The Ancient Middle East

The Ancient Middle East was probably the most crucial region in the history of the world. It was here that farming first arose, the earliest cities appeared, writing first developed (and later the alphabet), the wheel, the sail, bronze metallurgy, iron metallurgy, the first empires, the first law codes – all were first seen here.

This article covers is a general survey of the Middle East in ancient times, from prehistory to late Antiquity. The individual civilizations are dealt with in other articles – you can follow links to them from here.

The Rise of Civilization

A region of dry grasslands and fertile river plains, the Ancient Middle East was the natural home to the first agriculture, and then to the first civilizations.

The cradle of farming…

The Middle East is a huge area, with many different kinds of climate and landscape. Large parts are covered by desert or grassland; elsewhere there are highlands and mountains covered by forests. Running through all these zones are long rivers, especially the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, and the Nile in Egypt.

The highlands of the Middle East are the natural habitat of grasses, such as wild wheat and barley, and it was almost inevitable that agriculture based on these crops, which would eventually cover so much of the world, would begin here, around 10,000 years ago. Farming had spread around the Middle East by c. 6000 BCE, and was gradually pushing westward into Europe and eastward into India and South Asia.

… and of civilization

Large parts of the Middle East lie within a hot, dry zone, where rainfall is insufficient to grow crops such as wheat and barley. The melting snows in the high mountains and the spring rains in the hills carry fresh water and silt down into the lowlands, flooding the dry river plains and depositing a rich mud for miles around.

This means that the land surrounding the lower reaches of these rivers is potentially very fertile. However, it is too dry for farming most of the year – except during the spring and early summer, when there is too much water!

Farmers gradually mastered this challenging environment by developing irrigation techniques, beginning around 5000 BCE. This created a wonderfully productive agriculture, lead to the rise of the first civilizations in world history, those of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and of Ancient Egypt in the Nile Valley.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 3500 BC


The communities which settled the broad river plains of Mesopotamia naturally came to devote much of their land to fields of wheat and barley, as this was the most productive use for it. In the highlands and grasslands surrounding these the river plains, however, keeping sheep and goats was a good use of the less fertile terrain.

The importance of stock-rearing increased as the expanding populations of crop-growers in the river plains grew, and created an intensifying demand for the animal products which they lacked (wool, skin, meat, cheese and so on).

As a result, societies grew up on the highlands and plains of the Middle East which specialized in stock-rearing, and took to a more nomadic way of life than before. These nomadic pastoralists were to play a large part in the history of the region.

The same was far less true for Egypt, where the Nile Valley is flanked by bone dry desert. Apart from near the banks of the river Nile itself, human habitation is only possible in the oases.

Trade on a new scale

The thousand years between 3500 BCE and 2500 BCE saw urban civilization spread across the Middle East, carried by long-distance trade.

The economies of the two great civilizations of the Middle East – Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia – were built upon irrigation systems needed to make the fertile soils of the Nile and Euphrates-Tigris river plains support large populations. However, being essentially mud, these river plains (especially Mesopotamia) offer precious little else other than good crops. They contain few minerals for metal and stone, trees for wood, and, away from the rivers, forage for too few sheep or goats for the required quantities of meat, skins, wool and diary produce.

To bring in these things, the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians turned to trade on a scale never seen before in human history.

The need for metals

For millennia, people had been using copper, a soft metal only useful for making jewelry and other decorations. Sometime around 3000 BCE, the metal smiths of Mesopotamia developed bronze. This was much tougher than copper, and was ideal for armor and weapons, as well as for sculptures and building decorations. It was strong enough for farming tools, but was far too expensive, so farmers continued to make do with stone and wood implements.

Why was bronze so expensive? It is an alloy of two other metals, copper and tin. These metals occur naturally in widely separated regions, mostly some distance from Mesopotamia. The Sumerians needed to import both.

Bronze began being made in Egypt a little later than in Mesopotamia, and like Mesopotamia, it had no tin or copper of its own. It too needed to bring these metals in from outside.

As a result, trade routes radiated out from Mesopotamia and Egypt into neighboring regions. Trade was carried up the river Euphrates and Tigris into Asia Minor, a mineral-rich region; and across into Syria and Canaan. Trade routes soon linked the two great centers of civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys. The first great seaports in history emerged on the Syrian coast, at Byblos and Ugarit. To the east, trade routes spread into Iran in the search of metals and other goods, and connected with trade radiating out from the cities of the Indus Valley civilization. A sea route was also opened up along the Indian Ocean coast between Indus and Mesopotamian ports. To the west, the expanding trade links began to have affect the societies of south-west Europe.

The impact of trade

These trade routes had a major impact on the societies which they touched, for example leading to the rise of new civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Wherever trade went, local markets sprang up and towns and cities grew – often, as in Asia Minor, around settlements of Mesopotamian traders. Literacy, sophisticated art production and other techniques of civilization spread. These markets acting as the nodes of long distance trade stimulated more local trade and crafts, which, by encouraging more intensive production of food and goods, raised the material wealth of these localities. Over the thousand years between 3500 and 2500 BCE, urban life and the arts of civilization spread over much of the Middle East, and beyond.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 2500 BCE

Kingdoms and Empires

The period from 3000 BCE through to 1500 BCE saw the formation of large, well-organized kingdoms in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

The first large states

The long, narrow lower Nile valley lends itself to the formation of a single state to rule it. At this stage in world history, well-nigh impenetrable barriers guarded this land: to the north, the sea; to east and west, the desert; and to the south, a series of easily guarded cataracts rushing through narrow ravines

From around 3000 BCE, the lower Nile valley came under the united control of one regime. The rulers of what modern scholars call the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt brought the entire lower Nile valley under their firm control. It was these pharaohs who presided over construction of the earliest and most enduring of man-made Wonders of the World, the Pyramids

Mesopotamia is far less amenable to unified control. Its broad plain, with its two great rivers and many branches, are wide open to outside attack or immigration. Protecting the settled farming communities has always been difficult, right up to the present day. Local power centers have therefore tended to be the norm. It was inevitable, then, that the land of Mesopotamia should produce a multiplicity of small city-states; and equally inevitable that any attempts to unite them under one rule would be short-lived

Nevertheless, it was the Mesopotamians who produced the first real empires in world history.

The first empires

The first of these to appear was the large but relatively short-lived empire of Sargon and his successors. This state covered most of Mesopotamia and some of Asia Minor and Syria, reaching as far as the Mediterranean Sea. It clearly had a major cultural influence on Middle Eastern history. Brief as it was, it led to the imposition of the Akkadian language as the chief language of Mesopotamia.

Bronze head of a king, most likely Sargon of Akkad but possibly Naram-Sin.
Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities – Encyclopedia Britannica Online

This Akkadian empire was followed by another empire, centered on Ur, a Sumerian city-state located near the coast of the Persian Gulf.

The Amorites

By this time, much of the Middle East was being effected by the migration of a nomadic people called the Amorites.

We have seen how nomadic peoples, sheep- and goat-herders, sprang up on the fringes of the Tigris-Euphrates plain. Some time after 2500 BCE such a people, the Amorites, settled the dry grasslands between Mesopotamia and Syria.

Sometime before 2000 BCE, they began to move out of these wild wastes into the civilized lands on either side. There is increasing evidence that this expansion of nomadism was linked to the onset of a dry period, which lasted for some 200-300 years. The area of cereal-growing shrank as marginal lands, with restricted access to water, were abandoned. Conditions may well have become much more suitable for herders than farmers in many places. This dry period seems to have affected the whole of the Middle East, as well as south east Europe.

In any event, the Amorites (and their close relatives the Canaanites) had soon conquered cities and founded kingdoms in Syria, Canaan and Mesopotamia. The most successful of these new states was that centered on Babylon; under its famous king, Hammurabi (reigned c. 1792-1750 BCE), it came to rule an extensive empire covering Mesopotamia and much of Syria.

Code de Hammurabi, roi de Babylone ; face avant, bas-relief.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

The Chariot

The coming of the chariot was a significant development in Middle Eastern history, as it was in other regions. It was probably introduced by Indo-European speaking peoples coming into the region, either from the steppes of central Asia or eastwards from the Balkans, in Europe. Any ruler with a force of chariots at his call had an immediate advantage over any opponent who did not, and this military technology spread rapidly through the Middle East.

These Indo-European chieftains set up kingdoms which were to rule large tracts of the region – the Hittites in Asia Minor, the Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia and Syria, and the Kassites in southern Mesopotamia. Non Indo-Europeans also adopted this technology, with for example Assyrian rulers soon had chariots in their army.

The Hyksos

The civilization of Ancient Egypt, which up to now had flourished in relative isolation, was also deeply affected by these upheavals; in fact it suffered the first major invasion from the north since the founding of the united Old Kingdom of Egypt in 3000 BCE.

The Hyksos were a nomadic people, quite likely near relatives of the Amorites. They entered Canaan from the eastern deserts at the same time that the Amorites were founding kingdoms in Syria. Whilst in Canaan the Hyksos adopted the chariot, and with this technology invaded Egypt. There, they defeated the old-fashioned (and chariot-less) Egyptian army and established a powerful kingdom around the Nile Delta.

In due course, this provoked a national response under capable Egyptian leaders who drove the Hyksos out and established the New Kingdom of Egypt over the entire country. To achieve this, they too adopted the chariot as an important part of their army.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 1500 BCE

Great powers

The Middle East was by this time dominated by large and powerful states, and the relationships between them as they competed with one another for power and influence. New Kingdom Egypt, under its warlike pharaohs, was a major power in the region throughout this whole period. To its north, first the Mitanni and then the Hittites challenged Egypt for control of Syria and Canaan. These powers in turn were faced with a strong and ambitious Assyria, centered in northern Mesopotamia, while southern Mesopotamia was under the Kassite dynasty, ruling from their capital, Babylon. Another people to mention were the Minoans of Crete, where Knossos was undoubtedly the center of wealthy and powerful state.

For the first time in world history, a group of major powers were involved in a long-lasting system of alliances, in which sophisticated diplomacy regulated the relationships between them. A glimpse of this can be seen in a cache of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and other leading Middle Eastern states of the time, known as the Armana letters. Found in the Egyptian desert, these letters were written in Babylonian cuneiform. They were clearly written by highly educated civil servants working in a government bureaux devoted to foreign affairs.

Diplomacy and war

This alliance system was underpinned by marriage agreements and exchanges of gifts, and the territories between the leading powers were partitioned into spheres of influence. When these alliances were not able to contain the aggression of one power or another, war broke out, on a scale not seen before.

The first battles of which any details are known occur in this period. The leading armies now all contained large contingents of chariots. These were expensive to maintain and repair, and the crews who manned them required long training to maneuver them in battle. Armies were therefore more professional than before, more expensive, and required more elaborate organization. The states which maintained them, therefore, had to develop more effective tax raising capabilities than before, and larger and more complex bureaucracies.

Catastrophe and Advance

The period between 1500 and 1200 BCE was the high point of the Bronze-Age civilization in the Middle East. It ended in catastrophe for almost all the states concerned.

A double blow fell on them. From the west came the “Sea Peoples”, a group of tribes set in motion by population movements in Europe and swarming along the coasts of Asia Minor, Syria, Canaan and Egypt. The Hittites were overwhelmed by them, their empire completely vanishing. The Egyptians, already weakened by internal struggles, only narrowly escaped complete defeat.

Meanwhile, another group of nomadic tribes called the Aramaeans, who had replaced the Amorites in the deserts and grasslands between Mesopotamia and Syria sometime in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, now expanded violently outwards, capturing cities in northern Syria and attacking deep into Mesopotamia.


This period of upheaval was accompanied by two major cultural and technological advances. Iron had been used in small quantities since the dawn of metallurgy, but only as a precious metal. Sometime in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, a new way of smelting and manufacturing iron objects had been developed, probably somewhere in Asia Minor. These developments made iron suitable for use in weapons and other artifacts.

At this stage, iron was no stronger than bronze, but the upheavals in the Middle East after 1200 BCE probably disrupted the long-distance trade routes which made large-scale bronze production possible. Between 1200 and 1000 BCE, therefore, iron, which is a commonly occurring mineral throughout the world, became used in making weapons. Being plentiful and cheap, iron also began to be used for making agricultural implements. In this, it is vastly more suitable than stone and wood, which, because of the expense of Bronze, had been the chief material for agricultural tools up to now. The spread of iron farming tools was to greatly raise agricultural productivity.

Gradual improvements in iron-smelting techniques increased its strength and flexibility, making it more suitable in armor and weaponry than bronze, and further increasing its use in agriculture.

The alphabet

The second major cultural advance was the alphabet. Like iron, this had also been developed sometime in later 2nd millennium BCE, probably in Canaan. It is possible that its distribution was held back by opposition from the ruling elites. The cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing systems in use in the Bronze Age were highly complex and took a long time to master. As a result, literacy was restricted to a small class of priests, scribes and rulers, who could afford to put their children through long years of training. Literacy, in fact, was a mysterious craft belonging to those of elite status.

Alphabetic scripts, on the other hand, can be learnt quickly, and had the potential to spread to much larger sections of the population as reading and writing could now be mastered without a long, specialized education. The prospect of the masses becoming literate would have appalled the old elites.

The disruption of the late 2nd millennium, however, greatly slackened these elites’ hold on power, at least for a time, and use of the alphabet began to spread.

New peoples to the fore

With the great powers of the late Bronze Age gone or weakened, new peoples were able to come to the fore. In Syria, the Phoenician cities adopted the early alphabet as their writing system. Being a trading people, having literate merchants and craftsmen was a valuable asset. When more stable conditions returned to the Mediterranean, after about 1100 BCE, they pioneered long-distance trade routes as far as Spain, and even into the Atlantic, eventually reaching southern Britain. They grew rich on the proceeds of trade, but they would also transmit the use of the alphabet to the peoples of the Mediterranean.

Two other peoples emerged into the light of history at this time of upheaval. The Philistines had come to the region as part of the Sea Peoples, and settled in a confederacy of five city-states on the coast of Canaan. In fact, the country of Canaan came to be called after them, Palestine.

The Israelites

The other people were the Israelites. These had invaded Palestine sometime in the troubled times around 1200 BCE, when the grip of the great powers of the area had been withdrawn. They had formed a loose coalition of tribes before being united under one king (the ill-fated Saul), around 1050 BCE.

The Israelites had brought with them the first (as far as we know) monotheistic religion in world history, centered on the worship of the One God, Yahweh. This fact would have profound effects on later history.

Meanwhile the Kingdom of Israel flourished for a brief period after 1000 BCE under its kings, David and Solomon, before splitting into two halves. The surrounding peoples who had come under Israelite control, the Moabites, Edomites, Philistines and Aramaeans, soon shook themselves free.

The Camel tamed

A final development to mention is the domestication of the camel at about this time. This allowed the desert fastnesses of the Arabian peninsula to be crossed by trade routes, and the way of life of the nomadic Bedouin tribes dates from this time. Probably connected to this development was the rise of an urban civilization in southern Arabia, beginning in 1000 BCE.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 1000 BCE

Multinational Empires

The early 1st millennium BCE saw the Middle East covered by a patchwork of small and medium-sized kingdoms. On the Syrian coast, the Phoenician cities had risen to prominence as maritime trading states, and over the next two or three centuries would spread the Middle Eastern techniques, above all the alphabet, to the peoples further west. To its south and east, small Aramaean and Israelite kingdoms squabbled with one another. The kingdom of Assyria still held out in northern Mesopotamia, shrunken and defensive; and in southern Mesopotamia, the Babylonians had experienced invasion and upheaval.

Assyria and its successors

From 800 BCE, however, the days of independence for these small kingdoms were numbered, as they fell under the domination of the kingdom of Assyria. From the mid-8th century the Assyrian empire directly governed a huge swathe of the Middle East, from the Mediterranean coast to the Gulf coast, and it pioneered many of the techniques of imperialism used by later empires. Assyrian conquests were often accompanied by the destruction of whole societies, as large numbers of their people were resettled far from their homelands. The Middle East became a melting pot in which long-established peoples lost their historic identities – the most famous example was the fall of the kingdom of Israel, in 722 BCE. Aramaic became the lingua franca of the entire region.

In Asia Minor, the wealthy kingdoms of Phrygia and Lydia were able to resist Assyrian encroachments, but suffered from the first great invasions into the Middle East by nomadic peoples from the steppe. The Cimmerians and Scythians came sweeping down and inflicted great destruction on the stable societies of northern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. By the time they retreated, the great Assyrian empire was gone.

Pygian building: reconstruction by Georges Jansoone – Self photographed

In its place, two ancient states had reappeared on the stage, Egypt and Babylon. They were joined by an entirely new empire, that of the Medes, a people new to history who had migrated down from central Asia and settled in Iran during the previous centuries.

From the end of the 7th century to the late 6th century, these three powers, together the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, virtually divided the Middle East between them. It was during this period that the kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon (586 BCE).

The Persian Empire

From the 540s, all four powers fell one by one to the Persians, who thereby established the largest empire yet seen in human history (and the largest, in terms of area, in the Ancient World).

Persian rule was comparatively mild, and unlike their predecessors, they left local peoples and their cultures in place. Indeed, they actually encouraged the resettlement of the exiled Jews back in their homeland around Jerusalem.

By 500 BCE, many local loyalties had been the undermined by the state-sponsored resettlements of the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the inhabitants of the Middle East were accustomed to living in huge multi-national states under imperial regimes. One common language, Aramaic, covered the region, and with it, the Aramaic alphabetical script. Middle Eastern trade communications were further strengthened by the empire-spanning Persian road network.

Example of a bilingual Greek and Aramaic inscription
by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great

New directions in religion

Also, by 500 BCE the Middle East had become the first region to become acquainted with a new development in religion, monotheism. The Israelites had focussed their worship on the One God, Yahweh, which, paradoxically, had been strengthened by a period of exile in Babylon for many of the religious elite. The Persians had developed their own monotheistic faith in Zoroastrianism (perhaps more accurately Zoroastrianism should be described as a dualistic faith, as it holds that two gods, one good and one evil, battle for control of the cosmos, though good is assured of ultimate victory). What connection, if any, there was between the origin and early development of the two religions is unknown, although modern scholars often see a strong Zoroastrian influence on later Judaism.

For two centuries after 500 BCE, the Persian empire ruled almost the entire Middle East. Then, in a few short years after 334 BCE, the conquests of Alexander the Great transformed the region.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 500 BCE

An Alien Civilization

The Persian empire brought an unprecedented degree of peace, stability and prosperity in the century and a half after 500 BCE. As the 4th century drew on, however, its political stability began to weaken and revolts began to rock the empire. Greek mercenaries played a major part in these episodes, and were highly valued for their fighting qualities.

Alexander the Great and his successors

These qualities were evident on a grand scale in the conquests of Alexander the Great.

After uniting the Greek city-states under his leadership, Alexander, king of Macedon, invaded Persian-held Asia Minor in 334 BCE. Over the next ten years he completely conquered the huge Persian empire, and even invaded India.

After Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BCE, his empire immediately began to fall apart as his generals fought each other for supremacy. By 300 BCE, the empire had broken into three main pieces, each under a family of one of Alexander’s generals: Macedonia in Greece and the Balkans, under the Antigonids; a vast territory stretching from Asia Minor to India, under the Seleucids; and Egypt, under the Ptolemies. Other ruling families controlled smaller territories.

The Hellenistic Age

Despite the short time in which Alexander the Great’s conquests occurred, and the swiftness with which they were divided up amongst his successors, they transformed the Middle East for centuries to come. They imposed a new and alien culture on the region, the first time in history this had been done on such an extensive scale. This culture was basically Greek, as Alexander and his successors founded numerous Greek-style cities, right across the Middle East as far as Afghanistan and India. These cities were populated by Greeks and Macedonian settlers, and became centers for the spread of Greek civilization. Greek cultural influences were felt far beyond the political frontiers of Hellenism: the statue of a southern Arabian king is depicted in Greek clothes, and Greek styles had a profound influence on Indian art and architecture.

Statue of Alexander in Istanbul museum

Modern scholars distinguish this phase of Greek civilization from the earlier, Classical age, by labelling it the Hellenistic period. Advances in the arts and sciences, begun by the Greeks centuries earlier, continued apace, but it was also a period when Greek culture experienced some degree of hybridization with local traditions in the Middle East. The styles of art and thought of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians exercised a significant influence on the Greeks, while at the same time non-Greek peoples, if not completely absorbed into Hellenistic culture, were profoundly influenced by it. For example, the Jews, who by this time were to be found in all the major cities of the Middle East as well as in their Judaean homeland, translated their scriptures into Greek at this time, and Greek ideas became embedded in the Jewish faith.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 200 BCE

A Region Divided

In the last two centuries BCE, the Hellenistic kingdoms which had been carved out of the conquests of Alexander the Great were squeezed from both east and west.

Political division, cultural unity

In the east, the Parthians, a people closely related to the Persians, rapidly conquered a large empire, seizing Iran and Iraq from the Seleucid kings. In the west, the rising power of Rome gradually expanded into Greece and the Balkans, and then into Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and finally Egypt. Having swallowed up all the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean, Roman power faced the Parthians directly. An attempt by the Romans to conquer onwards into Parthia met with disaster at the Battle of Carrhae, in 54 BCE.

The resulting division of the Middle East between the Roman and Parthian empires set the pattern for the political map of the region which was to persist until the coming of Islam, more than six hundred years later.

The Hellenistic civilization, centered on the numerous cities founded by Alexander the Great and his successors which dotted the Middle East, survived in both portions of the Middle East. The Hellenistic cities of Iran and Iraq continued to flourish under their new Parthian masters, and the Romans, being the inheritors of centuries of Greek influence in their Italian homeland, actively fostered Hellenistic culture.

One partial exception to the prevalence of Hellenistic civilization was the conscious rejection of Hellenism by many Jews. By this date, Jewish communities could be found in many cities throughout the Middle East. Many of the inhabitants of the Jewish homeland of Judaea clung tenaciously to their ancestral ways. They had rebelled against the efforts of the Seleucid kings to Hellenize them, and established an independent Jewish state.

Many high-status Jews continued to embrace Hellenism, however, and as time went by even the elite of the new Jewish state slipped increasingly back into the Hellenistic world.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 30 BCE

Frontier between civilizations

As well as carving out an empire for themselves in Iran and Iraq, the Parthians performed a valuable service to the civilizations of the Middle East by developing a heavy cavalry which patrolled the borderlands of the steppe. For several centuries this defence would save the lands of the Middle East from being overrun by the turbulent nomads from central Asia, diverting their attention eastward into northern India.

Rome versus Parthia

For most of the period, the borders between the Roman and Parthian empires were comparatively peaceful, although heavily defended. Every now and again, wars between the two powers broke out. In these, the Romans on the whole got the better of the fighting, their armies occasionally attacking deep into Parthian territory. These invasions did not have a permanent impact on the geopolitics of the region, as occupying much Parthian territory for any period of time proved too much for them.

Apart from major wars, there was an on-going tussle for control of the strategically valuable kingdom of Armenia, which acted as a buffer between the two empires. This tussle usually took the form of attempts to place a puppet on the Armenian throne, sometimes backed up by military action. By 200 CE, Armenia was firmly in the Roman camp.

See TimeMap of the Middle East in 200 CE

The revival of Iranian civilization

The fact that it was Roman armies who penetrated Parthian territory, and not vice versa, meant that the inhabitants of the Roman empire knew a greater measure of peace and prosperity than those of the Parthian empire. In the latter, the centers of Hellenistic civilization in Mesopotamia were in the direct path of invading Roman armies, and suffered accordingly. This had the effect of greatly weakening Hellenistic cultural influences in the Parthian empire. This development was strengthened by an apparently deliberate policy of fostering an Iranian cultural revival by the Parthian aristocracy.

Christians and Jews

The Middle East at this period was a region of religious change. New mystery religions such as Mithraism were spreading in the region. Above all, Christianity was born in Judaea and Galillee, and began spreading around the Middle East from after 30 CE. By 200 CE it was to be found throughout both the Roman and Parthian empires, and even (on a much smaller scale) in India.

Judaea, the small area which gave birth to Christianity, saw disastrous developments for its Jewish inhabitants. It was the scene of two great rebellions against the Roman empire (66-71 CE and 132-36 CE) which ended in the complete destruction of the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem (and its rebuilding as a Roman colony), and the dispersal of the Jewish people from their homeland.

A new dynasty

In 224 the Parthians were overthrown by a Persian dynasty called the Sasanians. They tightened the administration of the empire and breathed new life into the struggle with Rome. By this time the Roman empire was facing difficulties on all its frontiers, and so the Sasanians were soon posing a formidable threat to Rome’s eastern provinces. The nadir of Roman fortunes came when their emperor, Valerian, was captured by the Persians in 260. After this they were able to restore their defences and the Sasanians were unable to achieve such a striking success again for centuries. Nevertheless, the Persian empire continued to pose a constant threat to the security of Rome’s eastern frontier, and from the late 3rd century onwards, the two empires, both now much more militarized than before, glowered at each other across their heavily armed frontiers. They even employed rival Arab tribes to protect their southern desert frontiers.

The Sassanian Royal Symbol and the Mythology of Persia


Behind these frontiers, the Roman empire was changing almost out of recognition. The first great change was the adoption of Christianity as the leading religion of the empire. In this, Armenia in fact preceded the Romans, their king converting to Christianity in 314. Another innovation was the installation of a new capital at Constantinople. This brought the seat of imperial power much closer to the inhabitants of the Middle East. It also hastened a shift towards the use of Greek as the usual, if not as yet the official, language of government in Rome’s eastern provinces. This process was given added impetus by the loss of the empire’s western (and Latin-speaking) provinces in the 5th century.

Meanwhile, the Persian empire had adopted another monotheistic faith, Zoroastrianism, as its official religion. The practice of Zoroastrianism was largely confined to the Persian ruling class, the lower classes, especially in the cities, widely embracing Christianity.

See map of the Middle East in 500 CE

Further Study

Brief survey of Ancient Mesopotamian civilization

Brief survey of Ancient Egyptian civilization

Brief survey of Ancient Israelite civilization