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What The Ancients Did For Us - The Mesopotamians

Updated Wednesday, 12th January 2005

Find out more about The Mesopotamians programme, part of the BBC/OU's 'What the Ancients Did for Us' TV series

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Adam and a rock

There has always been a great debate as to who kicked off civilisation: was it the Egyptians, the Greeks or the Romans? Well, actually, none of them did. Human history began in the great alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with its rich and immensely fertile soil: a land known as Mesopotamia. The people that dwelled here eight thousand years ago had learned to irrigate the land with canals and ditches, and were keen farmers. From this came plenty, which relieved man of the need to fight for survival. The Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian civilisations flourished here in an area stretching from modern Turkey, to western Syria, and Iraq.

But what did they do for us? For a start, they invented writing, with the oldest book, the epic of 'Gilgamesh', written around 4,500 years ago. They also gave us the first written laws - apparently to restrain 'drunkenness' in the population; a side effect of another of their innovations, beer.

They invented brick, which they produced in millions to build the first cities and their 'Ziggurat' temples. In warfare they gave us the first professional army and invented the tank or siege engine, and it was here that the wheel was invented; and then the chariot in 4,000 BC.

They observed the movement of the stars, and created the Zodiac, thereby being responsible for both astrology and astronomy.

The list goes on – the reed boat and the sail, glass blowing... They even came up with the electric battery, although no one is quite sure what they did with it.

First broadcast: Wednesday 16 Feb 2005 on BBC TWO

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