Mesopotamia and egypt

            Mesopotamia and Egypt: Early Civilizations of the World

The two earliest civilizations of the world, for which we have found artifacts and records, are those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. These two civilizations began at close to the same time, with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia first beginning to form their society in 3500 BC and the Archaic Period in Egypt first starting in 3100 BC. They were both founded as river civilizations, with the Sumerians on the Fertile Crescent, utilizing the land in between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers while the Egyptians centered their culture around the Great Nile River. Both of these societies were primarily based on agriculture whereas those that came before them were mostly based on the hunter-gatherer system for providing food. But despite the similar time periods and similar circumstances that led to each civilization being formed, the cultures of the people in Egypt and Mesopotamia developed in many different ways that reflect not only their land and surroundings, but also their stories and religious beliefs.

The people of both Mesopotamia and Egypt believed in numerous Gods, and both became trading societies.  “As in Mesopotamia, trade and conquest in Egypt created connections” (Judge,38). This helped the two civilizations stay in contact and interchange ideas and techniques with the outside world. They both had powerful rulers who provided over the land, and in artwork these rulers were portrayed as deities or the representative to deities. In Egyptian paintings, the Pharoah was much larger than everyone else. He was also found at the center of each painting. When Babylon formed as the greatest of Mesopotamian city-states, King Hamurabi knew he needed to represent himself as a god or someone close to the gods in order to gain the support of the people. Paintings were created where Hamurabi would stand, seeing eye to eye with a god. In the paintings the god would be passing a septor, which represented power, to Hamurabi. Only a king could speak to a god, and in the paintings, Hamurabi would be standing on a Ziggurat, which represented the passage and connection between heaven and earth. In these ways, both in Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures the leaders used artwork to portray themselves as godlike beings. This manipulation used people’s religious beliefs to help cement the status of the leaders as far above, and closer to the heavens, than the people they ruled over.

While there were similarities in the ways the leaders represented themselves, the stories they told showed that both Mesopotamia and Egypt had vastly different views of the world and the afterlife. In Mesopotamia, the epic of Gilgamesh featured Enkidu, a being created by the gods to compete with the great King Gilgamesh. And yet when Enkidu angered the gods one day, they decided that it was cause for him to die. Gilgamesh and Enkidu had become friends by this point and so Gilgamesh set out on a quest to find immortality, not only to save Enkidu, but also to learn if he could one day be saved, himself. Gilgamesh was not successful in his quest, and learned by the end that he could not spend his life thinking about his death, and that he needed to be the best leader he could be during the time he was given. This story represented a more final belief in death than could be found in the Egyptian culture, where mummification and an afterlife were strong religious beliefs.

Egyptians told a very different story of the afterlife and possibility of it taking place. In their story of Isis and Osiris, also gods, Osiris was cut into many pieces by his brother, Seth. The pieces were scattered all over Egypt. Isis then went around collecting the pieces, similar to Gilgamesh on his quest to revive Enkidu. Only the result was very different. Unlike Gilgamesh, Isis was successful and able to put the pieces together and bring Osiris back to life. This story represented rebirth and the strong Egyptian belief that an afterlife was attainable.

The reasons for the stories and different beliefs between Mesopotamia and Egypt with regard to an afterlife, had a direct connection to the differences in the rivers that flowed through the two lands. In Mesopotamia, dams and canals were needed in order for the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to be controlled and directed toward the land. In Egypt, on the other hand, the Nile River flooded on its own, and by doing so, made the soil all around the river very fertile and good for growing crops. There was no need to manipulate this river and the “complex irrigation schemes of Mesopotamia” would be unnecessary in Egypt (Judge, 37).

The Nile River in Egypt would flood in a predictable manner and on a more regular basis than the rivers of Mesopotamia.  As a result, the Egyptians believed that life was a pathway of continuing cycles and that the gods were looking out for them, bringing the water to them and keeping the conditions of their river and land stable. With the belief in cycles, came the belief in an afterlife and rebirth. Egyptians believed that death could be conquered, and that life was cyclical like the Nile, as was shown in their story of Isis and Osiris.

The people of Mesopotamia, however, did not share the same views and this could also be attributed to the difference in their river systems. Because they had to work at creating their irrigation system, their worldview was more gloomy and less optimistic than that of the Egyptians (Judge,38). They did not believe that death could be conquered in the same manner the Egyptians did, and this could be seen in the end result from their epic of Gilgamesh where the hero learned that even a being created by the gods would still one day find inescapable death.

Another connection between the peoples of Mesopotamia and Egypt was their development of writing systems. The Sumerians used a technique known as Cuneiform which involved making lines on clay tablets. These pieces of clay were often thick and not easy to transport. In Egypt, however, the people wrote on papyrus leaves, which “much like paper, could be rolled into scrolls,” (Judge,39).  These leaves were easy to write on and also easy to carry and transport.  It was another example that showed why the Egyptians had a more positive and easy-going world view than that of the Mesopotamians.

The people of Mesopotamia and Egypt both developed civilizations along rivers and both began structured agricultural societies. They both traded with people of other regions, developed writing systems, and used artwork to show their leaders as deities. Yet their rivers, which provided the life source for the people of their lands, were very different. As a result of the different ways these rivers performed, the people of Mesopotamia and Egypt developed different perspectives on life, afterlife, and religion.


1.Judge, Edward H., 2009, Connections, A World History, Volume One, to 1650

Vango Books, Pearson Education Inc, New Jersey