Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations

Course No. 3174
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 3174
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Course Overview

The ancient civilizations of the Near East can seem remote. For many of us, places such as Mesopotamia or the Indus valley ... or the Hittite or Assyrian peoples ... or rulers such as Sargon, Hammurabi, and Darius ... are part of a long-dead antiquity, so shrouded with dust that we might be tempted to skip over them entirely, preferring to race forward along history's timeline in search of the riches we know will be found in our studies of Greece and Rome.

That very remoteness, and our willingness to shunt aside these great civilizations, should be reason enough to study them, according to Professor Kenneth W. Harl. And remoteness, he emphasizes, is far from the only reason that demands our attention to the ancient cultures visited in Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations.

These civilizations "act as the cultural basis for many of the civilizations that will emerge on the Eurasian landmass and will dictate the destinies of many of the people living today on the globe.

"Mesopotamia," he says, citing the ancient name for Iraq, the earliest civilization we know of, "perhaps more than any other civilization we shall look at, will really set the basis for what a civilization should be; that is, it should be urban-based; it should be literate; it should be based on intensive agriculture; and it also will depend very heavily on trade—not just local and regional markets, but long-distance trade."

Another example of the contributions made by these civilizations, of course, is in the concept of a "transcendent, monotheistic God.

"How that notion comes about among the Hebrews and how it is transmitted to later generations ... is perhaps one of the most important, if not the all-important achievement—certainly for Western civilizations—coming out of these great traditions.

"Finally, I think it's important for all of us to understand the origins of these great traditions that come out of the Near East—or, as many would say today, the Middle East. They do stand behind the traditions of classical Greece. The Greeks themselves acknowledged their great debt to these older civilizations."

A Unique Course Offering and an Introduction to Even Greater Riches

In adding this course to his long list of popular appearances for The Teaching Company—which include Rome and the Barbarians, The Era of the Crusades, and The Vikings, among others—Professor Harl has enabled us to offer lovers of history a lecture series unlike anything else now available. For these dozen lectures cover many civilizations that may only receive a few lines of cursory discussion in the average textbook on Western civilization. Moreover, they also serve as a superb introduction to the many courses we offer on the ancient world and the later civilizations, such as Greece and Rome, for which those included here provide the essential foundations.

Professor Harl begins during the Bronze Age and the emergence of urban-based literate civilizations and carries the story forward until the demise of Persia's great empire at the hands of the Greeks, who embraced many of the achievements of these Near East civilizations but clearly represented a different kind of civilization, built on different institutions.

Along the way, he examines advances such as the invention and evolution of writing; the development of vast empires dependent not only on military might but on laws and administration; the growth of trade; and the contributions of the Hebrews to the religious and ethical future of Western civilization.

Moreover, he dispels the notion that beneath that layer of antique dust lies only more dust. Time and again, he sweeps that top layer aside to reveal one fascinating insight after another, deepening our understanding in ways that not only reanimate these civilizations, but also enhance our own sense of the serendipitous ways history reveals itself.

You'll learn, for example, that the civilization of the Indus Valley, in many ways the cradle of later Indian civilization, was not discovered and excavated until the 1920s. That's when officials of the British railway system being built in Pakistan, curious about the source of the glazed firebricks local workers were using to lay down the tracks, learned their astonishing origin. Ironically, the Indus civilization remains largely unknown because scholars have still not been successful in translating the writing left behind.

Or take the Nile and the fabled fertility of the lands that border its banks, made possible by the deposits of silt left by the floods that come with such clockwork predictability.

Though many people might take the Nile's agricultural riches as a given, Professor Harl reveals that they are a recent phenomenon. Until around 5,000 B.C., when the drying Sahara assumed its present guise and pushed the river to its current course, the Nile was dense and overgrown marshland, rich in fish and fowl but not at all suitable for farming.

With each civilization he presents, Professor Harl gives us something fresh to contemplate.

  • For example, the word "cuneiform" comes from the Latin cuneas, or wedge, and signifies not the name of the language used by the ancient Sumerians in inventing writing, but its form—the wedge-shaped characters that are easiest to create when writing in wet clay with a stylus.
  • The legal code named for the Babylonian King Hammurabi—often remembered for its "eye-for-an-eye" severity in dealing with crime—was, in fact, exceptionally sophisticated. As Professor Harl explains, most of it dealt not with matters of crime and punishment, but with complex civil issues that included divorce, inheritance, property, contracts, and business compensation.
  • Lions were once native to the Near East. They no longer are because of the massive lion hunts engaged in for sport by the kings of Assyria.
  • The ancient Egyptians were passionate about cleanliness and shaved their heads for sanitary purposes. Nevertheless, because their gods were depicted as having beards—and a pharaoh is a god—all pharaohs wore fake beards, including Queen Hatshepsut, who reigned for almost three decades in the early 15th century B.C.

Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations offers these and other insights in a fast-paced introduction that will give you a new appreciation of our own roots and a rock-solid foundation for deeper exploration.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Cradles of Civilization
    The opening lecture introduces the earliest civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, and Indus River valleys, which emerge c. 3500–3000 B.C. from Neolithic villages. x
  • 2
    First Cities of Sumer
    We explore the economic, social, and religious life of the Sumerians, whose mastery of writing and long-distance trade make them the progenitors of the urban civilization of the ancient Near East. x
  • 3
    Mesopotamian Kings and Scribes
    A look at three classes of people—kings, scribes, and soldiers—illuminates the creation of wider political institutions in ancient Mesopotamia, from the regional kingdoms to the territorial empires of the early and middle Bronze Age. x
  • 4
    Hammurabi’s Babylon
    We end our survey of Mesopotamian civilization in the Bronze Age with an examination of the career and kingdom of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, who establishes the cultural underpinnings of Mesopotamian civilization thereafter. x
  • 5
    Egypt in the Pyramid Age
    We begin three lectures on Egypt with a focus on the so-called early dynastic period and the Old Kingdom, beginning with a look at some of the basic features of early Egyptian civilization and the unique characteristics of the Nile. x
  • 6
    The Middle Kingdom
    This lecture examines a key period of Egyptian history, which is roughly contemporaneous with the Babylon of Hammurabi, during which Egypt for the first time expands its horizons beyond its own frontiers. x
  • 7
    Imperial Egypt
    Egypt's monarchy comes to play the dominant role in the Near East until the empire comes to an end with attacks associated with the so-called "Sea Peoples"—invaders coming out of both Libya and the Aegean world. x
  • 8
    New Peoples of the Bronze Age
    We complete our discussion of the Bronze Age with a look at three areas influenced by the early river valley civilizations: the region known as the Levant, the area that is today Asiatic Turkey, and the world of the Aegean. x
  • 9
    The Collapse of the Bronze Age
    The great empires of the late Bronze Age fall in the wake of migrations and barbarian invasions usually associated with the advent of iron technology. Though this has been explained as the result of natural disasters, the imperial order did not collapse so much as fragment. x
  • 10
    From Hebrews to Jews
    This lecture deals with the evolution of a group of Canaanite speakers to a people with a monotheistic faith attached not to a particular place, but to one's perceptions, ethical beliefs, and worship of a transcendent God. x
  • 11
    Imperial Assyria
    Despite their remarkable reputation for ferocity, the Assyrians do more than forge the first imperial order since the late Bronze Age; they set down many of the foundations upon which the Persians will build their far more successful and larger empire. x
  • 12
    The Persian Empire
    We conclude the course with a look at an empire that may have had, at its peak, as many as 40 million subjects, and which, in its imperial organization, is perhaps the best-ordered until the age of Rome. x

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 104-page printed course guidebook
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  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 104-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has...
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Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 136.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very Good Survey Course This short course is an excellent "appetizer" for other classes here at The Great Courses, providing background that could be helpful with courses on Greek civilization, the world of the Bible (in particular the history of the Jews), and perhaps even the history of language development. For audio listeners, it would be helpful to keep a map of the Near East on hand because there are a lot of geographical references to the modern-day Middle East, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt in particular.
Date published: 2019-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Harl never disappoints A very educational and entertaining survey of several early civilizations. How writing developed was very interesting. Glad Dr. Harl used the term ‘Palestine’ in its proper context. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-12-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview Good overview of the main civilizations around the Mediterranean in the B.C.E. era.
Date published: 2018-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Starter Set This course by the prolific Kenneth Harl focuses on western Asia, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean from about 4000 to 500 BC. The major players include the Sumerians and their mostly Semitic-speaking successors in Mesopotamia--Akkadians, Amorites, Kassites, Aramaeans, and Chaldean Neo-Babylonians--the Egyptians, the Assyrians (northern Mesopotamia), and the Persians. Less powerful or less successful peoples include the Mitanni, the Hittites, Crete, the Achaean Greeks and the Hebrews a/k/a Israelites a/k/a Jews. The Indus Valley appears in the first lecture but drops out thereafter. Life changed slowly in the ancient world compared to our experience in the 20th and 21st centuries, but Near Eastern peoples registered great achievements: the development of agriculture, trade and writing, the building of royal bureaucracy and state religion, and the first literature, especially the Epic of Gilgamesh. On the downside, they inflicted and suffered brutal conquests and massacres, while occasional mass migrations erased whole kingdoms from the map. In the end the Persian Empire corralled the whole region, plus the Indus Valley, and ruled it well for more than a century and a half, except for a disastrous expedition against distant Greece. It is at this point that Harl ends the course. There is a lot to like here. Harl uses many maps and devotes a whole lecture (6) to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, which most world history courses skip as a brief and uninteresting interval between the Old and New Kingdoms. There are two minor problems. As I’ve complained about all the other courses of his I’ve reviewed so far, Harl has an unfortunate tendency to stumble, misspeak and resort to umms and uhhs while lecturing. In this course, Lecture 1 on the three river valleys feels rather rushed; perhaps he should have left out the Indus Valley since early India is otherwise absent. In any case, buy this course if you don’t have it. It’s easily well worth the low price. As Harl says, this short series is a “gateway” to other courses, and an excellent one. Some examples: History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective, Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia, The History of Ancient Egypt, Harl’s own Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor, The Persian Empire, the World of Biblical Israel, and Writing and Civilization. But if you don’t expect to buy any of those longer courses, this one stands well on its own.
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from OK for Niche This course is recommended for the student who is interested in a short (12 lectures) introduction to Ancient Near East (ANE) civilizations. This course provides a very high-level peek at Mesopotamian civilizations (e. g., Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Persia), Egypt, and Israel following a generally chronological trajectory. The value is not in the information it provides but rather in the unique combination of civilizations that it addresses. Other The Great Courses (TGC) offerings provide much better discussion of each of these civilizations but they are much longer, take more time to listen to, and are more expensive in toto. For Mesopotamia, I recommend Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Amanda Podany (24 lectures). For Egypt, I recommend History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier (48 lectures!). I have not listened to The World of Biblical Israel by Cynthia Chapman (24 lectures). Dr. Harl has a unique style; you probably either love it or hate it. I, myself, shifted from the former to the latter. He is flippant, often tossing off-hand comments in the middle of a discussion or even in the middle of a sentence. He generally states conclusions without explanation of how those conclusions were derived. (Again, if your learning style focuses on what facts to remember, this is efficient. However, if your learning style focuses more on the *why* of things, this is less helpful.) I listened to the audio version and I had no problems with it. However, I am familiar with the geography and timeline of the subject. Perhaps someone less familiar would benefit from the video.
Date published: 2018-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I was pleasantly surprised by this course. Dr. Harl covers a lot of territory, and although he may not be the most dynamic lecturer in the Great Courses' stable of teachers, I thought he chose his lecture topics well and delivered interesting, well packaged lectures that brought his subject matter to life. I strongly recommend the video version of the course because Dr. Harl relies heavily on some of the best and most frequent map images that I have seen in a TGC course. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Excellent Course from Dr. Harl This is a very well thought out and presented series of lectures. The audio version worked quite well for me. This is a relatively short series, as they say, that gives an overview of matters that are at least partially covered in more detail in other Great Courses sets. It was very good for an overview of these matters, and I'm looking forward to following up with other more detailed courses.
Date published: 2018-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Concise Gateway Course I was looking for a short review of ancient civilizations because it had been decades since I had studied world history. This twelve lecture course was exactly what I was seeking. Not too in depth nor too short. As Prof Harl explains, this is a "gateway" course, an introduction to ancient civilizations of the near East. If one is looking for more comprehensive history, then they should take the 24 or 36 lecture courses available at TGC by Prof Harl. I did not find his lectures boring. I did not find his presentation monotone. He kept my interest throughout each lecture. The photographs, graphics and images were very helpful. Some of the graphics were animated, too, which I liked. I learned a lot from this course and plan to take more of Prof Harl's courses. He was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his material. I enjoyed him.
Date published: 2017-11-25
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