There is one thing that has been consistent for all of history: humanity’s natural inclination to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world that surrounds them. Throughout the evolution of knowledge, various advancements are breathed life to. Much of these advancements can be traced back to two key societies: Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. These enlightened societies brought new technology, language, laws, and reasoning among other things to the forefront of civilization.
Mesopotamia and Egypt laid the foundation for all societies thereafter, including ours. Mesopotamia was located in between the Tigris and Euphrates river. The location of Mesopotamia allowed for agriculture to flourish. Many people chose to forego their nomadic ways and settle in the Fertile Crescent. Those who chose to stay in Mesopotamia domesticated animals such as: sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats. Crops of barley and wheat grew bountifully in the rich soil. The seeder plow, an invention that sped up farming practices immensely, was invented by Mesopotamians. As well as irrigation systems to keep the crops watered naturally. As the agricultural community grew, the need for advanced technology grew. The wheel and sailboat were created to make transportation of goods easier. Though modern agriculture is much more advanced, it is obvious that the roots can be traced back to the Fertile Crescent. The rapid growth of agriculture brought about the development of written language, law, and mathematics. With the advancement of agricultural practices, a form of communication was needed. Rather than relying on messengers or word of mouth, Mesopotamians communicated in the form of pictographs. Pictographs eventually evolved into wedge-shaped writings created by a stylus, or cuneiform in 3100 B.C.E. Cuneiform allowed for record-keeping and great script work that has survived to this day.
Script keeping aided in the Mesopotamians’ ability to trade with other culture like Egypt. Cuneiform also acted as the base for law. One of the first written and most extensive forms of law of ancient times was documented in cuneiform on the Stele of Hammurabi. The Stele of Hammurabi, or Hammurabi’s Code, was enacted during the first Babylonian dynasty of Mesopotamia. The stele is seven feet tall and contains 282 clauses that provided rules for the Babylonian Empire to abide by. Much of the laws are religious in nature due to the idea that Hammurabi was considered divinity from the gods. The Code contained statutes for various acts including: murder, incest, assault, divorce, adultery, theft, and marriage. Granted, the laws were based on “an eye for an eye” ideology. However, the laws acted as a form of social control over society which is precisely what modern laws act as today. Not only were the Mesopotamians advanced in their lawmaking, but their reasoning as well. Desire for knowledge and a need to manage agriculture led the people of Mesopotamia to explore mathematics. Much like how the former pictograms were used, Mesopotamia used symbols to represent numbers. These symbols were eventually replaced with cuneiform symbols.
Mesopotamia was the first civilization to have a character for the number “0”. It is believed that Babylonians understood and used multiplication, square roots, division, geometry, quadratic equations, and decimals. The mathematics that were present in Mesopotamia are still learned today. Mathematics made it easier to keep financial records and plan architecture in a rapidly advancing society.
Along with enlightened mathematics, Mesopotamia was also the origin of one of the most well-known epics of all time. The Epic of Gilgamesh was a narrative poem that laid the foundation for a theme that many tales and myths follow: the hero’s journey. Gilgamesh deals with popular topics in modern day hero’s journey tales: friendship, love, adventure, supernatural forces, death, and immortality. The historic epic predates the Tanakh and is the first written work that contemplates what happens after death. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the one work that set the theme for all journey tales to follow. Mesopotamian culture acted as the cradle of civilization as we know it.
Various aspects of modern day life can be traced back to this ancient society. Technology and agriculture were advancing at an unprecedented rate. Rather than entering a state of anomie or chaos, society in the Fertile Crescent flourished. Of the advancements that came out of Mesopotamia, agriculture and law stand out the most to me. The agriculture boom in Mesopotamia led humans to reside in permanent residences rather than acting as hunter-gatherers. This allowed their society to develop unlike any other before it. Growing up in the Midwest, it is impossible to deny how crucial agriculture is to communities- the communities that supply, as well as the communities that demand. It is an everyday part of life. With advancing societies, it is highly important to have a form of social control. The Code of Hammurabi, albeit archaic in today’s sense, played a pivotal role in how societies were expected to act. Today’s ideology that every crime has a punishment mirrors Hammurabi’s Code.
Another society that influenced modern life is Egypt. Egypt, much like Mesopotamia, was located in an agricultural sweet spot. Egypt extended from the Nile’s delta, known as Lower Egypt, up 750 miles to Upper Egypt. Due to yearly flooding of the Nile, the soil on the banks of the river were composed of fertile silt that produced abounding crops. Egyptians harnessed the power of the Nile in the form of irrigation canals that carried water to crops. The Egyptians maintained domesticated animals like ox. Ox were used to pull ploughs through the crops, an early rendition of a modern farming technique still used today. To shear wheat and barley, Egyptians invented a sharp, curved blade, or sickle. The sickle would be used for centuries after across the globe. The Nile not only provided an agricultural haven for Egyptians; it also influenced the Egyptians to develop a consistent concept of time. The Egyptians connected the annual flooding of the Nile to astronomy. When the Nile would flood, Sirius would appear in the eastern sky. A 12-month, 365-day calendar was developed that coincided with the flood of the Nile and the appearance of Sirius. The calendar was almost exactly like modern day calendars other than each month had thirty days and five days at the end of the year that were considered festival days. The creation of the calendar was a necessity to produce successful crops. Sun clocks, or obelisks, were used to track time throughout the day by observing the position of the shadow created by the sun on the obelisk. Many temples had water clocks which were stone cone shaped objects that dripped water from the bottom at a fixed rate. Hours passed could be measure by the level of water in the cone. This allowed the priests to partake in religious activities at certain times of the day. Egypt had a complex system for keeping track of time, as well as a complex form of writing.
Similar to Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptians developed a symbolistic system of writing. Hieroglyphs were pictures that corresponded with the alphabet of the time and sounds. Many tombs and temples were adorned with hieroglyphs. Egyptians believed that hieroglyphs were divine, so they were preserved excellently. Hieroglyphs were also inscribed on papyrus. Papyrus is the first known paper-like material used to record writings. The Egyptians traded goods for it and spread it throughout the Mediterranean area. It was used in Europe until seventh century A.D. Hieroglyphs were not understood by the rest of the world until 1822 when the Rosetta Stone was found. The Rosetta Stone featured two forms of Egyptian writing and one form of Greek. Jean-Francois Champollion decoded the Rosetta Stone by finding hieroglyphs that represented certain rulers of Egypt and comparing them to the Greek script.
Trade allowed the Egyptians to form a permanent civilization with astounding architecture. The people of Egypt lived in permanent residences around the area surrounding the Nile. Mastabas were modeled after Egyptian dwellings and served as tombs for the dead. Mastabas were one-story tombs made of mud and brick. These tombs had shafts that led far underground where the dead were buried. Egyptian architect, Imhotep, built a tomb for King Djoser by stacking five mastabas in decreasing size atop one another. This structure became known as a pyramid. Pyramids were built out of giant stone blocks that were levered from tier to tier or slid on ramps. The Egyptians were so successful in architecture that many of their works still stand today. The Great pyramids of Gizeh and the Great Sphinx, built around 2500 B.C.E., are staples of Egyptian culture that can still be seen today. Some pyramids housed the mummified remains of rulers. Egyptians believed strongly in the existence of an afterlife and a had a strict process of preparing the dead for burial. All organs, except for the heart were removed and placed in embalming jars. The body was stuffed with preservatives and wrapped in linen and placed in decorative coffins. The Egyptians preserved bodies well enough that mummies have been excavated in near perfect condition, even though an immense amount of time has been working against the mummified remains. Passage to the afterlife was not unique to royalty. The lower cemetery of Gizeh was found to be home to more than 700 workers. Although modern society does not typically mummify people, the embalming process is very similar to that of Egypt. Many modern religions believe in life after death and the idea that once one dies, judgment is made to determine where the soul will stay for eternity.
Egyptians were not only proficient in caring for the dead, but the living as well. Ancient Egyptians practiced an early form of medicine. Some members of the community acted as physicians that examined, diagnosed, and “treated” ailments. The treatments were rooted in religion and were viewed as magical. Medicines were composed of natural materials such as: herbs, animal products, mineral, plants, honey, milk, etc. Alleviating pain was often done by prescribing beer or wine. One papyrus found, known as the Edwin Smith papyrus, documents forty-eight trauma injuries including head, shoulder, neck, chest, spine injuries. Wounds were treated by meat bandaging and honey; honey acts as a natural antibiotic. For more serious wounds, stitches were done with copper and silver needles. The Edwin Smith papyrus even documented snake, scorpion, and crocodile bites. The mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenra is a statement to Egyptian medicine. Seqenenra’s mummy was found with multiple axe wounds that were beginning to heal. Meaning that Seqenenra survived multiple months past the ax wounds. Although the medical methods of Egypt seem rudimentary to modern medicine, they were very advanced for their time. Egyptian medical practices paved the way for many civilizations to come.
Egypt was a great society. It was one of the most stable and consistent civilizations of ancient times. Egyptian culture has multiple links to modern society. The most important, in my opinion, being architecture and medicine. Egyptian architecture is some of the most beautiful and intricate work in the world. The Egyptians were such skilled architects that many of their creations can still be appreciated today. The Pyramids of Gizeh are breathtaking; it is unbelievable that such large, ancient structures can stand the test of time for hundreds of years. Egyptian medicine, albeit not entirely scientific, shows how enlightened of a society Egypt was. Many people today still use natural remedies such as honey and herbs to fight illness. Egypt’s influence spread throughout many cultures that followed and is remembered as a time of great societal enlightenment.
In conclusion, Mesopotamia and Egypt acted as the civilizations that all societies learned from. Both cultures provided advancements beyond their years. The agricultural communities advanced and shifted the human way of life from nomadic to the building of great cities. Cuneiform and hieroglyphs allowed us to understand how much of these ancient societies functioned. Mathematics and science used in the ancient world are still taught in classrooms today. Literature and architecture provide us a way to travel back in time, theoretically, and experience an enriching history of two impressive societies. Overall, Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture founded many firsts in their pursuit of knowledge and understanding that altered the way all humans would live for the rest of time to come.