A Brief History of Iraq, Part One: Cradle of Civilisation to the Coming of Islam

This is the first instalment of a very short and simplified history of Iraq aimed at drawing out some of the threads that have lead to the current situation.


c. B.C. 4,000 – A.D. 750

Iraq is almost exactly twice the size of the UK but has less than half the population. The hostile deserts of Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia leach across its borders, confining most of its inhabitants to the broad stripe of green that sweeps diagonally across an otherwise sandy yellow map. This fertile corridor, Mesopotamia, follows the course of Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the mountains of Turkey in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south-east and gave rise to the earliest human civilizations.

The earliest cities were founded here after the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago, when humans began to settle and cultivate rather than wander and hunt, leaving more time for building the physical manifestations of societies.

Map 1

NB: Colours relate to height above sea level (green being lowest). Climate change since the earliest settlements has rendered much of this area desert today, so altitude maps are the best illustration of the low-lying areas that defined fertile Mesopotamia

Kingdoms centred around cities such as Babylon and Ur flourished for thousands of years throughout until around B.C. 1360, when the Assyrian kings of the city of Ashur on the river Tigris began to conquer lands across much of Mesopotamia. The following two millennia were characterised by the conquest and re-conquest of Mesopotamia by the great civilisations of the time; Ancient Greece, Egypt and Persia.

In A.D. 636, Arabs of the newly established Islamic faith defeated the Sassanid Empire (then covering modern day Iran and Iraq) at the battle of Qadisiyyah and paved the way for the Islamic dynasty of the Abbasids, who ruled Mesopotamia between A.D. 750 and 1258, establishing their capital in Baghdad.

Recommended listening:

“The City – a history, part 1” (an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rfhx2