Friday, September 16, 2016


Trevor Bryce, Jessie Birkett-Rees, Atlas of the Ancient Near East: From Prehistoric Times to the Roman Imperial Period. New York; London: Routledge, 2016. Pp. xvii, 318. ISBN 9780415508018. $49.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Christian W. Hess, Freie Universität Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site


For the past quarter-century, Michael Roaf's Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia (New York: Facts on File, 1990) has proved itself a stalwart of countless introductory classes. It also, unfortunately, remains out of print. The Atlas of the Ancient Near East by Bryce and Birkett-Rees places itself squarely in the same class with the goals stated in the introduction. It is meant both as a companion volume to Bryce's own Peoples and Places of Western Asia (London: Routledge, 2009) and as a "potential textbook" for introductory courses on "the Bronze Ages (and their prehistoric antecedents), the Iron Age, including the Neo-Assyrian empire, and the Babylonian and Persian period" for "high school and university student programmes" (p. 3). Marc Van De Mieroop's History of the Ancient Near East (3rd edition; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016) is explicitly named as a possible companion volume.

The Atlas is noteworthy even just for the wide scope of the material pressed into its 318 pages, ranging from the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene to the advent of Islam. It employs an equally broad geographic perspective. While coverage is heavily weighted to the core regions of modern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, individual maps include Cyprus, the Aegean and Egypt, Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is particularly useful when the maps cover areas that tend to fall between the cracks of traditional disciplinary boundaries. The inclusion of the Arabian Peninsula and pre-Islamic Yemen (Chapter 58), for example, is both unusual and most welcome, reflecting a tendency in both the classroom and research to look for broader historical patterns beyond the narrow confines of Mesopotamia proper.

The book is divided into 10 parts comprising numerous chapters (76 in total). Each consists of at least one colored map and a rough historical overview of one or two pages. Part 1 (Prehistory), the work of Birkett-Rees, includes sections on the landscape and natural geography. Part 2 begins with general background information on the historical era, including a chapter on writing systems (Chapter 5). The book then moves on to the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Bronze Age, the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Greeks in the East, "Other Near Eastern Peoples" (which covers not only the Medes, but also the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Achaemenids), the Hellenistic World, and the Roman Period. The division is generally chronological, though chapters on individual areas often mix information from several periods. A limited selection of photographs and site-maps rounds out the presentation.1

Coverage is necessarily selective. Both the texts and maps for Egypt, for example, make clear that it is seen more as an important adjunct than a historical topic in its own right. It makes its first appearance only in chapter 10 ("Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Egypt"), where the text explains that it "had extensive cultural, commercial, and political contacts with the Near Eastern World, and was on a number of occasions at war with parts of it." (p. 72) It is entirely omitted from the "Selected Neolithic sites in the Near East" (Chapter 3, p. 24) and receives only the briefest mention in the chapter on writing (Chapter 5), though a separate chapter with a detailed military map is dedicated to the battle of Qadesh between Ramses II and the Hittite Muwattalli II (Chapter 33, p. 139f.). Anyone looking to integrate Egypt into a course on the Ancient Near East as a whole will have to look elsewhere.

The texts in the individual chapters are accordingly brief. Broader social or even theoretical themes are limited. Chapter 2 on the development of agriculture names Childe's "oasis theory", Braidwood's "hilly flanks hypothesis", the "multi-canal models" of Binford and Flannery, and the "social-ideological strategies" of Hodder and Bender in a single sentence without directly explaining what these might entail (p. 20). There is no clear connection between Braidwood's hilly flanks and the site of Jarmo mapped on the preceding page. Most of the remaining texts are largely confined to brief historical narratives of dynastic succession. Of the Kassites we learn (Chapter 29, p. 129) that they took hold in Babylonia after the raid by the Hittite Mursili I, preserved traditional Babylonian culture throughout their flourishing reign, were integrated into the Late Bronze Age system of great powers, and finally fell to the Elamites. The Late Bronze Age Middle Assyrian empire rises after the fall of Mittani, reaches its peak during the reign of Tukultī-Ninurta I and undergoes a brief resurgence under Tiglath-pileser I. A few chapters later, the Neo-Assyrian empire falls due to its over-extension "beyond the capacity of its rulers to administer and defend it" (Chapter 42, p. 170). Other chapters simply recapitulate the contents of People and Places. "Cities and kingdoms of Syria in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages" (Chapter 22) describes 12 individual sites, the chapter "Aeolians, Ionians, Dorians" (Chapter 51) consists of three short paragraphs on Aeolis, Ionia, and Dorians.

The strengths of the book are most apparent when its scope and scale lend perspective to these individual historical narratives. The map on "Trade routes during the Assyrian colony period" (Chapter 17, p. 93) draws the routes from Tepe Sialk in central Iran to Central Anatolia and from the Black Sea to the Red Sea and Bahrain, highlighting to what extent the city-state of Assur was embedded into an exchange network across the entire Ancient Near East. The opportunity to do the same for other areas was unfortunately missed. Southern Arabia most easily finds its place in an introduction to the Ancient Near East in the context of trade connections through the incense roads in the first millennium BC. The small-scale map of Yemen marks the general locations of the kingdoms Maʿin, Saba, Himyar, Awsan, Qataban and Hadhramaut and includes short remarks on each.2 Their relationship to the Near East as a whole is certainly not clarified by the unmarked satellite image of the "Arabian Peninsula today" on the following page.

Numerous drawbacks in the Atlas are harder to overlook. Many of the maps give no more than a rough impression of the relevant regions and periods. The site of Tall ar-Rimāḥ is variously identified with Karāna (Chapter 14, p. 82) or Qaṭṭara (Chapter 21, p. 104; likely correct), or given as a possibility for both (Chapter 16, p. 91). Qaṭṭara is south of Rimāḥ on the first map, Karāna west of Rimāḥ on the second, while the position of Rimāḥ itself seems to shift. On an overview map (Chapter 4, p. 42f.), arrows lead from labels to "Core regions of the Near Eastern kingdoms": "Assyria" points to the Ǧabal Sinǧār region, while Akkade, Ur III, and Babylonia all point to the general area of Nippur.3 The notoriously elusive Akkade is placed just south of the juncture of the Tigris and the Diyala rivers, presumably based on the old Baghdad = Akkade (Chapter 11, p. 74), though most more recent discussions place the capital much farther north.4 Similarly, while the exact territorial extent of the Middle Assyrian empire may be up for debate (Chapter 28, p. 128), more recent explorations such as A. Tenu's L'expansion médio-assyrienne provide a much more solid basis than J. Haywood's popular Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations (London: Penguin, 2005).5

These details in the maps and texts leave the distinct impression that much of the research of the past twenty years has fallen by the wayside. References to further reading that conclude each chapter are intentionally limited to general reference works or encyclopedias such as Eric Meyers' five-volume Oxford Encyclopaedia of Archaeology in the Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) or J. Sasson's four-volume Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995). The maps themselves are often either taken directly from or based on Roaf's Cultural Atlas (e.g. "The Ur III empire" in Chapter 12, p. 76). More recent and accurate maps are usually available—for the 3rd millennium for example in Walther Sallaberger, Ingo Schrakamp (eds.), History & Philology, Associated Regional Chronologies of the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, 3 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015). Even consistent reference to Van De Mieroop's History of the Ancient Near East or Mario Liverani's The Ancient Near East (London: Routledge, 2014), cited at the end of Chapter 1, would have helped immensely to tie the book into the sorts of general courses it was meant for.

For scope and convenience alone Bryce and Birkett-Rees' Atlas will surely find its place in many introductory courses, particularly those focused on more traditional political narratives of Ancient Near Eastern history. However, numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies, the failure to take account of more recent scholarship, and the general lack of references to more in-depth literature again place the burden on the instructor to expand or update the information given. Archeologists or historians interested more in social or cultural history will generally find less to draw from. A comprehensive replacement of Michael Roaf's Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia still remains unwritten.


1.   Most of the photographs are derived from freely accessible repositories, including Wikimedia (p. 30, Fig. 3.2 of Göbekli Tepe), and readily available elsewhere. The production quality of the reviewer's copy (paperback edition) is generally poor. The printed text is often smeared, and even the few photographic images are generally unsharp and often streaked. The text of the e-book-edition seems preferable on all counts.
2.   The kingdoms are not accurately marked. Cf. the similarly scaled map in the introduction by Alessandro de Maigret, Arabia Felix (London: Stacey International, 1999), 38f. Saba surely merited a better summary than "in legendary tradition, seat of the Queen of Sheba" (p. 222). Notable omissions are Ẓafār as capital of Ḥimyar on the map of Yemen on p. 222 and Dūmat al-Ǧandal/Adummatu in al-Ǧawf in northern Saudi Arabia on the map on p. 221, which would provide a neat bridge to a discussion of relations with Assyria. The abrupt shift from "Arabs" to "Arabic" to the "tend of thousands of inscriptions and graffiti" found on the Arabian Peninsula is misleading (p. 223). "The language of the inscriptions" is neither unified nor in any sense "north-west Semitic" according to any classification scheme. On the complex relationship between the languages of these inscriptions and later Arabic see, for example, Michael Macdonald, "Ancient Arabia and the Written Word," in Michael Macdonald (ed.), The Development of Arabic as a Written Language, Supplement to the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010), 5–28.
3.   Cf. Karen Radner, "The Assur – Nineveh – Arbela Triangle: Central Assyria in the Neo-Assyrian Period," in Peter A. Miglus, Simone Mühl (eds.), Between the Cultures: The Central Tigris Region from the 3rd to the 1st Millennium BC, Heidelberger Studien zum Alten Orient 14 (Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag, 2011), 321–329 on the historical center of gravity in Assyria.
4.   See Walter Sommerfeld, "Die Lage von Akkade und die Dokumentation des 3. Jahrtausends," in Nele Ziegler, Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (eds.), Entres les fleuves – II: D'Aššur à Mari et au-delà, Berliner Beiträge zum Vorderen Orient 24 (Berlin: PeWe-Verlag, 2014), 151–175.
5.   See Aline Tenu, L'expansion médio-assyrienne: Approche archéologique, BAR International Series 1906 (London: British Archaeological Reports, 2009) and the boundaries mapped in Nicholas Postgate, Bronze Age Bureaucracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 31. The identification of the Assyrian provincial center of Idu with Iraqi Hīt on Euphrates, which defines the odd territorial geography reflected in the map on p. 128, was already out-dated when the entry in Bryce, People and Places of Western Asia, 313 was written. See Wilfred van Soldt, "The Location of Idu," Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 2008/55: 72–74 and most recently Cinzia Pappi, "Satu Qala," in Konstantin Kopanias, John MacGinnis (eds.), The Archaeology of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Adjacent Regions (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2016), 297–307.

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