Babylon’s Ever-Shifting Past

Scholarship is always changing the past. Paul Kriwaczek begins his 2010 book, Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, by stressing the ever-shifting landscape that emerges from more than 150 years of scholarship:

Getting to grips with the sweep of history is proverbially a matter of balancing one’s perception of the trees against gaining a view of the whole wood….The trees may constantly be shifting, but you can still make out the wood.
— Kriwaczek, p.10

He goes on to describe “the wood” of Mesopotamia as “surprising for its longevity…remarkable for its continuity…extraordinary for its creativity…[and] astonishing for its non-ethnicity”(pp.10-12), adding: “If history, as by most definitions, begins with writing, then the birth, rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamia occupies a full half of all history.”

Bible, Babylon, and Jews

Kriwaczek touches briefly on the relationship between bible and history, noting that Hebrew and Christian scriptures are responsible both for the “evil repute” of Babylon and for the enduring memory of a city “vanished from the surface of the earth these two millenia” (pp. 167-168). He looks briefly at depictions of Babylon in classical (Greek and Latin) writing, Christianity, and Islam. Then adds:

It was left to Jews to keep the multi-faceted reality of the ancient centre of civilization alive in western cultural consciousness, waiting for the time when a new spirit of enquiry would lead European explorers to investigate the remains properly, when a new discipline, archaeology, would begin to build a picture of Babylon as she once was, and when the name Babylon would be applied allegorically to the new centre of world empire.
— Kriwaczek, p.170

(More on journalist Paul Kriwaczek (1937-2011) and this book.)

To extend Kriwaczek’s “woods” metaphor, 20th Century scholar Georges Contenau builds up a picture of the Babylon landscape from deep inside the roots of individual trees. His Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria is not interested in scripture from outside Mesopotamia but looks instead to evidence from sources such as the books of a “great business house” in the second half of the 5th Century BCE:

This was owned by a certain Murashu and his children, who maintained hundreds of accounts. The Murashu family were Israelites, and when Nebucahdrezzar captured Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and took the most important inhabitants (including the prophet Jeremiah) into captivity, the Murashus were among them. They managed to prosper during their exile…
Contenau, p. 85

Such mid-20th Century archaeology, coupled with biblical scholarship, suggested that life in Babylon was largely copacetic for exiled Jews. David Stowe’s Song of Exile points out, however, more recent scholarship is questioning this assumption:

First, there’s a major sea-change in our understanding of the Judeans who ended up in Babylon, often referred to in the literature as the Golah (Hebrew for “Exile”). The experience of the Exile was undoubtedly a lot more punishing — involving a lot more suffering — than has been acknowledged….

The trouble is, a lack of detail about the Golah can’t be taken as suggesting that living conditions were benign — or harsh, for that matter. A passing over in silence can just as easily reflect the effect of trauma.
— Stowe, p.7,8

Look for more on Stowe’s fascinating book, as we continue Exploring Babylon.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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