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Four great civilisations of the world: comparison and contrast



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    Four great civilisations of the world: comparison  and contrast.

    It was around 3500 B.C that the earliest Civilizations emerged around the world. Civilization is described as a stage in historic development when writing is used to a considerable extent, some progress is made in the art and sciences and political, social and economic institutions have developed sufficiently to conquer some of the problems of a complex society (Burns, Ralph, Lerner, Meachen 1991)

    Historians attribute climatic conditions, favorable conditions, soil exhaustion and adversity in some areas as responsible for the emergence for the world civilizations. River valleys with fertile alluvial soils were in particular favorable for the emergence of civilizations. Thus four great civilizations emerged in the riverbeds of four great rivers systems. These are: The Egyptian civilization on the banks of the Nile, the Mesopotamian in the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, The Indian Mohenjodaro and Harappa (Indus Valley) civilizations on the banks of the Indus and also the Chinese civilization on the banks of the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze.

    POLITICAL HISTORY: Political history: In all these four civilisations, initially the people lived relatively peacefully cultivating and domesticating animals and with rudimentary forms of political organizations.  Trade brought then in contact with the outside world. But their peaceful lives were disrupted by invasions from warlike nomads and gradually these settlements developed military arrangements and rulers to retaliate as well as launch territorial expansion themselves. Sometimes invading tribes were assimilated within the native culture and anew dynasty was established with a lot of exchange of ideas and practices

    Egypt-The Egyptian civilisation had a long history of over 4000 years. Egypt was protected by desert to the West and sea to the East and was less prone to foreign invasions until the 8th century B.C. when she fell into Ethiopian hands. Whenever an invader came, he came from the Asian region through the isthmus of the Suez. The Rulers of Egypt maybe divided into a succession of Dynasties (Wells, H.G., 1925)

    The history of ancient Egypt is divided into 6 eras- the early dynastic period, the Old kingdom, the first intermediate period, the Middle kingdom, the second intermediate period and the New kingdom. The old kingdom was a phase, which began with consolidation of Northern and Southern Kingdoms by Menes and culminated in the Fourth dynasty. This dynasty marks a period of wealth and luxury and its rulers were marked by a distinct passion for making monuments for themselves. Example is the Great Pyramid of Cheops (3733 B.C.).

    The story of Egypt from fourth to Fifteenth dynasties is a story of conflicts between alternative capitals and competing religions, of separation into different kingdoms and back to reunions. (Wells, 1925). It is also called as the feudal period wherein the Egypt was ruled by a long line of Pharaohs. In 1750 B.C., Egypt was invaded by nomadic Semites, who founded a shepherd dynasty Hyskos (XVIth). Hatred of this foreign rule united the Egyptians and they overthrew these to enter a new phase called as the New Empire. Egypt became a powerful military state and pushed ahead till the Euphrates starting hostilities with the Mesopotamian empire.

    For a time Egypt prevailed but was followed by a brief Syrian conquest of Egypt. There was a change in dynasties-the last of the great Pharaohs was Ramses III who ruled from 1182 to1151 B.C. He was succeeded by along line of weak rulers. From the middle of the tenth century to near the end of the eighth, a dynasty of Libyan barbarians occupied the throne of the Pharaohs. The Libyans were followed by a line of Ethiopians or Nubians who came in from West of the Nile. In 670, Egypt was conquered by the Assyrians who ruled for eight years. After the collapse of the Assyrians there was a grand period of cultural renaissance in Egypt. But it was doomed because in 525 B.C, Egypt was run over by Persians. The ancient civilization was never again revived (Burns et al., 1991)


    The Tigris and Euphrates valleys spawned a civilization of its own, which was dominated by different groups such as Sumerians, Babylonian, Assyrians, and Chaldeans at different periods, all collectively called as the Mesopotamian civilization.

    The Mesopotamian civilization differed from the Egyptian in many respects.  The Tigris and Euphrates flooded irregularly in comparison to the Nile; the Mesopotamians could not take nature for granted (Burns et al.1991). Mesopotamia was also not protected by geographic features from foreign invasions. So life in Mesopotamia was more of a struggle and political life was marked by frequent changes. Mesopotamian culture was more warlike and pessimistic than the Egyptian (Burns et al.)

    The pioneers of Mesopotamian civilization, the Sumerians where central Asian people who settled in the lower Tigris- Euphrates valley in around 3500 BC. Sumerians were organized into a couple of city-states. They were attacked by Sargon, an Akkadian (race of Semitic origin) who went on to establish the first extensive military empire in Mesopotamia. But this was replaced by a Sumerian revival led by City of Ur.  This revival was interrupted by invasion of Amorites from the West who established the Babylonian empire so called after the city of Babylon that they founded.

    The Babylonian rule was the second important stage in Mesopotamian history after the Sumerian rule. They established an autocratic state and during the rule of their most famous king, Hammurabbi they extended their dominion to Assyria. But Babylon fell to Kassites in 1550 B.C. The next stage is dominated by the rise of the Assyrians a Semitic group who were originally based 500 miles up the Tigris river but soon expanded territories to occupy Babylonia in1300 B.C. Their rule reached heights of glory under Sargon II and Sennacherib, who built Nineveh an imposing new capital on the Tigris.

    But the Assyrians lacked skills in administration as compared to their military skills and were soon overthrown by the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans conquered Nineveh in 612 B.C. The greatest of their kings was Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) who conquered Babylon and made his capital of Babylon a leading city of the near East. In 539 B.C. Cyrus the Persian overthrew the Chaldean empire. This marks the end of the Mesopotamian political history.

    Indus Valley-More than 4000 years ago, there flourished in the north-western parts of the India-Pakistan subcontinent a civilization which deriving its name from the main river of the region is called a s the Indus valley civilization (Basham, 1997) It covered an area of 1600 km from west to East and 1100 km from North to South. It was a highly organized urban civilization with planned towns, roads and buildings. Agriculture was the backbone of the Indus economy. The rich alluvial soil allowed the cultivation of a variety of crops. Extensive trade was carried on, both inland and external. The merchant class may have ruled the states. The Priestly class was also given importance. But the end of this advanced, highly developed civilization came to an end mysteriously. Being primarily peace loving, agricultural and urban people they may have been ill prepared to meet foreign invasions. Various theories like devastating floods, foreign invasion, and earthquake are ascribed to have caused the demise of this civilization.

    Chinese civilization-While three civilizations were taking root in the meeting place of Asia, Africa and Europe; another civilization was developing in the fertile valley of Hwang Ho and Yangtze kiang in Asia- or China. Chinese history is traced to the reign of first five emperors in about 2,700 to 2400 B.C. This was followed by a series of dynasties. China has along history of border warfare and struggles between the settled and nomads.

    To begin with China was a land of city-states like Sumer and Egypt. The government was at first a government of kings; they became loosely feudal under an emperor and later became a centralizing empire (Wells 1925). Shang (1750 to 1125B.C.) and Chow (1125 to 250 B.C.) are regarded as the greatest dynasties of the feudal period.

    The first reliable dynasty is the Shang dynasty that settled along the Yellow river in Eastern china in the 18th to the 12th century B.C. The loosely feudal Shang was overthrown by the Zhou from the West who ruled from 12th to Fifth century B.C. their power was eroded by mutually sparring warlords

    The first unified China was formed by Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. when the office of emperor was legalized and the Chinese language standardized. But rebellion followed and Han dynasty came to power. They ruled from 206 BCE to 226 CE and were responsible for creating the Han identity that has persisted till today in the Chinese culture. Han rule also saw expansion of Chinese territory to Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, and central Asia. They also established the Great Silk Road and trade contacts with the West.

    Han rule was followed by the period of the three kingdoms. This was followed by the reign of the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties. Under these Chinese culture reached its zenith. In 1271, Mongol leader Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty. However a peasant named Zhu Yuan Zhang overthrew the Mongols in 1368 and established the Ming dynasty. Which lasted till 1644. The last dynasty of China was the Manchu founded Qing dynasty, which perished by 1912.



    The Sumerian religion was a religion for this world exclusively; it offered no hope for a blissful, happy after life. After life was in a shadowy, dreary place called Sheol. There was no resurrection and no heaven. Hence Sumerians did not give much care to the bodies of their dead. They did not practice mummification nor build any elaborate tombs. Corpses were commonly interred beneath the floor of the house. There was little spiritual content in Sumerian religion (Gods were human like) they offered no blessings except abundant harvests and business profits.

    Under the Mesopotamians, the Sumerian gods were neglected. A new God, Marduk was imported to head the Mesopotamian pantheon. But they had little spiritual significance with no promise of personal immortality and resurrection after death.

    Chaldean renascence did not succeed in the area of religion. Marduk was restored as head of the pantheon; the beliefs were only Babylonian to a superficial degree. The Chaldeans developed an astral religion. The gods were divested of human qualities and exalted to omnipotent beings, attached to planetary systems. These Chaldean beliefs led to an attitude of fatalism, more spiritual consciousness, and a general feeling of debasement of human condition. Yet they did not practice any ascetism.

    The Persians are most credited in history for their religion- Zoroastrianism. It was a pioneering revolutionary religion. Its founder was Zoroaster or Zarasthustra. He set about to purify religion- to eradicate polytheism, animal sacrifice and magic. Prayer should be more spiritual and ethical. The religion was dualistic with the Good and the evil powers were embroiled in a constant battle.


    Religion played an important role in Egypt. Their art was expression of religious symbolism. The religion went thorough various phases- from simple polytheism to monotheism and back to polytheism. In the beginning there were local deities. But with unification of Egypt, a common God RE was accepted. The deity of Nature and the River Nile was called as Osiris. Amon- Re was the God of the Government. Osiris and Re were in constant combat for supremacy. The cult of Osiris had many legends connected to the seasonal variations of the Nile.

    Egyptians believed in the glorious after life. Hence great preparations were made while burying dead bodies and mummification was practiced. Great Pyramids were built for resting place of Pharaohs.

    There was a period in which the priestly class dominated and debased religion. This ended with a great religious upheaval led by Pharaoh Amenhotep-IV. He advocated monotheism- belief in one god, Aton who composed the rules of Moral order for all humans. However this new religion lost popularity and Egyptian religion reverted to the old decadence dominated by magic and priestly class.

    Indus- The Indus population especially the cities was a cosmopolitan one. It included Mediterranean’s, Proto-australoids, alpines and Mongoloids. Hence there were a number of religious practices. The seals have portraits of God of animals, Pasupati or Siva. Saivaite cults flourished as seen by the worship of Lingams or venerated stone sculptures of Lord Shiva. Fire was worshipped. Belief in life and death is exemplified by elaborate arrangements with burial of dead bodies. Trees and streams were also venerated.


    `The Shang people worshipped many natural objects and forces- rivers and forests. They offered sacrifices to these. Animal and human sacrifices were tragically common. Shang religion was not spiritual –it was concerned with rainfall, crops and war. The king was not a divinity abut riyal tombs were luxurious. Ancestral worship was common. In the Chou period these beliefs continued but animal sacrifice came to an end. But at this time, in China there was no clear cut religious system, no fixed creed and no church (Burns et al.1991) However Chinese priests did not become a privileged class to dominate other groups. They merely assisted in the rituals. The indispensable religious functionaries were the heads of families and the King. Higher officials performed sacrifices. Everyday life was complicated by folklore and superstition. This included belief in witchcraft and evil omens, divinations etc.



     Sumerians were excellent farmers. They knew about irrigational techniques and produced large crops of cereal grains and fruits. Most of the land was owned by rulers, priests, army officers, the average rural citizen was either a tenant farmer or a serf. Agriculture and commerce were the most important economic activities.

    The most distinctive achievements of Sumerians were their system of law. The Code of Hammurabi, codified by the great Babylonian king became the code of law for all later civilizations. Essential features of the Law include-

    1)      Lex Talionis- An eye for an Eye, tooth for a tooth.

    2)      Semi private administration of justice.

    3)      Inequality before the Law.

    Under Babylonians, the idea of Divine Right of Kings came into currency. A system of royal taxation as well as a compulsory military service was started. The law was also o changed to allow centralized despotism. Treason and Sedition were considered the worst offences. A prosperous merchant class prevailed. Trade and industry were regulated by state.

    Assyrians were a nation of warriors. The state was military machine. The army commanders were the most powerful and the richest in the country. Industry and trade languished. Assyrians preferred to depend on agriculture. Temples held the largest share of landed wealth. Serfs and slaves comprised bulk of rural population. They were in miserable condition. Assyrians imposed maximum penalty on abortion and homosexuality.

    The Chaldeans followed the heritage of the Assyrians and the Babylonian law and literature and political institutions. Industry and trade remained in the same condition.


    The Egyptian population was divided into five classes: The Royal family; the priests; the nobles; the middle class (scribes, merchants artisans and wealthy farmers); and the peasants. During the New kingdom, a sixth class, the professional soldiers were added ranking below the nobles. Slaves formed the last and the seventh, new class. There was a great divide and disparity in the standard of living of the upper and lower classes. The basic social unit was the monogamous family. Polygamy was permiss able. Women enjoyed a good position.

    Egyptian economic system rested on agriculture. Cultivation and irrigation was highly developed. Extensive regional and international trade was carried out. The Egyptian economic system was always collective. The productive activities of the entire country revolved around huge state enterprises and the government remained the biggest employer of labor. Extreme state control over economy came during the New Kingdom. The frequency of wars necessitated additional revenue and goods, so the government had to take control over the economy.

    Indus valley-

    Extensive town planning is the hallmark of this civilization. Roads, houses and buildings were laid out in strictly scientific manner.  Kiln-burnt bricks were used to build. Many important buildings like a Great Bath, Granary, Citadel, Dockyards etc have been found throughout the Indus valley settlements. Trade and commerce seems to have been thriving in that period. Agriculture was the backbone of the Indus economy. Cotton cultivation especially was most renown. Political control was perhaps in the hands of a merchant class.


    The Chinese were primarily a nation of farmers Agriculture was the chief livelihood of the Shang people Grains especially wheat and barley were favorite crops. Many animals were domesticated. Under the Chou dynasty Chinese economy flowered. Handicrafts flourished and smelting of iron was introduced. Towns were established. The Silk route was thrown open for trade with the west. Coined copper money came into use. Manufacture of silk industry was increased. Agriculture was given fillip by improved irrigation and fertilizing techniques.

    Chinese society was patriarchal. Women were subordinated. The Chinese family was not only an economic and sociologic unit but a religious and political one also (Burns et al, 1991).



    Sumerians developed Cuneiform writing, which was to be used two thousand after the downfall of its nation (3000 to 500 B.C.) Sumerians discovered multiplication and division of numbers and extraction of square and cube root. They invented the water clock and lunar calendar. They contributed great art, sculpture, jewellery, vessels, tools etc.

    Babylonians gifted to world literature the epic of ‘Gilgamesh’, one of the greatest epics of all times. The Assyrians divided the Circle into 360 degrees. They even located longitude and latitude on the surface of the earth. They recognized and named five planets. Medicines were developed a great deal. Military themes dominated sculpture and art. Architecture was splendid, made of stone. The Chaldeans were the greatest astronomers of the Mesopotamian civilization. They invented the 7-day week, 12-hour day, and kept records of eclipses and other celestial occurrences.

    Egypt-The Egyptians were attracted to astronomy. They perfected a calendar based on rise of the star Sirius. In Mathematics the Egyptians laid the foundations of arithmetic and geometry. They invented decimal system. Advances in medicine, surgery, and diagnosis advanced under the Egyptians. They complied the Materia Medica, the first catalogue of medicines.

    They invented the sundial, papyrus and glass and made considerable progress in metallurgy. They also developed their first form of writing called as Hieroglyphic meaning sacred carving. It was originally composed of pictographic signs. But gradually came to represent abstract concepts. Egyptian art and architecture are magnificent in scale and execution and the great Pyramids are the best example. They are political and religious in their intention.

    Indus valley- the pioneers in town planning, had remarkable buildings like granaries and baths. Plenty of pottery, sculpture, terracotta, and seals bear witness to the artistic and religious sentiments of the Harappans. Highly proficient in stone sculpture, metal sculpture and in making ornate seals. Inscriptions on seals have not yet been deciphered.


    Specimens of Shang artists have revealed a high degree of skill and versatility. Sculpture and engraving is attractive and sang metal work truly captivating.

    Calligraphy is major art form. Printmaking was made during the Song dynasty.

    Scientific achievements include Paper printing, compass, gunpowder, seismic detectors, iron plow, wheelbarrow, parachute, crossbow and the Cannon.

    Thus, in all these civilizations, there was an urge to explore the universe and stars (astronomy), improve the quality of lives (science and technology), maintain peace and order (political organizations) and understand the meaning of life (religious beliefs).


    1.Basham A.L. A cultural history of India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975

    2. Blainey G.. A short history of the world. India: Penguin books, 2000.

    3.Burns E.M, Ralph  P.L., Lerner R.E. and Meacham S. World civilizations,

         volume A ,7th edn..New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1955.

    4.Childe G.What happened in History . England : Penguin books, 1942.

    5. Wells. H.G.. The outline of History.  London: The Waverly Book Company limited, 1925.

    6. Wikipedia. “ History of China”.  8/1/2007 <www.wikipedia .org>

    Four great civilisations of the world: comparison and contrast. (2017, Jan 19). Retrieved from

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