Saturday, June 20, 2009

Between the Rivers, Before the State

It has been argued that man has only risen from the depths of squalor upon becoming “civilized”, that is, upon coalescing into a civitas, or state. Thus mainstream history textbooks include the origination of government as a crucial step in the “march of progress.”Great prosperity is the fruit of society, not the state. And society antedates the state. 

Civilization first arose in Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”.   However, many societal advancements associated with “civilization” antedated the state in that region.  Paleolithic families commerced with people as far away as Anatolia and Palestine: many millenia before the rise of the Sumerian city-states.  Village life arose in Mesolithic times.  And the Neolithic agricultural revolution and introduction of pottery got underway quite nicely under stone age anarchy.

Three successive (though overlapping) proto-historical cultures arose in northern Mesopotamia: the Hassuna, Samarra, and Halaf cultures.  All three made great strides in art, trade, and the technologies of agriculture, building, implements, pottery, and even irrigation.  And not one of them showed any signs of having any central government.  There were signs of religion on a household level; but there were no temples, and no signs of an official cult.The Hassuna culture developed stamp seals, an important development in private property and trade, as well as a precursor to the written language.  The Samarra culture invented irrigation with which they produced amazingly abundant harvests, as evidenced by the remains of capacious granaries.  The Halaf culture even had cobbled streets and specialized centers which mass produced a distinctive pottery (which has been called by the French antiquarian Georges Roux, “the most beautiful ever used in Mesopotamia”1) for peaceful exchange abroad. Anarchic Mesopotamian humanity was accomplishing wondrous things for itself.

Then something happened.   Several Halafian towns were for some reason depopulated.  And their exquisite pottery was replaced by a cruder style: an archaeological sign of cultural displacement.   A very different people, the Ubaid culture, had come from the south and supplanted the Halafians.  The Ubaid culture had shrines, altars, offering tables, and enormous temples: sure signs of a priestly elite.  And their temples consistently grew in size and grandeur as the ages went by: a sure sign of consolidating priestly power.   It is highly likely that the people of this culture are the famous Sumerians themselves in their proto-historical form.   If so, then the cult which originated in the Ubaid temples is the very tradition which evolved into the monstrous temple-states of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria.  The north Mesopotamian tradition of freedom that lasted for a millenium and a half was replaced by the systemic deceit and coercion of the temple and the state, which at this early stage, were one and the same.

1 Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux

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