I recently picked up a very interesting volume of ancient Near Eastern primary texts of various sorts. It’s got a bit of everything: mortuary texts, legal documents, letters, ostraka, hymns, temple rituals, legends. There’s even an old Sumerian lullaby from about 4,000 years ago. The purpose of the book, according to its incipit, is both to provide sources relevant to the work of Old Testament scholars (that being the main category of Near East scholars when the first edition was written) and to provide enough other works to give you a feel for the context of the time.
Something I’ve been noticing while reading through this is how different the various cultures feel. The Hittites come off as warlike: not only do they have a lot of documents about war (that might be simple selection bias), but their approach to it is far more gung-ho than the others’. Not in a good way, in a “we like to kill people” sort of way. The Egyptian texts feel far more foreign than I expected: part of this is because they come so predominantly from tombs, but the culture seems to look towards a political center much more than any of the others. Even by comparison to royal texts from other lands, that country seems dominated by the overwhelming power of a single political entity. The Sumerian and Akkadian texts, on the other hand, feel almost familiar; the stories and concerns of the people feel like they wouldn’t be out of place today.
I suspect that this is because we (I?) actually have a good deal more continuity of culture with the Sumerians. The Jews started out there, and came back later in Babylonian days; their old customs and ours are pretty hard to tell apart. And despite the fact that in history class we hear far more about the ancient Egyptians, we don’t actually have much culture in common with them, and it’s not clear that anyone really does; the break between the culture of the Middle Kingdom and the culture of Greek, and later Roman, Egypt was pretty deep. Whatever their powers may have been, the Ptolemies were no Pharaohs.
There’s something very odd about reading texts from an old place, and realizing that they don’t feel foreign to you. The world suddenly feels like it has some sort of structure. But I suppose that this firm an anchoring in history may be where a lot of the Middle East’s problems come from in the modern day, too.