Humanity revels in the beauty of the future, seeking to make the unknown known. In 2003, Bush and Blair said Iraq’s future would be bathed in beauty. However, in modern Iraq, the future has rarely turned out to be quite so beautiful. So often in modern Iraq, the future’s only consolation is that it signals the end of a tumultuous today. However, Iraq’s present is not the subject of this column. We can see the present Iraq every time we read a newspaper. It is not for me to add to the large stream of opinions on the current situation: I am simply a writer, with no specific insight into the Iraq of today, save for my heritage. I have not suffered under the yoke of war and dictatorship in Iraq, which have been an ever present feature of Iraq’s living memory. I shall leave that to others, most notably, the people of Iraq, to be the judges of the present and the creators of tomorrow.
Neither do I want to look into the future. Instead, I seek to understand the past, before the invasion of Iraq. It is Herodotus, the father of history and author of “The Histories”, who reminds us that the benefits of seeking knowledge of the past, is in itself not sufficient. It is the understanding of why events occurred which is far more important.
When I refer to the past in this article, I do not mean the brutality of Saddam nor do I mean the creation of modern Iraq by the British. The past I write of, is the time when Iraq invented time. Humanity split an hour into 60 minutes and a minute into 60 seconds because of the ancient Babylonians. Their ancient city lies as ruins today, several miles from the city of Hilla, where my late father grew up in the fifties. Babylon’s proximity to Hilla is confirmed by several grainy black and white pictures I have. They show my father surrounded by his friends, his age perhaps not even in double figures sitting atop of Babylon’s ruins.
The modern age has seen tremendous progress in many different fields with the rapidly increasing pace of technological change. Despite this, it is sometimes the case that the ancients can still inform us about today. Of course, the ancient world was hardly perfect. It was brutal and in many obvious ways, it was a less pleasant place than today. However, it was also a time when man began to create civilisation. In ancient Babylon, it is Hammurabi (1792 BC – 1750 BC) who reminds us of this. Other kings of Babylon were known primarily for their military conquests. Hammurabi was known for something quite different. He called himself the king of justice, a title for which he is remembered today. The proof of this lies in the Lourve. There you will find an igneous rock fashioned into a stele, resembling a fingertip, nearly 2.25 metres tall and 0.65 metres across. It is known as the Code of Hammurabi. Carved into it, in cuneiform script, are nearly 300 laws (although the precise number is unknown). Cuneiform script originated from the Sumerians well before Hammurabi’s time and was the first example of writing. Another example of how Iraq’s past fashioned civilisation into today’s modern world.
Mieroop (King Hammurabi of Babylon 2004) describes perhaps the most famous law of all, which describes the concept of a tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye, a concept that is also in various religious texts. There are other laws in the code which describe ideas such as insurance. There is a specific example which explains a form of insurance designed to reduce the risks which traders faced carrying goods across the desert. Maybe today, we should consider ways we can better manage the risks we take in whatever decisions we take. Closer to my world, of financial markets, it seems obviously that the root of many market crises is excessive risk taking. This is as true of today’s markets, as it was in ancient times.
So today, when you hear of the violence in Iraq, pause for a moment. Remember that Iraq gave time, law and the written word, a small selection of the many gifts it has bestowed to humanity. Even if today it might seem unlikely, in the future, Iraq will have its time once again in peace. Perhaps, Iraq really will be able to revel in the beauty of its future.