Online Review: Book

Cities and the Shaping of Memory in the Ancient Near East

Geoff Emberling


By Ömür Harmanşah. Pp. xx + 351, figs. 60, tables 4. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-02794-7 (cloth).

Ancient cities and their hinterlands have been foci of archaeological and historical research in the Middle East since the first archaeological investigations of Assyrian citadels in the 1840s, and with good reason: these were largely urban cultures, as literature such as the Sumerian lamentation over the fall of Ur or the Gilgamesh epic make clear. Large-scale excavations in the 1920s and 1930s at major Mesopotamian cities such as Ur gave some sense of the layout of residential areas outside the citadels, and archaeological survey projects starting with those of Robert McCormick Adams in the 1950s have increasingly shown the ways in which city and countryside were bound together. Studies of cuneiform texts have also shown many aspects of urban life, from the organization of craft production to legal practices, social divisions, political negotiations, and public ritual. Earlier analytical work charting the growth of cities and subsequent population movements among urban and rural spaces has in recent years been animated by interest in the affective experience of cities as constructed and lived-in spaces.

Harmanşah’s volume contributes to this latter movement through an inquiry into the ways that urban sites and monuments can be focal points for cultural identity and memory. In this respect, the book’s title is misleading. Rather than being a survey of a wide range of memory-making practices throughout ancient Middle Eastern history, it is instead a more narrowly focused “cultural history of the practice of founding cities” in “the Assyrian empire and the Syro-Hittite polities of the Early Iron Age” (3), although even this characterization is not quite right, as some Late Bronze (Middle Assyrian) sites are also reviewed.

The volume contains four major case studies: a review of archaeological surveys and Hittite landscapes, particularly at Malatya (ch. 2); a discussion of Assyrian frontiers and the creation of new Assyrian capitals at Kar Tukulti-Ninurta and Kalḫu (ch. 3); a comparison of the construction of Syro-Hittite Karkemish and Neo-Assyrian Kalh˘u with a particularly detailed and useful discussion of the Ninurta temple at Kalḫu (ch. 4); and a review of the history of stone orthostates used to line walls of major urban structures in both cultures (ch. 5). Discussions of rock reliefs and inscriptions are found in most of the chapters. All these studies are contextualized by brief discussions of theorists, including De Certeau and Lefebvre; are illuminated by detailed discussion of well-chosen ancient texts; and are supported by an impressively massive apparatus of notes and bibliography.

In this short review, I cannot do justice to each of the author’s arguments, but I would highlight some points of more general interest. In Harmanşah’s treatment of the founding of new capital cities, he explicitly critiques the idea of “disembedded capitals” as neglecting landscape and settlement histories (4). In practice, the author shows that cities founded in the Early Iron Age were located only short distances from Late Bronze Age capitals (67). He highlights the ruralization of settlement after the collapses of the Late Bronze Age that would have been associated with the Neo-Assyrian expansion. And he shows that the practice of lining palace and city gate walls with stone slabs began much earlier than normally stated, although the earliest of these orthostates are plain stones used in Middle Bronze Age cities such as Ebla. The significance of this last point is that the chronological priority of the Syro-Hittite architectural practice is more clearly established. The question of why the Assyrian empire adopted this foreign architectural style is not addressed in detail.

The author’s focus on bringing ancient cities to life is commendable, and he has in my view succeeded in making some interesting and new points on a subject that has arguably been a focus of research for 175 years. At the same time, it could be argued that his approach to ancient cities recapitulates ancient propaganda, in which royal monuments are the only important elements of urban space. Take Harmanşah’s notion of construction as festival: he states that “large-scale building programs in upper Mesopotamian cities of the Iron Age were regarded as festive events” (103) and “the king’s building projects were understood as a generative force of civilized life” (117). Certainly these statements would represent the perspective of the ruling elite, but what about laborers, some of whom had been forcibly transported from their homes to work for the glory of Assyrian or Syro-Hittite kings? It seems unlikely that they shared equally in the festivities, even if the famous feast of Ashurbanipal II upon the completion of his construction in Kalh˘u likely included many of these laborers.

I will not comment in detail about the editing of the volume except in one area: the spelling of the names of Assyrian kings. This may seem picayune, but it is actually more interesting than it seems. Many Assyrian kings are referred to in scholarship by versions of their names that appear in biblical or Greek sources, and this is surely not appropriate. Harmanşah has taken the bold move of referring to these kings by their Assyrian names: Šarruken for Sargon, or (more confusingly for the uninitiated) Tukulti-apil-ešarra for Tiglath-pileser. I applaud this move, but only wish it could have been applied more consistently and that an explanation had been given at the beginning of the volume. The use of diacritics is also exemplary, except for some reason those that should appear under letters (like the “ṣ” that should appear in Aššur-naṣir-apli).

This editorial choice, along with the lack of a general historical overview, and the frequent shifts between places, not all of which appear on maps (e.g., Tilmen Höyük), make this volume most useful for specialists on the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age of Syro-Anatolia and the Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian periods of Mesopotamia.

To conclude, I would return to the preface of the volume, in which the author discusses poignantly the ways his interest in his subject began as he grew up in Ankara, which “embodies a complex mixture of idealist interventions to the urban space and the subtle resistance of everyday practices and collective memory” (xviii). For me, a fully satisfying approach to “cities and the shaping of memory in the ancient Middle East” must include real attention to subtle resistance and to the structures and lives apart from those of palaces and temples.

Geoff Emberling
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109

Book Review of Cities and the Shaping of Memory in the Ancient Near East, by Ömür Harmanşah
Reviewed by Geoff Emberling
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 2 (April 2014), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Emberling

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