An amateur historian describes ancient Mesopotamia’s early civilization.
In this revised work (originally published in 2012 as Dawn and Sunset: Insight Into the Mystery of the Early Mesopotamian Civilization), Baizerman, a high school English teacher in Israel, provides a primer on ancient Mesopotamia, one of the first complex societies. He illustrates everyday Sumerian life reaching back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. For its citizens to survive, the harsh landscape demanded organization, which led to massive irrigation projects that brought about farming and, eventually, surpluses—the springboard from a nomadic way of life to civilization. Urbanization afforded leisure time that supported art, architecture, festivals, and bureaucracy as well as beer, which the Sumerians were brewing thousands of years ago. They even had a beer goddess. Of “heavily clouded” ethnic origins, the Sumerians spoke a language like no other. Mainly for accounting purposes, they developed writing, advancing from pictograms to cuneiform inscriptions in clay tablets. Baizerman chronicles the growth of metallurgy and industry along with advances in trade, transport, and urban development, such as wheeled vehicles and ceramic water pipes. A theocratic regime gave way to a secular leadership based on warrior skills, while shrewd politics, such as debt forgiveness for the poor, helped forestall riots and revolutions. Even so, the population occasionally revolted against taxes and bureaucracy, and a succession of rulers engaged in military adventures and empire-building. Baizerman outlines the growth of empire and its eventual collapse, noting that “each society carries in its midst a virus of self-destruction.” Mining translations and texts mostly from Internet sources, he provides a vivid impression of what life must have been like in this vanished world to which modern life finds many similarities—constant wars and empire-building, class divisions, taxes, bureaucracy, corruption, political plotting, even climate change. Despite some occasional writing flubs—“For Ancient Mesopotamians, history was a fascinating game, no matter real or made up”—and mixed metaphors, the writing is usually fluid, sometimes even elegant, as with his description of the season cycle: “The earth would repose, regaining its productivity and dreaming of the next flooding.” Elsewhere, he refers to native slaves from families “caught in a mousetrap of debt.” An admirably skeptical researcher, he analyzes his sources and backs up his history with ample footnotes and a bibliography.
A brief, satisfying introduction to an ancient civilization not unlike our own but largely forgotten and in an area still riven with conflict.