Years ago on my way home from work I used to walk by a funky old bookstore whose name has long escaped me. On nice days when it wasn’t raining, in front of the store there was a wheeled cart stacked with used books. Priced at 35 cents each or three for a dollar, 99 per cent of the time everything on the cart was pure garbage: old romance novels, obsolete technical manuals and out of date textbooks. But every once in a while, I could find a real gem or two. Over a stretch of a few week I found five or six 1960s era paperbacks devoted to ancient history. Priced down to close to nothing, how could I not resist picking up books like Leonard Cottrell’s The Anvil of Civilization and Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way or some other battered, frequently cover less vintage paperback that recalled the ancient glories of Babylon, Greece, Persia or Egypt. Before long I found myself reading one of these old paperbacks at home or in some coffee shop absorbed in the wonders of the ancient world.
Perhaps it nostalgic reasons that eagerly made me want to Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization when my book club chose it as our monthly selection. My eagerness grew once I discovered Kriwaczek also wrote Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, a book I reviewed a few years ago. So, ready to once again immerse myself in the forgotten worlds of the Near East, I bought a copy of Babylon off Amazon and went to work. I’m happy to report that reading Kriwaczek’s book brought me back to the good old days of reading ancient history. Plus, it’s a good book too.
I walked away from this book with a deeper appreciation of Mesopotamia’s history. It boggles my mind that Mesopotamian had a flourishing civilization for 2,500 years BEFORE the Persian conquest in BC 500. That’s like 200 years before Alexander the Great and 500 years before the dawn of the Roman Empire. And much like Rome Mesopotamia left a lasting legacy. Not only is it home to the world’s first cities but also irrigation projections, state-sponsored religion, taxation, socialist-style planned economies, beer brewing and mathematics (base 60 for both time keeping and geometry). Through a series of historical twists and turns Mesopotamian cuneiform would eventually lead to today’s written alphabets. In mythology, legends of baby Sargon’s rescue from the river find echoes in the life of Moses, just as the Gilgamesh flood myth narrative also finds parallel in the Torah, and with it the West’s Abrahamic faiths.
Kriwaczek writes well, makes ancient history accessible and interesting to a lay audience. If you’re in the market for a good book on ancient history book, then look no further then Kriwaczek’s Babylon.