Everyone who read The Epic of Gilgamesh in school remembers the Flood. I know — we were also supposed to learn the finer points that would earn us a good grade on the midterm: that Gilgamesh is a collection of some of the oldest poem cycles in existence; that it was produced in the cradle of civilization (today’s Iraq); that it’s about a real king who lived 4,700 years ago in Uruk; that this king was a tyrant in his youth; that he enslaved young men and raped young women before seeking redemption and immortality.
All good stuff — but it’s the Flood sent to punish mankind that sticks in the mind. The destruction is vivid: “the storm turned daylight into darkness and smashed the land like a cup.” “The tempest raged … it poured over the people like the tides of battle.” Even “the great gods of heaven and of hell wept….”
The Flood in Gilgamesh seems to be the same deluge that is described in Noah and the Ark, which may be another reason it’s remembered. There are corresponding details between the two narratives, down to the remnant of mankind in a boat, releasing a dove to see whether dry land could be found. Like the author of Genesis, the poet of Gilgamesh makes clear that this deluge means more than physical catastrophe. It is a transcendent event that obliterates the old dispensation and introduces a new order of the ages.
It is hardly surprising that Mesopotamia’s oldest literature would make the Flood central to its storyline. Even the word “Mesopotamia,” a Greek coinage, means “between the rivers.” Because of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates, the region’s history is bound up with floods, as surely as U.S. history is bound up with frontiers.
Floods also provide an apt metaphor for Mesopotamian history. No real estate in recorded history has experienced more civilizational ebb and flow. No real estate has seen more “regime change.” Over the past 5,500 years, army after invading army has swept over the bountiful land between the rivers, bringing death and destruction but also, sometimes, possibility and hope. I used to teach history, and it is hard even for me to keep track of all the cultural and political tides that have swamped Mesopotamia. Every few centuries, sometimes every few decades, the region experienced a new flood of invaders that changed the regime and often the culture: Akkadian and Elamite; Kassite and Assyrian; Persian and Greek; Muslim and Mongol; Ottoman and British. Many regime changes were the result of outside invasion; many others were triggered by internal upheavals — palace coups, assassinations, internecine wars. An exciting history, this.
Perhaps Iraq could use a bit less excitement. True, the nation’s legacy is one of the greatest in the world. It includes monumental cultural markers, like the world’s first civilization, Hammurabi Code, and Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Much Hebrew history also originates in Mesopotamia. Abraham was from Ur, and Isaac’s and Jacob’s wives came from the region. But this rich history has come at a price. For Iraq’s legacy is also one of cultural invasion and instability, particularly in modern times. As Bernard Lewis has shown, colonization and modernization have not gone swimmingly in Mesopotamia or elsewhere in the Middle East. They have bred resentment toward the West, and resentment has bred revolutionaries.
In 20th century Syria and Iraq, one homegrown revolutionary was Michel Aflaq. He followed the example of many an ideologue: traveled to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. In France in the 1930s he found a congenial environment in which to nurse his hatred of European colonialism. He also found certain European authors and movements quite useful. For example, he read Nietzsche and studied how Lenin and Stalin developed a personality cult and established one-party rule.
After this first-class education in France, Aflaq returned to his native Damascus and established the Baath Arab Socialist party. Baath is Arabic for “resurrection” or “renaissance.” As an ideology, Baathism stands for pan-Arabism, secularism, and socialism; it claims to be the nostrum to Western colonialism and modernization. It took root among Syrians, who were resentful of colonizing French, and among Iraqis, who were resentful of colonizing British. Years would pass before the Baathist flood would begin to alter the course of Iraq’s history. But when it roiled through the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, it did so with a vengeance. In Iraq in 1963, party thugs seized power by assassination. After 1968 they held power continuously.
Enter Aflaq’s devoted student, Saddam Hussein. He rose rapidly on the destructive Baathist tide. After a series of purges, his grip on power became absolute. It was during his reign of terror that the real looting of Iraqi culture began. With remarkable candor, Saddam’s regime referred to itself as “totalitarian” on an official website. All politics, all culture were to be co-opted to satisfy one monster’s lust for power. This, in the cradle of civilization.
By all accounts, the Baathist toadies and thugs who surrounded Saddam were as nasty as the Stalinists with whom they have been compared. Chemical Ali, Baghdad Bob, Missile Man, Doctor Germ — these were not people you’d want to have cocktails with. They built an armed camp propped up by political prisons and torture chambers. Among the more tragic discoveries in recent days: U.S. Marines found 150 children languishing in an Iraqi prison because they had refused to join the Baath party youth movement.
There have been just wars, and Gulf War II was one of them. It dismantled one of the last totalitarian regimes of the last century. Most of Saddam’s Baathists now join the likes of Nazis, Leninists, Stalinists, and Maoists in the dustbin of history. The war, the latest flood to roar through the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, swept away much that was evil. But, as in Gilgamesh, the flood also left a fertile deposit of possibility and hope: the seedtime of a new Iraq.
Given the angry demonstrations in the Iraqi street, given the extermination of so much human talent over the years, given the brain drain over the decades, it remains to be seen how successfully the Iraqi people can rebuild their nation. This is no time to be a Pollyanna — the challenges are extraordinarily difficult. But one sign of possibility and hope appeared, perhaps providentially, the same week as the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter. On Tuesday, April 15, more than 70 people — Shiites, Kurds, tribal sheiks, and exiled Iraqis who had spent decades in the wilderness — gathered in a tent in the desert. The tent was set up in a richly symbolic site: near the birthplace of Abraham, in the ancient city of Ur. What the assembled discussed was as profound as it was remarkable in that region of the world: the rule of law, federalism, cultural pluralism, representative government, the role of religion in the state — ideas that have an overwhelmingly Western genealogy.
And to think: This seedtime was made possible not by delegations of the U.N. but by the armed forces of four Western nations: the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Poland. Enlightenment can come at the point of a bayonet. (It did in Germany and Japan in 1945.) And while the Yankees and their allies will soon go home, the ideas animating discussion in Ur just may have staying power. As Eric Davis recently noted in a New York Times op-ed piece, there is a tradition of civil society in Iraq. Although dismantled by 35 years of Baathist oppression, civil society hopefully can be rebuilt. Humane ideas hopefully can once again take root in Mesopotamian soil and produce the same fruit that has prospered the West. If Iraqis can cooperate with one another and give institutional life to liberty under the rule of law, then the land between the rivers may finally experience the peace and prosperity so many have longed for.
We can hope that the most recent flood will end the way the deluge in Gilgamesh does:
When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world … and the light fell on my face.
It was a new beginning in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, a new order of the ages.
— Gleaves Whitney is editing a book of the wartime speeches of American presidents, to be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield.