Exploring the Middle East’s centrality to mankind

Perhaps surprisingly, studying the history and pre-history of the Middle East leaves Bourke optimistic.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Cover of “The Middle East: The Cradle  of Civilisation.”
Back to the roots. Cover of “The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation.”

Stephen Bourke first heard tales of the Middle East as a child of 4 in Australia. “Uncle Pat told me about Cairo and climbing the pyramids, walking through the bazaars and going down the Nile in a felucca,” he said.

Bourke’s uncle and father fought in the region during the first world war as did his grandfather, who survived both Gallipoli and the Somme. Some decades after hearing their stories, Bourke finds himself an archaeologist and chief editor of the recently updated “The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation,” first published in 2008 by Thames & Hudson.

The basic conception of the book as a well-illustrated, informed introduction served in bite-sized chunks came from the publisher, Bourke said. “The brief was [sections of] double pages of 900 words, sometimes 1,800 words. Each of the 13 main contributors has acted as a hub for a group of researchers, around 72 overall,” he said.

The book explores the Middle East’s centrality to humankind since its initial migration out of Africa through the Jordan Rift Valley 1.8 million years ago. The first farmers settled in communities of up to 1,000 in the Levant around 9800BC. Then came cities of a few thousand with a division of labour and social classes. The Sumerians invented writing, in today’s Iraq, around 3500BC.

The Middle East was in a unique position favouring development. “The greatest collection of potentially domesticated plants and animals was in the Middle East, also the greatest collection of resources within 5,000 sq. miles,” said Bourke. “It has a relatively good climate, relatively well-watered lowlands, relative ease of maritime transport. Development happened in Africa and there were cities in Africa [as early as] 5000BC but they weren’t as resilient.

“Plus, the Middle East had connectivity. Ethiopia has a reasonable connection with the Nile but 40 miles west is 350 miles of trackless desert. Walk east out of Libya, you’re going to die long before you see any palm trees.”

Among the book’s double-page spreads are “The Importance of Water,” “The Domestication of Animals,” “Imperial Government,” “Sargon of Akkad,” “Assyria’s Demise,” “Nebuchadnezzar II” and “The Arab Conquest.” The book delves into archaeologists’ methods and their history, including 19th-century excavations in Babylon and Persepolis, biblical archaeology and the emergence of indigenous archaeologists.

Bourke’s own field work immersed him early in the region’s richness. “In 1979, my professor, Basil Hennessy, started excavation in Pella in Jordan valley, which has everything from the Neolithic through to the Mamluk period. You start with a love of Ottoman toilets and end with a love of Neolithic pits, 17.5 metres and 22 years later.”

Bourke did doctoral and post-doctoral work at Tell Nebi Mend, the ancient city of Kadesh, 20km south-west of Homs, on the Orontes River. It is near the site of the 13th-century BC battle between the Hittites and the Egyptians under Ramses the Great. In the 1990s, Bourke led the University of Sydney team excavating Teleilat el-Ghassul, villages from around 4400-3500BC in the eastern Jordan Valley.

Events since the book was published in 2008 have disrupted archaeology, Bourke concedes. In late 2010 he was digging at Nebi Mend. “Twelve of us and our families went for Christmas to Damascus. I have pictures of the children playing in the courtyard of the Great Mosque. We ate at patisseries, shopped in the souks and then everyone went off to visit their favourite site — Christian, Muslim, prehistoric. Three months later, it all took off.”

If Syria became an archaeologists’ no-go zone, Iraq, after decades of neglect, has seen renewed activities in the past five to six years, including in Kurdistan and Ur. New technologies have often yielded results, Bourke said. “There’s a Greek city of 200 hectares in southern Iraq, near al-Faw Peninsula, that is so well preserved that magnetometers show every street, every square and all the fortifications,” he said.

This wasn’t possible in the 1970s when physical excavations stopped.

Bourke said this informs archaeology’s growing focus on the city. “Most of us today are looking at what we’ll call ‘the urban pulse over time’… How does it come about? Are its main drivers economic, social, military? While the city drives ‘progress’ — for want of a better word — urban life is lived differently in each pulse,” he said.

Perhaps surprisingly, studying the history and pre-history of the Middle East leaves Bourke optimistic. “You realise your part of the story is relatively small but the story is relatively strong,” he said. “At Pella I’ve seen site-wide destruction and gradually over 100-150 years civilisation reforms, strengthens and flourishes. Terrible things have happened in which thousands of people have died but the dust settles, people recover and they start rebuilding.

“People are resilient. The land is resilient. If people were nothing but degraders of land, we’d all be dead long ago. As landscapes are degraded, many more are curated. That’s what those large [agricultural] terraces are about, that’s what all the management of water is about. People find ways eventually to live and work on the land.”