Babylon: Mesopotamia And The Birth Of Civilization (Review), Attention Required!

There is much that is surprising and interesting and fascinating in Paul Kriwaczek’s 2010 book Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization.

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And much in Kriwaczek’s storytelling that is infuriating.

It is astonishing that the civilization that rose up in Mesopotamia in about 3000 BC lasted through various permutations until 539 BC existed for roughly 2,500 years — or as many years as have elapsed since its fall. Or, as Kriwaczek writes:

If history, as by most definitions, begins with writing, then the birth, rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamia occupies fully half of all history….

Throughout — 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.

This is Kriwaczek at his best — stepping back and seeing Mesopotamia’s place in the 5,000-year sweep of history and communicating that insight to his readers. It’s breath-taking to consider that one rich culture — one (diverse) people in one place on Earth — lasted so long and was dominant for so long.

“Labeled K3751”

However, an example of the writer at his worst is this sentence that opens the final chapter of Babylon:

An Assyrian scholar, writer of epics and annals for the royal household, like the compiler of the Chronicle of Tiglath-Pileser II that is inscribed on a reddish clay table the top part of which now lies in the British Museum, labeled K3751, steeped in the lore of Mesopotamia’s past, convinced of his civilization’s superiority over all other ways of life, and observing that Aramaic speakers were now promising to become a majority among the empire’s population, might have consoled himself with the thought that this was nothing new.

In Babylon, Kriwaczek loves wordiness and long, convoluted — and often perplexing — sentences, paragraphs and chapters.

This is also an example of his delight in dropping in tangential ideas into a sentence, paragraph or chapter, to wit: “like the compiler of the Chronicle of Tiglath-Pileser II that is inscribed on a reddish clay table the top part of which now lies in the British Museum, labeled K3751.” Did the reader really need to know the label number?

Tangential in a different way is his addition of clauses that modify the scholar, to wit: “steeped in the lore of Mesopotamia’s past, convinced of his civilization’s superiority over all other ways of life, and observing that Aramaic speakers were now promising to become a majority among the empire’s population.”

The key fact here for the sentence is that Aramaic speakers are overwhelming the empire. The rest of the clauses are essentially a restatement of other modifiers of the scholar which you can see when you look at the sentence without all that extra baggage: “An Assyrian scholar, writer of epics and annals for the royal household…might have consoled himself with the thought that this was nothing new.”

“Might have consoled himself”

That core of Kriwaczek’s sentence also indicates another problem with the story he tells — What’s fact? What’s speculation? What’s imagination?

On page 9 of Babylon, Kriwaczek makes the point that cold, hard facts are difficult to come by when talking about a civilization that started 50 centuries ago:

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.

As an example, he notes that one cuneiform text refers to a solar eclipse that scholars initially dated in 1375 BC, but, later, others argued for 1223 BC, and, more recently, researchers have suggested 1192 BC or 1012 BC.

The bottom line, it appears, is that much of what we know about the Mesopotamian civilization is guesswork — informed, scholarly and knowledgeable to be sure, but still guesswork.

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So Babylon is filled with words that suggest what might have happened, such as this sentence at the beginning of a section of one of Kriwaczek’s chapters:

Most probably to blame were the great political changes that swept across the region near the beginning of the second millennium BCE.

The use of “most probably” is understandable, given the difficulty of reading the Mesopotamian cuneiform texts. And Kriwaczek is to be thanked for making sure the reader knows that what he’s writing about isn’t certain. Other breezier writers of popular history are less rigorous and more willing to buff off all the rough edges of history to make simpler and more sweeping statements.

But it increases his already distracting wordiness.

“Perhaps trembled”

In addition, Kriwaczek faces another problem when he is trying to describe daily life or a particular event for which details aren’t available in a single document. In such cases, he is taking research from a variety of scholars and, based on that research, envisioning the scene he wants to describe.

So, for instance, when a king is looking out at an army that has suddenly appeared on his doorstep, Kriwaczek writes:

He would have seen, in the center of the formation, the main body of the infantry, compact phalanxes of spearmen, their weapon points glittering in the sun, each arranged in ten files of twenty ranks. He would have marveled — and perhaps trembled — at the discipline and precision of their maneuvering, a contrast to the relatively freewheeling manner of previous armies, for the reforms had introduced a highly developed and effective command structure.

This is a legitimate way of describing the scene and clearly tipping off that it is a guess — that it is based on what the writer thinks the king “would have seen.”

Note in the second sentence the word “perhaps.” While Kriwaczek is on relatively solid ground with the “would have” construction, the “perhaps” is a much greater guess. Unlike the make-up and set-up of the army facing the city, the writer, it seems clear, has no evidence that the king “trembled.” This is a much greater guess than how the army would have looked to the king.

There are a lot of “perhapses” in Babylon.

“It seems to me”

So, all of this makes Babylon frequently disconcerting, but Kriwaczek heightens the confusion by doing his own seat-of-the-pants speculating beyond the speculation of the experts, such as in this sentence:

It seems to me most likely that the real leap that advanced writing from the recording of things to the recording of speech sounds, or at least the idea that inspired it, initially came about as a playful bit of fun.

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This is an interesting point in an interesting chapter in which Kriwaczek is arguing the key role of play in the early Mesopotamian culture. But the sentence as, indeed, the whole chapter seems to be based on his own analysis of things.

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