Iraq: Bombing the Cradle of Civilization?

What values created the region’s great civilization over 6,000 years ago?

February 21, 2002

What values created the region's great civilization over 6,000 years ago?

The region between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates played a civilizing role in the history of humanity not just once — but twice. Understanding what propelled that region to greatness in the past, and what has gone wrong in more contemporary times, could help the United States avoid making grave mistakes in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Historians believe that civilization started in a small region about the size of Belgium that lies between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia. It is in this area, known as Ancient Sumer, that people first invented the cuneiform script — which has given us a record of their sophisticated civilization.

First established around 4,200 BC, Sumer existed until the second millennium before Christ, or for nearly 2,000 years. Tens of thousands of clay tablets survive from that period.

They contain business contracts and records of transactions, sealed with the imprint of a bronze cylinder that every Sumerian carried on a string around his neck.

Other tablets recorded historical events, deeds of various kings and other rulers, legal codes, religious texts, literature and dictionaries of foreign languages in the region.

Few people realize that Mesopotamia is the site of modern-day Iraq. Today, that country is numbered among the world’s most repressive regimes. It is also one of the poorest nations on earth.

Worse yet, this historic land, which contains untold archeological treasures, has been the site of several military conflicts over the past two decades. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 was one of the bloodiest and most pointless conflicts of the 20th century.

After Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990, a U.S.-led coalition drove out Iraqi forces in the 1991 Gulf War. Now, flush with victory in Afghanistan, the U.S. government is laying plans to topple the Iraqi dictator.


Viewed against such a dismal background, one has to wonder what allowed Ancient Sumer’s people to develop such a rich civilization? Historians mainly point to the presence of water and arable land.

The alluvial plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates flooded every spring, bringing rich fertile silt from nearby mountains. Long, hot summers created the perfect climate for flourishing agriculture.

American historian James Henry Breasted once called the entire region spanning the Middle East and Northern Egypt the “Fertile Crescent.” Today, President George W. Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “Axis of Evil.”

Today, however, the region’s “fertility” is measured primarily by its oil — and not by water. Oil is a vital resource for the modern economy, and countries that possess it have an easy way to earn billions of dollars via exports.

Moreover, oil exploration, production and refining bring sophisticated technologies that lay foundations for advances in the other economic sectors.

Iraq, in fact, has one of the richest oil fields in the world. Despite the embargo imposed during and after the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq still exports over 2 million barrels per day.

In fact, its proven oil reserves, estimated at 110 billion barrels, are second only to Saudi Arabia’s. Before UN sanctions, Iraq produced about 4 million barrels per day — the second largest production amount among OPEC members, after Saudi Arabia.

Yet, oil revenues — unlike water in Southern Mesopotamia — have done little to develop or civilize Iraq. On the contrary, Iraq has been a victim of government misrule and poverty — which the U.S.-led embargo has exacerbated.

Of course, the sanctions didn’t bring poverty in Iraq into existence. Well before 1990, Mr. Hussein was squandering Iraq’s oil wealth on military spending, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and self-aggrandizement.

But Iraq’s plight is not unique. Among the world’s major oil producers, only Mexico has been able to leap from exclusive reliance on oil to the development of an industrial base. It only managed to do so, however, after joining the North American Free Trade Agreement.

By contrast, Venezuela — currently the second largest oil exporter in OPEC, had to devalue its currency in mid-February. And Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer — and America’s closest ally in the Arab World — has one of the least transparent political systems in the world. If oil revenues suddenly dried up, the ruling Saudi royal family would probably face immediate social and political upheaval.

Looking back into history, perhaps the key differences between then and now can be found in simple effort. The ancient Sumerians could rely on water and a favorable climate, but successful agriculture still required lots of hard work.

With their primitive tools, they managed to build an extensive network of canals to provide irrigation and keep the two great rivers from flooding their cities and villages.

Moreover, salt water from the Persian Gulf was always in danger of flooding the fields — and salinizing their fertile soil. Sumerians also had to build and maintain a system of dykes to protect their fields. Unlike modern-day Iraqis, they didn’t just sit back and try to sell their natural resources to the highest bidder.

It should also be remembered that the region rose to prominence once again in the Middle Ages, under early Muslim rule. In fact, the Abbasid Caliphate, which flourished for 500 years between 750 AD and 1258, turned out to be an extremely advanced state at a time when Western Europe remained stuck in the Dark Age.

The Arabs not only created fine works of art and literature — such as The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights — but they also developed science and medicine. The world’s first medical school, for example, was established in Baghdad in 765.

The prosperity of the Caliphate relied not on specific natural resources, but on building and maintaining trade links with Asia and Europe. Such success required remaining open to the rest of the world and its influences. For instance, Arabs learned papermaking from the Chinese, whom they captured at the battle of Talas in 751.

Of course, such openness is exactly the opposite of the course now pursued by Saddam Hussein. If Washington wants to help change Iraq for real, once the country is rid of Mr. Hussein, the lessons of Iraq’s rich history could prove useful.

The civilizations that once flourished in the Fertile Crescent were founded on a strong work ethic, rule of law and accessibility. It is those virtues that should be honored once again between the Tigris and the Euphrates.