Monday, November 7, 2011
Book: Mesopotamia by Gwendolyn Leick
In 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte led French troops to Syria and Egypt in an attempt to disrupt British access to India. In about a year he would stage a coup and, as self-proclaimed First Consul (his last step before becoming emperor), he envisioned himself rivaling the luminary rulers of Europe's past: conquerors like Alexander the Great and patrons of culture, like Charlemagne. Perhaps already thinking these vainglorious thoughts as he left for Egypt, Napoléon brought a host of scientists along with his soldiers. These men, through painstaking observation, recording and no little plundering of Egypt's antiquities for France's (and soon, Britain's) museums, would essentially create the modern archaeological and historical field known as Egyptology.
For a fascinating online exhibit of this expedition see here. Additionally, the magazine Archaeology recently released an enthralling special issue about ancient Egypt, available for sale here, which opens with an article about Napoléon's expedition and its influence on Egyptology. (Below, the famous painting by Antoine-Jean Gros depicts Napoléon and his forces behaving imperially and generally acting like jerks to Egyptians in their own country.)
But this impression is wildly inaccurate and primarily a function of the disproportionate attention we have paid to it. Egypt achieved the wealth it did, a wealth that allowed its cultural flourishing, through savvy exploitation of its own resources, but also through trade with other cultures and, occasionally, through conquest of other cultures, whose resources it then commanded. The full grandeur of ancient Egypt did not burst fully formed from a hunter-gatherer culture or even a nomadic herding culture. Its urbanized society developed over time in connection with similar developments in rather far flung regions. In fact, civilization and complex societies abounded during the Bronze Age. While scholars know increasingly more about these other civilizations contemporaneous with ancient Egypt during its long history - from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley civilization, the Elamites to the Minoans, and so many others - it is still far easier, as a layman, to learn about Egypt than about any of these other cultures. Due to the aforementioned age of and faddishness surrounding Egyptology, there are more books, more articles, more documentaries, and websites about it.
As a fan of underdogs and history alike, I decided it was high time I remedy my own ignorance of extra-Egyptian Bronze Age cultures. Ancient Egypt is fascinating, but what was happening elsewhere when the pharaohs were large and in charge? I chose to begin with Mesopotamia because: (a) it developed socially complex urban civilization before Egypt did; (b) I couldn't envision a single component of its aesthetic sense as a culture; (c) the nation in which I live is currently messing about in Iraq née Mesopotamia with a degree of insensitivity and hubris that demonstrates utter ignorance of the area's history of cultural sophistication, not to mention its experience in coping with foreign invasion; and finally (d) the B-52s were right, before I talk I should read a book.
I did some scouring of online bibliographies and read many reviews until I alit upon Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City by Gwendolyn Leick. An anthropologist and Assyriologist, Leick does a deft job of summarizing the history of archaeological work on Mesopotamian cultures, explaining past and present analyses of artifacts, and charting the waxing and waning of five millenia of Mesopotamian cities.
The first detail to note is that "Mesopotamia" describes a region defined by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which today encompasses Iraq, parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran. Below is a map showing the region roughly corresponding to ancient Mesopotamia (in the pale ivory) and the modern national boundaries (black lines). If your Middle East geography is poor and you do not know which country is which, you can educate yourself here.
ziggurats (religious temples dedicated to individual deities around which grew cults that became integral to Mesopotamian power structures). Each city with its temple complex and associated priestly class functioned as what we may call a city-state, originally independent of one another but maintaining alliance networks. Eventually, with the rise of kingship, individual cities began exerting themselves over others, using military force, exacting taxes, administering land use and generally bringing larger areas encompassing additional cities within their rule.
Several groups of people comprised what we think of as "Mesopotamian culture". The first to become urbanites were the Sumerians from southern Mesopotamia, who founded one of the oldest cities in the world, Eridu, in 5400 B.C. and invented one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform. ["Proto-cuneiform" pictograms on a clay tablet pictured below, probably from the 4th millenium B.C., and cuneiform proper pictured below that, from the 3rd millenium B.C.]
The Assyrians, a Semitic people from northern Mesopotamia, assumed kingship of the region during the 23rd century B.C. Excluding a brief resurgence of Sumerian power, the kingship of Mesopotamia would reside with the Assyrians and the related but distinct Semitic peoples, the Akkadians and Babylonians, until the 6th century B.C. Much like Latin in medieval Europe, the use of Sumerian as the language of letters outlasted Sumerian political dominance. Akkadian, Aramaic and other languages would eventually work their way into Mesopotamian correspondence and record keeping, but these languages would continue to be written using Sumerian-developed cuneiform and Mesopotamia would remain recognizable as a geographical region with no little cultural cohesion, especially as regards the link between kingship and religion.
Mesopotamian kingship relied on the sanction (or perceived sanction) of a given city's main god or goddess, housed in a central and increasingly grand ziggurat. Some of the most noteworthy and powerful of Mesopotamian deities include Enki (Akkadian Ea), Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar), and Marduk. It was not uncommon for would-be kings to attack an existing capital, destroy its main temple and carry its idol off to a new capital. Such thefts were thought to demonstrate the disfavor of the deity toward his or her former residence and approbation of his or her new home. For example, more than one Assyrian king removed Marduk from his main temple in Babylon, thereby sealing conquest of the southern kingdom and effectively moving the seat of Mesopotamian power to the northern Assyrian capital city, Ashur. [André Caron of Maquettes Historique created the truly badass reconstruction of Marduk's ziggurat, Etemenanki, below. Caron's reconstruction represents Etemenanki as it looked when rebuilt (and enlarged) during the 6th century B.C., centuries later than the last theft of the statue but the model is too cool not to include.]
In addition to a nuanced understanding of Mesopotamian religion and kingship, Leick gives her reader the impression of Mesopotamia as a diverse, adaptable and sophisticated culture that maintained diplomatic and trade connections with empires as far afield as Egypt, the Hittites (in Asia Minor) and the Indus Valley civilization (on the Indian subcontinent). Mesopotamian internal power struggles, between kings, priests, usurpers, etc., took on a political complexity to rival Rome's, Constantinople's or even that of the Ottomans, replete with murders, plots and poisonings. Mesopotamian wealth and cultural elaborateness, visible in its art, literature and architecture, also rivaled that of other great empires, not least of which being Egypt. During the 14th century B.C., the Assyrian king of Mesopotamia, Ashur-uballit I even sent a letter to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenophis IV asserting his equality of status with the pharaoh, referring to him as "brother" and demanding gifts (such was the traditional exchange between rulers of equal status). Mesopotamia was no small fry in the Bronze Age ocean. [Impression from a 3rd millenium B.C. Akkadian cylinder seal, below. To glean an appreciation of the craftsmanship at work here, understand that cylinder seals stood only between 2 and 6 centimeters high. The image of the impression below as it appears on a computer screen is probably larger than the actual impression.]
Standard of Ur, below. Inlaid with shell, limestone and lapis, it was found among other grave goods in a king's tomb unearthed near the Mesopotamian city Ur. The Standard, too, is smaller than you might think, standing only about 9 inches high.]
Indeed, most of what has come down to western popular imagination regarding Mesopotamia hails directly from the Old Testament in which Mesopotamian civilization constitutes a powerful villain and symbol of excess. Biblical stories, for instance, have rendered "Babylon" popularly synonymous with decadence and hubris. The "Tower of Babel" refers to a Mesopotamian ziggurat, perhaps to Etemenanki pictured above, although a good case has been made for its identification as the ziggurat of Eridu as well. The Biblical "Nebuchadnezzar" is the Neo-Babylonian king, Nebuchadrezzar II who, in fact, did capture Jerusalem and destroy its temple. [He also rebuilt Etemenanki in the 6th century B.C. and erected the "Ishtar gate" at Babylon, which has been reconstructed at Berlin's Pergamon Museum, pictured below.]
Additionally, the Babylonian captivity of the Jews certainly refers to a standard Mesopotamian practice of exporting conquered peoples to various parts of its empire. Even older cultural memories of Mesopotamia surface in scripture as well. Genesis refers to four cities founded by Nimrod in the land of Shinar. Shinar probably refers to Sumer and the named cities to Sumerian cities: Babel (Babylon), Erech (Uruk), Accad (Akkad), and Calneh (possibly Nippur though scholars have offered other locations). And the foregoing is just a brief sampling of biblical references to this great civilization.
Of course the image of Mesopotamia one gleans from the Bible (as with Egypt and Rome) is hopelessly, if understandably, skewed against it. The Bible was written by and for people conquered and oppressed by these larger, more powerful civilizations. Small wonder a nuanced picture of them does not emerge from scripture. And yet in the case of both Rome and Egypt, other sources have ameliorated our impression of these empires, acknowledging their excesses but drawing attention to their achievements. We, as Westerners, remain interested in Egyptian and Roman history for we feel they are somehow precursors to our own civilization and, I hypothesize, we see some of ourselves in them.
As I wonder why Mesopotamia has received shorter shrift in Western pop culture over the years, I shun the idea that its modern incarnation as Iraq has much to do with it. Our ignoring of its ancient past predates either of the Bush boys' adventures at playing cowboy in that region. If anything, our miserable war may have educated us just a bit more about this foundational culture of which we are all inheritors. [U.S. soldiers visiting the partially reconstructed ruins of the ziggurat at Ur, below.]