(Just last night, I finished reading A History of Turtle Soup. Most edifying and instructive. Last week found me completing Embalming Around the World. Exciting stuff as you can well imagine. It occurred to me that one could spend a great deal of time reading these fascinating books, but wouldn’t it be much better to put all of these histories together in a fresh history of the world? Many years ago, Will and Ariel Durant published their 11-volume Story of Civilization. Since then, much new stuff has been uncovered, so I decided I would take on the task of bringing the world’s story up to date. So, here is a sample chapter for your edification. As you can imagine, much work needs still to be done, but fortunately all the required information is already stored in my brain, so completion of this vital project should take months rather than years.)
The Dawn of Civilization and the Rise of the Ians
It’s unclear when people began to speak to one another. Perhaps the first communications consisted merely of grunts and screams. Imagine a cave dweller cooking a hare over an early fire, then chewing on the result. He grunts with pleasure. His mate hears the grunt and it sounds just slightly different than the grunt when he uses the facilities. She tries the hare herself and grunts similarly.
She has also noticed – even then, women paid more attention to subtleties – that when he stubs his toe, he gives out a shriek. When he comes upon a large and toothy cat, he also gives out a kind of shriek, but it’s louder and more prolonged. Soon, people began to understand the differing sounds of annoyance and fear. They also noticed that in the former the sound almost always comes out sounding like “ouch.” In much the same way, the grunt of satisfaction is soon regularized into “good.”
While people were soon chattering away at breakneck speed, it didn’t yet occur to them to write the new words down. Actually, the use of pictographs came before the Palmer Method. The Sumerians (the first of the Ian civilizations) often traded goods among themselves. When one group had a surplus of alfalfa sprouts but a shortage of malt beverage, they would often do a trade. We know their level of sophistication because, to prevent pilfering enroute, they would fill a jar with pebbles coinciding with the number of baskets of sprouts, and then seal it with clay cylinders. At the other end, the recipient would break the jar and count the pebbles. If the pebbles and baskets matched, all was well. If not, woe betide the shipping company. In fact, this is where Summery executions began.
Eventually, a thrifty shipper noticed that you could actually make marks on the clay stopper before it dried, using dots for each basket instead of putting pebbles in a jar. This eliminated the need for pebbles and jars; thus, the first recorded instance of improving the bottom line.
Every system has its faults, of course. It wasn’t long before the shipping companies discovered that they could make their own clay disks with fewer marks and enjoy a few sprouts on the trip without being discovered. Soon, however, the shippers began to do elaborate drawings of the goods instead of simple marks. The shipping companies soon countered this by hiring talented artists to duplicate even the most sophisticated symbols. Not surprisingly, they were called “counter” fitters.
An interesting footnote: J. Pierpont Morgan, the celebrated American financier, began to collect these disks when their meaning became clear. Not only did the disks look nice in glass cases, but he was in a position to appreciate their relevance to his own business practices.
The Sumerians lived in what is now the Middle East. It was either merely hot or really hot all the year. Nearby, in a mountainous region where snow was not unknown lived a tribe called the Friesians, who lived in cedar forests (now part of Lebanon). They often traded their timber with the Sumerians, usually during the colder months in the mountains. They began to equate Sumeria with warm weather and soon began to refer to the warmer months in their own country as summer.
Another early civilization of note was the Assyrian, the so-called “donkey people.” Much later, after a particularly virulent outbreak of hoof and mouth disease wiped out the donkey population, they transferred their allegiance to the hardier camel and became simply the Syrians.
The Assyrians thought big. One only has to peruse the massive statuary and tablets displayed at the British Museum to be convinced of this. Indeed, the museum would be a much smaller place without them and the famous Elgin Marbles (see discussion of cultural piracy later in the book).
In case you get lost at the museum, the Assyrians are the ones with the wide beards. It’s the Egyptians who have the narrow ones. Also, the typical Assyrian beard seems braided, much like today’s dreadlocks. It would appear that they did not perhaps have razors quite so good as the Egyptians, but a much higher order of beard dressing.
They were also prodigious warriors (“the Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold”). It must have been a daunting experience to see them charging their enemies on their famous war donkeys. Even the women participated in these battles, although they demurely rode sidesaddle, hence the word “asside.”
Now that their hieroglyphics have been deciphered, we know that the Assyrians had all the hallmarks of a developed civilization: language, art, trade, politics, and cities, subjugation of weaker neighbors, marriage and divorce.
In this, they resembled their rivals, the Hittites, who appear to have emigrated to Anatolia from the Balkans, and who can blame them? Before they disappeared, they conquered the Babylonians and fought the Egyptians to a draw, mainly because they discovered iron, which held an edge better than sticks and, heated up, could put a snappy crease in their uniforms. Ultimately, of course, the formula for iron was discovered by their enemies, who soon were hitting back with a will. We hear nothing about them after 1200 BC; maybe they went back to the Balkans, which might explain a lot.
While peoples in other parts of the world struggled along at the same time, we know little about them because they left no written record. In great part, what they left behind were big rocks. Later to become notably articulate (after the Roman conquest), the early Britains seemed capable only of constructing massive henges, the most notable of which is near the modern village of Stone on Stoke. What these circles of shaped stone actually signified is mere conjecture. The most plausible theory holds that they are a kind of astrological timepiece. This was all well and good for those at the henge. It appears, however, that if you were in Scotland, you couldn’t get the time of day.
The Assyrians were eventually conquered by the notably talkative Babblelonians, who also gave their name to the storied city. While they gave fits to the nearby tribes (the Israelites for example), they were also really keen gardeners. The famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon were justly famous. It was while reclining in the gardens that the Great Hammurabi (in Babylonian, this means “the big hammer”) drafted his famous laws, the first fully codified system of government we know of. While he made sure the codes put him in full charge, they at least permitted one to appeal for mercy before being dragged six times around the city gates.
Before leaving the Dawn of Civilization, we must pay some attention to that other great Ian people, the Egyptians. During their heyday, they were called the “Profile People,” since the court painters didn’t seem able to draw faces straight on. Like other ancient peoples, the Egyptians worshiped nature and animals, thus the term animus. Their major deity was the Sun God, Rah. When his likeness was paraded in the temples, the worshipers were often heard to chant in unison “Rah, Rah, Rah.”
They believed strongly in the afterlife, so modern Egypt is dotted with tombs of various kinds, the most famous being the pyramids. These vast edifices contained the mummified bodies of notable Pharaohs, along with their treasures and all the food and comforts they might need in the afterlife. It wasn’t long before these tombs were looted, so many of these kings now reside in museums, which at least have climate control systems and functioning cafeterias (although one can’t, in conscience, recommend the food).
It should be mentioned that many of the later Pharaohs were actually Greeks, Cleopatra being of course the best known. By the time of her reign, Egypt was in decline and would soon become part of the great Roman Empire and thus related to the next great historical period: the Classical World.