Sunday, April 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Benjamin R. Foster, Karen Polinger Foster, Civilizations of Ancient Iraq. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 297. ISBN 9780691137223. $26.95.
Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Summers, Middle East Technical University, Ankara

Limited Preview and Table of Contents

Benjamin Foster and Karen Polinger Foster, both at Yale University, have written an excellent overview of the history and cultures of ancient Iraq beginning with the earliest references to Sumer and ending with the Arab defeat of the Sassanians in 637 CE. History (for this book is very much an history rather than an archaeology) is supported by a judicious selections of texts (in translation) and 22 figures. Two things set this book apart from others of its kind. The first, and most welcome, is the selection for illustrations of subjects that illustrate much more than the history. The subjects will all be well known to students of ancient Mesopotamia. Each picture is provided with a caption in normal font followed by a paragraph in italic that provides a succinct history of the object itself down to the present day. Here we learn that certain kings of the Ancient Near East themselves collected antiquities, sometimes discovered during the course of urban redevelopment, in a fashion not so dissimilar to the origins of Urban Archaeology in Britain, others looted from temples and palaces in the immediate aftermath of conquest. Thus we see that the continuing plundering of archaeological sites in modern Iraq differs from the past principally in its scale and the sometimes astronomical prices that cuneiform tablets, seals and other objects fetch in a global market. The second, novel, and equally welcome, feature is an Epilogue that provides concise insights into the discovery of the Ancient Near East by western nations and the history of the decipherment of ancient languages. This is followed by a short section entitled "Archaeology Past and Present" that contains a few well-chosen words that explain the importance of the context of tablets and other objects dug out of the ground. The remainder of this last chapter is taken up with the disastrous consequences of the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the current situation for the heritage of Iraq.

The body of this book comprises 210 pages of text to which are appended 19 pages of references in the notes followed by 51 pages of valuable bibliography. A useful index occupies a further 15 pages. That the notes and bibliography together make up 70 pages, almost a quarter of the volume, is indicative of the broad sweep of this history, the span of some four thousand years that is embraced, and the authors' depth of scholarship. A striking paper cover reproduces a 17th century painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander the Great entering Babylon, an image of conquest, wealth and looting.

The title, "Civilizations of Ancient Iraq" identifies a market, to which I shall return below. However, modern boarders of Nation States are not ancient ones. The distribution of prehistoric cultures, such as the Halafian mentioned in Chapter 1, extended across a large part of what is sometimes termed Greater Mesopotamia while Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, all with their capitals within what is now Iraq, were far more extensive. Likewise, the excellent continuation of this history after the fall of Babylon to the Persians, takes us down through the periods of Persian, Hellenistic and Sassanian hegemony. The continued importance of Babylon, both symbolic and economic, perhaps justifies the central focus on Iraq despite the distance from the centres of Achaemenid and Sassanian empires which lay faraway in what is today Iran while the Hellenistic or Seleucid cultures had Macedonian origins and were responsible for the spread of certain aspects of Greek culture, including language, as outlined in a portion of Chapter 9. This volume tends to emphasise the continuity and dominance of Mesopotamian culture regardless of conquest from outside. Many would argue that significant aspects of such cultural continuity have lasted until the present day.

On page 206 one paragraph is devoted to the thorny problem of academic ethics with regard to the scholarly study and publication of antiquities. Not surprisingly there is emphasis here on written tablets and seals. The authors raise a crucial question, but do not provide an answer. How, they ask, can an historian ignore a vital piece of written evidence because the tablet on which it is written has dubious origins or, worse, is known to have been illegally taken from the country where it was found and thus torn from its archaeological context? It is one thing not to condone or to be in any way associated with this illicit trade and thus with the destruction of archaeological sites that it feeds on, but another to exclude evidence and thereby censor or distort historical study. There was more to be said here by the Curator of the Babylonian Collection at Yale.

The text is clear, well written and a pleasure to read. It should be highly recommended to anyone, student and layman alike, as an introduction to the history of ancient Iraq. Perhaps most importantly the book seems to have been designed for an audience that wishes to know more about ancient Iraq as a consequence of recent and current events. Included is Saddam Hussein's maniacal self-comparison with Nebuchadnezzar II, which surely has echoes of the late Shah of Iran's public emphasis on the Achaemenid kings. The high profile and live world-wide coverage of the sacking of the Baghdad Museum (Donald Rumsfeld's limp quip gets a mention) and the now regular news reports of smugglers of antiquities from Iraq being intercepted at airports and boarders has given the past civilizations a heightened public interest for reasons that are quite different from those of scholarship. This book is for bookshops, on the high street and at airports, as well as for students and for scholars for whom ancient Iraq or contemporary attitudes to the civilization of ancient Iraq might be tangential.

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