THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY: MESOPOTAMIA
By Mahmoud Mouin Hasan & Vincent Lyn
Most Readings that discuss democracy, it is introduced as the invention of the Greek civilization or Aristotle’s ideas.
This is because democracy has been discussed only in translations of European books, or because the books revolve around the beginning and development of the concept in the human mind, rather than the actual practice.
The emergence of democracy has been historically connected with the stabilization of the human community and its evolution from a state of roaming in lands suitable for pasturing and grazing to a settled community in arable lands.
This change to the phase of civilization that witnessed the emergence of the city as a space in which people of different identities, opinions, and interests have to coexist together, which compels them to generate systems to organize their mutual affairs.
The Invention of Writing
Around the 4th millennium BC, in the region of the Fertile Crescent, covering Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and the Eastern Mediterranean, the hunter-gatherer society was slowly making room for a new period in which humans began cultivating plants, breeding animals for food, and forming permanent (sedentary) settlements, which would later develop into the first states.
In this period, along with agriculture and the domestication of animals, writing emerged as a key way of conveying knowledge, conserving human experience, and developing diplomacy.
Writing is central to our discussion on the interplay between diplomacy and technology. The writing was, is, and will remain the key diplomatic ‘technology’. Describing writing as technology might sound counter-intuitive. Although writing is deeply integrated into the way we live and work, it is not a natural faculty like walking and speaking. The writing was invented, and required tools and skills, and these are the defining elements of technology. Like all other technologies, writing has shaped our way of life.
The transition from prehistory to ancient history can be traced back to the 4th millennium BC when writing was invented by the Sumerians. Archaeological evidence in the form of clay tablets containing the first texts written in cuneiform writing was discovered. Around 3,200 BC, writing also began in ancient Egypt. By 1,300 BC, a fully operational writing system was used in the late Shang dynasty in China.
The extinct Akkadian language was the first diplomatic language. It was the international tongue of the Middle East until it was replaced by Aramaic. Archaeologists discovered the first written diplomatic documents on clay tablets using cuneiform characters that dated back to 2,500 BC. An important diplomatic correspondence from circa 1,300 BC (the treaty between Egypt and the Hittites) was written in Akkadian (Babylonian). The Akkadian term ‘mar shipri’, which first appeared in texts at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, may designate a ‘messenger’, ‘envoy’, ‘agent’, ‘deputy’, ‘ambassador’, or ‘diplomat’.
In the Babylonian era, during the rule of Hammurabi (18th century BC), a highly functional system of messengers was developed. According to the book From the Mari Archives (An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters), in the same period, there was a well-developed system of envoys ranging from simple messengers to plenipotentiary ambassadors empowered to negotiate agreements on behalf of their masters. The Mari archives also included the first references to diplomatic immunities, diplomatic passports, and letters of accreditation.
Hammurabi is best known for issuing the Code of Hammurabi, the first legal code. If you remove the harsh punishments, which the code had, you can find important diplomatic techniques that we are missing today. Hammurabi understood the phrase ‘skin in the game’ quite literally, and believed it to be a very important legal aspect: builders who built a building that later collapsed and killed people, also needed to be killed. In this way, he held them existentially accountable. He paid attention to aligning incentives, managing risk, and most importantly, communicating legal rules and standards in a simple and understandable language to his citizens.
Three centuries after Babylonia, Amarna diplomacy emerged. It is usually singled out as having the most developed diplomatic system among the ancient civilizations, comprising the main diplomatic techniques, including the sending of representatives, negotiating, and handing out of immunities.
Amarna diplomacy is named after the Egyptian city of Tel-el Amarna where archaeologists discovered the first diplomatic archive — the Amarna Letters. The dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt oversaw a period of extensive creativity, particularly noticeable in architecture. Additionally, diplomacy was favored over war.
The Amarna Letters, discovered in 1887, present an archive written on clay tablets (382 tablets were discovered) primarily consisting of diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and the leaders of neighboring kingdoms. The name of the letters derives from the place where the tablets were found: the ancient city of Akhetaten in Egypt, built by order of Pharaoh Akhenaten, and today known as Tell el-Amarna.
The tablets cover the reigns of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and possibly Smenkhkare or Tutankhamun, from the 18th dynasty of Egypt. The system continued to be used for approximately 100 years after the end of the Amarna Period. The Letters were written in the Akkadian language which helped facilitate foreign correspondence by filtering out inappropriate language. This aided the relative peace of the time. The letters present the earliest examples of international diplomacy, while their most common subjects are negotiations of diplomatic marriage, friendship statements, and exchanged materials.
As the Egyptian and the Hittite empires weakened, the Assyrian state emerged and reached its zenith during the era of the Sargonid Dynasty (18th century BC), and the reigns of Sargon, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal. The Assyrian state tried to extend its control over the historical Fertile Crescent. They were particularly interested in gaining control over the key trade routes. The powerful Assyrian neighbors were forced to form coalitions and alliances to counterbalance this emerging Assyrian power. Assyrian dynasties used both war and diplomacy to achieve their goals.
The main Assyrian archaeological source is the Library of Ashurbanipal which was discovered during the excavations of the imperial palaces in Nineveh and Kuyunjik. The Library, consisting of clay tablets, is a rich source of materials, covering facets of both social and official Assyrian life, including diplomacy and communication. More specific details about their communication systems were also discovered, including the existence of a beacon scheme (an early telegraph system), which seems to have been used for transmitting messages.
Primal Sumerian Form of Democracy
Mesopotamia is the earliest region in the world to know the concept of “city”. Therefore, it is not surprising that an early shape of democracy, which is still known to us today, has come out there.
A Sumerian clay tablet narrating the story of how Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, dealt with a threat from, the King of Kish is an important chronological document confirming the existence of such a primal form of the social contract that allowed the people of the city of Uruk to participate in its politics and making the decisions of peace and war.
Gilgamesh introduced the issue of the threat before the Assembly of the Elders, asking them to fight the invaders. However, the Elders, inclining toward a life of ease and peace, advised him to submit to the powerful hostile. Then, the King brought up the issue before the Assembly of the Warriors, who decided to resist the invader. This script is the first chronological clue of the existence of a form of participation and responsibility practiced by free citizens. The envoys of Agga, the son of Enmebaraggesi, proceeded from Kish to Gilgamesh in Erech.
The lord Gilgamesh before the elders of his city put the matter, seeks out the word: “Let us not submit to the house of Kish, let us smite it with weapons.” The convened assembly of the elders of his city answers Gilgamesh: “Let us submit to the house of Kish, let us not smite it with weapons.”
Gilgamesh, the lord of Kullab, who performs heroic deeds for the goddess Inanna, took not the words of the elders of his city to heart. A second time Gilgamesh, the lord of Kullab, before the fighting men of his city put the matter, seeks out the word: “Do not submit to the house of Kish, let us smite it with weapons.” The convened assembly of the fighting men of his city answers Gilgamesh: “Do not submit to the house of Kish, let us smite it with weapons.” Then Gilgamesh, the Lord of Kullab, at the word of the fighting men of his city his heart rejoiced, his spirit brightened.
— From Samuel Kramer’s From the Tablets of Sumer, Chapter 5, The First Bicameral Congress.
Phoenician Civilization Form of Democracy
Throughout the long history of civilization, democracy went through phases reflecting the extent of development of human communities. In the Phoenician community, there were several types of councils: the Senate, the Council of the One Hundred and Four (in effect a court to consider the political issues), the People’s Assembly, etc. This was the case in the cities of Tyre and Carthage. Unfortunately, the Phoenicians were ill-served by their stationery. The papyrus they used to document their history has rotted long ago.
But we still can draw established evidence as to the constitution of the Phoenician states and the Phoenician contribution to the Greek democratic forms before democracy was named and refined in Athens. One issue that arises below is that before democracy was a notion, let alone an ideology, it was a practical exertion of political will for the people. We don’t claim the Phoenicians “invented” democracy nor seek to reduce Athens’ role but we do suggest a longer and deeper past to popular government by an active citizenry than is commonly conceded.
The Phoenicians created a trading network from the Far East to the Atlantic and along the way they founded Carthage which went on to contest the power of Rome. As trade expanded, the authority of the king became restrained by the fortune of merchant families which influenced public affairs. Throughout their history, the Phoenician cities fell under the sway of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and later the Persians and Macedonians. Invasions and internal dissension witnessed the kings’ power plunge while the councils’ base extended and their power evolved.
It was during these periods of upheaval that the councils of elders exerted their authority. In the seventh-century treaty between Esarhaddon of Assyria and Baal of Tyre, the script suggests that the council of Tyre’s elders govern alongside the monarch: It is agreed that the Assyrian governor will work “in conjunction with you (Baal), in conjunction with the elders of your country” (Auebet, 2001: 146, Markoe, 2005: 101).
Towards the end of the Phoenician era, the people expressed their opinions as an assembly. Sources go so far that the people of Sidon made the peace with Alexander the Great, when the King of Sidon, surrendered to Alexander in 333 BC “prompted by his citizens’ wishes rather than his own” and when the Greeks wanted to replace the king, the nominated citizens disdained the chance and instead nominated a member of the royal family. This shows people are confident in their right to be heard.
It is clear from this historic arc that the Phoenician kingdoms started as strong monarchies and ended with relatively weak kings. Democracy spread later on to the Greek cities, where the concept of a “citizen” emerged for the first time, and where citizens were the only population group who had the legitimacy to participate in the administration of public affairs. In a city like Athens, citizens constituted 10% of most of the total population. All citizens had to be free men. Women, slaves, and foreigners did not have the right to live citizenship status.
The Roman civilization had to develop a different vision of citizenship. The vast expansion of the Empire put it before the challenge of how to deal with the people who had been annexed to it by force. This led to the issuance of the Edict of Caracalla in 212 BC, which recognized the right of citizenship to all of the population of the Empire.
Phoenician Influence on Emerging Greek City-States
In Homer’s Iliad, Phoenician craftsmanship is the byword for excellence: When instructed by Hector to give her best gown in sacrifice to the goddess Minerva, Hecuba chooses one embroidered by Sidonian women (Homer 1950: 338 — 51). When Achilles offered a prize for the fastest man at the funeral of Patroclus, the prize was a Sidonian bowl imported by the Phoenicians (Homer 1950: 823 — 31).
It might be concluded from these quotations that the Phoenicians were already influenced in the Greek sphere in the eighth century BC when Homer is supposed to have created the Iliad, if not in the twelfth century BC when the Trojan War most likely took place. As they spread through the Aegean, the Phoenicians brought not only metals, glass, and the color purple but also ideas, myths, and knowledge from the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian worlds. The Phoenicians typically created “enclaves of craftsmen in towns where native technical skills were less developed.
It is most likely that the transmission of these new techniques counted on the recently developed Phoenician alphabet that Herodotus sees as having such a major impact on the creation of the Greek alphabet. The transmission of these ideas did not happen overnight, rather Greece emerged from its Dark Ages over the generations, in gradual increments, prompted by a range of ideas from a range of sources including the Phoenicians. As those ideas coalesced, they helped spark a cultural revival in Greece, which led to the Greek Golden Age and hence the birth of democratic governance.
Of course, the Phoenician impact on the emergence of new political structures should not be overrated. Greece benefited from several developments coinciding in the period from 800 to 500 BC. Consequently, democracy has transferred to the Greek sphere developed, systematized, and eventually (named), therefore has since become regarded as quintessentially Greek.
Democracy is a Constant Partner to Human Civilizations
Later on, the democracy issue vanished during the European Middle Ages, to reappear again in 13th-century scenes in England which paved the way for the representation of people in parliament (The charter of liberties Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, and Simon de Montfort’s parliament established that even kings were not beyond the reach of the law and that they had a duty to their subjects as well as to their interests).
Again in England in 1642 the concept came up with Thomas Hobbes’ Human Nature: or The Fundamental Elements of Policy. In parallel with that, democracy was opening new horizons in other places, where a new civilization was being founded.
In 623 AD, in the Arabian Peninsula, in the city of Yathrib (the first capital city of Islam, henceforth known under the name of Al-Madina), the Prophet Muhammad issued the Charter of Al-Madina to perform as the constitution of the new state and to organize relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in a way protecting their participation in the administration of the affairs of their life.
It regulated the duties of the population of Al-Madina: the Muhajirin, the Ansar, and the Jews. It also defined their rights and duties, and the duty of all tribes to protect the city in case of aggression. Civilizational achievements in this field developed all over the world concurrently. Besides Europe and the Middle East, there are examples of diplomacy and advanced ancient civilizations in China, India, Africa, and the Americas.
With the beginning of the second half of the 17th century, democracy emerged again as the main subject of political thought and then of social and anthropological thought. Many concepts and theories on diplomacy, democracy issues, and techniques of application have arisen.
These issues are still subject to discussion and debate in universities, research centers, and political spheres. Moreover, they keep inspiring many people to rise to struggle.
If this vitality means something, it means that democracy is not a full achievement that can be derived from a book or a living situation, it is an evolving process throughout history and geography, it is a human prerequisite that has to be recognized if people want to live in conciliation and harmony. This way, we can understand the efforts made by the different civilizations in this field.
Syrian say that it emerged in Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. Europeans, nevertheless, say that the concept came up in Athens in the fifth century BC, when the free citizens (and not slaves) discussed the affairs of their city in the agora. Historians of Muhammad’s Message say that social contract and democracy arose, in its pure Islamic shape, in the Charter of Al-Madina…..
Democracy is the offspring of all populations that agreed to coexist in a state that guarantees everyone’s rights and duties. It is a living concept that is enriched by every nation and every population and simultaneously contributes to the human heritage of maintaining human freedoms and rights in the community.
Mahmoud Mouin Hasan
Founder at Smile Bags Syria
Capacity Building Facilitator
Human Rights Activist
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Editor-in-Chief Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts