Weavers, Scribes, and Kings

Weavers, Scribes, and Kings coverWeavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East
Amanda H. Podany
Oxford University Press (August 19, 2022), 672 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $33.38

I was having some difficulty finding my next book to read. I went through multiple Kindle samples on my iPad and nothing caught my interest. Books that I thought I would enjoy turned out to be unappealing. Then I was going through one of the daily emails from the Literary Hub and clicked on a link for Oxford University Press. There I found a listing for this book. I almost always download a sample of a book before buying it, but in this case a sample was not available. A couple of considerations prompted me to buy the book anyway. First, the subject interested me. Second, the author is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona, just a short drive west on Interstate 10 from where I attended college, Pitzer College in Claremont.

When I was at Pitzer in the 1970s studying classics (the Latin and Greek languages along with Greek and Roman history, literature, and culture), the study of the ancient Near East came into play because of the proximity in geography and chronology. At the time ancient Near Eastern studies seemed complete and circumscribed. Forty-plus years later we know that assumption was incorrect, as Amanda Podany proves in Weavers, Scribes, and Kings. She writes about documents that have been discovered in the intervening years, including the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

Podany takes a very specific approach. She focuses strictly on documents written on cuneiform clay tablets found in the Near East and on related archaeological discoveries. The only exception is that at the outset of her investigation she discusses some pre-cuneiform documents that predated actual written language. Although her focus is narrow, the time span she covers is immense. Her discussion begins in 3500 BCE and takes us all the way through to 323 BCE. Her story ends when writing in cuneiform on clay tablets gave way to other scripts written on other materials. Podany covers the era thoroughly. Although Amazon lists the print length of the book as 672 pages, my Kindle edition took me well past page 700 before the back matter began.

One of Podany’s goals is to go beyond just the kings. She does a good job of this. Obviously there is a lot about kings because a lot of the material we have is by kings or about kings. But Podany also writes about merchants, mid-level government functionaries, and brewers. Beer was the beverage of choice in the ancient Near East and keeping track of the inventories of the ingredients that went into beer was important.

The author gives plenty of attention to women, righting an old wrong. She writes about queens, princesses, mothers of kings, and priestesses. Sometimes it was the princess who became the priestess. Given the culture we have few records of common women, but Podany is diligent in writing about the women for whom we do have records.

The publisher is not wrong in using the words “new history” in the subtitle. There is a lot of new material here. It is interesting stuff, and it is all very readable. Despite the book’s length I never felt bogged down; I was always ready to continue on to the next chapter.

If you enjoy ancient history you will find Weavers, Scribes, and Kings well worth your time.

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