Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Near East

The Near East: 10,000 Years of History
© 1968 Isaac Asimov
277 pages

Come, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. ("Richard II", William Shakespeare)

Civilization first began in the 'land between the rivers', Mesopotamia, and as this epic history of the area proves, the near east has been the cradle of many of humanity's ideas throughout the centuries. Asimov's history begins at the birth of agriculture, and so as the story unfolds we witness not only the birth of various political entities, but of civilization proper itself -- the first cities develop, men begin to make tools and weapons of bronze and iron; horses grow into impressive creatures capable of carrying armored men to war, and the first histories and records are read. Religions and philosophies flower in these highlands and deserts that survive today -- either by themselves, or through altered forms. No era  in human history has seen a lull in the action in this land, and The Near East is accordingly an exiting and fascinating read.

Asimov surprised me by committing to such a vast expanse of time: that "ten thousand years of history" starts with agriculture and ends shortly before the Israeli-Arabic wars,  with Asimov penning hopes for peace that seem sad, so many decades into the future with permanent concordance seemingly impossible. The meat of the book is ancient history, though the rise of the Arabs and Turks is given plenty of consideration and I learned far more about the period's fate in the early 20th century that I anticipated. I had no idea that Britain and Russia both invaded the area just to ensure stable communications  The book's emphasis is not misplaced, for the stories of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria, and others deserve to be told. Egypt is only mentioned tangentially, which seems curious, but is understandable given that Asimov covered the land of the Nile in another book. Egypt's political influence on the affairs of other Near Eastern countries is addressed properly, though.  The book's scope allows one chapter's heroes to be another chapter's mythic legends, and Asimov's narrative shows how kings were constantly trying to co-opt the legacies of prior rulers. I had no idea that the most famous Nebuchadrezzer  lived in entirely different era than his namesake - the original Nebby, who lived not too long after Hammurabi.  That Asimov draws from the Sumerian king lists and 'official histories' is obvious at the start of the book, which emphasizes history as driven by the wills and capabilities of great men.  

Asimov enjoys a reputation as 'professional explainer',  one established by his use of simple, clear language and  general command of many varied subjects. His prowess as a generalist is an enduring inspiration to me, for he wrote books on science, history, poetry, literature, and others with equal ease: that showed here, as he draws facts and conclusions from literary sources like the Jewish bible and Persian epic poetry. I found the book tremendously helpful in understanding the Hellenic period -- all of Alexanders' various generals and their kingdoms confuse me -- and the the history of Persia. I'll be using The Near East as a general reference book for when I want to refresh my knowledge of the period, but the presence of one erroneous fact does give me some pause: when writing on Roman-Persian interaction, Asimov mentions that Hadrian died in 161 and was succeeded by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, skipping over poor Antonious Pious and his twenty-year reign entirely. (Hadrian died in 138, and was succeeded by Pious, who died in 161.)  I only noticed this because of my fondness for Aurelius. It's a fairly forgivable mistake, as Rome is only being mentioned in connection to Parthia's expansion, Still, I hope it's an error he caught and corrected at some point. 

If you can find this, it should serve well as an introduction to the period, especially for teenagers and such. I say "if you can find it", because Asimov's history books are rare indeed. Some of them don't even have Amazon or eBay entries. (By the way, if you should ever spot the following books in a used bookstore, think of me and we can work out some kind of arrangement: The Roman Republic, The Roman Empire,  The Greeks, The Egyptians, and The Dark Ages.)

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