10. The Old World Empires

10.3 Mesopotamia: the primitive tyrannical empire

Besides the Far East and Southeast, which followed independent courses, three important agricultural fixation points developed in India, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamian settlement slowly expanded as a tyrannical entity until the Achemenid Persians conquered it and initiated the first colonial Empire known in History. An ephemeral conquest of the Empire by Alexander expanded it from Greece and Egypt to Bengal. After Alexander’s death, the Empire resolved into Hellenistic successor States until the Romans reconstituted it, who actively occupied North Africa and the West but Arabia, Persia and India escaped inclusion. In 410 AD, the Empire broke up again into successor states, as Byzantium, Persia, Arabic Islam and Western Romania. Arabic Islam reconstituted the Empire but failed to control Byzantium and Northern Europe. The Turks reassembled the pieces of the Empire for the third time and conquered more territory until it stretched from Morocco to Bengal, but Latin Christendom and Orthodox Russia remained free.

10.3.1 Egypt

By 8000 to 7000 BC, the whole of North Africa was a rich pastureland populated by people of Mediterranean origin capable of thinking in abstract terms. By 4000 BC they were replaced by people who lived naked or wearing a loin cloth, driving their cattle from pasture to pasture and whose ability to think in abstract terms was not so great: they were realistic (fig. 10.10).

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Figure 10.10. “The White Lady” is a mural painting dating between 5,000 to 1,200 years B.C. It is at Auanrhet, by Tisssili-n’Ajjer, on a plateau in the South of Algeria. The plateau is now converted into the Sahara desert but was rich pastureland in those days.

The worsening of the climatic conditions with the creation of the Sahara brought about their emigration to the Upper Nile, leaving only Egypt. The kingdom of Sumer may have been at the roots of the Egyptian blossoming but the use by the Egyptians of a decimal numeration to count the days of the week points to a different origin since the Sumerians and Babylonians used a sexagesimal numeration. Counting on a base ten, as Egyptians did and as we do now throughout the world, is due to the fact that we have ten fingers. This is a primitive way to count. The sexagesimal notation seems to be based on the observation that a square room is a cube with six faces. This system would have been invented by agricultural societies who built square rooms instead of round huts.

The dependency of the Egyptian peasant on water and on alluvial plains was very propitious in Egypt for his enslavement. The Neolithic farmer needed sophisticated tools, metal or obsidian, water, grain and certainly land. Banking on such needs, on the confused primitive mind, on the fear of death, the first shamans were most successful in Egypt, ruling over innumerous small clans. For every Egyptian, the Nile was a long umbilical chord that could not be severed without penalty of death. With the constraints of the desert populated by unfriendly Bedouins, the lack of metals in the valley, the scarcity of arable land, and the very isolation of the country, everything favored control. A temporal ruler soon managed to control the totality of the valley. Supported by his priests, the immortal Pharaoh, able to predict the annual rise of the Nile, managed to enslave his fellow men to a perfect point.

Pharaoh kept his flock well insulated. Towards the South, only small-scale military punitive expeditions along the Nile were ever attempted as defensive measures against impinging Nilotic incursions or as support for timid trade ventures for the obtainment of spices, incense and myrrh. More audacious explorations such as the circumnavigation of Africa were left to mercenaries. And these did very well. Egypt served mostly as an insulating factor for Africa instead of ferment for further developments.

The Egyptians retained the imitative concept of Paleolithic art. This art may have been transmitted to them from other parts of Africa, where the realism of the Magdalenian art continued until the Roman period. This Paleolithic art could be at the roots of the hieroglyphic script. The script was slowly perfected and the scribes took great pains to record on papyrus the knowledge amassed through millenaries of attempts and improvements concerning medical, geometrical and philosophical matters. Once this was done, the scriptures became holy and further progress was stultified. Mindless teaching reinforced this tendency. This was further aggravated by disdain for manual labor. Acceptance of technological progress was extremely slow and needed the invasion of surrounding Neolithic tribes, such as the Hyksos, the Hebrews, the Hittites, the Aegeans, to be admitted (horses, copper, chariots).

The first Pharaohs had reserved the privilege of immortality for themselves. By 2200 BC, the haughtiness of the Egyptian Empire builders diverted an immense amount of human labor into the building of the great pyramids. The barons stopped this and obtained from Pharaoh the privilege of immortality for themselves, ruling the country for 200 years. The Middle Empire was, thereafter, established but fell rapidly prey – around 1650 BC – to the Semitic Hyksos and Hebrews. The Hebrews picked up in Egypt the notion of a single preponderant god after their shaman, Moses, had absorbed the teaching of Akhenaton who had promoted the cult of the Sun against the resistance and advice of his priests. The worship of the Sun is a natural tendency in agricultural societies and supersedes the worship of various divinities, mainly that of the Moon, which is more important to hunters and trappers. The attempt of Akenaton failed. Egypt returned to traditional creeds and was thus unable to mature out of its provincial destiny.

Moses escaped the wrath of the new Pharaoh and his priests by voluntary exile, around 1600 BC. The escape of Moses ensured that the attempt of Akenaton at an engrossing simplification of religious beliefs was not in vain. Eternal Life for the believers in Yahweh was initially not envisaged. After the contact with the Egyptians, the idea of immortality made its way in Jewish consciousness.

10.3.2 The Near East

10.3.2.1 The Shamans

In the Near East, geographical conditions prevented early dominance by one single ruler as in Egypt. As in India, every single little city (fig. 10.11) had political independence and the shamans dominated this political life.

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Figure 10.11. Mesopotamia.

The shamans were kings and the population lived under the Neolithic terror of the unknown. The concept of immortality was totally absent and no hope existed to live a better life in another world. From the literature of that region surges a poignant cry about the absurdity of death. It is the subject of the oldest epopee known (Gilgamesh) (fig. 10.12).

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Figure 10.12. Gilgamesh, Babylonian hero, founder of Uruk, crafted in terra cotta. Korsabad. Louvre.

The shamans emphasize the existence of the devils that make life so miserable. And how can the devils be appeased, if not with offerings of beer, goats, sheep and calves to the shamans? (fig. 10.13). Humans also were offered, as Abraham was ready to do. Human sacrifices were common in the whole of the Near East, including among the Jews. The bible mentions them (Judges 11: 31 and 39).

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Figure 10.13. Pazuzu, the king of the bad spirits in the air, terrorized the inhabitants of Mesopotamia during 3,000 years, starting with the Sumerians. He was used by the shamans-physicians to explain the origin of illnesses.

In the valley of the Tigris-Euphrates, fearful demons were omnipresent, were everywhere, and were watching day and night. The more often the shamans told this story, the more the credulous people asked themselves what they could do to avert illness and death and appease the gods.

During the 2,000 years the shamans ruled independent cities, progress was by no means absent. The Elamites and Sumerians had inherited the Paleolithic imagery and devised pictograms like the Chinese and Egyptians (fig. 10.14).

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Figure 10.14. Barely visible Elamite bas-reliefs of Koolfarah, near Izeh, in the Khuzistan (Iran).

Soon, using the cuneiform script, they devised a script where signs represented syllables. By 2500 BC, the inhabitants of Syria used a script that was neither cuneiform nor hieroglyphic. It almost certainly was alphabetic. The Arameans gave their alphabet to the Arabs while the Phoenicians gave theirs to the Greeks, who passed it onto the Russians under the form of the Cyrillic alphabet.

In the midst of innumerable battles, the city-states slowly expanded the area of civilization. After Ubaid, Ur, Eridu, etc. were founded, this small patch of land was slowly ameliorated by people whose technical skills were sufficiently developed so that their kilns reached high enough temperatures to melt copper. There is an absence of metal ores in that region that prompted a search in other parts of the world. Through acculturation and colonization, more land was reconnoitered and included within the realm of civilization.

With the worsening of the physical conditions that followed the small Makalian pluvial period, with an increase in population numbers among the surrounding Neolithic barbarians, the political freedom enjoyed by the city-states proved disastrous. They became the embryo of an Empire that succeeding tyrants wanted to conquer and rule.

10.3.2.2 Tyrants

10.3.2.2.1 The Mesopotamians. Sargon I, the Semite from Akkad, is the first successful tyrant to appear on the Near-East scene, 4,300 years ago, through a blatant usurpation of power. His rule extended not only over the Tigris and Euphrates but also as far as the Mediterranean. He built a 5,000 man strong army and his power could be maintained only with the reckless use of terror administered for the sake of “Unity”. This unity soon after his death withered away. The disappearance of this early empire was coincident with a short period of severe drought that was an insurmountable challenge for a society relying on primitive agriculture and primitive storage conditions.

City-states flourished again during 500 years, after which another usurper, Hammuraby, also from Akkad, reunited them. He imposed his rule on an Empire started around 1800 BC and centered on Babylon. This Empire was built on a destitute swarm of serfs but the Law, by the Code of Hammuraby, made its entrance on the world’s stage (fig. 10.15)

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Figure 10.15. Upper part of the stele inscribed with the law code of Hammurabi. Circa 1760 B.C. Hammurabi listens to the seated god. The stele is of basalt, 2.23 meters high. Louvre, Paris.

Law means predictability and order. The whims and caprices of the powerful and undisciplined were, thereby, checked, which is a sine qua non requirement for civilization. This timid apparition of the rule of law did not last very long, due to barbaric invasions.

During the creation of the Empire, penetration of foreign lands in search of metal ores proceeded. Placer gold is recognizable by its content in platinum and tin. It was the only gold locally available in Europe; mined gold was unknown in prehistoric Europe until Roman times. The cultures of Asia Minor are known to have engaged in the mining of gold, which usually contains silver, as early as the third millennium BC. This mined gold was found in Europe along the coasts of Portugal and Dalmatia, and along the Danube and other rivers (fig. 10.16).

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Figure 10.16. Mined gold is found in prehistoric Europe during the 3rd millennium B.C, but was not mined there. It was unknown locally. The gold was found along the coastlines and rivers, mainly the Danube, which was the chief penetration route for Near-East people, who presumably used it as exchange for copper.

10.3.2.2.2 Crete. In Europe, copper working was initiated along the Danube in 2500 BC. Four hundred years later, the southern coastal regions of the Iberian Peninsula also engaged in it (fig. 10.17).

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Figure 10.17. By the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC (-2100 B.C.), copper working was extensively practiced in the Danube region (heavy dots) and readily practiced in Northern Germany. It was least practiced in Switzerland (tiny dots) and ignored in most of Western Europe, with the exception of the South of Iberia.

It is assumed that the requisite knowledge for copper working was transmitted to the indigenes from the Near East. This presupposes extensive and skilled maritime travels on the part of the copper-seekers. This trading zone initially bypassed Greece and Crete. However, by 1900 BC, the Cretans were included in the commerce of copper and, more importantly, bronze. This initial bronze was made of copper containing as much as 7% arsenic as the sole other impurity, with the exception of traces of silver. It seems to have been discovered in the Aegean itself and was traded over large distances. The indigenous population of Crete developed a marvelous civilization (fig. 10.18) based essentially on this trade.

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Figure 10.18. Museum of Heraklion (Crete). “The Bull Games”. Fresco from the east wing of the Knossos palace. Two boys and a girl challenge the monster.

This is the first civilization appearing that is not agricultural in essence. The control of these sea-faring people was difficult because Crete was an island. The Cretans did not perceive the need for a standing army, which favored their development. Apparently, they had invented an alphabetic script. The economic collapse of this thalassocracy was due to volcanic eruptions (Santorini) followed by earthquakes. The Mycenaeans took advantage of these destructions to replace them.

10.3.2.2.3 The Mycenaeans and the Celts. The arsenic bronze found in Cyprus could readily be cast in molds. This type of bronze was also found by the copper-seekers in Spain and it spread throughout the whole of Europe (fig. 10.19) competing with less adequate kinds of copper produced in the South-East of Europe.

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Figure 10.19. Arsenic bronze seems to have been discovered in the Aegean. It was rapidly produced in areas possessing the raw materials (heavy dots of Carintia, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland). From these areas, it was traded over large distances at the end of the 2nd millennium BC (-1800 BC.).

The search for better alloys went on in the whole of Europe, with variable success. By 1800 BC, alloys are found made with arsenic, nickel, antimony, bismuth and silver. Ring ingots were then first used as currency. By 1600 BC, tin bronze appeared in Central Europe, Denmark and the Nordic peninsula. This tin alloy, far superior to arsenic bronze, was an independent rediscovery since such an alloy had already been found in the Near East during the 3rd millennium BC. The hunger for various metals developed by the Near-East was at the roots of the development of rich classes in various parts of Europe, best represented by the achievements of the Celts in Normandy, Brittany and the British Isles (Stonehenge) and of the Mycenaeans in Greece.

By 1000 BC, the presence of gold in Denmark, the British Isles, Brittany and along rivers, demonstrates (fig. 10.20) that intense navigation took place.

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Figure 10.20. At the end of the first millennium (1000 BC), gold was found in abundance in Ireland, Denmark and Brittany (heavy dots).

It is supposed that the gold originated from Southern Russia and was moved up by tin and copper seekers, along the Danube, Rhine and Elba rivers to reach Denmark and Ireland. From there, it traveled down the coastline towards Portugal. Presumably, gold from an unknown source in Southern Russia, where it was adulterated with copper, was imported in exchange for needed ores.

10.3.2.2.4 The struggle for the Empire. The eruption of the Indo-Europeans on the world scene was certainly posterior to that of the Semites. Their invasions were those of rough but by no means uneducated people. Sometimes, they became despots themselves; sometimes they significantly helped in the progress of society towards a better understanding of the dignity and value of individual life.

The first invasion took place around the year 2,000 BC. Crete was destroyed and the towns of the Indus ravaged. Four hundred years later, a general upheaval took place. The Hebrews left Egypt, the Hittites occupied Anatolia where they invented the smelting of iron and the Aryans invaded the Indus valley by 1600 BC. The Achaeans of Argos who slowly developed to dominate the civilization of Mycenae in the Greek peninsula destroyed Crete again (1450 BC) and, thereafter, destroyed Mycenaean Ilion in Turkey, land of the Trojans who had prospered with the commerce of horses.

From then on, the tyrannical Empire of the Near East fell prey to various Neolithic tribes, be these Semitic or Indo-European but the first attempt was made by the Egyptians: Mesopotamia was occupied by Amenophis III in 1370 BC. Semites made the second attempt: the Hebrews had settled on the shores of the Mediterranean and formed a state based on commerce, especially horses. The Hebrews deserve special attention because their ethnic arrogance, their xenophobia and religious intolerance made them hated by all the other nations of the region, until their final dispersal by Julius Severus in 134 AD. Other industrious Semites were the Phoenicians. Contrary to the Hebrews, these people developed a maritime vocation that would back up their commercial claims. Since the Achaeans had destroyed Crete, Mycenae and Troy, the Phoenicians expanded in the Mediterranean, settling, among other places, in Carthage near Tunis. Elsewhere, the Indo-European Hittites expanded in Anatolia. Yet, none of these succeeded in carrying away the prize. A former Semite vassal state of Hammurabi was known as Assyria. The Assyrians took the lead, slowly defeating all competing warrior tribes and finally conquered the Empire. In those days, this was Mesopotamia, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and Egypt.

10.3.2.2.5 The Assyrians: absolute tyranny. It is difficult to pinpoint the most evil rulers in history because there are numerous contenders for this prize. The Assyrian dynasty (900 to 625 BC) occupy a place of choice and proved to be the worst tyrants the world has ever known, with perhaps the Moslem Turks in India being close contenders. The Assyrian Empire, the last of the primitive empires to prosper in the Near East, tried strenuously to impose unity on the known world instead of union and was more gory and ghastly in this effort than anything ancient and modern tyrants have emulated.

William the Conqueror is the epitome of the leader of a warrior tribe who conquered an allogen population in England. He was Roman Catholic. He found it normal that misbehavior be punished either by having the guts of the tortured slowly extracted from their bellies or else to have both their eyes enucleated and their nose, tongue, ears, testicles, hands and feet cut off. Women in addition could have had their breasts cut off. Other tortures were applied, as having a wooden pole driven through the anuses of men and women, passed through their guts and piercing their backs, to have them, thereafter, roasted on barbecues. This impalement was practiced in Europe as late as the 18th century. During the last 100 years, people were killed by coal gas, thrown alive into furnaces, burned by atomic bombs, by napalm, by flame-throwers, by phosphorus bombs, by gasoline or destroyed by “uranium depleted” fragmentation bombs. In Spain in 1936, cotton imbibed with gasoline was shoved in nun’s vaginas and set afire. People were starved to death, hooked by the groin on butcher’s hooks and skinned alive, Brazilian Indians have been given smallpox. No bragging about these deeds is reported, but the shame is evident in retrospect.

In former times, Hebrews, Assyrians, Mongols and others as Timberline went much further: when a city was taken, it was looted. That is, no object remained in it. Thereafter the city was erased, the water ditches filled in and salt (expensive, precious salt) spread on it. Cats and dogs were killed. The inhabitants were all killed and the leaders of the resistance (priests, officers, kings, etc.) were tortured as described above. Pride was taken in these destructions and tortures, which the Assyrians recorded on stone, in cuneiform script.

10.3.2.2.6 The end of Tyranny. About hundred years before the rise of Assyria, in 1000 B.C., the Indo-European Dorians had occupied Greece, destroyed Argos and dispersed the original Achaean population. The Achaeans were forced onto the tiny peninsula of Attica where they became Athenians but most moved out. Some settled on the shores of Turkey (Ionians), others tried to settle in Palestine (the Philistines) and Egypt. The Indo-European Medes and Persians occupied Persia in states that were vassal to Assyria.

The Assyrian tiger reigned from Nineveh over the whole of the known world, including the new ground broken by the Hittites, Phoenicians and Jews but India was spared. Assyria smashed Mesopotamian Elam and Egyptian Thebes out of existence. Ruling at the height of the Assyrian Empire, Assurbanipal (668-628) founded a library some 400 years before the library of Alexandria. More than 25,000 tablets were gathered. Sixteen years after Assurbanipal’s death, the library was burned and Nineveh destroyed. The Babylonians, Medes, Persians and Greek mercenaries entered into a coalition and captured Nineveh in 625 B.C.. No human being was left alive nor remained a single building erect. Everything was destroyed, following the old custom. Therewith ended the scientific concern to accumulate knowledge shown for the first time in the Old World. The destruction of Nineveh meant destruction of the political power of the Assyrians but not of their people: they form a Christian community in contemporary Iran.

In 1850, British archaeologists uncovered the library and carted the trove off to London. They found invaluable reference works, dictionaries, compendia of rituals, and mathematical texts. Assurbanipal himself expresses his concern with the problems presented by division and multiplication. They also found the famous Sumerian Great Flood story, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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