National Geographic : 1951 Jan
Ancient Mesopotamia: A Light That Did Not Fail BY E. A. SPEISER Formerly Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad; Chairman of the Department of Oriental Studies, University of Pennsylvania MESOPOTAMIA, the historic land be tween the Tigris and the Euphrates, has meant many different things (map, page 45). For readers of the Bible, the name-or any one of its synonyms or near synonyms-may conjure up a picture of the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, or the Great Flood; or it may call to mind the story of the patriarchs, of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, of the hand writing on the wall. To some the name has associations with the Code of Hammurabi (page 85), the death of Alexander the Great, the exploits of Harun al-Rashid. Others will think in this connec tion of Chaldean astrology, the Royal Tombs of Ur, or the fabulous oil deposits of the Middle East. Mesopotamia gives tremendous perspective to our modern civilization. In common with the rest of the ancient Near East-Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Iran-Mesopotamia had put in more time on the progress of mankind, before the rise of Greece and Rome, than has elapsed between the Homeric age and our own times. When Rome, founded, according to tradition in the 8th century B. c.,* was less than a hundred years old, Nineveh in As syria had come to the end of a 4,000-year career. Yet what Mesopotamia achieved during sev eral millenniums of steady progress did not come to an abrupt close when the Greeks took over.f Through one channel or another, the fruits of that accumulated experience had al ready spread to Europe, to enrich the classical world and to be passed along eventually to our own culture as a living and tangible force. Stored-up Evidence Civilization is basically the sum of man's answers at any given stage to the problems of society and the universe. Until man had begun to live in settled communities, after learning to sow as well as to harvest, there was little real opportunity to do much about such questions. Ancient urban centers, however, leave re mains that may be reconstructed into a mean ingful record long after the cities themselves ceased to exist.4 The Near East was the place where the first urban centers emerged. To retrace our pres ent civilization to its roots and see it as a growing organism, we must go back to the Near East, the cradle of Western civilization. Over much of its total course to date, the story of mankind was but the story of cultural progress along the Nile, the Tigris, the Eu phrates, and the immediately adjoining areas (pages 51 and 58). Each of these ancient lands thus has something significant to relate. If the testimony of Mesopotamia has fewer blurred passages than that of its sisterlands, its clarity is due chiefly to two factors: one. the vast amount and the astounding variety of written records that have come down to us from that country, a full and eloquent com mentary on more than 2,000 years of pre classical history; the other, the number and nature of the ancient Mesopotamian sites. These sites contribute their share to the material illustration of historic times, but are especially valuable as witnesses of cultural progress in the prehistoric age. In other words, the ancient mounds of Mesopotamia have proved to be buried treasures in more ways than one. How Mounds Grew Ancient mounds, to be sure, are not re stricted to the watersheds of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Mesopotamia, however, ex ceeds the neighboring lands in the number of artificial hills that go back to the early stages of settled occupation. Since Egypt did not encourage to the same extent the building of cities in successive levels, that country is less well suited than Mesopotamia to take us down, rung by rung, through the centuries that pre cede written history. Let us take as an example the site of Tepe Gawra, which is situated 15 miles northeast of modern Mosul and ancient Nineveh (pages * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "The Roman Way," by Edith Hamilton; "Ancient Rome Brought to Life," by Rhys Carpenter, with 32 ills. in color from paintings by H. M. Herget, all No vember, 1946. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "The Greek Way," by Edith Hamilton; "Greece. tl;e Birthplace of Science and Free Speech," by Richard Stillwell, with 32 ills. in color from paintings by H. M . Herget, all March, 1944. t See "Archeology, the Mirror of the Ages," by C. Leonard Woolley, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1928.