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From Mesopotamia to Iraq: A Concise History

From Mesopotamia to Iraq: A Concise History

by Hans J. Nissen

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The recent reopening of Iraq’s National Museum attracted worldwide attention, underscoring the country’s dual image as both the cradle of civilization and a contemporary geopolitical battleground. A sweeping account of the rich history that has played out between these chronological poles, From Mesopotamia to Iraq looks back through 10,000 years


The recent reopening of Iraq’s National Museum attracted worldwide attention, underscoring the country’s dual image as both the cradle of civilization and a contemporary geopolitical battleground. A sweeping account of the rich history that has played out between these chronological poles, From Mesopotamia to Iraq looks back through 10,000 years of the region’s deeply significant yet increasingly overshadowed past.

Hans J. Nissen and Peter Heine begin by explaining how ancient Mesopotamian inventions—including urban society, a system of writing, and mathematical texts that anticipated Pythagoras—profoundly influenced the course of human history. These towering innovations, they go on to reveal, have sometimes obscured the major role Mesopotamia continued to play on the world stage. Alexander the Great, for example, was fascinated by Babylon and eventually died there. Seventh-century Muslim armies made the region one of their first conquests outside the Arabian peninsula. And the Arab caliphs who ruled for centuries after the invasion built the magnificent city of Baghdad, attracting legions of artists and scientists. Tracing the evolution of this vibrant country into a contested part of the Ottoman Empire, a twentieth-century British colony, a republic ruled by Saddam Hussein, and the democracy it has become, Nissen and Heine repair the fragmented image of Iraq that has come to dominate our collective imagination.

In hardly any other continuously inhabited part of the globe can we chart such developments in politics, economy, and culture across so extended a period of time. By doing just that, the authors illuminate nothing less than the forces that have made the world what it is today.

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From Mesopotamia to Iraq

A Concise History
By Hans J. Nissen Peter Heine


Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-58663-2

Chapter One

Landscape, Climate, Population

The name "Mesopotamia" (from the Greek, "between the rivers") was coined by the Romans for the area between the Euphrates and the Tigris, which for some centuries was Rome's easternmost province. Though the area then included part of today's Syria, "Mesopotamia" now is widely used to denote the territory of Iraq within its modern confines. The vast plains formed partly by the alluvial fill of the rift valley separating the African and the Eurasian tectonic sheets characterize the landscape. Mesopotamia includes the western foothills of the huge range of the Zagros Mountains, pushed up by those sheets. The Tigris follows an almost straight course through the original valley, while the Euphrates, having originated in almost the same area as the Tigris, joins this valley only after a wide loop through modern Syria. Ultimately the two rivers flow jointly into the Persian Gulf, the lower part of the valley. For millennia, the sediments carried by the rivers gradually filled the valley, forming a vast alluvial plain. We assume that this process ended about ten thousand years ago, though minor changes may have occurred later.

The filling occurred at irregular intervals: during relatively warm periods, abundant precipitation in the source areas caused the rivers to carry more water and consequently more debris and sediment than during cooler phases. These major or minor changes, however many there were, occurred in times when nonsedentary humans were hardly affected. A shift to a slightly cooler climate in the course of the fourth millennium BCE, however, had a major impact on subsequent development. Around 2000 BCE, the climate seems to have settled down to conditions not much different from what we have now.

One of the more important climatic differences within Iraq is that the northern and eastern parts receive enough rain for plants to flourish, while the western and southern parts never have enough for crop cultivation. To be sure, water may be diverted from the rivers, but wide areas in west are beyond the reach of irrigation schemes. The potential fertility of the region becomes evident when a spring rain transforms steppe and desert into a carpet of flowers.

Climatic changes have shifted the border between cultivable and uncultivable areas, but it is unlikely that the southern alluvial plain, or any part of it, ever lay in the rain-fed area. The agriculture of Babylonia—as we shall call, after its later political capital Babylon, the area between modern Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf—always had to rely on artificial irrigation. Assyria, or the northern part of modern Iraq, could largely do without.

Most early civilizations, such as the Egyptian, the Chinese, or the Indian, are centered on mighty rivers. In describing, so we might apply to other cultures Egypt as "the gift of the Nile," Herodotus was alluding to the fact that the Nile deposits its fertile sediment on the land just before the sowing season, guaranteeing a high yield every year without the need to fertilize artificially or to let the land lie fallow. But Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley lack that advantage, because in these regions the rivers overflow only when they pose a great danger to the harvest. While the Nile flows south to north, the twin rivers of Mesopotamia, like the Indus, flow in the opposite direction. Since these rivers run high as a result of melting snow and ice in their catchment basins, the melting phase in Ethiopia occurs much earlier in the year than it does in southeastern Anatolia, the source of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Still, there can be no doubt that only abundant water in the rivers enabled the intensive agriculture so essential for early civilizations. In Mesopotamia, the positive use of water had to be wrested from nature, a task that presented no small challenge for Mesopotamian society.

Because the plains had been formed by sedimentation, the terrain offered no raw materials such as metal; nor, at least in the south, was there was any usable stone. The only exception was a spot on the southwestern Euphrates close to the modern city of Samawa, where limestone is found close to the surface. Its inferior quality, however, prevented its use for vessels or ornaments, and only during a brief period in the fourth millennium BCE was it used for building purposes: slabs of limestone form the lower parts of walls of the so-called Limestone Temple in Uruk. Nowadays, this limestone is quarried for cement. It is found here because the parallel chains of the Zagros extend below the flood plain, their peaks occasionally reaching close to the present surface. Unlike the south, the northern and eastern areas have plenty of stone. Of particular interest is a fine-grained alabaster from the northeastern mountains, which was used in neo-Assyrian palaces for the colossal bulls guarding the entrances and for the reliefs covering the walls.

Both building material and technique always pertained to what was possible within a particular region. Thus, stone and especially wood were used in the northern and eastern areas, while brick drawn from the local soil, whether sun-dried or, less often, fired, was used in the alluvial plains. Stone of various colors and hardness, used for jewelry and vessels, came primarily from the Zagros Mountains. One example was carnelian, a semiprecious stone used widely to create beads of all shapes. Lapis lazuli, highly valued for its vivid blueness, was brought from Badakhshan, the north-easternmost valley in modern Afghanistan. Obsidian, from which knives and vessels were made in early times, came from Anatolia. Both precious and normal metals were mined at different places in different periods. Unfortunately, we can only speculate about their origin, because metal objects and fragments were constantly melted down and the original components mixed up with each other. It is impossible to establish links to particular sources. Large quantities of copper probably came mainly from southeastern Anatolia and/ or the Oman Peninsula, but as for the tin used in the production of bronze, we have no idea where it came from. Silver was found in the Zagros ranges, while the question of where gold was found remains unanswered.

Oil was discovered only in modern times, but asphalt, a derivative of oil, has been used in large quantities for five and a half thousand years. It served as the background material for inlay, with colored stones and shell representing figurative scenes and arranged as geometric ornaments; it was probably also used as fuel to reach the high temperatures necessary for metalwork; and from the middle of the third millennium BCE onward we find it used as mortar for bricks, particularly when these are exposed to water, as in drains or bathroom floors. At various spots on the middle Euphrates, primarily in the vicinity of modern (and ancient) Hit, asphalt (ittu in the Akkadian language) seeped out of the ground. It found its way into the Euphrates and was collected in lumps downstream.

We will never know the names of all those who participated in the emergence and transformation of the civilizations on Iraqi land. Even for periods with an abundance of written sources we normally only know the main actors. With a certain regularity, new groups arrived, often of a totally different ethnic background. They came as conquerors or as immigrants, sometimes swarming in, sometimes gradually mingling with the existing inhabitants. Unlike the Nile valley with its steep cliffs serving as natural borders, Mesopotamia is open on all sides. Although positive evidence for the arrival of new groups stems only from the time of written information, we can be sure that immigration into Mesopotamia has been going on from time immemorial.

Even the earliest written documents do not reveal the ethnic composition of the population at the time. While meticulously recording economic data, these texts make no effort to transpose spoken language into writing. They could probably be read by speakers of any of the then-current languages. Unable to this day to identify the language behind these texts, we are still at a loss when it comes to naming the people who by the fourth millennium BCE had created an urban civilization in southern Mesopotamia. We may plausibly assume, however, that a major role was played by the Sumerians, whom we can identify seven hundred years later as the moving spirits of Mesopotamian society.

Only around the middle of the third millennium BCE was the writing system transformed so as to render spoken language. At this point, documents and official inscriptions were written in Sumerian. However, in addition to loanwords from Semitic Akkadian, a number of words appear not to belong to any of the known languages. For place-names in particular, such as Uruk, Ur, and Kish, intense scholarly research has yielded no convincing Sumerian etymologies. They probably have to be considered remnants of the languages of the indigenous people settling in the alluvial plain before the massive immigration of the fourth millennium BCE. This mixture of languages indicates that a number of ethnic groups had been living together for a substantial span of time. The period when documents were written in Sumerian lasted only about two hundred years. When Sargon of Akkad, a member of the Semitic population, came to power around 2350 BCE, the language used in nearly all written documents shifted to Semitic Akkadian, using the same cuneiform system. After a century and a half, the pendulum swung back to the Sumerian language, and only after another century and a half did the Semitic languages finally prevail. The temporarily ousted language had obviously not died but continued to be spoken. We cannot safely attribute an Akkadian speaker to the Akkadian ethnic group, for a number of cases were recorded where fathers with a Sumerian name had sons with Akkadian names and vice versa. In spite of a rich written tradition, we still have not determined the actual composition of the population. Sumerian as a spoken language probably disappeared around 2000 BCE.

From the beginning of the second millennium BCE, there was a constant influx of new immigrant groups. The first groups were ethnically of Semitic affiliation; they entered Mesopotamia in waves and adapted the cuneiform system to their needs, the Akkadians having taken the first transformative step of developing the writing system for their Semitic language. Differences in the written record allow us to differentiate a Babylonian from an Assyrian dialect, corresponding to the southern and northern parts of Mesopotamia. Both the arrival of the Amorites at the beginning at the second millennium BCE, and of the Aramaeans at the beginning of the first, led to substantial changes in the principal Semitic language of Mesopotamia. The next wave of Semitic groups, the Arabs, arrived too late to exercise any influence on the so-called cuneiform languages.

Another important group, the Hurrians—for some time constituting the major portion of the northern Mesopotamian population—were notable both for adapting the cuneiform script to their own language and for producing, through their influence on the Akkadian language, a locally confined Hurrito-Akkadian dialect.

Finally, we should mention those groups whose existence has been recorded but who left little imprint on the written language. Among these were the Kassites, who in the second half of the second millennium formed a major part of the population of Babylonia and for a couple of centuries even provided the political leadership. The same is true of those groups who, during the force relocation of entire populations, had been resettled in Mesopotamia.

For thousands of years, members of all those groups have been living in the same country and intermarrying. To trace any one group in modern Iraq back to its origins is virtually impossible. Rather, we should see precisely these immigrations and amalgamations of ethnic groups as having shaped Mesopotamian civilization in all its liveliness and variety.

Chapter Two

The Beginnings of Sedentary Life (Ca. 10,000–4000 BCE)

Until about twelve thousand years ago, the way of life in the Near East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and other parts of Europe was roughly comparable. About thirty thousand years ago, groups of Neanderthalers (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) preferred to roam in areas where the climate supported a wide variety of game and edible plants and fruits, so a sojourn could be extended to the maximum length of time. The Neanderthalers' existence in the Near East is proved by traces and remains found in several caves, including caves in Mount Carmel in present-day Israel, the Beldibi Cave in Southeastern Anatolia, and the Hotu Cave in the Iranian Elburz mountains. The cave of Shanidar in northeastern Iraq acquired fame when excavators there found flowers strewn over a human burial, which was taken as early evidence of belief in an afterlife.

From about 10,000 BCE onward, there are hints that the Near East was developing differently from neighboring regions, as evidenced by the first appearance of domesticated plants and animals and of dwellings that were more than natural shelters or sheds.

Some two thousand years earlier, the situation had changed substantially. According to DNA analyses, modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) had found his way from East Africa to the Near East, where he encountered Neanderthalers. Though they lived side by side for long periods, their coexistence ended in total victory for modern man.

The Neanderthalers must have been ousted long before 10,000 BCE, since sedentism and domestication were introduced by modern man from the very beginning. It is unclear what triggered the development of sedentary life. Perhaps the greater intellectual flexibility that enabled early humans to assert themselves against the Neanderthalers also helped them to recognize problems and find solutions. The basic idea may have been to remain as long as possible in areas that had proved favorable. Finding a suitable place to stay included careful selection of the campsite; besides easy access to water it was imperative that the environment should be topographically differentiated and rich in species. With variation in microclimate and land level, such an environment would comprise a wide range of plants with different ripening periods, augmented by an abundance of fish, fowl, and game.

Even more important for success was the ability to store food, so as to guarantee survival when hunting and gathering did not suffice because of weather or the exhaustion of what nature had to offer. Reserves had to be built up, beyond the daily needs, but such reserves could be relied on only after food had been produced systematically. Existing knowledge of the reproductive behavior of animals and of the growing cycle of plants was put to use by keeping animals in herds and by cultivating a variety of plants. In this way, more food than was needed for daily consumption would be acquired, and the surplus could be stored.

There are several reasons why sedentism started earlier in the Near East than in other areas with similar environmental conditions. First, conditions like the ones just mentioned are found throughout the mountainous regions of the Taurus and Zagros mountains. Second, and equally decisive, these mountain ranges were the original home of a number of animals and plants (fig. 3) which, with human manipulation, produced higher yields or became more usable. The best example is the sheep, which in its wild form is covered with thick hair like a goat. It was only domestication that allowed an increase in the number of mutants that bore only the woolen undercoat. This increase made possible the breeding of wool sheep, an innovation that gradually spread over the entire world. Not only sheep but goats, cattle, and pigs were also maintained in herds. As for crops, the primary ones, in addition to lentils and peas, were cereals such as einkorn, emmer, wheat, and barley.

Both herding and agriculture are frequently afflicted with epidemics, crop failure, or other misfortunes. Because of this inherent unreliability, the main diet continued to be based on hunting, fishing, and gathering, while cultivation and domestic animals merely offered an extra, if welcome, source of food. In case of disaster, a full-scale return to hunting and gathering was always possible. With this kind of mixed economy, early settlements had to command enough territory to supply all their needs. Requiring such large areas, settlements in this period tended to be widely separated so as not to infringe on neighboring territories.

These early settlers increasingly sought to replace the uncertainty of food gathering by the relative security of food production. The former option gradually lost importance. Thus the need to control large territories lessened, which in turn allowed settlements to draw closer to each other.


Excerpted from From Mesopotamia to Iraq by Hans J. Nissen Peter Heine Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Hans Nissen is professor of ancient Near Eastern archaeology at the Free University of Berlin. Peter Heine is professor of Near Eastern studies at Humboldt University in Berlin.

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