Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East

Review by Diana Bentley

The ancient Near East has not always attracted the popular attention it deserves, especially in comparison with other cultures of the surrounding area, like Greece, Rome, and Egypt. This latest work by Amanda H Podany, Professor Emeritus of History at California State Polytechnic University, should certainly help redress the balance. Adopting a truly innovative approach, Podany has provided us with a wonderfully vivid and compelling account of the region.

An astonishing wealth of tablets and other texts have been uncovered by archaeologists working in the Middle East. Many document mundane administrative matters. Large numbers of others, though, record the ventures of some of the region’s political rulers, as well as the activities of its everyday folk: its scribes and weavers, merchants and farmers, bakers and priests. These Podany uses to great effect. As she reminds us, while much is known about the political world and leadership of some eras, little has been discovered about others. Nonetheless, the life of common people continued and was often documented. The illiterate hired scribes to record transactions and write letters but, in time, more people became literate themselves.

Focusing her narrative on the areas in which cuneiform writing was used, Podany starts in the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk around 3500 BC and progresses to the 4th century BC, taking us into the world of both the leaders and the ordinary people – as she puts it, ‘knocking on doors and settling in for a while with individuals whose lives tell us something about the time in which they lived.’

The life and work of a host of varied characters chart the history of the region: a priest and his daughter from the city of Umma c.2900 BC record a business transaction; a king from Ebla marries and has an elaborate honeymoon; a merchant from Kanesh is experiencing family strife; a young court singer has to move palaces and pines for her nanny; and a high priestess from Harran lives to 102 and records the tumultuous times in which she lives. Formidable rulers like the Babylonian king Hammurabi, famous for his law code, chronicle their own achievements.

It is remarkable to discover how the concerns and ways of life of these people are so familiar to us. What is striking, too, is how enlightened and well-ordered many aspects of their societies were. Women enjoyed notable respect and power. Podany skilfully interweaves the stories together to present a multifaceted history of the region. This widely inclusive strategy truly enriches our knowledge and understanding of a long chapter of human history, bringing it vividly to life.

Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East
Amanda H Podany
Oxford University Press, Hardback, £26.99
ISBN 978-0190059040