From Egypt to Babylon: The International Age 1550-500 BC

By Paul Collins

Rating: 4 stars

This book is nothing if not ambitious. It aims to cover a thousand years of history of the near- and middle-east in a little over 200 pages, while also sprinkling a liberal dose of (quite stunning) pictures of items and exhibits, mostly from the British Museum, from the era.

How well it achieves this lofty aim is a matter for discussion. Covering a century per chapter, the book can only but be very broad brush in its coverage of history, giving a general sweep of which empires were in the ascendency and what their relations were with their neighbours. In this, the maps dispersed around the book are very useful, but could be hard to find when I needed to refer back to them (which was often). Perhaps a separate ‘maps’ section at the start of the book may have helped here.

The book is very much ‘kings and empires’. There is no social or sociological history here. In part that’s inevitable given both the scope of history under discussion, and the time period: recovering much of the social and cultural history of these peoples would be much more difficult than who was king and what he was doing, just because that sort of information is much more likely to have been written down.

The images accompanying the text are lovely, although the items photographed rarely have any relation to the text. It is, however, always astonishing to me just how beautiful some of these objects were and how fine the craftsmanship on them was, for items produced so long ago.

I was trying to think of the best way to describe this book and it occurred to me that it’s best described like an animated map, showing the rise and fall of empires across a millennium. I wondered if such a thing existed, and, of course, the Internet didn’t fail me. The first third or so of this map covers the period of this book (in about 30 seconds!). The map shows the empires, but the book still adds nuance and some depth to the relationships, although it’s easy to get lost in the many kings, countries and city-states that emerge and disappear within a few pages. It’s difficult to remember that a civilisation that only lasted a few pages was probably around for decades (or even longer) of real time.

That’s an inevitable problem, I suppose, with condensing history as much as this book does, but it’s still a great short introduction to the cradle of civilisation and holds up a mirror to the international wrangling that our own civilisation continually goes through.

Book details

ISBN: 9780674030961
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Year of publication: 2008

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