The Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) current exhibit on Mesopotamia is one of the best that the museum has mounted. Here is an area that has had a profound impact on civilization. In fact, it gave birth to civilization as we know and define it. And, as initially discussed in a previous column, its impact on Israel was tremendous.
Abraham was reputed to have come from Ur, one of the great urban centres of the Sumerians, who had the first civilization in recorded history. Ironically, the Sumerians virtually disappeared from history for thousands of years until they were rediscovered by archeologists at the end of the 19th and early 20th century.
It was in the first millennium BCE that Mesopotamia left an indelible impact on Jewish history. First the Assyrians (who are amply represented in the ROM exhibit) left their mark on ancient Israel. By 722-701 BCE they had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and deported a sizeable number of its inhabitants, thereby giving rise to the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Then came the neo-Babylonians who, under their king, Nebuchadnezzar, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. They also deported a large number of the upper classes to Babylon. (Some have placed the number as high as 15,000.) Who can forget the lament in the Bible that would become a dirge for the Jewish People until 1967 – “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”
By this time, Babylon had become the “Big Apple” of the ancient world. The ROM’s computerized re-creation gives a wonderful view of the city at its height, although the city had been founded almost 1,500 years earlier by a Semitic group scholars call the Amorites. The city reached its first peak in the Old Babylonian period around 1750 BCE under the renowned Hammurabi, whose famous law code can be seen in Paris at the Louvre.
Even this far back, there appears to be evidence of contact between Mesopotamia and Canaan. At the site of Mari, a rival of Babylon that was destroyed by Hammurabi, archeologists found a cuneiform tablet mentioning Hazor. Hazor is located in northern Israel and was excavated by the legendary Yigael Yadin in the 1950s. Its final destruction came when the dreaded Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.
Assyria would itself succumb to the neo-Babylonian king Nabopolassar, and his more famous son, Nebuchadnezzar, under whom Babylon would reach its apogee as a cultural and political power.
Despite their famous lament, the Jews thrived in Babylon. Even after Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the city in 538 BCE and allowed the exiles to return, a majority of them chose to remain in Mesopotamia. They then made this area a major centre of Jewish culture and learning over the next 1,500 years, culminating in the creation of the great Babylonian Talmud.