Will anything of the history of today’s age be accessible to future historians?  Perhaps not, unless we begin inscribing our histories on clay tablets.  For it is cuneiform written on clay tablets, from the earliest historically-accessible period of the ancient Near East, to almost its very latest, that determines the amount and quality of what we know of the area called the cradle of civilization.  Papyrus disintegrates, though not as quickly as paper.  Electronics require for their preservation and retrieval machines and programs capable of accessing electronic media whose methods of storage and retrieval can change as frequently as an iPhone cycle.  It is no dim irony that our successors many generations hence may one day know more about ancient Mesopotamia than they know about us.

Even so, the knowledge we have, especially of the very earliest civilizations, especially outside of whatever was the ascendant culture of the moment, or of cultures that wrote very little down (e.g., the Elamites), is spotty, at best.  We know the names of kings and of conquests and of the relationships between and among kingdoms best.  We know less well, but still passably good, the living conditions and economy, and social stratifications of the kingdom’s subjects.  We are often lost as to the reasons empires so frequently and quickly appeared on the scene, or why they just as frequently and quickly fell.

For example, Assyria got its start as a small state centered on the city of Assur in the fourteenth century (ca 1350 BC).  It grew to a “substantial territorial state and leading player in regional affairs” by the eleventh century.  Its power and influence held stable or declined until the ninth century, when it embarked, haltingly at first, on a vast expansion program that ultimately yielded an empire stretching from western Iran to the Mediterranean and from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) to Egypt by the late seventh century.

It was Assyria that, in the late eighth century (ca 720) conquered Israel after its ruler, Hoshea, eventually chafed at the Assyrian bridle, and refused anymore to pay tribute.  A succession of three Assyrian kings laid siege to Israel’s capital for three years; the last, Sargon II, turned the Kingdom of Israel (which had earlier split from the Kingdom of Judah) into the province of Samaria with his victory.  He then scattered the ten tribes of Israel throughout northeastern Syria and western Iran, and the world (except that part of it that is Mormon) never heard from them again.  Foreign populations less antagonistic to Assyria were settled in Samaria, undoubtedly at least part of the reason Jesus was later able to use the example of a good Samaritan as proof to the Jewish mind that nationality is not always a proper demarcation line for ascertaining good and evil.  The Jews in Judah had to have hated the influx of foreigners who replaced their cousins in Israel, so to hear of a good one had to have made for a powerful example.

Assyria turned out to be as ephemeral as the ten lost tribes it vanquished.  In 640 BC, it was at the height of its empire.  Thirty years later, it was gone, never to be heard from again.  Nobody really knows why.  All we have are speculations, the most trenchant of which, according to Mieroop, involves the structure of the empire itself.  Assyria, like the Mongols to come, built their empire on military conquest.  Unlike the Mongols, they were not particularly capable administrators.  They were domineering and brutal to the peoples they conquered, only interested in the profits they might accumulate, caring little for the tedious tasks of building a governing infrastructure.  They elicited no loyalty from the peoples they conquered.  No Judean or Babylonian or Median, etc. wished to be Assyrianized, as would later willingly happen with Hellenization during the Roman occupation of the Near East.   To put it bluntly, Assyria as an empire was a brute of few redeeming qualities.  It fell, according to subsequent accounts by the peoples it had conquered (as there were no Assyria or Assyrians around to offer an explanation), as a matter of divine retribution, which sounds about right, in an edifying, if not explicatory way.

Mierhoop covers roughly three thousand years of Near Eastern civilization, from the beginnings of history (if ‘history’ requires cities and states, a sedentary lifestyle, and written records thereof) with Uruk, ca 3500 BC, to the conquest of Alexander of Macedon, ca 330 BC.  What a remarkably tumultuous procession of peoples, rulers, empires and states over the course of that span!   We in the West think that life comes at us quickly and furiously.  But for roughly the last century of Western history geopolitical boundaries have hardly changed.  Hegemonies have seen gradual erosion and accretion around the margins, but the New World Order, as George H.W. Bush decreed the post-Cold War era, an idea which should apply to the era beginning with the fin de siècle, has been remarkably stable.  Yes, millions died in wars, but the wars did little to change the international power structure.  The Russian Empire has existed in one configuration or another for a millennium.  The Chinese empire for two.  Even the colonization of the New World proceeded as an extension of the stability; once the borders were resolved a couple of hundred years after colonization, they pretty much stayed put.

Nothing of the ancient Near East was so stable.  To take the history of Palestine in the first millennium as example, over the span of roughly two hundred years, Assyria wiped the ten tribes of Israel from history; then it collapsed, never to be heard from again; Babylonia rose to prominence and conquered Judah, sending its residents into exile, and finally, Persia conquered Babylonia and Palestine, among other areas, allowing the return of the exiles.  That’s a lot of history in a little time.  Were history to come again as fast and as furious the Western mind would likely be whipsawed into vertigo.  Maybe Francis Fukuyama was right, but should have extended his analysis backward. In contrast to the ancient Near East, it seems that the end of history and the last man came with the Industrial Revolution.

(We can archaeologically corroborate some of the Biblical history—the foregoing story of Palestine being one example—but Mierhoop cautions that biblical history had a purpose other than recitation of historical truths, so one should be careful when using it as a historical text).

Why such tumult?  People are more likely to fight when there’s something to be gained thereby (but there is ample evidence that people also fight just because), which helps explain the constant flux of imperial ascension and decline in the ancient Near East once the new means of economy, sedentary agriculture, was firmly established.  And it helps explain the conflicts of the twentieth century once the Industrial Revolution definitively ushered in a new economy of life.  Maybe, but that too is mere speculation.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves history, but particularly those of the Judeo-Christian tradition who would like to know, like I did, what is archaeologically known of the context in which the Jewish state and religion arose.  To take one pertinent example, Mierhoop explains that the economy of sedentary agriculture mandated that the cultural and political elite of the cities were supported by the agricultural production of the surrounding countryside (not unlike things are today), which often left the farmers and laborers in debt to the urban elite (also, eerily similar to today).  Several biblical stories, (including in the Torah and Nehemiah, among others), imply similar circumstances prevailed in Judea during the era.

The Jubilee year described in Leviticus where debts were wiped out and lands returned to their original owners was not unique to the Jews.  New rulers over all the Near East often did the same or something similar upon ascension to the throne.  Debts piled up—mainly the obligation to pay taxes to the central authorities in the cities—that people had no hope of paying.  New kings would try to gain favor with the people by canceling debts, or reducing them to a manageable level.  The kingdom’s creditor class would pay the expense of the king buying the loyalty of his subjects and freeing up enough money that the hinterlands could pay the taxes needed to run the kingdom.  That the Jews explicitly provided for such a reconciliation perhaps makes them unique, but only in that regard.  All the kingdoms of the age were doing as much because all the kingdoms of the age had recurring cycles of inequitably large income stratification that would need to occasionally be adjusted.  (Would that Barack Obama had enacted an American Jubilee once it became clear in 2009 that a great many Americans had debts they had no hope of paying.  He’d have only damaged the bankers who had caused the mess in the first place.  Instead, the bankers kept their shirts and the plight of the poor grew ever more desperate.)

Mierhoop has written an excellent primer on the history of the Ancient Near East, which, because of cuneiform writing, is the first area for which a history can be written. He ably and artfully explains what we know of the epoch, what we know we don’t know, and the holes in our knowledge about which we can only speculate.  He writes from the perspective of an academic, but never slips into unintelligible-to-the-layman jargon, instead writing clearly and carefully in a readily-accessible manner.  He provides a smorgasbord of facts but not so many to occlude the big-picture view of the birth pangs of civilization in the ancient Near East.  A careful, studious reading of the book is well worth the time and effort.

Advertisements