Saturday, June 20, 2009
Secret cities of the Indus
A civilization that has disappeared even from legend
Even in ruins, the ancient cities of Indus Valley (now in Pakistan) look better planned than most modern cities in the Indian sub-continent. Indeed, they recall the symmetry of modern American towns, with regular grids of streets, brick buildings and sewers for sanitation.
The archaeologists who uncovered the Indus Valley ruins early in 1900s realized they had stumbled on an original culture, contemporary with ancient Sumer and Egypt (around 2400 BC). But in some ways (such as in its plumbing and town planning) it was more advanced than either. It had its own system of writing - so far undeciphered - and trade links with ancient Mesopotamia, as well as outposts near modern Bombay (now Mumbai), more than 1000 km (600 miles) distant.
Where did the creators of this civilization come from? What language did they speak? Did the same rulers govern all its remarkably similar cities - more than 100 built on the same pattern have been discovered, stretching over an area larger than Egypt or Sumer? And why did the civilization collapse around 1700 BC? These mysteries all remain unsolved.
The major cities, which include Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, had citadels with huge walls, with towers at regular intervals, set on mounds about 12 m (40 ft) high. Archaeologists have also found remains of gigantic granaries and of huge public baths.
It had been suggested that the idea of building cities came from Mesopotamia, along the trade routes. Trade links with Sumer became so close that there were official Sumerian translators of the Indus language. But the few surviving examples of Indus writing are too fragmented to give us any real clues as to what that language was like.
Why did this culture collapse so completely? Possibly the River Indus altered its course, condemning the cities to either flodding or desert; possibly the desert was man-made, caused by excessive tree-felling to provide fuel for baking bricks; perhaps epidemics and famines played a part.
The end, however, may have come more violently. At Mohenjo-Daro, archaeologists found 13 skeletons, some with axe or sword blows to the head. These may have been inflicted by the invading Aryans - ancestors of the modern Hindus - who dominated India after the Indus civilization.
Except in Hindu myths like the Rigveda, which speaks of a dark-skinned, wealthy people overcome by the Aryan invaders, and in the worship of Siva, a Hindu deity who in his aspect as Lord of the Beasts is strikingly like the god of the Indus religion, this short-lived, mysterious culture has vanished almost without trace.