mercredi 14 juin 2000


You are an academic, an Iraqi writer, you have recently published “The Epic of the Tigris and the Euphrat”, that reports the history of Mesopotamia since millenia. Does Mesopotamia include current Irak and a part of Syria ?

- That is absolutely true. Ancient Mesopotamia was bordered at the East by the Zagros Mopuntains, it included the lands located at the west of the Euphrat, until the Habur, an affluent of the Tigris. When we consider the different civilizations which are to succeed in Mesopotamia, especially Sumerians' civiliaation at the beginning of the IVth millenium B.C, we observe that this people at the south of the country had an important influence in that region that called later the Fertile Crescent. It is shown moreover by the archeological discoveries which have done in the ancient city of Mari, in Syria.

Akkadian empire, the first empire, founded at the end of the Third Millenium B.C by King Sargon, (2334-2279) included a great part of the Middle-East, for Sargon had set his domination on Sumer and Akkad, invaded Northern-Syrias, controlled Elam, a region in the South-West of Iran. His successors had made a campaign to the north of current Irak.

After the fall of Akkadian empire in 2193, the Sumerian dynasty of Ur III dominated an important part of Mesopotamia. As the dynasty of Akkad, it was going to influence the people of Assur, the Assyrians, who began their territorial expansion under King Shamshî-Adad's reign (1807-1776 B.C) and constituted at the IXth century a very vast empire.

With the Babylonian dynasty of Hammurabi (1792-1750), the territoire increased, may be beyond Ninive, with campaigns to the North. This king remained in our memories as a great legislator with his famous Law “code”, about which we will talk further.

Nowadays, do we discover again some new informations about this civilization whith which had been excavated and by the research of the archeologists ?

-Everything are not obviously discovered. Archelogists say that hardly 10% of the inheritance of Mesopotamia had been excavated. Today, we talk about near to 10 000 historical sites, according to Iraqi sources. The four great Assyrian capitals, Assur, Nimrud, Ninive, Khorsabad, have been partially excavated, and the Babylon of the Chaldean period (612-539 avant notre ère). Much sites have been not yet excavated and then are not studied. Some thousands of tablets, which became 'terra cotta' during the last set fire of the overcome cities, and after remained hidden in sand, are not yet deciphered.

Unfortunately, the events which happened in Irak for twenty years have stopped the archeological research, that had begun to excavate the great cities of Antiquity : Eridu, Uruk, Nippur, Ur, Lagash, Ninive, Babylon...

Let's hope that peace will come soonly and that the situation will allow to start again researches and to find hundreds of thousands of hidden tablets in the ground ! Their transcription could reveal an ignored part of Human's history, for stakes are missing... May be we could go back to the IXth millenium, where man had perhaps tried to open his mind to the world, to ask himself the great questions and to probe the mysteries...

We have not yet a precise idea of the passage from the "Prehistoric" man to the human who belongs to the oldest civilizations. Do you go back to the furtherest time, about 8000 B.C ?

We know the Neolithic time that begins between 8100 and 7500 B.C. Archeologists made researches about this topic. They have observed that the first testimonies of this period are in the Middle-East. In Mesopotamia, the Neolithic village of Jarmo, in Kurdistan, the site of Ali Kosh, the strenghened village of Maghzaliyeh in Northern-Irak, delivered obsidian tools, earthen-flywheels of bobbins and many various ustensils. Goat and later sheep had been domesticated. Firstly hunter, human became farmer. He passed from the village to the town. The first cities, Eridu, Uruk, were founded.

In these cities devoted to the trade, it is necessary that people communicate each others; then they invent the writing, about 3200. It is the Sumerian cuneiform.

Later, during the third, second and first millenia, the Akkadian language is dominating a great part of the Middle-East. It is divided in the second millenium in “Assyrien” and “Babylonien”. The Sumerian is then only a religious language. Talentuous Akkadian writings emerge step by step, as the epic of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.

The influence of Mesopotamian writing is reached until the city of Ugarit, in Syria. The first texts with alphabetical signs dated of the XIVth-XIIIth centuries. This alphabet includes near to thirty signs. It will be adopted by Greeks and will be diffused in the West.

The so-called Semitic languages as Arabic, Hebrew, could have for origins the Akkadian one ?

The Akkadian language is still the most ancient Semitic language that we know with the Eblait. Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac are too great Semitic languages but more recent.

The history of Mesopotamie could call in question the Old Testament and the version of events given by the Bible ?

-In a certain way, it could. The Bible relates only a part of History. It starts about one the First millenium B.C. It shows us the writings of a people, the Hebrews, who had set a small state often dominated by the great close empires, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Bible presents in a way that is often partiel Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians who play often the parts of ennemies ! The assyrian king Salmanazar III made a campaign in the IXth century B.C in Hebrews' country didn't he ?

Later, in the VIth century, the Chaldean king Nabuchodonosor took Jerusalem in 597. After a coalition, he came back for looting the town in 586 and deported a part of the Jewish population in Babylon. They lived there, adopting its manners, habits, ideas, and came back from their exile only in 538 B.C.

Some authors of the sacred book were moreover inspired by Mesopotamian tales, as the Deluge.

Was it only this region of the Middle-East that had been sown by humans or there are some other parts in our planet which lived the same process ?

On the historical level another civilization existed that followed atfer a few centuries the Mesopotamian civilization : It was the Egyptian one, which was powerful, mystical, and its Pharaons reached a real greatness. But it stays rather “Egyptian”, focused on itself. It didn't conquest another countries, did export neither its language nor its writing.

About the second part of the third millenium, and at the very beginning of the second, an else civilization developped, in India, on the river Indus. Rich and spiritual, it marked this civilization of Asia. It still nourished nowadays one milliard men's souls.

At the eighteenth century before our era, another civilization raised, the Chinese civilization of Shang, rich, various, with writing and metallurgy. Curiously, its vision of the world was not very far from Babylonians' one !

Then we could talk about four prominent civilizations. The Mesopotamian one aroused the widest interest, at first in Greece and Western. It generates great inventions : the City, the writing, the swing-plough, the wheel, the chariot, the potter's wheel, the sailing boat, the welding. In architecture, it invented vaults, cupolas, and in the scientific field, astronomy, astrology, mathematiques : Babylonians, at the beginning of the second millenium, conceived systems of classification, calculation, and discovered, before Pythagoras, the theorem of the Hypotenuse.

The Mesopotamian civilization domesticated time, elaborated a calendar. The lunar year, with 354 days, than started to the Spring equinoxe, was shared in 12 months with 29 or 30 days, and in weeks of 7 days. From time to time, they added a month as correction. Like for us who have inherited of it today, the hour had 60 minutes and the minute 60 seconds.

Concerning Law, the Babylonian civilization bequeathed us Hammurabi's "code", engraved on a basaltic stele, (now in the Louvre museum) to manage the social and political life. The inhabitants of these cities had the right to be protected, themselves and their goods. Some articles concerned the widows and the orphans, and the slaves who detained a kind of self-dignity. The “code” treated of civil, trade, familial, and penal laws. This “code” inspired Ancient Eastern, and, by Greece and Rome, Western.

Ancient Mesopotamians let us too “libraries”, as in the city of Nippur; or, in the VIIth century, the Assyrian king Assurbanipal's one in Ninive, that detained, according to the archeological discoveries, 30 000 clayed-tablets in cuneiform, copyed and classified with a remarkable system. These tablets contained archives, edicts, donations, reaports. The scholars, did want to register their history on clay, to preserve the inheritage of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, de Ninive.

And what about gods : did human already need god ?

-Since the dawn of these civilizations, some writing texts showed that these populations, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, or Assyrien, were believers.

But there was a great diversity of gods. No monotheism oppressed the else gods. Those lived in heaven. They have created humans for being served and only for this reason. Human wisdom aimed to eat, drink, love, enjoy life. It inspired the author of the Ecclesiastes, in the Bible. Man could not pretend to be immortal, it was reserved to gods. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, the hero of the famous epic, dashed off in an extraordinary travel for obtaining immortality, but he failed and was resigned to his fate.

The Mesopotamian civilization didn't resemble the Egyptian one. It didn't build pyramids in which Pharaon eternally lived in a bright hereafter. The tombs of Assyrian kings that we have found, are ordinary tombs, for, after death, man entered in the world of shadow and dust.

We feel ourselves as small when we're looking a so far past, which came out of sand and is the origin of our current modern world, although the latter thinks it has all discovered. Are your public and your students enthusiastic about the history of Mesopotamian civilization ?

Students are very interested by this civilization, that is not really well known by the general public. I have stress that until a recent time, Mesopotamia was included in the program of History of the first form class. But National Education had removed this course, a few years ago.

However it is the starting point of History...

I is a very serious question, for one of the great Human's virtues is gratitude, thankfulness for the pioneers of our civilization.

Removing Mesopotamia off the scool is hiding a part of our history and cutting our roots.

I insist : the New French generation won't know that the source of its history and its civilization is Mesopotamia.

I whish that the study of this great civilization be restored in French teaching. Everybody don't start with Greece at the seventh century before our era, as some would like to believe !

And what about Arabs : do they place the Mesopotamian civilization in the foreground and do they devoted to the resarch of the origin of their inheritance ?

Unfortunaly, not much or in a secundary way. For at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the independance of majority of Arabic countries, the Ottoman Empire was not much concerned by this inheritance. Great archeological discoveries happened recently, in the middle of the XIXth century. When Arabs became independant, they gave priority to their ethnical and national identity. And they stress Omeyyads and Abbasids' civilizations, which are very important and nearer to themselves in tthe time. In a certain way, ancient civilizations have been neglected.

I 've written too my book “The epic of the Tigris and the Euphrat” (published in the collection « Comprendre le Moyen-Orient », l’Harmattan, 1999) for Arabic people. I would like to make them understand that they have got a magnificent palace which includes several civilizations.

Dear friends, don't stay in only one room of this beautiful palace, let's go to the others which represent the civilization of which you are issued, these imposing and nice civilizations that exalt humans' mind and spirit.

Revue France-Pays Arabes, n° 261, Mai-juin 2000
Interview realized by the director of the review : Lucien Bitterlin