Review of: In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A History of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, by Christian Marek

As a rule, I never review a book that I have not read to completion; I feel an obligation to the author to turn every page and absorb every paragraph.  But some books are not designed as cover-to-cover reads, so I believe that Christian Marek will forgive me for only reading about a third of his magnificent reference work, In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A History of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, prior to reviewing it. Originally published in German, this first English edition (translated by Steven Rendall) was written in collaboration with the late scholar Peter Frei, who duly receives cover credit for his contributions. Marek, professor emeritus of ancient history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has spent a lifetime studying the ancient Mediterranean and specializing in ancient Asia Minor, and has been conducting epigraphical and archaeological fieldwork in Turkey for more than thirty years. The result is a superb work that is not only encyclopedic in scope but brilliant in depth and analysis.

In modern times, except for the European sliver that hosts Istanbul, most of the huge geography of the Republic of Turkey is located within the giant landmass of the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia.  The population today is primarily a Muslim Turkic-speaking people descended from the nomad Turks that, like the Huns and other similar ethnicities, once roamed the vast northern steppes and later moved south to conquer and dominate settled agricultural communities. But students of Classical history know that it was an entirely different universe in the ancient world.  There are traces of mysterious proto-cities from deep antiquity, and there is the impressive archaeological heritage in the celebrated Çatalhöyük Neolithic settlement that dates back to 7500 BCE. The original agriculturalists were most likely overrun and absorbed by Indo-Europeans from the Caucasus – the horse, wheel and chariot folks resurrected elsewhere by David Anthony – and native Hattians and Hurrians were to be supplanted by the Hittites, later to rise to prominence with their consequential Bronze Age empire that dominated Asia Minor but was lost to memory for millennia in the still unexplained cataclysmic collapse of that era of human history. Troy was part of that Anatolian peninsula on the strategic edge of the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) that provided access to the Black Sea, and the legendary Trojan War – if historic, as suspected (although Marek has his doubts) – either preceded or was coterminous with that collapse, which in addition to the Hittites brought down the Mycenaean Greeks, the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Kassite Babylonians. The remnants of the Hittite Empire fragmented into various powers over the centuries to come, but most significant to history is that the remains of earlier Bronze Age Mycenaean cities on the Aegean Sea were vastly supplemented by numerous Greek settlements along the coast that came to be known as “Ionia,” which later – along with the rest of Anatolia and the Near East – came to be dominated by the Persian Empire. The efforts of those Ionian Greek poleis to liberate themselves from Persian control sparked a war led by Athens and Sparta that unpredictably resulted in Persian defeat, leading to independence for the Ionian poleis and Greek dominance of the Aegean. Athens-Sparta rivalry in subsequent decades led to the Peloponnesian War that devastated the Hellenic world and so divided it that Philip of Macedon was able to crush and contain it. After his assassination, his son and heir Alexander the Great unexpectedly routed the Persian Great King and soon dominated all of his possessions, including Asia Minor, but his sudden death on the cusp of world empire meant that Greece, Egypt, the Near East and Anatolia became the trophies of his surviving generals, the Diadochoi, as well as their descendants, the Epigoni, so Hellenistic rulers ran roughshod over those lands for centuries, jockeying for power, until Rome got interested.  Much more blood of bystanders flowed but eventually it was Rome that absorbed all of that territory. As the huge Roman Empire grew unwieldy, a new eastern Roman capital was established at Constantinople (ancient Byzantium, modern Istanbul), ruling over all of Asia Minor and a good deal beyond it. When Rome and the western empire fell, this became the Roman Empire of the East, the Byzantine Empire, and a large chunk of it was Anatolia, although much of that was to fall away over time.  And all of that fascinating history occurred long before the Seljuk Turks moved in circa the eleventh century to bring Islam and the Turkic language to Anatolia!

If you judge that long paragraph – which is only an abbreviated summary of Asia Minor’s ancient historical narrative – as oversize, you can only imagine what a deep exploration would amount to.  So then try to imagine the thick volume that is Christian Marek’s In the Land of a Thousand Gods, which in its printed form makes oversize seem understated: there are in fact some 552 pages of type that can only be described as footnote size subscript, not including an appendix of 75 pages as well as a thick section of endnotes. The main narrative is equivalent to a normal text of approximately 1500 pages! In short, there is a lot of material. The good news is that every single sentence is welcome and substantial, as Marek applies fine historical inquiry and analysis to every paragraph, expertly guiding the reader from the Neolithic to the end of antiquity, meticulously and exhaustively. Do I recommend this as a book to take to the beach and devour over a long weekend?  Of course not. But if you are seeking THE definitive ancient history of Asia Minor, look no further: this is clearly going to be the gold standard on the subject for a long time to come. Don’t skip it!

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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