What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West

What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West

What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West

What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West

Synopsis

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. Now, they are brought together within a unified history of how people first created cities, kingdoms, and monumental temples to the gods. But civilization, as Wengrow shows, is not only about such grand monuments. Just as importantly, it is also about the ordinary but fundamental practices of everyday life that we might take for granted, such as cooking food and keeping the house and body clean. Tracing the development of such practices, from prehistoric times to the age of the pyramids, the book reveals unsuspected connections between distant regions, and provides new insights into the workings of societies we have come to regard as remote from our own. It also forces us to recognize that civilizations are not formed in isolation, but through the mixing and borrowing of culture between societies. The book concludes by drawing telling parallels between the ancient Near East and more recent attempts at reshaping the world order to an ideal image. Are the sacrifices we now make in the name of 'our' civilization really so different from those once made on the altars of the gods?

Excerpt

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’. It is easy to see why. After the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, the Middle East witnessed a series of startling transformations that were unprecedented in human history, and have shaped its course down to the present day. By 8000 BC the world’s first substantial and permanent settlements had been established there, accompanied by the earliest domestication of cereal crops and herd animals. Over successive millennia farming spread to neighbouring regions, including the Mediterranean and northern Europe. But in the Middle East itself, further developments unfolded that would remain alien to most of Europe for many thousands of years. By 4000 BC cities of great size and complexity had appeared along the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, in what is today Iraq. The invention of the earliest known system of writing followed in that region (referred to by historians as ancient Mesopotamia) around 3300 BC, echoed to the west along the Egyptian Nile, where a distinct group of scripts emerged at much the same time.

Th is book provides a new account of these remarkable changes in human society and technology, and many . . .

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