Thursday, March 15, 2018


Mario Liverani, Imagining Babylon: The Modern Story of an Ancient City. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records (SANER), 11. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. xviii, 488. ISBN 9781614516026. $182.00.

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

How has the ancient Near Eastern city been "imagined and visualized, studied and reconstructed" (p. vii) over the past two hundred years? That is the question at the core of this wide-ranging book, originally published in Italian in 2013. According to Liverani, the answer should excite not only his fellow historians and archaeologists of the ancient Near East, but also many other scholars, including those studying the history of the city, the dynamics of colonialism and its aftermath, and, more generally, anyone interested in the biography of the cultural constructs called "East" and "West." To that list I would add historians of archaeology and ancient history.

Liverani provides no introduction, and no explicit overview either of the book's organization or of its goals. A detailed table of contents, however, allows the reader to get a sense of the general contours of his investigation. Two structuring principles are apparent: first, that he approaches his topic from an unabashedly western perspective, according to which nearly all protagonists in "the modern story of the ancient city" are either European or American and were born after 1900, and second, that within this geographic, chronological, and cultural framework, his study is expansive. Throughout the book, he strives to set changing archaeological and historical approaches to the ancient Mesopotamian city in broad cultural contexts, showing how debates among Mesopotamian specialists have often overlapped with more general academic and political ones in Europe and America. As his many previous publications attest, Liverani is intellectually omnivorous. While Borges, Calvino, and Kafka are cited seemingly de rigueur by many historians of the city—and in this respect Liverani is no exception (e.g. pp. 49-50, 192, and 367)—few of them would also invoke Donald Duck in Ancient Persia (1950) as an example of the modern urge "to 'enter inside' the ancient cities, find them intact, walk through them, and meet the ancient inhabitants (and indeed speak to them in heaven knows what language"; p. 54). Throughout the book, he discusses visual and material representations of the ancient Mesopotamian city as envisioned by both specialists and, more sporadically, non-specialists. His insightful reflections, regretfully, are accompanied by fifty-three small and occasionally blurry (e.g., Figs. 15, 39, and 51) black-and-white figures. Given the exorbitant price of this volume, better reproductions should be expected from the publisher.

The book is divided into six chapters that are arranged roughly chronologically and composed of short subsections. Many of these are succinct critical assessments of the contributions of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century men to the study of the ancient city. Among female scholars, only the economic historian Anna Schneider is given a titled subsection for her pioneering efforts to use ancient texts to understand the Mesopotamian city in its own terms—not simply in contrast to the classical polis (pp. 104-107). In these crisp, almost stand-alone essays, Liverani analyzes the influence that people as diverse as Max Weber, Gordon Childe, and Karl Polanyi exerted on the study of ancient Mesopotamian cities, and discusses how growing understanding of the remains of those cities on the ground impacted or—just as often and perhaps more consequentially—failed to impact the history of the city. Fustel de Coulanges, for example, is gently taken to task for neglecting Near Eastern evidence in his seminal study of the ancient city first published in 1864 (pp. 38-39), while Lewis Mumford, who wrote nearly a century after Fustel, is strongly criticized for having read the specialized scholarship available in his own day and perverted it with "exaggerations, contradictions, and also misunderstandings" (p. 165). Liverani's prose is often pointed: he reproaches his American colleagues for restricting their bibliography to English-language publications (p. 373), and classicists for stubbornly equating "ancient" with "Graeco- Roman" at the expense of Mesopotamian and all other available alternatives (e.g., pp. 37, 176). Alisa Campbell's translation is clear and conveys the author's wit and idiosyncratic style. Sarcasm is sharp—note, for instance, his remarks on the lack of monuments of the "wretched" Kurds (p. 350). Paragraphs often close with gnomic statements.

I call attention only to a few key issues in each of the book's chapters; the table of contents serves as a detailed map of the book.

In Chapter 1, Liverani offers a quick survey of pre-twentieth century speculations about the ancient Mesopotamian city. Such speculations, largely unencumbered by archaeological exploration, range from the moralizing tales told about Assyria and Babylonia in the Bible to the accounts of early modern European travelers in Mesopotamia. The author describes the anxieties incited by the unearthing of Mesopotamian cities and subsequent display of their antiquities in the midst of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian ones at the British Museum. He also discusses the development of an academic discourse according to which Babylon was an anti-city or a non-city "because it was too big, too empty, too centred on the palace, devoid of citizens and civic structure" (p. 49); in other words, because it was not a classical city.

Chapter 2 treats early twentieth-century investigations of actual archaeological sites in Mesopotamia. Liverani shows how analyses of the ancient Mesopotamian city were affected by developments in seemingly distant intellectual fields such as modern economic history and architecture. Here the German architect and archaeologist Walter Andrae comes across as a sort of intellectual hero, not only for his trailblazing and striking visualizations of life in ancient and modern Mesopotamian cities,1 but also for his forward-thinking archaeological "manifesto" (published posthumously in 1957), which called for specialists to respect the ground, carry out precise observations, and act unselfishly (p. 64). This chapter also includes discussion of practical and methodological developments that had a lasting impact on the study of the ancient city, such as the topographical surveys of Mesopotamia carried out in the period of the mandates as well as systematic excavation by squares divided by baulks.

Chapter 3 is devoted to grand theoretical models, for which Liverani has a predilection. The chapter makes for lively reading given that the author discusses the historical narratives, theoretical insights, and political backgrounds of Assyriologists and ancient historians such as Thorkild Jacobsen and Igor Diakonoff, as well as those of scholars whose specialties lay elsewhere (but whose work informed or was informed by the study of the ancient Mesopotamian city) including the economic theorist Polanyi, the Sinologist Karl Wittfogel, and the urban historians Gideon Sjoberg and Jane Jacobs. Chapter 3 also includes an assessment of how ancient historians in the second half of the twentieth century have tackled the epistemological challenges of imagining a properly diachronic history of the ancient city—one that does not begin in Greece, but rather extends forward in time from the polis to its Islamic successors as well as backward to earlier cities in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.

In Chapter 4, Liverani moves away from theoretical models to discuss major developments in scientific archaeology in the mid-twentieth century. The author examines, for examples, how new types of evidence (such as paleoenvironmental data) and methodological innovations (such as demographic analysis) allowed fine-grained studies of the ancient Mesopotamian city even at a single site. The work of American anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams—to whom the book is dedicated—is treated in a concise subsection. Adams was a pioneer in both methodologies of archaeological survey and theories of social evolution that were influential not only among those studying the ancient Near East. Among his main contributions to the study of the ancient Mesopotamian city was the development of methods to study and visualize settlement history over the very long term. Liverani considers Adams a sort of intellectual fulcrum between the largely theoretical positions of the nineteenth century and those of fully modern scientific archaeology.

In Chapter 5, Liverani assesses and critiques more recent methodological developments including settlement hierarchies and catchment analyses. He also studies what he calls revivals of French and German interest in Near Eastern architecture, exemplified by the former's work in architectural documentation and reconstruction on Mari and Ugarit, and the latter's emphasis not only in Bauforschung, but also interest in such topics as negative urban spaces in ancient Mesopotamian cities and the exploration of non-monumental urban contexts (e.g., in Hattusas). This chapter ends with skeptical and often critical discussions of more recent models such as "world-system" theory and interest in collapse.

Chapter 6 consists of a series of loosely interconnected reflections on topics relating to archaeological visualization and politics. Liverani begins the chapter by discussing the ethics and practicalities of restoration of ancient Mesopotamian archaeological sites, including Saddam Hussein's "totalizing" reconstructions of Babylon and his mobilization of figures such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar for political purposes. Here, too, Liverani is sensitive to how changes in the conceptualization of modern cities have informed scholarly understanding of ancient ones.

In a brief epilogue, the author describes the narrative of his book as a parabola, "in the sense of a journey first ascending and then descending" (pp. 384-387): from the depths of imaginative speculation (based largely on biblical texts) to the heights of archaeological excavation and survey back down to the present-day challenges of virtual reconstructions and mass tourism; or again, from the initial flat-out denial that a proper city could have existed in ancient Mesopotamia to the bold championing of uniquely Near Eastern models (in contradistinction to classical ones) to a "continuum of Easts and Wests." The neatness of the intellectual trajectory is suspect, as is the notion that the second half of the twentieth century represents a sort of apogee. Liverani acknowledges that other histories of the ancient Mesopotamian city will no doubt be written in which such "geometric elegance" will be lost. Indeed, these histories are being written already. The story of Babylon as Liverani tells it is only one possible—and dominant—account of how that city has been imagined, but there are others. Some of those histories have, if not longer, then at least different and more diverse roots than those explored here.

Just as colonialist projects on the ground envision the territory to be colonized as a wasteland waiting to be civilized (p. 177), intellectual historians have frequently imagined the territories of their inquiry as a terra nullius only recently historicized by their own recognizable predecessors (the Schliemanns, Petries, Andraes, etc.). According to this view, which Liverani shares, the proper work of interpretation of material remains only began in the nineteenth century with the rise of professional archaeology. Thus any "archaeological" story is, inevitably, also a modern and a western one. Consequently, there is almost no reference here to how the scientific narratives the author so carefully analyzes intersect with those of the people who lived and continue to live among the remains of ancient cities or even with those of scholars working in places other than Europe and America. When dealing with territories in which Islam has been the dominant religion, influential historians of archaeology—Liverani among them—have repeatedly called attention to the "Islamic disdain for everything before the advent of Islam" (p. 350) to explain why there are allegedly no meaningful local accounts of ruins to be found. And yet, the notion that there was no Muslim interest in the material traces of the past is, at best, misleading. Local antiquarians of various sorts have existed in Mesopotamia as they have also throughout the Dar al-Islam. The oft-repeated notion that Near Eastern civilizations offered only "rubble" (p. 5), while the ruins of classical cities stood proud and imposing is imprecise. As Liverani himself notes (pp. 87-88), no exact classical analogue to the dozens of rock-cut inscriptions of Bronze and Iron Age Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and the Levant existed in Greece or Rome. Like those rock-cut inscriptions, the remains of ancient Mesopotamian cities have excited and continue to excite local historical imaginations.

Liverani is aware of the fact that in some of his intellectual preferences he is anachronistic: for example, in favoring "the beautiful, simple and elegant models, like that of Childe on the urban revolution" over the complexity and messiness of Neo-evolutionists and champions of systems theory (p. 371). Even so, or rather precisely because the author is frank about his opinions and even his emotions, this is an eminently readable book, written by one of the most innovative historians of the ancient Near East in the past fifty years. Imagining Babylon is an important contribution to the historiography of the ancient city. Liverani's account of how ancient Babylon has been studied and reconstructed serves as a sort of looking glass through which the reader can spy on the history of archaeology and history as practiced in that cultural construct called the "West." But Babylon has also been imagined elsewhere.


1.   On Andrae's sketches, see Rainer Michael Boehmer (1989) Bilder eines Ausgräbers: die Orientbilder von Walter Andrae 1898-1919 = Sketches by an excavator (Berlin: Mann,1989).

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