The sordid irony of location in human history has never been so cruelly exemplified as it now is, in the actions of the brazenly barbarous Islamic State. Their opportunistic infection of the Hobbesian chaos of Syria, and the militarily porous swathes of northern Iraq, places the refitted jackboot of theological fascism on land to which the world owes a debt.
Mesopotamia. The motherland of urban living, mathematics, agriculture, complex society, writing; and not forgetting, that stuff speculated as motivation for, but nevertheless the reward of such advances, and revolutionary sedantism: beer. The cultures emerging around the Tigris and Euphrates laid the cornerstone for the continually growing edifice of all that is worthy in mankind, our achievements, and some early glimpses at our capacity for error. Sixty centuries later, and the forces of fanatical ignorance are attempting to purge the past in the manner of all totalitarian, millennialist non-thinkers. In the clichéd but accurate terminology, the ‘cradle of civilisation’ is being occupied, desecrated and eviscerated by its antithesis, in a hideous poetic injustice.
Although undoubtedly sharing the land from which the myth of the garden was sprung, the first and perhaps defining civilisation was no Eden. The lengthy Sumerian cultural dominance yielded myriad firsts, templates seemingly impossible to reshape. The division of labour afforded technological and artistic advancement, freed from the grind also were the not so productive: the first institutional benefactors of social stratification. Numerical and alphabetical systems were, of course, of seismic importance, and a strict but effective educational system allowed for a caste of all-purpose scholars and scribes. A further irony in light of the recent destruction, the roots of much Hebrew myth and lore spring from this period, eventually to contribute to the three monotheist revelatory texts – from such apparent unoriginality, it doesn’t seem a great deal was revealed.
Agriculture set the tone of human life until the late 18th century, and sedantism offered opportunities for the monumental architecture now being bulldozed. As Professor Kramer summarises in his book on the subject, ‘The achievements of the Sumerians in the areas of religion, education, and literature left a deep impress not only on their neighbours in space and time but on the culture of modern man as well’. For all the arguable advancement (arguable in as much as the early urbanites and farmers sacrificially suffered greater malnutrition, disease, and poverty, so that surpluses might liberate the innovators from toil to contribute to the new civilisation), violence was frequent and lauded. Inscriptions, often tedious in their genealogical comprehensiveness, praise the martial virtues of kings and warriors, and record their victories in the inevitable disputes which, as the Greeks would learn, plague and motivate a system of city states. Warfare was crude and indecisive, sieges becoming stalemates due to technological limitations, and war chariots, equipped with the nascent wheel, were unable to turn. Violence, warfare, and the accompanying misery and cruelty were present from the beginning.
Nimrud, now a ruin of a ruin, has – or, lamentably, did have – walls that if they could talk would speak of a striking similarity between its denizens and its destroyers. By the edict of Ashurnasipal II, a revolutionarily ambitious expansionist, the city would serve as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and a more militarised culture it is difficult to discover. In all aspects of conquest and coercion, imperialism and administration, they were masterful; sowing the seeds of future imperial endeavours in the region, just as they sowed conquered earth with salt, and razed the ramparts of impertinent and imprudent rebels. Nothing new under the sun.
The irony I initially outlined concerning the return of civilisation’s blights to the land of its first instantiation, might be said to be null given the proximity in history of such violence to its inception, indeed the sad acceptance that the Sumerians were warring from the outset. However, a fact remains that is somewhat redemptive for the earlier inhabitants of the troubled land, and highly embarrassing to the Idea of Progress: that, in the 21st century, I.S represents a demographic and an ideology startlingly less civilised than Bronze Age warrior culture.
Assyrian Nineveh (another capital, close to Nimrud), when compared with the earlier Sumerian city of Uruk, is distant linguistically, geographical, and, from zenith to respective zenith, by thousands of years of technological change and political fluctuation. Yet one finds a royal tether between them. Between King Ashurbanipal of Assyria, and Gilgamesh, deified epic hero and mythical founder of the more ancient settlement, there is a link formed by something anathema in the eyes of the latest regional power: a library.
In the vast collection of volumes sought out and possessed by the historical leader, were the poetic accounts of the fictional. The cultural thread was treasured and maintained by the later rulers, the literature revered and studied. No such respect for the past or the arts is present today, nor does it seem, the possibility of accepting the existence or knowledge of either. In the Epic of Gilgamesh is detailed the hubris and folly of seeking to change the human condition, to gain immortality, and no small amount of violence. It is a haunting and fruitless attempt to attain the unattainable. There are clear parallels between despairing and all-consuming quest of the mighty king, and the fanatical monomania of Islamic State.
I.S have savagely beheaded, burnt, buried, and shot those whose existence is incompatible their totalising ideology. Their sworn ambition, their epic writ on the red sands of Syria and Iraq, has nothing but devastation as its end. The Epic is tempered by the humane and earthly wisdom of opposing views – no such dialectic is permitted in the Caliphate – particularly in the brief appearance of Siduri, a female brewer or vintner, who admonishes the hero, and offers universal advice:
‘ “Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice… cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man” ’.
Pleasure in life, the ambition of most. Nevertheless, unheeded by the protagonist, and in absolute opposition to the antagonists now present in the ancient land. The mythic king inevitably fails having ignored calls to desist, but before his heaven-supervised death, records his travels and his deeds, ‘and returning, engraved on a stone the whole story’. At least in his ignorance and defeat there was a thought toward a future, addition to a culture, and an instinct to record the past.
Perhaps, in a way, this was an acceptance of the values of Siduri, of common humanity. Even the warlike Assyrians were not as hubristic as their fabled hero, preferring his latter inclination to build and to create. Now, the overriding appetites of the powerful in what was once the Fertile Crescent is for death and devastation. The Temple of Ball at Palmyra has been obscenely levelled by explosives
It is a grim state of affairs when one hopes for an efficient and demanding international trade in stolen artefacts, for which the Islamic State has a dedicated department. These treasures, though they speak for countless generations of human culture, cannot offset the lives lost the murderous campaigns now witnessed. Neither can be replaced.
Mesopotamian empires and states engaged in wars of expansion and enrichment, doubtless an evil, but fostered in parallel a culture capable of reliefs and architecture of extraordinary beauty, and allowing room for lives lived along Siduri’s lines.
No such redemptive efforts from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive emir. Furious pursuit of the undesirable characterises the latest evil; the morbid and murderous lunge toward the a-temporal, the immoral, and the inhumane. The goal is an unfurnished existence, devoid of any apparatus superfluous to the ascetic requirements of the deity and It’s praise. The means and the end are joyless, a desert between the rivers and between the ears. Perhaps not a ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, but a one thought state, bent in supplication.
The eradication of rival thought, the expurgation of all evidence of it in historical sites, is not symptomatic of a clash of civilisations, but a revolt against all definitions of the idea of civilisation. The accretion and preservation of knowledge is the very mark and measure of it – in music, in sculpture, in writing – and by such attacks are they diminished. All that is profane to this intellectually nullifying ideology is, for want of a better word, sacred to us – by which I mean the great majority of mankind. There is then a cyclic and painful injustice in the razing of Nimrud, of Hatra, of Palmyra – that where civilisation began, there are those attempting to end it.