Development of the Nations in Fertile Crescent

About the same time that a civilization was growing in Egypt, another civilization was emerging in western Asia, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as Mesopotamia, or “land between the rivers.” Mesopotamia was located in the Fertile Crescent, a large area which extends in an arc from the south-eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. It included all or parts of what are now Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.

Civilized living emerged in a small area of lower Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq. The area extended about 500 miles northwest from the Persian Gulf. The Bible calls this area the plain of Shinar. Some authorities believe that the earliest civilization in the world began here.

Sumerian Civilization

Civilization on the plain of Shinar first began to develop about 4000 BC. At that time a tribe known as the Sumerians moved down from the hill country of the northeast into the fertile area bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Like the Egyptians, the Sumerians dug canals to control the spring floods and to irrigate the land. Unlike the Egyptians, who became a unified nation under the Old Kingdom, the Sumerians created a number of city-states, each consisting of a city and dependent outlying territories.

The city-states enjoyed their most prosperous period from 2900 to 2400 BC. During this period, Sumerian farmers raised barley, oats, and dates. Some city dwellers were skilled craftsmen, and their products were traded as far away as India and Egypt. Each city-state was a theocracy in which the local god, believed to be the real ruler of the city-state, was represented by an earthly ruler who served as high priest and city governor. This ruler officiated at religious ceremonies and performed administrative duties, such as supervising the irrigation system. Like the Egyptian pharaoh, he was an all-powerful ruler with absolute authority over his people.

Although the Sumerian ruler governed his city-state in the name of the local god, unlike the Egyptian pharaoh, he was not considered divine himself. The Sumerians made several important contributions to the civilization of the Near East. One was a form of writing. The Sumerians manufactured no paper but used a stylus to make impressions on soft clay bricks or tablets, which were then baked to give them permanent form.

The Sumerians’ type of writing is called cuneiform, meaning “wedge-shaped,” because of the marks made by their stylus. The writing had various combinations of the wedge-shaped impressions.

Each sign stood for a syllable. The cuneiform writing of the Sumerians was later adopted by other peoples of the Near East, such as the Hittites, Babylonians, and Persians.

The plain of Shinar lacked stones for building, but clay was abundant, and the Sumerians used it to build their houses and temples. Although their buildings have largely vanished under the weathering of centuries, their invention of the arch continues to be important to architecture. The Sumerians probably made the earliest use of the wheel, although it may have been invented earlier, and they taught its use to the Egyptians. Besides worshiping their own local god, the Sumerian people of each city-state worshiped other gods introduced into the plain of Shinar by invading peoples.

The Sumerian religion gave rise to notable literary works, the most important of which is the epic poem Gilgamesh. In one of its sections, a fascinating account of a flood tells a story similar to the story of Noah in the Bible, inspired perhaps by the ever present possibility of river floods.

Hammurabi Code of Laws

Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia had no natural barriers against invasion. Furthermore, the individual city-states were easy prey to outside foes. However, in spite of invasion, the Sumerian civilization persisted because the conquerors adopted Sumerian customs. About 2500 BC, the city-states were united by Sargon I, an invader from the north. Later, about 1760 BC., Hammurabi, who came from what is now Syria, brought all of lower Mesopotamia under one rule. His capital was the city of Babylon, and all lower Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia.

Hammurabi’s most important contribution to civilization was his written code of law. It comprised one of the earliest sets of laws in written form. Although his code contained many harsh and unjust laws, through it the state became responsible for their enforcement. State enforcement of laws was a great advance over the system of family vengeance practiced in more primitive societies, whereby the evil deeds of one wrongdoer were avenged by the family of the one who had been wronged.

After Hammurabi’s death, his kingdom collapsed as wild mountain tribes invaded it from the east and north. The Hittites, one of these invading tribes, became powerful in the Fertile Crescent.

Hittites conquest of empire with iron weapons

The Hittites occupied an area to the northwest of Babylonia, in what is now Turkey. For so early a time in history, their laws were just and humane, and their architecture was notable. Their most important gift to civilization, however, was the knowledge of how to work iron. In refining iron ore and using it to make tools and weapons, they marked the beginning of the Age of Iron, which succeeded the Bronze Age at about 1100 BC. Armed with their iron weapons, which were harder and stronger than those made of bronze, the Hittites drove southward into Syria, in the western part of the Fertile Crescent.

Shortly after 1600 BC, they conquered Babylonia and became rulers of the area once governed by Hammurabi. These conquests aroused the fears of die Egyptian pharaohs, who sent armies north to challenge them. The ensuing long struggle between the two forces weakened both the Hittite and Egyptian empires. By 1200 BC the Hittite kingdom was beginning to collapse, and Egypt had also lost much of its power. Since this situation left western Asia without a master, small states were able to develop and maintain their freedom. This era of small states lasted from about 1200 to 750 BC

Development of Alphabet by Phoenicians

One of these small countries was ruled by the Phoenicians, who had been desert nomads. They moved westward into an area of the Fertile Crescent bordering the eastern Mediterranean. There they became sea traders and built the great trading cities of Tyre and Sidon. Their ships sailed to Greece, Italy, North Africa, Spain, south along the west coast of Africa, and possibly even to faraway Britain. The Phoenicians set up many distant trading colonies, the greatest of which was Carthage, in North Africa. To keep account of their trading operations, the Phoenicians developed a more advanced system of writing than that devised by the Egyptians or Sumerians. They used letters or signs that represented sounds to make an alphabet, and this alphabet became their most important contribution to civilization. The word alphabet comes from their first two letters aleph and beth. The Phoenician alphabet consisted of twenty-two consonant symbols, and later, when the Greeks adopted it, they introduced vowel signs. From this combination of consonant and vowel signs came the alphabet used today by peoples of the West.

Hebrews: Belief in One God

Another small country was that of the Hebrews, or Jews. Much of the history of this people is told in the Old Testament of the Bible. It tells how the Hebrews, under their leader Abraham, came from the eastern part of the plain of Shinar. They sought a “promised land” in which to settle, and after years of wandering came to Canaan, or Palestine.

The Book of Exodus in the Bible tells how some of the Hebrew tribes were enslaved by the Egyptians. After a long captivity, a great Hebrew leader named Moses led his people back to Palestine. Jewish scriptures relate how Moses gave the Jews the Ten Commandments which the Hebrew god, Jehovah, had revealed to him on Mount Sinai. According to the Old Testament, the Hebrews had to fight the Canaanites and later the Philistines for possession of Palestine.

Around 1025 BC, Saul became their first king. He was followed on the throne by David who, as a boy, had slain the Philistine giant, Goliath, with a stone hurled from a sling. David, as the “singer of Psalms,” is given the credit for having composed many of the sacred hymns which make up the Book of Psalms of the Old Testament.

After defeating the Philistines, David established a promising kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. The Hebrew kingdom reached its height under David’s son, Solomon, who reigned from about 977 to 937 BC. In Jerusalem he built a great temple to God and sent his ships to trade in distant countries. His expenditures imposed such a high tax on the people that the Hebrew tribes in the north grew discontented with Solomons reign. After his death they set up an independent kingdom, thereby dividing the land of the Hebrews into two parts: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Thus weakened, the Hebrews were easy prey to invaders. In 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered Israel. In 586 BC, Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar, a Chaldean king, who captured Jerusalem and carried off the inhabitants into exile. Later, the Persians defeated the Chaldeans and permitted the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem and to restore their temple.

Persian rule was followed by that of the Greeks and later, by the Romans. In 66 AD, the Jews staged a revolt against Roman rule, but the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and drove many of the Jews from Palestine, from whence they scattered to many different parts of the world. In spite of this Diaspora, or “scattering,” the Jews clung to their religion and customs and dreamed of someday returning to the “promised land.”

This dream was not realized until the 20th century, when the Jews were permitted to reestablish a Jewish state in Palestine, which is now the nation of Israel. The religion which the Hebrews developed is called Judaism. With its monotheism, or belief in one god, and teachings of the Old Testament, Judaism formed the base of two other great religions of the world— Christianity and Islam. From an early worship of many gods, the Hebrews developed the idea of one god for their own tribe.

This idea, in time, developed into the idea of one loving Father who ruled over the whole universe. Building upon the Ten Commandments, prophets developed some of the noblest rules of human behavior, as shown in the following passage from the Holy Scriptures (Micah 6:8).

It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

About 66 AD, the year the Jews revolted against Rome, a Jewish sect known as the Essenes hid many of their manuscript scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea. The scrolls, wrapped in linen and placed in jars, remained hidden for nineteen centuries. In 1947, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as they are known, were found by shepherds. Since then, thousands of manuscript fragments have been unearthed. The scrolls, ranked among the most important discoveries of all times, furnish Biblical texts in Hebrew centuries older than the earliest text previously known. Included among the scrolls are two manuscripts from the Book of Isaiah, commentaries on Genesis, and portions of more than 100 scrolls of Old Testament books. Scholars have dated the earliest manuscripts to about 200 BC. Others were written in the 1st century AD.

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