Civilization: Which Aspects Define

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Alex Hummel
World Civilization 1
Midterm Paper

Civilization is a word that cannot be used too loosely. How then, is civilization defined? It is difficult to define in one word or phrase because a complex society or “civilization” depends on many different aspects. There are characteristics of a civilization that are more essential than others, some of which may be more important to one group than to another. However, a definition for civilization can be narrowed down to a few fundamental aspects that are necessary for one to exist. For a complex society to exist, it must have means to provide for a growing population. Acquiring resources is vital for a civilization to flourish. Next, the earliest civilizations all seemed to have a need for an organized administration system. In a society with a growing population and expanding territories, we can see the need for a hierarchical government to keep them operating. By comparing the earliest civilized societies, we can determine which features set them apart from so called “barbarian societies” and why the need to become civilized arose.

The birth of primary urbanization happened first in Mesopotamia. It makes sense to look for characteristics from Sumerian society because they are considered the “cradle of civilization.” Mesopotamia lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which provide the life giving water that helped transform simple villages to complex cities. The most basic unit in any society is the people and people need to eat. The development of agriculture was the major key for promoting civilized life. The previous methods of hunting and gathering became inefficient to support a large number of individuals. We now see the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, not only for the water they carry but also for the influence that they had on the people. The unpredictability of the floods forced Sumerians to develop an extensive network of irrigation ditches to survive. Irrigation expanded the size of total farmland and promoted settlement on once uninhabitable regions. As the settlements increased in size, the need for organization and administration arise. People began to work together on these public works projects and a sense of citizenship based on geographical location was created. Cities grew and the state followed in its wake.

The change from an agricultural village to complex city-state required organization between the regions of Mesopotamia. Aristocratic councils in conjunction with religious leaders first exercised leadership. However, in times of war with other cities, the council would appoint a single leader. Over time these men assumed their roles as king but still relied heavily on temple priests. These priests were at the top of the hierarchical tree and the citizens relied on them because they believed that their survival was based on the will of the gods. The city priests built huge temples call ziggurats. Ziggurats were massive central temples that dominated over the cities. The priests would control city functions from ziggurats. These temples employed and fed many people, which was necessary for the citizens to have continued faith in their priests. Without this organization and administration, the cities of Mesopotamia may have fallen apart. However, Mesopotamian city-states were constantly at war with each other and this created considerable stress between the states. In approximately 2350 BCE, Sargon, king of Akkad brought the cities of Sumer together. He united the cities under one ruler. Eventually they became independent once again by the third dynasty of Ur, which ultimately weakened Mesopotamia due to the lack of unification between the warring city-states.

Mesopotamia is a great civilization to consider first because of the fact that it is the “cradle of civilization.” We know that agriculture and government administration were essential but many other characteristics of Mesopotamia...
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