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History 3: Antiquity

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  1. 1. Orientation
    12 Steps
  2. 2. Imago Dei: Creation
    13 Steps
  3. 3. The Two Cities: The Fall & Two Lineages
    11 Steps
  4. 4. Look On My Works, Ye Mighty: Babel & Mesopotamia
    11 Steps
  5. 5. The Waters of Life in the Everlasting Hills: Ancient Egypt
    11 Steps
  6. 6. Lekh-Lekha: Abraham & The Patriarchs
    11 Steps
  7. 7. On Eagles' Wings: The Exodus & The Law
    12 Steps
  8. 8. The Sacrifice of Praise: Worship in Ancient Israel
    13 Steps
  9. 9. A House of Prayer for All Nations: Samuel to Solomon
    11 Steps
  10. 10. The Ways of the Father: Prophets & Kings
    11 Steps
  11. 11. I Form Light and Create Darkness: The Exile, Medes & Persians, and Israel's Return
    11 Steps
  12. 12. Beyond Life and Death: India
    11 Steps
  13. 13. Immutable Tradition: China
    12 Steps
  14. 14. Honor Versus Life: Old Japan
    13 Steps
  15. 15. The Smoke of 1,000 Villages: Sub-Saharan Africa
    11 Steps
  16. 16. In Search of the Unknown God: Greek Stories & Early History
    12 Steps
  17. 17. Nostoi & Empire: Greece Versus Persia
    11 Steps
  18. 18. The Glory That Was Greece: The Golden Age
    11 Steps
  19. 19. The One and the Many: The Peloponnesian War & Philosophers
    11 Steps
  20. 20. To the Strongest: Alexander the Great
    11 Steps
  21. 21. Make Straight the Highway: Between the Testaments
    12 Steps
  22. 22. The Grandeur That Was Rome: The Roman Republic
    11 Steps
  23. 23. The War of Gods & Demons: The Conquest of Italy, Carthage, and Greece
    13 Steps
  24. 24. Crossing the Rubicon: The Fall of the Roman Republic
    11 Steps
  25. 25. Pax Romana: Caesar Augustus
    11 Steps
  26. 26. The Everlasting Man: Jesus Christ
    12 Steps
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The following transcript was automatically generated and may contain errors in spelling and/or grammar. It is provided for assistance in note-taking and review.

– Well, welcome back. We’re gonna take a look today at Mesopotamia, which actually is a Greek word. Mesopotamia is a word that literally means between the rivers. And of course, it’s that area, which we also sometimes call the Fertile Crescent, that’s located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Curious names because these are rivers, of course, can go to today there in modern-day Iraq. But these are also rivers that show up in Genesis, not just in terms of Mesopotamia, but even before that in that antediluvian or that pre-flood world, they show up as rivers coming out of the one river that flows through the Garden of Eden.

So perhaps these names are something that came from that old memory of Eden. We don’t really know, which is interesting thing to think about. Well, one curious thing we’ll see about Mesopotamia, about this rich, fertile land, is that this was an area that because of all of these rivers and all of the nutrients they brought down from the mountains and so forth, created this very fertile floodplain, but it was also unpredictable.

Now this is going to make sense when we talk about the Nile, which was the opposite. It was very predictable in when it would flood. The Mesopotamian rivers were not, so floods were kind of a regular part of life for Mesopotamian cultures. It’s also worth pointing out that with floods kind of coming in unexpected times, that Mesopotamian cultures had a certain degree of uncertainty that they dealt with.

And you also see this in the history of Mesopotamian cultures. Right there, kind of in the middle of the ancient world, and being on these large plains by the rivers and so forth, they often faced invasions.

In fact, different people groups, we’ll talk about some of them, such as the Babylonians. Like Hammurabi was actually an Amorite, so probably came from invading people. The Messenians frequently were fighting battles against invaders from the north and had their own long history of one city-state or one empire taking over another until eventually you get powerhouses like the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Persians come in, and then the Greeks, or Alexander come in, and the Romans come in, and actually you could talk about the history of conquerors coming to Mesopotamia from that point all the way down to the current day.

But one thing we should point out about Mesopotamia is that even though there is a rich tradition of archaeology in this area of the world, digging up things and finding all kinds of antiquities, there is still a lot of work to be done.

There’s still a lot of sites that are still being worked on. There are still sites that have not even be found. For example, the ancient city of Akkad, a city that’s mentioned in Genesis 10, is one of the cities of Nimrod, the capital city of Sargon, the capital city of the Akkadian Empire of Sargon, never been found.

We know about the city from other documents and things like that, but we’ve never actually found the original site of the city. It’s also worth noting that of all the cuneiform tablets that we have, all those cuneiform documents that we have. We have over a million of them that we have found. That’s kind of an estimate. Only about 50,000 of them, so only about 5% of them have actually been translated. So there is still a whole lot of work to be done in terms of exploring Mesopotamia. Today we’re going to talk about general features of Mesopotamian civilizations. And I do mean civilizations because when you look of the Mesopotamians, you’re looking at people such as the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and then much later you get the Assyrians, you get the Neo-Babylonians or the Chaldeans, think Nebuchadnezzar when you think of those.

But one thing that they all have in common is they all have this love of the city or this drive to make massive cities.

Gwendolyn Leick, who wrote a book about Mesopotamia, says the Mesopotamians were the inventors of the city. Paul Kruicek, another historian on the ancient Mesopotamians, he talks about how they built cities and how they changed the landscape. Let me just read to you one of his quotes. He says, “Those who came here were apparently,” that is Mesopotamia, “not interested in doing as their ancestors had done, adapting their manner of living to fit into the natural world as they found it. Instead, they were determined to adapt their environment to suit their way of life. In other words, his point is that the Mesopotamian peoples, who we’ll see over the course of thousands of years in different areas of Mesopotamia, they adapted the environment to suit them. And you actually begin to see this with how they lived in cities. For example, by about the year 2000 BC, and it’s kind of a rough estimate, it seems that as many as 90% of all the people living in Mesopotamia lived in these cities. So the idea of village life, the idea of, say, country and farm life, that wasn’t really something the Mesopotamians actually experienced, and that dramatically affects culture. Where you live and the kind of community you live in dramatically affects your culture and things like that. It’s also worth noting that these cities were ruled by what they called the Lugau. Now this is kind of like a king, probably came out of the idea of, probably came from the status of like a chief or something like that.

But this term is worth noting because Lugau literally means something like big man. And we’re gonna see that the kings of Mesopotamia, they often showed that they were worthy to be king simply by exercising their power. So they usually show up as bigger than everyone else on any kind of Mesopotamian art, but it’s also worth noting that they usually claim to be divine. They usually claim to be sons of the gods themselves. It’s also curious that we see in the cities that from the very get-go, they had a complex system of bureaucrats and of things like tax collecting.

In fact, a proverb from the ancient Mesopotamian city Lagash said this, “You can have a lord or a king, but the one to really fear is the tax assessor.” In fact, the Mesopotamians, who have recorded their taxes, charged taxes on everything. The typical things, such as income, but also things like shearing your sheep, required a certain tax to be paid. Getting married required a tax. Getting divorced required a tax. Even things such as if you created a new perfume, which actually there were quite a few perfumes in their ancient world, those things would also be taxed.

In fact, that’s why we get characters like Yurukagina, who was a king over Lagash, and it was said that he gave relief to the people from the taxes.

In fact, we have a cuneiform document of his, or associated with his reign that has the world’s oldest written form or word of the word “freedom” which is something like “amargi” in their ancient language. What we also know about the Mesopotamians is that they tended to centralize everything. As I already mentioned to you, they almost all lived in the cities. And so, very few of them actually lived in the country which meant that their farms which surrounded their city-states, typically the farmers would go out in the morning, work their fields, and then come back at night.

So the idea of living on your land and being connected to your land was not something that they apparently experienced. It’s also worth noting that all the land, especially in ancient Sumer at various times, the land was all owned by the state and the state demanded a certain amount of produce from that land.

That is, the king demanded a certain amount of produce from that land. Your typical farmer would have an ox drawn plow and would often be responsible for managing a hundred plus acres, which was rather back-breaking work given the technology of the time and the amount of resources they had.

they probably would have used slaves to help with this. But in case you were kind of wondering how backbreaking it was or how hard that was, we actually have another cuneiform document that talks about the hard work and it encourages, they encourages the farmer that is to keep doing his work.

It simply says this, “When your fieldwork becomes excessive, when it becomes too much for you, you should not neglect your work.” That’s it. It’s just, “Hey, when Nick Bim’s really hired, just keep going. If you don’t, we’ll probably kill you.” Or something like that. Tax you more. I don’t know. The point is this. It was a culture that seemed to be focused on providing primarily for the big man, for the lugao, for the king. We also have some other curious things about them. We know, for example, that crops such as barley were a huge part of their diet and so forth. We also curiously know that even though they had complex watering systems and irrigation systems, because their watering systems were often polluted by their sewage systems, they usually relied upon fermented drinks, especially beer, as a primary drink for them.

And in fact, we even have records showing that the type of beer given was based upon your economic status. So if you were of the more noble or elite class, you got clearer beer, and if you were of the lower classes, you got beer that usually had a whole lot of sediment in it.

So it was not exactly the easiest diet to agree with or to enjoy. It’s also worth noting that there were often foremen put in charge of these farms, and They were expected, especially in ancient Sumer, to make a profit, to somehow bring a profit to the state.

And if they didn’t give what was expected of them, then they would go into debt against the state. And that debt could be carried over year after year and even passed on to their children. So we have here a very centralized economy and a very centralized government. We also see it in the armies that they had. fact were told with Sargon, considered the world’s first emperor, that 5,400 soldiers took their meal before him. The idea being that he provided for them, he kept them supplied, he kept them fed, and therefore they were ready to fight for him at any time needed.

It’s also the Mesopotamians who showed what an organized and standing army, an army they didn’t have to call up from farmers, but an an army that was already ready to go could be like. For example, they had incredible war chariots, which curiously were first pulled by donkeys. I’m not sure how fast those went, eventually replaced by horses. But they also, of course, had things like bronze weapons. This is after all the Bronze Age, where copper and tin were combined to actually make a stronger metal than copper alone. They also used slingshots that had these bullet-shaped projectiles. called homocar projectiles and based upon modern-day tests with shapes such as these it’s been demonstrated they can actually pierce armor that they can travel at a hundred meters per second and that probably they were spun somehow to actually get this kind of accuracy and get this kind of speed and force behind them it’s kind of curious when you combine this with say versus like Judges 20.10 which talks about the Benjaminites and their ability with the slingshot saying that they were able to shoot as accurately as a hair breath meaning within a hair.

But anyway we have remarkable technology in the Mesopotamians. That technology of course also translates into the city itself. In fact to quote again or to talk about what Paul Kruiszek talks about in his book on the Mesopotamians, he says that just taking a look at the city of Eridu, which had 18 different temples built upon one another, he says that the people of Eridu seemed to practice a type of impatience.

It seems that they were constantly rebuilding the old every 90 years or so. It’s actually a habit we see in Mesopotamia where things are being torn down and rebuilt, things are being built on top of one another.

There’s constantly this push towards doing things new. We also of course have records or at least have archaeological evidence of cities being abandoned for years, sometimes even for centuries. We talked about that with the city of Eridu itself. But in terms of the kind of structures they built, it’s worth noting that most of the early structures, especially in ancient Sumer, were probably simple huts of reeds that have been woven together. Eventually, those huts turned into homes made out of mud bricks. Usually, however, with very few windows in them. What we do know is about the richer citizens, those who had more money to work with and more power, they typically built much larger brick homes and usually on top of mounds, kind of like these types of ziggurat bases, so to speak, some of them as much as 40 feet tall.

And the idea being that they were living in an area with frequent floods and unpredictable flooding, that they would be protected from those floods.

It’s very interesting how the whole flood story and the issue of floods in Mesopotamia becomes a big theme of their culture, of what they’re concerned about, and how they build and so forth. But these more elaborate structures, they would be decorated with things, decorated with things sometimes made of terracotta that had shapes such as spirals or chevrons or triangles, often having things like murals inside them, but once again apparently having very few windows.

They’re rather dark inside. We actually see the same darkness in their temples also. Their temples, which were usually built on the tops of ziggurats, these kind of fake mountains where they would go up to meet with the gods.

The temples themselves were usually not made from local materials. Usually the ziggurat was made of mud bricks, but the temples were usually made from stone that they had to bring in from other places, especially say from the mountains to the north.

And these temples were adorned with everything from copper, tilapia lazuli that came from the mountains and modern-day Afghanistan, to enameled tiles of all sorts of colors depicting things such as animals.

You especially see that on the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. But once again, these temples were designed to be very dark inside so that when you went before the god it was mysterious. You didn’t really know who the god was. Actually, it’s a huge theme in all of antiquity. But of course, as I already mentioned, these temples were built on top of ziggurats. And this is a characteristic of Mesopotamian architecture, this type of pyramid-like, mountain-like structure, which curiously we see all over the world. We see the Mayans building ziggurats, for example. We see the Chinese building great earthen mounds. We see the Native Americans of North America doing the same. We see the Egyptians, of course, building pyramids. So we see this desire, this compulsion in man to build these gigantic mountain-like structures. And the Sumerians were the first to build them in Mesopotamia, building ziggurats at places like Ur and Eredu, at Uruk, at Kish, at Nippur.

The peoples that followed them, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, they all built ziggurats just like they did. One thing to keep in mind about ziggurats is they’re solid buildings. my students will kind of wonder, “Do they have rooms inside them? Was it this massive building on the inside?” The answer is no. They were built with sun-dried bricks on the inside, and then with bricks baked in ovens on the outside. And between the layers of bricks, they would have these woven reeds made from plant materials. They turned it into mats and things like that, sometimes even used ropes. Or as we talked about earlier, They would use something like bitumen or tar, which shows up in the story of Babel in Genesis 11.

But they would use those things as layers in between that gave the structure more stability and also prevented moisture from getting into the structure.

In fact, they even had drainage systems so that whenever there was rain, which came somewhat rarely, it would actually wash away more easily. In fact, one of the curious things about ziggurats is that ziggurats had to be maintained. If they were left alone, and many of them were, whenever cities were abandoned, if they were left alone, they begin to fall apart after about a mere 50 years.

And so the ziggurats were something that required constant maintenance, constant repairs, and things such as that. It’s also worth noting that the ziggurats, as far as we can tell, didn’t have any perfectly straight lines on them. They practiced something called entasis, which we’ll see again with the Greeks especially, it’s where you make a line deliberately curved in order to make it look straight. I know it may sound odd, but when you have a building with lots of straight lines, it’s an optical illusion, it doesn’t look straight. So if you slightly curve the lines or make them say bow upwards in the middle, if you’re dealing with a horizontal line, it actually makes it appear straight. The ancient Mesopotamians, the Sumerians, figured that out and practiced that. Well, one last thing we’ll take a look at today, and that is something else that the Sumerians developed, and that is the world’s oldest writing system, cuneiform. As I’ve already mentioned to you, it’s worth noting that the first true writing system is marvelously complex. It’s one of the things that confuses those that are trying to find how we evolved language, because we don’t have a more primitive writing system. What we know about the cuneiform is that the very first hint at a writing system, we do have something simpler than this. We have the cylinder seals that the Mesopotamians would sometimes use to kind of sign important documents. They would actually roll these cylinders into clay and it was kind of like signing your name. And these cylinders usually depict various gods or show various stories and things like that. But as soon as they actually develop the writing system, we see that it’s first of all complex, but it’s also pictographic. They’re actually taking images of things you can go and see in the world, and they’re using those to represent certain words, to represent certain ideas, and things like that. Over time, this type of writing, this cuneiform, developed from being more picture-based to being more a collection of wedges based upon the original pictures.

And of course, the words, or the images that they used, could be combined different ways, they could be used in different contexts, and so ultimately the same image can mean multiple things.

So the analogy that’s sometimes given for this, If you were to take, say, the English language and try to make it pictographic, well, imagine drawing a picture of a bee as a type of pictogram, and then imagine using that symbol to describe the actual creature of the bee, but also using it to describe, say, the word “bee,” as in “to be” or “not to be,” or describing the letter “B,” or describing any time you actually need that sound of “B.” In other words, it was a very complicated system, a system that took years for a select few amongst the Sumerians and then later cultures in Mesopotamia to learn.

What that means is the vast majority of people in Mesopotamian culture did not actually know how to read. It’s also worth noting that the cuneiform documents, even though we’ve known about them for centuries, They were not translated in modern times, they were not understood until the year 1857 when three different scholars who all worked separately on the same Akkadian translation all came up with pretty much the same way to translate it and they suddenly realized, “Ah, we have figured it out.” That in itself is a story worth looking into. But let’s talk a little bit about what the actual text of the ancient Sumerians and Mesopotamian peoples tell us. And thankfully, we have incredible resources such as the library of Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal was an Assyrian king who lived a long time after the Sumerians, but he collected some 25,000 cuneiform tablets at his grand library of Nineveh. He actually said that he could read what he called, quote, “The cunning tablets of Sumer “and the dark Akkadian language, “which is difficult rightly to use.” He even says, “I took pleasure in reading stones “inscribed before the flood.” Now, before Noah’s flood or another flood, we’re not really told. We have to wonder if anything would have survived before Noah’s flood. That’s a whole other story, something the Bible does not tell us about. Whether or not there even was a writing system before Noah. We’re not sure. These may very well be a localized flood. But the point is, he collected tablets from all over Mesopotamia, and he apparently collected some very old and ancient tablets and was able to actually preserve them for us.

What we find out about these these tablets, these cuneiform documents, is that they’re mostly about business transactions, everything from tax records to records of trade, to contracts, things like market research, also curious things such as various ceremonies to try to appease the gods, or various magic formulas you try to say in order to get something you want, or in order to drive away a sickness, or perhaps some kind of demon whom the Mesopotamians heavily believed in.

Or you also get things such as various prayers and chants to the gods which tend to be quite repetitive. Or you get things like war chronicles, and you’ll notice one thing about the the most time in War Chronicles. Every single king wins every single time. So if two kings fight each other, they both win in the War Chronicles, even though that’s not the actual history. But then of course we do have things such as a few myths and legends. So we get myths such as the Enuma Elish, that creation story, or we get for example the famous story of Gilgamesh. But either way we’re looking at a culture that primarily valued transactions, contracts. In fact, we even have evidence of what the early education of the scribes looked like. It was basically learning cuneiform, astrology, and then mathematics. Not simply for the glory of knowing mathematics, but for the ability to apply it to business. So we have here a huge hint at their culture being one that is obsessed with trade and money and legal management, rather than the stories of where they came from.

Although those stories are huge, and we’ll talk about them later.