This is a compact and immensely readable book, perfect for undergraduate courses on the ancient Near East. Written with style and accuracy, Van de Mieroop offers readers an excellent entry to the textual records of the ancient Near East and their manifold uses in historical research.
Taking into consideration our changing methodological landscape, the author places Mesopotamian textual data into a new methodological paradigm. By examining and critiquing the methodologies of previous scholarship on the history of Mesopotamia, Van de Mieroop’s survey of the sociology of knowledge perceptively reveals the treatment of Mesopotamia as “other” in ancient Greek and biblical historiography, and its impact on modern scholarship.
The otherness of the East in antiquity, which provided the Greeks with a means of self-identification, became part of the Enlightenment image of the structure of the modern world. It became a crucial part of the intellectual and philosophical traditions in which we still work, paradoxically opposed to the idea that the ancient Near East is part of our Western civilization (p. 166).
While surveying the numerous and varied types of documents available to the historian, from administrative documents, letters, and literary texts to propagandistic royal inscriptions, Van de Mieroop departs from the history of events and moves instead to an exploration of the use of such documents for understanding the political, social, economic, and gender histories of Mesopotamia. Throughout, Van de Mieroop reminds the reader of the challenges and limitations of the textual data, and the methodological excesses of previous historians.
This is not, however, a merely deconstructive work. It suggests new ways in which the textual data from Mesopotamia may be utilized by historians with interesting and significant results. His examination of the role that family ties played in the Old Assyrian merchant colony at Kanesh is a case in point. By studying the correspondence and business records of the merchant Innaya, Van de Mieroop makes interesting observations as to the level of literacy in the family and community, the lack of personal messages or sentiment expressed in business correspondence between family members, and the role of intermarriage among trading families. In so doing, he offers a wholly new set of questions that establish new parameters for critical inquiry.
One of the most valuable aspects of the book is its treatment of Mesopotamian economic history, which Van de Mieroop examines, again, in the larger context of the sociology of knowledge. He explores the primitivism-modernism debate, Marxist interpretations, the work of Max Weber, and more modern approaches, and concludes by offering a case study of agriculture in UR III Lagash. After detailing a few of the economic records of the period, Van de Mieroop demonstrates how, despite their inability to answer some of the more fundamental questions of historical research, they possess a wealth of information that remains unexplored. Indeed, this chapter’s treatment of Mesopotamian economic history is one of the most concise and accessible to date.
Van de Mieroop’s chapter on gender and Mesopotamian history is equally valuable, and surveys the gradual, if not slothful, impact of gender studies in the field. It demonstrates how preconceptions and assumptions about women in classical antiquity and Islam have influenced modern scholarship. He remarks:
It is thus our task to study gender roles in Mesopotamia within its own cultural context, a task that requires the shedding of preconceptions based on the study, or assumptions, made for other societies. This is not easy as the data are fragmentary and need to be made coherent by the scholar (p. 155).
Written with sensitivity and methodological caution, this book is thorough, innovative, and accessible. By providing a wonderful backdrop for the ancient Near Eastern textual data, as well as the data’s potential and limitations, Van de Mieroop has produced a series of new perspectives with which to study Mesopotamian history, and a useful response to the waning presence of Mesopotamian studies in the academy.