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The region grew from two large river basins, the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates, and the intervening coastal lands of Syria and Palestine.

Both the Tigris and Euphrates flow down from the Armenian highlands roughly parallel to each other. At the site of modern day Baghdad the rivers are only twenty miles apart. From here it broadens into the vast plain of Babylonia.

The Nile rises south of Egypt, in central Africa. It is joined in Khartoum by the Blue Nile. Thence it flows northward through Nubia; the valley broadens near Syene into a vast depression approximately 12 miles wide and 500 miles long. As it approaches the Mediterranean it divides into several branches of the delta. This is the setting for the cradle of the modern western world.

Origins and Development

It was seen as oasis in the arid landscape of the area, thus it was known as the "fertile crescent". As such, there was considerable immigration to the area. This led to a significant mix of cultures. In fact, the earliest evidence of settled political and social life here were found in Mesopotamia circa 5000 to 4000 B.C. Around 3200 B.C. a number of separate city states existed in Northern Mesopotamia (known as Akkad) and in the south (known as Sumer).

Near the end of 3000 B.C. the Amorites entered Mesopotamia and settled in Babylon, in western Akkad near the Euphrates. From this time Babylon took predominance over other cities in the region and began a period of expansion. Hammurabi (1947 - 1905 B.C.), the sixth Babylonian king, subdued all Sumer and Akkad, and his sway extended as far as Assyria to the North of Babylonia. This was the beginning of a centralized administration in Mesopotamia.

However, the death of Hammurabi led to internal strife and the break up of the old Babylonian Kingdom. The invasion of the Hittites also occurred around this time. They destroyed Babylon in 1750 B.C. and later established a strong center in Asia Minor. Their rivalry with Egypt was their undoing and they began to decline around 1200 B.C.

Between 2420 and 2270 B.C. Egypt controlled tribes as far as the upper and lower Nubia. They exploited the rich mineral deposits of the Sinai Peninsula and commercial expeditions were sent as far as Punt (Somalia). After a period of protracted political trouble, civil war, and foreign invasion, the pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty (1580 - 1356 B.C.) embarked on a career of conquest. Under Thutmose III (circa 1500 B.C.), Egypt occupied Palestine, Syria, and Phoenicia while Crete, Cyprus, and other Mediterranean islands were forced into alliances with Egypt.

A prolonged dispute with the Hittites over Syria ended in a treaty (1272 B.C.). This treaty delimited spheres of influence and marked the height of both empires. Thus Egypt's expansion came to an end and recorded the meeting of both cultures

The decline of the Egyptian and Hittite Empires in the 13th Century B.C. allowed for the development of the Aramaeans, Hebrews and Phoenicians. The Hebrews had entered Palestine around 2000 B.C. and were well established in Jordan by the 13th Century B.C. The Phoenicians were seafarers and traders. They colonized this area as far as the western coast of Africa. Their cities included Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Carthage. They would develop into and remain a power in the Mediterranean until the rise of the Roman Empire.

Institutions and Culture

Government was organized along the lines of absolute monarchy in the region. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was the lawgiver, judge, and chief priest. He had unlimited authority. Power was exercised through officials and a central administrative bureaucracy. This also led to the development of a number of public works such as reservoirs and canals.

Babylonia was autocratic with greater regard for individual rights to both life and property, e.g. Hammurabi wrote a Code of Laws that protected these rights. Class distinctions also existed: Wealthy landed, priests, petty landowners, land based tenants, and artisans. Slavery also existed but they possessed definite rights. Women generally had a higher position in Babylonia than elsewhere in the area.

Babylon adapted their language to the earlier Sumerian method of writing. They designed a script of wedge-shaped or cuneiform characters. Symbols were provided for some 500 syllables.

Egypt designated certain sounds of the human voice by single letters (hieroglyphics). They also developed papyrus, a writing material formed by the pressing together of reeds that were plentiful in the area.

Phoenicians produced a set of symbols, derived from the writings of other peoples, consisting of 22 consonants (vowels were not used at the time). They formed the basis of the first alphabet.

Babylon's astronomical discoveries included naming the days of the week after planets, dividing the year into 12 months and the day and night into 12 hours apiece. Added to this, hours were made up of 60 minutes while 60 seconds constituted a minute. They also divided the 'circle' into 360 degrees.

Egyptian astronomers, using simple instruments, distinguished between planets and fixed stars. By 3000 B.C. they reckoned time by a solar year of 12 months of 30 days plus 5 extra.

Assyria and Persia

In Northeast Mesopotamia there lay the city of Assur. There developed Assyrian civilization. The decline of the Egyptian and Hittite Empires left the way open for the Assyrians. Efficient in war and employing new weapons and tactics they soon overran Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. They even occupied Egypt for a time. Under Saragon II (722-705 B.C.) and his successor Sennacherib, the Assyrian Empire attained its zenith of power.

It was noted for its institutions of centralized government that surpassed those of Babylon and Egypt. Absolute monarchical power was secured by measures such as an effective postal system. The King was kept in constant touch with the outlying provinces. However a large degree of municipal autonomy was permitted within the frame of central administration

The coming of the Medes and Persian heralded the beginning of the long predominance of Indo-European peoples over the Near East. They brought the Assyrian capital of Nineveh to its knees in 612 B.C. Though at first the Medes were the dominant people, the Persians, through their chieftain Cyrus, triumphed over the Medes. This was followed by successful attacks on the Kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, then on Babylon which fell in 539 B.C. Cambyes, the successor of Cyrus, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C. Thus at this time the Persian Empire stretched from the Nile Delta to the Eastern Mediterranean to the borders of India.

The Persians' government was very efficient. It was made up to 20 provinces (satrapies). A supervised governor controlled each province. They, in turn, were checked by a secretary and military commander, both directly responsible to the King. However local customs and life went on much as before and religious differences were tolerated

In this passage we have seen the rise and fall of several peoples and empires. They all contributed to the development of the culture and life of the Near East, while also spreading its influence in all directions. It was the cradle of culture and government, which led to the development of the modern world.