In What Makes Civilization?, archaeologist David Wengrow provides a vivid new account of the ‘birth of civilization’ in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). These two regions, where many foundations of modern life were laid, are usually treated in isolation. This book aims to bring them together within a unified history of how people first created cities, kingdoms, and monumental temples to the gods. In the original blog post below, David Wengrow writes about that isolated view of the Near and Middle East.
To talk of civilizations is not just to describe the past. It is also to reflect on what is different about the societies we live in, how they relate to one another, and the extent to which their futures are bound up with traditions inherited from previous ages. The ancient Near East—including Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) and Egypt—occupies a uniquely paradoxical place in our understanding of civilization. We freely acknowledge that many foundations of modern civilization were laid there, along the banks of the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the Nile. Yet those same societies have come to symbolise the remote and the exotic: the world of walking mummies, possessive demons, unfathomable gods, and tyrannical kings. What is the source of this paradox? For answers we usually look to the legacy of the Old Testament, and the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. But as part of a generation that was no longer obliged to read the ‘Classics’ at school, I find something unsatisfying about the idea that we have simply inherited the cultural prejudices of the ancients, as though by osmosis.
Most people today, I would have thought, are more likely to encounter the ancient Near East through the lens of Hollywood than through the biblical and Greco-Roman literature that informed the views of earlier generations. Still, when the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was looted in 2003, eight decades after its foundation by the British diplomat and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, our newspapers proclaimed ‘the death of history’. The headlines, for once, were in my opinion proportionate to the truth. Ancient Mesopotamia and surrounding parts of the Middle East were the setting for some of the most momentous turning points in human history: the origins of farming, the invention of the first writing system, of mechanised transport, the birth of cities and centralised government, but also—and no less importantly—familiar ways of cooking food, consuming alcohol, branding commodities, and keeping our homes and bodies clean. That is what archaeologists and ancient historians mean when they talk (a little coyly, these days) about ‘the birth of civilization’, 5000 years ago, on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
As somebody who researches and teaches the archaeology of the Middle East for a living, I have often been struck by how little Mesopotamia is discussed outside a small circle of academics, by contrast with its ever-popular neighbour on Nile. Even less widely known are the other great urban centres of the Bronze Age: in the Indus Valley, the oases of Central Asia, on the Iranian Plateau, and along the shores of the Persian Gulf. Contrary to what most people think, the discovery of ‘lost civilizations’ did not end with the Victorian era. It has been going on, quietly and steadily, amid the turmoil of the 20th century, through fieldwork in remote and sometimes dangerous areas, and through the equally important work of analysis and translation that takes place in universities and museums. Why are the results of this steady increase in our knowledge about the ancient world not better known?
Academics and curators must themselves carry a certain amount of responsibility. As regional specialists, we are not averse to claiming some elevated status for our particular areas of expertise. And the layout of modern museums often militates against an understanding of the relationships between ancient societies. Most seem to be planned on a principle of cultural quarantine, segregating the remains of once-connected civilizations into a series of artificial components: the isolated garden-cultures of which Samuel Huntington—Harvard’s late Professor of the Science of Government—wrote in his influential treatise on the ‘Clash of Civilizations’. According to Huntington, civilizations (both ancient and modern) are built on cultural fault-lines, and are in origin a series of utterly disconnected phenomena.
I would like to put the record straight, at least for the societies of the ancient Near East, whose modern successors have borne the brunt of violence in our current ‘clash of civilizations’. I suggest that we can no longer talk of ancient civilizations as isolated phenomena, except perhaps as a mythical charter of origin for our own nation-states. The emergence of what anthropologists call ‘complex societies’—large-scale societies, of the kind that our species has known only for the last 5000 years of its existence—was bound up with the growth of new and powerful desires for things beyond the local. Our modern superpowers turn the world upside down to ensure a constant flow of things we have become culturally addicted to, oil being an obvious and relevant example. The first complex societies were no different in this regard. Metals, timber, incense, and other exotic goods were brought from far and wide to feed the gods of the Nile and the Euphrates, and to bring mortals a little closer to their home-grown visions of order and perfection: their own images of ‘civilization’. The result was an astonishing flow of commodities and cultural resources which—thousands of years before the Silk Road—transformed the fate of societies and reshaped environments from the mountains of Afghanistan to the Turkish Plateau, and from the forests of Lebanon to the deserts of Arabia.