Ancient River Civilisations

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Ancient River Civilisations

In prehistory, for thousands of years, humans lived in small groups, banding together to survive by gathering food, hunting and fishing. Then, in the 4th millennium BC, at around the same time, communities in the valleys of a few large river of Asia and Africa, widely separated from each other, took to growing crops systematically. Increased food production led to increase in population, rise of cites and government, and development of writing and art.

These ancient civilizations came up in four river valley systems:

  1. the Mesopotamian civilisation in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (c. 3300 BC - c. 2000 BC),
  2. the Egyptian civilisation in the Nile valley (c. 3200 BC - c. 1000 BC),
  3. the Harappan civilisation in the Indus valley (c. 3200 BC - c. 1300 BC), and
  4. the Yellow River (Chinese) civilisation in the Yellow River valley (c. 2000 BC - c. 200 BC).
Fig 1: Ancient River Valley Civilizations of the Old World. (Source: Walsh 2006, India, p. 8)

The Mesopotamian civilisation

The Mesopotamian civilisation was the first to spring onto the historical scene. Situated in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, its history is broadly divided into three phases – (a) the Sumerians (b) the Akkadian empire, and (c) the Third dynasty of Ur.

Fig 2: Ruins of Mesopotamia. (Adapted from: Spielvogel 2003, World History, p. 39)


The Sumerians have the distinction of being the first people to form a city-based civilisation c. 3300 BC. Among the cities they established were Ur, Uruk and Lagash. The Sumerians were based in south Mesopotamia. They developed the cuneiform script, the earliest known writing system in the world.

Akkadian Empire

The Akkadians from north Mesopotamia, under Sargon, conquered the Sumerians around 2350 BC and established the world's first empire, the Akkadian empire, straddling both northern and southern Mesopotamia.

Third Dynasty of Ur

In 2100 BC, the Sumerians were back as the Third Dynasty of Ur. The most impressive monument of this period is the Ziggurat of Ur, a type of stepped pyramid with successively receding levels. The dynasty lasted for only a hundred years before being overthrown by nomadic tribes, clearing the way for the later emergence of the Babylonian Empire.

The Egyptian civilisation

The Egyptian civilisation of the Nile valley is the most enigmatic of all the ancient civilisations. Historians divide it into three phases – (a) the Old Kingdom, (b) the Middle Kingdom, and (c) the New Kingdom. These periods were interspersed with periods of instability, known as the Intermediate periods.

The civilisation started c. 3200 BC when king Menes formed a dynastic kingdom by uniting northern and southern Egypt. By 3000 BC, the Egyptians had developed a system of writing called hieroglyphics, based on pictures and symbols.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom lasted from c. 2700 BC to 2200 BC. The rule was centralised, with the title of Pharaoh given to the monarch. The pharaoh was considered to be of divine origin. Three pharaohs of note are Kufu, Khafra and Menkaura.

The Pyramids
Fig 3: The Pyramids at Giza, Egypt. (Source: Wikipedia 2010, Egyptian pyramids)

The pyramids – the most visible and magnificent symbols of the Egyptian civilization – were build during the Old Kingdom. In Fig. (showing the pyramids at Giza), in among the three large pyramids at the back, the rightmost is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the middle is the Pyramid of Khafra, and the leftmost is the Pyramid of Menkaura.

According to scholars, the pyramids, along with other smaller structure, were monuments dedicated to the dead. The Egyptians preserved the bodies of pharaohs and important people through mummification, which involved processing the dead bodies by filling the dried corpses with spices, wrapping in linen and sealing in cases. The mummies were then placed in the monuments, the pyramids reserved for the pharaohs and their family.

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom stretched from c. 2050 BC to 1650 BC. This period saw the beginning of expansion of Egyptian empire through conquests. However, invasions from western Asia by a warring group called Hyksos put an end to this kingdom.

The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom covered the period from c. 1565 BC to 1085 BC. The Pharaohs expanded the empire to make Egypt the most powerful state in south-west Asia. Hatshepsut, the first woman pharaoh, was of this kingdom. Other notable pharaohs were Akhenaton (whose wife was Queen Nefertiti), his son Tutankhamun (King Tut), and Ramses II. Magnificent buildings and temples were constructed during this period.

Hereafter, the civilisation lost its way as external powers dominated over Egypt, till, in the 1st century BC, it became a province of the Roman empire.

The Harappan Civilisation

Fig 4: Excavated ruins of Harappan civilisation. (Source: Cline & Takacs 2007, Ancient World vol. 4, p. 44)

Unlike the relics of the Egyptian civilisation, or to some extent those of Mesopotamia, the remains of the Harappan civilisation are singularly unimpressive. Situated mostly in the Indus valley, there are no pyramids or ziggurats, just uniform brickwork structures and buildings, not too high either. The uniformity of the excavated sites is overwhelming.

However, this civilisation boasts of the world's first planned cities and townships, conforming to a regular grid pattern. The bricks were of standard dimensions. The width of main roads, streets and lanes were standardised too, and most run either north-south or east-west. The housed followed the same plan, and the drainage system was advanced. The Harappan civilisation was also much more extensive than its contemporaries – Mesopotamia's Sumeria and Egypt's Old Kingdom. All this points to a very high degree of organisation, and centralisation, of governance.

The Harappans were the world's pioneers in the spinning and weaving of cotton. They had trade relationships with the Mesopotamians. They used a form of pictographic script, which, unlike the cuneiform script of Sumerians and the hieroglyphics of Egypt, has not yet been deciphered.

Just as the emergence of this civilisation remains a riddle, so does its gradual decline and disappearance. While other river civilisations had successors – Sumerians were followed by the Babylonian empire, the Egyptians finally became a part of the Roman empire, the Chinese civilization kept on chugging under more dynasties – the Harappan civilisation just faded and blinked out of existence, replaced by an entirely different culture – the Vedic culture.

Yellow River (Chinese) Civilisation

Fig 5: Ruins of a Shang Dynasty City. (Source: (n.d.), Ruins Shang)

The Yellow River civilisation started with Chinese cities coming up around 2000 BC in the valley of the Yellow River (Hwang Ho).

Shang Dynasty

Around 1700 BC the Shang dynasty came to power. It held sway till c.1027 BC. They built large palaces and tombs. Their cities were built mostly of wood, and were surrounded with massive earthen walls for protection.

The king and his family were at the top of the social hierarchy, helped in administration by aristocratic families. After death, their bodies were buried in tombs. The Shang dynasty was famous for the art of bronze casting.

The Chinese developed a unique system of writing, in which there was no link between the written and spoken language. This meant that people in different regions could learn the same set of characters, yet speak in very different ways.

Zhou Dynasty

Around 1027 BC, the Shang dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Zhou dynasty, which ruled till 256 BC. This dynasty was the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history.

The Zhou dynasty carried on much of the culture of the Shang dynasty. Cast iron production, for the first time in the world, was started in China, and the iron was used to create weapons and agricultural tools. Large scale water projects for irrigation were undertaken. Silk became the most important item of trade, and was traded with dominions as far away as Greece.

An invasion by the north nomads in 771 BC broke this dynasty's back, and it never recovered, finally ending in 256 BC.

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List of References

Cline, E & Takacs, S (eds), The Ancient World – Civilizations of the Near East and South West Asia, vol. 4, NY, USA: ME Sharpe, 2007., The Ruins of a Shang Dynasty City in Zhengzhou, viewed 22 October, 2010, <>, (n.d.).
Spielvogel, JJ, Glencoe World History, interactive student edition, USA: McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, 2003.
Walsh, JE, A Brief History of India, NY: Facts on File, 2006.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Egyptian pyramids,' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 21 October, 2010 <>, 2010.


Beck, BB et al., World History – Patterns of Interaction, USA: McDougal Littell, 2009.
Butler, C, The Sweep of Mesopotamia's History (c.3000-529 BCE), viewed 21 October 2010 <>, 2007.
Keay, J, India, A History, London: Harper Perennial, 2004.
Roberts, JM, The New History of the World, NY, USA: Oxford, 2003.
Singh, U, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India:From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, New Delhi, India: Dorling Kindersley, 2009.
Spielvogel, JJ, Glencoe World History, interactive student edition, USA: McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, 2003.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Old Kingdom,' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 21 October, 2010 <>, 2010.