Midwife to Civilization: Wall Builders at the Dawn of History THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST, 2500–500 BC
The great wall of Shulgi has not survived, but then, how could it? Time lay heavily across the landscape of Mesopotamia. Like some relentlessly pressing weight, it sought to smother everything that would rise up out of the flat alluvial plains of ancient Iraq. Its effects there were uncharacteristically swift, almost impatient; it destroyed things before it could age them. As early as the third millennium BC, the Mesopotamians already had a word—dul—for the shapeless lumps of dead cities that even then dotted the horizons, having long ago melted like wax under the sun. Dul eventually gave way to an Arabic word, tell, which reflected the growing obscurity shrouding the region’s past. To the Bedouins whose animals meandered around the unsightly mounds, the tells were nothing more than insignificant heaps of dirt. Only later did archaeologists realize that every one of those strange landmarks represented the ruins of a lost world.
In Shulgi’s day, some four thousand years ago, Mesopotamians battled ceaselessly against the work of time. They lived as if in sand castles, forever building and rebuilding a world that would inevitably be washed away. Nothing endured. The great fertile fields that fed the cities were a mirage. If the workers neglected the cleaning and repair of their vast irrigation systems for even a few seasons, the ditches would silt up, and the land would return to desert. Their buildings were no more permanent. For
construction materials, the Mesopotamians had little more than the dirt beneath their feet. In this hot land made of silt deposited by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, there were no stones and few trees. Lacking sufficient fuel to bake all their mud bricks, the Mesopotamians settled for drying them in the sun, a process that created building blocks of such dubious quality that they could not withstand even occasional rain. To protect their brick walls, the Mesopotamians slathered them with a plaster of mud, and when that first outer coat washed away, they slathered them with mud again. If they were diligent at maintaining their walls, the resulting accumulation of washed-off plaster would eventually clog the streets, forcing them to knock down the buildings and start over. If they were interrupted in their maintenance, the result was much the same as for the unirrigated fields: temples, palaces, and even city walls crumbled away. Another city became a tell.
The impermanence of their mud-built world clearly troubled the Mesopotamians. A popular legend—possibly the most popular, judging from the variety of copies that have survived—tells of a king who refused to accept that he, like all mortals, must someday die and return to clay. The mythical Gilgamesh searched far and wide for a way to cheat death, but his efforts went for nothing. The Mesopotamian storytellers couldn’t conceive of any ending for their hero that didn’t require him to sink back into the soil.
In the end, the Mesopotamians defeated time in only one activity. The clay tablets upon which they inscribed their cuneiform writing have survived the passing centuries completely unchanged. If the planet endures another million years, those tablets will also endure, remaining in exactly the same condition.
Successful, therefore, in overcoming time only in their record keeping, the Mesopotamians naturally developed the bureaucratic urge to assign dates to events, and this led to the habit of kings giving names to years. Though perhaps not so elegant a system of chronology as our current one, it did serve a second purpose that has become quite useful to historians. It allowed the kings to commemorate their achievements—including the building of structures that they surely realized could not last.
Shulgi—who, as king of Ur around 2000 BC, ruled over much of Mesopotamia—was a builder of many things that didn’t last, and he was a few other things besides. It’s probably best to let his own words speak for him. The long-reigning monarch composed several extant hymns of self-praise, and these tell us a great deal about him, if we can shake the nagging suspicion that he has padded his résumé somewhat. Shulgi clearly wrestled with the constraints of modesty. In one hymn, he described himself as “a powerful man who enjoys using his thighs.” This was the sort of boast that probably shouldn’t have been committed to a medium that could still be read after four thousand years. Then again, Shulgi also referred to himself as the “god of manliness,” so it would seem he wasn’t easily embarrassed. He assures us that, as a youth, he excelled all other students. Grown to manhood, he slew every lion in Mesopotamia and defeated every human enemy as well. He mastered all weapons and musical instruments, and in a rare feat of athleticism, he once delighted his cheering subjects by running over two hundred miles in a single day. These, at least, are Shulgi’s claims, whether or not we choose to accept them. He was no stranger to boasting, and so it should come as no surprise that his year names comprise a rather predictable list of triumphs.
In the twentieth year of his kingship—“The Year the Citizens of Ur Were Drafted as Spearmen”—Shulgi apparently instituted a general draft, and this led to a particularly impressive series of victories. From that time forward, the bombastic monarch had Ur’s enemies on the run. The region was experiencing its great revival, duly reflected in the names of years, and the triumphal march seemed poised to continue indefinitely.
However, Shulgi’s year list reveals a conspicuous absence of military successes immediately after his defeat of Anshan in the thirty-fourth year of his reign. Three years later, after what might have been merely a brief pause in the litany of conquests, we sense for the first time that something has gone terribly wrong. In his thirty-seventh year, Shulgi failed to record a victory yet again. For a notable achievement, he could highlight only a different sort of enterprise, one that seems oddly uncharacteristic, at least for someone with such splendid and busy thighs. It was the sort
of achievement that would soon enough crumble and be washed away, returned to the soil and smothered by time. Shulgi’s thirty-seventh year was officially designated “The Year the
Wall of the Land Was Built.”
* * *
In retrospect, Shulgi’s decision to build a wall was no great innovation. For a people such as the Mesopotamians, who were accustomed to the constant chore of construction and reconstruction, the first solution to any problem was building. They built temples to fend off the wrath of their gods and walls to fend off the wrath of their enemies. They built canals, dams, and irrigation channels so they could live.
Like early farming communities everywhere, cities in Mesopotamia focused their greatest efforts on surrounding themselves with fortifications. Massive bulwarks protected the people, their
food supplies, their wealth, and their animals. Walls engulfed all man-made structures, swallowing up ziggurats and cities with equal appetite. Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh, was defined by its “all-encircling wall,” allegedly built by the great king himself. This may well have been an instance of art imitating life. Nearly every Mesopotamian king advertised having raised up at least one city wall, and many built more than one. They knew their works wouldn’t last for any great period, but the prospect of repeating the labors of their ancestors didn’t deter them. At least five different kings provided walls for Babylon, and at least four built walls for Ur. An individual born in Isin at the right time could have seen his city surrounded by
three successive sets of walls—sand castles every one.
For the Mesopotamians, building was a sacred duty. On the first day of a new construction project, the king blessed a brick mold, then packed it with mud. Songs and the beating of kettledrums filled the air. The king brushed a brick stamp with honey, butter, and cream, then struck his mark on the wet clay. When the brick dried, the king himself ceremoniously
lifted it out of the mold. Subsequently, the moment might be memorialized in a year name or even in art. Many of the greatest Mesopotamian kings—including Shulgi—were depicted in their official propaganda carrying baskets of bricks on their heads.
The drudgery required by all these enterprises must have been awful, but the Mesopotamians accepted it as their lot. An ancient Mesopotamian flood myth describes how the gods set out to dig the first irrigation ditches and wells. The work didn’t suit them. First, they complained; then they burned their tools and baskets. Finally, they created mankind to take over their chores. Someone had to move all that mud.
* * *
Not every Mesopotamian enjoyed a good wall raising. The words of a Bronze Age shepherd have come down to us, describing his feelings about life behind walls. Shepherds were the freest members of Near Eastern society. They
inhabited Mesopotamia in great numbers, but unlike farmers they spent long periods far away
from the city, accompanying their flocks to pasture. For much of the year—especially when crops were growing—shepherds had to steer clear of all sown land, and the obsessively bureaucratic administrators of the palaces and temples for whom the shepherds worked
hardly kept track of them at all. To individuals such as these, the limited horizon of the walled city was worse even than a cage. “If I leave myself inside just one day,” our Bronze Age herdsman remarked, “until I leave the city walls to renew my vigor, my
vitality ebbs away.”
It’s worthwhile taking a closer look at those particular Mesopotamians who had so little use for walls. They weren’t the most refined inhabitants of the plains. For the most part, the shepherds were illiterate, known to us only by the scribblings of city dwellers. The two groups were connected by kinship but little else. In the eyes of the townsfolk, the shepherds were quite distinct, a rough and somewhat fearless lot, skilled with slings, throw sticks, and staffs, inured to loneliness, dark, and the hazards of outdoor living. The daily life of the shepherd contrasted sharply with that of the farmer or factory worker. Shepherds contended with fierce
sheep-stealing carnivores, whereas farmers merely fended off placid, skittish herbivores. Like the biblical David of 1 Samuel 17:34–36, shepherds lived with weapons, killing, and the mortal dangers of the steppe:
Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them.
In contrast to the people who dwelled behind walls, shepherds accepted little in the way of governance. Even those herders directly employed by the temple or palace had to report to their overseers only twice a year. For them, the
temptation to drift away must have been strong. The authors of Genesis, writing in the first millennium BC, certainly saw nothing extraordinary about the idea that shepherds might head off with their flocks and never return. In biblical
tradition, Abraham, a possessor of flocks, herds, and tents, simply abandons his original home in the Mesopotamian city of Ur and sets off with his animals and women and over three hundred fighting men. Abraham’s band subsequently wanders about, living wherever they pitch their tents, and forcing the urban kings of Canaan and the Jordan Valley to acquiesce to their presence on the land. They help themselves to water from city wells or, less frequently, dig new wells, which become such flash points for violence that they’re given names such as Contention and Enmity. They negotiate for women and occasionally slaughter whole cities for them. A generation removed from Abraham, his herding descendants are remembered mostly for their hotheadedness. Jacob, lying on his deathbed, fondly describes his sons: Simeon and Levi are angry, violent, and quick to sword. Judah’s hands are on the neck of his enemies. Gad is a raider, Benjamin a ravenous wolf, and so forth.
In Mesopotamian myth, the goddess Inanna is asked to choose between a farmer and a shepherd, both of whom seek to marry her. In her deliberations, she rudely criticizes the herder. He is too brash and his clothes are coarse. Without the gods of civilization, she declares, the shepherd would live roofless in the steppes, a mere nomad. It’s a rather harsh assessment, but in the end, she marries him anyway. Apparently,
she prefers a bad boy.
Inanna’s decision—the sort that has baffled countless generations of “nice guys” left alone on a Friday night—would have raised few eyebrows in Shulgi’s day. Shepherds were widely admired in the ancient Near East. They occupied a place in the imagination much like the cowboys of the Old West. “I am a hero!” a king such as Shulgi would boast. “
I am a shepherd!” But, of course, Shulgi was no such thing, and neither were any of those other Sumerian kings who carried baskets of mud bricks on their heads. The shepherds, who disdained walls, were rootless, rough, unpredictable, and often violent. They were the sort of men who could defend a city—and they were often asked to do so—but they could never build one. On the other hand, nothing in the description of the shepherd applies particularly well to their cousins who raised a civilization out of mud. Mesopotamian townspeople were as monotonously reliable as they were settled. In the city, survival depended on the
unwavering commitment of citizens to their wearisome chores—the
digging of wells, the constant removal of silt from the irrigation ditches, and the building and rebuilding of walls. They enlivened the tedium of this work with music and festivals and prostitution, but these diversions did not compromise their efficiency.
The townspeople’s acceptance of a life of labor—replete with governors, supervisors, rules, and records—had innumerable implications for Mesopotamian society. The most obvious was that it rendered men less capable as protectors. Workers, bound by their day-to-day responsibilities, couldn’t go off on hunts that might have honed their fighting skills. Ensconced behind their walls, they became accustomed to a life of comfort and security. They exhausted their energies in labor rather than saving it for bursts of violence. Those few townsmen who were forced into battle fought like men unaccustomed to war, being perhaps the first soldiers anywhere to protect themselves by donning rudimentary armor that fortified the spirit more than the body. Like the timid amateurs that they were, they fought in tightly packed rows of infantry. Slow moving, inflexible, and easily targeted or pursued, these early phalanxes embodied a natural tendency to seek safety in numbers and for the weak to crouch behind the strong. Few men were willing to brave military service at all. The men who carried baskets had not been socialized to embrace battle, and they had no taste for it. They preferred instead to contribute to the defense of their cities by doing what they did best: build things out of mud. In a world of farmers, priests, sculptors, surveyors, drummers, prostitutes, master builders, silo managers, throne bearers, accountants, masons, musical-instrument makers, general laborers, and scribes, the profession of arms was all but forgotten. “I have men enough to carry baskets,” one general complained. “
What I need are soldiers.”
The Mesopotamians concluded that a grand bargain lay at the heart of civilization: the basket carriers had sacrificed strength for comfort. It was an idea at least as old as the Gilgamesh epic. The mighty Gilgamesh could find no equal among the weaklings who dwelled inside Uruk’s massive walls; only the wasteland outside the walls could spawn a primitive brute such as Enkidu, who ran with
the animals and could match the great king’s strength. And what had Uruk’s city dwellers gained in return for their helplessness? The harlot who seduced Enkidu described the life of the townspeople: they dress in gorgeous robes; every day is a holiday; they even smell good. This was the perspective of a sensualist. If she’d thought about the question more deeply, she might have added that some of her fellow urbanites were also adept at writing or mathematics or architecture or music.
The notion that the civilized life of the walled cities had softened men and left them less fitted for war was widespread in the ancient Near East. Occasionally, an Old Testament prophet would voice a similar idea while exhorting his countrymen to abandon walled Jerusalem and return to their tents. It was one way to recapture the favor of a god who, like Inanna, preferred his men a little rough. A few clans of ancient Israel took this advice to heart, electing to abstain from such civilized amenities as alcohol, agriculture, and regular haircuts. Their most famous representative, Samson, burst with rough-hewn strength, but only as long as he remained shaggy and uncivilized.
* * *
Cooped up inside their massive fortifications, the creators of the world’s first civilization come across as a rather timid lot, ever eager to escape into their grand festivals, ever fearful that outsiders were about to burst in and ruin it all. They didn’t look upon the broader world with confidence—and for good reason: they could not have known that their grand experiment of cities, farms, priests, scribes, and walls would even succeed. The world outside their walls was not exactly uninhabited, but it was, in the eyes of the basket carriers, dangerous. This was civilization in its infancy: every city its own frontier, never far from hostile neighbors in the mountains, desert, or steppe. The Mesopotamians had but to walk out from behind the security of their city walls and they would soon enough find themselves in the company of outsiders who saw them as little more than a ready source of loot, land, animals, or women. They lived, in the memorable phrase of one anxious Bronze Age king, “like
birds in a cage.”
Viewed from afar, the civilized nations of the ancient Near East—Sumer, Egypt, Israel, Assyria, and the like—were clusters of these birdcages. Even their gods and heroes were wary of what lurked outside. In Mesopotamian myth, a Guardian of the Sown kept watch at the edge of the farmlands, around which he’d placed a barrier. Dumuzi, the shepherd and protector, died at the hands of highland nomads when he ventured too far. The legendary king Lugalbanda survived a similar journey but lost his nerve. “A lost man is terrible,” he despaired. “On the unknown path at the edge of the mountains . . . Don’t let me flow away like water in a violent death! Don’t let me be thrown away into the desert unknown to me
like a throw stick!”
An Egyptian writer once described a journey that took him outside the lands of the walled cities. He knows he must traverse a countryside that teems with robbers menacing from every side. When he passes through a narrow defile, he panics. The hairs on his head stand up. He begins to shudder. His soul, he writes, is in his hand. Making his way over boulders and pebbles, he sees that his path leads between a ravine and a mountain. His heart now heavy with fear, his imagination racing, utterly convinced that the robbers are behind him, he begins to run. This was what happened to birds that ventured outside their cages.
In the late third millennium BC, nearly all the cages of mud collapsed. Barbarian highlanders descended from their mountains and swept aside the world’s first empire, the Akkadian, which encompassed all of Mesopotamia, with astonishing rapidity. Royal records speak of how the attackers “
acted with violence against the gods . . . took away the wife from the one who has a wife . . . took away the child from the one who had a child.” The destruction was thorough. Agade, the imperial capital, has still never been found, not even as a tell. Mesopotamia’s political structure was left in a chaos famously reflected in the Sumerian King List: “Who was king?” the author asks. “Who was not king?”
An ancient text chronicles the terror that these invasions struck in the hearts of the basket carriers: Heralds avoided the roads. Boatmen were afraid to take to the river. Even shepherds dared not search for lost sheep, or cowherds for lost cattle. Fields, gardens,
and fish ponds went untended. Farmers were forced to relocate gardens within city walls, while the price of everyday items, such as oil, grain, wool, and fish, soared. Watches were posted everywhere—in trees and on riverbanks—and a cowed populace huddled inside city walls, afraid to venture out long enough even to bury the dead.
the so-called Cuthean Legend, purports to represent the hard-earned wisdom of Naram-Sin, the king whose ill-advised mountain campaign precipitated the disaster. Here the attackers are known as
Umman Manda, a “forlorn, fugitive race” who grew to manhood in the mountains. So monstrous are the Umman Manda (they’re said to look like “cave birds”) that Naram-Sin is reported to have sent out an officer to determine whether they bled like men or were “evil spirits, specters, ghosts, and fiends.” Such was the usual stereotype of those who lived in the mountains, deserts, and steppes beyond the walls. The Umman Manda advance inexorably from the northwest, wiping out settlements along the way. Three times, Naram-Sin sends out enormous armies against them only to see them annihilated. “I am a king,” he despairs, “who brings no prosperity to his country, a shepherd who brings no prosperity to his people.” The Akkadian king bemoans the futility of sending troops against highlanders: “How could I have been so precipitous to have gone forth? Now panic, night, death, plague, shivers, terror, chills, financial losses, hunger, famine, insomnia—innumerable ills—have
come down on my people.”
Naram-Sin speaks for all the inhabitants of the walled cities when he proffers his advice to future kings: Strengthen your walls. Keep your trenches filled with water. Make sure all your goods are safely stored away. And when the barbarians come, don’t provoke them. Even though they will trample your land and slay your cattle, don’t dare meet them or even take up your weapons. Better to stay behind your walls, respond to their wickedness with kindness, and address them as lords.
Strengthen your walls. Stay behind your walls. Now here was advice that even a traumatized population of basket carriers could embrace.
Civilization nearly perished completely during the great invasions of the late third millennium. The record of destruction is
astonishing: Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Akkad, Sumer, Troy, Elam, the Indus Valley, and Anatolia alike all suffered. Empires collapsed. Kingdoms crumbled. Cities burned. Economies broke down, and whole populations of survivors struggled to adapt to an insecure world in which their gods no longer guaranteed protection. In that fertile composting of determination, industriousness, and fear grew the first fantastic dreams of a walled kingdom.
* * *
By the time of Shulgi, there was already some precedent for the idea of a wall that could protect an entire kingdom. Syria’s enigmatic TLM predated Shulgi’s fortifications by several centuries, and its reputation may have reached Ur. At least in their myths, the Mesopotamians had contemplated similar designs. A poem from the twenty-second century BC described a struggle between the god Ninurta and the demon Azag, a “
killer out of the highlands” who had been raiding cities with his warriors. Ninurta ultimately prevailed in the story, and in the aftermath of his victory the god took steps to ensure that Sumer would never again be harassed by mountain men: he brought agriculture and civilization to the mountains, then built “a bank of stones against the highland . . . like a great wall.”
Late in Shulgi’s reign, warlike invaders from the highlands of Syria arrived to terrorize Mesopotamia. The newcomers represented everything the basket carriers feared most: a mountain people who roamed about ceaselessly, forever causing turmoil. The Syrian Amorites had no homes other than their tents. They neither constructed cities of mud nor lived in cages. As they moved south toward the great cities, a pervasive gloom settled over the Land between the Rivers.
According to legend, one of the earliest Mesopotamian kings had constructed a great wall across the desert “
like a net” to keep the Syrian Amorites at bay. Shulgi either repaired that
ancient wall of King Lugalbanda’s or constructed an entirely new one. In his typically pompous manner, Shulgi boasted that his fortifications had finally brought peace to the hard-set kingdom. The people, he said, could at last live in green meadows and in
places. The Year the Wall of the Land Was Built came more than fifteen hundred years before the first earth was tamped in place for any of the great walls of China, and with it we might mark the formal beginning of the idea of an enclosed kingdom in which civilians need not fear the raids of outsiders.
The idea would prove considerably more durable than the wall itself. As could only be the case in an impermanent, mud-brick world, the impact of Shulgi’s fortifications was marginal and temporary.
Shulgi’s surviving correspondence is chiefly concerned with the urgent need to restore a key fortress that was apparently in no condition to deter an invasion. He orders his master builder to work day and night and chastises his generals for not repairing his forts quickly enough. Meanwhile, news reports trickle in: the enemy has risen up in great strength; Shulgi’s commanders can no longer guard the cities; the canals have been destroyed; the enemy waits outside in the hills.
Shulgi’s successor fared no better at walling out the nomads from Syria. Like Shulgi, Shu-Sin focused on the building and repair of a fortified border—an assemblage of mud bricks and trenches known by the excruciatingly clumsy phrase “That Which Keeps the Amorites at a Distance.” His troops labored under great duress to extend the defensive barrier to the mountains, but their efforts came to nothing. Shu-Sin’s correspondence betrays a growing anxiety. The Amorites, his general informs him, have invaded the land. Observing Shu-Sin’s construction work, they have encamped menacingly nearby, harassing the workers. The army has begun to run short of soldiers.
Word soon arrives from outlying areas: the cities themselves can no longer be protected.
In literature, it is not Amorites but other highland barbarians—Gutians and Elamites—who bring down the walled kingdom created by Shulgi. A god is said to have dispatched the Gutians in an irresistible invasion. The mountain men smash the heads of their victims and fill the Euphrates with floating corpses. At Adab, they sic their dogs on the refugees, stampeding them like goats. “The Gutians, the Vandals,” cry the people, “they are wiping us out.” A terrible famine has left no food or beer even for the king. Meanwhile, other barbarians strike at Ur, where the famine inside the
city walls kills as many as the highlanders outside: “Inside Urim [Ur] there is death, outside it there is death.” Once the barbarians breach the walls, they smash the people’s
heads like clay pots.
* * *
To the west, the pharaohs made their own attempts at walling off their state. Recently, archaeologists have completely overturned conventional opinion on early Egyptian society.
Egyptian cities were not open, as previously assumed, but girded by mud-brick walls. All along the Nile, the cities and their guardians, the pharaohs,
maintained a careful watch over the wastelands of Libya, Nubia, and the east. Foreign invasion was a standard theme in Egyptian literature. One early second-millennium text, the Admonitions of Ipuwer, despairs that so many outsiders have flooded the country that there are no real Egyptians left. Another work, the Prophecy of Neferty, reveals the panic spread by invasions of nomads who brought “terror to the hearts of those who [were] at harvest . . . seizing the
teams as they ploughed.” Here the barbarians have overrun the kingdom’s fortresses, and the pharaoh’s soldiers, afraid to sally forth, are taken during their sleep. Nomads’ animals drink from the Nile. The Egyptians, previously unaccustomed to weapons, have taken up arms and begun making arrows of metal. Terror and hopelessness pervades Egyptian thought: “I go to rest saying, ‘I must stay awake!’?”
The Egyptian response to insecurity was typical for a people who, like the Mesopotamians, raised up walled cities out of mud: they fortified their borders.
Pyramid texts speak of defenses against desert peoples from both the west and the east. The pharaoh Amenemhat I constructed a fortification called the
Wall of the Ruler. No trace of this wall has survived, its mud bricks undoubtedly having long ago eroded away and been buried by sand. However, Egypt’s fortifications in the more arid south stood for nearly four thousand years, until they were finally destroyed in the flooding caused by the Aswan Dam. There the pharaoh’s mud-brick forts once sprawled over 250 miles, overlooking the frontier from atop islands, cliff tops, and steep hills. Longer fortifications, including a four-mile wall flanking the Nile,
supported the forts, and Egyptian patrols regularly fanned out to the desert edge searching for evidence of nomads and sending back all except the traders.
* * *
Nearly fifteen hundred years later, Near Eastern kings still hadn’t let go of the idea that a great border wall might keep nomadic raiders out. In the mid-first millennium BC Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605–562 BC) became the first ruler to establish a defensive
circuit around an entire country.
Nebuchadnezzar is a bit better known than Shulgi. He has inspired every sort of legend. Some ancient authors assert that he built the wondrous Hanging Gardens for his Median wife, a comely hillbilly who longed for home. In the Bible, he’s said to have put his fortune-tellers, magicians, sorcerers, and wizards to death for having failed to guess the contents of his dreams.
Nebuchadnezzar spent thirteen years laying siege to the city of Tyre, and if the experience taught him nothing else, it apparently impressed upon him the value of well-built fortifications. During the siege, he made his men carry so many loads that their heads were rubbed bald and their shoulders worn raw. The walls never fell. Returning home around 573 BC, Nebuchadnezzar surrounded his capital with fortifications that would dwarf even those of Tyre. Thousands of slaves toiled away for Nebuchadnezzar, making the bricks, baking them (an expensive and unusual step), and stacking them into walls so thick that chariot races could be run on the tops. When they were finished, three massive walls surrounded Babylon, its more than one thousand temples, its aqueducts, canals, and gardens.
Babylon’s city walls were just a start. Relying on rivers to defend the eastern and western approaches to Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar could completely enclose the core of his kingdom, by adding
long walls to the north and south. The northern wall, whose ruins are known today as Habl as-Sahr (“string of stones”), extended some thirty-one miles. A staggering 164 million bricks were used in its construction. The southern wall connected Babylon on the Euphrates to Kar-Nergal on the Tigris.
Nebuchadnezzar believed that his walls had immunized Babylonia against invaders. He had his name stamped on every brick. Inscriptions as far afield as Lebanon announced to the world his great achievement:
So that no enemy and troublemaker should reach the territory of Babylon . . . I piled up a great earthwork and surrounded the city with mighty waters. So that no flood should break into it, I loaded its sides with a strong embankment of bitumen and baked brick. . . . I piled up a great earthwork, and I surrounded the land with mighty waters, like an uprising of the ocean. . . . I reinforced the defenses of Esagil and Babylon and I
made Babylon a mountain of life for the people.
The prophet Jeremiah was skeptical. He prophesied that the walls of Babylon would be razed and burned: “The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,” he wrote. “The nation’s labor is only
fuel for flames.”
For at least another thousand years after Nebuchadnezzar, Mesopotamian rulers would carry on with efforts to translate the labor of nations into defense. The
so-called Umm Rus wall, for example, once guarded the Mesopotamian plain from the desert to the north. Similarly, the massive mud-brick wall known as either El Mutabbaq or Nimrod’s Dyke
defended the Tigris plain against Bedouins. The basket carriers kept busy, but at least they held off the barbarians for a while.
* * *
History shows that the basket carriers had good reason for their fear. From the middle of the third millennium BC to the middle of the first, urban settlements in Mesopotamia declined, in the aggregate, to just
one-sixteenth their former size, and that wasn’t the end of it. The heartland of civilization would suffer another two thousand years of invasions from the wastelands before the great cities and canals were finally destroyed. As the world of the civilized Mesopotamians became ever smaller and less secure, the immense early promise of Mesopotamian civilization was never realized. Fearful of
venturing too far beyond their defenses, the Near Easterners largely contented themselves with remembering past glories—their scholars endlessly assembling the data collected by earlier generations and their artists endlessly reproducing the same formulaic images they had inherited from their forebears. Mostly they repeated the rituals they hoped would placate the gods who periodically sent barbarians against them.
Perhaps what finally doomed the basket carriers was their stubborn disinterest in reconsidering a defensive strategy that was inextricably tied to their way of life. They were, with few exceptions, civilian populations resigned to being defended only by brick walls, small numbers of soldiers, and mercenaries. They insisted on remaining that way even as they were being driven to extinction. Generation upon generation elected to build walls rather than take up arms. Their commitment to this vision could be characterized as either admirable or pathetic, depending on one’s point of view; however, it was not the universal resolution of all ancient peoples. In Greece, the heartland of another ancient civilization, a city would soon come to reject the logic of the basket carriers and re-create urban life in a wholly new form, without walls, and, incredibly, without civilians. The story of a city without walls—a thing almost unheard of in ancient history—must occupy our attention next.