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.
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
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
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.