Review of “The Ancient Mesopotamian City” by Marc Van De Mieroop

photo is my own

According to received wisdom, ancient Mesopotamia gave rise to not only the city as we know it but a specific type of city, one that lasted from approximately 3000 to 300 BCE in the Middle East. While cities appeared in places such as the Nile River Valley, nowhere does urbanism seem to play such an integral part of civilization as it does in Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamian city is not a uniform institution but possesses a constellation of common traits with variations in Babylonia (southern) and Assyria (northern). Universally, the urban-dweller regarded the world outside as one of poverty and exile. Author Marc Van De Mieroop writes, (p. 42) “To an ancient Mesopotamian, city life was civilized life. The city was the seat of cultured life and non-urban life was uncultured.”

The book has eleven chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter deals with a single subject such as “Feeding the Citizens” (Chapter 7), “Craft and Commerce” (Chapter 8), or “The Eclipse of the Ancient Mesopotamian City” (Chapter 11). Each chapter also concludes with a short bibliography in which Van De Mieroop discusses several source books. Along the way, the author describes what’s known of Mesopotamian religion, civic organization, and patriotism. It’s common to come across Mesopotamians with a name like “[The city of] Uruk preserves.” The book also contains a chronology and an index.

While Van De Mieroop’s writing may be too specialized for the casual reader, the interested reader will find it easy to read if replete with warnings that Mesopotamian history contains many gaping voids. Yet there is enough information for the author to tackle questions regarding how the temples functioned as administrative and distribution clearinghouses, and centers of worship, liturgy, and celebration; of the logistics of trade; getting food and clean water to the population; in addition to the workings of providing housing. Regarding the latter: apparently, there is no archaeological evidence for latrines in private residences, nor do there seem to be public facilities. One has to wonder about the river.

In the conclusion, Van De Mieroop writes at some length what amounts to an essay on epistemology. Overall it is abstract, taking on the thought of German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). This is primarily for academics.

On the off chance that someone is interested in reading this book, I suggest checking out the library or used books outlets. The prices at the usual places online are heart-stopping for both new and used copies. I’m not sure what I paid for my copy, but it was nothing approaching what they want for this now. IIRC, I got it through some history book club that has (ALAS!) no longer exists.


According to his faculty page at Columbia University, Marc Van De Mieroop specializes in the history of the ancient Near East from the dawn of writing to the age of Alexander. He’s written numerous books. The latest is Philosophy before the Greeks. The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia, published in 2015.


Book: The Ancient Mesopotamian City
Author: Marc Van De Mieroop (b. 1956)
Published: February 12, 1998
288 pages

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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