Today, the Indus Valley. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Alexander the Great
spread his empire south and east from Macedonia until he was stopped at India's
Beas River. His last conquest had been the
Indus River Valley, which runs the length of present-day Pakistan. I wonder if
Alexander, gazing across the Indus Valley 2400 years ago, realized
that a great civilization had thrived there, three thousand years before him.
Did he understand that he would be only a brief visitor? Probably not.
There were three early urban civilizations. One in Egypt's Nile Valley,
another along Mesopotamia's Tigris and Euphrates, and the third along the Indus.
Settled agriculture was thousands of years old in all three by 3200 BC.
Then cities rose in each. The Indus Valley Civilization crumbled some 3400
years ago -- possibly hastened by drought, maybe drawn away by new civilizations
rising in India to the east. Perhaps some combination of both.
The Indus Valley only began to reveal her civilizations after the mid-19th century.
British rail builders first started turning up ruins. The ancient cities of
Babylon and Memphis were well known by then. But, when this old world was finally
found, it was slow to catch our imaginations. We're only just learning about cities
like Mohenjo-Daro or Harappa.
Some 35,000 people lived in the brick houses that made up the orderly planned city
of Mohenjo-Daro. They were served by elaborate water distribution and sewage systems.
They had a large public bath, colonnades, and a watch-tower system. This was a
world-wide trading center -- as was the city of Harappa, far up the river to the
northeast. And Harappa was even larger.
The Indus civilization was based on trade, craft, and agriculture. It was far more
egalitarian than ancient Egypt. Much more of its wealth went into the common good
than into the glorification of a tiny ruling elite -- no Pyramids here -- some
fancy aristocratic housing but a strong focus on urban planning for everyone.
Its mercantile economy led to sophisticated weights and measures. Standardized
length scales were subdivided down to about a sixteenth of our inch -- far greater
precision than in any other bronze-age society. Weight measurements were refined
to a mere ounce.
Indus dentists drilled and crowned teeth; Indus engineers built tidal locks and
other sophisticated water management equipment. Indus merchant ships traded with
distant Mesopotamia. They were fine metallurgists. Their sculpture was lovely
and imaginative, their musicians played a variety of stringed instruments. They
had what was probably an ideographic form of writing, something like that later
used in Central American cultures.
All this is still coming to light. We're learning about a world that some compare
with the Mycenaeans: tradesmen & artisans, farmers & sailors. That world was so
different from Alexander's. Alexander, who flung his armies across the region
so long after those peaceful old cities had vanished and been forgotten.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. Lawler, Boring No More, a Trade-Savvy Indus Emerges. Science, Vol. 320, 6 June, 2008. pp. 1276-1285.
See also the Wikipedia articles on The Indus Valley,
on Harappa and on
Here are the site web pages for Harappa
and Mohenjo-Daro. Images: aerial
views courtesy of Google Earth, Priest-King sculpture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Sculpture of a Priest King, ca. 2500 BC, from the Pakistan National Museum, Karachi