en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 35, Number 6November/December 1984

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Mesopotamia – Some Notes

Written and photographed by Michael Spencer

In Athens, all but five passengers disembarked from the flight to Baghdad, and then we had to wait until nightfall before continuing. Even then the aircraft took a devious, unannounced route across the Middle East. Eventually, though, we began our descent and I could see lights in Baghdad, strung across the city like illuminated strands of beads on the black bosom of the desert.

As we passed through the ultra modern customs hall at the Saddam International Airport, my trip to Iraq seemed extraneous to present realities - since my plan was to focus exclusively on ancient history. Later, however, as I traveled from one ancient ruin to another, I came to appreciate that against the vast panorama of Mesopotamian history, the events of the modern era didn't seem quite so overwhelming. In the ebb and flow of empire, conflicts had come and gone hundreds of times - and would almost certainly come and go again. As a fellow passenger put it: "There is nothing new in Iraq; it has all happened before."

Before setting out to visit the sites of Mesopotamia's past, it seemed wise to review some of its history, if only briefly, so I made Iraq's National Museum my first port of call. Located in downtown Baghdad, the museum houses a stunning collection of artifacts from the mosaic of cultures that make up Mesopotamia's history. I started, for example, with Stone Age flints found in caves in the north, and continued through the civilizations of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, Assyria and Parthia - all the places I hoped to see and photograph. Soon, however, I staggered out in a state of cultural overload, realizing that to make sense of this astonishing array of information, I would need some professional guidance.

Fortunately, even though it was July, when virtually everyone leaves Baghdad for cooler climes, Dr. Michael Roaf of the British Archeological Expedition to Iraq was still in town. Even more fortunately, he was willing to spare an afternoon to answer my questions and invited me to expedition headquarters in suburban Mansur.

This headquarters, Dr. Roaf said, was furnished largely by British novelist Agatha Christie, who was married to Sir Max Mallowan, the expedition's leader earlier in the century. Dame Agatha, as a result, set at least one of her famous thrillers in Iraq - They Came to Baghdad . Dr. Roaf seemed pleased at that.

Modern archeologists, said Dr. Roaf, try to work closely with the government ministries concerned with development, so that they will know in advance when a new dam, road or agricultural project is going to obliterate something of historical value. "What we try and do in such cases," he said, "is salvage what information we can before it goes. The Hamrin Dam project is a case in point."

The Hamrin Dam, he explained, was to inundate a huge area, but the expedition, alerted in time, was able to dispatch an international army of archeologists to the area before flooding began. "We didn't have as much time as we would have liked, but we did manage to gain a general idea of the ancient occupation patterns in the affected areas."

This it seems is vital, since "occupation patterns" show the extent of a civilization's influence. These days, in fact, occupation patterns are much more important than the works of art sough t by earlier archeologists. Information about the movement of trade goods, artistic styles and technological innovations helps to understand the periods of development of ancient societies and to isolate the influences that shaped them. And in Mesopotamia, Dr. Roaf said, one culture above all exerted an overwhelming influence on all that followed: Sumer.

Sumer flowered in the southern part of Iraq - between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where they narrow together and finally join before spilling into the waters of the Arabian Gulf. It was here in Mesopotamia - the "land between the rivers" - that man's first cities developed, that organized government was first practiced and, more importantly, where man, about 3000 B.C., learned to write - possibly the most significant element in the advance of mankind. For me, therefore, Sumer seemed the obvious place to begin my travels through ancient Mesopotamia. So the next day I left Baghdad for the south.

Most of southern Iraq is terribly flat and the sky, lacking even a scrap of cloud to soften the hostility of the sun, seems immense and cruel. As I drove - the horizon melting in a shimmer of heat waves - I realized that my eyes were seeking out anything that would relieve the monotonous desolation of the landscape: a hut, the occasional palm grove or donkeys staggering under mountainous bales of brushwood.

It was hard to believe that this was once a fertile land, thick with crops in irrigated fields. There are no hills, no rocks and few trees. There is only the hard-baked earth that modern Iraq's ambitious agricultural projects are trying to revive (See Aramco World , September-October 1983). In winter though, when it rains, this baked soil turns to mud - a substance that, prosaic as it may seem, was vital to Mesopotamia. Mud bricks built the cities and temples of Sumer, and mud tablets were the "books" in which the first writing was scratched. It was fitting, therefore, to find that at Nasiriyah, my destination, a large brick factory produces mud bricks for modern Iraq, much as ancient brickworks did in the area thousands of years ago.

Not far from Nasiriyah is a testament to the durability of those bricks: the imposing ziggurat of Ur. One of the largest and most important of the Sumerian city states, Ur, even now, is dominated by the monolithic bulk of its mud-brick step pyramid. Since the ruins of Ur are now within a military zone the car was stopped at a checkpoint, where I was relieved of my camera and told that from here on I would have to walk. The dune colored ziggurat was a mile down the road, the temperature was well over 50°C (122°F), but I had not come 400 kilometers from Baghdad (240 miles) to give up here.

By the time I reached the site I no longer regretted losing the weight of my camera bag - and when my escort told me it was forbidden to mount the stairs to the top of the ziggurat I could only nod vaguely: such a thought was far from my mind.

At Ur, in any case, probably because of the desolation, I came to appreciate what I can only describe as a sense of antiquity. There was nothing I could see or touch, but I felt as if the air were dense with history. As with the Sumerian cities - Uruk, Kish, Sippar, Eridu and Nippur- Ur was inhabited for thousands of years, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. When Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator of Ur, dug through the different occupation levels, he was able to read the city's history much like the rings of a tree record the lean years and the fat. And at the very lowest levels, Woolley found great deposits of ancient silt, evidence, he said, of the Flood, mentioned in the Koran and the Bible, and in the Gilgamesh epic (See Aramco World , July-August 1983).

Woolley's most impressive find at Ur, was the royal hecatombs in which the soldiers and servants of the ruler had committed suicide in their master's grave in order to accompany him to the netherworld. The treasures unearthed in the process can be seen in the British Museum and in Baghdad.

Though the heat at Ur was intense, the interior of my car when I returned was worse. I could only guess at the temperature, because the plastic thermometer had melted and was drooping over the dashboard. I got in, however, and headed for Baghdad.

According to the map, the road back to Baghdad leads past another site of great importance in Sumerian times: the city of Nippur. Formerly a religious center, it was revered as the home of Enlil, the chief deity in the Sumerian pantheon. Although no king is recorded as having made his residence there, Nippur was often the capital of loose confederations of city states; it was accepted that however great the king, it was only with Enlil's favor that he ruled.

In the awful heat of that afternoon near Nippur, however, Enlil did not favor me. At Diwaniyah, closest town to the site, I stopped at a small hotel to ask directions, and though I tried a dozen variations in pronunciation, it was ages before one rang a bell. And then, with vague directions and no signposts, I found myself on a shallow endless track, gray dust blurring the horizon, the land becoming more deserted and barren with each mile.

Eventually even the track petered out near an abandoned daub-and-wattle farmhouse. A wind had sprung up and veils of sand shrouded the car. All I could see was a low range of hills a few miles distant and I decided I would go at least that far before giving up.

It was a lucky decision. The low hills were in fact the ruins of Nippur, once excavated but now being reclaimed by the desert. The wind was weaker among the ruins and I set out to explore the crumbling, gray remains of a ziggurat. The ground was crunchy underfoot with the thickest litter of pottery shards I have ever seen. There were the rims and bases of jugs and pots from a dozen different cultures, I thought, some incised with patterns, others bare and shiny with rough glaze.

This time, there was no one to prevent me from climbing up the ziggurat; indeed, there wasn't a living soul within miles. And from the summit I was surprised at the extent of the ruins, the distorted humps and ridges of the buildings slowly settling into the suffocating sand.

At Nippur, the ziggurat was honeycombed with passages and I descended into the base by following its tortuous intestinal passages. Somewhere in the dark corridors I disturbed a colony of bats and they fluttered past me squeaking in high pitched tones of outrage.

By now, the sun was sinking, and though I couldn't actually see it through the dust, there was a gradual lessening of illumination. Then, as the wind came up with a sudden chill, the lunar landscape began to take a sinister tone. It was not the place to spend the night. So, this time, thankfully, I stepped into the comforting modernity of the car and left Enlil to his city.

About 2350 B.C. the classical age of Sumer ended abruptly with the advent of King Sargon of Akkad. Legend has it that his mother was a priestess and that he spent his early days as cup bearer to the king of Kish, but in any case, he eventually replaced the king, conquered all the cities of Sumer - and then turned his energies further afield. In time the greater part of the Middle East came under his control as he formed what was the first great empire of ancient times. In contrast to the Sumerian rulers, whose inscriptions emphasize peace and prosperity, Sargon's monuments boast of battles won, cities taken and slaves captured.

The ruins of Kish evoke a different atmosphere from those of Ur and Nippur. Its walls are squat and compact and have a certain bureaucratic orderliness about them. The excavations, below the level of the surrounding land, give the impression of a subterranean maze. The main entrance looks made for pomp and pageantry to flatter the egos of the resident kings.

If Kish is very much down to earth, it also has a mythical connection. Gilgamesh, hero of the epic, did battle with the Aka of Kish and archeologists have now found historical verification of the Aka's father -thus placing the Gilgamesh epic against a background of real events and personages.

Even so, Sargon must have found Kish too limited for his grandiose character; he built himself a new capital called Akkad somewhere on the Euphrates. I must have passed near Akkad on my way back to Baghdad, but I could not be sure, since its precise location remains a mystery - the only major site in Mesopotamia which still defies identification.

Sargon's empire was to shine brightly in ancient history - an example to countless would-be emperors who followed. One lasting effect of his rule in Mesopotamia was establishment of Akkadian as a successor to the Sumerian language. After this, Sumerian was used only for intellectual and religious purposes, much like Latin after the fall of Rome.

After Sargon's death, and a long period of instability, some of the city states rose again to prominence. There was a resurgence of Sumerian culture at Ur - known as the Ur III Dynasty - in which architecture reached high levels of achievement. This renaissance was brief, however, and eventually central Mesopotamia disintegrated into a mosaic of petty kingdoms engaged in constant squabbling and warfare.

Again, though, a giant arose: Hammurabi of Babylon, who changed his minor city state into the capital of a vast empire. Babylon was to remain at center stage in world history until the death of Alexander the Great within its walls nearly 2,000 years later.

With that sort of advance billing, what is left of Babylon cannot but disappoint the visitor - and I was no exception. The "Hanging Gardens," whatever their original size and shape, have long since turned to dust, as have the walls that supported them, and the Tower of Babel lies scattered over the desolate plain, only its base intact. Even that is little more than a heap of mud - like the sad remains of a giant's sand castle (See Aramco World , January-February 1967, May-June 1980).

Babylon, which is near the modern town of Hilla, is the most commercialized of Iraq's ancient sites, but even that is minimal. There is a small restaurant, a shop with postcards which infrequently opens, and a nominal entrance fee. Like the ancients, you enter the city today through the Ishtar Gate, an impressive blue-tiled archway with orange heraldic beasts that stalk across the surface. Impressive, but this is a copy; the original is in Berlin.

Babylon is a monument to the transience of human endeavor. You have to stretch your imagination to believe that this was once the greatest city on earth, since it is now a barren wasteland - little more than irregular heaps of rubble and unfinished walls, with a few mud bricks with cuneiform inscriptions dedicating this or that invisible building to a forgotten king.

Here and there are traces of bitumen roadway or the vague shape of construction. The sense of destruction is pervasive. Even the Euphrates has deserted the dry. Once it flowed under the ramparts, but silt, accumulating for millennia, has changed its course and now it runs 16 kilometers to the east (10 miles).

Some reconstruction is going on - to give the tourists some idea of what it was once like. The centerpiece of this work is the Processional Way, which leads to a vanished temple complex. The sheer walls are decorated with fine relief work depicting griffons and other beasts in a mythical menagerie. None of this is from Hammurabi's time; his Babylon lies well beneath the water table and can probably never be, excavated.

Yet there is still magic here. Maybe it is just in the name and all it has come to signify in the mythology of our own era, but to say, "I have walked in Babylon," still has a very special ring to it.

To return to Baghdad after Babylon was to see it with new eyes. I found myself looking at the bold modern buildings and monuments and imagining them crumbled and time ravaged. I could see the goods in the shops on display in museum shelves. What, I wondered, will the tourists 1,000 years hence make of it all? Will they go back saying, "I have walked in Baghdad?"

Mesopotamian empires followed a pattern . They originated with a period of rapid expansion, followed by internal strife as the area became too unwieldy to govern. A combination of inefficient bureaucracy and external pressures inevitably led to their eventual decline and collapse.

Hammurabi's Babylonian empire is an example. After the great king's death, his heirs struggled to maintain order, but the disintegration was inexorable. A 400-year period followed, which, due to the paucity of historical information, is often referred to as the dark age of Mesopotamia. But then came the Kassites, a tribe of as yet unknown origin, credited with introducing the horse to Mesopotamia, and almost certainly responsible for popularizing its use in warfare.

By this time, warfare was being waged on an international scale, as letters of the time attest. The letters consist of official correspondence - engraved on tablets -between the Egyptian pharaohs Amenophis III and IV and various Near Eastern rulers including Kassite kings. Trade, political alliances and arranged marriages are the usual themes of the letters, but occasionally a hint of the violence of the times creeps in. "Be assured that the king is well," some of the missives end, "and that his chariots are in very, very good condition."

The Kassites themselves left few texts, but there are numerous examples of their industry. They not only rebuilt and embellished the ancient cities of Sumer, but founded a new and important town that is represented today by the massive ruins of Aqar Quf on the outskirts of Baghdad.

At Aqar Quf, again, I had the ruins to myself although a one-eyed attendant followed me around the huge lopsided ziggurat that dominates the site; he wanted to sell me a pigeon he had captured.

There were thousands of birds nesting in the cracks and cornices of the ruins and every now and then they would swarm upwards in a soft gray cloud and swirl aloft in an exultant circuit of the mound.

The ziggurat itself is made of millions of small mud bricks and is apparently solid - the huge gashes into its bowels reveal nothing but more hard packed bricks. The partially excavated palace grounds encircle the ziggurat and the attendant warned me that there were wild dogs lurking inside.

The Kassites may have presided over the dark ages of Mesopotamia, but they left their mark - the ziggurat of Aqar Quf is still one of the tallest structures in the Baghdad area.

It is a truism of Near Eastern archeology that the same sites have been occupied continuously by different civilizations over many thousands of years - some until the present day. Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, is such a place. The modern city occupies the same ground as Nineveh, one of the capitals of the Assyrian empire built in the ninth century B.C., and my next destination.

It was another sweltering day as I made my way through Baghdad's Mosul gate for the 400-kilometer journey north to Nineveh (240 miles). July was the season for dust devils and I could see some large and malevolent ones stalking the plain alongside the road. They can be weak and playful too and I often saw village children laughing and running with them as if they were family pets.

Mosul was bathed in the pink warmth of the afternoon sun as I arrived. On the eastern outskirts of the town, the walls of Nineveh glowed in the soft light. The heavy stone is fitted together with delicate precision and topped with elegantly carved ramparts. The north gate of Nineveh has been reconstructed with original material, two massive men-bulls standing outside the entrance. They are imposing now; they must have been terrifying in their day.

The origins of the Assyrian empire are obscure. It seems they were of Akkadian stock and made their first capital at Ashur with its strategic location on the upper Euphrates. At first vassals of the Mittani, they succeeded in creating an independant Assyria around 1350 B.C. - and soon raised the art of combat to new levels of ruthlessness with their mobile battering rams and vicious war chariots. In fact, the history of Assyria seems to be no more than a bloody recitation of conquests and savagery. Shalmaneser I, for example, founder of the second Assyrian capital of Nimrud, claimed to have blinded 14,400 victims, and although this could be a bit of propagandistic hyperbole, gentle rulers in the Sumerian tradition had no place in Assyrian times. It was an era of imperial expansion that saw strength in combat as the highest of virtues.

Nimrud lies 50 kilometers south of Mosul (31 miles) amid the low rolling plains that peter out from the mountains of Kurdistan. Once again the signposting was haphazard and before long I was lost in the vast plains on a dust road that led nowhere, according to one man I stopped to ask.

It was harvest time and the fields were dotted with the bright clothes of women at work baling hay and loading it onto wooden wagons. The land was pale gold with the stubble of wheat and it shimmered in the heat till it all seemed an abstract smear of color underneath a huge bleached sky.

At last I came to a sign: Nimrud 500 meters (0.3 mile) and an arrow. I followed the arrow but it was at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) before the now familiar shape of a ruined ziggurat materialized. A lone guard looked surprised that anyone had found his hideaway, but he let me through the gates and followed me around, obviously entertained by the presence of a visitor.

The magnificent frieze of Nimrud is now on display at the British Museum, but there are enough pieces left on the site to wonder at. The Assyrians elevated the art of frieze story-telling to new heights and the walls are alive with kings, gods, animals and warriors etched in vivid detail.

The palace grounds where Ashurbanipal II played host to nearly 70,000 guests at the opening ceremony are more or less intact, the rooms made cool by the grey stone of the walls. The guard, reluctant to let me leave, invited me to share a pot of sweet tea and some bread. It was just as hospitable a gesture as that offered by the ruler of the palace 2,800 years ago.

Back in Mosul, I met an Irish engineer who had been there for two years installing electrical switching stations on the Mosul grid. I asked him if he knew the way to Khorsabad, the fourth capital of Assyria. He had never heard of it but agreed to join me the next day to try to find it.

We set out early on the road to Erbil and had not gone far before we were stopped at an important looking roadblock. The captain in charge wanted to know our destination. "Dur Sharrukin," I said, using Khorsabad's modern name. "Be back before afternoon," he said as he waved us through, "and don't stop the car off the road."

Khorsabad was easy to find, but when we drove in through the gates of the barbed wire fence there was nothing. "So where is it?" asked the engineer whom I had regaled with a description of a vast multistoried palace from my guidebook.

There were a few hills that could have covered something, but they looked suspiciously like the ones outside the wire. We left the car and came across a few bits of masonry and the inevitable pottery shards that could have been from anywhere. If there was a palace here once, I certainly could not visualize where it had been. The now skeptical engineer muttered a few disparaging remarks about the Assyrian civilization and we drove back to Mosul in silence.

After Khorsabad I began to despair of finding a ruin in Iraq that did not draw heavily on my powers of imagination and that was more or less intact. But 100 kilometers south of Mosul on the road back to Baghdad (60 miles), I found what I had been looking for at a place called Hatra.

Hatra was a major city of the Parthian empire, one of the few that they built. The Parthians were contemporary with Rome and in the first century B.C., Mesopotamia was a border region between the two competing spheres of influence. Rome eventually prevailed and Hatra was abandoned to the desert, where its relative, inaccessibility has protected it until the present time.

After all the mud bricks I had been seeing, Hatra was a refreshing delight with its crisp watts hewn from soft beige rock, colonnaded temples and lyrical archways. The city is laid out on a grid pattern and the streets are paved with massive flagstones. The Roman influence is apparent, with sculpted eagles nesting in the niches of the buildings and monumental statues standing imperiously in the courtyards.

In time, the Parthians were replaced by the Sasanids who left behind their capital at Ctesiphon, 30 kilometers south of Baghdad (18 miles).

What is referred to as the arch of Ctesiphon is in fact the remnants of the roof of the reception room of a massive palace, which in its day must have been the equivalent of the Houston Astrodome. For the Iraqis, the Sasanid palace is of secondary importance to another monument close by: a monumental diorama depicting the battle of al-Qadisiyah at which the Muslim armies scored a resounding triumph over Sasanid forces in A.D. 637.

The day before I left Iraq, on a return visit to the national museum, I realized that I could never have appreciated the significance of what's there without having visited the sites.

I also realized, with sadness, that it would have meant much more if I could have seen those artifacts on the sites I had just visited. Museums, to be sure, have preserved what might have vanished, but even when beautifully displayed, objects in a museum are essentially like uprooted plants or caged animals.

No museum, certainly, can ever capture the sense of antiquity I found at Ur, the beauty of Nineveh's stones in the soft light of late afternoon, the echoes of civilization I heard in the silence - or the thrill of having walked in Babylon.

Michael Spencer is a free-lance writer-photographer and a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine on Iraq.

This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the November/December 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1984 images.