Archive for August, 2012

The author of this book, a former BBC producer, died in 2011 shortly after completing it and I imagine that the title was imposed on the text after his death. ‘Babylon’ is quite a misleading name, as that is only one Mesopotamian city that came to prominence fairly late in the region’s history. Instead, this book is about the culture that arose between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, where civilisation began about 5,000 years ago and history was initiated not long after with the invention of writing. Babylon is a sweeping account of the whole period up to the end of Mesopotamian civilisation in the first millennium BCE, covering the rise and fall of various constituent empires – Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian.

(The author points out more than once that Mesopotamian civilisation lasted about 2,500 years – roughly the same as the age as our own, Greek-rooted civilisation – with the implication that Western culture is due for a fall.)

One of the most striking things about the way this volume is written is the number of digressions that either draw parallels with later periods of history (the first paragraphs describe Saddam Hussein’s use of imagery from Iraq’s ancient history to aggrandise his regime), highlight the Mesopotamian underpinnings of Judeo-Christian-Islamic and generally Western culture (for instance, the Biblical Flood is evidently based on Mesopotamian legends; we have hours of sixty minutes and minutes of sixty seconds because the Sumerians used sexagesimal (base-60) numbers (although they were pretty cumbersome – 59 was represented by five wide wedges and nine narrow wedges)) and the history of Mesopotamian history (like the four Assyriologists who were given a tablet to translate and when their translations agreed with each other it was decided that the language (Sumerian, I think) had been cracked).

So the book isn’t a dry, chapter and verse recitation of everything that’s known about the subject, but is more like listening to a raconteur tell a story with lots of fascinating diversions and insightful comments. A couple of my favourite bits of information were the story of the gardener who had been made into a temporary fake king in order to protect the real king, but, when the real ruler died, the gardener took over in earnest (although this may have been ancient spin on a palace coup); and also that the earliest cuneiform pictograms for man and woman were an ejaculating penis and a female pubic triangle respectively (Kriwaczek speculates that writing beyond merely functional accountancy notation may have developed as a kind of play; looking for images of these pictograms, I’ve learnt that the word ‘cunt’ may have come from the Latin ‘cuneus’ – ‘wedge’).

Another thing that strikes you is that, despite the fact that Babylon is quite a powerful image (because of Biblical slander), is how little Mesopotamian culture is known about today. Most people, I think, can easily reel off a good few Greek, Roman and Biblical gods, characters and cities; not so with the Mesopotamian equivalents (except, perhaps, the ones that appear in the Old Testament (or the Civilization games)). Yet the history and culture of that time and place is an essential part in the development of our own. Naturally, the main reason for this lack of familiarity is the great age of the subject, meaning that once-great cities have been built over time and again or simply lost in the desert.

But on the other hand, the fact that cuneiform was written on clay means that millions of tablets have been preserved – and most of them have yet to be translated, or even discovered. Later cultures’ papyrus and parchment have turned to dust leaving only monumental inscriptions, but the Mesopotamians have left us written records from their king list that details historical rulers and legendary one who reigned for 30,000 years, to notes from nagging wives telling their husbands on trade trips to send more goods or money.

But when clay tablets were made obsolete by less durable writing materials, a whole swathe of history was lost to the ravages of time, meaning that Assyriologists know more about the earlier periods than the later. Throughout the book, indeed, Kriwaczek is at pains to highlight how much Assyriology is subject to guesswork due to a lack of evidence. He also paints a few images of his own that are more works of imagination than history, like his description of a young scribe working on the roof of his building because there would be little light inside.

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization is a fascinating and engaging book that illuminates an important place and time for readers who don’t know much about it.

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Zürich to Bratislava was a fairly long journey: three local trains got me to Bregenz in western Austria then I took a seven or eight hour train ride to Vienna and finally another hour on to Bratislava Petržalka, the western, communist-era part of the city across the Danube from the castle and the old town. Botond was there to pick me up and we headed over to his estranged wife So-young’s place; she’d just left for a couple of weeks in Korea.

I didn’t do much sightseeing in Bratislava while I was there. I went into the centre a couple of times and had coffee and lunch at Shtoor, the café Habiba and I had been to when we had been in the city a few weeks earlier. My inclination to sightsee was pretty minimal – I was looking forward to having no responsibilities or schedule. I spent a lot of time on the internet.

On maybe the second or third day there, I managed to drop the shower door on my foot. The injury didn’t seem too bad at first and there was no sign that I’d broken a bone. My foot swelled up a bit and there was a fairly hard lump on my instep close to my middle toes. Afterwards, it developed a purple bruise that spread in a ring across my toes and down the side of my foot over a period of several days. I went out one day, walking to the centre, and when I came back, it was very sore. Bo and I talked about me going to a doctor, but I semi-deliberately prevaricated over it and eventually it showed signs of getting better.

On the first weekend, Botond’s brother, Zsombor (in Hungarian, ‘zs’ represents the ‘s’ sound in ‘measure’), joined us and we (ie, Bo) drove to Austria for a camping/swimming/hiking weekend. With my foot, I wasn’t up for too much hiking, but we found an ‘experience trail’ – a trail leading through a narrow gorge and up a stream with games and activities for children. It wasn’t too long, so I didn’t suffer too much.

We stayed near Erlaufsee, a lake nestled between forested mountains that reminded me a lot of the Lake District. There were probably hundreds of people sunbathing and swimming along its grassy shores. The weather was hot and sunny until early evening when it suddenly turned stormy. I’m not a keen swimmer, but I went for a dip in my borrowed shorts; the water was chilly compared to the air, but not bad once you got used to it. In the evenings, a few fireflies floated around like burning motes from a fire. I’ve never seen fireflies in the flesh before.

On the Saturday evening, we visited Mariazell to have a look at the church and have dinner before returning to our borrowed and partially erected tent. The following day, we visited Lunzer See, another pretty but less touristy lake, had a look at some ski lifts and stopped at Melk to see the palatial monastery on the way back to Slovakia.

The next weekend, Botond took me to Lake Balaton, a large lake in Hungary, where we stayed at a holiday home – actually two homes consisting of a pair of semi-detached houses – along with a group of Bo’s old friends, their girlfriends and a couple of their newer friends. The lake had no actual beach – its shore was ringed by reeds and a concrete wall from communist times – but there were grassy areas nearby for people to set up their towels and whatnot.

I went swimming with the men. Well, only Bo was interested in swimming in earnest; everyone else was content to wade out – the lake bed went down at a very shallow angle, so you could walk out a long way without getting a drop of water above the waist – and throw a frisbee and ball around (in some sort of ball-frisbee combo game that was either just improvised play or I didn’t get at all).

Everyone seemed to speak English pretty well, but I suppose when it became apparent I was quiet, they mostly chatted in Hungarian. Still, it wasn’t a bad experience, just seeing the area and getting some reading done (I was enjoying Lord Jim).

On the second day, Botond and I went for a short bike ride together. Then, after lunch and icecream, everyone went their separate ways. Bo had lent me a Teach Yourself Hungarian book – which I didn’t make too much use of – but I learnt that the Hungarian name for the double-kiss greeting performed by Hungarian friends regardless of gender is a called puszi (sounds like ‘pussy’). I shook hands with the men when we said goodbye (one of whom said ‘Hello’, which functions like ‘ciao’) and puszied the women.

For the rest of the day, Botond took me to some nearby sights – the town of Keszthely and its palace and lakeside area, Szigliget Castle perched on one of several volcanic hills and the mill pond in a town called Tapolca.

Before I left Bratislava I was determined to do some sightseeing on my own and one day took the train back to Vienna to go to Schloss Schönbrunn. Getting to Vienna was easy enough – a return ticket from Bratislava’s main station was about €10. Navigating Vienna wasn’t quite so easy. I thought I’d take the subway but it turns out line 1 is closed, so I had to figure out which tram to take and from where.

I got there eventually, though, and queued up for a ‘classic’ ticket, which grants entry to all visitor areas of the palace and most of the grounds. The audioguide tour was pretty good and it wasn’t too crowded, so it was possible to linger comfortably and get a good look at the Imperial apartments of the Hapsburgs. A couple of my favourite rooms were one completely panelled with black and gold oriental lacquer work and another lined with dozens of frames painted blue to simulate porcelain, the frames filled with oriental-style drawings made by members of the imperial family.

I wandered around the grounds afterwards – much of which is free to access, but my ticket got me into the orangerie immediately behind the palace, the Gloriette up on the hill and the maze and labyrinth (which are mainly for children).

After that, I walked towards the city centre, had a look in the Schottenkirche, passed the film festival going on at the Rathaus and dropped by the Votive Church. Then I got a tram back to the station and the train back to Bratislava. Due to a misunderstanding, I got a bus home while Botond was waiting for me at the station.

It was great to spend time with Botond and to stay in So-young’s very nice apartment. Bo showed me how to make lecso (‘lecho’), a simple Hungarian dish of bell pepper, tomato, paprika and smoked sausage (or egg); we made and ate quite a lot of it. And, although I didn’t spend much time in the historic centre, Bratislava is a very pleasant place to hang out in. For the next stage of my travels, Bo took me to a town in the middle of Slovakia on his way home to Gödöllő near Budapest.

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