"Because the Hand of the Storm is from Heaven"*
I have very personal reasons to hate George Bush. There are millions of us around the globe who share this inclination, but the number of people who hate him for the same reasons I do is actually pretty small. Let me tell you a sad, sordid little tale of the tiny world of antiquities and comparative Semitics and how it was forever changed by the reckless actions of one ignorant cowboy.
Youâ€™re probably aware that in terms of â€œcivilization,â€ Iraq stands among the heavyweights like China, Egypt and India proudly. The record of literate well-organized urban settlements rich with culture and multiethnic traditions spans back unbroken to the fourth millennium before Christ. The burden of this history is so great scholars now refer to the ancient world with the term â€œbefore common eraâ€ (BCE) instead of â€œbefore Christâ€ (BC). Basically, once you learn a little about the non-Western ancient world, it seems more than arrogant to organize time around one guy from a tiny kingdom that hadnâ€™t really contributed so much to the progress of humanity in relative terms.
Although the question will probably never be settled completely, most of us agree that ancient Iraqis invented writing. Itâ€™s one of those inventions that forever changed human existence, like fire or the engine. Although other cultures later invented their own forms of writing independently in other parts of the world, ancient Iraqi script had an impact on scores of cultures for thousands of years. Interestingly, the first writing wasnâ€™t really used in the way it is today- ancient accountants are the people we have to thank for it, and the religious, storytellers and the government got into the game quite a bit later. Kind of like how the Internet was once the province of scientists and academics that never dreamed of the porn and security applications that now make up a significant portion of traffic. Invention is like that- you never know what someone else will make of it.
In the ancient world, writing meant power. After it became clear how useful writing could be for keeping track of large flocks of goats and sheep, it became of interest to the upper classes and priesthood. The power of the word, DUB.BA forever changed human social organization. Itâ€™s of note to recall that when writing was spreading across the ancient Near East, folks in Europe were still struggling with what kind of mix of clays worked best in pots and how to better spear wild deer. You wonâ€™t find the walled cities or elaborate material culture of the ancient Near East in Europe until thousands of years later.
The power of writing meant that peoples could now understand themselves through the lens of history. Leaving aside the discussion of orally transmitted cultures, the ancient Near Eastern people quickly took to writing down their traditions and stories, and separated themselves from fur-clad â€œtent-dwellersâ€ who were unlettered and â€œbuilt no walls.â€ Already in the third millennium BCE, empires rose to command huge portions of territory and trade. These societies were multiethnic, class based, literate and relatively complex in terms of material culture.
Interestingly, women had significant opportunities, at least those in the upper classes. They could own property, become government officials like judges and accountants, and they had a significant say in the religions of the region. The great usurper Sargon of Akkad, the first â€œSemiticâ€ king of the region, put his daughter Enheduanna in charge of all the old Sumerian temples and made her High Priestess of the major deity. Not only is she the first recorded author for which we have records, but she also commanded a significant portion of the â€œtemple economy,â€ itself a major center of the economy of the entire empire. Right up until the Common Era, we have records of women in ancient Iraq who participated in all levels of society openly and with success.
Scholarship about the ancient Near East is a recent development. For only about the last 200 years have scholars been patiently piecing together the historical and archaeological record of the region. The academic project of understanding an ancient civilization is frustratingly slow, and it takes a generation of scholarship just to advance our understanding to a small degree. Philology, the study of languages and their development over time, is at the heart of the process alongside archaeology. One brick, one word, one vowel and one statue at a time do we build a more complete picture of ancient peoples. There are huge gaps even today, periods stretching across hundreds of years for which we have only the slimmest of academic volumes. People can spend an entire lifetime in the study of one town, one archive or one major historical figure. A single piece of evidence discovered can revolutionize the perception of an entire civilization. Oh, what we wouldnâ€™t give for a complete copy of Manethoâ€™s works, or a non-mythical version of the Sumerian King List.
The scholarship of the ancient world has value today not only because itâ€™s fascinating and exotic to our modern sensibilities, but also because of what it can teach us about our world today. Most of Corrente readers donâ€™t struggle with the burden of faith in the Invisible Sky Father, but we do gnash our teeth at the progress the fundies have made getting their mythology into our science classrooms and policy sessions. Knowledge about the ancient world helps us curb that.
For example, I enjoy it when the bible salesmen come to my door. I open up my Hebrew-language old testament and a copy of collected comparative religious works from the greater Near Eastern region, and make their ears bleed. I particularly enjoy pointing out the first â€œMosesâ€ story (Sargon of Akkad), the first Flood narrative (the Sumerian Noah), and the first Job (the Akkadian â€˜Righteous Suffererâ€™). Actually, the list of â€œbibleâ€ stories that have obvious roots in more ancient pagan religions is really long. My favorite way to make them squirm is to show them the record of YHWHâ€™s â€œwife.â€ Mrs. God doesnâ€™t go over very well with our fundie friends.
Perhaps more importantly for those of us in the West, correctly understanding the ancient Near Eastern world helps defeat scourges like racism and colonialism. Anyone who understands the history of the region has a very hard time accepting the idea that we can â€œteachâ€ the Iraqis anything about government- theyâ€™ve pretty much tried every form ever invented, often hundreds of years before our cultures did. Informed people also understand that Iraqis value the things that make â€œmodernâ€ civilization worth living- again, and they have since ancient times. Iraq was a secular, gender balanced society until we invaded. Say what you will about Saddam, women could go to school and hold positions in government when he was in charge, and fundamentalist religious groups didnâ€™t dictate social policy. The Iraqi people valued their history and culture, and understood that they held it in trust for the whole world.
Which brings me to my burning, hotter than a thousand suns hatred of the Chimp. Of a surety, Saddam was no lover of freedom, or even the academic project. In fact, he desecrated the archaeological site of ancient Babylon in an attempt to shore up his own power. One advisor called this obscene building project an ancient Iraqi Disneyland crossed with a North Korean political rally. Like the ancient kings of old, Saddam attempted to connect with antiquity by stamping building materials with his own name and calling himself a lawgiver a la Hammurapi (Hammurabi). He shut down scholarly centers and forced academics to publish less often, and to his liking. The entire community of people concerned with the heritage of Iraq longed for his fall from power. But most of us never expected the Chimp to do worse. Yet he has.
You remember when the museums fell? A lot of us went bat-shit crazy a few days before it happened. Working with ex-pats and the invading governments, some scholars were told that these treasure houses would be protected by the invading troops. Obviously, that didnâ€™t happen. Nor are the archaeological sites spread across the country being protected today- thereâ€™s not an Iraqi archaeologist who hasnâ€™t aged twenty years in the past three. Professional looters with outside Western aid destroyed the museums, and poor, desperate and fundamentalist Iraqis are looting whatâ€™s left today, again usually with Western aid or money. The destruction of Iraqâ€™s heritage stands on the order of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, or the closing of the last Platonic school in Greece. George Bush is responsible, 100%, and scholars will always hold him in the ultimate contempt for it.
People who study clay tablets have a little saying amongst themselves. We consider how empires have risen and fallen, languages have been born and died, segments of continents become discovered, populated, depopulated, and forgotten. We consider how the great achievements of human history include fire, the engine, and writing. Should we lose the first two, thanks to nearly indestructible clay tablets, the latter need never be lost. Tablets will still be here when the last CD is tossed aside as unreadable, and every tongue on the internet today is no longer spoken. They haven't come up with a longer lasting information transfer format. So we watch, and wait, and continue on with the work upon which we hope future generations will build. While weâ€™re at it, we dredge up a few choice curse texts and spill a little beer and goats blood, hoping Pazuzu will visit Bush very soon.
This war has cost lives. In the end, trillions of dollars of national resources will have been wasted. Civil war and insurgent fundamentalism will tear whatâ€™s left of Iraq apart of years to come. We on the Left all mourn and rage at this, but we should remember there are other costs. Human civilization does not belong to one group of pale skinned people with ancestors who sailed on a small wooden boat a couple of hundred years ago. There are some things that should be held in value for all of us, today and in the future. Knowledge of who we are and where we come from should never be taken away, from anyone. Yet this is what Bush has done.
Iâ€™m getting really depressed, so Iâ€™ll go into other aspects of whatâ€™s been lost and whatâ€™s changed in another post. Interested readers should comment or email me, and Iâ€™ll forward some reading suggestions, forgive me for not having the heart to load this post up with links. Also, you can throw a little money and attention to these people, who are working hard to save whatâ€™s left. Bushâ€™s tanks and bombs have destroyed a fragile world and heritage that belongs to us all, and my scholarly life in the process. I will never forgive him for this, and leave this post cursing him once again.
*=From an Emesal section of "Lament of Ur" ln. 110-115, in Thompsen "The Sumerian Language"
$u ud-da an-ta ba-ma-al-la-ke4-e$
KA hu-mu-dub- eden-na ud gi4-a me.e he-em-ma-na-di
us-da gaba-bi d.ba-ra-mu-da-zi
nu.nus-gen e.nun.kug e na.ag-ga-$a.an-na-gu10
bal-ba us su-ra na-ma-in-gar-re-e$-am
ir a.$e.er-ra ki ha-ma-ab-us-e
"Because the hand of the storm is from heaven,
I screamed and cried to it: Storm, return not to this plain!
But the storm's breast did not rise,
To me, the woman, in Enunkug, my house of ladyship,
a rule of long days they have not granted.
Weeping and lamentation will follow me."