Mosaic: Recovering Mesopotamia

By Highet, Juliet | The Middle East, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Mosaic: Recovering Mesopotamia


Highet, Juliet, The Middle East


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IN THE MIDST OF EMPTIED SMASHED DISPLAY CASES, with glass strewn everywhere, sat a crying woman dressed in black, repeatedly saying in Arabic: "It's all gone ... they have taken everything."

After looters ran wild in the Iraq National Museum and ransacked archaeological sites in 2003,10 years later heart-warming efforts are being made to carry out new excavations, and discover or buy back artefacts now on the open market, as well as to repair the Museum.

An exhibition in Ontario titled Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World aims to show what civilisation today owes to ancient Sumer, Assyria and Babylon, whose treasures were looted from the Iraqi Museum. More than 3,000 years ago, Mesopotamia was home to the world's first great cities. Its name is derived from the Greek "land between the rivers" of the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the birthplace of the first truly urban conurbations with complex forms of social organisation and economic activity, as well as writing, codified laws, long-distance trade and communications, and not least--the first empires.

In collaboration with The British Museum, which has lent a splendid collection of over 170 artefacts, the Royal Ontario Museum is exploring this legacy, with additional treasures from several American museums.

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The Curator for the Ancient Near East for the Royal Ontario Museum, Dr. Clemens Reichel, is also a field archaeologist experienced in the Mesopotamian sites of Iraq. He makes a thought-provoking comment on the duality of this society--highly advanced and yet ruthlessly cruel. "Mesopotamia was a true forerunner, with great cities of sizes not achieved by Paris or London until the Industrial Revolution; empires that controlled most of the known world of that time; technological achievements still shaping our lives. However, Mesopotamia was also ruled by kings who were as brutal as they were brilliant, whose rise to power was as stellar as their demise was cataclysmic." It seems that little has changed.

The main focus of the exhibition is the city-states of Sumer (4,000-2,000 BCE), Assyria (1,000-600 BCE), and Babylon (600-540 BCE). Southern Mesopotamia consisted of two main regions--Sumer in the south and Akkad to the north. One of the most significant advancements at this time was the emergence of the city, with a huge change in scale from existing towns and agricultural settlements. In Sumer, (now southwest Iran), the most massive was Uruk, which contained temples with high terraces, streets, canals, administrative buildings and residential areas. The earliest written script on cuneiform clay tablets, dating to around 3,300 BCE, has been excavated in Uruk and Susa. Their inscriptions reveal sophisticated systems of notation, including quantities of oxen, barley and malt.

An even earlier capital, Ur, was an important political, religious and economic centre, whose Royal Tombs predated that of Tutankhamen by more than 1,000 years. These tombs contained numerous bodies of soldiers, servants and also women, who either willingly or perhaps not, accompanied the royal deceased into their afterlives. By the elaborate and precious jewellery they wore, one can suppose that these women were an intimate part of royal retinue. Among the show's highlights is an ornate headdress trembling with gold leaves, necklaces and bracelets of gold, lapis lazul: and carnelian.

Other magnificent objects from the Royal Tombs include a highly elaborate 'Ram in the Thicket' of gold foil, silver, lapis lazuli and shell; and a massive 'Great Lyre' featuring a gold-plated bull's head with inlays of precious materials.

Assyria was located in northern Mesopotamia on the Tigris River, and at its height, around 660 BCE, became the dominating military and political power, controlling an area covering Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt and parts of Iran and Turkey. New capitals were built at Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, dominated by large palaces decorated with elaborately carved stone reliefs. …

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