Egypt or Mesopotamia
This isn’t quite in the same vein as my earlier “Plato or Aristotle”, that is, in terms of asking preferences. Rather, it’s more about our society’s imagination and “preference” if you want to put it that way. In case you’re interested, if I were asked this as a preference, my answer would be “Egypt”. Let’s move to the main subject, though.
I’ve been reading Our Gods Wear Spandex and The Cult of Alien Gods of late, and Egypt comes up tangentially in both. That got me to reading some of my books on Egyptian archaeology and mythology; and that got me to thinking. The two oldest Western cultures are Egyptian and Mesopotamian. I’m not going to go to much trouble to defend the term “Western”. Egypt is in Africa, and Mesopotamia in what is now usually termed the “Middle East”, of course. However, historically they have both had extensive contacts with the Mediterranean and later the Greco-Roman world, especially from the Hellenistic Era onward. Since both were absorbed into the Arabic/Islamic world from the 7th Century onward, we tend to think of them both as “Middle Eastern”; but for millennia the two cultures exercised profound influence on what would become the West. Certainly there are long connections and cultural commonalities of a type not seen in our relationship, say, with the also-ancient Chinese culture, or for that matter with the better-known (in Antiquity) but still distant culture of India. Thus, “Western” they are for this essay.
In any case, it has been a matter of ongoing debate in archaeological circles as to which culture is older. It would be fair to say that both writing systems (hieroglyphic for Egyptian, cuneiform for Mesopotamia) are first documented from the late 4thMillennium BC; that the urban cultures of both predate this; and that their immediate antecedents probably go back to the late Neolithic. Generally, the oldest samples of writing are usually conceded to be Sumerian cuneiform at about 3400 BC or so for its earliest forms, with the earliest hieroglyphs being dated to about 3000 BC. Thus, according to the evidence we have, at least, pride of place would seem to belong to Mesopotamia. The temple recently found at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey would seem to support this, if there are connections with the more easterly Mesopotamian cultures; but then again, rock paintings in the Sahara are at least as old, and may or may not have been produced by the ancestors of the Egyptians. In both cases, we’ll probably never know for sure.
In any case, the point is that both civilizations are equally ancient, with the evidence favoring Mesopotamia. Given this, I find it interesting that as far back in Western history as we care to go, the fascination with Egypt seems to be greater than that with Mesopotamia. The Greeks were fascinated with Egypt from very early on. There seem to have been very early cultural contacts both with Egypt and Mesopotamia, and mention of Chaldean oracles and magic pops up now and then (Pythagoras is said to have studied both in Babylon and Egypt). Nevertheless, Egypt held pride of place. When ancient authors wanted to portray something as ancient and venerable (and perhaps mysterious as well), they almost always represented it as Egyptian. Just one famous example is the story of Atlantis. Mythical it almost certainly is, but Plato, in order to claim it as ancient and venerable, claims that the story passes down from Solon, who purportedly got it from the Egyptians. One might say that for the ancients Egypt served much the same purpose as India does for modern Westerners. That is, it was the locus of mystery, antiquity, and mystic religious truth, usually put in opposition to a materialistic or unspiritual West (Greece, then Rome, then us).
Over the course of subsequent Western history, there have been many fads for Egyptian art, architecture, and purported wisdom. We see this in the Corpus Hermeticum of the 2nd Century AD and in the ongoing pockets of Hermetic thought from then onward, in spates of Egyptian-influenced art and architecture on and off throughout Western history, in much of the iconography of the Templars and later the Freemasons, and onward to the fascination with King Tut in the 20th Century, the Egyptian influences in Art Deco, and even to such contemporary phenomena as the popularly available jewelry purporting to write one’s name in hieroglyphs. One certainly doesn’t see anything similar in regard to the various Mesopotamian civilizations (Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and in part, Persian).
How do we account for this? One possible reason is proximity. Access by sea to Egypt was always faster and easier for the Greeks than access to Babylon was, especially given that the latter access was often controlled by the hated Persians. Later, as we must not forget, the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt for three centuries until it was annexed into Rome, of which it remained a part for over half a millennium. Even after the Islamic conquests, Egyptian ports such as Alexandria maintained important trade contacts throughout the Mediterranean, and were often intermediate staging points for pilgrims bound for the Holy Land. By contrast, except for its brief conquest by Alexander and some trading back and forth of border territories with Rome, Mesopotamia has never been part of any Western empire or nation, nor has it had trade links as direct as those of Egypt (most Mesopotamian trade went through Turkey or other intermediaries). Thus it may be that Egypt was just more accessible to the West in ways that Sumer, Babylon, and its successor states ever were.
It is true that there was and has been a fascination with Islamic Mesopotamia—many cultural exchanges occurred through the medium of the Turks, the Levant, and Moorish Spain; and the Arabian Nights, centered on Baghdad, has long been popular. However, this is distinct from ancient Mesopotamia. In both Egypt and Iraq, ancient civilizations were overlaid with Islamic Arab culture; but in the case of Egypt, the fascination for the ancient pagan culture remained, whereas any interest in the “Chaldees” that did exist seems to have been swept away with its culture. The only partial exception is the fascination of many intelligentsia with Zoroaster (notably Nietzsche) on and off through the centuries; but this was never a widespread movement, and Zoroaster is more properly Persian than Mesopotamian (though there has always been some interaction). Thus, as far as the ancient pagan cultures of the two regions go, it is still Egypt that wins hands down.
Once more, why? I don’t know, but I can give perhaps one or two suggestions. First, Egypt had remarkable continuity of culture. From its first written records around 3000 BC until its Christianization in the first two centuries AD, despite wars, upheavals, and domination by foreign powers at times (Hyksos, Persia, Ptolemaic Greeks, and finally Rome), Egypt’s core culture remained amazingly intact. Mesopotamia, given its location, was more prone to fluctuation and outside influences; whereas Egypt always maintained a certain cultural resistance to outside influences unusual in its day. Certainly an Egyptian from the First Dynasty if transported to Hellenistic Alexandria would notice plenty of differences; nevertheless, there was a remarkable continuity, and the perception of continuity was even stronger. Any culture that is both ancient and at least seemingly unchanging is fascinating–witness current Western fascination with ancient India and China.
Second, Egyptian mythology was much more flexible than that of Sumer and Babylon. The Mesopotamian religions always seem to have had a strong aspect of literalism and a resistance to allegorical treatment. The Mesopotamian pantheon seems to have been rather harsh and demanding. According the the Mesopotamian version of the Flood Myth, for example, the gods sent the flood not because of mankind’s immorality (as in Genesis) but because they were too noisy. Keep in mind also the persistence of human sacrifice in the Mesopotamian-derived religion of the Carthaginians until the 3rd Century BC. Aspects of Mesopotamian religion may have filtered into Greek culture, but aside from things such as the relatively minor myth of Venus and Adonis, its influence seems to have been limited.
On the other hand, Egyptian mythology is a vast, complex, and often conflicting body of astounding breadth. The personalities of Egyptian gods and goddesses are as varied as those of the Greek pantheon, and the modes in which they were served were more intelligible to the Greeks than those of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Although it’s hard to tease out, there seems to have been some underlying philosophizing and allegorizing of the gods of Egypt; it seems, at least, that some of the Hermetica, though written in Greek, is of authentically Egyptian origin. All this would be very appealing to the Greeks, who allegorized and philosophized about religion from nearly the beginning of their written literature. In fact, the Isis mystery religion became one of the most popular religions of the late pagan Greco-Roman world, fitting neatly into the larger cultural matrix.
Finally, something about the beauty and proportions of Egyptian art and architecture seems to have affected the West in a way that that of Mesopotamia did not. In her fascinating and idiosyncratic book Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia argues that Egyptian culture was the origin of what she calls the “Western eye”; that is, the basic conventions, proportions, and tensions that are characteristic of all following art, from the Greco-Roman period to today. While I hesitate to endorse this view completely or without nuance, I think there is something to it.
Thus, to return to the title–Egypt or Mesopotamia–I say once again, “Egypt”! These ruminations doubtless don’t explain why, but I hope they’ve been food for thought.
Posted on 05/08/2011, in ancient civilizations, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Mesopotamia, history, Uncategorized and tagged ancient cultures, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Mesopotamia, history. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.