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History & Culture
Dawn of Civilization
he Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire
Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Collapse
Achaemenid Rule
In the Wake of Alexander
Parthian & Sassanian Rule
The Rise of Islam
Rediscovering the Past
Significant Sites
Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage

To understand the culture of Iraq — the true essence of the people and the place — we should look beyond the current unrest, wipe away the past few centuries of Ottoman rule, ineffective monarchy and military rule, and forget the nation that is but a recent invention. Instead, we should cast our minds back 5,000 years to the geography and culture called Mesopotamia (“land between the rivers") that corresponds to the modern state. This is where we find the conditions upon which a glorious past evolved and an uncertain future now rests.

Mountains, Plains and Rivers.  The Tigris and Euphrates, their tributaries and Mesopotamia have historically embraced all that lay between the foothills of the Iranian mountains to the northeast, and the great desert of the Arabian Plateau to the southwest. Less obvious, but no less important culturally, is the north/south dividing line that runs through the modern city of Hit on the Euphrates and Samarra on the Tigris. This line marks the end of the alluvial plain.

North of this line, rain-fed irrigation made possible the productive countryside of the Tigris and its tributaries, which constituted the lands of ancient Assyria.

To the south, this same river depositing alluvial sediments for thousands of years built up an immense flat plain that, when irrigated in ancient times, became highly fertile.

This was Babylonia, which further divided into the Sumerian south and the Akkadian north along linguistic and cultural grounds (Akkadian being a Semitic language like Arabic and Hebrew; Sumerian being a unique language, not related to any known linguistic group).

South of the alluvial plain was the area of marshes and lagoons where the people we call the Marsh Arabs today lived for a hundred generations, following a traditional lifestyle similar to the ancient Sumerians until the marshes were drained under Saddam Hussein.

Cities in ancient Sumer were concentrated in areas favorable for irrigation, separated by vast open areas that were more suitable for nomadic herding known as the Edin, perhaps the source of the word Eden that appears in the Bible.

In contrast to Egypt, which has been called the “gift of the Nile,” Mesopotamia has been the far more contested gift of the Tigris and Euphrates. Unlike Egypt, where the Nile floods in the fall, ideally timed to water newly-planted crops, the Tigris and Euphrates flood in the spring, endangering the crops just as they are about to be harvested, and are at their lowest point in the fall, when seedlings are most in need of water. For this reason, agriculture in Mesopotamia was impossible without irrigation. But with it, farming yields in antiquity rivaled those of modern farming.

Yet the gift bestowed by the rivers with one hand was taken away by the other. River water from the Tigris carried dissolved mineral salts that deposited and compromised the once-fertile soil. Over-irrigation caused salts in the soil to rise to the surface. For this reason, wheat and barley cultivation was the norm in ancient times, but gradually shifted to barley because it is more salt-tolerant.

Allowing land lie to fallow, unplanted, in alternating years was one strategy for coping with the mineral deposits. But population growth and economic pressures caused farmers to cultivate three years out of five, leading, over many centuries, to dramatic shrinkage and abandonment of the Fertile Crescent. In The Epic of Atrahasis, the Babylonian flood myth written circa 1800 BC, we are told: “The black field became white, the broad plain was choked with salt.” Environmental degradation was an issue no less present in antiquity than it is today.


Fundamental Firsts. The domestication of plants and animals and the rise of cities are transformations in human history that have no parallel until perhaps our own time. The following is a brief summary of the Agricultural Revolution and the Urban Revolution: two complex processes that scholars are still debating in search of theories, causes and explanations. Many basic questions remain unanswered, underscoring the need to preserve ancient sites where scientific excavation can occur and long-lost historical secrets can be unlocked.

Agricultural Revolution—Domestication of Plants and Animals. At the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, as the climate  warmed, Mesopotamia offered plentiful resources for nomadic hunter-gatherers, especially in the north along the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains.

In that region, dense stands of wild grasses (the antecedents of the oldest grains such as wild wheat, the species known as Triticum, and its close relative barley) could easily be picked on a seasonal basis to provide food for growing herds of wild sheep and goats.

These plant and animal resources existed in discrete regions, which gave rise to the “herding instinct” where plants and animals cluster in stands or groups, as did the people who tended them.

Early nomads became more sedentary the moment they discovered that they could help the stands of wild grasses to spread by deliberately planting seeds to create a more abundant harvest. Similarly, they began to control animals, perhaps starting with young ones captured when their mothers were killed, ensuring a supply of meat on the hoof.

Over time, genetic modifications occurred. The stems of the wild wheat and barley became tougher, so that the seed would not be blown away by the wind, but remain intact, allowing for harvest. 

Animal behavior and physical characteristics changed. Protected from natural predators by their human caretakers, the herds become more docile and fleshier.  Sheep originally were hairy, not wooly. But when farmers moved south into the warmer alluvian plain (south of modern-day Samarra), the sheep adapted by growing a coat of wool, which cooled them.  Dogs, cattle and pigs were also domesticated. And other uses for animals beyond food evolved: milk, milk products, fiber and eventually, mobility.

Village Life Begins. People began to live in permanent settlements, rather than moving around seasonally to follow resources. Population growth was one major consequence. Births among hunter gatherers tend to be widely spaced, at intervals of 4-5 years, since women can only carry one small child at a time. Village life also meant storage facilities for food, containers of stone, and later clay pottery, and agricultural tools, like sickles and hoes.


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Early Agricultural Village Sites. Archaeologists have constructed a chronological sequence of village life, with period names identified by key excavated sites; the pottery from the later ones is used to identify contemporary sites.

Jarmo, in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the earliest and best-known sites, excavated by Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago, with an interdisciplinary team of experts in prehistoric flora and fauna, climatologists and geologists, etc. Pottery appears in the later layers;

• Hassuna, near Mosul, provided evidence of decorated pottery;

Samarra, on the right bank of middle Tigris, produced a distinctive pottery with geometric decorations and stylized animals and human figures at sites such as Tell es-Sawwan; and

• Halaf, on the Habur River (a Euphrates tributary), is known for beautiful painted pottery and evidence of copper implements.

These early settlements were founded by tribes that practiced rain-fed agriculture. Yet populations grew, they moved into the flat silt-laden alluvium, where irrigation created higher crop yields, supporting ever larger populations and the growth of towns that attracted craft workers, administrators and other specialists who were sustained by these agricultural surpluses.

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Later Agricultural Cities. The key sites that represent the second phase of agriculture and urbanization are:

Ubaid, which gives its name to the highly fired painted pottery that was mass produced at this site, and clay artifacts such as sickles, nails and bricks; and

Eridu, the earliest identifiable site appearing in the Sumerian King's List, where an important sequence of early tri-partite Mesopotamian temples were excavated, typically consisting of a central sanctuary with a raised altar at one end and an offering table, flanked by projecting lateral wings.

Trade was an important factor at this time, evidenced by the abundance of objects made of obsidian, from the Lake Van area, which had been imported since early prehistoric times. In later periods, metals such as tin, silver and copper were imported south from Anatolia, copper came north from the Gulf.

Timber came from Lebanon (the famous “cedars of Lebanon”, are still present today on the modern Lebanese flag). Steatite, a soft stone suitable for carving, came from the Iranian plateau.

Precious stones such as lapis lazuli were imported from the Badakshan mines of Afghanistan. And carnelian traveled the immense distance from India.

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The Urban Revolution. The alluvium — roughly corresponding to the area known as Sumer — is often described as resource poor, lacking timber, stone, metal ores and minerals, except for bitumen (a hint of the modern oil wealth of present-day Iraq).

Yet the surface of this flat plain, when irrigated, was extremely fertile, which made irrigation and agriculture the defining characteristic of the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia. 

Irrigation required collective cooperation in terms of labor and planning, the building of canals, channels, dykes and reservoirs, while the frequent and sometimes violent flooding required organized response, frequent repair, desilting and replacement of boundary stones and markers.

Gradually a mosaic of micro-environments took root, each producing tradable commodities: fish and reeds from the marshy lagoons of the south, at the head of the Persian Gulf; date palms and gardens from regions located along the levees; grain crops from the flatlands farther way, irrigated by the canals; and goat and sheep herding, wool, milk and meat production in the open grasslands farther away.

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Towns that sprang up in these micro-environments produced and traded these commodities as well as value-added products like woolen textiles, dairy foods like cheese, or beer brewed from barley. The volume of trade efficiently transported along the rivers and canals encouraged the growth of larger towns, each with its tutelary god or goddess, and a tripartite temple. Although gods, like the rich, had multiple residences and were worshipped in several cities.

Many inter-related factors explain the development of cities. Agricultural surpluses led to larger populations, and the ability to support specialized craft workers and social stratification. The need to store and redistribute resources and coordinate agricultural production led to the emergence of professional administrators who worked at the temple and combined religious, economic and political functions.

Uruk: the First True City. The first site to reach the proportions that can truly be described as urban was Uruk, which gives its name to the period during which cities in Mesopotamia emerged. Uruk occupied an area of about 200 hectares, about one-third of this covered with elaborately decorated temples and public buildings, reconstructed in a continuous sequence. The largest area is the Eanna precinct, a complex of temples dedicated to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess, queen of heaven, primarily responsible for fertility and later identified with the Akkadian Ishtar, goddess of love and war.

Uruk’s status as the world’s first city may yet be challenged by future excavations in northern and north-eastern Syria, or in other parts of the world; but none so far can surpass Uruk's antiquity or four millennia of continuous occupation. Uruk’s cultural influence extended as far as Syria Anatolia and Iran.

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The Development of Writing.  A defining feature of the Uruk period is the development of a writing system. During the prehistoric periods, several kinds of clay counting devices were invented representing commodities such as sheep, often enclosed in clay balls, called bullae, which some scholars see as a precursor of writing. But around 3300 BC, a fairly extensive pictographic system of signs and numbers appears rather suddenly — symbols impressed on clay tablets with a reed stylus, which we know as cuneiform.

Found in the context of temples, written tablets were developed initially to record economic transactions: sheep delivered, grain dispersed, workers mobilized. The earliest texts lack grammatical elements, making it impossible to identify the language they represent and often difficult to interpret.

The reader of these texts would have depended on message’s context: the shape of the tablet, the type of transaction (just as in modern business, where the form of a document like a memo or receipt or travel voucher identifies its purpose before it is filled in). The earliest tablets tend to be oval or round rather than rectangular, which is the common shape in later tablet

Most of these tablets can be easily held in the hand and range in size from match-box to the size of a small blotter. Providing evidence for a diverse variety of professions, both productive and administrative, these tablet reveal a society of considerable complexity.

The cuneiform script that originated at Uruk was so durable, it became the building block for a number of languages, including Akkadian in Mesopotamia and the Indo-European language known as Hittite in Turkey. Akkadian cuneiform became the diplomatic lingua franca in the mid-second millennium BC where it was used as far away as Egypt.

The Sumerian Mystery. 
Scholarly controversy surrounds the origins of the Sumerians. While Sumerians were the dominant group in southern Mesopotamia, there is evidence of other linguistic groups, especially Semitic speakers, and a diverse population.

Earlier it was thought that the Sumerians migrated from the East. But continuity with the Ubaid culture suggests the Sumerians may in fact have been among the earliest settlers of the alluvium.  Their language is an isolate, unrelated to any known linguistic group, and died out as a spoken language around 2000 BC, some time between the end of the Ur III dynasty and the Old Babylonian period, although there is much debate about the actual date (and the language might have persisted much longer among isolated pockets of speakers). However, as a literary and scholarly language, Sumerian survived for another 300 years in much the same way that Latin from Roman times survived well into the Middle Ages.

Unravelling the Sumerian mystery will be our next topic.

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