Le Québécois Libre, January 15, 2010, No 274.
New York's Metropolitan Museum organized, in 2003, what was without a doubt the most beautiful and fascinating museum exhibit I have ever seen, Art of the First Cities, which contained the major masterpieces of Mesopotamia and other ancient Middle Eastern and Central Asian civilizations. The Met also has a few magnificent pieces in one room of its permanent collection that I rarely fail to revisit whenever I find myself in the Big Apple, even if I'm pressed for time.
There are many reasons to be interested in ancient Iraq. One can learn about the beginnings of western civilization, the first large scale cities and organized societies, the invention of writing, the first written laws, etc. There is also the sheer fascination of looking upon works that are several thousand years old.
Among my favourite pieces at the Metropolitan is this statue of a believer praying that dates back to sometime from 2750 to 2600 B.C. Like other similar statuettes that have been recovered, it would have been placed in a temple to pray in perpetuity in the name of the person whom it represented. No one believes in the gods Enlil, Ishtar, or Abu anymore, but the religious impulse has not changed that much in the intervening five millennia.
There is also and especially the magnificent statue of Gudea, the "ensi," which is to say governor or prince, of Lagash, a city in southern Mesopotamia where he reigned from approximately 2141 to 2122 B.C. Numerous statues have been recovered depicting him in a similar fashion, with his strange cap, and his face is recognizable as soon as one enters the room, be it in the Louvre or in other museums housing one of the statues.
How Can We Pass Judgment 4000 Years After the Fact?
It is easy, today, to criticize our leaders, who can no longer plead ignorance when adopting interventionist policies that have failed over and over again in the past. In this day and age, we know very well to what horrors authoritarian power can lead. But how can we judge the actions of a leader like Gudea (or what we know about him, anyway) four thousand years later? The same problems arise with any attempt to judge historical events. We cannot really apply a strict contemporary libertarian analysis, which would be futile given what was known and universally accepted at the time, and given the development of ideas, institutions, and technologies. But by placing ourselves in that context, we can nonetheless pass judgment by finding out what most resembled or corresponded to our philosophy. Liberty, responsibility, respect of others, nonaggression, and exchange are universal concepts, which could be put into practice just as well 4000 years ago as they can today.
In the end, it's not that difficult. Mesopotamian civilization lasted far too long—three millennia—to summarize its historical, political, and economic history in a few paragraphs. But according to the little that we know about it, we can surmise that its economic system was not so different from the one we have known in recent centuries. The laws of economics are also the same today as they were back then, and human behaviour hasn't changed all that much either.
Independent city-states prospered there, even as empires dominated vast regions, notably the Assyrian empire. They had neither democracy, nor free markets, nor individual liberties as we conceive of them today. Coined money had not been invented, even if bars of silver were being used as a medium of exchange. Yet the rule of law and a complex social order existed, as did commerce, a few basic industries, and the country was extraordinarily prosperous and well-organized compared to the rest of the world at the time.
Political and religious powers controlled a good portion of the land and of the production of certain staples. Bureaucracy was ubiquitous. Monarchs attempted to conquer territory and build empires in part to control the trade in certain goods, just as the mercantilist European powers did more recently. We don't really know how private exchanges functioned since the administrative documents that survived are almost exclusively those of royal palaces and religious temples. But it must certainly have contributed to the general level of prosperity along with those sectors controlled by princes and priests.
What we know for sure is that one way or another, the division of labour was developed to a greater extent than anywhere else up to that moment in the history of the human race, which allowed for the development of complex cities and communities. The legal framework protecting property, contracts, and exchanges and delimiting the leaders' powers of taxation must have played an important role, since a dynamic economy cannot develop without the rules of the game having a certain transparency and permanence. It is precisely this that differentiates a civilized society from one in which physical force determines the allocation of resources. (Of course, the distinction is not as obvious when the tyrant forcefully extracts 40% of what we produce…!)
The First Liberal Reform
And in point of fact, civilization was able to advance because people at the time had already noticed the harmful effects of high taxes, excessive bureaucracy, unjustly powerful elites, and wars of imperial conquest on their society's peace and prosperity. A clay tablet dating back to 2300 B.C. thus tells of the fascinating liberal reforms of Urukagina, one of Gudea's predecessors at Lagash who led the principality a century and a half before him. The Sumerologist Noah Kramer described it as follows in his book From the Tablets of Sumer: Twenty-Five Firsts in Man's Recorded History, The Falcon's Wing Press, 1956:
It is also on this tablet that were found the famous cuneiform signs for the word amagi (or amargi), which means "liberty." This would be the oldest written representation of this concept in the history of the human race. Kramer explains the context in the following very interesting paragraph from another of his books, The Sumerians. Their History, Culture and Character (University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 79):
A Pacifist Prince Who Favoured Trade
A pacifist prince in a world of nearly constant
conflict, who favoured trade, who tried to be pious (note: piety is not
synonymous with religious fanaticism) and wise? Now there's a model of
government that is still perfectly relevant for our time. I could easily
name many current leaders that I would love to see replaced by a Gudea.
And that will only increase my appreciation of the beauty of his statue
the next time I spot him in a museum!