Although the elements of civilization and the emergence of civilization have been studied extensively, I never gave the topic much thought. That is, until I was tasked with finding at least five elements that are characteristics of a civilization that make it different from non-civilized peoples. Initially, this seemed like a daunting task, but upon viewing the video “Iraq: The Cradle of Civilization” (Wood) and reading the assigned portion of “Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, 1” (Perry), it was apparent that there are a number of distinct elements which characterize every civilization. Namely, large population centers in cities, writing, ceremonial buildings, or ritual centers, continuity, and the arts. Each of these characteristics of civilization works synergistically, making civilized societies stand out in stark contrast from those non-civilized societies which preceded them. A brief overview of some of these vital components will demonstrate their importance.
Firstly, large population centers in cities are one of the elements of civilization. The word civilization, itself, can be most easily expressed as life in cities. The area of Suma, or Mesopotamia, in southern Iraq, was birthplace of the first city, Uruch (Ur). The vast lands, made fertile by the constant flow of life from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were the ideal place to farm and sustain the hordes of people drawn to this city. Naturally, people congregated in increasing numbers to this prototype city.
Secondly, writing is another one of the elements of civilizations. In fact, some would argue that writing was invented in Uruch. The obvious advantage of which, was the ability to transmit and pass down to posterity important cultural, spiritual truths and stories. Though the oral legend of the people of this era is well documented, the story of this people was now being preserved and disseminated through the written word.
Equally important were the ceremonial buildings and ritual centers which peppered the landscape of Ur. Shrines, alters, and temples served a central role in ancient civilization, as they also do today. Tied to the religious and cultural fabric of the society was ritualistic worship and ceremonies. These ritual centers were considered holy places and like the fertile land itself, served as a people magnet.
Continuity is another characteristic of civilization. Unlike nomadic peoples, civil societies, by definition were sedentary societies. Of course, people and ideas flowed in and out of the first civilizations, but there was the element of perpetual inhabitants. No doubt, ownership and private property rights were natural products of this continuity as people opted to settle in the cities.
Lastly, the arts are another one of the essential elements of civilization. As legend has it, the arts were sent down by Enki, the God of Wisdom, through the Goddess Innana, known today as Ishtar. Decorative arts, pottery, jewelry, ‘fancy’ clothing and ritual ornaments were increasingly popular commodities during this time. As the people’s standard of living improved in the first cities, there was more time (relatively speaking) for the leisure indulgences that the arts afforded.
Clearly, there are other non-negotiable elements of civilization; laws, government, social (class) systems, etc. As is evident, prominent among these characteristics are large population centers in cities, writing, ritual centers, continuity, and the arts. In contrast, non-civilized societies are wanting in all of these aspects.