BMCR 2021.04.24

Journey to the city: a companion to the Middle East galleries at the Penn Museum

, , Journey to the city: a companion to the Middle East galleries at the Penn Museum. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 2019. Pp. xxix, 410. ISBN 9781931707145. $29.95.


The book under review tells the story of urbanization in the Middle East and was written to accompany and extend the vision of the redesigned Middle East Galleries at the Penn Museum (opened April 2018).[1] Twelve richly illustrated chapters feature archaeological material in the museum’s collection (with occasional reference to objects in other collections). In addition, the volume includes archaeological drawings and plans, excavation photos, maps, and tables. Chapters are written by 15 experts affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Museum, and they represent an admirably wide range of perspectives from archaeologists, art historians, conservators, curators, museum educators, scientists, and text specialists. A lively range of topics—including mythology and the gods, raw materials, trade, currency, writing technologies, irrigation, and more—are expounded in short features throughout. Chapter 1 reviews the formation of the new galleries; two final chapters discuss the relationship between ancient and modern cities (focusing on Philadelphia) and the role of trade and globalization in the history of the Middle East.

The Middle East has long been cited as the “cradle of civilization,” and the focus on urbanization as a means to tell the history of the area is not new to the Penn Museum. What makes Journey to the city an important publication is the use of the Penn Museum’s holdings to tell this story. Few collections in the United States are capable of telling this 6,000+-year story through excavated material. Of course, any object-driven narrative will have strengths and weaknesses, and it should be noted that excavations undertaken by the Penn Museum have focused especially on ancient Iraq and Iran. There is, therefore, little reference to countries to the west, including Syria and Turkey, where equally vibrant stories of urbanization and globalization unfold.

Like the galleries, the catalogue emphasizes those sites and objects that are represented by the collection. (“A Timeline of Penn Museum Excavations” at the end of the volume helpfully highlights areas that lie behind the objects and catalogue). Excavations at Ur, Nippur, and Hasanlu are among the most famous in the Middle East, and readers of the catalogue will have the opportunity to engage deeply with these cities and their remains. A chapter on Nomadism helps counterbalance the focus on cities, while a chapter on the city of Nippur during the first millennium BCE discusses how the once-preeminent city continued to operate under successive waves of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires. Enki and Ninhursag, the figure of the entu-priestess, the Ur-Nammu Stele, incantation bowls, the bull-headed lyre and the “ram in the thicket” from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, Queen Puabi, the Murashu Family, an Old-Babylonian period house, the Ziwiye Hoard, and the sites of Surkh Dum and Chal Tarkhan are specific topics that offer detailed information about particular objects in the collection and sites excavated by the Penn Museum. Other features present generalized overviews of certain periods, technologies, trade routes and more.

As museums work to address colonialist legacies, naming practices and narratives around objects are changing.[2] It is noteworthy that the Penn Museum has abandoned the former use of the term “Ancient Near East” in favor of “Ancient Middle East” and that the catalogue (like the exhibition) strives to contextualize the collection in the broader history of the Middle East and in relationship to its home city of Philadelphia. Yet the single chapter on the Medieval and Early Modern Islamic and Persianate City cannot fully attest to the richness of Islamic civilizations and may mistakenly leave the reader with the sense that recent millennia and centuries have less of a story to tell about globalization, trade, and innovation. The final chapter underlines this misimpression by describing how the west has “superseded” (p. 370) the Middle East in innovation and world leadership. It is a pity to conclude the catalogue on a note of cultural superiority—certainly not a sentiment that the authors all share, but one that has now been used (once again) to frame the history of the Middle East.

While the volume offers a visually stunning testament to the museum’s holdings with expert contributions, its use in a classroom may be limited. The opening “Map of the Ancient Middle East” and “Timeline of Key Periods and Developments” are collection specific and omit, for example, the Assyrian capitals in northern Iraq and the Middle Assyrian period. Maps do not coordinate with the text as fully as they might (e.g., Chapter 5 discusses Highland topography, including natural resources and trade routes, but Figs. 5.1 and 5S2.1 only show select sites and the Zagros Mountains). The quality of suggested “Further Reading” at the end of each chapter varies. Captions do not indicate object dimensions and inconsistently refer to dating (for more complete information, readers will want to use the online collections search at PennMuseum). And where modern photographs appear, dates are not always provided (e.g., Figs. 2.5, 2.6, 3.3), suggesting that the region is fundamentally unchanged or erasing the significant historical and environmental struggles of the past decades—like the near-collapse and ongoing rehabilitation of the Iraqi Marshlands. Such editorial decisions limit the usefulness of the catalogue. Museum Studies classes, however, may find the volume of particular interest (see especially Chapter 1). References to committee-based decisions and the objectives of the gallery redesign help demystify museum practice, while photographs of the galleries offer an opportunity to explore the relationship between collections and narratives in and outside the museum. Journey to the city thus captures not only the story of urbanization as attested by the Penn Museum’s holdings, but also rare and valuable glimpse into the process of interpreting a collection.

Chapter titles

1 The New Middle East Galleries at the Penn Museum
2 The Geography and Agriculture of the Middle East
3 The First Cities
4 Religion and the Gods
5 A View from the Highlands
6 Nomads
7 The Ancient Near Eastern City: 2100–500 BCE
8 The Royal Cemetery of Ur
9 Hasanlu
10 The City under Empire: Nippur from 1000 BCE to 800 CE
11 The Medieval and Early Modern Islamic and Persianate City
12 The Modern City
13 Epilogue: The Middle East and Globalization

Catalogue Authors Include:
Jessica Bicknell, Michael Falcetano, Martina Ferrari, Grant Frame, William B. Hafford, Renata Holod, Philip Jones, Naomi F. Miller, Katherine M. Moore, Ellen Owens, Holly Pittman, Lauren Ristvet, Brian Spooner, Steve Tinney, and Richard L. Zettler


[1] On the redesigned Middle East galleries at the Penn Museum, see Feldman, Marian H., “The Middle East Galleries at the University of Pennsylvanian Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia: A Permanent Exhibit,” American Journal of Archaeology 123/1 (January 2019): 157–163.

[2] For a recent discussion of the renaming of the Morgan Library & Museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets to Ancient Western Asian Seals and Tablets, see the blog post by Erhan Tamur, “From ‘Near East’ to ‘Western Asia’: A Brief History of Archaeology and Colonialism,” posted December 9, 2020 at The Morgan Library & Museum.