Between Two Rivers, Between Two Myths

The concept of 'Mesopotamia' is as complex and politically fraught as modern Iraq itself

Between Two Rivers, Between Two Myths
The Gilgamesh Tablet, a 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform clay tablet that was believed to be looted from Iraq around 1991 (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

In March 2022, Iraq’s national museum in Baghdad reopened after a three-year closure. It had been shut down first by civil unrest, then reconstruction work, then the COVID-19 pandemic. The reopening was an emotional moment because, during the closure, the Iraqi government had successfully repatriated thousands of artifacts that had been looted and smuggled into the private collections of wealthy Western collectors.

The reopened Iraq Museum was thus also an enriched one. Visitors can now behold such priceless treasures as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which had been illegally excavated and then acquired by the owners of the U.S. retail chain Hobby Lobby, to be exhibited at their Museum of the Bible. The tablet was returned to Iraq in September 2021. For many Iraqis, the museum and its treasures mean more than a parade of archaeological knowledge: They are points of national pride. Amer Abdel Razzaq, heritage inspector in the Dhi Qar governorate, said in a press interview that these events marked “a revival of Iraq’s historical identity.” But what exactly is the nature of that identity?

The Mesopotamian heritage includes the first known states and large cities, the invention of writing, the earliest laws and literature, stunning artistic achievements and impressive advances in astronomy and mathematics. To name but a few personal favorite examples, ancient Iraq saw the creation of literary masterpieces like the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” architectural wonders like the Ziggurat at Ur, gorgeous artistry like the sculptured reliefs at Nineveh, complex statecraft under such kings as Sargon of Akkad (and his legendary daughter Enheduana) and an early form of calculus, developed 1,400 years before its reinvention by mathematicians at Oxford.

Iraq has been beset by endless waves of turmoil and terrorism in recent decades, so the ancient past offers a rare occasion for national pride and the prospect of much-needed income, as tourists begin returning to the country. The importance of antiquity to modern Iraq runs deep. Vigilante groups gather to protect still-unexcavated sites, shielding them from looters who, driven by economic despair, would do irreparable damage to the relics. Creative adaptations of the ancient past are flourishing. The Baghdad-based street artist Osama Sadiq, for example, has developed a unique artistic style that blends modern graffiti with cuneiform writing. The Sumerian word “ama-gi4,” which roughly translates to “freedom,” is becoming a fixture of protest banners in Iraq.

One reason for antiquity’s appeal is that it offers Iraqis a vision for cross-sectarian unity. Riven as it is by tensions between Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and religious minorities, Iraq has historically struggled to formulate a model of national belonging that is internally inclusive yet distinct from its neighbors. Attempts to break up Iraq have been a constant feature of its modern life, culminating in the Islamic State group’s attempt to create an autonomous caliphate in 2014 and the failed Kurdish independence referendum of 2017.

Mesopotamian heritage offers an alternative to this predicament, bringing together all Iraqis in a shared sense of historical belonging that cuts across religious and ethnic divides, while also being uniquely Iraqi. The key to the precarious national identity of Iraq is thus the feeling of historical depth. Muhsin al-Musawi, a literary historian at Columbia University, writes: “The Iraqis see themselves as so well established and historically rooted as to deride geographical mapping as no more than a matter of convenience in world politics.”

But matters are in fact much messier than they appear. As al-Musawi also writes, “the past can be manipulated, reinvented, monumentalized and given voice toward the goal of reconstituting a civilization and a culture.” History is always being reshaped for political ends, only to then appear solid and unquestionable.

The idea of an ancient Mesopotamia is no exception. It seems to promise an age-old, stable unity that can provide a firm foundation for Iraqi belonging. Yet, in truth, the concept of “Mesopotamia” is every bit as culturally complex, politically fraught and internally divided as modern Iraq. That does not mean Iraqis should not celebrate their heritage or that the word “Mesopotamia” should be abandoned. But a closer look at the surprisingly tortuous history of the word sheds light on how Iraq came into being and what the legacy of the ancient past might mean for the country going forward.

There never was an ancient Mesopotamia, at least not in the sense of a single culture that we can plausibly describe with the word. While ancient Egypt remained a largely coherent (if constantly changing) cultural entity over millennia, ancient Mesopotamia was, at best, a geographical region that housed an ever-shifting set of peoples, languages and cultural clusters.

The best-known of those cultures were the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians, but they coexisted with Amorites, Kassites and Chaldeans, to name only a few, not to mention the many cultures of “Greater Mesopotamia”: Hittite, Hurrian, Eblaite, Elamite, Urartian, Ugaritic, among others. Not for nothing is the Tower of Babel myth set in ancient Iraq: The region was always a multilingual space where many cultures met and mixed. On a street in sixth-century Babylon, when the city was at its most cosmopolitan (and most imperial), Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Arabs and Greeks could have lived side-by-side with “traditional” Babylonians.

Granted, many of these cultures were brought together by the writing system they all used (cuneiform) and the cultural heritage the script carried with it. That is one reason the cultures of ancient Iraq can also be referred to as the “cuneiform cultures” (in the plural). But cuneiform also became an international means of communication and its use spread far beyond the borders of Mesopotamia, reaching into Iran, Syria, Turkey and even Egypt. So it is not entirely limited to Iraq.

At no point was Mesopotamia, as we would think of it today, unified under a single state, except when that state also included vast swathes of other regions, as with the Assyrian and Babylonian empires of the first millennium BCE. There is no widely-used word in the languages of the region, such as Sumerian or Akkadian, that is equivalent to Mesopotamia. Instead, the area was most often referred to as “the land of Assur” to the north (what we call Assyria) and “the lands of Sumer and Akkad” to the south (what we call Babylonia). Those regions were in turn subdivided into a sprawling web of often-autonomous cities, which fought fiercely to preserve their political independence and cultural uniqueness. The idea of a single, unified, unchanging Mesopotamia, whose borders roughly coincided with those of modern Iraq, is at best a simplification and at worst a dangerous myth, which has proved useful to those who seek to rob Iraqis of their heritage.

An early critic of the term “Mesopotamia” was Zainab Bahrani, a professor of art history at Columbia University, who noted that it was a colonial term in the most literal sense: It is the name of a colony. In the classical, post-cuneiform world, Mesopotamia was used as the name for a province in the Roman empire. It was never the name used by the inhabitants of ancient Iraq for themselves but rather a designation imposed upon them by their Western conquerors. (It was also in Mesopotamia, thus conceived, that the Roman army suffered some of its most humiliating defeats against the Parthian and Persian forces.) Yet, as Bahrani points out, the trouble with the term extends far beyond its ancient history.

Crucially, the notion of Mesopotamia does two things at once: It lumps together a set of disparate cultures and splits those cultures away from their Persian and Islamic successors. We tend to think of history as a mosaic of temporal and geographical blocks (ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, medieval Europe and so on), which we often treat, incorrectly, as both internally homogenous and sharply distinct from their neighbors. The same is true of Mesopotamia. When we use one term to describe the cultures that flourished there in the ancient world, and a wholly different set of terms to talk about the Persian and Islamic cultures that inhabited the same region in a later period, we reinforce the myth that the two are entirely separate; that some sharp historical line divides the one from the other.

In fact, the line that links ancient Babylon to medieval Baghdad is a gradual, winding and complex process, replete with slow shifts and moments of mixture, as cultural practices slowly evolved over the centuries. Only by ignoring this could Western historians create a myth of progress leading straight from Mesopotamia — the “cradle of civilization” — through Greece and Rome to the European West, conveniently bypassing Islamic culture. Much academic research has analyzed how the cuneiform heritage influenced Greek and Roman culture, while far less research has traced its reception among Persian and Arabic writers. When Mesopotamia is separated from its Islamic cultural heirs, it is more easily stripped of its Middle Eastern specificity and recast as a “universal human heritage.” According to this logic, Mesopotamian artifacts belong just as fully in a Western art collection as in an Iraqi one. After all, the ancient cultures are unconnected, except by geographical coincidence, with the Middle Eastern cultures that came after them.

I experienced this logic firsthand when I presented the Babylonian “Gilgamesh” epic in an English translation, noting in my book that the epic has not only a global literary heritage but also a specifically Iraqi one. I was told by some early readers that this was plainly incorrect because Iraq is a modern nation that merely happens to sit atop the Babylonian ruins. This is a perfect illustration of how the concept of Mesopotamia has shaped our view of history. It has instilled a stark separation between ancient and modern Iraq, feeding the myth that the two are unrelated except by accident, and that the former — but not the latter — has a universal heritage, free for all Westerners to claim as their own.

What makes this notion particularly ironic is that the ideas of “Iraq” and “Mesopotamia” came into their current form at exactly the same time, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. It is also no coincidence that the two words happen to describe roughly the same stretch of land, though one is modern and the other allegedly ancient.

Open any textbook on Mesopotamia and you will be told the name refers to “the land between (“mésos”) the rivers (“potamós”)”: that is, the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, extending from the Taurus Mountains in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. This etymology confers on the concept “Mesopotamia” the air of timeless truth; it seems to make intuitive sense, referring as it does to a region that is naturally bounded by rivers, mountains and the sea. Even if the ancient Babylonians did not use any such word, the region still seems infused with geographical immediacy, legitimizing its current use.

Yet, as shown by Rune Rattenborg, an archaeologist at the University of Uppsala, the etymology is deeply misleading. For most ancient writers, including Diodorus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder, the word Mesopotamia referred not to the land between the rivers, but to the land “within” (another meaning of “mésos”) the bend of the Euphrates, in what is now northwestern Iraq. This area was bordered to the east by Adiabene or Assyria and to the south by Babylonia or Chaldea, splitting what we now think of as Mesopotamia into three regions. Most classical and medieval writers, in both the Latin and Arabic traditions, divide what we now call Iraq into either two or three regions with “Mesopotamia” only used, if at all, for the northern or northwestern of these regions. Occasionally — as in some, but not all, passages of Pliny the Elder — Mesopotamia does serve as a collective term for all three regions, approximating the scope of modern Iraq, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Rattenborg traces the many permutations of the term “Mesopotamia” over millennia, showing that the only constant in its long history is change. As recently as the 20th century, Mesopotamia signified one region among several in what is now Iraq. In the Stanford’s London Atlas of Universal Geography of 1901, for instance, Iraq is divided into Mesopotamia or Jazirah to the north and Babylonia or Irak Arabi to the south.

The turning point that brought Mesopotamia into its modern meaning came during WWI, with the Mesopotamian Campaign that saw the British invasion of Iraq, leading to the creation after the war of the British Mandate of Iraq. Amid the flurry of mapmaking that followed the invasion — which, as the historian Priya Satia has shown, was instrumental for the aerial bombardments by which the British kept the locals in check — Mesopotamia and Iraq became the standard terms used for the region, eclipsing other, older designations.

Until WWI, the terms “Assyria” and “Babylonia” appeared more frequently in written records than “Mesopotamia,” showing that ancient Iraq was still thought of not as one block but several coexisting cultures. It was only in the 1910s and early 1920s, in the wake of the British invasion, that “Mesopotamia” rose to prominence, consolidating the view of ancient Iraq as a cultural and geographical monolith.

Crucially, it was during this same time that the nation-state of Iraq came into being. Far from being unlinked concepts and cultures, Mesopotamia and Iraq are two temporal sides of the same spatial coin. The idea of an ancient Mesopotamia that was being created by archaeologists lent legitimacy to the budding nation-state. In turn, the establishment of that nation-state made it easy to lump the ancient cultures into one academic specialization.

Gradually, during the 1920s and 1930s, the notion of Iraq-as-Mesopotamia came to be widely accepted by both Western historians and local Iraqis as a natural unity. Does that mean Iraq is nothing but a colonial invention fabricated by the British and their armed forces for their own sinister purposes? No. Once again, history is much more complex than it seems at first glance.

An often-repeated myth claims that Iraq was created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a deal struck in secret in 1916 by the French, British and Russians to partition the Ottoman Empire after WWI. According to this myth, the nation-state of Iraq is nothing but an imperial invention, created by lines drawn through the desert by deal-brokering diplomats.

The myth may well have begun as a justified critique of the carving-up of colonies — the tendency of imperial powers like Britain and France to create new states in their former holdings without regard for local desires or complex histories, leading to endless cycles of conflict in the postcolonial period. Yet it has since morphed into the nefarious notion that Iraq is not a “real” country but merely the artificial result of colonial conniving.

The notion that Iraq is an artificial state has been roundly criticized by many historians, including Isam al-Khafaji, Hala Fattah and Fanar Haddad, but it continues to live on outside the academic world, finding adherents in surprising quarters. The Islamic State group used this story to reject the legitimacy of Iraq’s nationhood, symbolically bulldozing the Syrian-Iraqi border while triumphantly declaring: “We have broken Sykes-Picot!” The same myth also proved useful to seeming apologists for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“After all,” writes Sara Pursley, a historian of Iraq at New York University, summarizing the “Iraq-as-fiction” narrative touted by supporters of the U.S. invasions of 1991 and especially 2003, “what harm had been done in destroying a country that had never authentically existed in the first place?”

Pursley argues that even a passing glance at the Sykes-Picot map shows that the myth comes with serious caveats. Of Iraq’s present borders, the only one that even roughly matches those set out in the agreement is the southern stretch of the border with Syria. In all other respects, the Sykes-Picot lines differ substantially from the country that emerged after WWI. As it happens, the portion of the Syrian-Iraqi border that does resemble the one set out in Sykes-Picot, stretching from Jordan to al-Qaim, offers a telling rejoinder to the myth of Western machinations. The lines set out in the agreement placed the province of Deir ez-Zor in what became Syria, but, as Pursley notes, Iraqi nationalists readily accepted this arrangement because they hoped to use Deir ez-Zor as an external base to launch an attack on the British forces during the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920.

What the myth does, Pursley shows, is remove historical agency from the Iraqis themselves, who in fact helped shape the emerging country through political pressure and often-violent conflict over each contested region. This is not to say imperial interests played no part in the making of Iraq. The northern border around Mosul, for example, came into its present form through hostile negotiations between France, Britain, Turkey and the new Iraqi government — the crux of the issue naturally being access to the northern oil fields.

The myth, then, is that Iraq was created instantly and artificially by two diplomats sitting comfortably in Europe. In reality, Iraq was created the way all modern states are created: through a messy, protracted confluence of violent conflict, local preferences, external pressures, political skulduggery and cultural mythmaking. In that respect, it is no more fake and no more real than any other nation.

In an interview in 2014, at the height of the Islamic State’s power, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the former national security adviser of Iraq, was asked whether, given its ethnically-splintered state, Iraq could avoid being separated into three countries: one Sunni, one Shiite and one Kurdish.

This vision for Iraq’s future — dividing the country into separate states that would house one and only one ethnic group — has a long history, going back to T.E. Lawrence, who in 1918 presented a suggestion for a postwar division of the Middle East to the British war cabinet. These suggestions often spring from a desire to avoid sectarian conflict, but they always smack of a distinctly European nationalism in which nations should ideally be ethnically homogenous. In a country as thoroughly diverse as Iraq, the only way to achieve such an ethnic partition would be through massive, forced movements and ethnic cleansing.

In his response to this suggestion, al-Rubaie was adamant it would not happen: “Iraq is a united country for 5,000 years, and we will prevail, and you’ll see a united, secure, prosperous Iraq in a few years’ time from now.” His answer perfectly captures the idea that Iraq is spatially united because it is temporally united, implying that the ancient cultures can be subsumed under the entity of Mesopotamia and that this entity corresponds to the modern state. This historical connection is deployed to defend Iraq even, and especially, in its darkest hour. For al-Rubaie, as for many other Iraqis, the longevity of the country is a guarantee of its survival in the face of fracture.

Yet, as we have seen, the existence of an ancient Mesopotamia cannot serve as external support for modern Iraq because the two notions were created simultaneously, so that propping one up with the other would be a historical tautology. More to the point, we risk falling into an unhelpful dichotomy in which Iraq is either a fake, colonial construction or an eternal, unchanging nation. It is neither: Iraq is as real a country as any, and, like any other country, its history consists of constant, complex changes.

Amatzia Baram, a historian of Iraq at the University of Haifa, has traced the slow transformation by which Iraqi nationalism became invested in the Mesopotamian past, creating the idea of what he calls “Iraq’s near-eternal people.” Under the Baathist regime that ruled Iraq from 1968 until the U.S. invasion in 2003, two cultural shifts took place. One was the “Arabization” of the Mesopotamians: the depiction of ancient Babylonians and Assyrians as being directly and biologically related to the Arabs of modern Iraq. The other was the emphasis on the uniqueness and longevity of Iraqi history in contrast to the surrounding Arabic world. In short, Mesopotamia and Iraq were brought closer together and Iraq was set apart from the wider Arab world.

Through these two propagandist narratives, the Baathist regime crafted an enduring association between Mesopotamia and Iraqi nationalism, creating the sense that, as al-Musawi puts it, “for the Iraqis, there is and always has been an Iraq, regardless of state formations and colonial arrangements.” Political narratives about Iraq swing wildly between two poles. In one moment, Iraq is depicted as a modern and artificial construct that will inevitably disintegrate; in the next, it is depicted as an eternal entity that will just as inevitably endure through all accidents of history.

These polarized positions are unsurprising given the complex history of the country and the many players involved in its making. As al-Musawi describes it, “Iraq has become a discursive space, inscribed with variegated registers to camouflage or advance agendas.” Iraq is like an enormous manuscript on which many hands have written contradictory stories, each propelled by its own political program.

I have argued that, in thinking about the relation between ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq, we must steer between two myths. One is that they are linked as an unchanging, transhistorical unit. The other is that they are unrelated except by geographical coincidence, meaning the ancient past is free for all to appropriate. Against the first myth, one must insist that ancient Iraq was not a single entity but a confluence of cultures; against the second, that this ancient past is linked to the modern nation by a long and gradual process of transformation.

The ancient and modern Iraqs are neither fully separate nor fully identical.

Modern-day Iraqis are indeed linked to the ancient Babylonians, not through some unbroken or biological unit that spans five millennia but through a set of slow shifts, by which one culture gradually gave way to the next. Iraqis have so much to be proud of and they should continue to celebrate and protect their heritage. But they should also insist that ancient Mesopotamia was no cultural monolith. Instead, it was an ever-changing landscape of variegated groups living side-by-side for centuries in occasionally hostile but most often peaceful ways.

The land we now call Iraq has always been a vast vessel for coexistence and change. As Aziz al-Hajj, an early leader of the Iraqi Communist Party, wrote: “From ancient times Iraq was the meeting place and mixture of races, nations, cultures and religions.” That is the true legacy of ancient Mesopotamia: a legacy of pluralism and cultural diversity, of many peoples sharing one country while making and remaking that country over time.

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