I recall, while studying Latin at school back in the last millennium, reading a letter by Pliny (the Elder, I think) written during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the Roman town of Pompeii. Pliny watched the spectacular cataclysm from across the bay in what is now Naples, and the immediacy of his account thrilled me.
History came to life and it stayed that way, in the sense that, as I later came to embellish the idea, all of human consciousness was a continuous moment, causes inextricably linked to effects, stretching backward and forward in an unbroken chain from Beginning to End.
The past literally is the present. Don't think I haven't wondered how dumb the concept is, too, because I have. It is. But I still like it.
Besides, it has never seemed more viable than it does now. As I write, Baghdad lies in ruins around me. Not the ruins it was in last week, last year, a decade, or even 30 decades ago. These are new ruins and they've pushed Baghdad into the critical mass of ruin: more of it is now ruined than isn't. No longer a city with ruins, it's a ruined city in which even the intact buildings partake of desolation, silence and despair. It's empty, abandoned, but the people have not yet gone.
Nature eyes it up and down. Creepers seem to grow and strangle as you watch them. The owls and hawks have divided up the night between them, hooting and chattering from statuary that now exists solely for their pleasure. A reddish-orange fog, aftermath of the sandstorm, also hangs in the air mingling with cordite, sewage, burning oil and fear. Every few minutes, there are bomb blasts, the graceful double-thump of anti-aircraft batteries, and the proletarian thud of mortar shells.
Twice hit by U.S. missiles in the past 24 hours, Iraqi Television is back on the air, broadcasting a call to arms for the tribes of Arabia to rise up in jihad, holy war, to help Saddam Hussein repel the invaders. The sword-dancing and rifle-rutting that are part of this call become intermingled with scenes of military tumescence ranging from the Akkadian to the British empires. Apart from the glitter and brashness of technology, we could be at almost any time in Baghdad's very long history. And since history in a nutshell is rarely more than a compendium of crises and brutal transitions, we are at any time. Everyman at Anytime.
A powerful enemy is at the gates. You cannot hold the hordes off forever. So it is just a matter of time before you will capitulate and embrace the blood-stained foreigner, who is now, in victory, more like an anxious suitor vying for your favors. This is the history of Baghdad.
No other place on Earth has been more involved for longer in civilization's history than the area now roughly encompassed by Iraq. When I first came to Baghdad, back in the spring of 1990 when the Iraqi dinar was worth more than the dollar and Saddam still considered himself America's good friend, the first sight that impressed itself upon me was a 50-foot banner draped across the arrivals hall reading: "Welcome to the cradle of civilization."
What a difference a decade makes. Baby C has been kicked from his cradle and lies dead from malnutrition; one U.S. dollar can buy as many as 3,000 dinars, and Saddam is the closest thing to Satan that America has seen since Ayatollah Khomeini hung up his head and fell asleep in a tomb.
The West just cannot read Saddam; we don't know what to make of him. A few years back, I asked Prince Hassan bin Talel, the brother of Jordan's late King Hussein and now touted to lead a Brand New Iraq under a constitutional monarchy, what he made of Saddam. "He loves Iraq," the prince replied. "He is an awful, brutal tyrant, but he has a genuinely passionate love for his country. One cannot take that away from him."
Clearly, he had abandoned this last thought by now. But to raise anything approaching nationalist fervor among the three distinctly different peoples who make up modern Iraq -- the Kurds to the north, the ruling Sunni Muslims centered in Baghdad, and the more numerous but pitifully impoverished Shiites in the marshes and wastes of the south and east -- Saddam always resorts to evocations of a very distant past.
Iraq's recent emergence as a somehow vital player on the world's stage comes after a period of some centuries during which it had never been less important. There was a time, however, when the whole region was not only of paramount importance, it was the very gate of God on Earth.
The arc of land between two mighty rivers, the Dijla or Tigris and the Furat or Euphrates, curving down from the mountains of central Asia to flow into the Arabian Ocean, is probably the biblical Garden of Eden. It was certainly the site of Sumer, the oldest documented civilization on the planet. A full millennium before the staggering grandeur and unparalleled 3,000-year longevity of Egypt, which overshadowed all subsequent civilizations, Sumer marks the transition of humankind from nomad to city dweller.
Sumerian society was dominated by two opposing qualities of the very land itself: the capricious nature of the two rivers, which at any time could unleash devastating floods capable of wiping away entire peoples, and, on the other hand, the extreme richness of the valleys, caused by the antiquity of the soil deposits in them.
The latter quality attracted migrating tribes and made possible for the first time in recorded history the growing of surplus food; whereas the former, the volatility of the rivers, necessitated a form of collective management to shore up the marshy, low-lying land against flooding.
As surplus food production increased and collective management advanced, a form of urbanization evolved in which Sumerian civilization took root.
The chief Myth of Sumer involves a search for immortality within the tenuousness of human existence. It also recounts the destruction of the world in a massive flood, and a wise old man who survived by building an ark.
Along with the pioneering development of cereal agriculture, the Sumerians invented something else that facilitated civilization: writing. Cuneiform, the bird's-feet-like script made by impressing a wet clay tablet with the triangular end of a chopped-off reed stylus, made it possible for them to hand down, generation to generation, their accumulated wisdom in general and such specific things as agricultural techniques. Writing, in fact, evolved to keep track of property, and double-entry bookkeeping, a remarkable innovation used to this very day, was every bit as important an offshoot as the syllabic alphabet.
Innovation after innovation poured from the fertile minds of Sumer -- the wheel and the plow, around 3700 BC; a math system based on the number 60, still the basis for measurement of time -- and their society evolved rapidly and in ways far more conducive to our own thinking than any other ancient society. It was matriarchal, for example, and as a consequence women were highly respected.
Private property played an unusually important role in daily life, in stark contrast to Egypt, where the pharaoh, as a god, owned everything and everyone. Sumerian kings were very human, and answerable to their people, with whom they shared the same right to bargain fairly for goods. Increasingly doubling as safe repositories for stored valuables, Sumer's temples also can be regarded as the first banks. In fact, everything Sumer did was a first. There are a lot of perks associated with being the first civilization.
Unlike the average Egyptian, who professes scorn for anything earlier than Mohammed, the average Iraqi is immensely aware and proud of being a descendant of Sumer. We have reached only 2700 BC, but already it should be easier to understand how unwelcome an event those whose ancestors gave the world writing, justice and agriculture would view an invasion by those who have given the world Mickey Mouse and the Big Mac, let alone thermonuclear warfare.
Iraqis are an educated, sensitive, accomplished people fallen on evil times. Things have never been worse, in fact, but this, they feel, is no reason to treat them like helpless savages.
The use of writing to record the oral tradition of songs and epics was one of those great leaps of human progress without which history simply wouldn't make sense; there wouldn't be any, for a start. Not only did literature start on the banks of the Tigris, that which survives from Sumer makes up one of the world's supreme masterpieces, an epic about Gilgamesh, who ruled the city-state of Uruk around 2700 BC. It also happens to be the principal source for the biblical book of Genesis, core of the cultural myth around which Western civilization formed. Our identity began here, so it would be far too satisfyingly neat for it to end here as well. Wouldn't it?
If ancient Sumer sounds too good to be true, it was. Perhaps the last great contribution it made to collective humanity was to become living proof that there is nothing made perfect by human hands that religion cannot corrupt and destroy within a year.
As a parasitical high priesthood evolved, and before long, predictably enough, they were claiming to be the gods on Earth, sole discerners of the ineffable divine will. It was pretty much downhill from there on.
In 2340 BC, the Akkadian strongman with a name like industrial detergent, Sargon, stomped into Sumer and subdued its city-states into his burgeoning empire, which extended as far as Lebanon.
But empires rarely last very long, and it was a mere 215 years later that Sargon's vanished forever, when the Sumerian city of Ur rose up in revolt. Ur, of course, was hometown to uber-patriarch Abraham, in whom the three querulous religions whose bickering actually makes up much of history are joined to their source.
The Sumerian civilization was, however, reunited about six centuries later, in 1700 BC, by King Hammurabi. But what had been Sumeria was now Babylonia, whose capital was the greatest city of the ancient world, Babylon (from Bab-ili, or Gate of God).
Hammurabi was strong, just, wise and visionary -- in short, he was the kind of ruler you vote for but never get. During his long reign, the two cultures that compose what is next known as Mesopotamia ("between the two rivers" in Greek) achieved complete and harmonious fusion for the only time. Tireless in his supervision of irrigation and construction projects, Hammurabi is best known for his codification of the laws governing Babylonian life, from which both Mosaic law and the modern legal system are directly descended.
Dissent and squabbling soon tore the Assyrians and Babylonians apart, with the Assyrians gaining the upper hand and controlling Babylonia until the sixth century when a series of revolts installed a new dynasty ruled by Nebuchadnezzar. He crushed the Assyrians. Then he conquered Judah, razed Jerusalem, removed every trace of Solomon's Temple and carried off the entire Hebrew ruling class, all 15,000, into slavery at Babylon, beside whose rivers they sat down and wept when they remembered Zion.
The captivity lasted 100 years, but it couldn't have been so bad for, when it was ended by the Persian Darius the Great, few Israelites wanted to leave. When finally a group led by Zorobabel did return to Zion, it was with what amounted to a new religion, one deepened and enriched by its prolonged contact with the profound theology of Zoroastrian Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar's descendants appear to have held a contest for silliest-name-reminiscent-of-the-dynasty's-founder, which ended when Nabopolassar, inexplicably, named his son Nebuchadnezzar, a confusion for history as unnecessary as two presidents named George Bush who both go to war with someone named Saddam. We'll need a rhyme to distinguish between the Georges, but the Saddam's the same.
At least the second Nebuchadnezzar can take pride in being the builder of Babylon's fabled Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They were about 50 kilometers south of Baghdad, on the east bank of the Euphrates, quite near where the Coalition of the Willing blew up one of its own tanks on Thursday. The second Nebuchadnezzar built them for his wife, whose name was Amyitis -- it was not a disease. She had been "brought up in Media and had a passion for mountain surroundings," we're told, referring to the Persian province and not a career in television. Her husband was, supposedly, trying to recreate these mountain vistas to prevent her homesickness. But the scale of Babylon's Hanging Gardens is rather terrifying and reveals an obsessive streak in Nebuchadnezzar II probably treatable today.
A contemporary observer noted that they had "plants cultivated above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in the upper terrace rather than in the earth. The whole mass is supported on stone columns. Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow down sloping channels. These waters irrigate the whole garden, saturating the roots of plants and keeping the whole area moist. Hence the grass is permanently green and the leaves of trees grow firmly attached to supple branches. . . . This is a work of art of royal luxury and its most striking feature is that the labor of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators."
It's hydroponic, then? I've seen something similar in British Columbia, where the grass is also permanently green.
Around this time, a pattern or habit was established that became the template for close to 2,000 years: the Babylonians form an alliance with the Persians and stomp the Assyrians. Then the Assyrians recover, form an alliance with the Babylonians and stomp the Persians, who eventually recover and resurrect their alliance with the Babylonians . . .
By the time Islam arrives to stop the cycle, one is heartily glad of it.
If I jumped in a car now, and wasn't vaporized by the Coalition or Regime, I could be in Babylon in about 15 minutes. Not much of it remains (but the way things are going here, there'll be even less left of Baghdad in two millennia), although quite a lot is there. Ninety-five per cent of what is visible, however, is Saddam's reconstruction. It resembles the set from a cheap 1950s biblical epic. Saddam should stick to tyranny; he doesn't know the first thing about historical reconstruction. The mighty lion gates are about an eighth the size of the originals, whereas Nebuchadnezzar's palace is twice what it would have been.
This is presumably because it is also Saddam's palace. A French architect he wouldn't allow to go home during the first Gulf War once told me that Saddam often came to stay in the repro palace alone, wandering around all night muttering to the ghost of Nebuchadnezzar. "Zey plan 'ow zey gonna capture za Juice again," the architect said, chuckling. "Only ziss time zey not gonna led 'em go."
Was Saddam even now awaiting the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar's ghostly armies to help him out of a tight spot? The Revolutionary Command Council, his henchmen, look unnaturally confident for men who will unquestionably be ripped apart when the regime change finally comes. You see one of them on SaddamVision whenever you turn the TV on, giving press conferences, practicing their English. With one exception, their highest level of education is Grade 4 -- and the absence of learning has not made them particularly pragmatic. Either they have some kind of super weapon, or they're all on drugs. They should be looking apprehensive by now; instead, it's the rest of us who are.
It's when you find yourself near the sign in Babylon that reads "Alexander the Great died on this spot in 323 BC" that you feel those chilling inner waves that drive back Babylon's awesome past. Having conquered the known world, hailed as a god by the Egyptian priesthood, Alexander died, broken, exhausted, worn out, aged 33. It was a sign for the city, which itself went into decline after the founding of Seleucia, the new Greek capital, by those to whom Alexander had bequeathed his empire. In the second century BC, Babylon became part of the Persian empire, remaining thus until the seventh century AD, when an army of 18,000 Arab Muslims led by Khalid ibn al Walied defeated the much more numerous Persians, said to be exhausted from ceaseless campaigns against the Byzantines and chained together so they could not flee.
The people were offered this ultimatum: "Accept the faith and you are safe; otherwise pay tribute. If you refuse to do either, you have only yourself to blame. A people is already upon you, loving death as you love life."
The following year, the Persians rallied under their hero, Rustum, attacking the Muslims at al-Hirah, west of the Euphrates, where the Coalition is, according to the Iraqi Information Ministry, currently engaged in a fierce firefight with the Republican Guard. They were soundly defeated then and again the year after that, at the Battle of Buwayb. But they clearly did not understand their time was up, for another year later at Al-Qadisayah, a village south of Baghdad where the Coalition is encountering stiff opposition from Fedayeen militia, Rustum was killed, and the Persians gave up.
Inspired, the Muslims pushed on, but they were fighting a jihad and thus were regulated by religious laws that prevented looting, rape and needless killing of civilians. It was not in their economic interest to destroy unnecessarily and indiscriminately. Just like the Coalition of the Willing.
In 750 AD, Abo al Abbas was established in Baghdad as the first caliph, or supreme Islamic authority, of the Abbasid dynasty. Twelve years later, Baghdad was founded, swiftly rising to importance. By the 10th century, it was the intellectual center of the world.
This was the era that Arabs would always gaze back upon wistfully -- when their civilization was the glory of the world, a triumph of mind and spirit unprecedented in human history, to which all roads led. Without it, the European Renaissance could not have occurred, for it was the Arabs who preserved and built upon the wisdom of the ancient world throughout the Dark Ages. It was, however, also the peak of Islamic culture, never to be seen again.
Baghdad was a mere village when the second Abbassid caliph, Abu Jafar Al-Mansur (754-775 AD), a skilled orator and administrator, decided to build his new capital nearby. In less than 50 years, the population outgrew the city's walls. By the reign of Mansur's grandson, Haroun al-Rashid (786-806 AD), the city was second in size only to Constantinople.
Al-Rashid was the caliph of the Arabian Nights, a highly educated, refined man of exquisite taste, who actively supported and encouraged all manner of intellectual pursuits. But it was during the reign of his son, al-Ma'mun (813-833 AD), for whom anything in Baghdad not named for Saddam is still named, that the city soared.
Al-Ma'mun founded Bait al-Hikma, the Academy of Wisdom, which took over from the Persian University of Jundaisapur, becoming the global center for scientific research. Scholars of all races and religions were invited to the Academy. The most notable mathematician of the era, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi (680-750 AD), discovered algebraic equations there, although he did not -- as is commonly believed -- invent zero, for which we have India's Hindus to thank. His magnum opus was called Kitab al-jabr w'al-muqabalah (Restoration and Balancing), which gives us the word algebra.
Al-Khawarizmi's books were translated into Latin and appeared in Renaissance Italy like a bolt of lightning. Since no one there knew any Arabic, his name came out as Algorismus, which, again misspelled, gives us algorithm, a step-by-step process for performing computations.
The Baghdad Academy's explosion of genius and innovation recalled the blistering achievements of Sumer. And it burned out just as swiftly. Cairo soon usurped the position of Baghdad as intellectual center of the world and lured any scholars of promise.
Early in the 13th century, Ghengis Khan, at the head of a Mongol army 700,000 strong, swept out of the east and laid waste to the cities of central Asia, often killing every living thing in them. He never reached Baghdad, but his grandson, Hulagu Khan, did. With 200,000 Tartars, he smashed the feeble forces raised by Baghdad, in 1258 and was busy killing for 40 days.
Hulagu wantonly destroyed Iraq's canal headworks before he rode off, and the artistic and intellectual creations of centuries were swept away in a torrent of mud. Iraq became a neglected frontier province ruled from the Mongol capital of Tabriz in Iran.
With a brief respite during the rule of the Mamluks, Baghdad continued the cycle of tribal warfare and ever-deteriorating urban life. By the end of the 19th century, travelers remarked upon its squalor in contrast to the glories of the past.
Locked between the clashing empires of Turkey and Britain, Iraq found itself miraculously rescued from obliteration by the self-serving needs of the British, and became the first Arab nation to achieve independence under the British mandate in the 20th century. Sadly, now, it looks as if it has become the first to lose its independence to U.S. imperialism in the 21st century.
Originally intended to be a monarchy under Emir Faisal ibn Husain, brother of the new ruler of neighboring Jordan, Iraq also became the first Arab state to discover the wonders of the military coup, entering a period of extreme turbulence that was only really ended by the iron fist of Saddam Hussein. It also thrived thanks to the world's second largest deposits of fossil fuel, discovered in 1927, but only fully realized during the oil boom of the seventies.
When I first saw Baghdad, it was prosperous, albeit in a crude and swaggering way, overshadowed by the self-aggrandizing monuments to Saddam that Saddam erected incessantly. In the Stalinist manner, he became the state, the state became him. But Iraqis were sharing in the wealth; they traveled all over Europe; they delighted in showing foreigners the phoenix of Baghdad once more rising from its ashes.
Then came the war with Iran, encouraged and supplied by America, partly intended to defend Kuwait from the ayatollahs. Kuwait had promised to pay for this much-needed defense, but when the war was over after pushing Iraq to the verge of bankruptcy, the Kuwaitis did not feel like coughing up. To make matters worse, they were drilling into Iraq's oil in a disputed territory.
When Saddam had just about had it, he asked April Glaspie, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, how Washington would feel if he resorted to a military solution. She told him she'd been instructed by secretary of state James Baker to say that, as usual, America "had no opinion about Arab-Arab squabbles." To be sure she'd understood him, he asked twice again and received the same reply, which he took to be the green light.
Later, defending herself in a New York Times interview, Ms. Glaspie said no one believed Saddam would take all of Kuwait.
Bomb blasts have been sounding sporadically all night, near and far. I keep thinking that out of all this misery some good must come. And it has. Never before has the world so united against a war before it even began. No one buys it this time; the game is up. Or it could be, and that would help to assuage all this suffering.
In the eyes of Iraqis I have often observed an ancient light, a world-weary wisdom that speaks more to the spirit than the mind. Baghdad has done it all, been there, done that. Of what can it now dream but ruin? The impossible grandeurs of the past can never be repeated, and if they could be, why?
Most Iraqis understand when someone talks about riches of the spirit, of the soul -- the kind of riches that moth and rust corrupt not. In this, they are perhaps once more the first people of a new world, a world in which material possessions would not be placed before the peace and happiness of one single human being. They seem somehow more fully human than the rest of us, which is why life here will go on, malnutrition or not, bombs or not -- for they value those things in life worth valuing.
I look around me at buildings held together by hope and nails that have been bombed nightly for more than a week yet still somehow hold; at the gaunt, grimy children with frightened eyes, who jump at the slightest unexpected sound, whose skin is yellowed by mild jaundice brought on by unsanitary conditions and stress; at the old people with resignation stamped across their foreheads, who can't go on yet will go on; at the young married couples who still hope for a better life yet don't hope too hard lest it break their hearts, and I see the countless unremembered acts of kindness and of love that fill their desolate days, and I realize I would far prefer to be here than in any house where this war is justified.
For it cannot be justified. But this region has always led to somewhere worth going. Baghdad is just as glorious in its ruin as it was in its glory, for something noble crawls from the rubble to spread golden wings in the light of dawn. The Gate of God opens wider.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.