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24 March 2009

What did the simple folk do?


I’m a history nut, I admit it. Lately I’ve been reading ancient history (Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Persian Empire, etc.). For thousands of years in the Middle East, ever since the Sumerians settled between the Tigris and Euphrates river and ancient Egypt recognized a need to protect trade routes and control the Fertile Crescent, armies have been invading the flat, invitingly fertile lands of what is now Egypt, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Israel.

Such conquering forces were seeking a better life and they attained it by force. The Semitic Assyrians overran the peaceful non-Semitic Sumerian civilization, which fell to the Babylonians, which succumbed to the Assyrians... and on and on until by the 14th century B.C. three empires controlled the area now termed the Middle East: Egypt, the Hittites (Syria), and the Assyrians. Ever since then, the maps of the Middle East have been constantly redrawn as various kings jockeyed for power.

Every nation wanted to survive, and war was the path. That meant constant relocation of peoples – or worse, subjection by force or annihilation as their leaders struggled to protect themselves economically and militarily.

But the other day I was admiring a miniature gold sculpture (Persian, 4th C. B.C.) of a chariot and four horses when I suddenly wondered: in the midst of the destruction of armies and cities, what did the “little guys” do when they were caught in the middle of rampaging armies?

Mostly they were slaughtered or enslaved.

One great conqueror, the Persian Cyrus the Great, thought about this as well. When he conquered the Babylonian Empire (and almost everything else from Afghanistan to Libya), he developed the world’s first charter of civil rights. This was a series of decrees incised on a round clay cylinder, now known as the Cyrus Cylinder. (The original resides in the British Museum; a copy is displayed at the United Nations.)

The Cyrus Cylinder (note the date--539 B.C.!) has three main premises: (1) establishment of racial, linguistic, and religious equality among the peoples of the Empire; (2) directing that slaves and all deported peoples (particularly the Jews) be allowed to return to their homeland rather than be massacred or treated as slaves or second-class citizens; and (3) restoration of all destroyed temples of the various religions.

The following day a news article on the killing of civilians in Gaza sparked my interest; this article included a quotation from what is now termed Modern International Law, which reads in part: “International humanitarian law places no prohibition of fighting in urban, but requires parties to take care to spare the civilian populace.”

It has been 2,500 years since the Cyrus charter of human rights was written.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

Fascinating post!

1:21 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Responding way late to this wonderful post.

I knew nothing about the Cyrus charter. Got any references for absolute beginners, Lynna?

Would that we could learn from the history of the middle east.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Carolyn Woolston said...

Pam--the best reference I can think of for Middle East history is William Cleveland's "A History of the Modern Middle East." He covers from Mesopotamia up to the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Paperback (I got mine used from Amazon).

Also, a more recent book called "Kingmakers,"
about who, when, and where the Middle East was
"created" by England, France (and later the Soviet Union and U.S.)

11:39 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Pam P.S.
The Cyrus charter is known as the Cyrus Cylinder.
It rests at the British Library, and a copy is displayed at the UN headquarters in New York.

11:42 AM  

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