Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER VII
Sumeria

Orientation—Contributions of the Near East to Western civilization

WRITTEN history is at least six thousand years old. During half of this period the center of human affairs, so far as they are now known to us, was in the Near East. By this vague term we shall mean here all southwestern Asia south of Russia and the Black Sea, and west of India and Afghanistan; still more loosely, we shall include within it Egypt, too, as anciently bound up with the Near East in one vast web and communicating complex of Oriental civilization. In this rough theatre of teeming peoples and conflicting cultures were developed the agriculture and commerce, the horse and wagon, the coinage and letters of credit, the crafts and industries, the law and government, the mathematics and medicine, the enemas and drainage systems, the geometry and astronomy, the calendar and clock and zodiac, the alphabet and writing, the paper and ink, the books and libraries and schools, the literature and music, the sculpture and architecture, the glazed pottery and fine furniture, the monotheism and monogamy, the cosmetics and jewelry, the checkers and dice, the ten-pins and income-tax, the wet-nurses and beer, from which our own European and American culture derive by a continuous succession through the mediation of Crete and Greece and Rome. The “Aryans” did not establish civilization—they took it from Babylonia and Egypt. Greece did not begin civilization—it inherited far more civilization than it began; it was the spoiled heir of three millenniums of arts and sciences brought to its cities from the Near East by the fortunes of trade and war. In studying and honoring the Near East we shall be acknowledging a debt long due to the real founders of European and American civilization.

I. ELAM

The culture of Susa—The potter’s wheel—The wagon-wheel

If the reader will look at a map of Persia, and will run his finger north along the Tigris from the Persian Gulf to Amara, and then east across the Iraq border to the modern town of Shushan, he will have located the site of the ancient city of Susa, center of a region known to the Jews as Elam—the high land. In this narrow territory, protected on the west by marshes, and on the east by the mountains that shoulder the great Iranian Plateau, a people of unknown race and origin developed one of the first historic civilizations. Here, a generation ago, French archeologists found human remains dating back 20,000 years, and evidences of an advanced culture as old as 4500 B.C.*1

Apparently the Elamites had recently emerged from a nomad life of hunting and fishing; but already they had copper weapons and tools, cultivated grains and domesticated animals, hieroglyphic writing and business documents, mirrors and jewelry, and a trade that reached from Egypt to India.3 In the midst of chipped flints that bring us back to the Neolithic Age we find finished vases elegantly rounded and delicately painted with geometric designs, or with picturesque representations of animals and plants; some of this pottery is ranked among the finest ever made by man.4Here is the oldest appearance not only of the potter’s wheel but of the wagon wheel; this modest but vital vehicle of civilization is found only later in Babylonia, and still later in Egypt.5 From these already complex beginnings the Elamites rose to troubled power, conquering Sumeria and Babylon, and being conquered by them, turn by turn. The city of Susa survived six thousand years of history, lived through the imperial zeniths of Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome, and flourished, under the name of Shushan, as late as the fourteenth century of our era. At various times it grew to great wealth; when Ashurbanipal captured and sacked it (646 B.C.) his historians recounted without understatement the varied booty of gold and silver, precious stones and royal ornaments, costly garments and regal furniture, cosmetics and chariots, which the conqueror brought in his train to Nineveh. History so soon began its tragic alternance of art and war.

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