The Ancient Middle East

This map depicts the sites of some of the world's earliest civilizations. Ancient societies depended on agriculture for their survival, and thus, not surprisingly, we find them beginning in fertile areas such as the flood plains near the Nile river (in North Africa) and the Tigris and Euphrates (in ancient Mesopotamia). These early societies produced the first written documents in history, though writing was not first developed or used to produce literature. The earliest writing consisted mainly of informational and government records. But these ancient cultures did eventually turn the technology of writing toward literary ends. For example, the Sumerians, whose earliest writing involved the inscription of wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, produced The Epic of Gilgamesh (NAWOL, Volume A). This early literary work tells the tale of Gilgamesh and the founding of the city of Uruk (pictured on the map, along the Euphrates and near the Persian Gulf). The societies in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Phoenicia each played a key role in the invention and development of writing systems that would intermingle and evolve throughout history.