Monday, June 20, 2016

Reflections on learning about history of the Ancient Near East



So I recently finished reading a book called "A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000 BC - 323 BC" (2nd edition). This book is by Marc van de Mieroop, and it is one of the few books to cover this time period that is available on Amazon.


So why did I study this particular time period, you might be wondering? What exactly is the "Ancient Near East," anyway; and why would anyone read about it?



The Ancient Near East, to begin with, roughly corresponds to what we today call the "Middle East," and the period in question is the one the Hebrew Bible took place in. This period is of enormous interest to Biblical scholars (both Jewish and Christian), and it helps to give some context to Biblical events that often mystify us otherwise.  Any Westerner who's read the "Old Testament" (as it is known to Christians) knows that Hebrew culture is mighty foreign to us Westerners, and we sometimes find it hard to understand what's going on - or why certain things happened - without some background information that is often missing, which can be hard to find. Thus, I am reading this book to help me fill in the blanks, and make some more sense out of the Hebrew Bible than I'd be able to manage without it.


Great Ziggurat of Ur, in what is today Iraq

So what, specifically, is the period of the "Ancient Near East"? There actually isn't much consensus on this point, with different groups understanding the term differently. Some schools (such as BYU) will cover the region's history through the Arab conquests of 640 CE, but this is somewhat rare - most Ancient Near Eastern Studies programs will go either through the conquests of the Achaemenid Empire (in the 6th century BCE), or the conquests of Alexander the Great (in the 4th century BCE) - the period at which this book chooses to finish. Although there isn't a wide consensus on this point, the focus chosen here may be as mainstream as it's possible to be; and so the author's coverage of his chosen period would also seem to be satisfactory to those preferring a different focus. What he does cover, he covers well; and that would seem praiseworthy enough for me.


Map of the Ancient Near East

Because of the vast nature of the geography, a lot of cultures have to be covered in a book like this (and are covered here); among them the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Hittites, Elamites, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and still others. But surprisingly, there is actually not much in this book about the Israelites themselves - although the Hebrew Bible is mentioned as a historical source more than once, and some of the sources cited in the footnotes are academic journals of Biblical Studies, the Israelites are not covered to the same degree that the others are. But though the omission of larger Hebrew history might be construed as a major weakness in a book like this, I don't think it's necessarily a problem, since your typical Bible Studies program often teaches Israelite history in a separate class, more focused on the Hebrews themselves. With this material already covered in-depth in its own class at many schools, I suspect that there's not much reason to focus on it in your typical Bible program, since it would usually involve some redundancy in the classes' overlap. Thus, the Ancient Near Eastern history classes usually focus their attention on the other cultures of that setting - the more politically powerful ones, whose interactions with the Israelites features so prominently in the narrative of the Bible.


Sumerian writing, perhaps the first in human history

This period was significant for a number of developments that influenced the future course of human history, such as the invention of writing by the Sumerians - possibly the first ever to invent this, although there's a possibility that the Egyptians may have done it first; so this is not as certain as it once was. Scholars today cannot get an exact date for the available written records, unfortunately; and so it turns out the margin of error is large enough to leave the question open for the moment - we just don't have enough data to settle this question at this time. It does seem probable, though, that it was one of these two cultures; and it is known that the Sumerian system of cuneiform writing, whenever and wherever invented, influenced most of the others in this region at this time. We can be reasonably certain of at least that much.


Code of Hammurabi on clay tablets


Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets

The invention of writing may well have laid the foundation for a number of other important developments that followed, such as the advent of written laws (like the Code of Hammurabi), and the advent of written literature (like the Epic of Gilgamesh) - some of the most celebrated products of this time. There were also accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy (which laid the foundations for our current knowledge in these areas), and records of the local religions and gods (which help paint a picture of this region's culture). But the most important innovation of all may have actually been one that had very little to do with writing, which was the invention of agriculture early in this period - a technique that allowed the development of these urban civilizations in the first place.


Hittite deity, 13th century BC

All of these things are discussed (to at least some degree) in this book; but the majority of this book - perhaps even the bulk of it - is about the traditional focus of historical research, which is power politics. If there is one unifying theme in this book, it is power politics. This book focuses greatly on kings and empires, battles and wars, economics and diplomacy - with quotes from primary sources (such as diplomatic correspondence) wherever possible. Some of these periods have more surviving sources than others; since there is a scarcity of written material even for some of the periods after the invention of writing; and those before the invention of writing have, of course, no written records at all - a serious limitation on what historians can do with these periods (as you might imagine), which forces them to rely exclusively on the archaeological evidence available - which isn't always very detailed, depending on which period you're talking about. Discoveries are being made every year, though; so it's likely that future generations of students will know more about (at least some of) these things than we do; and be able to fill in (at least some of) the gaps.


The Great Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre, two enduring symbols of Egypt

The biggest omission in this book is the one that a number of other reviewers have commented on (and I've read some other reviews at Amazon), which is the omission of Egypt - omitted largely because it doesn't fit geographically into the region we call the "Ancient Near East" (being in Africa instead), and thus covered only when it was a major player in the events discussed here - which was reasonably often, actually. Their culture is not covered with the same depth that the others are, though; so readers interested in Egyptology would be well-advised to go to a different book (and there are plenty out there to choose from on this subject). In fairness to the author, though, he can't cover everything in a book of this length; so I won't fault him for this omission - some things inevitably have to be left out, and the line has to be drawn somewhere.


A modern copy of the Hebrew Bible in the original

What the author does cover here, though, he covers well; and he helps you to sort through the complicated mix of cultures and languages that are found in the Hebrew Bible. Keeping track of all of them is still a difficult task, I should note; but this book at least helped me to get started with this endeavor, and I will give it high marks for this accomplishment.

Book at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

History of Ancient Greece

History of Ancient Rome


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