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Ancient Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World

Three successive civilizations — Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian — flourished along the “Fertile Crescent” in ancient Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Renown for their creativity, dynamism, and complexity, these cultures also provide the earliest models of civilization in the West. This fall, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada is celebrating the remarkable achievements and artistic sophistication of ancient Mesopotamia in a landmark exhibition: Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World.

In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Clemens Reichel, Associate Curator at the ROM, about the importance of these civilizations, and of how we can better assess and understand their legacy in modern times.

JW: Welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Dr. Clemens Reichel! I am delighted to be speaking to you, and I have the pleasure of informing you that your interview is AHE’s first with an expert on the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia.

As a child, a visit to Rome sparked your interest in archaeology, and as a student, you immersed yourself in the cultures of the ancient Near East. What is it about this historic region that enthralls you?

CR: My first interest, indeed, belonged to the classical world of Greece and Rome, but when I went to the university I found them too similar, too close to our own world. Taking a class in Mesopotamian archaeology was a random decision — but I was immediately struck by their mysterious and yet curiously familiar features. Like most of us, I had heard about the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians in high school but did not associate much with them. Learning that the earliest cities were built in this area after 4000 BCE, that writing was invented there around 3000 BCE, and that many social, technological, or scientific achievements — such as mathematics, astronomy, literature — first occurred or were recorded there, completely fascinated me. Plus, I do love the Middle East. I love the landscape, the food, the people, and their hospitality.

JW: The ROM’s Mesopotamia exhibition presents a striking array of artifacts and objects, which underscore the centrality of successive Near Eastern civilizations in the ancient world.

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