The Near East: A Cultural History

by Arthur Cotterell, Hurst, £20

Farming. Cities. Writing. Monotheism. What is it about the ancient Near East which gave rise to these fundamental paradigm shifts? That’s one of the questions Arthur Cotterell attempts to answer in this short overview of the region, taking us from the fledgling cities of Sumer in the 4th century BC to the recent paroxysms of the Arab Spring, and beyond.

We begin sometime after the end of the last Ice Age, with the drift towards settled farming in the southern region of what is now Iraq. Farming led to surplus and complexity, centralisation and the nascent city-state. The ruler needed to know how much grain he had in reserve and accounting systems were etched on to clay tablets in cuneiform – a lowly start for an innovation that would eventually engender, among other things, the Bible and Shakespeare.

Cotterell notes that a farming lifestyle made people dependent on processes they couldn’t control, namely the weather, and out of this sprang the first Mesopotamian deities – the storm gods and rain demons who had to be appeased to vouchsafe future crops. As the biblical lands were gradually settled, religion began its transformation from Semitic pantheism to Israelite monotheism.

The author is good on how the successive waves of invaders, from Persians to Greeks to Romans, each stamped their own mark on both the cultural and religious climate of the Near East. We then move swiftly to the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, the Crusades, and the long centuries of Ottoman hegemony. The final chapter takes a brief survey through the post-First World War partitioning, decolonisation and, in an ironic full circle, to ISIS’s destruction of the Sumerian city of Nimrud.

Cotterell can be a little dry and academic, and I would have liked more on why these changes happened there and nowhere else, and why at that particular time. But this is nonetheless a useful book for understanding the birth of monotheism and the context of Christ within the long and turbulent history of the region.

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