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Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

by Paul Kriwaczek

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The ancient world comes alive in this sweeping history of the city that laid the foundation for modern civilization.


Babylon tells the story of Mesopotamia from the earliest settlements seven thousand years ago to the eclipse of Babylon in the sixth century BCE. Bringing to vibrant life the people of this land, the author chronicles the


The ancient world comes alive in this sweeping history of the city that laid the foundation for modern civilization.


Babylon tells the story of Mesopotamia from the earliest settlements seven thousand years ago to the eclipse of Babylon in the sixth century BCE. Bringing to vibrant life the people of this land, the author chronicles the rise and fall of Mesopotamian civilization, from its political and social systems to its technical and cultural innovations. At the heart of this book is the story of Babylon, which rose to prominence under the Amorite king Hammurabi from about 1800 BCE. Although Babylon's fortunes waxed and waned, it has never lost its allure as the ancient world’s greatest city. Compelling and detailed, this book will fascinate history lovers and those interested in ancient civilizations.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Recent events in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey recall ancient and equally dramatic events in Babylon and Mesopotamia, whose lands these countries now occupy. A magnificent storyteller and a careful historian, Kriwaczek (Yiddish Civilization) brings to life the world of ancient Mesopotamia and the city of Babylon, tracing their rise from a loose federation to a monarchy to the rise of ancient Sumerian civilization, with its tales of the Great Flood and the epics of semidivine heroes such as Gilgamesh. Drawing on primary sources and guiding us through the many cultural, political, social, and religious changes of Mesopotamian history, Kriwaczek, head of central Asian affairs for the BBC World Service, demonstrates that over its 2,500-year existence (before its fall to Cyrus of Persia in 539 B.C.E.), Mesopotamia served as an “experimental laboratory for civilization” and preserved a single civilization using one form of writing, cuneiform, from beginning to end. This Mesopotamian culture discovered or invented almost everything we associate with civilized life: religions, including the first stirrings of monotheism; a wide variety of economic and production systems; an assortment of government systems, from primitive democracy to ruthless tyranny. Kriwaczek’s marvelous introduction offers a first-rate guide to a fascinating ancient civilization that continues to influence us today. 16 pages of b&w photos; maps. Agent: Mindy Little, Watson Little Ltd. (U.K.). (Apr.)
Library Journal
Mesopotamian culture lasted for well over 3000 years, and Kriwaczek (BBC World Service; Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation), who died last year (this book was published in the UK in 2010), reminds us that we have much to learn from it. The concept of "Babylon" may represent a strange and alien world, but modern figures have drawn inspiration from it and made explicit comparisons. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, for example, modeled his rule on ancient Babylonian and Sumerian kings, and parallels to their history can also be found in his downfall. Central planning and bureaucracy as practiced in the earliest days of Sumer continue to thrive and fail in much the same way they did then. Old Babylon developed medical procedures, lost during the subsequent ascendancy of Greek medicine, from which we may still learn. By understanding Mesopotamia, which predated modern national boundaries and the major monotheistic religions, Kriwaczek implies, historians may deepen their understanding of the region's present struggles. VERDICT While not a rigorous academic study, this vibrant and thought-provoking work succeeds in making ancient history relevant. Any reader interested in history, religion, or political science should enjoy it. [See Prepub Alert, 10/28/11.]—Margaret Heller, Dominican Univ. Lib., River Forest, IL
Kirkus Reviews
A sprightly overview of the rich, ancient civilizations that flourished in the land between the two rivers. The former head of Central Asian Affairs at the BBC's World Service, Kriwaczek (Yiddish Civilizations, 2005, etc.) brings a contemporary fire to his treatment of the age-old regional flux still demanding world attention, namely in headlines daily from Iraq, Iran and Syria. The ancient simmering conflict of the Fertile Crescent boils down to the question: "Should the Tigris-Euphrates Valley be mastered from the west or the east"? The emerging communities that sprang up from farming hamlets, a mix of Semitic and non-Semitic cultures, produced the civilized life we recognize today mainly through the use of cuneiform writing. The need to organize systems of irrigation in Eridu, the first southern settlement, spawned an "urban revolution," with the invention of cities and all that came with them: division of labor, social classes, engineering, the arts, education, numbers and law, to mention a few. Kriwaczek is constantly sifting through changing theories resulting from continuous excavations, such as what might have prompted the progression from godly worship to the establishment of kings, somewhere around 4,000 BCE, in the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh's legendary kingdom. The author keeps close to biblical readings for comparative accounts of the Flood and the succession of kings of the city-states to the founder of the first true empire, Sargon. With Terah the Amorite's move from Sumer to Babylon, a glorious kingdom developed, sowing seeds of science and music theory and offering a rich repository for the Jewish diaspora. Invasions by Hittites and Assyrians only spurred reinvention, and the civilization was rather more appropriated than eclipsed by Cyrus the Great of Persia in his invasion of 539 BCE. A pertinent, accessible study, more lively than scholarly.
From the Publisher

“The lively mixture of topicality, politics, history, myth and culture in this anecdote is typical of Babylon at its best.” —The Independent (UK)

“Historical detail gives authority to this tale of human misery and military magnificence.” —The Times (UK)

“Eloquent and consistently thought-provoking account of ancient Mesopotamia.” —Scotland on Sunday

“An outstanding survey of a civilization that endured against great odds but has now essentially vanished.” —Booklist (starred) on Yiddish Civilisation

“A landmark book.” —Library Journal on In Search of Zarathustra

“Lively and fast-paced.” —Publishers Weekly on In Search of Zarathustra

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St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt

BABYLON (Chapter 1)Lessons from the Past: An Introductionc

They hanged Saddam Hussein on the first day of the Feast of the Sacrifice, 'Eid ul-Adha, 30 December 2006. It was not a dignified execution. Reading the newspaper reports of that grisly - and botched - act of barbarism, more revenge than justice, and seeing the mobile-phone video images distributed immediately afterwards, I cannot have been the only one to feel that the language of daily journalism was inadequate to encompass such extravagant, larger-than-life events.

The cruel tyrant's army crumbles away. He himself escapes, disappears from sight for a time, but is eventually discovered, filthy and heavily bearded, cowering like an animal in a hole in the ground. He is taken captive, publicly humiliated, held in solitary confinement for a thousand days and put on trial before a tribunal whose verdict is a foregone conclusion. Hanging him, his exultant executioners almost tear off his head.

As in biblical times, God took to speaking to men again, instructing the makers of history. At a secret meeting between senior army officers in Kuwait during the run-up to the First Gulf War, Saddam had explained that he had invaded Kuwait on heaven's express instructions: 'May God be my witness, that it is the Lord who wanted what happened to happen. This decision we received almost ready-made from God...Our role in the decision was almost zero.'

In a BBC documentary, broadcast in October 2005, Nabil Sha'ath, Foreign Minister of the Palestinian authority recalled that 'President Bush said to all of us: "I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did; and then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq...' And I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me."'

It would have come as no real surprise had the conflict begun with a voice booming out from heaven, crying 'O President Saddam,' and continuing, as in the Book of Daniel, 4:31: 'to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee. And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field.' It takes the language of the Old Testament, the Book of Kings perhaps, to depict the details of Saddam Hussein's end in their full, almost mythic, dimensions. Thus:

It was the morning of the Sabbath, before the sun rose. And they brought him into the city, even unto the place of execution.

And they bound his hands and his feet as was the custom among them in the way of execution. And they reviled him saying, how are the mighty fallen, and may you be cursed by the Lord.

And they placed the rope about his neck and they reviled him again, praising the names and titles of his enemies, and saying, may God curse you, may you go down to hell.

And he replied, saying, Is this your manhood? This is a gallows of shame.

And again they spoke unto him, saying, prepare to meet God. And he prayed to God, saying, there is no God but the Lord.

And so they hanged him. And a great shout went up in the place of execution and in the streets and in the markets. It was the morning of the Sabbath, as the sun rose over the walls of Babylon.

Seeing George W. Bush's Iraq War through biblical eyes is not just a writer's conceit, the reaction of someone like me, introduced as a child to Middle-Eastern history by the Bible. Saddam too saw himself as a successor to the rulers of antiquity. He particularly modelled himself on Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE), conqueror and destroyer of Jerusalem and its temple, describing him, in a multiple anachronism, as 'an Arab from Iraq', who fought, like Saddam himself, against Persians and Jews. (Nebuchadnezzar was not an Arab but a Chaldean, there would be no Iraq for another two and a half millennia, and Judaism as we know it did not yet exist.) The emblem of the 1988 Babylon International Festival showed Saddam's profile superimposed on Nebuchadnezzar's; according to a New York Times journalist, the outline of his nose was lengthened to make him resemble the Mesopotamian king more closely. Saddam also honoured Hammurabi (c. 1795-1750 BCE), the ruler of the Old Babylonian Empire renowned for his eye-for-an-eye legal code, and named the most powerful strike-force in the Iraqi army the Hammurabi Republican Guard Armoured Division; another unit was the Nebuchadnezzar Infantry Division.

The Iraqi leader was, said the BBC's John Simpson, 'an inveterate builder of monuments to himself', undertaking great construction projects in conscious emulation of his illustrious predecessors. Giant images of the Iraqi leader showed him, like an ancient Sumerian monarch, carrying a building-worker's basket on his shoulder, although the ancients would have been pictured bearing the first load of clay for brickmaking, while Saddam was represented bearing a bowl of cement. He began a massive reconstruction of the site of ancient Babylon, although his rebuilding, said one architectural historian, was 'poor quality pastiche and frequently wrong in scale and detail...' Like the monarchs of antiquity, Saddam had the bricks inscribed with his name; thousands bore the rubric: 'The Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar was rebuilt in the era of the leader President Saddam Hussein'. Never one to display unnecessary good taste, he had the text written in modern Arabic rather than Babylonian cuneiform.

The political reasons for Saddam Hussein's concern to connect with the far distant, pre-Muslim, past of his country are plain. As in the case of the Shah of next-door Iran, who in 1971 famously declared his kinship with Cyrus the Great, founder of the first, Achaemenid, Persian Empire, any pitch for leadership of the Middle East demands that the pretender first neutralize the claims of holy Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, the cities of the Prophet, to be the sole ultimate source of Islamic legitimacy.

There is much irony in the fact that Anglo-American Middle East policy, from Operation Ajax, the deposing of democratically elected, socialist, secularist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the overthrow of secular nationalist dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, has served in fact, if not intention, to ensure the continuing hold of Islam over nearly all the countries of the region. Thus inevitably boosting the claim of Salafi Islam, which looks to the immediate successors of the Prophet for its political models, to provide the only authentic principles on which to build a legitimate political system.

Perhaps Saddam - whatever else he might have been, he was neither stupid nor unperceptive - also recognized another, even greater, truth of Middle-Eastern power-politics. Our way of life and understanding of the world may have changed utterly since ancient times, but we flatter ourselves unduly if we think that our behaviour is in any way different, or that human nature has altered much over the millennia.

History tells us that the region the Greeks called Mesopotamia, because it lay 'between the rivers' Tigris and Euphrates, was fought over by Romans and Parthians, by Byzantines and Sassanians, by Muslims and Magians, until rank outsiders, Mongols and Turks, conquerors from distant Central Asia and beyond, created a desert and called it peace. Nobody with even a passing acquaintance with the history of the land could have been surprised at its reversion to confusion after the heavy Ottoman yoke was lifted from Iraq's neck in the 1920s, or the collapse into chaos after the deposition of the modern Ba'ath tyranny that held together the three former Ottoman provinces, mutually antagonistic and seemingly united only by the League of Nations to allow the great powers to extract oil.

But the attempts to grab control over the fertile Mesopotamian plain go back much further even than Roman times. Twice as far, in fact. And while the ancient powers who vied for sovereignty have long since crumbled to dust, their clashes still ring faintly in the air.

The bustling, thriving town now called Shush in south-west Iran, where the foothills of the Zagros Mountains run down on to the Mesopotamian Plain, is no more than 55 kilometres from the Iraqi border, another 70 from the Tigris. The streets are strung out either side of a slackly flowing branch of the Karkheh River, the air tinged grey-blue by the exhausts of the poorly maintained cars, which fight for space with crowds of pedestrians, bicycles, and men pushing heavily laden carts. Shush, ancient Susa, is the setting for the biblical Books of Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel: 'I was in Shushan the palace,' states the account of his visions in Daniel 8:2, '...and I saw in the vision that I was by the river Ulai.' Stand today on the main street that runs parallel to the river and you cannot escape reminders of the place's great antiquity.

In front of you, between the road and the river-bank stands the reputedly ancient tomb of Daniel himself - nothing Hebraic about it, but an unremarkably Islamic building topped out with an unusual spiral cone rendered in white plaster. (Daniel's story was supposed to take place some time in the sixth century BCE, and this sepulchre dates from 1871.) The shrine is greatly honoured by local Shi'a Muslims; visitors enter the building in a steady stream, to fall on their knees, recite prayers and kiss the elaborate gilded metal grille that protects the sarcophagus.

Across the street rises the gigantic mound that is the site of the ancient city, bearing at its top the fragmented stone remains of the Persian Achaemenid kings' winter capital. Walk around the ruins and you crunch over fragments of brick and pottery that may be as much as 5,000 years old, for Susa is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements anywhere in the world, probably founded not much later than 5000 BCE. From the middle of the second millennium BCE it was the capital of a state called Elam, master of this part of Iran long before the advent of the Persians, and founded by a people who may just possibly, from the linguistic evidence, have been related to the speakers of Dravidian languages like Kannada and Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu, languages now found almost exclusively in southern India.

Right beside you, were you visiting as I did in 2001, you would have found erected along the pavement at the foot of the mound a long single-storied temporary building. This housed a gruesome exhibition detailing the sufferings of the town in the course of the Iran-Iraq War, the long struggle that started with an assault on Iran launched by Saddam Hussein in 1980, and ended when the Ayatollah Khomeini reluctantly accepted a cease-fire in 1988, an act which he equated to 'drinking poison'. The New York Times reported that the final exchange of prisoners of war took place only on 17 March 2003 - a mere six days before the next catastrophe: the assault by the 'coalition of the willing' on Saddam Hussein. Imagine the experience of the ex-prisoners, free after so many years of bitter incarceration, only immediately to have to face US 'shock and awe'.

Shush, although never taken by Iraqi forces, was at one time a little over three kilometres from the front line in the brutal conflict, which seemed to repeat the worst and cruellest excesses of the 1914-18 European war: trench warfare, bayonet charges, suicidal assaults, and the indiscriminate use by one side of chemical weapons. To which new grotesque specialities were added Iran's human-wave attacks, and her use of young volunteer martyrs as living minesweepers. There were well over a million military casualties; tens of thousands of civilians were wounded or killed.

Iranian culture has a gift for celebrating a sense of sacred martyrdom. The exhibition on Shush's main street preserved one of the defensive trenches dug when it was feared that the city would fall to Saddam's forces. In 2001 it was still littered with the detritus abandoned when it was struck by the direct hit of an artillery shell: a grotesquely dented steel helmet, a shredded, bloodstained boot, and a crushed and twisted assault rifle. A show of unspeakably shocking photographs of Shushite casualties reminded western visitors of cultural differences in what horrors are acceptable for public presentation. The displays aiming to recreate the realities of the First World War in London's Imperial War Museum are dreadful enough; they cannot compare with the grisliness of this temporary exhibition, with its depictions of the gruesome bloodletting that had taken place here little more than ten years earlier. By the exit was an account of the conflict, explaining how Saddam had attempted to conquer the provinces of Khuzestan, Ilam and Kermanshah to incorporate as part of his blasphemous Ba'ath empire; how Iran had bravely resisted, and then turned the tables by striking with great military success into Iraq, until graciously accepting, for humanitarian reasons, a UN ceasefire.

Had you just come down, as I had, from the site of the ancient city atop the great mound, you could not help but recall the equally long account of its history painted on a large peeling sign near the entrance ticket office, detailing the attempts by the kings of Elamite Susa to dominate the city-states and empires of Mesopotamia. There was even a list of artefacts carried off as loot by Elamite raiders, including the famous stele inscribed with the law code of Hammurabi, eventually to be unearthed in Susa by modern European archaeologists. The struggle for power was brought to an end in the most dramatic way when Susa was destroyed by the Assyrian Emperor Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BCE.

Much later, having thought to explore Mesopotamia's history in greater detail, I would read the conqueror's own description of that action, written on a clay tablet dug up from the ruins of Nineveh by Sir Austen Henry Layard:

Susa, the great holy city, abode of their Gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed...I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.

And in the British Museum I would examine the alabaster bas-relief illustrating the conquest: Assyrian sappers demolishing the walls with crowbars and pickaxes as flames flicker from the main gate and over the tall city towers, a stream of captives and soldiers carrying their rich booty through the surrounding forest.

Here was evidence that the Iran-Iraq War was no isolated clash, initiated by a vicious modern dictator running amok, and contingent on local, personal and temporary factors. Instead it was the most recent act in a millennia-long violent dispute played out over centuries - and one which will no doubt continue long into the future - over the control of Mesopotamia. That is, should the Tigris-Euphrates Valley be mastered from the west or from the east.

The location of the land, squeezed between Arabia and Asia, between the desert and the mountains, between Semites and Iranians, inheriting from and owing allegiance to both, has shaped the region's destiny from the very beginnings of its recorded history.

It turned out to be no easy task to delve deeper into the details of the distant past. I soon discovered that anyone wishing to improve their understanding of contemporary geopolitics by reading up on ancient times is immediately faced with the sheer profligacy of Mesopotamian scholarship. Since 1815, when Claudius Rich, the young British Resident in Baghdad, published his Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon, an instant best-seller which triggered a burgeoning interest across Europe in the remains of the vanished world, academic as well as popular books, monographs, pamphlets, articles, and scholarly papers written for peer-reviewed journals have streamed off the presses, and new titles are being added nearly every day. For in spite of everything that is already known about life on the ancient Tigris-Euphrates plain, in actual fact far more still remains unknown. Only a minor proportion of long-recognized archaeological sites has been explored; only limited sections of these have been excavated; only a fraction of the million or so documents, now distributed among museums and private collections all over the world, has been fully studied, deciphered and translated; many times that number must be waiting to be brought up into the light. In 2008, an inscribed clay cone that had languished, forgotten since the 1970s, in a shoebox on a shelf at the University of Minnesota, was found to record the reign of a previously unknown king of ancient Uruk.

This is a field of knowledge that is constantly changing. Not so long ago almost all cultural change was attributed to invasion and conquest. Now we are far less sure. Four decades ago it was still assumed that the first attempt at empire, by Sargon of Akkad, who flourished some time around 2300 BCE, represented the conquest by Semitic people of the indigenous Sumerians. Most evidence now proposes that the two communities had lived together peacefully in the region from time immemorial. Names may be given different readings. A well-known Sumerian king c. 2000 BCE was first read as Dungi, more recently as Shulgi; the one Sumerian name popularly recognized today, Gilgamesh, first appeared in 1891 misread as Izdubar. Texts may come to be translated quite differently, even reversing their meaning. The verdict in a murder trial before the Assembly of Nippur in the twentieth century BCE, has been read by one scholar as condemning one of the defendants to death, while by another as absolving her of all guilt.

Dates are constantly being revised. The ancient Mesopotamians had their own dating systems - although their accounts cannot necessarily be believed, for example the impossibly long reigns ascribed to some of their kings - but it is still very hard to work out the equivalent in our own calendar. It helps that the accurate observation of the heavens was one of the first sciences established in ancient times, and that a strong belief in omens and portents ensured that unusual celestial phenomena were carefully recorded. Since our own Newtonian astronomy allows us to state exactly when, according to our calendar, such predictable events as solar and lunar eclipses occurred, it should be possible to put an accurate date on ancient reports.

And yet the texts are often so enigmatic, and our ability to understand their language - even after a century and a half of study - so incomplete, that it can be difficult to make out exactly what is being described. Thus the report apparently detailing a solar eclipse, on a tablet unearthed in Ras Shamra, Syria, in 1948: 'The day of the Moon of Hiyaru was put to shame. The Sun went in with her gatekeeper, Rashap.' (Rashap may be a name for the planet Mars.) One pair of scholars has linked this account to a solar eclipse known to have occurred on 3 May 1375 BCE; another, later, academic duo re-dated the occurrence to 5 March 1223. More recently, the text has been associated with the solar eclipses of the 21 January 1192 and 9 May 1012. Yet other, equally reputable, researchers have cast doubt on whether the tablet actually refers to an eclipse at all.

As a result of such disagreements, the reign of the famous law-giver Hammurabi, King of Babylon, has been variously dated to 1848-1806 BCE (long chronology), 1792-1750 BCE (middle chronology), 1728-1686 BCE (short chronology) and 1696-1654 BCE (ultra-short chronology).

This is not just a recent issue. Already in 1923, the editor of Punch magazine, Sir Owen Seaman, was protesting loudly, in verse, that his mental equanimity had been disturbed when the British Museum's cuneiform expert Cyril Gadd shifted the date of the final fall of Assyrian Nineveh back - by as far as six years!

But still I counted on the Past,

Deeming it steady as a rock;

History, I said, stands fast;

And it has been a horrid shock,

A bitter, bitter blow to me

To hear this news of Nineveh.

They taught us how in six-o-six

(B.C.) that godless town fell flat;

And now the new-found records fix

A date anterior to that;

It fell, in fact, six-one-two,

So what they taught us wasn't true.

The gentleman who worked it out,

He got it from a slab of clay,

And it has seared my soul with doubt

To see the old truths pass away;

Such disillusionment (by GADD)

Might surely drive a fellow mad.

If we smile with Sir Owen at those, like Cyril Gadd, to whom noting a difference of six years in more than 2,500 is important, who devote their entire working lives to amassing precise details, abstruse minutiae, of a world long since disappeared, researchers pursuing with the dedication of Soviet Stakhanovite quota-busters an activity that many would find irrelevant to any modern interest, we must also recognize that without data, there can be no knowledge and without knowledge there can be no understanding. And any understanding of how human beings have lived together in the past must bear in some way on both the present and the future.

Getting to grips with the sweep of history is proverbially a matter of balancing one's perception of the trees against gaining a view of the whole wood. In the case of ancient Mesopotamia, although details may change, and change radically, although knowledge may yet have far to grow, a pattern is still recognisable. The trees may constantly be shifting, but you can still make out the wood. At first only faint and shadowed, none the less a shape, an outline representing a self-contained story of the ancient Middle East, does emerge out of what has been assembled by the indefatigable intellectual labour, inextinguishable enthusiasm and irrepressible industry of a century and a half of scholars and students of Assyriology - misnamed, really, because Assyria is but one of the protagonists of the narrative.

I find the form that takes shape surprising, remarkable, extraordinary and astonishing.

I find it surprising for its longevity. If history, as by most definitions, begins with writing, then the birth, rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamia occupies a full half of all history. What would evolve into the script called cuneiform, wedge-shaped signs impressed by reed stylus into clay tablet, first appeared in the last centuries before 3000 BCE. That was the start, the terminus a quo. Independent Mesopotamia vanished from history upon the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BCE. That was the end, the terminus ad quem. In round numbers, its duration was 2,500 years. From 500 BCE to the present is the same distance in time. From today's perspective the Persian emperor's victory is as far back in our past as was Cyrus from the origin of the civilization he both vanquished and inherited.

I find it remarkable for its continuity. Throughout all that time - the same span as takes us from the classical age of Greece, through the rise and fall of Rome, of Byzantium, of the Islamic Khalifate, of the Renaissance, of the European empires, to the present day - Mesopotamia preserved a single civilization, using one unique system of writing, cuneiform, from beginning to end; and with a single, continuously evolving literary, artistic, iconographic, mathematical, scientific, and religious tradition. To be sure, there were cultural differences between different places and different times. A Sumerian from 3000 BCE transplanted to the Assyria of the seventh century would of course have experienced profound bewilderment and culture shock. None the less, although one of the civilization's two languages, Sumerian, ceased early to be spoken on the streets and the other, Akkadian, divided into different dialectical varieties before finally giving way to the speech of incoming Arameans, yet both continued to be written and understood to the very end. The last great Assyrian emperor, Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE), took pride in being able to read 'the cunning tablets of Sumer, and the dark Akkadian language which is difficult rightly to use; I took my pleasure in reading stones inscribed before the flood'.

I find it extraordinary for its creativity. In the course of its two and a half millennia, the cuneiform-based tradition invented or discovered almost everything we associate with the civilized life. Beginning in a world of Neolithic villages, largely self sufficient and self-sustaining subsistence farming communities, and ending with a world, not only of cities, and empires, and technology, and science, and law, and literary wisdom, but even more: with what has been called a world system, a linked web of nations, communicating and trading and fighting with each other, spread across a large part of the globe. Such was the achievement of the writers of cuneiform.

I find it astonishing for its non-ethnicity. The bearers of this ground-breaking tradition were not one nation or one people. From the start at least two communities, Semitic and non-Semitic, inhabited the land, one originally from the deserts of the west and the other just possibly from the mountains of the north. To these ethnic foundations were added the genetic contribution of many invaders and conquerors, Gutians, Kassites, Amorites and Arameans among them, who, in almost every case, assimilated to Sumerian-Akkadian language and culture, and in most instances contributed with gusto to the further advance of their adopted way of life. Those who did not were always remembered with scorn. Both of Saddam Hussein's heroes, Hammurabi, an Amorite, and Nebuchadnezzar, a Chaldean, as well as many other commanding figures in Mesopotamian history, came from outsider families, from immigrant stock.

Thus the civilization that was born, flourished and died in the land between the rivers was not the achievement of any particular people, but the result of the coming together and persistence through time of a unique combination of ideas, styles, beliefs and behaviours. The Mesopotamian story is that of a single continuous cultural tradition, even though its human bearers and propagators were different at different times.

One further unexpected feature strikes me powerfully. Because that story is so long over, and because we can observe it from a sufficient distance, one cannot help but note how much ancient Mesopotamian civilization behaved both like a living organism and as if it were governed by natural laws. It is rather like watching one of those speeded-up time-lapse film sequences you sometimes see in nature programmes on TV: a seed germinates, the shoot becomes a seedling, the plant grows, bushes up, flowers, sets seed, propagates itself, withers and dies - all in the space of half a minute or so.

But are not societies, empires and civilizations human constructs, the products of arbitrary, contingent and essentially unpredictable decisions by independent intelligent actors, and far from the result of some kind of mathematical determinism? Perhaps less so than we may think. It is not hard to see that if one found a way to plot Mesopotamian civilization's energy, creativity and productivity as a graph, it would look like a long bell-shaped curve, rising at first imperceptibly from the baseline, growing exponentially to a high point, maintaining its vigour and vitality over considerable time - though with fluctuations - and then without warning declining swiftly, before finally flattening out to approach ever more slowly the zero base line. Thus: birth, growth, maturity, decline, senescence and final disappearance.

Starting about 10,000 BCE, very soon after the final melting of the continental glaciers, though quite slowly at first, people began to adopt a more settled way of life, grouping together in village communities, and, rather than merely exploiting the opportunities offered by nature, they started to control the plants and animals on which they subsisted. Crops were planted, herds were corralled, the flora and fauna essential to people's survival were genetically modified by selective breeding, the better to serve their human purposes.

Into this relatively uniform, mostly undifferentiated, largely homo geneous world of subsistence farmers and peasant hamlets, the idea of civilization was born: in a single place, at a single time. From there and from then the concept spread at remarkable speed to conquer the world.

Yet not all communities took up the opportunity. What held the refusers back may have been the very comfort and effectiveness of their village life with its well-established routines and well-honed survival skills. As in many other fields of human endeavour, it seems to have taken the recalcitrance of the awkward reality of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain, the resistance of these unwelcoming surroundings, the difficulty of making a living in this unpropitious place, to provide the grit in the oyster, the nucleus around which the great leap forward of humanity crystallized.

Farming the new land of the Mesopotamian plain, potentially fertile but actually desolate and barren because of very low annual rainfall, required that people get together to organize systems of irrigation. The German-American writer and thinker Karl Wittfogel coined the term 'hydraulic civilizations' for societies in which the need to control water demanded collective action, so stimulating the development of an organizing bureaucracy, which led inevitably, in his view, to typical oriental despotic rule. This idea, though highly influential in the earlier twentieth century, is no longer much respected by scholars, who accuse Wittfogel of not allowing the facts to stand in the way of an attractive theory. Yet it cannot be denied that the riverine environment around the two great Middle Eastern streams did demand collaboration in irrigation works to ensure its settlers' survival. And that somehow this led to the invention of city life.

The rest is history, as the cliché has it. From its mysterious, shadowy beginnings until its final, well-documented end, ancient Mesopotamia acted as a kind of experimental laboratory for civilization, testing, often to destruction, many kinds of religion, from early personifications of natural forces to full-blown temple priesthood and even the first stirrings of monotheism; a wide variety of economic and production systems, from (their own version of) state planning and centralized direction to (their own style of) neo-liberal privatization, as well as an assortment of government systems, from primitive democracy and consultative monarchy to ruthless tyranny and expansive imperialism. Almost every one of these can be paralleled with similar features found in our own more recent history. It sometimes seems as if the whole ancient story served as a dry-run, a dress rehearsal, for the succeeding civilization, our own, which would originate in the Greece of Periclean Athens after the demise of the last Mesopotamian empire in the sixth century BCE, and which has brought us to where we stand today.

Though the experimenters of antiquity are long dead, their names largely forgotten, their homes buried, their possessions scattered, their fields barren, their temple towers ruined, their cities interred under mounds of dust, their empires remembered, if at all, by name only, their story still promises to teach us much about how we arrived at the way we live now. History may not repeat itself but, as Mark Twain said, it does rhyme.

BABYLON Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kriwaczek.

Meet the Author

PAUL KRIWACZEK was the head of Central Asian Affairs at the BBC's World Service. He is the author of Yiddish Civilisation, which was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Award, as well as In Search of Zarathustra.

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