The ancient place where history began

The ancient place where history began
People pass The Statue of Ebih-II, superintendent of the ancient city-state of Mari in eastern Syria, during the historical exposition "History Begins in Mesopotamia" on November 3, 2016 at the Louvre-Lens Museum in Lens.
PHOTO: AFP

The idea of Mesopotamia has intoxicated the West for centuries. Alastair Sooke takes a look at a civilisation where much of modern culture took form.

"Everybody has heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Tower of Babel, Nebuchadnezzar, and the Flood," says Ariane Thomas, a curator in the Middle Eastern antiquities department of the Louvre.

"So, you see, Mesopotamia is much more familiar than people think."

We are standing at the threshold of History Begins in Mesopotamia, a new exhibition of almost 500 objects at the Louvre's outpost in the northern French town of Lens.

Spanning 3,000 years of Mesopotamian history (an area that roughly corresponds with modern-day Iraq), it begins with the invention of writing, in the late 4th millennium BC, and ends in 331BC, with Alexander the Great's conquest of Babylon.

There are many fascinating historical artefacts as well as magnificent works of art, such as an alabaster statue, from around 2250BC, of a seated official, wearing an elaborate fleece skirt, with a beard, shaved head, and stunning blue inlaid eyes of lapis lazuli.

The first gallery marks Mesopotamia's 'rediscovery' in the 19th Century, when archaeologists began excavating in the Middle East.

They were intent on discovering more about the late Assyrian and Babylonian empires of Mesopotamia, which, at that point, were chiefly remembered through references in the Bible and classical texts.

Not only did they locate the ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad, a few miles north-east of Mosul in northern Iraq, but they also discovered the forgotten civilisation of the Sumerians, who once dominated the south of the land.

Quickly, the idea of Mesopotamia intoxicated the West. "It captured the European imagination because people saw imperial powers expressed in the imagery, which they could relate to," explains Paul Collins of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, whose new book, Mountains and Lowlands: Ancient Iran and Mesopotamia, was published last month.

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