By Paul Kriwaczek
Thomas Dunne, $27.99, 282 pages
Paul Kriwaczek begins with a quote from Professor Quentin Skinner of Cambridge University: “History which does not inform present-day concerns amounts to little more than self-indulgent antiquarianism.” You could hardly accuse Kriwaczek of self-indulgent antiquarianism. This is a lively and sometimes humorous account of Mesopotamian civilization, from its beginnings more than 6,000 years ago to the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.
A central theme is that a civilization is comparable to a living organism — it is born, it grows to maturity, then declines and dies, all in agreement with natural laws. A people’s history is not as influenced by arbitrary decisions and actions as we might think. By following the track of Mesopotamian civilization, we might discover laws that could enlighten perceptions of our own times. Kriwaczek notes that cultures tend to focus on the future when things are going well, and become obsessed with the past when things don’t look so bright. Babylonians of the midfirst millennium B.C. were so passionate about their past that they essentially invented the science of archeology. Compare that with modern interest in history, genealogy and preservation and it’s not hard to see how a study of Mesopotamian civilization can “inform present-day concerns.”
Reviewed by Paul Mullinger