Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City By Gwendolyn Leick ALLEN LANE pounds 25
Because of Saddam Hussein, British and American pilots every day look down from the cockpits of their jet fighters at Eden, the home not of mankind but of civilisation. They do this because they patrol southern Iraqi airspace, and their view includes the evocative land where the Tigris and Euphrates join together to run into vast marshlands, which in turn dissolve into the Persian Gulf. Just north of the marshes, between the Euphrates and the margins of the Arabian Desert, lies the site of the first city known to mankind: Eridu. If an F-14 were to fly from this 7,000- year old city north-west up the alluvial plain towards present-day Baghdad, it would sweep over a terrain dense with exceedingly ancient history - for the shadow of its wings would flash over the sites of Ur and Uruk, Akkad and Nippur, and the great city of Babylon.
Gwendolyn Leick is an anthropologist and Assyriologist who writes about the ancient Near East and conducts tour parties there. In this substantial and methodical book she surveys 10 of the most important cities of Mesopotamia, beginning with Eridu and ending with Babylon, a historical journey of 5,000 years. Each chapter systematically surveys a city, giving the history of its archaeological discovery and an account of the traditions and legends surrounding it. Together the 10 chapters constitute a mosaic of Mesopotamian history, which is in effect the history of the beginnings of urban life. It comes as no surprise to find that almost everything required by organised urban life, from writing to the existence of a large civil service, was born in the cities of this fertile plain. Nor does it come as a surprise to find mankind's earliest beliefs taking shape here - of how, for example, the wise man of Shuruppak, aided by the god Enki, survived a flood by building an ark and taking the seeds of life in it; and of how the great king of Akkad, Sargon, was illegitimately born to a priestess who put him in a reed basket and floated him down the Euphrates, where he was found by a waterman who raised him. One of the earliest of mankind's many dying- and-resurrecting-god myths tells how Inanna (later called Ishtar) was trapped in the underworld by her sister, and because she was the goddess of eros and procreation, like her later avatar Aphrodite, her absence caused the world's libido to vanish. …