November 12, 2007
Ancient Iraq comes to life
in Mideast studies course
By Carol Clark
Middle Eastern music plays on a boom box as students gather in a Callaway seminar room for the course "Ancient Iraq: A Cultural and Religious History." The 10 undergraduates come from varied backgrounds and religions, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu.
Shalom Goldman, professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies, has posed questions for today's lesson: What are mythic stories? And what has been their function throughout history?
"They're a way to explain religion," offers Mehreen Punja.
"Often a religious practice goes with a story," Goldman agrees. "What's an example of that?"
"Muslims are forbidden to eat pork," says Dean Yazbak, "because when the Prophet Mohammed was walking in a field, he saw that lambs ate grass but pigs would eat muck."
Deborah Hong, a former U.S. soldier who served in Iraq in 2005, sits quietly as her classmates discuss how secular and religious stories from the past shape human beliefs and events of today.
The first superhero
Included in the curriculum is the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving written story, which may have been based on an actual king. The tale originated in Babylonia, an ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, located in present-day Iraq. Gilgamesh is portrayed as a demigod — the first superhero of literature — who lives on as "The Forgotten One" in Marvel Comics. A dramatic flood featured in the ancient tale resembles the story of Noah in the Bible. And the plot of Gilgamesh introduces the idea of the youthful quest to written literature.
The movie "Into the Wild," based on the story of an Emory graduate who died alone in the wilds of Alaska, has the same mythic component, Goldman notes to his class. "Carl Jung said that the quest — the desire of young people to go off and discover themselves — is common to all humanity," he tells the students.
After class, Goldman explains to a visitor that he wants his students to understand that "the people of ancient Iraq are not all that different than we are today. I try to convey the realization that today's modern states understand themselves as based on connections with the past. And I want students to realize that the link between the ancient and the modern is a very contentious and potentially violent issue. Particularly in the Middle East, the question of origins is very serious. It's not just an academic question."
The course in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies is not a requirement, so students enroll due to personal interest.
"I like reading biblical literature, it's one of my favorite things to do," says Richard Parker, a junior chemistry major. "I think it's interesting, figuring out where it all started, especially because of events that are happening today."
Hong, a Korean-American from Cerritas, Calif., joined the Army in 2002 because she needed the college-tuition benefit. Two years later, her unit was sent to Iraq.
"We got a crash course in the culture and religion for a day," Hong says, adding that she was unable to absorb much of the information. "It was too overwhelming. We had to do a lot of things in the month before we left."
Her assignment: interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, following the torture scandal at the prison. "We were constantly under alert of attack," she says, describing how Iraqis were using mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, car bombs and rifles to try and pick off U.S. soldiers working at the prison.
Much of her knowledge of Iraq came from the prisoners she interrogated. "I remember every single one of them," says Hong, a sophomore majoring in political science. "I remember all of their faces and their stories."
Where civilization began
During the course, Goldman guides the students through thousands of years of history — including stops at key religious and cultural landmarks — using photos, news clippings, visits to the Carlos Museum, the Bible and other books.
"We're dealing with one of the two main places where civilization began," he says.
The course starts by comparing ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where writing, organized religion and the idea of the city developed. While Egypt enjoyed 3,000 years of a continuous civilization, Mesopotamia endured invasions and shifting populations that shaped a succession of cultures: Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian.
Abundant sources of limestone enabled the Egyptians to create lasting monuments. People easily connect with the magnificence of Egypt's past due to such relics as the pyramids, Goldman says. He himself grew up in Manhattan, and recalls the wonder he felt as a boy when he visited Central Park and admired the obelisk known as Cleopatra's Needle.
"I'm sure that had something to do with me wanting to go to Egypt and study its history," he says.
'A whole new light'
In contrast, Mesopotamia had little stone. The civilizations that flourished in the Fertile Crescent formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers built their cities from mud and clay bricks, which eroded and mostly disappeared.
That helps explain why many Americans were surprised to hear about the treasure-trove of antiquities contained in Iraq's National Museum, many of which were looted following the U.S. invasion. The looting of Iraq's archaeological heritage continues, Goldman says. Smugglers are digging up more ancient artifacts from desert sites to sell for cash as the war drags on in Iraq.
"The archeological aspect brings a whole new light to the war in Iraq," Hong says. "We weren't exposed to those sites [as soldiers] and you don't have time to think about things like that."
Goldman first developed and taught the course on ancient Iraq in 2001. Since the U.S. invasion, he has added lessons about the creation of modern Iraq.
"As a scholar of the ancient world, it's clear to me that we as a nation, and as a government, are not well-informed about Iraq — either its history or modern times," Goldman says. "I want my students to have an intelligent, informed overview."
Hong, who is considering a career with the State Department, says she learned the differences between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds on the job at Abu Ghairb. "I had never really studied that area of the world," she says. "We were put in there, and you realize you're not making a difference if you don't really understand the country. I'm hoping this course will give me some deeper insights."