Imperialism from the Cradle to the Grave, Part One of Two

In the first year of Cyrus the king the same Cyrus the king made a decree concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, Let the house be builded, the place they offered sacrifices, and let the foundations thereof be strongly laid….And also let the golden and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took forth out of the temple which is at Jerusalem, and brought unto Babylon, be restored….

Mesopotamia was the cradle of empires, but it was also their grave, as the Persians were to discover.  The Persians were a great people, whose simple code of honor--ride a horse, shoot straight, and tell the truth--was admired by their Greek enemies.  The conquest of Babylon in 537, the occasion of Cyrus’s edict, although it sealed Persia’s fate as an imperial nation doomed to degenerate and fail, shows the Persians flushed with success but determined to deal justly with their subjects.  Although it has been conjectured that the Persians were rewarding the Babylonian Jews for covert assistance in the defeat of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, there is no need to posit any special relationship between a tiny and impotent people and the greatest ruler of the day.   It was Cyrus’s general policy to reverse the oppression inflicted on subject nations by Babylonian and Assyrian rulers, who had driven defeated enemies into exile and resettled foreigners in the vacated lands.  This divide et impera strategy would be emulated by later tyrants. 

The Assyrians permanently destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonians, after conquering the people of Judah, although they did allow most Jews to remain in their country, drove many skilled workers and much of the elite class into exile, and they destroyed the temple whose ruins were a potent symbol of cultural genocide.  The Assyrians and their Babylonian successors wrote the book on tyranny and empire, setting an example to be imitated by future conquerors, no matter how noble their motives.  The Persian Cyrus, for example, understood (as the Assyrians had not) that leaving people alone to enjoy their own customs and worship their own gods, is a better means of securing the loyalty of subjects than the orgy of destruction and bloodshed over which the Assyrian documents so lovingly gloat. But the comparative decency and humanity of the Persians, glorified not only by Ezra but also in Isaiah (who calls King Cyrus  messiah), must have come as relief, a gentle morning after the long nightmare of Assyrian and Babylonian misrule.

The last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, was not so much a tyrant as he was an eccentric.  His mother was from Haran (one of Abraham’s cities), where she was priestess of the moon-god Sin, and as king Nabonidus devoted much of his time to elevating his mother’s deity over the gods of the Babylonian pantheon, including the great Marduk.  Many Babylonians thought the old man (already in his sixties when he came to power in 556 B.C.) was insane--claiming victory in battles that had never taken place (as if a general should wear a combat ribbon without ever serving in combat.) The powerful priests of Marduk had even stronger opinions.  And yet this “archaeologist king” not only rebuilt the temple of Sin but also restored ancient temples and revived religious and cultural traditions of the Sumerian and Akkadian peoples.

Those traditions can be traced in written documents back to the early Third Millenium, when the peoples of Sumerian city-states--Lagash, Uruk, Larsa, Eridu, Kish, and Ur--were laying the groundwork for the civilization that was later enriched and reinvented by Greeks and Romans, before being passed down to us.  Outside of Mesopotamia (and Egypt), other early peoples are only so much bones and rubbish, and their “histories” are told as catalogues of pottery styles and methods of interment.  But Sumerians and Akkadians, and the peoples of Mari and Nineveh who followed them, we know as distinctive human beings, who lived and died, killed and loved and worshipped their gods whose deeds comprised the central subject of their literatures.  And if the Sumerians created civilization, their Akkadian successors gave birth to the first empire.  In legend,  Sargon had a miraculous birth (entrusted, like Moses and Romulus and Remus, to a basket that was put into the river), and he grew up to be the lover of Ishtar, but the reality is almost as remarkable.  Sargon conquered much of the Middle East, proclaiming himself “king of the four corners of the world,”  and after his death his name became (like Caesar’s) synonymous with empire.

To visualize Sargon’s “empire” and the lands ruled by his successors, it is helpful to imagine a map.  Babylon was on the Euphrates River, southwest of modern Baghdad (on the Tigris).  Upstream from Babylon lay Mari, whose records give us so lively a picture of early Semitic life, as well as Assur and Nineveh, the Assyrian capitals.  Downstream on the Euprhates lay Ur, the “imperial city” of the Sumerians.  Ancient Babylon was not far from Agade, the city that commemorates the name of the Akkadians, the Semitic people that intermingled with the Sumerians and eventually, without ever forgetting their debt, took over political and cultural hegemony.  In terms of modern cities, this land between the two rivers or Mesopotamia stretches from Mosul in the north (near ancient Nineveh, the city that Jonah called, so reluctantly, to repentance) and southeastward down the Euphrates to Basra, which lies east of Ur and Eridu.

In other words, Iraq, a name Arabs and Persians applied to the southern coast of the region, is what we learned in the fifth grade to call Mesopotamia.  The Fertile Crescent.  The Cradle of Civilization.  An antiquarian king like Nabonidus might well exult in the heritage of his land, and both he and his priestess mother appear to have made a collection of antiquities.  By Herodotus’ time, many of these cities (though not Babylon) already lay in ruins covered over by the blowing sands, and, although there were haphazard excavations and looting expeditions in the 19th century, the land of the black-headed people did not receive systematic investigation until the 20th century, at the hands of archeologists like Sir Leonard Wooley, who revealed the glories of Ur.

“Ur of the Chaldees,” where Abraham was living before he set out for Canaan, is one of the richest archeological sites upon the planet, and the artifacts recovered testify to the brilliance of Sumerian civilization.  Later rulers such as the Bible’s Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon) left their mark upon the city--and their names upon inscriptions and bricks.  Even the most recent successor to Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib, Saddam Hussein,  had his name inscribed upon bricks at Ur and other ancient sites and said, during the Iran-Iraq War, that he was carrying on the Babylonians’ age-old struggle against the Persians.  During the Gulf War, according to US sources, Saddam parked two MIG’s near the temple of UR, but out of respect for antiquity, the US Air Force did not attack them.  Locals--and archaeologists tell a different story:  Bomb craters pockmark the earth, and the temple itself bears evidence of strafing.

To anticipate a bit, empires can take differing approaches to the cults and monuments of the peoples they conquer.  In general, the various kingdoms and empires of the Middle East generally honored the gods of the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians.  In part, this was good politics, but their respect for the old gods and their cults was also an acknowledgment of the predecessor cultures they were imitating.  Even the Assyrians, nasty customers that they were, could not afford to oppress the gods of Babylon, if only because they would have risked a massive uprising of the never-quite-subdued Babylonians.  We do not have to rely exclusively on the evidence of the Old Testament to learn that they were a good deal meaner to the Philistines, Jews, and other peoples west of the two rivers.

Speaking in the broadest generalities, a  healthy and thriving religious civilization does not have to reassure itself by burning temples and overthrowing altars.   The atrocious vandalisms and massacres perpetrated by bands of Isis thugs in the name of Islam tells us something about Islam, and the same can be said for Christian sects whose members have broken stained glass windows and destroyed images of Christ, his Mother, and the saints.  They have a moral and spiritual screw lose, not just individually but collectively.

A civilized human person, whether Pagan, Christian, or Muslim, respects the ancestors who might have belonged to an earlier religion and respects the monuments of beauty and piety.   Governments that display indifference or hostility to those monuments, are governments of savages--either of primitive and superstitious savages or of degraded hedonistic savages.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Frank Brownlow says:

    Ah yes, England’s own Taliban, the Protestants, destroyed just about every book in the library of Oxford university, and at Cambridge they had bonfires of manuscripts in the college courts. Fortunately a few enlightened men towards the end of the 16th century set about collecting the remains, in the process inventing the word “antiquary,” otherwise we’d have almost nothing.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    What I don’t know anything about is what Luther and his followers did. They don’t appear to have been afflicted by a similar rage, but I don’t know. In Switzerland, where the damage has not been repaired in places like Zurich, the churches can be grim reminders of human barbarity.

  3. Frank Brownlow says:

    At Geneva they stripped St. Peter’s cathedral bare, though a panel of the altarpiece, by Conrad Witz, survived somehow, and is now in the Art Museum. My first visit to this church coincided with a pilgrim party from Kansas, so we visitors were marched around in a line. There were two Germans in front of me, one of whom puzzled me by continually humming a note, as if about to start singing. The brief tour over, we were all standing about in the nave when the humming German, having positioned himself in the central crossing, facing east with his companion on hand to back him up, did indeed begin to sing. He had a fine voice, and what he sang–to my astonishment–was a Salve Regina, perhaps the first time that antiphon had been heard there since 1535. The custodians, having no idea what he was singing, did not know what to do, and started consulting together. When he finished, a lady from Kansas, who also had no idea what he had sung, said, “That was beautiful! Would you please sing for us again?” That surprised him. He thought a while, and said “I shall sing a Pater noster for you,” which he did.

  4. Ben says:

    The concision and barbarity of the following is no indication of my appreciation of Dr. B’s story: “LOL.”

    We indeed are quietly desperate, aren’t we?