Following the recent completion of the popular exhibition of terracotta warriors from mainland China, which drew millions of visitors, a new exhibit of items from the Louvre's collection of Mesopotamian artifacts is generating more long lines in front of Taipei's National Museum of History. This show is especially noteworthy for its educational value. The exhibit, which runs for 100 days from March 24 to July 15, is a great opportunity for people in Taiwan to learn something about the achievements of early civilizations.
A winged half-man half-bull creature sits at the entrance. This beast, from the Assyrian empire, guards against malevolent forces. Interestingly, the statue has five legs, so as to allow it to be seen simultaneously from front and side views. It looks like Picasso and other modernists who have toyed with perspective were upstaged by a few millennia!
After you pass under the man-bull, you enter the exhibition proper, where the 299 artifacts on display are set against a backdrop of tan and grey, evoking the ambience of the Middle East. "I must say, in all seriousness, that this is the most beautiful part of the exhibition," says Annie Caubet, Chief Curator of the Departe-ment des Antiquites Orientales at the Musee du Louvre, who attended the opening ceremonies.
This is the place where the earliest human civilizations developed, where agriculture began, and where the first beer was brewed. Mesopotamia boasts the earliest writing, legal code, farming villages, schools, libraries. . . . These "firsts" mark the point in time where humans began to build civilization, that which distinguishes us from the beasts. These are not merely historical facts of this place called Meso-potamia, but define the childhood of all mankind.
Most of Mesopotamia lies within modern-day Iraq, but also covers parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The area around the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, was only the core area of Mesopotamia. In fact, Mesopotamian culture reached considerably beyond them, extending over a triangular area ten times the size of Taiwan.
One after another, different peoples came to this fertile crescent, composed of soil deposited by the rivers. Here one finds culture of the Neolithic era dating back 10,000 years. About 6,000 years ago came the allied city-states of the Sumerian era, with the first writing system and population centers. Later the area was unified under the Akkadian empire, which was in turn succeeded by the Third Dynasty of Ur. Next came the period we now call Old Babylon, a name most of us are familiar with, which was followed by the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian ages. The Persian empire succeeded these, only to be destroyed in 331 BCE by the Macedonians of Alexander the Great. This last date is taken as a punctuation mark in Mesopotamian history.
"Mesopotamian civilization is the story of a series of fragmentations and unifications, against a backdrop of constant interaction. With each new unification, new ingredients were added, creating a new culture. Thus this exhibit differs from others in that it is not merely a display of artifacts, but tells the important history of the roots of civilization for all mankind," says Francoise Demange, a curator in the Louvre's Departement des Anti-quites Orientales. "An exhibit of historic artifacts must be able to communicate the history through the artifacts." To do this, the Taipei exhibit is divided into seven areas set in chronological order.
The first thing the visitor sees is "The Dawn of Civilization: Traditional Village Society." A clay statuette of a naked woman with rotund breasts and buttocks, a symbol of fertility, demonstrates what people of 6,000 years ago hoped for from the land. And the clay sickle testifies to the earliest stages of agriculture.
The second area, focused on Sumeria, is the most crowded. Many people come great distances hoping to get a look at the earliest human writing. And they are not disappointed. Not only does the exhibit have several examples of cuneiform writing, cut into clay tablets with a stick, it even has the "calculating stones" which preceded cuneiform. These were chips used to record transactions, with symbols engraved in the stones. These gradually evolved into writing on flat pieces of soft clay. Cuneiform writing flourished for 3,000 years, and is an important key for scholars trying to understand Mesopo-tamian cultures.
Another highlight of the exhibit is a full-scale reproduction (the only reproduction in the exhibit, by the way) of the Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws written down by a ruler of the Babylonian sixth dynasty. This renowned document has 282 articles, including "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." The code was posted in all major towns for the people to follow.
Besides the artifacts themselves, other items no visitor should miss include the explanatory videotape produced by the Museum of History and a video shot in Mesopotamia by Japan's NHK. These allow modern people to immerse themselves in the earliest moments of human civilization.
This statue of a woman-a fertility symbol-illustrates what the people of six to eight millennia ago hoped for from nature. It also marks the beginning of Mesopotamian culture.
The lion is as ubiquitous in Middle Eastern iconography as the dragon is in Chinese. This relief carving of a lion walking, which dates back 2,500 years, was used to decorate the two sides of the king's new year's procession.
Most people have heard of cuneiform writing-symbols carved into soft clay with a stick. This first-ever writing system in history is now on display in Taipei.