Where it all began... • 2 July 2007 • The SnowBlog

Where it all began...


I'm trying to remember back to my very first school history lessons, when I was eleven. I'm trying to recall the first event in history as far as my profoundly-English teachers were concerned. I'm pretty sure it was 1066, The Norman Conquest. Once we'd covered that, I vaguely remember trying to memorise a few features of the feudal system and being confused as to why the serfs agreed to it. Then there was something called the Corn Laws, which were later repealed. I also remember how important it was to choose the right form of crop rotation, but had no idea what end products such crops might produce. Was flax anything to do with ajax or weetabix? Was barley used for something other than the making of barley sugars?

Of course teaching history to kids is always going to be an uphill struggle, because history is a secondary subject: it is based on other, more basic disciplines. That's not to denigrate it. You could instead say it is, by its nature, an advanced subject. At age eleven I was being taught about previous forms of government, without really having any idea about the one I was living under. I was being taught about historic shifts in economics, long before I knew which kind of economy modern Britain had. I knew nothing about psychology - or even the motivations of grown-ups - and yet I was trying analyse the deeds of the 'good' and 'bad' kings. I suppose the fundamental problem is this: you might be able to memorise a lot of history as a child, but if you actually understand it, then mentally at least, you're not a child any more.

If we'd had a bit longer to go back over the entire sweep of human history, one place we might have chosen as our starting point would have been Mesopotamia. Now, you might recall that 'hippopotamus' means 'river horse' in ancient Greek, and that the Mesolithic is the middle stone-age, so with a bit of cutting and pasting, we can work out that Mesopotamia means 'between the rivers'. And then, with a bit more head-scratching, we might be able to work out that those two rivers are probably the Tigris and the Euphrates. And as far as lots of clever people are concerned, that's where 'civilisation' started.

In Mesopotamia, are the remains of the city of Ur. It's a good candidate for being the first human city. It's at least five thousand years old, which is old enough that despite being located in the middle of a desert, when it was built it was actually a sea-port. Incredibly, one of its great monuments is still standing: the Ziggurat of Ur. It's over four thousand years old, and gives the Egyptian Pyramids a good run for their money in terms of antiquity.

I find it difficult to conceive of human beings not living in towns, not building in stone: a time when the whole human race was nomadic, a time before settled agriculture, when you had to be able to travel with everything you owned. Humans were biologically, mentally the same as now, and yet almost everything about their lifestyle was different. A world with no writing, no houses, no farms - but plenty of people - is difficult to imagine. But then came farms, then came houses, and in Ancient Mesopotamia, the change-over to modernity began.

And it's thanks to places like Ur, that I often can't get very excited about British archaeology. I mean, how impressed should I be when Time Team are excavating Saxon hovels built three-thousand years after the Sumerians had put this together:


click to enlarge


And now we've reached the point in this post where you might like to stop reading. There's a modern addendum to the history of Ur and it's not a happy one.

I'm sure anyone who's ever been saddened at the thought of pollution eating away at the Colosseum or been embarrassed when they learned of early British 'archaeologists' rummaging through the contents of the pyramids as though they were at a jumble sale, will agree that Humanity's First City is a fairly important piece of heritage. So you might be surprised to learn that the Great Ziggurat of Ur is now inside a U.S. military base. The walls are showing damage from shrapnel hits and the Ziggurat itself is directly under the base's flightpath and so is subject to constant vibration. One of the archaeological sites near the Ziggurat has already been concreted over to make a blockhouse. Connoisseurs of irony will find much to savour in the idea that a mission to bring Western Civilisation to the Middle East is actually destroying the birthplace of that civilisation and that the first city on Earth is now a military base.


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