Paradise Lost: The world’s debt to Iraq

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Iraq is central to world civilisation and to the Bible and speaks to us of great journeys, exile, suffering and salvation. As he looks forward to Pope Francis’ visit to this country in March, Dr Emil Anton spares a thought for the many who have had to flee from it in modern times.

In late 2018, I ran into an old friend on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old Town. “I knew there’d be a providential meeting,” he said. “That always happens in Jerusalem. But I didn’t guess it’d be you!” 

I told him I was working on a project about the Iraqi roots of the Bible and Christianity. A Bible specialist himself, he seemed a bit sceptical: “Well, right, I know Abraham came from Iraq, but there’s not much more than that, is there?” It was enjoyable to watch his eureka moment as I replied listing some of the Old Testament’s key events: “The Exile! The Babylonian and Assyrian deportations, and the whole message of the prophets! The Garden of Eden! The Tower of Babel…”

The truth is, everything in the Bible starts from Mesopotamia, the Land of the Two Rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris – modern day Iraq. It’s your best guess for the location of Paradise Lost (see Genesis 2:10-14): there is even a Tree of Knowledge, or Adam’s Tree, in al-Qurnah, where the two rivers meet. 

Wider civilisation owes a lot to Iraq too. It’s where writing was invented by the Sumerians at the Temple of Uruk (modern Warka) around 3300 BC. Uruk, the biblical Erech, was one of the first cities in the world, the hometown of Gilgamesh, the hero of the world’s oldest epic poem.

Gilgamesh and Noah

The story of Gilgamesh was rediscovered in the 19th century at the British Museum, when a young man by the name of George Smith learned to read Akkadian cuneiform writing and managed to decipher a portion of a story about a great flood on a clay tablet brought to the museum from Iraq. It had surprising similarities with the Bible’s flood account.

When Smith realized he was the first man to read these lines in over 2000 years, he started running around the room and taking his clothes off in excitement!

The discovery caused a sensation, so much so that the Daily Telegraph newspaper sponsored a new expedition to Mosul, the modern successor to ancient Nineveh, the last capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was here that Sir Austen Henry Layard had excavated the palace and library of Ashurbanipal, the greatest and most learned Assyrian king from the 7th century BC. Amazingly, among the piles of clay, stone, and rubble, Smith was able to find and translate a missing piece of the deluge account, a piece that ended up in the British Museum with the letters “DT” (for Daily Telegraph).

Assyriologists and theologians were soon debating whether the Jews took their stories from the ancient Mesopotamians, or vice-versa. 

It wasn’t that simple. The Old Testament stories were not directly derived from the Mesopotamian civilisations like the Sumerians, Assyrians or Babylonians, but there were certainly similarities and influences. In the case of the story of Noah – the ark, the animals, the flood – one might say that an old Mesopotamian story was recast in the light of the faith of the people of Israel. The same might even be said about the creation account in Genesis, the Bible’s first book.

[ Pair of Human Headed Winged Lions and reliefs from Nimrud with the Balawat Gates, c. 860 BC. Image courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain ]

Abraham, Hammurabi and Pope Francis

Old Testament scholars often make a distinction between the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, which give a more or less mythological prehistory, and the following chapters (12-50), where we can more credibly place things in a historical setting. 

Here begins the story of Abraham, who used to live ‘beyond the Euphrates’ and serve ‘other gods’, until he was called by God to begin a new journey. The Bible tells us that Abraham – who is an essential reference point for Jews, Christians and Muslims – came from ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, that is, from southern Iraq. He might have even been a contemporary of Hammurabi, the first great ruler of Babylon (18th century BC).

Next week, Iraqis are looking forward to an historic event, the visit of Pope Francis to the country on 5 March 2021. During his four-day stay his itinerary will include Baghdad, the modern successor to Babylon, and ‘the house of Abraham’ in the plains of Ur, where to this day one can see the magnificent ziggurat from the Neo-Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur (which ended around 2000 BC).

[ The Ziggurat of Ur. Image courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain ]

No Pope has visited the country before, not even John Paul II in his over 100 Papal journeys. The Polish pontiff had wanted to go at the turn of the millennium but negotiations with the then- government broke down and it was not possible.

Now, finally, Rome will meet Babylon, and 4000 years of salvation history will come full circle.

While just a few lucky souls will be able to visit Ur with the Pontiff, the good news is that one can visit Ur in London, which is a lot easier for us Europeans – or will be after lockdown! 

In the Mesopotamian section of the British Museum, one can admire an astonishing piece of art from ancient Iraq called the Standard of Ur (2600 BC), as well as some of the other riches discovered in the Royal Tombs of Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley. 

[ Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, “War” panel. Image courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain ]

One can then continue to the Assyrian section and faint, as I almost did! There, I found myself in the palaces of kings who used to rule the entire Near East, including Israel. And this brings me back to my initial point: just how central the Iraqi connection is to understanding the whole story of the Bible, and with it, Judaism and Christianity. It’s something which very few appreciate and which I myself only recently discovered. So what’s the story? 

The Bible’s Assyro-Babylonian backdrop 

First some essential background. Israel was made up of 12 tribes deriving from the sons of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Centuries later, under Joshua, the successor to Moses, the tribes were given the Promised Land (known as ‘Canaan’, and later as ‘Israel’), and under the great king David they were promised an everlasting dynasty.

But already in the time of Solomon, David’s son, the kingdom split into two (930 BC): the 10 tribes of the north formed the kingdom of Israel, while the two tribes of the south formed the kingdom of Judah. 

In 722/720 BC, the great Mesopotamian power of the time, Assyria, conquered and destroyed Israel and deported the 10 tribes to other parts of their empire. This was a disaster, and even more so was the later destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Babylonians (southern Mesopotamians who had succeeded the Assyrians in power), who deported the remaining tribes of Judah into exile in their own country around 587 BC. 

From then on, prophets would continuously predict the regathering of the 12 tribes into a renewed and reunified kingdom of David. The writings foretold a new exodus (return to the land), new temple, new David. This is what all the major Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) announce.

But it never came about. Nobody really knows what happened to the 10 tribes of the north. Sure, there are all kinds of interesting (some crazy) theories. Yet some of the inhabitants of Judah (i.e. Jews) did return to Jerusalem and built a new temple (515 BC). This fulfilled some of the promises, but it was a lousy fulfilment. There was no Davidic king, no twelve tribes, none of the promised glory. 

Life went on under foreign rule with new empires (Persians, Greeks, Romans) taking the place of the Mesopotamians. But the Book of Daniel offered hope that an eternal kingdom would still manifest itself, with its visions of the glorious and victorious ‘Son of Man’ and the prophecy of the coming Messiah.

And this, of course, is where Jesus of Nazareth comes in. He calls himself ‘Son of Man’. He compares himself to David and Solomon. He chooses 12 disciples (as in 12 tribes). He comes to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He promises to build a new temple. Except that his temple is to be his body. His throne is in heaven. The 12 tribes are to be interpreted as his followers, and the new Israel is the Church he founded. 

The resurrection appearances and the experience of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit convinced his followers of all this. But most Jews were not convinced, and still aren’t. And it’s not that hard to understand them. From their perspective, it must have sounded like what Jehovah’s Witnesses’ claims sound like to many of us: Jesus returned in 1914, only he did it in an invisible manner. 

From Iraq to the New Jerusalem

Convinced or not, insiders or outsiders, the Exile and its end are the backbone of the Bible. The Babylonian Exile is where scholars say the Bible began to take shape as a collection made up of three parts: the Torah (the Law of Moses), Prophets and Writings. The Exile is an interpretive key to much of the biblical history books and the prophets, perhaps even the story of Eden and how Adam and Eve were exiled from there to the East. 

The problem to which the New Testament presented a solution was not primarily ‘original sin’ or anything like that; it was rather the ‘Iraqi trauma’ of the Jews, namely the fact that the Mesopotamians had destroyed the House of Yahweh (the temple of Israel’s God) and scotched his supposedly everlasting kingdom. 

That’s why even the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, climaxes with the defeat of the ‘whore of Babylon’ (most likely referring to pagan Rome) and the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem with its celestial temple. From Iraq to the Promised Land; from Babylon to the New Jerusalem: that’s salvation. From Abraham to the Apocalypse, this is what the Jewish-Christian story is all about. 

But this is not just theological poetry. For hundreds of thousands of people in the past two decades, leaving Iraq has literally become synonymous with salvation. Some of them fled from Saddam Hussein, others from the chaos ensuing from his downfall, still others from the terror of ISIS. 

In 2015 alone, over 20,000 Iraqi asylum-seekers came to my home country, Finland (where my Finnish mother and Iraqi father settled after meeting and falling in love in England!), thus becoming the third-largest immigrant group here, after the Estonians and Russians. And not only that, many of them, hundreds if not thousands, have become Christians, and speak of experiencing a spiritual salvation.

Some undoubtedly ‘converted’ simply to seek asylum (this is the immediate suspicion from all sides), but others are clearly sincere and very active in their congregations. The testimonies of the converts speak of a change from a fear-based view of God, to an idea of universal love. 

Conversion has not always been easy: there have been beatings, threats, verbal abuse, and social discrimination in refugee centres. Families have cut off contact. But these new converts are ready to suffer and even die for their faith. They love their enemies.

The question for me is not so much if they are real Christians, but rather if we are.

The least we all can do for Iraq and Iraqis, I’d like to suggest, is to recognize our debt, pay attention, and show special solidarity. Recognise the Mesopotamian roots of our western culture, pay attention to the upcoming historic Papal visit, and show special solidarity to the Iraqi people – those struggling to rebuild their country at home as well as those who have emigrated to our countries. In a very real sense, their story is our story.

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