CHAPTER 4.—THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
HAVING DISPOSED OF Egypt, which still sells more trinkets and doodads than all the other ancient civilizations put together, we turn now to some of the other great cultures whose influence on the course of history was at least as important, even if they lacked the appealing Art Deco sensibilities of the Egyptians.
First on the list is Mesopotamia, that broad plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Here the landscape is so dull that the inhabitants were forced to invent civilization out of sheer boredom.
There were actually several successive Mesopotamian civilizations, all of which tend to get muddled up in the popular imagination, and Dr. Boli will certainly not attempt to sort them out in these few paragraphs. The Sumerians came first and made the desert bloom with their irrigation works, which is about all we need to say about them. Their successors founded the wondrous city of Babylon, which at the time earned a reputation as the wickedest place on earth; indeed, Babylon is still a byword for iniquity, though today it is handily outdone in wickedness by Fort Wayne, Indiana. Babylon is also famous in legend as the site of the Tower of Babel, an ambitious vanity project in which the Babylonians attempted to reach heaven without the benefit of steel-cage construction. According to the book of Genesis, the Lord God frustrated their efforts by confusing their language, creating a communication gap between labor and management that persists to this day.
We should not fail to mention that the Babylonians gave us many mathematical and scientific gifts, such as the division of the circle into the peculiar number of 360 degrees and the art of astrology. The next time a Babylonian sends you a gift, mark it “return to sender” and stick it back in the mail.
The Mesopotamians had a distinctive system of writing, which paleographers call “cuneiform,” or “wedge-shaped,” because it was wedge-shaped. Creativity is not always required in the field of paleography. This form of writing was every bit as expressive as Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, but it has made no similar impression on the public at large, probably because Egyptian hieroglyphs, with their cute little pictures of birds and eyeballs, are perfectly adapted to the production of souvenir jewelry. Cuneiform writing was, however, used to set down the Epic of Gilgamesh, a grand and tragic tale that has earned a permanent place in the world’s literature by being featured prominently in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In the Indian subcontinent, the mysterious Indus Valley civilization built cities on a grand scale, organized huge public-works projects, and wrote what will doubtless prove to be delicately evocative poems of adolescent angst. They neglected only to provide us with a Rosetta Stone so that we could interpret their writing. Since they therefore left us no history we can read, we are forced to return the favor by leaving them out of the histories we write.
China was another place that developed civilization early and stuck with it. The Chinese discovered tea: if they had decided to retire after that and never accomplish anything else, they would still have earned their place as civilization’s greatest benefactors. But in fact the Chinese made many other marvelous discoveries, such as gunpowder and printing, two inventions of vast destructive power. They also developed the art of bureaucracy to such a peak of perfection that even now our civil servants labor in the shadow of their illustrious Chinese predecessors. From the historian’s point of view, China’s only error was in being, until quite recently, too tenuously connected with Europe to form part of history properly so called.
In Africa, the grand ruins of Zimbabwe have excited the admiration of explorers since the first Europeans arrived. The first white explorers, seeing the marvelously skillful stonework, concluded that builders of such obvious intelligence must have been a previous generation of white explorers. Their African hosts had the good breeding to refrain from pointing out that the current generation of white explorers could just barely put up their tents without having the things fall down on their heads. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is another one of those enigmatic civilizations that have chosen to pass no written records down to posterity, so we can have little to say about it in the present work.
The Americas, too, were infected with various civilizations, some of them surpassing in magnificence and organization anything that could have been found in Europe at the time. There were the Maya, who built ten pyramids for every one the Egyptians managed to fling together, and who invented the idea of zero and numerical place value at a time when Europeans were still struggling to multiply DCCCXLIX by MMMDCCLXXXIV. There were the Inca, who developed a system of totalitarian government so thorough and efficient that it would make Stalin and Mao hang their heads in shame. There were the Aztecs, who could kill more people as sacrifices at the dedication of a single temple than most nations manage to kill in the course of an entire war. And there were the real pioneers of civilization in Mexico and Peru, whose names are known only to specialists, because their stories are taught in our schools as anthropology rather than history, and nobody cares about anthropology.
The Pacific Islands also had their advanced cultures, but some anthropologists would refuse them the title of “civilizations” because they did not make buildings out of stone or brick, thus leaving us no ruined cities for archaeologists to dig up. It is true that they did form settlements of large numbers of people with specialized trades, but they formed them mostly on islands where materials for stone or brick construction were not available. If you should be called upon to found a civilization, remember that the archaeologists would very much prefer it if you founded your civilization somewhere near a quarry.
Some of these early civilizations, like the Chinese or the Mesopotamian, gave birth to traditions that continue uninterrupted to the present day. Many others, like the Inca and the Aztec, were rather rudely interrupted by European adventurers. Because they had no contact with Europe until their discovery, these civilizations do not form part of history proper until after the first European explorers had visited them, after which they become part of history retroactively. History, you see, is a difficult and complex science. If it were merely a matter of arranging events chronologically, anybody with a calendar could do it. The science comes in determining which peoples and civilizations are making history at any given time and which ones are merely goofing off.