In war, archaeology is a victim. In the face of military madness such as screened daily on TV it is as well to remind the leader of a new world power that he has launched a war on a people with a cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years. In the fragile remains of a pioneer of human civilisation in the “Fertile Crescent”, and in the historic mediaeval buildings of Baghdad, lie the roots of Iraqi identity.

Contemporary with Egyptian civilisation, probably even earlier, there sprang up in Western Asia, in the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, the region which came to be called Mesopotamia (“between the rivers” in Greek). It was peopled by the Sumerians. Both countries, Egypt and Mesopotamia, had ideal conditions for development: adequate water resources, food and building materials. Both learned how to control water with dikes, distribute it through irrigation ditches, reap abundant harvests, and raise cattle, sheep and goats. Each knew the hoe and the plough. But in Nippur on the Euphrates, donkeys pulled wheeled carts and chariots — a device that was invented there. There, too, cuneiform writing was developed, inscribed on an almost imperishable pottery tablet. There is evidence of a city community in Mesopotamia even as early as 6000 BC, and the first accounting methods can be traced to the ancient city of Babylon. 

The Sumerian empire was founded by the high priest of the god of the city of Erech and extended — according to an inscription at Nippur — “from the upper to the lower sea”. That is to say, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. These ancestors of the Iraqis ruled a powerful state, which came to an end in 2750 BC when a tribe, the Akkadians who lived in the desert adjoining Sumer, conquered it.

The Akkadians learned Sumerian writing, the Sumerian language, and adopted the Sumerian calendar and system of weights and measures, and Sargon I’s Sumerian-Akkadian empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and endured for another two hundred years.

As the kingdom declined, other tribes appeared. The Elamites conquered some of the southern cities, while the Amorites settled in the north and, about 2200 BC, established themselves in the as yet small village of Babylon. There the state built by the great king Hammurabi reached its peak from about 2100 BC. The city of Babylon (which has perished completely), surrounded by its famous walls, developed under his rule. Even more famous were the Hanging Gardens, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.

With his eye upon every corner of the land, the great and powerful Hammurabi saw how necessary it was to bring into uniformity all the various and sometimes conflicting laws and business customs of the land. He therefore collected them, arranged them systematically, added new and improved laws, and issued his celebrated code for the management of his empire. It was engraved on a piece of stone more than two metres high, at the top of which is a sculptured scene representing Hammurabi receiving the law from the sun-god.

The code, the earliest code of ancient law, which was set up in the temple of the great god Marduk in Babylon, survived. Copies of it were written on clay tablets and used by the local courts. The law stipulated justice to the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Marriage required a legal agreement between man and wife, and the position of women in the early Babylonian world was a high one. They engaged in business on their own account, and were even professional scribes. Especially prominent in the law was the principle that punishment for an injury should require the infliction of the same injury on the culprit. Even should a house collapse and the son of the householder be killed, it was the guilty builder who must suffer the loss of his own son. The law was understood and adhered to. And, thus regulated, Babylonian communities prospered as never before.

There was a standing army that kept the frontiers safe and quiet, trade was active, Babylonian merchants used temples as storehouses, loaned money like banks, and dealt in merchandise. Hammurabi’s commercial influence was widely felt. To train the future generation and furnish clerks for business and government, schools were established. Clay tablets with the exercises of youths 4,000 years ago have been found. This was the first chapter of early human progress along the “twin rivers”. It was swept away by the horse-breeders (Babylonians called them “animals of the mountain”) in the 20th century BC.

The second chapter of the history of the “twin rivers” occurs in the north-east corner of the desert bay overlooking the Tigris on the east and the desert on the west and south. At Assur, the Assyrian civilisation developed, rising to a peak from about 750 to 612 BC. Nineveh, to the north of Assur, became the capital. The lofty and massive walls of this city, built by the powerful Sennacherib, stretched along the banks of the Tigris. Here, from a lavish palace, he ruled the western Asiatic world with an iron hand, collecting tribute from all the subject peoples and maintaining a system of royal messengers to transmit royal business. It was the beginning of a postal system, and there are indications that it was already in existence in Asia under Egyptian rule, as far back as 2000 BC.

The Assyrian rulers did not build up industries or conduct commerce like those of Babylonia. They were more interested in rapidly expanding the empire. Peasant farmers filled the ranks of the ever-growing army. Subjects of foreign vassal kingdoms were forced to enter the Assyrian army, which was composed of archers supported by heavily-armed spearmen and shield bearers. The horsemen and chariotry of Nineveh employed the “battering-ram” head-piece with which the sun- dried brick walls of enemy cities could be battered down. They formed a formidable siege machinery and no fortified place was safe against the assaults of the fierce Assyrian infantry. The terrible armies swept through the land, leaving a train of desolation behind, and, at the smoking ruins of what had once been towns, there stretched a line of stakes on which were stuck the bodies of rebellious rulers.

The Assyrian empire, which lasted for a century and a half, marked a step forward in the gradual growth of the idea of all-embracing world power. In spite of the harsh rule — and there were reports of revolts as hordes of Indo-European peoples led by the tribes of the Medes and Persians advanced — civilisation had advanced. Magnificent palaces were built around Nineveh, which was a centre of culture. There were libraries in the city.

The third chapter in the history of the “twin rivers” comes with the rise of the Chaldean empire, the new masters of Babylonia. They made their capital at Babylon, rebuilt after its destruction by Sennacherib, who gave their name to the land (Kaldi, which became Chaldea). Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest of the emperors, reigned in strength and magnificence over the fertile crescent for more than 40 years until 604 BC. The rule of this, one of the great figures of oriental history, is reflected in the Bible. He was the leader who, exasperated by revolts in the western part of the empire, carried away many Hebrews as captives to Babylonia.

In spite of long wars, Nebuchadnezzar was able to devote time and wealth on the construction, enlargement and beautification of Babylon. Copying much from Assyria, he was able to surpass his Assyrian predecessors. This was the Babylon marveled at by Herodotus over a century later, built by the people who had absorbed the civilisation of Babylonia.

Commerce and business flourished. Art and industries were highly developed. Scribes employed the ancient system of writing, putting their records on clay tablets as of old. Science made notable progress, especially in the study of astrology. After the death of the powerful leader in 561 BC, the old civilised lands of the fertile crescent lost most of their former power. The ruins of the ancient world suffered the ravages of neglect, pillage, and time. And it is these ruins, these ancient settlements, that the invading so- called coalition forces are mowing down with armoured tanks.

As they made their way towards Baghdad from Umm Al- Qasr to Basra, Nasseriya, and Najaf, they unavoidably destroyed hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites, many of them unexcavated. Tells (mounds which are the ruins of ancient sites) are being levelled. The theatre of war knows no boundaries. The maps of archaeological sites given to the commanders of units in order for their troops to avoid causing damage to them (indeed there are archaeologists among the forces) are useless since the whole country is an archaeological field. In any case, avoiding ancient sites is hardly a priority when it comes to war.

As for Baghdad, one of the greatest cities of Islam which spreads on both banks of the Tigris River, bombing has already taken a heavy toll. This great city became the capital even before the death of the Prophet Mohamed in 643, when all the valley of the Euphrates, including Babylon, came under the control of Islam. The present city was founded in 762 by the Abbasid caliph Mansour, from whose time its commercial position was unrivalled. The caliphs were great patrons of learning who established a well-ordered system of government, built a network of roads, constructed canals and aqueducts, and employed skilled architects who developed a beautiful style of architecture characterised by the round arch, the dome, graceful minarets, and rich ornamentation. The scientific world owes a great deal to Islam: Arabic numerals and the pendulum, algebra and trigonometry, optics and astronomy. Medical practitioners knew about anesthetics, physiology and hygiene, and performed some of the most difficult operations known; many of the methods they developed of treating patients are still in use today.

Baghdad was home of eminent scholars and artists. Known as “The Abode of Peace” under the caliph Harun Al-Rachid, it enjoyed great wealth through the sale of silks and tiles. Trade and commerce extended to China and the East Indies, to Africa, Russia and even to the countries around the Baltic Sea. Caravans went from one end of the empire to the other, and ships were to be seen on all the known seas of the world. Great fairs were held at Baghdad, also in Bukhara and Samarkand, attended by merchants from all parts of Europe and Asia.

One of the great epochs of world history dates from the middle of the 11th century, when a great wave of Seljuk Turks, led by Tughril Bey, moved into western Asia. In 1055 they entered and took over Baghdad, capital of the Islamic caliphate. Tughril’s grandson Malik Shah developed his huge empire, and he and his successors conquered Georgia, Armenia and much of Asia Minor. They entered Syria and defeated (in 1071) the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV at Manzikert, thus opening to Arab ownership the whole of Christian Byzantium, including Jerusalem — apart from a small area around Constantinople. From an historical perspective, therefore, Baghdad has held a central position from its foundation, and today’s concerns for its protection are deeply rooted in the experiences of the past.
The Fertile Crescent:
Victim of Human Degradation
Jill Kamil