The Legacy of Mesopotamia
The Legacy of Mesopotamia

The Legacy of Mesopotamia


The Legacy of Mesopotamia
&ephanie Dalley, ed.
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Ancient Mesopotamia
1999) 259 PP., HARDBACK$49.95, PAPERBACK

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia
Karen Rhea Nemet-Neja.t
Americans are in love with the past. A visit to your local bookstore will reveal how vast the history section has become, and the number of television channels devoted to history keeps multiplying. As a profes­ sional historian, I am not complaining.
There has been a recent proliferation of books on the ancient world directed to the general public, and this trend has also spread to Mesopotamia. The three books reviewed here are aimed at such an audience, yet their execution and suc­ cess vary enormously.
The sheer price ($105!) of Stephanie Dalley’s The Legacy of Mesopotamia will keep it from the general public. Too bad, since the book is useful in pointing out the great reach of Mesopotamian culture. Dalley and her colleagues argue that Mesopotamian culture, which was pre­ dominant in the Near East when cuneiform writing was in use, could not simply have disappeared when that writ­ ing system died out. Mesopotamian influ­ ences on later European and Near Eastern traditions have been regularly ignored because disciplinary boundaries inhibit many scholars from taking a more catholic view. Interpreters of Hellenistic philosophy, for instance, do not know much of Mesopotamian culture and are unable to discern Mesopotamian influ­ ences on Greek thought.
The book presents an enormous wealth of data from literature art reli­ gion and science. It also exa:run the various cultures-Judeo-Christian Greek, Roman, arthian, Sassanian, earl; Islamic and Indian-that were inheritors of_ the iYJesopotamian legacy. I sympa­ thize with the authors’ concerns; much

of the blame for our und restimating Mesopotamian influence on world cul­ ture results from two misconceived ide­ ological notions: that a “Greek miracle” fertilized the roots of European civiliza­ tion, and that a fundamental break in Near Eastern history occurred with the coming of Islam.
The authors raise some provocative questions. Anthropologists often debate whether certain similar cultural elements origin_ated in one place and then spread by diffus10n, or whether they were independ­ ently created in different places. Dalley and
company clearly side with the diffusionists, yet some of the examples used to illustrate that point seem farfetched. For instance, they suggest that the Mesopotamian con­ cept of a Tablet of Destinies (a divine text in which the destiny of mankind is recorded) lingered on in European literary traditions, where it emerged as the “Book of Fate” (a book recording human fate) referred to in Shakespeare’sHeruyIV. This leap of faith stretches credulity. Despite the abundance of data presented, no clear analysis is given of what the major chan­ nels of transmission could have been or how particular cultural forms and customs were selected and modified.
Susan Pollock’s Ancient Mesopotamia traces early cultw-al developments in Mesopotamia (c. 5000-2100 B.C.). Largely focusing on prehistoric archaeo­ logical data, Pollack explores such ele­ ments as physical surroundings, settlement patterns and burial practices. The chapters are organized topically rather than chronologically. For instance, burial customs taking place in the fifth millennium are compared to those of the fourth and third millennia. Of the three books reviewed here, it the most suc­ cessful, combining a great deal of anthro­ pological research in a clearly focused whole.Well written and organized,Ancient Mesopotamia deals with important ques­ tions about the emergence of the earliest documented human civilization.
Another virtue of Pollack’s book is
the author’s refusal to view history through rose-colored glasses. She points out that the great monuments we admire today were built with the back­ breaking labor of the poor and sub­ jected. Unfortunately, her editors vetoed the more telling, original title of the book, “Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was.”
. Kar n Rhea Nemet-Nejat’sDai(y Life
tn Anc1ent Mesopotamia proceeds from a



geographical and historical survey of Mesopotamia to a selection of topics concern­ ing daily life: writing, science, private and pub­ lic activities, recreation, and so on. These are the usual subjects of popular reference books; in fact, the author passes on information gleaned from a number of earlier books, often themselves works of synthesis. The writing is unencumbered by jargon, yet oddly school­ marmish, with one declarative sentence doggedly following another.
This book has the potential for a wide read­ ership. It is likely to find its way into school
and public libraries, considering its broader focus and the publisher’s familiarity with the popular market (of the three books under review here, only Daily Life in Mesopotamia is not published by a university press). So it
is all the more troubling that the book is marred by numerous factual errors. Since it may introduce many readers to Mesopotamia by misinforming them, its mistakes are not only unfortunate but dangerous.
Authors of popular books on ancient Mesopotamia have a problem: The general reading public lacks the most basic familiar­ ity with the sweep of Mesopotamian civiliza- tion. The burden of providing background information can be crushing. It also has the tendency to crowd out lively historical and cultural debates and to reduce the amount of controversial or innovative material. At worst, the result is tedium-a possibility that scares publishing houses and scholars away.
This wasn’t always so. Before World War
II, archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia were often spectacular events. Men like Leonard Woolley (renowned for his discover­ ies at Ur in the 1920s) could simultaneously present their finds to the scholarly world and the wider public. The challenge to authors and publishers today is to present the rich and exciting civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia in an accessible, yet intelligent, way. This means that scholars should take the work of synthesis more seriously, while realizing how important it is to raise interest in the field. It also means that publishers should be more confident about their readers’ intelligence and less timid about the publication of books that challenge the mind.
If material is lively and interesting, and if it is presented attractively, people will read it. In 1956, Samuel Noah Kramer published From the Tahlets of Sumer. Twenty-five ”Firsts” in Man’s Recorded H tory, a translation of 25 pieces of Sumerian literature familiar only to a few specialists. The book was not a com- mercial success; only 3,000 copies were sold. But then the French scholar Jean Bottero inter­ vened. He translated the work into French, pepped up its title, H tory Begins at Sumer,

and gave it to a famous French publisher, Arthaud. The book sold 50,000 copies in one year, and the rights·to the book were bought by 15 countries. Kramer became the voice of the Sumerians, and his colleagues never thought the less of him.
Marc Van De Mieroop, author of Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (Routledge, 1999), is professor of ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University.


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