Have Modern Views of Ancient Middle Eastern Empires Been Unbiased?
When Europeans developed a renewed interest in antiquity during the Renaissance, their primary source of information about the great civilizations of the ancient Middle East was the Bible. Egypt appeared as the land in which Hebrews were enslaved by a cruel pharaoh. Assyria attacked Israel and deported its citizens to other parts of the Assyrian empire. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and brought thousands of Israelites back to Babylon. And in the biblical view, the Assyrians, in particular, were depraved. European views of these civilizations were understandably colored by the perspective from which these stories were told—that of the small state of Israel, which was under attack from all sides. A further source of information was classical authors, like Herodotus or Diodorus, who had their own biases.
Scientific and commercial exploration of the Middle East beginning in the eighteenth century led to greater European contact with the region. Some nineteenth century painters, like Delacroix and Ingres, and writers, including Shelley, Byron, and Flaubert, contributed to representations of both the ancient and nineteenth-century Middle East as a place in which extremes of sensuality and cruelty were commonplace.
The eighteenth century was also the time when the first archaeological explorations of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia were undertaken and in which their scripts and languages were first deciphered, allowing these ancient civilizations to be understood in their own terms. Explorations in Persia and the Hittite empire began somewhat later.
In some ways, these archaeological discoveries matched the biblical accounts. Assyrian art and texts represented extreme cruelty in its conquests, with enemy cities being burned, inhabitants being deported, and leaders subjected to torture and death. For a small state like Israel, these great powers were indeed overwhelming.
In other ways, however, the biblical and classical accounts—and thus view of nineteenth-century Europe—have not been confirmed by archaeological and historical study. Gender relations in the ancient Middle East are discussed elsewhere in this Web resource, but very little of the sensuality depicted in nineteenth-century European literature and art has proven to be an accurate representation of the past.
Délacroix, Eugène (1827). “The Death of Sardanapalus.” The Louvre. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Lord Byron. “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. What are the various ways in which ancient Middle Eastern empires have been viewed over time?
2. Were these perceptions accurate?
3. How have these perceptions been challenged?