Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 1

THE GEOGRAPHICAL SETTING

Nowhere, perhaps, is the influence of geography upon history as clearly demonstrated as in the group of countries which extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian plateau and form what we call the Near East. In the great deserts and equatorial forests, or in the vicinity of the poles, man is overwhelmed by a hostile nature threatening his very existence. In temperate areas, on the other hand, man is almost everywhere at home in a favourable and challenging environment. But in the arid, sub-tropical Near East the balance between man and nature is more delicately poised. Man can live there and even thrive, yet his various activities are largely conditioned by the relief of the ground, the nature of the soil, the amount of rainfall, the distribution of springs and wells, the course and rate of flow of the rivers. These factors exert upon him a profound influence: they mark the paths of his trade and of his military ventures, incline him to settle as a farmer or condemn him to the wandering life of a nomad, contribute to his physical and moral qualities and, to some extent, command his thoughts and religious beliefs. The history of any Near Eastern country must therefore begin with a study of the map, and the antique land of Iraq is no exception to the rule.

Since we possess no ancient treatise on geography, the following description will necessarily be based on present-day Iraq, though there is no doubt that it applies to antiquity with but minor amendments.1 While in some parts of the country the rivers do not follow exactly the same course as they did in the past, and while regions which were once fertile are now sterile and vice versa, the general pattern of mountains, plains and valleys remains obviously unchanged, and a comparison between ancient and modern faunae and florae,2 as well as the evidence obtained from geological and meteorological studies,3 indicate that climatic fluctuations over the last five thousand years have been so slight as to be practically negligible. Scientific proof of this kind, however, is almost superfluous, for any person with some knowledge of history who visits Iraq finds himself in familiar surroundings. Not only do bare mountains, stony deserts, fields of barley, palm-groves, reed-thickets and mud-flats form the landscape which ancient texts and monuments suggested, but living conditions outside the main cities are reminiscent of those of yore. On the hills shepherds straight from biblical ages graze sheep and goats; in the desert tribes of bedouins endlessly wander from well to well, as of old; in the plain peasants live in mud houses almost identical with those of the Babylonian farmers and often use similar tools, while fishermen in the marshes dwell in the reed-huts and punt the highprowed boats of their Sumerian ancestors. If the moon, the sun, the winds, the rivers are no longer worshipped, their power is still feared or welcomed, and many ancient customs and beliefs can be explained by reference to present conditions. Indeed, there are few countries in the world where the past is more strangely alive, where the historian's dead texts are provided with a more appropriate illustration.

Our field of studies is a triangle covering an area of about 240,000 square kilometres, limited by arbitrary lines drawn between Aleppo, Lake Urmiah and the mouth of the Shatt-el-‘Arab. The political frontiers of today divide this triangle between Syria and Iraq, the latter having the better share, while parts of Turkey and Iran protrude in the north and east. But these frontiers are recent, and the whole region constitutes in fact one large geographical unit having for its main axis the valleys of two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. We may therefore call it ‘Mesopotamia’, though the word, coined in antiquity by Greek historians, is somewhat too restricted, meaning ‘(the land) between the rivers’. Surprising as it may seem, the ancient inhabitants of ‘Mesopotamia’ had no name covering the totality of the country in which they lived, and the terms they used were either too vague (‘the Land’) or too precise (‘Sumer’, ‘Akkad’, ‘Assur’, ‘Babylon’). So deeply embedded in their minds were the concepts of city-states and of narrow politico-religious divisions that they apparently failed to recognize the existence of a territorial unity which to us is obvious.

The geographical unity of Mesopotamia was matched in pre-Christian times by a striking cultural unity. Within our triangle flourished a civilization which in quality and importance was only equalled by the civilization of Egypt. According to the fashion of the day, we call it ‘Chaldaean’, ‘Assyro-Babylonian’, ‘Sumero-Akkadian’ or ‘Mesopotamian’ civilization, but these are one and the same thing. From roots set deeply in the darkness of prehistoric times, it slowly grew, blossomed in the dawning light of history and lasted for nearly three thousand years, remaining remarkably uniform throughout, though repeatedly shaken by political convulsions and repeatedly rejuvenated by foreign blood and influence. The centres which generated, kept alive and radiated this civilization over the entire Near East were towns such as Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Agade, Babylon, Assur and Nineveh, all situated on or near the Tigris or the Euphrates, within the boundaries of modern Iraq. At the beginning of the Christian era, however, the Mesopotamian civilization gradually declined and vanished for reasons which will be detailed in due course. Some of its cultural and scientific achievements were salvaged by the Greeks and later became part of our own heritage; the rest either perished or lay buried for centuries, awaiting the picks of archaeologists. A glorious past was forgotten. In man's short memory of these opulent cities, of these powerful gods, of these mighty monarchs, only a few, often distorted names survived. The dissolving rain, the sand-bearing winds, the earth-splitting sun conspired to obliterate all material remains, and the desolate mounds which since concealed the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh offer perhaps the best lesson in modesty that we shall ever receive from history.

The Twin Rivers

Herodotus's famous sentence ‘Egypt is a gift of the Nile’4 is often quoted. In many respects, it can also be said of Mesopotamia that she is a gift of the twin rivers. From time immemorial the Tigris and the Euphrates have deposited their alluvium on a bed of sedimentary rocks between the Arabian platform and the Iranian highland, creating amidst deserts a plain which in size and fertility has no equivalent in the 2,300 miles of barren land stretching from the Indus to the Nile. Was this plain also claimed from the sea? In other words, did the head of the Arabo-Persian Gulf reach the latitude of Baghdad in early prehistoric times, being gradually pushed southwards as millennia went by? Such is the classical theory long professed as a dogma and still to be found in most textbooks.5 In 1952, however, a new theory was put forward, which claims that the Tigris and the Euphrates unload their sediment in a slowly subsiding basin and that in consequence the line of the seashore has probably varied very little in the course of time.6

However, further studies conducted in the 1970s, mainly on marine terraces and submarine sediments, have shown that this theory accounted for only part of a very complex process and that Pleistocene and Holocene changes in world climate were also major factors, being responsible for wide fluctuations in the level of the Gulf waters, which of course influenced the position of the shoreline and the gradient of river flow. Most scientists now agree that about 14000 B.C., at the peak of the last Ice Age, the Gulf was a deep and broad valley through which flowed the Tigris and the Euphrates united in a single river, and that this valley was gradually filled with sea water as the ice-cap melted. By 4000 – 3000 B.C. the level of the Gulf was approximately one or two metres above its present level, so that the shoreline lay in the vicinity of Ur and Eridu. Gradual regression combined with silting from the rivers brought it to where it is now.7 There is some archaeological evidence that around 1500 B.C. the sea-shore was roughly half-way betweenUr and modern Basrah.8 But many other factors must have intervened, and we shall probably never know the entire story.

Both the Tigris and the Euphrates have their sources in Armenia, the former to the south of Lake Van, the latter near Mount Ararat. The Euphrates, 2,780 kilometres long, first follows a zigzagging course across Turkey, while the Tigris, notably shorter (1,950 kilometres), almost immediately flows southwards. When they emerge from the Taurus mountains the two rivers are separated from each other by some 400 kilometres of open steppe. The Euphrates, which at Jerablus is only 150 kilometres from the Mediterranean, takes a south-easterly direction and leisurely makes its way towards the Tigris. Near Baghdad they nearly meet, being a mere thirty-two kilometres apart, but they soon diverge again and do not mingle their waters until they reach Qurnah, 100 kilometres north of Basrah, to form the Shatt-el-‘Arab. In antiquity, however, this wide, majestic river did not exist, the Tigris and the Euphrates then running separately into the sea. This general pattern of river courses can be divided into two segments. To the north of a line Hit-Samarra the valleys of the Twin Rivers are distinct. The two streams cut their way across a plateau of hard limestone and shale and are bordered by cliffs, with the result that the riverbeds have moved very little in the course of time, the ancient cities – such as Karkemish, Mari, Nineveh, Nimrud or Assur – still being on, or close by, the river banks, as they were thousands of years ago. But to the south of that line the two valleys merge and form a wide, flat alluvial plain – sometimes called the Mesopotamian delta – where the rivers flow with such a low gradient that they meander considerably and throw numerous side-branches. Like all meandering rivers they raise their own beds, so that they frequently flow above the level of the plain, their overflow tending to create permanent lakes and swamps, and they occasionally change their course. This explains why southern Mesopotamian cities, which were once on the Euphrates or on its branches, are now forlorn ruin-mounds in a desert of silt, several miles from modern waterways. Changes in riverbeds are extremely difficult to study in retrospect and to date with accuracy, but they certainly occurred in antiquity. It is, however, remarkable that the ancient Mesopotamians managed to keep their rivers under control, since the two principal branches of the lower Euphrates followed approximately the same course for about three thousand years, passing through Sippar, Babylon, Nippur, Shuruppak, Uruk, Larsa and Ur, that is to say from 25 to 80 kilometres to the east of its present main channel. As for the Tigris, all that can be said about its ancient course in southern Mesopotamia is that it probably was the same as the course of the Shatt el-Gharraf, one of its present branches: straight from Kut el-Imara to the neighbourhood of Nasriyah. It seems to have played a relatively minor role in that region, either because its bed was dug too deep into the alluvium for simple canal irrigation or because it was surrounded – as indeed it is now – by extensive marshes.

The climate of central and southern Iraq is of the ‘dry, subtropical’ variety, with temperatures reaching 120° F. (50° C.) in summer and an average winter rainfall of less than ten inches. Agriculture therefore depends almost entirely upon irrigation, though the dimensions and profile of the plain, as well as the rate of flow of the rivers, preclude the cheap and easy ‘basin type’ of irrigation as practised, for instance, in Egypt, where the overflow of the Nile freely inundates the valley for a time and then withdraws. Since the combined flood periods of the Tigris and the Euphrates occur between April and June, too late for winter crops and too early for summer crops, the fields must be supplied with water at man's will, and this is achieved by a complex system of canals, reservoirs, dykes, regulator-sluices and the like (‘perennial irrigation’).9 To create an efficient network of canals and to maintain them against rapid silting-up are clearly colossal and unending tasks which require large labour forces and the cooperation of many communities – factors which contain the germs of both local strife and political unity. But this is not all: year after year, two grave dangers threaten the Mesopotamian farmer. The more insidious of the two is the accumulation in flat, low-lying areas of the salt brought by irrigation and collected in the water-table which lies just beneath the surface. If no artificial drainage is installed – and it seems that such drainage was unknown in antiquity – fertile fields can become sterile in a comparatively short time, and in this way, throughout history pieces of land of ever-increasing size had to be abandoned and reverted to deserts.10 The other danger lies in the capricious rate of flow of the twin rivers.11 While the Nile, fed by the great lakes of East Africa acting as regulators, has an annual flood of almost constant volume, the volume of the combined floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates is unpredictable, for it depends upon the variable amount of rain or snow which falls on the mountains of Armenia and Kurdistan. If low waters over a few years mean drought and famine, one excessive flood often spells catastrophe. The rivers break through their embankments; the low land as far as the eye can see is submerged; the flimsy mud-houses and reed-huts are swept away; the crop is lost in a huge muddy lake, together with the cattle and the belongings of a large part of the population. It is a spectacle the horror of which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed the last great Iraqi inundation, in the spring of 1954. Thus Mesopotamia constantly hovers between desert and swamp. This double threat and the uncertainty it creates as regards the future are believed to be at the root of the ‘fundamental pessimism’ which, for some authors, characterizes the philosophy of the ancient Mesopotamians.

Despite these drawbacks, the plain watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates is a rich farming land and was even richer in antiquity before extensive salinization of the soil took place. The entire population of ancient Iraq could easily feed on the country and barter the surplus of cereals for metal, wood and stone, which had to be obtained from abroad. Though wheat, emmer, millet and sesame were grown, barley was – and still is the main cereal, since it tolerates a slightly saline soil. Agricultural methods were, as might be expected, primitive, yet at the same time thorough. They are described in fairly great detail in an interesting text known as ‘a Sumerian Farmer's Almanac’, written about 1700 B.C.12 According to this text – which purports to be a farmer's instructions to his son – the field was first watered with moderation, trampled over by shod oxen, then carefully dressed with axes to make its surface even. Ploughing and sowing were carried out simultaneously by means of a wooden seeding-plough that went ‘two fingers’ deep into the soil, the furrows being approximately two feet apart. Later, while barley was growing, the field was inundated again three or four times. The same document also describes the harvesting, the threshing by wagon and sled, and the winnowing. As in the Book of Ruth, the farmer is exhorted to ‘make the earth supply the sustenance of the young and the gleaners’ by leaving on the ground some of the fallen ears.

The initial watering and ploughing were performed in May–June, and the main harvest usually took place in April of the following year; but a catch-crop was often possible after the winter rains. The fields remained fallow every other year. There is no doubt that the alluvial soil of central and southern Mesopotamia was very fertile in antiquity, but the figure of two- or three-hundredfold given by Herodotus and Strabo for the yield of corn is grossly exaggerated,13 and to state that the yield of wheat in the extreme south of Iraq in about 2400 B.C. could compare favourably with that of the most modern Canadian wheatfields seems to be over-enthusiastic. In fact, all figures put forward by modern authors must be taken with caution since they are based on very few cuneiform texts, some of which may be misleading; moreover, they only apply to a certain period and a certain region. However, the recently suggested overall estimate of forty- to fiftyfold (i.e. about twice the average figure in central Iraq in the fifties) appears to be acceptable.14The hot and humid climate of southern Mesopotamia and the availability of ample water supplies in that region also were conditions highly favourable to the cultivation of the date-palm which grows along rivers and canals, ‘its feet in water and its head in the scorching sun’, in the words of an Arabian proverb. We learn from ancient texts that as early as the third millennium B.C. there were in the country of Sumer extensive palm-groves, and that artificial pollination was already practised.15 Flour and dates – the latter of high calorific value – formed the staple food of ancient Iraq, but cattle, sheep and goats were bred and grazed in the uncultivated areas and in the fields left fallow, while rivers, canals, lakes and sea provided fish in abundance. A variety of fruit and vegetables, including pomegranates, grapes, figs, chickpeas, lentils, beans, turnips, leeks, cucumbers, watercress, lettuces, onions and garlic, was also grown in gardens sheltered by the palm-trees and watered by means of a very simple water-lifting instrument (dâlu) which is still used under its old name. There is no doubt that, apart from occasional famines due to war or natural disasters, the Mesopotamians generally enjoyed a rich and varied diet and were much better off in this respect than their neighbours of Syria, Iran or Asia Minor.16

Regional Variations

Up to now our attention has been focused on the main axis of the Mesopotamian triangle, the plain between the two rivers; but if we turn to the periphery we at once observe considerable differences in climate and landscape. Leaving aside minor local variations, four main regions can be described: the desert, the steppe, the foothills and the marshes.

Hilly in the north, dissected by deep wadis in the centre, flat and featureless in the south, the desert borders to the west the whole course of the Euphrates and extends for hundreds of kilometres into the heart of Arabia.17 This great Syro-Arabian desert, however, was foreign to ancient Mesopotamia, and the sharp line which divides it from the Euphrates valley also marks the limit of pre-Islamic settlements. The Sumerians and Babylonians were essentially peasant-folk; unlike the Arabs, they turned their backs on the desert and remained firmly attached to the ‘good land’, the fertile alluvium. But they had to reckon with the uncouth nomads who attacked their caravans, raided their towns and villages and even invaded their country, as did the Amorites at the beginning of the second millennium and the Aramaeans eight hundred years later. As we shall see, long chapters in the history of ancient Iraq are filled with episodes of this age-old struggle between the sedentary society of the alluvial plains and the hostile tribes of the western desert. It must be added here that desert conditions can be found in various parts of Mesopotamia itself. Not only is the desert always potentially present between the twin rivers, ready to creep in and take the place of cornfields and palm-groves as soon as rivers change their course or canals become silted-up, but large areas on the left bank of the Tigris and of the Middle Euphrates have always been dreary wastes strewn with dry wadis and salt lakes, scarcely inhabited at the best of times and by-passed by the main trade routes.

In the north-western part of Mesopotamia, beyond the thin ridges formed by Jabal ‘Abd-al-Aziz and Jabal Sinjar and up to the foot of the Taurus, the plain called by the Arabs al Jazirah, ‘the island’, spans the 400 kilometres which separate the Tigris from the Euphrates. The many streams which converge and form the rivers Balikh and Khabur, affluents of the Euphrates, are spread like fans over this region, while the more than adequate winter rains are supplemented by a vast and superficial water-table fed by the snows of the nearby mountains. Cornfields and orchards stretch along the rivers or cluster around springs and wells, the meshes of this green network being filled by a steppe covered with grass in springtime and offering ideal conditions for the breeding of cattle, sheep and horses. This fertile plain forms a natural ‘corridor’, a transit area between the Upper Tigris valley and the plains of northern Syria, and the amazing constellation of ‘tells’ representing buried cities and villages testifies that it was heavily populated in antiquity.

Of particular interest for the historian is the north-eastern corner of Iraq, the foothill region between the Tigris and the mountains of Kurdistan.18 There the annual rainfall varies between 30 and 60 centimetres. From a rolling plain alongside the river the ground rises through a series of parallel folds of gradually increasing height to the rugged, snow-covered peaks of the Zagros range (altitude 2,500 to 3,600 metres) which separates Iraq from Iran. Four tributaries of the Tigris, the Greater Zab, the Lesser Zab, the ‘Adhem and the Diyala, flow diagonally across the region, sometimes cutting deep gorges through the limestone ridges, sometimes zigzagging around them. The climate is hot in summer but cool in winter. The hills are now rather denuded, but here and there on their slopes can be seen a meadow or a small forest of oaks or pine-trees, while wheat, barley, fruit-trees, vine and vegetables grow easily in the high-lying valleys. Successively the home of pre-historic cavemen, the cradle – or, rather, one of the cradles – of farming in the Neolithic Near East, and the fringe of the Assyrian kingdom, this attractive district played an important part in the history of Mesopotamia. Yet even in Assyrian times civilization remained confined to the cultivable land at the foot of the hills. The mountains themselves, difficult to penetrate and easy to defend, always formed a disputed borderland between the armies of Mesopotamian rulers and the ‘barbarian' highlanders who, like the bedouins of the western desert, coveted and threatened the wealthy cities of the plain.

At the other end of Iraq, the extensive marshes which cover the southern part of the Tigris–Euphrates delta also form a special district, widely different from the rest of Mesopotamia. With their myriads of shallow lakes, their narrow waterways winding through dense thickets of reeds, their fauna of water-buffaloes, wild boars and wild birds, their mosquitoes and their stifling heat, they constitute one of the most strange, forbidding and fascinating regions of the world.19 Although they may have varied in extent and configuration, ancient monuments and texts prove that they have always existed, and indeed, the Ma'dan, or marsh-Arabs, appear to have preserved to some extent the way of life of the early Sumerians established on the fringe of the swamps more than five thousand years ago. From an archaeological point of view, the Iraqi marshes are still largely terra incognita. Reports from travellers suggest that traces of ancient settlements are exceedingly rare, probably because they consisted of reed-hut villages similar to those of today, which have completely disappeared or lie buried beneath several feet of mud and water. It is hoped, however, that modern methods – such as the use of helicopters – will eventually open to exploration a region which is by no means lacking in historical interest.

Thus, under an apparent uniformity, Iraq is a land of contrasts. If the northern steppe and the southern marshes can be considered as local variants of the great Mesopotamian plain, there is a striking difference in topography, climate and vegetation between the plain and the foothill region, and this difference has its counterpart in history. Throughout antiquity, a definite opposition between the North and the South – or, in terms of political geography, between Sumer-and-Akkad (or Babylonia) and Assyria – can be detected, sometimes faintly perceptible and revealed only by cultural dissimilarities, sometimes open and manifested in violent conflicts.

Trade Routes

Long before they knew that a wealth of petroleum was lying beneath their feet, the inhabitants of Iraq exploited a parent-substance, bitumen, which they obtained from seepages in various parts of the country, in particular on the Middle Euphrates, between Hit and Ramâdi. They used bitumen in many ways, not only in architecture (as mortar for brickwork and waterproof lining for bathrooms and drains), but in sculpture and inlay-work, as a material for caulking boats, as fuel and even as a drug. There is some evidence that, at least during certain periods in their history, they exported it.20

But if Mesopotamia was rich in bitumen, clay and agricultural products, she lacked metal ores as she lacked hard stone and good timber. These materials were already being imported from abroad in proto-historical times, thus enabling a Chalcolithic culture to develop in a country conspicuous for the absence of metal. Copper was first discovered, it is generally believed, in north-western Iran or in the Caucasus, and was perhaps originally obtained from Azerbaijan or Armenia. Soon, however, were found alternative sources of supplies, such as Anatolia (which later produced iron), Cyprus and the country called in cuneiform texts Magan, which has tentatively been identified with the mountainous part of Oman. Tin seems to have been inported from Iran, the Caucasus, or perhaps even Afghanistan, before the Phoenicians in the first millennium B.C. brought it from Spain. Silver came mostly from the Taurus mountains, gold from various deposits scattered between Egypt and India.21 Several districts of Iran could provide hard stones and semi-precious stones, and Magan was reputed for its beautiful black diorite used by the sculptors of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Ordinary timber could be found in the nearby Zagros mountains, but the valuable cedar was brought from Lebanon or the Amanus, while other varieties of wood came by sea from the mysterious country of Meluhha – possibly the ancient name for the Indus valley. At a very early date, therefore, an extensive network of trade routes was developed, which linked the various parts of Mesopotamia with each other and with the rest of the Near East.22

Within Mesopotamia transport from one locality to another was frequently effected by water. The Tigris and the Euphrates formed convenient thoroughfares from north to south, and the larger irrigation canals could also be used as waterways between villages and cities. The advantages offered by these means of communications can readily be appreciated if one remembers that the canals themselves are obstacles to land traffic, that most of the plain is covered with thick mud in winter and liable to local inundations during the spring, and that the only pack-animal available until the camel was introduced on a large scale in the first millennium B.C. was the ass.

Outside Mesopotamia two great roads led in a westerly direction towards Syria and the Mediterranean coast. These roads were, of course, simple desert tracks, for the paved highways which have been found outside the gates of several cities were unlikely to go very far inland. The first road started from Sippar (near Fallujah, at the latitude of Baghdad), followed the Euphrates as far as Mari or some other market-place in the Abu-Kemal–Deir-ez-Zor area, and, cutting straight through the desert via Tidmur (Palmyra), reached the region of Horns, where it divided into several branches to the Phoenician ports, Damascus or Palestine. The crossing of the desert – there no more than 500 kilometres wide – was inconvenient in summer and exposed at all times to attacks from the nomads; caravans and armies, therefore, usually preferred the second road, much longer but safer and well provided with water and fodder. It left the Tigris at Nineveh, opposite Mosul, ran through the steppe of Jazirah from the east to west via Shubat-Enlil (perhaps Tell Leilan), Guzana (Tell Halaf), Harranu (Harran), crossed the Euphrates – afKarkemish (Jerablus) or at Emar (Meskene), passed through or near Aleppo and ended in the Orontes valley, with terminal branches to the Mediterranean coast and central Syria.23 At various points on this road other tracks branched off in a north-westerly direction, ultimately ending in Cilicia and Anatolia. From Nineveh it was also possible to reach Armenia and eastern Anatolia by following the Tigris as far as Diarbakr and then crossing the Taurus through narrow passes.

Communications with the east were much more difficult. The tribes dwelling in the Zagros were generally hostile, and the mountain itself constituted a formidable barrier which could only be passed at three points: at Raiat, near Rowanduz, at Halabja, to the south-east of Suleimaniyah, and at Khanaqin, on the upper Diyala. The Raiat and Halabja passes gave access to Azerbaijan and the shores of Lake Urmiah, the Khanaqin pass to Kermanshah, Hamadan and, beyond Hamadan, the Iranian plateau. A fourth road, farther south, ran parallel to the Zagros from Dêr (near Badrah) to Susa (Shush, near Dizful), the capital city of Elam. It met with no physical obstacle, the lower valleys of the rivers Kerkha and Karun, which form the territory of Elam, being merely an eastward extension of the Mesopotamian plains, but the Elamites were the traditional enemies of the Mesopotamians, and this road was more often followed by invading armies than by peaceful caravans.

The last of the great trade routes between ancient Iraq and the rest of the world was through the Arabo-Persian Gulf, the ‘Bitter River’, the ‘Lower Sea’ or ‘Sea of the Rising Sun’, as it was then called. From early Islamic times onward the Gulf has been the ‘lung’ of Iraq, a window wide open on India and, later, the Far East and Western countries.24 In antiquity, merchant ships sailed on it from Ur to Dilmun (Bahrain) and hence to Magan (Oman) and/or Meluhha (the Indus valley), probably putting into several as yet unidentified ports on their way. It has long been known from cuneiform texts and some objects, notably stamp-seals, that commercial relations between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley had been established as early as the third millennium, but until recent years the Arabian coast of the Gulf had been terra incognita on archaeological maps. In 1953, however, excavations started in Bahrain and subsequently extended to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (Failakka Island), Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, with unexpected results. Not only have they brought to light material evidence of cultural and commercial intercourse between these countries and Mesopotamia (as well as south-eastern Iran and Pakistan) since the fifth millennium, but they have also revealed local cultures of considerable interest.25 Later on, at certain periods the Gulf was sailed by ships transporting troops and possibly ambassadors, since we know that the kings of Akkad, c. 2200 B.C., and the kings of Assyria, in the first millennium, endeavoured to attract at least Dilmun and Magan within the sphere of their political and economic influence.

This brief and very incomplete description should have made it clear that Mesopotamia, contrary to popular belief, did not offer ideal conditions for the development of an original civilization. Her two rivers form a fertile delta, but they can bring disaster as well as opulence. Through considerable and sustained effort agriculture is possible on a large scale, but metal, stone and timber are desperately lacking. Deserts and high mountains, both difficult to cross and inhabited by predatory people, surround the plain on all sides, leaving only one narrow access to the sea – a sea bordered for five hundred miles by the inhospitable shores of Arabia and Persia. All considered, the northern steppe and the foothills of Kurdistan would seem to offer a more favourable environment than the great alluvial plain, and it is not by chance that these regions were the seats of the Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic cultures of Mesopotamia. Yet it is in the extreme south of that country, on the fringe of the swamps, that the Mesopotamian civilization took shape. Whatever man achieved in ancient Iraq, he did it at the price of a constant struggle against nature and against other men, and this struggle forms the very thread of history in that part of the world. Before going farther, however, we must first examine the sources from which historians draw their raw material.

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