Author: Peter Krupa
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/16/2005
Author: William R.Polk
The subtitle makes some pretty grandiose claims: “The whole sweep of Iraqi history,” it says, “from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation.”
Flipping to the back and noting that William R. Polk’s Understanding Iraq is a scant 221 pages, you wonder if maybe it should have been named something slightly less hubristic, like Introduction to Iraq or Quick Overview of
Of course the book falls far short of its claim of condensing the “whole sweep” of Iraqi history into a little freeze-dried, 221-page space dinner, especially considering it covers the country’s first 4,000 years in roughly 70 pages. Such are the perils of the mass marketing of history. Nevertheless, Polk’s book, especially the first half, provides a nice, readable overview that will be appreciated by people who didn’t know Iraq existed before the 1980s.
Iraq is part of Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilization, where nomadic tribes first settled into farming communities, and where one of the world’s first written languages – cuneiform – was born.
Unfortunately, poor Iraq has also been the whipping boy of civilization and a perpetual host to conquering armies, some of which were benevolent, many of which weren’t. These invasions and the Iraqis’ response to them, says Polk, are the keys to understanding who the Iraqi people are today.
The invasions started in 889 B.C., when a long period of farming, urbanization, and cultural development (highlighted by the advent of scribes, the written word, and the Code of Hammurabi) was interrupted by the rise of the Assyrian empire.
Babylon (where now stands modern-day Baghdad) had long been recognized as a center of culture and wealth, and so soon after the fall of the Assyrian empire the Persians swept it up on their westward trek towards Greece.
The attempt to conquer Greece was, of course, rebuffed and then reciprocated by Alexander the Great, who toppled the Persian Empire and entered Babylon in 330 B.C. Alexander’s plan to make Babylon the capital of the world was interrupted by his death, and there followed another several hundred years of conflict and invasions, first by the Parthian empire, then the Sasanian empire. There was even a Roman army that had a go.
As Polk succinctly summarized the period between 144 B.C. and 570 A.D.: “Warfare swayed back and forth across Iraq.”
Next came the rise of Islam and the ensuing conflict it brought. Polk does a good job of emphasizing the split between the Shia and Sunni Muslims, its deep history, and the role that division has played throughout the various phases of Iraqi history.
Baghdad changed hands several times during this 500-year period, and toward the end of it we find the Turks in control and what Polk calls a mini-renaissance in process throughout Iraq and Persia.
Throughout these turbulent years, says Polk, Iraq and particularly Baghdad evinced a remarkable tenacity. Rulers came and went; invasion followed invasion but the city continued to thrive despite all men did to destroy it.
Then, in 1155 A.D., Genghis Khan was born. In 1220, the Mongol invasion of West Asia had begun.
“Everywhere they went, the Mongols cut down the people, burned or leveled towns, and destroyed irrigation works so thoroughly that for hundreds of years the areas they swept across remained desert. Some have never recovered.”
Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu sacked Baghdad in 1258 and, in the method of the Mongol invaders, mercilessly slaughtered everyone. The massacre broke the back of the society, and the city would never be the same again.
Two themes emerge from Polk’s look at pre-Western Iraqi history. The first is that Iraq is far from homogenous. It is a composite of the huge variety cultures and religions that have invaded it and influenced it over the centuries: It has variously been home to Persians, Greeks, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews.
The second is that through all this ebb and flow of Persians, Turks, Mongols, and Greeks, the one thing that did remain constant was the Iraqis themselves, and their deep suspicion of and cynicism toward the motives of whoever happens to be occupying them at the time.
The rise of Western powers in the Middle East did nothing to allay those suspicions.
Western interest in Iraq dates back to 1764, when the British government found that the Euphrates River could be a useful communication link with India. The British maintained their influence for a century and a half, realizing the potential of its strategic position, and its oil. Polk draws many parallels between British actions then and American actions now.
For instance, faced with a demand for independence in post-World War I Iraq, the British set up an election in 1924, such that the pro-British candidates all ran unopposed. Formally, the British were out of the picture. Practically, they were still very much behind the curtain and pulling the strings.
“… [A] precedent for the future,” writes Polk. “One of the reasons that Iraqis reacted so sharply against the American-controlled Iraq Provisional Authority of 2004 was that in it they – but not the American authorities who were ignorant of Iraqi history – heard an echo of this early British system.
In fourth chapter of the book – “Revolutionary Iraq” – Polk details the several decades of power struggles that led up to Saddam Hussein. From there on out the last 70 pages the book retreads the already well-trodden ground of
Polk never hesitates to remind the reader that he is a respected and accomplished Middle Eastern scholar, even going so far as to start the book with an etymology lesson on commonly misunderstood Arabic words like jihad. But considering most of those words only show up once or twice throughout the book – and considering that much of the book rehashes a current debate that could be pretty easily outlined given a couple hours with Lexis-Nexis – one wishes Polk had made a little more use of his impressive credentials.
Bio: Peter Krupa is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor