BMCR 2006.09.24

A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323BC

Marc Van de Mieroop, A history of the ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 B.C.. Blackwell history of the ancient world. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2004. xviii, 313 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0631225528 £17.99.

I waited until I finished teaching Archaeology 101: An Introduction to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East before I wrote this review. The book is in part intended as a textbook for students and so it seemed appropriate to give it a dry-run before commenting upon its scholarly and pedagogical value.

The book contains 15 chapters that are split into three themes: Part I: City States, Part II: Territorial States and Part III: Empires. These three subtitles suggest that Van de Mieroop is stressing an evolutionary development for complex societies in the Middle East. In fact, his detailed analysis does no such thing but rather focuses on the intricacies of each defined historical period and the internal (and external) configuration of power, economy and society.

Part I begins with a very brief description of the pre-Uruk archaeology of the Near East, then moves from an excellent analysis of the social and economic processes of the Uruk period into the Early Dynastic Period, through to the Akkadian and the Old Babylonian periods. Van de Mieroop moves from the discussion of historical phases and dynasties to examining broader thematic issues. For example, he discusses the notion of ‘The Wider Near East’ (50-53) in the context of the development of Early Dynastic southern Mesopotamia. Relations with eastern Arabia and Khuzistan in southwestern Iran are included here inasmuch as they are seen to supply southern Mesopotamia with the raw materials that were fuelling economic and political expansion. Later, ‘Nomads and Sedentary People’ are discussed with a focus on the relations of Mari with the nomadic peoples that occupied the Syrian steppe. Here, by necessity, Van de Mieroop glosses over the complicated issue of how nomadic groups were organized and interacted with sedentary populations, preferring instead to paint a broad picture based on the Mari texts. It would be pedantic to be too negative about this approach which does not encompass all the relevant archaeological data. Van de Mieroop is very careful to state up front that much of what we know about nomadic groups comes from sedentary textual sources and is thus biased. To provide a complete analysis of how nomadic groups existed in the ancient Near East would be certainly outside the purview of the volume.

Part II encompasses a discussion of the period following the Old Babylonian in southern Mesopotamia and incorporates discussions of the rise of the Kingdoms of the Hittites, Mittani and the multitude of smaller states that occupied the Levant. Chapter 9 presents a very useful summary of Kassite, Assyrian and Elamite political history during this period. Part II concludes with a discussion of the collapse of this regional system. Here Van de Mieroop is on controversial ground. He begins by reviewing the evidence for the various invasions and destructions that seem to have taken place towards the end of the thirteenth and into the twelfth centuries BC. In section 10.2, he offers ‘An Interpretation’ of these events: the collapse of the regional palace economy was likely the result of a ‘variety of causes’. No surprises there, but it was pleasing to see Van de Mieroop move beyond a simplistic ‘centre-periphery’ paradigm, that describes the end-result rather than the cause of regional collapse, to one in which processes of social and economic marginalisation are considered: ‘The lavish grave-goods and architectural remains we admire were produced from the income of impoverished farmers and herdsmen. A situation of rural indebtedness led to many seeking refuge outside the structures of the state’ (187). The aftermath of this regional collapse is treated in some detail by Van de Mieroop, who dismisses the notion of a Dark Age and favors the view that new methods of economic interaction and trade emerged during that time. In this he very much follows recent research by the late Andrew Sherratt (1993).1 He correctly notes that camel domestication is a key issue here and dates this process towards the end of the second millennium BC in concordance with the latest archaeozoological data from Arabia.2 He also notes that the domestication of this beast not only brought Arabia into contact with the Levant and Mesopotamia, but also permitted new forms of economic exploitation in Arabia. This point is often overlooked by scholars who fail to note that for the indigenous inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, trade with the Levant was less important than the new lifeways that camel domestication allowed.

Part III charts the rise of the Empires that dominated the Near East from the 9th century BC until the coming of Alexander at the end of the fourth century BC. Van de Mieroop focuses on the Assyrian Empire for much of this section. He utilizes the many Assyrian royal inscriptions and reliefs to describe the process of empire building and the economic and social effects upon subject peoples. The extent to which these should be seen as accurate historical records as opposed to serving other ideological purposes is complicated. I believe that we should treat these sources with suspicion, rather than acceptance, and this is where continued archaeological research on the peripheries of the Assyrian Empire is so critical. For example, Van de Mieroop writes that, ‘In the Persian Gulf, a king of Dilmun ruled, but we do not know much about his state’ (241). Decades of excavation by Danish and now French archaeologists at the site of Qala’at al-Bahrain have revealed remains of a palatial structure dated to the Neo-Assyrian period and attributed by some (probably incorrectly) to King Uperi or to the century after his reign. Examination of evidence from this palace and its surrounding area has brought to light a great deal of information about arts and crafts, trading contacts and foreign relations during this period. Similarly, it is curious that Van de Mieroop does not refer in more detail to the site of Hasanlu in north-western Iran in his discussion of Assyrian relations with Urartu. The excavators of this site suggest that the destruction of Level IVB provides an insight into the nature of ‘total war’ of the ninth century BC that is much in keeping with the image presented by Assyrian reliefs. A final point in reference to matters Urartian: Van de Mieroop’s statement that ‘Urartian culture and religion are relatively poorly known’ (205) and ‘archaeological exploration in Urartu has focused solely on the mountain fortresses, and so, again, stresses military aspects of the state’ will need to be updated in any future editions of this work to take account of the current excavations at Ayanis. The final publication of this work will do much to illuminate Urartian religious practice and everyday life since a large domestic quarter has been uncovered that was located alongside religious and military structures.

Part III concludes with a description of the Achaemenid Empire. This is a very brief section (just over 10 pages) and sadly does not do justice to this important period in the ancient Near East. All scholars have their own areas of research and this will obviously contour the relative amounts of space given to the multitude of topics one is expected to cover in a book such as this, but I was disappointed that not more space was given to a time period that has come under such scrutiny in recent years. I find it also frustrating that this section contains virtually no discussion of the Sabaean Kingdom of Yemen that rose to prominence in the early centuries of the first millennium BC. I completely understand why this culture was omitted: for historical reasons the “Near East” does not include Yemen even though it is patently part of the mosaic of cultures that made up ancient western Asia. There is an abundance of epigraphic sources from Marib and elsewhere, the briefest review of which would have introduced the reader to a region in which economic, social and religious conditions differed significantly from that of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Despite these omissions, as a textbook on Mesopotamian history, particularly the period from c. 3000 BC to 612 BC, this book has no English-language equivalent. The students I spoke to appreciated Van de Mieroop’s straightforward narrative that makes accessible the many facets of Mesopotamian history in a clearly structured framework. The appendix of ‘Reign Dates’ of most of the Mesopotamian and adjacent dynasties will be feverishly flicked through by students preparing for their exams and also, it should be said, by teachers (like me) who need to check the reign date, for example, of Maruk-ahhe-eriba of the Second Dynasty of Isin.

This should be standard reading, therefore, for all students and scholars in the field. To fully understand Mesopotamia it is necessary to move beyond this volume and include works such as Potts’ Mesopotamian Civilization: The Material Foundations (1996) so that the physical remains and visual arts are understood and the challenges these present to the historical record appreciated. That is not the purpose of Van de Mieroop’s book. His is rather to present a tightly focussed historical study, and the academy of scholars working on the ancient Near East, along with the students who wish at some future date to join these ranks, will be grateful for its existence.


1. A. Sherratt, “The growth of the Mediterranean economy in the early first millennium BC,” World Archaeology 24 (1993) 361-178.

2. M. Uerpmann, “Remarks on the animal economy of Tell Abraq (Emirates of Sharjah and Umm al-Qaywayn, UAE” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 31 (2001) 227-234.