When Baghdad ruled

Iraq, home to Saddam Hussein's regime, can boast of better days. Indeed, it is built on the site of one of the greatest civilizations the world has known.

March 16, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Toppling Saddam Hussein's brutal regime and instituting democracy would be a monumental accomplishment in the history of Iraq, but it would stand in the shadow of thousands of years of contributions to civilization that emerged from this country in millenniums past.

For long before Baghdad was the scene of the spectacular display of deadly fireworks that marked the beginning of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, before it was an anchor in the axis of evil, before it was the focus of arms inspectors and peace activists, it was a name that conjured up magical visions and extraordinary accomplishments.

That Baghdad was not the city of Saddam Hussein's palaces and torture chambers; it was the city of flying carpets and hanging gardens, of 1,001 nights and innumerable advances in mankind's knowledge and understanding.

It is the centerpiece of the region that has been called the "cradle of civilization." In what is now the heart of Iraq, archaeologists record some of humanity's earliest cultivation of crops, supported by extensive irrigation systems that tamed the unpredictable flows of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

This was the home of Assyria, Babylonia, Sumeria, Akkadia, Mesopotamia. Virtually every mound or hill in the southern part of Iraq holds the remains of a city, waiting for archaeologists to discover its ancient secrets, if a bomb doesn't get there first.

The first written alphabet - cuneiform - came from there. Four millenniums ago, in the 18th century B.C., a king named Hammurabi wrote his legal code, which is considered the cornerstone of all legal systems.

"Thousands of years before the Bible was written, Baghdad was the largest city in the world," says Rashid Khalidi of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. "It had by far the most advanced forms of sanitation, of streets, of lighting."

For 2,000 years - almost 10 times as long as the United States has existed - Baghdad and its neighbors were the commercial and cultural center of the Middle East. Around 600 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II built his hanging gardens about 30 miles south of Baghdad in Babylon. These complexly irrigated gardens, which soared 70 feet in the air, were considered one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Hundreds of years later, in the 8th century A.D., the Islamic ruler Abu Jafar Al-Mansur, the second Abassid caliph, founded what grew into the modern city of Baghdad when he selected the site as his capital. For the next few centuries, Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world. Its mathematicians invented algebra. Its astronomers charted the skies.

"Most of the names of the stars were given to them by people in observatories in Baghdad," says Khalidi. "Every star that starts with the letters `al.' Look up in the sky. It was an enormous seat of learning."

Many of those other "al" words - algebra, alchemy, alkali - came from Baghdad's intellectuals. It was a medical center with a teaching hospital. Scholars translated the ancient Greeks into Arabic. Philosophers tried to reconcile the thoughts of the Greeks with the teachings of Islam.

`Great urban legacy'

"It was very cosmopolitan," says Waleed Hazbun, a Middle East specialist in the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "Once Islamic civilization was so well developed by the Abassid caliphate, it was able to incorporate new ideas, translating the ancient Greek texts. There was a great urban legacy in Baghdad."

Khalidi says in some ways Baghdad provided the foundation for modern Europe, for the thinking that led to the creation of the United States.

"Everything we know about the Greeks came through Baghdad," he says. "They were translated into Arabic then into Latin and then into the Western canon. So what the ... Renaissance knew of them was funneled through Baghdad. It was the source of the European Enlightenment in a certain sense, through a long, indirect route."

In the 10th century, Arabian Nights (or The Thousand and One Nights), a collection of Persian, Indian and Arabic stories, was compiled in Baghdad.

Baghdad flourished and suffered because of its location in a crossroads between Persia to the east and Turkey to the west, the Arab lands to the south and the mountainous regions of conquering tribes to the north.

It was this location that gave rise to the Baghdad's cosmopolitan perspective and population. Overland traders from Europe and Asia came through. Baghdad was full of Arabs and Persians, Christians and Muslims. Until the early 1950s, it had a flourishing Jewish community.

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