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Genesis of the Pharaohs: Dramatic New Discoveries Rewrite the Origins of Ancient Egypt
Genesis of the Pharaohs: Dramatic New Discoveries Rewrite the Origins of Ancient Egypt
by Toby A. H. Wilkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $29.95
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The rock art of Pre-Dynastic Egypt and the implications, November 22, 2005
"Genesis of the Pharaohs" ponders the question of the origin of the direct ancestors of Pre-Dynastic Egypt. Wilkinson attempts to refute theories that these ancestors came from outside the area either forceably or peacefully, and brought their complex culture with them, which formed the basis of the Old Kingdom. Rather, through a comparative analysis of the rock art of the eastern savanna (located between the Nile and the Red Sea) with the art of the Naqada and Pre-Dynastic periods, the author proposes that the ancestors of Ancient Egyptian civilization were locals who lived in and around the eastern savanna.

Wilkinson's enthusiasm for his subject is very apparent, and he creates an enjoyable experience for the most part for readers of this book. However, I thought that the evidence he used to support his story was speculative and subjective, and this is inevitable when Wilkinson's argument is based primarily on art comparison. In certain parts of the book, I felt that the author was taking on the role of a salesman who was trying to sell us his story, and using his personality rather than the evidence to win us over.

At times, I also thought Wilkinson's enthusiasm was excessive to the point that he became too familiar with his subject. For example, in one of the chapters, he concocts a hypothetical story of a boy named Seth who lived in the eastern savanna region during the time that the rock art was created. Wilkinson goes through the trouble of constructing a hypothetical scenario involving the boy's interaction with his parents and his environment, all against the backdrop of the rock art. Apparently, this fictional account was meant to reinforce what Wilkinson thought was the social function of the rock art paintings to these early people. Instead, it left me feeling like I had mistakenly picked up a children's book rather than a book on Pre-Dynastic art.

Nevertheless, the idea that Wilkinson considers is an important one, and most Ancient Egyptophiles as well as students of art history will find this book worthwhile. I just felt that this work could have been much better if it were rewritten in a different tone and more material evidence included.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 28, 2012 3:12 PM PDT

Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition (Cultural Atlas Series)
Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition (Cultural Atlas Series)
by John Baines
Edition: Hardcover
26 used & new from $2.08

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent maps and illustrations, February 22, 2005
As Baines and Malek explained in their introduction, they attempted to make this atlas useful for those readers who might plan to travel to Egypt and visit the ancient sites. The authors made good on this claim by devoting over half of the atlas to a section entitled "A Journey Down the Nile", which provides a survey of ancient sites that are encountered while traveling down the Nile from Elephantine towards the Delta. Archaeological finds are briefly introduced for each location through a combination of discussion, illustrations, and frequent maps. Since this part of the atlas is organized according to geography (south to north along the Nile), sites from different historical periods are inevitably mixed together, which leads to a confusing sequence of, for example, Ptolemaic temples followed by New Kingdom tombs followed by Predynastic graves and so on. While this arrangement might be useful as a travel guide of sorts, armchair travelers (like myself) who expect a continuous development of ideas may be disappointed. Perhaps if the authors had organized their "Journey" chronologically as well as geographically, this atlas would have had more of an impact on its readership, especially when reinforced by the plethora of photos, illustrations, and maps that are present.

Despite this misgiving, I thought that the short articles that constitute the remainder of the atlas were informative and interesting. Topics covered in these articles include Egyptian art, religion, and writing, among others. And of course, numerous photos and diagrams are provided that are a pleasure in and of themselves.

As far as I'm concerned, the major strengths of the "Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt" are the excellent historical maps, the floor diagrams of the major sites, and the visual delight provided by the beautiful photos. Although the geographical framework is a limitation, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and this book will probably be able to satisfy the "Egyptomania" fix of many readers.

The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Phoenix Books)
The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Phoenix Books)
by Samuel Noah Kramer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.94
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132 of 137 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some overlap but still a great book, February 16, 2005
This book was originally written as an addition to Kramer's previous work "History begins at Sumer". Eventually, however, a revised version of "History begins at Sumer" was published and incorporated a lot of material from "The Sumerians". Consequently, readers who have already become acquainted with "History begins at Sumer" may experience a bit of deja vu when reading the present book. For example, the chapters on Sumerian literature, education, and character contain extensive overlap with Kramer's other work. Despite this fact, Kramer's excellent discussion of Sumerian history, society and religion in "The Sumerians" still makes this book well-worth reading. As an added bonus, the appendix contains the Sumerian king list, the Code of Lipit-Ishtar (a forerunner of Hammurabi), and numerous other interesting translations.

I disagree with previous reviewers who claim that Kramer was prejudiced against the Sumerians and considered them to be inferior to their Semitic heirs. Indeed, if anything, I would say that Kramer emphasizes the legacy left by the Sumerians and the mark that they left behind on Semitic culture. The last chapter considers this subject in greater detail and also provides some interesting parallels between Sumerian culture and the Bible. Regardless of the negative criticism, "The Sumerians" is a great introduction to the history and culture of this ancient civilization and is worth checking out.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 19, 2015 5:11 PM PDT

Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization
Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization
by A. Leo Oppenheim
Edition: Paperback
Price: $29.99
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A paradigm shift for Assyriology?, January 21, 2005
"Ancient Mesopotamia" struck me as being a wake-up call to Assyriologists to get their act together regarding the study of Mesopotamia. In his preface and introduction, Oppenheim bewails the Western bias of Assyriology and its imminent fossilization if things didn't change. It seemed to me that the crux of Oppenheim's argument was that the field's emphasis on the humanities put undue focus on the surviving literary texts, which as he pointed out, make up only a tiny fraction of the cuneiform tablets that the ancients deemed worthy of collecting in their libraries. As a result, in our attempts to understand Mesopotamian culture, too much importance may have been placed on texts that were not even part of the "mainstream of tradition". Even if we ignore this difficulty, Oppenheim argued that using literary techniques to study these texts ignores the possibility that the tablets had an altogether different meaning for the ancient Mesopotamians than just "great literature".

Rather, Oppenheim suggested that Assyriologists should decipher tablets that would shed light on various cultural aspects such as the economy, trade, technology, and medicine. Doing this would lead to a more accurate impression of Mesopotamia in a way that the ancients themselves may have seen it. And this would also avoid the danger of Assyriology becoming a self-justifying field with only limited relevance to its namesake culture.

Although my review has focused on the author's views of his own field, most of the book itself deals with a broad survey of the culture and history of the Semitic-speaking peoples of Mesopotamia. After giving us his ideas at the beginning of the book on what the paradigm of Assyriology should be, Oppenheim proceeded to do a remarkable job of putting these ideas into practice in the rest of the book. Limited use is made of direct quotations from texts, since as the author put it, "Translated texts tend to speak more of the translator than their original message". Additionally, some of the author's thoughts on the Mesopotamians are different from others in the field. For example, in describing the Code of Hammurabi and other publicly displayed law codes, Oppenheim speculated that they were meant to serve as the king's acknowledgement of social injustice and his vision of how things should be. In other words, the law codes were meant to be statements of the king, not necessarily a collection of laws to be enforced.

I felt that "Ancient Mesopotamia" provides an excellent narrative of the history, culture, and religion of this civilization, and would be well-regarded by those who have an interest in this time and place. I am not an Assyriologist and I have only limited knowledge of the impact that Oppenheim may have had on the field, but I would also suggest that this book does a good job of marking the evolutionary development of Assyriology as it occurred up to the 1960's.

Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia
Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia
by Jean Bottéro
Edition: Paperback
Price: $27.00
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining and insightful book for the general reader, November 19, 2004
"Everyday Life in Ancient Messopotamia" offers an interesting option to the general reader who is interested in Ancient Mesopotamia but is put off by most of the dry and academic texts that are currently available on this topic. As Bottero stated in his foreword, he wanted the reader to become acquainted with the Mesopotamian culture through vivid impressions, much as a tourist would gain when visiting a foreign country for the first time. All exaggerations aside, Bottero really manages to do a very good job of igniting the reader's interest in this part of the ancient world.

Although I felt that the chapters on food and wine were a bit overextended, the rest of the book provides a solid and entertaining discussion of Mesopotamia. The chapters dealing with women in Mesopotamian society were quite interesting, where Bottero suggests that women may have had more leverage power in dealing with men than would be suggested by the textual evidence. Additionally, Georges Roux's discussion of the origins of the Semiramis legend are equally appealing. One of the things that impressed me about this book was the ability of the various contributors to throw a new light on old ideas, thus allowing the reader to gain new insights. For example, one theory that made me think was Bottero's idea that the use of writing to communicate decrees made by the king may have prepared the Mesopotamians to accept the possibility that the gods might issue their decrees through the movements of the celestial bodies. And just as there were experts to read the texts, there originated the need to obtain experts in astrology who could interpret the heavenly bodies. I do not know if this is a widely supported idea in the Assyriological community, but nevertheless, the ability of the various contributors to communicate to the general reader is a definite strong point of this book.

I highly recommend this book as a good starting point to Mesopotamia, since it will leave the reader (like myself) wanting to learn more.

Codes of Hammurabi and Moses
Codes of Hammurabi and Moses
by W. W. Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.95
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, October 24, 2004
A number of Mesopotamian achievements that form the basis of Western civilization include writing, astronomy, literature, and agriculture. Another innovation that needs to be included in this list is the creation of law codes. The Code of Hammurabi is certainly not the oldest law code to have been written, but it is the most complete to have been found. As such, this has allowed us to fully explore the influence that this document and others like it had on the development of the Torah.

In this book that was originally published in 1905, W.W. Davies attempts to defend the possibility that a law code as "perfect" as the Law of Moses could have been written as early as the second millenium B.C. by providing another lawcode that was just as developed and sophisticated, but written even earlier in the third millenium B.C. Note that it is now generally agreed that Hammurabi's Code was written in the early part of the second millenium B.C. In any event, Davies defends his claim in this book by looking for parallels between the law codes of Hammurabi and Moses.

The translation presented in this book is based on the stele preserved in the Louvre in Paris. The code consists of 282 laws, 34 of which (Nos. 66-99) have been lost. Although this translation was made before 1905, it is my understanding that the lost laws remain undiscovered up to today. Therefore, in terms of structural integrity, the translation presented here should still be accurate.

I got the impression that Hammurabi's code was similar to a "frequently encountered disputes" list, which local judges could refer to in order to adjudicate common cases. Therefore, Hammurabi's code is not meant to provide a verdict on every possible dispute under the sun (that would be futile), but to provide a standard procedure for common cases.

By reading the law code of Hammurabi, it's possible to gain a flavor of some of the contemporary problems faced by the Babylonians in the early second millenium B.C. A lot of the laws deal with contract disputes, property disputes, the rights of women, and guidelines for professional practice. After reviewing the type of problems that the Babylonians had to face, it really becomes apparent that the Mesopotamian civilization achieved a level of sophistication that was absolutely unrivalled in their day.

From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia
From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia
by Benjamin R. Foster
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.95
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive collection of Mesopotamian literature, October 15, 2004
Benjamin Foster's book contains many original compositions from the major literary genres of Sumero-Akkadian culture: myths, king epics, omen literature, prayers, lamentations, love lyrics, wisdom literature, magic spells, and even humor. Indeed, although the Epic of Gilgamesh is noticeably absent, "From Distant Days" is one of the most comprehensive Mesopotamian anthologies available for the general reader.

Foster's introduction lays down the organization of the book and describes many of the structural markers used in Sumero-Akkadian literature. Each presented composition is also accompanied by an appropriate description that gives context for the modern reader. The translations in this book are very readable, with lacunae and omissions clearly marked. Also, the translations are current as of 1995, and include versions that are considerably more complete in some cases than ones available in other widely available anthologies.

My favorite parts of the book focused on the wisdom literature and lamentations, since the subject matter dealt primarily with human feelings and experiences, rather than monotonous praise of the gods. I was amazed at how the feelings expressed in these 3000-4000 year old compositions still managed to strike a chord of resonance with me. One also cannot help but notice the many parallels that exist between the Bible and the older literary corpus of Mesopotamia.

For the reader who is looking for a good anthology of Mesopotamian literature, I would readily recommend "From Distant Days". Furthermore, I believe this book along with two others would form an authoritative collection of Sumero-Akkadian original compositions translated into English. The two other books are "The Epic of Gilgamesh" by Andrew George (ISBN 0140449191) and "The Harps that Once..." by Thorkild Jacobsen (ISBN 0300072783).
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 4, 2013 4:41 PM PST

Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford World's Classics)
Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford World's Classics)
by Stephanie Dalley
Edition: Paperback
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121 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction, but not the most recent translation, October 4, 2004
Dalley presents many of the major myths of the Mesopotamian culture including "The Epic of Creation", "Atrahasis" (The Flood Myth), and "The Epic of Gilgamesh". Additionally, short essays are provided for most of the translations that help the modern reader to understand the stories. I thought Dalley's introduction did a good job of discussing structural markers and literary devices used in Mesopotamian poetry.

Since this book was published in 1990, more recent translations have become available. For example, Benjamin Foster's "From Distant Days" was published in 1995 and provides more complete translations of many of the same myths presented in Dalley. For example, the "Etana" myth in Foster includes a major portion of Tablet IV, which is completely missing in Dalley. Andrew George's "The Epic of Gilgamesh", which was published in 2003, contains a more complete translation of this story, along with Old Babylonian and Sumerian predecessors.

Despite these translation issues, general readers who want to sample a bit of Mesopotamian literature will most likely be pleased with Dalley's book. Dalley's translations are very accessible, despite the numerous gaps and ommissions present in the texts. For the person who wants a more complete anthology of Mesopotamian literature, I would recommend Foster's book, since he presents other types of literary genre, such as king legends, prayers, and love charms, in addition to more current translations of the major myths.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 28, 2011 6:30 PM PDT

The Harps that Once...: Sumerian Poetry in Translation
The Harps that Once...: Sumerian Poetry in Translation
by Thorkild Jacobsen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $28.44
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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive collection of Sumerian literature, September 28, 2004
As the oldest body of literature in the world, Sumerian poetry represents man's first adaptation of writing to express ideas and beliefs far more complex than the "highly structured" applications such as accounting for which writing was originally invented. Many people believe that the ideas and mythological figures present in Sumerian poetry are echoed in the later traditions of Ancient Greece, Ancient Israel, and even Christianity. Clearly then, any person interested in the history of Western literature would be doing themselves a great disservice by ignoring their Sumerian origins.

The book is divided into eight parts: (1) Dumuzi Texts, (2) Royal Lovesongs, (3) Hymns to Gods, (4) Myths, (5) Epics, (6) Admonitory History, (7) Hymns to Temples, and (8) Laments for Temples. Thorkild Jacobsen describes most of the Sumerian literary corpus as being works of praise, such as to a god, a king, or a dead relative. Instead of describing human feelings or ambitions, most of these works serve a ceremonial purpose or are explanations for why the world is the way it is. As a result, many of the poems in this book can be difficult to connect with, since they are taken out of context. Although written down on clay tablets, Jacobsen and others have suggested that Sumerian literature was meant to be narrated orally. As such, an element that is missing from our modern translation is the narrator's embellishment of the story through improvisation, voice intonation, and body language/facial expression.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to get a glimpse into the mindset of the ancient Mesopotamians by reading their literature. The ancient Mesopotamians considered themeselves to have been created by the gods for the express purpose of serving them hand and foot. Apart from this, they had no reason to be. I felt that much of the poetry found in Jacobsen's book represented the Sumerians' desire to maintain the status quo through praise of the gods, currying their favor, and begging for mercy.

"The Harps That Once..." is a fine anthology of Sumerian literature and I would heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in sampling the literature of ancient Mesopotamia. I would also recommend "The Epic of Gilgamesh" translated by Andrew George (2003) (ISBN 0140449191) since it contains five of the Sumerian Gilgamesh stories, which complement nicely the collection represented in Jacobsen's book.

History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History
History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History
by Samuel N. Kramer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.70
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 39 examples of our Sumerian legacy, September 15, 2004
This book is a collection of essays written by Samuel Noah Kramer regarding various cultural "firsts" in Western history as discovered on Sumerian cuneiform tablets. Kramer's experience and prolific career as a Sumerologist lend credence to the observations and interpretations that he puts forth here. Essay topics range from anecdotal illustrations of the first recorded lullaby and the first written description of an aquarium to more profound subjects such as the first cosmology and the first heroic age.

I particularly enjoyed Kramer's comparative discussion of the three "Heroic Age" cultures (Greek, Indian, Germanic) and the suggestions that this raises regarding the origin of the first Heroic Age in Sumer. Also interesting are his interpretations of literary imagery in Sumerian poetry, as well as his treatment of the extensive parallels that exist between the Sumerian literary tradition and the Bible.

All in all, "History Begins at Sumer" provides a well-rounded perspective of Sumerian spirituality and culture. However, since this book is really a collection of independent, stand-alone essays, the reader may find it difficult at times to extract a unified impression of what the author was trying to express.

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