Travesty Of Our Times: A Civilisation Lost To The War

Updated: Apr 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
To the north of present-day Baghdad are two centres which were home to one of the first civilisations in human history Mesopotamia and Sumeria. We are talking about a period in history that is 5000 to 6000 years ago. In comparison, Christopher Columbus stepped on the shores of America barely 500 years ago.

I wonder if President George W Bush has a sense of history not of the history that he thinks he is making, but of the history of the land (that is now Iraq) which is part of the rich inheritance of humankind. The first writing called cuneiform appeared in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians invented the first wheel and used them on chariots. By 3500 BC, the Sumerians had developed ways to control the two great rivers that flowed through their land, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

They built canals, watered their crops and perhaps laid the foundation for agriculture. According to archaeologists and historians, many other inventions came out of that area and these include the plough, the sailboat and the water clock. Keenly observing the movement of the moon, that civilisation also invented the first 12-month lunar calendar.

It is a tragedy that a great civilisation and a great people should, in modern times, find themselves trapped in the state of Iraq and ruled by a dictator, Saddam Hussein. But such aberrations happen. In our own country, the land which was home to the Indus Valley Civilisation has thrown up modern-day despots, and part of that land was ruled for many years and is ruled today by military dictators. Mayawati and Rabri Devi rule over most of the Gangetic plain, and Jayalalithaa rules over the Cauvery delta.

None of them can be regarded as an upholder of democratic values or human rights.

However bad and cruel Saddam Hussein might have been, the US did not have the right, to be unilaterally exercised, to overthrow him. I made that point in my column last week and I shall not labour it again. There is another equally important point of principle. The US did not have the right to destroy or silently watch the destruction of the remains of a hoary civilisation and of the art, culture and history of the people of Iraq. If the US true intention was to liberate the people of Iraq and to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction, the US forces had the duty to protect the invaluable treasures that were housed in the museums and libraries in Iraq.

In the Gulf War in 1991, launched by President Bush (the first), looters emptied the museums at Dohuk, Arbil, Sulaimaniya, Amarea and Kufa. Weeks before the current war broke out, writers had pointed out the grave damage, both direct and collateral, that would be caused unless precautionary measures were taken. Just look at a sample of the priceless treasures that were in Iraq and which are now presumably lost forever:

n The capital of ancient Sumer was Ur, the modern day Muqaiyir. One of the tablets found there and preserved reports the journey of a man called Abraham, establishing the historical reality of a name that springs out of the Old Testament.

* Some of the gold and silver vessels of the first dynasty of Ur found in the royal tombs were lodged in the museum in Baghdad. Among them were a wooden harp with gold and mother-of-pearl inlay and the gold headdress of an ancient king.

* In the mid-19th century, Austen Henry Layard, a British archaeologist, uncovered some outstanding bas-reliefs that covered the walls of a palace of a king who ruled during the period 883-859 BC. New excavations made in the 1970s revealed other bas-reliefs which were kept in the museums at Mosul and Baghdad.

* An exquisitely carved ivory plaque from the ninth century BC was in the Iraq museum in Baghdad.

* In 2002, a team of Iraqi archaeologists excavating a temple at Nimrud recovered mythical figures carved out of Mosul marble. They are regarded as unique for their small size. The archaeological sites were unprotected during the war.

* The great mosque of Abu Dulaf near Samarra built Rom 847 incorporating Babylonian concepts of architecture is considered a monument of world importance. There was a military base near the mosque.

* Mosul is regarded as the jewel in the crown of Iraq. Every standing monument in that city is a monument of importance. Among them are a brick minaret built between 1170 and 1172, a mausoleum that dates back to 1229 and, inside the mausoleum, examples of monumental calligraphy in white marble inlaid on a black background.

* East of Mosul is Qaraqosh where there is a 12th century monastery whose monks are Catholics of the Syrian sect. The Royal Door is dated 1164 and is regarded as a unique example of Christian sculpture in a style that cuts across different religions.

I have taken these facts from the Internet (what did people do when there was no Internet!) and mostly from an article that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on March 8, 2003. One sentence from that article, authored by Souren Melikian, still rings in my mind and is true for all countries: Old civilisations have a self-awareness that is not always fully measured beyond their borders. It should be heeded. The wounds inflicted on the Muslim world by the destruction caused by the utterly futile war (no weapons of mass destruction, no Saddam Hussein dead or alive) unleashed by the US will take years to heal, if at all they will ever heal.

In the Indian context, Souren Melikians admonitory words should be read as Old civilisations should have a self-awareness. Those who perpetrated the barbaric act of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 should pay heed. Thankfully, there is at least one person in this government, Jagmohan, who understands history and the need to preserve and cherish its symbols not denigrate and destroy them.

When we talk feelingly about the agony of the people of Iraq, we should also reflect on the agony and the fear of the people of India be it Muslims, Christians or Sikhs or other minorities. It may be true that some members of the minority communities regard themselves as a separate nation or belonging to a superior faith, but that is only a miniscule proportion. They will learn the responsibilities of building a nation one nation out of a multitude of religions, races and languages. But the duty to lead the way rests on the majority community, and on the leaders chosen by the people to govern them.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)