Earned Knowledge, L3, P2

Daily life in Egypt was much the same as for Sumerians, save that it was more restrictive and less prosperous. Sumerians owned the land they farmed, or at least their family as a group owned it. Egyptian farmers did not; the king owned their land. They were watched and controlled very closely as well. That’s what is illustrated in this drawing, which was found in the tomb of an overseer:

Obviously, the large, well-dressed man was the overseer, and the little men were the farmers.

These farmers ate a lot of bread and drank a lot of beer, but they also grew and ate onions, garlic, dates, figs, fish and various meats.

People in Egypt, more so than in Mesopotamia, were discouraged and forbidden to create new things. Old ways were held to be the ways of the gods; they were always safe and accepted. New ways of doing things were seen as insulting to the order created by the gods. People coming up with such ideas were discouraged and warned by the people closest to them; if they persisted, they might be punished by an overseer.

The Semites

There were two groups of people who lived near the Sumerians and the Egyptians, but were quite different from them. One of these groups was the Hebrews and the other was the Phoenicians. Both groups spoke semitic languages, and they were related to one another: branches of the same large family.

The Hebrews broke off from the Sumerians at about 2,500 BC., and they carried a great number of Sumerian beliefs with them, as well as Sumerian words and stories. Rather than farming, they seem to have raised livestock. They made their way, slowly, from Sumer to Canaan, which is the area around modern Israel. Along the way many worked as laborers within Sumer and Egypt, and even as mercenaries.

The Hebrews were a loose, land-dwelling group of the semitic family (the words Semite and semitic come from Shem, the son of Noah in the Bible), and the Phoenicians were a sea-faring branch of the family.

It’s harder to say when the Phoenician people started as a group, but we do have evidence of them by 2,200 BC. They became traders, sailing and trading all across the world that was the known to them, but based in the Persian Gulf. At about 2,000 BC they discovered the Mediterranean Sea; they then left the Persian Gulf and moved to it.

The Phoenicians were excellent and efficient traders. They may have invented glass, and certainly produced more of it than any other ancient group. And quite unlike Egypt, the Phoenicians were a highly decentralized civilization: there was no central control and no single ruling group. The Phoenicians established colonies where they built ports and small settlements, then devoted themselves to long-distance commerce.

The Phoenicians also created the first alphabet and were, like the people from Lesson #1, quite peaceful.

Both the Hebrews and the Phoenicians were very serious about their religious beliefs, which differed from the religious beliefs of the Sumerian and Egyptian kingdoms. Both groups (and very certainly the Hebrews) tended toward individual religion rather than collective religion… to being blessed or punished by their god as individuals, not in large groups.

Unlike the people of the empires (Sumer and Egypt), the Hebrews and the Phoenicians saw themselves as outsiders. The kings of kings (emperors) tried very hard to make their subjects believe their system was the most important in the world, and that anything else was inferior. The Hebrews and Phoenicians stood outside of that, knowing very well that they were considered odd, impure and even dangerous. They were outcasts to the people of the empires. And because of their difficult situations, they became quick to invent, adapt and learn.

Century after century, both Phoenicians and Hebrews lived on the edges of empires, selling their goods and services into the fringe territories. They had to prove their value day after day and they had to keep one step ahead of threats. And so they maintained tight families, held together as groups, and took their religions very seriously. (The Phoenicians, for example, nearly always gave their children religious names.)

At about 1,200 BC, however, things changed drastically for both of these groups. And so we’ll stop covering them here, and return to them in Lesson #4.

The Minoans

The Minoans were the last major group that came from Anatolia. They lived primarily on the island of Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea.

Minoan culture was established by 2,700 BC. These people were long-distance, maritime traders (meaning that they traded over water rather than over land), as well as fishers and farmers. It’s certain that they came from Anatolia, though it’s hard to say precisely how, since we still can’t read the writings they left behind, which are in a language now called Linear A.

We know that the Egyptians traded with the Minoans and that items made by Minoans are found throughout Asia Minor, the Greek mainland, Cyprus, Canaan, the Levant, and Anatolia.

It’s clear is that the Minoans lived for about 1,000 years in peace, with no city walls, no burned cities (that’s one of the best ways we can tell there was a war), and few violent deaths. Here is a Minoan fresco (a wall painting), showing their trading activities:

Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women seem to have worn robes that had short sleeves and flounced skirts. The robes were sometimes open to the navel, allowing their breasts to be exposed, or were worn over a strapless, fitted bodice. The patterns on their clothes emphasized symmetrical, geometric designs.

Minoan cities were connected with cut-stone roads. Their streets were drained. They had fresh water delivery and sewage removal systems. Their buildings often had flat tiled roofs; plaster, wood, or stone floors; they stood two to three stories high.

Combat sports were popular for men, including boxing, hunting, archery, as well as a sport called bull-leaping (which was pretty much how it sounds).

These people, as best we can tell, lived prosperous, comfortable and peaceful lives. That continued until about 1,750 BC, when Crete was taken over by a war-like civilization, called the Mycenaeans. It may be that many of the Minoan people left for other places, but we don’t have enough information to be sure of that.


Paul Rosenberg


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