Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia - Rule of Law

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Democracy relies on individuals and their active involvement in their society and on the rule of law. The rule of law means that there is legislation enabling people to get involved. In order for this to happen, legislation had to evolve and so had the concept of the individual. Both arose for the first time in the ancient Middle East, and it happened because the circumstances changed: agriculture and a number of new crafts and trades were invented, cities and city culture emerged, and the power structure of society changed.

People still thought that spirits ruled their lives, but the concept of the spirits changed and they became more god-like. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Egypt became polytheists, and they invented legislation and the rule of law.

Similar developments were taking place in China and Japan almost at the same time as what is described below. In India, too, great changes took place in the same period. The reason for the focus here on developments in the Middle East, and not the changes in Asia, is because it was the developments in the Middle East which created the fundament from which ancient Greece and later European culture evolved.


Around 15,000-18,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in the area around present day Israel/Palestine discovered that the grains of certain grasses were edible. A few thousand years later, people in the same area realised that they could themselves seed the soil and thereby influence next year's harvest. This was an epoch-making discovery in the history of man, because with the invention of agriculture more people could sustain themselves on the same piece of land and people settled rather than moving around as hunter-gatherers. In this way, villages arose and they soon had hundreds of inhabitants.

Agriculture spread to Egypt and to the Anatolian plateau in present day Turkey, and from there down the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in what is now Iraq to the Persian Gulf. The land between and around the two Iraqi rivers is also known as Mesopotamia, which means "between the rivers".

Around 9,000 years ago (7000 BCE), the town of Çatal Höyük in present day Turkey had a few thousand inhabitants, and around 8,000 years ago (6000 BCE), there were agricultural villages all the way along the Nile, along the east coast of the Mediterranean and along the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.

Around the same time, the people in present day Kurdish regions domesticated cattle. This meant a new kind of nomadic society and clans arose of up to a thousand members. In these, the head of the clan ruled with the help of shaman-like medicine-men and witch-doctors and made decisions on behalf of the entire clan. The balance of power thus changed and became concentrated around a single person, who in many cases still made his decisions based on shamanism and magic.

During this time, people in Anatolia began extracting copper, and as the new technologies spread, new crafts and trades led to the reorganization of work. Gone was the time when everybody knew the same, as had been the case among the hunter-gatherers and the earliest farmers. This meant that there arose new kinds of inequalities in wealth as well as in skills and status, and that the egalitarian, collectivist social structure of the hunter-gatherers no longer worked, partly because the numbers of people in the various urban communities grew, partly because of the wealth and the differences in status which agriculture and urban communities brought with them.

Except for the clan leader and the medicine-man or witch-doctor, however, there were probably very few people who had to make major decisions or in any other way had to stand out from the crowd as an individual.


The cities grew and, some 7,000 years ago (5000 BCE), the people of Mesopotamia invented artificial irrigation. This meant that even more people could sustain themselves from the same piece of land, and over time some cities and/or clans amassed considerable wealth. This prompted a new kind of power and political structure, namely the city state ruled by a king supported by priests and soldiers.

The kings initiated huge building projects such as dams, temples and, not least, walls around the cities to protect the inhabitants from wild animals, bands of robbers and hostile nomadic tribes or wandering groups of hunter-gatherers. The largest cities of Mesopotamia grew to around 5,000 people.

In these societies, people no longer knew everybody from birth and the cities themselves created an extensive network of commerce and were also often at war with one another. People thus met strangers and travelled around more than ever before. This meant that the role of the individual changed. If you were travelling among strangers, you had to be able to make decisions by yourself, and you had to know who you were and where you came from.


As societies grew, the way people worshipped spirits and nature changed, and the spirits were transformed into gods in a new way. The spirits were still regarded as invisible powers, but they were also portrayed in human form with human attributes. The personality and history of the individual gods emerged from the myths that were told about them. Statues were built of the gods and sacrifices made to them to ensure fertility and a good harvest. For the most part, food was offered to the gods, but human sacrifices were not uncommon.

Cities and individuality

Around 3800 BCE, bronze was invented, and around 3400 BCE, picture-writing (hieroglyphs) evolved in Mesopotamia, changing the culture radically. For centuries, societies were still based on agriculture but around 2000 BCE, some cities had 10,000 inhabitants or more; one of the most famous, Uruk, had 40,000.

People in the larger cities considered themselves city dwellers - in contrast to the farmers, the nomads and the hunter-gathers whom they looked down upon. The first sign of the city dwellers' newly found self-awareness and individuality can be seen in the Mesopotamian heroic poem Gilgamesh from around 2000 BCE.

Gilgamesh was a historical king who lived around 2600 BCE, but over the centuries, his life was turned into a mythological narrative and he became a demi-god. In the myth, he is a tyrant whom the gods wish to stop. So they send a wild man from the plains to do battle with him. The wild man, a hunter-gatherer, is called Enkidu, and once he has tasted the comforts and prosperity of city life, he can never go back to being a wild man again. The reason being that he has learned something about himself in the encounter with city culture; he "knew his own mind", as the story tells it. He has become self-aware, a new kind of awareness which was apparently so remarkable that it is explicitly stated in the poem.

Myths changed as the communities grew and so did the role of the individual. With so many people living next to one another in one place, it was no longer possible to consult the shamans or medicine-men every time you had to make a decision. The kings of Mesopotamia therefore invented the first written laws, and thereby the rule of law.

Rule of law

The rule of law in ancient Mesopotamia was not, however, the rule of law as we understand it today and as will be defined in the chapter Rule of Law. Firstly, the laws were given by the gods - the king was regarded as a demi-god, and religion, civil society, criminal law, and many other issues were mixed together. Secondly, many laws had severe flaws seen from a modern point of view. There was no equality before the law, and the individual was not autonomous but was still considered part of the family or clan.

The oldest written laws date from around 2000 BCE and the most famous law from that period is Hammurabi's Code.

Hammurabi was king of Babylonia in Mesopotamia in the 1700s BCE and we can see from his laws that the individual was slowly emerging as a legal concept. One paragraph, for instance, said that if one man builds a house for another man, and the house collapses killing the second man's son, the first man's son must also be killed; a concept of justice rather different from modern justice, where only the person actually committing an act is liable for it, not the members of his family. Nevertheless, this was a legislative code which distanced itself from the traditions of family feuds which had been the common practice until then. In these feuds, the family and the individual were considered one and the same, and if one was going to avenge an injustice against somebody from one's own family, it didn't matter who one attacked from the other family.

From the Mesopotamian laws of 2000 BCE, we can see that people around 4,000 years ago began regarding each other as individuals who were more independent of their families and their family relationships than had previously been the case. Punishment gradually came to be imposed only on the actual criminal, not on members of his family. People's awareness of themselves and one another changed following the rise of the great cities.


A similar development took place in Egypt. Egyptian culture began to flourish around the same time as they invented hieroglyphs around 3300 BCE. Hereafter, the Egyptians developed large, complex city communities and, from Egyptian court documents, we can see that people were held responsible for their crimes as individuals, and that it was as individuals they took each other to court. Life's big questions, however, were still in the hands of the gods and the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh was not considered an individual as such.

A Pharaoh was a deity. The person who was Pharaoh was not Pharaoh because of his personal qualities, but because he was born to it. Furthermore, all depictions of Pharaohs were alike. There was almost a "Pharaoh template" according to which all Pharaohs had to be depicted. Among the ancient Egyptians, the individual had not emerged yet and was not acknowledged in the same way as in a modern, democratic society.

There was, however, a Pharaoh around 1350 BCE who initiated a religious revolution. His radical ideas were that there was only one god, namely the Sun God Aten; that people should stop worshipping their ancestors; and that the Pharaoh and his family should no longer be portrayed from the stereotyped ideal of a Pharaoh, the way tradition prescribed. Instead, the portraits should resemble the person they represented. We certainly can't blame him for the last one, as he was married to Nefertiti, the woman whose bust is world famous for its beauty.

The name of this reforming or revolutionary Pharaoh was originally Amenhotep, but he took the name Akhen-aten: the living spirit of Aten.

It is extremely difficult to say now, some 3,400 years later, what Akhenaten's reformation was about exactly. But a qualified guess is that Akhenaten had discovered the individual and insisted on it. That he wanted to see each and every person - or at least himself and his family - as an individual, and not as a pre-defined template.

Unfortunately, Akhenaten was not a very successful Pharaoh and people hated him because he had abolished their beloved gods and the worship of their ancestors. So when he died, the Egyptians removed all traces of him and returned to their polytheism. The individual disappeared from Egyptian art and all later Egyptian paintings and reliefs showed the traditional, stereotyped portraits.

Anatolia and the Middle East

In the 1700s BCE, Hittite culture was flourishing in Anatolia. They were also familiar with writing and developed written laws. The same went for the Assyrians in present day Northern Iraq from the 1200s BCE.


In the Middle East some 3,000-5,000 years ago, the individual was just about to break through, and there was a growth in self-awareness, but it was a long and laborious birth.

Next chapter: Judaism - the Emergence of the Individual