Shedding Light on 10 Ancient Civilizations

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You already know about ancient Egypt and her pyramids, ancient Greece and her philosophers, ancient China’s order, ancient Rome’s splendor, and ancient Babylon’s conquering armies. But what about their neighbors? It hardly seems plausible that these ancient civilizations were alone, and archaeological and historical research is illuminating our distant past more and more these days.

For your pleasure and amusement, here are 10 ancient civilizations you should know more about:

10. The Sumerians. You may have heard of Sumeria tangentially, but how much about them do you really know? Sumeria was the first known ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, otherwise known as the “Fertile Crescent” or modern-day Iraq. Situated along both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the region has been fertile for millenia, and the Sumerians were the first to take advantage of their good luck. Gilgamesh was their hero-king, and they were eventually absorbed into various Babylonian and Assyrian populations after thousands of years in existence.

9. The Assyrians. Speaking of the Assyrians, they were neighbors of their more famous rivals, the Babylonians, and often traded places with them (as well as the Sumerians) as regional hegemons of the Fertile Crescent. The Assyrians rubbed shoulders with the likes of not only their regional rivals but ancient Egypt and various, smaller kingdoms in ancient Greece and the Caucasus region (present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, etc.).

8. The Phoenicians. Like the Sumerians and the Assyrians, the Phoenicians are relatively well-known in history nerd circles, but not very well understood. According to the latest archaeological research, the Phoenicians started off in the Levant (near the Sumerians and Assyrians) but expanded via the Mediterranean Sea rather than conquest. The Phoenicians established numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean world, including Carthage, and organized themselves into city-states rather than a centralized empire. As such, they were more geared toward commercial activity and were less focused on public works projects (a la the Pyramids or ziggurats), and they tended to blend in with the local surrounding cultures. The Phoenicians were not absorbed by the local cultures they came into contact with, but rather contributed to hybrid cultures that helped Phoenicia flourish, in some form or another, for thousands of years.

7. The Harappans. Also known as the Indus Valley civilization, the Harappans were one of the four cradles of civilization in world history, located in fertile valleys of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. Over 1,000 Harappan sites have now been accounted for, but less than 100 have been excavated. What is known is the Harappans were meticulous urban planners and great engineers; their water and drainage systems were easily the most advanced in the world during their existence. The Harappans, according to best and latest research, were not conquered and obliterated from existence, but rather slowly disappeared over time, as newer civilizations adopted some of the Harappian ways of life while abandoning others.

6. The Hittites. Located in present-day Turkey, in the area known as Anatolia, the Hittites were bad mama jammas. They fought with the ancient Egyptians for control over the Levant and eventually wrested the region away from their enemies. The Hittites also vied for control over Mesopotamia, often clashing with the Assyrians and an empire known as Mitanni. The Hittite Empire lasted for about 500 years before finally succumbing to Assyrians in the east and Phrygians (allies of Troy during the Trojan War against Greek armies) in the west.

5. The Nubians. The Nubians were one of east Africa’s earliest civilizations and a constant thorn in the side of Egypt. While ancient Egypt spent a good deal of time fighting its enemies in the north (Assyria, Babylon, the Hittites, etc.), it also had to expend considerable resources fighting the Nubians to their south. The Nubians and the Egyptians went back and forth conquering and ruling over each other for centuries before an upstart kingdom to the south of Nubia, Aksum, conquered Nubia for good. Aksum was the forebear of Ethiopian civilization.

4. The Etruscans. These guys were Rome’s powerful neighbors to the north when Rome was still in its monarchical stage of life. The Etruscans were a wealthy people who grew rich through trade with both the Greeks and the Celts, and their tombs have provided archaeologists with vast treasures from around their world. Etruscan art is especially prized today, and during the civilization’s heyday it was considered to be a cultural center of the Mediterranean world. Rome eventually absorbed the Etruscan civilization into its empire, but not before adopting the Etruscans love of Greek culture into its own mores.

3. Norte Chico. Located in coastal Peru, the Norte Chico culture was vast, polytheistic, and old. The latest estimates suggest it formed a coherent civilization around the same time that the Egyptian pyramids were being built, and vastly predates the Mesoamerican cultures found in central Mexico. There is still a lot of work to be done on Norte Chico culture, but by the looks of things, this civilization played a major role in not only the shape of the mighty Inca Empire, but in trading networks throughout both continents of the Americas.

2. The Elamites. The Elamites appeared in what is now southwestern Iran and is one of the founding civilizations of Persian culture, playing a prominent role in the founding of the Achaemenid dynasty. Mentioned in the Bible itself on numerous occasions, Elam was often at war with the big boys of the regions, Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, but also with the likes of Medes, Parthia, and Persia in the east. Elamite culture eventually blended with Median, Parthian, and Persian to form an ancient Persian culture, but their record as an independent, autonomous people will always be noted in the record books. In a neighborhood like theirs, this was no easy feat.

1. The Mahajanapadas. Your correspondent’s personal favorite, the Mahajanapadas were a conglomerate of independent kingdoms and republics located in present-day India and Pakistan. Composed of 16 polities, the Mahajanapadas (“Great Kingdoms”) are alluded to often in ancient Buddhist and Jainist texts, and the polities played an important role in allowing these great religions to flourish and expand. Eventually, the Mahajanapadas succumbed to the most powerful member of the group, Maghda (where the Buddha lived most of his life), and became part of the Nanda Empire, which would have gone to war with Alexander the Great’s armies if the Greeks had not been bogged down in a mountainous, neighboring country.

Further thoughts

You read it here first, folks, but I am going to write a book on the Mahajanapadas, since information on these 16 Great Kingdoms is scarce.

Also worth noting is just how interconnected the world was in ancient times. It was nothing like today, of course, but neither was it a world composed of isolated civilizations advancing boldly forward into a world darkness. Merchants, missionaries, scholars, artists, and diplomats from the ancient world lived and breathed in foreign lands much like they do today. Most of their records have disappeared from history, but it is comforting to know they were out there, exploring and observing other cultures and geographies.

Have a great weekend!


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