To the modern observer, the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations likely seem very similar. Both had cities, writing, codes of laws, a relatively high standard of living, art, music, religion, literature, meticulous record-keeping and a fairly similar climate. However, they differed in important ways, especially in terms of religion, politics, culture, art and architecture.
Differences in Religion
Both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were polytheistic, and in both religions, priests played a crucial role, but the two differed in key ways.
The approximately 700 gods of ancient Egypt were often personifications of natural forces, such as the sun and the Nile. One important characteristic of ancient Egyptian religion was the Egyptians' veneration of the pharaohs as reincarnated gods. The Egyptians are also famous for their elaborate view of the afterlife.
One major difference between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions was the "local" or regional quality of the latter; early on in Mesopotamia, specific deities came to be identified with specific locations. Another distinction was the hierarchical division of Mesopotamian deities, with four gods--those of heaven, earth, water and air-- being the highest creative powers from which all lesser gods derived.
Ancient Egypt had a highly centralized government. Its efficient bureaucracy and the pharaohs' exalted position meant that rulers wielded great power over the entire country.
The governments of ancient Mesopotamia, in contrast, were more regional in character, with each city having its own government, and they included elements of what we would call democracy. Kings (of city-states) arose as the civilization developed, but elected assemblies had important powers, too, even over the kings. The Mesopotamians also held the law, and "covenants" or contracts, in high regard, as we know from the famous Code of Hammurabi, among other sources.
The cultures of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were both quite similar and very different; both were predominantly agricultural societies dependent upon rivers--the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia. And in both, the vast majority of people were engaged in agriculture, but both also contained sophisticated urbanites, bureaucracies and educated and artistic classes and traded with other civilizations, .
The distinctive characteristics of Egyptian culture were a love of stability and order and a certain optimism or confidence, which many scholars attribute to the reliability of the Nile's annual cycle. The centrality of religion in the Egyptian worldview and the development of elaborate hieroglyphic writing were also hallmarks of this civilization.
Life in the Mesopotamian city-states was generally more difficult and more uncertain, since for most of these city-states, the climate, the fluctuating relations with neighboring tribes and cities and the behavior of the rivers were less stable and predictable than in Egypt. Perhaps because of this, the ancient Mesopotamians surpassed the Egyptians in science, especially in technology and innovation. The ancient Mesopotamians' cuneiform alphabet was another important achievement of this civilization.
Differences in Art and Architecture
The famous architectural achievements of ancient Egypt reflect the highly centralized power, stability and bureaucratic efficiency of a country that could mobilize cheap labor in almost unlimited quantities. They were also made possible by the availability of stone in the region.
In addition to their magnificent stone architecture, the ancient Egyptians are known for their invention and use of paper, which they made from the papyrus reeds growing along the Nile. They also created a beautiful array of pottery and painting.
The comparatively scattered and diverse character of ancient Mesopotamia, and the relative paucity of natural resources, meant that Mesopotamia did not rival Egypt in terms of artistic and architectural achievements. Mesopotamian communities did produce sculpture, painting and pottery, but generally the art that has survived is smaller and less advanced than that produced in Egypt. Mesopotamia is known, instead, for its cuneiform tablets, its official seals and, above all, its temples. The distinctive beauty of the Mesopotamian ziggurat represents the highest artistic and architectural achievement of this civilization.
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