Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster. Civilizations of Ancient Iraq. Princeton University Press, 2009.
It is a pleasure to review Civilizations of Ancient Iraq by Benjamin and Karen Foster. Ben Foster was my Akkadian professor when I attended graduate school at Yale. I vividly remember his ability to convey the broad sweep of ancient Mesopotamian cultures in an accessible, meaningful, and engaging manner. Together with his wife, he has demonstrated that skill in this book as well.
Civilizations of Ancient Iraq provides "a brief historical and cultural survey of Iraq from earliest times to the Muslim conquest in 637" (page xi). This survey helps answer the questions, "Why study the civilizations of ancient Iraq? What is the value of studying the civilizations of ancient Iraq to the study of civilization in general?"
The book's Prologue offers an overview answer. "Iraq is one of the birthplaces of human civilization. This land saw the first towns and cities, the first states and empires. Here writing was invented, and with it the world's oldest poetry and prose and the beginnings of mathematics, astronomy, and law. Here too are found pioneering achievements in pyrotechnology, as well as important innovations in art and architecture. From Iraq comes rich documentation for nearly every aspect of human endeavor and activity millennia ago, from the administration of production, surplus, and the environment to religious belief and practice, even haute cuisine recipes and passionate love songs" (page xi).
The basic features of the book are these: a Prologue is followed by ten chapters and an Epilogue. There is a well-documented note section for each chapter (found at the end of the book), a thorough and up-to-date bibliography, a helpful index, two maps (more maps could have been provided, but this reviewer made ample educational use of Google Earth to significantly supplement that deficiency), and 23 black and white images of ancient artifacts such as cuneiform tablets, harps, stele, reliefs, vases, statuettes, etc.
The narrative is delightful with strategically selected contextualizing quotations from primary sources. These quotes artfully and expertly enliven the narrative, drive home a point, illustrate key ideas, but most importantly, draw out the ancient voices of lost cultures and peoples so that the reader feels as though he or she were silently eavesdropping on ancient conversations. Civilizations of Ancient Iraq presents a trajectory of the most important turning points in the cultures and civilizations of ancient Iraq. This review will highlight some of the key ideas from each chapter.
Chapter 1 discusses what constitutes the geographical region that we interchangeably call Iraq or Mesopotamia (in Greek, Mesopotamia means "between the rivers", referring to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that run through the region). This chapter also traces the beginning of civilization from the domestication of plants and animals to rise of small villages and towns (ca. 12,000-8000 before the present). The authors then describe the migration of farmers and herders from the foothills into the alluvial plains. They conclude this chapter with an overview of the Ubaid period of civilization that pre-dated written records (ca. 6500-3800 BCE).
Chapter 2 explores the rise of Mesopotamian civilization, focusing specifically on the city of Uruk (ca. 4th millennium BCE). During this time we see the development of formal religion, the invention of writing, and social stratification. We do not know exactly why, but Uruk become a model for other cities as we see physical culture from Uruk diffused throughout the region. In fact, this diffusion of the Urukian model of culture and civilization persisted among Mesopotamian city-states into the 1st century CE.
Chapter 3 focuses on the earliest Mesopotamian city-states of Sumerian civilization: Jemdet-Nasr, Ur, and Nippur (ca. 3rd millennium BCE). …