Saturday, December 25, 2004


In Iraq, Look beneath the Surface

Those Ugly Little Mounds

Iraq does not present a pretty picture. It looks scruffy, dusty and almost worthless to the casual onlooker. Also, it does not offer awesome or breath-taking views like the Egyptian pyramids or the Chinese Great Wall. None of that!

Iraq is literally littered with little ugly mounds of dirt locals and archaeologists call "tels" or hills. There are many thousands of these scattered all over the country – certainly more than any Department of Antiquities has resources to investigate. All they could do was fence some of what they think are important ones… and hope to look beneath them sometime.

To archaeologists, these ugly dirt mounds usually indicate early settlements. Generally, beneath… they still don't yield beautiful and flashy objects. There are only few breath-taking treasures of gold and jewelry to be found in most of them. Their cache is generally little ugly-looking tablets of baked mud with scribbles on them.

Iraq's central and southern plains, the areas where it all began, are sedimentary in nature, with no rocks or minerals. Those ancient, hard-working peoples had to make do with what materials they locally had to build some truly magnificent civilizations. They formed mud into writing tablets and used stems of reed for pencils. The tip had a triangular shape; hence their writing was called the "Cuneiform". Then they baked those clay tablets to preserve their records.

[I see this tradition of making do with what's available maintained to this day. It is so reminiscent of what Iraqi engineers had to do after the previous Gulf war where almost everything of any value was bombed to evict Saddam from Kuwait. In the field of power generation, entire power plants were leveled; many switching and control stations were obliterated. Sanctions meant no access to spare materials and components. It looked like an impossible task, but somehow they did it.

In one district of Baghdad, an electrical switching station was thus hurriedly re-constructed using boards of wood, "Dexion" frames and salvaged parts. It was a make-shift affair. It certainly looked offensive and unprofessional. Any self-respecting engineer would not touch it! This way, some electricity was restored within 3 months. This was 14 years ago. That horrible-looking station still works until now!]

Mother Earth preserved those baked-mud records for us, sometimes for more than 5000 years. They survived numerous invasions, ravages by savages and utter devastation to everything that was over-ground. In one site alone, in the remains of an ancient city called Sippar, more than 50,000 such tablets were discovered.

Some of those treasures were re-discovered by Westerners: British, Frenchmen, Germans and Americans. This is so fitting… the latest torch bearers finding out about where the torch was originally ignited! A full circle! Iraq's contributions were more global than most people realize. We all still use many of their concepts of time, of stars, words and of God.

Human civilization, although so many people are not aware of it, is basically the same creature– born here and started its long and arduous journey here in Uruk, Ur, Akkad, Babel, Nineveh, Mesopotamia or Iraq. A lot was added to it through so many centuries by so many peoples and nations around the world in so many foreign lands. It is truly global, whether in mathematics or in spiritual belief.

So, in those ugly tablets, lying deep under those ugly mounds, you can find record after record of man's dull record-keeping, boring business communications, calculations, written laws and glimpses of man's attempts at wisdom… as well as epics of glory, of the Flood and of man's seeking of immortality. They hold the roots of our common humanity.

All those treasures and all that beauty are there… beneath the ugly and unappealing surface.

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