Achaemenian Dynasty Civilizations

559-530 BC — Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire in 550 BC, the first world empire. His respect for local traditions, laws, languages, and religions set the foundation of a relatively benevolent empire.

539 BC — Babylonia surrendered peacefully to Cyrus the Great. Welcomed as a liberator because of his compassionate policies, Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity and assisted them to migrate to their homeland and to reconstruct their temple in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is hailed as the Shepherd of the Lord. I am Cyrus, King of the World. When I entered Babylon I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land. I kept in view the needs of its people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well being. I put an end to their misfortune. The great God has delivered all lands into my hand, the lands that I have made to dwell in peaceful habitation.

522-486 BC — The reign of Darius the Great marked the zenith of the Persian Empire. Upholding the tradition established by Cyrus, Darius valued the rights of all people under his rule. The following inscription appears on his tomb: By the favor of the great God I believe in justice and abhor inequity. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty….Darius’ goal was to be a great law-giver and organizer. He structured the empire under the satrapy system (similar to national and local governments). He built many roads, ports, banking houses (the word “check” comes from Old Persian), elaborate underground irrigation systems and a canal to link the Nile to the Red Sea (an early precursor of the Suez Canal). In the 19th century, archeologists in Egypt discovered an inscription by Darius commemorating the completion of the canal: I am a Persian. I commanded to dig this canal from a river by name of Nile which flows in Egypt….After this canal was dug, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, thus as was my desire.

Darius revolutionized mankind’s economic activities by introducing one of the earliest (certainly the first on such a massive scale) forms of common coinage in history, the darik. This initiative, along with the standardization of weights and measures and the codification of commercial laws, stimulated world trade and elevated the Persian Empire’s economy to new levels of prosperity.

Reflecting the wealth and the multi-cultural dimension of the Persian Empire, Darius initiated the building of the Persepolis palace. For its construction, artisans and materials were gathered from different corners of the empire. Another project undertaken by Darius was the royal road, the world’s longest, extending 1,500 miles (see map). Due to an extensive network of relays, postmen could travel the road in six to nine days, whereas normal travel time was three months. The motto of the Persian postal service became memorable: stopped by neither snow, rain, heat or gloom of night. The US postal service also adopted this motto and the famous Pony Express mail delivery resembled the original Persian design. The origins of polo date back to this time. Persian nobility played an early form of polo for both sport and combat training.

490-479 BC — In their wars with Persia, the Greek city-states were never a threat to the Persian heartland. What Persia did not achieve through war, it obtained through diplomacy. After the Achamenian DynastyPersian-Greek wars ended, Persian kings successfully played the Athenians and Spartans against each other for 150 years. Persia’s financial and naval assistance was instrumental in Sparta’s victory over Athens in the Great Peloponnesian War. Afterwards, Persia began supporting the Athenians. The Persian influence over the two Greek city-states was such that the Persian King Artaxerxes II was asked to mediate between them, leading to the King’s Peace of 387 BC.

550-334 BC — The Persian Empire became the dominant world power for over two centuries. It made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West. It was the world’s first religiously tolerant empire and consisted of a multitude of different languages, races, religions and cultures. Prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, it set a precedent for the importance of the rule of law, a powerful centralized army and an efficient and systematic state administration. However, the greatest legacy of the Persian Empire was that it demonstrated for the first time how diverse peoples can culturally flourish and economically prosper under one central government.

The Indus Valley, Greek Invasion, and Early Empires

The ruins of Mohanjodaro

In the 1920s, archeologists found the remains of stable communities in Harappa and Mohanjodaro. These sites are in Northern India and Pakistan. For about 1000 years, the Indus Valley civilizations grew here, with planned cities, brick houses, and paved streets. There were sophisticated sewage and drainage systems, public baths and grain storage. This civilization used copper, tin, lead, and clay for tools and decorations as well.

People in the Indus Valley were able to domesticate animals such as buffalo, goats, and camels. They even traded with other settlements as far away as the Middle East and maintained a strong economy. The Harappan group had specific professions, with each person providing a certain type of labor for the community.

Archeologists discovered that people of the Indus Valley were also interested in the arts. They found remains of decorative pottery, glazed and fired much as we would do today. There were also many small seals and carvings, made by a well trained artisan class.

It is not clear why these civilizations died out. Some suggestions include a natural disasters, such as heavy floods or droughts. Other researchers think a new group of invaders or settlers overtook the people of the Indus Valley and conquered them.

New Invaders (circa 518 BCE to 320 BCE)

In about 518 BCE, the Persians invaded India. They were led by King Darius I, who conquered the Indus Valley and the area that is now the state of Punjab. Darius I was successful in maintaining power, and his desendants continued to rule the area when he died. Darius I also began to collect a tribute tax, and spread news of India’s many natural resources to Europe.

But in 327 BCE, Alexander the Great overthrew Darius III. Alexander was from Macedonia and had a strong, loyal army that tried to take over most of Northern India. He crossed the Indus and the Beas rivers, but soon found too much resistance. Alexander’s army had to retreat and leave India completely. Like that of Darius I, this conquest also raised European interest in India and opened new land and sea trade routes.

Indian Dynasties and Empires (circa 322 BCE to 184 BCE)

The first emperor of the Maurya dynasty was Chandragupta, who began to expand an existing empire after Alexander’s defeat in 322 BCE. Chandragupta warred with the Macedonian empire, defeating it and adding its territory to his own rule. By 250 BCE, his descendants had conquered most of the Indian subcontinent.

The Maurya empire lasted for about 140 years. During that time, they raised a army, collected taxes, and formed a permanent government. Their economy was mostly agrarian, with large farms supported by slave labor. But they also had industrial jobs, such as the manufacture of weapons and farm tools as well as weaving and other crafts.

The greatest of the Maurya emperors was Ashoka. He was the grandson of Chandragupta and ruled India for about 37 years. Ashoka supressed several rebellions and conquered new territory, but he was upset by the killing he saw during war. After his conquest, he adopted many Buddhist ideas and tried to spread his belief in peace and rebirth to his subjects. Ashoka was able to maintain good relations with the many different groups and traditions within India. When he died, the Mauryan empire began to fall apart. By 184 BCE, it had collapsed completely.

Another Empire Rises (319 CE to 550 CE)
The Gupta era ended a time of foreign invasions and fractured kingdoms. Chandragupta I was able to consolidate hundreds of tiny kingdoms into one empire, starting a dynasty that would rule India for over 200 years.

Samudragupta, the son of Chandragupta I, encouraged the growth of arts and sciences. The Gupta era is often considered the peak of early Indian history for this reason. Samudragupta created universities that taught science, astronomy, and math–drawing students from all over India. Classes used algebra and the modern numerical system. Even at this early point in history, Gupta scientists were able to prove that the earth is round and rotates on its axis. Literature also developed, with long works of poetry and drama written by trained authors. There was experimentation with new styles of painting and carving that can still be found today.

Vikramaditya was the grandson of Chandragupta I. He continued to expand the empire by military conquest. Vikramaditya’s descendants were able to maintain the strength of the Gupta empire and force the Huns back, but by the 6th century CE, these outside invadors took over northern India. The Gupta empire broke apart and divided into small princely states.

Ancient Egypt Civilization & Map

Where is Egypt located? How did the ancient Egyptians adapt to their environment?
  • Egypt is located on the continent of Africa.
  • The climate in ancient Egypt is very hot and dry.
  • The ancient Egyptians farmed and irrigated the land near the Nile River.
  • The Nile River flows north into the Mediterranean Sea.
  • The Nile River was used by the ancient Egyptians for many things. They fished for food, washed themselves and their clothes, and collected water for irrigation, drinking and cooking. They also traveled by boat around Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea to trade with other cultures.
  • The land in Egypt is about 90 percent desert. There are grasses along the Nile River. The Nile River floods every year. This flooding brings in rich soil for planting.
Who ruled in ancient Egypt?
  • The ancient Egyptians were ruled by Pharaohs.
  • Pharaohs. were the highest level in ancient Egyptian society.
  • When a pharaoh died, he would be buried in a tomb or pyramid with all of his valuables. It was believed that they would need these things in the after-life.
  • Cats were considered regal and good luck.
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What did the ancient Egyptian people use to buy and sell goods and services?
  • The ancient Egyptians traded with other cultures like ancient Rome and Greece.
A contribution is the act of giving or doing something.
Many of the ancient Egyptians inventions are used today.
  • The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics as their written language. Hieroglyphics is writing using pictures to represent different sounds.
  • The Egyptians created the clock and the 365-day calendar we use today.
  • One of the most remarkable architectural structures from ancient Egypt are the Pyramids.

Imhotep, Joseph of Egypt?

About a decade ago, when I was sitting in one of my early art history courses, my professor offhandedly mentioned some speculations that Imhotep, the architect of the Stepped Pyramid at Djoser (ca. 2530-2611 BC, shown right), may have been the biblical figure Joseph of Egypt. I have been quite skeptical of this theory for years, largely because none of my art history textbooks allude to any connection between the two historical figures. For years I have meant to research this topic and see what speculations exist, and I decided that today was the day.

After doing an initial search, I discovered that a lot of people speculate that Joseph and Imhotep are the same person. If you’re curious, you can see two less-scholarly sites here and here. I was surprised to see that someone thinks that the stepped pyramid was actually created to store grain (for the biblical famine associated with Joseph). Seriously? I find that incredibly unlikely.

As I suspected, I couldn’t find any reputable scholars discussing such a topic. It also seems unlikely that Imhotep and Joseph are the same person, since the Djoser pyramid predates Joseph’s arrival into Egypt by about 1,000 years. (You can follow some of the theories regarding Joseph’s historical timeline here).

I also learned a few new things about Imhotep during my research. He seemed like a very interesting and intelligent man. In addition to creating the stepped pyramid at Djoser (the shape of which is seen as the precursor to the sleek angles of the Pyramids at Giza), Imhotep was probably the architect for the step-pyramid complex Horus Sekhemkhet at Saqqara.1 By the Late Period (c. 750-332 BC, which is about two thousand years after Imhotep lived), the architect had achieved the status of a god. As a deified being, Imhotep was associated with medical learning and healing. There are many Late (and Greco-Roman) period statues of Imhotep seated and holding a papyrus scroll (you can see an example here).

If anyone can provide some solid, scholarly evidence to support a connection between the Joseph and Imhotep, I’d be interested in reading it. For now, though, I’ve decided that the apparent lack of connection is for the best. It’s quite awkward to sing, “Go, go, go, Imhotep!” anyway.

1 Nabil Swelim, “Imhotep,” in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, Accessed

King tut’s Gold Throne

I came across this stunning image of from the back of King Tut’s gold throne (left, c. 1332-1322 BC) tonight.  Isn’t it gorgeous? (Click on the image to enlarge it, if you don’t believe me.)  I love the striking, bold colors.  And I especially love that Tutankhamun is depicted with the lil’ Amarna-style belly that his dad popularized in Egyptian art (see the relief Ahkenaten and His Family, c. 1353-1336 BC, for one another example of the Amarna style).

This throne shows Tutakhamun being anointed with perfume by his wife, Ankhesenamun.  I love the fine details in Ankhesanumun’s robe, and I especially love that you can see the outline of her legs beneath the flowing material.  It gives the impression that the material is very lightweight.  (There is a little more information about this throne here.)

Speaking of King Tut, have you seen the reconstruction of his face?  In 2005, National Geographic reported that scientists used 3-D CT scans to reconstruct the first mummy of the ancient pharaoh.  Kinda cool, but also kinda creepy.  Check out this image of the bust on display at the Field Museum in Chicago – it totally reminds me of the heads that the witch Mombi stored in the “Return to Oz” movie. Yikes!

Intro to Ancient near east Sumer

The ancient Near East has long fascinated students and historians, particularly because three major world faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) got their beginnings in this region. Furthermore, this area is of interest because of other early developments which took place here. After the Neolithic Revolution (the change from humans as hunters/gatherers to farmers), the wheel and plow were first used in the ancient Near East.

The first writing system was also developed in the Near East by the Sumerians. Their writing system consisted of wedge-shaped cuneiform signs. The Sumerian book the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest book in the world, written over a thousand years before Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad.

My favorite ancient Sumerian art has always been the statuettes from the Square Temple at Eshnunna (ca. 2700 BC; Tell Asmar, Iraq). Many of these statuettes have been found beneath the floor of the temple (click here to see some more examples). Most figures are dressed in the form of priests or priestesses, and they have their hands clasped in constant prayer. It is thought that these statuettes were votive figurines; worshipers would leave these figures at the temple as a form or worship or prayer. Or, it is also thought that these statuettes could represent the manifestation of an answered prayer. I especially love the wide-eyed stares on their faces; they probably symbolize the vigilance of the statuettes in their prayerful duty.

Next to the statuettes, my other favorite Sumerian piece is a bull-headed lyre from the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Tomb 789, “King’s Grave”, ca. 2600 BC). The lyre was decorated with gold and lapis lazuli (a precious blue stone). You can see a color image of the restored instrument here. My favorite parts of the lyre, though, are the inlaid panels on the front of the soundbox located underneath the bull’s beard (shown below). In these four registers, animals walk on their legs and act like humans – they look like scenes that could be found in Aesop’s fables or a Disney movie. Some think that these panels represent stories that would have been told for entertainment. Others think that the creatures might be inhabitants of the land of the dead, with narrative containing a funerary connection.1 I also had a professor who thought that the scenes related to animal imagery from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Whatever the reason for this piece, I think it’s very fun. I love that animals are holding cups, playing instruments (the donkey actually is playing a bull lyre in the second panel from the bottom), and possibly dancing (I can’t tell if the bear is dancing or helping to steady the lyre). I especially like that the bulls on the top register have human faces – the artist might have done that to help achieve symmetry in the composition.2

If you’re interested, you can read more about the lyre and animal scenes here.

The ancient Near East has a lot of fun and beautiful art. I also love the Standard of Ur, but I think I might need to save that piece for another day – it deserves its own post.

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, vol. 11 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001), 25.

2 Incidentally, this top scene that contains a figure between two beasts is common in ancient art. It is called the “Master of the Animals” motif and is reserved for great heroes, gods, and goddesses. The influence of this Near Eastern motif can be seen in a “Mistress of the Animals” example from the Archaic Greece period, the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis (Corfu, Greece, ca. 600-580 BC).