am 9. Januar 2014
At first I was really pleased with the title of this book. The term “Near East” has unfortunately fallen in disuse, and has been replaced with “Middle East,” which is traditionally a very different geographical area. However, the way term “Near East” is used in this book is not quite the way it’s been colloquially used either. The book basically covers the ancient Mesopotamia and its related cultures, and not, as I had expected, ancient Egypt, Persia and Israel. Apparently the way that archeologists and historians use this term is much narrower than what I had expected. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but this may cause confusion with many readers.
Having the issues of nomenclature out of the way, let me just say that this is a very fascinating book, especially if you are a fan of history. My understanding of this region and its ancient civilizations has been rather cursory, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how rich and sophisticated this period of history was. It seems that of all the ancient civilizations this is the last one to be fully explored and understood, and was more or less completely unknown for thousands of years. However, thanks to the nature of its written records – cuneiform tablets – the written records of these civilizations that have been unearthed over the past century or so are extremely extensive and help us get a very detailed picture of this region in ancient times.
The book is written in chronological order, starting in about fourth millennium BC. It covers several major consecutive civilizations and periods that had arisen and fallen over the course of about three millennia. The final end of all of these civilizations and the cultures that sustained them came in sixth century BC with the Persian conquest by Cyrus the Great. The book covers many interesting topics: religion, language, trade, warfare, and the legal system. The ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest preserved written documents, and perhaps the oldest legal code anywhere. After reading this short book it is even clearer how much all of the subsequent civilizations, and we moderns in particular, culturally owe to this ancient region and its civilizations.
The book is very clearly written and it’s very accessible. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in ancient history.