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on 4 April 2017
As an introduction this book is very good.
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I continue to sing the praises of the “A Very Short Introduction” series. This is the sixth work of theirs that I have read. Most have been on scientific subjects, such as magnetism; one was on literature, and this one provides a summary of a historical period. In fact, the first one. Professor Amanda Podany, who toils in the California university system, has provided a convenient, fairly dense summary of the first three millennium of the Western history, from 3600 to 539 BCE. Her account focuses on the area often referred to as “the fertile crescent,” which is primarily the area of modern day Iraq and Syria. Peripheral areas, mainly Anatolia and Egypt, and to a lesser degree, Iran (Persia) are also included.

I need my maps! And Podany provides two very good ones. I noted the criticism of the maps in other reviews… which are now a year or so old. That criticism may have been valid at the time; and if it was, the issue is now fixed, which is one of the beauties of the Kindle publishing process. Each of the two maps can be expanded many fold, thereby ensuring the readability of all the script.

Podany commences by stating: “For thousands of years before the first cities were constructed, people lived and prospered in Mesopotamia.” The first real city she identifies is Uruk, with about 25,000 people, and a perimeter city wall ten kilometers long, which was built around 3100 BCE. There were distinct social and economic advantages to city life, as many of us know, which overcame the downside: noises, smells, and diseases. The city was on the Euphrates River, in southern modern-day Iraq. Their god was “Inanna,” and their writing, on clay tablets, is called “proto-cuneiform.” Most of these tablets served prosaic economic purposes, such as tabulating the number of sheep delivered to the temple.

From these beginnings, societal structure evolved in terms of complexity, the population numbers grew, and the centers of power shifted up and down the Euphrates and Tigris River valley. The concept of hereditary kingship developed around 2900. Two city states developed substantial rivalries: Umma and Lagash. Trade in basic commodities became more common, and extended as far as India and Afghanistan. A fellow Amazon reviewer recently introduced me to Akkad, and its language, which his son briefly study. Their leader, Sargon, established the world’s first real empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. After that empire’s collapse, the city of Ur, in the far south of present-day Iraq, became the dominant power. Over 120,000 clay tablets have been discovered from Ur. Podany describes the substantial long-term trade arrangements between Kanesh, in central Turkey, and Assur, in northern Mesopotamia, which were 1,200 km. apart (It was six week journey by mule caravan).

In the old Babylonian Empire, Hammurabi became famous for the rule of law he created (and that empire would become infamous due to its Biblical notoriety of enslaving the Jews.) In the second half of the second millennium (1595-1155) both Egypt and the Hittite Empire (of central Turkey) were brought into the world system via the cuneiform writing system. Much of this grand system was devastated around 1200 by “the Sea People” of which little is known as to their origins. A new Assyrian empire arose, with its capital at Nineveh. The author’s account ends with the ascendency in the region of Persian power, led by Cyrus, in 559 BCE.

How do we know all this? Podany describes some of the work of archeologists, and how today’s knowledge has been hampered by inexperienced excavators, looters, and, of course, wars. It was a good read, and will serve as a convenient reference for the future. She provides an ample list of references for further reading. Overall, another 5-star read.
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on 14 March 2016
Slightly underpowered overview for the interested layman. It could have been denser, repeating instead and bemoaning the lack of more sources and evidence -thanks, we know that already! -but since the number of pages in this good series is what it is: feed us more interesting information. Therefore, it's worth considering van de Mieroop's (pricier) history. On the topic of religion/cultural contacts, the author could have mentioned the -very telling- extant 'God lists' where lists of names of 'foreign' Gods were translated into the target language, saying which wind-god name refers to which etc (and isn't it very, very likely that good old YHWH started as a wind god?) If further proof were needed for how cross-tribal/cross-cultural 'God talk' is shaped by extra-religious transformations (politics, attempts cultural and religious 'engineering', trade, migration, opportunism, pragmatism) here it is. One can easily imagine two late stone age dudes having a chat: What do your people call that one? Mine works wonders...and so God (name')s got adopted/fell in and out of favour -which leaves religion where it always was then and today: people talking about something they cannot possibly have a clue of from the perspective of their own cultural subjectivity.
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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.
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on 18 June 2016
A good book to learn from, and a great step into ancient history. Delivered on time.
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on 26 May 2016
Very Interesting and informative, will use this in conjunction with Classical History.
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on 23 October 2015
An excellent introduction. It helped me to look at what I wanted to know more about.
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on 2 January 2017
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on 16 May 2015
An easy to rread introduction to the subject that covers the important facts
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on 6 July 2016
useful little reference book
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