This article looks first at Ancient Mesopotamia, societies once living on the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. It then looks at Ancient Egypt, societies once living along the Nile River.
A disclaimer: This research may not be current with terminology and taught theories on these civilisations. This ancient history can not change; not from 200 or 100 years ago to now, nor will it change 100 years from now. The only change will be modern views on that history. I leave it with you to piece my terminology together with your views. The facts in regards to money remain.
In Ancient Mesopotamia there were multiple tribes of multiple cultures, as the races of the world naturally tend to establish when left to their own governance. Our interest is in the city of Sumer1 (also known as Chaldea2), and the Sumerian culture (also known as Chaldean). The founders of this culture, earlier than circa 7000 AC3, were a race and tribe called the Sumers.
The Sumers were a non-Semitc people. The Semitic tribes of Mesopotamia at this time were semi-nomadic peoples. Our recorded history shows that a semi-nomadic Semitic tribe, the Akkadians, melded so completely with the Sumers and their culture that we today can not precisely separate the two. I will call this melded culture the Sumerians, who lived in Sumer. Gradually the gods of Sumer melded into, or more accurately were assimilated to and became, those of the Akkadians. The Sumers’ language ceased to be spoken, in favour of a Semitic tongue.
Temple writings remained in the Sumer native language for centuries after that language had otherwise ceased to be used. Unlike the Pharoahs of Ancient Egypt, the Sumerian Kings did not consider themselves as gods or demi-gods. The Sumerian Kings did believe they were able to understand, decipher and communicate the plans of the gods2, 4. In late C19th France it was written that, “The Chaldeans, like the Egyptians, were unacquainted with the use of money, but from the earliest of times the employment of precious metals for purposes of exchange was practised among them to an enormous extent. Though copper and gold were both used, silver was the principal medium in these transactions, and formed the standard value of all purchaseable objects.” […] “It was never cut into flat rings or twists of wire, as was the case with the Egyptian tabnu, it was melted into small unstamped ingots, which were passed from hand to hand by weight, being tested in the scales at each transaction.” […] “The commerce of the chief cities was almost entirely concentrated in the temples. The large quantities of metals and cereals constantly brought to the god, either as part of the fixed temple revenue, or as daily offerings, accumulated rapidly […].”2
These insights help to answer some questions of Part 1, at least for this society. It is true that the priestly class attempted to decipher the knowledge of the gods. The temple complex was the centre of trade, had vast stores of wealth. That unstamped and non-uniform ingots of silver were used, along with gold and copper, as the trade facilitating commodity. The society was centrally managed. There was a fixed temple revenue, that is, taxation. What’s more, if reading about the guilds of workers, or the debt and lending market of this society, one can see how the temple used its position and commodity wealth to subjugate the working classes to the central will. The people did not co-exist as equals, the temple ruled5. Note that the original creation & use of ingots may have been by the Sumers, before our knowledge of operations after the Akkadian arrival.
Professor Maspero, on Old to New Kingdom Ancient Egypt from around 2700 to 1000 AC, “In order to understand the manner in which the government of Egypt was conducted, we should never forget that the world was ignorant of the use of money, and that gold, silver, and copper, however abundant we may suppose them to have been, were mere articles of exchange, like the most common products of Egyptian soil.” Pharaoh’s receipts and expenses were calculated and recorded, unlike the state today, not by a standard currency but in kind.
Coinage consisted of; All that the heavens give, all that the earth produces, all that the Nile brings from its mysterious sources.2
Egypt had in use standardised metal pieces called tabnu, shaped thus:
These shapes, as well as proven from metallic relics, were used as the hieroglyph for ‘tabnu’. As a brief detour, due to the likeness, consider the symbol of the Israeli New Sheckel, ₪, which was made Israel’s official currency in 1986 and became a fully convertible global currency in 20086. This symbol is stated to be a contraction of the words Shekel and New,
שקל חדש . The word shekel is ancient and is associated through many Semitic civilisations dating earlier than 2,000 AC.
Returning to Ancient Egypt, these tabnu were weighed at every transaction. This was due to the tabnu not always containing their regulated weight of gold or silver; being pure but of non-standard weight. A further issue with this medium of exchange existed, the tabnu could be alloyed with a baser precious metal in such a way to avoid detection. This being an early form of counterfeiting and devaluing a medium of exchange. Fear of such abuses to the money restrained the use of tabnu for a long time and as such restricted the buying and selling activity in the markets.
I have not been able to confirm the following story in a peer reviewed work on Ancient Egypt, though the story has existed for a long while7. It is written that in Ancient Egypt a value was assigned to gold and silver. By weight, fine gold was worth 13.3x that of fine silver. This value was set by the authorities and it was arrived at by an understanding that the moon orbits the earth 13.3 times a year. Said in another way, the moon moved 13.3 times faster than did the sun in the Egyptian’s geocentric world view, which orbited only once per year. As in Part 1 of this article, gold and silver in the temple’s outlook were directly related to the heavens; sun and gold, moon and silver. The divine intermediaries of the temple had pushed the cosmic law out into the human domain8.
To understand the power of the Temple, next to that of Pharaoh, consider that Ancient Egypt was an extremely unstable civilisation. There were revolutions, coups, dynastic changes, capital city changes, tribal leadership changes, including what, like the Akkadians of Sumer, was a Semitic nation, in the Hyksos, being rulers for a major dynastic period. If it had not been for the unifying work conducted by the Temple Priests in adapting diverse tribes’ and princes’ gods to the Egyptian story, and teaching this system, Ancient Egypt as we study it today would not exist as a single ‘unified’ period of history2.
Again, one is able to reflect on the origins of money in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptian’s worshipped gods, however, at times their leaders considered themselves as gods and personally involved in the heavenly realm. This could be as gods, demi-gods or offspring of gods. The temple had power rivalling the Pharaohs. The leaders of Egypt sought to reflect the cosmic laws and understandings down to the earthly realm, including by way of sacrifices. The people were subjects. So much so that familial abuse and torture were at times used to extract unpaid taxes. And yet, the temple’s wealth was tax exempt. Metals were in use as a medium of exchange. These belonged to and were issued, standardised and perhaps even assigned value, by the ruling authority. Issues existed in the weight, value and metallic purity of the metal pieces.
From these two aforementioned dynastic succession empires we move to Israel, Yahweh’s chosen people, who escaped from Ancient Egypt before setting up a tribal confederacy or amphictyonic state in Palestine. Refer to Part 3.
1. The Sumerians: Fall of the First Cities, by Paul Cooper, 2020.
2. The Dawn of Civilisation: Egypt and Chaldea, by Professor Sir Gaston Maspero, 1894.
3. AC = ante Christum nostrum; before the birth of Christ. AD = anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi; in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.
4. This being before Moses and Abraham of the Bible. These Semitic tribes worshiped a pantheon of Gods.
5. The subjugation was justified as such, “The city state was a theocracy ruled by the god. Its lands were the god’s estate. The people, each in his place, were workers on the god’s estate.”
6. The Israeli New Shekel or ILS, by James Chen, 2019.
7. Please leave a comment with a source if you locate one.
8. Gold, Geld, Gewissen by Gerard Klockenbring, 1976.