Disillusioned but not disenchanted…
The Ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China had many similarities as well as many differences. The areas of these similarities and differences can be broken down into the sections of economy, society and culture. While they all formed around river valleys and had fairly similar social class systems, the way of viewing the world as well as the geography of the areas apart from the rivers differs greatly. They also differed in ways concerning their governments, whether theocracies or kingdoms.
Economy in Ancient Egypt is one that’s strongly related to natural environment and geography. The geography of Egypt is one that isolates it from the rest of the world, causing its economy to develop on its own. The most crucial geographical form in this economy is the Nile River. It’s the one thing allowing life in Egypt. Since the Nile that provides Egypt with fertile soil, it’s along the Nile that cities in Egypt where built. Cities included those such as Thebes which became the capital of Egypt during the Middle Kingdom as well as cities such as Giza, Memphis and Cairo. Egypt contained within itself many natural resources and many types of wildlife as well as great agriculture and a large population, allowing it to have an economy contained within.
The society of Ancient Egypt also developed much on its own, though it of course reflects various other regions. One unique feature is that the very top of the social structure was the Pharaoh, a ruler that the Egyptians believed to be a god on earth. One notable pharaoh was Menes who unified Egypt for a time. Under the pharaoh were officials composed of landowners as well as priests. Most of the population was peasants. Egypt had no real cities such as Mesopotamia but rather many villages. Slavery increased as time went by. Also unlike Mesopotamia, Egypt was very stable as a civilization.
The main writing system developed in Egypt was hieroglyphics and these were used to write on walls as well as on papyrus. Religion was very important as they viewed their pharaoh as a god and were polytheistic. In this belief they built great tombs for themselves such as the pyramids, as well as various temples. The Egyptians expected reward in their afterlife and that their viewed their ruler as a god may have contributed to Egypt’s continuing status as a civilization.
The most important features contributing to the economy of Mesopotamia are the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These provide the area with a large fertile crescent to live in. These people made advances that allowed better life here, such as plowing and gravity-flow irrigation systems as well as sun-baked bricks. The main cities developed around the rivers. These cities were those such as Ur in Sumer as well as Nineveh in Assyria and Babylon. As Mesopotamia was a center of travel and waypoint for many other civilizations its economy was well supported.
In Mesopotamia the first type of government was a theocracy, which was followed by kingdom-empires. This civilization had three basic classes of people. The first class was the small group of priests and noble landowners that controlled the high offices. The second and most numerous class was the freeman. These were the people that did most of the trading and work in the city. Their work was for the most part given on a voluntary basis and the position of the freemen was fairly well protected. The third and lowest class was the slaves. The slaves had no political rights like the freemen had. Most slaves were people captured during warfare or those in great debt. Criminals could also be put into slavery as punishment. The life of slaves was not on the whole humiliating but the treatment of slaves varied widely. Women were fairly equal to men in society. Women could get jobs as artisans and engage in small-scale business but the society as a whole was patriarchal. There were many rulers throughout Mesopotamia’s history, some notable ones including Sargon and Hammurabi.
The main writing forms in Mesopotamia were cuneiform as well as pictography. The cuneiform was wedge-shaped writing generally on clay or stone and the pictography was the use of picture images in writing. The religion was polytheistic and had a very pessimistic view on the afterlife as it was believed that humans were created by gods to do labor that gods didn’t want to do, people had to simply hope for the best. One of the most important stories was the Epic of Gilgamesh which tells much of their creation myth and of a man that the gods become jealous of and defeat.
The civilization of India was like most other civilizations founded along rivers, primarily in the Indus Valley. India exists on a subcontinent of Asia and some of the primary geographic features include the Himalayan Mountains to the north as well as the Indus and the Ganges Rivers which supported most of the life in the area. Some of the major cities in this area include Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, both which existed along the Indus river. Agriculture was predominant in India, mainly along the two rivers which drain water from the mountains. This water caused the rivers to flood when the snow of the mountains melted.
The caste system of India follows the basic structure of classes of most other regions. At the top of the caste system are the Brahmins, or the priestly class. Next below these are the Kshadriyas, or the warrior class. Following these are the Vaishyas and Shudras, or the famers, artisians and landowners followed by the landless peasants and serfs. The vaishyas were probably the most numerous class. Lastly in the social structure are the pariahs, or the untouchables. This harsh caste system is one of India’s more unique qualities, though not solely its own. One great ruler of India was Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the first historical dynasty in India. The relationship between men and women is governed by the social class.
Religion played a prominent role in India’s culture, especially as it was ruled by a priestly class. The two most influential of these are Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea of Karma in Hinduism caused the followers to believe that they would gain a higher place in the caste system if they had good karma in this life, causing them to wish to have good karma. Buddhism began as a revolt through intellect and emotion against the Vedic ritualism. Buddhism was not liked by the followers of the Hindu religion as it undermined the caste system as the Noble Eightfold path of Buddhism was open to all caste levels, even including the untouchables. One of Buddhism primary concerns and praises was that of the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become known as the Buddha.
As with most other regions Chinese civilization began near major river valleys. The main rivers of the Chinese are the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The Yellow river is one with devastating floods when the snows from its source melt, causing the Chinese to be forced to build dikes and canals to sustain it. Along the river they were able to grow millet and grain as well as other plants, and the first cities began appearing along the river as well. These cities include those such as Anyang and Zhengzhu. Little of the land is arable and the Chinese were forced to build terraces for farming. The rivers allow for easy transportation which helps the economy and the commerce.
In the Chinese society there was a great emphasis on community effort. This was in part due to the fact that the rivers of China required great maintenance due to the disastrous flooding of the river. Chinese society becomes one of the best organized in the world. With this emphasis on community effort as well as the family the individual was not alone in China. They were supported first by the family, followed by the extended family, followed by their clan and then by the nation as a whole. At the very top of the social structure of China was the Emperor, who ruled from a Mandate of Heaven.
The written language was something that was of crucial importance to the Chinese culture. Their written language was originally pictographic, but later developed into series of characters called ‘logographs’ which were not alphabetical. The earliest writings of this are found on ‘oracle bones’. The culture of China reflects heavily the values of the society, with the role models being three kings. These three kings are Yao, Shun and Yu. Yu is one of the primary Kings as he founded one of the first dynasty and also found a way to control the river by building canals alongside it. Some of the main influencing philosophies are those of Confucianism and Daoism. Confucianism had its Five Classics which had stories which shaped the culture. These classics were the Classic of Change, the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of Rites, the Classic of History, and the Spring and Autumn Annals as well as the perhaps lost Classic of Music.
The ancient regions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China had many similarities an differences in terms of their economies, their societies, and their cultures. Though most revolved around the same basic principle of a class system and formed around river valleys where soil was the most fertile, there were also basic differences between the regions as well.