Although Egypt and Mesopotamia were both early agricultural societies built upon the water provided by the major rivers which sustained them, they exhibited important differences as a consequence of the different physical environments in which they developed. In this paper I will first focus on what I consider to be the major aspects of these differences in environment and then explore the consequences of these differences in their religious beliefs, political organization and commercial practices.
A major difference in physical environment between these ancient societies was the seasonal river flows on which they depended for farming.
The Nile which supported early Egyptian civilization was characterized by predictable and annual flooding in the early fall. These floods occurred after crops were harvested. This pattern was a consequence of the regular late summer monsoon rains which fell at its headwaters. The Nile also possessed a large spreading delta area that gave rise to natural irrigation canals that would flood the areas between them with fertile nutrients for the next planting year.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers which supported the Mesopotamian society would typically flood in the late spring just when crops would be ripening, often with disastrous results on harvests. This pattern was a result of these waters originating from winter snow melt in the Anatolian mountains (now in present day Turkey) where these rivers originated. These floods sometimes caused the rivers to change their course abruptly cutting off fields from water. Another primary physical difference contributing to cultural differences was the relative isolation in which ancient Egypt developed compared to Mesopotamia.
According to our text book ‘Egypt’s natural isolation and material self-sufficiency fostered a unique culture that for long periods of time had relatively little to do with other civilizations’. In contrast, Mesopotamia was open to migration or invasion and was dependent on imported resources. Also many different ethnic peoples contributed to the growth of Mesopotamian society. The religious beliefs of Egypt and Mesopotamia were influenced by many factors. The rivers, every day objects, and the beliefs of the people. In Egypt in contrast to Mesopotamia the Pharaoh was considered to be a god in addition to being the supreme ruler.
He was the main god of their religion. In Egypt people praised their gods for the annual flooding of the Nile. However in Mesopotamia the people were frightened of their gods because ‘the gods could alter the landscape’ arbitrarily. In return they gave their gods gifts in hopes of appeasing them. In both of the civilizations religion was polytheistic, i. e. , having many gods. The political organization of Egypt was based on the central authority of the Pharaoh. Since he was the embodied form of a god, he was the law. He chose where the capitol would be located, such a Thebes, Memphis, etc.
Although smaller cities existed in ancient Egypt the majority of Egyptians appeared to live in small farming villages. In contrast, Mesopotamia was built around a number of independent city states surrounded by farming villages. Many of these cities competed with each other or even warred with each other to become a dominant center of power. No uniform basis for law or justice existed in this decentralized environment until Hammurabi succeeded in becoming the first king of Babylon and established the Babylonian Empire with control over all of Mesopotamia.
He created a law code of which may copies were made. These inscribed tablets were sent to the different clans of Mesopotamia and became a basis for a uniform legal system, including classification of the people living under his dominion The commercial activities in Mesopotamia were quite extensive as a result of the requirement to develop trading relationships between the different city states and other regions to obtain needed resources.
This resulted in the development of a merchant class in the urban centers unlike the situation in Egypt. Trade was based on bartering rather than money. Goods traded included wood, metals, and stone in exchange for wool, cloth, barley, and vegetable oil. These practices required the development of the skills needed for acquiring, transporting, and protecting valuable commodities. According to our textbook, independent merchants and merchant guilds had gained considerable influence in Mesopotamian society by the second 2000 BC.