Let's Not Omit History Because It Is Convenient

12/05/2012 06:18 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013
  • Firas Al-Atraqchi Assoc. Professor of Practice in Journalism at American University in Cairo
University of Oxford

Andrew Marr's History of the World on BBC, which started this fall and ended late November, was an ambitious effort to capture 70,000 years of human development in eight one-hour episodes.

With such an undertaking, it's likely that a lot will be overlooked or omitted.

However, there are some things -- fundamental building blocks of human history -- which cannot be sacrificed for expediency.

Sumeria, or Mesopotamia as a whole, was entirely left out of the first episode. Marr alludes to the Great Flood referenced in ancient oral histories in the Middle East as well as Abrahamic traditions, and jumps to a telling of how Chinese culture developed because of efforts to control decades of flooding.

Fine. But what of the first epic Gilgamesh written nearly 5,000 years ago? Gilgamesh dealt with faith, the development of the earliest religions, life and death in ways unparalleled at the time. And it did elaborate on the Great Flood. The epic also reveals how homo sapiens nearly 5000 years ago began to build city walls for defense, thereby advancing the farming communities to city-states.

Leaving out Mesopotamia from the first episode has been met with criticism, much of it from archaeologists and historians blogging and writing about the show.

In his defense, Marr said that he could not access the areas he wanted to in Iraq, Iran or Syria. He writes: "Then there were the practical problems. I'd wanted to show the early Mesopotamian empires but Iran and the relevant parts of Iraq were either forbidden or too difficult to film in."

Marr argues that nature and climate change altered the course of human history and therefore he focuses on how ancient tribes managed to control river flooding.

"That's why so many civilisations began on the banks of rivers. In Mesopotamia it produced empires, terrifying gods, the first writing and excellent maths. But something very similar happened to the Chinese clans living along the banks of the Yellow River. So we filmed there instead," he writes on the BBC's website.

According to archaeology writer Jason Colavito:

Science shows us that the Mesopotamian cities experienced localized flooding at various times, while other theorists have argued that the Flood was inspired by (a) observations of fossil sea shells on mountaintops, (b) an Indian Ocean meteor impact and subsequent tsunami circa 3,000 BCE, and (c) rising sea levels after the Ice Age, 8,400 years ago. [University of Rhode Island Oceanography Professor] Robert Ballard also proposed the idea that the Black Sea filled in virtually overnight (in geologic terms) around 5600 BCE, inspiring the Near Eastern Flood myth. Except for the controversial Indian Ocean meteor theory, none of these even approximately match Marr's 2000 BCE date for the advent of Flood myths, at which point, incidentally, the Gilgamesh flood story was probably already well-known, but neither the Chinese nor Mayan flood myths had likely yet been created.

(Incidentally, Ballard also alludes to the epic of Gilgamesh for accounts of the Great Flood.)

Marr basically jumps 1,000 years, therefore writing out Ancient Sumeria from the development of human history, and taking us from China to Ancient Egypt.

History teacher Peter Britton, who runs the historical timelines of the world, also criticized Marr's omission of Mesopotamia, saying that most archaeologists agree the area was likely the home of the first civilization.

"Finally, writing almost certainly was not invented in Egypt, as the program casually claimed, but in Mesopotamia," he says.

Most archaeologists believe that cuneiform is the earliest form of writing having developed in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago. But Marr makes the claim that it actually developed in Ancient Egypt, directly contradicting what the BBC says on one of its own websites, and what he himself wrote on September 17.

What about man's greatest invention -- the wheel? Most archaeologists believe the wheel may have been invented 10,000 years ago with the oldest discovered wheel dating back to 3500 BCE in ... yes, Mesopotamia.

It is understandable that eight hours of TV is not nearly enough to cover human history -- or even a summary of it.

What is not understandable, however, is the failure to even offer a mention during Marr's first episode of what Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, calls the "richest archaeological landscape in the Middle East."