Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Gen Eds 10d: Ancient Mesopotamia

Ziggurat at Ur
This is the fourth and final post in the Classical Civilizations" unit of my World History series. The first three were India, China, and Egypt.

This is part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. The series consists of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
1. It is hard to believe, but we have finally hit the dawn of human history. The oldest walled village of which we know is Jericho, around 8500BC by most reckonings. [1] Perhaps there were only a few hundred inhabitants but it represented a movement that began to take place in the region--the formation of cities.

In this scenario, we humans had not really started farming until around 12,000BC, making the shift from being hunters to being farmers. When you farm, you are stuck to one place. People collect in one place. In 7000BC, the largest city may have been in Turkey, Çatalhöyük in Anatolia. It may have numbered between 5000 and 10,000.

But the first empire was in "Mesopotamia," "between the rivers" of the Tigris and Euphrates, modern day Iraq. Egypt united its lower and upper regions into a united kingdom around 3100BC, as we have seen. But the first empire was at Akkad around 2250BC, the empire of Sargon the Great. This area saw dominant kingdoms and empires for some 4000 years from the time of the Sumerians in lower Mesopotamia to the fall of the Babylonians to the Persians in 539.

2. We might say that humanity crossed the line from the pre-historic to the historic during the Uruk period (4100-2900BC) in Mesopotamia. These are the Sumerians, who called themselves, "black headed people." This area, Sumer, is the biblical area known as "Shinar" in Genesis 11:1.

The city of Uruk, perhaps founded somewhere around 4500BC, seems to be the place where writing really began to develop. At first this writing was a partial script--it was not created to write poetry but to keep count of cattle and taxes. [2] Writing develops to facilitate trading.

The form of writing is cuneiform. Cuneiform largely consisted of lines with triangles at the top. The Sumerians would also develop the 24 hour day and the idea of 360 degrees for a circle.

In Uruk, the cylinder seal was also used as far as we know for the first time, giving authority a reach beyond the presence of the king, a guarantee that you were reading something that was truly from the king. Kings ruled cities at this point, and cities conquered other cities. Empire does not as yet exist, only kings ruling individual cities and networks of cities with some kings more powerful than others (cf. Gen. 14:1-2).

The ziggurat also develops at Uruk. This will become the pyramid in Egypt. The Mayans, Incas and Aztecs also had their versions, making us wonder if there was contact of some sort across these continents. The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is perhaps a ziggurat of sorts. In the earliest days, kings were probably priests. Only later would the royal authority be sometimes detached from the religious authority.

Gilgamesh was a legendary king of Uruk, and we know him best from the Mesopotamian flood story, The Gilgamesh Epic. Gilgamesh was thus the Uruk version of Noah. The epic itself was not written down until sometime between 2100 and 1400BC, but this still qualifies it as the oldest human epic.

3. Uruk was not however the first city of the area. Eridu was perhaps founded in 5400BC and the Sumerians considered it the oldest city in the world. It was a city thought by the Sumerians to have predated the flood. This period before Uruk and writing is called the Ubaid period (6500-3800BC). This is the period right before the Bronze Age, often called the Calcolithic or Copper Age.

We have long associated this region with the Garden of Eden, and Genesis mentions the Tigris and Euphrates as two of four rivers in the area of the Garden (Gen. 2:14).

The city of Ur, from which Abraham originated (cf. Gen. 11:31; Josh. 24:2), was another Sumerian city dating from around 3800BC. The oldest wheels were discovered at Ur, on a four wheeled wagon. The kinds of tools that developed in the late 3000s in the Copper and Bronze Age were almost needed to make wheels.

The last period of Sumerian history ended in 1750BC with the third dynasty of Ur. Most famous in this period is Ur-Nammu, who created a law that foreshadowed the more famous law of Hammurabi.

4. Prior to the end of Sumerian history, the Akkadian empire began with Sargon the Great in the year 2334. This is the world's first real empire because it included multiple peoples over a vaster area of land than ever before. The Akkadians, unlike the Sumerians, were a Semitic people. Sargon ruled from Akkad.

The Akkadian language is often considered significant for Old Testament scholars. It is the oldest known Semitic language and thus is in the same family as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, not to mention Babylonian and Assyrian.

5. The city of Babylon was founded centuries before its most famous king from this period, Hammurabi (1792-50BC). His famous law Code of Hammurabi set down case law whose impact we can see in the Law of Moses. The "law of retribution," for example (the lex talonis) is found there, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (ca. 1776BC).

The Amraphel of Genesis 14:1 has letters strikingly similar to Hammurabi, given that Semitic languages are centered in the consonants rather than the vowels. It is thus no surprise that Abraham is generally dated to about this period of history.

Hammurabi and Abraham were during the Middle Bronze Period (2119-1700). It was probably in this period (ca. 1900) that the city of Ashur was founded, which would be the center of the old Assyrian kingdom. Other cities in that area included Nimrud and Nineveh.

Also during this time was the thriving of the city of Ugarit, in northern Palestine (ca. 1900). Ugaritic is also a Semitic language of great significance in Old Testament studies. Ugaritic literature gives us significant insights into the cultural and literary context of the Old Testament (e.g., what Leviathan might be in Job 41:4).

6. In the middle of the second millennium BC, the Hittites and then the Kassites would rule this area. The Hittites conquered the region in 1595BC. They are mentioned in Genesis (e.g., 23). In the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100BC), the Kassites would come south and conquer the area.

The Kassites have left us the Amarna letters from the 1300s BC, which were sent to Egypt and refer to the Hittites and others. Around 1100BC, the Enuma Elish we have was written down, although it undoubtedly is much earlier. Found in the library at Nineveh, it gives us the Babylonian creation story.

The juncture between the Bronze and the Iron Age, which is happening in the late 1000s BC, is the juncture where Israel is struggling with the Philistines. Israel is a bronze culture; the Philistines use iron. The Trojan War is a bronze war, and thus also dates to this general time.

Next Post in Series: History 11: The First Humans

[1] A book I have found fascinating in writing this post is Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (San Fransisco: HarperCollins, 2015). The question of fitting the dates normally assumed by archaeologists and a very literal reading of Genesis is a controversial one. However, ancient chronologies were not necessarily exhaustive and we can assume that God's purposes in the genealogies of Genesis were much broader than to give us an exhaustive account of the names. The purpose of such lists at the time was to assure us of the ancientness of the lineage and its origins in God's creation of humanity.

[2] Harari, Sapiens, 122-24.

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