The past in ancient Mesopotamia

The ancient Mesopotamians may never have produced historiographic studies in our sense, but they were always interested in their distant past, especially from the 2nd millennium onwards (Clay 1914; Speiser 1955: 45; Krecher and Müller 1975: 14–30; Hruska 1979; Grayson 1980; Wilcke 1982; Seters 1983: chapter 3; Jonker 1995; Renger 1996; Schnapp 1996: 30–32, 329; Bernbeck 1996; 1997). This is not only reflected in regnal lists, chronicles and annals which they kept in archives and libraries, but also in handed down origin myths and historical epics, legends and tales as well as in omina derived from the past, and faked prophecies. Like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians saw the past as lying not behind but in front of them. New texts and inscriptions made references to circumstances of the past, while ancient texts were copied in the schools and by royal scribes, previously used writing characters were listed, and old inscriptions copied and catalogued. Other references to the past are made in Mesopotamian architecture and in various antiquarian pursuits by the kings.

As Kirk Grayson argued (1980: 188), it is important to keep in mind in every synthesis of the evidence that the past may have had very different significances for Assyrians and Babylonians, for people living in different times within the time-span of over two millennia of Mesopotamian civilisation or in different areas of the large territory covered by the various empires, and even for different individuals and their 'schools'. The following brief discussion can only focus on some main themes.

The royal interest in the past was often religiously motivated (Jonker 1995: 178–183). It involved, for instance, ancient temples which were rebuilt, restored and reconstructed over an alleged time period of more than a millennium. Likewise, when Ashurbanipal captured Susa he recovered the statue of a goddess which he claimed had been carried off from Uruk 1,635 years before (Speiser 1955: 46). This interest in the past sprang from the desire to maintain for the future the cosmological status quo, which had existed since a mythical past (Speiser 1955: 46–54):

Generally, the Mesopotamian perception of time was one of an eternal continuity after initial creation in the distant past, thus resembling the Egyptian perspective. Notions of linear progress and evolution were as alien to their world view as were those of historic decline and nostalgia, and what they were concerned about instead was to maintain the order of the past. This changed slightly in the Neo-Babylonian period, when an antiquarian interest also included signs of a linear understanding of time (Beaulieu 1994: 40f.; but cf. Bernbeck 1996). However, the kings had always been obsessed with securing the memory of their names for future ages which seems to imply some linearity in their conception of time (Jonker 1995: chapter 3).

References to the past could be used to legitimatise the political authority and economic privileges of kings, for instance when they adopted names of significant and well-remembered kings of the past and came up with convenient fictitious laws, prophecies or announcements of previous kings to their successors (Krecher and Müller 1975: 21f.; Renger 1996: 34f., 45f., 51f.). Remembering ancient borders, epics, kings and ancestors as well as their activities and luck also strengthened royal power, legitimacy and the political ideology of the times as well as collective pride and identity, and was thus useful for social engineering and propagandistic purposes (Grayson 1980: 189; Jonker 1995: chapter 8 and passim; Renger 1996: 44–48, 51).

During the Neo-Babylonian period, Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) and especially Nabonidus (555–539 BC) may also have had a bit of an antiquarian interest in ancient remains, when they searched archaeologically for the founding inscriptions of ancient sanctuaries and wrote their own inscriptions in an archaic style (Clay 1912; 1914; Reiner 1985: chapter 1; Jonker 1995: chapter 6; Renger 1996: 39, 50; Schnapp 1996: 13–18, 41). Like the restorations of temples in earlier time, some of these excavations were not academically motivated but, as Paul-Alain Beaulieu stated (1994: 38f.):

"prompted by a religious fear: in order to please the deity, its temple must be rebuilt on the very same foundations which had been laid in times immemorial... Failure to rebuild a temple on its original foundations might provoke the wrath of the deity, hence the insistence in accounts of rebuilding on finding the foundation deposits of ancient rulers, the temennu."

In addition, building on the old foundation may have brought certain static advantages and made the new temple more stable and longer lasting (Kohlmeyer 1991: 46). But in some cases, Nabonidus also undertook excavations where there do not seem to have been pious or architectural reasons to do so. Such studies, if they do not reflect a genuine antiquarian interest and true 'historical consciousness', may have had political motivations: he considered his own reign in Babylon a resurrection of the ancient Assyrian and Akkadian empires. Nabonidus also revived ancient religious sanctities and practices (Beaulieu 1989: 138–143; 1994: 39f.; see also 1992). He left us an inscription about the restoration of the temple of Egipar on a baked clay cylinder at Ur (cited after Reiner 1985: 2–5, links added):

"... Indeed I set eyes on an ancient stele of Nebuchadnezzar, son of Ninurta-nadin-sumi, an early king of the past, ... I carefully looked into the old clay and wooden tablets and did exactly as in the olden days. ... At that time Egipar, the holy precinct, wherein the rites of the high priestess used to be carried out, was an abandoned place, and had become a heap of ruins, palm trees and orchard fruit were growing in the midst. I cut down the trees, removed the rubble of ruins, I set eyes on the temple and its foundation terrace became visible. Inside it I set eyes on an old inscription of En-ane-du, high priestess of Ur, daughter of Kudur-Maduk, sister of Rim-Sin, king of Ur, who renovated Egipar and restored it, and surrounded with a wall the resting place of the old high priestess of Sin, adjoining Egipar, so that I made Egipar (too) anew as in the olden days, I built its daises and plans anew as in the olden days, I made anew the house of my daughter En-nigaldi-Nanna, high priestess of Sin, adjoining Egipar...."

Nebuchadnezzar II and his successors kept in the royal palace in Babylon a collection of ancient statues and other objects which has been described as the 'palace museum' and a precursor of our modern museums. But alternatively the objects may here, as elsewhere, have served as prestigious trophies and memorabilia of royal raids (Unger 1970: chapter 23; Wilcke 1982: 38f.; Brentjes 1989; Klengel-Brandt 1990; Renger 1996: 40; Bernbeck 1996: 91f.). In Mesopotamian temples, too, votive offerings stayed in their places over centuries (Wilcke 1982: 37f.; Jonker 1995: 89f.).

Most buildings in Mesopotamia, when abandoned, soon returned to dust, even though some were constantly being restored. There were no pyramids in Mesopotamia and few other really durable monumental buildings, as most buildings were made of clay bricks. The ziggurrats are the most important exceptions: they were built with expectations for a long future (Bernbeck 1996: 92f.). As timemarks in the landscape they attracted a rich folklore about the past in later ages (Renger 1996: 38; Jonker 1995: 36f., 65, 154).


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© Cornelius Holtorf