David Wengrow

In What Makes Civilization, David Wengrow argues the connections of Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt with the West go beyond the perception of the former as the birthplace of civilization. He does this by dissolving the concept of distance and arguing that civilization consists of the exchange of culture between different societies.

Part 1 of his book focuses on a discussion of metals, gems, food preparation, food cultivation, trade, currency, dwellings, and culture in the civilizations of the ancient Near East. Through detailed and concrete examples, Wengrow demonstrates that prehistoric and ancient societies did not exist in isolation of each other. They were interconnected and inter-related in spite of geographical distances. His detailed and extensive analysis shows how the raw materials found in one location were consumed in a different location. He then demonstrates the similarities and differences in how the cultures tried to dissolve the distance between humans and gods.

Part 2 focuses on dissolving the distance between the ancient Near East with modern European history by drawing parallels between a belief in sacral kingship with the modern institution of monarchy.

Wengrow’s aim is to repudiate the idea of a clash of civilizations. Rather, he sees strong evidence of cultural sharing between civilizations—both past and present. He criticizes the West for regarding itself as the successor of ancient cultures, as if “Modern Civilization . . . is a unique possession of the West, but one nevertheless built upon (ancient) Eastern foundations.”

The book as a whole made for challenging reading because its details and plethora of examples bordered on being too technical, cumbersome, and confusing at times. But if we step back from the minute details and view the general argument, we can appreciate Wengrow’s promotion of an interesting perspective: civilization is to be found in the domestic and mundane and not simply in ancient structures; ancient civilizations interacted and engaged in cross-fertilization; and the lines which separate ancient civilizations of the Near East with the West are blurred, at best.

Recommended for its exploration of daily life in ancient Near East societies and for arguing for a fresh look at the meaning of civilization.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review