What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West
David Wengrow
Oxford University Press
217pp, 20 black & white illustrations and six maps
Paperback, £10.99/$14.95

The historian Lucien Febvre wrote that seeking the origins of civilisation is a series of 'sondages hasardeux' ('dangerous excavations'). Wherever civilisation is excavated, its shadow, barbarism, will be detected, and the digging and analysis will be thick with assumptions. In The Clash of Civilizations, 1995, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington puts forward his hypothesis that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. Each is convinced that the lines of battle must be pushed into the other's territory, as historians of the later Renaissance interpreted the Greek cosmopolis as a community forever expanding into a barbarian periphery. That said, anyone who does not recognise barbarism when he or she sees it is not paying close enough attention.

The status of the ancient Near East, the University College London archaeologist David Wengrow writes, in such perceptions is 'paradoxical'. The ancient Near East is the 'cradle' or 'birthplace' of Western civilisation; the modern Near East is a sump of violence and destruction. In 2016, after Russian-supported Syrian troops had dislodged the barbarians of ISIS from the ruins of Palmyra, a concert by the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra was staged in the Roman theatre there lately used for mass executions. The ancient Near East retains its symbolic power. 

Examining the origins of Western civilisation as the authoritarian governments of the Near East disintegrate, Wengrow defines ancient civilisations not by the top-down authority of 'centralised government, monarchy, literate bureaucracy, taxation, standing armies, even slavery', but by a characteristic familiar to the democratic revolutionaries of Early Modern Europe, the bottom-up 'voluntary coalition'. Civilisation is not a style of politics or a level of technological advancement, but 'the capacity of society to form a moral community – an extended field of exchange and interaction – despite differences of ethnicity, language, belief systems and territorial affiliation'.

In this reading, civilisation in the Middle East is older than the ancient civilisations of academic tradition; it is the 'cultural milieu' from which the 'superpowers' of Sumeria and Egypt developed. Wengrow, dealing a sideswipe at Huntington's argument for the 'close interdependence between the kingdoms of the great river valleys and less numerous peoples of the surrounding deserts and highlands'. The riverine and coastal populations recorded those desert- and highland-dwellers as barbarians, yet the putative enemies of civilisation also produced essential supplies of metals, minerals, coloured stones, fine timber and even the incense with which the low-lying populations propitiated their gods.

But what do the ideas in What Makes Civilization? mean for us? Wengrow suggests that historians of the ancient past need to globalise their perspectives, for instance in examining the Greek debt to the Semitic cultures of the ancient Near East. He also directs our attention to the 'hard political and economic realities' that lie behind academic debates.

'The remains of the past,' Wengrow writes, 'are being drawn with increasing ferocity into the conflicts of the present.' The excavations may be dangerous, but the need to establish the lost roots of interdependence remains. What Makes Civilization? might not make for cheery reading, but it is expertly grounded, thoughtfully written and discreetly radical in its findings.

Dominic Green