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Possible Mesopotamia-Egypt trade routes from the 4th millennium BCE.
Egypt-Mesopotamia relations were the relations between the civilisations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in the Middle East. They seem to have developed from the 4th millennium BCE, starting in the Uruk period for Mesopotamia and the Gerzean culture of Prehistoric Egypt (circa 3500-3200 BCE). Influences can be seen in the visual arts of Egypt, in imported products, and also in the possible transfer of writing from Mesopotamia to Egypt and generated "deep-seated" parallels in the early stages of both cultures.
Influences on Egyptian trade and art (3500-3200 BCE)
Mesopotamian king on Egyptian prehistoric knife (3400-3200 BCE)
Mesopotamian king as Master of Animals on the top of the handle. This work of art both shows the influence of Mesopotamia on Egypt at an early date, in an example of ancient Egypt-Mesopotamia relations, and the state of Mesopotamian royal iconography during the Uruk period.
Distinctly foreign objects and art forms entered Egypt during this period, indicating contacts with several parts of Asia. The designs that were emulated by Egyptian artists are numerous: the Uruk "priest-king" with his tunic and brimmed hat in the posture of the Master of animals, the serpopards , winged griffins, snakes around rosettes, boats with high prows, all characteristic of Mesopotamian art of the Late Uruk (Uruk IV, c. 3350-3200 BCE) period. The same "Priest-King" is visible in several Mesopotamian works of art of the end of the Uruk period, such as the Blau Monuments, cylinder seals and statues. Objects such as the Gebel el-Arak knife handle, which has patently Mesopotamian relief carvings on it, have been found in Egypt, and the silver which appears in this period can only have been obtained from Asia Minor.
Mesopotamian-style pottery in Egypt (3500 BCE)
Evolution of Egyptian prehistoric pottery styles, from Naqada I to Naqada II and Naqada III, with Mesopotamian-style Naqada II straight-spouted jars circa 3500 BCE.
Red-slipped spouted pottery items dating to around 3500 BCE (Naqada II C/D), which were probably used for pouring water, beer or wine, suggest that Egypt was in contact with Mesopotamia around that time. This type of pottery was manufactured in Egypt, with Egyptian clay, but its shape, particularly the spout, is Mesopotamian in origin. Such vessels were novel in pre-Dynastic Egypt, but were commonly manufactured in the cities of Nippur and Uruk. This indicated that Egyptians were familiar with Mesopotamian types of pottery.
The discovery of these vessels initially encouraged the development of the dynastic race theory, according to which Mesopotamians would have established the first Pharaonic line, but is now considered to be simply indicative of cultural contacts and borrowings circa 3500 BCE.
Spouted jars of Mesopotamian design start to appear in Egypt in the Naqada II period. Various Uruk pottery vases and containers have been found in Egypt in Naqada contexts, confirming that Mesopotamian finished goods were imported into Egypt, although the past contents of the jars have not been determined yet. Scientific analysis of ancient wine jars in Abydos has shown there was some high-volume wine trade with the Levant during this period.
Egyptians used traditional disk-shaped maceheads during the early phase of Naqada culture, circa 4000-3400 BCE. At the end of the period, the disk-shaped macehead was replaced by the superior Mesopotamian-style pear-shaped macehead as seen on the Narmer Palette. The Mesopotamian macehead was much heavier with a wider impact surface, and was capable of giving much more damaging blows than the original Egyptian disk-shaped macehead.
Egyptian cylinder seal First or Second Dynasty, 3100-2686 BCE
It is generally thought that cylinder seals were introduced from Mesopotamia to Egypt during the Naqada II period. Cylinder seals, some coming from Mesopotamia and Elam, and some made locally in Egypt following Mesopotamian designs in a stylized manner, have been discovered in the tombs of Upper Egypt dating to Naqada II and III, particularly in Hierakonpolis. Mesopotamian cylinder seals have been found in the Gerzean context of Naqada II, in Naqada and Hiw, attesting to the expansion of the Jemdet Nasr culture as far as Egypt at the end of the 4th millennium BCE.
In Egypt, cylinder seals suddenly appear without local antecedents from around Naqada II c-d (3500-3300 BCE). The designs are similar to those of Mesopotamia, where they were invented during the early 4th millennium BCE, during the Uruk period, as an evolutionary step from various accounting systems and seals going back as early as the 7th millennium BCE. The earliest Egyptian cylinder seals are clearly similar to contemporary Uruk seals down to Naqada II-d (circa 3300 BCE), and may even have been manufactured by Mesopotamian craftsmen, but they start to diverge from circa 3300 BCE to become more Egyptian in character.
Lapis Lazuli was imported in great quantity by Egypt, and already used in many tombs of the Naqada II period. Lapis Lazuli probably originated in northern Afghanistan, as no other sources are known, and had to be transported across the Iranian plateau to Mesapotamia, and then Egypt.
In addition, Egyptian objects were created which clearly mimic Mesopotamian forms, although not slavishly. Cylinder seals appear in Egypt, as well as recessed paneling architecture, the Egyptian reliefs on cosmetic palettes are clearly made in the same style as the contemporary Mesopotamian Uruk culture, and the ceremonial mace heads which turn up from the late Gerzean and early Semainean are crafted in the Mesopotamian "pear-shaped" style, instead of the Egyptian native style. The first man/animal composite creatures in Egypt were directly copied from Mesopotamian designs. It is also considered as certain that the Egyptians adopted from Mesopotamia the practice of marking the sealing of jars with engraved cylinder seals for informational purposes.
Temples and pyramids
Recessed niches and false doors
Naked devotee offering libations to a temple of Inanna, Ur, c. 2500 BCE.
Tomb chapel false door, circa 2450 BCE, Egypt.
Egyptian architecture also was influenced, as it adopted element of Mesopotamian Temple and civic architecture.
Recessed niches in particular, which are characteristic of Mesopotamian Temple architecture, were adopted for the design of false doors in the tombs of the First Dynasty and Second Dynasty, from the time of the Naqada III period (circa 3000 BCE). It is unknown if the transfer of this design was the result of Mesopotamian workmen in Egypt, or if temple designs on imported Mesopotamian seals may have been a sufficient source of inspiration for Egyptian architects.
The original pyramidal structure, the Mesopotamian "Anu Ziggurat" dates to around 4000 BCE, and the White Temple was built on top of it circa 3500 BCE. The design of the ziggurat was probably a precursor to that of the Egyptian pyramids, the earliest of which dates to circa 2600 BCE.
The route of this trade is difficult to determine, but contact with Canaan does not predate the early dynastic, so it is usually assumed to have been by sea trade. During the time when the Dynastic Race Theory was still popular, it was theorized that Uruk sailors circumnavigated Arabia, but a Mediterranean route, probably by middlemen through Byblos, is more likely, as evidenced by the presence of Byblian objects in Egypt.Glyptic art also seems to have played a key role, through the circulation of decorated cylinder seals across the Levant, a common hinterland of both empire.
The intensity of the exchanges suggest however that the contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia were often direct, rather than merely through middlemen or through trade. Uruk had known colonial outposts of as far as Habuba Kabira, in modern Syria, insuring their presence in the Levant. Numerous Uruk cylinder seals have also been uncovered there. There were suggestions that Uruk may have had an outpost and a form of colonial presence in northern Egypt. The site of Buto in particular was suggested, but it has been rejected as a possible candidate.
The fact that so many Gerzean sites are at the mouths of wadis which lead to the Red Sea may indicate some amount of trade via the Red Sea (though Byblian trade potentially could have crossed the Sinai and then be taken to the Red Sea). Also, it is considered unlikely that something as complicated as recessed panel architecture could have worked its way into Egypt by proxy, and at least a small contingent of migrants is often suspected.
These early contacts probably acted as a sort of catalyst for the development of Egyptian culture, particularly in respect to the inception of writing, and the codification of royal and vernacular imagery.
While there is clear evidence the Naqada II culture borrowed abundantly from Mesopotamia, the most commonly held view today is that the achievements of the First Dynasty were the result of a long period of indigenous cultural and political development. Such developments are much older than the Naqada II period, the Naqada II period had a large degree of continuity with the Naqada I period, and the changes which did happen during the Naqada periods happened over significant amounts of time.
Although there are many examples of Mesopotamian influence in Egypt in the 4th millennium BCE, the reverse is not true, and there are no traces of Egyptian influence in Mesopotamia at that time. Only very few Egyptian Naqada period object have been found beyond Egypt, and generally in its vicinity, such as a rare Naqada III Egyptian Cosmetic palette in the shape of a fish, of the end of 4th millennium BCE, found in Ashkelon or Gaza.
It is generally thought that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter", and that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia". The two writing systems are in fact quite similar in their initial stages, relying heavily on pictographic forms and then evolving a parallel system for the expression of phonetic sounds.
Standard reconstructions of the development of writing generally place the development of the Sumerian proto-cuneiform script before the development of Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the suggestion the former influenced the latter.
There is however a lack of direct evidence, and "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt". Instead, it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy" and that "a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt..."
Since the 1990s, the discovery of glyphs on clay tags at Abydos, dated to between 3400 and 3200 BCE, may challenge the classical notion according to which the Mesopotamian symbol system predates the Egyptian one, although Egyptian writing does make a sudden apparition at that time, while on the contrary Mesopotamia has an evolutionary history of sign usage in tokens dating back to circa 8000 BCE. Also, the Abydos clay tags are virtually identical with contemporary clay tags from Uruk, Mesopotamia.
Near Eastern genetic affinity of ancient Egyptian mummies
Shared drift and mixture analysis of ancient Egyptian mummies with other ancient and modern and populations. The affinity is strongest (in red) with ancient populations of the Near East.
A 2017 study of the mitochondrial DNA composition of Egyptian mummies has shown a high level of affinity with the DNA of the populations of the Near East. The study was made on mummies of Abusir el-Meleq, near El Fayum, which was inhabited from at least 3250 BCE until about 700 CE. A shared drift and mixture analysis of the DNA of these ancient Egyptian mummies shows that the connection is strongest with ancient populations from the Levant, the Near East and Anatolia, and to a lesser extent modern populations from the Near East and the Levant. In particular the study finds "that ancient Egyptians are most closely related to Neolithic and Bronze Age samples in the Levant, as well as to Neolithic Anatolian and European populations".
Overall the mummies studied were closer genetically to Near Eastern people than the modern Egyptian population, which has a greater proportion of genes coming from sub-Saharan Africa after the Roman period.
The data suggest a high level of genetic interaction with the Near East since ancient times, probably going back to Prehistoric Egypt: "Our data seem to indicate close admixture and affinity at a much earlier date, which is unsurprising given the long and complex connections between Egypt and the Middle East. These connections date back to Prehistory and occurred at a variety of scales, including overland and maritime commerce, diplomacy, immigration, invasion and deportation".
The study stated that "our genetic time transect suggests genetic continuity between the Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic and Roman populations of Abusir el-Meleq, indicating that foreign rule impacted the [the native] population only to a very limited degree at the genetic level."
Egyptian influence on Mesopotamian art
Narmer Palette (circa 3000 BCE). The Egyptian symbol of the king smiting his enemies with a mace was adopted centuries later by the dynasts of Mesopotamia.
After this early period of exchange, and the direct introduction of Mesopotamia components in Egyptian culture, Egypt soon started to assert its own style from the Early Dynastic Period (3150-2686 BCE), the Narmer palette being seen as a turning point. The cylinder seals were soon abandoned in favour of scarab seals.
Egypt seems to have provided some artistic feedback to Mesopotamia at the time of the Early Dynastic Period of Mesopotamia (2900-2334 BCE). This is especially the case with royal iconography: the figure of the king smiting his enemies with a mace, and the depiction of dead enemies being eaten by birds of prey appeared in Egypt from the time of the Narmer palette, and were then adopted centuries later by Mesopotamian rulers Eannatum and Sargon of Akkad. This depiction appear to be part of an artistic system to promote "hegemonistic kingship". Another example is the usage of decorated mace heads as a symbol of kingship.
There is also a possibility that the depictions of the Mesopotamian king with a muscular, naked, upper body fighting his enemies in a quadrangular posture, as seen in the Stele of Naram-Sin or statues of Gudea (all circa 2000 BCE) were derived from Egyptian sculpture, which by that time had already been through its Golden Age during the Old Kingdom.
Exchanges would again flourish between the two cultures from the period of the New Kingdom of Egypt (c.1550 BC-c.1069 BC), this time an exchange between two mature and well-established civilizations.
Egypto-Assyrian cylinder seal, combining the Assyrian cuneiform script with Egyptian deities.
In the last phase of historic exchanges, the Neo-Assyrians led the Assyrian conquest of Egypt from 677 to 663 BCE. Various artifacts depicting Egyptian pharaohs, deities or persons have been found in Nimrud, and dated to the Neo-Assyrian period, 9th-7th centuries BCE.
Carved ivory panel showing young Egyptian pharaohs flanking a lotus stem and flowers. From Nimrud, Iraq. Iraq Museum, Baghdad.
Carved ivory panel showing young Egyptian men flanking lotus stem and flowers. From Nimrud, Iraq. Iraq Museum.
Carved ivory panel showing young bearded Egyptian men flanking lotus stem and flowers. From Nimrud, Iraq. Iraq Museum.
^Simson Najovits, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree: A Modern Survey of an Ancient Land, Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 55-56.
^ ab"The seal impressions, from various tombs, date even further back, to 3400 B.C. These dates challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia." Mitchell, Larkin. "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs". Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 2012.
^Grajetzki, Wolfram (2014). "Tomb 197 at Abydos, Further Evidence for Long Distance Trade in the Middle Kingdom". Ägypten und Levante / Egypt and the Levant. 24: 159-170. doi:10.1553/s159. JSTOR43553796.