Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Babylon by Paul Kriwaczek

     You would think that a title like Babylon would indicate that the book was in fact about Babylon. You would be wrong.



     This wasn’t a bad book. It was interesting enough, and the author has a compelling writing style, but the bulk of this book was about the Sumerians, and actually felt kind of like a Cliff Notes version of The Sumerians.

     What saved it was little bits of mundane, every day detail we didn’t get elsewhere. Obviously the archaeologists and experts that study this subject have learned more cuneiform, and new technology allows a more in-depth study of materials. Furthermore, Kriwaczek does finally get to the Babylonians and Assyrians. I can see why he wished to start out with Sumer. In some ways, those two civilizations carried on with Sumerian traditions and weren’t very distinct.

     In fact, this was another book that I felt torn about. Kriwaczek begins the book by describing the extent to which Saddam Hussein used the legacy of Sumer and Babylon to set himself up as a figurehead. By hearkening back to ancient traditions, long before Islam became the religion of that area, he was able to take power away from the Muslim clergy.

     I found this incredibly interesting. However, as the book went on, and Kriwaczek began making increasingly narrow comparisons between the development of Sumer and our own society, I found it grew tedious. While the broader concepts in these comparisons make sense (such as between the invention of cuneiform and the computer-both changed the way we handle economics and information sharing), his use of phrases such as “eerie foreshadowing” make it seem as though we will learn about our own future by watching the future of Sumer. At one point he even references a scientist who claims to have discovered, mathematically, the patterns of decay in civilizations. While it’s intriguing, it also doesn’t take into account different cultures.

     The last quarter of the book is dedicated to Babylon, Assyria, and to some extent the Persians. It shows the development of Sumerian culture through these other three political powers. I think my main disappointment was that I expected the book to be more about Babylon by itself.

     Overall, the book isn’t bad. I would say it’s more of a layman’s version of The Sumerians, while Kramer’s book is more academic. That said, I definitely prefer The Sumerians, not least because Kramer didn’t try to make specific comparisons between cultural phenomena.  I find myself a bit underwhelmed. 

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