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  • From Egypt to Babylon: The International Age, 1550–500 BC
  • Seth Richardson
From Egypt to Babylon: The International Age, 1550 –500 BC. By Paul Collins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. 208 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

From Egypt to Babylon is a brisk and dependable account of Near Eastern political history in the millennium between the fall of Babylon in 1595 b.c. and the rise of Darius around 520 b.c. The book [End Page 315] can be recommended for its geographic and temporal breadth, clear exposition, clean narrative style, handsome appearance, and (not to be sneezed at in this day and age) its price, which at around us$35 for a hardcover book can only be described as generous. It is hard to think of a recent book of similar scope, purpose, and reliability, and the reader will be rewarded for the modest investment. Since there is currently quite a bit of jockeying between publishing houses to corner the market on textbooks covering this patch of history,1 the decision to sidestep the competition by crafting a trade book for the popular history market niche is a clever one.

Of course, a book covering a millennium's worth of political history from five or six major culture areas in only 204 pages is bound to leave a few things out. That for all its simultaneous detailing and breadth Collins's book cannot go toe-to-toe with recent textbooks (it cannot be recommended for this purpose) is also partly a matter of framing, since it only begins with the Late Bronze Age. Leaving that comparison aside, then, and not belaboring a book of this kind with an overly specialist review, I will try to make some comments helpful to the intended audiences: scholars working in allied disciplines, and the trade readership opening their first book on the ancient Near East. On points below where I express concerns, I do so primarily to guide readers to the kinds of questions that scholars might ask in followup, not to detract or distract from the work's essential clarity and reliability.

From Egypt to Babylon is built on three different themes, which it plays by turns and never really attempts to resolve. For the most part, the book ably documents the major well-known narratives of domestic state affairs and international conflict as a fairly straightforward political-military history. The countertheme rising to meet it is an archaeological one about long-distance trade. The author regularly returns to the topic of high-end commerce to leaven the narratives of turnstile dynasties and seemingly ceaseless hostilities, holding up against them the image of an enduring and immutable common-cultural interest in gleaming, exotic luxury goods. Still, a reader curious to know about the interchange of styles, materials, and products among the wider populations of ancient peoples, about the depth and extent of a cosmopolitan mentalité, will find fewer facts herein. [End Page 316]

The third and most dissonant theme is the art historical or museological one. The decision to illustrate the book—lavishly, seductively—with images of "highlights" objects from the British Museum regrettably results in page after page of gorgeous photographs of some of antiquity's most celebrated objets—which sometimes have nothing to do with any of the accompanying text. The impression is every so often created that the objects were meant to illustrate some other book or catalogue. Even where the images bear some potential relationship to the text, they are almost randomly distributed. Knossos tablets appear on p. 54, for instance, though they are only mentioned in one sentence on p. 37. A Babylonian cosmological "map" and a Phoenician silver bowl from a Cypriot tomb illustrate pp. 166–167, amidst a dense discussion of Sennacherib's campaigns against Elam. A near-obligatory picture of a tablet of the Gilgamesh epic from Ashurbanipal's library is found on p. 176 (not indexed), while the index reveals a single mention of the tale on p. 56—and the library itself is not discussed.

In terms of its major theme, the book is generally precise with names, dates, and places, the odd "Ritti-Marduk" (for the admittedly awkward "Shitti...


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pp. 315-320
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