BMCR 2008.01.24

Current Issues in the History of the Ancient Near East

, , Current issues in the history of the ancient Near East. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians ; 8. Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 2007. 153 pages. ISBN 9781930053465. $18.95.

Very often we are asked to teach outside our direct fields of expertise or training. For those who are not specialists in the Ancient Near East but are asked to teach classes in it, Mark Chavalas has put together a convenient book that provides a succinct overview of the scholarship and debates within the study of the field. The primary goal of the text is to provide “an overview of the current state of scholarship, intended for other ancient scholars who have little or no knowledge of the subject” (p 1). The text includes overviews by specialized scholars covering geographic/cultural divisions of the region, primarily southern Mesopotamia (meaning Sumer and Babylonia) by Gonzalo Rubio, the Assyrians by Steven Garfinkle, the Hittites by Gary Beckman, and the Syria-Palestine region by Daniel C. Snell. Classes and traditional textbooks in the Ancient Near East often include Ancient Egypt, which is conspicuously missing. Sometimes Egypt is covered in its own separate course and textbook, other times not. When excluded from a textbook, there is usually an explanation as to why.1 Given its economic and political influence in the other regions and cultures mentioned, it might have been useful to either include it or provide a justification for its exclusion. A discussion on the Persian Empire might also be constructive but is likewise not included. One grievous typo was found that the press should have found. The title on the cover of the book is entitled Current Issues and the Study of the Ancient Near East while the title page inside has the title Current Issues in the History of the Ancient Near East. This may cause some confusion as it did between this reviewer and BMCR. Yet, these problems should not distract from a generally useful and approachable text.

Gonzalo Rubio (hereafter R.) provides the overview of the southern region of Mesopotamia from the advent of civilization through the Akkadian period in his chapter entitled “From Sumer to Babylonia: Topics in the History of Southern Mesopotamia.” R. examines recent scholarship and debates regarding the development of ethnicity, language, and the problems with understanding land tenure. R. chooses these topics “because of their general relevance, or because they lie in the center of ongoing scholarly debates” (p. 5). Central to R.’s analysis of scholarship is the problem of discrepant identity within the region given the evidence (or lack thereof) available to the modern researcher. R. believes that the study of early Mesopotamia “has been marred by a succession of ethnic fallacies gravitating around an allegedly clear ethnic divide between Sumerians and Akkadians” (p. 26). R. first addresses this in what is called the “Sumerian Problem.” This “problem” centers on trying to understand the ethnic make-up of the Mesopotamia. Traditional interpretation held that the south was populated by Sumerian speaking peoples while the north was occupied by a Semitic group. In this model the dominant language of each region was indicative of a distinct ethnic identity. R. posits that there is not much concrete evidence for this and that language, the traditional marker, proves wholly inadequate as a determining factor in understanding ethnic composition. Rather than distinct groups, R. sees a mosaic similar to the United States. His comparison is framed by the question “Where did Americans come from? Nowhere — they became Americans because they came to America” (p. 7). The same, he contends, is true for the Sumerians. They became Sumerians when they came to Sumeria. R. then examines the problem of land tenure, partially in an effort to illuminate the ethnic problem but to also understand the general economy. The old models of the “Temple Economy” of the south (i.e., Sumerian) and the household or palace ownership in the north (i.e., Akkadian) are examined and rejected as un-nuanced and a misreading of the evidence. Rather, R. sees parallel structures of land tenure in all the regions, though definitive conclusions are elusive (p. 16). The traditional view of a resurgent Sumerian “Renaissance” in the Ur III period after the Akkadian rule of Sargon is also seen as little more than a modern construct created by the already false premise that the Sumerian/Akkadian or North/South dichotomy actually existed. Beyond the ethnic debates, R. also examines the primary sources for Mesopotamia, particularly the literary and legal texts and summarizes the predominant issues regarding the interpretation of them. Overall, for the intended audience of non-specialists, R. provides a clear and cogent presentation of the major historical debates during this time period, which may also be of use for the specialist.

Steven J. Garfinkle (hereafter G.) provides an overview of the Assyrians in his chapter entitled “The Assyrians: A New Look at an Ancient Power.” G. begins with a discussion of the sources available to examine the Assyrians. Of particular use are the footnotes that provide references for works and websites that are making the sources more accessible to the scholar and teacher. G.’s overview of Assyrian history is different from R.’s previous overview of Babylonia in that it provides less discussion of the evolution of the historical debates and more of an introductory synthesis of recent scholarship. G. finds that the traditional dating system of Old Assyrian (c. 2000-1800 B.C.E., Middle Assyrian (c. 1400-1100) and Neo-Assyrian (c. 900-600) is outdated and not reflective of a historical reality and has only limited value (p. 59). Rather, he suggests a new periodization which focuses less on political dynasties and more on growth of Assyrian society in the larger context of the Near East. He begins with an “Early Assyrian Period” that has no clear beginning but lasts until through the second millennium B.C.E. This places Assyria in the greater context of urban and social development of the Near East, particularly the Assyrians’ relationship with Babylon. G. then examines the “Old Assyrian Period” from the second millennium to the 16th c. B.C.E., primarily focusing on the trade patterns and economic development of the Near East as a whole since Assyria had a prominent if not crucial geographic location. The Middle (mid 15th c. to mid 11th c) and Neo-Assyrian Periods (16th to 13th c.) reveal the development of strong monarchies and imperial conquest. Little discussion of the typically brutal nature of Assyrian conquest and imperial control is included here but in the subsequent section G. engages that debate more wholly. In the sub-section entitled “The West and the Assyrians: Two Views,” G. argues that the traditional view of the Assyrians, beginning with the authors of the Old Testament and carried through to modern survey history textbooks, limits and hinders a more complete understanding of them. G. fully admits that the Assyrians did “take pride” in action that would seem rather vicious and cruel to a modern audience. However, G. claims that focusing on that aspect of their culture “obscures the ability to view them in the larger context or make better use of the historical data” (p. 91). He is not trying to “rehabilitate the Assyrians” (p. 92), but his point that we do need to accept the Assyrians on their own terms rather than ours is well taken. After all, the Roman thirst for blood sport is generally accepted as part of their culture without obscuring other elements of their society. G. is in essence calling for a similar approach. This leads to the final section of the chapter where he promotes more critical and theoretical approaches to study of the Assyrians in the future as well as more of comparative analysis.

Gary Beckman (hereafter B.) offers the latest analysis on Hittite scholarship. He prefaces his summary of progress in recent scholarship by presenting the limitations of the evidence at hand. There a tremendous amount of written records from the Hittite archives and scholars as a whole may have fewer preconceived notions about them than, for example, the Assyrians (as noted by G. above). However, scholarship on them is frustratingly limited for various reasons. First, the records are found on fragmentary tablets which must be painstakingly pieced together. Second, the Hittites did not use a common dating system for the records, so creating a chronology is somewhat limited to a few convergent points with Mesopotamia. In addition, our own limited knowledge about the Hittite language and geography makes the task of correlating the information into a cohesive and consistent narrative somewhat problematic. These difficulties aside, B. then presents recent scholarship over the last thirty years. The traditional periodization of Old, Middle and New Kingdoms has been abandoned emphasizing more along the lines of continuity. There was indeed a process of consolidation and imperialization in their history; however B. postulates that the continuity was more evident than is traditionally seen. The empire also was weaker than once believed. It had a tendency toward disintegration when the palace at Hattusa weakened. This appears to be the ultimate fate of the Empire as recent excavations indicate that the capital was gradually deserted rather than suddenly destroyed. B.’s chapter is the shortest of the book (except the preface), but this is partially due to the problems of Hittite scholarship, to which he alludes in the opening of his chapter. Unlike the other chapters, B. offers no bibliography or suggested readings, but it is copiously footnoted which provides a rich array of sources for motivated researcher.

The last chapter by Daniel Snell (hereafter S.) has the unenviable task of examining the area of Syria and Palestine in the historical context of the Ancient Near East. Modern scholarship on this region is passionate and divergent given the Biblical context of the area and the ferocity of the modern “Culture Wars.” Thus, S. must and does summarize the varied approaches to studying the people that lived there. He focuses on two major bodies of scholarship: that produced by Syrian archaeologists and the other by Biblical scholars. S. also examines the methods and mindsets that have created some distance between the two, particularly in Syria (p. 144). The archaeological summary of recent scholarship shows that Syria is being increasingly placed in the larger context of Mesopotamian history and that the area appears more Mesopotamian than previously thought given recent excavations at Ebla, Mari and other sites. As a parallel to the gradual process of Mesopotamian domestication and urbanization, it appears that Syria followed a similar pattern, with environmental change playing an important role. How, why, and to what degree urban life arose, declined, and changed are examined in detail through case studies at Ebla, Sehna, Subat-Enlil, Hazor, Emar, Megiddo, Dur-Katlimmu and Ugarit. These summaries are particularly useful to the novice in the field and are well footnoted for further research. S. then tackles the methods and problems of scholarship using the Bible to reconstruct a history of the region. Summarizing the problems of text transmission and methodological approaches to using the Bible as a historical source, S. provides a succinct and useful overview of how these methods have shaped our interpretation of the region. S. examines the ways in which the Bible can be analyzed by using a maximalist or minimalist approach as well as through criticism, form criticism, rhetorical and narrative criticism, social science criticism, and Canonical criticism. His evaluation of these approaches will not please those who favor the maximalist approach, whereby the Bible is taken as an accurate historical source, since S. sees the approaches mentioned above as showing a flexibility that would not be conducive to a maximalist viewpoint (p. 148). S. provides no bibliography, and like B.’s chapter, the reader must rely on the footnotes to find further reading.

In sum, this fine book more than adequately fulfills its purpose of providing a summary of scholarship on the Ancient Near East for the non-specialist, whether they are instructors asked to teach courses on it or students just entering the study of the field. Specialists will find the work a useful synthesis of current debates about some of the issues in the field and about the possibilities of pushing scholarship forward. The work is a well written and accessible introduction to a diverse and complicated field of study. In the future it will be necessary to periodically update this addition as advances are made.


1. For example Marc Van De Mieroop A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 BCE 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell 2007) excludes Egypt with an explanation on p. xvii. A. Bernard Knapp The History and Culture of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt (New York: Dorsey Press, 1988), William H. Stiebing, Jr. Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture (New York: Longman, 2003), and Amelie Kuhrt The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC (New York: Routledge 1997) include Egypt. All four also include Persia.