Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.31

Silvia Balatti, The Mountain Peoples in the Ancient Near East. The Case of the Zagros in the First Millennium BCE. Classica et Orientalia 18.   Wiesbaden:  Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017.  Pp. xxviii, 452; 22 plates.  ISBN 9783447108003.  €89.00.  ISBN 9783447196383.  ebook.  

Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Summers, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago (

Table of Contents

Since prehistory, communities principally engaged in herding activities have occupied the intermontane valleys and plains of the Zagros (Western Iran). Relations, tensions and cultural exchange between the inhabitants of the mountains and those of the Mesopotamian plains already occurred during the Bronze Age. These contacts increased in the course of the 1st millennium BCE, as is suggested by Near Eastern and subsequently by Greek and Latin sources which provide us with numerous new names of peoples living in the Zagros. The present volume, based on the author's 2014 doctoral dissertation at the University of Kiel and already enjoying widespread recognition,1 investigates the social organisation and life style of the peoples of the Zagros Mountains in the 1st millennium BCE and examines their relationships with the surrounding environment and with the political authorities on the plains.

Among these peoples, for example, were the ‘fierce’ Medes, breeders and purveyors of fine horses, the Manneans, who inhabited a large territory enclosed between the two contending powers of Assyria and Urartu, and the ‘warlike’ Cosseans, who bravely attempted to resist the attack of Alexander the Great’s army. The Southern Zagros Mountains, inhabited by mixed groups of Elamite and Iranian farmers and pastoralists, were also of key importance as the home of the Persians and the core area of their empire. Starting from Fārs, the Persians were able to build up the largest empire in the history of the ancient Near East before Alexander.

Balatti’s valuable study provides an extensive tool for all scholars of the Ancient Near East, and particularly those with interests in the first millennium BCE. In particular, the interdisciplinary approach adopted in this study, which juxtaposes historical records with archaeological, zooarchaeological, palaeobotanical and ethnographic data, is meant to offer a new, holistic and multifaceted view on an otherwise little-known topic in ancient history. The work is concerned with the important subject of the peoples who dwelt in the Zagros Mountains that stretch from the Southern Caucasus in the north to the eastern side of the Persian Gulf in the south, forming a high spine that divides Mesopotamia from the Iranian Plateau. Today the southern and central portions of the range lie within Iran, while a more northerly section straddles the border between Iran and Iraq before merging with the high Eastern Massif in eastern Turkey. On the west side of this northern limit is the high and mountainous area around Lake Van, the homeland of Urartu, while on the eastern side, in northwest Iran, is the Urmia Lake basin. Yet further north lies the Southern Caucasus that, although largely but not entirely beyond the scope of this book, are referred to as necessary. In scope the core of this study has the great merit of spanning the period from the rise and aggressive expansion of the Neo-Assyrian state at the beginning of the first millennium BCE down to the end of the Seleucid Period, rather than closing with the more common division marked by the conquests of Alexander the Great that ushered in the Hellenistic Period. In so doing Balatti has been able to include in the discussion not only the relevant Ancient Near Eastern texts, but also Greco-Roman accounts.

As said, the work claims to be an all-too-rare attempt to consider the written testimony provided by ancient texts and inscriptions alongside, and on an equal footing with, the evidence of archaeology and ethnography together with, innovatively, paleo-climatic and environmental studies. For the most part the various mountain peoples of the Zagros were illiterate, and no texts have yet been found by archaeologists. Thus the only written accounts available to us come either from lowland kingdoms and empires (Assyrian, Urartian, Babylonian and, to the east of Mesopotamia, Elamite and Achaemenid) or from Greco-Roman accounts that begin with Xenophon and end with Strabo. The mountain dwellers themselves have not left much more than generally scant archaeological remains, often amounting to little other than graves. One consequence of this bias in the types of available evidence is that, regardless of intentions, the study under review is very largely based on textual sources.

The author has gathered together a large corpus of ancient texts that cast various shades of light on the geography and ecology of the Zagros Mountains as well as their inhabitants in the first millennium BCE. The texts themselves and a discussion of their contents form the core of the book. Each text is both transliterated and translated. None of the translations are new, most are in English. Neo-Assyrian documents are considered first (chapter 3), followed by those from Urartu (chapter 4), then by the Neo-Elamite, Neo-Babylonian, and Achaemenid sources grouped together (chapter 5). Lastly comes the Greco-Roman evidence (chapter 6). This order is largely chronological but, at the same time, geographic, because it trends from north to south as the focus shifts over time from Assyria to Southern Mesopotamia. Many of the Neo-Assyrian sources deal with the same areas of the northern Zagros as those of Urartu, although Urartian interests extended further northwards through the Urmia Basin into the Southern Caucasus.

The first question to be addressed is whether the peoples of the Zagros in the first millennium BCE make a suitably well-defined subject for an in-depth study of this kind. The short answer is yes, because this high range of mountains that divides the Iranian Plateau from Mesopotamia played (and continues to play to this day) key roles in the history and archaeology of the Ancient Near East. But such geographic simplicity does not provide the entire picture, and can be misleading. To begin in the north, where the eastern end of the Taurus merges with the Zagros, the chain of high peaks is not so greatly elevated above the Van basin, Lake Van itself being at c. 1650 m above sea level, while on the eastern side Lake Urmia lies above 1200 m. Throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Ages the archaeological cultures in these two lake basins display considerable homogeneity, with few indications that the northernmost section of the Zagros Mountains formed a cultural barrier between them. In the Early Iron Age, too, such evidence as is available suggests strong cultural relationships, for instance between Hasanlu V/IV and the cemetery at Karagündüz. From the time of the conquests of Menua, king of Urartu, in the late ninth century until the collapse of the Urartian state in the mid-seventh, the entire region stretching northwards as far as Lake Sevan in the Trans-Caucasus was under Urartian domination. That is not to say that all the inhabitants were Urartians: the temple inscription from Ayanis, ancient Rusahinili Eiduru-kai, lists deported peoples some of whom may very well have been brought from the northern Zagros.

With regard to the Central Zagros, the Neo-Assyrian and Urartian texts make reference to tribes, peoples, localities and routes. These texts are mostly concerned with military campaigns, the principal purpose of which was to keep open trade routes, and thus access to raw materials, to the Iranian Plateau and beyond. The earlier Neo-Assyrian kings did not attempt to conquer and occupy the mountain territories themselves. Eventually, however, in 737 Sargon II imposed direct Assyrian control over the whole of the western side of the Central Zagros, thus following a pattern seen elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire, that is, territorial annexation and direct rule following failure to gain loyalty by means of threat and terror. As this study makes clear, one consequence of this Assyrian policy is that the written information concerning the peoples of the Zagros themselves, be it from inscriptions or accounts of campaigns, or indeed from pictorial representations carved on Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, is very scant. The peoples and their cultures were not of interest to Assyrian despots.

Turning now to the southern end of the mountain range the situation was somewhat different. First to be considered are the Neo-Elamite and related texts. Balatti discusses the difference between the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian sources, on the one hand, and the Neo-Elamite and Achaemenid written accounts, on the other, but perhaps there was more to say here. Neo-Assyrian sources tended to view the mountain peoples as remote, unfamiliar, and inferior or uncivilised, not least because they did not live in what the Assyrians would have considered cities. Neo-Elamites and Persians, on the other hand, were far more familiar with the mountain peoples and interacted with them much more closely. Indeed, they might be considered as peoples of the foothills as much as peoples of the plains.

The later sources, from Xenophon to Strabo, provide fuller accounts with considerably more descriptive details, and of course subjective remarks. Balatti makes all of this clear, sifting out what might be relevant to her subject from what might be considered ancient travel writing designed for a foreign, Greek-speaking audience.

Essentially this book is, then, a study based on written testimony. Yet the peoples who form the subject of the study were largely or completely illiterate. Thus the only direct evidence of themselves available to us comes through archaeology. From the point of view of an archaeologist, such as this reviewer, it can be bluntly stated that rather than starting with analysis of the archaeological evidence, and then attempting to reconcile or contrast such evidence with the written accounts of neighbouring, more complex, polities, Balatti has focussed on the texts, paying attention to the archaeological evidence only on those rare occasions where it might illuminate or strengthen what is essentially a historical approach. She cannot be blamed for the omission of studies that appeared only as the volume was in final stages of production, such as the dramatic evidence for the Neo-Assyrian sack of Musasir as well as other ongoing work in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan,2 or for the rather cursory emphasis given to the important volume by Danti on the excavations of Hasanlu V that appeared just in time for inclusion in the bibliography.3 More disappointing is the omission of any reference to, let alone discussion of, the well-known stele depicting warriors with weapons and other attributes found at Hakkari in the south-eastern corner of Turkey that are extensively published by Veli Sevin.4 In this way the book highlights the relatively scant archaeological evidence from the highlands that, for much of the period under discussion, comprises cemeteries with little indication of settlements or campsites. Nevertheless, there is no detailed discussion or analysis of such evidence as is available, be it derived from physical anthropology or from the numerous grave goods.

Before the book draws towards its conclusions issues of environment and ecology are addressed. Chapter 8 is a useful overview of the published environmental evidence for this area spanning the entire Holocene that includes a description of modern climate and vegetation as well as the data based on pollen obtained from lake cores. It needs to be pointed out, however, that such studies are very difficult to integrate with the kinds of historical texts available. The importance of viticulture and orchards in the Iron Age is axiomatic, but it is extremely difficult to demonstrate in the environmental record. Likewise, complex issues such as deforestation as a result of harvesting timber for lowland consumption, the destructive effects of large-scale goat herding, or charcoal making for metal production are impossible to disentangle with the currently available evidence. Trends are discernible over the longue duree, but even isolating changes in the first millennium BCE is a daunting challenge.

The standard of English is excellent, with only very occasional typos. One reference (Herles 20085) is missing from the bibliography. Most illustrations seem to be of little relevance, as though added as an afterthought. The plan of Hasanlu IVb on Plate 8 is over-reduced, while the interesting images of Kül-e Farah on Plate 6 deserved a far better presentation as well as an explanatory caption.

To summarise, the volume will be an extremely useful tool for any study of the peoples of the Zagros in the Iron Age, and Balatti is to be thanked for bringing together such a wealth of historical evidence, as well as for her insightful discussions. While it may not entirely live up to its claim to be a fully integrated study of the textual, archaeological and environmental evidence, it is in fact a piece of good and interesting historical scholarship.


1.   The book has won several prizes, such as the 2018 World Award for Book of the Year of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the field of Iranian Studies and the Johanna Mestorf Award for outstanding dissertations in the field of human- environmental research and landscape archaeology.
2.   Danti, M.D. 2014. “The Rowanduz Archaeological Project: Searching for the Kingdom of Musasir,” Expedition 56.3: 27-33. Marf, D.A. 2014. “The Temple and the City of Musasir/Ardini: New Aspects in the light of New Archaeological Evidence,” Subartu Journal 8: 13-29.
3.   Danti, M.D. 2013. Hasanlu V: The Late Bronze and Iron I Periods. Hasanlu Excavation Reports III. University Museum Monograph. University of Pennsylvania Press.
4.   Sevin, V. 2005. Hakkâri Taşları: Çıplak Savaşçıların Gizemi, Istanbul: Yedi Kredi Yayınları; and 2015. Hakkâri Taşları II: Gizmin Peşinde, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu.
5.   Herles, M. 2008. “Das Kamel in Assyrien und Urartu,” Aramazd, Armenian Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3.2: 153-180.

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