The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction. By Amanda H. Podany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xix + 148. $11.95 (paper).
The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford is intended "for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject," and in this Amanda Podany succeeds admirably. In ten chapters, each around twelve pages in length, she covers three thousand years of history (ca. 3600-539 B.C.E.) in a light and engaging manner. The first chapter, "Archaeology and Environment," addresses the geography, climate, and preservation of the Bronze and early Iron Age Near East. The subsequent nine chapters progress chronologically, structured according to changes in the dominant political power, from "The Beginning of Cities" (chapter 2) to "The Neo-Babylonian Empire" (chapter 10). "The Old Assyrian Colonies" (chapter 6) is a particular highlight, bringing to life the travails of merchants living and trading between Kanesh (modern Kultepe, Turkey) and Assur (in present-day Iraq) in the early second millennium B.C.E. Aside from this section and that on "The Late Bronze Age" (chapter 8), the chapter titles reflect the Mesopotamian focus of the text. About a page of the final chapter is dedicated to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, a kind of epilogue to the end of "the era of Mesopotamian independence" (p. 123).
Podany utilizes two maps, one drawing, and eight black-and-white photographs to illustrate the text. A timeline is appended ("Chronology," pp. 125-26), but includes only the major period names alongside regnal dates of selected kings mentioned in the text. The precision with which she approaches the primary sources is evident in her "Note on Translations" (p. xvii), which offers straightforward guidelines for her simplified transliteration and translation systems. Although no footnotes are used in the body of the text, a "References" section is appended, offering full citations of primary sources excerpted in each chapter. A useful "Further Reading" section and an index complete the volume.
Podany defines the ancient Near East as those regions where the cuneiform script was the most common writing technology: Mesopotamia, Syria, Elam, and Anatolia (p. 7). These are reasonable limits given the brevity of the volume, but exceptions must inevitably be made, and in these places the lay reader may feel left behind. For example, Egypt is helpfully included in the discussions of script development (pp. 7-8) and...