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Ancient Near East: The Basics.

Ancient Near East: The Basics. By DANIEL C. SNELL. London: ROUTLEDGE, 2013. Pp. xiii + 161, illus. S21.95 (paper).

Routledge has, for more than a decade, been publishing a series of small volumes on "The Basics," of which the book under review is a recent addition. According to the publisher, "The Basics is a highly successful series of accessible guidebooks which provide an overview of the fundamental principles of a subject area in a jargon-free and undaunting format. Intended for students approaching a subject for the first time, the books both introduce the essentials of a subject and provide an ideal springboard for further study."

Surprisingly, the Ancient Near East is one of the first historical eras to be recognized with a volume in the series, and this book is the first to address any field of ancient history. Daniel C. Snell, an Assyriologist and biblical scholar at the University of Oklahoma, is eminently qualified to undertake the difficult task of compressing 8000 years of the history of the Near East and Egypt (from the beginning of agriculture to Alexander the Great) into less than 150 pages, in a way that is accessible to a general reader or undergraduate. Several of his previous books have been successful in presenting ancient Near Eastern history to a wider audience. He is to be commended for this since, as Snell himself notes, "the field of popularization [of the ancient Near East] has been too often left to journalists and others with no immediate knowledge of the texts, art, or architecture involved" (p. 130).

The book begins with a description of a conversation in 1967 when a young scholar (presumably the author) became aware of the "long view" of history in the Middle East. This episode is, curiously, written in the second person ("And you remember the first Middle Eastern war you paid attention to, back in 1967, when you were a freshman in college...," p. 1), which might strike undergraduate readers as unusual, but may well get their attention. The rest of the chapter aims to define "What we mean when we talk about the ancient Near East."

The chronological narrative is covered in the next three chapters. Chapter 2 addresses all ancient Near Eastern history from 8000 to 2000 B.C.E., chapter 3 is devoted to the second millennium B.C.E., and chapter 4 to the first millennium B.C.E. These are followed by short chapters on literature and art, then a more detailed chapter on the legacies of the ancient Near East, followed by a chapter about more recent history--an account of the many explorers, archaeologists, philologists, and historians who have brought this era back to life. The last chapter serves as something of an epilogue, including a tribute to philology ("the queen of the sciences") and a speculation on the future of ancient Near Eastern studies.

For the most part, Snell stays true to the goal of the series and assumes that his reader has little background knowledge in the field. He wisely limits the number of names of kings and kingdoms mentioned, and paints with a broad brush, discussing general trends, movements of people, ideological and religious changes, and only a few notable historical events. (He does, however, trust that the reader has a basic knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and its books, which are mentioned without explanation.)

Each of the three chronological chapters features a "fable"--set off from the rest of the chapter by the use of a different font--in which the author fictionalizes a moment in history. In chapter 2 the moment is the domestication of plants and animals, described through the experiences of a single family of hunters and gatherers and written in a style that resembles that of Rudyard Kiplings "Just So Stories," even addressing the reader as "Best Beloved." In chapter 3 the author imagines the inspiration behind the recording of some Hattic spells, with the tale of a young Hittite couple visiting a "Hattic crone" in an attempt to save their ailing baby. The fable in chapter 4 turns to real historical figures: here Snell reconstructs the thoughts of Nabonidus as he decided to return to Babylon to face Cyrus. The author admits that these fables have "no textual basis" and are "based on a guess" (p. 12) but they remind the reader that the people who lived through the events outlined in the book must have had lives and loves and conversations, even though these are almost completely lost to us.

Most of the seventy-six pages of the chronological chapters are devoted to Mesopotamia, but about a third of the pages include references to and discussions of events in Egypt. Surprisingly, though, the Egyptian rulers whose individual achievements are discussed outnumber their Mesopotamian counter-parts (fourteen Egyptians to thirteen Mesopotamians). This may be because more Egyptian kings than Mesopotamian kings are already household names and therefore feel somehow necessary to the book. It could, however, also be because Mesopotamian history is described in rather general terms here, whereas the Egyptian sections are more apt to focus on specifics (such as the details of the pyramids of five Old Kingdom kings). The glossary at the end of the book is useful for the explanation of terms and names that might be unfamiliar to the reader, including those of some of the kings. (It is unclear, however, why only about half of the kings who are named in the narrative are listed there, or the logic behind which were included.)

A reader for whom this is new material might well find the chronological narrative compelling and be inspired to seek out more detailed books and articles. Snell manages to weave Egyptian and Mesopotamian history together and to provide a big picture of the whole era. Some topics addressed in the chronological chapters are discussed over more than one page, such as the development of writing (pp. 23-25), temple economies (pp. 31-32), pyramid construction (pp. 33-36), Hammurabis laws (pp. 43-46), the nature of kingship (pp. 56-59), the Phoenician alphabet (pp. 67-68), and polytheism and monotheism (pp. 69-72). The author uses chapters 5, 6, and 7 to go into more detail on the contributions that the ancient Near East made to subsequent eras, including our own.

A few factual errors found their way into the book--among these are that Hatshepsut is referred to as the widow of Amenhotep II (p. 51 ), when in fact Amenhotep II was the son of her stepson Thutmose III, and that the purple dye traded by the Phoenicians is described as coming from sea urchins when it came from sea snails (murex) (p. 67). But for the most part the material is reliable and the book provides an engaging introduction to the field.

The last two chapters constitute thoughtful essays on the study of the ancient Near East and its relationship to biblical studies, history, and philology, along with a discussion of the relevance of the ancient Near East to the modern world. Snell welcomes any interest in the ancient world among the wider public, even if it involves "escape into imagined worlds, cloud-cuckoo-lands of the imagination, informed by ancient artifacts and stories." As he notes, there are few academic positions and little money to be made by a serious student of the ancient Near East, but "the more people who are made aware of it, even in trivial ways, the better" (p. 134). One hopes that books like this will help to increase that awareness.


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Author:Podany, Amanda H.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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