Mesopotamia: I have conquered the River

The documentary movie, I have conquered the River shows how the flat expanse of desert that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was once the rich and fertile kingdom of Sumer, 5500 years ago, the oldest civilization on Earth. Ancient art and architecture from Mesopotamia is shown, like the cobalt blue Ishtar Gate, the stele with Hammurabi’s code chiseled in cuneiform and Hammurabi facing Shamash, and the great Ziggurat of Ur with the foundations of the ancient city next to it and all else a desert. The film goes on to show us how Sumer forged a civilization in this hostile landscape. We next visit Al Kaluna where the rivers meet to form marshes. There, people live in reed houses as they have for thousands of years. We’re shown maps of the kingdom of Sumer where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are closer together than today, flowing right past the cities where the people built irrigation channels and canals to make farmland from the desert. Next we visit the Anatolian plateau, covered in green grasses, where wild wheat and barley was first cultivated and then brought to Sumer, turning that kingdom into a thriving wheat producing economy.

The movie shows artist’s renditions of Ur in its heyday, a rich and prosperous city where people strove to enjoy their lives. The narrator explains how the Sumerians were very different from the Egyptians, spiritually. They did not believe in an afterlife. The Epic of Gilgamesh is used to illustrate this with a quote from the goddess who told him to stop seeking immortality and to go home and enjoy the fruits of his life and his marriage. This good Sumerian life is further described through art and trade as we are shown jewelry, headdresses, and a map of the Lapis Lazuli Road from Pakistan. But all of this good life comes to an end when the wheat failed to grow in 2004 BC due to salt in the soil from over irrigation. Sumer weakened and then fell. The film ends with the image of a four thousand year old cedar tree in Lebanon and a moral from the story of Gilgamesh; that he fought back nature as a symbol so that civilization could rise.

I found the film engaging. I especially loved the moments where it transported me back to ancient times, seeing the golden lions on the Ishtar gate, Kurds cooking sheets of flatbread as the Sumerians had done, and the ancient style clay jars used in Bagdad to keep water cool through condensation. I also loved the animation of Ur at dawn with the family waking up on the rooftop and the people in the street wearing Kunaxs of sheep’s hair. The fact that scribes, or writers, were honored and prosperous was great (because I am a writer), and the relief of the two men sharing beer through a straw brought it all home. It was fascinating how the concept of living a fulfilling life packed with food and love (I remember the temple prostitutes) rings truer today in a way than, say, Medieval piety. I also enjoyed the Sumerian proverbs like “Pleasure: call it beer,” and “We are doomed to die: let us spend.” I was moved by the great old cedar tree, imagining the world when it was a sapling. And if Gilgamesh did beat back the forces of nature by chopping down the cedars so civilization could rise, then he did it as much for us as for the Sumerians. It was a good little movie.



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