History of the Ancient Middle East


Overall Timeline

Timeline of the Middle East
3500-2000 BC 2000-1000 BC 1000 BC-0 0-1000 1000-present
1 3 4 5 8 9
2 6 7
1 Mesopotamian civilization ca. 3500-550 BC
2 Egyptian civilization ca. 3000-550 BC
3 First Persian Empire ca. 550-330 BC
4 inter-Persian period ca. 330 BC-200 AD
5 Second Persian Empire ca. 200-650
6 Ptolemaic Egypt ca. 330 BC-0
7 Roman > Byzantine Egypt ca. 0-650
8 Caliphate ca. 650-900
9 fractured Islamic world ca. 900-present


The term Middle East typically denotes Southwest and Central Asia; often, North Africa is included as well. The predominant ecosystems of the Middle East are desert and dry grassland (see Climates and Biomes).

Regions of the Middle East

Southwest Asia can be divided into six parts: Asia Minor (the Asian part of Turkey), South Caucasia (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), Iraq, Iran, Arabia, and the Levant (the region covered by Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan). North Africa can be divided into Egypt and the Maghreb (the Mediterranean African nations west of Egypt).

Sub-regions of Southwest Asia and North Africa

The term Caucasia denotes the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It can be divided into North Caucasia (which lies in Russia) and South Caucasia (which consists of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). The region of Caucasia is also known as "the Caucasus".

The historic region of Mesopotamia is roughly equivalent to modern Iraq. Palestine encompasses the region of modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Palestine is sometimes referred to as Canaan or "the Holy Land".


Throughout Essential Humanities, the term Central Asia denotes all of the -stan nations except Pakistan (which is grouped with South Asia). One key region of Central Asia is northern Kazakhstan, whose climate is relatively wet (compared with most of the Middle East), giving rise to vast plains of wet grassland. Indeed, northern Kazakhstan forms part of the vast Eurasian Steppe, whose endless grassland set the region on a unique historical path (see History of the Steppe).

Central Asia

Main Article

The Rise of Cities

The birth of civilization has been traced to southern Mesopotamia (i.e. southern Iraq), where settlements of the Sumerian culture grew into the world's first cities ca. 3500 BC. (In reference to this culture, the southern half of Mesopotamia is sometimes called "Sumer" or "Sumeria".)

An important factor in Mesopotamia's growth was the presence of two mighty rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Indeed, all four of the world's earliest civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China) emerged alongside great rivers. In addition to water, fishing, and transportation, rivers provided these elder civilizations with rich agricultural land.

Rivers are formed when rainwater flows down from regions of high elevation. Over millions of years, a river will carve a valley out of the land it traverses; such a valley is called a river valley. (The other main types are "glacial valleys", formed by sliding glaciers, and "rift valleys", formed by shifting tectonic plates.) The first part of a river typically lies high in mountainous terrain, where the water flows rapidly downward in a relatively narrow channel.

Upon leaving the mountains, a river slows down and widens as it passes through flatter, lower-elevation land. This land is prone to flooding by the river in times of exceptional rainfall. Since flooding deposits nutrient-rich mud, oft-flooded land (known as floodplains) makes excellent farmland.

The most recent glacial period drew to an end ca. 10,000 BC. As the global climate subsequently warmed, Southwest Asia witnessed the development of agricultural life (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages). Within a few millennia, the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates were dotted with farming settlements.

Naturally, as these communities grew, so did their demand for food and goods; in response, efforts were made to expand food production (e.g. by developing more efficient farming techniques, or increasing farmland via canal irrigation) and availability of goods (e.g. by expanding domestic manufacturing, or extending trade links with neighbours). These efforts compelled an enormous variety of innovations, the most fundamental of which included writing, mathematics, and smelting. Thus did civilization emerge, as the needs and wants of humanity fuelled constant growth and innovation.

Agriculture is the foundation of all civilization, thanks to the large food surplus it provides. With food production well above subsistence level, a portion of society was finally free to specialize in forms of labour other than agriculture (e.g. trade, scholarship, manufacturing). Surplus food also enabled a tall political and economic hierarchy. In a hunter-gatherer band, there is relatively little distance between members in terms of wealth and power; with the rise of civilization, society became sharply divided into classes, with most of the land, wealth, and power concentrated in the hands of a small elite.

This elite upper class typically consisted of a monarch (at the top) and high-ranking nobles, priests, and officials. The middle class of the traditional social hierarchy was occupied by merchants and tradesmen, as well as the lower ranks of nobility, clergy, and officials. The lower class of the pyramid (which was often largely enslaved) consisted mainly of agricultural workers (the majority population of all pre-industrial societies), as well as servants and other labourers.K44-45


ca. 3500-550 BC

The world's first cities, which emerged among the Sumerian culture of southern Mesopotamia, were city-states. In historical discussion, the term "state" denotes an independent political power, making it synonymous with the modern term "country"; a city-state is a country that consists of a single city. (In addition to the city itself, the territory of a city-state typically included considerable surrounding lands.) The modern world features only three city-states: Singapore, Monaco, and Vatican City.


Within a city-state, power was generally centralized in the hands of a monarch and small elite groups. Eventually, an even greater centralization of power was achieved, when monarchs extended their rule over multiple cities. When this happened, the cities in question ceased to be city-states, for they now belonged to a multi-city state. In historical discussion, such states are typically called kingdoms or empires.

The Sumerian cities remained city-states throughout the age of Sumerian city-states, which began ca. 3500 BC and lasted over a thousand years. This age was terminated by Mesopotamia's first empire, the Akkadian Empire. The Akkadians (a culture of northern Mesopotamia) conquered most of Mesopotamia, thereby adding the Sumerian cities to their territory.

Akkadian Empire

The remainder of Mesopotamian history is a cycle of political disintegration (in which Mesopotamia crumbled into small local powers) and reintegration (in which the region was reunited by an empire).

Timeline of Mesopotamia
3500-2000 BC 2000-1000 BC 1000-550 BC
1* 2 1 3 1 4 1 5 6
1 politically fractured periods
(* age of Sumerian city-states)
2 Akkadian Empire
3 Neo-Sumerian Empire
4 Babylonian Empire
5 Neo-Assyrian Empire
6 Neo-Babylonian Empire
Summary of Mesopotamian History
ca. 3500-2000 BC age of Sumerian city-states > Akkadian Empire > Neo-Sumerian Empire
ca. 2000-1000 BC Babylonian Empire
ca. 1000-550 BC Neo-Assyrian Empire > Neo-Babylonian Empire

Note that in the above table, empires are cited while the periods of disunity that lie between them are not. This is arguably the best approach for the amateur historian, as it minimizes the number of items to be memorized. One can "fill in the blanks" simply by remembering that periods of disunity (of varying lengths) are often found between periods of unity.

As illustrated above, Mesopotamian history features five great empires. In three cases, an exceptional early ruler is known as the "founder" of the empire.

Great Mesopotamian Empires
empire capital(s) founder
Akkadian Empire Akkad Sargon
Neo-Sumerian Empire Ur
Babylonian Empire Babylon Hammurabi
Neo-Assyrian Empire Ashur, Nineveh
Neo-Babylonian Empire Babylon Nebuchadnezzar
Neo-Sumerian Empire
Babylonian Empire
Neo-Assyrian Empire
Neo-Babylonian Empire

The Akkadian Empire was succeeded (following a period of disunity) by the Neo-Sumerian Empire, ruled by the Sumerian city of Ur.A47 (The term "Neo-Sumerian" refers to the revival of Sumerian dominance over Mesopotamia by this empire.) This empire was in turn succeeded by the Babylonian Empire, Neo-Assyrian Empire, and Neo-Babylonian Empire. (The term "Neo-Assyrian" reflects the existence of an earlier Assyrian Empire. This earlier empire does not appear on the list above, however, as it did not grow large enough to dominate Mesopotamia.)

The history of Mesopotamian civilization was thus quite turbulent. Nonetheless, a distinct Mesopotamian culture was maintained throughout the period ca. 3500-550 BC. The core material of this culture was provided by the Sumerians, who may be described as the mother culture of Mesopotamia.7

A "mother culture" provides a cultural foundation for all the cultures of a given region. Sumerian culture, for instance, included worship of a sun god, cuneiform writing, a distinctive style of sculpture, and ziggurat construction (see Mesopotamian Art).2 All of these features were adopted by subsequent Mesopotamian peoples (e.g. Akkadians, Babylonians), causing them to be culturally similar; one may therefore describe all Mesopotamian peoples as belonging to an overarching Mesopotamian culture. (A modern equivalent would be to recognize that all of England shares an overarching "English culture", even though the country can be divided into many distinct regional cultures.)

Finally, it should be noted that while Mesopotamian empires were usually the dominant powers of Southwest Asia during the period ca. 3500-550 BC, they were surrounded by a variety of neighbours. These neighbours are sometimes called peripheral cultures, since they were located around the periphery of Mesopotamia, and were generally subject to Mesopotamian political and cultural dominance; they included the Hurrians (northern Mesopotamia), Hittites (Asia Minor), Lydians (Asia Minor), Elamites (Iran), and Medians (Iran). (A few peripheral cultures, such as the Hittites and Medians, did amass states comparable in size and power to the Mesopotamian empires.)

Ancient Egypt

ca. 3000-550 BC

The birth of Egyptian civilization is usually placed at ca. 3000 BC, when all of ancient Egypt was united as a single state. As noted in the addendum to this article, Essential Humanities considers a culture to be a civilization if it features at least one settlement with a population over ten thousand. The first Egyptian settlement to achieve this condition was Memphis, but exactly when is unclear: some sources claim ca. 3000 BC, while others cite a date of centuries later.50

Like Mesopotamia, Egypt is almost entirely desert, relieved only by the presence of rich floodplains (along the Nile). Yet despite this physical similarity, Egyptian history turned out very differently. For one thing, urbanization was much weaker than in Mesopotamia; only a few Egyptian settlements grew into cities, while most of the population remained scattered across agricultural land.49

Ancient Egypt also enjoyed far greater political stability than Mesopotamia. The Egyptian state that formed ca. 3000 BC lasted for some two millennia, with only two (relatively brief) interruptions. An important factor in Egyptian stability was the regularity of the Nile, which flooded at the same time every year; the rivers of Mesopotamia, on the other hand, were unpredictable and subject to disastrous surprise floods, which destroyed crops and homes. Another factor was geographic isolation: while Mesopotamia was highly exposed to invaders, ancient Egypt was protected by mountains (which rise above both sides of the Nile River Valley) and the Sahara Desert.A50-52,G44

Timeline of Ancient Egypt
3000-2000 BC 2000-1000 BC 1000-550 BC
1 2 3* 4 3** 5 3
1 Early Dynastic period
2 Old Kingdom
3 periods of disunity/foreign domination
(* First Intermediate, ** Second Intermediate)
4 Middle Kingdom
5 New Kingdom
Summary of Ancient Egyptian History
ca. 3000-2000 BC Early Dynastic period > Old Kingdom
ca. 2000-1000 BC Middle Kingdom > New Kingdom
ca. 1000-550 BC decline

The great age of ancient Egypt can be divided into four parts: Early Dynastic, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom. During each of these periods, Egypt thrived as a unified state. This unity was interrupted only by the two "intermediate periods" noted on the above timeline.

The Early Dynastic period was the formative age of ancient Egypt. In other words, it was during this period that Egypt experienced the growth and development (political, economic, cultural) that ultimately produced mature Egyptian civilization. Having matured, this civilization proceeded to flourish throughout the three Kingdom periods.

During the Old Kingdom period, the pharaohs exercised strong centralized rule over the Egyptian state. This was the great age of pyramid-building, including the three main pyramids at Giza (see Egyptian Art). The Egyptian capital throughout the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods was usually Memphis, which lay in northern Egypt (near modern Cairo).4

Old Kingdom Egypt
Middle Kingdom Egypt
New Kingdom Egypt

The Old Kingdom collapsed into a century of chaos and civil war known as the First Intermediate period. When order was restored, pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom were unable to re-establish rigid centralized rule, and consequently were forced to tolerate strong regional princes. The Egyptian capital throughout the Middle and New Kingdoms was usually Thebes, which lay in southern Egypt.6,15

The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasion of the Hyksos (a Levant people), who temporarily ruled part of Egypt and sent the nation into a second period of disorder (the Second Intermediate period). The Hyksos were eventually expelled, allowing unity to be restored for the New Kingdom period, during which the pharaoh once again enjoyed strong centralized rule. The New Kingdom period witnessed the peak of Egyptian power, territory, and wealth.6,15

The New Kingdom concluded the great age of ancient Egypt. During the period ca. 1000-550 BC, which may be termed the age of Egyptian decline, Egyptian power faded and foreign powers (first Nubia, then the Neo-Assyrian Empire) temporarily seized control of the country.6 Egypt was then conquered by the Persian Empire ca. 550 BC, which essentially terminated the age of independent ancient Egyptian civilization.

Phoenicia and Israel

The age of Egyptian decline (ca. 1000-550 BC) may also be called the Phoenician-Jewish age, since this period encompassed the peak of both Phoenician and Jewish civilization. This was no coincidence. The empire of New Kingdom Egypt had included the Levant region, where both the Phoenicians and Jews dwelt; the decline of Egypt thus opened the way for these smaller civilizations to flower. (As one would expect, the Phoenician and Jewish cultures were both strongly influenced by their superpower neighbours, Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

The Phoenicians, whose land of Phoenicia corresponds roughly with modern Lebanon, were legendary sailors who had already come to dominate Mediterranean trade by ca. 1000 BC. The principle cities of Phoenicia were Tyre and Sidon. During the Phoenician-Jewish age, the Phoenicians established many colonies along the shores of the western Mediterranean, some of which grew into wealthy trade cities.

Phoenician Colonies
Carthaginian Empire

The great age of Phoenicia drew to a close when the Levant was conquered by the Persian Empire.13 Yet Phoenician power lived on in the form of the Carthaginian Empire, ruled from the city of Carthage (in what is now Tunisia), the most successful Phoenician colony. The Carthaginian Empire dominated the western Mediterranean until its destruction by the Roman Republic.

Meanwhile, the great age of Jewish civilization began with the emergence of the kingdom of Israel, ca. 1000 BC. This kingdom spanned much of the region of Palestine, where the Jews had settled over the preceding centuries. Prior to settling down, the Jews were a nomadic herding people; Jewish scripture traces their origins to Mesopotamia.A93

The capital of Israel was Jerusalem, which lies toward the centre of Palestine. The kingdom lasted for roughly a century and featured three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. After Solomon, the Jewish state split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah; Jerusalem remained the capital of the latter.

United Israel
Divided Israel

In this two-kingdom form, independent Jewish civilization continued to flourish for several centuries, until Palestine was finally conquered by Mesopotamia (and soon thereafter by Persia). Under the Mesopotamians and subsequent ruling cultures, Jews were often severely persecuted. Many were exiled to distant lands, while others emigrated voluntarily in order to escape oppression.11


ca. 550 BC-650 AD

The term Persia is sometimes used as a synonym for "Iran"; thus, one could speak of events in ancient Persia or 21st-century Persia. The term is also used more specifically, however, to denote pre-Islamic Iran. This second definition, which covers the history of Iran up until ca. 650, is used throughout Essential Humanities. (Historic Persia covered a region somewhat larger than modern Iran.)

Persian is a language, and "Persians" are the people who spoke this language. The Persians arrived in Iran during the centuries leading up to the First Persian Empire. They had migrated all the way from the western Steppe, where they originated as a nomadic people (see Indo-European Languages).A99,K90-91

Timeline of the Middle East
3500-2000 BC 2000-1000 BC 1000 BC-0 0-1000 1000-present
1 3 4 5 8 9
2 6 7
1 Mesopotamian civilization ca. 3500-550 BC
2 Egyptian civilization ca. 3000-550 BC
3 First Persian Empire ca. 550-330 BC
4 inter-Persian period ca. 330 BC-200 AD
5 Second Persian Empire ca. 200-650
6 Ptolemaic Egypt ca. 330-27 BC
7 Roman > Byzantine Egypt ca. 27 BC-650 AD
8 Caliphate ca. 650-900
9 fractured Islamic world ca. 900-present
Summary of Persian History
ca. 550-330 BC First Persian Empire (dominant power of Southwest Asia and Egypt)
ca. 330 BC-200 AD inter-Persian period (Southwest Asia dominated by Seleucid Empire, then Parthian Empire)
ca. 200-650 Second Persian Empire (dominant power of Southwest Asia)

The First Persian Empire (aka Achaemenid Empire), founded by Cyrus the Great ca. 550 BC, swiftly became the dominant power of Southwest Asia and Egypt.4 It was the largest empire the world had yet seen. The Persians were remarkable for their (relative) religious and cultural tolerance, as well as their policy of leaving existing local governments intact.A99

First Persian Empire

The First Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander, who (ca. 330 BC) assembled a vast empire stretching from Macedonia to Pakistan. When Alexander died, his empire fractured under the rule of his generals; the resulting splinter states are known as the Diadochi kingdoms. Mightiest of these kingdoms were the Seleucid Empire (which dominated Southwest Asia) and the Ptolemaic Empire (which ruled Egypt).2

Seleucid Empire
Ptolemaic Empire
Parthian Empire

Egypt and the coast of North Africa were then swallowed up by the Romans. Control of Southwest Asia passed from the Seleucids to the Parthian Empire, then to the Second Persian Empire (aka Sassanid Empire).2 While the Parthian Empire restored native rule to Iran (the Parthians were a people of northern Iran), it was decentralized and fragile compared to the First Persian Empire. This was not true of the Second Persian Empire, which was similar to the First in both extent and might.

Second Persian Empire

Parthian and Persian are both Iranian languages. While Parthian faded away after the fall of the Parthian Empire, Persian remains the predominant language of Iran and southern Central Asia; for even though Persia was forcibly added to the Islamic world, much of Persian culture survived. Indeed, Persian and Islamic culture blended to form a distinct branch of Islamic civilization, known as Persianate civilization.

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