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Fall of Civilizations: The histories of greatness and ruin that mirror modern decay

Paul Cooper's hit podcast is now a book. He talks to Middle East Eye about the decline and fall of empires both ancient and modern
Pandemonium, by the British painter John Martin, 1841 (Creative commons)

In the year 401 BCE, the historian, philosopher, and soldier Xenophon was returning with a group of fellow Greek mercenaries from fighting a war on behalf of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger, who died in battle trying to remove his older brother from the throne. 

With their patron dead, the surviving soldiers had to flee. In front of them lay their only escape route: the vast deserts of what is now Iraq. Beyond these lay the Black Sea, and safety. 

Pursued by the enemy, Xenophon, who would go on to write his classic Anabasis (adapted in the 1960s and 70s as the New York-based novel and then film The Warriors) about the expedition of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries, told his men to leave everything that wasn’t essential behind. 

Following the course of the Tigris river north, they came upon a “large, deserted city” whose walls ran for 11 km. “Nearby this city was a pyramid of stone,” Xenophon wrote. “And upon this city were many barbarians who had fled from neighbouring villages.” 

Further on, the mercenaries encountered the ruins of an even larger place. They had no time to linger, but for days afterward Xenophon asked the local people about these vast, lonely ruins in the deserts of Mesopotamia, and who had been responsible for them. 

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He never got a convincing answer. But as Paul Cooper writes in his new book Fall of Civilizations, based on his hugely popular podcast of the same name, “Today we know that these cities were the famed metropolises of Nimrud and Nineveh – the greatest cities of the Assyrian Empire – and it’s thought that Xenophon… was the first person to write an account of their ruins.”

Cooper, 35, was born in south London and grew up in Wales. He began writing the first episode of the Fall of Civilizations podcast in October 2018. At that point, he was a graduate student in literature at the University of East Anglia who had written a novel (he has since written another). The podcast, on Roman Britain, came out in late January 2019.

Today, there are 18 episodes of the podcast, many of them clocking in at over three hours, and the book, has just been published in the UK. The podcast has been downloaded over 100 million times and its YouTube channel has over a million subscribers.

Cooper, who lives in Norwich and does most of his research in the libraries of the University of East Anglia, works full time on Fall of Civilizations, taking about two or three months to write and record every episode.

In doing so, Cooper asks his listeners and readers to imagine “what it must have felt like” to live in these societies as they collapsed, a task that – as he suggests – might not be so hard today, in a time of climate disaster, war, and political fragmentation. 

Stories of ruin

Cooper's book begins with Walter Benjamin’s vision of the “angel of history”, which sees not a series of events but, as the German Jewish thinker put it, “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”.

The storm of events propels the angel into the future “to which his back is turned while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress".

Benjamin’s angel of history haunts Fall of Civilizations. Across time and space, the podcast returns again and again to the melancholy, evocative power of ruins (including referring to the modern ruins of Gaza, Aleppo, and Mosul), to the pernicious effects of climate change, which has played its part in destroying a series of cultures, the deadly pull of deepening inequality, and to the idea that, as Cooper tells Middle East Eye, “making yourself despised as a tyrant is far more damaging in the long term”. 

'The feeling that things are coming apart and that the structures you relied upon are failing… that’s not a unique feeling; people have felt that throughout history'

Paul Cooper, writer and podcaster

In exploring these ancient stories of decline and fall, Fall of Civilizations acts as both an escape from the modern world and an often troubling, occasionally reassuring mirror to it.

At the end of the book, Cooper is clear that “the challenges of the next century will be utterly defined by one threat: global warming”.

He imagines a time, far from the present, in which some future civilisation discovers the ruins of our lost world, its once-gleaming capitals broken and taken over by nature. 

“I get a lot of messages from people who listen to the podcast who say it gives them a sense of melancholy, but also a sense of comfort,” Cooper says.

“I think it makes them realise that the feeling that you’re living through a uniquely disruptive or chaotic time, the feeling that things are coming apart and that the structures you relied upon are failing… that’s not a unique feeling; people have felt that throughout history.”

This kind of communication across the centuries is a feature of Fall of Civilizations. The story of Xenophon encountering the remains of the Assyrian Empire (14th century BCE to 612 BCE), the world’s first military superpower, is typical of the way the podcast begins. In these openings, a traveller discovers – usually for the first time – the ruins of some great, lost world. 

And so, we hear that in 1625, Italian nobleman Pietro Della Valle and his Assyrian Christian princess wife, trekking through the Mesopotamian desert on camels and horses, sought shelter from local bandits in the ruins of Ur, “the heart of one of mankind’s first true civilisations – the society of Sumer”. 

The great Ziggurat temple in the ancient city of Ur (Asaad Niazi / AFP)

Or that, in about 1200, the medieval Arab traveller and scholar Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi left his native Baghdad and journeyed to Mosul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo, before crossing the Sinai desert to reach the banks of the Nile. There, he encounters the ruins and remains of ancient Egypt, including the “most fabled of all Egypt’s monuments”, the Pyramids of Giza.

“What I think makes those openings appeal to people is that that experience is impossible really for a modern person - the experience of being the first person to discover something or to discover something that people don’t know about,” Cooper says. Our world, explored from pole to pole, sea to sea, is exhausted, its mystery elusive.

'We can't really begin to understand the dramas that play out through history if we don't take some time to examine the stage first'

Paul Cooper, writer

And yet one of the chief delights of Fall of Civilizations is the feeling of always learning new things, many of which undercut western prejudices about the world outside Europe and North America.

Two of Cooper's own favourite anecdotes involve two 12th and 13th-century kings of Mali: Abu Bakr II and Mansa Musa

Abu Bakr became obsessed with the idea of crossing the Atlantic and is believed to have attempted one of the first transatlantic voyages, with a flotilla of 2,000 ships, after the Viking Leif Erikson, but two centuries before Christopher Columbus. Abu Bakr most likely died on the voyage.

Mansa Musa, king of Mali from 1312 to 1337, was one of the richest men in the world during his reign. "He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca with the equivalent of $500m in gold dust, which he gave out to everyone he met in cities like Medina and Cairo," Cooper told a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). 

"His generosity caused a collapse in the price of gold, devastating the economies of these cities for decades. On his way back from his pilgrimage, he took out loans of as much gold as possible in an attempt to stabilise the price. It's the first and only time that one man has controlled the price of the world's gold."

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In some cases, the openings to an episode of Fall of Civilizations involve a European traveller in another part of the world, resulting in an encounter that isn’t always totally weighed down by colonialism. 

“Many of these writers grew up within the colonial system and are often influenced by their own orientalising of the places. It's difficult not to roll your eyes sometimes at the things they write,” Cooper tells MEE. 

“Whether it's the German explorer Heinrich Barth visiting the ruined city of Gao in the Sahel, or Johann Ludwig Burckhardt stumbling across the ruins of Petra, they tend to de-emphasise the people currently living in the area, partly because they are genuinely not that interested in them, and partly because they want to exaggerate the remoteness of their discovery.

“But despite all these complications, their accounts of wandering through the ruined sites often capture something genuine and moving - the dual experience of walking through a ruined place and allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps between what has fallen and what is still standing, to wonder at other times and other lives, and feel the passing of time written in the landscape around you,” Cooper says.

The importance of geography

These many and varied landscapes are key to Fall of Civilizations and to Cooper’s view of societies as being shaped by their surroundings.

“The geography of these settings is crucial to the stories, and I always like to begin the stories of human history in deep time, in geological time,” Cooper says.

This can mean, for example, a deep and dramatic retelling of the theory of the Zanclean flood, which holds that over a period of a few months over five million years ago, water from the Atlantic Ocean burst through the Straits of Gibraltar to fill up what had been a dried-up basin, thus creating the Mediterranean Sea, round which so many ancient cultures sprang up. 

Or it can mean learning that, up until about 5,000 years ago, the Sahara desert was, as Cooper puts it, "a green landscape of savannahs, lakes, and rivers where early humans lived, hunted and fished". At the Cave of Swimmers in southwest Egypt, neolithic rock paintings depict people swimming and hunting, and animals running.

 Barquq Castle in Khan Yunis
The ruins of the Barquq Castle in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on 22 April 2024 (AFP)

“We can't really begin to understand the dramas that play out through history if we don't take some time to examine the stage first,” Cooper says. Whether it’s the Sumerians, Assyrians, the late Bronze Age collapse, or the Byzantines, this stage is often the Middle East.

“Many of the most influential societies that we've looked at have grown up in the Mesopotamian basin surrounded on two sides by mountains in the Zagros and Taurus, and by seas and desert in the south and west, so we've returned to this setting a few times,” Cooper says.

“The same landscape often gives rise to the same conditions time and again throughout history. It's striking that the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War for instance, fought with artillery and machine guns, were the same mountain borders that the Assyrians and Elamites once fought over with chariots and slings,” he says. 

"I like to think that if we realised that in some ways, we are simply rehearsing conflicts that have been going on in some form since the dawn of time, perhaps it could help us to imagine ways out of those conflicts, and imagine a future based on cooperation,” Cooper tells MEE.

Looking at the living ruins of Gaza, decimated by the Israeli military, and the seemingly endless cycle of conflict in the region, that future of cooperation seems a long way away. The lesson from history is clear, though: nothing is permanent. Whatever rises, falls. 

Fall of Civilizations, by Paul Cooper, is out now, published by Duckworth books.

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