Stuff from Way Back #31: When Iraq Was Civilized

(Inasmuch as Iraq is constantly in the news these days it seems appropriate to talk about a time when the region played host to the two most momentous events in human history: the discovery of agriculture and the birth of civilization. Actually, the discovery of farming appears to have happened in a number of places in the Near East, but the first urban civilization was unquestionably born in southern Iraq.)

 

 

After 5000 years of urban settlement Iraq only became a country in 1920 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and it may be questioned a century later if it really is a country.  The new state was essentially formed from the Turkish vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra for the convenience of the French and British victors of the Great War and thus incorporated a mixture of communities, the largest being the Kurds and the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.  The instability of this arrangement became perfectly clear once the United States, in a burst of incredible stupidity, eliminated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

 

 

As it happens, modern Iraq roughly corresponds to the area once known as Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers,” that is, the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the heart of various powerful empires from the third to first millennia BC.  For convenience pre-classical historians have traditionally called the northern half of the area Assyria and the southern Babylonia, with Babylonia divided into Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south.  It was in Sumer that civilization was born, nosing out the Egyptians, Indians and Chinese.

Sumer

Sumer

Agriculture was of course the prerequisite for settled society, inasmuch as hunting and gathering cultures must continually move around, and developed agriculture was necessary to support the non-food producing populations of cities.  Proponents of “Paleolithic” diets are calling the agricultural revolution a catastrophe for humanity because humans were not really designed to live off grains and settlements brought problems, such as new diseases, but all the growth and material and intellectual progress of humanity arises from farming and building cities.  This is exactly why it has been called the Neolithic Revolution.  I certainly will take the problems of civilized society over the short, brutish and ignorant life of the Paleolithic hunter.

 

Humans had discovered that certain grasses could be eaten – they were gatherers after all – and those grains, emmer and einkorn wheat and hulled barley, grew wild on the hilly borders of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine and the Nile valley), such as the flanks of the Zagros mountains, where there was sufficient rainfall.  Along the way some communities realized, probably mostly accidentally (spilled grains later sprouted), that grain seeds placed in the earth would produce more grain.  Initially, however, the supply of these grains was large enough that there was no need to cultivate them; they were just another, though plentiful, gathered food.  Why men actually began primitive farming, serious and tedious labor compared to hunting and gathering, is not clear, but most likely it had to do with growing populations forcing some groups into more marginal areas that were less bountiful.

 

Neolithic farming settlement - eastern Anatolia

Neolithic farming settlement – eastern Anatolia

wild emmer wheat

wild emmer wheat

The Mesolithic Age, from about 9000 to 7000 BC (in the Near East) was the transition period, during which sown grain becomes a major part of the diet, animal domestication begins and temporary and then permanent settlements appear.  By the beginning of the Neolithic around 7000 BC farming appears to have displaced hunting and gathering, at least in those upland areas on the fringes of the Fertile Crescent where there was regular rainfall.  During the seventh millennium real villages, pottery and baked bricks all appear, while growing population and the lure of richer soil was pushing men towards the next development: irrigation agriculture at lower altitudes.  By the early centuries of the sixth millennium copper was being used, ushering in the Chalcolithic Age.  During this period temples, seals, mural paintings and more elaborate painted ware appear, and the use of bricks becomes much more widespread.  Major agricultural towns are now found on the river plains, employing the ground water for their crops, and in the fourth millennium a cooler and drier climate in the region accelerated the move into the rich river valleys themselves.  By the middle of the fourth millennium the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) has become general enough that the area has moved into the very early Bronze Age.

 

By the later fourth millennium, during the Uruk period, human society in Mesopotamia has taken the critical step into what is generally understood by the term “civilization.”  The potter’s wheel, the sail, sculpture and statuary had all arrived, but far more important were two other developments: the earliest group habitation that might be called a “city” and writing.  “Civilization” traditionally means an urbanized society, and writing, the other hallmark of civilization, inevitably follows that urbanization, a response to the growing complexities of human activity.

 

An immediate question of course is exactly what constitutes a city.  Size is probably the least important factor, and the cities of the fourth millennium would indeed strike us as tiny towns.  By the end of the period Uruk (Erech), from which the period gets its name, was perhaps 1200 acres at its height at the beginning of the third millennium, but this is very late and Uruk was likely the biggest city in the world at that time.  A more common size for the late fourth millennium is 100-200 acres.

Uruk

Uruk

Uruk

Uruk

The most important factor is differentiation of population, that is, not all those living in the city grow food; no matter how large, if all the residents are directly involved in the food supply, it is not a city but an agricultural village.  There is a specialization of labor, and the specialists – craftsmen, merchants, officials, etc. – are supported by the farmers in the countryside.  This external food support also allows the higher population density associated with urban areas.  There will be an economically and politically stratified population, that is, differences in wealth and power, and there will be an institutionalized and formalized governmental structure, with officials (including priests in the case of Sumer) supported by the state through taxation.  Monumental architecture, including city walls, is characteristic, since these projects involve state control of resources, generally through some form of taxation and conscripted labor.

 

These are the core requirements, but other characteristics inevitably follow.  Typically, there is well developed trade, allowing the import of materials unavailable locally and the export of local resources and manufacture.  The concentrated wealth of the city will attract predators and consequently lead to more organized defense in the form of soldiers, also necessary to enforce the power of the elites and maintain control.  More important, administrative and mercantile needs will require increasingly sophisticated record keeping, and at some point that record keeping will become writing, allowing an exponential increase in human development and thought.  Primitive writing in Sumer appears to have emerged by about 3300 BC, though our examples come centuries later.  Civilization was born, and unfortunately it involved from the start organized violence in the form of armies, large scale chattel slavery and incipient bureaucracy.  But that’s the price you pay.

cuneiform - the first writing

cuneiform – the first writing

Why cities and why in Mesopotamia?  For the same reasons that urban civilization will quickly follow in the Nile and Indus valleys: the rivers.  These are “hydraulic” civilizations, in that the water of the rivers provided the stimulus and reward for further social development.  Growing population and increasing aridity pushed the early agriculturalists down into the river valleys, where their developing agricultural technique allowed them to face the greater challenge of groundwater farming.  Very simply put, constructing the irrigation systems that would insure a regular supply of water to the fields required increased cooperation and more sophisticated direction and social management.  The greater returns provided by more dependable water resources and the richer soils of the riverine areas provided growing food surpluses, which in turn supported a growing population of “specialists,” who did not directly participate in the production of food, leading to an increasingly differentiated and efficient society.  The appearance of institutionalized leadership, that is, government, permitted and enforced greater cooperation and communal use of resources.  That the emerging elites were likely able to manipulate to some degree the all-important water supply (which is in part why they were the emerging elites) could only accelerate the process.

Sumerians

Sumerians

Allowing for specialization of labor, food surpluses produced a more efficient, more materially productive society.  That specialization, however, also permitted the existence of inhabitants who contributed nothing to the material well-being of the group, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this is the evolution of the arts, at least the graphic and plastic arts.  Art thus moves beyond the decorative – designs on pottery, for example – and becomes symbolic and communal, as artist specialists engage in large projects supported by the economic elites, the state and the temple.  Which brings up the priests.  The emergence of the city allows the institutionalization of religion as well, and the society can now afford to maintain what are in essence full-time shamans and an increasingly elaborate religious infrastructure, centering on the temple.

 

The temple was in fact the center of the Sumerian city and state, and increasing levels of resources were lavished on construction and decoration. We might consider priests to be parasites and temples a waste of resources, but given the nature of Sumerian culture (and that of subsequent societies in the area, who inherit it), they are absolutely necessary for the survival of the state.  The mythic world view of Sumero-Babylonian culture understood that humans were created to serve the gods, and each city-state in fact belonged to a specific deity; the patron goddess of Uruk, for example, was Inanna (the Semitic Ishtar).  Sumerians felt themselves to be completely at the mercy of the gods (a reflection of the potentially chaotic natural and human environment in which they lived, exactly the opposite of Egypt; see Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land), and serving and appeasing heaven was thus absolutely necessary to life.

Inanna

Inanna

This is illustrated by the early political history of Sumer, which is unfortunately not all that clear. There are hints of some sort of assembly of notables very early on, which would be consistent with the state’s village origins, but the inevitable concentration of power afforded by the emergence of the city did not at first produce a secular kingship.  Instead, it seems the high priest of the temple, the an, en or ensi, was the actual ruler during the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods (C 3750-2900 BC), which makes sense given that the will of the gods had to be understood in order to insure the survival of the state.  This practice survived into Early Dynastic I (c. 2900-2750) – considered to be the real beginning of history – when the city-state of Kish appears to have held a loose hegemony over Sumer.  A secular leader, the lugal, was called up for the occasional war when the high priest was incapable of such leadership, and when the hegemony broke down in Early Dynastic II (c. 2750-2600 BC), leading to frequent wars, the lugal begins to emerge as an actual king.  The kingship is institutionalized as paramount and separate from the temple (though the king still carries out the will of the gods) during the times of increasing internal struggle and foreign invasion in Early Dynastic III (c. 2600-2334).

 

Civilization thus appears in southern Iraq in the later centuries of the fourth millennium BC, and history begins in Sumer with the invention of writing and the ability to keep permanent records. Fully matured civilization must, however, wait for the seventh century BC and the Greeks.  Missing from the mythic and autocratic states of the Fertile Crescent (and other parts of the world) are the essential elements of western civilization: rationalism, constitutionalism and humanism.  They simply did not exist prior to the Greeks of the first millennium BC.

 

 

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Stuff from Way Back #28: Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Myth?

The early parts of the Biblical book of Genesis involve a great deal of water, which might seem odd in the mythic tradition of a society that emerged and evolved in the relatively arid environs of Palestine. There is of course the Mediterranean Sea, but the land itself is very dry, depending for the most part on rainfall for agriculture. The local rivers are mere rivulets compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile, which river systems witnessed the birth of the first urban civilizations, Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt. Yet the creation story in Genesis begins with a watery chaos, and later the first human society is destroyed in a world-wide flood, a somewhat unlikely proposition in a land that experienced only the very ephemeral flash floods common to desert regions. Such stories would make much more sense in the hydraulic societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

 

And indeed in the creation myths of these areas the emergence of the familiar universe involved aquatic beginnings. For the Egyptians the process was peaceful, reflecting the confidence of a culture whose world-view was shaped by an isolated, secure, bountiful and essentially unchanging environment. The primeval hill arose from the waters, and there Atum (or Ptah), a self-created god, generated other deities by spitting out or ejaculating them or in a later more sophisticated account simply speaking their names. They in turn produced more gods and ultimately men in an ordered world without end.

Atum

Atum

The Sumerians, on the other hand, lived in a far less hospitable environment: the Tigris and the Euphrates, unlike the Nile, were wild unpredictable rivers, there were extremes of weather and life was very insecure because of the constant warfare among the city-states and the periodic incursions of barbarians. Consequently, in their view (and that of subsequent societies in the region) creation was a struggle, and the forces of order under Enlil (later Marduk) had to wage an epic battle against Tiamat, the chaotic salt waters. Further, creation was not necessarily permanent and could collapse back into chaos, just as the Sumero-Babylonian societies were continually threatened with natural and man-made catastrophe.

Water world

Sumer

 

Enlil

Enlil

The Sumero-Babylonian tradition also features a global flood, a tale so ubiquitous that some actually hold the utterly nonsensical idea that there was indeed a planetary deluge. Southern Iraq, the location of Sumer, was frequently flooded by the Tigris and Euphrates overflowing their banks and the sea driven in by storms, natural disasters that early on gave rise to the tradition of a universal flood. Significantly, the Egyptians did not produce such a story, since while the Nile did flood, it did so on a regular annual basis, rejuvenating the farmland rather than creating havoc. Sumer was a land of natural and human conflict; Egypt was not.

 

Here then is the source of all that Biblical water. With the rise of empires, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian, communications between the Land of the Two Rivers and Syria and Palestine on the Mediterranean coast were greatly enhanced, and along with goods and people ideas and tales traveled eat and west. The story of Abraham coming from Ur, the most important of the Sumerian cities, is a reflection of this. As the Yahwists, the future Hebrews, absorbed Canaanite groups, many of the local traditions of these peoples were woven into the evolving tapestry of early Hebrew history. Very probably a group that had come from the east preserved a memory of its origins, and the birthplace of Abraham, himself a local cult figure from Hebron, was transferred to Ur. Thus the watery story from the Sumero-Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, traveled west to become, with many alterations, part of the mythic tradition of a distinctly non-watery people.

 

So also did the flood story make its way to the Hebrews. The tale is most fully recounted in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tablets of which date from the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, but there is a Sumerian version from about 1700 BC, and it undoubtedly draws upon even earlier accounts. Long ago the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, but the god Ea (Enki) took pity and warned Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) of Shuruppak to build a huge boat. He did so, and when the flood came, he boarded with his family and clan and “the beasts and the birds.” But the gods relented and the deluge ended, and the ark came to rest on Mt. Nimush. Utnapishtim released a “watch-bird,” which returned, then a swallow, which also returned, and finally a raven, which did not. Humanity was saved, and Utnapishtim was given the gift of eternal life.

 

Utnapishtim

Utnapishtim

Ea/Enki

Ea/Enki

And so a group of people in Palestine, who would never have seen any real flood, came to accept a universal deluge as part of their mythic history. That oral tradition was ultimately recorded and became part of the Hebrew testament, later accepted as valid by Christianity and Islam. As a result for almost two millennia half the population of the planet believed in the literal truth of a story created by a “pagan” people they had never heard of and would despise as unbelievers if they had. Even today there are those who ignore the overwhelming and obvious evidence of science, Biblical analysis and common sense and insist on the historicity of a flood, diligently searching the mountainous interior of Anatolia for traces of the ark of Ziusudra/Utnapishtim/Noah.

Rare photo of Noah

Rare photo of Noah

A sucker born every minute

A sucker born every minute

Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land

Egypt used to be a much happier place, even while under an authoritarian government that makes Mubarak and Morsi look like progressive leaders.  This was of course when the world was young, very young.  Egyptian civilization formally begins c. 3100 BC with the 1st Dynasty and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, which means Egypt came in second to Sumer (far southern Iraq) in the “Birth of Civilization” sweep stakes.  Ironically, though both were river valley civilizations that had emerged because of generally similar factors, because of their very different local environments they were completely different in their attitudes and understanding of the universe.

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

The Nile valley, which essentially defined ancient Egypt, was a grand place to live.  The river, with its incredibly regular ebb and flood that rejuvenated the soil every year, produced a large and extremely dependable food supply.  The security of the land was for thirteen hundred years guaranteed by physical barriers – the Mediterranean to the north, Sinai and deserts to the east, the river cataracts and difficult terrain to the south and desert wastes to the west.  There was virtually no weather, and excepting the rhythms of day and night, the rotating stars and the rise and fall of the Nile, the land was unchanging.  It was the Beloved Land.

The result of this environment was perhaps the most positive view of the world ever entertained by a society.  The universe was inherently good and just, a status guaranteed by the gods of the Two Lands.  Indeed, the harmony and order of the land was further secured by the presence of heaven on earth in the form of the Pharaoh, the continually reincarnated Horus.  The head of state was quite literally a god, and the state itself was a part of nature.  Life was so good that except for the god-king the afterlife was seen simply as a continuation of the one on earth.  Heaven and earth were so tightly bound that they were seen as a whole, and the peasant working his fields shared an essence common to both his animals and the gods.

And this never changed.  There were only three inescapable, non-periodic changes in the Egyptian universe: creation and the birth and death of an individual; all other non-reoccurring change was either so trivial or so slow that it could be ignored.  The exact Egyptian understanding of birth is unclear, but it could be minimized as a natural extension of the mother.  Death was tougher since there was a quite obvious change when the individual died, but this was explained as a sort of shift rather than an absolute change.  The essence of the person simply shifted to the afterlife, where in a world identical to the one he had left he would carry on with his business, be it farming, trading, building, administering or whatever.  That bodies buried in the desert fringe naturally mummified instead of rotting helped support this belief.

Creation was thus left as the one non-periodic change of any significance.  Consequently, as the universe was at the moment of creation, so it would be for all time.  And unlike the creation myths of the Asian and Aegean societies the Egyptian account involved no struggle.  It began, as in the Sumero-Babylonia system, with a watery chaos (these are hydraulic societies, after all), but the world was created peacefully, Ptah (or Atum) spitting out or ejaculating the first gods, who then continued the process through sexual reproduction.  In the universal mythic thought of the pre-Greek world these deities, though envisioned in human form, were actually manifestations of the natural phenomena with which they were associated, and thus the world was created.

By way of contrast, the Sumero-Babylonian account of creation involved struggle, as Enlil (or Marduk) battled and defeated Tiamat, the personification of chaos, and thus established the ordered world.  But unlike the permanent Egyptian cosmos the Sumero-Babylonian world required constant attention, lest it collapse back into chaos.  The difference was the environment.  The Tigris and Euphrates were wild rivers, which could flood or dry up the fields, and there were violent storms and periodic droughts.  The Sumerian city-states were constantly at war with one another, and barbarians from the Syrian deserts and Zagros mountains plundered the land.  Life was very uncertain, and disaster, natural and human, constantly threatened.  The afterlife consisted of a grim underworld, to which everyone went.  Pessimism reigned in the lands of the two rivers.

The negative result of the secure and unchanging life of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 3100-1800 BC) was an unchanging culture.  Because of the focus on the eternal, the canons of Egyptian art and to a lesser degree literature were frozen at the beginning of her history, and a statue of the Pharaoh from the early second millennium is virtually identical to one from the late first millennium.  From the 1st Dynasty to the 18th Egypt essentially produced nothing new.  Creativity and progress require a certain level of struggle and tension, and Egypt was simply too content.

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

When her splendid isolation came to end with the Hyksos invasion and domination of the delta c. 1800 BC, Egypt was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden intrusion and rule of non-Egyptians and the arrival of new ideas.  The collapse and troubles of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2050 BC) were an internal affair and could be accommodated by the traditional culture, while the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1550 BC), initiated by the arrival of the Hyksos could not.  The kings of the 18th Dynasty drove out the invaders and restored a united Egypt, but it would never be the same.  The experience of the Hyksos seriously injured the self-confidence and optimism of the older days.

And Egypt was allowed no rest, as the impulse that drove out the Hyksos carried her into Syria-Palestine, where she stayed (New Kingdom or Empire c. 1550-1085 BC) and began a long struggle with the Hittite Empire in Anatolia.  New ideas and peoples poured into the Two Lands, preventing any return to the old ways and attitudes.  Tending to its Asian empire, the New Kingdom was too involved in the world, too nervous for eternity.  The god-king, leading the armies north, was no longer the distant majestic figure of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but more human – and ephemeral.  The increasingly weak kings of the 20th Dynasty fell more and more under the growing power of the Temple of Amon-Re, as Egypt began the slide into impotence and ultimately foreign domination.  In the wisdom literature of the New Kingdom: silence and submission emerge as the leading virtues of the wise man.  Insecurity and outright fear enter Egyptian religion, and the once virtually automatic passage into the next world becomes a trial.  A good heart is no longer enough; the deceased must be armed with special prayers and magic, like the Book of the Dead, to overcome the new obstacles.

Ramses today

Ramses today

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

By the beginning of the first millennium Egypt had disintegrated into a collection of independent principalities, and in the seventh century the Assyrians, the “wolf in the fold,” captured the Beloved Land.  The ancient culture of the society lived on, but under a succession of imperial rulers: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.  The three thousand year old religious beliefs could survive in the polytheist societies of Egypt’s conquerors, but in late antiquity Christianity began to seriously erode them, at least in the urban areas.  The final extinction of ancient Egypt, however, did not come until the seventh century AD, when the Arabs arrived with their particularly nasty version of the No Fun God and created modern Egypt.

Until the arrival of serious tourism Muslim Egypt has had very little regard for its glorious past, stripping away the finer stone of the ancient monuments to build mosques, as the Christians were doing in Europe.  The last two centuries have seen a rebirth of interest in the Beloved Land, but even now extremists want to destroy the remaining art in the name of their primitive aniconic god.  All things considered, better to live under the Temple of Amon-Re than the Muslim Brotherhood.