Pyramids at Giza in EgyptStatue
                      of Egyptian king and queen

Syracuse University
Spring, 2023

REL 301 / MES 300
Ancient Near Eastern Religions & Cultures

Cuneiform inscriptionCreature on glazed wall from Babylon

Time: 12:30-1:50 on Tuesdays & Thursdays
Place: Shaffer 203
: Jim Watts (PhD) he, him
Office: Hall of Languages 501 
Office Hours: TTh 2-3 pm and by appointment
E-mailjwwatts at
Phone:  443-5713


Course Description The ancient Near East produced the oldest written texts in the world, along with much art and other artifacts. They provide a window into the ways of life, rituals, beliefs, hopes and fears of people living 2,500 to 5,000 years ago and illustrate the interplay between religion and human culture in all its various forms. This course will explore the interaction of culture and religion by examining the social contexts of ancient religious ideas and practices through close readings of texts from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Israel, and close examination of textual artifacts.

Parts of each students' research will involve hands-on examination of old textual artifacts in SU Library's Special Collections.

Audience: Students interested in ancient history, culture, and religion and wishing to fill Humanities and Writing Intensive core requirements, as well as majors and minors in Religion, Jewish Studies, History, Literature and Art History.


Goals: In this course, students will: 

  1. develop an understanding of ancient Near Eastern cultures as key instances in the diversity of human religious phenomena,
  2. develop fluency in describing and interpreting ancient textual and artifactual remains,
  3. use the context of ancient Near Eastern cultures to think both critically and imaginatively about the nature of religion as a basic response to and expression of the human condition;
  4. recognize and appreciate the difficulties and possibilities in undertaking a coherent, disciplined study of ancient cultures, and to become aware of the diversity of perspectives within that study;
  5. come to a distinct yet corrigible conception of "religion," and to be able to recognize its appearance not only within ancient religious institutions of diverse cultures, but also in other social/cultural forms.

Course Requirements:
The course consists of class discussions, lectures, student projects, and, most of all, readings. This course is a reading course, and students' completion of all reading assignments is essential for their success. Assignments, discussions, lectures and tests all presuppose that students have read carefully and on schedule the assigned readings. Questions to guide students' reading can be found in the schedule.

Attendance and participation in discussions is expected of all students and will influence my evaluation of their work (5%), which will also be based on their performance on daily quizzes (15% total), and four research papers (20% each). The grades of late papers will be reduced by one grade level (e.g. B to B-). Missed quizzes cannot be made up, but the lowest five quiz grades will be dropped.

The grading scale is: A+ = 100, A = 95, A- = 92, B+ = 88, B = 85, B- = 82, C+ = 78, C = 75, C- = 72, D+ = 68, D = 65, D- = 62, F = 55. Incidents of plagiarism or cheating result in no credit (0) for the test or assignment and may result in further disciplinary action (see academic integrity statement below). Students may check their grades online through the Blackboard Learning System.

Class-room Behavior: A successful learning experience depends on students' behavior in class, as much as on the quality of their work and on the teacher's presentations.

  • I encourage energetic discussion of relevant topics and expect different opinions among class members, but always express your ideas with respect for those who might disagree with you.
  • Arrive on time. If you must be late, enter quietly. Do not leave during class except for an  emergency.
  • Turn off cell phones, laptops, and tablets. If you wish to use an electronic device for class work (notes, assignments), you must sit in the front row of the class. Texting, e-mailing or web browsing during class are grounds for dismissal from that day’s class.

Academic Integrity:
Syracuse University’s Academic Integrity Policy reflects the high value that we, as a university community, place on honesty in academic work. The policy holds students accountable for the integrity of all work they submit and for upholding course-specific expectations, as well as university-wide, academic integrity expectations. The policy governs citation and use of sources, the integrity of work submitted in exams and assignments, and truthfulness in all academic matters, including course attendance and participation. The policy also prohibits students from: 1) submitting the same work in more than one class without receiving advance written authorization from both instructors and, 2) using websites that charge fees or require uploading of course materials to obtain exam solutions or assignments completed by others and presenting the work as their own. Under the policy, instructors who seek to penalize a student for a suspected violation must first report the violation to the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS). Students may not drop or withdraw from courses in which they face a suspected violation. Instructors must wait to assign a final course grade until a suspected violation is reviewed and upheld or overturned. Upholding Academic Integrity includes abiding by instructors’ individual course expectations, which may include the protection of their intellectual property. Students should not upload, distribute, or otherwise share instructors’ course materials without permission. Students found in violation of the policy are subject to grade sanctions determined by the course instructor and non-grade sanctions determined by the School or College where the course is offered, as outlined in the Violation and Sanction Classification Rubric. Students are required to read an online summary of the University’s academic integrity expectations and provide an electronic signature agreeing to abide by them twice a year during pre-term check-in on MySlice.

The Violation and Sanction Classification Rubric establishes recommended guidelines for the determination of grade penalties by faculty and instructors, while also giving them discretion to select the grade penalty they believe most suitable, including course failure, regardless of violation level. Any established violation in this course may result in course failure regardless of violation level. In this course, students found cheating on a test or assignment will receive zero (0) credit for that test or assignment and may result in further disciplinary action. For more information and the complete policy, see the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS) in Bird Library or at

Academic Integrity Online:
All academic integrity expectations that apply to in-person quizzes and exams also apply to online quizzes and exams. In this course, all work submitted for quizzes and exams must be yours alone. Discussing quiz or exam questions with anyone during the quiz or exam period violates academic integrity expectations for this course. Using websites that charge fees or require uploading of course material (e.g., Chegg, Course Hero, ChatGPT) to obtain exam solutions or assignments completed by others and present the work as your own violates academic integrity expectations in this course and may be classified as a Level 3 violation, resulting in suspension or expulsion from Syracuse University.

This class will use the plagiarism detection and prevention system Turnitin. You will have the option to submit your papers to Turnitin to check that all sources you use have been properly acknowledged and cited before you submit the final paper through Turnitin, which compares submitted documents against documents on the Internet and against student papers submitted to Turnitin at Syracuse University and at other colleges and universities. I will take your knowledge of the subject matter of this course and your writing level and style into account in interpreting the originality report. Keep in mind that all take-home tests you submit for this class will become part of the reference database solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism of such papers.

Discrimination or Harassment: The University does not discriminate and prohibits harassment or discrimination related to any protected category including creed, ethnicity, citizenship, sexual orientation, national origin, sex, gender, pregnancy, disability, marital status, age, race, color, veteran status, military status, religion, sexual orientation, domestic violence status, genetic information, gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender.

Any complaint of discrimination or harassment related to any of these protected bases should be reported to Sheila Johnson-Willis, the University’s Chief Equal Opportunity & Title IX Officer. She is responsible for coordinating compliance efforts under various laws including Titles VI, VII, IX and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. She can be contacted at Equal Opportunity, Inclusion, and Resolution Services, 005 Steele Hall, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244-1120; by email:; or by telephone: 315-443-0211.

Federal and state law, and University policy prohibit discrimination and harassment based on sex or gender (including sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic/dating violence, stalking, sexual exploitation, and retaliation). If a student has been harassed or assaulted, they can obtain confidential counseling support, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, from the Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Team at the Counseling Center (315-443-4715, 200 Walnut Place, Syracuse, New York 13244-5040). Incidents of sexual violence or harassment can be reported non-confidentially to the University’s Title IX Officer (Sheila Johnson Willis, 315-443-0211,, 005 Steele Hall). Reports to law enforcement can be made to the University’s Department of Public Safety (315-443-2224, 005 Sims Hall), the Syracuse Police Department (511 South State Street, Syracuse, New York, 911 in case of emergency or 315-435-3016 to speak with the Abused Persons Unit), or the State Police (844-845-7269).

I will seek to keep information you share with me private to the greatest extent possible, but as a professor I have mandatory reporting responsibilities to share information regarding sexual misconduct, harassment, and crimes I learn about to help make our campus a safer place for all.

Religious Observances Policy: SU's religious observances policy recognizes the diversity of faiths represented among the campus community and protects the rights of students, faculty, and staff to observe religious holidays according to their tradition. Under the policy, students are provided an opportunity to make up any examination, study, or work requirements that may be missed due to are religious observance provided they notify their instructors before the end of the second week of classes. For fall and spring semesters, an online notification process is available through MySlice/StudentServices/Enrollment/MyReligiousObservances from the first day of class until the end of the second week of class.

Disability-Related Accommodations: Syracuse University values diversity and inclusion; we are committed to a climate of mutual respect and full participation. My goal as your instructor is to create learning environments that are useable, equitable, inclusive and welcoming. If there are aspects of the instruction or design of this course that result in barriers to your inclusion or accurate assessment or achievement, I invite you to talk with me to discuss additional strategies beyond accommodations that may be helpful to your success, and to collaborate with the Center for Disability Resources (CDR) in this process.

If you would like to discuss disability-accommodations or register with CDR, please visit Center for Disability Resources. Please call (315) 443-4498 or email for more detailed information. The CDR is responsible for coordinating disability-related academic accommodations and will work with the student to develop an access plan. Since academic accommodations may require early planning and generally are not provided retroactively, please contact CDR as soon as possible to begin this process.

Health and Wellness:
Mental health and overall well-being are significant predictors of academic success. As such it is essential that during your college experience you develop the skills and resources effectively to navigate stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Please familiarize yourself with the range of resources the Barnes Center provides ( and seek out support for mental health concerns as needed. Counseling services are available 24/7, 365 days, at 315-443-8000, and I encourage you to explore the resources available through the Wellness Leadership Institute,

Textbooks (available at the campus bookstore in Schine Student Center):


  • Coogan, Michael D. Stories from Ancient Canaan. 1st or 2nd ed. Westminster, 1978, 2012. (=SFAC)
  • Foster, Benjamin R. From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. Bethesda: CDL, 1995 (=FDD)
  • Foster, John L. Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology. Austin: U. of Texas, 2001. (=AEL)
  • Holland, Glenn. Gods in the Desert. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. (= Gods) Available online through Bird Library (click here).


  • The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh (New Jewish Publication Society Version)
  • or New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version)


Topics & Assignments: Readings from the textbooks appear by abbreviated title and page numbers; readings from biblical books are marked BIBLE and appear as book title (italics) and chapters; readings marked BLACKBOARD appear under the "Documents" tab; and assignments on the internet are underlined in blue  (click the active link).

Papers: Instructions for the four papers appears on Blackboard under the "Assignments" tab.




Assignment (due by class on date listed)


T Jan 17


History & Religion: Mesopotamia
How did politics influence ancient texts? What do stories about battles to be "king of the gods" say about ancient religion and politics?

Th Jan 19

Gods 99-109, 131-136; "Kings & their deeds" FDD 165-211; “Royal Prayers” FDD 272-87; Letter from Kadashman; Letter of Ashuruballit > curatorial interpretation

T Jan 24

Gods 111-118; “Creation Epic” FDD 9-51.

History & Religion: Egypt
How was Egyptian literature different from Mesopotamian texts? How was it possible for military generals to cast themselves as gods/sons of gods/divine co-regents? Why are gods typically described as kings and queens?
Paper Workshop

Th Jan 26

Gods 3-14; Ancient Egypt; “Longing for Memphis” AEL 44-47; “Instruction of MerikareAEL 191-204; “Testament of Amenemhat” AEL 85-88;  “Prophecy of NefertyAEL 76-84;


T Jan 31

Gods 15-23, 37-55; “Senusert” and “Ramses” AEL 94-99; “Hymn to Osiris” AEL 102-109.


History & Religion: Syria-Palestine
Are there similarities in theme, structure, or form between texts from different ancient cultures? Why do so many pantheons preserve memories of previous divine kings now supplanted by their rivals or “sons”?

Th Feb 2

Gods 191-198, 219-25 ; “KirtaSFAC 64-95; Letter about Abdu-Heba; Letter from Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem;
Bible: 2 Samuel 6-7; 2 Kings 24-25.


T Feb 7

Gods 199-212, 228-237; “Baal” SFAC 97-153;
Bible: Psalm 82; Isaiah 45;
Hundley, Making of Monotheism.


Prophets & History

What did ancient prophets do? What were they concerned about? Why did people frequently explain disasters as caused by god(s)? What feelings do laments emphasize?

Th Feb 9

Gods 226-228, 264-273; “Prophecies” FDD 213-20:
Bible: 1 Kings 17-19;
ErraFDD 132-63; “Lament for a City” FDD 324-25;
Bible: Deuteronomy 28; Lamentations 1.


Paper #1

M Feb 13

Noon: First Paper Due


Gods and Creation
What is humanity's place in the universe, according to these ancient texts? Was it different in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Bible?

T Feb 14

Gods 26-36, 122-129; 212-218; “Shipwrecked Sailor” AEL 8-16; “Hymns to Re & Amun” AEL 118-21; “Hymn to Shamash” FDD 254-61;
Bible: Genesis 1-3; Psalm 8


Art & Religion
Why do religions use art and music? Why did Israel restrict art?

Th Feb 16

Ancient Egyptian art; Assyrian art;
Blackboard: Hendricks & Gatto; Jacobsen, “Graven Image”;
Bible: Genesis 1; Exodus 20;



What economic concerns influenced or were reflected in ancient worship of the gods? Why did worship involve economic goods?
T Feb 21 “Little PepiAEL 32-43; “At the Cleaners” FDD 355-56; Life of a salesman; "Grim Secret";
Blackboard: Exchange, gift, & tribute;
“Hymn to the Nile” AEL 110-17; “Hymns and Prayers” FDD 221-28.

Women's Roles

What roles did women play in law and economics? in politics? in wisdom literature?

Th Feb 23

“Portrait of the Queen” AEL 100-101;
Blackboard: Ancient Egypt Man and Woman; "Women's Roles" in Mesopotamia; “Queen's Rights” and “Exaltation of Innana” by Enheduanna; "In Search of Enheduanna"; "Hatshepsut, Female Pharaoh"; Hatshepsut statue; Letter from Kadashman; “Counsels of Wisdom” FDD 377-80;
Bible: Genesis 16, 21; Proverbs 31.


Love and sex
What roles did women play in love songs? Have love songs changed in 4,000 years? How have women's family roles changed or stayed the same?

T Feb 28

“Egyptian Love Songs” AEL 17-31, “Love spells" AEL 90, FDD 331-43, 351-54;
Bible: Song of Songs 3-4;
Gender Violence in Ancient Egypt;
Abortion and Miscarriage in the Ancient Near East


Divine Gender & Sex
What roles did women play in religion? What role did sex play? Did goddesses conform to typical female roles? If not, why not?

Th Mar 2

Gods 23-26, 47-49, 118-122; “Hymns to Gula & Ishtar” FDD 229-246; Divine lovers FDD 344-50; "Aqat" SFAC 27-55;
Bible: Hosea 2;
Blackboard: Cult prostitution; Sacred marriage



How did ancient people identify themselves and others? How do museums reflect and shape modern ethnicity?

T Mar 7

“Tale of Sinuhe” AEL 124-48;
Bible: Genesis 9-14, 39-42;
Ethnicity in Pharaonic Egypt;


Colonialism and Scholarship

Why did Napoleon bring scholars to invade Egypt? How does politics shape museum displays of ancient artifacts today?
Th Mar 9
Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition to Egypt; Pharaoh's Needles;
Blackboard: Said, Orientalism, 79-87.
Porter, Chap. 3 from Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology;

Blackboard: MacDonald, "Egypt at the Petrie museum"; "Zahi Hawass";

African Origin Show at Met

Paper #2

M Mar 20

Noon: Second Paper Due  


Bird Library 6th Floor Spector Rm: Origins and history of writing

T Mar 21

Gods xxiii-xxx; AEL xi-xxi; FDD 1-8; SFAC 1-2; Origins of writing.
Blackboard: "Hymn to Nanshe"


Education & Wisdom Literature
Who got “educated” in antiquity? Did education provide access to power? What kind of power? What kind of values and morality did scribal education try to impart? What kind of religious ideas?

Th Mar 23

Gods 86-91, 182-84; “Dissipated Scribe” and “Minna’s Lament” AEL 48-54; “PtahhotepAEL 186-89; “Ashurbanipal” FDD 282; “Why do you curse me?” FDD 363-64; “Wisdom of AmenemopetAEL 206-228; “AnzuFDD 115-131;
Bible: Proverbs 8, Psalm 1.


Bird Library 6th Floor Hillyer Rm 

T Mar 28

What can fingerprints tell us?

Bring laptop and download Questionnaire from email

Justice I

How did people's feelings affect their view of humans' place in the world, if at all?

Th Mar 30

 Blackboard: Roth, Hammurabi's Law (read selections); “Eloquent Peasant” AEL 183-85, “Poor Man of Nippur” FDD 357-62, “Land for the Birds” FDD 375-76;
Bible: Exodus 20-22


Bird Library 6th Floor Spector Rm: Student Research

T April 4

Bring list of three possible research topics and/or texts in Special Collections. Bring laptop.


Justice II
What is the connection, in ancient texts, between human justice and divine justice?

Th April 6

“Dialogue,” “Righteous Sufferer,” “Babylonian Theodicy” FDD 295-323; “Who has not sinned?” “Piteous Sufferer” FDD 326-28; "Lament to Amun" AEL 123;
Bible: Psalms 42-43.


Magic, Prayer and Ritual

What motivated magical rituals and divination? What distinguished good magic or rituals from bad magic? Is (was) there a difference between magic and prayer? What is it?

T April 11

Gods 85-86, 177-182; Mesopotamian Magic. “Magic & Divination” FDD 228, 252-53, 262-65, 393-432;
Bible: Deuteronomy 18:9-22; 1 Samuel 28

Th April 13

Gods 77-85; 167-175, 257-264, 273-276; “Prayer to MardukFDD 247-48, “Hymns and Prayers” FDD 221-26, “Hymn of Akhenaton” AEL 1-7; “Personal gods” FDD 267-71; “Letter Prayers” FDD 293-94;
Bible: Psalm 6, 11; Isaiah 38; Exodus 40; Leviticus 1


Paper #3

M April 17

Noon: Third Paper Due


Death 1

What connections were there between between death practices, living society, and religion? How did burial practices reflect or interact with these views? 

T April 18

Gods 57-65; Blackboard "Autobiography of Harkhuf"; Digital Giza Project; Valley of the Kings; Mummification ; 800 tombs;
149-153, 239-242; “Elegy for a Woman” FDD 329; “Family Ghosts” FDD 227; “Prayer to NabuFDD 249-51; "Rephaim," SFAC 57-63.


Th April 20

Gilgamesh (all); Gods 136-148, 153-154, 184-188; Bible: Genesis 6-8.

Death 2, and Influences & Survivals

How did beliefs about the afterlife differ in Egyptian, Mesopotamian and biblical literatures? What do ancient stories mean when they narrate the deaths of gods?

T April 25

Gods 65-75, 91-96, 242-244;

Blackboard: Egyptian Afterlife Abydos 1 and 2;
“King UnisAEL 64-69; “Pyramid Texts” AEL 70-75; “Power From the Four Winds” AEL 91-93; “PaheryAEL 169-177; “Harpers Songs” AEL 178-82; "Man vs. Soul” AEL 55-63;
Ecclesiastes 3


Th April 27

Gods 154-165, 245-256, 277-284; “Stories of Ishtar, Nergal, & AdapaFDD 78-101; Abydos and Cult of Osiris
Bible: Isaiah 24-25;
Blackboard: Mummy worship


Friday, May 5, 12:01 pm

Noon: Final Paper due