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Iraq is where civilized life began

April 07, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion."
- First verse of Psalm 137

The Greeks called it Mesopotamia, "the land between the two rivers" - the Tigris and the Euphrates. But advanced cultures in the area we now know as Iraq long predated the Greeks and even the Egyptians.

In fact, Iraq is the traditional location of the garden of Eden. The Tigris and Euphrates flowed out of the garden, the Bible says.


Any study of the history of mankind really begins there.

"It's the oldest civilized area in the world," said Dr. Robert Willgoos, associate professor of history at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "It's the period where civilized life as we know it began."

Historians say writing was invented there, as was the wheel. Iraq was the site of the first large-scale irrigation systems and the first large cities, they say. Farming and bureaucracies developed in the ancient city-states of Sumer and Akkad, which grew up along the rivers.

Noah is said to have lived in southern Iraq - the Sumerian epic tale "Gilgamesh" includes references to a devastating flood and ends with the title character meeting a wise and ancient man who survived it by building an ark.

"Many Bible stories come from Mesopotamia," Wilgoos said. "They all come from actual events."

While the Hebrews wrote them in their own context to get a message across, he added, there are a lot of examples where archaeology shows events really occurred.

Willgoos said the "Higher Critics" of the 19th century regarded the biblical record as "nice stories," but not real.

"As they dig, archaeologists find there is far more factual truth to the Old Testament than has been believed," he said. The sites exist - "you can actually visit this," he said.

Biblical sites

The Bible implies that Abraham the patriarch was born in the Sumerian city of Ur, and the Tower of Babel was constructed on the site that became the city of Babylon.

The ruins of Ur are "the farthest south and the closest to Basra" of the major archeological sites of Iraq, said Dr. Jennifer Ross, assistant professor of art and archeology at Hood College in Frederick, Md. Ur dates to around 5000 B.C., she said.

The Boston or Baltimore of its day, Ur was a port city with trade going as far as India.

"It was tremendously rich in gold, silver and precious stones," Ross said.

"It was one of the most significant cities" of its era, she said, and "an early center of religion, writing and government. And only a small portion of it has been excavated."

Ross said the ruined "ziggurat," or temple, at Ur "may be a good example of the kind of temple the Tower of Babel was."

The Babylonian king Hammurabi instituted the first known comprehensive legal code. Centuries later, King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel and exiled thousands of its inhabitants to what is now Iraq during the Babylonian Captivity.

Nebuchadnezzar was credited with constructing the famed hanging gardens, one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world.

Divisions of Iraq's Republican Guard were named for Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, both military leaders.

Willgoos called these Babylonian kings "great heroes of the past. A lot of history is based on what they did."

Nebuchadnezzar figures prominently in the Old Testament as the conqueror who carried off Israel's finest - including the prophet Daniel who, despite having come to what is now Iraq as an exile, rose to become one of Nebuchadnezzar's favorites.

Captive and captor

The area known as Iraq has as often been captive as it has been captor. During its long and turbulent history, it has been occupied by everyone from Alexander the Great, who died there in 323 B.C., to Great Britain. Stable government has been rare.

Invasions and bloody coups have been more the rule than the exception, which may account to a great degree for its metamorphosis from the earthly paradise of Adam and Eve to the iron-fisted dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq has not always been either Arabic or Islamic. Alexander brought Hellenism with him, and this Greek influence lasted well beyond his death in Babylon at age 32.

"The world would have been a different place if Alexander had lived another 20 years," Willgoos said. "He was headed for the Arabian peninsula."

As it turned out, the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D. brought with it a new religion: Islam. Though there were a number of Christians in Iraq at the time of the conquest, intermarriage and other factors reduced their number.

Baghdad was established in the eighth century as a center of Arabic and Islamic culture, with leaders called "caliphs." The city of Basra developed a little later.

"Iraq and the city of Baghdad are very important in Arabic history," said Dr. Hoda Zaki, chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Hood. "They once represented the height of Islamic civilization. Baghdad has resonance for all Arabs."

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