Egypt And Mesopotamia Compared


     The development of two great early civilizations in the Middle East and

North Africa encourages a first effort at comparative analysis. Because of

different geography, different degrees of exposure to outside invasion and

influence, and different prior beliefs, Egypt and Mesopotamia were in contrast

to one another in many ways. Egypt emphasized strong central authority, while

Mesopotamian politics shifted more frequently over a substructure of regional

city-states. Mesopotamian art focused on less monumental structures, while

embracing a pronounced literary element that Egyptian art lacked.


     These cultural differences can be explained partly by geography:

Mesopotamians lacked access to the great stones that Egyptians could import

for their monuments. The differences also owed something to different

politics, for Egyptian ability to organize masses of laborers followed from

its centralized government structures and strong bureaucracy. The differences

owed something, finally, to different beliefs, for the Mesopotamians lacked

the Egyptian concern for preparations for the afterlife, which so motivated

the great tombs and pyramids that have made Egypt and some of the pharaohs

live on in human memory.


     Both societies traded extensively, but there was a difference in economic

tone. Mesopotamia was more productive of technological improvements, because

their environment was more difficult to manage than the Nile valley. Trade

contacts were more extensive, and the Mesopotamians gave attention to a

merchant class and commercial law.


     Social differences were less obvious because it is difficult to obtain

information on daily life for early civilizations. It is probable, though,

that the status of women was greater in Egypt than in Mesopotamia (where

women's position seems to have deteriorated after Sumer). Egyptians paid great

respect to women at least in the upper classes, in part because marriage

alliances were vital to the preservation and stability of the monarchy. Also,

Egyptian religion included more pronounced deference to goddesses as sources

of creativity.


     Comparisons in politics, culture, economics, and society suggest

civilizations that varied substantially because of largely separate origins

and environments. The distinction in overall tone was striking, with Egypt

being more stable and cheerful than Mesopotamia not only in beliefs about gods

and the afterlife but in the colorful and lively pictures the Egyptians

emphasized in their decorative art. Also striking was the distinction in

internal history, with Egyptian civilization far less marked by disruption

than its Mesopotamian counterpart.


     Comparison must also note important similarities, some of them

characteristic of early civilizations. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia emphasized

social stratification, with a noble, landowning class on top and masses of

peasants and slaves at the bottom. A powerful priestly group also figured in

the elite. While specific achievements in science differed, there was a common

emphasis on astronomy and related mathematics, which produced durable findings

about units of time and measurement. Both Mesopotamia and Egypt changed only

slowly by the standards of more modern societies. Details of change have not

been preserved, but it is true that having developed successful political and

economic systems there was a strong tendency toward conservation. Change, when

it came, was usually brought by outside forces - natural disasters or

invasions. Both civilizations demonstrated extraordinary durability in the

basics. Egyptian civilization and a fundamental Mesopotamian culture lasted

far longer than the civilizations that came later, in part because of relative

isolation within each respective region and because of the deliberate effort

to maintain what had been achieved, rather than experiment widely.


     Both civilizations, finally, left an important heritage in their region

and adjacent territories. A number of smaller civilization centers were

launched under the impetus of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and some would produce

important innovations of their own by about 1000 B.C.