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6-08-2015, 00:19

All That We Ever Were

It would be accurate to say Mesopotamia is Iraq
in the sense that Iraq’s national borders are close
to those traditionally attributed to Mesopotamia.
However, it is hard to see evidence of ancient
Mesopotamian culture in contemporary Iraqi society.
In the more than 2,500 years since Babylon fell to the
Persians and ancient Mesopotamian civilization ended,

the region has changed so significantly because of war, colonialism, and
immigration that Nebuchadnezzar himself would struggle to recognize it.
Greece’s Alexander the Great conquered the region in 331 BCE. Between
the 100s and 600s CE, the Roman and Persian Empires fought to control
it. The Persians finally won, only to be conquered by Muslim armies from
Arabia in approximately 640 CE. The Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey,
seized Mesopotamia in 1638. The Ottomans maintained their hold on the
region until their empire collapsed at the end of World War I (1914–1918).
After the war, the victorious powers carved out what is now the modern
nation of Iraq and put it under British supervision. The country became
independent in 1932. By the time Iraq was established, the ancient culture of
Mesopotamia had largely been scrubbed away by imperial influences.
The Tigris and Euphrates still flow, of course, but most of the ancient
cities have been abandoned. Although its walls still partially stand, Babylon
is quite visibly a former city, not a current one. Ur, whose residents moved on
almost immediately after the Persian conquest, is now an archaeological site.
The surviving profile of the Great Ziggurat looms above it in the distance.
Ashur remained lightly populated until 1401, when an army massacred
most of the remaining inhabitants and drove out the rest. Left behind are
an impressive group of ruins, the most distinctive among them a massive
ziggurat and the Royal Gate. The ruins of Uruk remained occupied until
approximately 700 CE. They were rediscovered by archaeologists more than
1,000 years later. The ruins of Akkad, though their general location can be
determined from historical records, have not been found. When they are
discovered, they will likely tell us things about ancient Mesopotamian life we
do not yet know.
But it is not only the cities that have suffered the effects of time. These
changes have also been reflected in the less durable fabric of the nation’s
culture. In 539 BCE, residents spoke Aramaic, Akkadian, and Sumerian.
Today, Iraqis mainly speak Arabic and Kurdish. In 539 BCE, Babylonian
paganism was the dominant religion. Now, more than 99 percent of Iraqis are


The story of the human experience did not begin at Sumer. Anatomically
modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago, complex human cultures
arose 50,000 years ago, and a settlement at what is now the city of
Jericho was established more than 10,000 years ago.2 Sumer is, relative to
these milestones, young. Eridu, which may be the oldest city in ancient
Mesopotamia and is undoubtedly among the oldest discovered cities on
Earth, was founded only around 5400 BCE, approximately 7,400 years ago.
This suggests that the first 96 percent of human history—more than 190,000
years of it—was unrecorded and took place in a world without cities, nations,
wars, or written language. Exactly what took place during that massive
expanse of time is unknown, though archaeologists are hard at work filling
this gap.
In the course of a few thousand years, Mesopotamian civilizations laid
the groundwork for the cultures that came after—including ours. Field
archaeologist Jane McIntosh argues the contributions of these civilizations
were absolutely critical to the modern world:
[Ancient Mesopotamia] and more particularly Sumer, its southern part,
first saw the emergence of many of the developments that transformed
the world into the urban society of today. Intensive agriculture, industrial
production, state-controlled religion, complex stratified society, and the
city itself had their beginnings here, as did many key innovations—
including writing, without which we could neither share nor preserve our
cultural and technological heritage.3
One of the most remarkable things about ancient Mesopotamia was
that so many of these innovations happened in the same time and place.
Developments such as writing, permanent cities, and farming are the
underpinning of our modern society. In many ways, the people of ancient
Mesopotamia, including the Sumerians, the Akkadians, and the Babylonians,
invented the human world as we know it.