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The first civilisations, known as river civilisations, appeared in some regions

where the flooding of great rivers fertilized the land and produced abundant
harvests for large-scale, complex societies. They shared the following characteristics:
1. Strong political power concentrated in a King. He was assisted by state
officials and an army.

2. Social hierarchy, divided in a small minority of privileged people and a majority

who were very poor.

3. Large-scale building works, such as irrigation canals which carried water from
the rivers to the fields, or impressive palaces, temples and tombs ordered by

In any cases, writing was a decisive

development. In fact, historians study the
past in a different way when they can use
written sources. Created in Mesopotamia
about 3,500 BC, it was the only way to
keep a record of taxes, trade and
populations or to remember essential
information about events, laws and governors. It were developed two types called
pictographic, in which a symbol represents an idea, and cuneiform, based on
schematically signs made on a clay tablet with a reed or a wedge (cuneus in Latin).


2.1. The natural environment:

Mesopotamian civilisation developed in the region between the Tigris and

Euphrates Rivers (in Greek
Mesopotamia means
between two rivers). This
was a very dry region, but
irrigation canals took waters
from the Tigris and
Euphrates Rivers. This
region had commercial links
with Asia Minor, the
Mediterranean and Syria.

City-states were
independent and ruled by
kings. They were composed by a major city which controlled the land and villages
around it. Some of them expanded their territories through conquest and alliances until
they became empires, with a complex history.

2.2. Society:

Mesopotamian society was divided into two groups:

1. A ruling minority was at the top of pyramid, composed by:
a. Priests, who were responsible for religious rituals and closed to gods
b. Kings and government officials,
were responsible for creating the
laws of eachs city-state. All of
them owned land and
c. Soldiers, scribes and
merchants: they were proud
members of a city-state,
controlling army, laws and
economy. They could trade
metals, wood and wool with other regions.

2. A least privileged minority was placed at the bottom.
a. Craftsmen and peasants, spent their time creating items to send to
other places, selling goods or trading with neighboring city-states.

b. Slaves: when one city-state conquered another, people brought back

prisoners to work for the ruling minority.

Women were under the authority of men, but they could buy and sell goods, own
property and have jobs. Their lives reflected their wealth and social position (poor lived
in harsh conditions but aristocratic could become high priestesses).

2.3. Religion and art:

The Mesopotamians were polytheistic because they believed in many gods.

Their gods had emotions just like human beings, but they were immortal. Temples
were the places where the gods lived on Earth.
The Mesopotamian architecture was characterised by:
1. The use of mud bricks, covered by bitumen
and colorful ceramics.
2. The invention of stepped buildings and the
arch and vault for cover the space between
two walls.

The most important buildings were the ziggurat, a

structure with several levels of different sizes,
forming part of a temple, and the palace, the place
where the mesopotamian king or chief lived.

They also made stone statues of kings,

gods, animals and imaginary creatures like bulls
with human heads. They were inexpressive, symmetrical and forward-facing.
Reliefs showed political and religious scenes, such as law codes or military


3.1. Enviroment and history:

Ancient Egypt developed along the River Nile in north-east Africa more than
5,000 years ago. Most Egyptians lived near the River, and they called its valley the
“black land” because it was covered by dark fertile mud from the river. The dry
deserts were called the “red lands”. The River Nile was vital for Egyptian civilisation,
because it provided water for human needs and agriculture, and it was also the main
route of communications.

In the fourth millennium BC, independent

kingdoms appeared in Lower and Upper Egypt. In
3,100 BC, King Narmer united them and became the
first pharaoh of Egypt. The main periods of its ancient
history were the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom
and the New Kingdom. From 1,100 BC, there were
several foreign invasions, as the country was
conquered by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and

3.2. Society in Ancient Egypt:

As in Mesopotamia, a ruling minority was at the top of the pyramid. In this

case it was divided into:

1. The pharaoh, or king of Egypt, ruled the country as an absolute monarch

and a god. They were succeeded by their children, so dynasties were created.
The most important were Narmer, Cheops, Chephren, Mychérinos, Ramses II
and Tutankhamun. Some

2. Government officials, such as vizier, noblemen and priests, helped to run

the Egyptian state and its temples.

3. Scribes could read and write, using hieroglyphic writing, an ancient

Egyptian system in which a picture represents a word. Soldiers fought
against foreigners and protected the Egyptian land.

A least privileged majority was placed at the bottom. Most of them were
poor peasants (farmers, construction workers), who built the pyramids. There were
also craftsmen who produced goods. Merchants, that exchanged products. And
servants, who were free people who worked for a salary.
Slaves were often prisoners of
war, house servants,... They had to
Egyptian women had some
rights and enjoyed more freedom than
in most early civilisations. For
example, they could inherit and own
property, and get divorced. Most of
them did housework or worked as
peasants or servants. It was unusual
for women to hold official post, but a
few women, like Hatshepsut,
Cleopatra or Nefertiti were female

3.3. Religion and attitudes to death:

The Egyptians were polytheistic, because they believed in many gods. The
most important were the Sun, called Ra, Amun, Isis, Osiris and Horus. The Egyptians
also worshipped some animals, such as the crocodile and the cat, or natural forces like
the River Nile.

They believed that religion maintained the order of the

universe. For example, religious rituals made sure that the Nile
flooded each year. Each god had a temple, where priests made
offerings to its statue. On the god’s feast day, the statue was
taken out in procession.

Egyptians believed that people had a life after death if their bodies were
preserved. Firstly, the dead body of an important person
was dried to make a mummy, in a complex process:

1. The organs were removed, washed,

embalmed and kept in canopic jars.

2. The body was treated with minerals,

cleaned and bandaged.

Later, the mummy were put in a sarcophagus, a stone

coffin, often decorated and carried to the tomb in a

The tomb of a wealthy person contained

everything they needed in the afterlife. They were buried with food, jewellery statues
of the servants who would work for them and a copy of The Book of the Dead to help
the dead on their journey.

In the afterlife, the deceased would be judged by Osiris. If they passed the
trial, they would go to the heaven. If they failed, they would be eaten by an animal and
would go to the hell.

3.4. Egyptian art:

Artists were the pharaoh’s officials, worked in teams and were considered
craftsmen. Most Egyptian art had a religious and political meaning, showing the
power of the pharaohs. Art used a variety of media but its characteristics changed
very little in 3,000 years.


Stone monuments were important and had fled roofs supported by columns.
Some buildings could be decorated with murals and sculptures, which usually
showed the heroics actions of the pharaoh.

The most important temples,

such as the ones of Karnack, Luxor or
Abu Simbel, were served by the
priests. Processions and
ceremonies were developed in them,
and they were place of knowledge
and financial centers. Normally they
were preceded by an avenue of
sphinxes, an imaginary creature
with a lion’s body and a human
head, and obelisks, and had several
parts: a pylon, a courtyard, a hypostyle hall and a sanctuary, where the statue of
the god was placed.

There were also biggest tombs as the mastabas, the pyramids and the
hipogea, for the eternal rest of the privileged social groups.


Like the rest of the arts, painting changed very little and artists followed
strict rules. Figures were represented in a hierarchical order, so the largest were the
most important. They were also painted without perspective, and the objects were
seen from the front. The human body was shown from the front but the head,
arms and legs were seen in profile. Important people were idealised, being always
young and beautiful. Human figures were static, because the aim was to show
stability and continuity.