Thursday, 19 November 2015

Reading the Distant Past

What a great book!
The author takes us through ten cities beginning five millenniums BC and ending with Babylon and its fall.  Indeed she steps over into the first century AD but the bulk of the book concerns the far distant and still much unknown past.
5000 years BC people had begun to develop cities instead of large family groups spread over the area.  Increased population saw a drift into the far south of Mesopotamia (the land between two rivers) and Eridu the first stop is far in the south of what we know call Iraq.

Eridu was considered the first city by the Sumerians, Sumer being the name given to the area, the city built they say by the god Enki.  He is said to have built his great temple here and over the centuries this was rebuilt time and again, each occasion carefully flattening and sealing the previous building before rebuilding began.  The archaeologists who dug deep into the mound found there was indeed a temple, a small square box shaped building the size of an average room dating from around five thousand years previously.
The gods feature much in the history.  Each city had its own, usually a female and male and the women often more important for reasons unknown.  Greeks and some early Christians developed the idea of a female goddess, pure and holy, clearly not based on any real woman around them.  I wonder why such goddesses are sought by so many?
The gods become confusing as time passes, some visit one another, several become top god depending on who is the top man, and all look after their city if they are fed and watered properly.   Some temples had at the top a variety of rooms for the gods use, each with following helpers.  The fact is we know god exists and if we don't find the real one we need to invent one to suit.  This did not help when cities went to war and one or other destroyed the loser mind.
The difference between these gods and the real God is that Jesus is alive and can be found, reading the theology here made the biblical story appear so much clearer and straight forward.
Certainly the folks back then knew how to make pottery.  This bowl goes back to 5400BC and was found in a grave at Eridu.  That's seven thousand years ago and more!
The cities had various problems with water.  To the north the desert region depended in the end on irrigation making use of the changing rivers the Tigris and the Euphrates, later water came from the Zargos mountains when the Assyrians took charge.  In the south near the Gulf the tides from the Gulf caused different problems in the southern marshes.  It is thought the varying weather and shifting water led to a fatalism that permeates even Islam today, whether this is true I know not but it is a thought.  When you depend on the weather you tend to live with your eye one the sky.
The early chapters appear to indicate a lifestyle in which peace and love circulates and everyone shares everything and lives in harmony with one another.  Certainly this is possible, ancient cities on the Indian/Pakistan border had no walls and appear to have settled lives so why not Eridu.  We know however that human nature is corrupt and already people spoke of the flood and what had occurred in the distant past, human nature does not change.  It is possible a decent society existed but on occasion as time moves on through the millenniums it is clear soldiers exist, walls are created and aa dominant level of society is calling the shots.
The increase in exchange of goods required better husbandry and records of trade, the beginning of writing appears about 3500BC and by then someone, possibly in the temple is organising society to ensure life continues and this means ensuring the farmers plant crops, the herdsmen and shepherds do their stuff and appropriate offerings are made to the gods.  A powerful civil service arises everywhere and soon scribes become just as important.  
Early writing featuring simple signs indicating beer or wheat eventually develop into Cuneiform script which exists for thousands of years afterwards.  Many late clay tablets feature translations into Greek on the reverse side.  Where would we be without writing?
Ur is one of the most famous cities discussed in the book.  Famous because Abram, who you may have heard off originated here before making his way north to Harran with his father than setting off to Canaan to become the first of the Hebrews.  It was fascinating to discover something of the situation 2000BC when he left.  UR had developed into a small state and ruled over many for over a hundred years or so and near the end of that time Abram and all his moved away.  The folks in UR had not been good at treating the neighbours well and by 2000 the Elamites had come from the east miffed at their treatment and laid waste the city.  They were very miffed!
The author, a woman, begins with the historical dig at each city, tells us the history and of the discoveries made at each city.  This is an excellent read and not boring, at least not to me.  She flows along making special mention of women whenever she can, as women do!  Each town has its occupation indicated, the ideology if it had one and the various gods enthroned.  Some reveal a great deal about those who inhabited the city while others leave a lot to be desired.  Where possible Gwendolyn Leick explains the various interpretations for the difficulties presented and the glossary and notes at the back help a great deal while pondering the findings.
Nineveh offers an interesting problem for those wishing to dig into the remains.  It is situated opposite Mosul, the city now controlled by Daesh (what we should call ISIS).  This makes it interesting as Daesh refuse to accept the past as important and tend to chop heads of those who dig there.  Most now avoid the area and this appears reasonable to me.  The ancient city is a huge space in which hundreds of archaeologists could spend years researching the past, that however will not happen for some time.
This is a poor review of a good book.  My excuse is the tendency I suffer at the moment to fall asleep, sometimes when walking down the street, and the feeble mind is even more feeble than ever this week
If you wish to understand the past read this book.  One thing that we know from such works is that human nature does not change and people now are just as they were ten thousand years ago, people do not change.


the fly in the web said...

Is this a recent book or do you think my old favourites Better World Books might have it?

I remember being taught about the Fertile Crescent in Junior school - and the ticking off we got for trying to write in cuneiform in our exercise books.

Adullamite said...

Fly, This book appeared in 2001 and in Penguin 2002 so it's reasonably near.
Also a slim 'A very short introduction' book 'The Ancient Near East' beginning 3600 BC is available.

Lady Di Tn said...

Mr A
The first thing I saw was my first name on a BOOK. It is the woman in me that made me say that. I will need to return when my circuit board brain has been reboot from the dullness of the day work. THE INTAKE BUTTON IS STUCK. Peace

Adullamite said...

Lady, It's time you wrote a book!