National Geographic : 1951 Jan
Ancient Mesopotamia: A Light That Did Not Fail The immortal tale of Gilgamesh (pages 49 and 77) appears by the middle of the second millennium in as many as four different lan guages-Hittite and Hurrian, in addition to Akkadian and Sumerian. It has been pointed out frequently that the Odyssey has various points of contact with this great literary achievement of Mesopo tamia. And even though Homer stood in no need of outside assistance, the literary form which he employed was originated in Sumer. The legend of Uranus and Cronus is trace able, through Hurrian channels, to a Baby lonian source. The influence of Mesopotamia on the Old Testament cannot be indicated within the limits of a brief article. It was inevitable, for the simple reason that the patriarchs came originally from the Euphrates Valley and were thus automatically ambassadors of Mesopota mian civilization. Viewed in this light, the supreme place of the law in the Bible assumes added significance. When the Bible uses the incident of Egyp tian bondage as a recurring refrain, it would seem to allude to much more than the rela- tively brief period of Egyptian oppression. Rather it appears to stress the fact that the Egyptian way was abhorrent, incompatible with its own way and hence also with that of Mesopotamia. The ideals that have sustained mankind to this day are in many ways the same ideals that were tested and refined in the magnificent laboratory which Mesopotamia maintained during the thousands of years of its historic progress. In a final survey, therefore, it will not be the sundry survivals of that civilization which call for our close attention. Not the wheel and the true arch, the razors and cosmetic sets and frying pans; neither will it be shepherd's pipes or the princely harps, nor yet the dials on our clocks, or the astro logical charts that constitute our greatest debt to Mesopotamia. What are really vital are law and writing, and beyond these the abiding sense of the rights and obligations of the individual in a changing and dramatic world-pointing a way to hope in man's struggle for civilization. We are only beginning to appreciate the role of Mesopotamia in this epic struggle.* How the Herget Paintings Were Composed IN efforts to present, in collaboration with the artist, the basic features of a great civilization of antiquity, the archeologist deal ing with Mesopotamia is less favored by cir cumstances than were his colleagues represent ing Egypt, Greece, and Rome. We know that the artists and artisans of Mesopotamia were no less accomplished than their contemporaries in the Nile Valley. Climate and soil, however, combined to pre serve the products of the one center and to destroy those of the other. In Mesopotamia woodwork and textiles simply disintegrated and wall paintings did not fare much better. Fortunately, the cylinder seals from Meso potamia are a source of information that is practically inexhaustible. Sculptures in the round, and more especially the vast number of reliefs in stone and bronze (pages 43 and 48), contribute their share of vivid and vigor ous representations. Within the last two decades chance and the refinements of archeological methods have preserved for us several important examples of local frescoes-at Til Barsib and Mari, Khorsabad and Nuzi, Dur Kurigalzu, and 'Oqair on the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf-so that we are no longer reduced to guesswork when it comes to the question of color on anything other than pottery. In the following paintings by H. M. Herget the facts about a complex civilization that lasted several thousand years, including nearly three millenniums of historic progress, have been compressed into 24 subjects, arranged in chronological sequence from remote pre historic times down to the middle of the first millennium B. c. Each picture stands for a whole age, or for a significant phase of the given age. The episodes, based on fact or on imagination, may be descriptive of a moment in history or of a whole era. The archeologist has invented an incident if the texts did not furnish him with some thing better and stranger than fiction; but he has sought to be true to the spirit of the time. Details rest on a solid foundation. This need for highlighting a composite and dynamic civilization by instilling life into each individual painting, imposed an added strain on the artist. \Ir. Herget's experience and interest proved to be a unique combination. He faced the problem, delighting in its chal lenge. It is a source of deep regret that he did not live to see his last major project pub lished. * For additional articles on Mesopotamia. see "NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE Cumulative Index, 1899-1950."