Reading Log 2019 #5: Babylon: Mesopotamia And The Birth Of Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek

Writing a book about any aspect of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations has to be a right bastard to begin with. Writing a book about ALL of them is basically a monument to hubris. That said, Kriwaczek does a very good job of tackling this huge span of history in his Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization.

To put this in some perspective, the END of this book is as far removed from its start, in terms of years passed, as we are from the end of the book ourselves. He’s covering THOUSANDS of years here.

Starting with the first stirrings of civilization in the city-states of ancient Sumeria, such as Ur and Kish, and ending with the long fall of the Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian Empire at the hands of the upstart Persians, Kriwaczek takes us through what narrative we can construct from the available evidence.

And there’s a lot of evidence. There’s also a lot of gaps. The author’s job in such a case is to simply make sure the reader is aware of these factors, and Kriwaczek does a solid job on that front throughout.

Each chapter generally begins with a retelling of the archaeological dig that turned up the evidence that’s then used to provide the chapter it’s part of. It’s a nice way to let the reader know how confident the author is in the specific info he’s about to present.

As much as is possible, he includes details about the life of regular people as well as, of course, the ruling classes. That so much of the clay tablet-based evidence available is about economic and material transactions helps somewhat in this regard. We know more about how ancient Babylonian societies fed and clothed themselves than we do say early Ancient Greece or Ancient Egypt solely because their records-keeping took place in a physical format that could survive quite well for millennia, unlike any paper or papyrus-based writing systems.

This is shown by how much less data we have on the latest, Akkadian and Assyrian Empires that had converted to recording their language via an Aramaic, alphabet-based script on more paper-like substances that did not survive than we do on empires that existed a thousand years prior to them.

Kriwaczek also tries to tie a lot of how these civilizations operated to modern-day equivalents, which is… a stretch, to me. Sure, a lot of the evidence we have may relate to economic transactions, but making the leap from that to “they were obviously full market capitalists” seems a bit much. It’s a type of comparison the author makes repeatedly, and it never quite lands for me.

That nit aside, I like and recommend this book mostly because it’s engagingly written, and covers a vast territory and time about as well as any non-academic tome could in one volume.