Ancient Worlds (2010) s01e01 Episode Script

Come Together

Istanbul in Turkey, a city poised between east and west, and between the present and the past.
It's a good place to think about where all this comes from - not the physical structures of this particular city, but the invisible web that holds all cities together and which we humans have been spinning since the time of the very first cities, some 6,000 years ago.
Civilisation is the best word for it.
One of the most profound innovations in our human story.
Historians today have become a little embarrassed by the word civilisation.
We prefer less exalted terms like culture, community or society.
But in telling the stories of some of the first civilisations of the ancient world, I'll be making the case for civilisation itself.
More than 4,000 years ago, an unknown poet listed the attributes of a successful city.
The place where civilisation was first forged and where the aspirations of a civilisation still find their most concrete expression.
The details of the poem are so vivid they could have been written yesterday.
The warehouses are well provisioned and the houses within the city are well built.
Those who bathe before the holidays rejoice in the courtyards.
And foreigners flock to and fro like exotic birds.
The old women are full of good advice.
The old men are full of good counsel.
The young women are full of dancing spirit.
The young men are full of fighting spirit.
And the little ones are full of the spirit of joy.
The people are happy.
Of course, not everyone can be happy.
But I believe the aspirations that this ancient poem expresses make as much sense to us now as they did 4,000 years ago.
It's like that when you look down into the well of history.
It gets dark so quickly, but sometimes, you catch a glimpse of something at the bottom, alive and moving and you suddenly realise it's your own reflection looking back at you.
That's the story I want to tell you now.
It's not the story of Ancient Worlds long passed.
It's the story of us, then.
When we talk about the ancient world we tend to think of rare and exotic artefacts or the monumental remains of epic architecture.
But these are just the empty shells that got left behind when the tide of history turned.
The living creatures, the civilisations that once inhabited these shells were rarely, if ever, static or stately.
They were dynamic, chaotic, and always threatening to spin out of control, because civilisation is based on an improbable idea that strangers can live together in dense urban settings, forging new allegiances that replace the ties of family, clan or tribe.
It's an idea we're still coming to terms with today, but one of the best ways to understand the challenges is to look at how our ancestors tackled them the first time around.
In Baghdad, people know all too well just how precious civilisation is and how vulnerable.
The Ancient Greeks believed that the cornerstone for all successful societies was eunomia, good order.
Lost that and you're in danger of losing everything.
Today, slowly and painfully, Iraqis are struggling to put back together the good order that dictatorship, regime change and civil war tore apart.
They live with hope that things will be better one day.
It's a tall order but not an impossible one.
In this part of the world it's a story that's been played out again and again from the time of the very first cities which appeared in this region some 6,000 years ago.
We're in southern Iraq, just north of Basra, and I'm on my way to the place where this experiment in a new way of being human was first tried.
The Ancient Greeks called this region Mesopotamia, "the land between two rivers", the Tigris and the Euphrates.
But this is also the land between two seas - the Upper Sea and the Lower Sea, known to us as the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
It's also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt-marsh, and all of these geographical features have to borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.
Geography versus history.
It's impossible to know which takes precedence.
But there's no getting away from the brutal facts of nature.
Rivers that flood or dry up, rainfall that's intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.
Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, the winters are cold, and rainfall is low, I'd sum it up like this - difficult but not impossible.
No Garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness, either.
People had occupied this marginal land for 1,000 years before the cities came.
They arrived as pastoralists with their herds, they stayed on as farmers, clinging close to the river banks in scattered communities of 1,000 or 2,000 people at most.
But then, just under 6,000 years ago, a remarkable thing happened.
People left the security of their family compounds and tribal villages.
They came together with other strangers to create something far more complex - a city, a society, a civilisation.
The first place we know of where this radical experiment was tried is here - the ancient city of Uruk.
So, here it is.
Uruk - the mother of all cities.
Nowadays, as you can imagine, it's quite difficult to get to.
But I'm glad I did.
Athens, Rome, Constantinople, London, Paris, New York.
Trace the family trees of all these great cities and they'd all lead back here to this dry and dusty corner of southern Iraq.
Nowadays there's not much to see.
But 5,000 years ago, this was home to 40,000 or perhaps 50,000 people.
A population density unprecedented in human history.
In the mythology of Mesopotamia, Uruk was built by Gilgamesh, two thirds god, one third human.
The great epic poem The Legend of Gilgamesh contains a proud description of his city.
Go up, pace the walls of Uruk Study the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork Is not the masonry made of kiln-fired brick? And did not the Seven Sages lay its foundations? Three and a half square miles is the measure of Uruk! In fact, if anything, The Legend of Gilgamesh understates things.
The walls of Uruk were nearly 10km in length, enclosing an area of six square kilometres.
Just to give you a point of comparison, classical Athens, at its height, was no more than five square kilometres.
And even Imperial Rome was little more than ten.
So, by the measures of the Ancient World, these first cities were neither small nor insignificant.
From the very start, they were big players.
Starting just under 6,000 years ago, the archaeological record of Uruk reveals a period of intensive building and rebuilding, which went on for four or five centuries.
In that period, a dozen or more large public buildings were built.
Temples, palaces, assembly halls.
We don't know for sure what they were, but they were all of different shapes and sizes.
And they used novel building techniques, like these cone mosaics, which once lined the walls here.
You get the feeling that, behind all this restless building and rebuilding, the people of Uruk were searching for ways to express through architecture the new social structures that had come to be, in their new city, the shape of things to come.
But what kind of a society was being built at Uruk, and why had it come about? The answer can be found in the need to satisfy the most basic of all human needs.
Hunger.
Civilisation might have had its head in the clouds, but it marches on its stomach.
This is the Euphrates, one of history's great rivers.
1,700 miles from source to delta.
There's a lot of debate about where the name comes from, but some say it's derived from the Akkadian word frat which means fruitful.
And it's certainly that - provided its waters can be got to the farmer's fields.
Agriculture - growing crops rather than raising livestock - pre-dates the first cities by thousands of years.
But at some point, and quite suddenly, agricultural activity in Mesopotamia became more intensive and on a larger scale than had ever been seen before.
This may have been in response to an environmental crisis - a prolonged period of drought or the sudden change in the course of the river, following a cataclysmic flood.
For the first time since people had started living in this marginal land, their survival would have depended on finding ways to manage the waters, forcing them to think beyond the narrow concerns of their clans, and finding common cause with other clans.
Building dams and digging canals, to bring the water to the crops, on which all their lives now depended.
The social consequences of this cooperation were profound.
Those farmers weren't just digging ditches and selling barley, they were planting the seed from which the tree of civilisation would grow.
But what turns the farmer in his field into a citizen of the city? To answer that question, I travelled 600 miles north from Uruk over the border into present-day Syria, to another ancient city, Tell Brak.
The Syrians call this area Al-Jazeera, the Island, because it's situated between the Euphrates to the south and the Tigris to the north.
And the waters of both create an island of fertility in a sea of desert and mountain.
And that is Tell Brak.
It looks like a hill, but that impressive hump is actually man-made.
The result of thousands and thousands of years of occupation, which has raised the level of the site 50 metres above the surrounding plain.
Tell Brak stands as an impressive monument to the compulsive city-building activities of our ancestors.
Excavations have been going on here since the 1930s, when the British archaeologist Max Mallowan, accompanied by his new bride, the crime writer Agatha Christie, first started working on Tell Brak.
Among Mallowan's finds were these distinctive eye amulets, which had also been found in great numbers at Uruk.
This suggests that people from Uruk travelled north, bringing their radical new ideas with them.
Even today, Tell Brak is an incredibly rich site.
As you walk around, you can't help but tread on a carpet of ceramic fragments which could be anything from 3,000 to 6,000 years old.
This is area TW, and these structures date back to fifth millennium BC, when the first city appeared here.
These buildings were close to the city gates.
What we're looking at here is a type of light industrial unit, complete with a layer of ash from the ovens that were once here.
But the reason why we're here is because of something which has stuck in the trench wall over there.
It's a fragment of the past, which raises intriguing questions about the nature of the society that first emerged here 6,000 years ago.
Don't try this at home - not unless you're a trained archaeologist, and you've got permission from the authorities who run the site.
Got to be a bit careful here because it's very, very loose.
Might break it.
We need a little bit of a trowel.
We have to be very, very careful.
This looks like it could be a complete one.
Edge it, ease it out gently.
When we talk about the Ancient World we tend to quite naturally think about the iconic or awe-inspiring Venus de Milo or the Egyptian Sphinx.
Picture postcard stuff.
I don't suppose you would find one of these in the postcard rack.
But, for me, these are as significant as any armless Greek goddess or noseless mythical beast.
And now I am just going to And there you have a bowl from the fourth millennium BC, and it's complete.
Amazing.
For any archaeologist of this period, this would be instantly recognisable as a BRB - a bevel-rimmed bowl.
They were made by digging a bowl-shaped hole in the ground, pushing the clay in and working it around the edges, until it took on the shape of the mould.
Then they were finished off by running a finger along the rim, creating a bevel, just like this one.
Made by somebody's finger 6,000 years ago.
The extraordinary thing about the BRB is that there are just so many of them - they've been found in their thousands at sites from Turkey to Syria, from Iran to Iraq.
Here at Tell Brak, they've found so many that they've had to rebury most of them just to free up space in their storage areas.
So what does the ubiquity of the BRB tell us? One theory is that this is a ration bowl issued by some kind of central authority to its workers, holding a standard measure of grain.
Think of it as a kind of ancient pay packet.
A bowl of barley in return for a hard day's graft on the irrigation ditches.
Without which, there wouldn't be any barley.
The ration bowl theory is further strengthened by this.
Stylised head of what looks suspiciously like a BRB.
This was a symbol for ration, used in the account books of the first cities.
You can't have beans without bean counters.
What this shows is how, with the growth of civilisation, one thing led to another.
From farming, to irrigation, to rations, to account books, to writing.
That's how civilisation snowballed.
The BRB is the next logical step on from the canals and the dams dug by that first generation of farmers.
But it's the product of a very different kind of society.
Rather than the cooperation of autonomous clans, the BRB suggests a powerful political authority had emerged, which could persuade or force the general population to dig and delve for the common good.
And just as the credit card is the symbol of our consumer economy, the BRB is the symbol of a redistributive economy.
Which is what the first cities operated under.
A dominant central authority, directing the workforce, collecting all the fruits of its hard labour and bringing them to the centre for redistribution, through some kind of rationing system.
A bit like North Korea, without the cult of personality.
Controlling the workforce made managerial sense.
But as we'll see again and again in the story of civilisation, the law of unintended consequences also came into play.
One thing led to another.
Intensive farming is generally more productive than small-scale farming, so it generates more than can be consumed.
A surplus in other words.
In bumper years, the food surplus can be stored against the lean years and that makes the centre that controls everything even more powerful.
A food surplus also means that non-food products can be grown, providing raw materials for making or for trading with other centres with their own surplus of raw materials.
This allows the centre to invest in the specialists.
The craftsmen and women with the skills to weave, throw pots or bash metal, as well as the merchants who run the import-export side.
It's the beginnings of industry and trade.
The surplus also supports other specialisations - soldiers, builders, musicians, doctors, fortune-tellers, prostitutes.
All of these can now be afforded, thanks to the the surplus generated by the toiling masses.
It's the beginnings of the class system.
At the top of the system, of course, are the executives who run things.
In Uruk, we know that they had titles like master of the sheep or master of the grain, and you can bet that the masters got more than the daily bowl of grain doled out to the workers.
The fat cats, it seems, have always been with us.
And the place where all of these diverse constituents came together was, of course, the city.
A new man-made feature in the landscape.
Dominant and impressive, behind sturdy walls.
The city directed the energies and controlled the fate of people who had traded the autonomy of their tribe for the good order and security of this civilisation.
Religion, rather than politics, seems to have been the motivating ideology in the first cities.
All of that hard labour, all of the great public works - the canals, the fields of barley, the city walls - were for the gods, rather than for the people.
In fact, the people were there to serve the gods.
That was why the gods had turned clay into flesh in the first place.
Mesopotamian religion was suffused with an overwhelming sense of the fragility of civilisation.
In this land of marshes and wandering rivers, the line separating the solid from the liquid was uncertain.
If it wasn't for the protection of the gods, all that hard work, all that had been achieved, could be swept away into watery chaos.
We know a surprising amount about the way in which the first cities were organised, thanks to the development of an important new technology, one which would become one of the foundation stones on which all civilisations rested - writing.
Records were first inscribed in wet clay in Uruk and other cities.
Lists of people and things - basic book-keeping.
But within a few hundred years, writing systems had become much more sophisticated, capable of recording concepts as well as things.
Soon after that, there were even special schools where the art of writing was taught by an important new city specialist - the scribe.
You might think that clay would make a rather crude and cumbersome medium for writing, especially when compared to the delicate papyrus rolls of the Ancient Egyptians.
But clay is far tougher than papyrus, and the accidental fires which plagued these ancient cities turned durable clay into indestructible stone.
This is why we have many, many more historic documents from this period than later ones.
This was history built to last.
And history, along with love songs, peace treaties and lullabies, was among the things that the scribes started to write.
Scribes began to look into the past and put things in the right order.
Kings, their births, deaths and marriages were the obvious place to start.
As we've seen, civilisations built on hierarchies were based on specialisations.
From labourers to scribes, from craftsmen to temple priests.
But what did the king do? What was his job description? Who needed him? In tribal societies, the power of leaders is rarely absolute.
Restrained by a web of expectations, traditions and taboos, rulers are subject to the collective will of their communities.
They can lead, but only as far as the people are prepared to follow.
But in the first cities, the webs of tribal life dissolved.
Schooled in the new system of hierarchies and specialisations, people quickly learned how to be followers.
The priests in the temple shepherded them in the direction of heaven.
But there was also room for leaders who were more down to earth.
In Sumeria, he was known as the lugal, literally the big man.
An important political counterweight to the power of the priests.
The charismatic, flesh and blood individual in the palace, rather than a distant god in the temple.
Kings set out to be different from the rest.
In life, and in death.
This was made dramatically clear in the discoveries of pioneer archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, excavated the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur.
Woolley and his team studied more than 1,800 burials, dating from around 4,500 years ago.
Most of them were simple affairs, but 16 of them were very different.
You can see from the drawings done at the time, what the first difference was.
These were mass burials involving men, women and animals, too.
Their bodies laid out in ranks in the outer chamber.
And in the inner chamber was the focus of all this carefully choreographed death - a single figure surrounded by objects of astonishing beauty and rarity.
Woolley called these burials the "death pits", but they're now known, rather more sedately, as the "Royal tombs".
Certainly with grave goods as stunning as these, you'd expect nothing less than royalty.
But what about the other bodies, the ones that accompanied Meskalamdug the King and Puabi the Queen in death? In his classic work, Ur Of The Chaldees, Woolley explained his findings with a compelling picture of a royal funeral.
The body of the dead ruler laid out in the inner sanctum of the tomb whilst the outer enclosure slowly filled with mourners, ladies in waiting, loyal soldiers and slaves, loudly bewailing their terrible loss.
And then, as solemn music played, the tomb is shut from the outside, and the mourners take poison.
Lit by the flames of guttering oil lamps, they then die, one by one, presumably to be reborn on the other side of the grave and once again to serve their royal master.
We simply don't know enough about the beliefs of the Sumerians to be sure whether Woolley's reconstruction is accurate or not.
However one thing is clear - the charisma of royalty, even in death, exerted a powerful pull.
People followed kings in life, death and beyond.
And of course they would also follow them into battle.
From the start, war was civilisation's dark shadow, marching alongside it, inseparable from it.
Boundary stones, placed by cities to claim pieces of territory, became trophies in the wars they provoked, when neighbouring cities marched into battle to challenge their claims.
This is Naram-Sin, the king of Akkad.
He reigned for nearly 40 years and spent most of it fighting.
His grandfather, Sargon of Akkad, was the first great Mesopotamian ruler to turn a kingdom into an empire, conquering his way city by city from the Persian gulf to the Mediterranean sea.
Empire was a new unit of currency in the civilisation stakes, but Naram-Sin had to fight hard to hold on to what his grandfather had won.
The logic of a territorial empire was simple - conquer or lose everything.
But when the city states of Mesopotamia began to flex their regional muscles, they stepped up into the Premier League.
And that meant, sooner or later, they'd come up against one of the top teams of the ancient world - Egypt, with its astounding, monumental architecture, its divine god-kings and its all-pervasive preoccupation with death.
But for all its magnificence and power, Egypt's contribution to the growth of civilisation is not as overwhelming as you might first imagine.
There's so much to be said about Ancient Egypt, but the first thing that has to be said is it was certainly different.
For a start the geographical hand that it had been dealt was a strong one, and the ace in the hole was this - the River Nile.
Once a year, beginning in June and ending in September, the waters of the Nile rose, the river burst its banks and the fields for miles on either side were flooded.
Instead of the labour-intensive canal systems that the Mesopotamians had to develop to control the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Egyptians simply banked up their fields to hold the floodwaters in place for a crucial 40-60 days at the start of each growing season.
After which the banks were broken, the life-giving water drained off and a fertile layer of black mud was left to receive the seed.
Of course it wasn't quite as straight forward as that.
Some years there was too little water, some years too much.
But Bronze Age technology wasn't advanced enough to control these mighty waters.
All the Egyptians could do was monitor the fluctuations carefully by a system of Nilometers, like this one at Aswan.
Cosseted by its miraculous river and separated from the rest of the ancient world by desert and sea, the Egyptians were like an island people, conservative, complacent, xenophobic, incurious about the rest of the world.
Slow to adapt new technologies, from the potter's wheel to metallurgy, Egypt had a Stone Age heart in a Bronze Age body.
Otherness was Egypt's great selling point, then and now.
The things that fascinate us - pyramids, incestuous royal marriage, mummification, and the whole elaborate, expensive cult of death - were the very things that fascinated Egypt's neighbours.
But, like their famous heiroglyphs, they only really made sense in Egypt.
Egypt's cultural reputation across the ancient world was enormous, but just as there was only one River Nile, there could only be one Egypt, and the lessons learned here about building a civilisation were definitely not for export.
So Egypt, despite its wealth and magnificence was, in historical terms, a bit of a glittering dead-end.
The Egyptians were also terrible snobs.
Political marriages between foreign courts became a common diplomatic tool in the Bronze Age world.
But while many a foreign princess came to Egypt to cement an alliance or seal a treaty, Egyptian kings refused to allow any of their daughters to be sent abroad.
Who knew what nasty surprises awaited them there.
The Egyptian Book Of The Dead, that indispensable guide to the life hereafter, conceded that it was theoretically possible for non-Egyptians to win a place in the afterlife.
But the gods would soon separate them out - because of the way they smelled! In the tomb of a vizier, Rekhmire, the smelly foreigners are doing what they're supposed to do forming an orderly queue and paying tribute.
The Syrians from the Levant with their horses, the Kushites from Africa with their ivory and giraffes, the Minoans from Crete, with their distinctive conical jugs.
All of them are their to bend the knee and buy the good will of mighty Egypt.
The chauvinism of Rekhmire's tomb disguises a broader, more profound truth about the ancient world.
Outside of the narrow confines of Egypt there was a big, wide world full of lots of different kinds of people.
They were known to each other and each had things that the others wanted.
So rather than seeing these images as Rekhmire would have done - as a sign of Egypt's political dominance - instead we should see them as a picture of an international market based on the exchange of desirable goods.
Trade rather than tribute was the heartbeat of Rekhmire's world.
It began with the raw materials which made up the substance that defined the age - bronze.
Bronze-making was transformative technology.
It wasn't just that bronze could make tools and weapons that were sharp-edged and durable, it was also amazingly versatile.
It could be cast in all shapes and sizes, from a clothes pin to a two-man saw.
It was made from 10 parts copper to one part tin, but the distribution of these essential raw materials was not uniform.
In fact, as a general rule, where you found copper, you didn't find tin, so the only way for civilisations to get their hands on sufficient quantities of both was to trade.
From this necessity came a Bronze Age world that was surprisingly joined up and one of the best places to see the joins was in central Anatolia, in what is now Turkey.
This is the ancient city of Kanesh.
Behind on that low hill there was its palace and the administrative centre, which 4,000 years ago were ruled over by a dynasty of Anatolian kings.
We don't know very much about them, but we do know an awful lot about the people who lived here, in the lower city.
Back then, if you were an Anatolian local strolling down the street, this would've seemed an alien place, different, clothes, food, customs, gods and language.
Because all around me here are the ruins of the houses, warehouses and workshops of foreign merchants from the Assyrian city of Assur, about 900 miles to east or about 50 days' mule ride.
This was the karem - or port - of Kanesh, a permanent colony of Assyrian ex-pats, who'd come West to make their fortunes in the import-export business, bringing with them their distinctive drinking jugs, with which they honoured their now-distant gods.
These Assyrian merchants were an essential link in a trading network that stretched all the way from Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean coast in Egypt, an ancient precursor of our own global economy.
The Assyrians could get things that people here in Anatolia wanted.
Tin - essential for making bronze, which they bought in Iran.
Textiles, from Mesopotamia, and more exotic raw materials, like lapis lazuli, which came all the way from distant Afghanistan.
In exchange for these goods, the Assyrians received silver and gold, which they sent home, using it to finance the next consignment, or banking it for a rainy day.
We know an enormous amount about these Assyrian merchants because we have thousands and thousands of their letters, As you might expect from such canny businessmen, most of them are concerned with money matters - contracts, bills of sale, receipts, legal wrangles.
But not all of them.
There are also personal letters, not just from the merchants, but also from the women in their lives.
And those present a far more human face to our business story, in voices that still speak to us across the millennia.
One of the best of these letters was written by a lady called Lamassi to her husband Pusu-ken, who was an Assyrian merchant in Kanesh.
Lamassi writes When you left, you did not leave me any silver, not even one shekel.
What is this extravagance about which you always write to me? There is nothing here to buy our food! But you think we are extravagant? I sent everything we have to you, and today I am living in an empty house! Send me the money you have received for my textiles so that I can buy some necessities! And then there's this killer line, Since you left, Salim-ahum has already built a house double the size! When will we be able to do the same? Lamassi, I have to tell you, even 4,000 years on, you know how to make a man feel really bad.
While the Lamassis of the world worried about keeping up with the Salim-ahums, at the top of the social pyramid, the rulers of the Bronze Age world engaged in their own games of one-upmanship.
War, as ever, was the ultimate recourse, but by the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, there was a new game to play - diplomacy.
The Hittite kings of Anatolia were the pioneers of this new form of war by other means.
In Hattusha, the capital city of the Hittites, fragments of more than 70 peace treaties have been found.
The Hittites seemed to have an almost religious dread of breaking their word.
When one of their kings did, by launching a sneak attack on Egypt, plague came to Hattusha, and thousands died, including the king himself.
The king's son considered this to be a divine judgment.
He wrote a series of plague prayers, accusing his father of bad faith and seeking forgiveness from the storm gods in whose name the original treaty had been signed.
It took more than prayers to patch up relationships with Egypt, and the bad blood culminated in the greatest land battle of the Bronze Age, the Battle of Kadesh.
It's commemorated here at the temple of Ramesses the Second at Abu Simbel, proclaimed as a clear victory for the Egyptians.
In fact, it was more of a score draw and it ended with a peace treaty, sworn in the name of the Sun-god of Egypt, and the Storm-god of the Hittites.
History teaches us that the fine words in documents like this are as fragile as the materials that they're written on.
But history also teaches us that the fighting only stops when the wrangling over the fine print begins.
If you wanted to find a typical king at the centre of this complex web of war, diplomacy, marriage, gift-giving and trade, there are few more attractive figures than Zimri-Lim, who for 20 years ruled as King of Mari, beginning some time around 1770 BC.
Mari occupied a strategic position between the cities of Mesopotamia to the southeast, the kingdoms of Antolia to the northwest, and port cities of the Mediterranean to the west.
The city was close to the river Euphrates, and a canal connecting it to the river was dug through its centre, creating an inland port of great economic value.
As a young man, Zimri-Lim had to fight hard for his kingdom, after a period of exile and ultimately, he would lose it, betrayed by his closest ally.
But history has more kind to Zimri-Lim, because in the traces that he left behind, you find, probably for the first time in human history, the outline of a recognisable personality.
There's urbanity and enthusiasms.
They set him apart from the rather faceless kings who he competed against and co-operated with.
From all that we know, Zimri-Lim was obviously a rather civilised chap.
He built himself a huge, imposing palace, covering an area of 25,000 square metres.
The throne room was designed like a temple, its walls were covered with frescoes painted by craftsmen imported from Minoan Crete.
The palace even had its own ice-house so that the king's honey-sweetened wine could be served cold! Zimri-Lim was evidently a bit of a pleasure seeker, and could get impatient when he felt that his needs weren't being catered to.
In a letter to one of his governors, he complained about the quality of the truffles that had been sent to him.
And when his sister, Liqtum, married a Syrian king, he wrote, "In the land where you dwell, there are many ostriches.
"Why have you sent me no ostriches?" Midway through his reign, Zimri-Lim made a journey from Mari to the coast of the Mediterranean, a round trip of more than 1,000 miles by river and land.
He brought with him his family, his court officials, his cooks, physicians and musicians.
And his army, some 4,000 people, put in motion by the whim of a great king.
He visited fellow kings and royal in-laws, distributing and receiving gifts as he went.
He even found time to arrange a divorce for one his daughters whose marriage to a neighbouring king hadn't worked out.
But his final destination was here, Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast.
This grand tour took around five months to complete.
And it must have been a hugely complex, disruptive and expensive exercise.
And there was no reason for it either, except, I think, curiosity.
I reckon that King Zimri-Lim of land-locked Mari, just wanted to see this - the sea.
Mari, as Zimri-Lim knew, was only a small part of a much bigger world, a world connected by trade and diplomacy, marriage and war, but also connected by the sea.
Merchant ships plied these coasts.
Driven by the pursuit of profits and the quest for raw materials, they unwittingly carried with them the idea of civilisation to places far distant from Mari.
An amazing discovery, made about 25 years ago, just off the coast of southwest Turkey, reveals just how far the idea of civilisation had been carried in the thousands of years since it was first tried out.
A shipwreck, dated to the end of the 14th century BC, about 3,300 years ago, the high watermark of the Bronze Age.
In the quarter of the century since the shipwreck was discovered, archaeologists have recovered more than 17 tonnes of material from the seabed.
Around 15,000 objects in total, which, when pieced together, provide an extraordinarily detailed picture of Bronze Age civilisation, and its surprising interconnections.
What this nameless wreck tells us is that this was a joined-up world.
They found raw materials and products from Syria, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Nubia, the Balkans, Iraq, Italy and Central Asia.
Glass, ivory, ostrich shells, pottery and jewellery.
All the varied riches of the Bronze Age world.
They've also recovered 10 tonnes of copper from Cyprus in the form of oxide ingots, the standard shape and measure used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean for trading this vital raw ingredient.
But the cargo is just the start.
Thanks to some brilliant detective work by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, it's now possible to say, with a fair degree of certainty, where the ship came from, where it was going, who was on board, and why.
This sword and dagger probably belonged to the ship's captain and owner, a Canaanite.
These animal-shaped weights, balance pan and wooden writing boards belonged to the merchants on board, who were from what is today's Syria.
Fish hooks and corn grinders belonged to the crew, giving us a good idea of the cuisine available on this Mediterranean cruise.
Knuckle bones, used as dice, tell us something about the shipboard entertainments.
All of this is stuff that you would expect to find from a ship whose home port was in the coast of the eastern Mediterranean in the vicinity of Ugarit.
But, in fact, archaeologists have discovered items from further afield too.
Foreign stuff.
So it looks like this ship was carrying passengers, and judging by the style of their personal effects, they were Greeks from the Kingdom of Mycenae.
Mycenae was on the Greek mainland, a very long way from the ship's home port, but connected to it by the Bronze Age network of trade and diplomacy.
What the wreck shows is that civilisation had come West at last.
This is what civilisation looked like when it came West.
A golden death mask of an unknown warrior king of Mycenae.
Looking at these death masks, striking in the blunt assertion of power and status, you feel the distance that separated the millennia-old civilisations of the East, from the civilisation that had gained a precarious toehold in the West.
The Mycenaens, originally nomadic warrior herdsman, who'd conquered what is now Greece in the 3rd millennium BC.
It's thought they learnt the arts of civilisation from Minoan Crete, including the art of writing, but they never completely lost their rough edges.
Mycenaen society was a vigorous hybrid of civilised East and tribal West.
Their kings lived in heavily-fortified fortresses, they hunted lions in the mountains and they went into battle in helmets made from boars' tusks.
Zimri-Lim's passion for truffles and ostriches would have seemed out of place in this warrior society.
There were no cities in the Mycenaean world to compare to those in the east, in terms of size, population density and social complexity.
The king in his citadel held the monopoly of power, supported by a warrior cast of loyal retainers.
The temple, a great institution in its own right in the east, was reduced to the role of a cheerleader, and at the bottom of the heap was a class of agricultural serfs, tightly-controlled by the centre.
All Bronze Age societies were hierarchical, but the Mycenaen class structure was particularly brutal - them and us - with very little in-between.
This all made for a civilisation with very shallow roots.
And that was why, in the 13th century BC, it was all swept away.
The reverberations of that cataclysm didn't stop at Mycenae.
They were felt throughout the Bronze Age world.
And once they had subsided, that world was in ruins.
And civilisation, that hard-won and precious human achievement, would enter its first Dark Age.