There’s something fantastically romantic about the idea of a lost civilization. Perhaps it’s the mystery that surrounds these historical treasures. The world might be a very different place had they survived, but still for many of these long gone civilizations their influence continues to be felt today. This list presents 10 civilizations of ancient times.
10. The Minoans
The Minoan civilization is widely regarded to have been the first true civilization in Europe. It centred on the now Greek island of Crete. From there the Minoans operated a wide trade empire, creating colonies on mainland Greece and trade outposts on other Mediterranean islands. The Minoan civilization was destroyed when a volcano in the centre of a nearby island underwent a massive eruption.
The Minoans are accredited with the creation of the myth of the Minotaur and the invention of the flushing toilet. The queen’s toilet in the palace of Knossos used the diverted waters of the nearby river to ‘flush’ her ‘nasties’ away. The civilization greatly influenced the later civilizations of ancient Greece, who’s first written language (linear B) was a derivation of the Minoan script (Linear A).
9. The Aztec
The first interesting thing to note about the Aztec people is that they were not called the Aztec. As a matter of fact it was forbidden for these people to use that name. Only the neighbouring tribes called them Aztec, probably because they knew it would really annoy them. Nor were they one people. They were instead an alliance of three tribes that had once served as slaves to an older civilization they called the Aztec. After staging a small revolution the allied slave tribes headed off in search of a land to call their own. Eventually they found their promised land when an eagle, carrying a snake, landed on a cactus as prophesied. The fact that this promised land was an island in the centre of Lake Texaco didn’t dissuade them, they built their great city, pyramids and all, right on top of the lake. The city of Tenochtitlan remained a centre of worship, culture and trade for centuries until the Spanish, under Cortez, tore it apart in the hunt for legendary gold. Little of the great city remains. The modern day capital, Mexico City, was built right on top.
8. The Sumerian
Sumer is a keystone civilization, in that it set the foundation – figuratively and literally – for the development of the Tigris-Euphrates region. Out of Sumer grew Babylon, the Akkadian, Assyrian and Hittite empires. Uruk, situated 250 km south of Baghdad, on an ancient branch of the Euphrates River in Iraq, known in the Bible as Erech (now Warka), is the first major city in Sumer built in the 5th century BC, and is considered one of the largest Sumerian settlements and most important religious centers in Mesopotamia. Uruk in some forms refers to a region as the “city” when Mesopotamian city-states first began to emerge. It was continuously inhabited from about 5000 BC up to the 5th century AD. Gilgamesh, the King of the city’s first dynasty and hero of the famous epic named after him, built the walls of the city 4700 years ago. This was also the site of the Eanna temple complex, dedicated to the goddess Inanna, or Ishtar (goddess of love, procreation, and war), which is symbolized by the star Venus. This deity was absorbed by the Greeks and Romans under the names Aphrodite and Venus.
Uruk was an important city on many levels: the development of religion and science, which is confirmed by the thousands of clay tablets dug up in it that goes back to the beginnings of writing about 5000 years ago; the development of writing, in which Uruk played a major role. The area’s excavations revealed the earliest historical evidence of writing and the beginnings of the Cuneiform script of the Early Dynastic period. The Uruk period was also notable in that it was the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia, which led to the full civilization of the Early Dynastic period. In fact Uruk had the earliest known colonial system, which was used to support commercial expansion in the Zagros Mountains, Syria, and southeastern Anatolia.
7. The Babylonians
Babylon was an ancient city state in ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). By the fifth century BC it had grown into an empire, governing most of present day Iraq. The city was a centre of art, diplomacy, science and religion. It was briefly conquered by the Assyrian Empire but threw off its captors and re-established its empire under the great king Nebuchandnezzer. Babylon was later captured by the Persians and later the Macedonians, under Alexander the Great. Babylon once again flourished under Alexander but after his death, in 323 BC, the kingdom was divided up. The city of Babylon subsequently fell into turmoil and obscurity and was subsequently abandoned. All that remained of Babylon in the modern era was a mount of ruins, that is until Saddam Hussein re-built the city, purportedly as a symbol of his own vast ego. During their invasion of Iraq, the U.S military chose to build their ‘camp alpha’ on the site of the reconstructed Babylon. This was surely designed to act as a symbol of their own power in the region.
Babylon was famed for it’s hanging gardens, one of the wonders of the ancient world, although archaeologists still debate whether or not these actually existed. Mesopotamia on the whole, however, was a hotbed of culture and civilization. The area gave birth to many ancient languages and some of the most advanced early civilizations, as well as some of the first concepts of advanced mathematics and science.
6. The Phoenicians
The Phoenicians ruled an impressive trade empire across the Mediterranean and exerted a cultural influence from the Near East to Southern Spain. Their home was in Caanan and consisted of a series of city states stretching along the coast of present day Syria, Lebanon and Israel, with the centre of their civilization in Lebanon. Their trade empire, however, stretched much further and established trade routes went as far as Morroco and Southern England. Along the way, the Phoenicians established outposts and colonies, particularly in North Africa where they founded the great city of Carthage, which later became Rome’s greatest adversary.
The Phoenecians were however more than simple traders and were armed with more than purses of gold and holds filled with Roman and Egyptian goods. They were also great mariners. They explored the East coast of Africa, at least as far as Liberia, and legend tells that they may have in fact circumnavigated the African continent at least once. This was not achieved again until the middle ages when the Portuguese sought a passage to the orient. During the Punic wars, the Phonecian colony of Carthage (present day Tunisia) was seen as the greatest enemy that Rome had ever faced and had the great empire on its knees.
5. The Mayans
The Maya civilization was undoubtedly the greatest in Pre-Columbian Central America. This was the most advanced and longer lasting civilization of the area, dominating the Yucatan Peninsula from 2000 BC to 900 AD. During this time the Maya built great cities, complete with awe inspiring pyramids and temples, and developed an advanced writing system (the only writing system in Central America to represent a spoken language). The Mayan influence extended far beyond the Yucatan, however. Their sphere of influence once extended as far as the Gulf of California to the north and Costa Rica to the south. At their height the Mayan peoples dominated the modern-day area of Southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, however the great empire went into decline during the eighth and ninth centuries as a result of overpopulation and drought. By the time the Spanish came to seek out the fabled cities of gold, the Mayan civilization had disintegrated into a collection of city states in the Yucatan, largely replaced by the newly powerful Toltecs. The centre of trade in the region was now the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The Maya endured, however, and took the invading conquistadors a century to fully subdue. Even now, their culture and language live on as one of Mexico’s larger ethnic groups.
The great Mayan civilization left behind a wealth of fantastic ruins from their many, highly developed cities, including temples, palaces, ball courts and even observatories. The Maya were keen astrologers and believed that the movement of the heavens had a direct impact on the world they inhabited.
4. The Toltec
The Toltec civilization was located in Mesoamerica in what is called Pre-Columbian times. With the fall of Teotihuacon rule in the 7th century AD, Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltecs from the north. The Toltec fused the many other small states in Central Mexico into an empire ruled from their capital Tulancingo.
The Toltec are believed to be a possible catalyst behind the downfall of the Mayan civilization. Several Mayan centres of power were said to have been taken by the Toltec, but this might represent the separation of the empire into city states, a cultural movement of ‘urbanism’ and revolt. This might also be evidence to support the theory that it was overpopulation that was the empire’s downfall. Evidence of the ‘Toltecization’ of the Yucatan would suggest a cultural influence from central Mexico, although ideas of a Toltec civilization may stem from references to this cultural change its self, rather than the spread of any unified power. To the Aztec, however, the Toltec seem to have been a real people. These people allegedly lived in the city of Tollan and were the ancestors of the Aztec. They were supposedly led by the god Quetzalcoatal but left their city to find a new home. The Aztec claimed that they were this second Toltec civilization, although others have made the same claim. There is not much information about their culture today, as they left little archaeological evidence.
3. The Maurya
The Mauryan Empire began as one of the sixteen kingdoms of ancient India in the 4th century BC. It spread to control present day Bengal and later the entire of Northern India and beyond. The Maurya are credited with unifying the subcontinent for the first time and contributing greatly to the spread of Buddhism. When Alexander was in the Punjab and Indus Valley, a young man named Chandragupta Maurya, who belonged to the caste of warriors (kshatriya) had seen the Macedonian army. He believed that anything a European could do an Indian could do also and decided to train an army on a similar footing. In 321, he seized the throne of Magadha and the Mauryan empire was born. As the Greek/Macedonian empire spread through Asia, the Maurya took advantage of the power vacuum created and conquered the Pujjab and Indus valley regions, effectively uniting the empire.
It was under the third emporer Ashok that the Maurya would adopt Buddhism. The Maurya embraced Buddhism and used their far stretching influence to spread the message of the Dharma far and wide, along trade routes and even into Europe. As the alliance with Greece grew, the Maurya leaders encouraged the Greek kings to take up Buddhism and embrace Indian medicines and ideas. Greek peoples living in India were treated well and even converted to Buddhism. Later, as the Mauryan Empire went indo decline, Western powers were able to invade India, creating the Greco-Indian kingdom. The greatest legacy left by the Mauryan civilization was certainly the spread of Buddhism in India, which remains a force today.
2. The Inca
The Inca began as a small tribe in the Cuzco region of Peru. The Gods instructed them to build a temple there to the sun. This temple site soon became a city state and the city state grew into an empire. The Inca subjugated several other tribes in the vicinity and, before too long, controlled the largest empire in America. The Inca empire functioned as a federal system. The conquered regions retained a degree of power and autonomy, becoming part of the central government in Cuzco, which became a great city. The Inca ruler preferred to send peace envoys, rather than armies, to neighbouring kingdoms. These envoys would explain the benefits of joining with the Inca and bribe them with lavish gifts. Those that agreed were accepted into the empire and enjoyed economic prosperity as a result. The children of the allied leaders would be taken to Cuzco to be educated in Inca religion and politics. The Inca royal family (who surname just so happened to be Inca) would then marry their daughters into the newly appropriated aristocracy. Tupac Inca expanded the empire further by conquering present day Equador and Peru. His son, Huayna Capac then conquered parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. This region was not entirely loyal to the Inca, however, and became hostile to them once the Spanish arrived and tipped the balance of power.
The Inca operated a successful and relatively benevolent trade empire. It is said that the tax collectors would take flees from the poor as a symbolic gesture. The Inca ruler was worshiped as the descendant of the sun god, but the religions of vassal cultures were incorporated alongside the state religion. The Inca’s wealth was their eventual downfall. When the Spanish arrived they were on the hunt for treasure and found the Inca in control of all the regions wealth. The Spanish returned in 1539 and began a campaign of conquest. By then the Inca’s long reaching trade routes had brought smallpox from Spanish territories in Mexico, and so they were severely weakened. The Incas offered a tribute to the Spanish but offended them by refusing to convert to Christianity. As a result, the Inca Empire was conquered. However the Inca retreated to the mountains and ruled over a reduced kingdom for a further three decades.
1. Ancient Egyptian
Ancient Egypt – the land of the Pharaohs. Surely the most inspiring of all the ancient and lost civilizations, as the fascination with the society, the structures and the monuments continues on to this day, thousands of years later. The ancient Egyptians were culture obsessed with death and spent their lives preparing for the cross over to the other side. Today we say that you can’t take your money with you but the ancient Egyptians had another view. Wealthy Egyptians created burial vaults for themselves, in which their mummified bodies could be surrounded by everything they would need when they reached the afterlife, including their internal organs which were placed into jars for safe keeping. The greatest of these tombs were the pyramids, though the underground burial chambers in the Valley of Kings are equally, if not more, impressive. The pyramids doubled as monuments to the greatness of the pharaohs that built them and even featured temples where the pharaoh could continue to be worshiped as a god long after his demise. Less powerful families opted for small crypts under or near their homes where family members could visit and pray over the deceased. If you were really rich you might have been able to afford a tomb in the luxury ‘valley of the kings’ estate. The valley had it’s own security force, paid to keep grave robbers from stealing you positions whilst you ‘slept’.
Though theories abound, the exact answer to the question of how the Egyptians built the pyramids may never be found. The fact mastery of mathematics and science certainly helped, though the labour component of that equation is undecided. The Egyptians were a highly organized society. Slaves and workers were overseen by a ruling class of architects, intellectuals and scribes. The highest order were the priests and scribes (writers). All members of the society, from farmers to scribes, were seen as having equal rights.
The Egyptian civilization began around 3150 BC and enjoyed long periods of prosperity interspersed with short periods of instability for nearly three thousand years. The empire went into decline as it faced invasion from several foreign powers including the Romans and Macedonians. In 31 BC, Egypt was annexed into the Roman Empire and became a vassal state. After this the ancient society of Egypt was altered and ‘Romanized’ to its end. The gods of old were merged with Roman and Greek gods over time, and eventually were swept away altogether when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.
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