Egyptian hymn to the Nile cried, "O inundation of the Nile, offerings are made unto you, men are immolated to you, great festivals are instituted for you," testimony to the direct and clear relationship between the peoples of the Nile and the land on which they thrived. Similarly, the peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates valley also honored the ebbs and flows of their great rivers, keenly in touch with the ability of the waters, currents, tides, and rains to determine the outcomes of harvests. Early civilizations devoted attention to geography in their religious and literary texts, illustrating the key role that agriculture played in the development of Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. From nomadic hunter-gatherers organized into small bands to large, complex societies arranged hierarchically, ancient civilizations in the Near East evolved as a result of agricultural developments. Successful agricultural endeavors led to increased population sizes, which in turn gave rise to more complex and troublesome social interactions. As a result, egalitarian tribes gave way to stratified societies that included caste systems and codified laws. Furthermore, large-scale agricultural productions enabled the development of craft and artisan trades, specialized classes of warriors, and other features of a stratified society. Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations also grew more prosperous, leading to the construction of ambitious public works projects like irrigation as well as grandiose temples. Religion served as a key means of social control, as important as codified law in the ancient societies of the Near East. Mesopotamian and Egyptian concepts of social justice mirror those societies' perception of spiritual justice, revealed in texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hymn to the Nile, the Torah, and Hammurabi's Code of Laws.

The literature of the peoples of Mesopotamia and Egypt eloquently reveals the intimate connection between geography, religion, and the law. Moreover, these ancient texts point out the tension inherent in daily life in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the conflict between the human and divine realms. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a king two-thirds divine and one-third human encounters a primitive man. Although they fight at first, the two fast become friends and mutual admirers. One of the salient themes of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the rise of civilization and its impact on human psycho-social development. Enkidu, the primitive man, was fashioned by the gods, almost as if he were a toy. The gods play with Enkidu's life and destiny throughout the epic, suggesting the superior powers of the gods over humanity. Moreover, Enkidu consciously rejects his primitive roots in search of the higher truths and wisdom of civilization. His choice is initially symbolized by his relationship with Shamhat, and later in on his deathbed, through his acceptance of his fate.

Gilgamesh, because he is two-thirds divine, serves as a role model for human beings. Although he was a ruthless king, his friendship with Enkidu tempers him and causes him to feel grief. If Enkidu embodies primitive humans before the rise of civilization then Gilgamesh represents humanity after the advent of agriculture, law, and kings. Another salient theme of the Epic of Gilgamesh is mortality: coming to terms with the limitations of being human. Gilgamesh starts out as an arrogant king who overestimates his own powers. By the end of the epic he has been humbled not only by Enkidu's death but also by the reality of his own. Contemplation of his own mortality invites Gilgamesh to ponder the meaning of civilization, which he perceives as being most nobly demonstrated through great works of architecture and public works such as the city walls of Ur. The Epic of Gilgamesh also distinguishes between primitive and advanced civilization through imagery of the natural world: geography. For example, Enkidu, who symbolizes humanity before the rise of civilization, was created in the wilderness surrounding the city of Ur. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, symbolizes the pinnacle of human society and he emerges as the stately ruler of the grand and wealthy city.

A sharp contrast between primitive hunter-gatherer human societies and agriculturally-based ones is less evident in the Egyptian Hymn to the Nile than it is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Instead, nature and civilization seem inexorably linked in the Hymn to the Nile because the authors of the hymn attribute civilization's wealth and prosperity to the regular flooding of the Nile. Whereas in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the forest and the city were physically separated by walls, in the Hymn to the Nile presents nature as its own temple.

Furthermore, the Nile's flooding is itself depicted as a divine event: "Hail to thee, O Nile!" Thus, the human, natural, and godly worlds collide in the Egyptian worldview. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, on the other hand, the human and divine worlds are almost diametrically opposed and irreconcilable. Religious law and the laws of nature are portrayed as "mysterious," in the Hymn to the Nile too, suggesting that the Egyptian people also viewed the gods with total awe and reverence. However, the Mesopotamian world view is therefore more dualistic than that of the Egyptian, a perception that has a direct bearing on their respective religions and views of the afterlife. Egyptian religion in general promotes a positive view of death and the afterlife; Mesopotamian religion, evident through the Epic of Gilgamesh, offered a more pessimistic vision of death and the hereafter (Chapter 1, p. 17).

A musical celebration of the river's regular floods, the Hymn to the Nile also reveals respect for natural law. The river and its regular floods provide the Egyptian people with bountiful crop harvests, which in turn permit the people to prosper and thrive as a society. Agriculture is the primary means by which the peoples of the entire Near Eastern region organize their society. Changes in climate and ecology throughout the region demanded that the Egyptians pay more attention to the Nile and its periodic flooding, and to harness the river's power through irrigation channels and other human constructs. Like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians constructed a complex, hierarchical society made possible through the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals. The large civilizations of the Near East depended on harmonious relationships between society and the gods and between the gods and nature.

The connection between the people of Egypt and the land, between the people of Egypt and the gods, and between nature and the divine are the three central themes of the Hymn to the Nile. The hymn alludes to the material prosperity derived from the Nile and its valley and the song celebrates and pays homage to the regular flood waters. Thus, the hymn engenders religious devotion and connects the magic, mystery, and magnificence of the natural world to divine law. The Hymn to the Nile illustrates the central role that both religion and agriculture played in the lives of the Egyptian people.

Religion served several key purposes for peoples of the ancient Near East. First, religion was a powerful means of social control, and a natural outcropping of a stratified society. The rise of sophisticated agricultural techniques necessitated the division of labor, which in turn required the implementation of rules and regulations. A priestly class served as the primary authority in ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, promoting not only a belief in the gods but also a belief in the power the gods had over the land. In order for the land to bear fruit, the people needed to make offerings to the gods and offerings were made primarily through the temple and its priests. Priests thus became the elite, ruling class of citizens in all the great civilizations of the Near East.

Second, religion prompted the priestly classes to codify social laws. For example, the Hebrew Torah demonstrates the use of religion as a tool of social control and order. Moses… [END OF PREVIEW]

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