Ziggurat, a rectangular stepped tower, sometimes surmounted by a temple. Ziggurats are first attested in the late 3rd millennium BC and probably inspired the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9).
(This article was originally published in 2006. Since then, little has changed.)
The words China and Egypt, Athens and Rome, bring to most people’s mind a mysterious history and a respected culture. Rarely will the word Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq, do the same. You’ll probably receive confused or weird expressions from children, even most adults, at the mention of Mesopotamia. In regards to Iraq, images of violence, terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists and war pop up all over. And that’s where the images usually end.
As for Iraq’s attributes, they are buried alive beneath lack of recognition. For whatever reason, history school books and TV programs fail to discuss the importance of ancient Iraq, even though it’s the mother of our current lifestyle and therefore, should not only be discussed but emphasized.
I stopped writing here, walked away from my computer and asked my niece, who was studying for a college course at the kitchen table, to call a couple of her friends, tell them she was doing a survey for her aunt and could they answer one question: “What is Mesopotamia?”
The people surveyed were in their mid-twenties to late thirties, and are either currently in college or have a college degree.
1st response is a first generation American, the daughter of Chaldean (Christian Iraqi) immigrants: “What the f_ _ _ is this for? I don’t know. I’m not good in geography. Are you kidding me right now? I can’t explain it like this. You caught me off guard. I don’t know. I have to think about it. You can’t do this. I wasn’t able to brain storm so go get your information from someplace else.”
Click. My niece laughed, knowing her friend overreacted having been put on the spot. She dialed the next number, this time putting a little twist in the question. “If an alien comes down from out of space and asks you what is Mesopotamia, what would you say?”
2nd response is also by the daughter of Chaldean immigrants: “Oh, my God! Well…. Long ago – long ago – okay, it’s an area of land in the Middle East. It’s our culture, where our people are from. Didn’t your aunt write a book on this? It’s a big spot and a war broke out there and everyone was separated to different areas.”
3rd response is by a Greek-American man: “I don’t know. Never heard of it. It’s a region. In Biblical times. That’s all I know.”
4th response is by an American woman: “It’s a country – an area – providence – an area in the Middle East. In an Arabic land. Where there’s King Tut and Egypt.”
5th response is by an Iranian woman: “It was an Eastern civilization that has something to do with the Ottoman Empire or Egypt.”
6th response is by a Jewish woman: “It’s a country or city.”
7th response is by an Irish-American woman: “Cancer.”
She must have mistaken the word for mesothelioma, I’m assuming?
The results of the survey did not surprise me. I knew from prior experience that people knew little if anything about the history of Iraq even though America has had political and media contact with that region for over two decades. I remembered how, after the Gulf War, many people called Iraq Iran and after I corrected them, they explained, “Oh, I always get these two countries mixed up.”
It seems that, when the British occupied Mesopotamia in the early twentieth century and carved it up like a pie, dividing the region into different countries and assigning them new names, they took its power away. After that, people did not connect the dots, that ancient Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Writing, the first school, law, literature, map of the world, and the idea of dividing time and space into a multiple of 60’s started in this historic land. Iraq is the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, supposedly the site of the Garden of Eden, and where many biblical stories occurred.
It’s ironic that the region where science, astronomy, and numerous inventions, like the wheel, were a prominent way of life, today it is perceived as, and in many cases it is, a barbaric land. One wonders how much of this regression was a result of this land’s own bloody history and how much of it was as a result of Western influence.