Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ancient Mesopatanian Democracy?

In searching East and West for original democratic traditions, one need not retreat when confronted with monarchy, aristocracy, nobility, or slavery. In fact, the search must begin in the East, not the West, for it is in the East that early original egalitarian societies first developed hierarchies and blossomed into mature civilisations, clustered around life-giving sources of water which provided not only irrigation but also arteries of commerce and communication, stimulating urbanisation.
In fact, the earliest such civilisation, Mesopotamia, was named for its position between the two great rivers the Tigris and the Euphrates (Greek mesos, middle, and potamos, river). It is the earliest prototype for Wittfogel's "hydraulic society", which necessitates and produces Oriental despotic power - "total and not benevolent".(2) Indeed, the most common recollections of Mesopotamia are those of original imperial despotisms.
However, the story of the birth of an empire, focusing on the forces that it took to weld it out of scattered communities, may not bother to look unto the character of the original communities. It was, in fact, the search for steady irrigation that brought farming communities to the alluvial lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates system around 4000 B.C. In apparent contradiction to the Wittfogel theory, there was no spontaneous growth of centralized despotism among them - only villages that "were relatively self-sufficient and politically autonomous".(3) 500 years later, they developed their first cities, and still 500 years later, they put together the first known system of handwriting.
At that point, Service points out, "we merge archaeology (prehistory) with documentary history. It is documentary history that tells us of life and government in the Mesopotamian cities".
A. Leo Oppenheim writes of the coexistence of two components in Mesopatamian society, in a "pattern (which) maintained its effectiveness through three millennia". First there was:
" the community of persons of equal status bound together by a consciousness of belonging, realized by directing their communal affairs by means of an assembly, in which, under a presiding officer, some measure of consensus was reached as it was the case in the rich and quasi-independent old cities of Babylonia."(4)
Side by side with this democratic configuration, there was a second "organization of persons entirely different in structure and temperament from the community just mentioned, whose center and raison d'etre was either the temple or the palace, either the household of the deity or that of the king". Here, then, we have an early instance of a kingdom, within the tight confines of its city-state where the population was within reach of the royal power, which not only tolerated but complemented an operative popular sovereignty. "The solidarity of a Mesopotamian city," observes Oppenheim, "is reflected in the absence of any status or ethnic or tribal articulation". The city's community of citizens "constituted as an assembly" not only administered the city under a presiding official, but also made legal decisions, some of them ceremonially confirmed by the king. Its coexistence with the temple-palace system created for the Mesopotamian city "an equilibrium of forces and an overall harmony that endowed the city with the longevity which the Greek Polis could not achieve"(5)
However, it is another anthropologist, Thorkild Jacobsen, who provides us with deeper, and more sanguine, insights into the democratic character of Ancient Mesopotamia. Jacobsen read a paper entitled, "Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia" at the meeting of the American Oriental Society in Chicago in April, 1941. His "primitive" is more substance than form, where "sovereignty resides in the citizens", but "the various functions of government are as yet little specialized, the power structure is loose, and the machinery for social coordination is as yet imperfectly developed". He then portrays a Mesopotamia where the classic historical confrontation between democratic and autocratic tendencies takes place. The autocratic drive was strong: "The country formed a mosaic of diminutive, self-sufficient autonomous city-states, and in each such state one individual, the ruler, united in his hands the chief political powers: legislative, judiciary and executive". This autocratic momentum "drove Mesopotamia forward relentlessly toward the more distant aim: centralization of power within one large area". Lugal-Zaggisi achieved this goal with his "activities imperial", followed by King Sargon and the highly organized bureaucratic state of the Third Dynasty of Ur.(6)
Working its way up against this autocratic downstream was the egalitarian instinct of the original society, producing seemingly anachronistic democratic institutions. In Assyria, the highest judicial authority was a general assembly of all the colonists: karum sahir rabi - "the colony young and old" - which could be called into session by a clerk only at the bidding of a majority of its senior members. If the clerk issues the call at the request of only one individual, he was fined ten shekels of silver! Besides discharging judicial functions, the general assembly had its political duties. For example, it could overrule objections of particular colonists to the coming commissaries sent by the legal authorities of the mother-city Assur.
In Babylonia, where "we are very naturally struck first of all by the degree to which royal power is there in evidence", anyone had recourse directly to the king for redress, and he could delegate each case to suitable courts for decision. But alongside the king and his judicial powers stood "the Babylonian city", whose town mayor and town elders settled minor disputes and where the whole town - Puhrum, the "assembly" - decided important cases "according to its own local ideas of right and wrong".
To prove that participation in the Puhrum and its judicial function was not limited to a favoured class but was open, perhaps with some degree of compulsion, to all citizens, Jacobsen quotes a Babylonian proverb which presages modern day counsel from stand-up comedians to potential witness summons dodgers and jury-duty evaders:Do not go stand in the assemblyDo not stray to the very place of strifeIt is precisely in strife that fate may overtake you;Besides, you may be made witness for them.So that they take you along to testify in a lawsuitNot your own.(6)
Jacobsen believes that these democratic judicial institutions were not the vanguard of a vigorous democratic thrust, but rather "a last stronghold, a stubborn survival, of ideas rooted in earlier ages". Thus, perhaps unwittingly, he refutes those who, whilst ostensibly advocating support of democracy for all nations, insist that it can only come with growth, progress and development.
As Jacobsen looks backward in time at Mesopotamian history, "the competence and influence of the 'assembly' appears to grow and to extend from judiciary functions to other, even more vital, aspects of government". In the days of the kings of Akkad, "the assembly deemed it within its authority to choose a king". Farther back, in older tradition concerning Uruk in the time of Gilgamesh, "beyond the border line of history proper", the ruler consults the assembly in important matters of peace and war. Gilgamesh, lord of Uruk, is remembered as consulting first the senate, "the elders of Uruk", and then the assembly, "the men of the town", before he decides to arm for a fight with King Agga of Kish. His consultation is not only for advice but for consent, and, Jacobsen correctly concludes, the assembly is recognised as "the ultimate political authority".(7)
The success of the early Mesopotamian democratic thrust appears to be traceable to the fact that the egalitarian values of the primitive population were successfully translated into religious legend.
The Sumerians and the Akkadians projected their human terrestrial conditions into their world of gods and goddesses, who reflected early Mesopotamian culture by organising themselves politically along democratic lines. There was, according to the Adad myth, an assembly of gods and goddesses usually held in a large court called Ubshuukkinna.
An, the god of heaven and "father of the gods", was their presiding officer, and Enlil, god of the storm, was their executive officer and discussion leader. There were fifty "senior gods" - corresponding to the earthly seniors in the Assyrian karum - who handled the discussion, and seven deciding "gods of fates", corresponding to the group of seven members of the karum entitled to seal documents.
The assembly's functions were not only judicial. It also had the authority to grant kingship and to take it back. The period of the kingship was called a bala, the same word applied to the term of earthly Sumerian kings and - in its altered form palu - to that of the rulers of Akkad.
The elections of Mesopotamian kings of that period were dramatically confirmed as late as 1976 by the excavations which yielded the remains of the lost kingdom of Ebla, which flourished in 2500 B.C., a "large and thriving commercial, administrative, and intellectual center with economic and political institutions that sound remarkably familiar".(8)
The diggings yielded some 15,000 clay tablets or fragments written in Sumerian cuneiform. The king of Elba, according to the records discovered in the palace archives, was elected for a seven-year term and shared power with a council of elders. The King, (we would probably call him president today) who lost reelection bids retired on a government pension!
What is involved here is not a primitive, prehierarchical society or a hierarchical society of limited scope, - such as a village or even a town or city-state. Ebla, whose existence had long been inferred from Mesopotamian literature, now rises in history, through its own records, as a fairly extended kingdom of at least 250,000 inhabitants - a large population in those days - with a capital city of 30,000 residents "of whom a eleven thousand seven hundred were civil servants". It was a society of highly organized sophistication. The findings included Sumerian-Eblaite dictionaries of more than 3000 words, expense accounts of traveling diplomats, and even a list of beers, one of which was called ebla, "pronounced just like the city", write Bermant and Weitzman, venturing to add the obvious observation. "could it have been the beer that made Ebla famous?"(9)
Ebla appears to have hosted international conferences and dominated many other kingdoms and cities politically and economically. Among its principal trading partners were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose historical reality had been doubted until now.
So the thrust of Mesopotamian democracy, which even its enthusiastic commentator Jacobsen would cautiously trace as a declining tradition from "beyond the border line of history proper", now receives even stronger confirmation in recorded history than that which already had been found for it by Jacobsen and, after him, Oppenheim.
A little less than 4000 years before the maturing of British Parliamentarianism, the founding of the Swiss Confederation, and the birth of the American republic, we find in Mesopotamia a likeness of a political system which, although with much cruder and broader strokes of the brush, strikingly resembles the finer lines of the Swiss and American written constitutions and the unwritten charter of the British system.
On one fine but crucial point the Mesopotamian democracy may have been superior to at least the current Swiss system. The Puhrum, or assembly of the Babylonian gods, was open to goddesses. An old Babylonian hymn, the song of the goddess Ishtar, relates that "in their (i.e. that gods') assembly her word is highly esteemed, is surpassing; she sits among them counting as much (with them) as Anum, their king".(10) If the reality of the Babylonian system was, as we have seen above, but a reflection of the democratic legends of the Babylonian deities, the women may have participated in the earthly Puhrum. In Switzerland, women received the right to vote in the constitution only in 1971, and up to this writing they may not vote or even participate in some cantons in those open-air, popular assemblies for which Switzerland has had such a rightful claim to fame.
The Eblan discovery, as well as the Oppenheim and Jacobsen theses, may now enable us to cross the line between substance and form. As we move from the cradle of civilization to its neighbour, India, we may perhaps begin to feel entitled to suspect that, whether in form or substance, democracy may have been, indeed, the natural state of early man wherever he may have been.
This article is Chapter 3 from the late Raul S. Manglapus' book Will of the People: Original Democracy in Non-Western Societies. Manglapus' overall thesis is that democracy is not a Western concept but "a value that has been treasured and practiced in the East - in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere - as far back as at least 2500 B.C." With impressive research through eighteen case studies in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas, he argues persuasively that democracy is the natural state of most of mankind. He says it was practiced naturally in the earliest tribes and villages through among other things, discussion, consensus and customary law and that it preceded despotism in all civilisations. In the chapter we have reproduced, slightly edited, below, Manglapus argues that the earliest formal democracy gradually developed in Mesopotamia, that is today's Iraq, between 2500 and 4000 B.C.

Freedom House, New York, 1987. Manglapus was a lawyer, Philippine senator, and a Foreign Secretary under President Corazon Aquino. He founded and led the Philippine Progressive Party (PPP), and under its banner unsuccessfully ran for president. In the post-Marcos era, he founded the National Union of Christian Democrats (NUCD) which supported presidents Aquino, Ramos and Arroyo. Early in his career, he became the secretary-general in 1954 of the founding conference of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the following year vice chairman of the Philippine delegation to the famous Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia. He wrote Will of the People while in exile during the Marcos years. His hands-on research took him to every country and region of the world he discusses. Manglapus visited Melbourne in September 1966 and a luncheon in his honour was organised by our editor and a number of other people in the process of establishing the Pacific Institute, a regional organisation dedicated to the development of liberal democratic institutions of which Manglapus was to become an active member and our editor its secretary general. Mesopotamia: Earlist Formal Democracy? By Raul S. Manglapus

2 See Karl S. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957
3 Elman R. Service, Origins of the State and Civilization, Norton, New York, 1975, p.20.
4 A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1964, p.95.
5 Oppenheim, p.114.
6 See Journal of Near Eastern Studies, July 1943, pp.159ff.
6 Jacobsen, p.25.
7 Jacobsen, p.161.
8 Chaim Bermant and Michael Weitzman, Ebla: A Revelation in Archaeology, excerpted in the New York Times, 16th January 1979, p.C-1.
9 Bermant and Weitzman, p. 159.

10 Jacobsen, p.163.