The first civilizations of the Old World were shaped by around the end of the fourth millennium BCE. The critical elements of these civilizations were advanced urbanization, systematic and established agricultural activities, diverse social division of labor (which helped the development of architecture, mining and other crafts), cultural identities (which experienced a great leap due to the invention of writing), and the belief system that was at the center of everything. The economic structure was mainly based on agricultural production, and trade was only a local activity in the beginning. Landownership rights varied from region to region and were under the control of the temple priests and the King, who was also the Head Priest; however, the property undoubtedly belonged to the ones who cultivated the land. The Temples and the Kingdom took the biggest portion of the crops grown, but they did not have a strict concept of “cast” or “social class.” The cost of the army and other local expenses (e.g., local improvements, festivals, etc.) were paid by the citizens through contributions. There were no layers in the empire—except a small number of administrators and officers—that could dilute the authority of the King and the priests. In other words, slavery dynamics did not exist, at least in the beginning. Slavery was limited to the servants who worked in the palaces, temples and houses or mines, and there was no defined social statuses for “slaves” or “slave owners”. Slaves were not essential for agricultural production. In 3100 BCE, the leading civilizations in Egypt, Sumer, Harappa and Minos presented a view similar to that above.
During this first phase in the history of the civilization, the hegemony apparatuses of the state were not dependent on a despotic military organization but on the secret universal knowledge that the temple priests believed they had. Religious thought was the instrument of submitting a distorted version of this knowledge to the masses. The priest was the one who knew the unknown, watched the movement of the stars in the sky, calculated the time, and understood the transition of the seasons. He was supposed to do all these things with the help of divine wisdom. Consequently, the people respected the priests but were also afraid of them. The priests knew the agricultural process, planned the planting and harvesting periods, and warned people about weather conditions such as rains and floods. Who could disagree with placing them at the center of society? Everything they said came true, and every warning they made was right. As a result, of course, the authority should have belonged to them. The Kings were not warrior heroes in the early times, but they were wise priests. The management was also made up of junior priests, and their palaces were the temples, which were actually a kind of observatory but also served as a ritual center for the public.
The Ruling Class Enlarges
After around a millennium at the start of 2000 BCE, almost all civilizations experienced transformations in their administrative infrastructures. Due to technological developments and cities becoming more secure places, the average lifespan grew longer while the mortality rate began to decrease, which then caused a serious population increase. The kingdoms were no longer vast lands with a city in the center and towns around it. Now there were numerous residential areas where both agriculture and crafts showed remarkable progress. Trade activities improved considerably, and the general economy revived a little. On the other hand, the first big civilizations were not content with just preserving the lands they controlled anymore. Now they looked for every opportunity to expand their geographic boundaries. Military activity was not now limited to the neighboring settlements just beyond their boundaries, but it was the time for conquest. Consequently, wars broke out more often, and prisoners of war began to be used as slaves, providing free labor for the ones in power who controlled most of the production. The possibilities that came with the use of military force attracted the appetite of other city states to acquire new resources without the need to use trade relations.
Through this transformation, the big empires began to feel the need to fine tune the hegemony system, and the main infrastructure of the state began to look more complicated. New officer casts controlled the distribution of the newly acquired sources and efficiently collected “taxes.” Local administrative offices were now needed in every settlement controlled by the “state.” As a result, bureaucracy quickly became an essential layer in the management of the Kingdom. Meanwhile, military commanders gained in importance because of the wars and military expeditions. They were given land from those they conquered as a gift, and the prisoners of war were used as slaves to work in their fields.
The simultaneous transformation in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Near East created the first prototype states built on the slavery system. However, this also created some administrative problems: The central authority gradually weakened, while the local administrative officers and representatives in far cities and towns became stronger. In addition, new “temple cults” began to emerge within the Empire and sovereignty competition began among the priests of these groups.
Sargon the Great of the Akkadians was one of the leaders of this transformation in Mesopotamia. Sargon (Akkadian Šarru-kīnu, meaning “the just king”) built an empire on the cultural heritage of the Sumerian civilization and created a centrally ruled Akkadian Empire that quickly became the strongest state in the Near East. However, due to the expansion of local bureaucracy within the empire, the central management weakened, and the empire began to experience serious problems around 2200 BCE, during the management of Naram-Sin’s, Sargon’s grandson.
Naram-Sin was one of the first emperors who—like a shark that eats every living thing around it to get the energy to keep going—realized he had to stick with the conquest policy to preserve the existence of the empire and have a strong economy to pay the increasing administrative expenses. He reached Syria, seized and ruined the prosperous city of Ebla, and then moved towards Canaan, capturing the cities and towns on his way. However, this was not enough to prevent the decay of the Empire. The power was no longer only in the hands of the Priest-King and the elites of the temple. There was now a ruling class that included local leaders, bureaucrats and military commanders, so the benefits of power had to be redesigned to satisfy each layer of this diverse group. But, how?
Laws, Reforms and Transformations
Egypt was struggling with the same problems. Beginning with the end of the Old Kingdom period, ethnic structure varied and conflicts arose between different traditions, not only in Upper and Lower Egypt, but also in Sinai in the east, in the Libyan deserts in the west, and in Nubia in the south. Moreover, bureaucracy grew stronger and the Great House (The Pharaoh; Per-ou in Egyptian) began to suffer the harsh economic consequences of keeping a huge and costly administrative class. The discretionary practices of the bureaucrats proved that Egypt, as well as Mesopotamia, needed a new and revised ruling system.
Near the beginning of the 18th century BCE, the Akkadian King Hammurabi made an effort to determine the living and governing conditions through his famous code of law that included definitive social rules. In fact, Hammurabi’s code was not a simple law system at all, but consisted of some religious and moral rules that should be obeyed, based on centuries-long traditions and customs. Moreover, the power of the sanctions that would come with the practice of the law was somewhat questionable.
Anyway, Egypt followed the same path as the Akkadian Empire, and a revised infrastructure began to form along the banks of the river Nile as well. The local people would be kept out of the oppressive slavery system to eliminate the possibility of unrest and upheaval, but the prisoners of war and peasants of the conquered cities would be extensively used for the slave labor that was needed desperately in the agricultural areas controlled by the temples and ruling elites. This way, the slavery system was defined and formally institutionalized for the first time.
However, this revised policy did not prevent the decay of the mighty central kingdoms of the late Bronze Age. Due to economic imbalance and injustice, the local citizens were feeling the negative effects of poverty. Debt problems often caused them to lose their lands, forcing them to work on fields controlled by the wealthy ruling classes, which was similar to slavery. Rebellions and civil turmoil were on the horizon, but the empires were still strong, and the ruling classes could keep control by using despotic methods to keep the system going. Until one inauspicious day…
In 1649 BC, a wave of earthquakes shook the world significantly. In the Aegean, Akrotiri, the magnificent city of the Minos Kingdom, collapsed. Numerous earthquakes hit Cyprus and Crete, and tsunamis hit the Aegean shores from Byblos in Lebanon to the Egyptian delta. The shock was about to end when the volcano Thera erupted horribly. This was the greatest volcano eruption in history: a large area was left in darkness from Italy to the shores of the Black Sea, from Egypt to Iran. The sky was blocked by a thick layer of ash and smoke. Falling ash and sulfide turned the rivers “blood red,” poisoning the waters that were essential for agriculture. The animals died, the plants withered because of the lack of light, and the worst came when a climate change began because of the “volcanic winter.”
These natural disasters did not only cause death and seriously harm the economy, but they also created psychological distress. The central kingdoms collapsed, armies disbanded, and the ruling elites ran away to more secure places. The once-proud civilizations of the old world were in complete sociopolitical chaos, which led to an important breaking point in history. The lands of the empires were invaded by hordes of pillagers; the sovereign dynasties and the ruling classes of the past had very hard times.
In Upper Egypt, a revolt took place once the plundering hordes left, and the lack of authority was filled by rebellious people who lived in very hard conditions in the towns north of Memphis, the capital. The local rebels took control in Memphis and seized the northern part of the country, where they established a new capital in Avaris. Within the same period, Babylon collapsed after attacks by Indo-European tribes. Natural disasters devastated the Minos Kingdom of the Aegean islands, which caused the collapse of this brilliant civilization. The Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley shared the same fate after being invaded by warrior tribes from the north.
All these simultaneous events shook the mighty civilizations of the Old World and created a sharp breaking point in history. The ruling classes of the failed dynasties learned some lessons as a result. First, they should never become weak again if they want to keep their supremacy. Second, maintaining a centralized and powerful military force was essential and would also help conquer and control neighboring regions to rule out threats. Third and most importantly, the ruling class should always impose systematic slavery on its subjects, because the population had increased and controlling the uneducated masses had been hard. When this mass could get the opportunity, they were ready to “betray” their emperors, so they had to be under continuous oppression. The slavery system was totally reorganized, and the history of civilization changed its route towards class struggles. After 1550 BCE, the rulers created the bloodiest form of despotism. The masses became enslaved, religion became the critical hegemony mechanism, and the state was reorganized with the help of new legal systems. The decisions that were taken after this breaking point have been the blueprint for human civilizations for millennia, and they still show their effects on our “modern society” with our immense expenditure on military and policing organizations.
An authoritative system based on different social classes and private ownership of production resources was not an inevitable route or “destiny,” but rather a result of the choices of our patriarchal, gender-oriented ancestors during the critical breaking points, beginning in the early Bronze Age. Humanity has been suffering the results of those decisions and acts that brought inequality, injustice, discrimination and oppression for the last five thousand years. It led to an “erroneous civilization.” Now we are approaching a new breaking point that will shake the entire world once again: An unprecedented economic crisis has been ringing alarm bells for a while, and the warnings of Mother Nature become more and more serious with every natural disaster. A chaotic situation is coming, and global capitalism is showing the signs of a tragic collapse. The uprisings around the world, as well as the quickly spreading “occupy” movement, seem to be a message to the ruling elites of the global finance-capitals that it will not be “that easy” to control and rule the masses anymore. The world shivers and trembles for a change that could perhaps affect the course of our civilization radically. Once again, after thousands of years, maybe it will “correct” the basic mistakes of this erroneous civilization.

Burak Eldem