Review | Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization – Paul Kriwaczek

About the Book

In Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek tells the story of ancient Mesopotamia from the earliest settlements around 5400 BC, to the eclipse of Babylon by the Persians in the sixth century BC. He chronicles the rise and fall of dynastic power during this period; he examines its numerous material, social and cultural innovations and inventions: The wheel, civil, engineering, building bricks, the centralized state, the division of labour, organised religion, sculpture, education, mathematics, law and monumental building.

At the heart of Kriwaczek’s magisterial account, though, is the glory of Babylon – ‘gateway to the gods’ – which rose to glorious prominence under the Amorite king Hammurabi, who unified Babylonia between 1800 and 1750 BC. While Babylonian power would rise and fall over the ensuing centuries, it retained its importance as a cultural, religious and political centre until its fall to Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BC.

310 pages (Hardcover) 
Published on July 1, 2010
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I’ve been rather interested in ancient civilizations recently, mostly due to the fact that I know absolutely nothing about ancient civilizations. It’s a hard thing to learn a lot about. So much of humanity in its various forms existed before the advent of writing, and while archeology can help us understand what happened way back when, plenty of things impact how much we have left, like time, wars, civilization, etc.

However, there is enough left, and enough educated people around to parse out theories from the ruins, and inform the rest of us how society might have been, and how it likely evolved. There are still gaps, however, and any good author worth their salt will tell readers when they are filling in gaps with information they are guessing based on (insert clues here). 

That being said, there is so much to go over regarding ancient civilizations, and so much still left unknown that it makes the entire process of reading about it an interesting game of Clue, I think. 

The Fertile Crescent is really where it all began, from social groups, to sedentary farming, the first domestication of animals, writing, accounting and so much more. It all happened there, spread throughout the area via trade routes. It was those trade routes that first introduced far-flung iron age and prior civilizations to all these neat advancements going on in Sumer, for example. It was trade, largely, that was responsible for the sharing of ideas, for the flex and flux of different lifestyles, for the sharing of gods and religions, and social strata. Ultimately, for humanity’s advancement. Trade was kind of like the internet of the ancient world.

The narrative starts rather slow, but it quickly picks up speed as more things are known, and societies become more evolved. “Mesopotamia” literally translates to “the land between the rivers” which has a really delightful ring to it. At the time, the area was a bit marshier, the weather a bit wetter and cooler. The rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) were agricultural powerhouses, which made the landscape the perfect place to settle in and put down roots. Farming was developed, and eventually people figured out that they didn’t have to wander all over all the time, so a shrine at a place called Eridu (then called Apsu) became a place where people stuck around all year, and from then, the first small settlement was born, which eventually turned into the first real village and then city. 

From there, the “big man” arose, who was really the first incarnation of what we recognize as a king. He was a person in power who was allowed to have servants and slaves, who basically directed operations and was put in charge of protecting the welfare and well-being of the people he lorded over. Religion sprang up. Enki, the god of the waters, and Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, and marriage. They were worshiped along with smaller gods of specific waterways, hills, cities, and towns. Inventions were thrown into the mix, like the potter’s wheel, the sails of ships, the brewers vat, and the ability to control and change the course of waters with dams and what have you. 

Trade over vast distances, often for rare stones to adorn temples and religious artifacts required these people to send out goods from these cities, to far flung Iron Age civilizations. This fostered the exchange of advancements. Accounting had to be developed so these Big Men could keep track of what was going out, and what was coming in. Writing, first as pictographs, and then a cuneiform, was invented as a way to keep records. This was often the first exchange between advanced civilizations and these Iron Age individuals, and this exchange of ideas really was what fostered other civilizations in areas of the fertile crescent to rise up and make their own towns, and their own religions, writing, Big Men, and what have you. Furthermore, trade was really what inspired such things as the domestication of the camel, which helped these people trading travel long distances, with more supplies, and less effort. 

I found the discussions about mass sacrifice to be especially fascinating. Burial tombs of the first queens and kings, their bodies adorned with fine diadems and stones, interred alongside their servants have been found. 

If you’re into the Bible, you can’t get away from it here. It takes a bit of time for society to get that evolved, but you’ll likely recognize some names and people that are discussed in this book. The archology and scientific study of these civilizations and their evolution actually gave these people who seem to live “so long ago” they’ve lost all their humanity and become all but myth, into real living, breathing people. It’s easy to see how their culture, evolution, and location all impacted their actions, thoughts, and deeds. For good or ill, this book made these ancient people, PEOPLE, living and breathing, with blood in their veins and thumping hearts. 

It was really interesting how much of ancient life can be known, or at least guessed at by the cues we still have left, and the records made on things found over time, and the author did a fantastic job at taking readers through not just how life might have been, but likely how these unfolding societies impacted the understanding of the world, how humans interacted and understood the natural order, and how all of that formed a building block for everything that came next. 

Absolutely fantastic, illuminating book for anyone interested in archology and ancient civilizations. 

5/5 stars

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