I have a long running obsession with the Sumerians. They were, after all, the people who invented writing. Of course, we aren’t talking great works of art like The Iliad, Don Quixote, and SpongeBob SquarePants. The purpose they put that writing to was just what you would think. “Larsa owes Sippar one goat”! Still goat accounting is important. Actually, the writing of numbers goes back even further, but you can see the accounting problems with an entry like, “One.” Obviously, it means one goat, but beyond that, one can’t say. I’m just kidding about the goats, but there is no doubt that the Sumerians domesticated goats and other animals. These are the kinds of things you can do when you settle down and create that other great Sumerian invention: cities.
The first city we know about is Eridu, which is located in what is now southern Iraq. It first became a village around 7,000 years ago, but it was not at that time what we would call a city. That took another 1,500 years. It and the many city states in the region that followed it is why Iraq is called the cradle of civilization. For good and for bad, this is where it all started. And in my search for more information, I came upon Michael Wood’s 1992 documentary series Legacy: A Search for the Origins of Civilization. Here is the first episode, which is about the Sumerians:
I had no problem watching all six hours of the series over the past couple of days. But Legacy doesn’t seem to have been one of Wood’s more popular series. And I can see why. It’s kind of a downer. It seems to have been Wood’s response to the Persian Gulf War, which took place almost exactly on the ruins of Eridu. The whole point of the series seems to be, “Look how far we have not come!”
This last weekend, I had dinner with my father and I brought up a dangerous topic: human progress. My father, like most Americans, is absolutely certain that civilization will just get better and better. But I was in such a mood as to push back a little on that. I make no claims about the future. But looking at the past, I don’t see any real progress. The Sumerians were pretty much constantly at war. And we are pretty much constantly at war. I’m willing to admit that we may have a tad more empathy than the difficult lives of ancient people allowed them. But it is just a tad and humans seem quite willing to let their emotions carry them away. For example, I doubt if many Americans would have complained had we decided to burn Osama bin Laden to death. And we are far more cruel to our farm animals than the Sumerians were to theirs.
The biggest problem with Legacy is that Wood seems reluctant to come right out and say what he thinks. But it is pretty clear if you are paying attention. Every civilization has aspects that are great. But they are countered by aspects that are bad. Here in America, we are very good at innovating and producing. But we are sadly deficient in long-range thinking and we have no spiritual life to speak of. The problem is that we are so powerful that we have managed to foist our civilization—for good and bad—on the rest of the world.
Wood focuses on medieval Baghdad, when the Muslim rulers (distinct from their modern counterparts) embraced multiculturalism. He quotes an unnamed Muslim scholar who said, “If one could combine Arabic faith and Jewish intelligence, with an Iraqi education, Christian conduct, Greek knowledge, Indian mysticism, and a Sufi way of life, this would be the perfection of humanity.” Of course, here in the west, we give lip service to multiculturalism. But what we really mean is that we want the traditional dress for parades, and we want there to be billionaires of all races and creeds. In the end, the west wants what the west wants: the rape of the earth and each other for the sake of ever higher profits.
I am extremely skeptical that a truly diverse civilization that takes the best of all cultures can exist. And I know that there is no apatite for such in modern America. Look what’s happened to religion in this country: Christianity has been so distorted that I now see Christ described less as the Prince of Peace and more like Rambo on the Cross. I hear damned little of “blessed are the meek” and more “Jesus wants you to be rich!” Just as some Muslim’s use their religion to justify murder, mainstream American Christian uses their religion to justify the worship of Money and Power.
In the end, I suppose we will muddle on. We aren’t any better than the Sumerians, but we’re also no worse. There is no Star Trek in our future, but their may be Mad Max. Or nothing at all.