Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were two great civilizations and among the earliest to emerge, starting after 3000 B.C. in the Middle East and North Africa. Both made significant contributions in areas such as mathematics, medicine, agriculture, astronomy, technology, architecture, art and writing. They had differences as well, including their political structures, most notably that the Egyptians operated under a centralized government and the Mesopotamians had separate, self controlled city-state governments.
Ancient Egyptian Politics
Ancient Egyptians were ruled by a pharaoh for most of their history. A pharaoh was a king who was viewed as god-like and possessing magical powers. Many believed the pharaoh could make the waters of the Nile River rise when the land was threatened by drought conditions. Those governed under this centralized rule knelt before the pharaoh when he passed by and were banned from touching him or making eye contact. He owned most of the land, supervised armies, passed laws and oversaw trade. He ruled through a large bureaucracy and his highest ranking assistant was a vizier, who functioned in the manner of prime minster. When a pharaoh was pleased with someone enough to reward him, he did so with gifts of land, treasures and the title of nobleman. At his death, a pharaoh’s son stepped into his position and this is how great dynasties were born. Egyptian history records 30 dynasties.
Mesopotamia was comprised of self-governing city-states, with each one operating as separate political and economic units. Aristocracies emerged, most likely because of disputes over resources, and were made up of kings, their families and nobility. They owned the majority of land and controlled the highest ranking positions in both government and the military. Though the kings were not considered divine, they did overtake some of the power and authority of religious leaders. Priests, however, cooperated with their governments and owned some of the land and craft shops. Scribes came from noble families and were considered supreme among civil servants. This privileged order was the minority in Mesopotamia. Most of the citizens were considered free, but with rights of slaves, who had none. Peasants were among the free but could only rent land that belonged to the king or the temple, who required them to relinquish part of their harvests in order to use the property.
Role of Women
The women of ancient Egypt enjoyed more status, respect and opportunity than those of Mesopotamia did. This was demonstrated politically in that Egypt’s bureaucratic system allowed female pharaohs to rule. Respect shown to Egyptian women, at least to those belonging to the upper class, was influenced some by the desire to maintain and continue stable monarchies. Women in Mesopotamia were not granted the same respect and gender equality, and were viewed and treated as property.
There was less national unity under Mesopotamia’s government structure because city-states struggled with each other for power and control. By contrast, a single pharaoh of ancient Egypt could amass large numbers of citizens to work on projects, such as building the pyramids with architecture and engineering talents that continue to amaze modern day experts. Yet, despite conflicts amongst themselves and their governments, Mesopotamian citizens gave the world an abundance of advanced techniques, such as those used for working with gold, bronze, silver and lead. Mesopotamia is also credited with giving the world its first writing system.