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Babylon by Joan Oates Review


The notion of deep time is one which is difficult for the human mind to comprehend. Human civilization was born sometime from 5 to 6 thousand years ago, in the land between the rivers - Mesopotamia, today Iraq - where the ancient Sumerians raised the first great cities, built of mud brick from their only resource, the land and the rivers. Art, literature, religion, and ultimately warfare, hierarchy, and conquest flourished for thousands of years, before the first cities died, before the lights of Ur and Uruk were finally extinguished. The first cities of mankind rose, lived out their days of glory, and fell - all before the Wooly Mammoths finally perished. It is incomprehensible for the human mind to deal with periods of time of a length where the millennia pass like centuries, where far more time separates Jesus from Sargon the Great than Jesus stands from us, that hundreds of generations lived, loved, and died and are lost forever to the sands of time. And yet it is over any such length of time that a book like Babylon, by Joan Oates, must cover, for the city of Babylon, even if it was a relative late-comer in the land between the rivers, so too breathed the hot desert air and transfixed the minds of men for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, Babylon doesn’t quite live up to this monumental task. Babylon has a strong beginning and interesting commentary at the end, but its middle section lacks for the vital context and mise-en-scène which would make it into a great book.

For starts, there are no regional maps scattered throughout the book, only a map of the cities near the beginning, which would have been extremely useful: the Ancient Middle East changed greatly over the course of its four thousand years of history, but the lack of maps makes understanding at a glance, this territorial, imperial, and economic shift very difficult. If there had been maps to show the powers, states, and key events of the ancient world, the book would have been much improved.

Furthermore, context is lacking in regards to a central theme of the book - what Babylon’s cultural influence and prestige meant, so that even in times of the nadir of Babylonian power, Babylon still retained a cultural hegemony that preserved it from destruction. Like France, Babylonian culture and its language radiated out across the world, serving as a tool of diplomacy from Persia to the land of the pharaohs. But the book doesn’t show why Babylonian culture was so attractive: French culture in its original glory days of the 17th century seduced the nobility of Europe through its playwrights like Molière, the sophistication of Versailles, court culture, the académie française, its literature, its music, its painting. French culture spread across Europe because the golden age of French cultural production led to it being imitated and admired. These mechanisms are not elaborated at all for the Babylonians: we are at a loss to understand what at all was so attractive about them. To explain what the rest of the ancient world saw as worthwhile and noble enough for emulation in Babylon would have gone a long way towards giving the book meaning. The author does admit on the last page that there still remains important work to be done to answer this question, but she could have engaged in grater speculation, or deployed what limited answers we do have. As it stands, the book has a certain curious detachment and lack of engagement.

This relates to the struggles, wars, and battles of Babylon. There were great wars fought with the Assyrians, famed for their cruelty and brutality: what were the sentiments expressed about such conflicts? One would expect that even in this era, before history was born as a discipline with the Greeks, that scribes would still write down some form of rulers’ justification for wars: what were the motivations for the constant wars with the Assyrians? Did their brutality enter into play? Or was it just a war of elites as the book seems to imply, in mentioning that city dwellers preferred Assyrian domination for the peace, stability, and order it brought?

There are some positive aspects of the book - it has lots of detail, particularly in its final pages, the last chapter, which delves into the culture and the society of Mesopotamia. While it may lack for maps, it has some truly excellent photographs, architectural plans, and illustrations, which are nicely detailed in their discussion. There are many quotes for primary sources. The evolution of ancient society and governance is a key part, showing the way in which the ancient city-states evolved from what to our eyes seems strikingly like the Greek city-states to monarchies and then to kingdoms, and the institutions present. It has chosen a difficult task, to cover thousands of years of history, and it seems to do so factually, giving a sense for the evolution of governmental structures and religion over the course of this time. But it lacks for passion and lacks for giving a sense of what the meaning of these great civilizations were.


Ryan C Thomas (author) from Trinidad on September 11, 2021:

Thank you for your commentary! I am glad you appreciated it.

mactavers on September 11, 2021:

Thank you for your excellent book review.

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