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October 24, 2002 Uncovering the ethos of the ancient world



David Mendelsohn poses in front of Egyptian hieroglyphics he scripted.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Melanie Takefman

David Mendelsohn draws a box around the hieroglyphics that spell out my name. The ancient Egyptians used this annotation to designate names of people, he explains. Soon, the blackboard is filled with messages in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, though Mendelsohn apologizes for his spelling in the latter.

Through a self-designed curriculum known as a Special Individualized Program (SIP) in classics and linguistics, the multilingual doctoral student is studying the cultural contacts between Mesopotamia (Babylon) and the ancient Greeks through common prayers.

By examining archaeological relics engraved with prayers, Mendelsohn is finding that formulas or expressions in different ancient languages contain consistent grammar and syntax. These patterns indicate the sequence in which language and religion were transmitted between civilizations.

Through language, he analyzes the daily lives of ancient societies. “I’ve always been interested in how [members of] a society see themselves,” Mendelsohn said. A society’s relationship with their god or gods reveals a lot about how they see themselves and the general mood of the time, he explained.

For example, one’s livelihood in Mesopotamia was dependent on the volatile Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which often flooded and left populations destitute. As a result, they were fearful of their gods. “You didn’t want those guys to be mad at you!” he said.

Conversely, the stable Nile, which deposited enriching sediments into their soil, sustained the ancient Egyptians agriculturally. Consequently, their religion contained elements of “euphoria” and the people were “a happy lot.”

“The ancient world is a lot more interesting than ours,” he said. “Good and evil were not so defined.”

Gods were not always portrayed as paradigms of piety. The Greek god Aphrodite cheated on her husband, for example. “There were allowances for every human tendency and there was the chance to explore it,” he said.

Despite these differences, Mendelsohn affirmed, “people are people.” He described the inscription on a 5,000-year-old Samarian tablet wherein a father chastises his son for going out to play with his friends. When I was your age, the father said, I had to work in the fields. “Nothing has changed. That’s the most amazing part,” he said.

While Mendelsohn is fascinated by history and culture, languages are his passion. “My degree,” he joked, “is basically an excuse for me to read all of these languages.” He received several bursaries for his achievements, including the FCAR, a provincial scholarship for academic research and Concordia University External Grant Holder Doctoral Scholarship.

Now working on his third degree in classics and linguistics, Mendelsohn has been taken by his studies to Egypt, Israel, England, Italy and Greece. The latest phase of his research involves heavy reading of Hittite and Akkadian texts, both languages spoken in the ancient near East. He is also learning Arabic to enhance his knowledge of the ancient Semitic languages.

Besides being the only Concordia doctoral student in Linguistics/Classics, Mendelsohn is one of few scholars to have fused philology (the structure, historical development and relationships of languages) and archaeology.

“Progress in our understanding of the continuity of culture across the ancient near-Eastern and Mediterranean worlds is hampered by traditional disciplinary boundaries,” said Annette Teffeteller, Mendelsohn’s academic supervisor. A professor in the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics, she is also acting chair of the Physics Department.

“David has decided advantages in being able to bridge these various areas,” Teffeteller said. “His study of Greek, Hittite, and Akkadian has given him a solid basis in the use of ancient texts for the study of symbolic culture in these different traditions, while his archaeological training has provided him with an awareness of various methodologies for cultural analysis.”

Though Mendelsohn already spoke several languages including Hebrew and Yiddish prior to his university studies, he became interested in ancient tongues during his travels as a member of Canada’s national wrestling team. When he wasn’t training, he taught himself ancient Greek.

Once he finishes his degree, Mendelsohn plans to teach his passion and travel to Israel, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. “If I never had to worry about money, I would keep on studying,” he said. “I really enjoy it!”