Contact: Mesopotamia

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Contact: Mesopotamia


Controversy . The earliest-known literate civilizations in the ancient Near East arose in southern Mesopotamia and in the Nile valley. It has long been a matter of dispute as to whether these two centers of advanced culture were aware of each other and to what extent they may have been in contact.

Early Theories of “Eastern Invaders .” At the end of the nineteenth century c.e., Egyptologists discovered the first remains of Egyptian “Predynastic” culture, that which immediately preceded the rise of a unified, literate, Pharaonic state in Egypt. At first, the early archaeologists who discovered this stage were more impressed by the differences between Predynastic and Dynastic civilizations than by their similarities and did not see how the latter culture could have developed out of the earlier one. This conclusion convinced them that the Dynastic culture must have been suddenly imposed on Predynastic peoples by invaders, whom scholars termed the “dynastic race.” Since the only other center of advanced culture in existence was in Mesopotamia, it was thought that these people must have come from the east. The origins of this group were thought to be either

Sumeria (southern Mesopotamia, modern southern Iraq) or the areas immediately to its east (Elam, in what is now eastern Iraq and western Iran). This theory was bolstered by finds of individual objects that had come from Mesopotamia during the Predynastic Period, as well as certain artistic motifs that were found in Predynastic Egypt but that seemed more like Mesopotamian art than anything otherwise known in Egypt. This theory held that ancient Sumerians or Elamites must have sailed from southern Mesopotamia, around the Arabian Peninsula, and then north up the Red Sea to the vicinity of Mersa Gawasis, the port the later Egyptians used for launching their own Red Sea voyages. After hiking through the Wadi Hammamat, these eastern invaders would have reached the Nile, where they brought advanced civilization to the primitive Predynastic Egyptians.

A More Balanced View . This view, however, has fallen out of favor, in no small part because of the immense distances involved. It has been estimated that it might have taken primitive Sumerian seafarers up to two years to sail round-trip from Sumeria to Egypt. While it seems almost certain that there was some cultural contact between Egypt and Sumeria in the Predynastic Period, it is far more likely that this contact was indirect. Scholars know that Sumerian culture spread far to the north from its original heartland in southern Iraq and that there were Sumerian colonies in the areas now comprising northern Iraq and eastern Syria. At the same time, Predynastic Egyptian traders were already in contact with peoples in southern Palestine (modern Israel). Sumerian colonists in Syria and Egyptian traders in Palestine were so close to each other that it seems almost certain that it was through this route that Egyptians became aware of Mesopotamian culture.

A Question of Influence . What was the result of this contact? The most intriguing question is whether Egyptian writing was somehow influenced by the development of writing in Sumeria. Until quite recently it was generally believed that Sumerian writing appeared at least a century or two before Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. While the two systems are quite different, it has often been thought possible that the idea of writing might have been brought to Egypt and that some individual Egyptian or small group of Egyptians might have been inspired to try to create a system of their own. In recent years, however, the Egyptologist Gunther Dreyer has found what he believes are genuine hieroglyphic inscriptions—very simple, to be sure—that may be as old or older than the earliest known Sumerian writing. If that conclusion is true, then it is probably more likely that the Egyptians themselves created their hieroglyphic writing system independently, without any knowledge of the achievements of their neighbors to the east.

Caravans, Heat, and Bandits . The theory that early Sumerians might have sailed to Egypt is also weakened by the fact that in later times contact between Egypt and Mesopotamia was always by land. Several of the “Amarna Letters” (the diplomatic correspondence of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun) refer to this trade, and some highlight the great distances and dangers involved in this long, arduous journey.


One of the Amarna Letters includes the following remarks from Burra-Buriyash, the king of Babylonia, who had been angry because, during an illness, he had received no get-well message from the Egyptian pharaoh. He is now mollified, though, because his own envoys have explained to him how far apart Egypt and Babylonia (modern Iraq) are:

If you ask your messenger, he will tell you that I have not been well and that, as far as my recovery is concerned, I am still by no means restored to health. Furthermore, since I was not well and my brother (meaning the Pharaoh) showed me no concern, I for my part became angry with my brother, saying, “Has my brother not heard that I am ill? Why has he shown me no concern? Why has he sent no messenger here and visited me?” My brother’s messenger addressed me, saying, “It is not a place close by so your brother can hear about you and send you greetings. The country is far away. Who is going to tell your brother so he can immediately send you greetings?” I for my part addressed him as follows, saying, “For my brother, a great king, is there really a far-away country and a close-by one?” He for his part addressed me as follows, saying: “Ask your own messenger whether the country is far away.” Now, since I asked my own messenger and he said to me that the journey is far, I was not angry any longer, and said no more

Source: William L. Moran, ed., The Amarna Letters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 12–16,


William S. Arnett, The Predynastic Origin of Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Evidence for the Development of Rudimentary Forms of Hieroglyphs in Upper Egypt in the Fourth Millennium B.C. (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982).

Raymond Cohen and Raymond Westbrook, eds., Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

William L. Moran, ed., The Amarna Letters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).