The Standard of Ur

The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4) continues to enthrall and inform. What is most impressive about the series, presented by Neil McGregor, is its focus on the lives – and the objects – of ordinary people, as much as the relics of power and leadership.  So last week the theme was food – how farming, the cultivation of new grains and developments in cooking after the end of the Ice Age – transformed peoples’ lives and the tools they used.

This week the focus is cities, and today McGregor was discussing the Standard of Ur, a Sumerian artifact discovered by archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. What the Standard of Ur was used for remains a mystery but it seems to have royal connections. It was buried in a royal grave and depicts two contrasting scenes of a king of Ur – identifiable as larger than the other figures. On one side captured enemy prisoners are presented to the king by his soldiers. On the other side the king enjoys a ceremonial banquet accompanied by lyre music.

McGregor is excellent at linking the past and the present, as he did in this programme when he said:

Woolley’s discoveries at Ur coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations. From the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur, so the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis… Mesopotamia’s past is a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare.

From around 4000BC, the Sumerian culture witnessed the development of the first complex system of mathematics, resulting in the creation of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra.  This reminded me of Patti Smith’s great lyric, ‘Radio Baghdad’,  from her 2004 Trampin‘ album:

Suffer not Your neighbour’s affliction
Suffer not Your neighbour’s paralysis
But extend your hand, extend your hand
Lest you vanish in the city and be but a trace
Just a vanished ghost and your legacy
All the things you knew science, mathematics, thought
Severely weakened like irrigation systems
In the tired veins forming from the Tigris and Euphrates
In the realm of peace all the world revolved
All the world revolved around a perfect circle
City of Baghdad City of scholars
Empirical humble centre of the world
City in ashes city of Baghdad
City of Baghdad abrasive, aloof

Oh, in Mesopotamia aloofness ran deep
Deep in the veins of the great rivers
That form the base Of Eden
And the tree the tree of knowledge
Held up its arms to the sky
All the branches of knowledge
Civilization in the realm of peace
All the world revolved around a perfect circle
Oh Baghdad centre of the world
City of ashes with its great mosques
Erupting from the mouth of god, rising from the ashes like
a speckled bird splayed against the mosaic sky
Oh, clouds around we created the zero
But we mean nothing to you
You would believe
That we are just some mystical tale, we are just a swollen belly
That gave birth to Sinbad, Scheherazade
We gave birth
to the zero, the perfect number
We invented the zero and we mean nothing to you
Our children run through the streets
And you sent your flames your shooting stars
Shock and awe Shock and awe
Like some imagined warrior production
Twenty-first century, no chivalry involved

You came, you came through the west
Annihilated a people And you come to us
But we are older than you
You wanna come and rob the cradle
Of civilization and you read yet you read
You read Genesis you read of the tree
You read of the tree beget by god
That raised its branches into the sky, every branch of knowledge
Of the cradle of civilization
Of the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates
Oh, in Mesopotamia aloofness ran deep
The face of Eve turning – what sky did she see
What garden beneath her feet, the one you drill
You drill pulling the blood of the earth
Little droplets of oil for bracelets, little jewels
Sapphires you make bracelets
Round your own world we are weeping tears
Rubies we offer them to you
We are just your Arabian nightmare
We invented the zero But we mean nothing to you
Your Arabian nightmare

City of stars
City of scholarship, science
City of ideas
City of light
City of ashes that the great Caliph
Walked through, his naked feet formed a circle
And they built a city a perfect city of Baghdad
In the realm of peace and all the world revolved
And they invented and they mean nothing to you
Nothing to you Nothing

Go to sleep Go to sleep my child
Go to sleep And I’ll sing you a lullaby
A lullaby for our city a lullaby of Baghdad
Go to sleep Sleep my child
Sleep Sleep…

Run Run…

You sent your lights your bombs
You sent them down on our city Shock and awe
Like some crazy t.v. show
They’re robbing the cradle of civilization
They’re robbing the cradle of civilization
They’re robbing the cradle of civilization
Suffer not the paralysis of your neighbour
Suffer not but extend your hand

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