Iraq’s modern woes an echo of its ancient past.

image-resizer.phpIn early June this year Sunni jihadists from the Islamic State launched a blitzkrieg style attack from eastern Syria into north western Iraq. Several divisions of the poorly trained and badly led Iraqi Army collapsed after a paltry effort at halting the IS assault. Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, was captured as were vast portions of Iraq’s western desert. Daily fighting now rages on the approaches to Baghdad, as the Iraqi Army, Shia militias and allied tribes struggle to hold off the fanatics of the IS. Baghdad trembles as its fate is decided in the north. However this situation is far from new for the capital district of Iraq. This situation has been played out many times before in Iraq’s long history. Given the current climate of uncertainty and fear surrounding Iraq’s future it is important to recall these times.

Iraq is an ancient land. Long before the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which created the modern state, Iraq was a heartland of both the ancient and medieval worlds. The land of the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, it gave birth to urban civilisation. The first true city states were founded in southern Iraq, during the early Bronze Age. Here priest-kings surveyed their domains atop mud brick ziggurats, irrigating the land for the first time, while continually warring with each other. The control of water was pivotal to these city-states. Irrigation canals often formed their borders and were also utilised as defensive works. 

Sargon of Akkad was one such priest-king and under his rule Akkad conquered all of Mesopotamia, beginning the first recorded empire in history. Yet its rule, though glittering, was brief. While Akkad consolidated its rule across the lowlands of southern Iraq powerful enemies poured down from northern and western Iraq. The Amorites and Hurrians shattered Akkad, and its destruction remained a tale of hubris for millennia. As the ages continued new powers arose in Mesopotamia. The great city of Babylon came to prominence and united Mesopotamia under its imperial rule. It too utilised canals for irrigation, trade and defence, with Babylon ringed by a vast series of moats and harbours. Yet, just as before, it faced destruction at the hands of a powerful northern foe, the Assyrians. 

These small Bronze Age empires were but a shadow of the true global empires to come. The Achaemenid Persians arose in Iran and under their rule Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, Ionia and Egypt were conquered. Babylon remained one of their great capitals. In the distant west the Achaemenids battled against the Greeks for hundreds of years. These Greeks, united by Alexander the Great, destroyed the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander’s phalanxes entered the heartland of Persia through northern Iraq, conquering Babylon along the way. Following Alexanders death, his empire fragmented into kingdoms. One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, founded a dynasty that would rule the largest Hellenistic kingdom. His capital, Seleukia, was located south of modern Baghdad. This vast kingdom was in turn destroyed, in the east by the Parthian Persians and in the west by civil war and the Romans. 

Rome and Parthia now became the powers that ruled the Middle East. The Parthians new capital, Ctesiphon, is located in the modern Iraqi capital region. Conflict between the two swayed back and forth across Iraq’s western deserts and northern reaches. During the course of these wars Roman legions captured Ctesiphon five times, marching from eastern Syria into northern Iraq then south to Ctesiphon. However the legions, far from Rome, never held the region for long, and abandoned it to the Parthians. 

The Sasanid Persians, from central Iran, conquered the Parthians and soon ran one of the greatest empires of antiquity. They too made Ctesiphon their capital. Under their rule Iraq boomed, and huge irrigation works occurred. The Sasanids also recognised the defensive properties of the rivers and canals that criss cross Iraq, using them as vast defensive works Several enormous Roman armies launched offensives towards the capital, but became bogged down between the canals and the western desert, suffering heavy losses.  For hundreds of years the Sasanids kept Ctesiphon safe. Not until the arrival of the Muslim Arabs, who emerged from Iraq’s south western deserts, was Ctesiphon conquered again. With the arrival of Islam the nature of global politics changed, and until the modern era Iraq’s greatest threats now emerged from the distant east, not the north or west. 

The events discussed above are from times long since past. Yet their relevance to the current situation in Iraq should not be underestimated. Certainly Toyotas have replaced horses, and automatic weapons, swords, but again, the capital district of Iraq is besieged by barbaric invaders that have originated from the northwest. The Islamic State continues to push south, manoeuvring into Iraq’s western desert when faced with defensive positions, hoping to build their forces around the capital district. The Iraqi Army is attempting to interdict their movement and halt their progress, using airpower and defensive positions. Just as in distant antiquity the battles for control of the Iraq’s capital rage in the western desert and along the waterways that irrigate the land. All the rulers of Iraq’s capital district from antiquity used its water resources to halt the progress of an invasion. As the government in Baghdad struggles to halt the advance of IS they would do well to recall the struggles of its ancient past.

edward eastEdward East has an MA in Archaeology from Durham University. Edward researches Late Antiquity in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. During his career he has worked on archaeology projects across Australia and in Papua New Guinea, Kuwait and the United Kingdom.

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