Civil war in Iraq is dominating the headlines, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I has just passed, and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II (in Europe) — is tomorrow, as I write. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about the Sumerians and the Akkadians.
Who were the Sumerians and the Akkadians, you ask? Well, they were the Mesopotamians, the ancient inhabitants of the country we now call Iraq. As many people know, that modern political entity was created in the aftermath of World War I. T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) played a role, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one, in the British campaign that ultimately led to Iraq’s creation. As Lawrence writes:
I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events: but when we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French Colonial policy ruined in the Levant.
There’s a new book out about Lawrence, and an interview on Fresh Air with its author and (especially) a review of it in the Jewish Review of Books by Hillel Halkin led me to Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found it very strange, not least because of its constant discussion of the racial characteristics of “the Semites”:
If tribesman and townsman in Arabic-speaking Asia were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.
Later he writes:
Its birth in Galilee had saved it from being just one more of the innumerable revelations of the Semite. Galilee was Syria’s non-Semitic province, contact with which was almost uncleanness for the perfect Jew. Like Whitechapel to London, it lay alien to Jerusalem.
And there is this gem:
The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.
Human nature doesn’t change over the years, but a book like this is a good reminder that the superficial trappings of thought can change radically. The history of human conflict can be summarized in the slogan “them and us,” and one hundred years ago—not just for Lawrence—the Semites were very definitely “them.”
And that’s where World War II comes in. From the German perspective, of course, that war was to be the culmination of a great racial struggle between the Semites and the Aryans. But I’m a scholar of Bible and the ancient Near East. Just a couple of weeks ago subscribers to Jack Sasson’s Agade e-mail list—which once inspired a Facebook group called “Jack Sasson is filling up my inbox”—received an e-mail announcing that the Netherlands Institute for the Near East was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding, on August 17th, 1939, just two weeks before the war broke out. But there’s a more significant scholarly 75th anniversary this year as well, that of a remarkably timely article published by a young Danish scholar who would become one of the most famous Assyriologists of the 20th century: Thorkild Jacobsen.
In the final issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society, dated December 1939, Jacobsen published an article called “The Assumed Conflict between Sumerians and Semites in Early Mesopotamian History.” As my teacher Tzvi Abusch wrote in his appreciation of Jacobsen, written for a volume published in his memory, this was a time not merely “when the Nazi threat hung over Europe” but also “when racist categories were normal in the academy.” As Jacobsen wrote:
According to accepted views the early history of Mesopotamia is essentially the history of a racial conflict; its events represent stages in a deadly struggle between two inimical racial groups, Sumerians and Semites. In that struggle the Semites, who could draw on racial reserves in Syria and Arabia, came out victorious.
He notes that in Breasted’s Ancient Times of 1935 (then, of course, a recent book) every phase of Mesopotamian history is “presented in terms of racial conflict.” He writes of a war between the Sumerian (and thus non-Semitic) King Lugalzagesi of Uruk (now Warka; biblical Erech) and the Semitic King Sargon of Agade, and asks:
Does this war represent a long-brewing decisive clash between the two races which formed the population of Babylonia, Sumerians and Semites, or is it merely a fight between purely political units, two city-states vying with each other for power and influence?
The short answer is that Lugalzagesi’s statue has an inscription in Semitic, and Sargon’s own inscriptions attribute his victories not to Semitic gods but to Sumerian ones. Moreover, the later history of the conflict shows “no vestige” of racial feelings. After the Semitic kings had fallen in their turn, a Sumerian writer recording the details shows
no animosity, not even indications that the Agade kings were considered strangers, their hegemony different from the previous hegemonies of Kish and Uruk. And indeed, this total lack of hatred or even animosity is shared by all other Sumerian texts known to us and is obviously incompatible with the idea of a racial struggle.
Jacobsen’s article directly confronted not just the racist categories of contemporary culture, but the anti-Semitism was setting Europe on fire as he wrote.
According to Bendt Alster, in the same memorial volume, Jacobsen “always considered himself—with his own words—a scholar working ‘in the Danish tradition.’ He talked of the University of Copenhagen at the time when he studied there, around 1920, as ranking among the finest universities in the world. Today there is no commonly recognized ‘Danish tradition’…” The sad denouement of the story is that there is indeed a Danish academic tradition today, one called “the Copenhagen School,” whose focus on denying that the Bible is a historical document sometimes bubbles up into antagonism to modern Israel. I can still remember my shock—widely shared, if my recollections are right—when a biblical scholar named Keith Whitelam (from the University of Sheffield, the English fellow-travelers of this school) came out with a book explaining “that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced.” It is the reverse of anything Jacobsen would have thought of as “the Danish tradition.”
Meanwhile, the millennia-old series of wars in the Near East is still continuing. These days, with the possible exception of the Kurds, it is all-Semitic all the time. (The Gaza war is particularly internecine, especially if — as my teacher Moses Shulvass once said to me — “The Ten Lost Tribes? They are the Palestinians.”) And we no longer think of international political conflict as racial, unless you want to interpret the North-South divide in that fashion. The struggle between the races was succeeded by the battle between the economic systems of “capitalism” and “communism,” a picture which has now given way to a paradigm of religious conflict or, more starkly, a clash of civilizations. This too will, no doubt, be followed by still another us-vs.-them distinction, equally obvious and equally transitory. But the ancient Near East will continue to resonate as the historical and also the imaginative background to today’s news. Unhappy with the government? The ancients felt your pain long ago.
Jacobsen concluded his paradigm-shifting article this way:
We must accordingly abandon the idea of a racial war. The Semitic population was very likely to a large extent formed through constant filtering in of single families from the desert. It is obvious that such single families, settling and adapting themselves to life in the city or on the farm, would very soon feel as citizens of the city-state to which they had happened to immigrate and where they had become established. They would not constitute a common group, united across existing political boundaries. Semites and Sumerians lived thus, according to all the texts teach us, peacefully side by side in Mesopotamia. The wars which shook that country and the aims for which its rulers fought had nothing to do with differences of race; the issues were purely political and were determined solely by social and economic forces.
It bears repeating that Jacobsen’s article was scholarship, not politics. I saw Jacobsen in person only once, when he came back to Harvard from his retirement home in New Hampshire to give a talk. As I saw him then, he was an old fellow with a tie as wide almost wider than it was long. But he himself was a man of great and warm vision. Jacobsen was an Aryan in the categories of his own day. But while he was working on this article he was also working to bring Jewish Assyriologists who had to flee Nazi Europe to his then academic home at the University of Chicago. As Tzvi Abusch writes about him, Jacobsen “saw an alien and distant human life as something that not only existed in its own terms but also mattered very deeply for our own cultural, spiritual, and personal lives, indeed, for the enduring human spirit.” And he saw the same in his own time. It’s a worthy example to follow.
2016 update: See now, similarly …