Wednesday, February 14, 2018


William H. Stiebing, Susan N. Helft, Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture, 3rd edition. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xviii, 468. ISBN 9781138686410. $120.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Rients de Boer, Free University of Amsterdam (

Version at BMCR home site

There is a very wide choice in textbooks for students, scholars, and the general audience interested in the history of the Ancient Near East. Generally speaking, most of them offer a good historical overview, but they differ significantly in scope, size and coverage. Similar textbooks in English are: M. van de Mieroop (2017, 3rd ed., Chichester), A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC; M. Liverani (2014, London; New York), The Ancient Near East, History, Society and Economy; L. De Blois and R.B. van der Spek (2008, 2nd ed., London; New York), An Introduction to the Ancient World; A. Kuhrt (1995, London; New York), The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 BC; J.N. Postgate (1992, London; New York) Early Mesopotamia, Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. So where does the book under review stand? It is now in its third, updated edition. The previous editions (2002 and 2009) were written solely by Stiebing, but this one sees the addition of Helft as co-author, who according to the book cover, has provided additional knowledge of art and archaeology.

The text is a comprehensive introduction into the history of both the Ancient Near East and Ancient Egypt from the end of the Last Ice Age (ca. 12,500 BCE) until the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BCE). It has 12 main chapters, with a separate, introductory one on Chronology and Geography, as well as a new one at the end, on Ancient Israel and Judah. The chapters are ordered chronologically with additional information on the relevant period—culture, society, religion, archaeology, etc.— interspersed. Each chapter ends with a bibliography. It concludes with a modest Glossary, Index, and an Afterword on the Ancient Near East's legacy and the current state of affairs in the Middle East.

The book has its merits and its pitfalls. To start with the merits, first and foremost, the authors can be applauded for creating a holistic account of developments in the Ancient Near East by taking into account cultures and civilizations often neglected, or only mentioned in passing, in other textbooks. Compared to the textbooks mentioned above (except for De Blois and Van der Spek 2008), the book under review explicitly studies Ancient Egypt and all other Ancient Near Eastern cultures side by side. Many textbooks prefer to deal mostly with Mesopotamia and only mention other cultures when they came into contact with the Assyrians or Babylonians. The coverage in the book ranges from earlier cultures only known from archaeological sources, like those of the Indus and Oxus, to later kingdoms and peoples such as Urartu, the Phoenicians, Phrygians, and Lydians. In the same vein, the separate chapter on the history of ancient Israel and Judah is a welcome addition, also because it doubles as an introduction to the usefulness of the Bible for historical research. The section on prehistory is well informed and up-to-date and together with the chapters on the first millennium it belongs to the best parts of the book. Finally, each chapter has relevant and interesting "Debating the Evidence" sections where the authors touch on controversial or highly debated issues, such as the Indus script or the Late Bronze Age collapse.

The quality and focus of the chapters differ significantly. The discussion of historical periods sometimes appears unbalanced. Certain topics receive wide coverage and some, like Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty, even have a complete chapter devoted to them. However, other topics— for example, the Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian kingdom (contemporary with the Eighteenth Dynasty)—only receive a few pages. As a result, some major events, like Tukulti-Ninurta I's capture of the Kassite king Kashtiliashu IV, are not mentioned. Moreover, Egyptian history is dealt with only sparingly after the New Kingdom. It is also unfortunate that the authors decided to end their book with Alexander the Great. This is somewhat of a tradition in Ancient Near Eastern textbooks, but unjustly so. The Hellenistic, Parthian, Sassanian, and Byzantine empires are regrettably still considered Antiquity's stepchildren.

Second, even though the chapters on prehistory and the late second and first millennium BCE are well written, those dealing with the third and early second millennium have more than a few mistakes, ranging from typos and incorrect dates to unsubstantiated claims. This chronological range happens to be the reviewer's own area of expertise, therefore this section of the book is under closer scrutiny in this review. A few points are highlighted:

• P. 44 shows a figure on the development of cuneiform, but the proposed readings of the signs are incomplete and contain mistakes, for example: the sign UDU ("Sheep") cannot be translated by "Fat", the sign NINDA ("Bread") cannot be translated by "Treasure", and the sign for "Cow" must be read as AB2 (or ÁB)
•The section on Mesopotamian Culture in the Early Dynastic Period utilizes numerous sources from later periods without indicating so. Moreover, the section on Education (pp. 61-62) presents information from fictional literary texts such as "Schooldays" (a satirical story on the education of a young man in a Mesopotamian "school") as a trustworthy reflection of life in Sumerian schools.
•The daughter of Sargon, Enheduanna, was never priestess of An at Uruk (p. 71).
•Akkad, even though still not located, was certainly not in the vicinity of Kish and Babylon (p. 71).
•The statement that most slaves from the Akkadian state were put to work in quarries or mines extracting ore or stones to make statues and stelae (p. 77) is not based on any information known to the reviewer.
• New research on the role of the Amorites (pp. 84-85) during the Ur III empire suggests that they were neither nomads, nor from Syria; in addition there is little evidence that they had an active role in the empire's downfall. See P. Michalowski (2011, Winona Lake, Indiana), The Correspondence of the Kings of Ur
•The table on p.149 showing Old Babylonian chronology contains mistakes: Sumu-abum was not king of Babylon; the dates given for Zimri-Lim's reign are incorrect (should be: 1776-1762); the destruction of Mari's city walls by Hammurabi was in 1760 BCE; there is a typo in Gungunum's name; and the dates for the rule of Ibal-pi-El II of Eshnunna are incorrect (1778-1765 BCE). Other information given is speculative or uncertain, like the rule of Ishme-Dagan and Kassite rule over Mari.
•There is no conclusive evidence that Isin's royal house was of Amorite stock (p. 151).
•Rim-Sin of Larsa conquered Isin around 1794, not 1804 BCE.
•Understanding the element "Lim" in Zimri-Lim's name as the name of a deity is anachronistic, it meant rather "clan" or "tribe" (p. 156).
•The section on Hammurabi's conquests (p. 156) is almost completely incorrect, as well as the one devoted to the latter part of the Old Babylonian period. Admittedly, there are no comprehensive syntheses available yet taking into account the many new texts published over the last years, but the standard work on the period was not consulted: D. Charpin (2004, Fribourg/Göttingen), "Histoire politique du Proche-Orient Amorrite (2002-1595)" in D. Charpin, D.O. Edzard, and M. Stol Mesopotamien. Die altbabylonische Zeit, OBO 160/4, 25-480.
•The section on "Religion" (pp. 160-162) conflates information from several historical periods. Enuma Elish was not written in the Old Babylonian period and Marduk was not elevated to the head of the pantheon by Hammurabi. The statement that the creation stories from Genesis ultimately derive from Mesopotamia is not shared by most Assyriologists and Biblical scholars (p. 160).

In addition, there are some issues with the literature used and quoted for the book. For translations of ancient texts, the authors often cite older or secondary sources (even translations from other textbooks mentioned above). For example, for the Sumerian King List Oppenheim's 1955 translation from Pritchard's anthology Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament is used, whereas J.-J. Glassner's (Atlanta, 2004) Mesopotamian Chronicles, is the current standard. The bibliographical sections mention English literature almost exclusively, with virtually no references to works in other languages, which— especially in Ancient Near Eastern studies— is a serious problem because some of the most important works were written in French or German.

Writing a synthesis of Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture is by no means an easy task. Mastering the details and current scholarship of all relevant periods and topics and synthesizing them into a historical narrative is a herculean effort. The results obtained in the book under review are mixed, containing successful and less successful parts. Presumably, the better parts concern topics on which the authors specialize or those within their range of interests. The less successful parts probably fall outside of their specializations. In these cases it would have been prudent for the authors to have given their manuscript to relevant specialists to avoid unnecessary mistakes.

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