A History of the Ancient Near East by Marc Van De Mieroop

Book Review by Alistair Forrest

Books like this excite me from page one because I just know it’s going to ignite a plethora of ideas for my own writing. Van de Mieroop does not disappoint. While this is clearly a textbook for scholars of ancient Mesopotamia, do not be put off if you’re merely looking for insights into the great story of the cradle of civilisation. This is the third edition of a classic made all the more popular as we try to understand the origins of today’s Middle East with its wars, hatreds, dictatorships, genocides and infamous new caliphates that hold nothing but terror for those who will not bow the knee to jihadi dogma.

In my opinion, studying the rise and fall of empires in the Iraq-Iran-Syrian crescent BC, does not in itself shed any light on the rise of ISIL/Daish as the Akkadians, Assyrians and Persians were no different in many respects than the Romans, the Spanish in the new world, the British Empire, the Nazis and the Soviet Union. All expansionist either for economic, cultural or quasi-religious reasons or just plain greedy.

However, all of the above owe a huge debt to Mesopotamia for giving us the first cities, the first laws and the first writing. The first wars too, of course, and there are some interesting boundary disputes dating to 2500 BC between the city states of Lagash and Umma in modern day Iraq. In all of the empires of these millennia, the inevitability of corruption and/or rebellion form the basis of periodic chaos, confusion and regime change that might fit modern days as much as ancient times. The gift of 18th century BC lawgiver Hammurabi was always ours to destroy.

Van de Mieroop has crafted the ideal overview of three millennia complete with maps for each period from the first city, Uruk, to the enormous Persian empire that was halted at Marathon and Thermopylae. Valuable additions for this edition include a comprehensive timeline, expanded sections on political events and military campaigns, and the inclusion of “debate” boxes that will assist with many a student essay. One extremely helpful map shows the ancient routes of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and thus the logic behind cities that are now buried in sand and dust. The timelines of dynasties and empires and their kings with their likely dates are also invaluable.

But what exactly happened over those thousands of years and what can we learn? A generalisation I know, but the Akkadian secret was “civilisation”, the Assyrian method was military might and the Persians were ecumenical, at least in their initial supremacy in seamlessly replacing the Babylonian empire.

These factors explain the rise of key empires. But what about their decline? In the case of the Persians, Van de Mieroop seems to pinpoint immorality (source – Ktesias) and a lack of educational strictness (Plato) but more than these, he suggests despotism and whimsical decadence. Ripe for the plucking by the remorseless Alexander of Macedon.

The latter brought rejuvenation in the entire ancient Middle East but himself was “Persianised” – for example, his subjects were expected to prostrate themselves before him (cf. the Biblical account of Daniel), while the Persian satrapies, cults and rituals endured and Persian administration systems were adopted.

I began this review with the certainty that Van de Mieroop’s work would ignite ideas. What greater idea than one of his conclusions on page 346, that the region saw an astronomy research project spanning no less than seven centuries! Despite regime changes, the stars preoccupied the Mesopotamian mind throughout the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Seleucid empires.

Other consistencies, Van de Mieroop argues, would be cuneiform script and the gods, though these underwent name and characteristic amendments over time Marduk, Bel, Sin and Ishtar morphing as time progressed.

But seven centuries of stargazing and stellar observation? An amazing heritage left to us through the annals of time, a key part of a rich ancient history and an entire subject in its own right. One hopes Van de Mieroop, who has written on the subject of Mesopotamian cities, Hammurabi and ancient Egypt, will visit Mesopotamian astronomy soon.

About Alistair Forrest; Brought up in the Middle East, schooled in the UK, exhilarating career as a journalist and editor, now full-time author of fresh historical fiction. First novel LIBERTAS published 2009 by Quaestor2000, second novel GOLIATH 2011, third SHAMASH under way.

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Union Jack Ancient Near East for the UK