Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book. This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians. There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references). It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.
However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages). Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).
My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account. I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative! Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.
I couldn’t help but compare this book to Robert Fisk’s epic The Great War For Civilisation. James Barr’s book covers the conflict in the Middle East from the Anglo-French meetings in the first world war up to Israeli independence in 1948. Fisk’s book featured his experiences of the Russian and American wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Iraq, the Algerian civil war, Israel, Syria, and whatever bits of Lebanon that didn’t make it into his previous book, Pity the Nation.
Fisk’s book is much more personal. There may be flaws or mistakes, but he is passionate, opinionated, and well informed. It is a devastating read in places. A chapter into his father’s experience with a firing squad in World War One provides context. Jumping from the Armenian Genocide, to torture in Algeria and then to his own investigations into arms manufacturers – it’s not a light read. It is however very, very engrossing.
James Barr’s book has a lighter tone (most things would in comparison to Fisk) and a tendency to focus on historical character, with the distance that seventy plus years can give. It reads like a disaster slow unfolding (especially since we know the current state of things), but there are easier moments (the eccentricities of Orde Wingate or the adventures of T.E Lawrence). Both books have a running theme of mismanagement from the western powers – uninformed decisions, petty diplomacy and careerist politicians and bureaucrats who have landed the role and can’t wait to leave (mixed with the occasional maverick fighting for their own pet cause).
The distance makes Line In The Sand an easier read, and it may have been easier for Barr to write, but ultimately it is a sad prequel to the modern situation in the region. Both books are well written and even handed accounts of the 20th (and 21st) century history of the region, and definitely worth reading.
On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum. In short, it is fantastic! The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East. Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).
The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale. The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.
Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing. With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.
I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.