A Brief History of the Middle East from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages



An ancient fortress in Syria / Creative Commons



“The cradle of civilization.”

Throughout the centuries, historians have used these powerful words to describe the Middle East.

In the ancient Middle East, many great civilizations rose and fell. The religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each trace their origins back to this part of the world.

Symbols of three religions

Symbols of the three religions that originated in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

All of these civilizations arose in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent stretches from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Zagros Mountains in the east. It is bordered in the north by the Taurus Mountains and in the south by the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert. Its shape resembles a crescent moon.

One area within the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the region’s most powerful empires and grandest cities. This area was Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

From Farming to Empires

Fertile Crescent

Many great civilizations arose from the first farming cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

The Fertile Crescent is the region in which humans first began farming and herding around 8,000 B.C.E. This dramatic change from nomadic hunting and gathering allowed early humans to settle into permanent villages and to begin accumulating a surplus of food.

With such a surplus, early villagers could begin to focus on developing the skills associated with civilization. Some of them became priests, scribes, merchants, artists, teachers, and government officials. They began to build cities, and before long, they were establishing empires. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Phoenicians all built great empires, each of which rose to glory in the Middle East.

Mesopotamia Timeline

A timeline of Mesopotamia history, from the founding of Sumer to the beginning of the Common Era / Abstracted from Akkadian Language by John Heise

Because they were constantly interacting through war and trade, the societies in the Middle East borrowed from each other. They modified newly acquired ideas and technologies to suit their own needs. Often, these changes were improvements. Over time, many aspects of various societies throughout the ancient Middle East began to resemble each other.

The Middle East is also the crossroads of the ancient world. It is located at the merging point of three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Many travelers who journeyed from one continent to the next passed through the Middle East, absorbing its culture and introducing new ideas to the region. Throughout the centuries, its prized location became the source of conflict. Its goods became the source of envy.

And its ideas became the source of faith.

Life in Sumer

"Ram in the Thicket"

This beautiful artifact, called by archaeologists “Ram in the Thicket,” was squashed for 4,500 years or so before Sir Leonard Woolley excavated it from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in Mesopotamia. How did he know how to piece it together? / Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The first writing system. The plow. The sailboat. The first lunar calendar.

These accomplishments and more were the products of the city-states of Sumer, which arose on the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now modern-day Iraq. The Sumerians began to build their walled cities and make significant advances beginning around 3500 B.C.E.

Their domination of this region lasted until around 2000 B.C.E, when the Babylonians took control. Sumerian culture and technology did not disappear but were adopted by its conquerors.

Located in what the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia, which literally means “the land between the rivers,” Sumer was a collection of city-states that occupied the southernmost portion of Mesopotamia. Most were situated along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, lying just north of the Persian Gulf.

Map of ancient Sumer

Bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, ancient Sumer was located in southern Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is a Greek word meaning “between two rivers.”

The physical environment there has remained relatively the same since about 8000 B.C.E. The landscape is flat and marshy. The ground is primarily made up of sand and silt, with no rock. The climate is very dry, with only about 16.9 centimeters of rain falling per year. Natural vegetation is sparse, and no trees other than palm trees grow there. The rivers overflow their banks in the spring, sometimes violently and destructively. During this process, they deposit a rich layer of silt on the surrounding floodplain.

The Cradle of Civilization

Considering the harsh and forbidding natural environment, how did the first civilization arise in Sumer? Surprisingly, the environment was part of what made civilization possible.

The silt carried by the rivers down from the northern mountains provided rich fertilizer for growing crops when the rivers overflowed. The constant sunshine was also good for crops. But without water, they would have easily dried up and died. Through the leadership of priest-kings, Sumerians organized farmers in each city-state to build extensive irrigation systems of canals and dams. Before long, the desert was blooming with a surplus of barley, dates, and other crops.

This surplus allowed many people to pursue occupations other than farming, while still being able to meet their basic needs. These people became artisans, merchants, and craftspeople. They helped build the cities and increase the wealth of the city-states through trade with neighboring societies.

Sumerians also developed high-quality crafts, evidence of which was found in the royal tombs of Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. Trade also helped the Sumerians to secure vital items such as timber from Lebanon and luxury goods such as the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli from the Indus River Valley.

Gettin’ Ziggy with It

Sumerian Goddess Inanna

This clay plaque (c. 17th century B.C.E.) depicts what some archaeologists believe is the Sumerian goddess Inanna, patron deity of fertility. Makes you wonder who’ll find those Barbie dolls you buried in the backyard.

Because of the surplus grain, the government could grow in size to support numerous officials and priests. It could also pay thousands of workers with barley while they were building canals, city walls, and ziggurats or while they were fighting to defend their city-state or extend its influence over the region. The barley was collected as a tax from the farmers. Farmers were also required to give some time to the government to work on projects. Slaves and hired workers also contributed.

As the government and economy grew in size and complexity, officials and merchants required a sophisticated writing system to record transactions. First came number markings and simple pictograms, the writing system began to incorporate pictures representing a physical object or idea (such as a picture of the sun to represent the sun).

As trade and government activity increased, the writing system began to incorporate more abstract pictograms and phonograms, or symbols representing sounds. These new forms provided greater flexibility and speed in writing. They were adopted by other cultures (such as the Assyrians) who did not even speak Sumerian.

Sumerian Wisdom

The Sumerians wrote on clay tablets, using a reed pen called a stylus. Once dried, these tablets became hard and, fortunately for today’s researchers, endured for millennia in the hot, dry climate.

Thousands of these tablets have been unearthed. Some libraries have even been discovered with over 10,000 of these clay tablets. And although the vast majority of these tablets contain records of goods collected and distributed by the governments and trade transactions, some contain myths, stories, and letters. These documents have provided much information about the culture and history of the Sumerian people.

With their ingenuity, the Sumerian people developed complex irrigation system and a written language. They were the first people to use the plow to lift the silt-laden soil of their crop fields and they invented the sailboat. They were the first people to design a calendar based on the phase of the moon and they developed a numerical system, based on the number 60, that is still used to measure seconds and minutes.


Gilgamesh was likely an actual king of Uruk in Babylonia who lived about 2700 B.C.E.Sumerians recorded stories and myths about Gilgamesh, which were written on clay tablets. The stories were combined into an epic tale. Versions of this tale were translated into other langauages including Akkadian, which was spoken by the Babylonians.

The fullest surviving version is derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, which were found stored in the famous library at Nineveh of Assyrian King Assurbanipal.

The epic relates the heroic deeds of Gilgamesh, who is the king of Uruk. His father is mortal and his mother is a goddess. Since Gilgamesh is part mortal, he knows he must die one day. However, he longs for immortality, whether through doing great deeds or discovering the secret of eternal life. He roams the earth on this quest and meets Utnapishtim, the only human granted eternal life by the gods. He tells Gilgamesh many stories, including one of a great flood that covered the Earth.

What happens to Gilgamest? Read the tale and find out. The following is an excerpt from Gilgamesh.

O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
The boat which you are to build,
its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
its length must correspond to its width.
Roof it over like the Apsu.
From Tablet XI — translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, 1998

A culture of many firsts, the Sumerians led the way for other societies that followed them.


Babylonian artifacts

Ancient Babylonia left behind some wonderful artifacts.

The Babylonians used the innovations of the Sumerians, added to them, and built an empire that gave the world, among other things, codified laws, a tower that soared above the earth, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Geographically, the empire of Babylonia occupied the middle and southern part of Mesopotamia. Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, it stretched from the present-day city of Baghdad south to the Persian Gulf.

Babylonian Empire

The late Babylonian Empire controlled the Fertile Crescent, including most of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

The first written mention of Babylonia’s famous capital city, Babylon, dates to about 3800 B.C.E. During that time, most of Mesopotamia was made up of Sumerian city-states. The king of Babylonia Sargon I, however, was of Semitic background. During his reign, Semitic literature, art, and architecture flourished. He ruled from Susa and conquered lands as far away as Syria.

The First Empire

Sargon I

Sargon I, known as Sargon the Great, was a Semitic king who ruled the earliest Babylonian Empire.

Over the next 1,500 years, the Mesopotamia city-states vied with each other for power and influence. It was not until Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1750 B.C.E.) united most of this area after a triumphant military campaign that the city of Babylon reached its first great glory. In the years during and following Hammurabi’s reign (known as the First Empire), Babylonian rulers constructed temples, roads, and an extensive canal system. They also codified laws.

The rule of the Babylonian kings contrasts favorably with the rule of the Assyrian kings who destroyed the first Babylonian Empire and left a legacy of war and destruction. After Assyrian dominance in Mesopotamia, which lasted from approximately 1400-600 B.C.E., the Babylonians established a second great Empire.

King Nabopolassar, a Chaldean, (Chaldea was a region of southern Mesopotamia), helped to conquer the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 606 B.C.E. and used the opportunity to establish his own kingdom in Babylon.

Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar, succeeded his father in 604 B.C.E. During Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, the Tower of Babel reached its apex, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed, Babylonians destroyed the Great Temple in Jerusalem and 7,000 Jews were brought back to Babylonia in captivity.

Tower of Babel

According to legend, the magnificent ziggurat known as the Tower of Babel needed constant maintenance to keep the baked bricks from eroding away in the rain. When King Xerxes of Persia took over Babylon in 478 B.C.E., the tower began its descent into history as a pile of debris and broken bricks on the ground.

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel was a ziggurat, a pyramid-shaped temple built to a local god. The most important god of Babylon was Marduk, who outshone all other gods in the Babylonian pantheon.

Construction on the Tower of Babel had begun about 1100 B.C.E., and when Nebuchadnezzar finished it, the tower reached a height of 91 meters (295 feet). According to a tablet left by the king, the tower was made of “baked brick enameled in brilliant blue.”

The Hanging Gardens

Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, for his wife who missed her lush homeland.

The gardens did not “hang” literally — that is, its plants or trees didn’t dangle from ropes. “Hanging” refers to the garden’s terraces which overhung one another.

But what makes a terraced garden special enough to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World?

Babylon received little rain, and stone slabs needed to hold terraces in place were almost nonexistent in the region. Ingenious engineers devised a chain pump that brought water from the nearby Euphrates River to irrigate the gardens. Specially designed bricks kept the flora in place.

The result was a green oasis that today’s scholars believe rose between 80 and 300 feet into the air. The gardens were a lush mountain of foliage in the middle of a flat, dry desert.

Ultimately, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon disappeared, and the Tower of Babel and the Babylonian Empire were destroyed by the Persians around the year 478 B.C.E.

Cuneiform evolution

Babylonian language evolved from pictographs to cuneiforms throughout the life of the civilization.

But the sands of time cannot hide the magnificent accomplishments in engineering, law, art, and architecture that the Babylonians left as their legacy to the world.

Hammurabi’s Code:  An Eye for An Eye

Hammurabi cartoon

“Hammurabi, the king of righteousness, on whom Shamash has conferred the law, am I.”

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

This phrase, along with the idea of written laws, goes back to ancient Mesopotamian culture that prospered long before the Bible was written or the civilizations of the Greeks or Romans flowered.

“An eye for an eye …” is a paraphrase of Hammurabi’s Code, a collection of 282 laws inscribed on an upright stone pillar. The code was found by French archaeologists in 1901 while excavating the ancient city of Susa, which is in modern-day Iran.

Hammurabi is the best known and most celebrated of all Mesopotamian kings. He ruled the Babylonian Empire from 1792-50 B.C.E. Although he was concerned with keeping order in his kingdom, this was not his only reason for compiling the list of laws. When he began ruling the city-state of Babylon, he had control of no more than 50 square miles of territory. As he conquered other city-states and his empire grew, he saw the need to unify the various groups he controlled.

A Need for Justice

Hammurabi keenly understood that, to achieve this goal, he needed one universal set of laws for all of the diverse peoples he conquered. Therefore, he sent legal experts throughout his kingdom to gather existing laws. These laws were reviewed and some were changed or eliminated before compiling his final list of 282 laws. Despite what many people believe, this code of laws was not the first.

Oldest Code Known

The oldest known evidence of a law code are tablets from the ancient city Ebla (Tell Mardikh in modern-day Syria). They date to about 2400 B.C.E. — approximately 600 years before Hammurabi put together his famous code.

The prologue or introduction to the list of laws is very enlightening. Here, Hammurabi states that he wants “to make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak.” The laws themselves support this compassionate claim, and protect widows, orphans and others from being harmed or exploited.

The phrase “an eye for an eye” represents what many people view as a harsh sense of justice based on revenge. But, the entire code is much more complex than that one phrase. The code distinguishes among punishments for wealthy or noble persons, lower-class persons or commoners, and slaves.

The Laws

Dragon of Marduk

Don’t mess with the serpent-headed, scorpion-tailed mythical dragon of the god Marduk!

“Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind …”

So begins the Law Code of Hammurabi, a list of nearly 300 laws etched into a two and one-half meter high black diorite pillar, discovered in 1902 but dating back to the time of Hammurabi himself (1792-1750 B.C.E).Some laws were quite brutal, others rather progressive. Members of the upper-class often received harsher punishments than commoners, and women had quite a few important rights.Most of the nearly 300 laws written on the pillar pertain to property rights of landowners, slavemasters, merchants, and builders.

Here are some of the more unusual laws that seem very foreign to a modern society:

If any one finds runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.

If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.

If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of a drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.

If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

If a man strike a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss.

If a barber, without the knowledge of his master, cut the sign of a slave on a slave not to be sold, the hands of this barber shall be cut off.

If a slave says to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

Hammurabi’s own words illustrate this point: “If a man has destroyed the eye of a man of the gentleman class, they shall destroy his eye …. If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner … he shall pay one mina of silver. If he has destroyed the eye of a gentleman’s slave … he shall pay half the slave’s price.” The Babylonians clearly did not live under a social system that treated all people equally.

The code deals with many topics of concern other than assault. It outlines rules for witnesses and those making accusations of crimes. For example, “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” It details how theft or destruction of property should be handled and gives guidelines for dealing with trade and business problems.

In some cases, these rules are quite reasonable and fair: “If any one owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates (kills) the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not grow for lack of water, in that year he need not give his creditor any grain; he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.”

The code also gives rules for family matters, such as marriage, divorce, incest, and adoption. Payment amounts for the work of doctors and other professionals are outlined. Although the pay for doctors was good, they suffered severe punishments for fatal errors. The code states that “if a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him, … his hands shall be cut off.” (Talk about a need for malpractice insurance!)

The Code covers all types of issues related to farming and herding animals, and it also lays out rules on the ownership and sale of slaves.

Go Jump in a River!

Hammurabi’s Code may not seem very different from more recent laws and precedents that guide the processes of a trial. But, there are a few major differences between ancient Babylonians and today’s laws. Hammurabi’s Code required accusers to bring the accused into court by themselves.

A number of the laws refer to jumping in the Euphrates River as a method of demonstrating one’s guilt or innocence. If the accused returned to shore safely, they were deemed innocent; if they drowned, they were guilty. This practice follows the Babylonians’s belief that their fates were controlled by their gods.

From the code, it is evident that the Babylonians did not believe all people were equal. The code treated slaves, commoners, and nobles differently. Women had a number of rights, including the ability to buy and sell property and to obtain a divorce. The Babylonians understood the need for honesty by all parties in a trial and for court officers to be free of corruption so that the justice system could function effectively.

Hammarabi’s Code serves as a window into the prevailing values of ancient Babylon.

Assyrians:  Cavalry and Conquests

Assyrian icon

Although Assyrian is like most Middle Eastern languages, part of the Semitic language family, the Assyrian people are ethnically distinct from other members of this Semitic group.

Much of Assyria’s history is closely tied to its southern neighbor, Babylonia. The two Mesopotamian empires spoke similar languages and worshipped most of the same gods. They were often rivals on the battlefield for influence in the ancient Middle East.

The history of Assyria spans mainly from about 2000 B.C.E , when the cities of Nineveh and Calah were founded, to the destruction of Nineveh in 606 B.C.E.

Whereas Babylonia is best remembered for its contributions in literature, architecture, and the law, Assyria is chiefly remembered for its military prowess, advances in weaponry, and meticulously recorded conquests.

Geographically, Assyria occupied the middle and northern part of Mesopotamia. It was situated between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and its major cities were Calah, Zab, Ashur, and the capital, Nineveh.

The Power and the Gory

Assyrian weapons

They wielded swords, scepters, axes, pikes, blades, daggers, and spears. The Assyrians didn’t mess around.

“I am powerful, I am all-powerful …. I am without equal among all kings.”

This was the boast of King Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.E.), who expanded the Assyrian empire to its greatest extent. At the height of his great power, in 671 B.C.E., he conquered Egypt in less than a month.

The Egyptian kingdom was considered one of the most impenetrable in the Middle East. The Egyptians had ruled over their own land virtually undisturbed for 2,500 years.

Once Egypt was captured, Esarhaddon and his successor, Assurbanipal (680-626 B.C.E.), ruled an empire that stretched over 1,000 miles from the Nile River to the Caucasus Mountains. In its time, the Assyrian Empire was the greatest the world had ever seen. The center of the empire was located in what is now northern Iraq, and its capital was called Nineveh.

Tiglath-pileser I

The growth of the Assyrian Empire

Few could stand in the way of the Assyrian expansion. After toppling the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrians conquered the Israelites, the Phoenicians, and even parts of the mighty Egyptian Empire.

Tiglath-pileser I was an early Assyrian king who began his reign in about 1100 B.C.E. He mounted several successful military campaigns against the Babylonians, Syrians, and many others.

He claims to have conquered 42 kings and peoples and wrote, “I carried away their possessions, burned their cities with fire, demanded from their hostages tribute and contributions, and laid on them the heavy yoke of my rule.”

The Assyrian ruler also claimed great expertise as a hunter who on one expedition killed over 900 lions and captured several elephants alive.

Guardian figure

This guardian (notice the 5th leg) protected an Assyrian citadel gate in Khorsabad.

In the city of Asshur he kept a hunting park in which to prey on animals. At Nineveh, he started a botanical garden in which he planted trees and fauna gathered during his military campaigns.

How did the Assyrians establish such a large empire over such formidable foes? Their armies were highly trained and professional. And their troops had a great deal of experience in battle. They were well organized into various units of charioteers, cavalry, bowmen, and lancers.

Assyrian armies also had a corps of engineers who employed movable towers and iron-headed battering rams for sieges on walled towns.

Soldiers used iron weapons, which were much stronger than the bronze weapons of some of their foes. The Assyrians also built roads for the quick and easy movement of troops, so that conquered rebelling kingdoms could easily be brought back under control.

Fear was another tool used by the Assyrians. Although all wars are cruel, the Assyrians were notorious for their widespread use of torture. The words of an early Assyrian king, Assurnarsipal, reveal just how cruel the Assyrians could be:

I built a pillar over against his gate, and I flayed all the chief men … and I covered the pillar with their skins … some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes. Many captives … I burned with fire … From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses, their ears … of many I put out the eyes.Assurnarsipal (c.875 B.C.E.)

Assyrian necklace

This ugal (head-dress) once worn by an Assyrian queen was recovered from the tomb of Nimrud.

The Spoils of Victory

In ancient times, kings usually led their troops into battle and were highly skilled soldiers themselves. It was the custom of Assyrian kings to record their victories on the walls of their immense and extravagant palaces. The relief sculptures on the walls of King Assurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh are some of the most elaborate. These sculptures, along with an important collection of cuneiform clay tablets — 25,000 of them — were discovered by Austen Henry Layard and his colleagues in the 1840s.

Empires meant power. This power led to extravagant wealth for the victors, who forced the conquered peoples into paying them tribute or taxes. The Assyrian kings had no end of such wealth.

Paying Tribute

The Assyrian king Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.) describes the tribute he exacted from the Hebrew king Hezekiah. Hezekiah withstood the Assyrians’ siege in the capital city of Jerusalem in an event that is also recounted in the Bible. But the Hebrews still had to give enormous tribute and presents to the Assyrians.

Sennacherib explains in his own words on a tablet that was discovered by archaeologists: “He sent [a convoy] after me to Nineveh, my royal city with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, jewels, antimony … couches of ivory, easy chairs inlaid with ivory, elephants’ hides, elephants’ tusks … all kinds of valuable treasures, and his daughters, his harem, and male and female singers.”

More than Warriors

With the wealth they obtained from war and tribute, the Assyrian kings built the well-fortified and beautiful cities of Nineveh, Calah, (present-day Nimrud).

In these cities, they placed their grand palaces, some of which spanned several acres. It these places, Assyrian kings showed their more cultured side.

The first glassmaking, the invention of backgammon, the ancestor of the lock and key, even therapeutic massage, are thought by many scholars to be Assyrian inventions.

But the Assyrian Empire’s grandeur did not last. Just as it reached its peak, it began to crumble. Fighting between King Assurbanipal and his brother weakened the empire and opening it up to foreign invaders. The Assyrian Empire was eventually destroyed in 612 B.C.E. by the Medes from the Iranian Plateau and the Chaldeans of Babylonia.

It never rose again.

Persian Empire

Map of Persian Empire

Cyrus managed in relatively no time to establish Persian control over the ancient Near East, Egypt, and parts of India, giving the Greek city-states a run for their money. The Persian Empire was the largest Empire that had ever been established.

The Persian Empire spanned from Egypt in the west to Turkey in the north, and through Mesopotamia to the Indus River in the east.

More Information …

Persia is today the country of Iran.

By the 5th century B.C.E., it was the largest empire the world had ever seen, surpassing the size of their Assyrian predecessors.

Cyrus Is Desirous

In 539 B.C.E., King Cyrus decided to expand the boundaries of Persia. He began by conquering Babylon. Unlike Assyrian kings, Cyrus was known for his mercy rather than his cruelty.

For example, he allowed the Hebrews, who had been captives in Babylon for over fifty years to return to the holy city of Jerusalem, instead of turning them into slaves. He returned sacred items that were stolen from them and allowed the rebuilding of their capital and the temple.

Cyrus also allowed the Hebrews to continue living and worshiping as they chose. The Jewish prophet, Isaiah, called Cyrus “God’s shepherd,” and said that “God would go before him and level the mountains.”


The Empty Quarter is the largest area of continuous sand in the world.

Cyrus’s generosity toward the Jews was not an isolated event. He and his successors employed a policy of adaptation and reconciliation toward all of their new subjects. They cooperated with local rulers and interfered as little as possible in matters that did not directly relate to their rule. They respected local traditions and even adopted some of their subjects’ religious practices for themselves.

A Kinder, Gentler Kingdom

Rather than destroy local economies for their own selfish gain, the Persians worked to increase trade throughout their kingdom. They standardized weights, developed official coinage, and implemented universal laws.

The Persian leaders required cooperation and imposed a 20 percent tax on all agriculture and manufacturing. They also taxed religious institutions, which despite their wealth had previously not been taxed.

The Persians themselves paid no taxes.

The Persian kings — especially Cyrus and, later, Darius I (522-486 B.C.E.) — developed a model for the administration of a large empire that was copied by others in the future. Laws were carried out fairly and evenly among all of the various subject peoples.

The Persians divided their empire into 20 provinces that were managed by governors. In addition, they provided land to feudal lords in exchange for loyalty and guarantees of soldiers for the Persian army. Most of the people in the empire, including average Persians, simply remained struggling farmers or craftspeople.

Cyrus built the foundations of a courier, or mail, system. Darius I built a communication network that connected most of the empire. A 1,600-mile-long royal road was built from Sardis to Susa, one of the administrative capitals. Along this road, were numerous places for lodging, where royal couriers could obtain fresh horses and supplies.


A Bedouin man on a camel wears clothing that shields him from the heat of the hot desert sun.

Thus Spake Zarathustra

The Persians also developed a religion based on monotheism, the belief in one god. It was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, called Zarathustra in old Iranian. Many of his ideas were collected in a series of poems called the Gathas, which became part of the religion’s most sacred book, the Avesta.

Zoroaster believed that people were training for a future life. He taught that the earthly world was torn by a constant struggle between good and evil. Humans would have to choose between the two in preparation for a final judgment when good would triumph over evil. When this happened, all earthly existence would disappear. The Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, embodied goodness and wisdom. Some religious scholars believe that Zoroaster’s ideas strongly influenced on the development of the Hebrew and Christian religions.

Despite the Persians’ effective and conciliatory leadership, their empire did not last. Under King Xerxes in 480 B.C.E., the Persians made an attempt to expand their empire into Greece. The Greek city-states cooperated and held off the Persian threat and even succeeded in almost obliterating the Persian navy.

When Alexander the Great rose to power in 331 B.C.E., he put an end to Persian dreams of expanding their empire. Only in his early twenties, Alexander had no equal as a military strategist. He swept through the ancient world, conquering all of the Persian Empire.

Phoenecians:  Sailing Away

Phoenician alphabet

The Phoenicians used cuneiform but later developed their own alphabet.

A-B-C-D-E-F-G …

This famous sequence of letters known to much of the world dates back to the 16th century B.C.E.

A fairly small group of traders and merchants known as the Phoenicians created the foundation for the modern English alphabet and other alphabets. They organized a system of 22 consonants into what became the alphabet used not only by English speakers, but by speakers of many of the world’s languages.

The Phoenicians lived along the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon. They inhabited a number of different city-states, the most famous of which were Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon. These Phoenician places were often in conflict with each other for domination of the region. Because of this lack of cooperation, the Phoenicians were conquered and forced to pay tribute to the virtually every empire in the region, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks.

Alphabet Soup

When the Phoenicians created their new alphabet, they worked from symbols that were already in use among the Semitic-speaking peoples of Canaan and Mesopotamia. As early as 3000 B.C.E., the Sumerians and the Egyptians had already invented writing systems based on symbols. These early scripts were primarily used by merchants and traders to record contracts, receipts, and lists of goods.

The merchants and traders of Phoenicia wanted something that would not be too difficult to learn and would be quick and easy to use. Unfortunately, both the Egyptian and Sumerian writing systems did not meet these criteria very well. They used hundreds of different complex symbols to represent ideas (ideograms) and syllabic sounds (phonograms).

The Phoenicians realized that most words were made up of only a small number of simple sounds. They found that these sounds could be represented in only 22 symbols and their various combinations. In their newly created alphabet, the Phoenicians used symbols or letters only for consonants, although their spoken language did contain vowel sounds. The modern Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, which were directly influenced by the Phoenician one, still do not contain symbols for vowels.

The Phoenician "Empire"

From Ugaret to Malaga to Hadrumet, the trade-savvy Phoenicians influenced nearly every town along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Phoenicians spread their alphabet through their vast trading network that stretched throughout the entire Mediterranean region. The Greeks adopted it and by the 8th century B.C.E. had added vowels. Later, the Romans also used a version of this same alphabet that is virtually identical to the one used today in the English-speaking world.

Trading on the High Seas

The Phoenicians were the greatest traders in the ancient world for the period between 1000 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E. These were highly skilled shipbuilders and sailors built strong and fast sailing vessels to carry their goods. They learned how to navigate and how to use the North Star to sail at night. It is possible that they even sailed as far as Britain and around the southern tip of Africa.

To fight off pirates who often harassed trading ships, the Phoenicians designed special warships to accompany their trading fleets. Oarsmen would propel a sharp ramming device at the front of the boat into an enemy’s vessel, putting a hole into it that would cause it to sink.

To expand in trading, the Phoenicians also built outposts that later became great cities in their own right. The most famous of these outposts was Carthage (located in modern-day Tunisia). Carthage eventually became wealthy and powerful enough to challenge the Roman Republic.

Phoenician merchants acted as middlemen for their neighbors. They transported linen and papyrus from Egypt, copper from Cyprus, embroidered cloth from Mesopotamia, spices from Arabia, and ivory, gold, and slaves from Africa to destinations throughout the Mediterranean.

Phoenician trade ship

Given their location on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it was natural for the Phoenicians to take to water. They are known as superlative ship builders of the ancient world.

The Phoenicians also had valuable resources and highly skilled artisans. From a small shellfish called the murex they produced a brilliant purple dye. This dye was applied to woolen garments, which were highly prized not only for their beauty, but also for their high cost. It took 60,000 murex to produce one pound of dye. The dye became known as royal purple and was worn by Roman emperors.

Skilled artists also produced beautiful glass, pottery, textiles, woodwork, and metalwork, that were desired by people all over the ancient world. King Solomon of Israel even used Phoenician artisans and resources to build the great Hebrew Temple to Yahweh.

By 572 B.C.E., the Phoenicians fell under the harsh rule of the Assyrians. They continued to trade, but encountered tough competition from Greece over trade routes. As the 4th century B.C.E. approached, the Phoenicians’ two most important cities, Sidon and Tyre, were destroyed by the Persians and Alexander the Great. Many Phoenicians left the Mediterranean coast for their trading colonies, and Phoenicia people and ideas were soon assimilated into other cultures.

Hebrews and the Land of Milk and Honey

Abraham and Jacob, his grandson

Abraham is regarded by Jews as the founder of the Hebrew people. The twelve tribes of Israel were direct descendants of Abraham.

Empires rose and empires fell. The Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians accumulated immense wealth and power that allowed them to build capital cities of striking beauty.

But their cities and palaces eventually fell into decay and were covered by thousands of years of sand and dust.

One of their relatively powerless contemporary groups outlived those great empires. These people were the Hebrews, known also as Israelites or, later, Jews.

Their early contribution to humankind was not wealthy empires or groundbreaking technology. Rather, it was the revolutionary idea that there was only one god, a belief known as monotheism. This one Hebrew god was called Yahweh. To the Hebrews, Yahweh was all powerful and all knowing, yet beyond human understanding. The religion based around this god influenced the founding of Christianity and Islam.

Abraham and the Torah

Ancient Israel divided

In the years after David and Solomon ruled, the kingdom of the Hebrews was divided into two separate lands, Israel and Judah.

The history of the early Hebrews is known primarily from one of their sacred texts, the Torah, which comprises the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible. According to the Torah, Abraham is the ancestral patriarch of the Hebrew people.

Abraham was born in the Sumerian city of Ur. After Abraham’s father died, Yahweh visited Abraham and instructed him to smash the idols of his father’s gods, to worship the one and only true god, Yahweh, and to move his family to Canaan. Yahweh promised Abraham that if he followed these laws, he would found a great nation that would live in a land flowing with milk and honey.

This land, known as Canaan in ancient times, is roughly located in the same place as modern-day Israel.

Abraham’s migration took place some time between 2000 B.C.E. and 1700 B.C.E. It occurred at a time when the Canaanites lived in relatively small, independently governed, walled cities. They were accustomed to outsiders coming into their territory. The Hebrews, who were nomadic herders, were tolerated by the Canaanites.

The land that Abraham and his followers found did not flow so easily with milk and honey. The dry climate and rough environment required considerable effort to survive. Drought forced Abraham and his family to move to Egypt.

The Twelve Tribes

The Torah tells how Abraham had two sons: Isaac by his wife Sarah, and Ishmael by his concubine Hagar. The Hebrews trace their heritage through Isaac. Isaac had a son Jacob, who in turn had 12 sons. These sons became the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob’s most beloved son, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. While in captivity, Joseph rose to be the Egyptian pharaoh’s chief minister of the land.


Jewish hikers lie down in this ancient tomb. The tomb was originally used to hold more than a single body, but over the centuries the roof caved in and exposed the burial place.

When a severe drought plagued Canaan, his same brothers came to Egypt, begging for grain. Ignoring their past mistreatment of him, Joseph gave them grain and convinced them to stay in Egypt.

There, the Hebrews prospered and became a great nation. They became so numerous, that a pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” enslaved the Hebrews. This pharaoh is believed to be Ramses II (1290-1224 B.C.E.)

The Exodus to Canaan

The Torah then recounts the story of Moses, who led the Hebrews out of Egypt and slavery. This event, known as the Exodus, most likely occurred during the reign of the pharaoh Merneptah, between 1224 and 1211 B.C.E. Archaeologists have found an Egyptian document written on papyrus from this time period that describes Jews being forced to leave, further authenticating this story. After what the Hebrews believed were a series of acts by Yahweh on their behalf, including various plagues on the Egyptians and their crops and livestock, Moses led his people out of Egypt. The Egyptian Exodus lasted approximately from 1600 to 1200 B.C.E.

Jewish boys

Even in the modern world, Jewish children still learn to read the Torah according to ancient tradition. The Yemeni Jews here are practicing the Hebrew that they have learned from the village mari, or teacher.

According to the Old Testament, the Hebrews wandered in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula (which is between Egypt and Canaan) for 40 years. Moses received the Ten Commandments during this time, which outlined some basic laws governing behavior. He also struggled to keep his people from worshiping gods other than Yahweh. Moses died before he could enter Canaan.

Joshua led the Hebrews back into Canaan, where they settled among the Canaanites and the Philistines. The Old Testament tells of Joshua’s victorious battles against these people. Archaeologists have found that a number of towns were destroyed around this time. But, they do not agree as to whether such destruction was the work of the Hebrews or others. Over time, the Hebrews began to learn the ways of the Canaanites and settled down to a life of farming and herding.

In 722 B.C.E., the northern half of Hebrew lands known as Israel was invaded and mostly destroyed by the Assyrians. The southern half, known as Judea, survived until around 597 B.C.E., when the Babylonians defeated the Judeans and carried most of them back as captives to Babylon.

[NOTE:  Jewish scholars themselves agree that there is no evidence of such an “Exodus” and that it was likely only a story told for religious purposes.  The Exodus is not historically or archaeologically validated – the captivity and Exile is.]

During their captivity in Babylon, Hebrew scribes recorded the history of their people and their relationship with their god Yahweh. After 539 B.C.E., the Persians under Cyrus II conquered Babylon. He allowed the Hebrews to return to their holy city of Jerusalem. But, the Hebrews continued to fall under the domination of other empires. In 70 C.E., the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and sent most of the Jews into an exile that lasted until the 20th century.

Birth of Christianity

The Last Supper

Despite the fact that no record exists of Jesus’ physical appearance, many paintings — all created after his death — depict his face. Here, Jesus (center) presides over the Last Supper.

Crucifixions were common in the Roman Empire. They were so common that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was noticed only by a small group of dedicated followers.

To understand the life and death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, one must understand the context of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a Jew, as were almost all of his early followers. By 30 C.E., Rome’s empire had expanded to cover virtually all of the lands adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, including the land occupied by the Hebrews.

The Romans had no tolerance for sedition or rebellion against their government. But the Jews had a religious reason for resisting Roman control. The Romans expected the Jews to worship the emperor as a god. But the Jews’ religion commanded them to worship only one god: Yahweh. Their refusal to worship any of the Roman emperors, infuriated those rulers. The emperors were used to getting their way, and they did not take the Jewish resistance lightly.

In 26 B.C.E., the Romans established direct rule over the Jews. They appointed Pontius Pilate as governor of the territory in that year. Pontius Pilate had little tolerance for Jewish traditions. More than once, he pushed the Jews to the brink of revolt by violating their religious beliefs in their holy city of Jerusalem. He even took money from their holy temple’s treasury to build an aqueduct. This action led to a suppressed rebellion that resulted in many Jewish deaths.

According to Hebrew texts, it was believed that humans’ time on earth was temporary. It was to be replaced by God’s triumph over all human sins and the establishment of God’s everlasting kingdom. They believed that this apocalypse, or end to the earthly world, would be brought about by a messiah. Many Jews were awaiting this messiah to deliver them from Roman rule and their earthly burdens. For some, this messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus of Nazareth


Jesus’ death came at the hands of a grisly ancient method of execution known as crucifixion. During a crucifixion, the sentenced is nailed and/or tied to a cross made of wood. This diagram shows a man tied at the arms with metal spikes through his ankles.

Jesus [one of many “Messianic” figures] began to teach in the Jewish tradition. He preached love and tolerance, and he was also believed by followers to have performed miracles of healing the sick, walking on water, and even raising the dead.

Jesus claimed that the kingdom of Yahweh would never be realized on earth, but in a life after death. Jesus taught to love even enemies, because in light of the coming kingdom of God, there was no reason for hatred. A small group of disciples believed he was the promised messiah who would bring an end to Roman rule.

Jesus’ ideas were rejected by most of the Jews in Galilee, an area in northern Israel, where he first preached his ideas. Many Jews believed that Jesus was a troublemaker who was violating Yahweh’s sacredness. He chose to go to Jerusalem to spread his word some time between 30 and 33 C.E.

St. Paul

For much of his life, Paul was known as “Saul” and was a dedicated persecutor of Christians. But following his conversion to Christianity, he began extensive traveling and preaching.

Gaining followers in Jerusalem was not easy for Jesus. Not all Jews saw their religion or their relationship with the Romans in the same way. In fact, some of the high priests of the Jewish Temple supported the Romans. The high priest was appointed by Pontius Pilate to control Jewish affairs and to keep the Jewish population in line. It is argued by some historians that the priests received wealth and power for their cooperation with the Romans.

Jesus decided to target these priests and their control of the Temple of Yahweh. It is believed that he saw them obstructing the conversion of the Jewish populace to his ideas. He coordinated an attack on the trading activities of the Temple, which were a great source of wealth to the priests.

At the very least, this gave the Roman authorities the excuse they needed to arrest Jesus for sedition. On the night of the Passover Seder, known to Christians as the Last Supper, Jesus was arrested. Jesus had been hiding, and Judas of Iscariot, one of his disciples, told Roman authorities where he would be.

Crucifixion and the Growth of Christianity

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, who was uncertain how to proceed. Jesus’ disciples were only a small minority, and the crowds demanded crucifixion. Pilate condemned Jesus to death. He was beaten and crucified.

Three days after his death, Jesus’ tomb was found empty. For the next 40 days, his disciples claim that they saw visions of Jesus having risen from the dead in the tradition of Moses and other great Jewish prophets. The resurrection story is central to the Christian beliefs of the divinity of Jesus and life after death.

Most Jews rejected the notion of Jesus as their messiah. In the years that followed Jesus’ death, the Romans treated the early Christians as a small, Jewish sect. This all changed with Paul of Tarsus.

Paul began to spread Christian ideas more to non-Jews. Many of the poor, destitute people in the region took solace in the notions of a loving god and a life after death. The Romans persecuted these Christians who rejected Roman polytheism. But Paul traveled far and wide, and his successors did a remarkable job reaching converts. After almost four centuries of existing on the margins, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 395 C.E.

Muhammad and the Faith of Islam

The Messenger of Allah

This verse from the Qur’an, originally written in Arabic, translates “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” (Qur’an 48:29) / Courtesy of the Muslim Students Association, University of Southern California

A man meditating alone in a cave near Mecca received a religious vision. This vision laid the foundations for a new religion. The year was 610 and the man’s name was Muhammad.

And the belief system that arose from Muhammad’s ideas became the basis of one of the world’s most widely practiced religions: Islam.

Muhammad was born around 570 in the city of Mecca, located on the Arabian Peninsula. Both of his parents died before Muhammad was six and he was raised by his grandfather and uncle. His family belonged to a poor clan that was active in Mecca politics.

Following the traditions of wealthy families, he spent part of his childhood living with a Bedouin family. Bedouins led fairly isolated lives as nomadic herders in the harsh Arabian desert. Muhammad’s experiences among these people most likely had a strong influence on the development of Islam.

In his twenties, Muhammad began working as a merchant and soon married his employer, a rich woman named Khadijah. Over the next 20 years he became a wealthy and respected trader, traveling throughout the Middle East. He and his wife had six children — two boys (who did not live into adulthood) and four girls. By the time he was 40, he began having religious visions that would change his life.

A Revelation of Faith

The prophet Mohammad's mosque in Madina

This is prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.

While meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, Muhammad had a revelation. He came to believe that he was called on by God to be a prophet and teacher of a new faith, Islam, which means literally “submission.”

This new faith incorporated aspects of Judaism and Christianity. It respected the holy books of these religions and its great leaders and prophets — Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Muhammad called Abraham “Khalil” (“God’s friend”) and identified him as Islam’s ancient patriarch. Islam traces its heritage through Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Muhammad believed that he himself was God’s final prophet.

Central to Islamic beliefs are the Five Pillars of Faith, which all followers of Islam — called Muslims — must follow::

  • There is only one universal God: Allah.
  • Followers of Islam (Muslims) are expected to pray five times each day while facing Mecca.
  • All Muslims are expected to pay a yearly tax that is mostly intended to help the poor and needy.
  • For the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims must not eat, smoke, drink, or have sexual relations from sunrise to sunset.
  • All able Muslims must make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes.

The Kaaba

Mecca houses Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, which was believed to have been built for Yahweh by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
Islam by 661 C.E.
Islam spread at almost Internet-like speed, encompassing much of the former territories of the ancient Near East, North Africa, and Spain.

Muhammad’s message was especially well received by the poor and slaves. But many people were opposed to his message. This opposition only seemed to make him more determined. After years of publicly promoting his ideas, he became so disliked that some began plotting his murder.

From Mecca to Medina and Back

In 622, fearing for his life, Muhammad fled to the town of Medina. This flight from Mecca to Medina became known as the Hegira, Arabic for “flight.” The Muslim calendar begins on this year.

In Medina, the local people welcomed Muhammad and his followers. There, Muhammad built the first mosque, or Islamic temple, and began to work to separate Islam from Judaism and Christianity, which had originally influenced him.

Whereas his followers had originally prayed while facing toward Jerusalem, he now had them face toward Mecca. Muhammad continued to have revelations from Allah. The ideas from these revelations formed the basis of a poetic text called the Koran, which contains the fundamental ideas of Islam.

Muhammad fought a number of battles against the people of Mecca. In 629, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army of 1500 converts to Islam and entered the city unopposed and without bloodshed. Before his death two years later, he forcefully converted most of the Arabian Peninsula to his new faith and built a small empire.