Lost Peoples of the Ancient World
Posted by foryourfaith on October 9, 2010
The Greeks called the long, fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers Mesopotamia, meaning “the land between the two rivers.” Here the various cultures of the region flourished for three millennia. And it was here, in this fertile valley, that the world of the Bible slowly took shape.
Today the Middle East is characterized by vast deserts, harsh climates, and little rainfall. But during the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, the entire valley was bordered by grasslands, where large herds of grazing animals roamed.
When the ice sheets retreated, much of the region became parched and barren. But the land between the rivers, which remained verdant, attracted nomadic tribes. As the rivers emerged from the mountains of Armenia, they carried a burden of silt, which produced great alluvial plains.
The Sumerians were among the nomadic tribes attracted to this fertile strip, with its abundant game. Over time, they built small settlements and learned to plant seeds and harvest grain. Thus began the domestication of crops and early glimmerings of civilization. Bronze tools have been unearthed by archaeologists, which give evidence of the development of culture.
Accomplished farmers, the Sumerians built canals for irrigation, which carried water from the slightly higher Euphrates to the lower Tigris. As the society flourished, the Sumerians established city-states, such as Ur and Uruk (known in the Bible as Erech). By the beginning of the third millennium, rivalries among these cities led to the establishment of a kingship.
Archaeology has revealed that the Sumerians were skilled in art, especially sculpture, and music. But their most important contribution was probably the invention of pictographic writing. Samples, dating from the latter part of the fourth millennium, have been unearthed at Uruk. It was from this early form of writing that the distinctive cuneiform sign systems developed. Composed of wedge-shaped lines impressed in clay, cuneiform was widely used for centuries.
About a thousand years after its first settlements were built, Sumer and its cities were conquered by the armies of Sargon I, the ruler of the great Semitic empire centered in Akkad. The Akkadians left behind a rich literature, including a creation epic known as “Enuma Elish” and the famous “Epic of Gilgamesh.” However, this empire lasted only four generations.
During the following decades, a resurgence of Sumerian culture took place. The Sumerian city of Ur became the center of a new Mesopotamian empire, under the rule of its former governor, Ur-Nammu. However, the dynasty he founded collapsed at the beginning of the second millennium BC, when the Amorites invaded from the west and the Elamites from the east.
The Amorites established an empire in Babylon, and the city rose to great prominence. Hammurabi, the famous lawgiver who reunified Mesopotamia, was the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon.
It was perhaps during the period of the Amorite invasion that Abraham’s family moved to Haran in upper Mesopotamia. For centuries, this region was the contested site of powerful empires. Beginning in about 1600 BC, it was dominated by the Mitanni empire, which, in its struggle with Egypt for power, pressed southward. The Mitanni subjugated the inhabitants of Canaan. Then they were, in turn, conquered by the Hittites, and Indo-European people who had established a strong kingdom in central Asia Minor I nth second millennium BC. Some 300 years later, the Hittite empire fell to invaders from the Greek islands.
Egyptian culture was already well established as early as the end of the fourth millennium BC. By the middle of the third millennium, the pharaohs of Egypt’s fourth dynasty, seeking immortality, had built the great pyramids. Around the beginning of the second millennium, possibly during the 12th dynasty, Abraham sojourned in Egypt.
Egypt flourished for many of the same reasons that Mesopotamia did. The Nile River, fed by rainfall in the interior highlands, made the Nile Valley and the delta fertile. The annual flooding of the Nile has nourished the region since antiquity.
However, Egypt was repeatedly beset by war and strife. Around the 17th century BC, for instance, the Asiatic Hyksos gained domination. It may have been during this period that Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, rose to prominence by Pharaoh’s side.
A rain-watered corridor along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean provided a link between the two fertile regions of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Known as the Via Maris, it supported farming and forests, and formed a commercial highway as well. With parts of Syria and Assyria, these regions formed the famous “fertile crescent.”
Thus it was among these empires and ancient cultures that the people of Israel emerged. Semi-nomads living in the land of Canaan, the Israelites derived their identity and their strength from the single God they worshipped. Emerging from the ruins of now vanished empires, the Israelites forged a new vision for all mankind.
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