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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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Near East
3100 to 586 BCE


The Tigris-Euphrates valley (called Mesopotamia by the Greeks) and the Nile valley in Egypt were home to the first sustained civilizations on earth. Both valleys were suited to large-scale agriculture using irrigation, and their inhabitants discovered ways to grow enough surplus food to support highly stratified societies with large, densely populated communities. Over the course of the 4th millennium competing city-states developed in Mesopotamia, each with its local ruler and local god or gods and extensively cultivated fields whose crops were commodities of local trade. To manage the increasingly complex societies of these city-states, new tools were developed for accounting and record-keeping. A system of markings for record-keeping was invented in Sumer, a region of lower Mesopotamia, and it gradually evolved into the first system of recording spoken language -- cuneiform.

Egypt's civilization developed in parallel to that of Mesopotamia, although the lands along the Nile river were more unified politically from the outset, and less prone to invasion. Perhaps inspired by the example of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians quickly developing their own system of writing -- heiroglyphics.

By the mid-3rd millennium, the cities of Mesopotamia were forging alliances with each other for economic, social, and political purposes. As more powerful states conquered their weaker neighbors, the first empires appeared.


One of the first was formed by a Semitic-speaking people with their capital at Akkad in lower Mesopotamia (ca. 2380-2200 BCE). The city of Babylon became capital of another empire that unified southern Mesopotamia in the 18th century Its ruler Hammurabi (1792-1750) is well known today for the legal code he had inscribed on stone monuments for public display.

The patriarch Abraham is often thought to have lived at about this time, though there is no evidence outside the Bible of his existence. The account of his travels from Ur to Canaan, however, reflects a pattern of migration described in texts found at Mari, a powerful city-state during the 3rd and early 2nd millennium BCE. In about 1595, the Hittites, an Indo-European people centered in Anatolia, forged an extensive empire that encompassed parts of Syria and even challenged Egypt for control of Canaan.

Toward the end of the 13th century, however, waves of warriors arrived in ships along the eastern Mediterranean, raiding cities and devastating lands along the coast. Known by modern scholars as "Sea Peoples," these marauders, many of Mycenaean Greek origin, probably caused the collapse of the Hittite Empire and weakened many of the smaller states ringing the Mediterranean.

Though most knowledge of the early centuries of civilization comes from archaeological finds and ancient inscriptions, the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible as an historical source begins to sharpen with events that date to approximately the same time as the invasions of Sea Peoples, about 1200 BCE.

The account of Moses and the Exodus, in particular, has inspired many scholarly debates, but most scholars agree that some group of people probably escaped from Egypt in the late 13th century and contributed to the shaping of the Israelite nation. According to the Bible, the Israelites established their own small empire in Canaan (ca.1004-928) under King David and his son, Solomon. It soon split into two separate kingdoms: Israel and Judah.

In northern Mesopotamia, the Assyrian empire rose several times and finally (ca. 900-609) came to dominate a vast region. Assyrian forces destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 722 and dispersed many of its people (the "ten lost tribes"). Assyria threatened Judah as well, though this small and politically marginal kingdom was able to avoid conquest by submitting to Assyria as a vassal state.

All the lands between Egypt and Mesopotamia were caught in the power struggles between Egypt and the successive empires of Mesopotamia. When the kingdom of Judah sided with Egypt in 589 after having promised to pay homage to the Babylonian Empire, Babylonian forces retaliated by conquering Judah, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and sending many of Judah's citizens into exile.


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