Who knows what the future holds, but as for now, the war seems to be going fine; and I, for one, am wondering when we can start visiting this place, this strange country of Iraq. Under Saddam it was very difficult. They had a $350 visa fee, plus, you had to take an AIDS test. (Savvy travelers would remember to pack their own syringes, so they didn’t get AIDS from the AIDS test.) But once you got through customs, what was it like? The whole thing was a big mystery.
Well, those days are ancient history. Now we know Iraq like the back of our hand. Nothing makes you more familiar with a country than going to go to war with it. Look at all we’ve learned. Basra is a big port in the south that’s real ugly; Tikrit is the home town and power center of Saddam and real ugly; and even I can draw you a map of Baghdad with my eyes closed, complete with the locations of the Presidential Palace and the Palestine Hotel.
But the one thing I didn’t get a feeling for in any of the media reporting was Iraq’s position as the center of the ancient world. It’s scary-almost everything we do today was dreamed up by some Iraqi. (Now, let me make it perfectly clear that I’m talking about old-time Iraq back in ancient history, when it was called things like Mesopotamia, Assyria, Sumeria, Abbasidia, Umayyadia, and/or Ottomania. Today’s Iraq-or rather, yesterday’s Iraq-is a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by an obviously psychotic person. Have you seen those palaces? Freud could have a field day.)
I personally do not subscribe to the theory, advanced by many religious scholars, that the Garden of Eden was located in southwest Iraq. But no one disputes that life as we know it began there, say, 10,000 years ago. Yes, right on the banks of the Tigris River, which we got to know so well during "shock and awe," that was where man first grew plants and ate them successfully. Throw in a little animal husbandry and that’s called civilization.
I find it very interesting that women invented civilization. The men would have been content to hunt and roam around forever, but the "ball and chain" wanted a more permanent place to raise children. And once you settled in that place, all kinds of things happened. You got agriculture, commerce, shoes, ritual, taxes. All of them originated within the borders of what is present-day Iraq. They even invented beer. And you were allowed to drink it at work!
Still, there was a lot of stress. These ancient people worshipped a variety of gods, from whom they begged favor and protection. If they were having a rough time, they begged harder. It was a world of superstition and omens and signs and portents. The theory that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck can be traced straight back to ancient Iraq. (Needless to say, they also invented astronomy and astrology.)
Now, I know I shouldn’t even bring up religion, but with Iraq you sort of have to, as it was the birthplace of Abraham. Yes, that Abraham, the spiritual genius who came up with the idea of one God. And that God is Almighty and you develop a personal relationship with Him based on promises, or "covenants." These covenants are symbolized by circumcision. Now, I’m with it up until the circumcision. After that it seems . kind of a leap. Why circumcision? It seems like such an odd choice. But as it has been noted many times, God works in mysterious ways.
Abraham was born in Ur, and as you may remember from the war, the railroad to the North went through Ur Junction. This is where you get off for the tour to Ur, although, if truth be told, there isn’t much to see. Just some dust and a ruined tower. When you consider all the famous places, the very top-level venues of their day, so many of them were in Iraq. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were there, along with the Tower of Babel. The Gardens were, of course, the world’s first luxury real estate development and the Tower of Babel was the Van Wezel of the Ancient World, a big grandiose building that so vexed God (He felt the whole undertaking was a bit too presumptuous for mere human beings) that He had everybody start talking in different languages. Suddenly there was a big communications problem, court-ordered mediation didn’t work, and the people dispersed to the four corners of the earth and continue to bicker to this day.
But what remains of the famous Tower? A pile of dust. That’s the problem with a vacation in Iraq. There’s really nothing worth visiting, if you’re expecting something to look at. It’s vanished. It’s disappeared into the sands of time. Here a ziggurat, there a ziggurat-that’s about it.
And come to think of it, some of the things the Iraqis invented weren’t so great. The first lawyer was an Iraqi. He helped draft the famous Code of Hammurabi. This was the first set of written-down laws in the world. There were about 300 of them, and they had mostly to do with commercial law, as the Hammurabians loved to sue each other. Somehow the laws on their clay tablets have ended up in the Louvre, and while I’d love to go see them for myself, you have to admit that a trip to France to study some Iraqi legal documents would, at the moment anyway, be the height of poor taste.
Even the Iraqis’ most significant contribution to the world- writing-has proven to have its downside, and I’m not just talking about this column. Saddam Hussein wrote a novel! It was called Zabibah and the King and it came out in 2001. It takes place in ancient times and tells the story of a beautiful woman, Zabibah, who is trapped in a loveless marriage. She befriends the King and he pours out his heart to her. He talks about love, God, family, loyalty, betrayal, and the search for personal growth and fulfillment. It’s very talky. Still, I must say, it got very good reviews-in Baghdad, anyway.
And how about that Fertile Crescent? It sure didn’t look too fertile to me. What happened to all the trees? It turns out they all got cut down many years ago and were burnt for fuel. The soil then got eroded and floated away during the rainy season and now the whole place is one vast dessert. Let’s just hope this provides a wake-up call for the present-day County Commission. Save the Trees! We certainly don’t want Sarasota to end up looking like that awful road to Baghdad.