Investigative Question

From 4000 BCE to 500 BCE, how did contact, trade, and other links grow among the urban societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Kush, India, and the eastern Mediterranean?

Students also examine the connections between Mesopotamia and other areas with this question:

From 4000 BCE to 500 BCE, how did contact, trade, and other links grow among the urban societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Kush, India, and the eastern Mediterranean?

Trade was extensive, not only among the Mesopotamian kingdoms, but also between Mesopotamia and surrounding regions. The land had rich soil that produced abundant crops, but it had no minerals. Merchants imported a red stone called carnelian from the Indus Valley, a blue stone called lapis lazuli from what is now Afghanistan, and silver from Anatolia (modern Turkey), which were used for jewelry and decorations in temples and palaces. From the Elamites on the Iranian plateau, merchants imported wood, copper, lead, silver, and tin. In some periods, trade and diplomatic exchanges took place between Mesopotamia and Egypt....

Representatives of the king sailed up the Nile to Kush and penetrated the Red Sea coasts to obtain incense, ivory, and ebony wood. To the northeast, they acquired timber from the forests of Lebanon. New Kingdom pharaohs also nurtured ties through treaties and marriage with Middle Eastern states, notably Babylonia (in Mesopotamia), Mittani (in Syria), and the kingdom of the Hittites in Anatolia. Diplomatic envoys and luxury goods circulated among these royal courts, so that they formed the world’s first international community of states. Students may create maps showing the trade routes and products that circulated among Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, Persia, and South Asia, as well as in the eastern Mediterranean. Students recognize that the number of states and the intensity of trade connections increased steadily from 1500 BCE to 300 CE....

Teachers may introduce comparisons between the societies of Kush and Egypt through pictorial representations of the two architectural traditions. For example, kings of Kush built pyramids, although they were smaller than Egypt’s structures. In the first millennium BCE, however, Kush developed a distinctive cultural style that included painted pottery, the elephant as an artistic motif, an alphabetic writing system, and a flourishing iron industry. The similarities between Egypt and Kush, and the distinct features of each civilization, offer an opportunity for students to analyze how one culture adopts products, styles, and ideas from another culture, but adapts those borrowings to fit its own needs and preferences. Another way to compare these civilizations is to have students trace how popular goods traded in the Egyptian world were related to the natural resources available in Egypt and Kush. They learn that Egyptian trade influenced the development of laws, policies, and incentives on the use and management of ecosystem goods and services in the eastern Mediterranean and Nile Valley, which had the long-term effects on the functioning and health of those ecosystems, through California EEI Curriculum Units 6.2.6/8, “Egypt and Kush: A Tale of Two Kingdoms.”

In the eighth century BCE, Kush’s ruler took advantage of political weakness in Egypt to conquer it, uniting a huge stretch of the Nile Valley under the twenty-fifth dynasty for nearly a century. Mapping the trade of Kush merchants with the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean littoral, and equatorial Africa shows students how networks of trade expanded to more and more areas. The Kush state did not seriously decline until the fourth century CE.

This set investigates the connections among Egypt, Mesopotamia, and societies in the surrounding lands between 4000 and 500 BCE. The set covers the types of connections — particularly trade, conflict and conquest, and spread of technology — for which we have evidence. From 4000 to 500 BCE, the links among Egypt, Mesopotamia, the rest of southwest Asia, and Kush generally grew more extensive. The items exchanged increased in type and quantity, although all were limited to either necessary raw materials (for the elite) or luxury items.

The first stage dates from the formation of cities and complex societies in Mesopotamia and Egypt. People paid tribute in products or services to the king, high priests, and powerful elite groups. Historians call each of the river basin societies a core and the areas surrounding and connected to it the periphery. From the cores, first agriculture and then new products, ideas, and urban communities spread out to the periphery. The cores imported raw materials from the periphery, which deepened the exchanges. One example of this need was for wood: the cedars of Phoenicia (Lebanon) were the inspiration for the forest of Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh (Source 1). Historians use the term networks of exchange rather than trade, because people conducted exchange by barter, gifts, or tribute rather than money. There were exchanges between distant places for prized raw materials. The lapis lazuli used to make the Queen’s lyre (Source 2) in Ur came from modern-day Afghanistan. The river basin societies used force or threat of force to extract resources from other societies; Egyptians and Mesopotamians did not fight each other, nor did they try to conquer areas outside of their river basins.

The river basin societies also had to deal with diminishing resources and defend themselves against other groups. As the southern portion of Mesopotamia became too salty to support agriculture, the northern portion became more prominent. Mesopotamians also felt threatened by people who lived in the nearby mountains and the outskirts of the Arabian Desert (Source 4). Sometimes driven by severe droughts, conquerors leading warriors from these groups swept into Mesopotamia and established themselves as rulers. Climate change at the end of the third millennium BCE may have increased these conflicts. Egypt was more protected by the deserts that surrounded it, but foreigners invaded and conquered it as well in the second millennium BCE. This contact involved violent conquest but also the spread of new technology — the horse-drawn chariot (Source 5). Eventually horses and chariot technology spread all over this region and transformed warfare. Around 2000 BCE, states ruled by kings emerged in and around the river basin societies. Rulers created territorial states that divided up Mesopotamia and then fought annual campaigns to expand their territory. Powerful states in Anatolia (Asia Minor), Syria, and Persia dominated the original core area of the Mesopotamian river basin. Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom began to use war to gain more territory for Egypt. They built forts south along the Nile, and pharaohs fought campaigns to extend their dominance over Kush (Source 6). Egyptian armies fought with the Hittites over Palestine and Syria. When wars weren’t successful, rulers invented a new way of settling their differences by diplomacy and negotiation (Sources 8 and 9).

Between 2000 and 500 BCE, networks of exchange became more intense. Merchants took over trading goods in Mesopotamia and sent out caravans of camels to carry products between states and cities. Trading ships sailed along the coasts to the Indus Valley, around the Mediterranean Sea, and down the Red Sea to present-day Ethiopia. Products made in Egypt, such as blue glass beads, began to appear in graves as far north as Scandinavia (Source 7). In addition to gold, Egyptians and Mesopotamians imported precious metals, ivory, and exotic animals from Kush (Source 6). Merchants exchanged more goods, more often, with more localities.

Depending on the teacher’s goals for this set and time constraints, the teacher might use a source analysis chart for multiple sources with columns for source name, date, society of author/creator, and one or two pieces of evidence that help answer the question. The teacher might set up the sources in stations and have student groups fill out the chart as they move among the stations. When the chart is complete, the teacher could work on categorizing evidence, using three categories: exchange or trade, war and conquest, and spread of technology. Building toward writing an expository paragraph, the teacher might introduce analyzing evidence, using an EARS (Evidence-Analysis-Significance) chart, analysis sentence starters, and a paragraph frame. Models of these strategies are available in the Toolkit. Alternatively, the teacher might want to focus on one skill, such as selecting good evidence or analyzing evidence.

Teacher Background

The Curse of Agade (Source 4) is an ancient text that even scholars struggle to understand. It comes from a copy done of fragments of texts from earlier periods. The authors were probably priests writing propaganda about the fallen Agade kingdom and the “evil” king, Naram-Sin, who had lived several centuries earlier. Parts of it are missing because of damaged cuneiform tablets, making it difficult to follow the story. In addition, it is about subjects that are foreign to modern people. The text was written in a poetic style to be read aloud rather than as prose. The poet who wrote this part of the text used much figurative language, as he was trying to create memorable descriptions for readers and listeners. The literacy strategy below helps students understand the figurative language so that they can comprehend and analyze the descriptions of the Guti invasion.


  1. Divide students into small groups and distribute Student Handout 6.2.
  2. Read aloud the background and the stanza 1 directions. Using the background information, discuss figurative language with students to make sure they understand what it is.
  3. Have the student groups complete the stanza 1 chart. Circulate through the class to help struggling groups. Encourage students to guess.
  4. When most of the groups have finished the chart, have students share out their answers. Teachers might record good answers on the board.
  5. Discuss what the poet thought about the Guti. Point out to them that the Guti were not one separate group of people. Instead, the Mesopotamians used that name for any people who lived far away, in the mountains, and who did not respect the Mesopotamian gods and social customs. To the poet, the Guti seemed wild and savage, as did their land. You might identify this as the poet’s perspective, the point of view of people in “civilized” Mesopotamia. We do not have any documents from the Guti perspective.
  6. Have the student groups answer the question below the stanza 1 chart.
  7. Repeat the procedure for stanza 2. When discussing students’ answers, ask student groups to pick out one or two pieces of evidence from the first two stanzas to add to their source charts. Discuss with them how to choose good, specific evidence, and model the wording on the board. They should include who, what, and when along with specific key details. For example, in The Curse of Agade, written around 2000 BCE, the poet said that the Guti spread over the land ‘like hordes of locusts. ’” Then have students explain how this evidence helps answer the question (the analysis). For example, “This shows evidence of war and conquest because the Guti people invaded Mesopotamia and stole all the wealth, crops, and animals of the Mesopotamians. ”


6.2 Contact among Mesopotamia, Egypt, Kush, and Other Societies Student Handout

6.2 Contact among Mesopotamia, Egypt, Kush, and Other Societies Teacher Handout

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.