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How and where did cities appear? Why did people start writing:

The appearance of writing:

Writing appeared in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. When people lived in villages, the population group was smaller and it was easier to memorise their names, who herds belonged to, the size and amount of the crops, etc. But when cities grew, it became necessary to control and keep the data which interested the king and his government: taxes, trade transactions, contracts, wills,etc.

Cuneiform writing – Summer 3.200 BC (Summer – Sumeria)
Soon other affairs and events began to be recorded in writing. This way the first holy books, science books and literary works appeared.

For historians the invention of writing was so important that it is from its appearance that they establish the beginning of History

The first civilizations:

It was about 5000 years ago that the first civilizations apperared along the banks of large rivers. That is why they are called river civilizations. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China they emerged along rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia the River Nile, in Egypt; the Indus River in India; and the Yellow and Blue rivers, in China

Lifestyle and the way society was structured in the river civilizations were completely different from the ones before. If we compare them, we can observe a great change.

The main characteristics of river civilizations were:

• Their strong political power. The king kept control of everything, from politics to religion. He passed laws to rule his country. The king was also in charge of the army which he created to protect his possessions.and many times the king had religious functions. There were also civil servants who helped the king to manage his possessions.

Society was very hierarchical. The population was divided into two very different groups: few of them were privileged people and the majority were subjugated people. Most of the lands and riches belonged to the first ones, the privileged people.

Also, they were in charge of the main public offices.

Their great artistic development. Through art kings magnified their power so they encouraged all kinds of art



How was society organised in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt?

    The first urban societies:

    From the year 3000 BC , cities grew enormously and their population consisted of thousands of people. Life in these cities became more complex and it was necessary to make a division of work. Each person was dedicated to a specific job and got all his other needs at the market. People lived in a different quarters of the city depending on how rich they were and what their job was.

    Cities were not self-sufficient , not all the necessitites could be obtained there and people had to buy some food, raw materials and luxury products in far away regions. That is why trade had a great importance. The “river civilizations” did not have coins so they used barter, which means interchanging products.

    Mesopotamian Society:
    Privileged groups were a minority who had all the rights and possessed most of the wealth.
    • The aristocracy consisted of the king, his family and the nobility. They owned a great part of the land and were in charge of the highest positions in the army and government.
    • The priests, who lived in the temples, led the religious rituals. They possessed part of the land and craft workshops and co-operated with the government.
    • The scribes stood out among the civil servants. They came from noble families and had great power. They were assigned other tasks such as being couriers, managers, cup-bearers, etc.
    The rest of the population was divided into either free people who had rights, or slaves who had not rights and were treated as objects.
    Some of these other free people were:
    Peasants, who rented the lands that surrounded the city. These lands belonged to the king or the temple. To keep them the peasants had to give the temple or the king part of the harvest they obtained. They usually cultivated barley, wheat, beans, chickpeas, cucumbers, etc. with rudimentary ploughs.
    Craftsmen, who worked in workshops. There were different craftsmen according to their specific work: weavers, carpenters, goldsmiths, perfumers, etc.
    Women were the property of men. They did not always work and when they worked, their pay was half of what an adult man earned.

    Egyptian society:

    The pharaoh

    In Egypt the king was called pharaoh. The pharaoh concentrated all the power. Most of the lands belonged to him. He supervised trade and led the armies, he passed laws and reigned over the country.

    For the Egyptians the pharaoh was a god. They couldn’t touch him or look him in the eye. They knelt when he passed them by. Since they thought the pharaoh was a divinity, they believed in his magical powers. For example, they thought that when there was a drought, he could make the waters of the Nile rise.

    When a pharaoh died, his son replaced him, forming a dynasty. There were thirty dynasties in the history of Egypt.

    Noblemen and priests

    Noblemen and priests were in charge of the most important posts in Egypt

    The noblemen were members of the pharaoh’s family. Also, when the pharaoh wanted to reward somebody he gave him large amounts of land and great treasures and made them noblemen.

    The priests led the religious rites. They owned many pieces of land and herds. They were very wealthy and had thousands of servants.

    Other important posts in the Egyptian state and society were:

    • The vizier was a prime minister who helped the pharaoh to govern the country.
    • The scribes were the only people in Egypt who could read, write and count. This is why they had good reputation and a good economic situation. The priests and some noblemen could also read and write. The scribes were in charge of writing official documents and keeping account of the royal taxes and the goods that went in and out of the pharaoh’s palace.


    Nine out of ten Egyptian men and women were peasants. They were very poor and lived in small mud-brick houses along the River Nile.

    It was very difficult for peasants to survive. They had a very difficult life. The pharaoh, the priests and the noblemen owned the lands and the peasants cultivated them. In exchange for their work, they could have a part of the harvest, but they had to give another part to the landowners and they had to pay a sum to the pharaoh as a tax.

    All the family participated in the different farming tasks : the men ploughed and the women sowed; both did the harvesting. The children helped their parents since they were very young.

    Their work was very hard. Most agricultural tools that they used were similar to those of earlier times: for example, the sickles and the hoes were made of stone, wood or bronze. But they used a new tool which made their lives easier: the plough. With the plough it was not necessary for peasants to bend their backs to cultivate the land. They could also make deeper furrows.

    During the season of the Nile floods, peasants were recruited by the pharaoh to participate in the construction of pyramids and other public buildings.

    Other professions in Egyptian civilization were: sailors, soldiers, craftsmen and merchants.

    Sailors travelled by ship to far away lands to buy wood, metals and perfumes.

    Soldiers fought in wars and, in exchange, the pharaoh gave them with lands, gold and slaves.

    • The majority of the craftsmen worked for the pharaoh. The most important were: stone carvers, sculptors, goldsmiths and papyrus and linen* manufacturers.

    Merchants sold products. Since money did not exist in Egypt at that time, they used barter. Barter means that they exchanged some products for others.


    They were usually war prisoners and had no rights. Most of them were owned by the pharaoh, although priests and noblemen had slaves too. The pharaoh used them for building great monuments, working in copper mines or as soldiers.


Why did ancient civilizations develop into Empires?

From cities to empires

    During the Metal Age, small cities were governed by kings. Later, the kings unified territories and cities which were nearby in order to extend their possessions and to get greater power. Some other times, they made war to enlarge their territories. This way kings became very powerful and succeeded in forming large empires.

    As kings expanded their territories, they needed to create a state structure that assured their dominance and power. To do this, they designated governors and created bodies of civil servants. The governors held administrative and military functions in the farthest provinces, and the civil servants, who could write, read and count, were in charge of collecting taxes. In different places, civil servants were called different names; for example, mandarins in China, and scribes in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

    The relations between the inhabitants became more complicated and to regulate them the first codes of law were created. One example is the code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia. The need for other legal documents also increased, such as contracts, receipts, judgements, wills, etc.


    The Mesopotamian civilization developed between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. That is where it got its name since Mesopotamia means “between rivers”. It was located in an arid zone, but thanks to the irrigation canals which they built there was an important economic development in the area. It also became a very important region for trade between Asia Minor, the Mediterranean area and Syria.

    Mesopotamia was historically divided into two regions inhabited by two different peoples: The Assyrians who lived in northern Mesopotamia or Assyria and the Akkadians and Sumerians who lived in southern Mesopotamia or Akkad.Throughout Mesopotamian history, there was an alternation of power between these peoples:

    • In the third millenium BC the Sumerians dominated the Mesopotamian Empire. They organised themselves into independent cities.

    • Around the year 2330 BC, the Sumerian cities were conquered by King Sargon I and the Akkadian Empire was founded. Around the year 2200 BC the Akkadian Empire was defeated and a long period of division started.

    • Around the year 1800 BC, the city of Babylon achieved hegemony and founded a lasting empire.

    • The last great dominance corresponded to the Assyrian Empire, which lasted until the 6th century BC, when Mesopotamia was conquered by the Persians.



    Ancient egypt
    Ancient Egypt images

    Its territory was located along the course of the River Nile and it was divided into two small kingdoms called Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt was situated in a narrow valley along which the River Nile runs. Lower Egypt is the area a little before the river empties into the Mediterranean sea by forming a wide delta.

    Around the year 3100 BC, King Menna united both kingdoms, called Lower and Upper Egypt, and this way he became the first Egyptian pharaoh.

    Egyptian history is divided into three long periods.

    • From 3100 to 2200 BC: The Old Empire. During this period, the pharaohs Khufu, Khafra and Menkaura ordered the construction of great pyramids.

    •From 2100 to 1800 BC: The Middle Empire. During this period the pharaohs conquered lands in Nubia, to the south of Egypt.

    • From 1600 to 1100 BC: The New Empire. During this period, the pharaohs Thutmose I and Rameses I were important because they conquered Palestine and Syria, extending their territories through the East.

    In the last years of its history, the Persians and the Greek dominated Egypt. Finally they were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC.


What do archaeological remains tell us about Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia?:

    Mesopotamian art:

    In Mesopotamia, architecture and sculpture were of high quality. • In architecture: the great Mesopotamian buildings were decorated with coloured clay strips and beautiful reliefs and frescos. For construction they used brick and adobe. Mesopotamians invented the arch and the vault. They built splendid palaces, such as that of Khorsabad; monumental gates, such as the Ishtar Gate; and great temples, such as that of Marduk, in Babylon.

    • For sculpture, they used stone. We can find two different styles: while Sumerians and Akkadians built statues of their kings and gods, Assyrians made great figures of bulls with human heads, and expressive reliefs with hunting and war scenes.

    Egyptian religion and art:

    The Egyptians were polytheistic. The main god was the sun, called in different ways: Ra, Amun or Atum. Other gods were Isis, Osiris and Horus. The Egyptians also worshipped natural elements (earth, river Nile), animals (crocodile), and the pharaoh.

    Religious rites were carried out in the temples. Rites were necessary to preserve the order of the universe. There were priests for each god and a great temple was built to keep the statue of the god where he could be worshipped. Temples had colossal dimensions and they were decorated with enormous columns. The most famous temples are those of Karnak and Luxor, both in Thebes, and that of Abu Simbel, in the south of the country.

    The Egyptians believed in life after death and wanted to keep the bodies for the new life. Dead people were converted into mummies, that is, corpses were dried and wrapped with bandages. Mummies were put into a sarcophagus and buried in tombs

    The sarcophagus was surrounded by different things that the deceased could need in their life after death: food, clothing, servants’ statutes... This was the treasure.

    The pyramids :

    The first pharaohs were buried in enormous stone pyramids. Inside the pyramid there was a funeral chamber, where the body of the dead pharaoh and his treasure were placed. The most famous pyramids are those at Giza, in which pharaohs Khufu, Khafra and Menkaura were buried about 3,000 BC.


Which people lived in the Iberian Peninsula at that time?:

The Iberians and the Celts were the most important peoples that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula in Antiquity.

The Iberians

The Iberians settled on the Mediterranean coast between the 6th century BC and the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century BC.

The social organisation was tribal. Tribes were usually governed by a king or regulus. The nobles owned most of the lands. The warriors were below nobles in the Iberian social pyramid. The rest of the Iberian society consisted of farmers, craftsmen, traders and slaves.

Cereals, vines and olive trees were the most important cultivated crops. Sheep herds were the most typical cattle. Mining (gold and silver) was an important economical activity in the Peninsula.

Iron metallurgy (swords), wool and linen fabrics and pottery were the main examples of their high-quality craftwork. Iberians developed an intense trade with the Phoenician and Greek colonies established in the Mediterranean coast.

The Iberians had a polytheistic religion and their main deities were women. They cremated their dead and put their ashes in urns.


The Celts

The Celts were an Indo-European people that settled between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC in the lands of the Central Plateau and on the Atlantic coast of the Peninsula. In Northern Spain they lived together with other native peoples, such as the Cantabrians and the Vascones.

They built fortified walled villages called castros. The houses had a circular plan and were constructed in stone and adobe and covered with branches and straw.

Their economy was mainly pastoral, based on cattle raising. However, they also cultivated cereals and were specialised in iron and bronze metallurgy.

The Celtic social organisation was based on tribes. Several families formed a clan and several clans made up a tribe. A minority possessed a great part of the tribe’s wealth and dominated the rest of the population.

The Celts worshipped some animals (bull, horse, deer), heavenly bodies and elements of nature. As the Iberians did, they cremated their dead.

The Bulls of Guisando


Greek written sources and archaeological remains indicate that Tartessos was the oldest kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula. It stretched over all of Andalucía and Murcia.

They practiced a very advanced agriculture and cattle raising and they were also expert metalworkers, who worked with gold, silver and copper.

The Phoenician colonisation

The Phoenicians came to Iberia from the coast of present-day Lebanon in the Eastern Mediterranean sea. They were expert seafarers, ship builders and merchants. The Iberian Peninsula was the westernmost point of their expansion in the Mediterranean.

They sailed up to the Andalucian coasts searching for metals. The mining wealth of Tartessos was known in the Mediterranean. They established trading enclaves in the south of the Peninsula. The most important colony was Gadir (Cádiz).

Phoenician Sarcophagi of Cádiz


The Greek colonisation

The arrival of the Greeks was due to trade reasons. They came in search of metals, salt and esparto.

They founded colonies such as Saguntum, Rhode (Rosas) or Hemeroscopeion (Denia), but the most important colony was Emporion (Ampurias).



The Carthaginian expansion

The Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage in the Gulf of Tunis in Northern Africa. The Carthaginians succeeded the Phoenician seafarers and extended their control over the Phoenician trading posts and colonies of the western Mediterranean. They also established new ones, such as Carthago Nova (Cartagena) or Ebysos (Ibiza).

The Carthaginians were defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars in the3rd century BC. These wars put an end to the Carthaginian presence in the Iberian Peninsula.


  historiasiglo20@yahoo.esJuan Carlos Ocaña ©2006 principiosdeconomía@iespana.es Ramón Burgaleta Fraile