Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History

Paul Cartledge praises a compelling tour of three millennia of Syria’s history, taking in travel, trade, war and art

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Reviewed by: Paul Cartledge
Author: Trevor Bryce
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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Aleppo, in north-west Syria, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, its occupation going back perhaps as far as the sixth millennium BC. Distinguished Australian professor Trevor Bryce’s tour of ancient Syria begins not there, however, but 35 miles south-west, at Ebla (Tell Mardikh) in c2400 BC. (Connoisseurs of the ancient Mediterranean will know that this site also starred recently in the latter part of Cyprian Broodbank’s brilliantly depth-charged book The Making of the Middle Sea.) Bryce ends in AD 661, with Damascus established as capital of the Umayyad caliphate.

In between, Syria’s history can be told through the impact made by a series of more or less mighty empires. These included the Assyrians and Hittites, Pharaonic Egyptians, the Neo-Assyrians, the Neo-Hittites, Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, the Seleucids, the Romans and Byzantines. Bryce picks his way no less sure-footedly among the pitfalls and the collateral debris than among the cultural peaks, helping the reader throughout with a lively and informative series of maps and illustrations ranging from a shot of Palace G at Ebla to the perhaps all-too-appropriately named Herbert Gustave Schmalz’s 1888 painting Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra. Three appendices offer a timeline of major events and periods and an overview of literary sources.

The opening chapters on the Bronze and early Iron Ages allow Bryce to employ his special expertise in all things Hittite, but the book’s broad remit requires him to be no less at home with many other diverse cultures and terrains.

Politics, war and diplomacy dominate throughout, but this is not entirely a drum-and-trumpet history. For example, correspondence preserved on cuneiform tablets from late Bronze Age Ugarit point to business deals and trade indicative of peaceful commercial interactions between various Syrian states.

In terms of space allocated, the post-Alexander Seleucid empire (323–64 BC) is deemed worthy of spreading to four chapters, including one on the Maccabees’ rebellion. Two desert oases, meanwhile, attract (and, indeed, merit) special attention for their role in Syria’s story: Petra and Palmyra. Bryce also explores the region’s impact on people elsewhere in the world: Queen Zenobia, for instance, served as inspiration for the socialite and renowned adventurer Lady Hester Stanhope. Bryce’s Syria has few dull moments, and many such gripping tales to tell.

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Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge