The most famous Assyriologist of our day sums up a lifetime of research on Mesopotamian language, politics, commerce, law, agriculture, science, art, literature, magic and religion in this thorough, yet, succinct, introductory reader.
Fortunately, I read this book first! It was originally published in 1985, and the English translation by Donald G Schley was published in 1994. In the translator's words, Wolfram von Soden (who was born in 1908) was a master in the field of Assyriology, and the intention of the book, as the title states, is "an Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East". In making the text available in English, Professor Schley's aim is to provide a concise, yet comprehensive text for his classes in the ancient Near East, and one which could also serve as a background text for classes in biblical studies
For Professor von Soden the term "Ancient Orient" denotes ancient Western Asia without Asia Minor, but with Western Iran. That is to say the focus of the book is on the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires for the period from 3000BC to about 500BC with some coverage of the Mittanians, Hurrians, Uruartians, Elamites, and Hittites where they impinge on these empires. There are separate chapters on each of the following topics, and his aim is to show what was has been accomplished in each of these selected themes:
Peoples and Cultures of the Ancient Orient
Writing and Systems of Writing,
The History of Ancient Western Asia - The Historical sources,
State & Society,
Nutrition & Agriculture
Trade and Commerce
Sumerian and Babylonian Science
Religion and Magic
Building, Art, & Music
Did the book meet my expectations? Frankly, no! since I already have some familiarity with the topics covered - but that's not to criticise the quality or the content of the book, or that I don't need a periodic review of the subject. And from that point of view this book serves an admirable purpose. In addition, while it gives a clear indication as to how much is known on these themes, it is also very clear on the limits of that knowledge. It has, therefore, innumerable suggestions for further specialist studies which can be of great help in pointing the determined student to focus his study on areas where there is still much uncertainty. But it is not (nor is it intended to be) a comprehensive treatment of the political history of these particular civilisations.
I found the book generally easy to read, and the single map at the back of the book sufficient for my understanding of the location of the various cities and archaeological sites. The book required a lot of concentration though, and to that end I had to develop a list of places, words, gods and goddesses to ensure that I could keep track of everything in my mind
Since the book only provides an overview of the history of the period, it would have been much more useful to me if I could have studied a book like this when I first started reading about these civilisations some 30 years ago. Therefore, there are no king lists or charts of historical timelines, but that's because the focus of the book is more on the way people lived rather than on political history as to who did what to whom.
It is not a heavily illustrated book, and the few pictures which do exist (mainly of the most significant artifacts) are scattered throughout the book, but, again, this does not detract from the quality of the book. Finally, there are about 75 books cited in the selected bibliography most of which were published in the period 1970 to 1990. Since I am familiar with only a handful of the authors so cited, I have innumerable possibilities for further study on this subject.
In summary I think this is a very good book for students who are starting out on their studies of the ancient Near East, and a good review book for those whose knowledge of the subject has primarily been gained by self study.