The site of civilization

Between the rivers: 4500-3100 BC

From about 4500 BC there are settlements on the edges of the marshes where the Tigris and the Euphrates reach the Persian Gulf. Mesopotamia, the region between these two rivers, will be the area of one of the world's first two civilizations, the other being Egypt. Both are established a little earlier than 3100 BC.

Unlike Egypt, where a stable society is established along hundreds of miles of the Nile, Mesopotamia will be characterized by constant warfare and a succession of shifting empires. Towns here shelter within thick protective walls.

Sumer and Gilgamesh: 3100-2500 BC

Sumer, close to the mouths of the Tigris and the Euphrates, is where the first Mesopotamian towns develop. Each grows up round a local temple, which acts as the centre of the region's economic activity. The Sumerian temple priests, needing to keep accurate accounts, are the first people to develop a system of Writing.

The region can also claim other significant innovations. The first known potter's wheel, dating from around this period, has been found in Mesopotamia. And a Sumerian ruler, the semi-historical Gilgamesh, is hero of the world's earliest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is listed in later Sumerian records as the king of Uruk and builder of its great city wall. He may be largely legendary, but his city is real enough as an early centre of civilization. The wall, dating from a little after 3000 BC, is about six miles long. And it is from Uruk that the earliest Written tablets survive.

Uruk is soon eclipsed by a neighbouring city state - that of Ur, famous later for its great Ziggurat and (in the Bible) as the home of Abraham. The discovery of the royal cemetery at Ur has revealed an astonishing level of sophistication in objects created in around 2500 BC for the local ruling family. But in about 2300 BC both Ur and Uruk yield to a conqueror from beyond Sumer.

Sargon and Akkad: c.2350 BC

The conqueror of Ur is a usurper, which is no doubt why he adopts the name Sargon - meaning the 'true king'. He is Semitic in origin, and tradition states that he begins life as a fruit grower. He gradually conquers the Sumerian cities - first Kish, then Uruk, then Ur - before founding a capital city of his own, Akkad. He then adopts a new title, 'King of the Nation'.

His is the first Semitic dynasty in history, and his civil servants use a script which is an important innovation in the history of Writing. Like the scribes of Ebla, whose archive has recently been discovered, they adapt the Sumerian cuneiform to meet the needs of a Semitic language. Writing systems will often, in later centuries, demonstrate a similar flexibility.

The exact location of Akkad, Sargon's capital, is unknown. Its remains lie hidden somewhere in the region where the Tigris and Euphrates come closest to each other. This is the natural place for a capital city (Babylon, Ctesiphon and Baghdad are later built in the same area). Sargon's achievement has been to establish the first Mesopotamian empire.

There will be many more, but few of much greater extent. The Akkadian sphere of influence, either through direct conquest or effective control of trade, stretches at its peak from the Mediterranean coast of Syria to the head of the Persian Gulf. The empire of Sargon and his descendants lasts for some 150 years, before slowly disentegrating and being overrun by tribes from the north.

Babylon Assyria and others: from 2200 BC

Over the next 1500 years or more, Mesopotamia goes through many periods of chaos, with small city states struggling for power or for survival. But there are also times of imperial stability, when centralized control is reestablished. The two centres, on which the greatest empires of the region are based, are Babylon and Assyria.

There are also periods when much of Mesopotamia is controlled by powers outside the area, notably the Hittites from the 17th century. And eventually the independence of Mesopotamia is brought to an end by the Persians, who overwhelm Babylon in 539 BC.

Thereafter the region of the two rivers becomes, for the next 1000 years and more, a province within a succession of alien empires - those of the Persians, the Hellenistic greeks, the Persians, the Parthians.

It is admittedly a province of considerable importance. The first Hellenistic ruler, Seleucus, makes his capital on the west bank of the Tigris at the point where it comes closest to the Euphrates. From 129 BC a site on the opposite bank of the river is developed by the Persians as Ctesiphon, a city subsequently much favoured by the Sassanian emperors. But it is not until the Muslim Abbasids are established in AD 750 a few miles upstream, at Baghdad, that Mesopotamia regains its full glory as an imperial centre.


Baghdad: 8th century AD

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.

The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the thousand and one nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other rich gifts.

An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th century AD

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.

The weakness of the caliphs tempts them into a measure which makes the problem worse. They acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia and use them in their armies. The slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), are excellent fighters. They distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

One of the first Mamelukes to seize power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.

This half of the Fertile Crescent has been ruled from Egypt at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, it is easier to control from Cairo than from Baghdad.

Palestine and Syria remain under Egyptian dominance for most of the next two centuries. The Tulunid dynasty, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 870s, rules the region until 905. The Ikhshidids, another Turkish dynasty, control it from 935 to 969, when they in their turn are replaced by the Fatimids - masters of an even broader swathe of Mediterranean coastline.

Persian independence from Baghdad: 9th century AD

From about 866 the whole of eastern Persia, to Kabul in the north and Sind in the south, is gradually overrun by a Persian from a family of metal-workers; he is known as al-Saffar ('the coppersmith'), giving his short-lived dynasty the name of Saffarids. In 876 he is strong enough to march on Baghdad, though he is prevented from reaching it by the army of the caliph.

In 900 the Saffarids are defeated by another Persian dynasty, the Samanids. The new rulers are aristocrats, descended from a nobleman by the name of Saman Khudat. They preside over the first conscious revival of Persian culture since the Arab conquest.

The Samanids make their capital at Bukhara, bringing this city its first period of splendour. Their court becomes famous for its celebration of Persian (as opposed to Arab) history and traditions. The patronage of Saminid sultans launches the classic period of Persian literature, soon to find its highest national expression in the Shah-nama of Firdausi.

But the Samanids make the same mistake as the caliphs in Baghdad. They entrust provincial power to Turkish governors. In 999 the ruling family is driven from Bukhara by Turks, and in 1005 the last in the Samanid line is assassinated. Ironically the Shah-nama is not complete until 1010. Firdausi presents it not to a Samanid Persian but to Mahmud the Turk, ruler of Ghazni.

The slow end of the Abbasids: 10th - 16th century

There are times in the 10th century when the caliphs have little power outside the confines of Baghdad itself, but from the 11th century their prestige is to some degree restored. This is thanks to the Seljuk turks, who recover a large empire and rule it from Baghdad - accepting the subordinate title of sultan and deferring to the caliphs as the superior religious authority.

For a few brief spells the caliphs even recover some secular power, asserting themselves over their Seljuk sultans. But the final disaster is suffered in 1258, when Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, arrives in Mesopotamia.

The caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, risks the impossible. In January 1258 he sends an army against the approaching Mongols. The Muslim army is routed by Hulagu, who orders the caliph to appear before him and to destroy the walls of the city. When the caliph declines, Hulagu besieges and sacks Baghdad.

It is said that 800,000 of the inhabitants are killed, including the caliph - who is executed by being kicked to death.

No Abbasid caliph ever again resides in Baghdad, the city associated for five centuries with the dynasty. But Abbasid caliphs continue to be selected, mainly in Egypt, until the last of them is taken to Istanbul by the Ottoman sultan Selim I after his conquest of Egypt in 1517.

In later centuries the Ottoman turks sometimes call themselves caliph (implying the leadership of all Muslims), much as the Umayyad rulers of Spain and the Fatimids in Egypt have borrowed the title. But in the true meaning of the word, as 'successor' to Muhammad, the link is broken with the end of the Abbasid dynasty in the 16th century.

In the Ottoman empire

Destruction and decline

Mesopotamia now becomes a border region of little consequence, fought over by more powerful neighbours. The city of Baghdad is sacked by Timur in 1401. It is taken by the shah of Persia, Ismail i, in 1508; by the sultan of Turkey, Suleiman i, in 1534; by the Persians again in 1623; and finally by the Turks once more in 1638.

The region remains a sleepy part of the Ottoman world until the demise of the Turkish empire in World War I. The war changes the region out of recognition, ending the Ottoman centuries and bringing into existence the modern territories of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (now including Israel), Jordan and Iraq.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

Sections missing

Sections are as yet missing at this point

Mesopotamia: AD 1914-1916

With the collapse of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the only untried route of attack against the Turkish empire is in the Middle East, up through Mesopotamia or Palestine.

From the start of the war Mesopotamia has been the site of British muddle and disaster. As soon as Britain and Turkey are at war, early in November 1914, a British force is despatched to seize the Turkish port of Basra on the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris and the Euphrates). The purpose is precise and limited. Basra is a mere fifty miles upstream from the Persian port of Abadan, where the recently established Anglo-Persian Oil company refines and ships out its precious commodity. Britain needs to protect its supply of diesel for the navy.

This limited objective is rapidly achieved. Basra is taken on 22 November 1914, and a defensive outpost is established some fifty miles further north at the junction between the Tigris and the Euphrates. But during 1915, as the campaign in Gallipoli gets bogged down, an impressive advance up the Tigris becomes politically attractive.

Amara is taken on 3 June 1915, followed by Kut on September 29. This is more than half way towards the mesmerizing prize of Baghdad. A British and Indian advance party, too small for the task and too far from reliable sources of supply, pushes on up the river.

It finally reaches strong Turkish opposition at the historic site of Ctesiphon, a mere twenty miles from Baghdad. The date, 22 November 1915, is exactly a year after the successful capture of Basra. With heavy losses (half the 8500 men are killed or wounded), the Allied force withdraws to join its supporting troops in Kut. There they find themselves trapped. For five months they are besieged by a Turkish army until, on 29 April 1916, the British commander finally surrenders. 10,000 British and Indian soldiers are taken into Turkish captivity.

This adventure against the Turks has been as humiliating as the contemporary events at Gallipoli. But meanwhile a new development in Gallipoli seems to offer greater hope.

This History is as yet incomplete.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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