I cannot stress enough how exciting and interesting this book is.
Written as a tie-in for the BBC’s First Eden TV series, everyone’s favourite nature commentator David Attenborough takes us on a journey through about 7 million years in the region that is the cradle of civilisation.
The book is divided up into four parts that nicely describe the geography of the region. It’s just mindblowly amazing because it’s 200 pages of a well written discussion that explicitly states how the natural environment shaped the civilisations that occur(ed) there, and how they in turn shaped the natural environment. Nothing says geography is *awesome* like examining these relationships because as we know that is what geography is all about.
Typically of such books, it’s not a happy story and the four parts of it can be summed up thus: there is a beautiful, highly biodiverse place; people come along and live bountifully; people overstep the limits of the natural environment; the natural environment collapses.
There are lots of photos, maps, and diagrams, which were very nice/helpful.
Although the book is a bit old (first published in 1987) it only feels old in the final few chapters, and it doesn’t detract significantly from the educational value or the pleasure of reading it.
I haven’t seen the TV series but I’d really, really love to because David Attenborough.
the book and geography
The first part is called The Making of the Garden and talks about the physical processes that formed the area and the biodiversity of it and how all that came about. It presents a different picture to what you might get when you hear ‘Mediterranean’ (olives, crowded Spanish beaches) and in doing so really gives the reader a feel for what the region was like before people came along and why it is called the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilisation.
“…at the (eastern) end of the Mediterranean, other human communities were developing a different way of life. They were building permanent homes and settling together in villages. And they were devising ways of exploiting the animals and plants around them that would eventually transform the whole world.” pg 53.
The second part, The Gods Enslaved, talks about how the old goddesses and gods could do things on their own, like a bull that is the font of fertility. By around the first century CE things changed from that old style animism to beliefs that placed humans at the centre; the bull was still the symbol of fertility but needed someone to stab it to release it’s power. This is a big change in the relationship between society and the environment and sort of spelled the beginning of the end for the Romans, who as we know expanded their empire until they just ran out of food/farmland.
Classic mistake (pun!) and one we’re busily repeating today.
“It used to be said that such cities collapse because nature fails to support man. The truth is the reverse. … The bull, the all-powerful god of fertility who had been worshipped since long before man began to build cities, was now dethroned. The last debased relics of his cult were the ritualized slaughter of the Spanish bull-ring.” pg 101
Things really start getting glum in part three, The Wastes of War, when it talks about how people’s strange need to attack each other really took it out of the Mediterranean. It goes from when the horse was domesticated in what is now Ukraine/Hungray/Poland (doesn’t say when) to the Crusades in the Middle Ages. In terms of geography, it again demonstrates that a bad relationship between a society and the environment it is in/relies on is only going to end in tears.
This really hits home in the final part, Strangers in the Garden, which discusses ‘modern’ times (i.e. up to the late 80s when the book was written.) I can’t say much, except this: can we try and get along with our environment please?
“The processes that started here ten thousand years ago and brought the Mediterranean to its present condition are now at work all over the earth. Now it is not just a small sea, and the lands that surround it, that nations must come together to save. It is the planet.” pg 207
Name: The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man
Authors: David Attenborough
Date: (first ed.) 1987
Publishers: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.
Rating: I give it ten out of ten ancient civilisations