In an engaging history of the enormous contributions of the “land between two rivers,” Robertson (Ancient and Middle Eastern Studies/Central Michigan Univ.) is an energetic, positive booster for a remarkable people who have suffered through countless outsider incursions, especially in recent decades.
Focusing on the accomplishments of Mesopotamia and the ingenuity of its people through the ages, the author helps dispel myths and stereotypes about Iraq. Mesopotamia’s “seminal advances in human endeavor” began due to the region’s key central location between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose cyclical flooding spurred the use of irrigation by enterprising farmers, allowing the growth of grain and the development of woolen textiles for trade. The rivers facilitated important trade routes both east and west but also rendered the region vulnerable to external forces. From this “heartland of cities” rose the first writing system, cuneiform, and a bureaucratic system, celebrated by the code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. Robertson astutely notes how relatively little we know about the great Assyrian kingdom compared to ancient Rome, though some of the rulers are mentioned in the Old Testament. The vast, sophisticated city of Babylon became the capital of the Middle Eastern empire inherited by the Chaldeans, and despite its luxurious reputation, it was in Babylonian exile that the Hebrew priests, scribes, and scholars assembled the Old Testament. Overrun successively by Persians, Alexander the Great, Arab Muslims, Turks, and Mongols, Iraq was a “cradle” of world religions, from Zoroastrianism to Christianity. Robertson does a fine job delineating the brilliance of the Islamic golden age, centered at its new Abbasid capital of Baghdad, established in 762. The author also painstakingly explains the differences and rivalries among the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
The making of modern Iraq is just one small slice in this monumental, well-told story.