According to the encyclopedia Encarta, a civilization is an advanced state of a society possessing historical and cultural unity. There are four early river valley societies that had successfully met the requirements to be called civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India. These four civilizations encompass several similarities as to how they developed, including location, spirituality, governmental structure and forms of written communication. Location played a fundamental role in the development of these four civilizations. They grew next to rivers, which was source of food and water.
Thanks to the river, civilizations were able to develop agriculture. Agriculture is the first step towards cultural development since it allows people to go from a nomadic to a sedentary life. When people do not have to worry about finding food, it allows time to develop other areas of human life. These agricultural societies had to adjust constantly to floods by building canals and dikes. Methods of drainage and irrigation were used to take advantage of the fertile soil next to the river. Mesopotamia, which means “between the rivers,” developed amid the Tigris and Euphrates River.
Egypt, or “the gift of the river,” grew next to the Nile River. China was located on the Huang Ho River and Indian on the Indus River. Location was also strategic in many circumstances and allowed the river valley civilizations to develop differently. Mesopotamia was open to invasions by peoples such as the Hittites. Egypt had natural protection from all sides: the Nile River to the east and south, the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the desert to the west; invasions were less frequent. “Egyptians felt a sense of security that was rare in Mesopotamia” (civilization, 29).
China, like Mesopotamia, was open to invasions, for instance barbarian tribes. India’s location facilitated trade between West Asia, Africa and Europe. It was also protected by the Himalayan Mountains to the north. Nevertheless, it was also invaded on several occasions by people such as Alexander the Great and the Greeks. Spirituality develops differently in each civilization The river valley civilizations seemed to seek for refuge and answers in the spiritual realm. Many times spirituality is manifested in the organized entity of religion which later restrains instincts and human behavior.
Mesopotamia was a polytheistic society, where gods such as the sun-god Shamash and the moon-god Nanna represent forces of nature. Their take on religion was rather pessimistic given that the rivers would rise unpredictably and therefore it was interpreted as manifestation of angry gods. Mesopotamians were not concerned with the afterlife since they believed that only Gods could reach immortality. In the other hand, Egyptians devoted a lot of time to the idea of an afterlife, because of this, they built temples, mummified their kings and wrote books such as The Book of the Dead.
Spirituality was of main concern to the Egyptians, who were polytheistic with supernatural beings such as the creator god Ptah and the life-death-rebirth god Osiris. Their take on religion was much more optimistic than the Mesopotamians since the rise of the Nile was predictable and therefore interpreted as kinder manifestations of the gods. For a small period of time Egypt became monotheistic under the rule of Akhenaton, worshipping the sun-god Amon. China developed a philosophical spiritualism with Confucianism and Taoism.
Both were concerned with morals and the search of happiness. The mandate of heaven is also a Chinese manifestation of spiritual belief where the king receives a blessing and authority from heaven to govern. India was a polytheistic civilization, where Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were the predominant religions. Life after death was a constant concern among Indians; rebirth of the soul or re-incarnation is a result of this. All four civilizations had some kind of governmental structure, and a leader that united the people and looked after them.
Even early in history, politics and religion went hand in hand; probably because religion gives power and can easily control the minds of the people. In Mesopotamia, “religion became the arm of the state, the high priests were state appointees” (Civilization, 25). Kings such as “Ur” were considered a living god. Other important rulers were Sargon, Hammurabi and Urukagina. In Egypt the situation was pretty similar. The pharaoh was considered both divine and human. Some important rulers of Egypt were Thutmose I, Hatshepsut, Akhenaton, Ramses II, Kush and Necho II.
China began as an aristocratic society under the Shang dynasty and was taken over by the Zhou dynasty, supposedly with “the mandate of heaven. ” Other dynasties to fallow were the Quin dynasty, the Han dynasty and the Sui dynasty. India became an empire under Chandragupta, a great general. Soon after Ashoka came into power; he became one of India’s greatest kings. He would later spread his religious beliefs, Buddhism, throughout the empire. Demitrus and Kanuska were known leaders also. As civilizations unified, language started to unify also.
Communication is essential in a society that wants to follow common rules and share a common understanding of reality. Although each one of the river valley civilizations developed its own form of symbols to communicate, they all have in common that it was a pictographic language. Mesopotamia had the world’s first writing as pictographic which later would develop into cuneiform. The Egyptians also had a pictographic system called hieroglyphics. China had about 3000 pictographic characters; some of them are still used today. An India also used pictograph system.
There are general traits that happened across all of the four ancient river valley civilizations. These general aspects explain some of the basic requirements that they had to meet to survive as a civilization. Nevertheless, each one of them developed differently. Mesopotamia was the first civilization in the world; they created the oldest piece of literature, Gilgamesh, and also the first code of laws under the reign of Hammurabi. The Mesopotamians are responsible for the conception of the number “zero” and advances in algebra and geometry.
Mesopotamia fell when the Hittites invaded Babylon from Turkey. Egypt developed better engineering than the Mesopotamians, and thanks to it they became great builders. The Egyptians built vast temples. Egypt would later fall under the Persians. China developed the first world’s dictionary and three important philosophies: legalism, Taoism and Confucianism. After the Han dynasty fell, China lived in chaos and confusion for half a century until the Sui dynasty. India created one of the world’s main religions, Buddhism, that spread outside of India.
They would also fall under the Greek invasion. Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India are the earliest recorded societies possessing historical and cultural unity, also called civilization. They all developed close to a river which would later allow them to develop agriculture and blossom economically, politically and culturally. All four of them share similarities in their development but also differences that set them apart. This individual processes and changes produce a particular combination of factors that made them the first river valley civilizations in history.