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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

From Mesopotamia to Iraq

Air Date: Week of March 28, 2003

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Iraq’s rich landscape and history has established the country in history books as the cradle of civilization. Archaeologists have long studied Iraq’s artifacts and ancient sites, some dating as far back as half a million years, to understand the varying cultures and climates of the region. University of Chicago Professor McGuire Gibson was one of a group of archaeologists who appealed recently to the Pentagon to preserve the vast antiquities as troops advance through Iraq. He speaks with host Steve Curwood about the history of Iraq’s land and its people.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The roots to some of the world's first civilizations lie in modern day Iraq and predate the empires of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Human settlements rose up within the fertile crescent of ancient Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates River, near today's Baghdad. The land was rich with resources and became the birthplace of western writing, mathematics, and agriculture.

McGuire Gibson is a professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago. He joins me now to talk about Iraq's ancient fertile lands and how the landscape and land use have changed through the years. Welcome.

GIBSON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, Iraq as we know it today used to be part of ancient Mesopotamia. Professor Gibson, take us back to that age, if you would please, before the deserts took over most of the region. What riches did the land provide for the emerging civilization?

GIBSON: Well, that was one of the challenges. Between the two rivers in the south of Iraq, you have potential to be extraordinarily rich agriculturally, but there is not enough rain to let you have rain-fed agriculture. So very early on, sometime around 6000 B.C., they developed irrigation. And it may very well be that they developed it in the earliest periods in order to cultivate vegetables and things like the date palm, which grew up in that area.

But fairly soon they were growing wheat and barley and they also were herding sheep and goats, cows. They were also taking advantage of the pig and the abundant resources that were in the marshes and the rivers. At that time, the head of the Gulf would have been quite different from what it is today.

Going back a little bit further, at the time of the Ice Ages, the Gulf actually would have been land. We could have pretty much walked all the way down to where the Gulf narrows. And that then began to fill as the ice sheets began to melt. And so it came up to even further north than the present head of the Gulf, although it was probably like an estuary. And this explains how places like Ur, which are now fairly far away from the head of the Gulf, can be said in ancient text to be right on the water.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how did the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers shape and influence the way people populated and used the land?

GIBSON: Well, they made it possible for people to live there at all, because without the rivers it would be just desert; it would look like Saudi Arabia. And one of the reasons probably why Mesopotamia becomes a great civilization and is the earliest civilization we know of anywhere in the world, and that include Egypt, is because there's so very little in the way of natural resources in the south.

And in order to get stone they have to go a long distance to bring it. They have to bring it either from the desert fringes to the west, or the better quality stone is up in the mountains of the north, or even up into Turkey. Timber would have been up in Turkey and in Northern Iraq. Apparently, the main trading item they have is the wool that comes from the sheep and probably linen, which they are able to grow by growing flax.

So, in a sense, they have to try harder and they have to work out some rather clever, innovative ways of organizing themselves, organizing trade and getting products that they can mass-produce and send out in ways that other places in more favorable circumstances wouldn't have to do.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how did the country, how did Iraq get to be the mostly desert climate that we see today?

GIBSON: The western desert, out to the west of the Euphrates, that has been desert for at least since the end of the Ice Age. There's one period from about 5000 to about 3000 when it's a little wetter than it is today and there may have been more plants out there and there may have been more human habitation out there in the western desert, but essentially that desert has been pretty much the same as it is today for the last 6,000 or 7,000 years.

And the idea that Iraq is just a desert holds only for the southern part of it. In the middle are the two rivers, only for the last 500 or 600 years when it has been desert shortly after the Mongol conquest in 1258. The central part of the alluvium between Baghdad and Basra has gone into desert. But it's not a sand desert, it's a silt desert, and if you pour water on it, it will grow crops. And what's been happening in the last 100 years is that more and more of that desert is being brought back under cultivation. And there have been billions of dollars spent in putting in Dutch-type schemes to drain the salt out of the land to make it cultivable.

CURWOOD: What remains of the fertile crescent today?

GIBSON: Well the fertile crescent is still there. In fact, with all these development schemes it's trying to be more fertile. It's Iraq all the way across Syria and down the coastal plane of Lebanon and Israel. But think about northern Syria, which is one of the richest agricultural rain-fed areas in the world, very, very lush. Northern Iraq is very lush. The crescent is still there.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the inter-relationship between the north and the south in Iraq today. What sort of inter-dependent relationship, if any, is there when it comes to agriculture and food?

GIBSON: Iraq is a very variegated country, and that variety is both its strength and its weakness. The variety in the country makes it possible for you to live very, very well in both parts. What doesn't grow in the south will grow in the north. Wheat and barley grows in both areas. But dates will only grow in the South and only a certain way up the river; they don't grow in the north. Certain kinds of fruit trees will grow in the north but not in the south. Oranges will grow in certain areas; apples grow in certain areas. Cherries grow in the north but not in the south. Tobacco grows in the north, not in the south.

And so if people are trading together, they can--you can have very, very rich sources of food. It makes a wonderful complement when you combine the two. And, in fact, it is that joining together of the disparate parts of the country that has made the foundation of first the Acadian empire after 2300 BC, and later the Babylonian empires of Hammurabi and later kings, and the Assyrian empires of the first millennium, and then, finally, the neo-Babylonian empire. When you put it all together, it becomes a tremendous economic engine and a tremendous cultural engine.

CURWOOD: With such agricultural riches, why is it that Iraq has needed this food-for-peace program?

GIBSON: It's needed it because all through the '70s, when there was this tremendous burst of development, they had put agriculture low down on the list. They would take care of agriculture later. They were building factories. They built the biggest petrochemical plant in the world. They were building phosphate plants and making fertilizer. They were putting in roads like crazy. They needed the labor. So agriculture was put second.

They could easily buy wheat on the market outside, much cheaper than they could produce it inside. So that it just made better sense to buy it from the outside. And they were buying lamb from New Zealand, they were buying eggs from all over the place, they were buying American chickens by the thousands every month.

In the embargo period, which has been there for the last 13 years, there has been limited money for development. And they have done several crash programs in an awful lot of new territories under cultivation. But a lot of this is not really controlled projects; it's individuals opening up new fields for themselves. And a lot of that, I'm afraid, is going to turn out badly.

Looking at a whole procession of landsat images, I can see that in the last two to three, four years, they are actually using the drainage canal, which should be full of pretty salty water, and are using pumps to pump out onto new fields right along the drainage canal, so they're getting a crop for a while, but it's not going to last very long. That's going to turn salty very, very fast. So those, I think, go out of existence.

But they've gone from a population in the '60s that was probably around 10 million, they've gone to--it was 18 million in the last census and the guess now is there are 25 million in the country. But you know, that's many, many more people than they have the ability to feed, given the resources they have and given the amount of land that's under cultivation.

CURWOOD: Professor Gibson, I'd like to turn to your own specialty, the study of ancient artifacts, particularly in Iraq. Now I understand that a group of American archaeologists, including yourself, have drafted a list of ancient sites for the Pentagon that the military should avoid as it moves through Iraq. Can you give me a picture of what we might see at some of these sites?

GIBSON: Usually, what you see when you go to a site is just broken pottery. Occasionally you can find coins. You'll see a bit of green and it's round and you know it's a copper coin that has corroded. And sometimes you can date the site partially by those coins. You date the site by the pottery.

If you decide to dig at a site, you can find anything from--well, Iraq has sites in the western desert that go back half a million years ago. I have dug on sites that were Ottoman in time. I dug a site once that the very top level was datable to about 1910. And then you go under that and you have a level which was datable to about 1300 B.C. And then under that was another level which dated to about 3000 B.C., so there were big abandonments in this particular site.

Any one of these sites can produce fantastic objects, and some of them are highly important in artistic terms. We have statues in the round of kings and of gods and goddesses. We have wall paintings showing various sorts of rituals and battle scenes. And very, very often across these big reliefs will be an inscription in cuneiform, and the inscription will tell of the great deed of the king up to the time the palace was built. And so you get history off of them, too.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, what's the collaboration been with Iraqi archeologists to preserve these sites?

GIBSON: The Iraqis set up the Department of Antiquities in the early '20s, soon after it was set up as a kingdom. And they had been training their people to guard sites and to excavate sites from very early on. They've been sending people out to get advanced degrees, Ph.D.'s, in Europe and America from at least the '30s. They continued to do that all through the '50s, and it has continued to train. And they've been in terrible trouble for the last 13 years because of the embargo and the lack of value in the money they have, and they've lost a lot of their personnel. They've lost a lot of their Ph.D.'s. There were about 21 Ph.D.'s working in the museums and in the universities in Iraq until the Gulf War, and now they're reduced to something like maybe six or seven.

CURWOOD: What kind of contact have their people had with Americans in this period of time since the Gulf War?

GIBSON: There have always been foreign expeditions from the very start of the state, back in the 1920s. We go in at the invitation, at the permission of the Department of Antiquities. Since the Gulf War, the embargo was meant as an economic embargo, but it was extended in a certain kind of way to cultural affairs also. And so most archeological expeditions were halted in '91. Until the point this last year, almost all of the foreign expeditions were back working, except for the Americans and the British and one or two other smaller countries.

CURWOOD: Iraq has had a long history of political conflict. How have the antiquities fared in the wake of these tensions?

GIBSON: Modern warfare is far more destructive than ancient warfare would have been. Even first World War warfare was not as bad as what you get now. The biggest problem, it wasn't really so much the Gulf War. There was not that much damage, as far as we can tell. There were a few sites that were damaged. Ur of the Chaldees was damaged. There are four bomb craters in the religious precinct. There are 400 new holes in the side of the ziggurat. The ziggurat is a big platform on which a temple would have sat. But you know, relatively minor damage in the war.

The real damage came after the war, in the uprising that happened in the south and the north after the war. And in this, nine out of the 13 regional museums, these museums were raided. Many of the cases were broken, objects were smashed on the floor. Some of the buildings were set on fire. And about 3,000, maybe as many as 4,000 objects were lost, and almost none of those have ever been recovered. And it probably started off with a few guys going out to dig up something to find to sell to feed their families, but it soon became an industry, funded from abroad, directed from abroad, where two and three and four hundred guys working on a site, making huge holes. There's some evidence that they were even bringing in front-end loaders and digging. They were just driving it into the site and lifting it up and dropping it out, and then having guys go through it, looking for antiquities.

What they're looking for mostly is cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, which are used to authenticate or to seal up doors, to seal up packages, to seal up jars full of stuff, also to seal tablets saying that this is an authentic document and I have sealed this, I am responsible. These very often will have wonderful designs cut into them, and they're cut with extreme care. They're tiny little things very often. But you will get scenes of gods and goddesses doing various things, human beings being presented to gods. You'll get scenes which have a human hero and a bullman fighting against lions, this sort of thing.

Some of these things will be extremely important in historical terms. They open up a whole area of history that we just didn't know things about, that we knew certain things but couldn’t link them together, and these inscriptions will sometimes tell you. And these have been smuggled out of Iraq totally illegally, and they appear on the antiquities market in Europe and in New York and are being bought up like crazy.

CURWOOD: What efforts has the Pentagon made to avoid these ancient sites and this advancement into Iraq so far?

GIBSON: I know from a meeting that I was a member of a group that went in to see the Pentagon people in January, and at that time they said that they had a list of 150 important sites that they had already compiled. And I suspect that that came from a list that they had already in the Gulf War.

That list would include the famous sites, the things that would occur in a textbook: Babylon, Ur, Niniva. They're also very aware of the mosques that go back several hundred years in Baghdad, Mosul, and the other cities.

CURWOOD: So, okay, these are identified. What does the Pentagon then do?

GIBSON: Well, they try to pinpoint and not hit them, and I know that they have been very careful of these buildings. And the fact that the guided weapons are much more precise now than they were in '91. And in '91 there was one mosque in Basra which was damaged, apparently by a pretty--maybe not even exactly a direct hit--but it took away part of the dome, even. So that's the only major Islamic building that was touched. So these things do happen. Guided missiles sometimes go unguided, and it can happen. But I am quite confident that they are trying not to hit them.

CURWOOD: McGuire Gibson is a professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago. Thanks for speaking with me today.

GIBSON: Thank you for having me on.

[MUSIC: Kevin Volans “White Man Sleeps” Pieces of Africa - Elektra (1992)]

CURWOOD: "Out on the safaris," wrote Isak Dinesen in “Out of Africa,” "I had seen a herd of buffalo, 129 of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky one by one, as if the dark and massive iron-like animals with their mighty horizontally-swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished.

"I had time after time watched the progression across the plane of the giraffe in their queer, inimitable vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled, gigantic flowers slowing advancing."

Thanks to Heritage Africa, you too can live like Dinesen did. Living on Earth is giving away a 15-day trip for two on the ultimate African safari, with visits to several of Africa's most spectacular game preserves, such as Kruger and the Serengeti. Please go to our website, loe.org, for more details about how to win this 15-day trip to see some of Africa's most spectacular sites. That's loe.org.




Archaeological Site Photography: Mesopotamia

Highlights of the Collections: Mesopotamia

Highlights of the Collections: Assyria


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