Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Course No. 3180
Professor Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College
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Course Overview

What pieces of the distant past drift before your mind's eye when you think of ancient Mesopotamia? Perhaps it's the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon. Or is it entire populations paralyzed by fear before a ruthless invader? Maybe it's priests making sacrifices to the gods who rule over and protect their city.

Any of these images may come to mind, but each one is part of the legacy of a region from which our own culture has drawn many essential aspects, including writing, codes of law, cities, and even epic poetry.

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia takes you on an insightful journey through the area bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from Neolithic times to the age of Alexander the Great and into the lives of mighty emperors, struggling farmers, ambitious merchants, and palace servants. In 36 fascinating lectures, award-winning Professor Alexis Q. Castor reveals new insights into the real history of this region and demonstrates that all cultures lie in the shadow of Mesopotamia.

A Foundational Time and Place

Mesopotamia, a name coined by the Greeks, means "the land between the rivers" and refers to the region now mostly encompassed by the borders of modern Iraq. Originally, the area was home to a succession of peoples, from Neolithic villagers to the vast empires of Assyria and Persia.

The beginnings of cities and urban lifestyles during the 5th millennium B.C. are only two of the many factors that make ancient Mesopotamia such a foundational time and place in history. The region was marked by the changing roles and representations of rulers and by recurring regional instabilities and upheavals. East and West collided when the Persian Empire first tried to conquer Greece and then itself became the final conquest of Alexander the Great.

Examine Life in Mesopotamia

Between the Rivers looks back to the time when the first cities arose in Mesopotamia and kings created complex bureaucracies to rule their expanding territories, thus fostering the invention of writing and other technologies. You peer into the lives and fortunes of Mesopotamia's people and learn about the birth of the urban lifestyle, which was destined to become increasingly sophisticated as cultures expanded and cities evolved into the forms we know today. Cities, as you discover, became increasingly important to the Mesopotamian identity.

The 5th-millenium B.C. city of Uruk, 140 miles south of what is now Baghdad, was in fact civilization's first city, hidden until the early years of the 20th century, when it was unearthed by German archaeologists.

With a population estimated between 20,000 and 50,000, maintaining the well-being of Uruk posed different challenges than those faced by smaller fishing villages. The large population had to develop new ways to sustain itself, producing and acquiring food and other necessities on a scale never before imagined. There would be security issues as well, and in order to solve these issues, an enclosing wall was eventually built around the city.

Throughout the lectures, Professor Castor creates a detailed image not only of larger Mesopotamian society but of life on the level of the individual Mesopotamian as well. Among the many fascinating insights into daily Mesopotamian life you examine are:

  • how they ate, worked, learned, worshipped, married, and reared children
  • how their scientific ideas helped them order and understand the natural world
  • how they engaged with their powerful neighbors in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey)
  • how they waged war and experienced peace
  • how they endured the collapse of their cities

Unearth Unique Historical Finds

Scholars have come to know the details of ancient Mesopotamia through numerous archaeological discoveries, ancient documents, and important literary works, many of which you explore throughout the course. Excavations in Iraq have shaped Western ideas about ancient Mesopotamia, from the myth of the Hanging Gardens to important concepts about how Eastern cultures differed from Western cultures.

These profound historical records offer a wealth of fresh information about ancient Mesopotamian culture—new perspectives now made possible by the tireless efforts of archaeologists and historians. Among the many examples you consider are:

  • The 16 royal graves found at Ur: Excavated between 1927 and 1929, the royal graves from this southern city contained lavish quantities of gold, silver, semiprecious stones, and richly crafted artifacts—and also evidence of human sacrifice or ritual suicide. The overwhelming display of wealth and its grisly accompaniment offers an extraordinary demonstration of the power wielded by a Mesopotamian king and queen.
  • The Amarna letters: Named after the Egyptian city in which the tablets were discovered, this trove of 14th-century B.C. correspondence includes 40 pieces of official communication between the Egyptian ruler Akhenaten (or his father) and his contemporary rulers in the Near East. Written at a time of unusually peaceful cooperation among neighboring rulers, the letters consistently reveal an attention to the niceties of Mesopotamian diplomacy, as the correspondents acknowledged gifts, proposed royal marriages, or dispatched their own personal physician to the aid of a fellow monarch.
  • The 20,000 tablets found at Kanesh: Discovered at an outpost of Assyrian trade in what is now Turkey, these tablets are the most extensive documentation of merchant activity ever recorded from the ancient world. Dating from the early 2nd millennium B.C., they offer scholars a detailed portrait of the Mesopotamian trading community, including intimate glimpses into how goods were traded and the impact of long-distance trade on family life at home.

Embark on a True Adventure

Professor Castor has twice been named Most Influential Professor by Franklin & Marshall College's senior class. Experienced both in the classroom and on archaeological excavations, she plunges you into the daily life of Mesopotamia's vast range of cultures and animates peoples such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Medes.

In a land where the real history is even more astounding than its legends, the journey you take through ancient Mesopotamian life in Between the Rivers is a true adventure of exploration and discovery—and one you are not likely to forget.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Iraq Museum
    Artifacts looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad remind us of the extraordinary culture that once flourished in Mesopotamia and that contributed to human civilization the earliest cities, complex economies, the first writing system, and the first empires. x
  • 2
    Geography and Environment
    This orientation to Mesopotamia's diverse geography and environment includes an examination of how some factors unique to the region may have encouraged agriculture and urbanism, and how geography shapes cultural and political organization. x
  • 3
    Discovering Mesopotamia
    In this first of two lectures on archaeology, we ask why the discipline is important to our understanding of Mesopotamia, and how early excavations helped shape Western ideas about the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. x
  • 4
    Archaeological Methods
    This lecture analyzes some of the methods that archaeologists use, the artifacts they find, and the methods used to interpret them, providing us with a framework for understanding not only why we know what we know, but also those facts that we cannot know. x
  • 5
    Farming and Early Settlements
    Recognizing that many questions about the prehistoric era remain unanswered, we speculate about the events that led people to settle in the first villages, finishing with a look at some early evidence of social complexity. x
  • 6
    The Uruk Phenomenon
    Early cities developed in their fullest form about 5,000 years ago. The city of Uruk—the earliest and largest city in southern Mesopotamia—has come to represent the rise of the city. x
  • 7
    Writing
    We trace early forms of record keeping, considering whether they contributed to the development of writing, and examine the technology of writing, the development of cuneiform script, and the modern-day translation of cuneiform. x
  • 8
    Temples
    This lecture looks at how and why temples were built, how they filled their religious purposes, their economic function within an urban setting, and how temples and rulers filled each others' needs and justified their respective roles in the city. x
  • 9
    Mesopotamian Deities
    We meet some of the gods who were honored in temples, discussing their powers, their relationships with each other and with their human worshipers, and the rituals necessary to encourage their favor. x
  • 10
    Gilgamesh—Hero and King
    We shift our focus from the gods to individuals, specifically heroes, as represented in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's first epic description of a hero and his adventures. x
  • 11
    The Early Dynastic Period
    The idea of the city spreads quickly, and a string of them soon reaches up to central Mesopotamia. This lecture examines contemporary historical texts to see the emergence of political structures and rulers in these cities and examines their relationships with regions outside Mesopotamia. x
  • 12
    Warfare and Diplomacy
    Having learned that documents recording contemporary events are preserved for the Early Dynastic period, we turn to the subject of warfare to see how disputes were represented in written sources and images. x
  • 13
    The Royal Cemetery at Ur
    Burials were a final opportunity to display the strength and control of a king, and we examine one of the most spectacular and widely publicized examples, revealing much about the funerary customs for members of the political, religious, or social elite. x
  • 14
    The Akkadians
    We move from the kings of cities to the first ruler who could legitimately claim his mastery over northern and southern Mesopotamia: Sargon of Akkad, whose rise marks the beginning of a new dynasty. x
  • 15
    Ideology of Kingship—Naram-Sin and Gudea
    The reign of Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, shows, for the first time, a ruler worshiped as divine during his lifetime. With the reign of Gudea, the first ruler of a new dynasty, we see the king's representation return to a more traditional style. x
  • 16
    The Ur III Dynasty
    The end of Akkadian control sees the newly independent city-state of Ur come to dominate Babylonia. Ur's rulers organize a much more centralized government that effectively controls the region for more than 100 years. x
  • 17
    Life in a Mesopotamian City
    We return to the theme of urbanism to see what developments have occurred since we last explored the topic in the Uruk era, extrapolating from several centuries and sites to create a picture of urban life. x
  • 18
    Food and Drink
    This lecture examines food and drink from prehistory to the time of Alexander the Great, drawing on evidence ranging across artistic representations, archaeological discoveries, scattered written references to feasts sponsored by temples or rulers, and even poetry. x
  • 19
    Assyrian Trade Networks
    A mammoth archaeological find of 20,000 tablets found at an Assyrian merchant outpost allows us to study trade not as part of a statewide bureaucracy, but as a private enterprise, with evidence of an international trade network in textiles, tin, silver, and gold. x
  • 20
    Hammurabi of Babylon
    A long reign gives a new ruler time to found a new and impressive kingdom, forging a strong personal rule largely concerned with justice for his people and bringing peace to the era. x
  • 21
    Zimri-Lim of Mari
    We will discuss the turbulent closing decades of the rich state of Mari—destroyed by Hammurabi's final major campaign—which was controlled first by the Assyrians and then by the last of its rulers, Zimri-Lim. x
  • 22
    Laws
    We survey the types of Mesopotamian laws that have survived, from the very end of the 3rd millennium B.C. to Hammurabi's laws of the 18th century, to the 11th-century Middle Assyrian precepts that regulated the appea and behavior of the royal court. x
  • 23
    Medicine, Science, and Math
    This lecture examines scientific thought and how science helped order and explain the natural world for Mesopotamian cultures. We will discuss medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and divination—the most challenging and important science in the Mesopotamian world. x
  • 24
    Poetry and Literature
    We look at poetry and literature that explores a range of themes—including creation, the deeds and personalities of the gods, suffering, and divine justice—and also examine proverbial wisdom, jokes, love poems, and the use of magic spells. x
  • 25
    Internationalism
    We return to our survey of the political history of the region by looking at the Near East as a whole, with much of our insight coming from a collection of letters between kings discovered at an Egyptian site known as Tell el-Amarna. x
  • 26
    Assyrian Expansion
    We focus on two 9th-century B.C. rulers, Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, whose leadership and innovations were essential to the expansion of the Assyrian Empire. x
  • 27
    Sargon II
    This lecture traces the remarkable spread of the Assyrian empire in the second half of the 8th century B.C., beginning with the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III and continuing with that of Sargon II, six years later. x
  • 28
    Ideology of Empire
    Using both literary and visual sources, we look at several features of Assyria's rulers and military that characterized the empire and contributed to its dominance. x
  • 29
    Control and Revolt
    In the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., Assyria is in firm control of an enormous empire, ranging from Mesopotamia to Egypt. But certain trouble spots, especially in Babylonia, reveal weaknesses that will contribute to its unexpected collapse in the late 7th century. x
  • 30
    Medes and the Neo-Babylonian State
    When Assyria falls, it is at the hands of the Babylonians and their king, Nabopolassar, who were aided by the Medes, a tribal people. We look at both of these peoples, including Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar, whose building successes exceed even his political and military accomplishments. x
  • 31
    The Rise of the Achaemenids
    This lecture focuses on the Achaemenids, or Persians, an Iranian culture that blended elements of earlier cultures to rule the empire, using a variety of methods, including a new language, coinage, and road network, to control the area. x
  • 32
    Persians in Egypt and Greece
    We look at Persia's excursions against both Egypt and Greece, the latter of which—likely an attempt by the Persian king, Darius, to gain access to the riches of the West—results in a stunning defeat far from home. x
  • 33
    Xerxes’s Invasion of Greece
    Ten years later, Greece again repels a Persian invasion. This lecture focuses on descriptions of the Persian king, Xerxes, by the Greek historian Herodotus, who compares Greeks with Persians as representative of a democratic versus tyrannical way of life. x
  • 34
    Persian Art and Culture
    This lecture considers an array of artifacts, from small seal stones to massive palace architecture, to illustrate the blend of many artistic and cultural themes to create a new, identifiably Persian, style of art. x
  • 35
    Alexander the Great
    Alexander defeats the Persians in 331 B.C. and quickly captures Babylonia. Welcomed as a legitimate successor, he often behaves as a traditional Mesopotamian ruler might, rebuilding temples and seeking to expand the empire, ultimately dying without naming a successor. x
  • 36
    After Alexander
    This final lecture glances ahead at the history of the region after Alexander's campaigns in light of the course's major themes. x

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Your professor

Alexis Q. Castor

About Your Professor

Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College
Dr. Alexis Q. Castor is Assistant Professor of Classics at Franklin & Marshall College, where she teaches ancient history, archaeology, and Greek. She earned her her B.A. in History from George Mason University and M.A. and Ph.D. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College. She also completed graduate courses in Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history at The George Washington University. Professor...
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Reviews

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 101.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Clear and informative One of the best presentations so far. Dr. Castor is clear and precise in her presentation with none of the stuttering and stammering I've seen in other courses. She is obviously comfortable with her knowledge of the subject and her direct, facts only approach is refreshing. She covers the period as thoroughly as one could expect given the amount of time available. I agree that there was some extraneous information that could have been omitted, but others may find that information valuable. I would strongly recommend the course to anyone interested in the subject.
Date published: 2011-11-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice Overview Given the subject matter, this course is well done and informative. Well worth the time.
Date published: 2011-11-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Average Course - Unfortunately I have several courses from TTC that cover this same area and era and am glad I watched the others before this one. Part of the problem is the dearth of material from archaeology or history for this early period of civilization, but part of the problem is the presentation. I do not regret buying this course as it does fill in some material that the other courses did not cover or covered in a different way. The professor has a nice speaking voice but I have to admit that her lack of enthusiasm (as opposed to the Professor in the History of Egypt) and her inclusion of what sometimes seemed needless and uninteresting detail, caused my mind to wander--- or for that matter for me to wander off to do something else, merely listening vs watching the DVD. This could have been a better course if distilled into 24 vs 36 lectures. Still, despite these comments, I do feel that there is much that is useful in the presentation. Her early discussion of the difference between the Euphrates and the Tigris (one meandering and one much straighter and faster moving, resulting in different patterns of agriculture around each river since the banks of the Tigris are much steeper and therefore not amenable to irrigation canals like around the Euphrates) was something I had not known and is an example of some of the useful items in the course. I can recommend this course to those interested in the subject and area but not with the same enthusiasm that I have recommended other courses. If this were the first or only course someone were considering covering this area and era I am afraid I would suggest avoiding this one and going with one of the other fine courses offered by TTC covering this area.
Date published: 2011-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Can't Miss Course for Ancient History Buffs This course started out a little slow. I felt the first five lectures were more of the same presentation repeating itself and would've liked to have seen those lectures condensed. The course started getting really interesting when Dr. Castor described the Mesopotamian account of the flood and the accounts of Sargon, Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and all the other kings. The DVD version is highly recommended which shows you the building structures, tablets with writing, and maps of the areas being discussed. The book that comes with this course is excellent, with about 90% of what is on the DVD is in the book. Dr. Castor is very insightful, but isn't as captivating as some professors, such as Bob Brier, the Egyptologist. I found it best to read the book while I was watching the DVD, which helped increase my learning and attention span. I recommend for those who were bored with the first 5 to 8 lectures to stick with this course because it gets a lot better.
Date published: 2011-07-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from very good for those interested in the subject I would recommend this course to anyone with more than a passing interest in the ancient near eastern history and art. The information is presented in a clear, comprehensive, and above all, intellectually honest way. Professor Castor is quite up front with the audience about the scantness of archeological evidence from the 4th-2nd millenniums BCE, and I prefer the honesty to flaunting dubious theories or tall tales to make the history more exciting. This is supposed to be a college-level course after all. I agree that as a speaker, prof. Castor is less dynamic than some of TC's "stars", and especially in the beginning is somewhat stiff. It may help if your listening device allows for faster playback of audiobooks/podcasts, as she does sound better a bit speed up. However, her overall delivery is fine enough, and is no excuse to skip the excellent content of these lectures. As other reviewers noted, she picks up steam after the first 5 lectures and shows her sense of humor on occasion.
Date published: 2011-05-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting filler to other courses on area This review refers to the CD's This course suffers from unfortunate competition from two standpoints. Neither one is the fault of the lecturer. One is the obvious situation of current events. The other is more subtle. TTC offers several other courses by more dynamic lecturers that essentially cover this same territory and time period to some extent. As a stand alone series, it is interesting and useful. Other reviewers have commented on the lecturer delivery, but I had no reaction to it, especially since I was listening to CD's. Because of the coverage overlap from other courses mentioned above, I returned the CD's.
Date published: 2011-04-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from good material, so-so delivery Prof. Castor covers almost four millenia in this course, which is comprehensive about the earliest cities, the invention of writing, the kingdoms and kings, daily life, trade, and more. There's a lot of extremely interesting material here, and I found many of the lectures captivating. Prof. Castor is a very clear and articulate speaker but I find her pace slow, which made the course less exciting and overall less captivating for me than those course by people like Prof. Harl or Prof. Noble. I also found the first four lectures, which focused on methods of archaeology, a slow start to the course; I would have preferred those four lectures to be compressed into one. Nonetheless, there is a lot of good and interesting information here, covering an early civilization (ancient Sumer) in which so many of the things we take for granted today -- like the wheel and writing -- were invented.
Date published: 2010-11-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Only course I've ever returned I love this period of history and I slogged my way through this course because I really wanted the information. But I found the instructor unorganized and the presentation simply awful. She even presented misinformation. What a disappointment.
Date published: 2010-09-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The single worst course I have purchased Let me preface by saying that I bought this as an audio download, which is how I buy almost all of my courses. I am extremely interested in the history of this period, so it was greatly disappointing to have to try and stay awake while listening to these lectures. I don't doubt that the presenter knows her subject. However, I have had this course for two years and have been unable to finish it. Every time I put it on, she bores me so badly that I don't even retain the material from the lecture. Perhaps with the visuals, the course is better. But from the standpoint of an audio course, this is crashingly boring.
Date published: 2010-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly informative Prof. Castor has a somewhat stiffer lecturing style than I am accustomed to, but her humour comes out (and she relaxes)as the course proceeds. An excellent overview of the early history of a region about which I and my wife knew very little, covering politics, economics, art, architecture, and warfare. It fits well with similar courses on ancient Egypt, not least implicitly noting similarities and differences. The note on which she ends-the brutal wrecking of the Antiquities Museum in Baghdad, at the end of the Gulf War-obviously has hurt her (and should all antiquity lovers) immensely. I thoroughly recommend this course
Date published: 2010-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course This course filled in a huge gap in my knowledge of ancient history. I found it absolutely fascinating, and would have watched the whole thing in one sitting if I could have. I appreciated Professor Castor's ability to clearly present and weave together so many different aspects of Mesopotamian history, including art, politics, literature, family life, city life, food, war, religion, science and medicine. I also enjoyed her sense of humor, which seemed to come out more and more as the course progressed. I loved seeing history from the point of view of an archeologist, which is just one of many perspectives she provides on the ancient world. I will say that in general I find the pace of speech in Teaching Company lectures too slow for my taste, this one included, but watching the DVD on the computer using a program that allows me to speed up the pace solves that problem completely. Although I usually buy the audio version of Teaching Company courses, I'm glad I got this one on DVD, or I would have missed out on all the fantastic pictures of art and buildings, as well as the helpful maps. I highly recommend this course for anyone who is interested in ancient Mesopotamian history.
Date published: 2010-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous & Not to be missed! Dr. Castor's lengthy course on the history of Ancient Mesopotamia has become a classic in our video library. I am now in the process of watching it, cover to cover, for the 3rd time in a year. As a newly minted Art History Junkie, Dr. Castor's course has been invaluable to me in setting the stage for further understanding of Egyptian History (unfolding at the same time as the Mesopotamian events covered in this course), and promoting a better understanding of subsequent developments in Anatolia, the Levant, Greece, and Rome. The carefully constructed curriculum in Dr. Castor's course also helps the student understand the evolution of the science of archeology, encouraging an open-minded attitude towards the idea that even today's interpretaton of Ancient History remains a work in progress.
Date published: 2010-02-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Teaching value I have listened to a number of TC courses on ancient history and almost returned this one after listening to a lecture or two. I decided to read what other people were saying about it before I did and found a range of sentiment from a man who wanted to marry Dr. Castor on the spot, to another gentleman who claimed she put him to sleep. I was inclined to go with the sleeper on this one, but persisted on the strength of the positive reviews, and there are a number of those. What I found as I continued listening was an attempt to cover about 3,000 years of history in a very convoluted area and era. Mesopotamia was the beginning of the idea of empire and all sorts of over-testosteroned males decided they wanted to be a king with an empire and the result is a succession of short-lived empires followed by periods of chaos until the next king got into position, often from another city-state. So this is not 500 years of history with a few notable people to dwell on with a lot of written documentation - this is 3,000 years of warfare with hardly anything to go on. Dr. Castor has organized this information and it cannot, in my view, be delivered in any other way. And to the people who object to the dry delivery, this is dry stuff and only fascinating to those inspired by it. By choosing this material Dr. Castor has perhaps made a choice in her own style. Maybe she did it because she likes to look for life in dry stuff. Whatever the case, I believe it is a good marriage (speaking of marriage, I wouldn't mind marrying her myself, but recognize the prior claim of an earlier reviewer). She seems to be a very attractive and engaging personality. I am now listening to the lectures for a second time and my appreciation is even greater. There is a lot of detail I missed the first time around. It is like reading the Bible - it is dense and must be absorbed over time and multiple exposures.
Date published: 2010-02-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Average to Good Course I enjoyed this course and it filled in a huge gap in my knowledge of pre-classical civilization. I found the early chapters more enjoyable than the later lectures. I am interested in how some may describe the class as "boring." It is more systematic than boring, and it doesn't have the empty sensationalism of some other Learning Company courses. This means the class is, yes, less entertaining than some others, but it does carry a lot of content with it, which makes it more like your typical college history class. At times it was easy to get distracted from the lectures because the lecturer's presentation is broken by re-recording over what msut have been her frequent stumbles, so I had to replay several lectures when I found myself drifting off . I find these courses work well when you're walking or doing some other activity, It is difficult just to sit and listen to many of these courses (I know now since.I am temporarily in a wheelchair after a fall from the roof), and this one would especially work while you were walking or exercising. It is a good introduction to the subject, and I would recommend it.
Date published: 2010-02-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Greatly enjoyed Given all that's happened in the middle east over the past 20 years, it's enlightening to learn what was happening in the middle east 5000 years ago. In some ways, it's sad that the legacy of their history is lost on the area's inhabitants today (for many at least). Great presentation and I enjoyed it so much I've listened to it more than once.
Date published: 2010-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Serious history rather than sensationalism This course is an example of one of the more intellectually serious Teaching Company courses. Some will find it dry (though it has its unquestionably amusing moments.) The tale loses some entertainment value for being intellectually honest. I personally prefer it this way, but there are clearly those who prefer greater simplification in the surface of straightforward narrative.
Date published: 2009-12-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Best experienced as a Video This course is much better than the worst reviews indicate. My perception is that most of the 1 and 2 star reviews were submitted by persons using the audio only content. There are many maps and pictures of artifacts which are presented concurrently with her discussion. Even the many terms and names which were flashed up on the screen as text were surprisingly helpful to me to solidfiy assimilation of the material. Although she seems to avoid explicitly referring to these visuals, I think they are extremely helpful and I could easily imagine that someone experiencing these lectures without them would be frequently lost and bored without that added visual anchor. Also, some reviewers have complained about her unsubstantiated speculations. That was not my perception. In a field like this there is bound to be a lot of speculation and the subject would be poorly represented indeed if it avoided all speculation. But she was generally quite careful to present the speculative aspects as just that. I will agree that her lecture style is visually a little distracting -- she seems to be lecturing to the cameras, which I suspect is difficult. The result is that she doesn't appear comfortable most of the time. Most other TTC lecturers address themselves to the small audience and they let the camera shots take care of themselves. The result is a more natural presentation than Professor Castor achieves. The material covered in this course is its strongest point: it is not just a boring run-through of the sucession of empires and rulers, but attempts, to explore some of the more systematic aspects of history -- climate, environment, researcher bias, influences of archeological techniques and an especially heavy emphasis on economic considerations. Some people will like this approach, others may not. Enjoy...
Date published: 2009-12-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinarily well done I have read a fair amount about the Middle East and its history. I am very impressed with the delivery, organization,and content of this course. While there was material I had seen before, Professor Castor always presented her material in context, with considerable background information so that even repetition was very valuable. She has a broad base of knowledge, and can pull in information from other cultures and regions to widen our perspective on the subject. One thing I especially liked was her emphasis on archaeological findings and their possible interpretations. While some have quibbled about her qualifying statements about limits of our knowledge, I found these useful--I have talked to many people who should understand such limits, but don't! Another big plus to the course is her frequent use of very good topographical maps of the area in question. When you see the terrain, it is very easy to understand the strategic importance of certain locations for trade routes, defense, etc. I highly recommend the DVD version of this course. It is studded with maps and many excellent photos of sites, buildings, murals, monuments, jewelry, and statues. Her organization of material is very fine and logical, with an occasional jump ahead or a back reference to clinch a point. One of her strong points is noting similarities and differences in the successive cultures by comparing their different styles of architecture, murals, jewelry, etc. Especially enriching about the course is her broad approach, using historical facts, maps, photos, ancient sources, and contemporary research to present a very full image of the cultures and the history. In particular, she spends a great deal of time talking about religions, modes of worship and sacrifice, life styles, types of occupations, types of houses, temples, and other buildings. This is not just a history course, but a cultural adventure into the past.
Date published: 2009-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Top quality without hype I have purchased quite a few courses but have not provided a review until now. In view of a couple of recent unfavorable comments, I feel compelled to say a few words of high praise for this course and Prof. Castor. This course provides a wealth of rich detail about and insight into the politics, economics, religion, culture, and way of life and ancient Mesopotamia at the dawn of western civilization. Prof. Castor punctuates the sweep and overview of events with specific and sometimes personal examples. One can empathize, for example, with the plight of Zimri-Lim of Mari when he is faced with the more powerful and temperamental Hammurabi. Prof. Castor not only tells what happened but provides insight in to how and why events may have occurred. I have read several books and listened to lectures about ancient Mesopotamia but none have approached the clarity and breadth of Prof. Castor’s presentation. For content, this course can’t be beat. Now, about Prof. Castor’s style of lecturing, she is quite, understated, thoughtful, and careful in what she says. Sure she pauses frequently. I found these pauses to be excellent opportunities to reflect on what she had been saying. This is not teaching down to the audience, in my view. She is showing respect for the content and providing the listener an opportunity to digest it. And, one should not miss her dry humor along the way, such as her reference to the “sexy” style in which the Assyrian kings were posed, prominently displaying there masculine biceps, or in the manner in which the monarchs addressed each other in the Amarna letters. It makes no difference to me whether or not the lecturer uses notes or reads along the way. Prof. Castor’s style is quite and nuanced. If you can go with that, you will really learn a lot from this course.
Date published: 2009-10-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from My first Dud After listening to a number of wonderful courses from The Teaching Company, unfortunately this course was my first disappointment. I was looking forward to learning about this interesting period of history, and it probably didn't help that I had just finished Bob Brier's 5-star course on Ancient Egypt. Alexis Castor by contrast sounded like every history professor I have known who put me to sleep. She read her material in an almost monotone, and I was lost before the first lecture was over. However, The teaching company did not hesitate to honor their guarantee to refund me this course.
Date published: 2009-09-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 11th grade class Most TC classes are aimed at mature people who have have taken (I have taken more than 30), or are ready for a college-level class in terms of content and presentation. Usually there is an effort by the professor to position the presentation so that someone new to the field will not be left in the dust, but also so that someone who, typical of TC clientele, having a few years and perhaps some grey hair on them, will also get enough new information and interpretation to make their time watching the course well spent. This kind of course should be, in my opinion, an elective, upper division course in most college offerings, and would assume at least some familiarity with history and its techniques. I felt that Prof. Castor aims too low, at what I would characterize as a high-school level audience, being overly cautious with complexity of ideas, and repeatedly qualifying statements with the fact we can not know something for sure 5000 years later, and often restating obvious ideas two or three different ways. She seems reticent to put her spin on things, fearful of being unclear, and uses a kind of dry, linear, academic rigor in her approach, as if she were afraid she might offend someone or be caught in a technical error. A little more humor would go a long way. I was left craving from her some personal emotional energy and enthusiasm for the topic, such as that readily found, for example, in Bob Brier's excellent lectures on Egypt. I lasted 8 lectures before deciding not to continue. I am reminded of my performance the first time I got up in front of a college class, and I hope she tries again, looking at TC customers in a somewhat more sophisticated way, as I had to learn with my studens.
Date published: 2009-08-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed I was really interested in the content but the professor was too boring and monotone. I could not finish watching the full series of lectures.
Date published: 2009-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another facet of the Ancient World I listened to the CD version of this course.and found it inberesting. It gave me a lot of info on a part of the ancient world that is not often emphasized.
Date published: 2009-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Class I thought this course was great. I like the organization of the class material mixing chronological and social content. I also like the references to the archeology and Prof. Castor's clarity in continuing to point out where our knowledge of the region is conjecture and interpretation. The maps made a big difference which is why I liked the DVD version. Prof. Castor does talk slightly slower than some of the other professors offering history courses and the very first lecture seemed to have the longest pauses between sentences. But I found her overall presentation very engaging and she certainly knows her material.
Date published: 2009-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Between the Rivers: The Hostiry of Ancient Mesopot This is a brilliant course and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of every disk. This is a complex subject and it was presented in a clear understandable way with excellent maps and good pictures. The maps were particularly helpful and gave you a feeling of where you were. Many of us are familiar with modern names in Iraq, but to realise they were so ancient was a revelation. Well done. More of this standard please.
Date published: 2009-06-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dry Details overwhelm the point-- prof seemed camera shy or nervous. Only time I have ever quit a teaching company's offering.
Date published: 2009-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Strongly recomended Professor Castor is definitely an expert in the topic. The course is well organized. It is one the the best courses I'd like to recommend to those who are interested in ancient history.
Date published: 2009-04-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed I was disappointed with this course and returned it for another. I love this period of history but was simply bored by the lecture style of the presenter. Many people find this time period dry to begin with so I was hoping for some excitement in the presentation. The material was great, but for the money, I wanted more and would have only listened to this once.
Date published: 2009-03-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from so-so Well-below the quality of most Teaching Company courses. The lecturer's speaking ability is not engaging. Also, she frequently draws causal connections without justification, and she sometimes lacks a good understanding of nearby cultures, particularly Egypt.
Date published: 2009-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Be Prepared to Devote Time This course has a lot of information that covers the map (history, geography, archaeology, mythology, etc.). But the professor is very dry. I found it (audio version) slow-going but ultimately rewarding.
Date published: 2009-03-10
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