Lessons from Mesopotamia

Lessons from Mesopotamia

An exhibition shows ancient people invented the first writing and the idea of an 'eye for an eye' that influences life today


Photos: Sam Tsang/SCMP
Things like laws, scripts and languages are vital parts of civilisations. But they don't just suddenly pop into being out of the blue. They take centuries to change and evolve.

In fact, some of our linguistic and legal systems trace their origins back to ancient times. Want proof? Pay a visit to The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at the History Museum of Hong Kong.

On show at the exhibition are 170 treasures borrowed from the British Museum. They provide glimpses of Mesopotamian history from about 3500BC to 539BC.

Mesopotamia, located in land that now includes Iraq, Syria and Turkey, was once the site of a thriving civilisation. The area's name means "between rivers" in ancient Greek, and refers to the region between the two large rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.

The civilisation featured the earliest known system of writing, known as cuneiform. Lines of words were found inscribed on clay tablets from as early as 3300BC. Local scribes wrote on the clay tablets using blunt reeds, because pens had yet to be invented.

"It was the very start of writing in the world," says Sarah Collins, curator of the Middle East Department at the British Museum.

This ancient system of writing used in Mesopotamia was soon copied by other people across the region. And so writing took off. Today, thanks to the wonders of computers, you don't need to cut words on clay through gritted teeth.

This wall relief, The Battle of Til-Tuba, shows Assyrian soldiers attacking a town in what may now be Turkey, in 738-737BC. It forms part of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition.

Ancient Mesopotamian religions would also have an impact on world history. On the museum's walls are reliefs from the remains of the walls of ancient palaces. Each is engraved with a series of pictures: they show kings defeating their enemies and giving offerings to their gods. One shows Ashurbanipal, a ruler of the Assyrian empire, subduing a lion.

Collins says such images "show the king's success and power to God". Ancient people thought gods created man to work for them because they were tired, she says.

Kings displayed their wealth and god-given powers by building lavish palaces so that gods knew they had the ability to look after their people.

Yet a few left their mark in other positive ways. King Hammurabi of Babylon, one of most populated cities in ancient history, created the first known basic legal system, the Code of Hammurabi, in about 1772BC. They were a good start - holding people accountable for their actions and promises.

The king also proposed the "eye for an eye" principle. It made sure people did not take too much revenge on others.

So there you go. If you want to find out how people once lived before cars, Facebook and even pens and paper, you can journey back in time in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Ancient Mesopotamia awaits!

The exhibition runs until May 13. For more details, go to their website.



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