The Middle East has an illustrious past - why are we hearing so much bad news from there now?

The Mesopotamian tradition lives on, in both good and bad. Professor Martti Nissinen sees links even between the Assyrians and ISIS propaganda: “They’re chopping off heads in stone reliefs or videos.”

The wheel, the seven-day week, mathematics, writing, agriculture. Inventions from ancient Mesopotamia are very present in our daily lives. For millennia, the region was a veritable innovation machine. Then what happened?

In the beginning was a favourable environment. This was the reason why the first agricultural experiments were undertaken along the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.

 “Agriculture, the establishment of cities and the invention of writing are all connected,” says Saana Svärd, docent of Assyriology.

In southern Mesopotamia, agriculture required the construction of irrigation systems and cooperation with the neighbours. This contributed to the creation of organised societies.

The cuneiform script in the Mesopotamian area was created around the same time as Egyptian hieroglyphics, and was fully developed by 5,000 years ago. The oldest clay tablets that have been discovered were used to tally sheep and grain.

Recently, Australian researchers managed to decipher a 3,700-year-old Babylonian tablet which depicts a precise trigonometric table. Greeks were previously thought to be the inventors of trigonometry, but it has now been established that the Babylonians used it to calculate the areas of their fields and to construct their temples.


The Mesopotamians were adept astronomers. For example, they could calculate the orbit of Venus and predict lunar eclipses.

 “If science means making precise observations, Mesopotamian science was absolutely at a high level,” says Svärd.

It was not science for the sake of science. Mathematics and astronomy were primarily practiced to serve financial and religious ends.

Rulers changed, but the tradition of scribes and the cuneiform culture brought a sense of continuity. For three thousand years, the region had a uniform understanding of the gods and the related myths, supported by written texts. When the cuneiform characters were gradually forgotten after the Persian conquest in 539 BCE, the stories were forgotten with them.

However, it is unknown what happened at the grass-roots level and in the minds of the people. Some of the topics lived on in new forms.


The Mesopotamian tradition has primarily been carried on by religions. Judaism was created in the Mesopotamian area, leading eventually to the advent of Christianity and Islam. The same myths and even phrases can be found in the sacred texts of our modern religions. For example, the Babylonian god Marduk rose from the dead on the third day.

The ancient Near East, the area we now know as the Middle East, was culturally flexible, and the different religions were not clearly separate from one another. Judaism was the first religion to set itself apart from the others.

 “Before the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, Judaism as we know it did not really exist. The destruction of the temple and the forced exile sparked the elite of the kingdom of Judea to develop a new identity, which became increasingly attached to a single god,” explains Martti Nissinen, professor of Old Testament studies.

Nissinen leads the Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions, which studies the ways cultural changes in the Middle East have influenced the creation of sacred texts.

 “In the ancient Near East, power always meant religious power. Every ruler was considered to be ordained by a god.”

According to Nissinen, the culture of the ancient Near East was at its most uniform during the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Its impact was comparable to the influence of American culture on the world’s cultures today.


The Code of Hammurabi was written in approximately 1760 BCE. The Law of Moses, written a thousand years later, has many similarities with it. Meanwhile, the old covenant between Yahwe and the Israelites bears an uncanny resemblance to the agreements between Assyrian kings and the peoples under their rule.

In addition to religions, Mesopotamia is remembered for its excellent form of governance.

 “The Mesopotamian government was highly efficient, and the Persians adopted their governmental model when they invaded. The line extends on to the Byzantine and Russian empires,” Nissinen explains.

The Mesopotamian culture was a patriarchal one, and so were its followers. On the other hand, Saana Svärd points out that women were not systematically denied political agency in ancient Mesopotamia as they were in Europe at least up until the 19th century. They were more restricted by their social class.

 “The Biblical Paradise is a place of equality. The patriarchal system began only after we were exiled from there,” states Nissinen.

The Middle Eastern countries are Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Often this list also includes Egypt, sometimes other North African countries as well as Afghanistan.

Mesopotamia covered contemporary Iraq as well as the eastern part of Syria and the south-eastern part of Turkey. The name “Mesopotamia” derives from the Greek words meso – between, and potamoi – rivers, referring to the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.

Persia was located in the area currently known as Iran. At many points of history, it crossed paths with the kingdoms of Mesopotamia, either as a conqueror, a conquest or a subject of the same ruler. However, Persia was not a part of the Ottoman Empire and was thus not under the mandate of the League of Nations. The modern history of Iran is also different from that of its neighbours.


Mesopotamian studies only began in the mid-19th century. Before then, the reputation of the cultures in the region was primarily based on biblical stories, which do not depict them in a particularly positive light.

The Assyrians also had a hand in shaping their own reputation, as they would seek to intimidate other nations into submission. Despite its bloody reputation, Assyria was multicultural and tolerant in terms of different religions. There were long periods of peace in between the wars glorified in the murals.

There have always been battles in the names of gods. This is not a unique feature of the Middle East. Nissinen recently compared the rhetoric used by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.

 “They were all setting out to defeat a godless enemy, using practically identical phrasing. The gods make the best authorities, because they cannot be held responsible.”

According to Nissinen, it is important to see beyond the banners of religion. Often, there is an underlying struggle for power or money.

 “There’s a tendency to frame all Middle Eastern conflict in religious terms. I find it very frustrating,” he exclaims.

Martti Nissinen sees links even between the Assyrians and ISIS propaganda:

 “They’re cutting off heads, whether in stone reliefs or on video. The propaganda is intended to frighten outsiders, but the true motivators are power and money.”


Persian rule was followed by the Hellenistic period, the Romans, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and the Ottoman Empire. The Middle East enjoyed another era of prosperity under Umayyad and Abbasid rule, between 660 and 1258 CE. Ground-breaking innovations were made in mathematics and medicine. However, long before the Mongols raided Bagdad and ended the caliphate, the enthusiasm for science had begun to wane. This was caused by a religious movement which discouraged critical thinking.

During the centuries that followed, up until the First World War, the area was ruled by the Turkish Ottomans. During the colonial era, the Middle East became a pawn of bigger players. After WWI, the victors divided the Ottoman Empire among themselves and placed their favourites in power.

 “The region was cut up into fragments and turned into a patchwork with no historical background. The new borders broke down established identities,” explains Hannu Juusola, professor of Middle Eastern studies.

According to Juusola, the Middle East is the only historical centre of power that has been unable to recover from the burden of colonialism. One of the reasons is this fragmentation.

In the 1950s and 60s, there were attempts at unification among certain Middle Eastern countries, but the western powers, supporting their representatives, stymied these efforts. Mutual suspicion has become a defining characteristic of the region.

 “The ISIS caliphate carried on this idea of unification in its own grotesque way,” Juusola points out.


The establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 has been a significant source of conflict. The Arabs saw it as the West cutting up their land to offer it to European settlers. Europe, the US and the Soviet Union were already seen as domineering.

According to Juusola, Israel has ceased to be the main conflict in the Middle East. This is not because the conflict has been defused, but because even worse crises have erupted.

The Middle East has been a veritable magnet for outside interference. Oil made the region strategically important, and the interference did not end when the Cold War did, as we can see from the wars in Iraq and Syria.

 “There is no other region in the world which would have experienced as much interference from outside powers,” says Juusola.

Neither is there another area in the world with as large a portion of the GNP being used on weapons.

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 “The current situation in the Middle East could be summarised in three points: many people, lots of oil, not enough water,” says Juusola.

He says that the situation of the mighty Euphrates and Tigris is dire. Turkey’s dams have reduced the amount of water downriver, resulting in conflicts.

Simultaneously, rainfall has decreased, and will continue to do so due to climate change.

 “In Syria I saw the Barada, which is depicted in old paintings as a majestic river. Today it looks more like an open sewer.”

The lack of water is caused both by climate change and by poor water administration. There is a great deal of water-intensive cotton-farming in the Middle East, and the crop is still being cultivated, even though it makes no sense under current conditions.


When infrastructures collapse, people turn increasingly to religious communities for education and social security. This bolsters religious and tribal identities, which were thought to be on their way out.

There is also intentional support of this phenomenon. Political leadership foments religious conflict to prevent the formation of a strong opposition. A few decades ago, people in the Middle East identified primarily with their social class, but now the basis is more likely to be ethnic or religious background. Meanwhile, the Saudis have used their oil revenue to spread their conservative interpretations of Islam to neighbouring areas.

However, Juusola emphasises that the current conflicts between religious groups are not a continuation of ancient disputes. The tension between the Sunni and the Shia is not the result of centuries of persecution, it is a question of contemporary divisions of power.

The world had great expectations for the Arab Spring, but it has proven to be a disappointment nearly everywhere, with the possible exception of Tunisia.

 “Revolutions are not a particularly positive form of reform. They tend to unleash chaotic forces, and the ultimate result is uncertain,” states Juusola.


Democracy and industrialisation have faltered in the Middle East. Conservative religion hampers science, and the general level of education in most Middle Eastern countries is quite low.

Nearly all nations in the area focus on their illustrious history, and use it to legitimise their policies. But a glorious past is little comfort to a miserable populace. How could the Middle East find a brighter future?

 “The very first thing should be to solve the current conflicts, which are unreasonably draining on the resources in the region,” says Hannu Juusola.

After that, the area should launch an economic integration effort, similar to what was done in Europe after World War II. Military funds could be reallocated to education. External powers should stop interfering with the politics of the region.

 “Coping with climate change requires bold changes to the ways people use water as well as regional cooperation in water administration,” Juusola emphasises.

In the beginning was a favourable environment. The future will have to be built without it.

This article was published in Finnish in the Yliopisto magazine in December 2017.

A sidecar of empires

While Mesopotamia housed kingdoms and empires from 2300 BCE onwards, the fundamental units of government were cities, which had a high degree of autonomy. The Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 900–612 BCE) was the first major empire in the region, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian border.

The University of Helsinki has long traditions in studying Neo-Assyrian cultures. These traditions are being continued by the Ancient Near Eastern Empires Centre of Excellence, led by Saana Svärd and set to launch in the beginning of 2018. The Centre of Excellence intends to use new methods to delve into the lives of the ancient Mesopotamians.

 “We’re particularly interested in how people identified, and what happened when the rulers changed and the area turned into a sidecar for bigger empires,” Svärd explains.

The research period covers the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires as well as the Persian and Hellenistic periods.

The Centre of Excellence is divided into three groups, each of which will use different methods to approach the topic: Antti Lahelma’s group will use archaeology, Jason Silverman’s social sciences and Saana Svärd’s, digital humanities.

Svärd has a large dataset of digitised and transcribed cuneiform texts, which she intends to tackle using computational methods. She will be able to search specific words or names form the data, and analyse the contexts in which they appear.

 “The first word on my list is ‘enemy’,” reveals Svärd.