Historical Background

There are in the country about 10,000 archaeological sites in which lie hidden the remains of a long succession of civilizations that date as far back as the palaeolithic age, 100,000 years ago. The most recent are those that belong to the Islamic periods.

The cultural formation of the country was distinguished for its originality and continuity, which gave its civilizations a uniformity of its own. This partly explains why it was a focal point from which radiated sciences and arts that contributed to the progress of many parts of the world. Iraq was one of the first regions in the world to create the bases of cultural and social stability. Eight-thousand years ago, in the neolithic age, villages were set up where man learnt farming, animal husbandry, housebuilding, weaving, pottery, and even the making of art objects by painting and sculpture. Jarmo, in Chamchamal in Ta’mim Governorate, is one of the earliest villages of man. In places such as Hassouna, Um Al Dabbaghiya, Matara and Tel Al Suwan, excellent finds have been unearthed which now grace museums at home and abroad. At Um Al Dabbaghiya, near Hatra, household paintings have been found that go back some 8,000 years. Tel al Suwan has given us a large number of superb small sculptures. It is interesting to note that Mesopotamian man, who lived in Shanidar Cave (near Arbil) nearly fifty thousand years ago, displayed a special sense of beauty: he strewed flowers on the graves of the dead – a thing never observed by archaelogists anywhere else in the world. In the south, Al Ubeid civilization flourished almost six thousand years ago and spread out to the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Half-way during the Age of Warka, 5,200 years ago, writing was invented in an iconographic form, which then developed into cuneiform. From 4800-4350 B.C. is the period known as the Dawn of Dynastics, which had three phases all distinguished for their remarkable artistry – evident in sculpture, seals, and the use of me-tals. The discoveries in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, in the south, give an idea of the high point of development the arts had reached in the 3rd millenium. Later, under the Akkadians (2371-2143 B.C.), the country was united under a central authority which established the first empires in history. The Akkadians were the early Arab pioneers: their empire included Iran, Anatolia, and Syria.

For about a century after the Akkadians the country went through a recession caused by the invasion of a barbaric people across the north from Iran. Soon later, however, Sumerian princes emerged who resuscitated local culture, foremost among whom was Gudea, ruler of Lagash. From 2112 to 2004B.C. the “Third Ur Dynasty was established: its kings, especially the founder Urnammo and Shulgi, were noted for their love of art and literature. They left us their bronze figures which portrayed them carrying the earth-vessels they used in building – in expression of their participation with the people in construction. The cultural chain continued. The old Babylonian Age 2004 – 1594 B.C., witnessed an activation of architecture, sculpture, seal carving, and especially literary arts and the sciences. In geometry and mathematics the Babylonians had formulated theories which were in much later times ascribed to Euclid and Pythagoras. They used Ist and 2nd degree algebraic formulae, and put the foundations of logarithms. Most distinguished, perhaps, were their humane laws crystallized in the famous Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.). Assyrians, centred in the north, spoke the same language as the Akkadians and Babylonians and used the same cuneiform writing. Historically, the Assyrians went mainly through three distinguished phases: the ancient (contemporary with the old Babylonian period), the medieval, and lastly the imperial phase, 910-612 B.C. They were remarkable for their love of building and their political organization: they founded the largest empires of their times and built great cities, such as Assur, Nineveh, Nimrud, Dur Sharrukin, whose remains are to be seen nowadays in museums throughout the world. The Assyrian imperial period was succeeded by the Neo-Babylonian age, 612-538 B.C., whose towering figure was the magnificent Nebuchadnezzar (604 – 562 B.C.). He was unique in his architectural and artistic achievements, together with his wise political administration and the skill and power with which he quelled all rebellious elements throughout his far-flung empire, which included Syria and Palestine. Upon the fall of Babylon the country was dominated by foreigners: the Achaemenids, the Greeks (Seleucids) and others. They made use of the country’s cultural heritage and expertise: Babylonians and Assyrians created many of the art works of Susa, Persipolis and Bazargaw. Their imprint was left on the sculpture and glazed bricks of those cities. The Greeks benefited from the Babylonian heritage of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geometry and literature. Two thousand years ago, or a little more, the Arabs made their architectural and artistic contributions in various places in the north, in Syria, in Jordan, in southern Anatolia. Their great buildings, statues and metallurgic works are still to be seen in part in Hatra, where they carved their names on their beautiful works. In Assur the Arabs, at the time of Hatra, built four great ewans, which still carry the name of their Arab architect. Connected with the Hatra culture, before its demise in A.D. 241, was also the culture of Arab Hira, in central Iraq. Hira continued until the Arab Islamic conquest of Iraq in A.D. 632. The advent of Islam caused a great revolution in many parts of the world. The people of Iraq, in cultural continuation, welcomed the new sublime message, and in embracing it they built a great civilization which, starting soon after the Prophet’s Hijra, continued through the Umayyad Period, A.D. 660–750 and the Abbasid age, 750-1258.

Under Omar, the second Caliph after the Prophet, important cities were built, such as Kufa and Basrah. Under the Umayyads, Wasit was built as a link between these two cities, and under the Abbasid Caliph, Abu Jafar Al-Mansour, Baghdad was built in A.D. 762. Some sixty years later Samarra was built by Al-Mutasim in 836 to replace Baghdad as capital. In 892 the seat of the Caliphate went back to Baghdad, which remained the centre of government until its downfall on the hands of the Mongols led by Hulago in 1258. The Abbasids’ was a golden age: an age of wealth, learning and creativity, all patronized and encouraged by the caliphs themselves. Arab medicine, chemistry, geometry, mathematics, astronomy, poetry, all flourished – and were the greatest in the world. Darkness fell upon the country after 1258 – Hulago, the grandson of Gengis Khan, left behind him a trail of horror and destruction. In the 16th century the Ottomans ruled Iraq – until 1917, when Iraq was placed under the British mandate. A form of political independence was at last obtained in 1932. The people of Irag have worked hard to rid themselves of the effect of centuries of stagnation. Their achievements have been truly spectacular.

Source : Iraq Tourist Guide 1982