Monday, March 12, 2012

Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster's "Civilizations of Ancient Iraq" (Steak Knives)

I’m at a bit of a loss to say a whole lot about this text, because it’s just a good, all-around primer for early history in Iraq as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ to coin a phrase.  While this sort of thing was standard text book issue back in my own pre-history as a budding archeologist/anthropologist in my early 20’s, I wanted to take a closer look back and remind myself where it all started.  In both senses, I suppose.

I’ve read and re-read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which continues to inspire, so a look at the sociocultural and political development of the region alongside Iran and Egypt promised good times.  There’s several thousand years of history here, and the authors leave off at the time of Islam’s rise, which changed the character of the region forever (as did the influence of Roman colonialism shortly before, in the grand scheme of things).

I struggle to capture highlights here, but it was a real pleasure to get some insight into how civilization developed and spread through commerce, art, science, politics and of course warfare.  While the ultimate question of ‘why there’ can only be answered in part, a review of the starting point of cities and urbanism is important reading for its ability to evoke shared struggles and successes we feel to this day.

The authors do one better than a textbook account in relating their history.  In a carefully balanced (and IMHO, admirably objective) review, they share the story – insofar as possible - of many of the artifacts that were lost to science and posterity in the looting that followed the invasion of Iraq in the past decade.  I’d seen a thoughtful and saddening piece on 60 Minutes several years back that covered the looting of Iraq’s museums during the invasion, and this book added some detail and scope as to why what was taken is so important, but also why what was left behind in chaos cannot be put back together again (e.g. 1000’s of yet to be considered pieces meticulously ordered artifacts strewn about the place, without markers to put it in their proper historical or geographical place).  This ranks as one of the greatest losses to collective human history as can be imagined, and I wish it would get more international attention.  That many of these artifacts now grace some anonymous and fabulously rich collectors’ living room walls as trophies is just completely beyond contempt.  Those responsible should be shot, pissed on, then burned.

All in all, a great history of early civ, and a good launching pad for a look at early Iran.  I’m still searching for a good overview of early Iranian history, so any recommendations are very much welcome.

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