This post is about the first chapter from the new non-fiction book I’m working my way through. It’s a complete change of pace from the previous one – the only thing in common is that it’s a history book, but it’s about a different time, a different place and it’s a very different sort of book. The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed is a big glossy book from the publisher Thames & Hudson, part of their series about Ancient Civilisations – I’ve previously read the one about China in this series (first post about that book). The format is a series of one or two double page spreads each about a particular subject. It’s written by 14 authors, but they’re not credited on individual sections – Stephen Bourke is the “Chief Consultant” and so I’m listing him as the author. The book covers the history of the Middle East from before the evolution of anatomically modern homo sapiens through to the Islamic conquest in the mid-7th Century AD.
Introducing the Middle East
The book opens talking about what they mean by the “Middle East”. It’s a term that’s relatively recently coined (at the start of the 20th Century) and is already falling into disfavour for its Eurocentrism. It is also a very nebulous term, and their definition boils down to “that bit there between Asia and Africa, you’ll know it when you see it”. The core modern countries are Bahrain, Egypt (not covered in this book), Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Another reason that the term Middle East is not entirely favoured is that it elides the diversity of the peoples who live in the region. Modern ideas about race and ethnicity don’t map well onto ancient ones – both are equally complex, just not the same. So scholars categorise the ancient peoples by the languages they spoke or the polities (city or state etc) they belonged to. There are several groups that were prominent during the period this book covers, and the authors devote a double page spread to a brief overview of who was where when. Which also gives an overview of the history that will be discussed in more detail in the book, so I think it’s worth me writing more about it than just a brief summary.
Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq) was a region of two parts – north and south. The earliest* group to live there were the Sumerian speakers in the south. They were conquered by an Akkadian speaking group in the late third millennium BC. Some time after this the people living in the north came to be known as Assyrians (after their city of Assur) and the people in the south as Babylonians (after Babylon). Akkadian and Sumerian are used throughout the succeeding couple of millennia, eventually being supplanted by Aramaic.
*When they say “earliest” here, I think we’re talking about historically and not considering the prehistoric cultures of the region, but I’m not quite clear on that.
Through the Bronze Age the peoples who lived in the southern Levant were called Canaanites by the Egyptians (tho they probably didn’t call themselves that, and wouldn’t’ve thought of themselves as a cohesive group). They spoke a Semitic language (the same family as Akkadian belongs to) and lived in large city states throughout what is now Israel. Around 1200BC much of their civilisation vanished, and their city states were destroyed. Their culture survived in part via the Phoenicians (who were also ancestors of the Carthaginians). In the area where the Canaanites had lived several small kingdoms now formed – the Philistines, Israelites, Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites.
The longest lasting culture in Anatolia was the Hittites, who spoke an Indo-European language and were most powerful in the Late Bronze Age. Between them and northern Mesopotamia were the Hurrians. In the Late Bronze Age these people had a kingdom that stretched across modern day southeast Turkey, north Syria and north Iraq, which was called Mitanni.
Ancient Iran has been inhabited as long as Mesopotamia, but less is known about the earliest people there as their script (Proto-Elamite) hasn’t been deciphered. The first culture whose name we know were the Elamites, who lasted from 2700BC through till 559BC – the book isn’t entirely clear (maybe it isn’t known) whether these are the same people as wrote proto-Elamite or not. In the first millenium BC the Medes were also living in northwest Iran, and were an important power in that region. Iran was unified in the Achaemenid period (559-331BC) which lasted until Alexander the Great conquered the region. When the Classical Greeks refer to “Persians” they are generally talking about the Achaemenids. Post-Alexander Iran was first controlled by his successors in the Seleucid Dynasty and then by the Parthians. They ruled until 224AD when they were overthrown by the Sasanians.
The next section of this chapter feels a tad out of place – it considers the economic & agricultural activity of the region but mostly from a modern perspective which seems outside the scope of the book. It does point out that most of the agricultural production even now is of indigenous species which were first domesticated in the region (and subsequently exported as crops & technology). Other resources discussed are the timber industry in ancient Lebanon (now not thriving due to over-exploitation in the past), and modern oil reserves.
Water is such an important and contested resource that it gets its own double page spread. Because much of the region is arid or semi-arid control of water and management of water is critical to a civilisation’s survival. Particularly in Mesopotamia where the amount of rainfall is insufficient for any agricultural activity, irrigation is essential. The major rivers in the region are the river Jordan, and the two rivers between which Mesopotamia lies (the Euphrates & the Tigris). The latter two both start in Turkey and are a source of modern tensions as damming projects in Turkey and Syria have knock-on effects in Iraq. The rivers were & are vital for food production, and the seas of the region, as is generally the case in the ancient world, were the main transport links between this and other places.
This chapter finishes with a brief overview of archaeological work in the region with some basic grounding in what archaeology actually entails. And makes for rather sad reading in the wake of IS destroying and looting so much that they’ve come in contact with – which we’ll now never fully understand.