National Geographic : 1991 May
origins of civilization-even as the skies darkened over modern Iraq. The Western world paid little heed when Iraq emerged from the wreckage of the Otto man Empire, first as a British mandate in 1920, then as an independent monarchy in 1932. Or when a 1958 military coup set the stage for Saddam Hussein's climb to dictator ial power in an oil-rich, purposefully arming, increasingly jingoistic state. Even when he plunged Iraq and Iran into an eight-year-long bloodbath, three out of four Americans could not locate the Persian Gulf on a map. Abruptly, following the brutal invasion of tiny Kuwait in August 1990 and the United Nations' resolute response, Iraq burst into the world's homes with high-tech war on TV. I recall strolling the ruins of Nebuchadnez zar's Babylon and trying to picture in those endless mounds the greatest city of antiquity, to imagine the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World-peopling the rubble with processions to the god Marduk streaming through the dragon-guarded Ishtar Gate and thronging the great ceremonial way. I stumbled, stubbing my toe on a brick in the dust. I picked it up. It was inscribed with cune iform characters. But I could no more make out its message than revelers at Belshazzar's feast could decipher the biblical warning, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN, in which Daniel read the overthrow of Belshazzar and his kingdom. Indeed, Babylon fell to Cyrus the Persian, who was merciful in releasing the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. That was in 539 B.C. Today those who, like Saddam Hussein, seek to command the Arab world beyond their own borders again over reach. What does the handwriting on the wall say now?