Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Middle East in the British Museum

A very interesting and informative mini-lecture at the British Museum was on the history of the Middle East. The docent was a woman whom I had seen in that same gallery the evening of my first day in the museum, apparently giving a private tour to an American woman.  It turns out that the American woman was an old classmate who was in London briefly and wanted to see the Renaissance drawings on exhibit but couldn’t get in, and so she opted for the Mesopotamian galleries as a consolation prize.
Sacred Mesopotamian Ark

The guide was very knowledgeable and quite thorough.  She answered questions and went past her allotted time. She stayed and talked with me afterwards and gave advice on how to sequence the several galleries for optimal information.  She had puffy, blinking eyes and the air of one who likes her booze, but was competent and eager to do well and to accommodate those she was assisting.  I learned a lot. 
Assyrian god

I believe I have finally got straight the sequence of the great empires in the Middle East during the first millennium BCE.  The first empire was the Assyrian, followed by the Babylonian--actually, “Neo-Babylonian,” since the first Babylon was simply a city-state, conquered by the Assyrians in the seventh century BCE. Babylon, the city, later threw off the Assyrian shackles and formed its own empire by conquest.  The Persians from the north-east (Aryans, not Semites) then conquered the Babylonians and extended the Persian Empire from India to Greece.  This must have been around the time the Indo-Aryans also penetrated the Indian sub-continent.
Bringing tribute to a Persian ruler

The Persians were then conquered by the Greeks about 330 BCE under Alexander the Great, which “Greek Empire” disintegrated almost immediately upon Alexander’s death. But the Hellenization persisted and was appropriated by the Romans as they conquered many former Greek territories during the first centuries BCE and CE, particularly in the Near East and Egypt, as well as much of the territory surrounding the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy.
Alexander the Great

The guide focused on trade and the development of writing as key forces undergirding the formation of empires.  The writing and numbers essential for trade began with tokens in little clay bolles, followed by clay tablets with numbers inscribed on them ( a chevron was 10, and a filled-in circle was 60).  This let to pictograms and then to the alphabet, first developed by Phoenician traders.  Trade, numbers, and writing developed pari-passu.
The last talk I went to was one on money, my third afternoon in the museum.  Again, like writing, money developed from the needs of trade and communication between cultures.  Apparently, the Lydians were the first to use metallic coins (they had a lot of mineable electrum – a gold-silver alloy).  The Chinese, who invented paper, were the first to use paper money, when the coins (“cash”) became too heavy to carry in large quantities.
The train is getting close to Berlin now, but we’re still passing through fields of green and brown. White birds glided over a recently plowed field (near Hanover), looking for what?  Seeds? Unearthed invertebrates for food? Maybe both.  Another field, nearer Berlin, was populated with hundreds of huge, three-bladed windmills flapping lazily and effortlessly, generating electricity for the nearby countryside and beyond.

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