Pick Of The Picture Books: The Middle East: the cradle of civilization revealed

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The current London exhibitions devoted to the ancient life and modern legacy of Byzantium and Babylon have confirmed that the distant history of the Near and Middle East still counts as our spiritual backyard. In The Middle East: the cradle of civilization revealed (Thames & Hudson, £29.95), Stephen Bourke and his team of scholars present a gorgeous and learned overview of almost 4,000 years of history and culture in the region, from the proto-cities of Uruk and Ninevah to the Roman and Arab conquests.

Expert text, generous design and shrewdly arranged pictures add up to the kind of accessibly erudite package that T&H does so peerlessly. At a period when – unprecedentedly – more than half the world's people now live in urban centres, the story of the birth of cities in the "Fertile Crescent" seems timelier than ever. And with cities came writing – an equal breakthrough just as succinctly explained. The final section shows how – from naked plunder to scientific archaeology to code-breaking coups – we came to know so much about this remote world. Right: the "Alexander Sarcophagus" (fourth century BC) depicts the battle between Alexander's Macedonians and the Persian cavalry.