"Babylon" by Paul Kriwaczek

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Subtitled “Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization”

By some quirk, many Westerners habitually think of the Nile Valley in Egypt as the birthplace of civilization. I may be projecting a little, but until not too long ago, I operated from that point of view. With only slightly more exposure to archeology, we learn that that honor belongs to Mesopotamia. In a highly readable, persuasive text, Paul Kriwaczek recounts the beginning of what’s called the Urban Revolution, through the multiple cultures and empires that arose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to a final absorption by Cyrus the Great of Persia in about 323 BCE.

Near the shore of the Southern Sea, what we now call the Persian Gulf, many miles north of its current location, at some point prior to 4000 BCE, some people thought about the earth in a new way. Rather than try to adjust to seasonal and annual lotteries of rainfall, flood, and drought, they decided they would become the earth’s master, and improve it to further their own ends. So at a place called Eridu, they built a permanent edifice, visible above the sandy and windswept expanse of the surrounding steppe, a shrine to kingship which had descended from heaven. It was the first permanent signal of a modern human culture still alive in various ways and manifestations today.

Called the Urban Revolution, the making of cities was actually the least of this sea change in human affairs. As Kriwaczek says, 

With the city came the centralized state, the hierarchy of social classes, the division of labour, organized religion, monumental building, civil engineering, writing, literature, sculpture, art, music, education, mathematics and law, not to mention a vast array of new inventions and discoveries, from items as basic as wheeled vehicles and sailing boats to the potter’s kiln, metallurgy, and the creation of synthetic materials. And on top of all that was the huge collection of notions and ideas so fundamental to our way of looking at the world, like the concept of numbers, or weight, quite independent of actual items counted or weighed, that we have long forgotten that they had to be discovered or invented. Southern Mesopotamia was the place where all that was first achieved."

Kriwaczek provides his stamp on his history, asking us to update our understanding of ancient civilized humans—what they believed, what they aspired to, how they reacted to stresses. Much of his narrative is given over to successive empire builders, the Sumerians, the Akkadians, and the Assyrians, among others, and to who was skilled and who bungled archeological digs, and how Assyrian and Babylonian geopolitics is reflected in the various books of the Old Testament.

If you are interested in Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, this is an excellent entry point. Written by a lay person for lay people, it is a very useful and concise recap of the fateful moment when people decided to socialize in permanent settlements, and the broad sweep of human history which followed. There are probably other, more detailed speculations about Babylon’s precincts, architecture, and plan, but they will be just that, speculations. As Kriwaczek laments, the truly glorious city was wiped away in a flood, and its foundations are lost to history.

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