How I ever thought I'd have time to casually write a blog on the history of the ancient world I have no idea. The original thought was to write one post per chapter that distilled it and expanded on it in interesting ways...but the chapters were short, and the book was the size of a cinderblock. It would have taken as long as the reign of a Sumerian god-king to finish the project.
Still, the two pieces I wrote were fun. And what's more, giving up this project availed me with the time to finish a novel, start another, and then pause that one to write a novella.
I'm sorry I blog-dumped you, Susan Wise Bauer. I still read your book.
I'm running into a little problem here.
This book is eighty-five chapters long. It might be too interesting for me to go slowly enough to encapsulate the chapters one by one. That's eighty five blog posts. If I'm going to make it all the way to Emperor Constantine, I might have to pick up the pace a bit. I fear it's too good of a book to read that slowly. We'll see.
But today's is a one-to-one ratio, chapter to blog post, because Chapter Two, "The Earliest Story," feels particularly relevant.
"The Earliest Story," so says Susie, the story of the Universal Flood.
I thought that Chapter Two was going to be specific to Sumer (Susie warned, at the conclusion of Chapter One, that "catastrophe struck" after a couple thousand years of uneventful Kingship). But the chapter invoked the existence of some kind of flood parable in geographically diverse ancient cultures, and in broadening the phenomenon away from just one single, puny Great Flood, she really gets you thinking about the pervasive narrative of a single, catastrophic world-cleansing event.
Consequently, it's likely that some of these flood stories do in fact stem from the same historical event: many historians believe, for example, that the flood recorded in Sumer is probably the same as in Genesis. Most of us are familiar with what happened with Noah, but we can rest assured that the Great Flood, as it was experienced by the Ancient Sumerians, was also a major bummer:
the gods of the abyss rose up
the dams of the waters beneath were thrown down
the seven judges of hell lit the land with their torches
daylight became night,
the land was smashed as a cup
water poured over the people as the tides of battle.
And though nineteenth century geologists, buoyed not only by Genesis but Universal Flood accounts from diverse ancient cultures, made it a habit of looking for evidence of single inundating event, we now know it's philosophically (and geologically) kaput to do so. But it's easy to see why they did so: the Mixtecs tell the same story as Genesis, Sumer, and ancient Chinese farmers.
Though in any of those cases it was technically incorrect--an unsubstantiated claim--for any ancient records-keepers to inscribe in stone, "...and then, the WHOLE WORLD, the WHOLE WIDE WORLD...FLOODED! COMPLETELY! All of it.", these floods weren't fake news. The Sumer/Genesis flood, a couple of very smart geologists believe, wasn't so much a flood as it was "a permanent inundation, "a flood that never subsided...[that] expelled a people from their former homeland and forced them to find a new place to live."" The alleged cause: the busting open of the Bosphorus Strait, then a land plug (let's call it an isthmus...I love that word), that gushed the Black Sea, swollen with glacial melt from the end of the Ice Age, out across the land, displacing tons of people.
But this isn't really the meat of the chapter for me, and it isn't why it feels topical. To me. I diverge from Susie a bit...she talks about flood-angst, and water-fear, as being a persistent, species-wide narrative that we have. She cites our obsession with the Titanic. And, indeed: nary a year goes by in which we don't see some kind of Disaster Movie in which a flood plays a significant, horrible role (I watched San Andreas on a plane a year or so ago...my god, I've never seen The Rock so focused). But even with Houston, Irma, Maria...it's not the form of the catastrophe that feels like the central topical issue. It's just catastrophe. The more persistent and universal species theme, according to me, is End Of The World Angst.
This just in from last night, as told by my dream diary:
"In dream last night San Francisco from across the bay w/ mushroom cloud billowing upwards, matched the color, gleaming white city no more. Was on a boat. Frantically getting things packed into my bags--was surprised by the accuracy of my bags: my orange backpack, my yellow one, the small canvas duffel. I had too much stuff. I wanted to take more water. What do you pack for the Apocalypse?"
Susie writes, at Chapter Two's end, that when the floodwaters receded, they left behind a world "redder in tooth and claw." She writes:
"For as long as man has grown grain, he has tried to recapture, if only temporarily, the rosier and kinder world that can no longer be found on a map."
I get it, but I think it's just as tempting to infer that there was an idyllic time before, a sort of worry-free Eden, as it is tempting to claim, in contemporary times, "it was then, at this point, that we started getting stressed about the end of the world."
In his documentary HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis narrates, at the beginning of the section entitled "America at the End of the Twentieth Century":
"...and in America, all optimistic visions of the future had also disappeared. Instead, everyone in society, not just the politicians...the scientists, the journalists, and all kinds of experts, had begun to focus on the dangers that might be in the future. This in turn created a pessimistic mood, and then began to spread out from the rational technocratic world and infect the whole of the country."
And lo, just before he begins a montage of all the film scenes (from before September 11th) in which buildings are being blown up by aliens/asteroids/walls of fire/tsunamis/Godzilla (cue it to 1:35:00...there were a bunch), Curtis informs us that this was the point at which "everyone became possessed by dark forebodings."
I think that whether it's claiming that THIS is The Flood That Ends And Rebirths The World (in Ancient Sumer) or Adam Curtis (in very smart, very artful, and very reductive fashion) calling the ball on when our "dark forebodings" of contemporary catastrophe began, you can link the statement's motivation to a sort of solipsism of the present. I think that Haruki Murakami says it more accurately in 1Q84, and that's what I'll end with:
Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.
PART ONE of Susie's book is entitled "The Edge of History." What happened before history is called prehistory. The functional definition of prehistory, as she so eloquently acknowledges in her preface, is "shit we may or may not know, because it happened so, so long ago."
Susie clambers up from the abyss of possibly-not-knowing, and onto the edge of The Ancient World, with this badass first chapter about the Sumerians, who receive the honor of Chapter One mostly because they were among the first who started writing things down. Chapter One, The Origin of Kingship, absolutely kicks ass. In seven pages, it covers the origin of cities, the Fertile Crescent, climate change, megalomaniacal rulers, and most interestingly, the basic conditions required for the rise of Capital-C-Civilization, which is that things need to kindof suck.
This was the most interesting general take-away: hardship really lights a fire beneath our collective asses. It helps us get organized. It's no coincidence, then, that the first cities, and the first kings that we know about, came into being in the Fertile Crescent--specifically, in the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which render very small sections of this area Fertile. The rest of it was awful. And to boot, the Fertile areas flooded horribly every year. It seems like people would've just picked someplace else to live, but we're in the habit, as a species, of arriving in godforsaken places, checking out the scene, saying "Looks great!" and then just getting started, no matter how inhospitable the place happens to be. Just look at Las Vegas.
It was a topsy-turvy time, between 6,000 and 3,000 BC. The Ice Age was wrapping up, and herds of megafauna were heading back north as the glaciers, extending nearly as far south as the Mediterranean, receded. (The Ice Age sure was cold, but it was awesome if you were a hunter. After reading this chapter, I now think of the last Ice Age, and its herds of megafauna, as a giant, very dangerous snack bar.) Some people followed them north. Others stayed, and as the snack bar disappeared, they figured out how to harvest the wild grasses on the plains. Then, they started planting and cultivating some of those wild grasses. There were some rivers nearby, and since most of what we call the Fertile Crescent was a "howling waste," people started to congregate. There were lots of different groups. But Susan Wise Bauer, in her ultimate authority, simplifies things, and allows us to think of them all as Sumerians.
Things got drier, a more people showed up, congregating near the rivers. It was possible to live on the banks of these annually flooding rivers, which existed on the edge of a "howling waste," but at a certain point, these Sumerians realized they had to get organized. And "getting organized," in this case, seems like code for "a bunch of people worried about having enough banding together to make sure that no single person hogs it all for themselves." What helps people get organized? A king.
The weird thing: a king is someone whose job it is to hog a whole lot for themselves. In the best scenario, though, a king's reputation is tied to the prosperity of his kingdom, and kings like to look good, so hopefully he manages things well and it works out for his subjects. So, fingers crossed...
Kingship is born! In Ancient Sumeria!
His name was Alulim, and he was king of Eridu, and his reign, according to the records, lasted for nearly thirty thousand years.
Wait. Thirty thousand years?
The thing about being king (especially a Sumerian king, all of whom were, reportedly, "descended from heaven") is that you get to say whatever the hell you want, and if your scribe guy doesn't write it down like you say, and thus render you as you want to be remembered for posterity, you get to chop off your scribe's head, or feed them to crocodiles. This makes Susan Wise Bauer's job more difficult, but fortunately, archaeologists are hard on the case, digging and brushing things off with toothbrushes and carbon dating them, and generally calling bullshit on people like Alulim, first king of Eridu, who confirms that the age of Post-Truth began a whole lot earlier than 2016 AD.
This is a good place to debunk a preconception that Alulim doesn't want debunked, because it's part of his administrative platform that He, Alulim, and All Sumerians, are THE BEST EVER. He wouldn't want you to know that the farming techniques used by the Sumerian cities were largely inherited from the Semites, who came from further south--down the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, and so on. It was even drier there. The Semites were badasses.
How do we know that the farming techniques were Semitic in origin? Because lots of the words used to illuminate the farming techniques, in early records, are Semitic. Which is noticeable, because Sumerian language is apparently unrelated to any other language on earth. Holy shit!
In closing, I'll leave you with an anecdote in support of the "Civilization's rise is directly connected to the suckage/hardship level of the surrounding environment" postulate:
The Ice Age continued to recede, the southern plains grew drier, and as the Fertile Crescent became even more of a "howling waste," more and more cities clustered around the rivers--cities that required self-appointed assholes (kings) to coerce people to farm, irrigate, build walls, and generally engage with a social hierarchy of subjugation and obeisance that, collectively, led to the safeguarding of the group snack bar.
Eight Sumerian kings reigned, each for significantly fewer than thirty thousand years.
Then disaster struck.
It weighs about three pounds and is as tall as a very tall snail. From what I can tell thus far, the author, Susan Wise Bauer, is incredibly smart, and adept at taking distant subjects like the ancient Sumerians (read on!) and rendering them alive, interesting, and connect-able to other things. In the teaching world, we call this "activating schema." Activating schema is all about taking a concept, or an area of content, and connecting it to shit we already know. So far, I love it. I think others would love it, too.
Nonetheless, I know that most people aren't going to read this tome. It's just too darn long. Who's got the time?
Answer: people who decide that they've got the time, i.e.: Me.
If you'd like to save time, expand your knowledge of the ancient world, and expand the depths of your (possibly) useless esoteric knowledge--for no reason other than indulgent fun--read on!