Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

by Paul Kriwaczek


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250054166
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/27/2012
Pages: 338
Sales rank: 412,631
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

PAUL KRIWACZEK was born in Vienna. He travelled extensively in Asia and Africa before developing a career in broadcasting and journalist. In 1970, he joined the BBC full-time and wrote, produced, and directed for twenty-five years. He also served as head of Central Asian Affairs at the BBC World Service. He is the author of Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, which was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Award, as well as In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World.

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Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

By Paul Kriwaczek

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Paul Kriwaczek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4106-8


Lessons from the Past: An Introduction

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.


Excerpted from Babylon by Paul Kriwaczek. Copyright © 2010 Paul Kriwaczek. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Lessons from the Past: An Introduction,
2 Kingship Descends from Heaven: The Urban Revolution Before 4000 BCE,
3 The City of Gilgamesh: Temple Rule Between c.4000 and 3000 BCE,
4 The Flood: A Caesura in History,
5 Big Men and Kings: The City-States c.3000 to 2300 BCE,
6 Rulers of the Four Quarters: The Bronze Heroic Age c.2300 to 2200 BCE,
7 Sumer Resurgent: The Dirigiste State c.2100 to 2000 BCE,
8 Old Babylon: The Culmination c.1900 to 1600 BCE,
9 Empire of Ashur: Colossus of the First Millennium c.1800 BCE to 700 BCE,
10 Passing the Baton: An End and a Beginning After 700 BCE,
Further Reading,
List of Illustrations,
Bibliographic Notes,

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