National Geographic : 1951 Jan
Man Helps Build Southern Mesopotamia TO SHRUB of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up" (Gene sis 2:5). This sentence might well apply to southern Mesopotamia-the tradi tional region of the Garden of Eden -at a time when the surrounding lands had already been long estab lished. The land here had to be built up slowly, by the silt brought down from the mountains of Armenia by tireless rivers. And man had to do his share in making the ground firm. Northern Mesopotamia is hilly and old; the south is flat and relatively recent. Lower Mesopotamia owes its very ground to the unceasing activity of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Their silt is constantly adding to the land surface and cutting down the water area at the head of the Persian Gulf. What had been seaports even in comparatively late prehistoric times are now modern towns or ancient sites lying hundreds of miles inland. The first settlers arrived in Lower Mesopotamia from neighboring and long-established lands. They were real pioneers, work ing with the reeds that grew from the marsh bottom and matting them into a cover over the slime. The land which they helped to form with their own hands was new, but their civiliza tion was old and mature. What they achieved in the course of the first few centuries was a blend of the old and the new, a blend of discoveries and experience imported from neighboring centers but adjusted to the new sur roundings and materials. It was on this truly flimsy founda tion that a new civilization was to emerge in course of time, one which was to develop into a dynamic force crossing barriers of language, race, and political boundaries, and becom ing in many important respects the cradle of modern civilization. While Lower Mesopotamia was gradually drying out, there developed in the highlands to the north and northeast three distinctive cultures, each of which was typified by a par ticular kind of painted pottery. The latest of these three painted pottery cultures is often called El Obeid (page 63), after a small site near Ur. All three phases were well ac quainted with animal husbandry and enjoyed well-developed forms of agri culture, architecture, and religion. Their pottery served primarily a variety of domestic uses, but the best pieces were reserved for ceremonial and religious purposes. The pottery soon develops local characteristics and acquires the fea tures which are sampled on this plate. The same is true of the architecture. Alongside the temples which are known to us from the north there develops also a special local style which features the reed as the basic building material. A bundle of reeds tied near the top yields the graceful curves which come to be associated with the mother god dess, since art, architecture, and re ligion are already in intimate associa tion. The plate seeks to compress several centuries of development into a single scene. The men in the painting are stamping down the ground and laying mats over the slowly drying marsh. A patch previously wrested from the marshes already bears the cult hut whose goddess will be implored to protect man and beast as she receives offerings from the treasured pottery vessels assembled for the purpose.