The Legacy of Mesopotamia

The Legacy of Mesopotamia

The Legacy of Mesopotamia

The Legacy of Mesopotamia


This collection explores the spread of culture through literacy from Mesopotamia into Egypt, Palestine and Greece after a system of writing was developed. By gathering evidence from a vast range of material and literary sources from 3000 BC onwards, threads of influence and continuity are traced into the Middle Ages. The effect of recent rediscovery on European art is also explored.


Between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates lies the alluvial land known as Mesopotamia. There one of the world's very early civilizations arose. Brick-built cities and writing are two of its distinctive hallmarks, and the ancient names of its cities still echo around the world today: Ur of the Chaldees, Babylon, and Nineveh. For the Sumerians who first lived in southern Mesopotamia, Uruk (biblical Erech) was the seat of ancient kingship and early narrative literature. For the Babylonians who superseded them, Babylon was the centre of the world. For the Assyrians, Ashur was their most ancient capital, Nineveh their most glorious royal residence, and Harran their final seat of royalty. All those people wrote upon clay using hundreds of wedge-shaped signs, first in Sumerian, later in Akkadian which is the name now given to the written language of the Babylonians and Assyrians.

What was their relationship to other early civilizations? This question has been tackled in several different ways during the last century or so, and some of the answers have contradicted others. Premature conclusions have been dismissed as better evidence has come to light; diverse religious, political, and cultural groups have argued for or against influence with equal passion.

Scholarship in ancient Near Eastern studies has made huge progress, yet the challenge still stands. This book takes up that challenge because the evidence is now more plentiful and better understood than before. The burden of proof can be tackled by combining different kinds of evidence: chronological, textual, and archaeological, from different times and places.

The ruins of Nineveh and Babylon were rediscovered by explorers from western Europe in the nineteenth century, and have been excavated in fits and starts ever since. Assyriology, which is the study of Babylonian and Assyrian culture, began with those first excavations. The pioneers who first uncovered and studied the eroded remnants of Mesopotamian civilization had a clear if general view of its influence upon the rest of the world. 'Light from the East' and 'The Cradle of Civilization' were two of the catchphrases that excited the educated people of Europe and the USA. They perceived that so high a level of cultural attainment, so much earlier than the achievements of Classical Greece, must inevitably have been at the roots of urban, literate civilization.

Yet certain reservations remained. Egypt seemed to have blossomed into an urban, literate culture at much the same time, although without scientific dating methods it was impossible to say whether Egypt or Mesopotamia came first. India, with its Indus valley cities and its Sanskrit literature, also laid claims to priority which were hard to assess not only because the comparative dating of archaeological deposits was in its infancy, but also because the antiquity of its written traditions could only be guessed at from later survivals. Eventually it became possible to date the beginnings of culture in both India and China, where the development of cities and writing appears to be later than in the Near East.

Scholars of ancient Mesopotamian culture had the enormous advantage that its writings were impressed on clay which does not perish in the ways that most other writing materials do. On the other hand clay surfaces are easily damaged by . . .

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