All Those Other Ancients: Assyria, Babylon, and Phoenicia

The Classical tradition of education has students study the history, philosophy, and literature of the western world. Since “Classical Education” is the education of the western world, this makes complete sense to me. It is important to know your own story, to know the great thinkers and artists that have gone before and shaped what your culture is now. If you don’t know where you came from and how you got there, it is hard to know where you are going or how to course correct when necessary. We learn from the shoulders of giants (if I’m allowed to misquote so blatantly.)

However, the western world is not the only “world” out there worth knowing and exploring and understanding for it’s richness, goodness, beauty, and valuable knowledge and experience. There are “giants,” if you will, from all over the planet, and mankind would benefit to gain knowledge from as many regions of the world as possible.

It’s kind of like the Buddhist story about the 7 blind men and the elephant. If you want to know the whole elephant – or in our case, if you want to understand humanity and mankind – you will get a better sense by studying and exploring it from as many different angles (cultures) as you can.

If we are all God’s children, surely all of us are important to him and should be to each other.

That is another good lesson to teach when you are teaching about peoples and cultures who don’t hit the mainstream storyline.

Don’t get me wrong! I think the survival of western culture depends on a strong and deep understanding of western civilization – yes, even enough that I teach my children Latin! And in my personal study I have gained an immense amount of wisdom and knowledge – enough to know with Socrates that all I know is that I know nothing, but with enough practical sense to understand that my knowledge is increasing steadily as I study.

And it’s really interesting!

But there is definitely a place in my homeschool for the lesser known or easily glossed over cultures of the past.

Lets start with Babylon and Assyria. First of all, although technically the “Near East” and in fairly constant contact with the classical western world (think Greco-Persian War for one,) as we learn about these important civilizations and their cultures and customs, we actually gain a greater understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

For instance: Abraham and Ur, Jonah and Nineveh, The Assyrian invasion the Babylonian invasion, the Persian invasion, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Artaxerses, Daniel in the lion’s den, Shadrach and his companions, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, etc.

(I know, none of those are in order.)

Suddenly, because I know the history of the Near East, I can keep better track of the context of all these Old Testament stories I’ve known my whole life. And the knowledge isn’t just convenient, it is eye opening and enlightening.

(Furthermore, an understanding of Arab nations is going to be vital during the study of medieval times. Thank goodness for House of Wisdom in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age!)

Because information on “the other guys” isn’t as readily available as the info regarding ancient Greece or Rome, our studies are limited, but what we lack in quantity I try to make up for in quality.

I love the story of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh book

This is the version that I read to my children. This epic poem if FULL of meaning, emotion, and wonderfully applicable life lessons. This epic literature was shared by both Babylon and Assyria and sheds light on the humanity of all people (whereas from the Old Testament, the Assyrians and Babylonians were always just the bad guys killing and carting off people into slavery.)

Some day I will get my hands on a grown up copy of this book. But right now I’m still on Suetonius, (Mom School and all,) so you know, give me a little bit.

We also made a ziggurat. That was a few years back. It was mostly more stressful than anything else. And then, of course, you are done, it sits on the shelf for a while, you run out of space, and you chuck it in the trash. Ziggurat

But if you want to make a ziggurat, by all means, you should totally do it. You could even make one out of of a block of cheese! (My husband thinks he is so funny. It doesn’t even look like a ziggurat.)

Chees Ziggurat

We have also made clay “tablets” and written in “cuneiform.” On these, some of us tried to write messages or stories. Others of us made smiley faces. 🙂

Clay Tablet with Cunieform

Clay Talbet and Cunieform Project for Kids

My son tried to make his more authentic by using a stick instead of a plastic knife. More power to you, little buddy!

Cunieform Tablets for Kids

Mock Cunieform Tablet

Do you remember hearing about Hammurabi sometime in your growing up years? Only vaguely, right? Turns out, he was incredibly significant. We learned about his role in establishing “fair” laws for his subjects. Last I remember, Europe kind of had a problem with that way up until the Magna Carta. The idea of Hammurabi’s code resonates with us because our nation was founded on the principle that all people should be treated fairly and justly, that laws should be known, agreed upon, and applicable to all people. Hammurabi is probably not ever going to be the new poster child for the American Revolution, but he had some good things going for him.

We created our own “codes” by “carving” them into “stone.” (Chalk on black construction paper.) The two older children got to create the rules for their bedrooms in the form of if-then statements, just like Hammurabi did. (Moms were exempt from following these “codes,” just so you know.)

There are, in fact, resources for all these ideas. You just may need to find a bigger library if you want to find them. DK usually has books that have a ton of information in them. Sadly, my kids don’t like those books. 😦

The Phoenicians are another ancient group that I have wanted to know more about for a long time. Again, a knowledge of ancient Tyre, Sidon, and the Levantine area open up a lot of understanding in regards to the Old Testament. We know King Solomon traded extensively with Tyre. Does “Cedars of Lebanon” ring a bell? How about Jezebel? I only just barely learned that Israel and Tyre actually went on joint expeditions together on more than one occasion. The ancient people’s and cultures we do know about didn’t just live in on a lonely planet by themselves! They had neighbors and friends (and obviously enemies) who are worth looking into a little bit more.

But there is much more to know about the Phoenicians than just Tyre and Sidon and their relationship to ancient Israel.

The ancient north African city of Carthage was founded by expelled citizens of Tyre. (Although the versions of the story varies, the people involved were most definitely from Tyre.) Tyre, itself, was the master of the entire Mediterranean and even travelled and traded down along the western coast of Africa and north into what is now Spain and France.  Carthage eventually capitalized on those trading routes and became the greatest sea power of the time, hands down. Ancient Greece was what it was, in part, because of their contact with and the influence of the Phoenicians. Our alphabet is even derived from the Phoenician alphabet that Tyre taught to ancient Greece in order to negotiate trade deals.  The island of Sicily was divided between Greece and Carthage – so significant (and often bloody) interaction there was a given. However the interaction wasn’t always war and bloodshed, but cultural and religious as well. And then when Rome took over Sicily, well, that’s the First Punic War for you. Next comes Hannibal (a Carthaginian) and his war elephants across the Alps, and then you’ve got Cato the Elder demanding at the end of every speech in the Senate that “Carthage must be Destroyed.”

They even shared some of the same gods and fought for the right to call those gods their very own. Heracles is Hercules is Melqart – with a few tweaks here and there between all three cultures.

You cannot really know ancient Greece and ancient Rome without knowing ancient Carthage.

(Can you tell I just finished reading a book about this? It was FABULOUS! I’ll tell you more about it later.)

Carthage Must Be Destroyed

The point of all this enthusiastic information overload is to get you thinking about those “other guys” in a more academic and significant way. For littles, this may be a little tricky, due to the non prevalence of “other guy” history for kids. But the more YOU know, the more you can teach. The more YOU read and learn, the more the information just jumps out of your mouth at the appropriate times.

And I would LOVE to hear about what you have done to teach your children about ancient (or even not so ancient) peoples and cultures that maybe aren’t so mainstream. In my homeschool we spend a more significant amount of time on ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome, with less significant time allotments to ancient China and the Mayan culture, while still trying to teach about ancient Assyria/Babylon, Phoenicia, Japan, and the Celts.

Also, friends are for sharing. Please share this post (or any of my posts) with anyone you think might be interested… or maybe someone you know who could give me a few tips as well! I’m all up for learning from others, kind of like standing on the shoulders of giants, even if we are all “just” homeschooling moms. Sharing our experiences gives everyone a leg up in our collective and individual homeschooling goals. My purpose here is to enrich, uplift, and inspire – this blog is not a money making enterprise, which maybe shows in my sub professionalism, but hopefully also shows in my sincerity and goodwill.