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History is a Jigsaw Puzzle

Up until three years ago the lands of Iraq and Iran would have been hard for many Americans to find on a world map. We knew next to nothing about their history, language and culture. We only knew they had a dictator of the worst kind.

The British and French following World War I carved Iraq out of the defeated Ottoman Empire. They put puppet-sultans on the thrones of a number of the newly created states in order to keep their hands on the oil.

But centuries before the British or the Ottomans, the Arab peoples had a long, violent, and often prosperous history.

Will Durant wrote in his book, The Age of Faith, that “For five centuries, from 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, order, and extent of government, in refinement of manners, in standards of living, in humane legislation and religious toleration, in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy…. Muslim medicine led the world for half a millennium.”

The peoples of Europe and the Americas have had their difficult and dark days. We know little about the Aztec’s wars and trauma and setbacks because few histories remain. Europe left a lot of history, most of it bloody–the Black Plague, the Inquisition, the Dark Ages–but they have come through it all.

The Arabs winter of their discontent began during the early years of the 19th century. Decay had set in on the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were slack in relating to Europe and the Industrial Revolution taking place there. The old attitude of contempt for foreign barbarians and their infidel ways and languages began the slow rot that continued after the Ottomans were gone and new colonial partitions of Mesopotamia were drawn in the sand.

Before the Ottoman Empire the libraries of the Middle East held translations from Greek into Latin, from Arabic to Persian, from Chinese to Japanese. Science and philosophy were also translated for the schools and researchers of the Fertile Crescent Iraq, part of Iran, Syria and Jordan.

The peoples that created and saved so much European and Arab culture began the downward slide as most world powers have in history. The people who had added much to the world’s knowledge now finds itself in its own Dark Ages. How they pull out of it is up to them. One thing is certain: it will take a very long time. Probably many years after our grandchildren are turned to dust and ashes.

It is unfortunate Americans have “discovered” Iraq in such a dramatic and destructive way: the land where Abraham, the father of three of the world’s great religions, was born; where mighty kingdoms ruled for centuries. Now known to many Americans as only the desert where a loved one died trying to bring hope and life there again.

Before the invasion of Iraq by the American military I wrote in this column against the war. I wrote it would take more than 80 years to see a lasting change.  Now I am not so optimistic, it will take well over a century.

Someone said: History is a jigsaw puzzle. Never more true than in the lands the Iraqi call the Fertile Crescent.

Britt Towery  a retired Southern Baptist missionary to Asia, writes for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.