Chapter Summary

There is little doubt that historians have an extraordinary number of tools and methodologies at their disposal; these tools have helped them construct (and in some cases reconstruct) the events of the past. While historians still rely on written records, the work of archeologists, anthropologists, and demographers has helped broaden the understanding of the distant past. We may never fully understand "how things really were," but the historian still tries to put together seemingly random pieces of evidence from the past into a coherent narrative to help place contemporary events into an appropriate historical context.

By the end of the Neolithic Age, and as a result of humans learning how to domesticate plants and animals, an important early civilization was able to flourish in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. This agricultural revolution gave birth to a collection of independent city-states known collectively as Mesopotamia. The people of this area—Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and others—were able to solve the problems of irrigation, build massive temples to their many gods, and organize their lives in a way that permitted the future growth of permanent settlements. They also invented the wheel and the first form of writing, cuneiform. Intense warfare between city-states led to the formation of the Akkadian Empire, the first empire in Western history. Following the accomplishments of the Akkadians, the Babylonian king Hammurabi came to appreciate the importance of the written word. He elevated Marduk as patron deity of Babylon and went on to unite his people under his code of laws.

While the Akkadians created an empire in Mesopotamia, another ancient civilization developed along the banks of the Nile River. The Egyptians created an empire based, not on conquest, but upon the development of a highly unified society that would come to be dominated by the pharaoh. His magnificence and divinity were reflected in massive public buildings such as the Great Pyramids at Giza. An extremely confident people, the Egyptians created a worldview based on the cyclical nature of life, death, and the afterlife.

The Mesopotamians and Egyptians created societies in which religious beliefs and politics were interconnected. Although these civilizations had contact with one another, there was very little political or cultural interaction between them. By 2000 B.C.E., however, this isolation would give way to something completely different as developing empires in the ancient Near East moved to expand and transform the ancient world.