Early Mesopotamian Culture Contributed to the Foundation of Western civilization
Early Mesopotamian Culture Contributed to the Foundation of Western civilization
I t would be very difficult to argue against the importance of early Mesopotamian culture. The title Mesopotamia refers to the land which lies between two rivers – the Tigres on the east and the Euphrates on the west. The latter is referred to in the Bible in Genesis 2 v14 as flowing out of the Garden of Eden, so it seems that the Biblical writers seem to have felt that this area was where humanity began. The ruins of a city, Ur of the Chaldeans, can still be seen at Tell Mugheir which lies 140 miles south of ancient Babylon and 150 miles to the northwest of the Persian Gulf in modern Iraq.
The main part of the ruins cover some 150 acres and were uncovered over many years, beginning with the major excavations of J. E. Taylor in 1854. Chaldean civilzation The Chaldeans were a Semitic people, i. e they spoke one of the Semitic languages and were Caucasians and by tradition they were from descended from Shem, son of Noah. Their civilization was mainly on the banks of the Euphrates, where the land was more fertile and capable of producing rich crops. Animals such as sheep and goats were also domesticated.
The Chaldean cities had many of the attributes that we recognize in modern cities at a period when most people of the world were still hunter gatherers. Eridu, which is a few miles to the SSW of Ur, was another religious center, with a mud brick stepped temple to the Chaldean god of the sea and of wisdom. Archeologists have even found the remains of burnt fish left as offerings. It too was rediscovered in the19th century. It seems that the temples were originally built on platforms at ground level, but gradually higher and higher levels were built on the earlier foundations.
According to records Eridu was at one time actually on the coast and silt deposits seem to date it somewhere in the 7th millennium B. C. E. , although the earliest settlers in the area arrived about 9,000 B. C. E. according to The History Guide, Lecture 2. The cities seem to have been a response by early settlers in order to organise such things as irrigation, trade and the needs of a larger population. Because of the need to record trading clay tokens came into use, different shapes representing different commodities.
As is often the case the city grew up on the banks of the river, it being their source of water and of organised trade. They used dams and weirs to control the water supply, just as a modern people might do. Wooden ploughs were used to break up the soil before planting crops such as barley, turnips and onions. They also grew both apples and grapes and may well have been the first people to discover the means of making both beer and wine, probably by accident at first. J. E. Taylor uncovered a stepped temple mound or ziggurat which climbed in three levels to a height of 70 feet and was known as the Mountain of Heaven.
70 feet may not sound impressive to us, but this would have been the only large building in the plain and visible for miles around. Buried at the four corners of the ziggurat were cuneiform tablets telling of the name of the city and its founder and who had carried out repairs to the temple over the years. So we see that this was a city that was organised enough for its citizens to work together over a prolonged period on this huge construction project. In the temple area were found records revealing that the people paid tithes and that the temple also benefited from trade with other people.
Leonard Woolley’s excavation of 1924, as recorded in the Thompson Chain Bible archeological supplement, page 364, revealed some 4 square miles of the city outside this sacred area. Woolley uncovered some 1800 graves including 16 that he designated as ‘Royal’. The cemeteries revealed huge tombs where many retainers had died in order to accompany their king or queen to the after life. So these people were capable of abstract thought and spiritual depth. The people thought that their kings were descended from the gods that they worshipped.
Sometimes kings called ‘Shepherds’ because of their responsibilities to care for the needs of the people. These were large rooms as big as10 metres long with walls of both stone and mud brick. There were quays for shipping, commercial buildings, houses of two stories with fire places and sanitary systems. Houses, temples and palaces were decorated with pictures, often depicting victories. There were chapels for worship and a school building where tablets revealed that reading, writing, including grammar, basic mathematics and history were taught. This was almost certainly only for the sons of the elite.
Most boys would have learned a trade from their fathers, while girls helped with what were considered more womanly tasks such as grinding corn and weaving. Flax was grown to make linen, quite a complicated process. Men wore skirts, but women wore clothes that covered them from shoulders to ankles. Women wore their hair long, usually braided and most men were clean shaven, even in this time before metal blades. It was a patriarchal society, but amazingly women had rights that they have only in comparatively recent years attained again in many societies – i. e.
the right to end an unsatisfactory marriage and the right to own property in their own right. This city used writing to keep records – from such beginnings would later emerge literature of all kinds, poetry, stories, plays, even modern advertising, all of which began when someone discovered that they could make permanent marks that could be later read by themselves and others. They had mathematics – in their case only arithmetic, but this is where all branches of mathematics begin. They were able to trade with other people, both to get rid of surplus goods in a profitable way, and also to obtain what they could not produce themselves e.
g. the lapis lazuli found in the royal tombs which may well have come all the way from Afghanistan, although there are small deposits elsewhere in the world. They wrote music and songs. Some songs were written for religious reasons, but many were written to describe important events in the community.. Songs were used by people at every level of society to amuse , but also to educate and were sung to children who passed them on to their children. In this way, just as we teach children nursery rhymes today or sing patriotic songs , songs and ideas were passed on through many generations and were finally recorded in wriitng.
These songs provided a means of passing on through the years important information about historical events. Even today they reveal much about this civilization to modern scholars. Later in their history the people of this area founded the Babylonian empire which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. They would become great astronomers, able to study the planets and stars with great accuracy. Mesopotamia cities served as capitals of the Assyrian, Mitanni, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Parthian, Sassanid and Abbasid empires.
Naturally such a large and complicatedcivilization had to have laws in order to control conduct. It was a Mesopotanian king Hammurabi, in about 1780 BC, who set out what is one of the earliest known sets of laws. He made over 200 laws for Mesopotamia, now know as the Code of Hammurabi. In Genesis 11 we have the description of Abram taking Sarai for his wife, so they understood concepts of family and commitment. According to Dr Gerard Falk Abram was a Hebrew, the name meaning one who crossed over, i. e.
one who forded the river in order to look for the land to which he believed God had sent him. Abram, later Abraham, is of course acknowledged as the forefather of both Judaism, and so Christianity and Islam. So these civilizations and their religions, with the idea of monotheism and family and moral values also were born in Mesopotamia. Later in the history of the area the various city states would come to blows over such things as water supplies and rights to land. These were argued over for many years, just as such things occur today, before eventually erupting into war in about 3200BC.
Conclusion So we see that many things that we consider to be ‘civilized’ and which are of importance in modern western civilization such as organised city life, trade with other lands, the beginnings of literature and science, agriculture, social interaction, property rights and marriage as well as abstract concepts such as an afterlife and spirituality were present long ago. Alongside these were things we might not be so approving of, yet which are present in modern western societies, such as disputes with neighbouring states, divorce and even war.
The Chaldeans kept records, had a legal system, educated their young people both academically and practically and were able to work together to reach common goals. These are all things that we, as modern people still do and still value even after 9,000 years. Bibliography Thompson Chain Bible, King James Version, 1964, London Eyre and Spottiswood. Electronic sources Ancient Mesopotamia found at http://www. shrewsbury-ma. gov/schools/Central/Curriculum/ELEMENTARY/SOCIALSTUDIES/Mesopotamia/ancient_mesopotamia. htm#clothing and retrieved on 15th November 2007 ERIDU found at http://www. experiencefestival.
com/a/Eridu/id/105202 retrieved 15th November 2007 FALK, G. Chaldea found at http://www. jbuff. com/c041603. htm retrieved 15th November 2007 LAPIS LAZULI found a t http://www. gemstone. org/gem-by-gem/english/lapis. html retrieved 15th November 2007 Mesoptamia, The British Museum found at http://www. mesopotamia. co. uk/menu. html and retrieved 15th November 2007 SEMITIC definition found at http://www. webster-dictionary. net/definition/Semitic retrieved 15th November 2007 THE HISTORY GUIDE, LECTURE 2 found at http://www. historyguide. org/ancient/lecture2b. html retrieved 15th November 2007