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4.3 out of 5 stars22
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 22 July 2010
To start with - this was not at all the book I thought it was - I read the title "Babylon" and was expecting it to be all about the Ziggurat, the hanging gardens, the wealth, the power etc etc of the famous city. What the book is really about is (as so often these days - a real publishers' trick to get books off shelves) in the "sub-title": "Mesopotamia and the birth of civilisation". So it starts way, way, earlier than I had thought it would and there is less about Babylon itself.

But please don't think I am complaining, because it is a really terrific book, and far better for what I wanted (filling in my utter lack of knowledge about what goes "before" Philip/Alexander, the Persian Empire, Carthage etc). Kriwacek takes us back to the very start of civilisation in Mesopotamia and goes on from there. On the way he shakes very thoroughly any sense of Western superiority that readers may still have as he recounts how writing, science, art and architecture were forging ahead here when the inhabitants of Europe were clinging to a very marginal existence. The story of each of the major cities and its type of civilisation is told carefully by reference to excellent sources, and with scrupulously fair recognitiion of where the main areas of controversy lie. What is more it does all link into Babylon, bacuse he shows how each step in the development in Mesopotamia manifested itself within the Babylonian culture when it finally developed (an odd thought, given how early it was).

Kriwacek writes hugely well and engagingly - it appears that his route to writing the book was essentially the curiosity which brought me to reading it (what went before X and Y?) but from the point of view of someone who knows the area as it is now, well (though his BBC work). It may just be good writing but the book conveys a sense of enjoyment in the discoveries and enthusiasm which make you feel that he simply loved the research - jokes about textual infelicities, and asides about impressions which a text conveys mean that the stories leap from the page. I am generally very sniffy about modern parallels, but the ones he used were clever, well chosen and not over done - indeed given the gaps in material I found them positively helpful in assisting one to recreate the picture.

All in all, a wonderful book - definitely in my top 3 so far this year - and I shall be off to the British Museum this weekend to look at their Mesopotamian collection with new eyes!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 August 2010
I bought this knowing that it was written by a non-specialist - a 'journalistic' approach to the ancient world of the Sumarians, Akkadians etc. That's OK. A journalistic style can be great for general introductions to a subject, making the material engaging and easy-to-read.

Alas, in this case getting a book by a non-specialist may have been a big mistake. This author appears to see historical connections where none really exist, and sometimes drifts off on tangents that have little or no direct relevance to the subject.

Just one example to show what I mean: In a discussion of the 'Warka Vase' (from ancient Mesopotamia) the author suddenly jumps to Plato (Greece, a few thousand years later), then spends a couple of pages discussing Johan Huizinga, a 20th century Dutch philosopher.

All very interesting, no doubt, but I wanted to learn about ancient Mesopotamia, not Johan Huizinga's philosophy. Huizinga's relevance to the ancient Near East (if any) could have been summed up in a sentence or two.

Frequently as I read this book I found myself thinking, 'PLEASE can we get back to the point?'

You'll have gathered by now that I didn't like it.

(BTW, anyone who bought the book expecting lots about the city of Babylon may be doubly-disappointed. While Babylon gets a reasonable mention later in the book, the book's title would have been more accurate if the word 'Babylon' had been omitted.)

Another annoyance was the way the author sometimes makes highly improbable links and connections, and does so in such an off-handed way. His tone implies that there's nothing controversial about these statements, and that no one could possibly doubt them.

Again, just one example: He mentions in passing that the Christmas story of the baby in the manger had its roots in ancient Mesopotamian myth. Really? Sorry, Mr Kriwaczek but I don't think so! I suspect most real historians don't think so either.

To be honest, by the time I'd reached about page 40 of this 300 page book, I was already regretting my purchase, and nothing that followed changed my opinion. I just didn't feel I was in a safe pair of hands.

In the 'further reading' section, the author recommends A History of the Ancient Near East: Ca. 3000-323 BC (Blackwell History of the Ancient World) by Marc van de Mieroop, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at Columbia. Personally, I now wish I'd bought that book and not this one!
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on 10 September 2012
This is one of the best history books I've ever read. The author covers a huge period, almost 4,000 years, looking at the different types of society that flourished in this region without getting bogged down in tedious details of who invaded whom. He is an imaginative and creative writer, showing analogies between Mesopotamian societies and our own, but without presenting his informed speculations as facts and without imposing a modern mindset on ancient people who often thought very differently- despite having many of the same problems that we face today. Illuminating the present and assisting prediction of the possible future is surely the main point of studying history!

Although the author is Jewish he does not present Old Testament accounts as historical facts, but shows them to be myth and propaganda, same as most other contemporary accounts. Thus for example he mentions that the Bible's description of King Solomon's court would have been modelled on that of Assyrian society, not the reality of a minor tribal chieftain which is what Solomon would have been if he existed at all. This book has directed me to many other areas of further reading, by asking very basic questions which other histories skate over. For example- WHY did people first switch from hunter-gatherer Mesolithic life to agricultural Neolithic? The latter involved more hard work, less freedom, and poorer physical health- so why did they do it? Kriwaczek doesn't answer this question but he does at least ask it.

The author's autobiography, by the way, would be well worth reading if he ever writes it. Born in Austria before the War, fluent in eight languages, worked as a dentist all over the Middle East before switching to journalism- what a wealth of life experience!

My only criticism of this book is that it should have "Timeline" chart, and that approximate dates should be signposted more clearly in the text.
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on 7 July 2014
Mr. Kriwaczek is that rare combination of solid historian and gifted narrator who knows where to put the light touches in. His preceding a translation of a 3,000 years old drinking hymn with the words "all together now!" is a nice case in point.

I have read several works on the earliest civilizations and most of them require a very serious thirst for knowledge. Paul Kriwaczek's book is however at the same time highly informative, well documented and a first-rate page turner. This book would be my first choice for anyone interested in the facts and backgrounds of the birth of civilization, told in a way that will stick to the memory and that will help you pass a number of pleasant hours.
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on 25 November 2013
Having slogged my way through many densely packed history books over the years it has been refreshing to pick this one up for a light dip into the story of early civilization. It is not a vast, fact-dense academic study, just a thought-provoking guided tour of what may well be the important bits, or just the interesting bits depending on your academic point of view. Either way, I enjoyed this book and am slightly sad that it is over. The writing is smooth and pleasing, inferences are generally signposted, and in most cases the facts are varied enough to give a reasonably broad view of the time, place, and people.

Think of this as a tasty history snack.
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on 23 February 2015
I am very glad that I read this book. Paul Kriwaczek shines a light on a civilization and on a period of history that I didn't know very much about. I found this book very easy to read; the chapters slice up the history of the region into easily understandable chunks. Kriwaczek also mixes in the stories of the individuals who helped unearth (literally!) the history of the great cities of Uruk, Ur, Assyria and Babylon.
Kriwaczek also dabbles in telling stories about the present Middle-East, which have annoyed other reviewers of this book. I think he is attempting to use modern day politics to help the reader get a better understanding of the events he is retelling. Unfortunately, sometimes his own sympathies and bias come through - and I can see why that would annoy other readers. However, I think the book is still worth reading even if Kriwaczek's politics annoy you! On this basis, I think it is worth 4 stars rather than 5.
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on 8 March 2014
A neat account of the first city to have something like the modern way of life. Things that the Greeks passed on to the rest of Europe, but they had taken them from West Asia, where Babylon became the main focus.
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on 3 April 2013
This is a useful introduction to the history of the Ancient Near East. Paul Kriwaczek works hard to breathe life into limited data and to build a picture of the life and times of the Assyrians and Babylonians in the era when they developed their civilisations. He is not afraid to use conjecture to fill in the gaps in knowledge. I found this book rather slow and hard to get into. But it's scholarly and well worth a read.
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on 16 January 2015
Good readable historical account. However he does write from a prejudicial Islamic standpoint. Repeated comments such as "THE HOLY KORAM" and " Hebrew fables", do make him loose his credibility somewhat.
However ad I am able to read beyond the prejudices, it is a good learning experience.
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on 29 October 2015
Fascinating and difficult to put down. I have found other books on this subject rather dry and dull, so am delighted with this purchase
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