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We do ancient Greece and Egypt, so why not Iraq?

In the coverage of the war in Iraq, certain place names jolted the memory and the imagination. Tigris, Euphrates, Babylon. These were names learned in school, associated with ancient history. Surely they could not be playing a major role in the theatre of modern warfare?

"The Middle East has always been a hotbed of trouble," says Dr Irving Finkel, of the British Museum's department of the ancient near east. In the 7th century BC, for instance, the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib razed the great buildings of Babylon, taking revenge on its citizens for defying his power. It feels uncomfortably familiar.

Ancient Mesopotamia sounds so alien and distant, but its denizens were "as capable and subtle as we are", says Dr Finkel. They built a civilisation in an unsympathetic environment, made ships when they had no timber, and great cities without local stone. The oldest known writing comes from there, and examples of the cuneiform script of six- and seven-year-old schoolboys still exist.

At key stage 2, children study ancient Greece and one other past society.

Most do Egypt or the Aztecs. But Dr Finkel believes Mesopotamia offers more. Not only did the Mesopotamians know about medicine and astronomy, they gave us the 60-second minute and 60-minute hour, for they had a base-60 numerical system. Other features of society which we regard as undeniably modern go back thousands of years. Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562BC) was the original king of spin, for instance: his hanging gardens of Babylon may not have been as wondrous as was claimed. In fact, it is possible that they never existed at all. But he did build spectacular public edifices, including ziggurats harking back to those of Ur, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham. In this self-aggrandising artchitectural display he was emulated by Saddam Hussein, who constructed countless monuments and palaces. And it was not by accident that the ruined, 4,000-year-old ziggurat of Ur was chosen as the site of the first meeting of rival factions brought together to rebuild Iraq.

So if junior-aged children ask why they should study ancient history, the answers are many.

Richard Woff, deputy head of education at the British Museum, says that learning about ancient people who are in many ways alien, but also much the same as us, helps us reflect on our own culture and values.

It also helps children to appreciate and accept modern cultures that are different from their own.

DH The British Museum has an education website for teaching about ancient Mesopotamia, which can be found at

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