Self-knowledge for any society begins with a knowledge of its past. We identify ourselves with where we have come from and what we have experienced. As denizens of a highly technological world in which change occurs rapidly, it is easy to forget that in ancient times technology progressed at the rate of centuries, or even millennia. The rapidity of cultural change is closely linked with the efficiency of communication with large groups of people over great distances. Working together we build on the many stories already built below us, we begin on a higher level than those in the stories below us did.
When we think of the Middle East, named from the western penchant for placing itself at the geographic center, we think of it as a region of perpetual conflict. Looking beyond our accustomed frame of reference, this region of the world is also where western civilization itself began. It was here that written communication itself was conceived. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia have often captured the western imagination. When enumerating the important archaeological discoveries of this region, most informed people would easily tick off the Rosetta Stone, King Tut’s tomb, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Missing from most rosters would be Ugarit, an ancient city of incomparable importance among the lower stories of the tower of our society.
The great founding nations of civilization grew along the banks of west Asian rivers. Apparently developing independently, Egypt flourished along the Nile and the nations of Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates. The Euphrates was the quintessential waterway of the ancient world, known by many as simply “the River,” just as the Mediterranean was “the Sea.” Early in human history the city-states of Mesopotamia coalesced into united ventures recognizable as nations. The same unification occurred in Egypt and among the Hittite peoples of what is now Turkey. The basic unit of civilization, however, tended to be the city-state.
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