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Iraq, History

The territory of modern Iraq is roughly equivalent to that of ancient Mesopotamia, which fostered a succession of early civilizations. Of these, the earliest known was the civilization of Sumer, which arose probably in the 4th millennium bc and had its final flowering under the 3rd Dynasty of Ur at the close of the 3rd millennium bc. Periods of control by Babylonia and Assyria followed. In 539 bc Cyrus the Great of Persia gained control of the region, which remained under Persian rule until the conquest by Macedonian king Alexander the Great in 331 bc. After Alexander’s death the Greek Seleucid dynasty reigned in Mesopotamia for some 200 years, infusing the region with Hellenistic culture. A long period followed under new Persian dynasties (Arsacids, Sassanids) until Arabs who were adherents of Islam overran the region in the 7th century ad.

The Arab-Islamic conquest of what is now Iraq started in 633 ad and culminated in 636 at the Battle of Qadisiyya, a village on the Euphrates south of Baghdad. At that battle an Islamic Arab army decisively defeated a Persian army that was six times larger. The Arab army moved quickly to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanian Empire, where in 637 it seized a huge Persian treasure trove. Many tribes in the conquered land were Christian Arabs. Some of them converted to Islam, and the others were allowed to stay provided they paid a poll tax.

From the mid-8th century to 1258 Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, or Islamic realm. The Abbasid period was a golden age of Islamic power and culture. During that period Baghdad became the second largest city in the known world, after Constantinople, and the most important center of science and culture. For a time, the Abbasid realm was a mighty military power, its borders reaching southern France in the west and the borders of China in the east. In the mid-9th century the Abbasid caliphate began a slow decline. Turkic warrior slaves known as Mamluks became so prominent at the caliph’s court that they almost monopolized power. In 945 the Buwayhids, an Iranian Shia dynasty, conquered Baghdad. However, they allowed the Abbasid caliph to remain in office as a symbol of continuity and legitimacy. In 1055 the Seljuks, a Turkish Sunni clan, drove out the Buwayhids and reestablished Sunni rule in Baghdad. The Seljuks respected the Abbasid caliph but allowed him to be only a figurehead. At the end of the 11th century Seljuk power started to decline.

In 1258 Baghdad was conquered and sacked by Hulagu, grandson of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Hulagu killed all the scholars in Baghdad and erected a pyramid from their skulls. He destroyed the elaborate irrigation system that the Abbasids had established. Iraq became a neglected frontier area ruled from the Mongol capital of Tabriz in Iran. In 1335 the last great Mongol ruler of this region died, and anarchy prevailed. The Turkic conqueror Tamerlane sacked Baghdad in 1401, again massacring many of its inhabitants. He, too, built a pyramid of skulls. Tamerlane’s invasion and conquest marked the end of Baghdad’s greatness.

Ottoman Turkish and Iranian rulers vied for supremacy in Iraq until the Ottoman Empire finally secured control in the 17th century. The region was brought under Persian control in 1508. The Ottoman Turks conquered much of it in 1534. The Persians recaptured Baghdad and large parts of Iraq in 1623, holding them until 1638, when Iraq was again brought under Ottoman rule. For almost three centuries thereafter Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire.

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