THE LAND that is today Iraq is home to some of the greatest achievements of human civilisation. The south of modern Iraq is littered with magnificent ruins of the first real cities in human history – places like Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, Kish and Ur (from which the biblical Abraham supposedly came).
The Sumerian civilisation, which developed north of modern Basra around 3,000 BC, was the first to develop writing. Its Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s first great pieces of literature, and forms the basis of the biblical story of the flood. Sumeria straddled the two great rivers that flow through Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates. The whole region became known as Mesopotamia. It was also labelled the ‘Fertile Crescent’ from the agricultural riches it produced. The following centuries saw the successive rise and fall of new civilisations.
Impressive ruins at places like Nineveh, Babylon, Nimroud and Assour still bear witness to these – as do the artefacts plundered by earlier British invaders. The legal code of Hammurabi, named after the Babylonian king who ruled from 1728-1686 BC, is seen by Western lawyers today as one of the foundations of modern law. Much of the basis of astronomy and mathematics were also developed in Mesopotamia.
Our modern calendar, time system and ways of measuring angles all come from Babylonian mathematicians – the 24 hour clock, the 60 minute hour and 60 second minute, the 360 degrees in a full circle.
By around 600 BC Babylon, near Baghdad, was one the greatest centres of civilisation in the world – far in advance of anything in Europe. Babylon’s fabulous Hanging Gardens were one of the ‘seven wonders of the ancient world’. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who lived between 480 and 425 BC, was stunned by the splendour of Babylon. In his Histories he wrote: ‘Assyria possesses a vast number of great cities, whereof the most renowned and strongest at this time was Babylon. In magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it. In the circuit of the wall are 100 gates, all of brass with brazen lintels. The houses are mostly three or four storeys high, the streets all run in straight lines. In the middle there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight.
Centre of civilisation ‘Little rain falls, enough however to make the corn sprout after which the plant is nourished and the ears formed by means of irrigation from the river. The river is spread over the land by the help of engines. The whole of Babylonia is intersected with canals. Of all the countries that we know there is none so fruitful. Palms trees grow in great numbers over the whole of the flat country, mostly of the kind which bears fruit and this fruit supplies them with bread, wine and honey.’
More than 1,000 years later Iraq was once again the centre of the world’s then greatest civilisation, as the Islamic empire spread from Spain and Morocco across north Africa to Arabia and beyond. In 762 AD the new rulers, called the Abbasid caliphs, founded a new capital city on the river Tigris. It was first called Madinat as Salam (City of Peace), and then Baghdad.
An author known as Yakut described the city around 1000 AD: ‘The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the Tigris, twelve miles in diameter. ‘Suburbs, covered with parks, gardens, villas and beautiful promenades, plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, mosques and baths, stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river. The population amounted to over two millions. Immense streets traversed the city. Every household was plentifully supplied with water at all seasons by the numerous aqueducts which intersected the town; and the streets, gardens and parks were regularly swept and watered, and no refuse was allowed to remain within the walls. The streets were lighted by lamps. The mosques of the city were at once vast in size and remarkably beautiful. There were also in Baghdad numerous colleges of learning, hospitals, infirmaries for both sexes and lunatic asylums.’
A modern study by US academics confirms this view: ‘Baghdad became in the tenth century the intellectual centre of the world. Iranians, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, men of letters and of science had gathered in this city.
‘Scholars held high rank. In an observatory the staff set to work fixing the position of the stars (and to) determine the length of the solar year. The Baghdad Academy of Wisdom became an active scientific centre. The Academy’s large library was enriched by translations. Scholars of all races and religions were invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage, which was not specifically Muslim and was Arabic only in language.
Intellectual metropolis The Christian Yahya ibn Masawayh wrote many works on fevers, hygiene and dietetics. His was the first treatise on ophthalmology.
‘Well stocked bookshops were often set up around the main mosque. In addition (there were) public libraries open to everyone. Baghdad had become an intellectual metropolis. A fertile literary centre was formed which lighted the way for Arab letters. Poetry continued to be cultivated with the same care. ‘Song and music are perhaps more important in Baghdad than in other regions. The great historian Ibn Khaldun wrote, ‘The beautiful concerts given at Baghdad have left memories that still last.’
‘The cultured residents of Baghdad liked their pleasure. They gathered in cabarets and some met in Christian monasteries on the outskirts. The Book of Convents by Shabushti is really a description of the city’s taverns. ‘Wine was certainly drunk in these places. Snow sherbets were eaten. Chess especially was highly favoured and backgammon was second in popularity. Popular entertainment was offered in public places.
‘Great admiration should be expressed for this civilisation. In this centre of universal culture were found polite manners, refinement, general education, and the confrontation of religious and philosophical thought which made the Mesopotamian city the queen of the world.’ This is the heritage which US and British forces are ready to reduce to rubble.
THE GLITTERING culture and learning of the Islamic world centred on Baghdad was the cornerstone of the rebirth of knowledge called the Renaissance in Europe. With the collapse of the ancient Greek and then Roman civilisations after the 5th century AD Western Europe slid into what are called the ‘dark ages’. Culture and civilisation slid backwards.
Arab scholars in cities like Baghdad, and the Islamic cities that grew up in Spain such as Cordoba, Toledo and Granada, kept it alive. They translated works by the great figures of ancient culture and science such as Aristotle and Euclid into Arabic. Translations of these Arabic works into Latin then spread the knowledge to Europe.
And the Arabic scholars added their own steps forward in every field. For example a standard history of mathematics writes, ‘In the foremost rank of mathematicians of all time stands Al-Khwarizmi’, a ninth century Baghdad scholar.
‘He composed the oldest works on arithmetic and algebra. They were the principal source of mathematical knowledge for centuries to come in the East and the West.’
The word algebra comes from the Arabic word for ‘to complete or restore’. The mathematical step by step procedure called an algorithm, which forms the basis of all modern computing, was invented by Al-Khwarizmi. The Islamic cities of Spain were the crucial conduit of this knowledge to Europe.
Historian Philip Hitti writes, ‘Muslim Spain wrote one of the brightest chapters in the intellectual history of mediaeval Europe. Between the middle of the 8th and the beginning of the 13th centuries the Arabic-speaking peoples were the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilisation throughout the world. They were the medium through which ancient science and philosophy were recovered, supplemented and transmitted. A large number of educational institutions had sprung up in Cordoba, Granada, Toledo and Seville, where learned teachers imparted lessons in the sciences and arts. These Islamic institutions were the cradle of modern European civilisation.’
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