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History of the ANE: Introductory Material

[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]


Time is not a string. There is a common belief, perpetrated by monotone history teachers across the world, that time can be represented by a string. As we progress down the string, we view history; as we progress up the string, we view the future. Want to view a point in history? Just scan down the string until you find the point that you want. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately?), time is much, much more complicated than that. 

For one thing, a string is much too simple. A string is reminiscent of those silly timelines in high school that are designed to give nothing more than a title and a date. When did Columbus sail the ocean blue? I bet you can spout off the date, but can you tell me what it would have been like to sail across the ocean in 1492? Can you tell me much about maritime movement using sails? How did they sleep or eat? A more thorough look at history is much more encompassing than a simple string or line. It is much more three-dimensional. 

Of course, I can't leave that idea without mentioning that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a truly comprehensive history of the world, or a nation, or even of your life. Unfortunately for later readers, any history written has had key points carefully determined before the writing, since we obviously can not write every little thing. Beyond that, different histories have different purposes and different authors writing them for those purposes, so no two history books will be the same.

That's not the only point, though. One historian may view military conquests as key to understanding the past, while another may view trade relations or leadership as important. Over the last fifty years, what is important to most scholars has changed drastically, culminating in a desire not only to understand the important people but the common people.

If we want to understand the little people, we need to first understand the broader picture. A single string may represent a single person's life (though even one life is probably too much for a single string), but as we start to put these strings together, a pattern begins to emerge on the surface. You see, all of those people in a single family tend to form their own little cultural identity (an image). All of those families in a village tend to form a cultural identity, which is the building blocks of a society. That small village is then a part of a larger community, which may be a part of a state or nation which is in turn a part of a broader geographical location, and each of these little images form a larger image, the largest being what can be called geographical time. 

Think about it. Rivers, valleys, oceans, and more—all of these may form borders or roads or farmland or whatever. Mountainous regions gave way to mining operations, but not necessarily to farming, so trade began between those who had and those who had other things. Even today, steel and coal in America is found in certain areas, and other areas give way to the production of cereals or the breeding of livestock. From lobsters to oil, textiles to grapes, geography plays an important part in our nation's life. 

Because of the location, our society has formed an image different from any that one might find in Europe or other "Western" nations, and the same is true about any European or Asian or African or whatever nation throughout history. These societies formed, creating their own languages and cultures, their own images on the blanket of humanity, and when we look back at these images, we are able to learn so much more about the people who lived and died in those societies.

Of course, a snapshot of that blanket only represents a point in time, and as time progressed, the images changed from layer to layer. Sometimes a new cultural idea was introduced to a society, and therefore the image of one begins to look more like that of the other, though still a completely different image. From the earliest of human times up until now, this rather thick patch quilt has morphed into what we now live. Because of these synchronic layers diachronically placed, historians and archaeologists are able to learn not only what happened way back when but how we got to the point in which we now are—which is necessarily standing steadily upon the patchwork quilt blanket of those who came before.

Unfortunately for us, humans tend to be so focused on their own little patches on the blanket that they ignore the broader image. Still further, humans tend to be so focused on the present layer of the quilt that they often ignore the deeper layers and forget where we came from. Thus, the inaccurate adage: history repeats itself, and that often in a negative way. Unless we learn to view the quilt of humanity, I fear that we, just like every generation before us, will learn little and change slowly.

What is the Ancient Near East?

The ancient Near East, what some refer to as the Fertile Crescent, is defined geographically as the area from the Zagros and Elburz Mountains in the east, following the Tigris and Euphrates rivers north to right before the Caucasus, bending around to the Black Sea, and then finally down the eastern Mediterranean. In modern terms, the Near East includes the countries of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, part of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran (Snell 1997: 1), but probably also Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, and Armenia (Mark 2022). Egypt is not always included in the Near East, except when its empires extended into Asia (van de Mieroop 2015: 1), but as Egyptian history intersected with the Near East regularly, it is included here. 

Diachronically, the ‘history’ of the ancient Near East can be confusing. Some scholars delimit the ancient Near East in terms of linguistics, beginning with the advent of writing and ending with the foundations of the linguistically invasive Persian Empire, thus extending from ca. 3500 to ca. 500 B.C. (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 7), separating ‘ancient’ from both the prehistoric and the preclassical or classical eras. Still others (Mark 2022) date the ancient Near East from about the Calcolithic Period, or Copper Age, until the conquest by Muslim Arabs, thus from ca. 5000 B.C. to ca. A.D. 700. Although a complete history of the ancient Near East must commence at the beginning of time, mentioning the earliest archaeological examples rather than limiting the starting point, for the purposes of this study, that starting point will begin with a brief overview of the Stone Age. As for when the ancient Near East ends and the next era begins, it seems prudent not to include invasive cultures, those from outside sources that heavily influenced the ancient world, including the Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures, and therefore this study will end at the foundations of the Persian Empire.

This broad geographical area and rather long timeframe necessarily includes very many different people groups and cultures. Because so many different peoples and cultures existed over the span of the scope of this study, this work will be limited to major geographical areas and specific, key cultural groups. These groups will include the Canaanites/Phoenicians, Egyptians, Akkadians, Elamites, Assyrians/Babylonians, and of course the Israelites, but these will not include the Hittites, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, or Philistines, except when directly related to the former groups. By limiting the scope of this work, a broad overview of the ancient Near East as it relates to the Biblical world may be understood. Perhaps later editions may include these lesser known groups.

Annales School

As for the historiographical methods of this study, the Annales school of historiography will be used. This school of thought concerning the structuring of history is such so as to expand the individual points in time in order to better understand the context in which they exist. As the patch work quilt mentioned above, time is understood in differing layers, three of which will be used here. 

Within traditional historical methods, time is understood as a linear phenomenon, those points down the line represent history, the point on the line in which we presently abide represents the present, and all points up the line represent the future. While this is a wonderful, if not obvious, tool for understanding time, it exists merely as individual time—those individual points, events, persons, etc. These punctular occasions are very often ripped out of their contexts, given a name, given a date, and then when all of the labels needed are added, are set aside for the next punctular occasion to be studied. 

The Annales school, also known as the Braudelian school based on the seminal work of Fernand Braudel (1949), adds to this Individual Time the categories of Social Time and Geographical Time. Social Time includes cultures, empires, concepts, etc. that last hundreds to thousands of years with only small changes. By way of example, under Individual Time, one could discuss Abraham Lincoln, World War 2, or the Civil Rights Act and those issues associated with these punctular events. Under Social Time, one could discuss the United States as a whole, including concepts of liberty, capitalism, ingenuity, rebelliousness, and so forth. Social Time is that broader category that allows the historian to expose worldviews that lead individuals along the paths in which they took. One could discuss the rise of Nationalism in the late 1800s that was represented in all major European nations and academies and how that lead to the punctular events of World War 1 and World War 2. Under Social Time, one could study the social aspects of the need for individual salvation, as opposed to either no salvation or national salvation, building up to the rise of Christianity, and how the Roman mystery cults furthered this desire in the people during the first century which ultimately lead to the expanding of Christian doctrine across the Roman Empire. 

The third and final category of time, at least of which falls under the scope of this study, is that of Geographical Time. Whereas Individual Time focuses on punctular events and Social Time focuses on social relationships, Geographical Time is that period that lasts thousands or, in the Darwinian model, millions of years. At this very broad level, the landscapes of a geographical region can be studied, including mountains, which supply wood, metals, boundaries, etc., rivers, which supply food, water, also boundaries, etc., as well as seas, climates, lakes, forests, and any other extremely slow changing geography. It is at this level that natural resources can be discussed, particularly as those resources relate to the peoples who use them.

Altogether, these three levels of Braudelian historiography allow the historian not only to pinpoint and label punctular events but to actually understand the social and geographical contexts in which those events occurred. Concerning the ancient Near East and this study, and understanding of the geographical concepts of the land will be undertaken first, followed by the social realities, and then finally key punctular events or persons that are important to know.


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