This is an ambitious book, yet always sensitive to the task of providing a scholarly overview of the history of Iraq from ancient Mesopotamia and Sumer, to Assyria and Babylon, to Islam and the Abbasid Caliphates, to the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, through to the Hashemite Dynasty, the Republic, Saddam Hussein and the 2003 Anglo-American invasion and occupation.
The scope is sweeping, but never overambitious or excessive in generalisation. It is a thoroughly compelling read – especially for someone like me who wants to read more about Middle Eastern history. John Robertson is honest about what he can’t cover in 300 pages, but still manages to give detail to the broad sweep of Iraq’s past, its rich traditions, magnificent culture and a tragic destiny to be abused by tyrants, and a frontier playground for world powers and former empires.
Reading about Ancient Sumer and Babylon was fascinating. The descriptions of talionic law – ‘an eye for an eye’ – an ideal of equal restitution in crime and punishment – came from the Middle Eastern culture of the time. We tend to think of its famous pronouncements – or commandements – a peculiarly biblic feat. But in fact this was in general a strong theme of legal thinking in the ancient cultures of the time. Stone tablets, or steles, by King Hammurabi of Babylon have been discovered illustrating such applications of law.
Learning about the horror visited upon these peoples, the Mongolian terrors of 1258, the emergence of the Caliphs, Islamic History, that the famous Muslim warrior Saladin was in fact a Kurd – and later claimed as iconographic kin by the modern dictator Saddam Hussein – were things that opened my eyes to the richness of history here.
It was also interesting too to read about British and French involvement after the second world war, the formation of a ‘client’ Hashemite Kingdom with King Faisal as its notional head – betraying the high hopes of the growing movement of Arabist and Pan-Arab nationalism. It was an interesting and concerning thing to read that King Faisal’s writ was maintained over the Kingdom thanks to the help of the RAF – who experimented and perfected bombing campaigns that often terrorised the local population. It is noted too that a young Winston Churchill authorised the use of chemical weapons, though there is no proof they were actually used.
With the fall of the Shah and the Iran-Iraq war, it is depressing to see the West’s involvement as very often not guided by long term plans or sagacity, but simply by a kind of immediate, reckless opportunism – often stoking differences and tensions that take decades to play out.
All in all, I feel it is the best introduction to Iraqi history and it makes me want to read so much more, and explore the culture, the poetry and the ancient religious beliefs in further appreciative detail.