Mesopotamia in the Ancient World
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Categories: Ancient

Mesopotamia in the Ancient World

 MS7 Obergurgl - Group photo

  I just returned from a most excellent conference, the seventh Melammu symposium.  Unlike many academic conferences, which exist to either bring scholars in different cities together or to address a specific problem, the Melammu symposia have a broad general mission: to better understand and better publicize the influence of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations on other cultures.

  This mission is an important one.  If history is the story of the human past as documented in writing, half of history is in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  But ancient historians are divided into many specialities, and specialists in the Greco-Roman world and in the ancient Near East do not communicate with each other as often as they might.  To some extent this simply reflects the difficulty of learning the necessary languages, and that the cuneiform sources become scarce shortly before the Greek sources appear.  Relatively few individuals or events appear in both the cuneiform sources and the Greco-Latin sources, so few researchers need to learn both groups of languages.  Each field has its own journals, jargon, and conventions and most scholars have enough work keeping up with their own specialty.  Yet it is sometimes necessary to cross this divide, both to understand the ancient world as a whole, and to fully understand specific sources and customs.  In particular, many scholars are eager to talk about what made Greek culture special, but it is obviously dangerous to do this without first acquiring a solid background in the neighbouring cultures.

Papers discussed all the expected topics: whether there was democracy in the Mesopotamian world, to what extent early Greek literature and religion borrowed from the Near East, the relationship between the Old Testament and other Near Eastern religious texts, the details of specific archaeological sites, and Greek knowledge or ignorance of the Near East.  About eighty people delivered talks or presented posters at this conference, and I will not attempt to summarize all of their ideas (a program is available here).  Instead, I will mention a few which I remember in particular.

Winfred Held presented a paper on a stone building of the Achaemenid period at Meydancikkale, Turkey.  This site is completely missing from the Greek sources, and in a region which the literary sources suggest the Achaemenid empire barely controlled, yet it contains a palace decorated with reliefs of spearmen like those found on royal palaces further east.  No such reliefs were previously known outside of royal palaces.

Agnieszka Wojciechowska presented a strong case that the final Persian reconquest of Egypt was in 340/339 BCE not 343/2 BCE as is commonly reported.  This is significant for our understanding of the Achaemenid empire just before Alexander invaded it.   I hope to read her full argument when it appears as a book or article.

André Heller discussed why the Greeks knew less about Near Eastern history than they could have.  There were many Greeks in the near east from at least 730 BCE onwards, yet Greek knowledge of Mesopotamia before Cyrus the Great extended little beyond the names and deeds of some mostly-legendary kings and queens of Babylon.  In contrast, educated Greeks knew that Egyptian history extended for thousands of years, and that Greeks and Carians had been present in Egypt for centuries before the Persians conquered the country.  Heller had some tentative suggestions but seemed perplexed; an audience member had the interesting suggestion that Egyptian stone monuments inspired more curiosity in foreign visitors than Mesopotamian mud-brick rubble did.

Louisa Thomas put up a poster on Greek stories about plots to assassinate Persian kings.  Greek writers enjoyed telling stories about the murder of kings, but the truth was difficult to come by and many of these stories follow a common narrative pattern.  The cuneiform sources are less helpful than one might hope.  The trick is deciding to what extent this pattern is a literary convention (as in Assyrian literature where the king is always brave and stern and his enemies always wicked and cowardly) and to what extent it reflects the structure of the Achaemenid court (as in Macedonian courts, where close relatives often struggled for power and murdered each other).  Until new sources are found, it will remain difficult to know how many Achaemenid kings died.

The Melammu Project has a website with scholarly resources including a list of translated sources and an annotated bibliography.

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