I usually like the Oxford Very Short Introduction book series and The Ancient Near East is definitely one of the better titles in the series. While not perfect, the author attempted some creative ways at addressing the time period and topic of the book. I think it was a good decision to limit the ancient near east (a somewhat subjective topic both geographically and chronologically) to essentially cuneiform writing civilizations. What this does is essentially eliminate Persia and Egypt as empires to cover. This was good because, particularly in the case of Egypt, lots of special treatment is usually given to these to states and can detract from the other cultures.
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There were only a couple of little things that I would count as negatives with this book. First of all I need to stick up for my favorite Bronze Age civilization – the Hittites. (Everyone has a favorite Bronze Age culture right?) In the book, it comes off across as the Hittites being really aggressive and then paying for it later since they broke a sacred oath by attacking the Egyptians first. While this is sort of true, the whole picture isn’t given. The Hittite king Suppiluliuma did attack Egypt first, but only after his son Zannanza was murdered in Egypt after being betrothed to the Egyptian queen. Still, there probably should have been more pages on the Late Bronze Age in general, Mitanni as a kingdom is barely mentioned. Another civilization that is barely mentioned is the Kassite kingdom of Babylonia.
But that’s about it for critiques. The author does a good job of going through three millennia of history in the near east in a clear and concise manner. By not covering Egypt or Persia, she was able to devote more time to other civilizations including quite a bit on the Ur III dynasty as well as earlier Mesopotamia as well as the Assyrian colony period. I really enjoyed how she highlighted different individuals to use as a focus in most of the different civilizations such as Sargon and Naram-Sin, Hammurabi, Nabonidus, and Assurbanipal. I was really pleased as she highlights Ur-Namma as he is often neglected by way of Hammurabi. Ur-Namma’s “law code” is actually the earliest extant form of legal code, even earlier than the more famous Hammurabi’s. The author also distinguishes what the kings of each of these kingdoms and empires saw as their enduring legacy, an example being Ur-Namma’s dynasty fulfilling the role of regal builders.
Overall The Ancient Near East was one of the better Oxford Very Short Introductions. The images aid the text well and the narrative covers a lot of ground quickly and effectively. The bibliography also is quite substantial for those looking to pursue some of the cultures or topics in greater detail.
4.5 out of 5 stars.