First Empires: Sumer, Assyria and Babylon

Lecture transcript

Dr Andrew Jamieson, 30 August 2012

Linda Sproul:  Good evening everyone. My name's Linda Sproul, and I'm the manager of Education and Community Programs at Museum Victoria. It's my great honor to welcome you here this evening for Dr. Andrew Jamieson's lecture on First Empires, Sumer, Assyria and Babylon.

It's also my other great pleasure to kick us off by acknowledging the land of the traditional owners on which we stand, the Kulin Nation and to acknowledge their elders past and present.

Dr. Andrew Jamieson is at the University of Melbourne and these lecture series for Mesopotamia are part of a fantastic partnership that we have with the University of Melbourne. Because while at Museum Victoria we think we have a lot of fabulous and fantastic experts, we have to acknowledge that we can't be an expert in everything.

So it's partnerships like this one with the University of Melbourne which means we can present knowledge specialists like Dr. Jamieson for your pleasure, erudition and entertainment. And he was exceedingly popular with our Tutankhamun. And by popular demand, here he is again. So, I would like to say a warm welcome to Dr. Andrew Jamieson.

Andrew Jamieson:  Linda, thank you for that introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome. It's wonderful to see so many people here tonight. I am delighted to have been involved in the development of the Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia Exhibition. I am very pleased to be giving this talk this evening.

In fact, about 18 months ago, I was contacted by the Melbourne Museum and invited to give the team here at the museum an introductory overview on ancient Mesopotamia. And this is also very much my aim tonight.

In this evening's lecture, I want to introduce you to Mesopotamia and the first empires, Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. I want to set my talk within the context of the exhibition, and I'm hoping at the end of tonight you might want to go back and have another look.

I want to provide a context for the objects that feature in the Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia Exhibition. And there are over 170 objects from the British Museum in the exhibition. I have to say we are very fortunate to have these works on loan here in Melbourne.

In fact, I was involved with the selection, and we really had to twist the arm of the curators at the British Museum to let us have some of the pieces. We've certainly got highlights.

We know a great deal about Mesopotamia through these objects. In many cases, we know their names. We know what they were doing, what they were thinking. It's because we're dealing with literate societies, with Mesopotamia and the first empires; we have entered the historical period. It is the detail and the clarity of the detail that makes Mesopotamia so interesting and so engaging.

In terms of the ancient world, and this is my view, there are four main cultures or pillars, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Now, together, these civilizations make up the foundations of western civilization. Unlike Egypt, Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia is relatively unknown.

You are all familiar with the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the olden Pyramids, but did you know about the Ziggurat at all? It's not as visible. Why is that? One reason may be that Mesopotamia is less visible, is less well preserved because it's less intact. The physical fabric of Mesopotamia has not survived to the same degree as the other three great ancient civilisation.

This itself reveals something about the Mesopotamian environment, which is the first important point that I like to make. Understanding the physical environment of Mesopotamia contributes to our understanding of Mesopotamian civilisation.

The Mesopotamian world or the Mesopotamian landscape influenced and shaped the developments of their civilisations. In some respects, it's been necessary to reconstruct, recreate Mesopotamia based on the archeological evidence and the prime resources left behind by the Mesopotamians themselves. So another important point to make about Mesopotamia is that it's also a very long and complex history.

It can be confusing, and it may at first seem rather inaccessible. So to make sure that doesn't happen tonight, let's start with addressing two important and fundamental questions; when and where.

The period covered in the exhibition is several thousand years and it begins in the mid‑3rd millennium around 3,500 B.C. It continues until the end of the Neo‑Babylonian period about 500 B.C. I'm hoping those dates are clear.

"Where is Mesopotamia?" you are asking?

Andrew:  Of course, ancient Mesopotamia corresponds with the modern Middle East. To be more specific, it corresponds with modern Iraq and parts of Syria and Anatolia or Turkey. Strictly speaking, Mesopotamia refers to the land between the two rivers.

The word, Mesopotamia, is of Greek origin meso meaning middle and potamia, the rivers. Mesopotamia rolls off the tongue. Say it with me, "Mesopotamia."

Theatre:  Mesopotamia.

Andrew:  Oh, come on. You can do better than that.

Andrew:  Again.

Theatre:  Mesopotamia.

Andrew:  Excellent. Now, the two rivers that they're referring to here, this land between the two rivers, are the Tigris and the Euphrates. These are great rivers. They're like the Nile. They represent major corridors of trade and communication in the ancient world.

Mesopotamia is also known as the cradle of civilization. It forms part of what's known as the Fertile Crescent, this arc that extends from the Persian Gulf across to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was here that the early Mesopotamians started experimenting with agriculture and developing systems of irrigation.

They were most likely attracted to the area in the first place by the proximity and the availability of fresh water and rich soil that made the cultivation of crops, such as amber wheat and barley, easy to cultivate. Southern Mesopotamia, down south, is relatively flat. The annual spring flood deposited rich alluvial silt, but other than this, the area had few natural resources. In the south during the summer, as it is today, it can be intensely hot with very, very little rainfall.

By contrast, in the north, Northern Mesopotamia is much greener. It's characterized by a more undulating, hilly landscape. In the north there is sufficient rainfall for dry farming without the need for intensive irrigation. To some extent, these different physical features between north and south are reflected in the settlement patterns and cultural developments.

The availability of fresh water combined with that fertile land encouraged people to settle in the south at sites like Uruk and Ur. Whilst there was competition and border disputes sometimes resulting in conflict, these city‑states of Southern Mesopotamia represent the first urban centers.

In Southern Mesopotamia, or throughout the Near East, the homeland of the Sumerians, they constructed their cities from mud brick. Of course, mud was abundant, readily available and mud brick buildings stayed cool in summer and warm in winter. But one disadvantage is that mud requires constant upkeep. If it's not maintained, it quickly disintegrates leading to another uniquely Mesopotamian phenomenon, the mounds of Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamians liked to rebuild on the same site, which over time formed these mounds. These artificial hills are a feature of the Mesopotamian landscape. In Arabic, they're known as tells. The Arabic word for mound. Tells or mounds, as I've said, are uniquely Mesopotamian.

They stand out in the landscape. These sites were rebuilt, reoccupied over hundreds, if not in some cases, thousands of years. Layers accumulated and built up with each rebuilding. In archaeology we call this the Sara Lee principle, layer upon layer.

But why did the Mesopotamians do this? It was because over time these important cities acquired a special importance. They were symbolic, home of the ancestors. But in the beginning it may have been a more practical consideration. The height of tells of the Southern Mesopotamia offered a strategic defensive advantage, which in a flat landscape of Southern Mesopotamia must have been important.

Overtime urban centers supporting large communities, numbering hundreds if not thousands of people developed, and with it a highly complex and sophisticated society. But the Mesopotamian world was one filled with uncertainties and often unstable.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers didn't flood with the predictability of the Nile for example. Cities were threatened by unexpected flood waters. There was also a constant threat from draughts, famine and plague. And references to these dangers, these concerns are often found and expressed in Mesopotamian literature and writing.

In fact, this votive statue of the Sumerian female worshiper was possibly intended to help prevent such dangers. These stone statues were carved and erected in temples to act as representing or substitutes of the real worship, placed before the Mesopotamian god within the temple.

This one, it comes from Suma of Southern Mesopotamia and dates to the third millennium. These people of Suma spoke Sumerian, a language unrelated to any other known language. In the north of Southern Mesopotamia they spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language that developed in later times into Babylonian and Assyrian.

Now, the Sumerian period may be defined by the following phases, the rock period, the early dynastic period, and third dynasty of Ur. As I've mentioned the Southern Mesopotamia some of the most important cities are those of Uruk and Ur.

Perhaps the Sumerians greatest achievement was the invention of writing. The earliest writing in Mesopotamia and almost certainly the earliest writing in the world is found in clay tablets discovered in a temple of the city of Uruk, around 3,300 BC.

A reed stylus was used to press onto the clay producing a wedged shaped impression that gave the writing its modern name, cuneiform from the Latin cuneus, meaning wedge.

As you can see, once they got on to this idea there was no stopping it. Again, in something like 6,000 BC with these small tokens and over the years developed into this form of cuneiform writing, from token to tablet.

You can see in these images how the tokens overtime were used with these clay balls. So it's very cool. Tennis shaped Os that contained tokens and then later impressions of the tokens inside these balls were added.

Then you could see that the ball, the sphere became redundant and the impressions were made directly onto the tablet itself. An amazing invention! This is a defining moment in history. Cylinder seals were another Mesopotamian invention.

From as early as 6000 B.C. stamp seals carved with geometric patterns, also start to appear in the archeological record. With the innovation of writing, cuneiform writing, the cylinder seal was invented. They were rolled across the clay, the tablet about the size of a cigarette pack, to seal and protect a transaction, or a seal on a container to protect the contents and to indicate ownership.

Cylinder seals were much like I.D. cards, or a driver's license; adding the seal impression was like adding one's signature to a document or a contract. The earliest cylinder seals are geometric, but over time become more figurative, such as these two examples from Ancient Sumer.

They were often carved of precious stone. They're quite small. This stone had to be imported to Mesopotamia. Amethyst, Carnelian, Lapis and so on. The Ancient texts recalled that lapis seals were associated with power and divine favor. Rock crystal represented profitability and a green stone, like serpentine, was associated with good luck.

They, cylinder seals, assumed amuletic, talismanic qualities that were worn to ward off evil spirits and the magical protective properties of cylinder seals were enlisted in rituals against miscarriage, black magic, slender, daemons of sickness. They were also used in rituals for child birth and to cure diseases of the mouth and rheumatism.

For the inhabitants of Mesopotamia everything that happened on Earth was related to the gods. Hundreds of Sumerian gods and goddesses were organized into a hierarchy. Some were responsible for the natural phenomena of the universe such as air, sun, moon, water, earth and fire.

Others were associated with life sustaining activities including agriculture, irrigation and casual breeding. There were also gods in charge of the mysteries of life, love, innuendos, death and the after‑life. Sumerian deities continued to be venerated later, but often acquired Akkadian, Babylonian and the Assyrian names. For example, Inanna of the Sumerians becomes Ishtar later.

Each city often had its own temple and its own god or goddess. Building temples to the gods was one of the main duties of Mesopotamian rulers. Excavations in cities such as Uruk have revealed massive temple buildings that were continually rebuilt and maintained. By about 3,000 B.C. the main shrine of the temple of Uruk was located on a high raised platform that had been repeatedly renovated and restored by adding more brick work to the exterior.

This rebuilding process appears to have culminated in the towering steplike temple structures called Ziggurats constructed throughout of Mesopotamia from about 2,200 B.C. onwards. Most of the Sumerian art known to us today was produced in connection with the worship of their gods. Temple interiors were highly decorated with artworks created by specialist craftspeople, using rich materials, of course imported from far beyond Mesopotamia.

These mosaic column drum is one section of a temple column from Tell al‑Ubaid with mosaic inlaid pieces made of mother of pearl, pink limestone and black shale. Between 1922 and 1934, the British Museum sponsored excavations at the city of Ur, one these very important southern Mesopotamian Sumerian city states. Ur has always been an important city from the earliest times and a large ziggurat constructed at Ur was dedicated to the moon God Sin.

The discoveries made by Woolley at Ur rival those at Howard Carter in Egypt. Near the Ziggurat of Ur, Leonard Woolley discovered a cemetery, a cemetery with many graves, which he named the Royal Cemetery. The burials date from the early dynastic free period or the mid second millennium, late in the Sumerian period.

The many graves Woolley excavated at Ur - he identified 16 elite or royal burials, which became known as the Great Death pits of Ur. Death pits because of evidence for human sacrifice. The wealthy citizens of the city of Ur were buried with their attendants. Were they murdered? Were they poisoned? We don't know it. It remains one of the great mysteries, but there was abundance evidence at Ur of human sacrifice.

Woolley believed that they were royal tombs because of the wealth in the form of the gold, jewellery and other items that were found associated with these 16 burials. Let's take a look. Gold and the lattice jewellery, it was abundant in these elite graves.

Precious stones, such as lapis from Afghanistan, carnelian from the Indus valley, gold from Egypt and Nubia, all imported into the resource starved southern Mesopotamian landscape, clearly reflecting the wealth, the power, the dominant role of the Sumerians at this time.

My favorite object in the exhibition, the fluted gold vessel from the royal Queen Puabi. Sarah Collins was very reluctant to let it out of the British Museum and she said, Andrew if you take it there will be nothing left. People have to come to Melbourne to the see Mesopotamia.

We are so fortunate to have objects like these in the Ancient Wonders of Mesopotamian exhibition. Go back and take a close look. Objects like these were used for drinking beer through these very unusual spells. But objects such as this one indicate that by about 2500 BC, southern Mesopotamia had become a very socially stratified society.

I will move on to the Assyrians. They are named after Ashur, both the city Ashur and the God Ashur who became the supreme God of the Assyrian empire. The homeland of the Assyrians is located on the Tigris in Northern Mesopotamia.

We've left the south and headed north. In terms of historic developments there are three main periods. The objects in the exhibition are mostly from the neo‑Assyrian, the late Assyrian period. In terms of cities, the key Assyrian sites are Ashur, Nimrud, Khorshabad and Ninaveh.

Assyria survived the tumultuous events at the end of the late Bronze Age when those marauding sea people swept down the eastern Mediterranean, fleeing the catastrophes and calamities of their own homeland, they cause major disruptions and disturbances, wiping out trade networks, copper was no longer readily available and due to these shortages, people started using iron.

We are now entering the Iron Age. We are in the first millennium. The Assyrians of Northern Mesopotamia up on the Tigris survived the collapse of late bronze age and went on to become the superpower of the ancient world, owing to the prowess and the exploits of the great neo‑Assyrian kings, Ashur‑nasir‑pal, Shalmaneser, Tiglath‑Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal are the key players in the neo‑Assyrian period.

This statue of King Ashur‑nasir‑pal is one of the earliest sculptures in the round . It is a masterpiece of Assyrian art. We haven't encountered anything like this before; again a unique Mesopotamian invention convincingly conveying the King's authority. Here he is seen holding the emblems of royalty, the ceremonial mace and scepter. If there is any doubt about his power, his cuneiform inscription carved across the king's chest leaves no confusion. It reads, great king, king of Assyria, king of the universe.

The neo‑Assyrian kings built great palaces at Ashur, Nimrud, Ninaveh and Khorshabad. The palace at Nineveh is described by the Assyrians themselves as palace without rival. These large sprawling complexes were opulent displays of wealth and prestige. The anterior of the Assyrian palaces were decorated with sculptures, reliefs and frescoes, often brightly decorated.

A footnote. When you are in the exhibition and you are looking at those wonderful Assyrian reliefs in that natural stone, it's most how unlike how they would have been in their original in‑situ form brightly painted like in these reconstruction. That's lost. There is only traces of the red, the black, the blue, the white that was added to enhance the data.

They show an idealized work in which the king is a fearless hunter, the Assyrians defeat and punish their enemies without loss of life or injury to themselves. Most visitors to the palace would not have been able to read the cuneiform inscriptions on the reliefs. But the images would have conveyed messages of startling clarity about the achievements and the supremacy of Assyria.

The throne room of Assyrian royal palaces were adorned with protective spirits. Like these eagle‑headed magical spirit, seen here anointing a sacred tree, a stylized representation of the date palm, a symbol of fertility. These protective spirits were placed in doorways to ensure the divine protection for the palace and the king.

Is this guy great? He's got his handbag. No its not, it's a bucket with water used to fertilize those sacred trees. Are the scenes commemorated as Assyrian victories in battles? This is the might that was Assyria; arches, wheeled siege engines, weaponry, all demonstrate the Assyrian military superiority.

In graphic detail the enemies of Assyria are shown defeated. In this case look at them impaled on stakes often headless. The cuneiform writing below the scene describes the campaign the brutal campaigns of King Tiglath‑Pileser.

In another example, fleeing enemies here, being forced to use inflated animal or goat skins to help them escape across the river as they are pursued by Assyrian soldiers, shooting arrows at them. Once victory was secured, the triumphant Assyrian army carted off the booty, the tribute back to the Assyrian heartland.

But the real masterpieces of Assyrian art have to be the lion arts. Hunting lions was an important aspect of Mesopotamian kingship from early Sumerian times onwards. Superbly crafted, lion‑hunt reliefs decorated the wall of Ashurbanipal's private palace apartments.

The panels are divided into three registers. The story starts from top right where a boy within his own protected cage releases a caged lion. The king above guarded by a shield bearer then shoots arrows into the lion as it leaps menacingly towards him. The best things in this exhibition are the animation of these reliefs. Do you agree? One of the best, it has to be, very good.

These narratives in these reliefs are like giant cartoon strips or giant ceiling to ceiling impressions that are meant to be read. They convey a story, a message, a warning. Release the lions. You can see a boy in his cage. The scenes of the lions suffering in its last moments of life are highly expressive, the realism conveys a powerful image, one that was not intended to evoke pity.

The killing of a lion was a cause of celebration and a reflection of the prowess of the king. Just look at it, slaying.

Vomiting of blood in its death throes. Going to the hunt. Just look at the expression of these dogs. Ferocious masters preparing to the join the hunt, tense mouths, gnashing teeth, fixed stare, straining on their leashes to be released. We can feel the tension of the mind.

Assyrian art has reached a point not seen before in the ancient world. The palaces were just not decorated with carved reliefs, they were filled with items of exceptional quality. All that furniture, colorful textiles, and beautiful vessels from the furthest reaches of the empire.

Embellishments included ornamental column bases such as we see here at the lamassu and surrounding plaques for attaching onto those walls. Together these fixtures reflect the wealth of the Assyrian empire. These palaces became splendid showpieces.

The kings of Assyria surrounded themselves with luxury of the highest quality. These carinated metal bowls reflect an Egyptian‑izing influence, these incise decorations shows the Egyptian double‑crown, falcon‑headed Sphinxes, scarab beetles and papyrus. They were manufactured by Phoenician workshops on the Mediterranean coast and were probably extracted as booty or tribute by the Assyrians.

Other prestige goods included carved ivory. Ivory, both elephant and hippopotamus was considered a luxury product in the ancient world and by the first millennium, particularly popular. The Assyrians consumed large quantifies of ivory. The Assyrian annuals record royal expeditions to hunt elephant in the Upper Euphrates of North Assyria and along the Orantes River.

Probably leading to their extension, like the bones these ivories were produced by workshops in Phoenicia in the Egyptian style. The Egyptian Sphinx, the lapis wig, unmistakable pharaonic stylistic elements. The ivory was used to inlay and decorate wooden furniture. The Assyrians palaces were furnished with thrones, couches, stools, chests inlaid with intricate carved ivory like the furniture in this relief.

The Neo‑Assyrian kings also created vast royal libraries. Messengers were sent throughout Mesopotamia to seek out texts and highly skilled scribes meticulously copied and edited a wide variety of works.

For example, at Nineveh, Ashurbanipal an unusually literate and scholar king amassed a large and unrivaled collection of texts: medical, divination, mathematics, astronomy, historical inscriptions, literary works. Together with the Assyrian royal annals, we have a detailed account of what life was like in the Assyrian empire, at least for the Assyrian elite.

Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh was discovered by Layard, Austen Layard, in 1847. At the time of its discovery it contained over 30,000 tablets and the palace was burned when Nineveh was sacked in 612. The fire baked the clay tablets preserving them for archeologists and epigraphers to decipher centuries later.

Among the clay tablets were copies of The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is one of the greatest pieces of Mesopotamian literature. The epic is about Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian hero, and his quest for immortality. Gilgamesh befriends Enkidu, and together they face a range of challenges and adversities. The epic contains many universal themes, life and death, good and evil, heroes and villains, battles, struggles, loss, and of course, a journey involving departure and return.

Classical literary works by Homer, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Virgil, The Aeneid - no match to Mesopotamian literature. These bronze lion weights that we use by the Assyrian empire indicate that a standardized system of measure had become widespread and the near Assyrian kings and revealed the increasing systems of control and bureaucracy.

Now, before the mid‑19th century, Western or European knowledge of Assyria was mainly through references in the Bible. In many ways, interest in Mesopotamia was inspired by Biblical history and knowledge. The early exploration of Mesopotamia was seeking confirmation of the Bible.

A key figure in the exploration of ancient Mesopotamia was Austen Henry Layard, an English diplomat based at the British consul of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. The discoveries made by Layard represent the beginnings of Mesopotamian archeology. And the impact of Layard's discoveries were wide‑reaching.

News of Layard's discoveries reported in the Illustrated London News sent ripples around the world. As the finds made their way back to London and the great museums of Europe, interest in Mesopotamia was aroused.

Today, the Assyrian galleries at the British Museum attract record numbers. In fact, it's so crowded in there sometimes you can hardly see the lamassus and the reliefs. In fact, about 15 million people each year flock to London to see these masterpieces of Assyrian art.

Another very important figure in the rediscovery of Mesopotamia is Sir Max Mallowan and his famous wife Agatha Christie, the crime writing novelist. Max excavated at the site of Nimrod in the 1950s. Every season Agatha would accompany Max on the dig, and she took a very keen interest in the excavations, often taking on the role conservator and photographer.

In her autobiography, Come, Tell Me How You Live, Agatha describes how she cleaned the Nimrud ivories with a fine knitting needle and face cream. In fact, let me read to you from her autobiography about cleaning the ivory.

Agatha herself says, "I had my part in cleaning many of them. I had my own favorite tools, just as any professional would: an orange stick, possibly a very fine knitting needle - one season a dentist's tool, which he lent, or rather gave me, a jar of cosmetic face cream, which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices without harming the friable ivory. In fact there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!"

Despite the might of the Assyrian kings, their empire was eventually defeated by a coalition of Babylonians and Medes from Persia in 612 when Nineveh, the last capital of Assyria fell. In two decisive battles the Assyrian king was defeated, and by 600 the lights of Assyria are snuffed out and the Babylonians from the south inherit the territory of the former Assyrian Empire.

Southern Mesopotamia once again assumes the dominant role and exerts its influence throughout the Near East from its capital, Babylon. Babylonian history may be divided into four main periods. The exhibition includes material mostly from the final phase, known as the Neo‑Babylonian Period. Of the Neo‑Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar is possibly the most well‑known historically from references in the Bible.

The capital of Babylonia was Babylon. Babylon is one of the great cities of the ancient world, and it has been excavated by German archeologists for over 100 years. The ancient city of Babylon is located in Southern Mesopotamia on the Tigris River in what is now Central Iraq, not far from the modern city of Baghdad.

Its name is the Greek version of the Akkadian Babilu, sometimes understood by the Mesopotamians to mean Gate of the Gods. Entrance to the city of Babylon during the Neo‑Babylonian Period, was via the Ishtar Gate, clad with vivid blue glazed ceramic tiles, decorated with animals of lions and mythical dragon creatures. A very impressive portal, now restored and erected in the Pergamon Museum in in Berlin.

The chief deity of Babylon was Marduk, and the companion of Marduk was the Mushussu. Say it with me, The Mushussu, who appears in the form of a dragon. In this cylinder seal, we can see two bearded worshipers standing in the posture of prayer.

One figure faces the moon god Sin with crescent moon symbol, the other faces a dragon carrying a spade on its back. Like the dragon, the spade was a symbol of Marduk, and may imply that Marduk was originally a deity associated with agriculture and irrigation, which we know from the earliest was central to Southern Mesopotamian society.

Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon is the legendary city known to us from the Bible. During his long reign, Nebuchadnezzar undertook extensive renovations and restorations of Babylon, erecting buildings, restoring buildings. This impressive large inscription is a foundation tablet of Nebuchadnezzar, recording the king's building works. It was deliberately made using an archaic style cuneiform script in order to invoke that great and glorious Mesopotamian past.

This tablet is part of a chronicle of the main events of the years between 605 and 595 B.C. It is especially important because it records Nebuchadnezzar's first capture of Jerusalem in 597, and the deportation to Babylon of the King of Judah, his family and other prominent people. This is described in the Bible, and marks the beginning of the Babylonian captivity.

Perhaps one of the most well known aspects of Mesopotamia is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders. According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar created the Hanging Gardens for his homesick Persian wife, who mourned her more mountainous homeland.

Whilst the veracity of the story is debated, there exists some evidence for hydraulic lifting devices below the palace at Babylon, which it has been suggested were used to raise water for the hanging, or terraced gardens above.

Another feature of the city of Babylon was the great Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth, the inspiration for the biblical Tower of Babel. Today, only traces of the foundations of the tower survive. It's a hole in the ground. Throughout its long history, Mesopotamia had a huge influence on surrounding regions; its philosophies and methods spreading far and wide.

This was not, of course, simply one‑way‑traffic. Mesopotamia absorbed amalgamated foreign ideas from contemporary cultures. However, Mesopotamia was extraordinary because of its cuneiform writing and the tradition of scholarly transmission of information through that writing.

Already in the 14th century, Akkadian cuneiform had become the international language of diplomatic correspondents, the lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant. Amazing to think the Pharaohs of New Kingdom (Eighteenth dynasty) are writing to the Mesopotamians in Akkadian, and not Middle Egyptian.

The Mesopotamian scribe, who is part of their training, was schooled in a variety of subjects including mathematics and literature, travelled to foreign courts, taking within their knowledge, along with their writing skills.

And by the end of the Babylonian Empire, the city of Babylon was a storehouse of the accumulated literary and scientific learning of Mesopotamia. Later rulers like Alexander the Great respected the scholarship and learning of Mesopotamia. Cuneiform texts were translated into other languages such as Aramaic and Greek. And eventually, this knowledge has become accessible to us today.

To give just one small example in the exhibition, is a tablet from Mesopotamia, documenting the sexagesimal system, the counting of 60s, which was used for calculations of all types. From administration, to astronomical calculations.

This system was adopted by Greek astronomers, and eventually applied to measuring time. Thus our present system of counting 60 seconds...

"Andrew, My God. Finish. Come on." In minutes, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a circle, is a legacy of Babylonian mathematics. Why is Mesopotamia important?

It represents ladies and gentlemen, the origins of Western civilization. The first experiments in agriculture and irrigation, producing of agricultural surplus, were there found in Southern Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamians invented writing, this defining moment in history. From clay tablet to iTablet.

They created the first cities, urban centers, monumental stone architecture, developed a complex society with temples, religion, palaces, kingship, art and architecture, literature and law codes flourished under the Mesopotamians.

So did science, mathematics, astronomy and astrology. Of course in recent times, Iraq has been associated with instability. Exhibitions like The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia help raise awareness about the significant cultural legacy we owe to the Mesopotamians.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven't seen the exhibition, I encourage you to go. It's on until the 7th of October. If you were there, I encourage you to go back and take a closer look.

I hope that this overview, this introduction, my view of Mesopotamia has given a context that contextualizes these 170 unique and priceless artifacts. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

Linda Sproul:  I said erudition and I said entertainment. That's Dr. Andrew Jamieson. Once again, thank you everyone and thank you Andrew.

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