The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003
Time Off

From Adam to Saddam — capsule history
Manohar Malgonkar

NOT quite a year ago, Iraq, to most of us, was just a name on the map; mostly desert, Arab, Islamic.

Then came the USA-led invasion of Iraq, and for weeks on end we were subjected to a relentless barrage of news about Iraq. We saw the war ‘live’ on our TV sets like some marathon cricket match, complete with the experts offering commentary on what was going on. Then the campaign ended, and suddenly, Iraq ceased to be the staple of news bulletins. It had been replaced by SARS.

After that, during those three weeks we learnt a lot abut Iraq that few of us had known before. That Iraq was the very ‘cradle’ of our civilization...that in this desert were cities older than Rome or Banaras, such as Babylon and Nineveh.....that this desert was ruled by a monarch called Nebucheddnizar whom Saddam Hussein regarded as his role-model, because he had invaded the land of the Jews and conquered Jerusalem a thousand years before Islam itself became a creed...

And even, that it was here that life on Earth began. The human race sprang up. For was it not here, tucked away among the folds of the marshland created by the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, that the Garden of Eden flourish? So perfect that God chose it as a fit place for life on Earth to begin.


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April 20, 2003

Throwing light on the ‘light of the world’
April 13, 2003

Smelling sahibs learnt to bathe in India
April 6, 2003

Heroic endings
March 16, 2003

They died for Vande Mataram
March 9, 2003

Vande Mataram: A song to die for
March 2, 2003

Hats off to breaking the mould
February 2, 2003

Poppies are both sacred and profane
December 22, 2002

The language of democracy vs dictatorship
December 8, 2002

Colossus follies and human desires
December 1, 2002

Out-of-bound holiday places
November 17, 2002

The backroom boys of history
November 3, 2002
The American dream and the Third World reality
September 22, 2002
Selling lands to build empires
September 15, 2002
The Ajanta treasure
September 1, 2002
Empire’s most emblematic adventure
June 23, 2002
How about cultivating cuisine consciousness?
June 9, 2002
The season of weddings... the season of excess
May 12, 2002
Fame is the food dead men eat
May 5, 2002
The art of making enemies
April 7, 2002
What wilful sons achieve
March 17, 2002
Of coffee, tea and cultivated taste
February 17, 2002
Gandhara orphans
February 10, 2002
The ‘menace’ of wildlife
January 20, 2002
Before September 11 — and after
January 6, 2002

Given this Biblical lineage, it is difficult to come to terms with the fact that Iraq was not even a name on the map a bore hundred years ago. The traditional name for this area was Mesopotamia which, in the Greek language, means ‘Land of two rivers’.

And this Mesopotamia was not a nation, but a province, or state of the Ottoman Empire which had been founded in the seventh century, an empire headed by a Sultan, who lived in Constantinople, the capital of Turkey.

But this Sultan was not merely the Monarch of the Ottoman Empire. He wore another hat, or, more fittingly, crown; that of the Caliph, or the religious head of the Sunni sect of Islam.

As it happened, the majority of Mesopotamia’s Arabs were Shiites. The Caliph was not their religious head. What was more, whether they were Shia or Sunni, they had gone on resonating their status as the subjects of Turkey. As tribesmen in other parts of the world, they, too, were for ever at each others’ throats. But the one enemy common to all of them was Turkey. Over the centuries, they had gone on nursing grievances and plotting rebellions against the Turks, but it was not till the early 20th century that one of the Sheikhs, Ibn Saud of Arabia, had succeeded in shaking off Turkey’s dominance and making Arabia an independent kingdom.

At this time, the British had become the world’s foremost super power. Their Indian empire was firmly established, and one of their principal strategic objectives had been to secure control over the Arab lands which straddled the land route from Europe to India, and their agents had been busy as beavers trying to win over the Arab Sheiks to their side.

And yet the British hesitated to do anything that would provoke the open hostility of the Ottoman Sultans, if only because it might have offended their own Muslim subjects in India.

Then came the 1914 war, which became known as World War I. Soon after its outbreak, the Turks had joined the German side. Turkey, thus, became Britain’s enemy. Now Britain could give full play to its genius for clandestine warfare--- what later came to be known as ‘Fifth Column Activities’.

The architect of the Arab revolt for independence from the Ottoman hegemony was slight, soft-spoken scholarly man destined to become a legend in his own lifetime, T.E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He had lived among the Arabs, spoke their language well and fancied himself wearing Arab robes. He was, above all an inspired guerrilla leader.

Lawrence launched what may be described as a charm-offensive to ingratiate himself with the one family in the Arab belt which could have given the British war against the Caliph of the Sunnis its own religious gloss: the Hashemite Sheik who, too was a direct descendant of the Prophet and, in that capacity, had been the traditional custodian of the holy land of Islam, containing both Mecca and Medina. So the Arabs were being made to declare war against their Caliph, but they were doing this with the sanction and approval of the Sharif of Mecca.

The third son of the Sharif, Feisal, became Lawrence’s friend, and Lawrence actually planned and fought alongside Feisal in his campaign against the Sultan’s army.

As such, when the war ended in the rout of Germany, the Ottoman Empire too, ceased to exist and was up for grabs by the winning side. In the division of the spoils, Syria was given over to the French as their share, and the British kept Palestine as their own, in a sense, making themselves the counterpart of the Sharif of Mecca as the custodians of Jerusalem, holy to three faiths. In an outburst of generosity to Jewish sentiment, they opened up Palestine for Jews to come and settle down and live in happy togetherness with the Palestine Arabs.

The remaining Arab lands which had belonged to the Ottoman Sultans were carved up into kingdoms to be gifted to the tribal sheiks who had helped Britain and her allies. The Hashemite Sharif of the Muslim Holy lands was made a hereditary ruler, and Jordan was given over to its own friendly Sheik. That still left Mesopotamia. it was gifted to Feisal who had been such a staunch friend and ally of the British, except that it got a new name: Iraq.

But of course, this patchwork quilt stitched together by the British soon Arabia just marched in and annexed the little kingdom of the Hashemites and took their holy lands under their own care. Syria broke loose from French control and became self-governing. And then the British themselves abandoned Palestine as being quite ungovernable in the face of the ceaseless skirmishes between the Arabs and the Jews. As to Iraq itself, there was an uprising against the ruling family and in the turmoil that followed, Saddam Hussein seized absolute power.

But this is history....why bring it up now? Why indeed?

Because it just so happens that what is history to most of us is not history to Osama Bin Laden but a burning issue. In a recorded message to his followers, Bin Laden has called upon them to avenge "the humiliation and disgrace that Islam was made to suffer" by those who brought about the ruin of the Ottoman Empire more that eighty years ago.


This feature was published on June 22, 2003