Civilization probably began in the semicircle of territory stretching north and east from Egypt to the Persian Gulf known as the Fertile Crescent. The cultural legacy of Egypt in this period is well known. The pyramid of Cheops (2600 B.C.E.) is but the most obvious monument to their skill. In the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers the Sumerians built cities, farmed extensively with the aid of irrigation, engaged in foreign trade, invented writing, developed a numerical system based on the number sixty that evolved into our division of the hour into sixty minutes and the circle into 360 degrees, and codified law. The Sumerians worshiped many gods who were believed to inhabit their various city-states.
Around 2330 B.C.E. Sargon the Great of Akkad defeated the Sumerian city-states and established the world’s first empire. Semitic peoples (Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians) continued to rule Mesopotamia until 539 B.C.E. when Persian leader who allowed Jewish exiles to return home. More and the Persians gained control. Mt. Sinai may be named for the Akkadian moon god “Sin,” whom Sargon worshiped.
In this period the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia produced thousands of texts revealing broad interests in mathematics, law, medicine, astronomy, zoology, art, engineering, cosmology, architecture, and religion. The basic questions of life were explored in mythic epics such as the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh Epic that greatly influenced the biblical sources behind much of the book of Genesis.
The Amorites were a Semitic, seminomadic people who entered Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C.E. establishing the important cities of Mari and Babylon and seizing control of the entire region in the nineteenth century. Later, Hammurabi became the most famous of the Amorite rulers. His law code is very similar in form, and often in terms of content, to what will later appear in the legal traditions of the book of Exodus.
The Levant, the area that would become Syria-Palestine, the site of biblical Israel, was under Egyptian control at this time. The Middle Kingdom (2050 B.C.E.) was the period of Egypt’s greatest power. Canals provided irrigation as fortifications protected the borders. The pharaohs were more benign than in the Old Kingdom. Building projects were more likely to involve public works than pyramids, and Egypt was renowned for the extent of its trade with Phoenicia, Crete, and Babylon.