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Iraq--The Cradle of Civilization was Actually the Cradle of Commerce

October 12th 2009

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This article is based on the Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press). Buy it here

When the last Ice Age receded, some 10,000 years ago, some peoples migrated to the marshy plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates. This land, later known as Mesopotamia—or “the land between the two rivers”—is now modern Iraq. It became precious to the world as “the cradle of civilization.”

Of course, the very term cradle of civilization is imbued with the values of an advanced society determined to categorize primitive and ancient people in its own image. But what qualifies ancient Iraq as the cradle of civilization may speak volumes about its enduring relationship to the larger world and how our society still views that nation.

Disagreeing archaeologists incessantly push back their dates, resculpt their assessments and guesswork, and acrimoniously debate the facts depending on the latest dig and carbon dating. But this much seems settled: other groups and societies, predating ancient Mesopotamia by thousands of years, have displayed the ingredients of civilization.

Cave dwellers in South Africa, 70,000 years ago, recorded symbolic concepts with geometric designs engraved on ochre stones, revealing organized expression and abstract thinking.

The sensitive artisans of Lascaux, France, who 15,000 years ago painted some 600 sacred animal sketches on grotto walls and engraved nearly 1,500 more, are classed as “prehistoric.” Traveling deep into remote chambers of their grotto, the people of Lascaux carried inventive contrivances for illumination. By the flicker of torches and Stone Age lamps, these people created enduring works of exquisite cave art. Their complex works feature background hues of red, yellow, black, and brown, probably mouth-sprayed or blown through a hollowed bone. Delicately brushed and painted atop the backgrounds, animals are depicted in kinetic perspective and are anatomically correct. The artistry of the Lascaux people has become a gift for all time.

Their message, although undecipherable, has survived as long as any that followed. Similar cave art groups in the region date back 30,000 years. Little is known about the culture of French cave dwellers. But these societies do not qualify as civilizations, as the world sees it.

Beginning more than 9,000 years ago, the first known permanently inhabited settlements appeared, such as the one at the Tell es–Sultan oasis, later known as Jericho. Its inhabitants cultivated wheat, probably employed irrigation, and ate a diverse diet of game and domesticated animals. They plastered the walls of their rectangular-shaped homes and walked on polished yellow- or red-hued floors cushioned by rush mats. Beneath at least one of those floors, residents buried skulls, carefully coated with limey clay, and then molded the clay to preserve facial features, creating realistic busts. More precisely, the preserved images of those deceased relatives live forever. Jericho grew to be approximately 10 acres in size and was home to an estimated 2,000 persons. Between the eighth and seventh millennia BCE, a defensive wall was erected, supplemented by a protective ditch. A tower was raised. Public buildings, perhaps temples, were constructed. Over thousands of years, those thick mud-baked fortifications were destroyed and rebuilt an estimated 17 times following earthquakes and invasions. Each time, Jericho rallied to overcome the challenge to its existence. But the town of Jericho does not qualify as a cradle of civilization, as the world sees it.

About 7,000 years ago, the so-called Halaf culture stretched across northern Mesopotamia, reaching the Anatolian coast in what is modern Turkey and western Iran. A swath of small agrarian Halaf settlements existed across the region, known for their archetypal domed mud or limestone buildings. They exchanged distinctive ornate pottery goods, amulets, and stamping seals, as well as ritualized figurines with exaggerated female ****** features. But Halaf societies do not qualify as civilizations, as the world sees it.
Despite a veritable nursery of sites worldwide where civilized and social behavior emerged, reaching back scores of millennia, it is not until the simple Halaf village culture melded into the more complex Ubaid culture of alluvial Mesopotamia, around the late fifth millennium BCE, that the world dubbed any realm the “cradle of civilization.”

No one is quite sure when the term was first coined. Perhaps one of the first to express it was Sir Henry Rawlinson on April 8, 1867, during a discussion at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Following a paper on Mesopotamia by surveyor J. B. Bewsher, the president of the society invited comment from other fellows. Rawlinson rose to declare enthusiastically, “The country to which Lt. Bewsher's paper referred, was the cradle of civilization. In it were first cultivated… the natural sciences and that study of art which afterwards spread through the world.” His notion, and the cliché, took root.

Certainly, during the fifth millennium BCE, numerous small villages in what is now modern Iraq had advanced into a set of more organized central societies. Survival demanded it.

In the marshy realm between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the ancient Mesopotamian people were compelled to cooperate extensively between phases of ruinous havoc and hopeful cultivation. When the waters were tame enough to nourish agriculture and bestow plenty, society thrived. Canals and irrigation were required. The inhospitable marshlands of alluvial Mesopotamia offered an abundance of reeds, but were devoid of stone, metals, and to some extent, the wood needed to create shelter, storage, and the infrastructure of an advanced society. Intense labor cooperation was vital to overcoming the harsh environment. Survival and prosperity accrued to those who could work together, store grain and commodities, trade, and plan between those unpredictable river cycles. Success at some point pushed beyond subsistence to surplus. The surplus made all the difference to economic development.

Resilient and innovative, the Sumerians in about 3500 BCE invented the wheel, which led to the cart, which, in tandem with boats, could move heavy loads for added productivity and thus promoted commerce. Later, people in the region developed the chariot for efficient transportation and for war.

Around the same time, 3500 BCE, the region also yielded mankind’s first genuine city, Uruk, located just northwest of modern Nasiriyah. Uruk developed into a complex, cohesive urban setting, rich in personal dwellings, public buildings, and structures, as well as a hierarchical administrative character and a highly developed temple-based economy. Sacred temples warehoused and dispensed the food and oversaw the labors. By 3000 to 2500 BCE, at least one of the temples was distributing rations of beer and bread. Thus, from the beginning, true commerce and economics became a sanctified institution associated with the gods.
More villages and even greater cities followed throughout Mesopotamia. A pivotal quality in the development of Sumer’s cities was an early sense of commerce. More than mere barter, trade, or plunder, it was the organization and regulation of transactions, trade, and surplus commodities that constituted true commerce.

Clay tokens were employed to record counts and, to a lesser extent, commodities. Rudimentary tokens to signify economic information had existed throughout the Near East from the ninth millennium BCE. In earliest times, some argue, an elongated cone might have designated the number “1,” while a small spheroid might connote the number “6” or “10” (the next level of numerical value).

Eventually, along with Uruk’s rise, tokens became more complex, signifying not just numbers but commodities, such as wheat and sheep, as well as goods finished in workshops, such as rope, bread, clothing, and perfume. These tokens appear in nonresidential structures and several temples throughout the region. The vast majority of the economic tokens of Uruk, for example, were discovered in temples or other sacred structures. Tokens were almost always recovered from the sites of wealthy or powerful Sumerians, that is, priests and royalty, and are identified with power and economic control. In ancient Sumer, commerce, economic strength, and religious primacy developed symbiotically.

Initially, one token represented one item, that is, one token would represent one basket of goods, four tokens signified four baskets, and so forth. By the fourth millennium BCE, by the time of Uruk, tokens could represent such specific information as the age, ***, and type of a sheep. As the world sees it, the transition of simple tokens to complex tokens tracks the very history of man’s ascent to civilization.
As this system developed, tokens, both simple and complex, were inserted into hollow clay “envelopes,” and later the contents were marked on the outsides of these envelopes, creating a more recognizable and readily accessible ledgerlike record. This was a major step towards a complex system of accounting.
The shapes and markings of accounting tokens led to two-dimensional pictographs engraved on clay tablets and numerical systems to count them, which, in turn, evolved into the famous wedge-based script known as cuneiform. Sumerian culture progressed from token to script in a relatively short period of time—some suggest 400 years. Originally, flanged reed implements were used to engrave signs. In the beginning, those cuneiform signs represented accounting shorthand, but they gradually developed into representations of spoken language and thence a stepping-stone en route to modern alphabets. Hence, our very written language emerged not from the need to worship a god, sing praise, honor a family, immortalize sagas, or express love—but from the need for commercial accounting, that is, to certify who controlled, owned, and owed what.

Grain and other valuables in Uruk and other Sumerian cities were stored in temples. Some argue that these temples, reposing on the safest shores of the Tigris and Euphrates, became the first institutions to issue inscribed tablets, or tokens, as “receipts” for valuable deposits or trade purposes. It has been said that those secure and trusted institutions of safekeeping in ancient Mesopotamia were in fact the precursors of modern depository “banks.”

For centuries, Mesopotamian exchanges yielded transaction receipts and other commercial laws, such as those found at Eshnunna, dating from about 1770 BCE. Some two generations after Eshnunna, the exalted Hammurabi, the sixth king of the first Babylonian dynasty, proclaimed a collection of laws to “provide just ways for the people of the land… [to] establish truth and justice as the declaration to the land… [and to] enhance the well-being of the people.” Carved onto an eight-foot black stele, topped by an image of Hammurabi receiving encouragement from the enthroned and crowned deity Shamash, the laws were prominently displayed to be a guiding light to his subjects. Copies likely were erected in other Babylonian cities.
In 282 highly specific laws, of which 271 survive, Hammurabi set forth precepts of conduct—and the consequences for their violation—governing such moral and personal matters as false accusation, soldiering, theft, conspiracy, ****** relations, marriage, and divorce. The consequence for transgression was generally some fixed financial compensation, but not infrequently the penalty was death.

Law 141. If the wife of a man who is residing in the man’s house should decide to leave, and she appropriates goods, squanders her household possessions, or disparages her husband, they shall charge and convict her; and if her husband should declare his intention to divorce her, then he shall divorce her; neither her travel expenses, nor her divorce settlement, nor anything else shall be given to her. If her husband should not declare his intention to divorce her, then her husband may marry another woman and that [first] woman shall reside in her husband’s house as a slave woman.

Law 142. If a woman repudiates her husband, and declares, “You will not have marital relations with me”—her circumstances shall be investigated by the authorities of her city quarter, and if she is circumspect and without fault, but her husband is wayward and disparages her greatly, that woman will not be subject to any penalty; she shall take her dowry and she shall depart for her father’s house.

Yet the majority of the 271 readable laws constitute a detailed commercial code legislating personal and real property rights, regulations for slave property, transaction rules, wage and compensation scales, rental procedures, and the principles of inheritance, as well as the financial values and damages for interpersonal problems.

Law 35. If a man should purchase from a soldier either the cattle or the sheep and goats, which the king gave to the soldier, he shall forfeit his silver.

Law 36. The field, orchard, and house of a soldier, fisherman, or a state tenant will not be sold.

Law 37. If a man should purchase a field, orchard, and house of a soldier, fisherman, or a state tenant, his deed shall be invalidated and he shall forfeit his silver; the field, orchard, or house shall revert to its owner.

Law 38. A soldier, fisherman, or a state tenant will not assign in writing to his wife or daughter any part of a field, orchard, or house attached to his service obligation, nor shall he give it to meet any outstanding obligation.

Contracts, warehousing expenses, and lending were codified as well.

Law 121. If a man stores grain in another man’s house, he shall give 5 five silas of grain per kur (i.e. per 300 silas) as annual rent of the granary.

Law 122. If a man intends to give silver, gold, or anything else to another man for safekeeping, he shall ` before witnesses anything which he intends to give, he shall draw up a written contract, and (in this manner) he shall give goods for safekeeping.

Law 268. If a man rents an ox for threshing, 20 silas of grain is its hire.

Law 269. If he rents a donkey for threshing, 10 silas of grain is its hire.

Law 270. If he rents a goat for threshing, 1 sila of grain is its hire.

Law 271. If a man rents cattle, a wagon and its driver, he shall give 180 silas of grain per day.

Law 272. If a man rents only the wagon, he shall give 40 silas of grain per day.

The principles of Hammurabi’s ancient laws, together with many other Mesopotamian commercial regulations, formed the basis for later, and thus for modern, commercial law and custom. Babylonians also developed a system of loans and interest that seems to resemble the 30-year mortgages of modern times. Even compound interest is explained. One school tablet poses the following problem: “1 mina of silver was lent at a rate of 12 shekels of interest per mina per year [i.e., 20 percent]; when the money was returned, capital plus compound interest amounted to 64 minas of silver,” and asks the student to determine the length of the loan period—which, based on the rules of interest, was 30 years.

The world’s view of the cradle of civilization emerged not from organized communal hunting societies in Siberia that learned to share food and nurture clans, or from the spiritual painters of cave art in France, or from thousands of years of continuous township at Jericho. It was the quality of economic life and commerce and its invigoration of all around it that signaled the emergence of that most valued social order—civilization.

More urbanized centers arose in Mesopotamia. One of them, Babylon, about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad, grew to be a magnificent city-state and the capital of the region. Babylon’s canals, statuary, thoroughfares, temples, and public buildings were nothing less than spectacular.

More than simple trade and barter, commerce as we know it began five millennia ago in Mesopotamia. Sanctified in temples, the attribute of kings, and the enabler of dynasties, the true propulsion behind writing and the law itself, commerce was the driver of urbanization and the catalyst of civilization. Certainly, even if ancient Iraq was not the cradle of civilization according to any who would debate the precedents, it seems to have been the “cradle of commerce.” Perhaps there is no distinction.

Thus ancient Mesopotamia sprang upon the consciousness of the world. It was where commerce and civilization cohabitated to create a new world social order—one
that would return time and again from whence it arose.

Edwin Black is the author of Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog 2008), from this article was excerpted.

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