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Book review: “Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization” by Paul Kriwaczek

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

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 [its 2,500 years] — 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 [the influx of Aramaic speakers] 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.

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.

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.

That’s a legitimate thing for a writer to do, especially when it’s framed in “It seems to me.”  Ultimately, though, this adds yet another layer of speculation onto all the other layers of speculation.

In the end, I found that all these layers of speculation were constantly confusing me as a reader. 

Because Babylon has so many “might haves” and “woulds” and “perhapses,” I was frequently bewildered — a bewilderment complicated by Kriwaczek’s wordy and convoluted writing style.

Why finish?

So why did I finish the book?

There are a great many interesting facts and insights in Babylon, such as in the chapter when Kriwaczek is making the case that ancient Mesopotamia was playful:

Anyone who has ever watched children amuse themselves will recognize that the scientific and technological face of civilization is precisely the result of play in its purest form.  Just as children are constantly exploring, experimenting, testing and trying things out, for no conscious purpose except the sheer enjoyment of the game itself, so pure science and applied technology play with ideas and toy with the principles and substance of the world; all the time wondering “just suppose…” and asking “what happens if…?”

From what I can tell, that’s Kriwaczek talking, not citing other scholars, but he’s making a lot of sense, and I enjoyed that insight.

Pious names

Another example is his reference to some early Sumerian people who had pious phrases for names, such as:

  • My god has proved true
  • I seize the foot of [the god] Enki
  • In the midst of thy food is a slave

Regarding that last name, Kriwaczek quotes a scholar: “Either the parent who gave this name has a sense of humor or he was a literalist as utterly lacking in humor as some of the Puritans who gave their children names consisting in long sentences.”

Did the Puritans really do that?  I took a look, and, sure enough, here are some Puritan examples:

  • If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone
  • Sorry-for-sin Coupard
  • Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith [last name?]

Yet another example of Kriwaczek’s eye for interesting stuff is his list, from a cuneiform document, of common people who not only participated in trials in one city but also in determining punishment:

Ordinary workers took part in the proceedings to plead for or against the accused: a bird-catcher, a potter, a gardener, a soldier attached to the temple of Nimurta, a man described as a commoner, the lowest rung of the social scale.

Slingshot, not a boy’s toy

Finally, for all the aggravation that reading Babylon brought me, I am thankful to Kriwaczek for explaining how powerful slingshots, such as the one used by David against Goliath, were.

He notes that, based on the Bible story, it seems that the shepherd boy “equipped with no more than a boy’s toy” was hugely outclassed by the armored, sword-holding giant and only won through a fluke.  But that idea is misguided.

In properly trained hands, the slingshot turns out to have been one of the deadliest weapons of all.

A sling works by increasing the effective length of a stone-thrower’s arm.  Modern cricket bowlers or baseball pitchers can achieve maximum velocities of over 150 kilometers [93 miles] per hour. A slingshot as long again as the thrower’s arm will double the projectile’s speed, making the velocity of the bullet when it leaves the sling nearly 100 meters [328 feet] per second. 

This is already considerably greater than that of a longbow arrow, at only about 60 meters [197 feet] per second.  Intensely trained from childhood onward, there is no reason to believe that a professional slinger could not beat 100 meters per second fairly easily and perhaps even begin to approach the muzzle velocity of a .45 caliber pistol round: about 150 meters [500 feet] per second.

Wow!  I’ll never think of the David story again in the same way.

Patrick T. Reardon


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