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The Ancient Edge


Robbing the Cradle

December 14th 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

Mesopotamia—now known as Iraq--enjoyed a 2,000-year head start on Western civilization. What happened?

Part of the answer lays millennia before our current turbulent times. Understanding this pivotal land and its peoples is necessary.

A single ancient people did not monopolize the historic territory between the Tigris and the Euphrates to create one cohesive, shining civilization as a beacon to others. Mesopotamia was in fact a diverse, often contentious, network of competing city-states. At different times, in different centuries BCE, cities such as Uruk, Lagash, and Eridu in the south, and Kish, Nippur, and Sippar in the midsection, as well as Assur, Nineveh, and Nimrud in the north, each flourished and made their mark. These city-states were ruled by their own kings, developed their own gods and cults, spoke their own languages and dialects, and manifested their own distinctive cultures.

A succession of disparate groups came from near and far to conquer the developing prize of Mesopotamia, and each conqueror was in turn conquered. The Semitic Akkadians arose among the original Sumerians, for whom Sumer was named. In the third millennium BCE, the Akkadian king Sargon created history’s first “empire,” extending his political reign, military dominance, and commercial primacy from western Persia, through Syria, to what is now eastern Turkey. But Sargon’s almost 150-year dynasty was overrun by the Guti mountain people. The Guti ruled until the Sumerians regained supremacy, only to be succeeded by Amorites from the west, and then the Elamites from the Zagros Mountains. Other invaders included the Indo-European Hittites from Anatolia and the obscure Hurrians and Kassites.

These invading and pervading groups destroyed and built up the city-states between the two rivers, as well as those in surrounding lands. During Mesopotamia’s golden millennia, each of these dynasties and empires, no matter how transient, purloined or planted something valuable, advancing the ever more complex culture growing atop the ancient Sumerian foundation. Over 3,000 years—perhaps 120 generations—the region became not a cradle but a veritable engine of civilization, energizing the entire Fertile Crescent, that is, the lands from the Nile Valley up through Palestine and Syria into the Tigris-Euphrates valley and beyond.

The Ancient Edge

The result was—for better or worse—a complex landscape of advanced societies that produced great war and great peace, profound knowledge and eternal art, highly developed religious orders, and expansive trade, commerce, and prosperity.

Mesopotamia fashioned mathematical systems and even divided existence itself into equal parts. Using multiples and divisions of 60, the Mesopotamians created a sexagesimal world. The number 60 was associated with Anu, the greatest sky god. The Sumerian year comprised 360 days, that is, 60 multiplied by 6. Each hour comprised 60 minutes and each minute 60 seconds—although the ancient Sumerians, in fact, initially used only a 12-hour day, with each of their minutes equaling two of ours. A circle could be divided into 360 degrees. The governing number 60 could be squared, cubed, and fractioned to yield endless calculations. In magical measures of 60 did the peoples of Mesopotamia seek to master time and space.

Perhaps most important, they created writing systems that vastly exceeded the mute imperative of mere numbers and measurements. Writing captured the verbal sounds of spoken language and conveyed them beyond one individual, and beyond one individual’s lifetime, to unseen individuals and lifetimes. Surely, the immortality of the spoken word and thought, more than anything else, cross-pollinated and bequeathed the ideas and culture of one Mesopotamian generation to the next, and the next, and the next—and to distant generations in adjacent lands. Millions of cuneiform tablets were created to record trades, labors, mortgages, slave sales, commands and decrees, stories and wisdoms, epics, maps, and histories, as well as academic instruction. Some 500,000 such tablets have already been unearthed. More than 50,000 were discovered at Nippur alone. Surely, knowledge and communication were the most powerful forces arising from Mesopotamia. More than bronze swords and swift chariots, it was the careful cuts and grooves sequenced into clay that made Mesopotamia the powerhouse of humanity.

Great science and turning-point inventions sprang from the civilizations of Mesopotamia. Astronomy, cartography, medicine, metallurgy, and architecture all advanced into organized disciplines. The wheel, bronze, chariots, military tactics—all were either invented or flourished in the hands of those who dwelled in or ruled these lands.

But it was not enough to try to master the material and intellectual world. Mesopotamians sought to touch the gods. They developed intricate belief systems to identify, define, and even lay hands upon the all-powerful. Elaborate cults trace as far back as Eridu in 5000 BCE. By imbuing commerce with the imprimatur of the temples—and hence the gods—the sanctity of everyday transactions became a cultural ethic, thereby magnifying the essence of economic life. Religion became more than mere ritual; it was a way of living. From about 3500 BCE, at the White Temple of Uruk and then elsewhere, great stepped ziggurat temples ascended 70 feet and higher. Such ziggurats, boldly aspiring toward the sky, formed the basis for a later biblical story in which men, wracked with pride and arrogance, too eager to touch the heavens, erected a great tower; God foiled their lofty desires by confounding their language into babble so they could not communicate.

In biblical tradition, ancient Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, also yielded Abraham, whose descendants and adherents spread a concept of monotheism, of an aloof God that could not be seen, touched, or even approximated. Abraham’s legendary faith in an unseen but omnipresent and omnipotent Almighty revolutionized Western civilization forever.

Among all the bronzed, gilded, and engraved wonders Mesopotamia had to offer, Babylon emerged as its most magnificent treasure. Babylon! The name itself means “gateway to god.” It thrived as a mighty city-state for millennia. By the eighteenth century BCE, Babylon emerged as the all-important capital of Hammurabi’s empire that burgeoned north to Assyria, east toward Elam in southwest Persia, and west toward the Mediterranean. Soaring temples, ornate shrines and gateways, well-constructed boulevards and canals—all part of a renowned, cosmopolitan center.

During the centuries of greatness, decline, and resurgence, Babylon’s influence stretched a thousand miles in either direction to the nations of Egypt, Persia, and Greece. By then, these other nations had developed their own advanced civilizations, inspiring the need for international law. Among history’s first known bilateral agreements were peace treaties between the Hittite king Hattusilis and Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, in the thirteenth century BCE. Rather than one tablet signed by both kings, each side received a copy ratified by the other.

More than mere cessation of belligerence between previously warring empires, the treaty outlined an alliance, as well as international order and respect among nations: “And if another enemy come [against] the land Hatti, and Hattusili,” declared the treaty, “… the great king, king of Egypt shall send his troops and his chariots and shall slay [his enemy and] he shall restore confidence to the land.”
Despite differences in the text of each tablet, both clearly predicate their agreement on a desire for “peace and brotherhood between nations.” Hittite and Egyptian emissaries, under the treaty, were given safe passage in each other’s empires. Bilateral extradition of fugitives and criminals was a central feature of the agreement, further cementing the international recognition of law.

Of course, the Hittite-Egyptian peace treaty did not mean that the great nations of the ancient Near East were now devoted to a respect for neighbors. The march toward international peace is a slippery ascent. Babylonia quickly slid back.

As the pendulum swung in the late 600s BCE, the Assyrians utterly destroyed Babylon, piling corpses by the thousands high along the thoroughfares. Babylon’s riches were looted and carried off to the far-off Assyrian capital, Nineveh. When the pendulum swung back, the next Assyrian king arduously rebuilt Babylon to its former splendor.

Assyrian kings in the eighth to sixth centuries BCE razed about 90 cities and hundreds of villages, plundering thousands of horses, sheep, and oxen, and capturing more than 200,000 prisoners. The contending city-states invented new and unending cruelties to inflict upon their neighbors. The Assyrians, for example, engaged in unspeakable atrocities. During the conquest of the nearby Elamites, the king’s head was raised on a pike at Nineveh and allowed to slowly decompose. The king’s general was whipped bloody, his throat slashed and his carcass sliced into pieces and distributed throughout Mesopotamia as a warning.

Nebuchadnezzar II was installed as king of the neo-Babylonian dynasty of Chaldea. He fortified Babylon and transformed it into a majestic metropolis as never before, erecting great palaces and public works. The crest of the city’s grandiose outer walls was broad enough for chariots to patrol. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, created by Nebuchadnezzar for his wife, were famed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Nebuchadnezzar’s cities were nothing less than fabulous. But Nebuchadnezzar also ruthlessly conquered other lands and displaced whole peoples. In the early sixth century BCE, for example, he sacked Jerusalem and deported some 10,000 Hebrews to Babylonia.

However, when the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon in about 539 BCE, Mesopotamia finally entered a new era of civilization and enlightenment. Cyrus’s armies liberated the inhabitants, restored exiled peoples to their homes, helped Babylonians and all others live in dignity, and established respect for all individuals as the law of his lands. He issued the first international human rights declaration, inscribed in cuneiform onto a large elliptical cylinder.

On the day of his coronation, he announced to all, “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon… When I, well disposed, entered Babylon, I established the seat of government in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing.… My numerous troops moved about undisturbed in the midst of Babylon. I did not allow any to terrorize the land.… I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being. The citizens of Babylon… I lifted their unbecoming yoke. Their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes.… I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored to them their dwellings.”

As part of his human rights regime, Cyrus returned the Hebrews to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. The Old Testament records: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia… the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia, to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put in writing: … ‘The Lord, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”

But Mesopotamia’s peace did not last long. Persian successors to Cyrus did not rule benevolently. As a crossroads between the empires of southern Europe, Asia, and Asia Minor, Babylon was too opulent and prized for coexistence. For a thousand years after Cyrus, and well into the Common Era, Mesopotamia was incessantly catapulted to heights of splendor only to careen back to depths of slaughter as it passed from the alternating clutches of Alexander the Great of Greece, the Seleucid Greeks, the Parthian Empire, the Romans, and the Persians.

By the Common Era, that is, after the birth of Christ, Mesopotamia was millennia removed from any cradle of civilization. The cradle had been expropriated, subjugated, rehabilitated, and liberated so many times that Mesopotamia’s history had become an endless catalog of conflict between its competing conquerors. The cavalcade of conquest has never stopped. Perhaps it never will.

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is adapted from Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press).

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