"BOOKS: Bibby on the Dilmun Culture",
A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, March 1, 1970,
of a book.
LOOKING FOR DILMUN,
by Geoffrey Bibby.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
THE SUNDAY STAR
Washington, D. C., March 1, 1970
"BOOKS: Bibby on the Dilmun Culture"
BOOKS: Bibby on the Dilmun Culture
LOOKING FOR DILMUN.
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
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
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
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.