How Was History Written in the Ancient Near East?

Relief of the Ancient Egyptian God of Writing and Knowledge, Thoth

The term “historiography” has multiple definitions in the modern world. Quite simply, it refers to the study of history, but more specifically it relates to the study of history throughout history – how people from the past viewed their own and other peoples’ histories. Historiography therefore concerns the study of historical methods and philosophies as well as the examination of what are considered “historical” texts. The modern historiographical tradition is for the most part the direct ancestor of the tradition developed by the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks were the first people to write what is considered a “narrative” history, whereby events are considered either chronologically or topically with commentary and analysis. The fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, is often referred to as the “father of history” because his monumental work The Histories is the oldest extant narrative history in the world. Other Greek writers followed Herodotus with a similar style and formula of writing history and eventually the Romans did so as well, adding biographies, which became the quintessential form of Roman historical studies. The Greeks and the Romans wrote their histories critically and saw history as something to learn from and therefore historical works should edify the readers, which is of course essentially the same way modern historians view their craft. Although the Greeks and Romans gave the modern world their historiographical tradition, the people of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia also wrote history.

Historiography existed in the ancient Near East for over 2,000 years before Herodotus was born, but to the people of Egypt and Mesopotamia history served a much different purpose and therefore their historiographical tradition was much different. The Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians wrote their histories in the form of king-lists, historical annals, folk tales, and pseudo-historical myths not in critical narrative forms and not for the edification of the reader, but as part of their religious obligations. To the people of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, historical writing was a way for their kings to connect to their long dead ancestors and to show their appreciation to the gods.

Ancient Egyptian Historiography

The King-list in Seti I’s Temple at Abydos

In order to understand how the people of the ancient Near East recorded history, it is important to comprehend how they viewed the concept of history. The ancient Egyptians had no word that precisely corresponds to the modern word “history,” although they had different genres of what would today be considered historical writing. To the ancient Egyptians, record keeping of the near past was the way in which they demonstrated their idea of the continuum of history and was therefore a practical affair. [1] Among the different ways in which the Egyptians demonstrated this concept, the king-lists best demonstrated a more complete knowledge of history that stretched back for several generations.

Egyptian king-lists were simply chronological listings of all kings up until the present king’s reign. The kings’ names were written in cartouches – circles representing ropes – but were not divided according to dynasties as modern Egyptologists today categorize Egyptian chronology. The most famous king-list is the so-called “Turin Royal Canon,” which is dated to the reign of Ramesses II (ruled ca. 1279-1213 BC) and contains the names of about 300 kings. Other important lists were the Abydos list, dated to the reign of Seti I (reigned 1294-1279 BC), the Theban list, and several smaller lists from the tombs of private officials, all from the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1075 BC) and Late Period (715-332 BC). [2]

The king-lists were never accompanied with commentary and would sometimes omit kings who were considered anathema, such as the female “king” Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the “heretic” king Akhenaten also of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The historical purpose of the lists went beyond a chronology recorded for the sake of posterity, but instead represented a spiritual connection of the present king with his long dead, illustrious ancestors. Essentially, the Egyptian king-lists were not meant to edify those in the present, but to legitimize the authority of the current king. [3]

The most “modern” form of Egyptian historical writing, or at least the form that would be most similar to what is considered the modern historical narrative, would be the Egyptian annals. The Egyptian word for annals is genut, which would also be the closest word in the Egyptian lexicon to the word “history.”[4] The earliest extant example of Egyptian annals is the so-called “Palermo Stone,” which is dated to the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2480-2350 BC). The Palermo Stone lists several kings along with a short entry or two about an event from each king’s reign. [5] The annals eventually evolved to become the more detailed historical reports of military and quarrying campaigns that were common in the Middle and New Kingdoms, especially beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty. It was in the Eighteenth Dynasty that Thutmose III (ruled ca. 1479-1425 BC), who recorded his dozens of military expeditions into the Levant and Nubia on the walls of the Karnak Temple, which is how modern scholars know so much about the period.

By the Late Period, when Egypt was often under foreign rule, Egyptian historical writing came to include a variety of pseudo-historical myths and folk stories that contained themes about Egypt’s earlier greatness and a possible return to glory under a liberating native pharaoh. [6] The Late Period was also when the Hellenized Egyptian priest, Manetho, wrote his history of Egypt in the third century BC. Manetho’s history of Egypt was primarily Egyptian in character, reading like a combination of king-list and annals, but was also influenced by the Greek philosophy of history to a certain extent as he obviously used some earlier Greek sources to complete his work. Later Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Diodorus, in turn were impressed with the Egyptian sense of the past, especially king-lists, which they noted in their works. [7] Although the Egyptian philosophy of history and historiography may have impressed and possibly even influenced the later Greek historians, it was a clearly different concept in form, style, and purpose.

Ancient Mesopotamian Historiography

Statue of the Ancient Mesopotamian God of Writing and Knowledge, Nabu

Ancient Mesopotamia developed contemporaneously with ancient Egypt and although there were many differences between the two civilizations – such as the fact that many different ethnic groups ruled over and influenced ancient Mesopotamia throughout its history as opposed to Egypt being fairly homogenous – both societies viewed and recorded history in a similar manner.

The Sumerians were the first people to bring civilization to Mesopotamia around the year 3100 BC, and like their Egyptian counterparts, they had no word that corresponds to the modern English word “history.” [8] Also like in Egypt, nothing comparable to a narrative history developed in Mesopotamia and historiographical texts were all theological in nature. [9]

The earliest form of historical writing in Mesopotamia were the king-lists, which were similar to those in Egypt, but they were written in a much earlier period. The oldest known Mesopotamian king-list is the so-called “Sumerian King List,” which was compiled at the latest in the nineteenth century BC. [10] The Sumerian King List combines myth and history of the kings of Mesopotamia’s most important cities through the mythological “flood of Gilgamesh,” after which the list becomes more accurate. The early part of the list reads:

“When kingship was lowered from heaven, kingship was (first) in Eridu. (In) Eridu, A-lulim (became) king and ruled 28,800 years, Alalgar ruled 36,000 years. Two kings (thus) ruled it for 64,800 years . . . After the Flood had swept over (the earth) (and) when kingship was lowered (again) from heaven, kingship was (first) in Kish . . . En-me-kar, son of Mes-kiag-gasher, he who built Uruk, became king and ruled 420 years . . . the divine Gilgamesh, his father was a lilu, a high priest of Kullab, ruled 126 years; Ur-Nungal, son of Gilgamesh, rule 30 years . . . Uruk was defeated in battle, its kingship was removed to Ur.” [11]

After the Sumerians disappeared from the historical record, other Mesopotamian dynasties, such as the Kassites, continued the tradition of king-lists, but it was the Assyrians who left behind the best preserved historical texts. Beginning during the reign of in Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076), Assyrian scribes began recording on clay tablets and cylinders the yearly military campaigns, which were always led by the king. [12] The largest cache of Assyrian written documents – totaling over 2,000 total and concerning subject matter ranging from taxes to theology and historical annals – was discovered in the library of the ancient city of Nineveh and dated to the reign of Ashurbanipal (668-633 BC). The tone of the Assyrian historical annals was almost always bombastic and lacking in any modesty on the king’s part, as an example from the reign of Sennacherib (reigned 704-681 BC) demonstrates. In the passage, the Assyrian king proclaims how he defeated enemies from Ekron and Nubian dominated Egypt:

“The officials, nobles and people of Ekron, who had thrown Padî, their king, bound by (treaty to) Assyria, into fetters of iron and had given him over to Hezekiah, the jew (Iaudai), – he kept him in confinement like an enemy, – they (lit., their heart) became afraid and called upon the Egyptian kings, the bowmen, chariots and horses of the king of Meluhha (Ethiopia), a countless host, and these came to their aid. In the neighborhood of the city of Altakû (Eltekeh), their ranks being drawn up before me, they offered battle. (Trusting) in the aid of Assur, my lord, I fought with them and brought about their defeat. The Egyptian charioteers and princes, together with the charioteers of the Ethiopian king, my hands took alive in the midst of the battle.” [13]

The seeming arrogance displayed by the Assyrian kings in the annals is tempered by the fact that battlefield victories were granted by Assur/Ashur and the other gods. Therefore, the tone of Assyrian historiographical writing was the result of piety, not conceit, on the part of the king. [14]

Mesopotamian Historiography after the Assyrians

The Historical Cylinder of Antiochus I

When the Assyrian Empire was destroyed in 612 BC, the political and cultural focus of Mesopotamia shifted to the south once more and the city of Babylon in particular. During the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty – which lasted from the reign of Nabopolassar (ruled 626-605 BC) until the Achaemenid Persian conquest in 539 BC – a series of historical texts known as the “Babylonian Chronicle” were written in the city. The Babylonian Chronicle was clearly influenced by the Assyrian annals as well as earlier forms of Mesopotamian historical writing, but was far less theological and therefore “represents the highest achievement of Babylonian historians with regard to the writing of history in a reliable and objective manner.” [15] The Chronicle continued to be compiled after the Achaemenid Persian and Macedonian Greek conquests of Mesopotamia and provided inspiration for the Hellenized Babylonian historian, Berossos.

In many ways, Berossos’ life in Mesopotamia mirrored that of Manetho’s in Egypt. Berossos was a native Babylonian priest who lived in the third century BC under the Greek Seleucid Dynasty, dividing his time between the Greek and native Mesopotamian worlds. He was commissioned by the king Antiochus I (281-261 BC) to write a history of Babylon in Greek, which he did using native sources, much as Manetho had done in Egypt around the same time. [16] Although both Berossos’ and Manetho’s works have only survived in fragments often transmitted by later historians, they represent the intellectual juncture where the older forms of Near Eastern historiography merged with the new, narrative form of historical writing that was formulated by the Greeks.

Conclusion

Today, the Greeks are considered to be the inventors of the modern historiographical tradition and although that may be true for the most part, it is important to consider the historical traditions of the ancient Near East that preceded them. The people of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia both had philosophies of history and corpuses of historical writings that all modern scholars consider historiographical in nature. With that said, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians wrote their histories in a much different manner and for far different reasons than the Greeks did – the people of the ancient Near East wrote their histories to connect with their ancestors and their gods, not for posterity or edification.

References

  1. Redford, Donald B. Pharaonic King-Lists, Annals and Day-Books: A Contribution to the Study of the Egyptian Sense of History. (Mississauga, Canada: Benben Publications, 1986), pgs. xiii-xvi
  2. Redford, pgs. 18-64
  3. Gozzoli, Roberto B. The Writing of History in Ancient Egypt during the First Millennium BC (ca. 1070-180 BC): Trends and Perspectives. (London: Golden House Publications, 2006), p. 7
  4. Redford, p. 67
  5. Bull, Ludlow. “Ancient Egypt.” In The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Robert C. Denton. Second Reissue. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1983), p. 4
  6. Gozzoli, p. 227
  7. Krebsbach, Jared. “Herodotus, Diodorus, and Manetho: An Examination of the Influence of Egyptian Historiography on the Classical Historians.” New England Classical Journal. 41 (2014) pgs. 104-7
  8. Speiser, E. A. “Ancient Mesopotamia.” In The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Robert C. Denton. Second Reissue. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1983), p. 38
  9. Speiser, p. 55
  10. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 29
  11. Pritchard, James B, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 265-6
  12. Mieroop, Marc van de. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 129
  13. Pritchard, pgs. 287-8
  14. Speiser, p. 67
  15. Grayson, A. Kirk, trans. Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2000), p. 8
  16. Verbrugghe, Gerald P., and John M. Wickersham, eds. and trans. Berossos and Manetho, Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), p. 26