How Geography Defined the Great Civilisations (1): The Four River Civilisations

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The journey to the East

Geographies that shaped civilisations

The geography highly influences what we do to survive, hold together as groups, and create cultural differences. In Eurasia and Africa, geography generated three different basic ways of life.

Around 10,000 years ago, some people abandoned hunting and settled in fixed fertile places to work as full-time farmers. Even in these areas, others domesticated the animals they hunted and became nomads. These two groups could have a symbiotic relationship, but the nomads also raided villages. In these areas, the two ways of life were bound to clash. Finally, some people took to the sea along many lakes and sought their resources from the waters. People discovered that they could survive by fishing alone, just as others could survive by farming and herding.

In the next two posts, we will examine how the great Eurasian civilisations were influenced by geography and how it affected them through myths and stories passed down from generation to generation. We start with the farmers, the cultures of the river valleys.

The Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus and Yellow rivers

6,000 years ago, peoples settled along large river valleys that flooded annually and deposited a fresh layer of fertile soil each year. Four, among others, are the first great urban civilisations that germinated there: the Nile River, the Tigris-Euphrates area, the Indus River, and the Huang He. They gave rise to the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.

The Nile River and the Egyptian civilisation

The Nile river was a great two-way communication artery for some 600 hundred kilometres. But, in the south, the river was full of gorges, waterfalls, and the Cataracts, and it was challenging to go safely further south. The river was wide, deep, and calm on the northern stretch. Its currents constantly flowed to the north, and the breeze always blew to the south. People settled along the river rather than in isolated villages, and the constant interaction led to cultural uniformity.

The landscape itself well protected the Nile River. Marauders could not easily enter the valley from the south (the Falls). The eastern territories were too dry and rocky to support many populations. There were no significant threats from the west (the Sahara Desert). Luckily for them, they only had to defend the mouth of their world, the delta.

Their cultural homogeneity allowed them to build large infrastructures to manage the river and take advantage of its waters (dams, dykes, canals,…). The coordination of these civil works gave rise to a command structure with many levels of supervisors, and, at the top, there was a single god-like man who made decisions. The Nile overflowed with great regularity, but not infallibly, so people tended to wonder if it was their fault.

A society with a powerful central authority and a concern to understand and influence nature created the pharaoh, a ruler whom the masses believed to be a god. The wily pharaoh made the people think that the floods would flow smoothly when their wishes, needs, and whims were met. Sometimes it might not work, but then and now, a doubter would have threatened everyone’s safety and social order – and that is neither politically nor socially acceptable.

The Lower and Upper Nile

In his idle times, the pharaoh could use the enormous labour force he needed to fulfil his wishes (and ensure regular river flooding). Thus came the pyramids. The irrigation works, the pharaohs (divine men), the bureaucracy, the pyramids were generated in this micro-world by the civilisation of the river Nile.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and Mesopotamia

These two rivers originate in the mountains of Turkey and flow southwards roughly parallel through present-day Iraq, and, just before reaching the Arabian Gulf, they merge. These rivers have no waterfalls dividing them upstream and downstream. They are navigable only at some points, the breeze was fickle, and the lower reaches swampy – nothing like the Nile. In Mesopotamia, it was hard to generate a continuous culture along the valley; on the contrary, the result was many separate networks of villages associated with disparate temples and priesthoods.

Moreover, unlike the Nile River, geography did not protect these peoples. Much needed protection since some settlements appeared close to the river, and the context also supported pastoral nomadism. Therefore, the villagers had to be prepared to repel assailants coming from any direction; they had to build the walls that the geography did not provide, leading to the emergence of small city-states, each with its army of trained soldiers.

The Mesopotamians realised that, once weapons existed, they needed to keep fighting. If people were idle, they could create internal problems. Therefore, while the Egyptians busied themselves with pyramids and civil works in their spare time -, the Mesopotamians defended themselves against nomadic marauders or marched up and down the river to conquer their neighbours. The Egyptians built pyramids, and the Mesopotamians built empires. Successful conquerors who ruled a group of city-states could reach a broader range of resources, which required larger armies to defend, leading to more military campaigns.

While the Egyptians were building monumental sculptures, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia were busy making stuff, inventing new things, interacting, making deals, buying and selling, making laws, breaking laws, stealing, gossiping, quarrelling. No wonder enterprising individualism and competitive pluralism came to characterise both Islamic and European civilisations.

The Tigris river

The Indus River and Indian civilisation

The Indus River fostered one of the earliest urban civilisations on earth, not to be discovered until the 20th century, with Harappa and Mohenjo Daro as the main centres of civilisation. Harappa was at its peak when the pyramids were being built. Some five million people lived in more than 1000 villages spread over thousands of square kilometres. Two geographical phenomena defined the civilisation.

First, the Indus River begins as a multitude of streams, eventually joining to form five rivers, which combine into a single river a few kilometers north of the Arabian Sea. Irrigation was not a problem; agriculture was easy and left plenty of time for leisure, which led the rags to enjoy art, craft, and engineering. Their urban centres, laid out in regular rows like modern cities, were prolifically equipped with toilets, plumbing, and sewage systems.   

Secondly, the gigantic foothills of the Himalayan range rose alongside the valley. On the other side were the high grasslands ideal for the pastoral nomads who periodically raided the cities or traded with the townspeople, settling wherever they could. A wave of such migrations occurred when the rags were in decline. Nomads came from the steppes -vast, dry open spaces-  to settle in a valley densely inhabited by people whose ideas, diet, customs, social structure, and way of life took shape in a world surrounded by water.

Both the old and the newcomers did not interact much. The Harapans were urban, and the newcomers were rural. The former built large houses while the latter built small mud, bamboo, and grass huts. While the old were large-scale agrarians, the new settlers from the steppes were pastoralists and small farmers, who rode horses, drove carts and made iron tools and weapons. The Harappans had worshipped fertility deities, many of them female, while the newcomers´ deities were mainly male gods embodying forces of nature (wind, fire, thunder,…). 

Mohenjo Daro

The new settlers had no sense of a place of origin and no intention of returning home, only moving on. They spread eastwards, building villages, and reached the valley of the river Ganges, which flows right over another, older, extinct civilisation. Today we call these migrants from the northwest the Vedic people, whose priests were called Brahims, and their religious hymns were called Vedas. On the Indus and Ganges rivers, geography facilitated a new settlement pattern full of different kingdoms with distinct social structures and distinctive social classifications very similar to today´s castes.

The Yellow River and Chinese civilisation

The Huang He (Yellow River) is characterised by fine yellow dust – from the mountains, blown by the wind – which gives this valley more prosperous and thicker topsoil than any on earth. Otherwise, the region is arid, so ancient farmers had to rely on the river for irrigation. The slopes were so steep that people had to carve terraces into the hills to farm. They had to reshape the very land they lived on and change the geography. But the soil was deep and fertile, so people stuck to it and settled anyway.

The Yellow River valley

The river was practically unnavigable; navigators in this rough current risked their lives. So settlements sprang up in habitable patches. Instead of interacting continually along the river, each farming community was its own thing in this valley. And they lived in constant danger, as the river silt tended to clog the riverbed, raising the water level. The settlers had to build dams to keep the level of the waters under control. Still, when the river overflowed its banks more than usual, the water overtopped the barriers or, worse, broke them.

The Yellow River in the mountains

The river was the source of all abundance, but it could also trigger a sudden catastrophe. Villagers had to be prepared to respond. When a dam broke, a structure had to be in place. Given the small scale of the communities, the discipline, hierarchy, and obedience necessary for survival began in the family, with the eldest commanding the efforts. The family-based authority structure and the family as the central place within society became the defining features of Chinese civilisation. 

Qiankun Bay of the Yellow River in Gedi Town of Yonghe County, north China's Shanxi province

Typically, a ring of eighteen to twenty villages surrounded a market nucleus and encircled the fields. Each town housed a few dozen interrelated family households organised around patriarchal figures. Villagers lived close to the fields and within walking distance of a central marketplace where they interacted with others in their village group. Successful settlements probably expanded their reach to the status of kingdoms.

Yellow River, or Huang He in Chinese, is the second longest river of China and the 6th longest of the world

We have seen how geography influences whether a civilisation settles, is nomadic or lives on the sea. In this post, we have focused on the differences between four of the first type of civilisation and how the shape of their valleys and rivers marked very different characteristics thousands of years ago that we can still observe today. In the next posts we will look at pastoral nomadic and maritime civilisations. Let´s wait four another travel note from our Journey to the East. 

...But, our Journey to the East continues so…. ...If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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