The similarities between Mesopotamia and Egypt are truly remarkable. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations emerged roughly in the mid to late third millennium BCE. The two societies had similar geography, religious beliefs, governments, and more.
Read on to get a run-down on these two ancient powerhouses and what they have in common.
What Did Egypt and Mesopotamia Have In Common?
Let’s go through the basics.
The following bullets outline the most prevalent Mesopotamia and Egypt similarities:
- Geography: Both civilizations settled on rivers.
- Government: Egypt and Mesopotamia were each ruled by monarchs.
- Religion: Both societies were polytheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. Additionally, they had similar views of the afterlife.
- Art and Culture: We know both civilizations for their contributions to writing, art, and architecture.
In the rest of this article, we will break these categories down in more detail.
Geography: A Key Factor In Civilization’s Success
The geography of Mesopotamia and Egypt is easy to compare and contrast. First, both civilizations settled on major rivers that let out into larger bodies of water.
Second, these rivers were crucial to their survival. But, the rivers were not the only geographic feature that affected their lives.
The Rivers: Both Life-Giving and Chaotic
Ancient Egypt sat on the Nile River, which flows south to north, and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The city-states of ancient Mesopotamia sat along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flowed north to south and emptied into the Persian Gulf. Climate, weather, and surrounding terrain are notable differences between Mesopotamian and Egyptian geography.
In rocky, northern Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates flow through mountains. The mountains serve as natural barriers to flooding. In the south, the rivers flow down the mountains and into a plain. The plain between the Tigris and Euphrates saw violent and destructive flooding, especially in the spring when the rivers carried down melted snow from the mountains.
The Nile’s flooding was far more predictable than the Tigris and Euphrates. Usually, the flooding subsided before the Egyptians planted their major crops. What’s more, the Nile’s shore possessed natural levees to curb any flooding. In general, the Nile has more positive attributes than negative.
The Nile’s waters created a grand oasis between two surrounding deserts, making its banks valuable land for farming. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, wrote that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”
Scholars believe that the Tigris and Euphrates made the Mesopotamians anxious and pessimistic. Chaos and unpredictability earned the Tigris and Euphrates a lousy reputation.
Climate and Weather
Another important aspect of geography in Egypt and Mesopotamia is regional climate and weather. Throughout the region, Egypt is hot and dry. Precipitation is scarce.
This predictability allowed the Egyptians to adapt. They built an irrigation system that complemented the Nile’s natural barriers. The irrigation system ensured their crops were always watered but rarely flooded.
Northern Mesopotamia also enjoyed predictable weather. The climate in the north was temperate. They did not need an irrigation system to water their crops, since they experienced regular rainfall.
Southern Mesopotamia’s climate and weather were the opposite of the north’s. The south had a subtropical climate, with very hot and humid summers. Due to the violent flooding they experienced, they owed much of their survival to their irrigation system.
Monarchs and Surrogates: The Government Structure of Egypt and Mesopotamia
On the surface, government structure is one of the more clear similarities between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Both civilizations indeed had monarchies, meaning kings ruled them, with many government officials.
But, the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians had very different ideas about what a king was. And, while Egypt had one ruler for the entire region, Mesopotamia was a collection of city-states with a different king ruling each.
Regional Rule vs. City-States
The government structure of ancient Egypt was quite simple. Around 2686 BCE, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt unified. From that point on, one monarch, called a pharaoh, ruled the entire region.
Mesopotamia was never a unified entity but a region filled with city-states ruled by a capital city. A city-state is when a city is an independent seat of power with a monarch and also rules the surrounding area. The city-state structure caused political turmoil, as city-states would fight each other, often over natural resources.
Sumer, the first Mesopotamian empire, existed in the south until the Babylonians invaded and took over. Assyria existed in the north. The Babylonians’ capital was the city of Babylon, while the Assyrians’ was Assur.
Kings and the Gods
Divine aspects of kingship were evident in both civilizations. But, Egyptians saw their monarchs as descendants of the gods. The Mesopotamians did not see their kings as divine.
The Mesopotamians did not see their king as divine, but they could have divine qualities. Instead, they believed that their kings were the gods’ surrogates.
The kings then had the responsibility of doing the gods’ will on earth. In addition to that, Mesopotamians believed that their society would lose the divine favor of their gods if the king treated his subjects unjustly or unfairly.
Egyptian pharaohs were believed to be direct descendants of their principal gods. A pharaoh usually claimed to be the son of one or more gods at a time.
Religious Beliefs: Polytheism and the Afterlife
Another one of Mesopotamia and Egypt’s similarities is polytheism. Polytheism is the belief in many gods at once. In both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions, some gods were more important than others.
The Gods in Mythology
We know from surviving writing, Mesopotamian deities had personalities that were usually similar to a force of nature. Mesopotamian epics describe gods that were skeptical of humans, while they also tended to interfere with matters on earth.
So, the most important personal virtue in Mesopotamian society was respect for the gods.
We know less about the personalities of Egyptian deities. They carried out specific duties, like the Mesopotamian deities. But, the Egyptians’ most less important deities were sometimes described as an aspect or quality of a principal deity.
Both civilizations believed in the power of chaos. The Mesopotamians, however, were less optimistic about uncertainty than the Egyptians. The Mesopotamians believed that they needed to remain in the gods’ favor to avoid the forces of chaos. The Egyptians believed that infinite chaos existed beyond the realm of the gods, but they were divinely protected.
Did Egyptians and Mesopotamians Believe In an Afterlife?
We can also compare Mesopotamia and Egypt based on their beliefs about life after death. Mesopotamia and Egypt both believed in an afterlife. You may know about the Egyptians’ complex journey to the underworld. Mesopotamia had a similar, although gloomier, idea of the afterlife.
Egyptians believed that death was just an interruption to life. Though they could not revive the physical body, the deceased person’s soul would be reawakened in the afterlife. In the afterlife, the dead would meet with Anubis, a deity with a man’s body but the head of a jackal. Anubis weighed the person’s heart to decide whether or not they were worthy of the afterlife.
The Egyptians did not believe in heaven and hell. They believed that if you were virtuous on earth, you would see paradise. If you were not, you would cease to exist. In the mind of Egyptians, non-existence was worse than going to hell.
Notably, the Mesopotamians did not believe in heaven or hell, either.
Instead, the Mesopotamians believed that everyone went to the same underworld regardless of who you are on earth. Like the Egyptians, they thought that the dead were reborn in the underworld. But, the afterlife they believed in was dark and lonely.
There was nothing for the dead to eat but funerary offerings from the living that remembered them. It appears, then, the Mesopotamians were also deeply afraid of non-existence.
Cultural Similarities of Egyptian and Mesopotamian Society
No comparison between Mesopotamia and Egypt would be complete without talking about towering pyramids or stone tablets full of writing. We aren’t sure how much prehistoric Egyptians and Mesopotamians came in contact with each other. But, it is incredible that they made significant advancements almost simultaneously.
Language and Writing
Scholars credit the Mesopotamians with inventing writing. It’s possible that Egypt created writing at the same time or soon after the Mesopotamians did.
Both civilizations developed written languages first in pictogram form, meaning the language used pictures to represent a word. Later, both languages evolved to include representations of ideas.
Egypt may be famous for its hieroglyphs on temple walls, but Mesopotamian literature remains celebrated today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest example of epic poetry in existence. The story of the Sumerian hero-king of Uruk tells an eternally relevant tale about life, death, and human nature.
Pyramids and Ziggurats
Societies throughout human history used tremendous works of architecture to show off the splendor of their civilization. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians, as you are probably already aware, did the same. Grand architecture also reflected the might of a capable ruler. The ruler had to have an effective administration and a large labor force to build such magnificent projects.
Egypt was full of valuable natural resources. For building temples, monuments, and pyramids, they used rock such as basalt, granite, quartzite. The Nile Valley was rich in limestone. You could find alabaster near Memphis, 12 miles from the pyramids of Giza.
Mesopotamia had a similar, mountain-like structure called a ziggurat. On top of the ziggurat stood a temple for a patron deity. Both the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians believed that a deity’s temple was its earthly home. But, the Mesopotamian ziggurat underneath the temple served as a type of office building for priests and other religious officials.
The structure’s purpose is one fundamental difference between the pyramid and the ziggurat. The Egyptian pyramids were built to house the dead while Mesopotamian ziggurats served the living.
Another difference is where the structure was built. Ziggurats were built in the middle of cities, while the Egyptians built pyramids in the desert, isolated from society.
Egyptian and Mesopotamian Similarities in Review
As you can see, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians shared some crucial similar qualities.
Let’s recap the features that the two ancient societies had in common:
- Both civilizations emerged on essential waterways. Egypt appeared on the Nile, while Mesopotamian city-states were scattered around the Tigris and Euphrates
- The Egyptians and Mesopotamians were both ruled by monarchs. Egyptian kings were called pharaohs, and they were believed to be descended from the gods. Mesopotamian kings were not considered divine but could have divine qualities
- Egypt was one kingdom ruled by one monarch. Mesopotamia had many city-states. Sometimes city-states unified or conquered to form empires (Babylonia, Assyria, Sumer)
- Mesopotamia and Egypt believed in many gods. This belief system is called polytheism
- Both civilizations believed in an afterlife. Neither believed in the concept of heaven or hell
- Scholars credit the Mesopotamians with inventing a written language first. The Egyptians invented their system of writing soon after
- The Egyptians and Mesopotamians alike completed massive architectural projects to display the power of their civilization