The best books on the lives of real people in ancient Mesopotamia and how we know about them

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian and professor of ancient Mesopotamia. I was born in the UK but have lived in the US for decades, and from childhood I loved ancient history and archaeology (even through a five-year stint as a bass player before and during college). No matter how long the human race exists in future, we have only one shared ancient global past, the remains of which represent a completely non-renewable resource and source of inspiration. There is plenty left to discover, with much evidence already excavated and awaiting interpretation. It’s a joy to analyze and share the words and life-stories of Mesopotamians in my books—in a conversation that stretches across millennia.


I wrote...

Book cover of Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East

What is my book about?

In Weavers, Scribes, and Kings I have investigated the history of the ancient Near East through the lives of more than 100 real individuals, rich and poor, female and male, from all walks of life. Their stories are preserved on hundreds of thousands of cuneiform clay tablets. I’ve quoted extensively from their own words, each person providing a window into their era. These people range from palace weaving women in the 24th century BCE to a female innkeeper opening a brewery almost 2,000 years later, from the earliest kings skirmishing over borders to Neo-Assyrian soldiers conquering vast regions, and from scribes first developing the cuneiform writing system around 3200 BCE to their distant heirs preserving cuneiform as a dying art in the fourth century BCE.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

Amanda H. Podany Why did I love this book?

People often think that we don’t know much about ancient Mesopotamia because it flourished so long ago, but that isn’t true at all. The excavated documents are full of information about real people and their lives. Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat’s book is a great introduction because she has organized the chapters thematically to examine such features as family life and religion (as it was actually practiced), and because she quotes and analyzes obscure and interesting ancient texts. Readers can also explore ancient Mesopotamian government, economy, and intellectual innovations here, but the author always maintains her focus on the people.

By Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The ancient world of Mesopotamia (from Sumer to the subsequent division into Babylonia and Assyria) vividly comes alive in this portrayal of the time period from 3100 bce to the fall of Assyria (612 bce) and Babylon (539 bce). Readers will discover fascinating details about the lives of these people from the society where writing began-taken from the ancients' own quotations and descriptions. A wealth of information is provided on such varied topics as: education; literature; mathematics and science; city vs. country life; family life; and religion. Similarities between daily life in ancient Mesopotamia and modern-day Iraq are also discussed.…


Book cover of Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities

Amanda H. Podany Why did I love this book?

When this book first came out, I was just beginning work on my Ph.D. dissertation and it had a big influence on me. Stephanie Dalley writes in a wonderfully accessible style for general readers about the people of the 18th century BCE cities of Mari and Tell al Rimah, and throughout the book she quotes from the personal letters found there. She overcomes a common perception that the ancient world can seem removed and remote, by letting the ancient people speak directly to the reader. All the while, she also makes fascinating observations about what the documents reveal, and also includes discussions of archaeological evidence (such as culinary molds that were used to make fish-shaped bread, in the section on food preparation!).

By Stephanie Dalley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mari and Karana as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A study on the social aspects of Mari and Karana, this book provides an account of life in the nineteenth century BCE. Illustrations with photographs and drawings of objects uncovered during excavations provide a lively counterpart to the texts themselves, many of which are quoted in translation.


Book cover of Women at the Dawn of History

Amanda H. Podany Why did I love this book?

Women were integral to everything in Mesopotamia—politics, religion, economy, society, you name it—for the entire multi-millennium lifetime of the culture. I find this book, which is the catalogue of an exhibit for the Yale Babylonian Collection, to be a particularly interesting study, and it has gorgeous illustrations. The six chapters include two that focus on prominent women, the priestess Enheduanna and Queen Sammu-ramat (Semiramis), as well as discussions of many women who were not well known. The objects that were displayed in the exhibit are illustrated in the second half of the book, each described with a paragraph or two. These really give you a sense of how archaeologists and historians draw their conclusions from ancient evidence, and how individual lives can be reconstructed from objects and texts.

By Agnete W. Lassen (editor), Klaus Wagensonner (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women at the Dawn of History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the patriarchal world of ancient Mesopotamia, women were often represented in their relation to men - as mothers, daughters, or wives - giving the impression that a woman's place was in the home. But, as this volume explores, they were also authors and scholars, astute business-women, sources of expressions of eroticism, priestesses with access to major gods and goddesses, and regents who exercised power on behalf of kingdoms, states, and empires. Illustrated in colour and black & white throughout.


Book cover of Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History

Amanda H. Podany Why did I love this book?

Mesopotamian mathematics is a fascinating subject; their numerical system was based on 60, and the ancient thinkers were adept at many types of calculations and word problems. Hundreds of clay tablets reflect their advanced understanding of mathematical principles. Eleanor Robson explains clearly in this book how historians and mathematicians have interpreted the evidence, and she discusses not just specific mathematical texts, how they are understood, and the way ideas were expressed, but she also introduces the scribes who developed and learned it all, and even the buildings in which they worked. The book is a “social history,” as the subtitle notes, and also an intellectual adventure.

By Eleanor Robson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mathematics in Ancient Iraq as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This monumental book traces the origins and development of mathematics in the ancient Middle East, from its earliest beginnings in the fourth millennium BCE to the end of indigenous intellectual culture in the second century BCE when cuneiform writing was gradually abandoned. Eleanor Robson offers a history like no other, examining ancient mathematics within its broader social, political, economic, and religious contexts, and showing that mathematics was not just an abstract discipline for elites but a key component in ordering society and understanding the world. The region of modern-day Iraq is uniquely rich in evidence for ancient mathematics because its…


Book cover of From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters

Amanda H. Podany Why did I love this book?

Now I realize that this isn’t a narrative history, but I think you will find it fascinating. It’s a big compendium of excerpts from more than 750 letters that were found in the archives of the ancient palace of Mari, organized by topics such as “Dynastic Marriages,” “Crime,” “Caring for the Gods,” “Death and Burial,” and many, many more. It’s a book to dip into rather than to read from beginning to end, and it’ll help you get a sense of the vast amount of detail about real people that is to be found on Mesopotamian clay tablets (especially ancient letters). Jack Sasson’s enthusiasm and deep knowledge of the subject is palpable in his many explanatory paragraphs and long footnotes.

By Jack M. Sasson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From the Mari Archives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For over 40 years, Jack M. Sasson has been studying and commenting on the cuneiform archives from Mari on the Euphrates River, especially those from the age of Hammurabi of Babylon. Among Mari's wealth of documents, some of the most interesting are letters from and to kings, their advisers and functionaries, their wives and daughters, their scribes and messengers, and a variety of military personnel. The letters are revealing and often poignant. Sasson selects more than 700 letters as well as several excerpts from administrative documents, translating them and providing them with illuminating comments. In distilling a lifetime of study…


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Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is this book about?

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Interested in Mesopotamia, Iraq, and math?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Mesopotamia, Iraq, and math.

Mesopotamia Explore 25 books about Mesopotamia
Iraq Explore 89 books about Iraq
Math Explore 261 books about math