The territory of Iraq largely coincides with the basin of the Dishla and Furat, otherwise known as the Tigris and Euphrates. From antiquity this region has been called Mesopotamia, Greek for ‘Land between Two Rivers’. Over the centuries many civilizations have controlled the region or exerted influence over it, among them the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Arabs and Turks. The economic basis for the civilizations in Mesopotamia was farming made possible by irrigation, and later also its earnings as a crossroads for trade.
It was about ten thousand years before the beginning of the Christian Era that communities of people in Mesopotamia transformed themselves from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists. The availability of water and fertile soil made this possible. The oldest known civilization in Mesopotamia, that of the Sumerians, reached its flowering about three thousand years before the Christian Era. Thanks to successful agriculture it could achieve a higher degree of social organisation, in the form of a series of city-states. Two of these city-states, Ur (where Abraham/Ibrahim is said to have been born) and Uruk, are regarded as the first cities in the history of mankind. Both lay at that time on the coast of the Persian Gulf, but through a falling sea level are now about 250 kilometres inland, behind the extensive marshes of southern Iraq. The Sumerians developed the first script, cuneiform, which was written on clay tablets, and which enabled people to exchange information and pass on knowledge and experience to succeeding generations. The epic of king Gilgamesh has been preserved for us in this fashion.
Babylonian and Assyrian Civilizations
About four thousand years ago, Babylonian civilization arose from an amalgamation of the Sumerian and Akkadian kingdoms. Its capital, Babylon, lay south of Baghdad, close to the Euphrates. Under its king, Hammurabi, a well-organized administration was established. The road network was improved to facilitate this administration, and this also stimulated trade. Hammurabi has, however, gone down in history chiefly as the first ruler to have a law code compiled. His goal was to create a legal system that would combat evil and prevent the strong from dominating the weak.
About eight hundred years after the decline of Hammurabi’s kingdom, Babylonian civilization had its second flowering, as Babylonian rulers extended their power far beyond Mesopotamia. Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the capital, Babylon, grew into a city of a hundred thousand people. Among its many buildings were the royal palace, with its fabled hanging gardens, counted among the seven wonders of the world.
Hammurabi’s kingdom declined and was followed about 1400 BCE by the Assyrian empire, which was strongly militaristic and lasted for eight hundred years. The Assyrian empire, which once again stretched far beyond Mesopotamia, had several capital cities during its history: Assur, Nimrod, and Nineveh, all close to the Tigris, near present-day Mosul.
Persians, Greeks, and Arabs
The fall of the Assyrian empire was followed by about a thousand years of domination by Persians and Greeks. Among their contributions were the cities built in the Greco-Roman and Persian styles, such as Hatra and Ctesiphon. Mesopotamia finally fell into the hands of Arab conquerors in 632 CE. After that, until 1920, it was part of successive Arab and Turkish polities.
Particularly under the Arab Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE), architecture and science flourished in the region, and Baghdad was the centre of the world. Little of this illustrious Baghdad is visible today. Baghdad cannot compare, in urban beauty, with Cairo, Jerusalem, or Damascus.
The National Museum
Beginning in the 19th century, Western archaeologists searched Mesopotamia for the remains of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other civilizations. As was normal in that period, much of the material they found ended up in museums in the West, particularly in Berlin and London. Later finds were housed in Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, whose world-famous collection contained about 170,000 objects. But in the first three chaotic weeks after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein plunderers and art thieves – some, according to reports, working for international art gangs – rampaged through the museum. To the anger of many Iraqis and the international archaeological community, the US occupying forces did nothing to stop the rampage. An estimated 15,000 objects were stolen; what could not be carried away was often irreparably damaged. After appeals from various quarters, including Islamic religious authorities, about two-thirds of the missing items have been returned or otherwise located. It is feared that a number of the most important pieces which disappeared will never be located, despite the belated efforts of UNESCO, Interpol, and the FBI.
The Coming of Islam
Iraq’s Arab conquerors brought Islam to Mesopotamia, where the population at that time consisted overwhelmingly of Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians (followers of the teachings of Zarathustra), and Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist). As ‘People of the Book‘ (Ahl al-Kitab), all these groups were permitted to retain their faith, although there were periods of repression, particularly of Christians and Jews.In the successive Arab-Islamic kingdoms, they all occupied an inferior position, and certain restrictions applied to them. Probably in part as a result of this, the people of Mesopotamia overwhelmingly converted to Islam within a century of the conquest. About a century after the rise of Islam, during the seventh century CE, Baghdad became the centre of the empire controlled by the Arab Abbasid dynasty, descendants of conquerors from the Arabian Peninsula. This marked the economic, scientific, and cultural flowering of Arab-Islamic civilization.
In the 13th century Mongol invaders finished off the already weakened Abbasid dynasty. They plundered Baghdad and destroyed the extensive, centuries-old irrigation system, dealing an irreparable blow to agriculture. A period of economic and political stagnation followed. The political vacuum was filled by two competing forces, the Ottoman Turks of Anatolia and the Safavids of Persia. Although Iraq came largely under the control of the Ottoman Turks in 1533, it was several decades before the area was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire (the Safavids briefly controlled parts of Iraq after 1533).
Over the following centuries Iraq did not emerge from economic stagnation: the Ottoman sultans regarded Iraq and other conquered Arab regions essentially as colonies and suppliers of soldiers. In the 19th century the Ottoman Turks introduced a more centralized administration, in which – besides Turkish appointees – Sunni Arab and Sunni Turkmen officials participated.
During World War I the Ottoman sultan sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This provided the British and French an excuse to occupy large parts of the Ottoman Empire. After Germany and its allies, including the sultan, were defeated in 1918, Great Britain and France divided the occupied territories. Thus in 1920 the state of Iraq came into being, officially as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, under the authority of the League of Nations, but in reality another British colony.
The new state consisted of the former Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Basra; in 1925 the province of Mosul was added. The boundaries of a series of new countries – including, in addition to Iraq, Syria, Transjordan (today Jordan), Lebanon, and Palestine – were dictated largely by the power balance between the British and French and by their political agendas.
These collided with the actual social and economic relations in the region. The province of Mosul, with a significant Kurdish population, was cut off from regions in Syria and Turkey that were (and still are) predominantly Kurdish. The same happened between the city of Mosul and its vicinity and the area around the city of Aleppo, between which there had been commercial links for centuries. Aleppo became part of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. For centuries the provinces of Baghdad and Basra had been oriented more towards neighbouring Persia (later called Iran) and the Persian Gulf region, although there were also strong trading relations between Mosul and Baghdad/Basra.
The social and economic links between these regions had ethnic and religious backgrounds. For example, the region around Aleppo, like that of Mosul and Baghdad and its vicinity, was populated by Sunni Arabs. The inhabitants of the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates south of Baghdad were likewise Arabs, but, like the Persians, they were Shiites. For them the cities of Najaf and Karbala were and are holy places, and this led to intensive contacts with Persia/Iran through the centuries. The extensive mountainous region in the province of Mosul offered a relatively safe haven for minority groups, such as the Kurds, Yazidis, and Christian Assyrians, who were occasionally exposed to persecution by Arab and Ottoman rulers. The Kurds in Iraq were oriented primarily towards the other parts of Kurdistan.
The British wanted to control this entire region, primarily because they were seeking an overland connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, eventually to be extended to their important colony of India. London succeeded in obtaining this connection when the mandatory territories of Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq were drawn up and allocated to it. The British interest in the province of Mosul was based chiefly on the presumption that it held extensive oil reserves.