One of the most powerful moments I experienced as an ancient history student was when I was teaching cuneiform to visitors at a fair. A father and his two little children came up to the table where I was working. I recognised them from an interfaith ceremony I’d attended several months before: the father had said a prayer for his homeland, Syria, and for his hometown, Aleppo.
All three of them were soft-spoken, kind and curious. I taught the little girl how to press wedges into the clay, and I taught the little boy that his name meant “sun” and that there was an ancient Mesopotamian God with the same name. I told them they were about the same age as scribes were when they started their training. As they worked, their father said to them gently: “See, this is how your ancestors used to write.”
And I thought of how the Ancient City of Aleppo is almost entirely destroyed now, and how the Citadel was shelled and used as a military base, and how Palmyran temples were blown up and such a wealth of culture and history has been lost forever. And there I was with these children, two small pieces of the future of a broken country, and I was teaching them cuneiform. They were smiling and chatting to each other about Mesopotamia and “can you imagine, our great-great-great-grandparents used to write like this four thousand years ago!” For them and their father, it was more than a fun weekend activity. It was a way of connecting, despite everything and thousands of kilometres away from home, with their own history.
This moment showed me, in a concrete way, why ancient studies matter. They may not seem important now, not to many people at least. But history represents so much of our cultural identity: it teaches us where we come from, explains who we are, and guides us as we go forward. Lose it, and we lose a part of ourselves. As historians, our role is to preserve this knowledge as best we can and pass it on to future generations who will need it. I helped pass it on to two little Syrian children that day. They learnt that their country isn’t just blood and bombs, it’s also scribes and powerful kings and Sun-Gods and stories about immortality and tablets that make your hands sticky. And that matters.