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Textos para una historia politica de Siria-Palestina I: El Bronce Antiguo y Medio.

Textos para una historia politica de Siria-Palestina I: El Bronce antiguo y Medio. Akal/Oriente, vol. 11. Edited by Juan Oliva. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2008. Pp. 507. [euro]34.

This is the first part of a two-volume set devoted to the political history of Syria-Palestine as seen in textual documents from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. The second volume, edited by J. A. Belmonte, J. Oliva, and J. P. Vita and still to appear, will focus on the Late Bronze Age. The project presents an almost complete Spanish translation of the voluminous textual data on political matters available for these periods coming from this part of the Near East, overcoming the lack of textual anthologies in that language, for which the editors must indeed be congratulated.

A brief introduction (pp. 5-12) advances the main aspects of this work: it deals mainly with administrative texts from 2500 to 1650 B.C.E., providing relevant data for a political history of Syria-Palestine. Although Oliva himself recognizes that such a history is still to be written (p. 7; see however H. Klengel, Syria 3000 to 300 B.C.: A Handbook of Political History [Berlin 1992]), this selection of texts paves the way for eventually achieving this goal in a more comprehensive manner. This selection is based exclusively on the archives from the third millennium B.C.E. found in Mari, Ebla, and Tell Beydar, while for the first half of the second millennium the archives from Mari are the main focus of attention. No texts from other parts of the ancient Near East (e.g., Hatti) are included. This Spanish translation depends in parts on some other authoritative translations; however, the editor has advanced his own interpretation of some texts for which this work should be analyzed together with such previous studies (notably for Mari, J.-M. Durand, Documents epistolaires dupalais de Mari [Paris 1997-2000]).

The first part (pp. 13-97) deals with the Early Bronze Age (2600-2000 B.C.E.). Chapter 1 includes texts from Mari (2600-2350 B.C.E.): pre-Sargonic inscriptions, votive inscriptions, administrative texts. Chapter 2 deals with the kingdom of Ebla at its zenith ca. 2400 B.C.E. (of which we now have plenty of information on many aspects: see most recently P. Matthiae, Ebla, la citta del trono: Archeologia e storia [Rome 2010]), on issues of political epistolography, treaties between Ebla and lesser polities, diplomatic relations with the rest of Syria (e.g., Emar). Chapter 3 takes on Emar and documents relating to the assigning of cattle and the acquisition of land. The texts on political relationships between Syria and Lower Mesopotamia (Syria and Akkad, inscriptions from the periods of Sargon and Naram-Sin, Syria and Ur III on commercial traffic) are presented in chapter 4. The following chapter 5 translates inscriptions from the time of the military rulers (shakkanaku) of Mari (2266-1920 B.C.E.).

The second part (pp. 98-486) covers a vast number of relevant texts from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 B.C.E.). Chapters 6 and 7 cover the period of Amorite Syria, with the suzerainty of the kingdoms of Yamhad and Qatna, the kingdom of Urshu replacing Ebla in political and trading structures in the north, and Amorite Mari (political letters, an eponym list, and a foundational inscription from the temple of Shamash are translated). Short references to Ugarit are made in the book, and little is said about Palestine in this period (e.g., Byblos, p. 103), due mainly to the poor documentation (at least textual; archaeology has another perspective) of the Levantine coastal country. Chapters 8-10 deal with the Assyrian interregnum in Mari (votive inscriptions, dedicatory inscriptions, politico-diplomatic letters), Mari in control of the upper course of the Middle Euphrates, and Mari and the Assyrian rulers. Chapters 11-13 present documentation (political letters, contacts with Syria, e.g., Qatna) on the return of Amorite suzerainty under Zimri-Lim and Man's consolidation of power in the region. Chapter 14 describes the political structure of the kingdom of Zimri-Lim, and chapter 15 does the same about Mari and its vassal kingdoms. Chapter 16 translates documents related to administrative letters from Mari officials and their diplomatic missions, and chapters 17-19 offer brief considerations (with the corresponding textual support) on Emar and Tuttul, the kingdom of Hana, and the final period of the kingdom of Yamhad, respectively. A comprehensive bibliography is presented on pp. 489-506. Unfortunately, the book does not include analytical indexes.

The chronologically ordered selection of texts seems to be the main goal of this work, and that would suffice to consider it a most valuable contribution. From the perspective of political anthropology, however, and regarding the manner in which the texts are used for writing a political history of Syria-Palestine, a number of issues are rather problematic.

Concepts such as "territorial states," "territorial monarchies" (monarquia territorial, p. 33), "city-state(s)," and "kingdoms" are not defined at all throughout the book. In a certain sense, the perspective this study works with is analogous to the results of the seminal study of G. Buccellati on "territorial states" and "national states" (Cities and Nations of Ancient Syria [Rome 1967], though not cited in the bibliography) and seems to go no further. Similar is the treatment of features related to loyalty and "vassalage" (cf. pp. 108-10, 277-92, 338-41, 415-52) of some kings under more powerful kingdoms (e.g., Mari). On p. 415 it is said of Mari's Zimri-Lim and his vassals that in exchange for a vassal kingdom's or city's loyal submission to a higher authority, such authority would protect the lesser king, granting him inner stability and order in his territory and continuity in office, thus incorporating him into a greater territorial state. The sending of an annual tribute payment and military aid by the vassal king was one aspect of this socio-political exchange, completed in return by the help and assistance of the more powerful king. Now, how does this picture differ from medieval feudalism? This analogy, of course, is a very old one within the field of Near Eastern studies (cf. E. Ebeling, "Feudalismus," RIA III [1971]: 54-55, for the Hittite kingdom). The problem is that such an analogy represents a kind of stagnation in ancient Near Eastern scholarship when dealing with socio-political matters. The aforementioned "feudal" characterization could very well be replaced by more anthropologically informed concepts, such as "patronage," which analyzes in better terms the data from political treaties or alliances (even in later periods; cf. E. Pfoh, "Some Remarks on Patronage in Syria-Palestine during the Late Bronze Age," JESHO 52 [20091: 363-81).

Likewise, the idea of "state" or "statehood," if not defined, creates analytical problems. When in chapter 14 the structure of Mari's kingdom as a territorial state is described (the palace of the kingdom's capital, the kingdom's districts with their palaces and governors, political letters describing loyalty oaths from palace officials to the king as an accepted practice), one relevant question arises: what kind of state bureaucracy is built and functions on personal oaths to the king by its members? Definitely not a rational one in the Weberian sense (here we should look at the modern Middle Eastern ethnographic record on the question: see, for instance, P. S. Khoury and J. Kostiner, eds., Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East [Berkeley 1990]). Therefore, the concept of "state" or "statehood," territorial or not, should be defined and not used uncritically, for if not, it might lead us to believe that there was no real difference between the juridico-political organization of power in third and second millennia B.C.E. Western Asia and our modern Western state based on parliamentary liberal democracies and impersonal bureaucracies.

In spite of the numerous commentaries in each chapter on the relevant inscriptions and their historical context, the treatment of the political structure of Syria-Palestine in this book is descriptive rather than analytical (cf. pp. 108-10, 227-29), and this is the only serious shortcoming this reviewer finds. This study does not advance any critical understanding of power dynamics or networks as reflected in textual material but offers instead an interpretation akin to a rather plain reading of the documents dealing with "politics"--this does not mean a "naive" reading, but rather an interpretation devoid of further elaboration on the nature of political practices as reflected by the texts. Although one could see a positive aspect of this--namely the presentation of data in a formal manner without advancing unsupported hypotheses or sheer speculation--one must also remember that in order to understand the socio-political world in which such political epistolography and ritual or administrative data were conceived and situated, a sociological or anthropological view must be taken into account, at least at a final stage of analysis. There is no plain reading of texts, ancient or modern. Ancient political texts are to be translated not only at the level of language but also with regard to their cultural aspects comprising the worldview of the society behind their production. One could say that, just as the modern Western ethnographer must adapt interpretive tools of research in a non-Western community, the historian of ancient Near Eastern institutions and socio-political practices must craft interpretive tools according to the nature of the available data, because we are not dealing with societies with the same concepts of politics, economics, religion, statehood, etc., as ours. (In fact, the partition of reality into such a number of concrete aspects is analytical and modern and not part of the ancient Near Eastern worldview.) The work under review does not include any bibliographical references to secondary literature on anthropological aspects of tribal politics or the like (not unusual for studies approaching similar ancient Near Eastern topics, although one must mention as clear exceptions the pioneering work of M. Liverani and C. Zaccagnini, especially on exchange and ideology), which are certainly relevant for the task of reading ancient political texts.

Despite the critical observations above, this volume is a very welcome and important contribution to the Spanish-language scholarship, academic or not, on Near Eastern studies, and the publication of the next volume is eagerly anticipated.


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Author:Pfoh, Emanuel
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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