The Persian Empire fascinates and rightly so. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559, represented the culmination of 2,000 years of Middle Eastern history. During their two centuries of rule, the Persians united much of the then civilized world, from Egypt to India. Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones argues, in partial justification for his new history, that this era is ignored or misunderstood, a claim that seems at odds with now a rather long list of books on the Empire that may be found on Amazon. As both Llewellyn-Jones, grudgingly, and Matt Waters, more graciously, demonstrate, we know a huge amount about this empire, in part because it coincided with the classical age of Greek literature. In addition, this Empire recorded in clay tablets every loaf of bread and cup of wine provided to its civil and military functionaries. The very richness of the archaeological and literary sources make constructing a coherent story challenging. Llewellyn-Jones makes the history cogent and exciting by stretching his sources about as far as they can go, and provides no footnotes. Waters uses the same sources, amply documented, and in a gingerly fashion, for his painstakingly complete life of Cyrus the great.

“Ancient Iran and the Classical World”, an exhibition currently running at the J Paul Getty Museum, is the second in a series that examines how ancient Greece and Rome interacted with the other civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and beyond. A sequel to the inaugural exhibition, “Beyond the Nile”, the current exhibition considers the significance of ancient Persia (Iran) and follows interactions between Persia and the Classical world from the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) through the Arab invasion in 638 BC.

Nearly a decade ago, archaeologists at Wadi al-Jarf on Egypt’s Red Sea Coast found a cache of papyrus fragments dating from the reign of the 4th Dynasty King Khufu (Cheops), he of the Great Pyramid at Giza, dating from 2633-2605 BCE. These fragments appear to be the “oldest written documents” ever found (document meaning material approximating paper as opposed to some other material); more interesting perhaps is that they are from logbooks—tasks, travel, supplies, rations—of an official called Inspector Merer, who ran a work gang who also transported stone blocks destined for the Great Pyramid.

The Mediterranean, the body of water that now divides and buffers Europe from the “over there” of Africa and the Middle East, used (many centuries ago) to unite a region. The “Mare Nostrum” of the Romans was a conduit for internal commercial and cultural communication. And for several centuries prior to becoming a Roman lake, the Mediterranean served to knit together a civilizational way of life, legacies upon which “the West”, broadly-speaking, was based.

One would think that comparing civilizations as far removed in time and space as Ancient Egypt and Ancient China might not reveal much. Yet Professor Tony Barbieri’s Ancient Egypt and Early China: State, Society, and Culture gleans much from a deeply-researched comparison of political structures, diplomatic relations, legal systems, ideas of the afterlife, and other aspects.