Ancient History & Civilisation


This is a revised version, substantially enlarged and entirely rewritten, of the series of articles which appeared between September 1956 and January 1960 in Iraq Petroleum, the now defunct magazine of the Iraq Petroleum Company, under the title The Story of Ancient Iraq. Written in Basrah with no other source of documentation than my own personal library, these articles suffered from many serious defects and were far from even approaching the standards required from a work of this nature. In my view, whatever merit they possessed resided more in the lavish manner in which they were printed and illustrated than in the quality of their content. Yet, much to my surprise, the ‘Story’ received a warm welcome from a large and distinguished public. From Japan to California, a number of persons who, directly or indirectly, had access to the magazine took the trouble to write to the editor or myself asking for back numbers, spare copies or reprints, and suggesting that these articles be put in book form. I have now at last complied with their wish and I must say that, had it not been for the encouragement I received from their indulgent appreciation, I would never have had the courage to embark upon such a task.

For the unexpected success of these articles I can find only one reason: imperfect as they were, they helped to fill a regrettable gap. The Tigris-Euphrates valley – the region once called Mesopotamia and now mostly in Iraqi territory – forms a large, coherent, well-defined geographical, historical and cultural unit. Throughout antiquity, its inhabitants – Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians – shared the same brilliant civilization and played the leading role in Near Eastern politics, art, science, philosophy, religion and literature. During the last hundred years an enormous amount of archaeological research has been carried out in Iraq proper and in the eastern provinces of Syria. Impressive monuments have been unearthed, and museums have been filled with works of art and inscribed tablets recovered from the buried cities of Mesopotamia. No less remarkable results have been achieved in the field of philology: little by little, the two main languages of ancient Iraq – Sumerian and Akkadian – have yielded their secrets, and tens of thousands of texts have been translated and published. In university libraries the number of books and articles devoted to one aspect or other of Mesopotamian archaeology, history and civilization is positively staggering. Yet while several excellent and detailed histories of ancient Egypt, Iran, Syria, Palestine and Anatolia are offered to scholars or laymen, until H. W. F. Saggs in 1962 published The Greatness That Was Babylon it was impossible to find one single recent general history of ancient Iraq in English or, to my knowledge, in any other language.

That professional people are reluctant to undertake such a task can easily be understood. To deal thoroughly and competently with all the aspects of a civilization which had its roots in prehistory and lasted for more than thirty centuries would keep several scholars fully occupied for years and would fill many large volumes. Moreover, as almost every new discovery alters our knowledge of the past, even such a work would be in danger of becoming obsolete within a decade. Assyriologists and archaeologists in general prefer to plough their own fields. Most of their works are accessible only to other scholars or to advanced students. Those among these specialists who aim at a wider audience write on the subjects they know best. ‘Popular’ books, such as Woolley's monographs on Ur, Parrot's publications on Mari or Kramer's editions of Sumerian epics and myths cannot be too highly praised, but they are spotlights illuminating small areas in a very large picture. The layman often fails fully to appreciate their value simply because he is unable to place the sites, monuments, events or ideas described in their proper chronological or cultural context. Historians, on the other hand, have adopted precisely the opposite attitude. The works of L. King (A History of Sumer and Akkad, London, 1910; A History of Babylon, London, 1915), Sidney Smith (Early History of Assyria, London, 1928), A. Olmstead (History of Assyria, New York, 1923), B. Meissner (Babylonien und Assyrien, Heidelberg, 1925) and L. Delaporte (La Mésopotamie, Paris, 1923), excellent in their time and still very useful, though on many points outdated, have never been replaced. Instead, the French and Germans and, to a lesser extent, the British have given us, in more recent years, vast syntheses embracing either the whole of Western Asia or the entire Near East (Egypt included), or even the totality of the ancient world. E. Meyer's Geschichte des Altertums (1913 – 37), H. Schmökel's Geschichte des alten Vorderasien (1957), or the chapters written by G. Contenau and E. Dhorme for Peuples et Civilisations (1950), by L. Delaporte for Les Peuples de l'Orient Méditerranéen (1948) and by G. Goossens for the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade (1956), or again, the monumental Cambridge Ancient History (1923 – 5), of which a revised edition is being prepared, are invaluable monuments of erudition and lack neither detail nor perspective. But it is the kind of perspective one can expect in an art gallery where even a masterpiece tends to lose its individual character among other paintings. No matter what place they give to Mesopotamia, these books fail to do full justice to the remarkable cohesion and continuity of her history and civilization.

In a modest way, the present work aims at bridging the gap between these two kinds of publications: monographs and encyclopedias. Devoted entirely to Iraq,* it is a concise and in many respects incomplete study of the political, economic and cultural history of Mesopotamia in antiquity, beginning with the first manifestations of human presence in north-eastern Iraq during palaeolithic times, and ending with the ultimate collapse of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization at the dawn of the Christian era. In addition, two introductory chapters purport to acquaint the reader with the geography and ecology of Mesopotamia and with the techniques and results of archaeological excavations in that country.

Ancient Iraq is intended not for scholars, but for laymen and students. Throughout the world there exists a growing number of persons from all walks of life who are deeply interested in history in general and in the ancient Orient in particular. Cultured and eager to learn, these persons have not yet found gathered in one volume of reasonable size all the information they desire on a country which, with very good reasons, fascinates them. It is for this enlightened public that this book has primarily been written. But among those kind enough to look with indulgence upon my articles in Iraq Petroleum were also several university professors. In private letters and conversation they expressed the opinion that a book written along the same lines as the articles would provide their students with a useful working instrument. In order to satisfy the requirements of this category of readers, I have enlarged on certain points, perhaps considered by many as of secondary importance, and provided each chapter with rather copious bibliographical and explanatory notes. The thought that this work could be of some help to young students of antiquity will, I hope, render the general public more tolerant to its occasional heaviness.

I have endeavoured to make this work as simple, clear and readable as humanly possible, but at the same time accurate and up to date. Needless to say that this was not an easy task. Writing for non-specialized readers on scientific matters is like walking on a tightrope: one is always afraid of falling into pedantry or triviality, and I am by no means sure that I have succeeded in keeping my balance all the way. In the enormous amount of material available, I had to make difficult, often heart-breaking choices, but I have taken great care to avoid over-simplification and dogmatism. History, especially where antiquity is concerned, abounds in unsolved problems, and the truth of today may be the proven error of tomorrow. I have therefore taken the liberty of discussing at some length some of the more debated problems – such as the origin of the Sumerians – and I have underlined, on almost every page, the provisional character of our knowledge. On frequent occasions I have attempted to correlate historical events with previous events or with geographical and economic conditions. In other words, I have tried to ‘explain’ as much as to describe, for I feel that without such ‘explanations’ – no matter how tentative they are – history would be nothing but a meaningless and tedious collection of dates and data. Finally, I have given archaeology, art, literature and religion more importance than is usually expected in a work of this kind, and I have quoted as many texts as space would permit. The public nowadays wants to know how ancient people lived and what they thought at least as much as what they did, and the best way to make the past alive is perhaps to let it speak by itself.

I wish to thank all those who have helped me in this work, particularly my learned friends Monsieur René Labat, Professor at the Collège de France, Paris, and Monsieur Georges Dossin, Professor at the Universities of Brussels and Liège, who gave me their encouragement; Mr T. E. Piggott, former editor of Iraq Petroleum, who published my articles and obligingly put the blocks at my disposal; Mr L. H. Bawden, who drew the maps with consummate skill and art; Monsieur P. Amiet, of the Louvre Museum, Dr R. D. Barnett and the Trustees of the British Museum, Professor W. Caskel, of the University of Cologne, Dr G. R. Meyer, of the Vorderasiatische Museum, Berlin, and Dr Faisal al-Wailly, Director-General of Antiquities to the Iraqi Government, who authorized the publication of photographs of the monuments from their respective museums. Above all, I owe a very special debt of gratitude to Dr D. J. Wiseman, Professor of Assyriology at the University of London, who was kind enough to read the manuscript and to offer much invaluable advice, and to my wife, without whose self-sacrifice, moral support and linguistic assistance I would have been unable to write this book.

London, August 1963

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