Thursday, October 21, 2004

Guest blogger: Mesopotamia Redeemed 

Second in my occasional series of appearances by guest bloggers (for the first one, see Pavel Bratinka from the Czech Republic who writes about learning from the totalitarian experience), please welcome Daniel Foty, who argues that democracy and the rule of law are nothing new in Iraq - the Coalition is merely trying to reintroduce the lost legacy of ancient Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia Redeemed – Part I

If the present Coalition mission in Iraq could be distilled to one sentence, perhaps it would be this: To establish an open, pluralistic, "rule-of-law" society, one from which no threats to the peace and stability of the larger world will emanate.

In a larger sense, though, there is a supreme irony in this mission. The historical irony is that these concepts originated in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago, and were developed to a very high degree there. "Civilization" itself originated in Mesopotamia, and all of these origins are (not surprisingly) intertwined; a well-organized rule-of-law society is a pre-requisite for the growth of civilization itself. The foundations of "western civilization" can be traced directly to the early societies of Mesopotamia; while these ideas flourished elsewhere, they were lost to Mesopotamia for several thousand years, and are only now being recovered.

This remarkable story begins in Mesopotamia with a long-forgotten people who were only "rediscovered" during the late 19th century – the Sumerians. The Sumerians came into Mesopotamia from the north sometime around 4,000 B.C., entering a sparsely-settled Tigris-Euphrates valley and taking up residence. The Sumerians stand out because of their language; unlike the inflected languages in the Semitic and Indo-European groups, the Sumerians spoke an agglutinative language from the same group which now includes modern Finnish, Hungarian, and Turkish.

The specific origin of the Sumerians remains a mystery, but their achievements as a society are now well-known. Then as today, the main problem facing any inhabitants of Mesopotamia has always been that it is a land of extremes. Mesopotamia is virtually devoid of any natural resources which were of value in the ancient world (metals, timber, and stone – petroleum not having yet emerged in importance). However, the soil of Mesopotamia is extremely fertile and can be very productive –if a proper system of irrigation can be developed and maintained. A society which could exploit this potential was capable of producing vast quantities of grain and other agriculture products, which could be used as trade goods.

Any society which is based on irrigation-intensive agriculture faces a number of difficult problems. Such as society requires a very well-ordered social system, in which there are clear divisions of responsibility and authority and a high degree of predictability in human affairs.

Remarkably, the Sumerians rose to this challenge, and were able to create a high civilization which prospered in an otherwise harsh environment. Through their ingenuity (in both tangible and intangible senses), the Sumerians turned a desert into a garden; the use of the term "Fertile Crescent" to describe the Tigris-Euphrates valley is a tribute to this accomplishment.

As noted earlier, the Sumerians were "forgotten" by history until the late 19th century. It was only with the discovery and decipherment of clay tablets from Mesopotamia that their existence was "re-discovered." This has allowed for the piecing-together of a great deal of information about their history, society and culture – and the re-construction of that story is still not complete.

As a distinct society, Sumerian civilization flourished from about 4,000 B.C. until about 1,700 B.C.; at that point, Sumerian society was absorbed into other societies which had emerged in Mesopotamia, mostly centering on Babylon.

It is only in retrospect that the achievements of Sumerian society can be properly appreciated. One of the most striking aspects of that society is the "modernity" of their culture and their very thoughts. While the long-term impact of Sumerian civilization is nearly impossible to trace, it is not unreasonable to postulate that fundamental underpinnings of modern civilization began with the Sumerians and were transmitted (directly and indirectly) into other cultures.

The reconstructions show that Sumerian society was remarkably accomplished. The Sumerians invented writing, as a method of storing information outside the human body for safe-keeping and for later use. The method which was developed was to press a reed into a slab of wet clay to form characters – the clay tablet was then baked to render it firm; this method was robust and nonbiodegradable, and has been the key to the "rediscovery" of the Sumerians and the reconstruction of knowledge about their society. In addition to the obvious practical utility of writing, the Sumerians produced a sizeable body of purely literary material – including the famous "Epic of Gilgamesh," the translation of which caused a stir in the late 19th century due to the many parallels with the Old Testament. The Sumerian archives also document extensive and detailed agriculture expertise – which is not a surprise, given the total dependence of their society on an intricate system of irrigated agriculture. But the archives also indicate a large body of other knowledge, such as extensive medical knowledge. The Sumerians were also accomplished mathematicians, developing a mathematics based on 6 and 10; this mathematics is still with us today, in the 60 seconds and 60 minutes of time-keeping and latitude/longitude coordinates, and in the 360 degrees of the circle.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the historical records clearly indicate that the Sumerian citystates, while being governed by kings, also had legislative assemblies (often bi-cameral) which wielded real power and could even overrule the king on the most fundamental matters of state, such as the choice between war or peace.

It is these aspects of Sumerian society – the highly-developed forms of governance – which are perhaps the most remarkable. In contrast to what we might naively expect, Sumerian societies were not governed by all-powerful despotic kings whose word was law. Sumerian civilization was remarkably advanced in that private property was respected, power was divided among different people and assemblies, and individual rights were clearly a fundamental aspect of society.

It was in that context that the Sumerians produced perhaps their most remarkable innovation – the first legal codes. These codes were created and publicly promulgated for a very obvious reason – the Sumerians realized that the protection of their rights and their favored situation as a garden in the desert rested on having a clear and independent statement of the rules under which their society would operate. In other words, the Sumerians realized some 4,500 years ago that they must by governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of men. This could only be accomplished by using their new technology of writing to set these rules down in print, and by ensuring that those rules reflected the general values of Sumerian society along with the specific statute items for specific situations.

Several Sumerian legal codes have been recovered, at least in part. These documents are remarkable for their modernity and their enlightened approaches to law and order. They will be discussed in Part II.


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