Babylon Revisited

Review of Civilizations of Ancient Iraq, by Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. pp. xii, 297)

Western civilization owes much to ancient Iraq. It was here that the earliest form of writing was developed, which produced the world's first poetry and prose and led, eventually, to the development of the Greek alphabet. This region produced the first towns, cities, states and empires in human history, and also witnessed pioneering developments in mathematics, astronomy and law.

Cover of  Civilizations of Ancient Iraq, by Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster
Cover of Civilizations of Ancient Iraq by Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster.

In this book, Benjamin and Karen Foster provide a concise, engaging and informative historical survey of ancient Iraq from its earliest history some ten thousand years ago to the seventh century of the common era. They tell the stories of successive civilizations and peoples in Iraq, from Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to Parthians, Seleucids, Romans and Sassanians. Throughout the book the authors integrate selections of primary source material into their discussions of political, cultural and economic issues. They also maintain an important focus on cultural heritage issues throughout.

The book begins with a geographical introduction to ancient Iraq, focusing on the central role of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in sustaining civilization in Mesopotamia (I will use this term interchangeably with ancient Iraq) and the important changes brought about by the agricultural revolution. Chapter two details the rise of the city of Uruk—the world's first—under the Sumerians in the middle of the fourth millennium. It was here that cuneiform writing was introduced in the Sumerian language (a non-Indo-European language and unrelated to any others known to us) with nearly 1,900 characters utilized for communication. Here, too, the first art-historical representations of specific persons and deities were created. In the next chapter, the Fosters detail the growth of city-state confederations in the third millennium after the decline of Uruk.

In one of the most rewarding chapters of the book, the Fosters explain the origins, administration and economic system of the region's first empire, that of Sargon of Akkad (d. 2279) and his grandson, Naram-Sin (d. 2218). Sargon and Naram-Sin ruled from Agade, a city that has yet to be found. The authors note that both men had long lives in the memories and literature of Mesopotamia, since their names became proverbial for imperial grandeur and military prowess. Naram-Sin was, in fact, the first ruler to be worshipped as a god in his own right while he was still alive.

Chapter five takes us into the middle of the second millennium, to the Age of Hammurabi (r. 1792-50). Hammurabi was the "archetype" of an Amorite ruler, according to the authors. He centralized his empire in Babylon politically, economically and culturally; he was attentive to detail, hard-working, and produced voluminous correspondence, as well as his famous law code (pp. 77-81). A wonderful source for the social history of the age, it details, among other things, a surprisingly litigious culture. This age also produced a diverse range of literature: cook books, love literature and epics, to name only a few. It was at this time that the Epic of Gilgamesh was transformed from a series of narrative Sumerian poems into an Akkadian (a west Semitic language) epic. Chapter six details the rule of the Kassites, who in many ways continued the practices established by the Amorites and Hammurabi, until their kingdom collapsed during the upheavals of the twelfth century, which affected the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.

Chapter seven neatly summarizes what the authors call the "Assyrian Achievement," which fundamentally altered the geopolitical dynamics of Mesopotamia. The creation of the Neo-Assyrian empire over the course of the ninth and eighth centuries brought the peoples of western Asia (from Egypt to Lebanon to Iraq) under a single imperial system for the first time. The Assyrians practiced forced deportation of conquered subjects, purposely displacing them in order to populate new cities, the countryside, palaces and "Assyrianize" the empire. A quasi-common culture was created out of all of this, in which Aramaic was the lingua franca. Yet the authors are careful to note that this process did not erase past identities, especially in the case of Babylonia, which remained a separate cultural unit in most respects. Indeed, the Assyrians encountered many rebellions and near-constant resistance from this region. And, in the end, it was Babylonia that emerged intact from the seventh century, prosperous and holding the mantle of Mesopotamian imperial power. For they joined the Medes in 612 in the attack on Nineveh, which violently brought an end to the Assyrian empire.

As the authors make clear, the Assyrian achievement involved "internationalizing" Mesopotamia. Successive rulers of ancient Iraq would control territories well beyond the confines of the Tigris and Euphrates: the Persians ruled from the Hellespont and Egypt in the west to the rugged mountains of Afghanistan in the East, while their successors, the Hellenistic Seleucids, would do largely the same. Even the Parthians ruled Mesopotamia and Iran, while the Sassanian Persians expanded somewhat farther to the east.

It was in the context of the Hellenistic, Roman and Sassanian Persian worlds that ancient Iraqi civilization came to an end, partially the result of the long-term internationalization of the region but also due to its transformation into a frontier zone once the Romans conquered the eastern Mediterranean. The last dateable cuneiform tablet comes from 75 AD, from an astrological diary, which the authors take as a signifier that the living culture so well-described in this book had come to an end, absorbed by the imperial powers around and within it.

One of the highlights of this book is its incorporation of primary source documents from ancient Iraq. Readers may be surprised at the number of archives that have been discovered and the diversity of material contained within them. To mention only a few: 15,000 tablets dating to the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries were found at Nippur, a major regional center for the Kassite state. The archive contains administrative documents, detailing (among others thing) large-scale irrigation projects, but also correspondence (pp. 90-1); another archive from Kassite Babylonia comes from a family farm and details rural life at the time, especially the farmer's difficultly securing labor and equipment, all of which resulted in a lawsuit (p. 92); at the northern Iraqi site of Nuzi thousands of administrative records from a palace archive have been found, which contain financial accounts, muster lists for military service, and receipts for staple goods, such as oils and textiles (p. 99); and the city of Kanesh, in central Turkey, has produced 22,000 tablets that describe the business activities of Assyrian merchants residing there (pp. 106-8). Likewise, readers will certainly find beneficial the many "firsts" to which the authors point throughout the book: the first glass industry developed in the sixteenth to fifteenth centuries in northern Iraq (p. 100); the Nimrud banquet stele of Assurnasirpal II (r. 883-859) provides the first evidence we have for the pork dietary proscription in this region of the world. Among its long list of slaughtered livestock (e.g., some 14,000 sheep) not one pig is mentioned (p. 126); and the first ground crystal lens, meant to correct astigmatism (p. 126).

One of the most important contributions this book makes is through its sustained focus on cultural heritage issues ongoing today in Iraq. Every figure in the book is coupled with a small caption that usually summarizes the initial discovery of the object and then its fate since the 2003 looting of the Iraq museum in the wake of the American invasion. An epilogue in the book details the early archaeological explorations undertaken in the country (by Layard, Rawlinson, W. Andrae and others) and the effects of the Gulf and Iraq Wars on the country's cultural heritage. The authors' first point out that from the time of the 1958 revolution to the Gulf War there was simply no black market for Iraqi antiquities. The sites in Iraq were well guarded, and the penalty for trafficking illegal antiquities was harsh, often death.

All of this changed after the Gulf War, when crippling UN sanctions hobbled Iraq and created a new sense of economic urgency among the population. Yet this activity was small in comparison to what has occurred since the start of the Iraq War. On 10 and 11 April 2003 the Iraqi museum was looted by local residents, passersby, and professional thieves. The destruction of thousands of years of cultural heritage was sudden and immense: roughly 15,000 of the museum's objects were stolen,1 and this is to say nothing of the damage done to the context records (register books, excavation notes, file cards, etc.) stored in the museum, which cannot be quantified as objects can. Now, especially in the south, looting is well-organized. Gangs of hundreds of men go by shuttle service to loot sites. As the authors note, "…the cultural heritage of Iraq is vanishing at a rate without precedent or parallel." (210).

1 In the aftermath of the looting, the United States dispatched a multiagency task force to the Iraq Museum to investigate and establish procedures for the recovery of stolen objects. Matthew Bogdanos, the commander of this force, has published his finding here: M. Bogdanos, "The Casualties of War: The Truth about the Iraq Museum," American Journal of Archaeology 109.3 (2005): 477-526. Some 5,000 of the 15,000 objects stolen have been recovered. The article may be downloaded freely here: