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 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,
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
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).
source : http://www.energypublisher.com/article.asp?id=24225