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Iraq's History

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Pre-history  Top

The earliest humans in the region of present-day Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) date back to the Paleolithic/ Old Stone Age (25,000-5,000 BC). The site of the civilization is the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, commonly known as the Fertile Crescent, that provided the early humans with the fertile soil crucial for agricultural surpluses, which in turn allowed the development of specialization of labor, and eventually, of civilization (i).

Mesopotamia's history in the pre-modern era is divided into several periods. These are, in chronological order: The Hassuna Period, The Samarra Period, The Halaf Period, and the Ubaid Period. During these periods, the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia gradually became more sedentary and developed agricultural techniques that allowed them to store goods for the future and to trade within and outside the community for commodities they could not themselves produce. By the end of this process, many areas of Mesopotamia have developed cities. Although their activities were often similar, the tribes and clans of the region were not yet united under a more centralized authority or culture.

Ubaid Period  Top

Six thousand years ago, between 4500 and 4300 BC, the latter of these, the Ubaid civilization spread from the Gulf area north to the Caspian Sea (present-day Iran). The size of the Ubaid influence is measured by the extent of its trade networks. In fact, Ubaid artifacts have been found in southern Iraq, on the Syrian Coast, and on the shores of the Gulf (ii). The Ubaid attempted to expand through conquering and colonizing nearby areas (e.g. Syria), although trade remained the primary way to spread its culture (iii). The expansion of the Ubaid culture and peoples began the spread of the Mesopotamian civilization, culture and authority in the region, setting the stage for the great Sumerian civilization (iv).

Sumerian Civilization  Top

Around 4500 BC, the southern part of Mesopotamia was inhabited by invaders from the north. Some contend that the invaders arrived from India and were of Aryan origin (v), while others maintain that northern Ubaid peoples moved to the south and mixed with the home population (vi). In either case, the development produced a rich civilization, divided into the Uruk period (c. 3750-3150 B.C.) and the Jemdat Nasr period (c. 3150-2900 B.C.) (vii). The Sumerian civilization gave birth to crucial agricultural inventions like the plough, a sled for dragging grain, the chariot that increased traveling speed on land and the sail that increased traveling speed on water. These developments added to the ability to produce, store and distribute surpluses.

Towards the end of the 4th millennium, desiccation dried out the Euphrates river, forcing the inhabitants of the area to develop an extensive system of irrigation. As large cities (the first in the world) located around waterways grew in size and number, the amount of traditional villages decreased. The people in control of the flow of water gained increasing power, which became concentrated in a few hands. To increase technological progress on the limited usable land, and to control the growing society, cuneiform writing and mathematics were invented, the crowning achievements of this period. Another significant achievement of the period is the creation of the first monumental architecture built to celebrate gods and rulers (viii). The new Sumerian society was thus more urban, with distinct territorial divisions and ruled by religious leaders and war soldiers (ix).

The World's "Firsts"  Top

  1. Education
  2. Government
  3. Law Code
  4. The First Lullaby
  5. Pharmacopoeia

Education (x)

The roots of formal education can be traced to the area that is present-day Iraq. Ancient Sumerian civilization gave rise to the first recorded system of writing, the cuneiform system. The writing was done on clay tablets and consisted of pictographic symbols. By the third millennium, the writing began to be utilized in schools (xi). Archeologists have found thousands of clay tablets used as textbooks by teachers and as notebooks by students. The students' tablets indicate that the level of study went as high as graduate level work. Most of the subject matter at Sumerian schools was aimed at training administrative and economic professionals, while the majority of the students were likely male and from the wealthier families of the land.

Government (xii)

Despite the common perception that the Middle East is and always has been a land of despots, it is a curious fact that the world's first recorded bicameral congress is found in Mesopotamia of 3000 B.C. The congress convened in the Kish kingdom in response to a threat presented to it by the nearing kingdom of Erech. The question posed to the conservative elders of the upper house and the young soldiers of the lower house was whether to appease Erech in order to preserve peace or to fight to the death for independence. When the elders chose peace, their decision was vetoed by the lower house. The king, the famed Gilgamesh, then approved the decision to go to war. The story of the decision and war is recoded in the Epic of Gilgamesh (xiii).

Law Code (xiv)

The oldest recorded law code was discovered by a curator in the Istanbul Museum when the two cuneiform tablets containing it were translated. The document is now known as Ur-Nammu Law Code, named after the King that dictated it. The authority of the king is said to have originated from divine sources (he is the representative of moon-God Nanna, the rightful ruler of Ur, the discussed kingdom). The law code includes prescriptions for standardized weights and measures, re-establishment of strict territorial boundaries, and prescription with dealing with bodily injuries that substitutes the more human system of monetary payments as punishment for an offence, unlike the later Biblical �eye for an eye� rules.

The First Lullaby (xv)

The world's oldest recorded lullaby, and the only such document available from the Ancient Near East, is a chant by a mother, Shulgi, to one of her sick sons. The worried mother at first chants her wishes for her sons well-being, then addresses Sleep to come over her son, then her son to assure him that she will give him remedies to get better, as well as promises him a bright future (complete with a loving wife and healthy loving son). The mother at one point loses her optimism and reveals her worries about his illness. She finishes by reminding him of his future as a warrior of the cities of Ur that must defend the homeland from aggressors. This lullaby is an example that motherly love and worry for one's children is an ageless phenomenon, and gives the present reader a glimpse into ancient life.

Pharmacopoeia (xvi)

Ancient Sumerian doctors were forerunners of many advancements in the medical field. The first recorded collection of pharmacological prescriptions, or a medical (handbook), was compiled by a 3rd millennium Sumerian physician on a clay tablet. The document contains recipes for remedies to be applied externally (like salves and filtrates) and liquids to be taken internally. The anonymous physician uses ingredients from both the animal and plant worlds for his relatively complicated chemical combinations. There are some downsides to this medical handbook: whether for reasons of secrecy or simply lack of precise knowledge, the recipes do not contain the amounts of ingredients needed; they also do not mention the disease to be cured by them, making it impossible to try today whether they are indeed effective.

Akadian Empire  Top

Around 2340 B.C., the Sumerian empire eventually fell to the nomadic Akadians, Semitic peoples that are believed to be the ancestors of present-day Arabs. Saigon I, the leader of the Akadians proceeded to found the first dynasty of the region, and centralize Mesopotamia into a distinct state, stretching from Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the north, the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and Persia in the east (xvii). Saigon also moved the center of the empire from the Euphrates River east towards the Tigris River, creating the territorial conditions of present Iraq (xviii). The conquered Sumerians regained strength around 2100 BC under Ur-Nammu, who freed parts of the Akkadian-controlled area and established the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Babylonians  Top

Around 2003 BC, the Elamites, the inhabitants of Khuzistan, located in Southern Iran, overthrew the Third Dynasty of Ur. This marked the decline of the Sumerian kingdom, and the beginning of the great Babylonian empire. Semitic Amorites, led by Sumuabom, wrestled control of the area from the Elamites and settled in Babylon to rule the vast empire. Under Hamurabbi (1792-1750 BC), Babylon became the economic and religious center of the empire. Hamurabbi created the Hamurabbi Code to centralize his domain under centralized laws relating to commercial, civil and criminal affairs (xix). The Code has since become the basis for modern law. Despite the strength of the Amorite empire, it too succumbed to people coveting the rich Mesopotamian area, the Kassites, who defended the statue of Marduk, the holy God of the empire, from Hittite raiders. The Kassites ruled for five centuries (1761 BC to 1157 BC) until they were overthrown by the returning Elamites.

Assyrians  Top

Semitic Assyrian tribes have occupied northern Iraq since around 1830 BC. They survived mostly under foreign influences (Hittites, Sumerians, Akadians and Babylonians all controlled the Assyrians at one point). However, in the 8th century BC, this group was able to use what it learned from fighting along their colonizers to destroy Babylon and gain power over of the empire, controlling a vast territory up to present-day Lebanon (xx).

The luck of the Assyrians ran out in 612 BC, when the recovered Babylonians, aided by Persian Medes, ransacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

Neo-Babylonian Empire  Top

The Babylonians re-established their empire with the help of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-565 BC), who was able to defeat the Assyrians. The neo-Babylonian Empire rivaled its predecessor with flourishing literature and arts, the invention of astrology and astronomy (scholars of this period hypothesized about the existence of other planets (xxi)) and the invention of algebra and science. It was the neo-Babylonians that gave the world the practice of dividing the day into 24 hours, the hour into 60 minutes, and the sphere into 360 degrees. The Babylonians were also fierce fighters; in 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and deported the Jews to Babylon. By 539 BC, however, betrayal allowed the Medes and Persians to take Babylon.

Mede and Persian Domination (539-330 BC)  Top

Although the initial period of occupation was benevolent, especially to Babylonian Jews that welcomed the occupiers, upon the death of King Darius I, the rule became increasingly intolerant. Darius's son Xerxes responded to a Babylonian revolt with violence: Marduk's (Babylonian god pictured as a horned dragon) statue was melted down and Zoroastrianism was imposed as the official religion. As the rule progressed, abusive taxation and poor government upkeep of public places resulted in widespread poverty and the disrepair of irrigation canals (xxii).

The Macedonian Era (331-129 BC)  Top

In 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III and conquered Babylon, with the intention of making it the capital of the Earnest part of his Empire. He reversed the intolerant policies of the Persians, rebuilt statues of Marduk and previously destroyed temples. To demonstrate the inclusiveness of his empire to its foreign subjects, he held a mass wedding of fourteen thousand Macedonian men to that number of Babylonian women, thus symbolically uniting the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Alexander died nine years later and left his Empire in disorder. By 312 BC, the warlord Seleucos took the title of Nicator (the Victorious), conquered the region and established the Seleucid dynasty. Mesopotamia flourished under the dynasty. At this period, the Greeks used their contact with the Middle East (through conquest and trade) to absorb Babylonian discoveries, which eventually reach Rome, and finally Europe (xxiii).

The Parthian Kingdom (129 BC- 234 AD)  Top

Around 129 BC, the Parthians invaded Mesopotamia using the decline of the Seleucids, and established the city of Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, south of modern Baghdad. The Macedonians left the region at this period, unable to keep their remaining strongholds. Another development is that the city of Hatra in northern Iraq declared independence and succeeded in gaining autonomy, on the condition that its citizens will defend the western border against the Romans.

The Romans were at this time actively trying to restore Alexander's Eastern Empire by attacking the Parthians. Although at one point the capital of Ctesiphon was taken, the Romans were soon pushed out. The roman Emperor Caracalla then offered his hand to the daughter of Artaban IV, the Parthian ruler, to get Mesopotamia in a peaceful manner. When rejected, he scattered about the remains of kings and queens buried at Erbil. The Parthian Empire finally fell when Artaban was killed in battle by a Persian prince Ardachir in 224 AD, who proceeded to establish the Sassanid Dynasty.

The Sassanid Dynasty (224-636 AD)  Top

Ardachir rebuilt Seleucia and renamed it in honor of himself. His son Shapur I regained control of Hatra and burned it down as an example for those desiring independence. He then made Mazdeism the official religion.

In 363, Shapur II (310-379 AD) (Shapur I's grandson) repulsed the Romans that again attacked Ctesiphon. Emperor Julian died as a result of a battle wound while retreating. The Sassanids further showed their military might under Chosroes I (531-579) when they occupied Yemen and invaded Palestine and Syria, and under Chosroes II, when they captured Jerusalem in 614.

Despite these military successes, the dynasty came to an end when it got on the wrong side of a new rising power, Islam. Chosroes II made the mistake of rejecting Muhammad's invitation to convert. The Empire was defeated by Caliph Abu Bakr in retaliation for the offense.

The Muslim Conquest (638-661 AD)  Top

As the Muslim expansion led by Khalid Ibn al-Walid (aka Seif al-Islam or �the sword of Islam�) progressed from Basra (in southern present-day Iraq) north, it met with little local resistance, allowing further conquest in the area (xxiv). This began Arab rule over Iraq, during which many of the Sassanid customs and administration arrangements were allowed to remain. Despite this relatively lenient attitude, many of the conquered peoples converted to Islam voluntarily, both because of the appealing message of the religion, and because it provided connections to the ruling class, and therefore to wealth. The Arab conquerors that arrived from the Arabian Peninsula were not the only contributors of culture in this exchange; in fact, they adopted much of the culture and administration of the Sassanids during their rule (xxv).

The Umayyad Dynasty (680-750 AD) and The Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258)  Top

In 680 AD, Iraq was overrun by Syrians who proceeded to establish the unpopular Umayyad Dynasty. The hatred of the people for the occupier provided the benefit of uniting the Iraqis, and setting the stage for the Abbasid Dynasty, founded by Abu al-Abbas (aka Abu Muslim or �Father of Islam�).

During the reign of later rulers Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and al-Ma'moun the Great (813-833), the Middle East and Iraq experienced a Golden Age. Baghdad was named the new capital in 762 and grew in size exponentially (20 million people by 900). Its location at the meeting of the Tigris and the Euphrates provided crucial access to transportation routes, facilitating trade. Baghdad was a cosmopolitan city that symbolized the inclusiveness of the empire. The equality of all Muslims was emphasized, while non-Muslims were generally allowed to practice their religion in peace. The various peoples of the empire were also included in the administration; Persians, Shi'is, Christians and Jews were given high government posts as ministers and advisers (xxvi).

The greatest achievements of this age were intellectual. The Abbasids encouraged the translation of scientific, literary and philosophical subjects from Aramaic, Greek, Persian and Sanskrit in the House of Wisdom, a palace built specifically for this purpose in Baghdad (xxvii). Greek philosophy was of great interest to the scholars, and it was analyzed actively, with translators adding commentaries (xxviii). Al-Ma'moun the Great, the caliph at the time, invited scholars from all over the world to participate in studies at Baghdad. This blending of knowledge and new scholarship contributed to the invention of algebra by Khawarismi, of geography, and the concept of a spherical earth (xxix). Literature and the arts benefited as well, with poet Abu Nuwas of Basra establishing new poetic genres, and as-Jahiz of Basra writing scathing satirical works about worldly evils. During this period, Arabic grammar was standardized. Also, an intellectual movement, the rationalist Mu'tazila school was established.

The Buwayhids (945-1055)  Top

Although the next period under the Shi'i Buwayhids brought much political turmoil as various groups vied for power, Baghdad remained the center of Islamic cultural and intellectual life. Fragmentation in the empire in fact often aided scholarship, since now scholars and artists could choose their patrons with greater freedom. Another great achievement of the age was the building of the �Adudi hospital in 982, complete with 60 full-time physicians, specialized wards (including an insane asylum), and an apprenticeship program. The hospital attracted Islamic student from all over because a degree of apprenticeship from the hospital was extremely valuable.

The Seljuk Turks (1055-1258) and Mongol Domination and the Safavid Empire (1501-1736)  Top

In 1258, The Mongols sacked Baghdad, conclusively ending the Islamic Golden Age. In the next several centuries, a period of fragmentation followed, with rival clans and dynasties attempting to gain control over the vast Middle East. At one point Iraq was under the rule of the Persian Safavid Empire that balanced its power in the region with the rising Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire of India. One of the major contributions of the Safavid Empire was to transition the government from a tribal military regime to an absolutist bureaucratic empire, increasing centralization (xxx).

The Ottoman Empire (1534-1915)  Top

During the late 19th century under the Ottomans, the involvement of the British in the region due to an increase in commercial ties and a perception of Iraq as an extension of the Indian domain brought much modernization to Iraq. Between 1830 and 1860, the British sent several expeditions to research navigation on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This resulted in the opening of The Tigris Steam Navigation Company that operated steamers between Baghdad and Basra. This route was later used to expand international trade. These were extensively used because the Ottoman company did not provide service that was as punctual. Furthermore, a telegraphic link was established with India (xxxi).

From 1869-1872, improvements were made to the bureaucracy, administration, education and economic organization by Midhat Pasha, the governor of Baghdad appointed by the Ottoman Sultan. Midhat renovated the legal system and security, built schools and a hospital. He arranged to import the first printing press from Europe and published the first newspaper of Iraq, as-Zawra. Further, by gaining greater control of irrigation, transportation and military conscription, the state was modernized and more centralized. Midhat Pasha is also responsible for the delineation of the three Iraqi provinces (wilayah) and subdivisions within them, as well as the creation of a modern telegraph system, construction of modern roads, and the expansion of steam navigation (xxxii). Finally, Midhat Pasha expanded the secondary education system, and emphasized modern secular education. The reforms were not enough to aid the failing Ottoman Empire, which disintegrated after being on the losing side of WWI.

The British Occupation and Mandate (1914-1932)  Top

As the spoils were divided at the end of the war, modern Iraqi boundaries were drawn, Iraq became a British mandate and promised eventual independence. In August 1921, King Faysal was crowned with British support. Under the British control, a Constitution was written in 1925, creating a two-chamber parliament and an independent judiciary, with the King retaining the power of vetoing legislation and dismissing Parliament (xxxiii). Other significant changes were in the area of women's rights activism, with the creation of the first women's magazine Layla. After much negotiation, Iraq achieved independence in 1932 and admitted to the League of Nations. Also of importance is the creation of the National Museum in Baghdad in 1923 by Gertrude Bell. She wrote antiquities laws that mandated all artifacts found in Iraq to be stored in the museum and prohibited their export to other nations. Bell also trained Iraqis in cataloguing, conserving and curating.

The Monarchy  Top

During the period of the Republic, the Iraqi army grew as a result of the conscription law of 1934, causing some problems with controlling its elements but strengthening the power of the nation. Achievements during the late 1930's settling border disputes with Iran and Syria, completion of irrigation projects on the Tigris river, opening an oil pipeline to Haifa (a Mediterranean port), and completing the Baghdad Railway railroad linking Europe and the Persian Gulf. In 1950, a Development Board was established by the government to oversee Iraq's economic progress. The Board focused on agricultural development and instituted large-scale projects like flood control, water storage, and irrigation, as well as built new bridges, public buildings and a new Parliament building (xxxiv). While not always successful in resolving rural grievances, these added to the modernized Iraqi state. In the late 1950's, national integration increased and minorities like Shi'is and Kurds began to hold important government positions. Women's education gradually expanded and women's organizations were created (in particular the League for the Defense of Women's Rights which advocated for women's rights and child welfare) (xxxv). Finally, this period gave rise to literary and artistic flourishing, with the arts especially focusing on equality and democracy. Jawad Salim, an artist and sculptor, received international recognition for incorporating the cubist style ala Pablo Picasso, ancient Mesopotamian art, and Soviet Social Realism in his work. Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, a poet considered to be one of Arab's best, wrote moving satirical pieces about life in Iraq, the government and the people.

The Republic and Saddam Hussein  Top

In 1958, the monarchy was toppled by a military coup and the Republic of Iraq was established. The new government emphasized aid to the poor and boosted welfare programs in health, education and the construction of affordable housing (xxxvi). The state emphasized secularism by limiting the authority of religious courts and promoting equality under the law. Examples include restrictions on shari'a, establishing of equality for both sexes in inheritance and the outlawing of man's right to arbitrary divorce and child marriage. A major achievement was long-awaited land reform that redistributed land to peasants from the large landholdings of a small number of elites.

In the 1960's, the arts and literature took a new course, with some poets and artists abandoning classical style in favor of experimentation (xxxvii). After 1969 nationalization of the petroleum industry, oil revenues flowed into Iraq. The 1970's proved to be a time of change during which banks and industries were nationalized. The revenues were used to expand the system of education for men and women to the university level, resulting in Iraq having one of the highest literacy rates in the world (xxxviii). Women gained important posts in government, industry and education, and allowed to become soldiers. Unfortunately, after 1979, many of the achievements were undermined by the totalitarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who purged the ranks of opposition and minority groups, engaged the country in several wars, and was shunned by the international community by the use of monetary sanctions that crippled the economy.


Sources  Top
  • Abdullah, Thabit A.J. A Short History of Iraq: From 636 to the Present. London: Pearson Longman, 2003.
    https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/iz.html
  • Bahrani, Zainab. Iraq's Cultural Heritage: Monuments, History, and Loss. Art Journal/62, no. 4 (Winter 2003): pp. 10-17.
  • Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.
  • Foster, Benjamin R, Karen Polinger Foster and Patty Gerstenblith. Iraq Beyond the Headlines: History, Archaeology, and War. Hackensack, New Jersey: World Scientific, 2005.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty. Da Capo Press.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
  • Munier, Gilles. Iraq: an Illustrated History and Guide. Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2004.
  • Muralidharan, Sukumar. Iraq and the Crisis of the U.S. Imperium: Of Dollar Hegemony, Debt and the English Language. Social Scientist/31, no. 3 / 4 (Mar.- Apr., 2003), pp. 74-89.
  • Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. London, New York: Penguin, 1992.
End Notes  Top

i For more information about the Fertile Crescent, consult: First Farmers: the origins of agricultural societies by Peter Bellwood, Ancient Mesopotamia: portrait of a dead civilization by A. Leo Oppeneheim, Daily life in ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat.
ii Roux, 64.
iii Foster, 15.
iv Roux, 65.
v Munier, 10.
vi Roux, 66-67.
vii Roux, 67.
viii Bahrani, 13.
ix Roux, 67.
x Kramer, 3-9.
xi Kramer, 3.
xii Kramer, 30-35.
xiii For the full text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, consult: The epic of Gilgamesh: a new translation, analogues, criticism, translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster.
xiv Kramer, 51-55.
xv Kramer, 329-332.
xvi Kramer, 60-64.
xvii Munier, 11.
xviii Munier, 11.
xix Munier, 12.
xx Munier, 13.
xxi Munier, 14.
xxii Munier, 15.
xxiii Munier, 16.
xxiv Munier, 17.
xxv Abdullah, 6.
xxvi Abdullah, 19
xxvii Abdullah, 21.
xxviii Abdullah, 21.
xxix Munier, 20.
xxx Cleveland, 53.
xxxi Abdullah 101
xxxii Abdullah, 105.
xxxiii Abdullah, 134.
xxxiv Abdullah, 144.
xxxv Abdullah, 147.
xxxvi Abdullah, 159.
xxxvii Foster, 202.
xxxviii Foster, 202.

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