Friday, 1 October 2010

Iraq: Cradle of Civilization

By Diane Charles Breslin, Ph.D.
Historian and Writer - USA


The ancient epic of Gilgamesh

As I ponder with dismay the disaster of America’s striking Iraq, I can’t help but draw a parallel between the country wherein I have resided these past fifteen years - Egypt, with all its historical treasures, and that of Iraq. Possessing an equally majestic history, and for want of a better word, “civilization”, Iraq’s value as a cultural testimony for all those who value such artifacts and ancient heritage has been ignored. Is this a mere oversight or an intentional disregard for the facts as they can be researched in any high school textbook?

Setting aside politics, special interests and emotions for a moment, we would do well to be reminded that it was in Iraq where the first legal code was established, ensuring a “civil society”. Moreover, many hold the theory yet to be solidly disproved that the great flood of biblical reference occurred here, as is recounted in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh. Coming up to the present, how many treasures which would point up our essential “human condition” could yet be unearthed from the fertile land “between two rivers”? For many, this would first entail putting aside the prejudice that these relations come from the Arabs, with all the current negative implications.

Before I begin to sketch a brief historical/cultural overview of Iraq, or Mesopotamia, I pose a question: Whose purposes are served by the destruction of countless artifacts of the ancient Sumerian, Chaldian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations? Modern Iraq is not the sole issue we are dealing with here. Could it just be possible that there is evidence yet to be unearthed of a civilization even more grand than that previously recognized? Could there be substantial proof of the effect of the religion of Islam on the achievements which occurred? Prophet Abraham by all accounts lived in this region; yet this is hardly ever mentioned, perhaps the reason being that most in America don’t know that he was a Muslim calling for monotheism and despairing of idol worship, most of all inherited traditions from powerful, yet misguided forefathers.

It was in Iraq where the first legal code was established, ensuring a “civil society”.

The post-World War II scenario put in place in the area was indeed not conducive to fostering the type of tourism which now flourishes in Egypt, Jordan and parts of the Maghrib. In fact, most never think to visit Iraq for anything other than business-related ventures. As Palestine, once again another Arab entity disparaged and derided before it has had a chance to present itself to the light of unbiased opinion.

I’m no promoter of the former Ba’th regime as such, yet I fear anything that jeopardizes the chance for humanity to view the artifacts of a land whose inhabitants were the inventors of the wheel.

Ancient Iraq

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are among the Wonders of the World

We all remember studying the famous “Wonder of the World” - The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, erected by King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) He had overthrown Jerusalem and taken the Hebrews captive. Perhaps one might read into this event the ultimate revenge postponed as indeed Israel is the major agente-provocateur in the US-led war on Iraq. Food for thought - now lets get on with our survey.

In ancient times, no clear boundaries were ever in place to define the territories separating Iraq from Iran. The earliest settlement excavated is that of Jarmo dating from 4,500 B.C., which lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. By 3550 B.C. in South Iraq the plow was being used, and temple accounts were being kept in a form of pictographic writing. Some scholars put forward the theory that the early Sumerians subjugated the earlier Subarians who were originally from the North and migrated South into Iraq. The Sumerians invented bronze tools, lived in cities and accumulated capital through trade. Clay tablets from Ninevah in northern Iraq were found in the nineteenth century A.D. They were written in a language known as Akkadian. A later version of the language was called Sumerian and it was not Semitic.

Cuneiform script was developed by the Sumerians between 3000 and 2000 B.C. and thousands of clay tablets have been discovered and deciphered. From these we learn that the earliest Sumerians ruled with a consultative assembly, with a supreme authority having limited tenure. This human ruler was considered to be the representative of God on earth.

Sargon, the ruler of Akkad north of Sumer, established the first empire in history.

In the 24th century B.C. Sargon, the ruler of Akkad north of Sumer, established the first empire in history. His empire extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. His rule was secular in contrast to the priestly ensis he removed from power. Sargon looked after the welfare of the lower classes, distributing part of the temple lands among them. He also aided the rising class of private merchants. The House of Sargon collapsed in 2180 B.C., a bit more than a century after his death in 2221 B.C.

The Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi established uniform laws throughout his empire

Hammurabi 1700 B.C. was of the Amorites from Babylon on the Euphrates. After his victory over the semi-civilized Elamites, who came from the hills in the East in what is now Iran, he established uniform laws throughout his empire. After collecting the ancient laws of Sumer, he changed some and added new ones. The 282 sections of the code were carved on a black stone nearly eight feet high. As stated in the prologue, Hammurabi’s goal was “to cause justice to prevail in the land, destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, and to further the welfare of all the people.” Interest was limited to 20%, prices were set for basic commodities and fees charged by builders and physicians, minimum wages were set and debt slavery was limited to three years. Polygamy and divorce were allowed. Regarding punishments, the higher social status of the offender, the more severe the punishment.


The lives of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia (Iraq) were perpetually affected by fear of floods which torrented down the river valleys in springtime, often leaving disaster in their wake. One singular disaster in 2900 B.C. was retold in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which may very well be a rendition of the great flood from the story of Noah in Genesis; as in both renderings, only a remnant of humanity was saved. The Sumerians eventually devised an elaborate system of canals to irrigate the fields and control the force of the floods. About 2050 Ur replaced Lagash as the capital city. Its rulers called themselves Kings of Sumer and Akkad.


The Sumerians built their temples called “ziggurats” or “hills of heaven” of baked bricks shaped as a tier, each terrace being smaller than the one beneath it. At the top of the tower was a shrine, thought to be the actual resting place of the God. Each Sumerian city-state had its specific God, the inhabitants viewed as his agents, delegated to work on His behalf. Priests performed sacred ceremonies and most of the population worked as serfs to the temple, with the produce of the land distributed as pay to them. Astrology and the belief in the power of demons as well as fortune-telling and the reading of entrails were also an important part of Sumerian worship. Later, the Babylonians and Assyrians would expand the belief in astrology and demon worship. Their skill in mathematical equations and geometry also served in astrology and divination

In Hammurabi’s reign, a standard calendar was imposed for all of Babylonia. The names of the months - Tishri, Marchesvan, Kislev, and so forth until the twelfth month, Elul, are still used in the Jewish calendar. Hmmmmm.

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