Early civilizations and the development of writing systems in the world

The origin of primitive writing systems

As a natural process of renovation of world civilizations, ice ages come. Blanketing most of the Southern and Northern Hemispheres of the earth planet with trillions of tons of ice for millions of years they bury and destroy all the civilizations in its area. It stretches up to the major parts of Europe including England. Its spine chilling below freezing winds shoot cold waves all over the continent which shatters the rest of the civilizations. India is not much affected by the ice ages because it is in the tropical zone and the range of the Himalayan hills protects it from the cold winds of the deep North. So its ancient civilization continues without interruption.

The last ice age receded around 10,000 years ago. It took some time to develop the normal conditions of living. The survivors of the ice age were small groups of people who were living a nomadic life. They spread all over the southern parts of Europe and the middle parts of Asia, the Gulf countries, some parts of North America, South America and Africa.

Sumerians and the first writing system in the world

The earliest known records show the presence of some village people in the north of Mesopotamia around 7000 BC. People were also living in the Sumer region of south Mesopotamia since 5000 BC. Later on some more people came and settled in Sumer. The Sumerians developed a form of pictographic writing that used word pictures like bird, fish, ox or grain etc., around 4000 – 3500 BC. In 3000 BC, it developed into a cursive form of cuneiform style of writing which was a wedge shaped linear impression on clay tablets.

Cuneiform writing was first in pictographic type. After the 3rd millennium BC it took a conventional form of linear cuneiform drawings and was written from left to right. Akkadian, Aramaic, Persian and also other languages of the Middle East were written in cuneiform. Since the time of Christ the knowledge about the Sumerians and their language was totally forgotten and vanished from the history. It was known only after 1800 AD when the cuneiform script was deciphered. The first one was Semitic-Babylonian Akkadian language and the other was the Persian language. It was then that the correct name ‘Sumerian’ was given to the Sumerian language. The cuneiform writing dates between the 3rd millennium and 2nd century BC. It could be categorized as: (1) Sumerian cuneiform, (2) Babylonian cuneiform and (3) Assyrian cuneiform.

The hieroglyphics, and the language and religion of ancient Egypt

Egyptians borrowed the idea of pictorial writing from Sumerians. Their writing, which was introduced in 3000 BC, was called hieroglyphics and was styled as pictography or ideograms. It had about 700 signs and was written mainly from right to left but occasionally from left to right or top to downward. Original hieroglyphics were developed into phonetic hieroglyphs like the characters of an alphabet. But it had no vowels so, even after deciphering the words, it was not possible to know their actual pronunciations. Around 1100 BC it was changed to a newly developed cursive style called the ‘hieratic,’ and then in about 700 BC it was changed to ‘demotic.’

Demotic script was an improvement in the writing system of the Egyptian language. It became popular because it was easy to write and understand as compared to hieratic. The word hieratic received its name from the Greek word hieratikos, which means ‘priestly,’ because, at some time, it was the script that was used mainly for sacred texts, and the word demotic also came from the Greek word demotikos, which means ‘for the people or in common use.’ Hieroglyphic texts were mostly found on the walls of temples and tombs.

Egyptian ‘demotic’ language was replaced by Coptic around 200 AD which was written in Greek alphabet with seven letters borrowed from ‘demotic.’ It had six dialects, four of the north and two of the south of Egypt. Finally, around 640 AD, after the Arab invasion, Arabic language and the Arabic script was introduced in Egypt, and the Coptic language was replaced by 1200 AD.

An example of Sumerian and Egyptian writing systems

Sumerians and Babylonians

As the Sumerian language developed and more words were added, the representation of words became more and more complicated, still it had only 16 consonants and four vowels (a, e, i and u). In general, the Sumerian civilization flourished between 3500 to 2200 BC. They made palaces and temples and established cities (the main city was Ur). Around 2200 BC the Babylonian Semites invaded Sumer and ruled up to 539 BC. Then Persians conquered the region and ruled until Alexander invaded Babylonia in 331 BC and enormously expanded his kingdom from Greece to the west of India. Alexander made Babylon the capital of his realm and died there in 323 BC. After Alexander’s death Babylonia crumbled. Babylonia was one of the kingdoms of Mesopotamia situated in the south of it and its main town was Babylon.

The Babylonian kingdom was established around 2200 BC and ended by 323 BC. It had seen two major attacks; Map of Babylonian Empire (800 BC) (Sumerians)one by the Assyrians in 700 BC when Babylonia saw its worst days and remained disturbed up to 612 BC, and the other by the Persians in 539 BC who took the power and ruled up to 331 BC. The Babylonian kingdom expanded its empire mainly after 1750 BC, built a huge castle, developed commercial activities and traded its goods. A major change came after 612 BC when the New Babylonian Empire gradually gained control over most of the neighboring areas and achieved its greatest glory. It had a fort-like palace with eight bronze gates, and there were roads, buildings, paved avenues and the temple of their chief god Marduk who was the thunder and rain deity and the lord of heaven and earth. It had more than 250,000 people living in Babylon and nearby places. It was the wealthiest and the largest commercial center in the Middle East at that time. In those days there were hundreds of gods that were worshipped in the society. Some were Semitic gods, some were Sumerian gods and some were Babylonian gods.

Sumerian periods could be classified as: Archaic (up to 2500 BC), Old or Classical (up to 2300 BC), New (up to 2000 BC), and Post-Sumerian (after 2000 BC). The Sumerian language flourished up to 2200 BC. But, when the Babylonian Semites came to power, a Northeastern Semitic language, called Akkadian, became the common language of Assyria and Babylonia. It was thus called Assyro-Babylonian Akkadian language. Although it was introduced as a spoken language, the cuneiform system of writing was still being used. Lots of cuneiform clay tablets have been found in Semite and Persian language that show that it was the common system of writing of ancient Middle East civilization, but slowly, as other languages came into being and after the downfall of Babylonia after 323 BC, the Sumerian language and the cuneiform script died out.

Egyptian language and Egyptian gods

Egyptian language is an extinct language that belonged to the Hamito-Semitic language family. According to the development of its writing system it could be categorized as: Old Egyptian (3000 to 2200 BC), Middle Egyptian (2200 to 1600 BC), Late Egyptian (1600 to 700 BC), Demotic (700 BC to 400 AD) and Coptic (200 AD to about 1500 AD). Coptic was the only stage of the Egyptian language that had proper vowels and gave a clear idea of their pronunciations. But, for a very long time these writings remained unintelligible until a big stone slab with three detailed inscriptions in three scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek) was found in 1799 AD near Rosetta town near the mouth of the River Nile. After many years of extensive work, in 1882, by deciphering the texts of its Greek script and accordingly finding out the position and the repeated use of some of the proper royal names that appeared in the text of the other two scripts, and also using the little knowledge of the Egyptian Coptic language whatever they had, they recognized the characters and finally deciphered the entire text because the same event was described in the Egyptian language. Later on, after lots of research, the grammar and the dictionaries of the Egyptian languages were created. Thanks to the Rosetta stone that it revealed the Egyptian culture and the history, otherwise it would have been buried under the blanket of linguistic ignorance.

Egyptian gods. Egypt had a number of gods and goddesses. The main ones were: Re (male figure with a cat/bird/lion’s head), the chief sun god; Ptah (mummified man with a shaven head); Bast (cat-headed woman); Isis (female form with horn and a vulture headdress), the queen of gods; Mut (female figure with a vulture head or headdress), a great divine mother.

The Assyrians

Northern Mesopotamia (North Iraq) was called Assyria. The ancient Assyrian people were of an unknown race, Map of Assyrian Empire (650 BC)living in small villages around 5000 to 4000 BC. Its civilization was somewhat similar to ancient Babylonia but it had a better climate for agriculture. Before 3000 BC the Semite group of people came and settled over there. They were a mixture of many races, and spoke Semitic language (that is related to Hebrew or Arabic of today). The Assyrian kingdom was like a dependency of Babylonia for most of the time up to 2nd millennium BC, but very little is known about early Assyrian people. It became an independent kingdom around 1400 BC, briefly expanded its kingdom between 1200 to 1000 BC, but after 800 BC it expanded considerably, and, between 744 and 670 BC, it conquered all the states from Babylonia to Egypt. After 635 BC a civil war broke out and then Babylonians attacked in 614 BC which finally ended the Assyrian empire.

Assyrians built palaces, cities and temples with beautiful carved stone slabs that showed religious ceremonies. Assur was the main town named after their chief god Assur or Ashur. They also believed in many gods, like the god of learning, god of war, goddess of love etc., and their religion was similar to Babylonian religion. They also worshipped many gods. Assyrians, Babylonians and Sumerians, they all believed in a number of gods and in this way there were hundreds of gods being worshipped in the community. They also believed that the king is the representative of god on earth, but the Assyrian king was known as the king of kings whose territory was all the four corners of the earth, from the upper sea to the lower sea.

Early Assyrians spoke Akkadian language which was Northern peripheral or Northeastern Semitic language spoken between 3rd to 1st millennium BC in Mesopotamia. It had two dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian. That’s why it was called ‘Assyro-Babylonian’ language. It was written in cuneiform script. After 700 BC the Aramaic language, which was a Northern central Semitic language, began to replace the Akkadian language, and thus, it completely died out by 1st century AD. Its cuneiform script was deciphered only after 1799 AD. The Aramaic of the late Assyrians was written in both scripts, the Aramaic script as well as the cuneiform script. Thus both scripts survived.

The Semites

People who originally lived on the eastern side of the Mediterranean spoke a kind of language that was called Semite, thus, the Semite-speaking people were called the Semites. Hebrew and Arabic are the main descendents of the Semitic language. The Semite people lived mainly in what is now called Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon (Phoenicia) and Iraq (Mesopotamia), then they moved to Arabia and North Africa. Ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Hebrews and the Canaanites of Canaan were also Semites. Canaan was the Biblical name for the land on the East Mediterranean coastal area around the Dead Sea and the Jordan river. It was also called Palestine. Judaism and Christianity originated from there.

Before 3000 BC those people were living in the Northern part, afterwards they moved to the South. Northwestern Semites spoke mainly Hebrew and Aramaic language. (The ancient Israelites, who lived in Palestine in Biblical times and who spoke Hebrew and wrote in Hebrew, were called the Hebrews.) Southern Semites spoke Arabic. There were many dialects and a number of offshoots of Aramaic and Arabic languages.


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