This week Neil Faulkner looks at the spread and development of ancient city civilisations around the world, each governed by a new ruling class of priests, city-governors and war-leaders.
The world’s first class society emerged in Sumer in the centuries around 3000 BCE (before the common era). An elite of high priests and city-governors raised themselves above society and began to exploit the common citizens in their own interest.
An increasingly complex society had assigned them specialised politico-religious roles. This had given them control over property and surplus. But in a world were scarcity and poverty were the norm, they had used this control to enrich themselves and shore up their own power.
Something similar happened around the same time or somewhat later in several other places. Civilisation did not spread outwards from a single centre: it arose independently where circumstances were right.
In Sumer, priests formed the core of the ruling class, temple estates provided their wealth, and temple-ziggurats their most imposing monuments. City-governors and war-leaders were recruited from the theocratic elite.
In Egypt, the reverse was true. Menes, chief of the Falcon clan and legendary first pharaoh, united the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt) and the Nile Valley (Upper Egypt) by military conquest. Having created a centralised state, he proclaimed himself a god-king (pharaoh).
Priests, officials, merchants, artisans, and peasants were all subordinate to pharaoh. The ruling class - priests and officials - owed their estates and position to royal patronage. The pyramids, iconic monuments of Old Kingdom Egypt (2705-2250 BCE), were not temples, but royal tombs.
Like Sumerian priests and city-governors, Egyptian pharaohs fostered the cultural package of the ‘urban revolution’: irrigation works; long-distance trade (especially for metals, timber, and stone); literacy and record-keeping; numerical notation and geometry; standard weights and measures; the calendar and time-keeping; and the science of astronomy.
This urban package reflected the needs of the state and the elite. Control of the waters of the Nile ensured abundant harvests, large surpluses, and a healthy workforce. Official trade missions secured the raw materials needed for arms-manufacture, monumental architecture, and luxury consumption. A literate and numerate bureaucracy managed the tribute and labour-services on which state power depended.
Independent ‘urban revolutions’ occurred in several other places. This shows that all humans are capable of the highest achievements. They are no ‘superior races’ or ‘nations’ that give the lead to the rest. It is culture and circumstance - not biology - that determine historical differences.
Around 2600 BCE, urban civilisation emerged in the Indus Valley (in Pakistan). The great monuments and residential suburbs of Mohenjo-daro cover a square mile. The walled perimeter of Harappa extends for 2 Ω miles. Inscribed seal-stamps and standard weights and measures indicate complex administration.
Ancient Anyang in the Yellow River region of northern China was an unwalled complex measuring almost 10 km in length by 4 km in width. It was probably the capital of the Shang Dynasty in the 13th century BCE. Excavations have revealed rich royal tombs, great caches of decorated bronzes, and tens of thousands of cracked and inscribed ‘oracle bones’.
Teotihuacan in Mexico, at its peak between 450 and 650 CE (common era), was a Mayan city of 8 square miles and around 150,000 people. At its centre was a monumental complex dominated by giant pyramids. The Pyramid of the Sun is 210m square at the base and 64m high.
Great Zimbabwe (1100-1500 CE) was a city of 20,000 people in the heart of Africa. Its wealth was based on cattle, crop cultivation, and the trade in gold, copper, ivory, and slaves. Its territory extended over 100,000 square kilometres between the Zambezi and the Limpopo.
Scholars used to believe that civilisation was exported from a single centre. They spoke of ‘light from the ancient east’. This fitted with 19th century notions of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ - the ‘civilising mission’ of European imperialists.
Archaeology has demonstrated the reverse: civilisation developed independently at different places at different times. The message is that all the world’s people share a common humanity and equal creative potential.
But the major centres of civilisation did have an impact on surrounding societies. There is always a relationship between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’.
The Egyptian pharaoh obtained wood from Lebanon, copper from Cyprus, and gold from Sudan. Sometimes this was a matter of peaceful exchange. The city of Byblos in Lebanon grew rich on the timber trade. Local merchants employed clerks who could read Egyptian. There was cultural interaction.
Other times, it was a matter of conquest. Northern Sudan was conquered and forced to pay a gold-tribute.
The interaction between core and periphery was therefore multi-faceted - economic, political, military, and cultural.
The demands of trade encouraged merchants, sea-captains, and ship-builders. Long boats powered by rowers were used in the Aegean from c. 3000 BCE onwards. The citadel of Troy in 2700 BCE (known as ‘Troy II’) was built to guard a harbour at the entrance to the Dardanelles (in north-western Turkey).
The ‘Thalassocracy’ (Sea-power) of Minos rose to dominance in c. 1950-1450 BCE on the basis of Crete’s central location and the islanders’ revolutionary design of deep-hulled, high-capacity, sail-powered cargo ships. The rulers of Minoan Crete lived in sprawling, stone-built palaces, with frescos on the walls, and store-rooms packed with giant ceramic containers.
Homer, describing his hero Odysseus’s travel-worn appearance, says he was like ‘some captain of a merchant crew, who spends his life on a hulking tramp, worrying about his outward freight, or keeping a sharp eye on the cargo when he comes home with extortionate profits.’
So the periphery was changed by the demands of trade. It was changed also by the threat of war. Sargon of Akkad, after 2330 BCE, united the cities of Mesopotamia and forged an empire that eventually extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The Old Kingdom pharaohs conquered Sinai for its copper.
Threatened by superpower militarism, the minor states and tribes of the periphery organised for war. Warriors, weapons, and war-fleets dominated the Bronze Age world. An arms-race in slow motion gathered speed through the centuries. Frescos show merchant ships loaded with goods, but also warships filled with armed men.
Through trade and war, and by the movement of goods, people, and ideas, the societies of core and periphery influenced one another.
The sharing and spreading of culture is what archaeologists call ‘diffusion’. It is one of the primary mechanisms by which knowledge and productivity advance. Progress is impeded by barriers and facilitated by bridges.
But a world of competing elites and rival armies also harboured a potential for death, waste, and regression. As we shall see, the contradictions of Bronze Age civilisation repeatedly plunged humanity into crisis and barbarism.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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