Ancient History & Civilisation


Thus perished one of the oldest and most remarkable civilizations of the ancient world. Brutally destroyed in Assyria at the end of the seventh century B.C., it survived in Babylonia for about six centuries to disappear with the last cuneiform inscription at the beginning of the Christian era. Born during the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods (c. 3500 – 3000 B.C.), it had lasted for more than three thousand years.

In its slow decline (500 B.C. – A.D. 100), economic conditions played a smaller part than is sometimes believed, and the geographical changes – the wandering of the Twin Rivers, the silting-up of canals, the salinization of the soil – responsible for the abandonment of many ancient towns and villages and the depopulation of vast areas did not assume large-scale proportions until the end of the Sassanian period (fifth – sixth centuries A.D.). All considered, the decay and death of the Mesopotamian civilization can be ascribed to three main causes: the absence of a national government, the foundation by Alexander and his successors of new cities competing with and eventually superseding the older settlements and, above all, the profound ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural changes introduced by successive waves of invaders – Persians, Greeks, Aramaeans, pre-Islamic Arabs – who could be neither kept at bay nor assimilated. In the course of her long history Mesopotamia had been invaded many times. Guti, Amorites, Hurrians, Kassites and Aramaeans had found in the Tigris-Euphrates valley a young and vigorous culture immensely superior to their own and had invariably adopted it. But to the highly civilized Greeks of the third century B.C., to the disciples of Plato and Aristotle, the Babylonians had little to offer besides the abstruse works of their astronomers; and nothing was less suited to the requirements of the cosmopolitan society then taking roots in Iraq than the intricate cuneiform script which the Babylonians themselves were giving up. What the Greco-Macedonian and Oriental settlers found in that country was a culture in many ways antiquated and ‘fossilized’, perpetuated by a few priests in a few temples. Spontaneity and creativeness were absent from literature since the time of Hammurabi; sculpture had died with the Assyrians; architecture under the Chaldaean and Seleucid dynasties still produced some impressive monuments, but adhered to traditional blueprints; as for the various sciences, they had apparently reached their limits, with the notable exception of mathematics and astronomy. Attachment to tradition, which was perhaps the dominant character of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization, had ensured its cohesion and continuity for three millennia, but it had now become a handicap rather than an asset. The crucial period for Mesopotamia, the Hellenistic period, can be compared with the sixteenth-century Renaissance, or indeed, with our own age. The new world heralded by Alexander was a fast changing world bent on extensive commercial intercourse, bursting with curiosity, eager to reappraise most of its religious, moral, scientific and artistic values.1 There was no room in such a world for a literature which none but a few scholars could read, for an art which drew its inspiration from outdated ideals and models, for a science which evaded rational explanations, for a religion which did not admit scepticism. The Mesopotamian civilization, like its Egyptian counterpart, was condemned. If it were permissible to enclose a highly complex phenomenon into one single and necessarily inaccurate formula one could say that it died of old age.

Civilizations, however, rarely die without leaving any trace and even we, men of the twentieth century, must acknowledge our debt towards the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia. While we are harnessing the atom and exploring the planets, it is appropriate to remember that we owe the Babylonians the basic principles of our mathematics and astronomy, including our ‘positional’ numeration and the sexagesimal system by which we still divide our circle and our clocks. We also owe them – though this is of more doubtful value – the bulk of an astrology which, judging from the number of modern publications devoted to this pseudo-science, has lost nothing of its appeal to the masses. To this heritage must be added the rudiments of an efficient administration (undoubtedly a creation of the Assyrians), some institutions, such as the coronation of our kings, a number of symbols mainly used in religious art (the crescent, the Maltese cross, the ‘tree of life’, for instance), a few words that have come to us through the channels of Greek or Arabic – e.g. cane (Akkadian qânu), alcohol (guhlu), dragoman (targumanu), gypsum (gassu), myrrh (murru), saffron (azupiranu), naptha (naptu) in English, or corne (qarnu) and mesquin (mushkênu) in French2 and, last but not least, the Mesopotamian elements detectable in the Bible. All this may appear exceedingly light compared with the enormous weight of our Greco-Roman heritage, but lists of this kind, even when they are exhaustive, fall short of doing full justice to the importance assumed by the Sumero-Akkadian civilization in the history of mankind. To reckon only with those Mesopotamian relics that have survived up to now is like counting the pieces of furniture inherited from remote ancestors, forgetting that these ancestors have shaped the lives of our forefathers and, indirectly, our own life.

Seventy centuries before the birth of Christ, the inhabitants of Jarmo and other Neolithic sites in Northern Iraq took an active part in the invention of agriculture, a crucial revolution in the development of mankind, and their immediate descendants were among the first to make and decorate pottery, mould and bake clay bricks, fashion metallic objects. It is on the banks of the Tigris River and its tributaries, at Tell al-Sawwan and Choga Mami, that were carried out, about 5,000 years B.C., the first experiments in irrigation agriculture, a novelty soon adopted and perfected in the great Euphrataean plain, where some 2,000 years later the wheel, the sail and the sowing-plough were also invented, the first large cities with their temples and ‘prestige houses’ were built, and almost perfect pieces of art appeared. In approximately 3300 B.C., about two centuries before the Egyptians, the Sumerians invented writing, another fundamental revolution which enabled man to communicate with distant other men; to refine and develop his thoughts; to transmit them from one generation to the other, making them immortal since they were engraved on stones and, more often, on clay, both imperishable materials. Together with the Mesopotamian Semites (Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians), the Sumerians used this wonderful tool not only for their accounts, but also to retain memories of the past; to assemble in a coherent system a number of hitherto disparate religious concepts; to honour and serve their gods and obtain from them a glimpse of their own future; to glorify their kings; to codify their laws; to classify the fascinating world around them and lay the foundations for scientific research; to use myths, legends, epic tales and ‘counsels of wisdom’ in order to express their properly philosophical ideas, ranging from the creation of the cosmos and man to the insoluble problem of Good and Evil; and for thousands of other things which cannot be listed here, for no other peoples in pre-classical antiquity has left us so many texts of all kinds. This is the true ‘Mesopotamian heritage‘, rather than a few institutions, a few symbols and a few words. It is to this impressive series of technical discoveries and intellectual achievements that Mesopotamia owes its ‘organic position in the line of our own past’.3 It is important to note that the civilization which flourished between the Twin Rivers did not remain within the confines of South-West Asia; It has reached Europe and eventually all of us in two stages: first from place to place during prehistory, regarding its technical aspects, then through the twin channels of our Judeo-Christian tradition and of the Greek culture, regarding its spiritual and artistic contents.

Classical scholars, long dazzled by the so-called ‘Greek miracle’, have now come to realize the full impact of Oriental influences upon the formative phase of Greek thought, art and ethics4 – and the Orient, throughout most of pre-classical antiquity, was to a great extent culturally dependent upon Mesopotamia. Long before Alexander brought Greece into Asia, the Aegean countries were in direct contact with Hittite lands and in commercial relations by sea with Canaan and Egypt. Merchants, craftsmen, ambassadors, princes, royal couriers, physi-cans and even priests travelled widely within and outside the Near East. We know that early in the second millennium B.C. there were Assyrian colonies in the heart of Asia Minor; between 1500 and 1200 B.C. Mycenaean traders lived in Ugarit on the Syrian coast and cylinder seals of lapis lazuli dating to the Kassite period (they were probably gifts from an Assyrian king) have been found in the palace of the Greek Thebes,5 while Mesopotamian epics and myths were copied on the banks of the Nile in their original cuneiform script. We should not therefore be surprised to find that the Greek civilization was ‘built upon East Mediterranean foundations’6 largely made up of Mesopotamian material. It has already been suggested that Assyro-Babylonian medicine paved the way for the great Hippocratic reform of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.7 and it is highly probable that early Greek mathematicians, such as Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.), drew largely upon the work of their Babylonian predecessors. The analysis of Oriental influences upon Greek art and literature is fraught with difficulties, since it is not always easy to distinguish between stimulus, parallel though independent creation and sheer borrowing. Yet, to quote only undisputable examples, it is now generally recognized that the Aesopian fable had Sumero-Akkadian antecedents and that Gilgamesh was the prototype of both Heracles and Ulysses,8 while a glance at the archaic statues and figurines of continental and insular Greece reveals at once strong affinities with earlier or contemporary Mesopotamian works.9

If Mesopotamia can be shown to have influenced Greece it is not unreasonable to believe that she exerted an even greater influence upon other Near Eastern countries. The case has been repeatedly proven with regard to the Hittites, the Hebrews, Canaan, Urartu, Media and Achaemenian Persia. But what of the Mesopotamian heritage in later Oriental civilizations? What of Parthian and Sassanian Iran, of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Anatolia? What of Arabia? What of the Islamic religion and institutions? What of Iraq itself, from Parthian times down to the present day? Going even farther afield, Professor Rostovtzeff – one of the few scholars equally at ease in the Hellenistic and Oriental worlds – could write, fifty years ago: ‘We are gradually learning how great was the influence of Babylonian and Persian Art on the artistic development of India and China.’10 The material available is already substantial, if scattered; yet no one, it seems, has undertaken to study it from this particular point of view. But this can wait. So manytells in Syria and Iraq are awaiting the spade, so many tablets and other inscriptions need to be published, revised or republished, so many points in the long history of ancient Mesopotamia require elucidation that generations of Assyriologists, archaeologists and historians will be kept fully busy for centuries to come.

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