Five Ancient Civilizations
From Earliest to Latest
Following are five short introductions of the earliest civilizations known: Catalhӧyük, Egypt, Sumer, Minoa, and Mycenae. Burial rituals, leadership, and public architecture are the primary foci. This article is in no way meant to be comprehensive, but hopefully it will promote further interest in these fascinating societies.
Existing over five thousand years before the emergence of the Sumerians between the Tigris and Euphrates, the Catalhöyük (sha-tal-hyook) were one of the earliest known societies of Neolithic civilization. Named for the site in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), this proto-city has been dated to 9000 BCE, and lacks many of the innovations present in later civilizations.
So far, archaeological expeditions have not revealed any buildings that could be categorized as public architecture[i]. The dwellings are all relatively uniform in size and densely packed into groups of four to five buildings, probably consisting of extended families. Most entranceways are narrow holes located on the roof.
The political system of Catalhöyük is unknown. The uniformity of the domiciles and the lack of public architecture suggests an egalitarian society -- perhaps there was no central ruler. Catalhӧyük represents early man’s transition from hunter-gathers to farmers. These people may not have been centralized in any aspect other than physical location and a cultic paganism. They may have simply gathered at this site to remain close to their fields, and evidence of large wall murals depicting women and animals suggest a pagan religion whose figurehead was a Mother-Goddess[i].
Being that nothing written by the Catalhӧyük has been uncovered, and the likelihood of the civilization never having developed a written language, it is difficult to extrapolate their view of an afterlife. However, their dead were wrapped in reed mats and buried under their houses, which could suggest that the living wanted the spirits of their dead to remain close and continue to enjoy the protection of home.
To the south of Anatolia lies Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, which is credited with originating writing (cuneiform), and developing agriculture. It lasted from roughly 4000 BCE to 650 BCE. The Sumerians were the first people to “civilize” this region.
The public architecture of each major center consisted of one massive structure, a stepped pyramid called a ziggurat. The best preserved of these structures was the Ziggurat at Ur, its perimeter 145 feet by 190 feet and what remains of it today rises seventy feet into the air. It was completed during the forty-eight-year reign of King Shulgi. Originally thought to be simply a massive temple for the moon god Nanna, it was later discovered to have housed nearly every public and administrative station in the city: treasury, police station, market, banks, schools, etc[ii].
Similar to the Catalhӧyük, the commoners of Mesopotamia were often buried under their homes in either coffins or clay pots, however, the upper classes of society were laid to rest in graveyards, the best known again being found in the city of Ur. Most bodies were buried in shallow pits with some possessions, but royalty and other notables were often buried in stone tombs. The Sumerians believed that without a funeral, the spirits of the dead would wander the earth instead of journeying to the underworld.
The Sumerian king Sargon I[iii] is attributed with creating a political system that would be adopted by later civilizations for centuries to come. That system is dynastic, in which a ruler’s male progeny would assume the throne after his father’s death.
Imhotep - Egyptian Physician
Egypt is arguably the strongest, most stable, and longest lasting civilization of the five being examined here. It lasted roughly five and a half thousand years, circa 5000 BCE to 650 BCE, when it collapsed under the hegemony of the Roman Empire. Its contributions to architecture, inhumation, and political innovation are perhaps the most enduring of all these civilizations.
Ancient Egyptians were the first people to practice mummification, precipitated by their belief that the body needed to remain intact for its life after death. This also explains why the interior of their tombs were lavishly decorated, furnished and re-supplied by priests with food. These tombs, the pyramids, were built to house the great leaders, the Pharaohs, in the afterlife, as it was believed that the spirits of the dead would return to receive nourishment.
Imhotep, architect, physician, and the advisor to the Third Dynasty king, Zoser, created Egypt’s first step pyramid to house the king’s tomb. He was later deified, the only non-royalty to have been so[iv]. Egypt adopted the Sumerian idea of the dynasty but perfected it, for single dynasties lasted for centuries, when Sargon’s did not last past the third ruler[iii].
Very little is known about the Minoan civilization as it was nearly entirely destroyed several times by natural disaster and invasion. Additionally, their written language, called Linear A, remains undecipherable.
What is known is that they were a seafaring people with strong trade ties to Egypt and Asia Minor, whose civilization lasted from circa 2200 BCE to 1400 BCE. Their maritime clout was so impenetrable that they largely relied on their war ships to defend themselves and seemed to have little concern for building defensive fortifications around their palaces[v]. Their capital city was Knossos, located on Crete. Its government can be viewed as an archaic theocratic monarchy, ruled by either a priestly king or queen.
Their religion was similar to many other pagan religions of the ancient world, in that it was matriarchal, worshipping a Mother-Goddess. Their dead were placed in ceramic jars and buried communally.
The palace at Knossos was their finest architectural achievement. It was three stories high and used clay pipes for plumbing, and as mentioned above, lacked a defensive wall.
What finally did them in was a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, in about 1628 BCE[v]. This eruption is believed to have severely crippled the Minoans sea power, which over the next two centuries allowed the Mycenaeans to exert their power over the Greek islands and push the Minoans out or to assimilate them into their own culture.
With the decline of Minoan civilization, whether by natural disaster or invasion, the Mycenaeans, a warrior society, came to dominate the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the nearby islands including Crete. Their major city-centers were Mycenae, Tiryns, Athens, and Argos. Much in their political system, burial rituals, and architecture can be attributed to the influence of Minoan culture.
Lasting roughly four centuries, circa 1600 BCE to 1200 BCE, the Mycenaeans most significant contribution to history was their early development of a culture that would be adapted and expanded upon by the Ancient Greeks[vi]. At the height of their power, roughly from the fifteenth to fourteenth centuries BCE, indicated by the presence of many gold artifacts, pottery, and weaponry. Their cemeteries were built into the hillsides, including long entranceways that were probably used for funeral procession. Inside were beehive-shaped tombs, called tholoi, which housed several generations of elite families.
Their political system is posited to have two leaders. The supreme leader was called the wanax, who it is believed to have served a largely spiritual function. Under this divine intermediary was a war chief, called a lawagetas, who not only presided over times of war but also probably had more of a political function than the wanax[vi]. According the J.M. Roberts, each city-state had a king, yet they answered to one high king at Mycenae, given that Mycenae was the largest city-state.
Like the Minoans, they had a palace system; only theirs were much more heavily fortified than their predecessors, which can be explained by their warrior nature but also raises questions about whether Mycenae was the high seat of power or that each city-state enjoyed more autonomy and constantly fought each other. The largest palace was located in the city-state Tiryns, so immense that later Greeks thought it must have required the labor of Cyclopes[vi].
All photos from Commons.Wikipedia.org unless specifically noted.
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