The Middle East: Once the Cradle, Now the Grave

The Cradle of Civilization.  Mesopotamia.  The Middle East.  I love its history.  I’ve read about it since I was a teenager.  My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1971, I was 18 years old and just graduated from high school.  Part of a Boise State University music tour, we visited the British Museum in London.  I headed right to the exhibition of the Royal Tomb of Ur.  I could have stayed there all day.
One face of the Standard of Ur.  British Museum, London

One face of the Standard of Ur. British Museum, London

(I have a neck tie with this motif woven into it I bought from the British Museum in 1995.  Beats the heck out of Paisley for my taste.)

Part of my fascination is grounded in my interest in biblical history in general.  My bachelor’s degree is in Biblical Studies, as well as having earned a Master of Divinity degree.  There are, however, many regions around the Holy Land and the Mediterranean in which I might have been attracted to.  For me it was Mesopotamia.  I’ve studied their ancient history, their pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Gilgamesh is my favorite hero-myth (who, by the way, was a historical figure, an actual king, ca. 2700 B.C.E.).  I’ve read it numerous times and have two of the most recently published translations on my bookshelf.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.

Today, what was ancient Babylon and Sumer sits in Iraq and Iran.  I have no illusion that I will live to visit either place in a time of peace.

The Cradle of Civilization has become a grave.

5000 years of nurturing the very essence of what it means to be human is being crushed by a simmering slag of hatred and revenge, a cycle of violence like magma pushing to the surface that may erupt erupt with the force of an atomic mushroom cloud.  Literally.

Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist, captured this virulent culture of revenge:

History is relentless. Sometimes its destructive gyre gets overcome: France and Germany freed themselves after 1945 from war’s cycle. So did Poland and Germany. China and Japan scarcely love each other but do business. Only in the Middle East do the dead rule.

Their demand for blood is, it seems, inexhaustible. Their graves will not be quieted. Since 1948 and Israel’s creation, retribution has reigned between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements.  (NYT, 7 Jan ’09)

Cohen’s insight is so deeply troubling in its truth.  The violence, this time between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Palestinians, defies all reason for common, everyday living; it defies everything the three Great Religions, which were born in this Cradle, teach about peace and how to treat one’s neighbors; and it defies the very essence of what it means to be human.   And that essence is that the living rule, not the dead.

Gilgamesh grieves over the death of Enkidu (whose demise was decreed by the gods) like today’s Middle East hard-liners and jihadists who wail and beat themselves over those killed by the godless.  Gilgamesh is so distraught he weeps by the corpse until maggots begin to crawl out of Enkidu’s rotting body, then vowing vengeance against the gods who robbed him of his most beloved companion, he sets out to bring them down from heaven itself. . .

Except that is not how the epic reads.  Gilgamesh is not bound forever in his grief over Enkidu’s death.  He does not engage in unending vengeance against his enemies. Given strength by the gods, he begins a quest for eternal life, and journeys to the home of Uta-napishti, the “Noah” of this Sumerian flood story, who with his wife, were the only two humans to survive.  And though Gilgamesh does not achieve physical eternal life, by the end of the quest he arguably is Homo sapiens modernum, Modern Man.  The dead do not rule his life.

(Homo sapiens modernum is my literary creation, not a paleontological species name.)

How then, do we understand the Rule of the Dead in the lands that gave us Gilgamesh?  How can that cycle be ended?  What will it take for the sword of atrocities to be broken, the blade shattered and unsalvageable, replaced by the Rule of the Living?  Gilgamesh lives in his myths, but his story, his true legacy to his living descendants has been lost.

Do not blame Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Do not cite their words, writings or teachings as justification for these atrocities.  Unnamed millions have already been butchered over the course of 4000 years, in the name of and by the hand of followers of all three.  The LORD God Almighty/Allah weeps that even today, millions who call on his name, do so as they kill, destroy, and ravage the innocent.

As long as the Death rules the living in the cultures of the Middle East, be it national, religious, political, or an aggregation of all three,  Homo sapiens modernum, that great rock of civilization, is being blasted away by relentless, unforgiving sand storms of dogma and loathing. One day all that will be left of Gilgamesh’s legacy will be featureless desert, devoid of all life, of all humanity, the howling winds oblivious to the countless millions who once tried to live just one day up to the potential of humanness he achieved.  It will be all in vain.  On the fields of massacre the blood they shed will be blown into nothingness.

Homo sapiens modernum will be extinct.   The Middle East will be perfect.  Sinless.  An unspoiled holy land.  No desecration of sacred laws.  No infidels to attack.  No punishment for the reprobates.  No honor to be defended.  No vengeance to be paid.  No revenge to be meted out.  No need for forgiveness.  No God to be avenged.  Empty and dead.

No amount of oil will change the outcome.

The perfect war will be over.

And the fate of those who followed the rule of Death?  Perhaps it shall be this chilling image, recounted when Gilgamesh  goes to the Netherworld in search of Enkidu.

Gilgamesh: Did you see the one who cheated a god and swore an oath?

Enkidu: I saw him.

G: How does he fare?

E: He cannot get near the places in the Netherworld where the libations of water are made, he drinks in thirst.

G: Did you see the citizen of Girsu at the place of sighs of his father and mother?  (Girsu was a city-state in what is now Iraq.(1))

E: I saw him.

G: How does he fare?

E: Facing each man there are a thousand Amorites, his shade cannot push them off with his hands, he cannot charge them down with his chest. At the places in the Netherworlds where the libations of water are made, the Amorite take precedence. (2)

G: Did you see the sons of Sumer and Akkad? (3)

E: I saw them.

G: How do they fare?

E: They drink water from the place of a massacre, dirty water. (1)

This fate for the desert people of the Middle East who endlessly kill to proclaim the rule of the dead, to be denied water, the very stuff of life–first, for one’s blasphemy, second, to have to wait subserviently while foreigners drink first, and third, to be forced to drink filthy water in a place that is ritually soiled and impure for all eternity–is indeed the deepest level of Hell.

Gilgamesh is speaking.  Are we, all Homo sapiens modernum, capable of listening?

Gilgamesh and King Akka of Kish, ca. 18th Cent. B.C.E.

(1) Text: “Bilgames and the Netherworld,” in: Andrew, George (1999) The epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. 190. [Note: “Bilgames” is one variant of Gilgamesh.]

(2) This is a bit spooky–The Amorites are associated with the West, and their kingdom, ca. 2000-1600 B.C.E. encompassed  modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestine Authorities, Lebanon and NE Egypt.  Source: Wikipedia.

(3) Sumer, one of humanity’s most ancient regions dates from at least the 6th Century, B.C.E., and was clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that flow through modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Its most famous city is Ur (in Iraq).  Akkad was a Sumerian city but later established Babylon (in Iraq) when its empire rose to power.  Source: Wikipedia.

The Current Rules in the 4000 Year War

Earlier today, I posted my latest blog, “The Perfect War: 4000 Years and Going Strong.”  It was a companion piece to my earlier blog, “Abraham’s Lot.”  Both are commentaries on the current conflict in the Middle East, this time between Israel and Palestine, specifically the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

This evening, David Brooks, New York Times columnist published an op-ed piece titled  “The Confidence War.”   Read the whole piece.

But I invite you to read my two postings, as well.  This quote from Brooks should whet your appetite:

This new game isn’t a war of attrition. It’s a struggle for confidence, a series of psychological exchanges designed to shift the balance of morale. The material destroyed in an episode can be replaced, but the psychological effects are more lasting. What is really important is how each episode ends, because the ending defines the meaning — who mastered events and who was mastered by them.

The Perfect War: 4000 Years and Going Strong

The conflict in the Middle East is the Perfect War.  That it’s 4000 years long and going strong is probably an underestimate.  It might be 5000 years.

At this writing Israel has invaded the Gaza Strip and cut it into three pieces.  Hamas, the political party that “governs” Gaza is not close to surrendering.  In fact, it is safe to say they have no intention of surrendering, even though it would save hundreds, perhaps thousands of their citizens’ lives (the death toll is already over 500).

Israel’s invasion, clearly a show of force to make up for their mistakes (and loss of face) in Lebanon two years ago, is a military operation that could easily end up in the text books of every military academy as an example of how to “do it right” against an intransigent enemy.  They have two stated goals.  One, find and destroy Hamas’ missiles and the routes (tunnels) to resupply them.  Two, destroy Hamas’ political machine.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Who’s justified?  Who’s the oppressor?

I will leave that to the analysis of the historians.

But what I observe is pagent.  A perfect war scripted over millenia.  Rhetoric honed to emotionally charged but meaningless sound-bites.

Here is the latest:

From Hamas:

A senior Hamas leader made a rare appearance to rally his troops. Hamas’ second in command Mahmoud Zahar released a statement to Alaqsa TV stating, “By killing our children you legitimize us killing your children. By bombing our mosque you legitimize us bombing your synagogue. By bombing our hospitals you legitimize to us bombing your hospitals.”  ABC News

From the Israeli Government:

Israeli military sources told ABC News the overarching goal of the campaign in the Gaza Strip is to strike “a hard blow against Hamas” and to force the organization into a more amenable negotiating position “to bring about a more stable security situation for its citizens in the south.”  ABC News

From the United States Government, by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice:

“It is obvious that that cease-fire should take place as soon as possible,” Rice said, “but we need a cease-fire that is durable and sustainable.”

“Hamas has used Gaza as a launching pad for rockets against Israeli cities, and has contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza and to a humanitarian situation that we have all been trying to address,” she told reporters after meeting with Bush.  ABC News

From the United Nations humanitarian staff on the ground in Gaza:

“When women, children and babies are killed in Gaza, how can you say Gaza is not in a humanitarian crisis?” Christopher Gunness, a spokesperson for the UN relief operation in Gaza, told ABC News. “When hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, how can you not say Gaza is not in a humanitarian crisis? When bakeries are shut down, how can you say Gaza is not in humanitarian crisis?

“We are on the ground and we have a much better idea of the situation than those who view Gaza through the lenses of high-altitude bombers.”  ABC News

From Hezbollah in Lebanon north of Israel:

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political science professor close to Hezbollah, says the group sees the ground invasion as a new phase in the fighting and in its potential involvement. On Sunday, local media reported that Hezbollah militants have been put on “high alert.”

“We shouldn’t overestimate Hezbollah’s restraint. … At this stage, if Hezbollah is provoked in any way, even a small incident, it could give Hezbollah the justification and pretext to enter the conflict,” Saad-Ghorayeb said.  ABC News

From another Middle East country with Radical Islamists (in this case, next to a mosque in Cairo, Egypt):

A crowd of about 100 protesters, including women, managed to begin a small demo. People in this country are usually careful about what they say about the government in public but today their voices were loud and clear — “watch the terrorism in this country,” they said, referring to the Egyptian police. They were also chanting pro-Hamas slogans and saying, “With our blood, with our souls, we will avenge you Palestine.” But as soon as the demonstration started, riot police moved in and broke it up, arresting people and putting them in vans.  Lama Hasan, World View Blog, ABC News

From the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, Egypt:

One interesting point to note: Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal discussed the need for a Palestinian national unity government. He said that had such a government been in place, a “massacre” would not be taking place right now.

So will the meeting generate any change in Gaza? One of the journalists I spoke to said that it was unlikely. She remarked that it had taken the Arab League five days to finally meet since the strikes had started and after nearly 400 Palestinians had been killed.

The meeting therefore could be just a show for the people on Arab streets, to make them feel that their leaders are trying to do something about the situation when in reality nothing may come of it.  Lama Hasan, World View Blog, ABC News

Finally, from leaders in the European Union:

In Ramallah in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank, French President Sarkozy called for a ceasefire as soon as possible and said that “time is running against peace.”

“The guns must fall silent, there must be a humanitarian truce,” Sarkozy said.

He said he would tell Israeli leaders the violence must stop but he also condemned Hamas for its attacks on Israel.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, heading an EU peace mission, sounded more resigned to prolonged fighting.

“We do not have a specific plan for a ceasefire because the ceasefire as such must be concluded by the involved parties,” he said in Jerusalem.    ABC News/Reuters

There you have the rhetoric of a perfect war.  Tit-for-tat.  It will end, this conflict, that is.  But a perfect war is far too valuable to bring to a close, once and for all.  I invite you to read my previous post, “Abraham’s Lot”  (Click on the Recent Entries link to the right).  It is my commentary on why this 4000 year old war is perfect.  Except, of course, over the past 4000 years, for all those who have been killed by perfection.