H. V. Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Lands During the 19th Century. Vol. 1. Assyria and Babylonia. Vol. 2. Palestine, Egypt, Arabia and Hittite Areas.
(originally published, Philadelphia: A. J. Molman, 1903) (Reprint; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2002), Vol. 1, xxiv, 577 pp. Vol. 2, xxiv, 581-809 pp. Cloth. ISBN 1-931956-51-0. $88.00
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

This magisterial two-volume set, the latest in an important series of reprints published by Gorgias Press, is a “must have” for every student of ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology. The first volume, by Herman V. Hilprecht, the first Clark Research Professorship of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania, focuses on the history of Mesopotamian archaeology. It is the most thorough and important of the two volumes. The second volume, edited by Hilprecht, contains several brief essays on the history of archaeology in Palestine (by J. Benzinger), Egypt (by G. Steindorff), and Arabia (by F. Hommel), as well as a short piece on “The So-called Hittites and their Inscriptions” (by P. Jensen). Combined, the two volumes make available an enormous body of early research encapsulating the state of scholarly knowledge on ancient Near Eastern archaeology at the turn of the 19th century. They thus constitute important primary resources for those interested in the sociology of knowledge that informs the birth of ancient Near Eastern Studies as an academic discipline.

These volumes open up a world now largely forgotten, in which scholars were facile with both spade and languages, and in which the success of the scholarly enterprise greatly depended upon a passion for risky exploration and an ability to withstand incredible physical and mental hardships. Though over a century old, Hilprecht’s work serves to remind us of the incredible personal sacrifices of many individuals whose names are scarcely mentioned in contemporary Assyriological circles, such as G. Grotefend, Claudius James Rich, J. S. Buckingham, Sir Robert Kir Porter, Robert Mignan, G. Baillie Fraser, and James Felix Jones. Hilprecht’s work also gives us far more complete stories that lie behind the discoveries of more well-known pioneers such as Sir Henry Rawlinson, Paul Emil Botta, Henry Layard, Jules Oppert, and a great many others, whose contributions to the field typically receive only thumbnail sketches or remain unmentioned1 in more modern surveys. Moreover, to provide a background for the book, Hilprecht discusses a number of travelogues and topographical surveys of Mesopotamia dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries—sources (many now rare) that he amply cites in footnotes, and which constitute a veritable gold mine of now largely neglected resources.

Indeed, on most topics, but especially with regard to the period closer to Hilprecht’s own time, the treatment is exhaustive, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the personal, political, and academic intrigues and difficulties long since overshadowed by the accomplishments and discoveries to which they led. (His very lengthy and fascinating treatment of the University of Pennsylvania’s first expeditions to Nippur [Hilprecht’s “Nuffar”], with which he was involved most intimately, is a case in point.)

While these volumes shed a great deal of light on the earliest period of Western fascination with the ancient Near East, they invariably reveal a great deal about their authors as well. This is especially the case in Volume One, where the Christological lenses that Hilprecht wears are clear already in the preface.

It was our aim to bring the history of the gradual exploration of those distant oriental countries, which formed the significant scene and background of God’s dealings with Israel as a nation, more vividly before the educated classes of Christendom (p. ix).

In fact, throughout the two volumes, one sees Assyriology (one could add Arabian and Anatolian history) as a fledgling field still viewed through biblical verses; one whose purpose as a discipline is in large part measured by its ability to bolster biblical “truths” such as the moral corruptness of Mesopotamian civilization.

Yet, as the numerous discoveries described in these volumes make evident, the “resurrection” of Assyria and Babylonia served only to create a tension between a newly revealed Mesopotamian world—now more sophisticated than anticipated, and thus, more technologically advanced than “biblical” Israel—and an ever present need to justify the excavation and appreciation of Mesopotamia by way of its importance for our knowledge of the Bible. So great was the perceived importance of Assyriology in the year 1903 that in his article on Arabia, F. Hommel could make the following offhand remark with conviction: “Now, when archaeological discoveries make it more and more apparent that Egyptian civilization came from Babylonia … ” (p. 716). Indeed, the perceived importance of Mesopotamia to world history, and the aforementioned theological tensions that accompanied it, explain both the accessible and Christological tone of the volume by Hilprecht, as well as its large size relative to Volume Two. Given such a context, one must wonder to what extent these volumes were intended to abet the authors’ attempts to raise the costly finances (expressed herein by Hilprecht so candidly and frequently) necessary to continue excavations in the Near East.

Having mentioned the Christological perspective that informs this work, I note similarly that readers will be forced to call into check their genuine awe for the abilities and accomplishments of the discipline’s pioneers against a Western cultural arrogance that presents itself on nearly every other page. To demonstrate, I cite Hilprecht’s remark with regard to the Maladan tribes of southern Iraq.

Practicing the vices more than the virtues of the Arab race, extremely ignorant and superstitious, they live in the most primitive state of barbarism and destitution … (p. 6).

Such views are reprehensible, but also somewhat paradoxical, especially when juxtaposed with Hilprecht’s statement concerning the topographical observations of Claudius James Rich, whose 18th century discoveries and perspicacity he otherwise praises: “… how detrimental to scientific investigation any preconceived opinion or impression must be” (p. 31).

As one might reasonably assume with a work published a century ago, one encounters a number of subjects in these volumes that require one to supply the necessary “updates” by drawing on contemporary knowledge. Thus one sometimes must alter the readings of particular names as well as a few chronologies (e.g., the Ur III period appears 500–600 years earlier than we date it today).2 But such adjustments are relatively easy to make with a basic knowledge of the discipline.

These are exceptional volumes that attest to an exceptional age. They bring us back to a time when Iraq was largely unexplored by Western travelers, and when Assyriology, then fueled by popular support and often by public and State finances, paved the road to a peaceful interest in Iraq’s rich history. How time has changed.


[1] Indeed, even works that focus on the historiography of the ancient Near East appear unaware of these figures. Compare, for example, Omar Carena, History of the Near Eastern Historiography and its Problems: 1852–1985. Part One: 1982–1945 (AOAT 218; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1989), which makes no mention of the work of Hilprecht under review here!

[2] There also is a misplaced insert marking the start of the “Excavations in Egypt” section along with an image of Jean François Champollion on its other side. It is inserted between pp. 598–599 in the middle of the Palestine section instead of before p. 625 where it belongs. I have been unable to ascertain if this misprint was original to the first edition.