The Syrians and Iraqis at Your Dinner Table

Each detail of our daily lives has a history and, just as with any history, it is a history we would do well to learn from. Consider the biology of your dinner table. Your table itself is Syrian or Iraqi as is most of the food on it.

Mesopotamia, about which we all learn in middle school and then promptly forget, is the region between (meso), the two rivers (potomus), the Tigris and the Euphrates. It includes Syria in the West and Iraq in the Southeast and, biologically speaking, should probably also include the Zagros mountains of Iran to the East.

In the Zagros mountains, the ancestors of those who would build the first cities of Mesopotamia lived in forests and grasslands in which they ate wild pistachios and almonds from trees and harvested wild grain. They killed and ate wild goats. They consumed, in short, the ancestors of the foods we eat and then, when that wasn’t enough, they domesticated them. It was in the Zagros mountains that the ancestors of modern Iranians, Syrians and Iraqis domesticated wheat, barley, pomegranates, and, later, the pistachios and almonds.

Later, the people of the Zagros Mountains moved down the hill to the wet region between the Tigris and Euphrates, where they farmed and settled. Either in those settlements or earlier in the mountains, they baked the first bread ever baked. They also brewed the first beer. And, once they figured out how to produce enough grain to yield a surplus, they built larger settlements in which they could stay for generations, breaking bread and drinking beer.

The first city was in Mesopotamia. The city has wide streets and narrow streets. It had public squares. We often credit the Romans with the inspiration for the design of our modern cites, and we should, but the Romans learned from the Greeks, who learned from the Mesopotamians.

Cities brought the first strong inequities in human civilization, the haves and the have nots, in part because agriculture produced surplus grains that could be stored and stored grains could be taxed and the taxing of stored grains allowed social structure. Inequity, in other words, was born in Mesopotamia. So too would be regional government as the powers of one individual leader (Sargon of Akkad) of one of the cities proved enough to take over several cities.

Of course, the coordination of a regional empire was predicated on taxes, control and records. In order to have records there had to be writing. It was in Mesopotamia too, that writing would begin, the first writing (later to be invented independently in other regions around the world), writing carved into wet clay with a stylus in cuneiform characters. The first great story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in such clay and it was saved, so that it could be read at future times, in the first libraries, among the largest of which was in Nineveh (modern Mosul).

The crops of our modern tables were domesticated in Mesopotamia, but many of our pests evolved their too. Most of the pests of wheat, barley and the other crops of the region first arose in Mesopotamia (and are documented in an early set of complaints about insects). The house fly first appears in Mesopotamia, as does the grain weevil and the grain beetle, and the meal moth that sometimes flies out of grains that you buy at Whole Foods. In total, hundreds of species that you enjoy (or dislike) every day first came into the human fold in Mesopotamia, in Syria, Iraq and the edge of Iran. Even the hamster, although it joined us relatively late, is Syrian.

Of course, one could call attention to the influence of Native American civilizations, for example, on the corn, squash, chocolate and chilies we eat. One can mention the contribution of the Indus River Valley civilizations to our our understanding of plumbing and major urban works. One can trace coffee to the peoples of North Africa. Each food we eat and thing we own can be traced to some person or people. But this does not change the special place of Mesopotamia, the special place of Syria and Iraq, in who we are—the bread we break, the beer we savor, the nuts we crack and enjoy. If you live in North America or Europe, despite the geography of your life, its biology is mostly Mesopotamian. Not only that, so too are our greatest comforts. Every conversation you have ever had with a piece of bread in one hand and a beer in another, while sitting in a chair, at a table, across from someone you love, has been a reenactment of similar stories that played out six thousand years ago alongside the Tigris or Euphrates.

As we consider the stories of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, it is worth remembering that we have already welcomed into our daily lives, their inventions. We have welcomed, without giving much thanks, their tables and chairs. We have welcomed their bread and beer. We have welcomed their dates, pistachios and almonds. We have welcomed their writing system and books and their ancient stories over which we layer our new stories. Even doors themselves, which we open or, more recently, close, are Mesopotamian. What we have proven less willing to welcome are the families themselves, mothers and fathers, doctors, professors and taxi drivers, the people who now look out from refugee camps, huddle on boats or sit worried at airports. Like thieves, we took the food and the furniture. We took the urban planning and building designs. What we have failed to welcome is the one and only thing we really ever promised, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

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By | 2017-06-26T14:28:31+00:00 January 28th, 2017|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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