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Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek

New York: Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 2012. Pp. x, 310. Illus., maps, biblio., index. $27.99. ISBN: 9781250000071.

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization is a  synthesis of the most recent scholarly consensus on the history of Ancient Mesopotamia, written for the educated layman.

Journalist and historian Kriwaczek begins quite literally in the Neolithic Age, around 8,000 BC and carries his story down to the Persian conquest in the sixth century B.C.   In an ambitious effort, he examines almost every aspect of the rise of civilization in the so-called “Fertile Crescent.”  Kriwaczek opens with an introduction that deals with the development of agriculture and follows with a look at the origins of towns of kingship down to 4,000 BC.  He then looks at “The Age of Gilgamesh,” a period down to about 3,000 BC characterized by small statelets with divine kingships.  Kriwaczek’s next looks at “The Flood,” a combination of developments not yet fully clear to scholarship around 3,000 BC that overthrew the old order.  He follows this with two chapters that deal respectively with the rise of more coherent city-state monarchies, and their gradually coalesced into more substantial kingdoms in the Bronze.  Kriwaczek then gives us a look at the successive “empires” of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, followed by an account of the Persian conquest and its consequences.

Using a lively, effective writing style, Kriwaczek weaves into his narrative developments in writing, religion, engineering, art, urban planning, and more, of course, including politics, diplomacy, and military institutions and war.  He by no means confines himself to the past.  Kriwaczek makes frequent comparisons between the ancient and the modern, such as the surprisinglycommon features between Sumerian and Soviet agricultural management or a comparison of the cult of personality of King Shulgi of Ur (c. 2000 BC) with that of China’s Chairman Mao. Kriwaczek also reminds us that while their material achievements may not seem like much to modern techno addicts, the ancients were just as intelligent, treacherous, and wily as we are, and that some things haven’t changed very much through the ages. 

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization is a good read for anyone interested in history, and likely to be equally enjoyable for the scholar or the educated layman.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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