Civilizations of the Ancient near East

Article excerpt

Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Edited by Jack M. Sasson et al. 4 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1995, xxxii + 2966 pp., $449.00.

This is a breathtaking publishing and scholarly accomplishment. For the first time, a comprehensive reference work is available that presents the state of the discipline for the study of the vast and increasingly complex and amorphous "ancient Near East." It is modeled after Scribner's Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, the monumental 3-volume work that appeared in 1988. It combines aspects of several standard reference works known to Biblical scholars, such as The Cambridge Ancient History and Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. However, its focus is different from that of either of these and its scope far broader (but both of these include materials not found in the present work, as well).

This work is divided into 11 parts. In vol. 1 are (1) "The Ancient Near East in Western Thought," (2) "The Environment," (3) "Population" and (4) "Social Institutions." In vol. 2 is (5) "History and Culture." In vol. 3 are (6) "Economy and Trade," (7) Technology and Artistic Production" and (8) "Religion and Science." In vol. 4 are (9) "Language, Writing, and Literature," (10) "Visual and Performing Arts" and (11) "Retrospective Essays." The editors state that the first and last parts serve to bracket the work with essays on the impact of the ancient Near East on ancient and modern western cultures, and that the rest of the essays follow a natural sequence (p. xxxi). "History and Culture," the largest category (and in many ways the closest to the heart of the entire endeavor), is deliberately placed somewhere other than the beginning, reflecting the editors' desires to make this a true multidisciplinary work, with history (and, to a lesser degree, culture) not being allowed to dominate the work as it has in so many studies of antiquity.

The work's broad scope is evident from its major divisions, but even more so from the titles of its individual essays. Very generally, each part covers its subject matter by considering Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia and Syro-Palestine, in that order. Thus, for example, one can find essays in part 4 ("Social Institutions") on "Private Life" for four of the five areas (one is missing for Iran/Persia), or in part 5 ("History and Culture") on "The History of . . .: An Overview" for all five areas. In between is a wealth of more specific essays on the history of each area-for example, in Egypt, "Builders of the Pyramids," "The Middle Kingdom in Egypt" or "Pharaoh Ramesses II and His Times." Also, in each part there are essays particular to certain times or places that have no counterparts elsewhere-for example, "The Kingdom and Civilization of Kush in Northeast Africa," "Central Asia and the Caucasus in the Bronze Age," "Midas of Gordion and the Anatolian Kingdom of Phrygia" or "Private Commerce and Banking in Achaemenid Babylon."

The general chronological limits of the work extend back to the beginning of the third millennium BC, with the origins of writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and down to Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia in 330 BC, although there are exceptions even to these broad limits in both directions. The geographical limits include primarily Egypt, Syro-Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia, and, more peripherally, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, Northeast Africa and various oft-neglected Aegean and Anatolian cultures.

These limits are unremarkable to almost any Biblical scholar today, but it should at least be noted that the work self-consciously avoids being a "Lands of the Bible" tool. Civilizations, topics and time periods that are both mentioned and not mentioned in the Bible are covered with equal interest. The editors and contributors clearly reflect the dominant late-20th-century desire in the secular academy to avoid any specific Bibliocentric interest. …