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Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East

Louis L. Orlin

Publication Year: 2007

Intended for readers seeking insight into the day-to-day life of some of the world's most ancient peoples, Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East presents brief, fascinating explorations of key aspects of the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Asia Minor, and Iran. With vignettes on agriculture, architecture, crafts and industries, literature, religion, topography, and history, Orlin has created something refreshingly unique: a modern guidebook to an ancient world. The book also reaches out to students of the Ancient Near Eastern World with essays on decipherments, comparative cultural developments between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and language and literature. In addition to general readers, the book will be useful in the classroom as a text supplementing a more conventional introduction to Near Eastern Studies. "Well-written and accessible, Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East deftly connects the past with present experience by drawing out the differences between, for instance, modern churches and ancient temples, and frequently employing biblical references. This simplicity together with connecting contemporary to ancient experience makes the text ideal for freshmen and general readers." ---Marc Cooper, Professor of History, Missouri State University Now Professor Emeritus, Louis L. Orlin taught in the department of Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Michigan for more than thirty years. He is the author and editor of several books, including Assyrian Colonies in Cappadocia and Ancient Near Eastern Literature: A Bibliography of One Thousand Items on the Cuneiform Literatures of the Ancient World.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii

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pp. xv-xvi

It does not concentrate on a single culture and does not limit its chronological scope. Instead it uses sources from the archives of most of the peoples who inhabited the area for millennia before the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century. It aims to offer an anthology of human activities, concerns, and thoughts as reflected both in official political and religious documents and in the ...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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A Yardstick of Time

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pp. xix

All those languages to learn, all those dates and funny names to remember. And it’s so old! Yet, in fact, the civilizations of the ancient world are close contemporaries of ours if you look at them from the standpoint of the age of the earth itself. Scientific research concludes that the earth formed about four billion ...

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pp. 1-4

The subject matter was selected from ancient Near Eastern and classical history and literature, and the interest my students showed in these materials stimulated me to suggest a possible book to the University of Michigan Press. It was not to be the ordinary type of academic book—a straight history, the proposal or defense of a specific theme, or yet the introduction of new information. Rather, it would be ...


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In the Tablet Houses of Mesopotamia

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pp. 7-11

The title of this vignette will doubtless suggest to readers an archaeological tour through abandoned buildings complete with elaborate columns, porticos, plazas, and terraced gardens, the sort of tour one imagines taking place in the cool of the evening in a pleasant classical setting. Unfortunately, we shall not be dealing with freestanding buildings ...

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New Year’s Day in Babylon

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pp. 12-17

In the Babylonian New Year’s Festival, a twelve-day event that took place at the spring equinox (March–April of our calendar), we recognize two major themes of Mesopotamian religious and political life, which have been artfully blended together: from earliest times, on the one hand, the theme of renewal of life, the onset, once again, of ...

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Decoding the Hammurabi Law Code

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pp. 18-23

One of the most famous names in Near Eastern antiquity is that of Hammurabi, sixth king of the Old Babylonian Dynasty, who ruled Mesopotamia between 1792 and 1750. Although Hammurabi is well known by historians for his military and administrative skills, his reputation is highlighted by his issuance of a long series of legal ...

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On the Lighter Side of Mesopotamia: A Glimpse into Sumerian Palace and Temple Household Life

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pp. 24-26

One could easily infer, from the hundreds of thousands of religious, economic, jurisprudential, and other materials having to do with life in ancient Mesopotamia, that all was serious and focused on affairs of the “Great Institutions” like palaces and temples. For the most part the records we have cast a no-nonsense veil over the ...

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Wild Animals and Game Parks

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pp. 27-32

Men and animals have commingled since the beginning of time, mostly to man’s advantage as hunter. But at the same time that he killed for food, the hunter could not fail to be impressed by the beauty and grace of his prey, the power and the apparent magic inherent in their forms and movements. The superbly drawn animals on ...

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Archaeology: The “Cold Case File” of the Historian

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pp. 33-38

Here is the “corpse” in front of us. Investigation confirms that it once was a human habitation. This is known because evidence of pottery fragments is convincing. Where do these fragments come from? We must appreciate that the earth is alive, moving, always shifting, however slightly; it brings stones and boulders into a farmer’s ...

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Theme and Variations on Herodotus’s Statement That “Egypt Is the Gift of the Nile”

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pp. 39-45

No more accurate statement has ever been made in describing any country than the description of Egypt by the “Father of History” dating from the fifth century. The Nile is enclosed by rocky cliffs backed by deserts on the east and west. It flows through a kind of geological slot that is sometimes straight, sometimes curved. The ...

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On the Essential Cosmic Rhythms of Ancient Egyptian Life

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pp. 46-49

This short vignette seeks to reflect on the core of the ancient Egyptian’s “cosmic” existence, where the artistic and the poetic merged with the pragmatic to celebrate a fusion between the Nile dweller’s earthly existence and his cosmic environment. Many observers, in my view, have failed to appreciate that the land of Egypt ...

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The Seagoing Phoenicians

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pp. 50-54

The territory of Phoenicia, both because of the physical topography and for the fact that it alone had good coastal ports, was the only region in Palestine that could develop significant sea trade. Subsistence agriculture for the Phoenicians was impossible. Commercial life in Phoenicia depended on the sea, since its territory, small in size and bordered ...

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From Tribal Coalition to Statehood in Ancient Israel

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pp. 55-62

Unless you are a classics scholar with a serious interest in political theory, you will never have heard of the ancient Greek term amphictyony, whose translation is “those living around” or “near neighbors.” This word is the key to understanding the genesis of religious leagues, states, and imperial formations of the ancient Near East. ...

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Ancient Persia and a Tale of Two Cities: Athens and Jerusalem in the Fifth Century

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pp. 63-68

The twin springs of Western civilization ›ow from Greece and Palestine. The former gave birth to our dominant philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic views of life; the latter to our religious traditions derived from Hebrew and Christian teachings. Two cities— Athens and Jerusalem—can be thought of as originating or enhancing ...

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On Nomads and Nomadism

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pp. 69-71

My reader most likely resides in a settled community of some sort—a village, town, or city—and views the ancient Near Eastern world primarily as a world of societies rooted in fixed territories, where the means of survival, such as available water, cultivable land, and favorable climate, allow permanent settlement. Forgotten ...

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An Old Assyrian Trading Enterprise in Asia Minor

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pp. 72-79

The image of early commerce in antiquity that modern readers hold is often of single, sometimes chance, encounters between isolated peoples, whose ventures are simple exchanges of small stocks of merchandise and whose capital resources are relatively insignificant. Certainly no lending facilities, no credit arrangements, no companies of ...

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On Chariot Warfare

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pp. 80-88

From the earliest indications of settled life in the Near East, we have routinely encountered evidence of military preparedness and activity. Many prehistoric settlements were enclosed by walls; by the end of the early Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, the site of Jericho in Palestine at about 9000, for example, already possessed substantial ...

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Some Observations on Ancient Near Eastern Treaties

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pp. 89-95

Treaty making has a long antiquity in the ancient Near East, but this vignette is not the place to offer a comprehensive survey. Instead, I would like to note four examples of unusual variety and interest: the trading treaty of Old Assyrian times (nineteenth and eighteenth centuries); the Hittite system (1550–1200); the Old Persian (sixth century to ...

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When Princes Squabble: A Royal Dispute in Central Anatolia

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pp. 96-99

This vignette consists of a single letter written by the ruler of a city-state called Mama, located in a south central region of Anatolia, to the ruler of Kanesh, a powerful city-state some two hundred kilometers to the north. During the period of Old Assyrian trader residence in Anatolia (ca. 1900–1750), Kanish had been the center of trader operations ...

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On the Greatness of Gilgamesh as an Ancient Near Eastern Epic

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pp. 100-111

A few might include the Old Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic but might suggest that Gilgamesh is primitive by comparison with Homer or Virgil, although it contains material of epic compositional worth. My purpose in this vignette is to celebrate the Gilgamesh Epic as a composition whose plot, structure, characterization, and literary devices merit a judgment ...

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Reflections on Ancient Near Eastern Myth

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pp. 112-118

The dividing line between ancient and modern modes of thinking began to be drawn in the sixth century with the speculations of the Greek philosopher Thales. He sought to discover the simple substance that underlay the structure and functions of the universe. It does not matter that later Greek thinkers rejected his choice of water as ...

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Wisdom Literature

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pp. 119-123

Whether in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, or within the Hebraic biblical tradition, there existed a remarkable similarity of experience and outlook that can be observed. A special case, to be discussed subsequently, is biblical wisdom, where information for our theme is more fully available. In its broad outlines, wisdom literature is characterized by advice to ...

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Translating an Old Babylonian Poem: “Prayer to the Gods of Night”

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pp. 124-134

The short answer notes a three-stage process. First, the text must be meticulously copied so as to duplicate not only the signs but every other feature that is visible on the surface, or surfaces, of the tablet, such as linear divisions, unexpected spacings, ways in which the ancient scribe divided his writing surface, and the style of “handwriting” that is evident. The document ...


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Physical Background: Landforms, Climate, and Hydrology of the Near East

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pp. 137-148

Think of the Near East as a single piece in the gigantic jigsaw puzzle of the earth’s surface, the piece that joins the immense region of western Asia to the edges of Europe and northeastern Africa, respectively. These edges do not connect to Europe or to Africa in a ‹rm or continuous way. The land mass at the European edge is interrupted by ...

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Historical Background: The Setting of Prehistoric Cultural Development in Mesopotamia and Egypt

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pp. 149-158

The prehistory of the ancient Near East is highlighted by two great transformations in human behavior. The first is the emergence of people from life within caves, or at the lips of caves, to new settlements in permanently open sites. The second is the knowledge gained by early men and women of how to grow the grains, vegetables, and fruits ...

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Civic Background: Cities and Gods in the Ancient Near East—Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel

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pp. 159-180

The ancient mounds that dot the surface of the Near East conceal inhabitation layers testifying to several thousand years of occupation at the most outstanding sites to perhaps only several hundred to a thousand at others. Their locations were not arbitrarily chosen. The availability of water was the paramount consideration, as was, in the earliest ...

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A Brief Note on Languages

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pp. 183-188

The ancient Near East was never uni‹ed under a single political rule until the conquest of Alexander the Great (late fourth century) and subsequently the Romans. It existed as territorial blocks, each dominated by peoples of different origins, traditions, and modes of life. Quite apart from the geographical unity of the entire area, its inhabitants ...

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The Decipherment of Cuneiform Writing

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pp. 189-196

Not all voyages of discovery lead to lost civilizations, hidden continents, or material treasure. Some of the most exciting have been intellectual adventures. A classic example of the latter is the nineteenth-century decipherment of cuneiform (wedge- or nail-shaped) writing, which was used to express at least eight different languages ...

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The Discovery of Hittite Civilization and the Decipherment of Hittite

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pp. 197-200

Long before the modern discovery and the correct identification of the Hittite civilization, a people known as the Hittim in the Old Testament and as the Hetheen in the Greek translation of the Bible came to the attention of historians. These people appeared to belong to the roster of ancient Near Eastern peoples. They appeared in Assyrian ...

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Conclusion: Who Will Know about Us When We’re Gone?

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pp. 201-204

While the heads of the most powerful nations in the world regularly met to discuss how to keep civilization from destroying itself with nuclear weapons, this writer, as a historian, often engaged his university classes in ancient Near Eastern history with summit conferences of his own. A favorite subject: barring an overwhelming ...

A Summary of Culture Growth in Mesopotamia and Egypt

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pp. 205-208

Methodological Fallacies in the Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion

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pp. 209-210


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pp. 211-212


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pp. 213-216


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pp. 217-222


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pp. 223-228


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pp. 229-239

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780472025893
E-ISBN-10: 0472025899
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472069927
Print-ISBN-10: 0472069926

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 24 page insert - 7 maps, 33 B&W photo
Publication Year: 2007