Brief History of the World Wiki
Cradles of Civilisation
Period Ancient History
Dates 3360 BC to 539 BC
Preceded by
Followed by
Foundation of Western Culture
Civilization is a natural and inevitable consequence -- whether good or evil I am not prepared to state.

–Robert E. Howard

The Cradles of Civilisation is the first major chronological division of world history, and lasted from about 3360 BC until 539 BC. It began with the end of prehistory, when a particular mix of human potential and natural facts came together to make possible a new order of life; the earliest civilization known to us, that of Sumer. It then ended with the appearance of the classical world, comprising the interlocking civilizations of Classical Persia and the Greco-Roman world.. Although "classical antiquity" is a wholly Eurocentric concept, India and China also crossed an important boundary somewhere in the middle of the first millennia BC; empires of unprecedented size and complexity - such as Han China, Maurya and Gupta India - that set standards for later times.

Civilization has been one of the great accelerators of man-made change. It began, according to most historians, at least seven times; meaning that they can identified seven ancient civilizations which emerged independently, or with a minimum of outside stimulus. It will be helpful to set out a rough chronology. We begin with the first recognizable civilization, Sumer in Mesopotamia (now part of modern-day Iraq), where civilized life is observable sometime around 3360 BC. It is credited with a great many "firsts", including the first true cities, the first writing system and literature, the first wheeled vehicles, and even the first recipe for beer. The next example is Ancient Egypt about 3100 BC, whose rich physical remains have fascinated men’s minds and stirred their imaginations ever since. Then, further east and perhaps in 2600 BC, another civilization has appeared along the length of the Indus River (straddling the present India–Pakistan border), which was to some degree literate. Another marker in the Near East is Minoan Crete from 1900 BC, after which, this part of the world was already a coherent system of complex cultures in interplay with one another. China’s first civilization may have started later, perhaps around 1600 BC, but it left a startling legacy; from tiny beginnings to the subcontinent of today, an uninterrupted thread runs through its entire history, making for arguably the longest-lasting complex civilisation on earth. Once we are past that date, only the examples in the Americas - Mesoamerica around 1200 BC and Peru in 900 BC - are sufficiently isolated for stimulus or inheritance not to be a big part of explaining the appearance of new civilizations. We should note, for clarity's sake, that assigning dates to anything that happened before, say, Hammurabi of Babylon (d. 1750 BC), has an error factor of at very least fifty years.

About civilizations it is very difficult to generalize. Clearly, a favourable geographical setting was essential, after-all, everything in antiquity rested on an agricultural surplus. Many appeared on great river valleys, which provided fertile soil, and easy irrigation. This was the case with Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. But civilizations have also arisen away from river valleys; on the island of Crete, on the tropical coast of Mexico, in the highlands of Peru, the rugged terrain of Hittite Anatolia (the major part of modern Turkey), and, later, on mainland Greece. Other factors were just as important: the capacity of the peoples to work together to master their environment, to rise to a challenge, or to exploit an advantage. In the Aegean, for example, the multitude of islands, which made for short sea-crossings and easy trade, seems to have been crucial. It is easier to say something about common characteristics of early civilization than about the way it happened. One historian had listed eleven: an urban way of life; the concentration of surplus; full-time specialists not engaged in agriculture; formalized social hierarchies; state-level organization; extensive trading networks, monumental architecture; a distinct art style; writing and recording information; developments in technology; and organised religion (some still very important today such as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism), Again, no absolute and universal statements are possible; civilisations have existed without writing and without the wheel. All of these early civilizations turned out very differently. Some of them raced ahead to lasting achievement, while others others declined and disappeared, even if after spectacular flowerings. Nonetheless, together they determined much of the cultural ground-plan of the world we still inhabit.


The Potential for Civilisation[]

In the beginning ...

When does history begin? We can try to reconstruct the lost world of hunters-and-gatherers, roaming across the plains, learning to use stone tools, and paint on cave walls. We can go back further still to trace the chain of human evolution back to the appearance of Homo Sapien (a creature with at least some claim to human qualities). or even to the photosynthetic cells which lie at the start of life itself. Yet this is not "history". Common sense helps here: history is the story of mankind, of what it has done, suffered or enjoyed. It hopes not just to explain what people did, but in some measure why and how they did it. The tracks of hunter-gatherers before people began to tell and write stories about themselves, reveal a pattern of life, but nothing more; no window into the soul. There are no heroes, no kings, and no wives in prehistory. Stripped of personality, the historian is forced to resort to hugely general and speculative statements about “human behaviour”. So prehistoric times is probably the wrong starting ploint for the historian. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and other specialists are better equipped to unearth the remnants of villages built from mammoth bones, and hypothesise about the life of the villagers. The historian’s task is different: to give flesh and spirit to abstract assertions about human behaviour.

Agricultural scene of harvesting with a sickle in Ancient Egypt from the burial chamber of the high priest Petosiris,

The waning of the last Ice Age, about 11,700 years ago, is the immediate prelude to history. Within the next five thousand years a succession of momentous changes took place, of which unquestionably the most important was the invention of agriculture. It has been aptly called the Neolithic Revolution. We know that agriculture arose independently in more than one place and in different forms. There is evidence that rice may have been cultivated in southern China along the Yangtze River before 10,000 BC. But the accident of surviving evidence and intensity of scholarly effort means that much more is known about early agriculture in the region later called the "Fertile Crescent" - the arc of territory running northwards from Egypt through the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine), up to southern Anatolia (the major part of Turkey), and then south through the two river valleys of Mesopotamia (Iraq, Kuwait, and western Iran). Much of it now looks very different from the same area’s lush vegetation when the climate was at its best, ten thousand years ago. A wild barley-like cereal then grew in southern Turkey, a wild wheat in the Jordan valley; Egypt enjoyed enough rainfall for the hunting of big game, and elephants were still to be found in Syrian forests well into historical times. For as long as we know there has been at Jericho in Palestine a never-failing spring, feeding what is still a sizeable oasis. No doubt it explains why people have lived there more or less continuously for ten thousand years. Çatal Höyük in southern Turkey, a site only slightly younger than Jericho, is the best-preserved Neolithic settlements we know, and provides a good illustration of the transition from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle. It is often assumed that people began living in permanent communities because they began cultivating of crops, but here the opposite is true. About 9500 BC, people in Çatal Höyük were foragers: they hunted wild sheep and goats, along with harvesting, though not necessarily cultivating, wild plants. These were abundant enough to support a small village. Population pressure might well have stimulated attempts at intentional crop-planting. Residents certainly began to use digging sticks, hoes, and other tools with which they sowed and tended the seeds of wheat and barley, soon to be followed by rye, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and flax (with which they made cloth). As agriculture gathered momentum, human activity resulted in the selective breeding. They chose seeds in order to get crops that had favourable characteristics, such as drought resistance, larger edible parts, or cereals that retained their kernels longer. Through successive generations of planting and harvesting, certain crops became domesticated; modified to better serve human needs. By about 8000 BC, Çatal Höyük, occupying a naturally well-watered area, had a population of two-thousand or more; a similar process probably happened in Jericho, and other villages all across the Fertile Crescent. The domestication of animals was almost as momentous. The first traces of the keeping of sheep and goats comes from a settlement at Shanidar in northern Iraq in about 9000 BC. Cattle, pigs, and poultry were domesticated slightly later. Neolithic villages increasingly included spaces for domesticated animals From their systematic exploitation for meat and skin would control of their breeding and other possibilities; the taking of their milk, wool, and eggs, Riding, animal traction, and ploughing came later; from about 4000 BC.

Prehistoric settlement unearthed at Tell es-Sultan, a couple of miles from the present-day Palestinian city of Jericho. For as long as we know there has been at Jericho a never-failing spring that feeds what is still today a sizeable oasis. No doubt it explains why people have lived there almost continuously for more than ten-thousand-years. Before 6000 BC, its population perhaps numbered two or three thousand, with great water tanks presumably for irrigation, and a massive stone tower which was part of elaborate defences long kept in repair. Clearly its inhabitants thought they had something worth defending.

Suddenly, with the coming of crop-raising and animal husbandry, the whole material basis of human existence was transformed. In a hunting-gathering society thousands of acres were needed to support a family, whereas with primitive agricultural about twenty-five acres was enough. In terms of population growth alone, a huge acceleration became possible; thus beginning a cycle of expanding population and intensification of land use that have continued to today. An assured, or virtually assured, food supply also meant settlements of a new solidity. Bigger populations could live on smaller areas and true town life appeared. Specialists not engaged in food production could be tolerated; basketmakers, leatherworkers, carpenters, and potters. Within the agricultural communities, distinctions of role multiplied, and social hierarchies became more marked. Priests and shamans developed more elaborate rituals, which lie at the roots of religion. As surpluses became available for barter, regional and sometimes long-distance trade networks handled a growing variety of commodities. The same surpluses may also have encouraged mankind’s oldest sport after hunting – warfare. And with it, strong leadership became more necessary than ever. Political power may have an origin in the need to organize protection for crops and stock from raids. In the long run metallurgy changed things as much as did farming. At some time after 7000 BC, copper was being hammered into shape without heating, and then smelted at Çatal Hüyük. Once the technique of blending copper with tin to produce bronze was discovered, as early as 3800 BC, a metal was available which was both relatively easy to cast and retained a much better cutting edge. Its obvious military value springs to the eye, but it had just as much importance when turned into agricultural tools. Metallurgy was also to give a new importance to trade, to trade-routes, and to markets. At the end of prehistory and on the eve of the first civilizations, we already confront a world of accelerating change.

Civilization in Mesopotamia[]


The best case for the first appearance of something that is recognisably civilisation has been made by Sumer, an ancient name for southern Mesopotamia, the seven-hundred mile long land formed by the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates; present-day south-central Iraq. This end of the Fertile Crescent was thickly studded with farming villages in Neolithic times. where centuries of annual flooding and drainage from up-country had built-up a soil of wonderful richness. It must always have been much easier to grow crops here than elsewhere. But such a setting was a challenge, as well as an opportunity. The soil was fertile, but the Tigris, and less so the Euphrates, was prone to sudden and violent flooding. Once the floods subsided, the rainfall was often inadequate for regular crop raising. The people who settled here were forced to develop irrigation on a huge scale, including canals, dykes, and reservoirs to carry the flood-water away. Agriculture could assure a substantial surplus, but only if this system was managed collectively, which demanded some level of social and political cohesion. These people long shared a way of life not very different from that of their neighbours. They lived in villages, clustered around cult centres, whose priests and priestesses carried out rituals to appease the gods, often representing natural forces such as storms, wind, and rain. These cult centres began to serve those who lived nearby, most notably, coordinating and extending the irrigation system. As the population grew, sooner or later, men of different cult centres would have come into contact, and there was a choice: to cooperate or to fight. Each meant further collective organization. One physical result was the appearance of true town, mud-walled at first to keep out floods and enemies. Cult centres were usually the focus around which towns crystallized, and its chief priest became the ruler of his own little theocracy, competing with others. The Sumerians, of course, were not alone on the Mesopotamian plain, which was to be for most of early historic times a great crucible of cultures, a zone not only of settlement but of comings-and-goings for reasons we cannot exactly explain. By 4000 BC, "Semitic" language speakers (including the Herbrews) had already begun wandering up from the Arabian peninsula. Their interplay and rivalry with "Caucasians", a confusing term which here refers to people originally from the Caucasus Mountains, is one continuing theme historians have discerned. By the late 3rd millennium BC, another vigorous group, the "Indo-Europeans" originally from southern Russia, would also entered on the scene from two directions; one group travelled down into Iran and India, while another went west into Anatolia and Europe. No doubt the stimulating effect of different cultures is part of the story of the appearance of the first civilisation.

A clay tablet with hieroglyphs and early Cuneiform writing. The Sumerians are credited with developing the earliest known writing system, possibly the only invention of comparable importance to the invention of agriculture.

Sumerian Civilisation (3360-2000 BC) had deep roots. One of its cult centre, at a place called Eridu, probably originated in about 5400 BC, and grew steadily well into historic times. Beginning about 3360 BC, at least a dozen town, starting with Uruk (which is called Erech in the Bible), expanded into the world's first true cities. Each one housed tens-of-thousands of people, with defensive walls, marketplaces, and large public building. Each came to dominate the surrounding countryside, becoming city-states, independent from one another, though not very far apart. The heart of the city was the temple complex, marked by the Ziggurat, a sun-baked brick, step-pyramid like structure with a sanctuary at the tops (remembered in the Bible as the Tower of Babel). Pottery provides one of the first clues that something culturally important was going on. The so-called Uruk pots are often duller, less decorative than earlier ones. They were, in fact, mass-produced by specialist, made in standard from on a potters-wheel. By around 3200 BC comes the invention of writing. Sumerian writing began as a form of hieroglyphs, or simplified pictures, inscribed on clay tablets with a reed stalk and then hardened in the sun. The earliest tablets appear to be connected with commerce; tribute sent to the temple in exchange for divine favour. or tallies of goods in trade. Trade was very important in Sumerian society because southern Mesopotamia had few natural resources to speak of; no stone, no metals, and no wood (except for a few palm trees, which makes for a third-rate building material). Even in Neolithic times, they must have obtained from elsewhere the flint and obsidian needed for agriculture. Clearly extensive trade networks were involved: copper, tin, and obsidian from Anatolia; wood and stone from Iran; the most prized wood, cedar, from Lebanon; incense and resins from Arabia; gold from Egypt; and lapis lazuli (a blue gemstone) from as far away as Afghanistan. Before 2000 BC, Mesopotamia would be obtaining goods, though probably indirectly, from the Indus Valley. As writing develops, more and more signs were added that represented words or syllables. Signs were all formed from the same wedge-shaped marks which the reed made, so the writing system has become known as Cuneiform Script; from the Latin word Cuneus ("wedge"). A few Sumerian words have even survived to the present day; one of them is the origin form of the word "alcohol" (the oldest known recipe for beer is another Sumerian "first"). The invention of writing opens more of the past to the historian, because writing preserves literature. The oldest story in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which related the earthly accomplishments of a real person, ruling at Uruk, beneath the fancy dress of supernatural opponents. The hero does great things in his restless search to assert himself against the gods, but they triumph in the end; Gilgamesh, too, must die. To a modern reader the most striking part may be the story of a great flood which washed away the previous age, obliterating mankind except for a favoured family who survive by building an ark; a likely source for the Bible story of Noah. It is hard to get at history through the Epic, let alone relate it to the historical Gilgamesh, but there is much information about the religious temperament of Sumerian civilization. Originally, each city had its own patron deity, but, by the middle of the third millennium BC, a hierarchical pantheon of gods had emerged, presumably reflecting political relations between the cities. The Sumerians can hardly have derived much comfort from their beliefs. They saw themselves as a people created to labour for the gods, who demanded tribute and submission in elaborate rituals. In return for this, they granted length of days and staved-off the sudden disasters of flood or drought, but nothing more. The Sumerian afterlife involved a descent into a gloomy netherworld to spend eternity in a wretched existence - "they sit in darkness, where dust is their food and clay their meat, they are clothed like birds with wings for garments, and over bolt and door lie silence". No other contemporary society diverted so much of its collective resources to religion. By the end of their history as an independent civilization, some cities had very big temples indeed. The most impressive, the Great Ziggurat of Ur, had an upper stage over 100 feet in height and a base 210 feet by 150. The design of Egyptian pyramids, especially the stepped designs of the oldest ones, may have been an evolution from the Ziggurats. This hints at the importance of diffusion of Sumerian ideas long after the focus of its history had moved away from southern Mesopotamia. Evidence of the wheeled vehicles appears soon after 3000 BC. The Sumerians were among the first astronomers, mapping the stars into constellations, many of which have survived in the zodiac. They laid the foundations of mathematics, using a sexagesimal number system (adopted by the laterBabylonians), which still lives on in our hour of 60 minutes and circle of 360 degrees. And the number seven clearly had some special religious significance to the Sumerians, from which we get our seven-day week.


Sumerian civilisation lasted more than thirteen hundred years, a huge stretch of time. Scholars have recovered some of the history, though much of it remains obscure, and even its dating is still debated. Originally, each city-state seems to have been headed by its chief priest, assisted by a council of elders. But a growth of scale led to the emergence of kings distinct from the temple establishment. Historians have suggested that during times of emergency, a military leader assumed what was supposed to be temporary authority over a city. He established an army, and led it into battle, making increasing use of bronze weaponry. Temporary power gradually became permanent kingship. The evidence is physically apparent in the appearance of another dominant structure to rival the temple - the palace. The first king attested through archaeological evidence is Etana, ruling at Kish around 2700 BC. The northern city of Kish lay at the narrowest point between the Tigris and Euphrates, a position which simply cried out to control and profit from shipping up and down the two rivers. By the time of Etana's death, Kish had replaced the old southern city of Uruk as the most powerful city on the plain. The narrative content of the next few centuries is a matter of wars for primacy between the city-states of Kish, Uruk, Lagash, Umma, and Ur (remembered in the Bible as the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham), of their waxings and their wanings. Fortified cities and the application of the wheel to military technology in clumsy four-wheeled chariots are some of the evidence of this. Around 2450 BC, Eannatum of Lagash made the most successful attempt yet to unite Sumer, reducing to tribute practically all of the other cities. Collecting tribute is one thing though, and actual conquest another. The difficulty of moving armies may have dissuaded the king of Lagash from actually extending imperial rule over other cities. The first empire-builder would come from another nation entirely.

A bronze sculpted head which is presumed to be Sargon. If it is, it is one of the first royal portraits.

He was Sargon the Great (d. 2279 BC), of Semitic stock rather than Sumerian. Semitic people were among those who for thousands of years pressed-in on the civilization of the river valleys from outside; their pressure grew until, by the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, they were well-established in central Mesopotamia, and further west in the Levant. The birth legend of Sargon might be familiar to those versed in the Bible story of the Prophet Moses. The claim is that he was the secret child of a priestess, who set him in a basket, and cast him off into a river. He was found and adopted by the chief gardener at the palace of Kish who raised him as his own. Like Moses, this foundling child rose in a high position, becoming the cup bearer to king Ur-Zababa of Kish; a cup bearer more than a mere servant, he was a very influential person at court. While Sargon was serving in Kish, the throne of Umma had been inherited by an ambitious king named Lugalzaggesi. Lugalzaggesi led the final victory of Umma in a century-long conflict with Lagash, and followed up on his success by conquering Uruk. After that, Lugalzaggesi turned his eye on Kish. A fragmentary account tells us what happened then. Lugalzaggesi marched on Kish, and took the city with ease, forcing Ur-Zababa to flee into exile. While Lugalzaggesi was revelling in his triumph in the north, Sargon somehow gathered an army of his own, march south towards Uruk, and took the city by surprise. Lugazaggesi then headed home to meet Sargon in battle, only to be defeated. With both Ur-Zababa and Lugalzagesi out of the way, Sargon blew through all the remaining Sumerian city-states, and went on to conquer Upper Mesopotamia as far as the Mediterranean coast. His speedy conquest is startling. The evolution of professional soldiery probably played a part in it. Disciplined infantry, moving in something like the later Phalanx formation with overlapping shields and levelled spears, appear on his monuments. His army also made heavy use of the bow-and-arrows, an uncommon weapon in Sumer due to the lack of wood. Sargon then did what no Sumerian king had yet done successfully; he turned a loose coalition of cities into an empire. He founded a new capital city, Akkad; its ruins have never been identified, but it probably stood a little north of Kish, where the Tigris and Euphrates come closest to each other. This was the natural place for a capital; Babylon, Ctesiphon, and Baghdad would later be built in the same area. Unlike his predecessors, Sargon ran roughshod over the native elites, placing his own trusted men in leadership positions in the various cities. Most notably, he installed his daughter Enheduanna as high priestess of Ur, and, through her, seems to have been able to manipulate religious, political, and cultural affairs from afar. Enheduanna is famous in her own right as the world's first author known by name. Sargon people, known as Akkadians, were Semites, their speech and customs unlike those of the Sumerians. They took over from its culture what they wanted as they imposed themselves. This left behind a new style of Sumerian art, marked by the theme of royal victory. Cuneiform Script was also adapted to meet the needs of a Semitic language, illustrating the splendid flexibility of the writing system. The Akkadian Empire, then, was not the end of Sumer but its second main phase.

Reconstruction of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, based on extensive excavations by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s.

Sargon’s dynasty lasted only a century or so, overthrown by a devastating invasion of mountain people called the Gutians. It was then that the grand city of Akkad was sacked and burned; and lost to history. The Gutian period left behind little to suggest that they had developed a culture of their own: no writing, no inscriptions, no cult centres. The old Sumerian cities did not long tolerate the rule of barbarians. They were driven out some fifty years later, and the city-states once again became independent ,under native Sumerian rulers. The high point of this final phase of Sumerian civilization were the reign of Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi, ruling at Ur, who codified the oldest law code yet discovered, and completed the construction of the Great Ziggurat of Ur. Yet this was the sunset of the first people to achieve civilization. This period coincided with a major shift in population from southern Mesopotamia toward the north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of Sumer was compromised by rising salinization. For centuries now, the land had been irrigated with the water of the delta, which, though fresh enough, was very slightly salty. This process eventually led to such a concentration of salt in the ground that crops began to fail. Accounts show, in the years after 2100 BC, a progressive switchover from wheat to barley, which less sensitive to salty soil. But in time, even barley refused to grow. Then in 2004 BC, Ur fell to an invasion by the Elamite, a Caucasian people living on the far side of the Tigris, with whom the Sumerian had been in intermittent conflict for centuries. Of course the Sumerians did not disappear, but their individuality was about to be merged in the general history of the Near East, now a world of more than one civilization.

Depiction of Hammurabi, with the Babylonian sun-god and god-of-justice, from the top of the only surviving copy of his famous law code; the longest, best-organised, and best-preserved legal text from the ancient history. His code includes the oldest statement of the legal principle of an "eye for an eye"; that any man who puts out the eye of another free man will lose his own eye. The stele was rediscovered in 1901 at the site of the ancient Elamite capital of Susa (in present-day Iran), where it had probably been taken as plunder.

All over the Fertile Crescent new kingdoms and peoples had been appearing, stimulated by what they saw in the south. The diffusion of civilized ways was already rapid, and this makes it hard to delineate the main developments and processes in a clear-cut way. Worse still, peoples continued to move about for reasons we often do not understand. The Akkadians themselves had been one of them, pushing up from great Semitic reservoir of Arabia. The Elamites, who conquered Ur, were Caucasians. The most successful of all were the Amorites, a Semitic people who established a series of competing local powers that stretched from central Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean coast. To the east, the vigorous Indo-Europeans were filling up Iran. And at the edges of this great confusion stood another old civilization, Ancient Egypt. One convenient landmark is provided by the appearance of a new empire in Mesopotamia, one which has left behind a familiar name; Babylon. Another famous name is inseparably linked with it, that of one of its kings, Hammurabi (1792-50 BC). He would have a secure place in history if we knew nothing of him except his reputation as a law-giver. Babylon was just one among many small Amorite kingdoms when Hammurabi came to the throne. So successful was he in both diplomacy and war that, by the end of his reign, he had united almost all of Mesopotamia for the first time since the Akkadians; only Assyria, high on the Tigris, remained out of Babylonian reach. This was no unruly empire. Hammurabi sought to bind his newly established lands together, in part, by enforcing the same law over its entire extent. The Code of Hammurabi is justly famous, though it owes something of its pre-eminence to chance. While earlier collections of judgments have only survived in fragments, Hammurabi’s were carved onto black stone steles, and set-up in the courtyard of temples for the public to consult. They show a remarkably wide range of concerns: penalties for robbery, for kidnap, for fraud, for the poor performance of an obligation to the king; regulations on marriage, on divorce, on inheritance, on debt; which are accompanied by standard fees for everything from hiring a cart to medical attention; and many other matters. Sadly, perhaps, the penalties seem to have harshened by comparison with Sumerian practice; the death penalty was prescribed for a huge array of crimes. The code’s provisions included laws about slaves. Babylon, like every other ancient civilization (and a few of modern times), rested on a great exploitation of man by man. By Hammurabi's day, there were regular slave markets, and slaves from certain areas were especially prized for their reliability. All of these laws, handed down and reinforced from the centre of the empire, were meant to convince conquered peoples of the justice and rightness of Babylonian rule. Babylon in due time became renowned for its magnificence. Its surviving image from the Bible - the worldly, wicked city of pleasure and consumption - speaks to the scale and richness of its city-life, though that refers more to a later period. The royal palace at Mari is an outstanding example of Babylonian architecture; thick walls surround a complex measuring over 150 by 200 yards, with more that 300 rooms decorated with frescoes and statues, and several courtyards drained by pipes thirty feet deep. In this palace were found great quantities of clay tablets whose writing reveal an elaborate administrative structure. The Babylonians gave Cuneiform Script a syllabic form, thus enormously more flexible and useful. They worked out mathematical tables and formula of great practical use. Their astrology pushed forward the observation of the heavens, plotting the path of the sun and five observable planets with remarkable accuracy; the prediction of lunar eclipses was possible before 1000 BC. It also seems likely that they invented the sundial, the earliest known instrument for measuring time.


Hammurabi’s achievement did not long survive him. His successors gradually lost control of peripheral lands - In the north to the Assyrians, in the east to the Elamites and in the south to wave of revolts - and Babylon reverted back to a small kingdom. The waning of one power coincided with the waxing of another. Back in the late 3rd millennium BC, the Hittites, an Indo-European people, had wandered (probably from the Ukraine) down into Anatolia, and settled along the Halys river. Their capital, at Hattusa, is a dramatically fortified city on a steep slope among ravines. The Hittites carried on a healthy trade with the islands to the west, and with the peoples to the south, especially with the Assyrians, from whom they learned to write in the Cuneiform Script. By 1650 BC, they had established themselves as the dominant power in Anatolia from the Black Sea to the Syrian coast. Then, one of their kings, Mursilis (d. 1590 BC), turned southwards against an already weakened and shrunken Babylon; the city was taken and plundered. But then the Hittites withdrew - the city was too far from Hattusa to be governed securely - and other people, the Kassites, ruled Babylon for four obscure centuries. The key to Hittite success was their introduction of the chariot to Near Eastern battlefields. Horses were at first rare in the river valleys, the prized possession of kings and great leaders; the Sumerian are depicted trundling about in four-wheeled carts, but these were probably a means of simply moving generals about. The true chariot is a two-wheeled fighting vehicle, usually crewed by two men; one driving, the other using it as a platform for missile weapons. The Hittites, with access to a reservoir of horses in the high pastures north of the Fertile Crescent, thus enjoyed a great military and psychological advantage. Eventually, though, chariots were used in the armies of all the great kingdoms of the Near East; they were too valuable a weapon to be ignored. The raid that had cut-down Babylon was something of a high-water mark for the first Hittite kingdom. Mursili was assassinated shortly after his return, and his kingdom was plunged into chaos, A century or so of obscurity followed. Then, in the early 14th century BC, came a second and even more splendid era for the Hittites, when they once again dominated Anatolia, destroyed the Syrian kingdom of Mittani, and even challenged the might of Egypt under Ramesses the Great (d. 1213 BC) for control of the Levant. The Hittites were probably the first people to work iron from around 1500 BC, though they likely saw it as an inferior metal. In its simple form iron is less hard than bronze, and therefore of less use as a weapon. But gradually people discovered that iron could be hardened, by repeatedly heating and hammering, until the impurities are literally forced out, and then rapidly reducing its temperature by quenching in water. Iron ore, though scarce enough, was much more plentiful than copper or tin, so it is not surprising to find its uses rapidly spreading through the Near East and far beyond, despite attempts by the Hittites to restrict it. The diffusion of iron must surely be part of the story of the swing of power against the Hittites, which fractured into several independent states around 1190 BC. By that time, a very confused era had opened; the so-called Late Bronze Age Collapse.

Civilisation in Egypt[]

Ancient Egypt (3100-1077 BC) has always been our greatest visible inheritance from antiquity. For thousands of years after its demise, the physical remains of the first civilization in the Nile Valley fascinated men’s minds and stirred their imaginations. Even the Classical Greeks were bemused by the legend of the occult wisdom in a land where gods were half men, half beasts. And people today still waste their time trying to discern a supernatural significance in the arrangement of the pyramids.


Egypt was defined by the River Nile and the deserts which flanked it; one drawn-out straggling oasis, six-hundred miles long, and, except in the Delta, never more than a few miles wide. In Neolithic times, the region was already beginning to feel the effects of hotter, dryer weather patterns. As desiccation set in, the people of the Sahara migrated east towards the well-watered Nile valley. These new settlers found that they could manage the predictable annual flooding, and farming took root in the rich beds of silt deposited higher year by year. This was a setting in which agriculture gave rich return with relative ease, and mineral resources were bountiful; stone, copper, gold, gemstones, flax, papyrus. And because the Nile flowed from south to north, while the prevailing winds blew in the opposite direction, it was uncommonly easy to navigate. From the start, then, the river set the rhythm of life. It was a benevolent deity whose never failing bounty was to be thankfully received, rather than the source of dangerous, menacing inundations like those in which the Sumerians toiled. From the earliest times, the Egyptians buried their dead at the edge of the desert, with their heads pointed south and their faces turned west; life came from the south, but the Land of the Dead was westward, towards the Saharan waste they had fled. Then, in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, signs of trade and contact with other lands multiply, notably with Mesopotamia. That Egypt benefited from Sumerian influence and example seems incontestable, though exactly what this meant has been much debated. Mesopotamian contributions have been seen in the motifs of early Egyptian art, in similar techniques of monumental building in brick, and in the debt of Egyptian hieroglyphs to the earliest Sumerian script. Yet it cannot be said that it was decisive. There always existed a potential for civilization in the Nile Valley that needed no external stimulus to discharge it. It is at least obvious, when Egyptian civilization finally did emerged, that it was unique, unlike anything we can find elsewhere.

Egyptian history is usually divided into thirty-one dynasties, though the system is not quite as straight forwards as it might seem. Some dynasties are so obscure, that their actual existence is still debated; the 7th for example. In times of disunity, a dynasty might only rule part of Egypt, and exist simultaneously with another dynasty ruling elsewhere; the 9th, 10th, and 11th for example.

The deepest roots of Egyptian civilization have to be pieced together from archaeology and later tradition. They reveal that, at some point around 3200 BC, there had solidified two kingdoms, one of the northern delta and one of the southern river valley; one of Lower Egypt and one of Upper. This is interestingly different from Sumer; there were no city-states. Egypt seems to move straight from pre-civilization to the government of large areas. Her early "cities" were market places and storage centres of barely two thousand people. Even later, Egypt would have only a restricted experience of an urban way of life; Memphis and Thebes were religious centres and palace complexes, rather than true cities. Of the kings of the two Egypts we know almost nothing; even their names at lost. It was about the same time that the written records begin and this must have been important in the consolidation of power. In Egypt, writing was used from the beginning, not merely as an administrative and economic convenience, but to record events on monuments intended to survive. These records tell us that, in about 3100 BC, a great king of Upper Egypt conquered the north, uniting Egypt into a single kingdom running from the Mediterranean coast to the First Cataract (or waterfall) at Abu Simbel. A new capital was built at Memphis, just south of the Delta, a strategic location from which to control both Upper and Lower Egypt. Egyptian tradition credits both these things to the first Egyptian Pharaoh, Menes, though that is merely an honorific meaning "founder". It is likely that "Menes" was an important northern ruler named Narmer, who is featured on an inscription found at Hierakonpolis wearing the symbol of power over the two lands, the double crown; the Red Crown of Lower Egypt set atop the White Crown of Upper Egypt. This was effectively the beginning of a civilization which was to survive more than two-thousand years; roughly speaking, its greatest days were over by 1077 BC. That is about as much time as separates us from the birth of Christ. Egyptian history can most easily be understood in six big chronological divisions. Three of these are called respectively the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. They are preceded by a six-hundred-year long Archaic Period that is more than a little obscure, and separated by two periods called the First and Second Intermediate. Very roughly, the three "Kingdoms" are periods of success or at least of consolidated government; the two "Intermediate" stages are interludes of weakness and upheaval to which the overworked word "crisis" can reasonably be applied. This is by no means the only way of visualizing Egyptian history; many Egyptologists prefer to set out the chronology in terms of thirty-one dynasties of Pharaohs. Nonetheless, the six-part scheme is sufficient for our purpose.

The Egyptian pyramids have always been our greatest visible inheritance from antiquity. The beginning of the pyramid age suggests that Egypt had reached a new level of prosperity and organisation. Only a strong and centralised state could order such an unprecedented and almost unsurpassed concentration of human labour. For this reason, it also marks the beginning of a new era in Egyptian history: the “Old Kingdom".

The Old Kingdom (2686–2160) traditionally understood to begin with the second Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, Djoser (d. 2648 BC). Strictly speaking, the title "Pharaoh" was only applied personally to king under the New Kingdom; before that, it referred to the buildings of the royal palace and court. Nonetheless, by Djoser’s day, Egyptian rulers already wielded a startling autocracy which was so to impress the ancient world. They had not emerged like Sumer’s as simply men, subject to the will-of-the-gods like all men, great or small. They were living gods, mediators between their subjects and the divine. The Pharaohs were believed to control the annual rise and fall of the Nile no less; life itself to an agricultural society. The theological underpinnings of Egyptian kingship underwent many later elaborations, but the central story is simple. The god Osiris was given the dominion over heaven and earth, and taught mankind the arts of civilisation, including agriculture. But his brother, Set, god-of-the-deserts, was jealous of his power, and plotted his death. Set killed Osiris, and mutilated his corpse, scattering the pieces across Egypt. Osiris' wife and sister, the mother-godess Isis, reassembled his body, and half-resurrected him; alive enough to impregnate her, but not quite enough to remain on earth. Instead Osiris became ruler of the underworld, while his posthumous son, Horus, became the ruler of the living realm. In life, the Pharaohs claimed to be the earthly embodiment of Horus. When he died, as all men must, he took on a new role, as the incarnate Osiris, while the son of the dead Pharaoh now became the incarnate Horus. Thus, the new Pharaoh was, in a sense, his father’s reincarnation; a neat way to legitimise succession. And if the old Pharaoh was still going to be waiting for you in the afterlife, then his power became all-encompassing. Beneath the Pharaoh, an elaborate and orderly bureaucracy managed his affairs. At its head were viziers (chief ministers), provincial governors and other senior officials who came from the Egyptian nobility; less eminent families provided the thousands of scribes, This bureaucracy directed a country most of whose inhabitants were peasants. They cannot have lived wholly comfortable lives, for they provided both the conscript labour for great public-works projects, and the agricultural surplus upon which the state and religious establishment subsisted. Yet the land was rich and increasingly mastered with irrigation techniques; with little change, this agriculture would be sufficient to make her the "bread-basket" of the Roman Empire. Upon the surplus there also rested Egypt’s own spectacular form of conspicuous consumption; a range of palaces, temples, tombs, and memorials unsurpassed in antiquity. The most famous are the pyramids, and they were began under Djoser. When he died, he was not buried in the traditional graveyard at Abydos, far to the south. He had already built his own tomb at Saqqara, near Memphis; the 200-foot-tall Step Pyramid. It was the masterpiece of the first architect whose name is recorded; Imhotep, chancellor to the Pharaoh. We don’t know exactly what inspired Imhotep to come up with this novel tomb, although, given the extent of trade routes in the ancient world, Egyptians had undoubtedly seen Sumarian Ziggurats. It was a century or so later that the greatest of the pyramids were completed at Giza. The first pharaoh of the Fouth Dystasty, Snefru (d. 2589), got things off with a bang, by introducing some innovations that later became standard. For one thing, the burial chamber was inside the pyramid itself, rather than in the ground beneath, as had been the case with the pyramids that preceded it. He also gave the pyramid a causeway, a broad path leading east to a “mortuary temple” where offerings could be made. But most interesting of all, he covered the steps of his pyramid with a smooth layer of facing stones, thus creating the familiar smooth-sided pyramid that we know. In fact, Snefru built no less that three pyramids; he finished-off his predecessor's, and undertook two of his own. His second effort was completed, but never used, for the unfortunate reason that their measurements were off, lending the pyramid a visibly "bent" appearance. This suggests that Egypt had now become even richer, more stable, and more subject to the authority of the pharaoh, than ever before. Snefru son, Khufu (d. 2566 BC), inherited this power and exercised it to the full. His pyramid, the Great Pyramid, was twenty years in the building, employing many thousands of men, and using huge quantities of stone - some fifteen tons apiece - brought from as far away as five-hundred miles. This colossal construction, peaking at 481 feet, was the tallest structure built by man for more than 3,800 years. Khufu was succeeded by his son, Khafre (2532 BC), who left perhaps Egypt's most recognisable monument, the Great Sphinx; a mysterious limestone sculpture, part lion and part falcon, with a man’s face (probably Khafre himself, though there is still plenty of argument over that point). These still-startling monuments make it less surprising that the Egyptians were later reputed to have been great architects. In truth, the technology of pyramid-building is far from complicated. What was required was exacting competence in measurement, the manipulation of certain elementary formulae for calculating volumes and weights, and an unprecedented and almost unsurpassed concentration of human labour, under the direction of official who, by the standards of any age, must have been outstanding civil servants.

Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system in the Middle Kingdom period, and then made use of about 900 distinct characters. Hieroglyphs were a formal script, use for monumental inscriptions. In day-to-day writing, scribes used a cursive script, called hieratic, which was quicker and easier.

From the outset, the Egyptians seem obsessed with death. They believed that, in the afterlife, a man could expect judgement before Osiris; if the verdict was favourable, he would happily live in Osiris’ underworld; if not, he was abandoned to a monstrous destroyer, part crocodile, part hippopotamus. The struggle to assure a favourable outcome explains, not only the building of the pyramids, but the obsessive care shown in conducting the deceased to his eternal resting-place. It took seventy days, under the supervision of temple priests, to carry out the funerary embalming and mummification of a Pharaoh's corpse. This did not mean, though, that in life human beings need do no more than placate Osiris, for the Egyptian pantheon was huge and immensely complicated. Much of Egyptian history is the story of ebbings and flowings of major cults, as the Pharaohs sought through cult-consolidation to achieve political ends; politics and religion were always bedfellows in Ancient Egypt. Not only the Pharaohs were interested. The institutions which maintained these beliefs were in the hands of a hereditary priestly class, who acquired vested interest in the popularity of their cults. The gods loom large in the subject-matter of ancient Egyptian art; depicted with animal heads stuck on human bodies. But it contains much more besides: realistic portrayals of rural life, craftsmen at work, scribes at their duties, and later, in a more decadent period, Pharaohs in their chariots, mighty men-of-war, confidently trampling down their enemies. Neither its content nor technique is the most striking characteristic of the Egyptian art, but its recognizably continuous style. For some two thousand years, artists were able to work satisfyingly within a classical tradition; what a visitor saw looked so much of a piece. Another great artistic achievement of the Egyptians was calligraphy. It seems the Egyptians learned the technique of pictograms from Mesopotamia, but rejected the later Cuneiform Script. Hieroglyphs retained their lifelike little picture (or near-picture) form, even after phonetic elements were added. It was much more decorative than Cuneiform, but also much harder to master. None of the writers of classical antiquity ever learnt to read hieroglyph, it seems. The last example of which we know were written in 394 AD; it could not be read for another fourteen centuries, until a French scholar deciphered the inscription on the "Rosetta Stone", brought back from Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. The first hieroglyphs appear before 3000 BC, and, soon after, the invention of papyrus provided a convenient medium. Papyrus may be our greatest debt to the Egyptians; more convenient that clay tablets, and cheaper than parchment (made from skins), papyrus was the most general medium for writing until well into the Middle Ages, when paper reached the Near East and Europe from China.

The mummy believed to be that of Ramesses I, Egyptians saw the preservation of the dead as an important step to living well in the afterlife. As Egypt grew more prosperous, elaborate burial became a status symbol of wealth. Extraordinary skill was attributed to mummification practitioners, though somewhat unjustifiably since the arid climate was on their side.

The Old Kingdom was to be looked back upon as a golden age of peace and stability, when the Pharaohs were impregnable. Egypt faced no serious threats from abroad. There were successful raids to the south into Nubia (modern Sudan), west against Libyan desert-dwellers, and north into the southern Levant. Far flung trade expeditions are recorded to Anatolia and to Punt (a mysterious land probably in modern-day Eritrea). However, during the Fifth Dynasty, the Pharaoh became more closely identified with the sun-god Ra, and consequentially under the influence of that cult’s high priests; fewer efforts were devoted to pyramid building, and more to the great sun temples at Abu Gorab and Abusir. As the priests gained more power, so too did the high officials. Towards the end of the dynasty, provincial governors, who had always been appointed by the crown, seized on periods of chaos at Memphis to pass their power to their sons, and asserted their independence from central authority. By the next dynasty, the Pharaohs, in essence, ruled an Egypt that contained small hereditary states. The extremely long reign of Pepi II (d. 2184 BC), said to be 94-years, marked the collapse of central authority. The level of the Nile floods began diminishing year on year, bringing famine and causing difficulties for the Pharaoh’s claim to divinity; Pepi's death, well past that of his intended heirs, may have caused a succession crisis within the royal family. After the wasteful Fourth Dynasty squandering of Egyptian lives and money, political weakness and environmental issues combined to push the Old Kingdom over the edge; the First Intermediate (2184-2021 BC). For more than a hundred years, Egypt descended into anarchy, as effectively small kingdoms began raiding each other's territories. The Egyptian king list records the Tenth Dynasty, neatly followed by an Eleventh Dynasty. In truth, rival dynasties "ruled" simultaneously over different parts of Egypt, while other provincial governors went on doing as they pleased. Meanwhile, rather than being the invader, Egypt was invaded, as Western Semitic peoples established themselves in the Nile Delta. Towards the end of the period, two great power centres had emerged; Hierakonpolis in Lower Egypt and Thebes in Upper Egypt. This struggle was finally brought to a end by Mentuhotep II (2060-09 BC), who fought his way north and took Hierakonpolis in the fourteenth year of his reign. Now he held both Thebes and Herakleopolis, but Egypt was far from united.; battles with provincial governors continued for years. But by 2021 BC, Mentuhotep felt confident enough to alter the writing of his title; he was, unsurprisingly, Shematawy ("Uniter of the Two Lands"). Not long after, his name began appearing in inscriptions next to that of Menes/Narmer himself; the semi-legendary king who had first pulled Upper and Lower Egypt into one.

The sun-god Ra, portrayed falcon-headed with the sun-disk inside a cobra resting on his head. The number of Egyptian gods is difficult to know; text name gods whose nature is never explained, make vague reference to other gods who are not even named, and, over time, some gods merge into a single god. One scholar has estimated 1,400 gods. In different eras, various gods were said to hold the highest position in the divine order.

During the Middle Kingdom (2021-1786 BC), Egypt once again flourished, as it had during the Old Kingdom. There was a new emphasis on order and social cohesion. An efficient bureaucracy was created that concentrated wealth and power with the crown, but generously rewarded high officials for their loyalty. This was reflected in the quality of artistic production for elite members of society, which gives the Middle Kingdom its reputation as Egypt's "Classical Age". The Temple of Karnak was begun under Senruset I (d. 1926 BC); Egyptian literature featured sophisticated themes written in a confident, eloquent style; and relief and portrait sculpture reached a high point that was, perhaps equalled, but never surpassed. The divine status of the Pharaoh also subtly changed After the bad times made it impossible to believe that he was the earthly incarnation of a god, he was now descended from a god, a subtle but meaningful demotion. Theological change followed, with something of a consolidation of cults under the god Amun-Ra; the Theban patron deity, Amun, acquired national importance, expressed in his fusion with the sun-god, Ra. It is clear, too, that there was expansion and material growth. Far sighted reclamation work was achieved in the marshes of the Delta. Copper mining operations in the Sinai, which had previously been intermittent expeditions, became permanent camps. With peace and stability at home, Middle Kingdom Egypt pursued an aggressive foreign policy, colonizing Nubia, to the south, between the first and third Cataracts, and fully exploiting its rich gold mines and stone quarries. The reign of Amenemhat III (d. 1797 BC) was the high point of the Middle Kingdom; and of the Nile floods, which once again began to decrease year by year. As always in Egypt, a slump in the Nile and royal power went hand in hand. Amenemhat's son died almost as soon as he was crowned, and his wife, Queen Sobeknefru (d. 1786), took his place; a woman on the throne was a sign of serious palace intrigue. Few details from the queen’s reign have survived; nor for the obscure figure who succeeded her, beginning the ineffectual Thirteenth Dynasty.

Later Egyptian pharaoh returning home in triumph thanks to the adoption of the Hittite war chariot.

The Second Intermediate (1674–1549) was marked by another and far more dangerous incursion of foreigners. These were the Hyksos, a Western Semitic people, who, for a generation or two, had been wandering into the Delta in increasing numbers. Some of them settled down to live side by side with the Egyptians. Others were less civilised; around 1720, one particularly aggressive band sacked and burned Memphis, the old Egyptian capital. Unlike the Egyptians, they fought with the composite bow, the horse and the iron-fitted chariot, an advantage that offset their relatively small numbers. After this humiliation, the Pharaoh's power wilted so dramatically that, some fourty years later, the Hyksos established their own capital at Avaris, on the eastern fringe of the Delta. From there, they spread their rule to the west and south by force. By around 1663 BC, they ruled supreme. Not much is known about the Hyksos. Apparently, they retained Egyptian models of government; their kings identified as Pharaohs; the Egyptian language continued to be the official language of inscriptions and records; Egyptian officials served them as administrators and priests. But this did not lead to assimilation. Despite their success, the Hyksos were never in sole control of Egypt. The Egyptian governors of Thebes, to the south, announced that they would not submit to Hyksos rule. The Hyksos, aware of their own limitations, do not appear to have made a serious push to the south, The Theban Pharaohs clung on for decades, trapped between the Hyksos controlled north and a resurgent Nubia to the south, But eventually Thebes gathered enough strength to challenge the Hyksos, in a conflict that lasted more than thirty years, until Ahmose I (d. 1544 BC) completed the task, battling all the way to Avaris, and permanently evicted the Hyksos from Egypt. He followed-up this first great success by pursuing the Hyksos to their strongholds the southern Levant, finally halting his march near Gaza.

The Death Mask of Tutankhamun, whose name is thought to mean "Living image of Amun". He took the throne at eight or nine years of age, and reigned for less then a decade. In all likelihood, his tomb was no more magnificent than those of his predecessors, but it remained undisturbed by grave-robbers until November of 1922.

The New Kingdom (1554-1077) in its prime was internationally so successful that it is difficult not to conclude that Hyksos domination must have had a fertilizing effect. There was a transformation of military techniques by the adoption of Near Eastern devices such as the chariot. Tuthmosis I d. 1492 BC) and his grandson Tuthmosis III (d. 1425 BC) expanded the boundaries of Egypt in the south to the Fourth Cataract in Nubia, and to the north, through the Levant and Syria almost to the Euphrates. It was between their reigns that Queen Hatshepsut (d. 1458 BC), Egypt's most successful female Pharaoh, occupied the throne in a reign notable for greatly expanding Egyptian trade, including a mission to the mysterious Land of Punt. Monuments recording the arrival of tribute testify to an Egyptian pre-eminence, matched at home by a veritable renaissance of the arts. The New Kingdom provided the bulk of the art, artefacts and architecture (apart from the pyramids) for which ancient Egypt is famous. The Pharaohs created at Thebes the great temples to Amun-Ra at Karnak and Luxor, and were buried in splendour on the other side of the Nile in the Valley of the Kings. Foreign influences touched Egyptian art at this time; they came from Minoan Crete. In the same year that Tuthmosis III died, a king named Saustatar came to the throne of Mitanni, a kingdom that dominated eastern Syria and northern Mesopotamia, and began his own empire-building. Amenhotep II (d. 1400 BC) and his successors changed tact; they made treaties with the Mitanni, married Mitanni princesses, and came to rely on their friendship to protected Egyptian interests in the region. Under Amenhotep III (d. 1352 BC), the New Kingdom reached its peak of power, prestige, and prosperity. He sponsored building at Karnak and Luxor on a colossal scale, and was fittingly buried in a tomb which was the largest ever prepared for a Pharaoh; little remains of it today, but its famous Colossi of Memnon testify to its proportions. The resulting reforming zeal on his son, Amenhotep IV (1336 BC), shock Egypt's old political and religious certainties to their very foundations. He was determined to break the influence of the priests of Amun-Ra (and avoid contributing any more wealth to their temples), by assert his own preferred choice of deities, the sun-disk Aten. Aten had not gone unrecognized in the past; it was one aspect of the sun-god Amun-Ra. But in the Pharaoh's hands, it became something new; the manifestation of a single divine power. Amenhotep was on his way to becoming a monotheist. To mark his seriousness, Amenhotep moved the capital away from Thebes to a site, never before built on, about halfway between Thebes and Memphis. Here, he built the planned city of Akhet-Aten, around a great temple to Aten with a roofless sanctuary open to the sun’s rays that was to be the centre of the new religion. Though there can be no doubt of Akhnaton’s seriousness, his religious revolution must have been doomed from the outset given the innate conservatism of Egypt. Akhnaton was succeeded by his two sons, the second of which. Tutankhamun (d. 1323), fully reversed his religious reforms. This probably explains his magnificent burial in the Valley of the Kings, after a short and otherwise unremarkable reign; the 1922 discovery of his largely intact tomb has made him one of the most famous of all Egyptian Pharaohs.

Abu Simbel, a temple complex originally cut into a solid rock cliff. Four huge statues flank the entrance, two on each side, depicting Ramesses II seated on his throne; each one 65 feet tall. The decision to build such a grand monument in southern Egypt, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests to some scholars that Ramesses undertook it as a symbol of Egyptian power.

When Tutankhamun died, the New Kingdom still had two centuries of life ahead, but their atmosphere was one of steadily increasing decline, only occasionally interrupted. The Egyptian sphere of influence was crumbling in the face of growing pressure in the north from the resurgent Hittites. The Mitanni could not be saved; losing all their lands west of the Euphrates in 1372 BC, and dissolving in civil war some thirty years later. By the time Ramesses II (d. 1213 BC), sometimes called Ramesses the Great, came to the throne, Egypt had lost her northern holdings as far as Kadesh, a city that had become more than a battle front; a symbolic football kicked back and forth to determine whichever empire could boast of superior strength. Only three years into his reign, Ramesses marched north with an unheard of number of soldiers to get Kadesh back; according to his own count, twenty thousand. The resulting Battle of Kadesh (1275 BC) is generally regarded as the largest chariot battle ever fought. Though Ramesses proclaimed victory, the battle was more of a draw, and he did not even attempt to recapture Kadesh, which henceforth remained in Hittite hands; later confirmed in a lasting Egyptian–Hittite peace agreement. If this doesn’t sound like an overwhelming triumph, it soon mutated into one, when Ramesses had flattering accounts of the battle carved onto the walls of Egyptian temples, with plenty of graphic illustrations of Egyptians slaughtering Hittites. Ramesses built more temples, palaces, statues, and monuments than any other Pharaoh - most notably completing the great hall of columns at Karnak, planned by his grandfather and started by his father; the vast mortuary temple complex known known as the Ramesseum at Thebes; and the most spectacular of all rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, famous for the four colossal seated statues of the Pharaoh himself (each sixty-five feet high) flanking its entrance. This only shows how far Egypt had come from its former greatness; it had become an empire that depended on reputation and symbols of grandeur, rather than actual strength. For Ramesses II's successors, even a Hittite alliance was no longer a safeguard. The Aegean was in uproar, the islands "poured out their people all together" and "no land stood before them", wrote Ramesses III (d. 1155 BC) on his temple wall. Like the Vikings some 2,000 years later, sea-borne invaders and raiders plunged down on the Delta again and again, undeterred by the occasional defeat. These Sea Peoples were eventually beaten off, but the struggle was hard. The signs of internal disorder are plentiful too. Ramesses III was killed as a result of a conspiracy in the harem; he was the last Pharaoh to achieve some measure of success in offsetting the swelling tide of disaster. Over the next eighty years, eight kings named Ramesses ruled, most of them in such obscurity and chaos that only fragments of records survive. We hear of on-again, off-again drought and famine; of the first labour strike in recorded history; and of corrupt officials. There is the ominous symptom of the looting of royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Meanwhile, the priests of Amun-Ra had grown rich. Re-enthroned as chief god under Tutankhamun, Pharaoh after Pharaoh made rich offerings to their temple. By Ramesses III's day, the priests may have controlled a third of all the cropland in Egypt. Rameses XI (d. 1077 BC) was in effect a prisoner in his own palace, while a High Priest of Amun named Herihor acted as de-facto ruler of Egypt. When both men died within a few years of each other, neither leaving a son, their son-in-laws began a civil war; one enthroned himself in Upper Egypt, the other claimed a divine right to rule Lower Egypt. This time, no great unifier appeared; the great days of Ancient Egypt were over. So in fact were those of the Hittites, and of other empires of the late second millennium BC; the Late Bronze Age Collapse. In the centuries that followed, Egypt's wealth and prestige made her a tempting target to invaders: a line of Libyan Pharaohs appeared in the tenth century BC; a line of Nubian pharaohs in the eighth; and then Egypt fell before the armies of the Neo-Assyrians, the Neo-Babylonians, and the Persians in turn, to become a mere province of empires.

By the New Kingdom, Egyptian pre-eminence in medicine was internationally recognized. Its practices included simple non-invasive surgery, setting of bones, dentistry, and an extensive set of pharmacology recipes. It is a considerable thing to have initiated the use of a remedy as effective as castor oil.

In reflecting on the demise of Ancient Egypt, it is hard to resist the feeling that the last centuries of the New Kingdom expose weaknesses present from the very beginning. This is not easy to discern at first; the spectacular legacy of her monuments and a history counted, not in centuries, but in millennia, stagger the critical sense. Yet behind this glittering tour de force, Egypt's creative quality seems strangely to miscarry. Colossal resources of labour were massed, and its ends were the creation of the greatest tombstones the world has ever seen. Craftsmanship of exquisite quality was employed, and its masterpieces were grave-goods. A highly literate elite utilised a complex and subtle language, and a medium (papyrus) of unsurpassed convenience, but had no philosophical or religious idea comparable to those of Greek or Jew to give to the world. It is difficult not to sense an ultimate sterility, a nothingness, at the heart of Egyptian civilisation. On the other scale must be placed her sheer staying-power. Though Egypt underwent at least two phases of considerable eclipse, it recovered with little fundamental change; survival on such a scale is a great historical success. What remains unclear is why it should have stopped there. Technology is by no means an infallible test, but, if it is looked at comparatively, it suggests a civilisation slow to adopt new skills and reluctant to innovate. Egypt had been in contact with Mesopotamia for getting on for 500 years before adopting the potter’s wheel; there is no evidence of the well-sweep during the Old Kingdom, by then long in use to irrigate land in the other river valleys; bronze-making did not appear until the second millennium BC; and the lathe has to wait for the Hellenistic Age. Modern mathematicians do not think much of the Egypt's endeavours; they certainly did not match the Babylonians in this art. No doubt primitive mathematics is a part of the explanation for the sterility of the Egyptian astronomy; another field in which posterity, paradoxically, was to credit them with great things. Only in medicine is there indisputably originality and lasting achievement. By the second millennium BC, an Egyptian pre-eminence in this art was internationally recognized. Though medicine in Egypt was never wholly separable from magic (magical amulets survive in great numbers), it had substantial rational content based on empirical observation. Much of our knowledge of medicinal plants was first established by the Egyptians and passed, through the Greeks to medieval Europe and the Islamic world. It is a considerable thing to have initiated the use of a remedy effective as long as castor oil. Apart from this, Egyptian civilisation made little permanent difference to the world. Her monuments have continuously fascinated artists and architects, but her style never took root elsewhere; only one great contribution was made by Egyptian art to the future, the fluted column. Egyptian cults popped up from time to time down the ages - Imperial Roman had to tolerate them - but the result was always superficial and exotic. As the world-shaping wars of the Fertile Crescent raged across the centuries, on the banks of the Nile, a grateful and passive people gathered the richness it bestowed, and set aside what they thought necessary for the real business of living; the proper preparation for death.

Early Civilised Life in the Aegean[]


North of the Nile Delta, far up in the Mediterranean Sea, Crete is the largest of the Aegean islands. Several centuries before 2000 BC, towns and villages were being built there of stone and brick. Their inhabitants practised metal-working, made attractive pottery and jewellery, and exchanged goods with other Aegean communities. Virtually all the inhabited areas of the Aegean grew sufficient food for their own needs, but Crete seems then, as today, to have been better for the production of olives and vines than the other islands or mainland Greece. The cultivation of the olive and vine changed the possibilities of Aegean life; they could be grown where grains could not; and made new demands for regulating a more complex agriculture, for handling their processing in oil and wine; and for organisation and government.

A modern reconstruction of the great Minoan palace of Knossos. It is a useful warning from history; or a warning about history and how we can romanticize it. This dubious reconstruction was the life-work of a British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans (d. 1941). In his hunger to achieve it, he set about slowly "improving" the ruins with reinforced concrete and faked-up frescoes. The extent to which his re-imagining is a reasonable guess or merely Evan's fantasy, divides even experts.

At this stage, the Cretans shared much of the culture of the whole Aegean. There then came a change. Around 1900 BC, they began to build a great palace at Knossos, a settlement just inland from the very centre of the northern coastline, well situated to keep tabs on the east and west ends of the island. Not long afterwards, other slightly smaller palaces went up at other strategic locations: at Mallia, east of Knossos on the northern coast itself; at Zakros, on the eastern extreme; and at Phaistos, just inland from the southern coast. These palaces are the greatest relics of what we call Minoan Civilization (1900-1500 BC). Since their writing system has not yet been deciphered, we still know very little about the Minoans of Crete. Even the name comes from a King Minos who, though celebrated in legend, may never have existed. Much later, the Greeks said he was a great king, whose wife Pasiphae enjoyed a monstrous coition with a bull from which was born the half-bull, half-man Minotaur, who devoured sacrificial youths and maids, sent as tribute from abroad, at the heart of a labyrinth; eventually penetrated successfully by the hero Theseus. The Minotaur story, with its exchange of goods and tribute, reflects the ongoing international sea trade carried out by the Minoan people all around the ancient world. The Aegean was an important meeting-place of diverse cultures, with its abundance of islands making for short crossings and easy communication. Contacts with Hittite Anatolia and the Western Semitic lands of the Levant were regular. An alabaster jar uncovered at Knossos is marked with the name of the third Hyksos king of Egypt. And their brightly painted pottery jars (probably once holding wine or oil) have been uncovered as far away as Mesopotamia. It may have been Near Eastern stimulus which explains Minoan Civilization’s leap forward. This civilization lasted some 400 years, but only the outlines of its organisation and history can be put together. The palaces were not only a royal residence, but in some sense an economic centre with very large storage spaces for agricultural surplus. Each stood at the centre of sprawling cities, with elaborate water and sewage facilities unsurpassed until Roman times. These main centres were connected to dozens of smaller towns and village by a network of narrow roads paved with blocks. The absence of fortifications in the settlements suggests a relatively peaceful society that felt sufficiently sure of the protection the sea gave them. The sophistication of the Minoan governance is evidenced by a huge quantity of administrative records on clay tablets uncovered all over the island; though these don't take us very far since they cannot be read. The religion of the Minoans remains unclear, but sketchy details are revealed through art and artefacts. The palace at Knossos was ornamented with frescoes depicting ceremonial processions, festivals, food offerings, and the worship of bulls; which is suggestive of the later Minotaur legend. Bull-leaping is thought to have been a key ritual; worshippers would spring over the lowered horns of a sacred bulls, onto its back and then to the ground. The Minoans also practiced human sacrifice, though not very often. Archaeology does not tell us what horrible dilemma drove them to such an extreme act of worship. But we can make a good guess. The island of Crete and the sea around it were periodically shaken by earthquakes; only constant pleading to the gods could stave-off such disasters. Sometime around 1720, one earthquake knocked down the palace of Knossos, and a new more elaborate one was built overtop of it. It was during the Second Palace period that Minoan Civilization reached the full extent of its power. Piracy had always been a problem in the Mediterranean - scholars suggest Knossos was built inland on account of this - but the Minoan fleet put an end to the pirates, and exercised something like political hegemony over more or less the whole of the Aegean. Trade flourished in this new peace, towns grew, and painting and sculpture reached a new level of sophistication. Here is a really original style, that was to shape fashion elsewhere; the art of New Kingdom Egypt shows Minoan influence. Then, in the mid-fifteenth century, Minoan palace culture was destroyed. The mystery of this end is tantalizing. There had been earthquakes in the past, so perhaps this was another of them. Recent scholarship has identifies a great volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera at a suitable time, which may have been accompanied by tidal waves, and followed by ash clouds that blighted the land. Even if the volcano was not directly responsible for the Minoan collapse, it left Crete vulnerable to invasion from mainland Greece. Sometime around 1450, the Minoan cities were sacked, and their palaces flattened; only the palace at Knossos remained standing.

Achilles tending to the arrow wounds of Patroclus. The great heroes of Homer occupied Mycenaean palaces.

The mainland Greeks were no doubt stimulated by their contact with Minoan Crete and other Mediterranean civilisations to develop a more sophisticated culture of their own. Their most important cities was at Mycenae, which gave its name to Mycenaean Civilization (1650-1100 BC). Other majors centres included Thebes, Pylos, and Athens. These cities were not very large, no more than a few thousand people, and their inhabitants were barbarians by comparison with the Minoans, with no art of their own. And it was from the Cretans that they learned to write. More aware of the role of violence and war in society than were the islanders - no doubt because they lacked the protection of the sea - they fortified their cities heavily, and had already contributed one enduring image to future Greek life; the acropolis, a defensive citadel on the highest place of the city. Royal burial add to the impression of a military society. The shaft graves at Mycenae contain a profusion of bronze swords and daggers, together with a great variety of luxurious objects. Each considerable city had its own king, presiding over a society of landed warrior elites. But there are Hittite diplomatic records which suggest some sort of federation of kings, headed by the king at Mycenae. By 1400 BC, the culture represented most spectacularly at Mycenae had spread over much of mainland Greece, the large island of Crete, and many smaller islands as far as Rhodes; this was a civilisation that encompassed almost the whole Aegean. Mycenaeans traded the length of the Mediterranean, from the traditional markets of the eastern coasts, to new ones in southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Spain. Yet there are signs of flagging from about 1300 BC. War seems to have been one answer. According to oral tradition, the rulers of Mycenaean Greece combined forces to assault a wealthy city on the other side of the Aegean Sea. The city was Troy, which stood in a corner of Anatolia that had never been reached by the Hittites, not even at their greatest extent. Some four centuries later the oral tradition would be written down as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which makes clear that it took many years before Troy was finally subdued; the Mycenaean attackers ran out of supplies, and had to spend part of their time growing food. If there is truth to the Trojan War, then it was the sort of victory to which King Pyrrhus would later lend his name; damaging the victors almost as much as the vanquished. What can be called the Dark Ages of the Aegean were about to close in, and they are as obscure as what was happening elsewhere in the Late Bronze Age Collapse. At the very end of the thirteenth century Mycenaean civilization comes to an abrupt end, and their cities were resettled by a new barbarian people from the north, who had no knowledge of writing, and no skill in building with brick or stone. Later Greeks called them the Dorians, and credit them with overwhelming military might; they could not conceive of any other reason why the land of heroes should be defeated. But archaeology suggests a slightly different story; Mycenae and Pylos were burned to the ground eighty years apart, which suggests that the newcomers spread slowly down the peninsula over the course of a century. The Mycenaean Greeks had plenty of time to mount some sort of defence, but it proved too feeble. In some places the established residents hung on successfully; Athens was one, but, even so, the city shrank alarmingly to a mere village. Elsewhere the Mycenaeans were driven out or ruled as serfs by the new conquerors. There is a picture of confusion everywhere; no king and court, no taxes and tributes, no foreign sea trade, and no particular need to write anything down. Only in the ninth century BC are there a few signs that the ground-plan of a new social pattern was emerging; the rise of Classical Greece.

Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Near East[]

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By the middle of second millennia BC, the whole Mediterranean and Near East can almost be viewed as one interconnected system. The great kingdoms and empires of the day - including Hittite Anatolia, New Kingdom Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Mycenaean Greece, and the Semitic states of the Levant - were closely tied to one another in a network of lucrative trade, marriage alliances, and often cordial diplomacy. Then in a matter of a few decades after the year 1200 BC this whole way of life was swept away. There is a closeness of timing in the collapse of so many Bronze Age civilizations that historians have thought too pronounced to be mere coincidence; the so-called Late Bronze Age Collapse. Almost everywhere archaeology reports depopulation, cities abandoned, and severely reduced literacy. Even the survivors of the collapse, like Egypt and Assyria, were weakened considerably. The precise cause has been debated by historians for a century now, but no consensus has been reached. It was probably a "perfect storm" of multiple stressors - a huge drought event, desperate famine, internal failures, roving marauders, and more - that toppled these interdependent realms like dominoes. Another interesting feature is a coincidence with the diffusion of ironworking technology, with the year 1200 BC serving as a rough division between the Bronze and Iron Ages; though that is no more than a helpful prop to memory. The sweeping upheavals and rearrangements which stud this confusion are hard even to map in outline, let alone to explain. Fortunately, there soon appear two threads through the turmoil. One is that some people, notably the Phoenicians and the Hebrews, enjoyed new independence and power with the waning military presence of great powers, The other is an old theme renewed, that of the continuing Mesopotamian tradition about to enter its final phase; the Neo-Assyrian and then Neo-Babylonian empires.

The most famous legacy of the Phoenicians is undoubtedly the alphabet. Mesopotamian cuniform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and other early writing systems consisted of hundreds of symbols, that stood for words and ideas with a few that stood for sounds, and that required years of study to master. Sometime around 1800 BC, the common people of the Sinai peninsula, then under Egyptian control, began to develop an only phonetic writing systems as a practical way to record things. Before 1050BC, the Phoenicians had adopted and perfected this simpler system for their own language. Their alphabet consisted of twenty-two letters, simple and memorable, all of them consonants; it vastly simplified writing and reading, thus making a more widespread literacy possible. The Greeks then borrowed the Phoenician alphabet, added vowels, and passed it on to the Romans. Thus, an invention of ordinary people and spread by Phoenician merchants is the origin of most of the world’s alphabetic scripts in use today.

The Phoenicians (1800-64 BC), a particular mix of Western Semitic and Aegean cultures, had a long and troubled history. They were already settled on the coast of modern Lebanon by the middle of the third millennium BC, when the Sumerians and Egyptians were getting supplies of cedarwood from them. The Phoenicians became merchants and seafarers because geography urged them to look outwards rather than inland. Behind their coastal strip lay a narrow hinterland, cut up by hills running down from the Lebanese mountains to the sea. This also made it difficult to unite. There was no Phoenician kingdom; nor a Phoenician high king. The cities of Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, Byblos, and Berot (modern Beirut) were politically independent, united only by a shared culture and language. Weak and divided at home - these city-states came under the sway of Egyptian and Hittite in turn - it cannot be entirely coincidental that the Phoenicians emerge from the historical shadows only after 1100 BC, when the great era of Minoan and Mycenaean trade was long past. Their importance then is attested by copious evidence; the Bible relates that Phoenician craftsmen and materials played an important part in the building of Solomon’s Temple; one of the characters in an Egyptian tale, the Story of Wen-Amen, is a Phoenician merchant, who claimed more than fifty ships plying back and forth between Sidon and the Nile. Ancient writers all stress their skill as traders, ship-builders, and long-distance navigators. No doubt commercial need stimulated Phoenician inventiveness. Cedarwood was the earliest export, but, unable to rely solely on this limited resource, the Phoenicians developed an industrial base manufacturing a variety of commodities. Timber was not only exported, but skilfully carved, and the same skills were adapted to even more luxurious goods in ivory and metal, particularly gold. The most prized Phoenician export was fine textiles dyed with "Tyrian purple", deriving from marine snail, which remained much sought after well into Classical times. Sidon was the leading source of glassware in antiquity. But it was in the field of writing that the Phoenicians made their most lasting contribution to world history. The scripts in use in the world then had all required the scribe to learn a large number of separate characters, each expressing either a whole word or a syllable. It was at Byblos, in about 1500 BC, that an entirely new approach to writing was developed, a phonetic one, based on an alphabet representing the basic sounds of a word. This was a change with monumental potential. It could liberate writing from an arcane skill requiring years of study, and made possible the ideal of a literate. The Classical Greeks would borrowed the Phoenician alphabet, turned it sideways, and passed it on to the Romans, and thence to us. And yet no noteworthy Phoenician literature survives, while Phoenician art tended to borrow and copy Near Eastern and Egyptian forms, perhaps reflecting their role as middlemen; as the customers demanded. Trade was the Phoenician passion, and, to facilitate their commercial ventures, they established colonies and trading posts all across the Mediterranean. The first was probably at Citium on Cyprus, established in the tenth century BC. But the main expansion came from the eighth century onwards, as their home cities came under increasing pressure from the Neo-Assyrian Empire. A century later Sidon was razed to the ground, and the daughters of the king of Tyre were carried off to an Assyrian king's harem. The Phoenicians were then reduced to only their colonies on Crete, Corsica, the Balearics, Sardinia, and Sicily, as well as on the European mainland at Genoa and Marseilles. The furthest west was just beyond the entrance to the Mediterranean at Cadiz in southern Spain, to link Mediterranean and Atlantic trade, especially in British tin and Spanish silver. Few colonies had more than 1,000 inhabitants, but, in time, Carthage, on the coast of north Africa, would grow into a seat of power more formidable by far than Tyre and Sidon had ever been.

Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law by Gustave Doré (d. 1883). Moses is considered the most important prophet in Judaism, and among the most important in Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic religions. In Jewish tradition, all of the teachings found in the Torah were given by God through Moses. The Ten Commandments are timeless riights and wrongs, but there are another 613 Commandments covering every aspect of life, from law to family, from personal hygiene to diet.

While the Phoenicians by their resumption of intercourse between Europe and the Near East were important, the people whom the Egyptians called Hebrews (and the world later called the Jews) were something more entirely. For many people over many centuries, mankind’s history before the coming of Christianity was the history of the Jews, as written down in the books of the Old Testament, and subsequently diffused worldwide in many languages by the Christian missionary impulse. The Hebrews somehow arrived at a unique religious vision, a coherent and uncompromising monotheism based on the worship of one all-powerful God, whom they called Yahweh; just and merciful, stern to punish sin but ready to welcome the repentant. No ancient people produced a greater historical impact from such comparatively insignificant origins and resources. The history of the early Jews begins among the Semitic people, nomads of Arabia, whose prehistoric and historic tendency had been to press north into the richer lands of the Fertile Crescent. Sometime around the time that the Sumerians were struggling against the Gutians, roughly 2150 BC, a Semitic citizen of Ur named Abraham decided (understandably) to gather his wife Sarah, his sons, their families, servants, and livestock, and set off westwards towards “Canaan”; the Western Semitic land of the Levant. The theological explanation for the journey, according to Genesis, was that Abraham had heard the voice of God, who gave him both a promise and a command. The promise was that Abraham and his descendants were blessed, and would be a great nation; the command was to leave his birthplace, and go with his household to the “land I will show you”. This Covenant is fundamental to an understanding of Judaism, the agreement that the Hebrews believed to exist between God and his chosen people. There does not seem to be good grounds for historians to deny that Abraham actually existed; countless peoples throughout history have traced their origins to a semi-legendary founding-father. If he did, his story is part of the confusion following the collapse of Akkadian Sumer as the population shifted away from southern Mesopotamia. When Abraham's clan arrived in Canaan, they cannot be blamed for wondering how this unpromising land was ever going to be theirs. This was a particularly rough time to be in the Western Semitic lands. The region had no unified culture, but had been moving towards increasing urbanization, building up independent cities, and quarrelling with neighbours over territory, wells, and grazing. But archaeology shows that, in the century or so before 2000 BC, things took a turn back towards a more nomadic lifestyle, due to a combination of over-planting, drought, and loss of lucrative trade after the collapse of Old Kingdom Egypt to the south. Several cities were temporarily abandoned, and the walls of Jericho were damaged and repaired at least seventeen times. In a time of particularly severe famine, one group of Hebrews left Canaan and moved down into well-watered Egypt, led by Abraham's grandson Jacob. On the journey, the Covenant between God and his chosen people was renewed, after a mysterious incident in which Jacob wrestled all night with the angel. God gave Jacob a new name "Israel", and from each of his twelve sons descend the "twelve tribes of Israel". The Hebrews / Israelites settled in the eastern Nile Delta, and prospered for a time. It was probably in Egypt that the Jews adopted circumcision as a distinctive mark of their community, because it was normal practice there. However, after the Second Intermediate, the Egyptian population grew understandably uncomfortable about the vigorous Israelites; after-all, they had in recent memory been dominated by the Hyksos, another group of Western Semites. The book of Exodus tells us that the Egyptian pharaoh rounded up the Israelites as slave labour for his building projects, and ordered all male Hebrew children thrown into the Nile. One mother, however, sealed her baby boy in a papyrus basket, and set it in reeds by the river, right near the place where the Egyptian princesses came down to bathe. A princess found the baby, recognized him as one of the Hebrews, but decided to adopt him as her own, under the name of Moses. On the face of it, the adoption seems unlikely, but we do know that Pharaohs often married the daughters of eastern royalty at this time; this princess could easily have been of Western Semitic stock; or perhaps she knew the story of Sargon’s birth, which served as a proof of divine chosenness. Raised in the palace, Moses, as a grown man, heard the call of God; he was to lead the Children of Israel out of slavery, back up to the land promised to Abraham. Inevitably, the Pharaoh refused, but each refusal was followed by divine reprisal - the Ten Plagues - until his resistance finally buckled. At this point we might hope for help from Egyptian sources, but, after a century of research, most scholars have abandoned the search for evidence of an Egyptian captivity and escape as a fruitless pursuit. There is only tradition, as there is only tradition for all Jewish history until the twelfth century BC. The Exodus became the central event in the history of the Jews. It is a story dominated by Moses, who managed the exodus, and held the Israelites together in the Sinai wilderness for fourty years. He did so by founding the Law, bringing down the Ten Commandments from his encounter with Yahweh on Mount Sinai; Jews were to worship Yahweh alone, to showed their devotion to Him through rituals, and to please Him by living up to high moral standards. This renewal of the Covenant was the bedrock of Jewish national identity, and led to a political reorganization; the formal recognition of the twelve tribes. Moses died just before the Israelites entered Canaan, but he had prepared them well for their inheritance.

King David, the second king of Israel, gained lasting fame in his youth by slaying the giant Goliath. After one indecisive battle between the Israelites and Philistines, it was proposed that two champions should fight to settle the matter. The Philistine champion was a giant, nine feet tall; an unusual height but not entirely impossible. King Saul had no intention of facing down this man, but David, an Israelite in his army, accepted the challenge. Confident that God was with him, David walked out with a slingshot, knocked Goliath out with a well-placed stone to the head, and cut off his head with Goliath's own sword.

Archaeology finally comes to the historians’ aid with the arrival of the Israelites at the southern border of the Western Semitic lands. The Biblical account of the conquest of Canaan fits evidence that the region was disputed between two religious traditions and two peoples throughout the twelfth century BC. Despite the resounding story of the walls of Jericho falling down when Joshua, the chosen successor of Moses, marched around them, the texts makes it plain that the conquest was a long and fiercely contested process. With the twelve tribes united only by their worship of Yahweh, each enjoyed their own small victories under their own local heroes. This, of course, again illustrates the collapse of Egyptian power, because such an important region could not have fallen prey to a minor Semitic people otherwise. The Israelites took as well as destroyed. They were in many ways less culturally sophisticated than the Canaanites, adopting their writing system and building practices, though without always reaching the same level of urban life as their predecessors. It seems to have been the challenge from the formidable Philistines, living along the Mediterranean coast, that spurred the next stage in the consolidation of a nation. During the settlement period the only Israelite political institution was a series of chief judges, prophets said to be chosen by God to guide them through crises. The penultimate and most famous was the supernaturally strong Samson, who "ruled" for twenty years, until betrayed by his lover Delilah. Captured and hauled off to Gaza, he prayed to God, and recovered his strength, allowing him to bring down the temple on himself and thousands of the enemy. This sort of Pyrrhic victory reflected a stalemate. No Philistine leader was powerful enough to pull together an army from all of their five cities, while the judges of Israel, their theological authority notwithstanding, had even less authority. Finally, the Israelites decided that they needed a king, and the last judge Samuel chose the impressively tall Saul (d. 1010 BC). The Kingdom of Israel (1037-587 BC) was thus established, but royal power was not universally accepted. Disagreement over several issues lost Saul the support of Samuel. And he had a dangerous rival in the young David (d. 970 BC), who won fame by defeating the Philistine champion Goliath in single combat. Paranoid that David was seeking to usurp the throne, Saul attempted to have him killed, forcing him to go into hiding. After Saul's death, the people of Judah, to the south, chose David as their king, while Saul's son struggled to maintain his inheritance in the north. After seven years of chaos, the northern tribes invited David to become their king as well. David's first act as king of all twelve tibes was to seize the Canaanite stronghold of Jerusalem, and make it his capital. To give the city religious significance, he had the Ark of the Covenant - containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments - moved there. He intended to build a temple to house it, but God denied him this, because of his well-known flews such as greed, lust, selfishness. Yet David went on the decisively defeat the Philistines, and conducted a series of successful campaigns that extend his control over almost all of the Western Semitic lands. He chose Solomon (d. 931 BC), from among his many sons by many wives, to be his successor. The Biblical portrayal of Solomon is paradoxical. On the one hand, he is credited with great wisdom, wealth, and power. Certainly the building of the "First" Temple in Jerusalem was just one part of the largest building program ever seen in Western Semitic lands. On the other hand, Solomon's heavy taxes and conscript labour caused disaffection among the populace, especially of the northern tribes. Moreover, his tendency to secure friendly relations with the neighbouring kingdoms through marriage - according to tradition he had 700 wives and 300 concubines - led him into idolatry; foreign wives meant tolerating the cults of their gods. Solomon’s ambition to turn Israel into an great kingdom instead helped destroyed it.

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Upon Solomon's death, his son Rehoboam was unable to prevent the kingdom splitting in two. The ten northern tribes seceded and proclaimed an official named Jeroboam as their king; the Kingdom of Israel (930-720 BC). Only Rehoboam’s own tribe, Judah, and the tiny tribe of Benjamin remained loyal to Jerusalem; the Kingdom of Judah (930–587 BC). The weakness and division of the Israelites did not go unnoticed by their neighbours. The Egyptians were enjoying a very brief renaissance under a Libyan warlord named Shishak. He marched up the coast, and laid siege to Jerusalem. The city-walls remained intact, though. In other words, the southern kingdom bought off the attackers with the palace treasure, and became an Egyptian vassal for a time. In contrast, the northern kingdom was regarded as an important power in the region, as evidenced by successfully fended-off a series of Neo-Assyrian invasions from the late-ninth century BC onwards. This doesn’t get much play in the Biblical account, which is more concerned with presenting its story as a parable about the danger of idolatry. No northern king, not even the strongest, would pull down the ancient Canaanite shrines at Bethel and Dan, remembered for the idol of the golden calf. This eventually invited God's wrath, and , in 722 BC, the Kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II (d. 705 BC). As per Assyrian policy, the population was deported en masse across Mesopotamia, giving rise to the persistent legend of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Judah lasted longer. It was more compact and somewhat less in the path of great powers; though, it did become a Neo-Assyrian vassal state from 701 BC. By the sixth century BC, the international situation had changed; Babylon, rather than Assyria, was once again the dominant power in Mesopotamia. In 598 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (d. 562 BC) conquered the Kingdom of Judah, plundered Jerusalem, and systematically destroyed Solomon's Temple; not a trace could later be found. The Judaeans then suffered mass deportation too; large numbers were carried away to captivity in Babylon, while others escaped into exile in Egypt. This was the great defining experience of The Exile, a period so important that afterwards we may properly speak of "the Jews". This period saw the last high point of Biblical prophecy in the person of Ezekiel, whose faith in the ultimate establishment of a new Covenant with God had a profound influence on the reconstruction and reorganization of Judaism. The authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible (or Torah), and the synagogue as an institution, can be traced to the Babylonian exile; crucial elements in the Jewish ability worship anywhere, and to retain their identity regardless of circumstance. It is also believed that the concept of the Messiah first entered Jewish tradition at this time, a beacon of light in dark times; and of course crucial to the beginnings of Christianity. There was a narrowing of the Jewish community, too. According to Ezekiel, redemption must lie though purification. Hebrew laws on marriage were more rigidly enforced; a Jew, already married to a gentile wife, was obliged to divorce her. This became more obvious after the Persians conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, as a self-governing vassal state,

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The circumstances which had favoured the appearance of a Jewish state had disappeared. Since the days of Hammurabi, the Mesopotamian valley had been the seat of no great empire, though such a sweeping statement conceals much. One king of Assyria, Tukulti-Ninurta (d. 1207 BC), conquered Hittite Syria and Kassite Babylon, and defeated the Elamites, who had themselves been coveting Babylon. But his empire was soon swept a cluster of Semitic desert-dwellers whom scholars call the Aramaeans, together with a new line of Kassite kings in Babylon, For the next two-centuries or so, these three peoples made awkward and touchy neighbours, until shape began to reappear in this turmoil of events in the ninth century BC. Then, as the Bible account tells us, Assyrian armies were once again on the move; the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–609 BC). This was an important and particularly unpleasant phase of Near Eastern history. Assyria was the first society to make militarism the central policy of state. Fed by conscription of all males, and armed with siege engines able to breach walls until this time impregnable, the Assyrian war-machine moved outwards through unconquered territory each spring. Resistance was often brief, for their custom was to make an example of any city which refused to capitulate. Siege artillery was brought up, and the end was usually swift. Soon the ruling elites were dangling from poles around the city-walls, while their people were taken as slaves, and others would be moved into the new territory; the probable fate of the Ten Tribes of Israel. Other cities understand the message, and open their gates. The Assyrian peak followed 729 BC, when Babylon was seized. Israel, Syria, Lower Egypt, Cilicia (southern Anatolia), Cyprus, and northern Arabia were soon annexed. Finally, in 646 BC, the Assyrians made their last important conquest, the northern part of the lands of Elam. The consequences for the Near East were of great importance. A standardized system of government and law spanned the whole region. Conscript soldiers and deported populations were moved about within it, sapping its provincialism. Aramaic spread widely as a common language. A new cosmopolitanism became possible after the Assyrian age. Meanwhile, the profits of conquest financed the building of a new and spectacular capital at Nineveh by Sargon II (d. 705 BC). His son, Sennacherib (d. 681 BC), added a great palace, which he called ekallu ša šānina la išu ("the Palace without Rival"); it covered more than half a square-mile of land, ornamented throughout with superbly sculpted reliefs commemorating the great deeds of Assyrian kings, as well as another theme monotonously repeated; sackings, enslavement, impalement, torture and the final solution of mass deportation. Ashurbanipal (668–626 BC ) left his own monuments, but his finest relic was the world's first great library. In it he accumulated copies of all that he could discover of the records and literature of ancient Mesopotamia; more than 30,000 tablets and fragments (now mostly in the British Museum), including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh in its fullest edition. But the death of Ashurbanipal, in 631 BC, was close to Assyria's end. 

A hand-coloured engraving made in the 19th century, after the first excavations in the Babylonian capitals. It depicts the fabled Hanging Gardens, with the Tower of Babel in the background.

One of the fundamental reasons was the inability of the Neo-Assyrian kings to resolve the "Babylonian problem"; a brutal sack of the ancient city in 689 BC led to prolonged unrest, frequent periods of outright revolt, and, eventually, to devastating revenge. Ashurbanipal's son was immediately faced by the revolt of his brother. In the middle of this mess, another revolt of Babylon under Nabopolassar (d. 605 BC), combined with an invasion by a dangerous new neighbour, the Kingdom of the Medes, to swiftly sweep the Neo-Assyrians away. In 612 BC, Nineveh was captured and destroyed after a three-month siege. Assyria's collapse left the Fertile Crescent open to new masters. The Medes were content with the eastern territory (for now), so the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626–539 BC) became the dominant power in Mesopotamia for the first time in a thousand years. Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar II (d. 562 BC), gave Mesopotamian civilization an Indian summer of grandeur. If for nothing else, he would be remembered as the destroyer of the Jerusalem in 587 BC, and then carrying of the Jews into their Babylonian captivity, to carry out the embellishment of his capital. According to tradition, he was also the creator of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And he was the greatest king of his time, perhaps of any time until his own. The great glory of the empire was an annual New Year's Festival, celebrated in honour of the city's patron deity, Marduk. Each year, all the Mesopotamian gods - the idols and statues of provincial shrines - were borne down the rivers and canals to take counsel with Marduk at his temple. The destiny of the entire whole world was then debated and determined for another year. Thus theology reflected the political reality; Marduk's eternal supremacy endorsed the absolute monarchy of Babylon. But Nebuchadnezzar’s successors were less effective. And they had the misfortune to be close neighbours of the greatest empire-builder to have emerged by this stage in history; Cyrus the Great,of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. On 12 October 539 BC, Cyrus' army entered Babylon without the need for battle, after his engineers diverted the waters of the Euphrates. In so far as the story of antiquity has a turning-point, this is it. An independent Mesopotamian tradition going back to Sumer was over. We are at the edge of a new age, in which the Persian East or Greco-Roman West would dispute mastery of the "civilised world".

Civilisation in India[]

Indus valley civilization mature phase.jpg

In the years when the Egyptian Pharaohs were building the earliest pyramids, and the Sumerian kings of Kish collected tribute from the shipping up and down the Euphrates, another great civilisation of ancient times had appeared on the Indian subcontinent. Even now, the diversity of Indian life is enormous. The subcontinent is, after-all, about the size of Europe and divided into regions clearly distinguished by climate and terrain. From the very beginning of Indian history, the peoples of the south, the northeast, and the northwest lived independent of each other. The north and south were divided from each other by two mountain ranges, the Vindhya and Satpura. As the weather warmed, a desert three hundred miles wide spread its sands between the two great river valleys of the north, the Indus and Ganges systems. When written history begins, its racial complexity, too, was already very great: scholars identify six main ethnic groups. Many others were to arrive later and make themselves at home within Indian society. All this makes it hard to find a focus. Yet, Indian history has a unity in the fact of its large measure of insulation from the outside world by geography. Until the oceans began to be opened-up in the sixteenth century AD, India had only to grapple with occasional, though often irresistible, incursions by alien peoples. To the north, she was protected by some of the highest mountains in the world; to the north-east lay belts of jungle. The other two sides of the sub-continent opened-out into the huge expanses of the Indian Ocean. This natural definition not only restricted external forces, it also gave India a distinctive climate. Much of it does not lie in the tropics, but nonetheless the climate is tropical. The mountains keep away the icy winds of Central Asia; rain-laden clouds roll in from the oceans, which cannot go beyond the northern ranges. The climatic clock is the annual monsoon, bringing the rain during the hottest months of the year. Although protected in some measure from the outside world, India's north-western corner is more open. The mountain passes of the Hindu Kush were the most important zones of encounter between India and other peoples; even India’s contacts with China were first made by this roundabout route. This is suggestive when we consider the first Indian civilizations.

The best-known artifacts of Indus Valley Civilisation are seals depicting real and fantastical animals. These seals, and other relics found at Harappan sites, suggest many cultural elements would later become assimilated into Hinduism. Some seals show a mother-goddess (later personified as Kali) and a male three-faced god sitting in a yoga pose attended by animals (believed to be an early Shiva). Black stone pillars (associated with phallic worship of Shiva) and bull figures (later Shiva’s mount, Nandi) have also been discovered.

We do not know much about Indus Valley Civilisation (2600-1900); also called "Harappan" civilisation after its earliest-discovered site, the city of Harappa. The people who settled along the length of the Indus river (straddling the modern India–Pakistan border) did not set down their achievements on tablets. Nor did they carve the likeness of their leaders on stone. What remains of their civilization consists of city ruins, a whole assortment of seals used to identify goods for trading, and a few brief inscriptions that no one can read, since the script has never been deciphered. Archaeological evidence shows that agriculture came later to India than to the Fertile Crescent. It, too, can first be traced in the north-west corner of the sub-continent from about 6000 BC; there is the reasonable possibility of direct Mesopotamian influence, though it would be rash to be assertive about that. Three thousand years later, a string of farming villages had spread along the lower Indus River, and along the five branches of its upper end. Parallels with other river-valley cultures begin to be found, such as wheel-thrown pottery, copper implements, and baked bricks. When at last indisputable evidence of civilized life is available, the change is startling. By about 2600 BC, the villages along the Indus had turned into a network of cities. The great cities of the Mature Harappan period were Harappa itself on a northern branch of the Indus; Mohenjo-Daro, farther to the south; and Lothal, near modern Ahmedabad on the Gujarāt coast. More than seventy other sites have been uncovered. Harappan cities were astoundingly uniform, despite being spread across more than a quarter-million square miles; an area greater than either Sumer or Egypt. Even their bricks were of standard size. Each had a citadel and a residential area, with streets laid out on a rectangular grid pattern, wide enough for two oxcarts to pass each other. There was an elaborate sewage system with household drains leading into main sewers, and inspection holes for maintenance. The great granary at Harappa, for feeding the populace, was designed with bays to receive carts of grain, and air ducts to dry it; estimates put the population at some thirty-thousand at its peak. At Mohenjo-Daro, close to its granary, there was a great public bath-house. Perhaps it is not fanciful to see in this the first manifestations of an enduring feature of Indian life; the ritual ablutions still so important to Hindus. It is clear the Harappans had a well-developed economic life. Weights and measures seem to have been standardized over a large area. Evidence survives of specialist craftsmen drawing materials from far afield, and subsequently sending-out their finished-goods again. This civilization had cotton cloth - the first of which we have evidence - which was plentiful enough to wrap bales of goods for export. Harappan seals, of which thousands survive, turn up in the far corners of the Near East, Eastern Africa, and Central Asia. These seals, and a few inscriptions on fragments of pottery, provides our first evidence of Indian writing. Yet it has no message for us; the lack of long texts suggests that the script was limited to trading. With an effort we can imagine Harappan Civilization with faceless artisans, merchants, and labourers, but it has no recorded kings, battles, power struggles, or tales of heroes. Ideas and techniques from the Indus spread west through Sind (now southern Pakistan), north to the Punjab, and down the west coast of India. Where its influence did not reach – the Ganges valley and the south-east – different cultural processes were at work; there are traces of Chinese influence. Rice, for example, began to be grown in India in the Ganges valley from about 3000 BC. We do not know why the India's first civilization crumbled, though its passing can be roughly dated. The sense of order, so evident in the Indus cities, began to diminish after about 1900 BC. The Harappans were not brought down by hostile invasion. The ruins show no dropped weapons, no systematic destruction, and no signs of struggle around the citadel; which had, after-all, been built for just such an occasion. We have to assume that some kind of natural disaster; an epic flood, drought, or earthquake. Recent examination of skeletons show evidence of severe illnesses like anemia, leprosy, and tuberculosis, probably caused by severe malnutrition. Whatever the cause, most Harappan cities had been abandoned by sometime around 1700 BC.

Shive, one of the principal deities of Hinduism. God of Destruction, Meditation, Yoga, Time and Dance.

A violent intrusion did come down into India from Central Asia, but not until about 1600 BC. These newcomers were the Aryans - from their own word for "noble" - an Indo-European people, who made their way through the Hindu Kush down into the Punjab in several waves. Their civilization was, at first, barely civilized at all. As a pastoral nomads of the steppes, they were accustomed to living in roving bands grouped around a war-leader; they did not farm; they did not build; they did not write; they had no culture so advanced as that of the Harappans. What they could do was fight, bringing bronze weapons, horses, chariots, and bows with range unlike anything India had seen. This was the beginning of centuries during which these migrants washed deeper and deeper into the Indus valley, and eventually reached the upper Ganges. No doubt much violence marked their coming, but there is plenty of evidence that the native populations lived on with them. Instead, there was a fusion of Aryan with earlier ways; the arriving Aryans adopted lives that were patterned much more after the vanished Harappans, while elements of Aryan culture were adopted by the peoples already there. This was process that took centuries; not until the coming of iron, after 1000 BC, was the Ganges valley fully colonized in a sprawl of villages. Meanwhile, the invaders had made two decisive contributions to Indian history, in its religious and in its social institutions. The deepest roots of Hinduism go very deep indeed. Practically every prehistoric people and nomadic tribe honoured a goddess of fertility, a guardian of farmers and herdsmen, a patroness of motherhood and childbirth. Many of these have been brought together in Shiva, one of the great popular cult figures today. Seals depicting a figure like an early Shiva, and stones like the phallic lingam (a symbol of Shiva), have been found in the Harappan cities. Vishnu, another focus of modern devotion, is much more an Aryan. Most historians believe Hinduism is a fusion or synthesis of beliefs from various sources. As Aryan culture spread over northern India, they did not obliterate indigenous cultures and practices. Instead, hundreds of local cults came to join their own gods and goddesses to form the Hindu pantheon. There is some debate over who influenced who more during this time. Whatever survived from the pre-Aryan past, the major philosophical and speculative traditions of Hinduism stem from the Aryan legacy; their language, Sanskrit, is the language of religious learning to this day. Around 1200 BC or so, they began to set-down in writing their own myths and ritual hymns, passed-down orally for many centuries, in the Rig-Veda, the earliest Hindu sacred text. Within the early pantheon of gods, the most important were: the fire-god Agni, through whose sacrificial flames men could reach the gods; the war-god Indra, who, year after year, slew a demon, and thus released the heavenly waters which came with the breaking of the monsoon; and the sky-god Varuna, embodiment of justice and the natural order. In the long term, none of these were to play a major role in Hinduism, but two minor characters in the Rig-Veda were waiting in the wings: Vishnu appears as a sun-god who occasionally helps Indra in slaying demons; and Shiva has a small and sinister part. Any society with complicated gods who make complicated demands stands in need of priests, as well as warlords. By the later verses, priests had become something more than simply specialists in god-care, but a hereditary class (Brahman); priests fathered sons who were trained to become priests, and who married daughters of other priests. Together with a hereditary class of warrior-chiefs (Kshatriyas), they were India's first true aristocracy, distinct from ordinary peasant-farmers (Vaishyas). These social divisions have survived to our own day, in what the Portuguese later gave the name we use, the Caste System. About the early history of this vast and complicated subject, it is impossible to speak with assurance. Once the rules of Caste were written down, they appeared as a hard and solid structure; movement between divisions was impossible. Yet this did not happen until Caste had been in existence for hundreds of years. As society became more complicated, two new categories were soon added to the earliest divisions: a class of landowners and merchants (Gahapata), and a voiceless and powerless class of people, the "unclean" (Shudras), whose origin is unclear, but the word eventually came to denote slave. This structure has been elaborated almost ever since, as a vast number of Castes and sub-Castes slowly inserted themselves.


By the seventh-century BC, Aryan culture had established something like a cultural unity in northern India. Its centre of gravity had also shifted from the Punjab to the Ganges Valley, which was already what it was to remain, the great centre of Indian population, its cultural domination assured as the centre of Indian civilization. A second age of Indian cities began there, together with the development of larger and better-equipped armies; we hear of war-elephants. By about 600 BC, the warlike clans had battled, negotiated, and treatied their way into a semi-stable arrangement of sixteen kingdoms; known as the Mahajanapadas. The processes in which they emerged are touched on in two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Together with the Upanishads, sacred texts dating from about 700 BC, they mark the next important evolution towards Classic Hinduism. Although Hinduism, with its colourful pantheon of gods and goddesses, is usually viewed as a polytheistic religion, it can be interpreted as monotheistic. Brahma is, in a sense, the one supreme divinity, who sets all else in motion and in whose essence all human souls take part. He is too immense a concept for the human mind to comprehend, though, so presents himself in many different aspects and manifestations which people recognize as the gods. Of these, the most important are Vishnu and Shiva, who together with Brahma form the central "Hindu Trinity": Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). An immense, all-embracing world view slowly emerged, in which all things are linked in a web of being. Souls might pass through different forms of this immense whole; they might move up or down between Castes, or even between the human and animal world. The duty of the devout Hindu is the observation of Dharma – a virtually untranslatable concept, but one which embodies carrying-out religious duties, behaving virtuously, striving to be the best version of oneself, and obedience to one's station in life. In the short term a good Dharma will lead to reincarnation in more fortunate circumstances, The ultimate purpose is to achieved Moksha; release from the recurring pattern of death and rebirth.

Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.” – The Buddha

During the days of the Mahajanapadas kingdoms, the Kshatriya held political power, but this must always have depended on a nice balance of relations with the Brahman priestly class. In almost every other ancient society, the kings dominated the rest; even those who paid lip service to the gods were likely to throw-in-jail or even execute their priests. But in India, the Brahman wielded a peculiar power of their own. It was still possible, at this time, for a man who had not been born Kshatriya to become king if the priests carried out the rituals bestowing sacred power upon him. But no one who was not born Brahman could become a priest. In such a rigidly hierarchical society, someone was bound to be discontent. In the sixth century BC, the rise of new ascetic movements challenged the formalism of orthodox Hinduism One very successful cult which did not require communication with the gods through the agency of the priests was Jainism, based on the teachings of Nataputta Vardhamana (d. 477 BC); also known as Mahavira ("Great Hero"). At the heart of the Jain doctrine is the principle of Ahimsa: non-violence against all living things, since any forms of life share with mankind the possession of a soul. This, of course, made agriculture or animal husbandry impossible, so Jains tended to become merchants and later bankers, with the result that, in modern times, the Jain community is one of the wealthiest in India. A few years later, an even more important reformer appeared; Siddhartha Gautama (d. 483 BC), better known as the Buddha ("Enlightened One"), founder of Buddhism. Gautama was born into wealth and privilege, a prince of the Shakya clan on the northern edge of the Ganges plain. After a comfortable and gentlemanly upbringing, he found his life unsatisfying and left home. His first recourse was extreme asceticism, divesting himself of all possessions except for a single garment, and spending his time in silence and meditation. Seven years of this proved to him that he was on the wrong path. He began instead to pursued a Middle Way, of reflecting on life in modest comfort. One evening Gautama sat under a pipal tree at Buddh Gaya, a village in Bihar. By dawn he had attained Nirvana - the knowledge of a truth which is caused by nothing, dependent on nothing, and leads to nothing - a way of existence impossible to define in words. Like other contemporary religious leaders, Gautama began preaching and gathering disciples. His message was plain to the point of bluntness; most Indians faced a lifetime of weary suffering, with no hope of escape except through rebirth, which might face them with another long life of suffering. It was an existence which, as one historian put it, did not so much promise hope, as threatened even worse. The Buddha taught his disciples that no obstacle prevented the soul from attaining Moksha, a concept common to Hinduism and Jainism. In the older two religion, it eventually leads to release from the endless cycle of rebirth and transmigration. In Buddhism, it can be achieved in this life by following the Eightfold Path of moral and spiritual improvement. The Buddha apparently had great practical and organizational ability, as well as insight. By his death, at the age of about eighty, communities of Buddhist monks had been established across northern India. Wandering through villages and towns with their begging bowls, eager to describe the path to the truth, they were familiar figures. But so were many other such groups, including the Jains. The advance of Buddhism beyond the others was largely due to the enthusiastic support of a king of the 3rd century BC; Asoka the Great, ruler of much of the Indian subcontinent. 

While Mahavira and the Buddha were preaching the freeing of the self from the material world, the rejection of material possessions, the kings of the Mahajanapadas were fighting to gain as much territory as possible. Vatsa, Avanti, and Kosala, to the north of the Ganga, were the major rivals in the wars of supremacy, trading off power with each other; none keeping it for long. But Magadha, below the Ganges, grew steadily in strength. Bimbisāra of Magadha (d. 492 BC) became the first Indian empire-builder, albeit in a minor way. He conquered the delta kingdom of Anga, which controlled the river’s access to the ocean; by way of the Bay of Bengal. It was also the first of the sixteen kingdoms to be permanently absorbed into another. Bimbisāra is also remembered as a great friend and protector of the Buddha. This was not merely a religious position, but a political one; any doctrine which reduced the power of the Brahmans was bound to increase the power of the king. By the late fourth century BC, Magadha was well on the way to becoming the centre of the first great Indian empire; the Maurya Empire.

Civilisation in China[]

The most striking fact about China’s civilisation is that it has gone on for so long. For almost four millennia, there has been a Chinese nation using a Chinese language, and its government as a single unit has long been taken to be normal, despite periods of grievous division and confusion. From tiny beginnings by the Yellow River, to the subcontinent of today, an uninterrupted thread runs through its history, making for (arguably) the longest-lasting complex civilisation on earth.


At first glance, China does not suggest much that makes for unity. The physical setting of Chinese history is vast; it is almost three times bigger than India. This huge expanse contains regions clearly distinguished by climate and terrain. Above all, northern and southern China are very different. In summer the north is scorching hot and arid, while the south is semi-tropical and prone to flooding; the north is cold and barren in the winter, while the south is always green. China’s major internal divisions are set by three great river valleys, which drain the interior roughly from west to east. These are, from north to south, the Yellow River (Huang He), the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), and the Pearl River (Zhujiang). Such a setting should not form a unity, except for one thing; China is isolated, a world unto herself. Her frontiers still sprawl along great mountain ranges and plateaux. These highlands are broken only where the Yellow River flows from the High Kunlun, north of Tibet, looping around the Ordos Desert, and then into northern China from Inner Mongolia. This natural definition channelled and restricted contacts and encounters with other peoples to this important frontier region. And it is on the banks of the Yellow River that the story of civilization in China begins. As in other parts of the world, the coming of agriculture meant a revolution. It has been argued that people living on the coastal areas of southern China were clearing forests to make fields as far back as 10000 BC, even before the Fertile Crescent. It is more certain that rice was being grown just above the flood level of the Yangtze River in the seventh millennium BC. Early rice cultivation seems to have been exhaustive; the land was cleared, used for a few years, and then the cultivators turned attention elsewhere. The Yellow River begins to yield evidence of agriculture later, from about 5800 BC, but it was there that the first permanent villages and complex cultures appeared. People made pottery in forms which were to become traditional, carved jade and turquoise into jewellery, domesticated the silk-worms, and perhaps even used chopsticks.

Shang sites have yielded the earliest known body of Chinese writing, mostly divinations inscribed on oracle bones. Some modern Chinese characters can be traced back to around 1200 BC, making Chinese arguably the oldest continually-used writing-systems in the world.

The narrative of early Chinese history is very hard to recover, but can be outlined with some confidence. According to Sima Quin (d. 86 BC), the Grand Historian who collected the traditional tales of ancient times, the story of civilization in China begins with the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BC). The dynasty has long been regarded as more myth than fact. but recent excavations have uncovered urban sites further fueling the debate about its existence. Yet it remains unclear whether these sites represented a recognizable cohesive state; or even if they are the ruins of the Xia, or some other contemporary culture. It is more certain that, beginning in the sixteenth century BC, a people called the Shang, who enjoyed the military advantage of chariots, established themselves over the fertile land on the lower reaches of the Yellow River from a capital at Ānyáng; the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). The land of the Shang was tiny; barely half the modern province of Henan, though its cultural influences reached far beyond that. Shang kings lived and died in some state; up to a few hundred human sacrificial victims were buried with them in deep and lavish pit-tombs. But their authority was anything but unquestioned. The political structure seems to have been a matter of uniting the landholdings of a warrior aristocracy with obligations to a king; it has been described as "feudal". This probably explains the puzzling Shang habit of moving their capital city every few generations. Rather than resist the hostility of nearby vassal lords, they shifted their ground, and, in this way, held onto the throne for centuries. Yet Shang government was advanced enough to have scribes and archivists, for this was the first truly literate culture east of Mesopotamia. Excavations at the site thought to be Hsiao, the second capital, reveal city walls of stamped earth nearly thirty feet high. The Shang kings may not have governed with the authority of an Egyptian pharaoh, but they had enough power to compel labour in the thousands. A less immediately obvious example is bronze-working. As early as 1500 BC, the Shang engaged in the large-scale production of bronze weapons, ceremonial vessels, and agricultural tools. Like pyramid-building, this required a large labour force that could handle nasty, intensive work; mining, refining, transporting, casting. This in turn created a need for officials to oversee both hard labourers and skilled artisans. No other ancient civilisation was able to cast bronze on such a scale; nor in such sophisticated forms. Besides work in bronze, the craftsmen equally skilled in stonework, and silk and other textiles. The stability of the Shang Dynasty also allowed for development of religious thought that has stood the test of time; the worship of ancestors. Ancestors were thought to survive into the spirit world, known as Tiān ("Heaven"), and could be called upon for assistance in times of need. We know this because their priest performed divination rituals to secure their approval. This was done by engraving the shoulder-blade of oxen (or the undershell of tortoise) with a question, and then applying a heated metal point until the bone cracked. The pattern of the crack was “read” and interpreted as wisdom passed back by ancestors; the answer given was usually written on the bone, before filling away in the archive. They provide us with evidence of the foundation of the Chinese language, as the Shang script in pictorial characters is basically classical Chinese. The Chinese language thus shows a unique continuity; it would grow and evolve, but has remained essentially within the framework set-down by the Shang 3,500 years ago. The questions on the oracle bones, no matter who asked them, were always posed in the name of the king. In addition to his secular duties, he served as mediator between the living and the dead, his rule ordained by divine powers.

A tripod cauldron or ding from the Zhou period, which were associated with rituals symbolising authority. The number of permitted ding varied according to one's rank in the Chinese nobility. The Nine Ding of the Zhou king - supposedly cast by a legendary Xia king of ancient China - were viewed as symbols of their rule over all China by the Mandate of Heaven.

Setting a pattern that would be repeated many times throughout China’s long history, Shang rulers grew cruel and negligent, and the people, suffering under misrule, revolted. Led by King Wu of Zhou, they overthrew the Shang at the Battle of Muye (1046 BC), marking the beginning of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-256). The rebellion of the Zhou, further west along the Yellow River, was not exactly the disobedience of a subject people. The Zhou were one of several states which had emerged within the Shang cultural orbit, over whom the Shang kings had an ambiguous power; these were kingdoms in their own right, but oracle bones travelled back and forth between their capitals.No one wanted the Shang back, but the Zhou takeover had to be carefully justified. The Zhou introduced what was to prove one of China's most enduring political doctrines: the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven"; that heaven had imposed a moral mandate on them to replace the Shang and return good governance to the people. The idea is somewhat similar to the medieval European divine right of kings, but with one important difference; the mandate was not unconditional. Under this system, rebellion against an unworthy ruler was legitimate, as it never was in Europe. Under the Zhou, the governmental and social structures inherited from the Shang were preserved and improved upon. But their greatest contribution was the further diffusion of this heritage outwards. By 500 BC, Chinese civilisation had expanded over most of northern China - from edge of the Mongolian steppe to the Yangtze River - by a complex process of military conquest, agricultural colonization, and intermarriage with non-Zhou peoples.


Zhou government represented a change in scale rather than kind. As under the Shang, there was no truly unitary state, and Zhou supremacy rested on personal loyalties of a group of feudal lords, some more dependable than others. This system collapsed from 771 BC, when a massive barbarian incursion sacked the Zhou capital of Haojing. Eventually these horse-oriented nomads were beaten off, but the western side of the Zhou lands was clearly no safe place for the king and his court. The capital was moved further east to Luoyang, marking the beginning of the Eastern Zhou (711-256 BC), which is traditionally divided into the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. The Spring and Autumn Period (771-403 BC) is characterized by an even-increasing collapse of royal authority. as more and more lords asserted de facto regional autonomy, openly defied the king's court, and waged war among themselves. One estimate suggests that upwards of one-hundred-and-seventy states existed in this time. The Zhou kings cowered at the middle, clinging to a role which had become almost entirely ceremonial and religious. As the period progressed, big fish ate the little fish. Alongside state consolidations, internal conflict between state rulers and their local aristocracy was rife. In the mid-5th century BC, the powerful state of Jin spectacularly disintegrated in a five-decade civil war, initiating the Warring States Period (403-221 BC). By then, the political geography of China was dominated by seven states - the Chu, Han, Qi, Wei, Yan, Zhao, and Qin - and, as the name suggests, an even greater war ensued, as they jostled to take up the Mandate of Heaven, still nominally held by the Zhou.

No contemporary portrait or sculpture of Confucius survives, and the earliest known picture dates from more than four centuries after his death. It is customary to portray him as a wise old man with long grey hair and moustaches, usually carrying scrolls.

The Chinese world of the fifth century BC was both warlike and intellectually fertile, in a similar way to Classical Greece at around the same time. For the princes who disputed China, the price of survival was the elaboration of more effective governments and military forces. The era was to be remembered as the golden age of Chinese philosophy, the "Hundred Schools of Thought", when wandering scholars moved from patron to patron, expounding their teachings. One sign of this, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the appearance of some of the world’s first books of military strategy, most famously The Art of War by Sun-Tzu (496 BC). Sun-Tzu was a man with few illusions about what constant warfare was doing to his country; his thirty-six stratagems are largely aimed at defeating your enemy while avoiding as much actual fighting as possible. At a time when force-of-arms seemed to be the only glue holding states together, the most famous of all Chinese thinkers offered another way. Born Kǒng Qiū (551 BC), it is convenient to call him by a Latinized form of his Chinese title, Kǒng Fūzǐ ("Master Kǒng"), Confucius. He was to be more profoundly respected in China than any other philosopher. What he said - or was said to have said - shaped his countrymen’s thinking for two thousand years, and was to be paid the dubious compliment of bitter attacks from Mao Zedong in the Marxist republic of the twentieth century. Confucius was a member of the lesser nobility in the small state of Lu, where he spent some time as a government record-keeper, and a sort of expert in the rituals and ceremonies carried-out at court. In his early thirties, he was forced to flee Lu, when its lord was driven out by a rival. He spent several years wandering from place to place, trying to find a ruler who would put into practice his ideas about personal behaviour and statecraft. He reputedly asked seventy-two different rulers if he could advise them, before returning home, and devoting the rest of his life to teaching; proclaiming his school open to talent regardless of wealth. Confucius was a man who treasured order. and he sought to teach his pupils how to find both order and stability in a world where neither was on conspicuous display. His central idea is the importance of having a good moral character. The man who understood his place, and scrupulously discharged his duties became the anchor for a more harmonious society and state. Nor was he easy on those at the top; they must serves as an example of benevolence and moral perfection. The practical expression of this was the strong Confucian predisposition toward hierarchies, and due reverence for the many nicely graded obligations between men. Confucius believed in the importance of education in order to create this moral character, and rituals to embedded proper behaviour in daily life. Another Confucian tenet was the Zhōngyōng ("the golden mean"), or moderation in all things. He frowned on vulgar displays of wealth as distasteful and socially disruptive. Confucius’s teachings were immediately successful in the sense that his young graduates were much in demand as advisers in the competing kingdoms of China. So his ideas spread and his disciples began, as they would continue, as civil servants. Confucian texts were to be treated with something like religious veneration, yet it is striking that he had so little to say about the supernatural. His creed was so emphatically practical that it was ill-equipped to satisfy the natural human need for something more mysterious. This was provided by another important thinker, Lǎozǐ ("Old Master"), supposedly an older contemporary of Confucius, and author of Tao Te Ching ("the Way and its Power"), the foundational text of Taoism (or Daoism). Lǎozǐ is said to have grown so frustrated with the state of China that he decided to go into exile, leaving this small book with the gatekeeper of a western pass as he headed west on the back of an ox. Drawing from the folk religion of rural China, it urged submission to a conception already familiar in Chinese thought, Tao or "The Way", an unknowable cosmic principle which sustains the harmoniously ordered universe. Taoists believed that the way to peace lay in a passive acceptance of the way things are; instead of resisting the changes in life, one can bend with circumstances; instead of insisting one is always right, one can be open to new ideas and learning from others. Whereas Confucians were obsessed with the correct course of action in any situation, Taoists expounded qualified inaction; to flow like in nature. Whereas Confucians yearned to serve a ruler, Taoists were famous for political quietism. Taoists were to irritate straight-laced Confucians for millennia. Yet the two streams of thought are like two sides of the same Chinese coin; opposites but complementary, the practical and the spiritual. A Chinese official is a Confucian; if he loses his job, he may retire to a Taoist monastery; but a new job offer would rapidly restore him to Confucianism.

Although the Warring States period was the cradle of the two most lasting schools of Chinese thought, it was brought to an end by a more brutal philosophy which historians call Legalism. It responded to the lawlessness of the age by demanding more teeth for the law. A strict system of rewards and punishments was to be imposed upon society; the ratio was one reward to every nine punishments. "Punishment leads to force, force leads to strength, strength leads to awe, awe leads to virtue. The origins of virtue are in punishment", proclaimed the Book of Shang. It was read with attention by the rulers of the Qin Dynasty.

Civilisation in the Americas[]

Olmec artifacts (top row): colossal head; great mound pyramid; and jade face mask. Chavin artifacts (bottom row): jaguar-and-cactus ceremonial vessel; 3D model; and tenon head.

The only other area where a startlingly high level of achievement was reached was the Americas. It is clear that the history of man on this vast landmass is much shorter than almost anywhere else. The first inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia in several migrations, perhaps thirty-thousand years ago, crossing the land bridge (now submerged beneath the Bering Strait), which had formed due to glaciation and significantly lower sea-levels. They then filtered slowly southwards for thousands of years. Traces of cave-dwellers have been found in Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, from about 12,500 BC; the impression of a human footprint, probably from a child. The Americas contain very varied climates and environments. and it is scarcely surprising that evidence shows almost equally varied patterns of life, based on different opportunities for hunting, food-gathering and fishing. What is more certain is that some of these cultures arrived at the invention of agriculture without any import of techniques from the Old World. Maize (corn) began to be cultivated in Mexico before the third millennium BC, and, towards the end of it, had been domesticated. from ears about 5cm-in-length, into something like the plant we know today. Further south, evidence of potatoes and other starchy root vegetables appears at around the same time, and a little later there are signs that maize had spread southwards from Mexico.


The earliest recognized civilisation in Central America is that of the Olmec Civilization (1200-400 BC), on the eastern Mexican coast (now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco). It appears, apparently without antecedents, in a humid, swampy, forested region, which makes it hard to explain why civilization, which elsewhere required the relative plenty of the river valleys, should in America have sprung from such seemingly unpromising soil. Yet reliable rainfall and year-round warmth meant that crops could be harvested twice or even three-times a year. They also no doubt gathered the plentiful supply of local forest-foods and sea-life, including avocados, cacao, palm nuts, clams, and turtles. With an agricultural surplus, the Olmecs set about trading their crops for obsidian from the central highland to make tools, jade from the southeastern lowlands to create magnificently carved ornaments, and iron-ore from the rugged west to make polished mirrors (used by later Mesopotamian shamans to communicate with the gods). By 1200 BC, significant cities had developed, first at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, and then at La Venta and Laguna de los Cerros. While other areas were mere villages of wattle and daub, the Olmecs of San Lorenzo constructed the first monumental architecture of Mesoamerica; a massive earthen plateau rose fifty meters above the plain, with ceremonial buildings on top. Around 900 BC, San Lorenzo displays evidence of decline, at which point the the centre of Olmec civilization shifted to La Venta, which eventually boasted a population of some 18,000. La Venta initiated one of Mesoamerica's most long-lasting traditions, the construction of a great pyramid, one-hundred feet high and shaped life an effigy to a nearby volcano. But the best known Olmec artefacts are their colossal stone heads, basalt sculptures up to three-meters high with grim pug-nosed faces, and wearing curious helmets. The nearest basalt to San Lorenzo was thirty-miles away; eighty-miles from La Venta. The stone, of up to fifty tons, had to be cut without metal (probably rope-�and-water abrasion assisted by drilling), and transported without the wheel or pack animals (most likely on rafts), All this suggests a highly centralized and hierarchical society able to mobilize large amounts of labour, and support skilled artisans. Olmec cultural influence seems to have prevailed right across Central America, as far south as what is now El Salvador. It remains unknown why their civilization ended in about 400 BC. Its hallmark art style - snarling jaguar-human figurines and jade face masks - gradually disappear. Archaeological evidence shows that the population of their heartland dropped precipitously, and their centres were abandoned one by one. Olmec civilization transmitted something to the future, for their gods, such as the feathered serpent, persisted right through the pre-Columbian era. It seems likely that the hieroglyphic writing, system of Central America originated in Olmec times, though surviving evidence appears a century or so after its disappearance. They are also credited with, or speculatively credited with, the Mesoamerican Long Count calender, the invention of the zero concept, the ball-games, and the ritual of human sacrifice, which reached its grisly peak in the ceremonies of the Aztecs


Much further south, in Peru, another complex culture appeared and survived a little later than the Olmecs. It, too, spread vigorously only to dry up mysteriously. The Chavín Culture (900-250 BC) had long been regarded as the "mother culture" of South America. But in recent decades, archaeologists have discovered new evidence of a far earlier complex society in the Norte Chico region of Peru, along the Supe River. Aspero was the first of many such sites to be discovered, of which Caral is the largest. They reveal sophisticated architecture, including pyramids and raised platforms, dating from around 3000 BC; contemporary with the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But we know much more about Chavín Culture, which was much more of a religious and cultural phenomenon, than a political one. By 900 BC, a settled agricultural way of life had spread across much of Peru. Until the Chavin, numerous local cultures of considerable diversity achieved importance at a regional level, but tended to have little interaction with one another, apart from quarrelling with neighbours over water sources. The main Chavin site, the magnificent temple complex of Chavín de Huántar, is about 10,000 feet above sea level, in the Andean highlands of central Peru. It became an important pilgrimage site throughout the region, transcending local rivalries. Ancient landslides had left natural terracing, and an ample supply of stone, that ensured the growth of the site. At its peak, Chavín de Huántar had a population of up to 3,000, and covered an area of 100 acres. Associated with agricultural fertility, Chavin religious ceremonies involved a multi-sensory spectacle. Two staircases descend into the labyrinthine temple interior of passageways, galleries, and rooms. An added aura of religious mystery was achieved with stone reliefs depicting fantastical or transformational creatures, priests suddenly appearing from secret passages, and a cacophony of sound. Shells were carved into trumpets, and the temple itself had many water channels, through which water would have run under pressure, creating an impressive noise in the confined inner. The ritual activity of the Chavín is not fully understood, but it is believed the priests were oracles, who gave answers to pilgrims in return for offerings. Chavin art was equally influential, and its style of architecture, sculpture, pottery, and textiles represents the first widespread, recognizable artistic form in the Andes. For the first time, most of the local or regional cultures of Peru were unified by a common iconography, religion, and ideas.

In the Americas, the Olmec and Chavin foundations proved very important. When the Spanish landed in the New World nearly two-thousand years after their disappearance, they would find remarkable civilisations, and the relics of others, in the same two culturally important regions.

The Rest of the World[]

Statues of various rulers of the late 25th or "Kushite" Dynasty of southern Egypt.

So far, huge areas of the world have still hardly been mentioned. This is, in the main, because none of them had achieved levels of civilization comparable to those already reached in the Mediterranean and Asia by the first millennia BC. The story of Africa, of the Pacific peoples, and of western Europe is not history but still prehistory, even if one or two instances may reopen the argument about what constitutes "civilization". Africa is a good place to start, because, after its importance in the story of human evolution, its history has often been overlooked. When New Kingdom Egypt was in the final stages of decline, it empowered the first independent African state (other than Egypt) of which we have information; the Kingdom of Kush (1000 BC-350 AB), high up the Nile, in present-day Sudan. This had been the extreme frontier of Egyptian activity after Nubia had been absorbed. The Kushites, free from Egyptian incursions into their territory, founded the kingdom with its capital at Napata (now modern Karima), Kush became the power in the region as Egypt floundered, and, by 730 BC, was strong enough to conquer southern Egypt; five of its kings ruled as the Pharaohs, known as the Twenty-Fifth (or "Kushite") Dynasty. When the Assyrians fell on Egypt, the Kushites turned their attention to pushing their frontiers southwards, which resulted in two important changes; its culture became less clearly influenced by the Egyptians, and it extended over territory containing iron ore. Having learned the technique of iron smelting from the Assyrians, this became the basis for another three centuries of prosperity and civilization.

Stonehenge, in southern England, whose creation is thought to have taken about 900 years to its completion in about 2100 BC. It contains eighty blocks weighing over five tons apiece, which had to be brought some 150 miles from the mountains of Wales.

To the great civilizations which rose and fell in the river valleys of the Near East, Europe the was largely an irrelevance, except as a supplier of metals. For the sake of clarity, two Europes must be distinguished; the Mediterranean coasts, where literate, urban cultures came fairly quickly once we are into the Iron Age; and north of this line, where literacy was never achieved in antiquity, but imposed much later by conquerors. Yet, western Europe had one art form which remains indisputably impressive. It is preserved in the thousands of megalithic monuments to be found in a broad arc from Malta, Sardinia and Corsica, around through Spain and northern France, to the British Isles and Scandinavia. Megaliths are not unique to Europe, but are more plentiful than on other continents, and seem to have been erected earlier; a stone passage grave at Finistère in Brittany dates from around 4800 BC. Over the centuries, an astronomical theme is added; they begin to be aligned in relation to the sun. An outstanding example is at Newgrange in Ireland, dating from about 3400 BC. At sunrise on the winter solstice, the rays penetrate the length of the passage grave to illuminate the innermost sanctum. In the later stage of this mysterious tradition, the megaliths emerge in their own right as great standing stones, often arranged in circles; sometimes laid out in patterns which run for miles. The most striking site is Stonehenge, in southern England, whose function is not easy to say, though it has been argued that the cluster of stone operated as a giant calendar or solar observatory. These relics represent huge concentrations of labour and argue for well-developed social organization. This has led some enthusiasts to claim Western Europe as another seat of early "civilization", almost as if its inhabitants were some sort of depressed class needing historical rehabilitation. But even at the beginning of the Christian era, Europe had little of its own to offer the world except its minerals. Europe’s time was still to come; hers would be the last great civilization to appear.