The Near East has a longer history than any other part of the globe, for there historical data were first set down in writing more than 4,500 years ago.
For the first 2,000 years of this history, the military and political powerhouse of the Near East was the land that became Iraq.
History begins in Iraq, and it begins with war. The oldest surviving documents that narrate historical events tell of a long-running border dispute between two city-states lying either side of the road that now cuts north from Nasiriyah to Kut. No one needs reminding that war has only recently crossed this road again. Nothing in history leads us to suppose that it will not return.
Marc Van De Mieroop's introduction to the history of ancient Iraq and the Asiatic Near East is suited to first-year undergraduates in ancient history, the archaeology of western Asia and ancient Near Eastern studies generally, and to all others who need an up-to-date summary of what happened before the Greeks. It does not seek to provide a definitive account but wishes to inspire further study. In this it should succeed.
The writing is lucid and the material well organised. A chronological table of key events opens each chapter, and boxes present separate summaries of key topics and primary sources in translation. Well-chosen illustrations complement the text, and a series of maps keeps the reader in touch with the geography. A guide to further reading and an index conclude the book.
This book has three main competitors in English, two of which cover Egypt as well as the Asiatic Near East. Approaches to the writing of history change as the development of the discipline throws up new methodologies.
Additionally, new information arises constantly as scholars slowly process a huge backlog of primary sources. For these reasons William W. Hallo and William Kelly Simpson's Ancient Near East (1971) and Georges Roux's Ancient Iraq (1964) are less useful now, even in revised editions. Amelie Kuhrt's Ancient Near East (1995), however, is as up to date as Van De Mieroop's history, is just as well informed, includes Egypt, but costs much more.
Compared with the newcomer, where references to scholarly literature are few, Kuhrt's denser narrative is harder going. But comprehensive referencing and deeper engagement with the history of controversial issues make her history a serious research tool in a way that Van De Mieroop's is not.
The gulf between the two books shows the different expectations that teachers have of first-year history students in British and American universities. Both will be effective tools in their respective academic homes. My advice to a complete beginner, though, would be to read Van De Mieroop first.
Andrew George is professor of Babylonian, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
A History of the Ancient Near East: c. 3000-323 BC. First Edition
Author - Marc Van De Mieroop
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 313pp
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 631 22552 8