Atlas of the Ancient Near East by Trevor Bryce and Jessie Birkett-Rees

Book Review by Alistair Forrest

Scholar or not, if you have a yearning for visuals of the epic story of the cradle of civilisation, this is an essential for your bookshelf.

For the really ancient history, those who have relied on Michael Roaf’s Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East will enjoy this 300-page large paperback for its colour maps and illustrations on pretty much every page.

Whereas Roaf’s ends with Alexander the Great, this new Atlas includes the Hellenistic age, the Seleucid empire and then continues with an excellent section on the Roman period right up to Diocletian and a short, final note on the Sasanian wars and ultimately the routing of Heraclius’s forces by the new Islamic invaders.

Although these latter centuries are mentioned briefly, the final map shows the Roman empire in the East in the 4thC AD. Right on the edge, of course, is Palmyra (the subject of an earlier review: Roman Palmyra by Andrew M. Smith II). This Atlas has an excellent section on Zenobia, regent for her son Vaballathus, who extended the city’s influence into Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

With the use of the accompanying map, the authors are able to give a much easier-to-follow account of Zenobia’s ultimately ill-fated campaign, marking her occupation of Egypt (270) and Anatolia (271) before defeats by Aurelian at Antioch and Emesa in 272 and the place where she was captured on the banks of the Euphrates (272). This chapter, with two maps and Bryce’s own photograph of the Grand Colonnade at Palmyra, illustrates the value of this Atlas over a text-only account – placing tribes, nations and empires in time and place is, after all, the great value of an Atlas, with the commentary providing further background and facts.

At the other end of the timescale, the Atlas opens with the geography and geology of the prehistoric Near East, including the tectonic plates that created the region’s varied geographic features and the resulting fertile crescent stretching from Palestine to Syria and thence along the courses of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Following this are maps showing the early agricultural communities and the key prehistoric sites, including sites where important inscriptions have been found, key trade routes and the location of mineral resources.

From here the story unfolds – the Sumerians, Akkadians and Amorites of the Early Bronze Age, their locations and expansion and decline. The old Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms of the Middle Bronze Age, the Hittites, Hurrians and Mitanni (among many others) of the Late Bronze Age.

There are several gems throughout the chronological accounts of great empires, the expansion of cities and savage invasions. For me, one such gem is the “Adventures of Idrimi” based on the Akkadian inscription unearthed by Woolley at Tell Atchana (ancient Alalah). Idrimi and friends apparently went in a circle starting at Aleppo following (possibly) the violent overthrow of Idrimi’s father. Exiled to Emar on the Euphrates, he grew impatient, travelled south to Ammiya on the coast where he plotted revenge. He sailed north but on arrival at Alalah en route to Aleppo, he realised that he wouldn’t be able to defeat the Mitannian conquerors. So he became king of Alalah instead. Smart guy.

Another gem is a map showing troop movements in the second battle of Qadesh between the Egyptians under Ramasses II and the Hittites under Muwattali. This was a battle that had everything – a near-fatal dividing of forces by Ramasses, deception by Hittite defectors luring the rearguard divisions into a trap, the breakdown of Hittite discipline when victory was in their grasp, and reinforcements saving the day for Egypt. The battle was probably a score-draw, but the Hittites regained key territory.

A section on Troy provides a detailed plan of the main levels (and therefore growth) of the city, while the chapter on the Sea Peoples provides a vivid schematic of the suggested routes across the Eastern Mediterranean together with the location of Ramesses’ victories and subsequent dispersal and/or resettlement.

The Roman section will appeal greatly to members of UNRV, not least a double page spread showing Rome’s eastern provinces in AD 14, a section on Baalbek (in modern Lebanon) and its Temple of Jupiter, Herod the Great’s kingdom and a potted history of Jerusalem, the Parthian struggle, a map showing Trajan’s expansion, and the concluding sections mentioned above.

I will be making a lot of use of this Atlas in my own writings, as a reference or memory jogger, but I must say that it has provided an entertaining visual romp through the story of this remarkable region.

Alistair Forrest is a magazine editor and author of historical fiction, www.alistairforrest.com

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