Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 38.


M. Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca 3000-323 BC. Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell, 2007[2]. Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Pp. xxii + 341, incl. 34 figures, 3 charts, and 21 maps. ISBN 9781405149112. US$31.95, UK£18.99.

M. W. Chavalas (ed.), The Ancient Near East. Historical Sources in Translation. Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell, 2006. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History. Pp. xxii+445, 3 illustrations. ISBN 9780631235811. US$44.95, UK£20.99.

Jan P. Stronk,
Ancient History, University of Amsterdam.

It might be an understatement to say that in today’s world widespread attention is being paid to the region of the Ancient Near East, most clearly so for modern Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, its heartland. The recent acts of war have destroyed or at least severely damaged some of the world’s most valued heritage, including the site of the city of Babylon, and occurrences in the streets of Baghdad -- or, for that matter, elsewhere in this seemingly doomed country -- still make daily headlines in the papers or the TV news. It should therefore not surprise anyone that Van De Mieroop’s excellent textbook badly needed a second edition (first edition 2004). Van De Mieroop has used the opportunity to provide this History with more than a cursory update -- a number of maps were added and the guide for further reading has been considerably expanded and improved. In fifteen chapters, divided into an introduction and three parts (city-states, territorial states, and empires), Van De Mieroop discusses various aspects of the civilizations present at different times in the Ancient Near East, based upon sound research. Perhaps hard to notice is the inclusion in this edition of further research, compared to the first edition, occasionally leading to new insights. If the first edition was already by far the best choice for a relatively simple introduction to the history of the Ancient Near East for the English-speaking world -- certainly for the period until the rise of the Achaemenid Empire -- this certainly is the case for this edition.[[1]] With the book of Van De Mieroop available there is no longer any possible excuse for any undergraduate curriculum in ancient history not to offer a course of Ancient Near Eastern history under the pretext that there would be no adequate, accessible, and affordable textbook.[[2]]

Such a course would certainly be enhanced in value by the use of the second book discussed in this review. The thirteen chapters of this book cover the major cultures of the Ancient Near East and a wide variety of subjects from the rigid official Sumerian Early Dynastic royal inscriptions to simple tax receipts, scribbled on ostraca. Each chapter is, moreover, written by (a) specialist author(s), who provide(s) every chapter with a generally succinct, sometimes (as in the case of the El Amarna letters) a somewhat more elaborate introduction into the period and its main events and/or the nature of the texts. The experts gathered by Chavalas are for ‘Sumerian Early Dynastic Royal Inscriptions’ (Chapter 1, pp. 4-16) Glenn Magid; for ‘Old Akkadian Period Texts’ (Chapter 2, pp. 17-44) Benjamin Studevent-Hickman and Christopher Morgan; for ‘Late Third Millennium BCE Sumerian Texts’ (Chapter 3, pp. 45-87) Richard Averbeck, Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, and Piotr Michalowski; for ‘Old Babylonian Period Inscriptions’ (Chapter 4, pp. 88-106) Frans van Koppen, who also took care of Chapter 5 (pp. 107- 33), ‘Miscellaneous Old Babylonian Documents’. (Chapter 6, pp. 134-81), ‘Late Bronze Age Inscriptions from Babylon, Assyria, and Syro-Palestine’, is presented by Frans van Koppen, Kyle Greenwood, Christopher Morgan, Brent A. Strawn, Jeff Cooley, Bill T. Arnold, Eva von Dassow, and Yoram Cohen, Chapter 7 (pp. 182-214), ‘Correspondence from El-Amarna’, by Eva von Dassow and Kyle Greenwood. ‘Hittite Historical Texts I’ (Chapter 8, pp. 215-52) has been attended to by Gary Beckman, Petra Goedegebuure, Joost Hazenbos, and Yoram Cohen, ‘Hittite Historical Texts II’ (Chapter 9, pp. 253-79) by Kathleen R. Mineck, Theo van den Hout, and Harry A. Hoffner, Jr. Sarah C. Melville, Brent A. Strawn, Brian B. Schmidt, and Scott Noegel charged themselves with ‘Neo-Assyrian and Syro-Palestinian Texts I’ (Chapter 10, pp. 280-330), while Strawn, Melville, Kyle Greenwood and Noegel did so for ‘Neo-Assyrian and Syro- Palestinian Texts II’ (Chapter 11, pp. 331-81). ‘Neo- Babylonian Period Texts from Babylonia and Syro-Palestine’ (Chapter 12, pp. 382-406) was composed by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, Sarah C. Melville, and Scott Noegel and, finally, Chapter 13 (pp. 407-30), ‘Achaemenid Period Historical Texts Concerning Mesopotamia’, by Bill T. Arnold and Piotr Michalowski.

Taken together this volume comprises translations of texts in a chronological order ranging from formal to (more or less) personal, written in a variety of languages and, in the case of Akkadian, several dialects and moreover written in different writing systems. It is to be regretted that no examples of transcriptions, if only to show a small part of the problems translators face when confronted with these (or similar) texts, are presented in this book; the problems regarding Nr. 18 on p. 21, a text from the reign of Shar-kali-sharri, deserve in this respect a fuller treatment than the summary comment by Studevant-Hickman. To merely refer, as Chavalas does (p. 3), to secondary literature for more information on matters of writing, transcription and so on is under the circumstances too easy and unsatisfactory,[[3]] even considering the elementary nature of this book. Related to the previous point, I believe that if the book under review has an innate weakness, it is the overall lack of illustrations. Illustrations may well serve to point out the problems specialists face, and to show students something (additional, perhaps) of the character of the specific civilization and/or text(s) involved. Some of these problems might be solved by dedicated teachers, but since the book is aimed at a thirteen/fifteen weeks course (p. 2) there might be little, too little, room for such action. Moreover, too many people are still some way or another too much afflicted by the ‘Hollywood-picture’ -- that all inhabitants of the ancient Orient (and for that matter Greece) communicated in a more or less civilized form of English -- a picture that could be reinforced by the smooth translations presented in the volume under scrutiny. Pictures might serve as a useful start to counter that image, if only by showing (some of) the texts as they are.

Another feature that strikes the eye is the fact that, although the Amarna-archive of Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten provides some (excellently translated!) texts for this volume, further Egyptian texts are absent. That the Egyptian texts were written in a different writing system is true, but the same goes for the texts in Aramaic or Hebrew which are treated in this volume. That Egyptology is a discipline in its own right is true, but so is, for example, Hittitology. That the Amarna texts relate to the Ancient Near East ‘proper’ (to use the phrase) is true, but throughout Egyptian literary history texts are known that show at the same time great similarities in thought and simultaneously distinct differences in form with some of the ones from the ‘Ancient Near East’. Such issues merit at least some attention. How well hieroglyphic and cuneiform versions of a text can enhance each other appears from the Hittite- Egyptian treaty (pp. 244-52). At the basis of this problem lies the fact that a proper and consequently adapted geographical determination of what the user should consider as the Ancient Near East is lacking; in Van De Mieroop’s book, on the other hand, such a definition is present (p. xviii). The simple remark that the book under review ‘is intended as a supplemental book for a textbook that surveys ancient Near Easter history’ (p. 1) is, therefore, in this respect absolutely insufficient as an explanation, the more so because of the texts from Egypt that have been included.

The translations themselves are, as far as I was able to check them, accurate -- though at places a bit deviant from the current (or ‘copyright’) translations (such as, for example, in the forms of year names of Hammurabi = text nr. 56) -- and based upon the most recent scholarly developments (for example, p. 24: Akkadian e-ni-tum = high-priestess [being the position of the mother of Sargon of Akkad]). They have, moreover, been provided whenever needed with a historical commentary that serves to elucidate crucial elements of the different texts. The choice of the texts in itself is commendable. They focus on political and economic developments -- more on what connected these ancient people than what divided them. The drawback in this choice is that many, more literary and/or religiously oriented texts -- which have so far been more or less part of the ‘standard curriculum’ of Ancient Near Eastern texts -- have been left out.[[4]] Here, too, the book suffers from the absence of a definition or even an idea, in this case as to the meaning of epic and/or historiography for the idea of history. The result is, for example, that fragments of Enuma Elish and the Epos of Gilgamesh (to mention some monumental texts) are absent as counterparts for respectively the Sumerian King List and the Ur-hymns -- in my opinion a missed opportunity.

Every choice of texts has its advantages or disadvantages; for this edition it is not otherwise. The editor may defend the choices made by pointing out the criteria he has set, in this case the focus on political and, to a lesser extent, economic developments. This being so, I missed the even mere mention of the archive of the Murašū family, found at Nippur and consisting of about 800 tablets. The family’s main (official) occupation seems to have been land-management for absentee landowners -- Persian nobles or the state.[[5]] Both from political and economic point of view this archive offers an unexpected view on Achaemenid management in Babylonia. Equally missing is the mention of, let alone texts from, the equally impressive archives of the Babylon-based Egibi family. This too offers intimate inside information regarding the interplay of private entrepreneurship and state policy and procedure at the time of King Darius I of Persia.[[6]] It is to be regretted if only the copyright laws caused these archives to have been excluded from the collection of texts under review.

Critical –- and perhaps important for some groups of users -- as these remarks are, they finally do not detract substantially from the overall significance of this book. With the publication of these two books Blackwell’s has rendered an excellent service to the study of the Ancient Near East by undergraduates –- and, indeed, to those of the general public with anything more than superficial interest in the subject. As already stated, Van De Mieroop’s book may serve as an up-to-date and excellent basis for a course of the ancient history of the Near East, while the book edited by Chavalas provides a solid textual basis for a better understanding of this area, which remains today as volatile –- and at the same time so potentially crucial for our future -- as it has frequently been in the past. Both books have been provided with excellent bibliographies: Van De Mieroop’s with a general one, Chavalas’ with a bibliography at the end of each chapter (not a solution I prefer, but under the circumstances understandable), and useful indices. Although I noticed an occasional typo, they were very few and not of interest for the textual understanding. In short, these two books may be seen as an asset for any private or institutional library as a starting point for the exploration of the varied riches of the Ancient Near East.


[[1]] Amélie Kuhrt’s The Ancient Near East (London 1996, 2 vols.), is comparable in scope, but that book is more directed at a more advanced audience and, due to political developments from 1995 onwards, it is dated in places.

[[2]] D. C. Snell’s A Companion to the Ancient Near East (Oxford 2005) might well be a useful back-up tool in the student’s armoury.

[[3]] The reference is to Marc Van De Mieroop, Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (London 1999).

[[4]] See, for example, J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton 1969[3]).

[[5]] See G. Cardascia, Les archives des Murašū. Une famille d'hommes d'affaires babyloniens à l'époque perse (455-403 B.C.) (Paris 1951) and M. Stolper, Entrepreneurs and Empire. The Murašū Archive, the Murašū Firm and Persian Rule in Babylonia (Leiden 1985).

[[6]] See C. Wunsch, Das Egibi Archiv I (Leiden 2000) and K. Abraham, Business and Politics under the Persian Empire: the Financial Dealings of MNA of the House of Egibi (Bethesda, Maryland 2004).