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"BOOKS: Bibby on the Dilmun Culture",
A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, March 1, 1970,
of a book.
by Geoffrey Bibby.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Washington, D. C., March 1, 1970


"BOOKS: Bibby on the Dilmun Culture"


BOOKS: Bibby on the Dilmun Culture
By Geoffrey Bibby. Alfred A. Knopf. 383 pages. $10.

   In the cuneiform writing of ancient Mesopotamia, before 2300 B.C., the name "Dilmun" appears in two quite different contexts. In religious mythology, it was a kind of Garden of Eden, where the waters of the "bitter sea" mingled with the pure fresh waters of the abyss (the "waters under the earth" of our Bible). There, in Dilmun, the Sumerian Adam, Gilgamesh, sought the magic "flower of immortality" by diving down through a hole in the bottom of the sea into the "sweet waters" beneath, but, as soon as he obtained the flower, it was snatched away and eaten by a snake (just as Adam lost the fruit of the Tree of Everlasting Life by the actions of a snake).

   The ancient documents also speak of Dilmun in a more mundane way, as a transfer point in commercial shipping, where the copper coming from Magan and the ivory and other valuables from Meluhha were transshipped to vessels bound for the Tigris-Euphrates cities.

   Geoffrey Bibby, an expatriated Englishman who now works in Denmark at the prehistoric museum of Aarhus, is the author of two earlier books which were very favorably received: "The Testimony of the Spade" (1956) and "Four Thousand Years Ago (1961). This volume is written in the same breezy and informal style, but is a much more significant work because it reveals new and very important discoveries.

   Bibby's search for Dilmun, as director of the Danish Archaeological Expeditions to the Persian Gulf covered 15 years, from 1953 through 1968, and found Dilmun on Bahrain Island. There can be little doubt of the identification, especially as the archaeological evidence is supported by linguistic and other evidence showing the word Dilmun, like the Arab word "al-bahrain," means "the two seas." The Arabic version is found in the Koran and in the "Tabletalk of Mohamed” with this meaning and refers to this area. Even today, the island is supplied with fresh water from springs at the bottom of the adjacent sea. These were probably discovered by prehistoric pearl-divers, and the “flower of immortality” may have been a pearl.

   At Bahrain Island, Bibby's expeditions established a sequence of at least seven cultures, which he calls "cities." The oldest and least known goes back before 4000 B.C.; the second and greatest was the seafaring emporium of the centuries before and after Sargon of Akkad, about 2300 B.C.; this city had great stone walls, an elaborate stone temple which was built and rebuilt over the generations, and a necropolis with more than 100,000 burial mounds.

   The third settlement, which may have been even more extensive in area, was in the period 1750 to 1200 and is marked by Kassite-type pottery as was much of Mesopotamia in the same period. The fourth settlement seems to be about 700 B.C. and is mentioned in documents of Sargon of Assyria, after more than a thousand years in which no mention of Dilmun is to be found in Mesopotamian documents.

   The fifth culture is clearly evident as an Athenian military colony of Alexander the Great and his Seleucid successors (323 to about 200 B.C.). The sixth settlement is Islamic of the medieval period, while the seventh is marked by the bulky ruins of a Portuguese fortress of the 16th century.

   Of these seven cultures, the Most interesting are the first two and the fifth. On these, other excavations at Kuwait, 250 miles north of Bahrain and southeast an equal distance at Abu Dhabi, at the entrance to the Gulf, have revealed much more information. At Abu Dhabi are tombs and delicate pottery similar to the Kulli culture of Baluchistan, west of India, and earlier than the Indus civilization. The evidence found by Bibby may go back to 4000 B.C. The second culture at Bahrain also shows closer links with the Indus area than with Mesopotamia, for the period down to about 2200 B.C. Among this evidence is a set of weights on the Indian standard found in the entrance house of the city gate. In that prosperous period, the Dilmun culture extended for hundreds of miles along the eastern coast of Arabia, from Failaka Island, off Kuwait, down to Oman.

   On that same Failaka Island were found the ruins of an Athenian colony of the period 323 B.C. set tip by Alexander the Great as an advanced base for his projected attack on Arabia. Called "Ikaros" by order of the great conqueror himself, its inhabitants drank Greek wine from Rhodes and worshiped in a perfect little Greek temple behind a defensive wall seven feet thick.

   Eventually Bibby was allowed to make a rapid survey of parts of Saudi Arabia itself, going deep into the interior. He found evidence that the climate was much wetter until about 2,000 years ago, sufficient to sustain agriculture. And there, 60 miles north of Dhahram, he made the most surprising discovery of all, pottery of the Al-Ubaid culture, similar to that of the earliest settlers of lower Mesopotamia, who appeared at Eridu in the swamps of the Euphrates outlet about 7,000 years ago.

   Bibby's account of these discoveries is presented in sequence as they occurred, year by year, the record set down with enthusiastic informality, interspersed with vivid narration of his life and experiences along the coast of the Persian Gulf during the rapid changes of this petroleum era. His style makes for easy reading and much local color, but the archaeological evidence at times gets a bit confused in the events of daily life, such as the airplane flights from site to site and the coffee drinking with local sheiks. Nine maps and a chronological chart help straighten things out, but Bibby's chatty informality does lees than justice to some of his companions who appear in these pages only as nicknames.



Scan of original review



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