SAFETY IN IRAQ: CIVILIZATION + RISK
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SAFETY IN IRAQ: CIVILIZATION + RISK
Editorial by Stephen Bertman, Ph.D.
For Iraq Museum International
Safety is among the most basic of human needs, and the most critical and pressing need in Iraq today.
Bursts of gunfire, blasts of roadside bombs, suicide attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations have used blood to paint a landscape of fear. Over and above the price in lives such carnage exacts are the psychological wounds it inflicts on those who survive. Terror can breed fear, but terror that is unremitting can beget a numbing sense of hopelessness and despair. Yet if the human mind can courageously envision a safer and better future, it may -- by an act of sheer will -- enable that dream to become a reality. Iraq is no stranger to insecurity. From time immemorial, Mesopotamia was an insecure land, threatened by both nature and man. Settlers were first drawn to the "land between the rivers" because of its bountiful water and fertile soil, but the rivers that defined the country and nourished its soil could torrentially flood, drowning and sweeping away the works of mankind. Over the centuries, the very course of the rivers could change, isolating and impoverishing communities that had once hopefully grown up beside their banks. At the same time, the flatness of southern Mesopotamia invited invasion after destructive invasion as armies violently clashed for control of the land's resources and riches.
As a result, a sense of anxiety and foreboding permeates much of ancient Iraq's literature, including its two greatest epics, the Babylonian Epic of Creation and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
Unlike the opening chapters of the Biblical book of Genesis where a single benevolent deity takes a series of creative steps culminating in the creation of man, the Babylonian Epic of Creation describes a heaven populated by vengeful and sadistic gods who brutally oppose each other in battle for the mastery of the universe. In this account, the making of man is but a cosmic footnote to a celebration of divine power.
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero Gilgamesh, grieving over the death of a beloved friend, searches for the secret of eternal life. Eventually, however, Gilgamesh is told:
The life you're looking for you'll never find.Undaunted, Gilgamesh persists in his quest until he finds a wise old man named Utnapishtim. In ages past, Utnapishtim had survived a universal flood that had destroyed all of humanity, a deluge that had been sent by capricious gods. Out of compassion, Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a magic plant that can restore his youth. But before Gilgamesh can use it, this irreplaceable gift is stolen.
Together, the epics proclaim that, in confronting an amoral and unpredictable universe, human efforts are ultimately futile because man is puny. Life is precious, but incredibly fragile and easily lost. And because all things apart from the gods are impermanent, humanity's struggle is doomed to end in failure.
This sense of despair is poignantly conveyed in the words of two Mesopotamian lamentations that ironically survive only in fragmentary form. The anonymous verses were composed thousands of years ago, though, with a change of script and language, they could easily have been written in modern Iraq.
Dead men, not potsherdsNatural and manmade disasters could have so easily bred a pervasive sense of hopelessness in the people of ancient Iraq, but life persisted and, despite adversity, civilization grew. Irrigation canals were dug and dredged to assure that life-giving water would reach farmers' fields. Brick walls were made of local clay and cemented together with native bitumen to bar the waters of floods and fend off the onslaughts of armies, forestalling future disasters with human ingenuity and foresight. And within those walls, cities arose where, in security, the arts of peace could flourish thanks to the critical mass of human talent those walls enclosed. Time itself became a safeguard against calamity for, as populations dwelled in the same place for generations, the debris they left behind formed layers. These layers, in turn, became superimposed, causing cities to grow vertically as streets were paved over and buildings were rebuilt upon the remains of earlier structures. The higher elevations that resulted made communities safer by making them more strategically defensible in time of war and more resistant to water in time of flood. In addition, each city erected at least one impressive temple in the pious but slender hope that a grateful god would grant protection and prosperity in exchange for perpetual service and sacrifice.
Within these communities, personal property was secured through the use of the cylinder seal, the most distinctive objet d'art Mesopotamia produced. Carved with virtuosity from small cylinders of stone and engraved in miniature with a variety of designs, these personal seals were impressed into clay to "sign" documents or signify the ownership of valuable property. Hung from a cord and worn about the neck, the cylinder seal was an ancient badge of honor, a symbol of security in an insecure world. Indeed, in the barren ruins of Iraq's ancient cities, cities long ago ravaged by war or betrayed by nature, cylinder seals still lie buried, mute witnesses to the land's former glory.
Ages ago, Mesopotamia became the home of the world's first cities and the birthplace of civilization, but not merely because its people used the natural resources around them. Mesopotamia did so because its people also drew upon the natural resources within them, including a defiant determination to replace chaos with order, danger with safety, and destruction with creative renewal, as man successfully adapted to an often hostile environment. Fittingly, when the hero-king Gilgamesh returned home after his frustrating quest, he looked up at the city walls he had once built, and had an epiphany. Gazing at those walls, he realized that, in a world where no one is immortal and nothing lasts forever, it is better to invest one's life in constructive works that can benefit others rather than surrender to anomie and do nothing at all. In that same spirit, the leaders of Mesopotamia enacted the world's first codes of law in the firm conviction that law constitutes society's strongest defense against the tyranny of force and the anarchy of violence.
Writing, yet another Mesopotamian invention, likewise became the enemy of anomie. For writing allows thoughts and feelings that would otherwise perish with an individual's death to transcend time. Thus later ages can draw upon the courage and wisdom of earlier days to meet the challenges of their own times. Tradition is a strong bulwark against disorder, and writing is its faithful servant. Indeed, the clay tablets of Iraq's cuneiform past were in their own way as potent a deterrent to chaos as the brick walls that made Iraq's homes and cities secure.
Nor is it an accident that the world's first schools were built in Iraq, for the ancient Mesopotamians understood the transformative power of education to nurture young minds and enable them to grow into confident maturity. Significantly, the goal of Sumerian education was not simply to pass on lifeless data (so often the goal today) but to inculcate a sense of what we must call, for want of a better word, "humanity." Indeed, this term appears for the first time in the history of the world in Sumerian texts. To his headmaster, for example, a student says: "I was like a puppy dog until you opened my eyes. You formed humanity inside me."
Though we may not at first perceive it, the past and the present do not exist in sealed compartments, separated from each other by some artificial and impermeable barrier. Instead, time is fluid: the past can spill into the present in the form of memory, and the present can pour back into the past seeking guidance. But, as it washes over that past, the present can also erase its outlines or even willfully destroy its foundations. The stunning looting of the Baghdad Museum and the repeated rape of archaeological sites throughout Iraq offer ample proof of the latter, for what is stolen is not just so much merchandise for sale, but an entire people's collective memory, a priceless substance they desperately need to protect them, for a civilized people's heritage is its best armor against the assaults of barbarism.
The lessons Mesopotamia's past teaches are vital today: that those who face chaos need not yield to it; that those who suffer devastation need not surrender. If Mesopotamia's history illustrates anything, it is the creative resilience of the Iraqi people, a spirit to which all the world remains indebted, and a spirit all the more necessary in today's political environment where the destructive capacity of man has been magnified beyond all measure.
Stephen Bertman, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Classics, The University of Windsor, and author of Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (New York: Facts On File, 2003; Oxford University Press, 2005).
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