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Ritual, Performance and Politics in the Ancient Near East

Lauren Ristvet

University of Pennsylvania

List of Figures ................................................................................................................................ iv

Acknowledgments.......................................................................................................................... vi
I. Performing Politics ................................................................................................................. 1
Politics and Ritual in the Past and Present .................................................................................. 3
The 2500 Year Celebration at Persepolis................................................................................ 5
French Revolution................................................................................................................... 9
Royal Processions in Majapahit ............................................................................................ 13
The Fiesta de Santa Fe .......................................................................................................... 16
Maya Ancestors and Patron Deities ...................................................................................... 20
Ritual, Religion, and Practice ................................................................................................... 26
Performative Traces .................................................................................................................. 35
Movement, History, and Tradition............................................................................................ 39
II. Movement ............................................................................................................................. 45
An Event that Models: The Ebla Coronation RitualF ............................................................... 45
Movement and Perception ........................................................................................................ 48
Kingdoms, Cities, Artisans, and Officials ................................................................................ 53
Borders, City Walls, and Open Spaces ..................................................................................... 62
Limiting Access .................................................................................................................... 63
Inclusive Spaces .................................................................................................................... 69
Beyond the City .................................................................................................................... 74
Collective Representations: Pilgrimages and Political Power .................................................. 75
Pilgrimages and Sacred Journeys at Ebla ............................................................................. 76
The Archaeology of Pilgrimage at Ebla................................................................................ 78
The Syrian Ritual .................................................................................................................. 79
Materialized Symbols: Cult Centers in the Countryside........................................................... 82
Gre Virike ............................................................................................................................. 83
Hazna .................................................................................................................................... 84
Jebelet al-Beda ...................................................................................................................... 85
Tell Banat .............................................................................................................................. 86
Actors, Audience, and Mise-en-scène: Pilgrimage Centers? .................................................... 88
Constructing Kingdoms ........................................................................................................ 89

Death, Ancestors, and Power ................................................................................................ 94
Conclusion: Urban Spaces, Pilgrimage Networks and the Rise of Political Complexity......... 96
III. Memory ........................................................................................................................... 100
An Event that Presents: The Feast of Ištar and the Kispum Ritual......................................... 100
Memory, Mourning, and Legitimacy ...................................................................................... 103
Political Instability .................................................................................................................. 108
Tribal Politics ...................................................................................................................... 110
The Dynamics of Resettlement ............................................................................................... 114
History and the Politics of Emplacement............................................................................ 118
Middle Bronze Age Economics .......................................................................................... 121
Collective Representations: The Past in the Past .................................................................... 123
Literature, History, and the Ancestors ................................................................................ 123
Divine Will and Divination................................................................................................. 129
Materialized Symbols: Death, Ritual and the Authority of the Past in Daily Life ................. 133
The Archaeology of Death and Ritual ................................................................................ 133
Ancestors, Monuments and Politics.................................................................................... 141
The Past, Heirlooms and Legitimacy .................................................................................. 149
Actors, Audience, and Mise-en-scène: Ancestors, Tribes and Politics .................................. 157
Kings and the Politics of Commemoration ......................................................................... 158
Tribes, Towns, Councils, and Ancestors ............................................................................ 162
Conclusion: Mourning and Memory....................................................................................... 167
IV. Tradition.......................................................................................................................... 170
An Event that Re-presents: The Akītu Festival ...................................................................... 170
Invented Traditions ................................................................................................................. 172
Hellenistic Babylonia .............................................................................................................. 175
The City and Countryside ....................................................................................................... 177
Settlement, Irrigation, and Trade ........................................................................................ 178
Seleucid Urbanism .............................................................................................................. 180
Domestic Practices .................................................................................................................. 183
Consuming Empire? Pottery and Foodways ...................................................................... 184
Figurines and Domestic Life ............................................................................................... 190
Coins, Debt, and Payment ................................................................................................... 194
Collective Representations: Scholarly Texts, History, and the Transmission of Knowledge 198
Preserving Scholarly Knowledge ........................................................................................ 199

Astrology, Astronomy, and History .................................................................................... 202
Materialized Symbols: Temples and Tradition ....................................................................... 213
Rebuilding the Temple ........................................................................................................ 214
The Temple, the Assembly, and Civil Authority ................................................................ 219
Archives, Administration, and Community ........................................................................ 221
Actors, Audience, and Mise-en-scène: Kings, Priests, and Festivals ..................................... 224
Conclusion: Performing Tradition .......................................................................................... 228
V. Community ......................................................................................................................... 230
Performance and Public Events in the Ancient Near East ...................................................... 230
Performing Community .......................................................................................................... 233
States and Instability ............................................................................................................... 238
Political Strategies .................................................................................................................. 246
Continuity ............................................................................................................................... 250
Works Cited ................................................................................................................................ 269

List of Figures

Fig. 1 Actors portraying Achaemenid soldiers with a wheeled tower in the Persepolis parade,
October, 1971
Fig. 2 The execution of Louis XVI, January 21, 1793
Fig. 3 Brahu temple, Trowoulan, Majapahit period
Fig. 4 Volunteers portraying Don Juan De Vargas and Conquistadors during the Santa Fe Fiesta
Fig. 5 Map of K’axob
Fig. 6 K'axob, Operation 1: Phase 9
Fig. 7 K'axob, Burials 1-1 and 1-2
Fig. 8 Panel 1, La Corona
Fig. 9 Map of Northern Mesopotamia 2600-2300 BC
Fig. 10 Tell Leilan (ancient Šehna)
Fig. 11 “Main Street” in Beydar (ancient Nabada)
Fig. 12 The Palace in Area F, “The Official Block,” of Tell Beydar. A) Phase 1, B) Phase 2, C)
Phase 3a, D) Phase 3b
Fig. 13 Spatial graph of Beydar, Area F, Palace. A) Phase 1, B) Phase 2
Fig. 14 Chuera (ancient Abarsal?) citadel plan with the main ceremonial street marked
Fig. 15 Axonometric reconstruction of the plaza and palace G
Fig. 16 Ritual journeys in the Kingdom of Ebla, ca. 2350 BC
Fig. 17 Wagon sealings from Northern Mesopotamia: a) Beydar seal 4, b) Išqi-Mari royal seal 1,
and c) Išqi-Mari royal seal 2
Fig. 18 Tombs and offering chambers at Gre Virike, Period IIa
Fig. 19 Ritual buildings at Hazna
Fig. 20 a) Statue from Jebelet al-Beda and b) stela from Jebelet al-Beda
Fig. 21 Plan of Bazi/Banat (ancient Armanum?)
Fig. 22 Possible pilgrimage networks on the Upper Euphrates
Fig. 23 Intervisibility and viewshed analysis at Gre Virike BC
Fig. 24 Mesopotamia from 1900-1500 BC
Fig. 25 Survey areas in the Habur plain, Syria. Areas of decreasing population are in dark gray,
and areas of increasing population are in white.
Fig. 26 Tell Leilan/Šubat-Enlil, 1900-1700 BC
Fig. 27 AO19833, Obverse and Reverse, Historical liver omen from Mari that mentions Sargon
Fig. 28 Kahat, Stratum 31 B
Fig. 29 A) MBA ceramic figurine from Tepe Gawra and B) Stone figurine from Billa
Fig. 30 Wadi Hedaja 1: General View of BC-10
Fig. 31 Umm el-Marra, Monument 1, from North
Fig. 32 Area A, 'Usiyeh
Fig. 33 Ninevite 5 Ware from the Leilan Acropolis Temple, Room 19
Fig. 34 Tell Leilan Acropolis Northeast Temple, isometric plan
Fig. 35 Seleucid Babylonia and Syria
Fig. 36 Seleucid-Parthian period sites from the Heartland of Cities Survey
Fig. 37 Seleucid-Parthian Sites from the Diyala Survey
Fig. 38 Seleucia-on-the-Tigris
Fig. 39 Uruk during the Seleucid-Parthian period

Fig. 40 Babylon City Plan
Fig. 41 Serving wares from Seleucid-Parthian Uruk (“Greek-inspired” shapes on left;
“Babylonian” shapes on right)
Fig. 42 “Hellenistic” Cooking ware from Seleucid-Parthian Uruk (left) and Athens (right)
Fig. 43 Seleucid terracotta figurine
Fig. 44 U-V 17-19, Level II, Ekur-Zakir Family House
Fig. 45 The Nabû Temple, Borsippa
Fig. 46 Antiochus Cylinder, BM 36277
Fig. 47 Bit Rēš Temple
Fig. 48 Ešgal Temple
Fig. 49 Brick stamped with Adad-Nadin-Aḫḫe's name in Greek, palace of Girsu
Fig. 50 Archives Building, Seleucid, Isometric Drawing
Fig. 51 Akītu Temple, Uruk
Fig. 52 Reconstructed Territory of Apum and Kahat, ca. 1730 BC


I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who helped me during the years that this

book was in preparation. I hope that those of you whose names I fail to mention will forgive me.

This book had its genesis in discussions about ritual and politics in Mesopotamia that took place

during the summer of 2008 under the grape arbor at the Tell Leilan dig house in Qahtaniya,

Syria. Without the generosity of Harvey Weiss, who invited me to participate in the Tell Leilan

project when I was still an undergraduate at Yale, I never would have become an archaeologist

(although Harvey is clearly not responsible for my postmodern turn!) I also owe a great deal to

the other members of the Leilan project from 1999-2008, especially Zainab Bahrani, Francesca

DeLillis, Ulla Kasten, Andrew McCarthy, Richard Meadow, Lucia Mori, Cristian Putzolu,

Philippe Quenet, and Eric Vandenbrink. My largest debt, however, is to the people in Syria who

made this work possible, including the Directorate of Antiquities, our redoubtable Syrian

workers, and many friends from Qahtaniya, Tell Leilan, Tell Barham, and Qamishli. My

thoughts are with them during this troubled time and I hope that it will be possible someday to

repay them for their kindness and hospitality.

Many thanks to all of those who agreed (sometimes under duress) to read and commente

on chapters of the manuscript, particularly Andrew Drabkin, Brian Hughes, Kevin Reilly, and

Jill Weber. Joanne Baron, Paul Kosmin, and Glenn Schwartz were kind enough to share their

manuscripts with me and Irene Winter and Piotr Michalowski helped me think through some of

the complexities of Seleucid Babylonia when I presented some of this in Copenhagen in 2012. I

am also grateful to Lev Feigin, who helped me to reconceptualize ritual and religion as I revised

this manuscript. Let me also express gratitude to Robert McC. Adams, Joanne Baron,

Dominique Beyer, Joachim Bretschneider, Robert H. Dyson, Jr., Sumio Fuji, Robert Hanelt,

Antonio Invernizzi, Marc Lebeau, Paolo Matthiae, Patricia McAnanay, Jan-Waalke Meyer, Rauf

Munchaev, Hiromichi Oguchi, Tuba Ökse, Ann Porter, Julian Reade, Glenn Schwartz, Harvey

Weiss, Stefano Valentini, Tian Yake for allowing me to use their photographs, plans and other

illustrations. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the British Academy, the

British Museum, the Centro Scavi Torino, the Deutsche Archäologische Institut, the Louvre, the

Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Stiftung, and the Penn Museum were similarly generous.

Additionally, I would like to thank Kelsey Cloonan, Monica Fenton, and Lara Fabian for their

help preparing the images—particularly Lara, who devoted two very hot days to this task during

Ramadan in Erbil. I also owe a considerable debt to Susannah Fishman for help with the copy-

editing and the index and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism. Working

with Beatrice Rehl, Asya Graf, and Isabella Viti at Cambridge University Press was lovely—and

made producing this book nearly pain free. Some of the ideas presented in this book have been

previously published elsewhere. An abbreviated version of chapter 2 appeared in Bulletin of the

American Schools of Oriental Research [vol. 361 (2011) 1-31], I thank them for allowing me to

publish it here as well.

My colleagues at Penn have all been extraordinarily encouraging, particularly Asif Agha,

Salam al Kuntar, Harold Dibble, Clark Erickson, Grant Frame, Phillip Jones, Jamie Novotny,

Holly Pittman, Ann Kuttner, Yoko Nishimura, Bob Preucel, Bob Schuyler, Tad Schurr, Julian

Siggers, Deborah Thomas, and Steve Tinney. The students in my courses on the Achaemenid

Empire and Its Hellenistic Aftermath; Performance; Ritual, Space and Politics; and the

Archaeology of Syria were instrumental in shaping many of the ideas expressed here. And my

friends in Philadelphia reminded me that there was more to life than Mesopotamian archaeology.

I would also like to thank the many people who put up with me while I was devoting

most of my attention to this manuscript. Hilary Gopnik, Emily Hammer, Veli Bakhshaliyev,

Safar Ashurov and all of the members of the Naxcivan Archaeological Project rarely

complained, even when the writing of this book made fieldwork at Oğlanqala difficult. My

family—especially Bethany Ayers, Matthew Ristvet, Mary Ann Duco, and Linda and Byron

Ristvet—were supportive and bore my many absences with good cheer. I owe my parents in

particular an enormous amount for their unstinting encouragement, even when I chose to do

seemingly crazy things, like excavating in Syria, Azerbaijan, and Iraq. I dedicate this book to


I. Performing Politics

Beginning around 3500 BC, cities, writing, and monumental architecture emerged almost

simultaneously in Mesopotamia—a watershed in the development of social complexity that has

attracted scholarly attention for nearly a century. The primacy of Mesopotamia—its cities are

the earliest known in the world, its scribes developed writing centuries before it emerged

elsewhere—has led historians and archaeologists world-wide to use it as the paradigmatic case of

state formation.F 1F Until the 1980s, Near Eastern archaeologists interested in the rise of

political complexity investigated the growth of cities and changing settlement systems in the 3rd

and 4th millennia BC in the irrigated river valleys of Southern Iraq and Iran, recognizing, as the

title of a popular account has it, that History Begins at Sumer (Kramer 1981).F 2F Over the last

30 years, the focus of research has shifted north and west as archaeologists have analyzed how

Sumer’s neighbors formed their own polities in response to this “urban revolution” (Weiss 1986;

Ur et al. 2007; Ur 2010a; Porter 2012). The time-frame under consideration has also broadened,

with some scholars now focusing on later second millennium polities as well (Yoffee 2005;

Schwartz and Nichols 2006; Laneri et al. 2012). Researchers have analyzed social complexity—

usually defined as economic and political differentiation and stratification (Renfrew and Bahn

2005)—by examining changes in site size, settlement patterns, long-distance trade, household

organization, craft production, and the establishment of administrative hierarchies. But for the

most part, the literature has glossed over the cultural and ideological changes that accompanied

the rise of Mesopotamian polities. 3 As a broad array of anthropologists, sociologists, historians,

and political scientists have recognized, however, “state formation is itself a cultural revolution”

(Corrigan and Sayer 1985: 3; Krohn-Hansen and Nustad 2005; Joseph and Nugent 1994).

I will argue that the inhabitants of Mesopotamian polities— including villages, city-

states, kingdoms, and empires—created a sense of political belonging through ritual and daily

practice. Most historians and anthropologists agree with Benedict Anderson that “all

communities… are imagined,” since most of their members will never meet face-to-face, but

nonetheless share a strong sense of belonging (Anderson 2006: 1). But there has been little

attention to the processes that gave rise to this imagining in ancient contexts in general and in the

Near East in particular. How did the inhabitants of different Near Eastern village and urban

communities with distinctive identities, histories, and expectations come to share a new idea of

the polity and their places within it? How did these polities operate and how, after the death of

their first charismatic founders, did they survive?

In the Ancient Near East, ritual performance was not set apart from the real practice of

politics; it was politics. Ritual provided a space and means for sovereignty to be both created

and debated. Priests, kings, and ordinary citizens used festivals to negotiate, establish, and

contest political power. Indeed, ritual was one of the main techniques that individuals used to

create political communities and establish a framework for belonging. The performance of

rituals allowed both elites and non-elites to negotiate the long-standing tensions that allowed for

and simultaneously threatened early polities. Daily practices—walking through the city, making

pottery, composing administrative texts—cemented the political and social realities of these


I consider the performance of politics—the intersection of ritual and practice—through

three specific case studies from different periods and places: Northern Mesopotamia in the mid-

third millennium BC; the Middle Euphrates in the early second millennium BC; and Seleucid

Babylonia in the late first millennium BC. Each case study analyzes how specific rituals

engaged with abstractions—movement, memory and tradition—that were essential to the

construction of authority and grounded multiple political approaches. These analyses are not

wholly distinct; each considers Mesopotamian polities during a period of crisis and

transformation. As a result, an investigation of the (re)constitution of political authority—during

the emergence of the first states, as part of resettlement following a period of collapse, and as a

response to conquest and the loss of cultural autonomy—lies at the heart of each chapter.

Similarly, each study draws upon landscape archaeology and excavated remains, including

cuneiform texts, to trace these processes.

Politics and Ritual in the Past and Present

We do not often reflect on how political life is performed. Ritual tends to be dismissed as

arcane and exotic, at best a colorful mask for the real process of politics. Most political analysis

ignores the symbolic and the ritual as something entirely apart from the more respectable

analytical spheres of economy and society. Nonetheless even in contemporary politics, rituals—

political conventions, protest marches, stump speeches, and the pledge of allegiance—create a

powerful political reality, a process which a growing number of political scientists and cultural

sociologists now investigate (Kertzer 1988; Alexander 2011; Alexander et al. 2006; Wedeen

1999, 2008). Expressed through a variety of symbols, performance helps to communicate

specific values that can both create and affirm a community. Rituals can function as a

mechanism for resolving conflicts, and reaffirm communality in contrast to the competition

inherent in social life. By employing the creative power of liminality, these events can integrate

opposing cultural or social systems, and can facilitate transitions between separate social orders. 4

At the same time, ritual may provide a vocabulary for dissent and even revolt (Kertzer 1988;

Ozouf 1976). In short, performance is an essential aspect of both ancient and modern politics.

As Ronald Reagan once replied, when asked how an actor could become president, “how can a

president not be an actor?”5 Analyzing how politicians stage political acts—paying attention to

the choice of setting, costume, and props—can provide insight into how political decisions are


Even if historians are willing to concede the importance of ritual and religion, most

archaeologists ignore them due to a pervasive belief that these processes have no material

signature and hence are not susceptible to archaeological investigation. But ritual and politics

are realized through the physical world, making an analysis of material culture necessary to

understanding their operation. As Clifford Geertz notes, “ideas are not, and have not been for

some time, unobservable mental stuff,” rather they are “envehicled meanings,” that may include

“melodies, formulas, maps, pictures... rituals, palaces, technologies and social formations”

(Geertz 1980: 135). Social and political life is constituted by the daily decisions and actions of

people, and these actions take place within a world of things. 6 People build houses, pave streets,

sew clothes, and fashion saucepans. But once they are created, these objects both allow for and

limit later activities. Society is not produced only through our interactions with other people, but

rather both within and through “mutually created relationships between humans and things”

(Pauketat and Alt 2005: 214). This is obviously true of relationships characterized by persistent

inequality. If these were only established through social skills—through conversation,

negotiation, and persuasion—they would be very transient indeed. Indeed, the very physicality

of our world is precisely what lends social interactions their “steely” quality (Latour 2005: 67).

It is this materiality, the connections between people and things, which Ian Hodder terms

“entanglement,” that is fundamental to social and cultural transformation (Hodder 2012).

But it can be difficult to understand how we might engage in an archaeology of

performance by talking about it in the abstract. Before turning to Mesopotamia, let us consider

five vignettes about the performance of politics in other times and places. These stories illustrate

different ways that ritual performance can either establish or destabilize specific political orders,

and how rituals intersect with the practice of daily life. The stories illuminate how the three

abstractions that I will consider later—movement, memory, and tradition—have been important

in the negotiation of political identity. Although only two of these narratives are archaeological

sensu stricto, they all indicate the importance of materiality. They illustrate that despite their

seeming evanescence, political performances are only effective when expressed through things.

These tales will set the stage, so to speak, for a more in depth exploration of performance and

politics in Mesopotamia.

The 2500 Year Celebration at Persepolis

The imposing ruins of Persepolis, once the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire,

have been a contested space in modern Iran for more than forty years. This complex of palaces

and tombs was the setting of “the greatest show the world had ever seen,” Mohammed Reza

Shah Pahlavi's celebration of 2500 years of Persian civilization in October 1971 (Mohammed

Reza Shah quoted in Grigor 2005: 23). Every head of state was invited to the ceremony, which

was celebrated at the archaeological sites of Pasargadae and Persepolis near Shiraz. In

preparation for the event, engineers worked overtime to renovate the Shiraz airport and pave the

road to Persepolis, while the Hessarek Institute launched a campaign to kill all the snakes and

scorpions found within 30 km of the ruins so that the eminent guests would be in no danger. The

visitors stayed in a sumptuous “tent city,” actually prefabricated luxury apartments covered in

canvas and designed by a noted Parisian interior decorator. 7 The festival opened at dawn on

October 12, 1971, when Mohammed Reza Shah went to the tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae to

address the first Persian king, using terminology adapted from inscriptions found in excavation:

To you Cyrus, Great King, King of Kings, from Myself, Shahanshah of Iran, and

from my people, Hail! We are here at the moment when Iran renews its pledge to

History to bear witness to immense gratitude of an entire people to you, immortal

Hero of History, founder of world's oldest empire, great liberator of all time,

worthy son of mankind. Cyrus [,]... Sleep in peace forever, for we are awake and

we remain to watch over your glorious heritage” (quoted in Abdi 2001: 69).

Events over the next three days portrayed Iran as a progressive, modern nation with an illustrious

past. A performance of Iannis Xenakis' electronic music piece “Persepolis” with a special sound

and light show demonstrated the Shah’s appreciation of the avant-garde. On successive nights,

guests enjoyed both the finest French cuisine (Maxim’s of Paris catered the event and prepared

such dishes as foie gras-stuffed peacocks and quail’s eggs with caviar) and an Oriental feast

served on low cushions and divans. But the central importance of the Pre-Islamic past was never

forgotten. In addition to the setting amidst the ruins, actors recreated the rituals of the

Achaemenid court for the edification of foreign dignitaries. On the final day of the celebrations

more than 6000 people took part in a grand parade of Persian history, with soldiers dressed to

resemble their historical counterparts (fig. 1; Grigor 2005: 26-7). Like much of the celebration,

the parade was televised and broadcast to the world.

The festivities officially celebrated the antiquity of the Persian monarchy, the shah's

enlightened reign, and Iranian modernity before an audience of foreign dignitaries. Many

Iranians, however, contested the Shah’s portrayal of both Iran’s past and present. Clerics,

revolutionaries, and many ordinary citizens viewed the spectacle at Persepolis—and indeed the

Shah's interest in the pre-modern past—as a sign of his corruption, obsession with the West, and

distance from both the poverty of most of the nation and its Islamic values. The Ayatollah

Khomeini issued a statement from exile decrying the ceremony for its excesses and absurdity,

asking, “are the people of Iran to have a festival for those whose behavior has been a scandal

throughout history and who are a cause of crime and oppression, of abomination and corruption,

in the present age?” (quoted in Abdi 2001). Indeed, the celebrations became a potent symbol for

the opposition, leading the Ayatollah to assert later that “to participate [in the festival] is to

participate in the murder of the oppressed people in Iran” (quoted in Holliday 2011: 68). Clearly

Khomeini interpreted history rather differently than the Shah. This did not mean that he

eschewed the past categorically; rather he rejected Iran's pre-Islamic, monarchical past and chose

instead to ground his vision of politics in an understanding of the history of Islam in Iran

(Hoveyda 2003: 29). Within this alternative political vision, an Islamic past provided an ideal

setting for rituals of resistance. Khomeini and other clerics equated modern revolutionaries’

struggle against the Shah with the battle of Karbala, one of the foundational events of Shi’a

Islam, commemorated each year on Ashura (Holliday 2011: 67). During the revolution, various

parties recalled the excesses of the Persepolis celebrations as signs of the Shah's decadence,

while in the early 1980s, state television occasionally broadcast reruns of the festivities, “to

remind the people of the despotism they had overthrown” (quoted in Abdi 2001: 69). In the

early 2000s, these ruins again became a contested space when Marjane Satrapi published the first

volume of her autobiography, aptly titled Persepolis (Satrapi 2003). Satrapi's graphic novel is

critical of both the Shah and the revolution, adding yet another twist to modern Iranian

appropriations of an Achaemenid past.

The conflict over the Persepolis celebration, however, did not just play out in public

rituals of political speeches and broadcast commentary, nor even in the space of resistance and

criticism that art opens up. People debated the meaning of the past in several areas of life,

perhaps most fiercely in education. At the height of Mohammed Reza Shah’s reign, the history

curriculum emphasized the same nationalist narrative encapsulated in the Persepolis festival,

tracing the nation of Iran back to Aryan migrations at the turn of the first millennium BC.

Textbooks dated the origins of the Persian monarchy to the Median period (678-550 BC), but

represented Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, as its true ancestor. They

described how Iran took “gigantic steps in the way of culture and civilization, attaining towering

levels of progress” under the Achaemenid kings in the 6th century BC (Ta‘rikh-e Lebas 1974

quoted in Ram 2000:72). This narrative of both the nation kingship continued also framed the

history of the Islamic period, which stressed the unique contributions that Iranians had made to

Islam. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the republican government quickly

commissioned new books so that schools could transform children into model citizens of the

Islamic republic.

Unsurprisingly, in light of Khomeini’s own vision of the past, schools at first simply

ignored pre-Islamic history. In the early 1980s, textbooks were purged of references to Iran’s

dynastic antiquity and the new, state-mandated curriculum portrayed the centuries before

Mohammed’s birth as a time of darkness and barbarism (Ram 2000). Hostility to Iran’s pre-

Islamic past was also responsible for the closure of the department of archaeology at Tehran

University from 1979-1982 and the cessation of the Institute of Archaeology’s activities at the

same university until 1990. Although the archaeological service remained active, no scholarly

field research was undertaken during the 1980s. Many in the government viewed archaeology as

“nothing more than a pseudoscience,” one that the royal court had used “to glorify despotism and

justify royal oppression of the masses,” and were consequently loath to support it (Abdi 2001:


Despite such beliefs, during the last twenty years the Achaemenids have crept back into

Iranian national life. They once again occupy a prominent place in schoolbooks, children’s

imaginations, and the activities of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO),

responsible for archaeology in Iran since 1988. A recent study of middle school history

education in Iran found that not only were both the Aryan migration and the Achaemenid empire

included in the curriculum, but most pupils saw the latter period as “the pinnacle of Iranian

history” (Soltan Zadeh 2012: 147). Similarly, from 1999-2005 there were excavations at 26 Iron

Age and Achaemenid period sites (Azarnoush and Helwing 2005: 215-231).

The various interpretations of history in Iran, and the ways that the state has mobilized

these narratives, are complicated. The return of the Achaemenids to classrooms and

archaeological research agenda has been part of a transformation of Iranian political and national

identity that developed in the Islamic Republic subsequent to the rejection of these themes in the

1980s. How individuals understand and manipulate history is never monolithic and it is possible

to infuse ancient history with a number of separate and incompatible meanings, as the case of

contemporary Iran demonstrates.

French Revolution

Like Khomeini’s followers in the early 1980s, revolutionaries in France also sought to

remake the world according to a new logic through the invention of symbols, myths, and rituals.

Insisting on a complete break with the past, they rejected the centuries of political and religious

symbolism that underlay the ancien régime. For many, a new French nation required the

creation of a new citizen with appropriate loyalties, beliefs, and customs (Hunt 1984: 56). In the

initial absence of political parties, slogans, or even a coherent movement, competing factions

established innovative rituals (and anti-rituals) and changed even the most routine experiences of

daily life.

The execution of Louis XVI, a grand and unrepeatable act that was central to expressions

of French politics and identity for at least a century, is perhaps the starkest example of this (fig.

2). In January 1793, King Louis XVI was paraded through the streets of Paris, alongside

drummers, soldiers, and prison guards. As he reached the guillotine in the Place de la

Revolution, he protested his innocence and forgave his executioners, consciously echoing the

actions of Christ at Calvary (Kertzer 1988: 159). Before a silent crowd of perhaps 100,000, he

was decapitated, his severed head was displayed to the populace, and his body was summarily

removed. The only state funeral held that day was not for Louis, but for Louis-Michel Le

Peletier, a national deputy, who had cast the deciding vote for the king’s execution. Le Peletier

had been assassinated the night before by a former member of the king’s Garde du Corps.

The public nature of this beheading, its formal setting, and especially its massive

audience made it a very particular type of ceremony, one that was foundational for the new

republic (Dunn 1994: 2). Louis XVI was not the only victim that January day. Rather the

architects of the ceremony aimed to destroy the institution of kingship, to revoke the dynastic

principle. The beheading of the king was an anti-ritual, one that attempted to undo publicly and

definitively the coronation. By putting Louis XVI to death in front of vast numbers of Parisians,

his executioners sought to sever his “two bodies,” and slay both the man and the king (Connerton

1989: 8-9; Kantorowicz 1957; Walzer 1992: 18). The first anniversary of this event witnessed

spontaneous acts of commemoration and two years later it became a public holiday (Ozouf

1975). The execution reverberated beyond Paris and was revisited continuously during the 19th

century by people from across the political spectrum (Dunn 1994: 67). Moreover, the conditions

for this sort of event became routine; in 1793 and 1794, 2,639 heads rolled in Paris and perhaps

40,000 people died throughout France. Clearly, the very public and ritualized nature of the

executions had a different effect than executions in the privacy of a jail cell. Beheadings became

a way for the Jacobins to define their enemies and themselves (Kertzer 1988: 159).

Public execution was not the only new ritual developed as part of this effort to remake the

world in a new political image. The state sponsored a variety of different festivities and

competing political groups staged public rites in towns and villages throughout France that

sought to establish new loyalties and understandings of the body politic. Events like the first

anniversary of Bastille Day, the federation festival of 1790, the liberty festival of 1792, or the

festival of Simmonneau of 1792 were not meaningless celebrations, but employed potent

symbols that helped to constitute a new class of political citizen and create different, competing

ideas of what the republic should be (Ozouf 1976, 1975).

These rituals existed alongside a series of wide-reaching interventions in state

institutions, the organization of time, and the presentation of self. The critical changes in a

variety of legal institutions are well known, but changes in the understanding of time and

personal appearance were just as consequential. 8 In October 1793, a new calendar was adopted

with a retroactive start date of September 1792 to commemorate the founding of the first

republic (Shaw 2011). Twelve months were divided into three ten-day weeks, called decades;

the tenth day, décadi, replaced Sunday as a new day of rest and celebration. The months and

days received new names and were associated with animals, tools, plants, or minerals, rather than

with saints or Christian holidays. Five extra days were added to the end of the year as national

holidays—celebrations of virtue, talent, labor, convictions, honor, and during leap years,

revolution. Each day was divided into ten hours and each hour into 100 decimal minutes, which

were in turn divided into decimal seconds. Although decimal time proved to be the element of

the calendar system that was suspended earliest, officially ending by April 1795, this was a

fundamental shift that affected the ordering of every part of daily life in order to reinforce the

ideology of the revolution (Hunt 2008).

Changes in self-presentation were also critical to the instantiation of the new society

following the French revolution. Certain costumes came to represent political positions and “a

color, the wearing of a certain length of trousers, certain shoe styles, or the wrong hat might

touch off a quarrel, a fistfight, or a general street brawl” (Hunt 1984: 53). Revolutionary

fashions represented a break with the previously established order. The adoption of new

fashions during the revolution was part of an attempt to change acceptable social and bodily

practices (Connerton 1989: 10). The attention to dress was not haphazard, since before the

revolution, different orders and professions were identified by costume. For the revolutionaries,

dress “was not so much the measure as the maker of man” (Hunt 1984: 83). As a result, the

uniform became the ideal garment for many Parisians, and simplicity in hair and dress became a

virtue, a way to emphasize, and indeed, create, equality between citizens. By wearing red togas,

for example, legislators sought to appropriate the virtues of the Roman Republic.

Although togas did not long survive Napoleon (the long trousers of the sans culottes did,

however, remain popular) and the French revolutionary clock proved short-lived, other

revolutionary schemes to systematize daily life or to introduce new political symbols endured,

including the metric system, the revolutionary flag, the Marseillaise, the division of the political

spectrum into left and right, and of course, a particular understanding of citizenship. The

experiences of the French Revolution illustrate the importance of both public events and

practical actions in times of change and their significance to the establishment of hegemony.

Royal Processions in Majapahit

But public events can be as important for long-lived regimes undergoing slow change as

for societies caught up in revolution. 14th century Majapahit, one of the great, pre-modern

kingdoms of Island Southeast Asia, has been famously portrayed as a theatre-state, where “the

motor… was state ceremony” (Geertz 1980: 129; see also Geertz 1983; Wolters 1999). Clifford

Geertz claimed that the Majapahit state or “Negara” was enacted through a series of rituals in

temples throughout Eastern Java (Geertz 1985), including month-long courtly processions, and

gifts of “pigs, sheep, buffaloes, cattle, fowls, dogs, crowded with cloths” (Pigeaud and Prapantja

1960: Canto 28, stanza 2). This analysis has been criticized for portraying 19th century Bali as a

closed system, one in which the meaning of symbols was already configured. Such an account

may be “blind to the processes by which ongoing practices and systems of meaning change, are

sites of political struggle, and generate multiple significations within social groups” (Wedeen

2002: 716; see also Wedeen 1999: 13-4; Roseberry 1982; Hobart 1983). Using recent

archaeological work, I want to analyze Majapahit not as an ideal type, where the process of

signification is frozen, but as a polity where specific ideas were established and contested

through state ritual and daily practice.

The Negara-Kertagama, the great 14th century poem whose title may be translated

“manual for the cosmic ordering of the state,” encapsulates this understanding of politics as

procession (Geertz 1983). The poem describes three discrete, but interconnected, ideas and

practices of statecraft: 1) the cosmic ordering of the royal family and the kingdom (mapping

people onto places), 2) the royal progress, and 3) court ceremonial. As at once a blueprint for

and a description of a certain type of polity, the normative descriptions in the Negara-Kertagama

helped to constitute the theater-state. The poem begins by describing the king, his family, his

palace, his capital, and his client-states. This last category includes not just actual districts that

may have accepted Hayam Wuruk’s suzerainty, but most of the world, concluding with the

passage: “then surely, the other lands, anywhere… are executing any orders of the honoured

Prince” (Pigeaud and Prapantja 1960: Canto 16, stanza 5: 1-2) The territory that Hayam Wuruk

effectively controlled was smaller than the grandiose realm described in the poem, although

larger and more urbanized than any earlier polity in Island Southeast Asia. In much of this area,

surviving inscriptions indicate that local elites had considerable autonomy, although they often

invoked the name of the Majapahit king (Hall 2011: 279).

Descriptions of royal progresses in 1359, 1360, 1361, and 1363 follow and make up the

bulk of the poem. During these four years, the king and his entire court spent months touring the

kingdom, visiting hundreds of villages, towns, and temples. The royal highway was “crammed

with carts,” swarming with men on foot, elephants, horses, and camels, “the whole lurching

along like some archaic traffic jam a mile or two an hour over the narrow and rutted roads lined

with crowds of astonished peasants” (Geertz 1983: 132). At each location, Hayam Wuruk

received and redistributed gifts—particularly animals and textiles. He performed ceremonies in

Buddhist and Sivaite temples and sacred spaces and received people—princes, mandarins,

priests, anchorites, but also “all (the men of) those (dependencies)” (Pigeaud and Prapantja 1960:

Canto 26, Stanza 1).

As the poem indicates, Majapahit sovereignty was predicated on economic and ritual ties,

rather than military supremacy. Recent archaeological research in Java illustrates the magnitude

of Majapahit’s economic dominance, clearly indicating that this was more than empty

symbolism. Indeed, it seems likely that the poem focuses attention on goods precisely because

changes in the global economy had just begun to transform daily life. In the 14th century,

prospects for trade and revenue generation in Southeast Asia increased exponentially. Long-

distance trade, particularly with China, as well as local trade in subsistence commodities such as

rice became increasingly important. Indeed, Majapahit began to employ Chinese coins as

currency. Historical and archaeological research indicates that rice production also intensified

and Java’s coastal ports grew in population and influence during this period (Hall 2011: 278).

Recent mapping work around Trowoulan, long thought to be Majapahit’s capital, has indicated

that the capital district was much larger than previously believed, with dense occupation spread

over 100km2, with evidence of “intensive long distance trade” and “specialized manufacturing”

over much of this area (fig. 3; Miksic 2000: 115). Majapahit was both a ceremonial center—

with the king’s palace lying at the center of this megapolis and occupying an area of half a

square kilometer—and a populous, commercial city, funded by fabulously productive rice

paddies (Gomperts et al. 2010, 2012).

The spread of rice cultivation and monetization have both been tied elsewhere to

increasing economic inequality and social stress (Morrison 1997, 2001). It seems that amid this

restructuring of Java’s economy and society, the Majapahit kings turned to ritual to unite a multi-

ethnic and multi-confessional populace. During his progress, Hayam Wuruk honored deified

ancestors, mountain gods, and other indigenous forces. He created a unified kingdom by

actively participating in rites from different traditions throughout the territory. This ritual

network was materialized in inscriptions, iconography, and temple construction. The widespread

distribution of a particular vessel, the “sacred water beaker,” indexes this strategy. These

beakers, which have been found across Eastern Java, formed part of the court ceremonial that

was celebrated across the island during Majapahit progresses. Their integration into local

practice entails “the recognition of the court as the source of ritual validation among the

disparate populations of its hinterland” (Hall 1996: 112). But despite the syncretistic nature of

this devotion, these rituals could also be exclusive. They validated the power of priests and the

provincial elite, while denying that of traditional shamans.

In Majapahit Java, the royal progress performed a particular, static view of the universe,

depicting a perfect ritual center that imitated the cosmos. But Majapahit’s kings, priests, and

populace enacted these unifying, ahistoric, and syncretistic rituals precisely because this stasis

was absent in the emerging commercial cities. The sense of unity conceals, no doubt, other

tensions, subverting and muting the influence of shamans in the countryside and further

marginalizing those dispossessed by intensifying rice cultivation and increasing monetization.

Rather than accepting the timeless nature of the Negara, new archaeological and historical work

allows us to understand the contingency of this strategy, and how ritual may work in a time of

economic and political change.

The Fiesta de Santa Fe

Like the Majapahit progress, the Fiesta de Santa Fe performs an alternative image of

political and social reality. On the first Friday of every September, a small group of people

dressed in 17th century costumes gathers to celebrate mass at sunrise at the Loretto chapel on the

northern outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. La Conquistadora, a wooden statue of the Virgin

Mary, initially brought to New Mexico in 1625, presides over the service. As the mass ends, a

young man dressed as Don Diego de Vargas kneels before the statue and prays for peace. Hours

later, still in costume, these Santa Feans will march through the plaza in a public performance

and commemoration of De Vargas’ 1692 “bloodless” reconquest of New Mexico (fig. 4).

Members of the procession bear aloft La Conquistadora, commemorating her rescue from a

burning church during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and her return to New Mexico twelve years

later. The high point of this procession, the Entrada, is the recreation of a meeting between De

Vargas and the Tesuque chief Domingo Naranjo, in which they negotiated the return of the

Spanish to New Mexico. This performance portrys Christianity as unifying the Pueblo Indians

and the Spaniards, as exemplified by its final event, when a Spanish friar baptizes a small child

dressed as a Pueblo Indian. As drums beat in the background, the ceremony ends with De

Vargas claiming possession of the city for the Spanish crown and the Catholic church. Unlike

the intimate ceremony in the chapel at dawn, the Entrada unfolds in the crowded plaza, before

Santa Feans and tourists alike (Grimes 1976; Horton 2010).

Like many ceremonies, the Fiesta de Santa Fe is a complex service that has grown over

the years to include several different events (Grimes 1976). The inaugural event of the Fiesta is

itself contested. For the Hispanic families who serve as the Fiesta organizers and stress the

Catholic content of the festival and the roles that their families played in the resettlement, the

festival begins with Don Diego de Vargas's vigil at the Loretto chapel. But for many Anglos and

tourists, the fiesta starts the night before, with the burning of Zozobra, a wooden puppet that

stands 51 feet tall and whose name means “anxiety” in Spanish. Stuffed inside the puppet are

police reports, divorce papers, and other documents that people have sent to the city’s main

newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. When Zozobra goes up in flames, so do the troubles and

worries of Santa Fe. Despite Zozobra's Spanish appellation, this event has no link to either

Spanish or Pueblo traditions. Instead, the artist Will Shuster invented the ceremony in 1924

(Shuster 1964). For many of the old Hispanic families, who have been displaced by

gentrification, Zozobra represents an unwelcome, “neo-pagan” sensibility, disrupting the

festival's message of unifying Catholicism (Horton 2010: 35-6).

As a central event in the civic calendar, the Fiesta de Santa Fe has become a space for

Santa Feans to enact different ethnic and political identities. Like many festivals, it is to a large

extent an invented tradition. Although a 1712 proclamation ordered that the 1692 reconquest of

New Mexico be celebrated with “vespers, mass, sermon, and a procession through the main

plaza,” and there have been nearly annual religious observances since then, the fiesta itself was

launched in 1919 by the Museum of New Mexico (Horton 2010: 40). The first fiestas included a

parade in honor of Stephen Kearny, the American general who received the territory from

Mexico following the Mexican-American war, in addition to the festivities celebrating the 1692

resettlement. The first burning of Zozobra was the art community’s attempt to challenge the

patriotic and militaristic message of these festivals, which promoted economic development in

this new state (Horton 2010: 41). In the 1950s, the Hispanic community took charge of the

Fiesta and added the De Vargas mass to emphasize Catholicism as part of Hispanic cultural

preservation. In a sense, the Fiesta has been an event that has staged different Santa Fes,

including the quaint, but American city, open to Anglo immigration of the 1910s, the “city

different” of the art colony, and the Catholic city of the leading Hispanic families.

The Fiesta has also been a site of protest and resistance, particularly for the Pueblo

Indians whose story it also dramatizes. The script of the Hispanic-controlled Entrada and De

Vargas mass celebrates the 1692 conquest “not as a feat of conquistador bravado but as a historic

moment of reconciliation,” and indeed as the beginning of the state's unique tricultural legacy—

its Native American, Spanish, and Anglo history (Horton 2010: 159). Of course, despite the

rhetoric, the resettlement was not peaceful, but resulted in the deaths of 70 pueblo men and the

enslavement of about 400 women and children (Horton 2010: 3). The Fiesta does not just

celebrate, but also reenacts that moment, and organizers try, whenever possible, to recruit Pueblo

Indians to play the roles of their ancestors. For the last 35 years, however, the All Indian Pueblo

Council have boycotted the festival, following demands from the festival organizers that Pueblo

vendors vacate the plaza during the festival. Along with the boycott, some Pueblo officials have

responded to the festival with their own commemorative ceremonies, celebrating the Pueblo

revolt against Spanish rule.

Symbolic tensions have flared between these two groups in other commemorative

practices as well, particularly during the celebration in 1998 of the 400th anniversary of the

Spanish foundation of the colony of New Mexico. The founding of this colony was partially

realized through the Acoma massacre, when in retaliation for the deaths of 12 Spanish soldiers,

Don Juan de Oñate led a punitive expedition against Acoma that resulted in the killing of

approximately 800 people. Once Oñate had captured the pueblo, he ordered the amputation of

the right foot of every man above the age of 25 as well as their ensalvement for twenty years

(Knaut 1995). In 1998, Native Americans severed the right foot of a statue of Oñate in symbolic

retaliation for the men he maimed, as a protest to the 400-year celebrations, (Brooke 1998). In

response to these tensions, festival organizers over the last 20 years have sought to include the

Pueblo and to change the symbolism of the festivities. De Vargas now carries a crucifix rather

than a sword during the Entrada, while La Conquistadora has received a new name, “Nuestra

Señora de la Paz,” or “Our Lady of Peace” (Horton 2010: 176).

The staging of New Mexican history in the Fiesta de Santa Fe is tied up with the

expression of ethnic identity within the city and state as a whole. Unlike many Latin American

countries, which celebrate their shared Mestizo identity, people in New Mexico generally

identify themselves as belonging to one of three separate groups: Native American, Spanish, or

Anglo (Horton 2010). The notion of three discrete ethnic identities is codified in New Mexican

Middle School history textbooks (Roberts and Roberts 2010), and in how individuals identity

themselves in other context, despite the reality of intermarriage between all three communities.

At the same time, the Fiesta allows people to expound a counterhegemonic narrative. The birth

of the festival as a celebration of Hispanic heritage came at a time when the Hispanic community

in Santa Fe was being displaced by increasing house prices and was experiencing significant

outmigration from the state. The festival’s more recent transformation, particularly its attempt to

include Native Americans in a less demeaning fashion, has occurred during a period when all

three communities have been redefining themselves in light of changes in the ethnic composition

of the United States as a whole, the growing importance of Hispanics as a voting bloc, and the

emergence of a new national discourse of multiculturalism (Guthrie 2010).

Maya Ancestors and Patron Deities

As the Santa Fe Fiesta demonstrates, rituals and their significance can change over time

in response to political and economic conditions. Two Mayan settlement in the forests of Central

America preserve similar archaeological evidence for how ritual practice is implicated in

political change. At K’axob, Belize, the creation and veneration of ancestors helped to

underwrite lineage-based rights to land and other resources. Participation in funerary and

commemoration rituals was thus essential to economic and political concerns. This ancestor

ideology dominated both ritual and political practice from the Middle Formative (900-400 BC)

until the beginning of the Early Classic (250-400 AD). In contrast, at La Corona, Guatemala,

this older practice of ancestor veneration was supplanted by patron deity worship as part of a

dynastic struggle. Mayan Kingship during the Classic Period must be seen against this backdrop,

as kings sought to employ, negotiate, contest, supplant, and resist earlier understandings of


Maya cities and buildings have long lives. This is true of both monumental temples and

palaces and of smaller residences, which may be rebuilt multiple times. These renovations are as

ritual as they are practical. People commemorate reconstructions by burying precious or

symbolic materials, or the dead, in a building’s foundations. At K’axob, excavations of the

second largest pyramid plaza document continuous use of this area from the first settlement of

this village at ca. 800 BC to the construction of a pyramid (structure 18) in the Early Classic,

coincident with the establishment of royal political power in the Maya lowlands (fig. 5). It is

thus possible to trace how people lived with their ancestors and how an emerging political elite

co-opted the power of the dead and made it their own.

The constant use and remodeling of this space emphasizes the importance of continuity

and tradition, as well as how specific practices were rethought over time. Each rebuilding

respected earlier practices, but also transformed the meaning of the space as a whole. Under the

first house at K’axob, a simple hut, a middle-aged woman was buried with a single shell bead,

while a high status young man in a beaded robe, adorned with bracelets and armbands, was

interred nearby (Storey 2004: 112). This general pattern of a house surrounded with graves

persisted until the creation of the Early Classic pyramid. The family members buried beneath the

newly completed house may have provided residents with a tangible connection to the family as

a “trans-generational reality” (McAnany et al. 1999: 131).

In the Late Formative period (400 BC-250 AD), the number of burials increased, while

mortuary rituals, which were geared towards the creation of a specific class of ancestors, became

more elaborate. Indeed the position of burials, the frequency of secondary interments, and the

types of objects that accompanied the dead all changed. These changes index transformations in

the role of death among the living and document how ancestor veneration could ameliorate

conflicts over access to land and political influence (McAnany et al. 1999: 129-30). By the end

of the Formative period, some burials were marked, becoming more elaborate than others.

Certain individuals were buried in a seated position; a posture later associated with nobility.

Their heads were covered by a shallow bowl with a cross motif, which probably signified the

universe and attests to their relationship to the sacred (Headrick 2004: 371).

The final burials of people and ritual objects prior to the construction of the pyramid

exemplify these transformations and underline an emerging system of status and sacrifice. By

this period, this plaza had probably ceased to be a typical domestic area (fig. 6; McAnany 2004a:

56). Here, a deep oblong grave (B1-2) was cut into the floor of the plaza, ending only at the soft

limestone bedrock (fig. 7). The trench was the site of funerary and commemorative rituals over a

period of time; it was clearly opened and resealed several times. The first burial belonged to a

middle-aged man buried in a seated posture. A layer of clay separated him from the later burials,

all of which were bundles of disarticulated bones belonging to adults and one child. Offerings

accompanied some of the burials, while other burials were sprinkled with hematite. Near the

center of the pit, another bundle of bones was buried underneath a bowl marked with two

crosses. Two other special purpose vessels were placed nearby. Shells and beads were found

scattered throughout the pit; they were probably deposited during the ceremony when the

ancestral bundles were laid to rest, or as part of later commemorative practices. After the tomb

was sealed for the final time, a low platform was built to cover it, creating “the first formalized

ancestor shrine at K’axob” (McAnany 1995: 57). Partly cut into the fill of this burial was

another tomb, a circular pit in which seven other people were buried. A young or middle-aged

man, again buried sitting-up, with a cross-motif bowl covering his head, was the central figure

here. Ribs and vertebrae belonging to a young woman and an adolescent were strewn over and

around this man. Patricia McAnany, the excavator, speculates that these scattered bones

represent individuals sacrificed when the seated man was interred (McAnany 2000; Storey 2004:

126-32). Discrete bundles of ancestral bones also surrounded this individual.

At the end of this period, this shrine complex was covered over and a “triadic” cache of

three pots ringed by limestone spheres was buried, perhaps as part of a ceremony to

decommission this space. The lowest pot contained figurines, beads, disks, and unworked shell

categorized according to color and the number three. A hole piercing the chest of the central

figurine may have been an allusion to sacrifice. The bottom course of stones of pyramid 18 was

laid immediately above where the ancestor shrine had once been (McAnany 2000).

The construction of a pyramid sealed this area. In many Classic Maya centers, temple

pyramids are also royal mortuary shrines. Here, previously domestic rituals were reconfigured

as civic ceremonies that differed in terms of potential audience. The placement of pyramid 18 on

the western side of plaza B emphasizes the open area of the plaza. Unlike the smaller family

rituals that marked the interment of ancestors and the dedication of new houses, this vast space

allowed somewhere between 900 and 7,000 people to attend a royal funeral, probably a

substantial percentage of the population of this city. 9 Although Maya ceremonies emphasized

difference, clearly marking commoners and royalty as separate categories, these rituals may only

have been meaningful according to the degree to which they cited understandings of death,

ancestors, and personhood that were more widely shared (Gillespie 2001). The burials at K’axob

document an ongoing process of ancestor creation. Burial was not a one-time process; instead,

tombs were opened repeatedly and human remains were treated, saved, and later reburied. All of

these events were no doubt deeply meaningful for families, households, and even city-states.

Such ceremonies could symbolically unite a polity or single out specific royal ancestors

for commemoration. But they were not the only ways that the Maya used ritual performance to

construct political authority. At the Classic Maya site of La Corona, members of two rival

dynasties manipulated Mayan understandings of death, legitimacy, and community differently

(Baron N.D., 2013). Excavations at four patron deity temples reveal their initial use as funerary

shrines. Here the material and textual remains combine to tell a complicated story of how two

families struggled for legitimacy over more than three centuries through both political and ritual

means. Temples that incorporated burials were probably dedicated to royal ancestors, rather like

more elaborate versions of the late formative example at K’axob. These burials belonged to high

status members of the community, probably early kings of the city, and can be dated to the city’s

foundation in the fourth century AD (Baron 2013: 325-6, 350). When a probable descendant of

these kings, K’uk’ Ajaw, died “at the edge of a stone” in AD 658, the new ruler, Chakaw Nahb

Chan, a member of a rival dynasty, sought to shore up his legitimacy by laying claim to these

sacred places. The first recorded act of his reign, which took place just 35 days after his

accession, was to dedicate three patron deity temples, the same temples that housed the remains

of these early kings (Baron 2013: 346). In so doing, Chakaw Nahb Chan transformed the

ancestor shrines of his political rivals into temples that belonged to the entire community.

This was only the first step in a program that led to important changes in understandings

of religion, politics, and community at La Corona. Almost 20 years later, Chakaw Nahb Chan’s

son, K’inich [?] Yook, rededicated one of these temples to the “Six Nothing Place God.” The

inscription he commissioned to commemorate the event acknowledges how Tahn K’inich Lajua,

a member of the rival dynasty, came to the city in the fourth century AD (fig. 8). Yet the

inscription does not grant this early king the status of city father. Instead it describes how the

true founder came to La Corona from “Six Nothing Place” four thousand years earlier, in 3805

BC. By rededicating this funerary shrine to the “Six Nothing Place God,” K’inich Yook sought

to rewrite the city’s history and appropriate the authority of antiquity for his dynasty.

Ancestor veneration and patron deity worship are not identical; the former is exclusive,

glorifying a particular lineage, while the latter is inclusive. Patron deities belong to and protect

the entire community. Hence, constructing a patron deity temple could have unified La Corona

during a period of political transition and perhaps chaos. At the same time, by establishing his

family’s ancient connection to La Corona through the mythical founder from Six Nothing Place,

K’inich [?] Yook clearly demonstrated his own special relationship with this deity. Middens

found near the patron deity shrines indicate that both La Corona’s elite and the larger community

took part in feasts at the temple and in the nearby plaza (Baron 2013: 356-9). The plaza here i

large enough to have accommodated between 1200 and 10,000 people during such ceremonies. 10

Feasting in honor of patron saints remains a common practice in Maya communities to this day.

Moreover, the middens and evidence for the careful refurbishing of these temples indicate that

they continued in use as patron deity temples until the city was abandoned. Although K’inich [?]

Yook’s descendants ceded control of the city to a rival dynasty (perhaps Tahn K’inich Lajua’s

descendants), the city’s rulers continued to patronize these shrines (Baron 2013: 360). Hence,

excavations and monumental texts indicate the complex ways that politics, performance, and

community came together in this Maya center. Along with K’axob, La Corona demonstrates

how an archaeological approach can unpack ancient ritual performance.

Ritual, Religion, and Practice

These vignettes depict the intersection of ritual, politics, and religion on two levels. First,

they consider specific performances of the type often termed “public events”— large-scale

rituals, ceremonies, pilgrimages, festivals, and celebrations, that work to fuse a specific ethos and

world view (Handelman 1990). Second, they place those rituals within the daily practices of

different people—including rice cultivation, dress, education, and house building, in order to see

how the world actualized in ritual impinges on the world of common sense. The five case-

studies illuminate a number of different aspects of this relationship. Taken together, they

provide a model for investigating performance through archaeology. There is more detail

available for the three modern narratives—the Persepolis celebration, the French Revolution, and

the Fiesta de Santa Fe—but the inclusion of two archaeological case-studies—Majapahit and the

Maya—illustrate that many of the same factors were true in other times and places and can be

investigated through archaeological and epigraphic remains. We cannot know the same details

of the varied reactions to festivals in Mesopotamia that we can in contemporary Iran or New

Mexico, but these examples remind us that there would have been a plurality of competing


Let us begin by focusing on public events. Public events or spectacles are “large-scale

performances involving a substantial number of participants,” including ceremonies like the

Persepolis celebration, the federation festival, the royal progress of 1359, the Fiesta de Santa Fe,

and funerals at K’axob (Inomata 2006: 807). Such festivals do not arise randomly. In general,

rituals conform to rules and have specific formal qualities that give them meaning within their

cultural context. These qualities—which can include the use of formality, invariance, and

repetition in ways which are meaningful for the participants—separate rituals from ordinary

activities (Bell 1992: 106-17; Bell 1997: 138-70). Such events unfold in a time apart; their

actions do not exist within everyday life, but rather alongside it (Eliade 1961). These ceremonies

invest objects and places with a meaning and value that is greater than what they would have

apart from these events, as we can see if we consider the uproar over the Persepolis festival and

subsequent rejection of the pre-Islamic past in revolutionary Iran or the significance of severing

Oñate's foot for the Acoma in New Mexico.

Public events tend to take one of three forms; each of which was represented in the

narratives and will be explored in the later chapters. 11 First, public events can actually effect

change themselves; they can model a new reality. These performances—which Don Handelman

terms “events that model”—are causative by nature, such as the death of Louis XVI that finally

and definitively executed both the king and the monarchy or K’inich [?] Yook’s rededication of

an ancestral temple to a patron deity. Second, events can be mimetic and display one vision of

the political order, like the Negara-Kertagama and the royal progress it describes, where the

king’s court represented the cosmos to the populace. These mimetic performances—“events that

present”—stand apart from daily life. They are “a means of performing the way things ought to

be in conscious tension to the way things are” (Smith 1987: 109). Finally, public events can

provide occasions to critique and even to transform the status quo; these spectacles are

sometimes called “events that re-present” (Bell 1992: 81). Such rituals may allow for the

dissolution and recreation of social order, its inversion and subsequent re-establishment. This is

one way of to interpret the Fiesta of Santa Fe, in which the city’s Hispanic families assert their

traditional Catholic religious authority against the secular, artistic power that prevails in this

increasingly Anglo city. At the same time, the Fiesta de Santa Fe may contribute to the very

discourse of power that it attempts to resist, by further reifying the myth of the city different.

But what is the role of religion in these rituals? Although nearly everyone would agree

that some of these case studies—like the patron deity temples at La Corona, the royal

processions at Majapahit, and the De Vargas mass in the Fiesta are religious, others, particularly

the ceremonies of the French Revolution or the Persepolis festival might seem divorced from

what we would call religion in the contemporary world. But this depends entirely on how one

defines religion. Certainly, Émile Durkheim, in one of the most influential accounts of religion

in the 20th century, noted that there is no “essential difference… between an assembly of

Christians commemorating the principal moments of the life of Christ, or Jews celebrating either

the exodus from Egypt or the giving of the ten commandments, and a meeting of citizens

commemorating the instruction of a new moral charter or some great event in national life”

(Durkheim 2001 [1912]: 322). For Durkheim, religion was not, at heart, about ways to explain

unexplainable natural phenomena, or the worship of gods or spiritual beings, but about the

categorization of life into the sacred and the profane as a way to create a moral community. In

this book, I will follow Durkheim in conceiving of religion as a social and cultural system. As a

result, although, I will, of course, ocassionally refer to various gods, myths, and specific

practices, the book does not set out to provide a comprehensive catalogue of “Ancient Near

Eastern” religious systems. Instead, I am interested in the way systems of meaning work and

how they are implicated in these early complex societies. As a result, I will adopt Geertz’s

definition of religion as a system of symbols used to formulate conceptions that appear to access

a deeper reality, producing certain “moods and motivations,” which appear uniquely real (Geertz

1973: 90). This system of symbols works both as a model of and as a model for reality; it

provides both an interpretation of and a blueprint for life (Geertz 1973: 93-4).

Religion may be realized through ritual, but it tends only to be meaningful to the extent

that it is implicated in wider social processes, becoming the basis of a common-sense

understanding of reality. Hence, understanding performance requires investigating how aspects

of a ceremony, ritual, or other spectacle both draw upon and shape other social and/or economic

practices. This understanding of performance closely resembles elements of “practice theory,”

particularly structuration (Giddens 1984; Bourdieu 1977, 1990). As Anthony Giddens has

emphasized, the actions of individuals drawing upon rules and resources produce and reproduce

those same rules and hence social systems. Structures do not exist apart from agents, but are

instead “instantiated in social practice” (Giddens 1984: 25). In the examples just presented, none

of the ceremonies would have mattered without these larger connections. The deputies’ scarlet

togas, for example, cited both a historical precedent well-known to educated French citizens and

drew upon a widely-shared understanding that costume signaled class and occupation. Ancestor

rituals performed in Plaza B at K’axob existed within a framework that included proper building

practices, ideas about kinship, and specific conceptions of status. In fact, in situations where a

public event is at odds with these vernacular understandings, that event will fail to have the

desired effect. Performances succeed, are “felicitous,” when they are understood to be authentic,

when actors and audiences are fused, when the performance “[creates] the conditions for

projecting cultural meaning from performance to audience’ (Alexander 2011: 53). This provides

a rubric to interpret the catastrophic consequences of the Persepolis celebration for the Shah’s

regime. Although the festival planners had hoped that the ceremony would be mimetic,

celebrating a particular image of Iran’s past and present, its distance from the daily life of Iranian

citizens made it fail, turning it into an opportunity to critique the existing social order.

The fact that rituals can fail, that there is often a gap between the religious world and the

common-sense world (Hüsken 2007; Grimes 1990; Bell 1992), is a problem that is

underanalyzed in much of Durkheim and Geertz’s work on religion. 12 By assuming that such

representations are always collective (society writ large) and that religion always work as models

of and models for, both theorists ignore the role of reception and construct artificially static and

unified societies (Wedeen 1999). It can be extremely hard to investigate the discrepancies that

arise between representations and their interpretations, particularly in archaeological situations. I

will argue that one way to do so is to adopt a performance perspective—one that bridges both the

formal world of ritual and the informal one of daily life, and pays particular attention to

reception (Bell 1992).

The verb “to perform” has at least three distinct meanings in common use in English: to

play or give a performance, “to carry out an action,” and “to cause, to bring about” (OED

"Perform, V." 2005). In other words, performance has three aspects—theatricality, the practice

of everyday life and performativity, all of which have been investigated as part of the

“performance turn” in the humanities and social sciences (Schechner 2003: 7). Much of this

analysis has investigated performance as a category that vacillates between theater and ritual,

between entertainment and a need to make things happen. Anthropological work on ritual and

drama and its intersection with social life during the 1960s has been particularly influential. 13

Other studies use a performance paradigm to study the presentation of self in everyday life (as

Goffman put it) considering how individuals learn to play specific social and political roles. This

can illuminate how people self-consciously employ a range of symbols in their enactment of a

wider reality (Goffman 1959). A final important strand in performance studies is performativity,

namely that the act of performing a role is what renders it real. In this sense, few identities are

given; instead they are actualized through practice (Butler 1990, 1993). Performativity provides

us with a way to understand how performance actually does things, how it can cause change.

Like performatives—statements that do not just express reality but bring it into being (Austin

1975; Searle 1969)—rituals can create a new reality (Tambiah 1979).

Each of these levels of performance was clearly visible in the vignettes: from the

theatricality of the Persepolis pageant, to the economic practices of the Majapahit royal progress,

to the performative nature of K’axob funerary practices that converted the dead into powerful

ancestors. I will consider the first two aspects of performance throughout this book, using the

framework of public events and daily practice that has already been established. This will allow

me to investigate (for example) the queen of Ebla’s role in the coronation ritual, or how members

of Uruk’s citizenry served the Seleucid crown, in order to analyze how the performance of rituals

and the practice of daily life were political. At the same time, I will be sensitive to the third

sense of creative performance; how such activities helped to bring a polity into being, how they

were performative (Austin 1975). Adopting this broad understanding of performance provides a

focus on how a range of individual acts, imprinted in both texts and material culture, constituted

different polities.

Every ritual performance is composed of certain elements, including a system of

collective representations (scripts and the cultural understandings that inform them), materialized

symbols (sets, props, and costumes), actor(s), mise-en-scène, social power, and audiences

(Alexander 2011; Alexander et al. 2006). These aspects of performance may manifest

differently, depending on the situation. The first category, for instance, is conceptual, but it

contains both the formal scripts that sometime structure events (as in the Fiesta de Santa Fe, or

indeed, most Mesopotamian rituals), as well as the broader system of symbols that

improvisational ceremonies employ. Actors bring life to these scripts and participate in these

public events. In Mesopotamia, for the rituals we will examine, they usually include priests and

kings, but can also include other people, like officials, artisans, and relatives of the dead. Of

course, actors do not bring a script to life through words alone, instead they rely upon places and

things—materialized symbols—to do much of the work for them, making performance spaces

and props essential (Inomata 2006; Inomata and Coben 2006). Similarly, a performance must be

directed; the words of the script, gestures of the actor, and various objects combine to create

something new. Social power profoundly affects the process of performance and indeed the

choice of director and actor (Mann 1986). Only certain people will have the social, political, and

economic capital to stage a particular act. Moreover, power shapes the composition of an

audience and the interpretive process. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, a performance

has an audience, which is not, in Richard Schechner’s words, “an either/or stagnant lump”

(Schechner 2003: 219). Instead, how an audience receives a performance, whether its members

adopt dominant, negotiated, or oppositional interpretations, is essential to its success or failure.

As we have already seen, we cannot assume that merely because a ritual was staged with all due

pomp and circumstance that it was received as unquestioning truth by all participants and

observers. Certainly in some cases, audiences do identify with a certain message and accept the

dominant or hegemonic reading. But in many other cases, viewers might agree with certain

aspects of a performance, but still not be willing to act in ways that conform to it. And of course,

in still other cases, viewers may understand a specific message, but reject it totally, reading it in

an entirely oppositional way (Hall 1980).

But what do ritual or religion have to do with the domain of politics? Politics resembles

performance in that it is both polysemous and expressed through the physical world. It may be

understood both broadly and narrowly—in the specific sense of state power and in the more

general sense of any relationship of command and obedience (Geuss 2001; Weber 1980;

Osiander 2007). Hence, politics encompasses more than the apparatus of government, and

political actors are not just politicians. In the modern state, politics includes elections and

congressional speeches, but also directives about when children should learn to read, where

roads may be built, and how much employers must pay their workers (Smith 2003: 88). In our

five vignettes, politics consisted of negotiations over the curriculum in Iran and New Mexico and

calendrical systems in revolutionary France. In the Ancient Near East, individual and

institutional political actors comprised kings and administrators, priests and generals, tribal

officials and city councils (Postgate 1994a), but also cloistered women who guarded their family

wealth (Harris 1975), and pastoral groups who moved with their flocks between different

kingdoms and maintained shifting relationships with a range of authorities (Durand 2004).

These different actors were responsible for organizing the harvest, regulating time, setting prices,

standardizing measurements, and managing the sale of real estate. The administration—and

often the king himself—strove to monitor many of these activities. Although there are no known

Akkadian or Sumerian terms equivalent to our term politics, given the wide-range of activities

reported in official correspondence, it is hardly a stretch to assert that these activities were

understood as political (Richardson 2012).

Recent work in political science indicates some of the ways we can examine the

connections between symbolic systems, performance, and politics. In two ethnographies of the

Arab world, Lisa Wedeen considers how spectacle and (performative) daily practice are political.

In her examination of the cult of Hafez Assad, she studies how spectacles glorifying the Syrian

president and his family provided a specific sort of public discourse, one that established a

framework for the operation of politics (including opposition to the regime), despite the cynicism

of the citizen audience (Wedeen 1999). Alternatively, when considering how a Yemeni national

consciousness was produced despite the lack of effective state institutions and a history of unity,

Wedeen examines how feelings of national identification arose in response to the widely

publicized trial of a serial killer during preparations for the 10-year anniversary of Yemen’s

unification (Wedeen 2008: 88-98). In both cases, Wedeen emphasizes the necessity of spectacle

and performativity to the operation of politics, and the creation of viable polities. Public events

do not necessarily generate agreement from their audience, but they establish a specific symbolic

discourse that is essential to the practice of politics. Similarly, people construct their political

identities through “iterative performances” of particular acts, as part of “everyday enactments” of

citizenship. For Wedeen, both politics and ideology are thus essentially material, that is

constituted through practices, not ideas or beliefs. 14 Importantly, Wedeen allows for cynicism,

the possibility of negotiated or oppositional readings of spectacles. In this, she draws post-war

work on ideology that has emphasized, contra Marx (1970 [1932]), that ideology is not always a

lie experienced as truth, but can be a lie experienced as a lie (Adorno 1972; Žižek 1989, 1994;

Sloterdijk 1987), or even a truth experienced as a truth (Žižek 1994).

Modern Syria and Yemen are of course temporally distinct from the case studies I will

consider here, but Wedeen’s use of spectacle and performativity strikes a chord with how politics

are described within the cuneiform record. An examination of Mesopotamian political texts—of

treaties, royal inscriptions, royal correspondence, and chronicles—reveals a paucity of terms that

correspond to state or polity. The indigenous term for country or land is mātum and can be

applied to a territorial unit, to land generically, or to a group of people (including pastoralists).

The term ālum (Akk., Sum. uru) refers to another important political reality, the city (sometimes

including its surrounding countryside). Other territorial terms include those sometimes

translated as village (kaprum, dimtum, dunnum), many of these words are used only for short

periods or in certain dialects and represent specific settlement types. 15 Similarly, no

Mesopotamian terms correspond to abstract nouns for government, administration, or

bureaucracy, despite the large numbers of extant administrative texts. When it comes to ideas of

rulership, dominion, and the practice thereof, however, we are on firmer ground. The most

common Akkadian phrases are šarrūtam epēšum, bēlūtam epēšum, and bêlum, literally, to do (or

perform) kingship, to do (or perform) rulership, and to rule. 16 The active sense which is

contained in these verbal constructs is critical to understanding indigenous perceptions of politics

and reinvigorating what has been an often static, typological discussion of state formation (Smith

2003). Zainab Bahrani has eloquently argued that in the Ancient Near East ideology worked first

as performance (Bahrani 2008: 69-70). 17 Mesopotamian scholarly thought depended on an

understanding of the performativity of words, images, and practices (Bahrani 2008: 51-2; 2003:

200). Hence, the basic notion that material objects and performative practices helped to

underwrite reality had a long intellectual history in the ancient Near East.

Given our interest in active performance (politics) rather than in static form (the state),

our fundamental concern is how politics was actually practiced in the Ancient Near East. How

and why did people create and maintain polities? How were individuals constituted as subjects?

How and why did certain people, and more importantly institutions gain and maintain authority

(Weber 1978; Bourdieu 1991)?

Performative Traces

These questions lie at the heart of any study of ancient or modern politics and are

notoriously difficult for archaeologists to investigate using the sources at our disposal.

Recognizing the essentially material nature of ritual and politics however, does provide us with a

means of addressing them. Authority, defined as the power to “command not just the attention

but the confidence, respect, and trust of [an audience]” is not constructed through words alone,

but employs the “whole theatrical array of gestures, demeanors, costumes, props and stage

devices through which one may impress or bamboozle an audience” (Lincoln 1994: 4, 7). Our

vignettes have similarly illustrated that power only exists so far as people have the ability to

realize material change, to construct a palace at Trowoulan, or to impose the metric system by

designing new thermometers, rulers, and scales. All of the rituals that we have considered have

worked through things—such as ancestral bundles at K’axob, conquistador costumes in Santa Fe,

or the television broadcasts of the Persepolis festival. The complex relationship between people,

things, and institutions that these vignettes highlight hints at how we may use material remains to

address the performance of political life.

Archaeologists and ancient historians have interrogated ritual performance in four basic

ways. First, Assyriologists have considered ritual texts and the actual performance of ritual as

documented in administrative texts.18 Second, art historians have focused on monumental art,

particularly sculptures or stelae depicting performances or ritual acts. 19 Third, some landscape

archaeologists have investigated the spatial processes of performance, including how landscapes,

cities, plazas, monumental gateways or other places have shaped specific ceremonies. 20 Finally,

other archaeologists have analyzed the detritus of performance, archaeological depositions that

result from the accumulation of ritual actions. 21

This study will employ a heuristic that crosscuts all of these approaches and elides the

distinctions that are often drawn between textual, iconographic, architectural, and archaeological

records. In what follows, I will analyze traces, depositional events that occur at specific

moments of time (although these discrete events may be repeated). This is a broad category that

represents the marks that people have made in the past, the vestiges left by the passage of time

(Ricœur 1990: 119-122). Traces include events like wall plastering, floor construction, pit

filling, discarding rubbish, sealing tags or doors, writing (and destroying) texts, among other

practices. Some traces persist and can continue to shape and be shaped by later events. Such

enduring traces include the built environment, monuments, landscapes, and the Mesopotamian

scholarly tradition (Alcock 2002: 28-32).

Archaeologists tend to approach traces in the first instance through analysis of

stratigraphy (McAnany and Hodder 2009) and depositions (Thomas 1999; Berggren and Stutz

2010; Joyce 2008; Pollard 2008; Garrow 2012), as well as through the study of objects and their

associations. In the vignettes above, traces included clothing from the 1790s, stone and shell

scattered in graves at K’axob, the gifts exchanged during Hayam Wuruk’s progress, and the

statue of La Conquistadora. Many other things could be included in this category as well,

including the Negara-Kertagama, French revolutionary clocks, and the tent city built next to the

ruins at Persepolis. These materials were critical to the performance of these ceremonies and to

their effectiveness.

Given the mediating roles they play in human action, traces may have additional,

unintended consequences. Regular monthly and annual cycles of wall plaster at Neolithic

Çatalhöyük, Turkey, along with occasional periods of brick making led to the creation of deep

clay pits and the proliferation of phragmites, an aggressive reed that provided new materials for

roofing, but which also depleted the water table (Hodder 2012: 64-8). Similarly, in Cahokia,

Illinois, during the 10th and 11th centuries AD, people regularly deposited layers of sediment;

activities that over decades created imposing mounds. Once shaped, the mounds acquired

cultural significance. This punctuated construction history, in which the mounds were not built at

one time, emphasizes that we have to understand these monuments as processes—and not begin

with a teleological view of their presence in the landscape (Alt and Pauketat 2003: 164-6).

These examples illustrate some of the ways that traces may endure. It is necessary to

interpret the Cahokia mounds, for example, both as constructions made by different people with

contrasting ideas of what they might mean, but also in their final form, as monuments that

continued to affect human action long after their builders had died (Alt and Pauketat 2003). In

Mesopotamia, we see this most profoundly in the long-lived urban spaces, where the placement

of streets, the construction of temples, and the delineation of urban lots constrained the physical

layout of a neighborhood and affected house construction for centuries (Stone 1987).

Additionally, although the Negara-Kertagama may have initially been written as part of an

argument about 14th century Majapahit kingship, its survival and widespread citation means that

it continues to shape notions of Indonesian identity today. 19th century Javanese war leaders

invoked Majapahit’s imperial past as an alternative to the Dutch-governed East Indies, and 20th

century politicians portrayed it as a forerunner to a modern, unified Indonesia (Gomperts et al.

2010). Within the Ancient Near East, several different tales or textual traditions operated

similarly, especially the legends of the kings of Akkad, which were rewritten for political

audiences down the ages and integrated into different understandings of the past and present (see

below, chapter 3; Westenholz 1997).

The chapters that follow consider ritual, performance, and politics by devoting careful

attention to their traces, as props that actors deployed and as the physical settings in which

ceremonies were staged (and which constrained and enabled different performances and catered

to various audiences). Given the multiplicity of actors, the ambivalence of the performative

space, and the limited details we have on the scripts they followed, it can be difficult to analyze

these processes. Simply emphasizing the materiality of life does not magically make this an

easy task, but the concept of the trace does give us a means to interrogate the processes of the


Movement, History, and Tradition

Chapters 2-4 examine how politics were negotiated through public events and daily

practice in the Ancient Near East. Each chapter begins with a particular ritual and then analyzes

these performances with regards to social and political transformation. These rituals provide a

conceptual space in which to consider how the three different types of public events—events that

model, events that present, and events that re-present—to use Handelman’s typology, were

political in the Ancient Near East. Each chapter focuses on a place and time for which a wide

range of archaeological sources are available, including settlement data from regional surveys,

the results of excavations of towns and sanctuaries, cuneiform texts, mortuary studies, and art

historical analyses. In general, the chapter seeks to provide a thick description of a certain ritual,

exploring networks of signification that extend far beyond the domain of religion, and hence

inform a particular society (Geertz 1973: 27-28). Given the contrasting temporal dimensions of

much of the archaeological and historical material, each case study operates on a timescale of


The processes highlighted in each chapter are important more generally, as the three

abstractions considered—movement, memory, and tradition—have to do with basic

understandings of space, time, and society. In order to understand how these concepts operated

as part of religious systems, I will employ the notion of hegemonic articulation, the idea that a

fixed meaning does not inhere in ideological elements as such. Rather meaning is partially fixed

by the operation of certain “nodal points” or “privileged signifiers,” concepts that in and of

themselves are meaningless but give meaning to a chain of discursive elements, the way that the

last word in a sentence suddenly makes the rest of the articulation sensible (Laclau and Mouffe

2001: 112-3). In the three case studies, movement, memory, and tradition serve as nodal points

for different Mesopotamian hegemonic articulations; these are materialized notions and

associated practices that helped to make sense of and for specific polities. 22

An investigation of changing regional landscapes and the built environment elucidates

the relationship between movement and political authority in early complex societies in Northern

Mesopotamia in Chapter 2: Movement. The appearance of urban centers and kingdoms that

sought, however ineffectively, to maintain control over a specific territory, transformed how

people understood and experienced space. Although cuneiform maps existed in Mesopotamia

from the late third millennium BC, mapping was not the dominant way that people understood

and perceived territory. Instead, individuals comprehended the territorial expression of

sovereignty through travel, an experience that was ritualized at Ebla. That kingdom’s complex

coronation ritual—an example of an event that models—illustrates the dynamic relationship

between pilgrimage, territorial definition, and political power. In order to ascend Ebla’s throne,

the king, queen, and their divine counterparts undertook a pilgrimage around the kingdom,

ending with a long ceremony at the royal mausoleum, in which they were remade in the image of

their ancestors. The creation of this ritual landscape accompanied and legitimated a new

organization of political and religious space in mid-third millennium Northern Mesopotamia.

Beyond this royal journey, political elites transformed sacred and political space both within the

nascent city—by erecting tombs, palaces, temples, and cultic platforms—and beyond the city—

by laying claim to funerary and religious monuments that served as pilgrimage centers. These

archaeologically attested rituals provide insight into the different identities and political

processes of various kingdoms. Pilgrimage routes often coincided with networks of economic

exchange that also helped to define early states. Journeys through the landscape of newly

constituted polities—in order to visit summer or winter pastures, deliver taxes in kind, or

participate in military campaigns—also acknowledged inchoate political geographies.

Chapter 3: Memory moves away from this focus on space and territory to consider the

relationship that different political communities had with time, particularly how commemorative

practices were embedded in the re-establishment of political authority. The chapter opens with a

discussion of the “Feast of the Land,” a yearly religious event that united all of the constituent

members of the Mari kingdom and culminated in the celebration of a kispum ceremony, a ritual

that honored royal and tribal ancestors, and an example of an event that presents. The notion of

the past as the domain of the ancestors was critical to the establishment of a number of small

kingdoms. In the 19th century BC, following two to three centuries of abandonment, many

villages were founded across the fertile plains of Northern Mesopotamia and complex political

communities began to coalesce around them. Survey data show that increasingly mobile

pastoralism and shifting cultivation transformed settlement systems, while analysis of treaties

and other diplomatic texts from Mari and Tell Leilan demonstrate that these kingdoms defined

themselves through their inhabitants—kings, administrators, settled farmers, and mobile

pastoralists—rather than through their territorial possessions. In the wake of this experience of

dislocation, people used the past to cement a sense of place. Official rituals created a divine past

through historical narratives, fictive genealogies, and divination practices. At the same time,

individuals called upon and constructed the past as an authoritative sphere by burying heirlooms

in foundation deposits; emulating third millennium pottery, seals, and statuary; and founding

new villages on top of prehistoric mounds. The most salient way that both states and individuals

negotiated their own pasts was in the elaboration of burial traditions and commemorative rituals.

Tombs and other monuments to the ancestors were places of ritual and diplomatic practice where

collective entities like tribes and city councils reaffirmed their commitment to a certain political

order through a discourse of kinship, belonging, and the past.

While Chapter 3 is concerned with memory, particularly the way political actors

employed events, ideas, people, and objects linked to specific historical moments, Chapter 4:

Tradition examines the related, but distinct, realm of tradition—repetitive practices that are

linked to a more general sense of “what has always been.” The chapter begins by investigating

how the New Year’s or Akītu festival was celebrated in the last centuries before the Common

Era, following Alexander’s conquest of Babylonia. An example of an “event that re-presents”

during the Seleucid period, the Akītu provides an opportunity to consider how rituals can critique

established political practice and how different actors may use performance to establish

alternative political visions. As either an innovative act of resistance by the Babylonian elite or

the appropriation of an ancient rite by the Seleucid kings, this rituall highlights the different ways

in which employment of Mesopotamian traditions in this period must be considered within the

historical context of colonialism. Although many historians and archaeologist working with both

Greek and cuneiform sources have assumed that the "survival" of cuneiform culture is part of a

wider cultural continuity and hence unproblematic, this chapter reviews evidence for Babylonian

customs and traditions and shows that this is not the case. Settlement patterns, household

practices, and economic structures all changed greatly during the second half of the first

millennium BC, suggesting that daily life was the locus of marked transformation. In contrast,

“Mesopotamian” traditions survived in a specific elite sphere, particularly in temples, civic

government, and scholarship. The association between Babylonian traditions, antiquity,

knowledge, and the divine meant that both the elite citizenry and priesthood of Babylonian cities

and the Seleucid court sought to align themselves with these domains within the complex

cultural situation of colonial contact.

Finally, Chapter 5: Community reflects on what the performance of politics tells us

about the longue durée of Mesopotamian history and politics more generally. It begins with a

final discussion of performance and discusses what this framework reveals about the nature of

politics in the Ancient Near East. Then it addresses the archaeology of communities and

considers how Mesopotamian cities and kingdoms fit into this broader literature. The sense of

distinctiveness and belonging that Mesopotamian polities created was quite different from that

promoted by nationalism. Alternate identities, particularly urban, tribal, and supra-regional

affiliations were often as powerful, or more powerful than ties to a particular polity. The

strategies that political actors employed in their negotiation of political community similarly

differed from the disciplinary and security-based approaches of modern states. As the earlier

chapters argue, bodily practices, commemorative ceremonies, and the transmission of tradition

were some of the key tactics used to create a unified culture and to generate dissent. The relative

weakness of these strategies helped contribute to pervasive political instability, particularly in the

third and second millennia. The book concludes by considering continuity and cultural

transmission during the three millennia of cuneiform culture and more recently, in the ways that

modern historians and archaeologists have constructed Mesopotamia as a new civilizational


Scholars have traditionally used Mesopotamia, as a model for all archaic polities. A

number of recent works have discredited this practice, however, and archaeologists working in

Mesopotamia as well as outside it have made an effort to rethink social evolution and engage

critically with the idea of the state (Porter 2012; Smith 2003; Yoffee 2005). This analysis of how

ritual performance and daily practice created Mesopotamian states further broadens this debate

on complex societies by incorporating cultural, religious, and non-elite perspectives. By

integrating data from excavation, surveys, and a wide range of texts, and asking broad questions

about the intersection of ritual and politics, this study speaks not just to the archaeology of

Mesopotamia, but also to the wider anthropological debate about the multilinear development of

social complexity.

II. Movement

An Event that Models: The Ebla Coronation Ritual 23

The day before her wedding to her cousin, Iš’ar-Damu, Tabur-Damu, the queen-elect,

spent the night camping outside of Ebla’s fortifications (Biga 1998: 83-4). Early the following

morning, she dressed according to precise instructions and donated a sheep for sacrifice to the

sun-goddess. With these preparations out of the way, a priest ceremonially anointed Tabur-

Damu’s head with oil. This was one of the fundamental ritual acts at Ebla, performed at

weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies. It was performative, enacting a change of state

(Viganò 2000). Here it was probably the first step of the transformation of Tabur-Damu into the

maliktum or queen, the title that she will bear instead of her personal name in later Ebla texts.

Following this act, she took part in another purification ritual, the ni-gu ceremony, before

entering one of the city’s many gates. Once in Ebla’s lower town, she proceeded to the ma-ra-

sum where she was clothed in new, royal garments (Fronzaroli 1993: 23) and then entered the

Kura temple, where she dedicated sheep for sacrifice to several of the gods of Ebla. In addition,

she gave Kura and Barama, the gods of royalty, delicate jewelry to adorn their statues, and rare

boxwood and silver vases to ornament their temples. The royal wedding was a lavish occasion,

celebrated by the entire Eblaite court. Scribes recorded the vast quantities of precious metals

and luxurious fabrics that were taken from the treasury for the affair and given to members of

Ebla’s court, the city’s client kings, and their allies. 24

The bride’s literal passage into Ebla echoes the rite de passage at the heart of this text,

her transformation from a young girl, chosen on the basis of a favorable omen (Biga 1999: 104,

TM.75.G.2417 rev. VIII: 6-18), into Ebla’s rightful queen. The extensive ruins from the early

second millennium BC at Ebla have prevented the recovery of much of the city’s third

millennium ground-plan, except in a few limited areas (Matthiae 2008: Fig. 2.5). Nonetheless, it

is possible roughly to reconstruct the queen’s journey from the city wall to Kura’s temple. It is

likely that she entered the city through the southeastern gate, perhaps the Gate of Kura

mentioned in the ritual (Matthiae 2008: 35, 2007, 2009). Her next stop may have been an open

space around the “Temple of the Rock,” perhaps the ma-ra-sum of the ritual (Matthiae 2006b:

490-2; 2007: 522; 2009). Alternatively, the temple of Kura where the ritual ends may have been

located in the city’s public district, the SA.ZAki, Palace G on the Acropolis (Porter 2012: 206;

Matthiae 2006b: 489-90). 25 In this case, the bride would have crossed the Lower Town in order

to reach the porticoed entrance of the SA.ZAki, and would then have climbed the monumental

stairs to the audience hall, traversing the ritual space of the plaza.

The royal bride’s procession through the city provided the populace with a chance to see

their new queen. Traveling this highly controlled path and performing rituals in the city’s plaza

imparted valuable lessons about the nature of political power as expressed through architecture.

Moreover, this journey from the city-walls to the palace via the plaza reverses the ritual

procession she will perform later as queen; when she will leave the palace for the plaza in order

to supervise rituals like the feeding of the gods (Porter 2012: 203-6; see below).

Following the wedding, Išar-Damu, Tabur-Damu, several high officials, and the statues

of the city’s chief gods, Kura and Barama, left Ebla for the cult center of Binaš. 26 Servants

oversaw the preparations, outfitting the wagons that carried the gods, packing the offerings and

other supplies necessary for the journey, and arranging the elaborate garments of the king and

the queen. They traveled for four days, stopping at six towns where they offered sacrifices to

different gods and many of the dead kings of Ebla. 27 When the travelers reached Binaš, the king,

queen, and the divine statues entered the é ma-dim, the house of the dead or the royal

mausoleum. The two full ritual tests, ARET XI 1 and 2, provide nearly identical accounts of

what the royal couple did when they arrived there:

The king and the queen enter the house of the dead...

The divine couple, Kura and Barama, comes to the house of the dead and enters the


And they remain there.

And the king enters his chamber.

And then the queen enters her chamber.

After the king and the queen arrive, Amazu offers one ancestor bull, two sheep, and one

silver bird, to the deified Ibbini-Li’m, two sheep, one silver bird to the deified Šagiš; two

sheep, one silver bird to the deified Išrut-Damu. 28

When those of the cloth arise, the king and the queen depart and sit on the thrones of

their fathers.

And await the presence of the sun god.

When the sun (god) rises, the invocation priests invoke and the lamentation priests intone

the laments of when the birth goddess Nintu was angered.

And those that it illuminates ask to be illuminated.

And the birth goddess Nintu illuminates the new Kura, the new Barama, the new king,

and the new queen. 29

This sojourn in the é ma-dim transformed both the human royal couple and the divine royal

couple. The texts describe three, seven-day ritual periods following this initial rite, during which

the king and queen held vigil in the mausoleum at night, and returned to their thrones during the

day to perform sacrifices and offer libations to the gods and the dead kings. Only after this

month, when they were ritually remade in the image of their ancestors, could Iš’ar-Damu and

Tabur-Damu truly ascend to power (Fronzaroli 1992: 184). On their return to Ebla, they

entered the temple of Kura in the palace district and enjoyed a royal banquet, consuming gifts of

food and drink that had been provided for their first celebration of one of the major rituals of the

Ebla court (ARET XI, 2 V XVIII 15-21). They had thus officially become the rulers, the En and


Movement and Perception

The rise of political complexity in Northern Mesopotamia, from 2600-2300 BC

encompassed changing relationships between power and place on many scales, from the rise of

palaces and temples, to the development of cities and the creation of a new political landscape in

the countryside (fig. 9). Each of these changes had social consequences, including the institution

of a hierarchical administrative system based on writing that sought to oversee agricultural labor

and the production of goods, the transformation of social interaction as populations grew and

cities ceased to be face-to-face communities, and the emergence of new economic opportunities.

The cultural consequences of these changes were profound and included the appearance of a new

symbolic system expressed in ritual, art, architecture, and the landscape itself. Here we will

examine that transformation through the lens of space, focusing particularly on how movement

through a series of landscapes naturalized these innovations. In Northern Mesopotamia,

controlling movement was one method used to display power and unite the countryside. In this

schema, the journey served as a ritual act, political metaphor, and everyday experience.

Movement through newly created political landscapes was thus critical to the development of a

cognitive schema that made sense of these polities, and indeed helped to constitute them from

discrete villages and towns with their own complicated histories.

All social processes have an important spatial component. People create particular

spaces by acting and moving in them, thinking about them, and connecting them to symbols and

their daily lives. The unique space of each society is produced through a combination of daily

routine, concepts held by officials, and religious or cosmological understandings (Lefebvre 1991:

191). For geographers and historians, movement or control thereof is critical to the creation of

spatial regimes. Henri Lefebvre writes that the production of space begins with action; Yi-Fu

Tuan suggests that human understandings of space develop out of movement (Tuan 1977: 35);

Michel de Certeau describes walking as one of the everyday practices that creates the lived space

of the city (Certeau 1984: 98). Similarly, philosophers have celebrated walking—Thoreau

strolling through the Massachusetts countryside; Heidegger rambling down a country path near

Messkirch; Benjamin and Baudelaire playing the flaneur in the Parisian arcades—as a process

that provides unique insights (Macauley 2000). This interest has emerged as a response to a

modernity in which walking is no longer the default means of locomotion. In third millennium

Mesopotamia, despite the recent domestication of draft animals including donkeys, horses and

even donkey-onager hybrids (the famous kunga, Weber 2008), walking remained the way most

people experienced space, how they apprehended their surroundings, and understood their place

in the world.

Walking in a city involves different constraints than travel in the open countryside or in

an unplanned village. This would have been particularly noticeable in the Early Bronze Age in a

world where cities, monumental architecture, and narrow streets were all rare. For those who

ruled early cities, channeling or limiting movement was a clear way to demonstrate, and indeed

create, political authority (Dovey 2008; Dovey and Dovey 2010). The construction of walls,

gates, streets, and monumental buildings not only expressed a regime’s political power, but as

architecture became part of the urban fabric it continued to affect each citizen, “in an

unconscious, habitual, corporeal way” (Hastorf 2009: 53), naturalizing a particular form of

political authority. Movement beyond the city can also be connected to delineating territory.

Cross-culturally, travel and the acquisition of exotic knowledge are often politically valuable

(Helms 1988) and have been linked to the rise of political complexity (Mann 1986). The

embodied nature of ritual and practical travel makes this method of establishing authority

particularly effective (Connerton 1989; Bourdieu 1990, 1977).

Territorial expressions of sovereignty have an obvious materiality that can be

investigated archaeologically. Indeed, archaeology with its emphasis on small scale excavation

and extensive survey may be the discipline best suited to engage with such questions (Smith

2003: 21-2). As Matthew Johnson has recently noted, sensory issues, including movement, are

far more readily accessible to archaeologists than processes like social stratification (Johnson

2012). In Mesopotamia—as elsewhere—the relationship between space and power on a regional

scale has been most often addressed through the lens of landscape archaeology. Since Robert

Adams’ pioneering surveys beginning in the early 1960s (Adams 1966; Adams and Nissen 1972;

Adams 1981), scholars have explored the rise of political complexity by analyzing regional

dynamics, especially connections between settlements in probable state systems (Wilkinson et al.

2007; Ur 2010b). These studies have grown more numerous as new information such as satellite

imagery allows the reconstruction of ancient landscapes even in areas off-limits to most

archaeologists, like Southern Iraq (Hritz 2010; Hritz and Wilkinson 2006; Pournelle 2007).

Approaches have focused on ancient agriculture, the establishment of administrative hierarchies,

the layout of urban centers, and more recently roads (Raccidi 2012; Ur 2009; Ur 2003; Ur

2010b). In general, there has been much less attention to questions of perception or ideology in

Mesopotamia, with some noticeable exceptions (Harmansah 2007; Harmanşah 2013;

McCorriston 2011). 30

Here, I will develop a methodology that will supplement mainstream ecological and

economic approaches to ancient landscape by considering the perception of built and natural

landscapes and its connection to political change. Symbolic studies of ancient landscapes have

often relied upon a loose understanding of phenomenology, grounded in Heidegger’s work on

dwelling (Heidegger 1971: 150-1). These analyses usually focus on the bodily experience of a

particular space and how that process generates a certain set of meanings. As Christopher Tilley

explains, “at their simplest and most abstract conceptualization, human, and humanized,

landscapes consist of two elements; place and their properties and paths or routes of movement

between these places and their properties… The concern is with both stasis and movement”

(Tilley 2012: 27). Phenomenological approaches to landscape have examined the relationship

between different places and these places and the natural landscape, by looking at intervisibility,

location, and access (Bender et al. 2007; Tilley 1994, 2010; Tilley and Bennett 2008; Llobera


Recent criticisms of phenomenological landscape approaches have emphasized their

ambiguity and lack of repeatability, problematic elision between modern and ancient experiences

and understandings (Barrett and Ko 2009: 279), and lack of attention to power relations and

social domains besides the symbolic (Fleming 2006: 278). The main problem with

phenomenological approaches in such cases remains the difficulties of “decoding” emic

perceptions of landscape and understanding their connection to power relations, particularly in

the absence of texts, iconography, and indeed (for the most part) settlements

The rich textual, iconographic, and archaeological record of Northern Mesopotamia in

the mid-third millennium, however, provides a specific context in which to study the symbolic

aspect of a range of landscapes and analyze how they intersected with power dynamics.

Archives from Ebla and Beydar dating to the 24th century BC contain somewhere between 2,000

and 7,000 documents. 31 The majority of the texts are administrative records, especially accounts

of textiles and metals, although there are also literary, pedagogic, diplomatic, and ritual texts

(Pettinato and Alberti 1979; Ismail et al. 1996). Contemporary with these documents is a rich

iconographic tradition, particularly expressed in varied glyptic styles attested across Northern

Mesopotamia, from Nineveh to the Mediterranean (Marchetti 1998; Matthews 1997; McCarthy

2011), as well as in elite statuary and clay figurines (Pruss 2011; Marchesi et al. 2011). Finally,

thirty years of intense archaeological investigation in and around a number of third millennium

sites in Syria has produced extensive information on these settlements and the changes they

experienced coincident with urbanism. This material will allow me to develop a hermeneutic

approach to investigate the traces of movement writ broadly (Ricœur 1987, 1990, 2004); rather

than relying on the ahistoric, phenomenological approach that has characterized so much work

on landscape. By this, I mean that I will consider movement in Northern Mesopotamia not

simply from the perspective of the body, but as part of a broader cultural system of meaning, a

web of symbols (Geertz 1973: 5).

The first section of this chapter outlines evidence for the rise of political complexity in

the mid-third millennium BC, as seen in urbanization, economic specialization, and the

appearance of administrative hierarchies. The second section focuses specifically on how the

transformation of space within the city and countryside was both part of and underlay many of

these other processes. It considers how building programs in Northern Mesopotamia created

specific political spaces that both expressed and established domination and alternatively

allowed for the exercise of authority by many actors. This section also addresses how urbanism

created new economic and administrative ties between communities that were actualized through

the movement of people and goods. The third section moves away from everyday movement in

the city and countryside to investigate the collective representations of ritual and travel that the

Ebla coronation drew upon. The next section analyzes specific performances, investigating how

actors manipulated materialized symbols and how audiences may have responded, through the

anlaysis of material from several cultic sites. The final section reconsiders the rise of complexity

in Northern Mesopotamia in light of this discussion.

Kingdoms, Cities, Artisans, and Officials

Following the collapse of a handful of powerful centers—most notably Tell Brak,

Hamoukar, and Nineveh—and the abandonment of the Southern Mesopotamian Uruk colonies

at the end of the fourth millennium, Northern Mesopotamia experienced a period of

regionalization and ruralization, out of which developed a new urban society. 32 From ca. 2700-

2300 BC, cities and kingdoms were established across the region. These early complex

societies had a number of structural properties that have been correlated with the emergence of

economic and political hierarchies and differentiation. First, several cities between 40 and 100

ha in size—including Nineveh, Hawa, Khoshi, Hamoukar, Mohammed Diyab, Leilan (ancient Še

na), Farfara, Brak (ancient Nagar), Mozan (ancient Urkiš), Chuera (ancient Abarsal?), Banat-

Bazi, Kazane, Titriş, and Ebla—appeared across the North Mesopotamian plains (Meyer 2011).

Unlike the smaller centers that they replaced, these cities were characterized by official

buildings—palaces, council houses, temples, and granaries—arranged in administrative quarters,

as well as neighborhoods of houses and workshops (Pfälzner 2011). Although smaller than

contemporary urban centers in Southern Mesopotamia (Stone 2007), such a concentration of

large settlements had never previously existed in this area. 33 These cities were located within a

landscape that had previously been dominated by smaller centers, about 15-20 ha. Their rise

entailed the transformation of a settlement system that had been divided into villages and towns

and now contained a number of settlements distinguished by size and possibly function

(Akkermans and Schwartz 2003; cf. Stone 1991). Hence, changes in urban and rural landscapes

were critical and interconnected phenomena during this period.

The largest cities in Northern Mesopotamia probably had a maximum population

somewhere between 6000 and 25,000 people. 34 Most Northern Mesopotamian cities consisted of

a single high mound, surrounded by a lower town that was separated from the surrounding

countryside by a city wall with multiple gates. Although some cities, like Mari and Rawda were

new foundations, many others, like Leilan, Hamoukar, Titriş, Kazane, and Mozan, grew to urban

size when a lower town was built around an older high mound (Meyer 2011). These cities

usually had administrative quarters located on their central mounds, with neighborhoods, open

spaces, and sometimes, special purpose buildings within their lower towns.

These formal quarters housed monumental buildings, especially palaces and sometimes

associated temples. Small soundings under the later third millennium palaces at Ebla and Leilan

have revealed administrative buildings dating to between 2600 and 2500 BC. At Ebla,

excavations beneath Palace G have exposed its mid-third millennium predecessor, Building G2,

a storage facility (Dolce 2010: 246-7), perhaps linked to Temple D (Porter 2012: 206). At Tell

Leilan, excavations on the Acropolis Northwest have revealed a series of storage rooms,

covering at least 300m2, which are associated with a 150m2 platform dating to 2600 BC

(Calderone and Weiss 2003; Ristvet and Weiss 2012: 230). These two activity areas probably

comprised the southwestern quarter of an early palace-temple complex, an antecedent of the later

Akkadian administrative building (Weiss et al. 2012). In both of these cities, the first palaces

have an essentially ritual component. This pattern accords nicely with the nature of public

architecture during the first quarter of the third millennium BC, when the only public buildings

were probably temples and possibly storehouses (Matthews 2002; Ristvet 2005; Porter 2012:

178-188). These earlier towns, however, did not possess extensive administrative quarters,

rather temples and storehouses were located in domestic neighborhoods.

By 2500-2300 BC, there is evidence for palaces that combined several elements found in

earlier “public architecture” according to a semi-standardized ground-plan (Bretschneider and

Jans 1997). Palaces at Beydar, Chuera, Bi’a, Mozan, Leilan, Ebla, and Mari included

storerooms, reception suites, and cultic areas (Pfälzner 2011: 170-176). At both Mozan and

Leilan, for example, palaces abut platforms containing burnt altars, with associated mortuary

structures and water installations. At Mozan, a stone platform was constructed along with a

keyhole-shaped structure that enclosed a deep shaft where offerings had been deposited. Marilyn

Kelly-Buccellati interprets this construction as an abi, a Hurrian “passage to the netherworld”

(Kelly-Buccellati 2002). At Leilan, an ossuary is located in a similar position southeast of a

mudbrick platform (Weiss 1997b). The Palais Présargonique at Mari also includes cultic

installations south of the palace (Margueron 2004: 197-204). Freestanding temples of this period

have also been excavated at Mari, Beydar, Brak, Chuera, and Mozan. They are usually located

on the high mound alongside the palaces and may have comprised one public district (Pfälzner

2011). The relationship between temples and palaces in the mid-third millennium in Northern

Mesopotamia thus differs from that in Southern Mesopotamia, where they were spatially

segregated (Postgate 1994a: 137-41).

Beyond these administrative quarters, third millennium cities had dense neighborhoods of

houses and manufacturing areas. Urban housing from 2600-2400 BC was generally constructed

on regular plots, with the frontages of most houses falling into standard dimensions, based on the

Sumerian nindan measurement (equivalent to about 5 m or 16.4 feet). Houses with frontages of

1, 1.25, 2 and 3 nindan have been identified at Chuera, Bderi, Abu Hafur, Melebiya, and Leilan

(Pfälzner 2001b, 1997: 249, Abb. 8). At Titriş, houses were also built on regular-sized plots,

either 7 X 12 m or 11 X 11 m (Matney 2000: 27). The standardization of houses and their

incorporation of innovative building techniques like arches and platforms may attest to the

increasing professionalization of construction and perhaps the presence of master builders

(Kolinski 1996). By contrast, houses from 3000-2600 BC tended to have only one or two rooms

and were usually arranged haphazardly, with few clear signs of planned roads, as excavation has

shown at Mohammed Arab and Kutan (Pfälzner 2011: 145-152; Roaf 2003: 318-320).

Workshops in urban neighborhoods provide evidence of increasingly specialized craft

production, while houses and administrative buildings have yielded grain and animal bones

attesting to changes in agricultural practices. Typological examination of pottery at Leilan has

documented increasing standardization, as well as the development of more efficient techniques,

perhaps resulting from expanding production to meet growing demand (Senior 1998). Analysis

of the production process shows that despite their uniform appearance, many ceramics were

made in different workshops at Tell Leilan and at surrounding sites (Blackman et al. 1993).

Metals, lithics, and cylinder seals also show evidence for specialized production. 35 Excavations

at Ebla and Brak have yielded finely carved statuary, often decorated with gold and semi-

precious stones, the products of elite workshops (Matthiae 2009; Matthiae and Marchetti 2013).

Some workshops specializing in luxury goods were attached to third millennium palaces. The

discovery of more than 40 kg of lapis lazuli in the administrative quarter of Palace G at Ebla

demonstrates the presence of stone-working here (Pinnock 1986; Matthiae 2008), while the

evidence for metal production in the palace in Field P at Beydar also indicates administrative

control over artisans (Pruss 2012: 125-7). Other manufactories, like building P4 at Ebla, were

located in these city’s lower towns. This building included a goldsmith’s workshop, but was

otherwise devoted to storing food, grinding grain, butchering meat, and preserving produce

(Marchetti and Nigro 1995: 19-20). Moreover, administrative dockets from Ebla and Beydar list

rations for a wide variety of professionals, including cartwrights, fullers, millers, shepherds,

basket weavers, domestics, scribes, messengers, and overseers, testifying to growing economic

differentiation (Sallaberger 1996: 95-8; Milano 1995, 1987, 1990).

The evidence for increasing craft specialization mirrors the traces left in the faunal and

archaeobotanical records for the intensification of agricultural and pastoral production.

Settlements in Northern Mesopotamia extensified their agricultural base, incorporating more

land into subsistence strategies. Archaeobotanical analysis indicates that cities extended their

fields into the previously unexploited steppe as a method of increasing production. At Leilan

and Brak, a dramatic fall in the ratio of moist to dry indicator weeds occurred as people moved

into the more arid parts of the plain (Wetterstrom 2003: 391-2; Colledge 2003: 411). Agriculture

during this period focused increasingly on barley cultivation, much of which may have served as

animal fodder. Barley is also more drought tolerant and could have been grown in areas not

suited to wheat cultivation (Deckers and Riehl 2008).

Urbanization implies ruralization, and the appearance of cities and settlement hierarchies

changed the nature of smaller settlements as much as it did larger ones (Schwartz and Falconer

1994). Unlike in Southern Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium, the urbanization of cities

did not mean the decimation of the countryside. Instead, population increased overall. From

2650-2300 BC, between 58% and 68% of people in the Leilan survey area lived in towns or

cities larger than 10 ha (Ristvet 2005: fig.6.9). A well-developed network of cities, towns, and

villages probably reduced transport costs and streamlined the administration of agricultural

production. Other surveys in the East Jezirah indicate similar trajectories of population growth

and the centralization of the population in towns and cities. To the south, west of the Middle

Habur, settlement expanded into the steppe (Hole and Kouchoukos 1994). Along the Middle

Euphrates, the foundation of several settlements and cemeteries in the steppe accompanied the

urbanization of Mari. Finally, in Western Syria and along the Upper Euphrates, there are similar

patterns of escalating site numbers and increasingly larger sites throughout the third millennium,

although the timing of these events differed across the region (Cooper 2006).

These changes would have had important implications for pastoralism as well. An

analysis of available forage in the 12 km around ancient Nabada indicates that expanding fields

would have limited the amount of locally available pasture. The area’s residents would not have

been able to rely on local grasses alone for their herd animals. Instead, it is likely that villages

and towns turned increasingly to mobility, by either taking village herds to distant pastures or

relying on nomadic pastoralists to supply them with sheep and goats and these animals’ products

(Lau 2010). People probably kept very few animals within the village, perhaps only five or six

sheep or goats per household.

Other archaeological data also document changes in pastoralist practices. In drier areas,

faunal analysis shows a new emphasis on the exploitation of domestic animals and the evolution

of specialized sheep and goat pastoralism (Zeder 1994, 1995, 1998). Percentages of wild

animals dropped precipitously in faunal assemblages across Northern Mesopotamia, while ratios

of sheep and goat increased. The increasing importance of mobile pastoralism is nicely

demonstrated by the fact that the capitals of five kingdoms of the mid to late third millennium in

Northern Mesopotamia in the Ebla texts—Ebla, Mari (Hariri), Nagar (Brak), Chuera (Abarsal),

Hadda (Tell Malhat ed-Deru, Archi and Biga 2003: 14, fn. 44))—were all gateway cities, located

in areas marginal for agriculture, where pastoral resources were critical. Moreover, there is

increasing differential access to animal species within cities. In neighborhoods at Brak and

Leilan, people kept pig sties in their courtyards, slaughtering the pigs when young to maximize

meat production (Weiss et al. 1993: fn. 30). People consuming meat at official quarters in these

cities, however, eschewed pork and ate mutton and goat instead, suggesting that these animals

were associated with special occasions or limited to the elite (Ristvet 2012a: 253).

The increasing importance of pastoralism in the mid-third millennium does not

necessarily entail the emergence of tribes as political actors, nor does it necessarily mean that all

pastoralists were as mobile as later groups. It is important to recognize that nomadic pastoralism

does not comprise an ahistorical category or an ideal form that exists apart, and is unaffected by,

social and political transformations. 36 The excavation of small village communities along the

Middle Habur and urban settlements (Kranzhügeln) in the steppe indicate a different relationship

between pastoralism and settlement in the Early Bronze Age in this region than in later periods.

In the earlier case, the remains of substantial mudbrick architecture indicate that these pastoral

communities were probably less nomadic than later communities who left no evidence of

architecture (Ristvet 2012b: 33; Kouchoukos 1998). Administrative texts from Beydar indicate

that some shepherds were subservient to urban authorities (Sallaberger and Ur 2004)—peasant

pastoralists (Salzman 2004)—rather than independent tribesmen. And of course urban and

sedentary populations were also involved in herd management (Archi 2006). The archaeological

evidence indicates that pastoralists were increasingly important across Northern Mesopotamia,

but we have no evidence for their social organization and no reason to believe that pastoralists

comprised politically powerful tribes similar to those known in later periods. 37 Within Ebla

itself, the political correspondence and treaties provide little evidence of a specific tribal identity;

nor is there any clear sign of the sort of tribal confederacies that will later span Greater

Mesopotamia (Ristvet 2012b: 43-4; below chapter 3). In the Ebla and Beydar archives, tribes

simply do not seem to have the same function that they do in later periods, despite the fact that

pastoral production (and the resulting textile industry) are important economic activities in both

cities (Gelb 1986; Ismail et al. 1996).

I have suggested elsewhere that the transformation of egalitarian early third millennium

societies into increasingly urbanized, hierarchical, and specialized societies may have occurred

as part of the development of competitive feasting economies (Ristvet N.D.-a). In this scenario,

kings or groups of “elders” may have initially harnessed labor and wealth by mobilizing

resources for feasting associated with funerals and religious institutions. The gathering of

foodstuffs and the mobilization of personnel for feasts in the early to mid-third millennium

probably was later transformed into institutionalized staple collection and redistribution. As we

have already seen, these feasting economies emerged during a period when pastoral mobility was

increasing and both the pastoral and agricultural segments of the population were becoming

more interdependent. The preferential consumption of sheep and goat in religious/administrative

district in early cities may have been one way of ritually uniting these groups, which had to

increasingly contend with the effects of distanciation. 38

The growing wealth of the region probably encouraged greater competition and external

aggression. Three inscriptions of Eannatum (ca. 2450-2425) mention the armies of Lagash

battling those of Mari and Subartu, an area located somewhere in northern or northeastern

Mesopotamia. 39 We know that Mari campaigned across Northern Mesopotamia in the 24th

century; it seems likely that this city was also active earlier. Glyptic designs, sculpture, and city

planning also provide indirect evidence of increased conflict. Combat scenes and other warlike

imagery are popular in the early seals from Brak, Chuera, Mari, and Leilan, perhaps because of

the increasing importance of warfare to these new polities (Matthews 1997; Ristvet 2007). At

Ebla, the “Victory Standard” probably dates to around 2500 BC and illustrates triumphant

soldiers humiliating defeated or dead enemies and presenting spoils of war to the king (Matthiae


For about 40 years, during the 24th century BC, the Ebla archives provide information

about the political geography of Northern Mesopotamia. Nagar, Ebla, Mari, Abarsal, and Kish

constituted an international sphere, marked by warfare, diplomatic alliances, and a shared written

language. Cities from Adab to Ebla (a distance of more than 900 km) worshipped many of the

same gods, and shared a writing system, calendar, and measurements (Gelb 1992). Ebla’s

political influence extended east to the Upper Euphrates and west to the Orontes Valley,

although the limits of this kingdom shifted constantly. At various periods, this city also

controlled villages and farmland located further east, between the Euphrates and the Balikh.

Mari ruled over much of the Middle and perhaps Upper Euphrates; Abarsal probably dominated

the Balikh and western Jezirah; Nagar held sway over much of the Habur plains; and Hadda

controlled the steppe between the Middle Habur and the Euphrates. 40

Initially, Mari was the most powerful kingdom in Northern Mesopotamia. A famous

letter from a king of Mari, Enna-Dagan, to an unknown king at Ebla lists Mari’s conquests,

describing conquered cities as heaps of corpses. During Enna-Dagan’s reign, Ebla paid huge

quantities of tribute in gold and silver (more than 500 kg of silver and more than 40 kg of gold)

to Mari, but later, Ebla became Mari’s equal and no longer contributed to its coffers. The two

city-states continued to compete, however, particularly for access to the Upper Euphrates and

areas further north and east. Although Ebla won an important victory over Mari, the tables

turned dramatically just three years later. Sometime shortly before 2300 BC, the imposing

Palace G on Ebla’s citadel was burned, preserving the city’s archives, and much of the Acropolis

was abandoned. The attackers probably came from Mari, and this catastrophe, which destroyed

Ebla’s pre-eminence in Northern Syria, was simply the final stage in a longer military contest

between the two cities (Archi and Biga 2003). A few years later, Sargon of Akkad arrived in

Mari and began the slow process of conquering this territory and incorporating it into his empire

(Ristvet 2012a).

Borders, City Walls, and Open Spaces

Increasing warfare and military aggression between mid-third millennium kingdoms

provides one context for the anxiety over the control of movement that emerges from the

historical and archaeological record. Increasing mobility among pastoralists may have provided

another. In Northern Mesopotamia, controlling movement became an important political goal

for several polities. Treaties from Ebla indicate that authorities were eager to limit passage

through their territory and sought to regulate the activities of merchants, messengers, and other

visitors. Similarly, archaeological evidence for ancient roads emphasizes that there was no free

movement through the countryside. Instead, passage was constrained by the presence of a dense

social network. Within newly founded cities, multiple fortification walls channeled people

through gates and checkpoints, limiting access to political spaces like palaces and underscoring

their authority. At the same time, certain urban plans emphasized free access to open spaces,

such as town squares that may have been meeting places for assemblies. These different spatial

strategies of control probably both reflected and allowed for political negotiation between city

councils, kings, and other political actors in these emergent polities.

Limiting Access

A nearly complete treaty found at Ebla, ARET XIII 5, contracted between that kingdom

and Abarsal, documents Ebla’s interest in controlling its borders. 41 There are explicit rules about

how caravans, messengers, cattle herders, and other travelers should conduct themselves outside

of their home territory, and discussions of extradition, legal domain over foreign citizens, and

property rights. Indeed, only one statute in the entire treaty is not concerned with travel and its

consequences. Section 37 succinctly expresses the treaty’s main theme: “without my permission,

no one can travel through my country, if you travel, you will not fulfill your oath, only when I

say so, may they travel,” (ARET XIII, 5, section 37). The Ebla and Abarsal treaty is not alone in

its focus on borders and movement; a fragmentary treaty between Ebla and Burman is also

concerned with regulating caravans (ARET XIII 5: III, 1’-3’). The diplomatic insistence on

strong borders probably did not correspond to reality. Most pre-modern states had permeable

frontiers; outside the confines of the city and a small hinterland, political control may have meant

little (Scott 2009: 7). Polities like Ebla have always had to contend with unwelcome visitors and

loss of population, with the ease that people could enter and leave a territory, like the later habīru

and ḫabbātū, “brigands,” who refused to accept urban authority. 42 Moreover, pre-modern

polities, unlike their modern counterparts, were often non-contiguous, and rarely overlapped

completely with a given territory (Ristvet 2008). But the insistence in Ebla’s treaty on

maintaining absolute control over territory, despite its practical impossibilities, highlights an

important emic political understanding. The Abarsal treaty equates sovereignty—the exercise of

effective political power—with territorial control over a kingdom and its subjects. 43

Data from excavations within third millennium cities have revealed a similar emphasis on

obstruction and highly controlled access to certain political spaces within the city. Evidence for

this can be seen in the construction of walled cities, perhaps the defining archaeological site-type

of this period (fig. 10). The Kranzhügeln in the arid southern Jezirah are even named after their

distinctive double walls. During the course of the third millennium BC, fortifications were

constructed—often coincident with urbanism—at nearly every site in the region, including Mari

(Margueron 2004: 85-88), Beydar (Bluard et al. 1997), Mozan (Buccellati and Kelly-Buccellati

1988), Arbid (Bielínski 1997), Leilan (Ristvet 2007), Hamoukar (Reichel, personal

communication), Nineveh (Stronach 1994: 93), Taya (Reade 1973), Chuera (Novak 1995), Bderi

(Pfälzner 1988), Titriş (Matney and Algaze 1995: 42-43), Kazane (Gates 1996: 292), Banat/Bazi

(Otto 2006: 11-3), Sweyhat (Zettler 1997: 48-50), and Ebla (Matthiae 1998). 44 These

fortification systems were complex and could include an outer city wall, often with a moat, and a

separate inner city wall. Both outer and inner city walls were built of mudbrick, sometimes

above stone foundations. Many of these walls were connected to earthen ramparts or glacis and

could also be fortified with towers (Cooper 2006: 70). At several sites, including Mari, Leilan,

and Beydar, the inner and outer fortification walls date to the same period and may have been

built at the same time, perhaps attesting to a holistic plan to limit movement within the city. At

others, like Chuera, the two sets of fortifications were not used contemporaneously (Meyer 2007:

137). The elaboration of excavated city gates at Bazi and Beydar, and the associated seal

impressions at Leilan, indicate the importance of controlling movement into the city and between

the inner and outer cities (Ristvet 2007:203). Within the city, the inner wall enclosed the citadel,

usually comprising the palace and associated public areas. Often the height of the tell itself was

incorporated into these fortifications. In some cases, like Building 2 at Bazi, a monumental gate

complex, and the Leilan Akkadian Administrative Building, these fortifications were the

administrative space (Otto 2006: 11; Weiss et al. 2012). Even if the upper city was not fortified,

the only ingress was via narrow staircases, further limiting access to these public quarters. 45 At

Taya, where the foundations of mid-third millennium structures are visible on the surface, survey

has revealed non-contiguous walls that blocked the roads in the suburban area outside the

fortification walls, indicating that even beyond the city proper control of access was of concern

(Reade 1973: 158).

City walls mark the separation between city and countryside. In Mesopotamia as

elsewhere they were part of the very definition of a city (Parker Pearson and Richards 1994: 24;

Van de Mieroop 1999: 73). These walls served to keep citizens in as much as they kept invaders

out (Burke 2008; Ristvet 2007; Weiss et al. 1993). Moreover, gates not only controlled access to

the city and the countryside, they also defined the populace in other ways. In the Ebla and

Beydar texts some citizens were divided into work teams depending on their KÁ, a Sumerian

term that literally meant city gate, although it also designated the neighborhood under that gate’s

surveillance (Ismail et al. 1996: texts 28-9). Thus the significance of the city wall and gate

depended on the audience.

Magnetometry survey, traditional survey, and limited excavations at Mozan, Chuera,

Taya, Kazane, and Leilan have illustrated that the main urban roads radiated from the citadel to

the city gates and were probably planned before the lower towns in these cities were built

(Creekmore 2008; Meyer 2007; Pfälzner and Wissing 2004; Weiss 1990b). At Leilan, Kazane,

Titriş, and Chuera large sections of these roads were separated from urban quarters by blank

walls (Nishimura 2008: 143). Access to most domestic structures was from narrow alleyways,

although entrances could also be directly from the road (Reade 1973: 160; Matney 2000: 25). In

general, the streets channeled traffic to the citadel, connecting the two administrative spaces of

the gate and the palace.

The extensive excavations at Beydar provide an example of how the gates and straight

radial streets created a specific sort of passage into the city and the palace, one that emphasized

political control (fig. 11). 46 Such a journey could have begun at the circular city’s southern gate,

one of seven such gates. A traveler would have followed the straight course of “Main Street,”

which probably traversed the outer city, and then passed through another elaborate gate in the

interior city wall, before coming to the south gate of the upper city. Beydar’s upper city was set

on a series of stepped platforms, creating a discontinuous monumental stairway that led to the

palace. Temples lined this processional space, channeling visitors into the political heart of the

city. As a visitor traveled across the upper city from the south gate to the main palace entrance,

s/he had to cross four checkpoints, corresponding to each terrace and the palace itself. At one of

these checkpoints, located just east of Main Street and north of Temple D, a massive square

tower was excavated. The tower clearly controlled access to the official block—the city’s

palace—and contained a small upper room, perhaps for a guard. The road narrowed before

approaching each checkpoint, only widening slightly just before the visitor reached the palace.

An analysis of the ground plan of the Beydar palace in Area F provides evidence of a

growing concern to regulate access to spaces within the palace (fig. 12). Spatial syntax analysis

provides one way to investigate these processes by evaluating changes in the distribution and

symmetry of this space. Distribution is a measure of how many paths lead to a specific space,

while symmetry measures depth, how many spaces one must traverse to reach a certain room. 47

The more distributed and asymmetric a building is, the easier it is to limit access to certain areas

and control movement through the building. Analysis of the Beydar palace indicates that it

became more asymmetric and more distributed over time. In phase 1, the palace was quite

integrated, with multiple entryways linking most rooms in a distributed pattern (fig. 13a). Only

two spaces were clearly separate and inaccessible, rooms 6762 and 6775, resulting in low

asymmetry. In the following phase, both of these characteristics changed (fig. 13b). Doorways

in the main part of the palace were blocked, limiting access between different room blocks, and

three new sets of rooms were constructed, all separated from the main building and with

entrances that could be easily controlled. These may have been living quarters or other offices

(Pfälzner 2011). Comparing the real relative asymmetry of these two phases, a value that

compares the actual depth of the building to its possible depth, illustrates this point clearly. The

value nearly doubled from .627 in phase 1 to 1.126 in phase 2, as an integrated space gives way

to a more controlled one. 48 In phases 3 and 4, a renovation did not change the overall

arrangement of space in this building, which remained distributed and asymmetrical (fig. 13c and

d). This emphasis on limiting access was probably typical of administrative buildings in

Northern Mesopotamia. Indeed, the contemporary Palace F at Tell Chuera has a real relative

asymmetry that is twice that of the Beydar palace, attesting to complicated circulation patterns

and stringent control. 49

Beydar’s narrow streets, the high walls of its temples and palaces, and its numerous

checkpoints may have been designed to produce a sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness in

visitors. The architecture emphasized the authority of those who monitored these spaces, the

king or council. This urban plan projected messages of domination, messages that were

naturalized by the enduring nature of the architecture. The limited visibility in most areas, where

houses were hidden behind blank walls, contrasted with the high visibility of the administrative

area on top of the Acropolis, which towered over the city. Its highly noticeable and yet

inaccessible nature may have reinforced its message of power (Dovey 2008: 10). The palace was

a difficult place to enter and to escape, both literally and metaphorically. As a Sumerian proverb

preserved in several copies from the early second millennium BC has it, “the palace is a slippery

place, where one slips. Watch your step when you decide to go home!” (Alster 1997: ETCSL 6,

25-26; Richardson 2012: 25-6).

The emphasis on controlling access within the urban plan and built environment echoes

attempts to establish control in other domains, such as administration. The proliferation of door

sealings and the complex circulation patterns within palaces mirror similar concerns with

regulating the admission of people to particular spaces. In the Beydar Palace, a limited number

of cylinder seals were used to secure doors, indicating that these rooms were under the control of

specific administrators (Jans and Bretschneider 2011: 151 and pl. 200). The administrative

system in Ebla, which sought to record the entry and disbursement of a wide-range of goods,

represents another attempt by these emergent kingdoms to demonstrate control over people and

things (Archi 2003: 21). The elaboration of this system attests to an increasing concern with

regulation. This is particularly true of the documentation of annual accounts of metals and

monthly accounts of textiles that Eblaite officials probably developed after the adoption of

writing (Archi 2003, 2006; Biga 2003). There is little evidence that these documents were ever

consulted after they were written; simply drawing them up may have been an end in itself (Archi

2003: 32, fn 17). This provides a neat parallel to the emphasis on monitoring borders in the Ebla

treaty, despite the impossibility of this endeavor. Even if such control was rarely established in

practice, its performance, documented in these dockets with their attention to minutiae, was

critical to the cultural construction of this kingdom.

Inclusive Spaces

Yet curtailing admittance to palaces, cities, and states is only part of the story. These

barriers existed alongside a focus on free entry to large communal spaces, often located near the

palace. Such open spaces, particularly when linked to city gates or temples may have been loci

for civic institutions. Recently both historians and archaeologists have emphasized the

heterarchical nature of Mesopotamian political power, with actors including elders, witnesses,

“the city,” tribal leaders, and individual citizens. 50 Texts from Beydar and Ebla attest to the

operation of collective authority during this period. At Beydar, for instance, a council of elders

(UKKEN EN EN) probably governed the town, under the aegis of the king of Nagar (Ismail et al.

1996: Beydar 86, 106). At Ebla, the first entries in the palace ration lists alternate between

provisions for the king and for the king and the elders (ABXÁŠ), perhaps indicating the collective

nature of kingship in this city (Milano 1987: 522; Porter 2012). These texts also testify to the

presence of other political institutions in Northern Mesopotamia. A group of elders ruled the

kingdom of Lu’atum, situated somewhere along the Upper Euphrates, before it was incorporated

into Ebla (Milano and Rova 2000: 722-3). Badalum-officials governed another group of city-

states located in the Balikh valley and the foothills of the Taurus (Milano & Rova 2000: 731;

Archi 2011: 6), while a plurality of kings presided over the important cities of Armi, Azu, Ibal,

and Manuwat (Archi 1987: 42). Below the level of the executive in these and other cities, there

were probably councils, elders, and other civic authorities who regulated much of daily life.

Except for a few references to city gates and perhaps squares, Mesopotamian texts

provide few topographical references to places where communal or civil authority—as opposed

to religious and royal—was enacted. The city gate and attached squares were probably the

primary site of exchange and the meeting place for citizen councils, rather like the Greek agora

(Stone 2007: 227). Such a town square in front of a city gate has been identified through

magnetometry survey and excavation at Titriş (Nishimura 2008: 151), while the excavations at

the City Gate at Leilan have possibly uncovered a similar space (Ristvet 2007). Temple

courtyards may have also served as gathering places, providing a place for courts to assemble to

judge cases brought by ordinary citizens (Postgate 1994: 277, fn 79), and possible archaeological

examples of these may exist at Leilan and Chuera. Finally, although the evidence is mixed,

rebītū, “town squares” or “wide streets,” may have been other loci for trade and civic affairs.

Such public spaces are so intertwined with civic identity that in the Old Babylonian Gilgamesh

epic, “rebītum” serves as an epithet for the city as a whole (George 1999). 51 What all of these

spaces have in common is their inclusiveness. Unlike the temple or the palace, many—perhaps

most—citizens could enter and participate in affairs at the gate, temple courtyard, or town


At Chuera, where decades of excavation and a complete magnetometry survey have

revealed the ground plan of much of this ancient city, large open expanses are present in several

places (fig. 14). 52 As at Beydar, the main access road from ca. 2500-2300 BC would have begun

at a gate in the outer city wall and led straight to the upper city. Once it crossed into the upper

city, it passed along the temenos wall of a large temple district. Monumental gates controlled

entry into this space. The road then led into the Anton-Moortgat-Platz, the central square where

all the streets of the city met. A temple was located on the eastern side of the square, enclosed

by another temenos wall. To the west of the central place, the road continued to the northeast,

leading to another open square in front of the palace (Meyer 2007: 137-139).

Although there are still walls and checkpoints at Chuera, they are much less frequent than

at Beydar. Additionally, the physical separation of the public buildings and the many large open

plazas bordering each district create a very different public space than at Beydar. Most cities

probably possessed town squares, large open areas located at the center of the site.

Magnetometry indicates as much at Mozan, while excavation shows the same pattern at Leilan

(Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 1999; Weiss 1997a). The relationship between the temple and

the open space at Mozan suggests that this plaza was a focal point for the settlement, despite (or

rather, because of) its lack of architecture (Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 1999: 39).

Perhaps the most famous of these open spaces is the city square immediately in front of

Palace G at Ebla (fig. 15). This area, originally called the “Court of Audience,” is at least 60 m

long and 42 m wide (Matthiae and Marchetti 2013: 51). The monumental façade of palace G

formed the north and west limits of this plaza, while houses in the lower city lay to its south and

east. Palace G itself was built on a series of terraces on the flanks of the Acropolis (Matthiae

2008: 34-5). Hence, the plaza is situated at a meeting place between the town and the palace, a

critical liminal zone for political performance. Anne Porter has proposed that the plaza was the

location of the regular ritual of providing food to the gods. The water features in the plaza may

have been used for ceremonial lustration, while the kitchen quarters of the palace are situated

conveniently nearby and could have supplied sacramental meals (Porter 2012: 204-6). The

recovery of a stone headdress that originally belonged to a cultic statue may indicate that a statue

of an Eblaite god stood on a dais here, while large limestone eyes found scattered in the ruins of

the plaza suggest that other cultic statues may have lined the eastern portico (Porter 2012: 212).

Alternatively, Paolo Matthiae, Ebla’s excavator, has proposed that the dais may have held a

throne (Matthiae 1981: 69). In either scenario, the plaza was a critical ceremonial space for both

the palace and the city as a whole. Performances on the plaza may have united the palace and

city, perhaps by honoring gods who were “intimately connected not only to the en’s incumbency

but also the identity of the polity” (Porter 2012: 206).

These town squares could have accommodated large numbers of people. The Anton-

Moortgat Platz at Chuera occupied an area of at least 5000m2, a figure that has been estimated

based on the site’s topography and evidence from a machine-dug trench through this central

place (Hempelmann 2010: 36). The plaza at Ebla is smaller, but comprises at least 2520 m2.

Both open spaces could have held large numbers of people—more than 5000 people could have

stood in the Court of Audiences and 12,000 people could have gathered in the Anton-Moortgat

Platz. In both cases, this probably represented a substantial percentage of the population of both

cities. Somewhere between 3360 and 20,000 people probably lived within the city walls at Ebla,

while Chuera may have had a slightly larger population, corresponding to its larger size. 53 In

any case, these plazas represented spaces that were clearly distinct from the tightly controlled

areas within third millennium administrative complexes.

Of course, it is too simplistic to associate all highly regulated spaces with exclusive

political authorities like kings and all inclusive spaces with civic forms of government. Not all

plazas are agorai. In Mayan archaeology, plazas are almost never interpreted in this way, but are

instead seen as stages for ceremonies that reinforced elite dominance (Inomata and Coben 2006).

It is certainly possible to understand Northern Mesopotamian spaces similarly. The presence of

middens at Leilan and Brak could indicate that feasting took place here (Ristvet N.D.-a). Such

ceremonies can be used to emphasize or to erase differences between participants (Dietler and

Hayden 2001). The same caveats hold for exclusive space. A one room structure uncovered at

Tell es-Sweyhat, with wide, buttressed walls decorated with paintings, has been identified by the

excavators as a possible meeting place for the city’s elders (Danti and Zettler 2007: 179-80).

At Beydar, the complicated relationship between architecture and political change shows

how one space could house both inclusive and exclusive political authorities. Although this city

was governed by a king and then probably by a council of elders, the changes made to palace

architecture over these two centuries was minimal. When the palace was constructed, a podium

was built in a central room, perhaps making this space into a throne-room. When this area was

rebuilt, however, no new podium was erected. The lack of a proper “throne-room” in the final

phase at Beydar is the only archaeological attestation that this building now served a council

rather than a king (Sallaberger 2004: 66). Recent excavations at Beydar have uncovered another

palace in the city’s lower town (the “palais oriental” in Field P) with a similar reception suite,

and probably throne room (Pruss 2012; Pruss 2007). Material within this palace suggests that it

was occupied simultaneously with the acropolis palace, providing further evidence for divided

authority (Pruss 2012: 119-20). The co-existence of these administrative spaces may result from

Nabada’s incorporation into the kingdom of Nagar, or it may represent a type of heterarchy,

characterized by the contemporaneous presence of multiple political authorities (Lebeau and

Suleiman 2011). Such examples should remind us that architecture and urban plans are long-

lived and their significance can change over time. What is important at Beydar is the

coexistence of inclusive and exclusive forms of authority and space throughout this period and

their continued manipulation by a range of actors.

Beyond the City

Beyond the city wall, cultivated fields surrounded ancient cities, constraining movement.

The hollow ways that radiate from many third millennium sites have been interpreted as the

remains of Early Bronze Age routes formed by animals leaving settlements (Wilkinson 1993),

although the identification of these features as roads and their date is contested (McClellan et al.

2000; Weiss 1997a; Casana 2013). 54 More than 6000 km of hollow ways have been mapped

from Corona satellite imagery in Northern Mesopotamia. They range in length from a few

hundred meters to more than five kilometers (Ur 2009: 192). Unlike the streets in cities, which

were intentionally constructed, they were formed through decades or centuries of use and

represent the paths trodden by messengers, merchants, farmers, pastoralists, and livestock,

traveling to other cities, fields, and pasture (Ur 2012). Although most traffic would have been on

foot, the increasing number of cart models in settlements, the popularity of carts and equids in

iconography, the appearance of elaborate equid graves, and the presence of cartwrights in the

Ebla and Beydar texts indicate the growing importance of wheeled transport (Ur 2009: 193;

Raccidi 2012; Weber 2012). Even if hollow ways do not represent ancient roads, it is clear that

patterns of land tenure would have constrained movement through the immediate countryside

(Wilkinson 1994). Indeed patterns of land use and settlement longevity would have combined to

restrict movement more intensively than during earlier or later periods when there is less

settlement continuity and more evidence for shifting cultivation. The large average size of

settlements and the high degree of centralization both suggest that most farmers had non-

contiguous fields. Settlement continuity would also have encouraged the formation of a strong

corporate identity. Administrative records from Ebla that document land tenure show that the

holdings of large property owners were fragmented and could be distributed across the kingdom

(Archi 1986b; Lafont 1998; Milano 1996; Renger 1987). The texts suggest that land holdings

were probably also discontinuous within villages, with some land belonging to palace or

absentee owners and the rest divided among villagers (Milano 1996: 142; cf. Porter 2012: 234).

The dense landscape of villages, towns, and cities in most third millennium polities would also

have acted to control movement, as the Ebla-Abarsal treaty indicates (Wattenmaker 2009: 118-

22). Beyond this zone, the intensification of pastoralism, and perhaps of mobility, may have led

to clear demarcations of pasture associated with different herding units, cities, or kingdoms.

Social and political landscapes were thus sources of friction. Well beyond the built environment

of the city, the political and social relationships that made up these polities limited free


Collective Representations: Pilgrimages and Political Power

The construction of new urban spaces and concomitant changes in the economic and

political landscape did not just transform quotidian journeys. The rise of political complexity

coincided with the creation of an intricate religious landscape, where multiple pilgrimage routes

arose that probably corresponded to and sometimes crosscut the territories of specific polities.

At Ebla, we have textual evidence that indicates that elites participated in these pilgrimages and

used them to gain and maintain influence. Seal impressions from official contexts across

Northern Mesopotamia suggest that this was a widespread elite practice. Archaeological

evidence from several sites that were probably part of such pilgrimage networks may document

non-elite participation in these ceremonies as well. As a result, pilgrimages and the sacred

landscape they enacted would have provided a powerful symbolic space in which to affirm or to

question the larger polity. These practices also provide a new context for the Ebla coronation


Pilgrimages and Sacred Journeys at Ebla

Combining the textual and archaeological evidence from Ebla allows us to reconstruct a

series of pilgrimage routes and analyze how they intersected with political and economic circuits.

As we have seen, the Ebla Coronation Ritual included ceremonies performed within the city of

Ebla and a pilgrimage to cult centers in the countryside upon the occasion of the king’s marriage.

This pilgrimage was one means to unite the palace district (SA.ZAki), the city of Ebla, and the area

beyond the city (uru.bar) through ritual. This pilgrimage may have cemented the identity of

Ebla’s kingdom as a whole, in the same way that the daily ceremonies in Ebla’s plaza sought to

unify different parts of the city.

Ritual journey are potent reminders of the power of a ruler (McCorriston 2011: 22;

Geertz 1985; Morinis 1992; Kertzer 1988). Cross-culturally, kings have resorted to such royal

processions particularly at times of transition or in states with weak political infrastructures. In

late Medieval and early Modern France, the rite of royal entry was often part of the coronation

ceremony in the capital and replaced it in provincial cities. These performances were a chance

for the monarch to display his/her power and for various groups within the city—particularly

guilds to illustrate (and gain) influence (Giesey 1985: 53-5). Similarly, in Majapahit Java, royal

entry was a major ceremony that symbolized the power and stability of the realm (above,

introduction). In 18th and 19th century Morocco, where kingship was based on baraka—god-

given power to rule—the processions of warrior monarchs through their fragile kingdoms could

last half the year, “demonstrating sovereignty to skeptics” (Geertz 1985: 25). Similarly, at Ebla,

the royal procession to cult centers in the countryside was part of the construction of a new form

of political landscape, one of kingdoms, not isolated villages.

The Ebla coronation ceremony was a once in a lifetime event, but other ritual journeys

occurred more often. Ebla’s kings made regular offerings to their ancestors in different cities of

the kingdom, including Darib and Ebla itself (Archi 1986a, 1988: ARET VII 150, ARET III

178). A woman from Binaš took part in one of these ceremonies—linking these regular

offerings to the ritual texts ARET XI (Fronzaroli, 1988). Other offerings to these deceased

monarchs were probably made in most of the small towns and villages near Ebla. Recent

analysis suggests that the Eblaite phrase AN.EN.KI, usually interpreted as the god Enki (Archi

2010), probably designates ancestor veneration practices instead (Biga 2012: 12-14; Pasquali

2009). Like the coronation ceremony, offerings to the divinities of the dead kings would have

made kingship visible to people in the Ebla countryside.

Religious celebrations in honor of the god ‘Adabal also took the form of a pilgrimage

through the Ebla countryside. ‘Adabal was a storm god who was widely venerated in the

countryside around Ebla, especially in the Orontes valley (Archi 2005: 98). In this, he differs

from Kura and Barama, the gods who are celebrated in the coronation ritual, but rarely attested

outside of Ebla. Unlike those deities, ‘Adabal’s main cult center was not Ebla, but the three

cities of Arugadu, Amadu, and Luban. Two itineraries document an annual cultic journey in his

honor that visited sacred places throughout Ebla’s kingdom. 55 Each year, between five and

fourteen members of a religious confraternity, the šeš-Il-ib, which was centered on the Ebla

palace and often included the king, began their pilgrimage at Luban and visited Ebla and 35

other towns. In some years, other members of this confraternity also participated in a pilgrimage

to ‘Adabal’s secondary center of Arugadu (Archi 2002: 29). Like the coronation ceremony,

these yearly pilgrimages served to knit the land together, underscoring the shared religious

experience of diverse places. The major political figures of the kingdom including the king,

queen, and chief minister celebrated another ceremony, ‘Adabal’s opening festival,

simultaneously in Arugadu and at the palace. Like the regular pilgrimage, the synchronous

enactment of these ceremonies across western Syria also connected Ebla with its larger

countryside, underscoring the important relationship between the palace, the city of Ebla, and the

larger polity (Archi 2002).

The Archaeology of Pilgrimage at Ebla

In the absence of intensive archaeological survey and more excavation of third

millennium sites, reconstructing the historical geography of the kingdom of Ebla is difficult. A

new archaeological survey, the Ebla Chora Project, has assembled information from several

preliminary surveys and remote sensing data, but has been unable to ground truth most of these

sites. 56 Nevertheless, it is possible to compare the coronation journey with ‘Adabal’s cultic

circuit and to consider how these pilgrimages may have intersected with Eblaite politics (fig. 16).

First, there is no overlap in the destinations of the two pilgrimages; only Darib and Ebla are

associated with both the rituals of kingship and ‘Adabal’s cult. Second, the two circuits cover

different total territories. The destination of the coronation journey, Binash has been identified

with the modern village of Binish, ca. 20 km northwest of Ebla (Bonechi 1993: 78; Archi et al.

1993: 179). If this identification is correct, then it is likely that the other places mentioned in the

coronation ritual also lie between Binish and Ebla. 57 Other places associated with the cult of the

dead kings are also located nearby, like Darib, which has been identified with modern Atarib,

about 30 km to the north, or places where offerings are made for the AN.EN.KI like Harzanu and

Amisadu, probably small villages close to Ebla (Biga 2012: 13; Biga 2013). This suggests that

the rituals of kingship took place in Ebla’s immediate vicinity. In contrast, the pilgrimage in

honor of ‘Adabal visited a number of cities that were located along the Orontes, perhaps as far

south as Hama, ancient ‘Amadu, one of ‘Adabal’s main cult centers, and as far north as the plain

of Antioch where Arugadu was probably located. The Orontes is 40 km from Ebla, the Plain of

Antioch is 60 km, and Hama is 75 km, indicating that this journey covered a wider territory, well

beyond Ebla’s hinterland.

The two journeys worked to construct political authority in the kingdom of Ebla

differently. The rituals of kingship—the coronation ceremony and the offerings to the dead

kings—clearly demonstrated the power of the king and the dynasty to the city and the

countryside immediately around it. ‘Adabal’s cultic journey, on the other hand, allowed Ebla’s

political elites to introduce themselves into a pre-existing ritual, to legitimize the city’s control

over this more distant area. The differences between these rituals reflect a critical aspect of third

millennium kingdoms, the difficulty of establishing and maintaining direct control in areas

beyond a few days’ journey from a city. Within a radius of one or two days travel—

corresponding to the area defined by the coronation journey and the cult of the dead kings—

frequent royal visits and state ceremonial reinforced a sense of belonging. This probably

coincided with real economic and other ties between these settlements and Ebla, since this is also

the area in which it is profitable to deliver agricultural products using animal transport

(Wilkinson 1994: 502; Chisholm 1962: 80-3). Beyond this radius, links to Ebla were more

tenuous, reflected in the higher degree of independence and different ritual systems, one in which

the Ebla contingent did not have a leading role.

The Syrian Ritual

The Ebla texts provide unique insight into political ritual in Western Syria. Although no other

religious texts are known from Northern Mesopotamia, iconography and archaeological remains

attest to a more extensive political use of ritual journeys. A cylinder seal motif, referred to as

“the Syrian ritual,” appears to illustrate cultic processions and link them in multiple ways to the

construction of political authority. This scene portrays a religious procession, depicting devotees

lifting one or both arms in praise of a deity. This god faces front, unlike the other figures who

are rendered in profile (Amiet 1980: 167-8; Matthews 1997: 113-4). Most impressions identified

as Syrian ritual scenes bring together supplicants, towers (presumably temples), and wagons,

perhaps emphasizing the importance of travel to the ritual. Although we have many fewer

examples of the Syrian ritual scene than of banquet or contest scenes, which are the most

common imagery from this period, their proveniences and patterns of use attest to their

importance in Syrian and North Mesopotamian courts.

At Tell Beydar, for example, the best attested sealing is a variation on this theme. The

Beydar Master Seal is in two registers, although the scenes are not easy to separate and tend to

overlap. At the center of the lower register stands a high tower, made of two almost man-sized

rectangles, each bearing a quadripartite motif. Three figures with one or both arms raised

emerge from this structure. One individual kneels before the left side of this tower with his arm

raised in greeting. Other people, also depicted with raised arms, approach the tower from both

sides. Some of them walk, while others ride in two different types of carts. The upper register

depicts a man driving an equid drawn cart into battle. The people before him include foot

soldiers wielding weapons or shields, and a fallen man. A robed figure walks behind his cart.

Each of the three carts is distinct and rendered with attention to detail, unlike the individual

figures, all of whom seem to be wearing the same, possibly flounced, skirts (fig. 17, a). 58 This

tower may resemble both the actual sanctuaries on high terraces known from excavations at

Hazna from the first half of the third millennium and perhaps Gre Virike (see below), and a

model, three-storey tower found at Brak that was decorated with goat heads and small birds

(Emberling 2003: Fig. 52-3). Approximately 50 impressions of this scene have been recovered

from Beydar. They all come from the large public complex in the center of Beydar’s Acropolis

(Rova and Devecchi 2008: 64). Several of these impressions are door sealings, indicating that

this seal was wielded by a high official at Nabada who had authority over goods within this

monumental building. It seems likely that the iconography of the scene was also important to

this official’s exercise of authority. At least one other scene from Beydar (Rova and Devecchi

2008: type 2, 65-6) illustrates a similar ritual; it depicts a two-story wheeled tower, wagon and

driver, and possible worshippers. Two door sealings bearing this scene were recovered from the

courtyard in front of Temple B. Once again, the fact that the seal’s owner was responsible for

goods stored in Temple B indicates that he was an official associated with Beydar’s Official

Block. 59

Outside of Beydar, other imagery connected to the Syrian ritual scene come from Mari,

while related iconography is known from seals or sealings found at Ebla, Brak, and in

unprovenanced collections. 60 Two recently published Mari royal sealings are the most elaborate

known renditions of this scene (fig. 17, b and c). The owner of these seals is identified as Išqi-

Mari, king of Mari, in inscriptions (Beyer 2007: fig. 17-8, 249; Beyer and Lecompte 2014).

Both of these scenes combine Syrian and Southern Mesopotamian motifs, including the master

of animals, a presentation scene, and a battle scene. The scenes have two registers, which like in

the Beydar seal, tend to overlap. The top register shows the master of animals in full face, like

the Syrian god. He stands behind the king, who is seated in a chair, holding a mace. In front of

the king are two animals, perhaps a deer and a lion. The bottom register illustrates a battle scene

of soldiers stabbing enemies with knives and spears. Equid-drawn chariots, which resemble

those depicted on the standard of Ur, trample fallen bodies. In scene B, vultures peck at the

heads of two of the corpses. The fact that these wagon scenes are royal seals emphasizes the

connection between religion and political power.

In a recent analysis of the Beydar and Mari scenes, Joachim Bretschneider and colleagues

have drawn attention to the juxtaposition of the battle and ritual scenes on each seal. The Mari

seal features a banquet scene, perhaps depicting ritual offerings following victory. The Beydar

seal, in contrast, portrays a ritual procession, possibly another scene of thanksgiving. The figure

in the wagon could be a king or important political figure, or it may represent the statue of a god

or goddess on a journey like the one described in the Ebla rituals (Bretschneider et al. 2009: 12).

Other seals at Beydar depict boats, probably illustrating yet another ritual journey, well-known

from this period in Southern Mesopotamia, often referred to as the boat god motif (Jans and

Bretschneider 2011: 42-6). The imagery on the seals exemplifies the two sources of political

power and sovereignty in Northern Mesopotamia: military conquest and religious rituals. Their

combination on these royal seals shows the importance of both sources of authority in these early

kingdoms. These large seals depict, in an abbreviated form, the ideological underpinnings of

these polities.

Materialized Symbols: Cult Centers in the Countryside

Ritual texts and the iconography of the Syrian ritual scene provide a new context for

unusual third millennium cultic/funerary monuments. Certain sites with a religious function may

be understood as pilgrimage centers, the equivalent of places like Binash that would have served

the larger community of the polity. Archaeological data from four of these sites—Gre Virike,

Hazna, Jebelet al-Beda, and Banat—allow us to reconstruct how different polities may have used

religious journeys to construct different political identities in the middle of the third millennium


Gre Virike

10 km north of the major center of Carchemish lies Gre Virike, a religious and mortuary

center on the banks of the Euphrates. Sometime near the beginning of the third millennium BC,

a 50 X 35 m mudbrick platform was built on top of a natural pebble hill here (fig. 18). The first

structures constructed on this platform (phase I, early third millennium) were ritual installations,

including stone-lined pits, plaster-lined pools, a small clay platform, and a basalt stairway

leading to an underground spring (Ökse 2006b: 1-5). During the following phase (IIa, mid third

millennium), a series of limestone chamber tombs were placed on the summit of the mound

along with offering chambers (Okse 2005: 21-7). Satellite graves from this phase and the

following one (IIb, late third millennium) were dug into the platform, clustered around the initial

chamber tombs (Ökse 2006a: 4-20).

During each phase, there is archaeological evidence for offerings of agricultural goods

and figurines. Offering pits and chambers contained barley with a few grains of bread/macaroni

wheat (Dönmez 2006), animal bones, unbaked clay animal figurines, and the remains of vessels.

Initially, the association of these materials with the underground spring implies that they were

donated to deities associated with water, fertility, or the underworld, while later offerings may

have been part of funerary and post-funerary feasts or sacrifices (Okse 2004; Ökse 2007). In

addition to these pits, kitchen installations were present on the site during the phases associated

with the graves, perhaps for the preparation of food offerings. The ritual and mortuary

installations of Gre Virike are associated with no domestic architecture on the site itself.

Throughout the third millennium, architecture only occupied about 1/3 of the 1800m2 platform

(Peltenbug 2007-2008: 221-2). The remainder of the space could have accommodated an

audience of anywhere between 500 and 4000 people. 61


In the Habur triangle, another small site, Hazna, located 14 km west of modern Tell Brak,

ancient Nagar, may have served as a place of pilgrimage in the very early days of this kingdom,

although there is evidence that, like Gre Virike, it was a cultic place long before we have texts

documenting politics at Nagar. 62 Hazna provides intriguing evidence for control of access to

ritual space and for popular participation at a possible pilgrimage site from ca. 3000-2500 BC. 63

The excavators suggest that during the mid third millennium BC, Hazna was a temple complex

that included multilevel platforms, towers, and attached rooms (fig. 19; Munchaev et al. 2004:

477). These rooms were arrayed on three or possibly four terraces, each of which was connected

to an enclosure wall. In the center of this settlement was an 8 m high tower with its own

fortification. Although it is possible to interpret Tell Hazna as a densely occupied village site,

and its cultic towers as storage facilities (Pfälzner 2002, 2011), the unusual nature of the deposits

here, the buttressing on these towers, and the site’s later use as a cemetery supports the

excavators’ interpretation. The circular construction of this site may resemble temple ovals

discovered at Tell Ubaid and Khafaje in Iraq (Delougaz 1940; Hall and Woolley 1927).

Excavations in room 37 within the main tower have unearthed striated ash layers

containing grain, animal bones, and clay animal figurines, which the excavators have interpreted

as offerings (Amirov 2006) (Munchaev et al. 2004: 25-6). Moreover, seventeen unused sickle-

blades were placed in a niche in the tower along with a stamp seal (Merpert and Munchaev 1999:

121). Another cultic tower (room 110) was located on a different level of the site. In a room

(149) adjoining this tower, the excavators found a cache of beads made of crystal, carnelian, jet,

turquoise, bone, and shell, as well as silver pendants (Munchaev et al. 2004: 23). Some of the

rooms in the complex connected to this tower were filled with large quantities of animal bones,

while two small chambers contained a cache of more than 40 clay animal figurines (Munchaev

and Merpert 1994: fig. 31). Other cultic chambers, another tower, and industrial installations

occupied Hazna’s other terraces. As at Gre Virike, following its use as a temple, Hazna was

converted into a necropolis, with 25 individual graves placed in different rooms of the compound

(Munchaev et al. 2001: 483).

Jebelet al-Beda

Southwest of Hazna, in the Syrian desert, at the western edge of the Jebel Abd-’al-Aziz

mountain range lies another unusual, cultic site. The site consist of a 20 X 15 m platform of

limestone blocks at the highest point of a hill called Ras et-Tell (Moortgat-Correns 1972: 54). In

the western half of this platform, eight square trenches were cut into the bedrock in a cruciform

pattern. Four of these trenches were widened to create graves, although skeletons were only

found in the two graves in the middle of the platform. Very little material was recorded from the

graves, trenches, or platform, with the exception of rough, handmade pottery sherds and basalt

fragments. Lying on the slopes of the hill were the remains of at least three basalt sculptures

(Moortgat-Correns 1972: 53-4), which the excavator hypothesized were originally erected on the

platform (Oppenheim 1933: 226-30).

The best-preserved sculptures are a stela and a statue in the round. The statue, which

may have originally been 2.5-3 m high, depicts a bearded man wearing a flounced skirt and

holding a mace (fig. 20a). The double-sided stela has the same image on both sides and may

portray the same bearded man (fig. 20b). On the stela, he stands atop a litter borne by two

smaller men, who appear to be running, a motif also found on the Ur-Nanše plaque from Telloh

(Moortgat-Correns 1972: 15). The statue can be linked stylistically to the figure of Išqi-Mari,

depicted in the Mari royal sealings and by a statuette found at Mari (Parrot 1953: 8-9). This

probably indicates that the figure depicted was a Northern Mesopotamian monarch. Joachim

Bretschneider and colleagues suggest that the tableau formed by the man with the mace facing

the stela is related to the scene on the lower register of the Beydar master sealing (Bretschneider

et al. 2009: 17). The seal and the sculpture may both depict aspects of the Syrian ritual.

Memorializing this ceremony through monumental architecture transformed this desolate hill

into an everlasting reminder of this ceremony. Additionally, the use of this imagery on seals

incorporated this ritual into quotidian administration. Hence, this ritual worked both as spectacle

and as daily practice, amplifying the effective influence of this symbolism.

South and west of Ras et-Tell lie two other hills where Oppenheim excavated EBA cist

graves, including one with an enclosure wall (Oppenheim 1933: 229-230; Moortgat-Correns

1972: 55). In total, Ursula Moortgat-Correns estimates twenty graves can be found in the hills

near Ras et-Tell (Moortgat-Correns 1972: 56). Although these burials are difficult to date, they

may be related to the tableau of the statue and the stelae. Certainly, they would have provided

this ritual of kingship with a timeless audience.

Tell Banat

Unlike the other cultic sites considered this far, which are small and isolated, the site of

Tell Banat, together with neighboring Tell Bazi, may have constituted the city of Armi/

Armanum (fig. 21; Otto 2006; cf. Porter 2012: 237, fn 73), although it is possible that this city

lay further north, at Samsat (Archi 2011). Myriad different monuments are attested at Banat and

may have been the settings for ceremonies like the Ebla coronation ritual. The 20 m high White

Monument at Banat (Tell Banat North), located 200 m north of the main settlement, was a

complex burial mound used for at least half a millennium (from ca. 2800-2300 BC). Anne Porter

and Thomas McClellan, Banat’s excavators, believe that the White Monument was a giant

ossuary, the final resting place for certain ancestral remains, interred there following their

defleshing (Porter 2002: 21; McClellan 1998). Although excavations never penetrated to the

heart of this mound, they did reveal three construction stages for the monument. The first

version of the structure (White Monument C, ca. 2600 BC) was a white pyramid built of gravel

that incorporated human bone and fragments of pottery, including the possible ritual deposition

of a deliberately broken vessel (Porter 2002: 14). Stone tumuli and earthen cairns containing a

few disarticulated human bones and whole vessels were cut into this mound. Skeletal material

and pots had also been scattered around the tumuli (Porter 2002: 15). During the second

construction phase (2550-2400 BC), a single large mound, White Monument B, was built to

incorporate these disparate mounds. In the final construction phase (2400-2300 BC), this mound

was enlarged to create White Monument A. Unlike the previous mortuary monuments, White

Monument A was built at one time, as a single construction event. It was made in even

horizontal layers, each of which contained discrete deposits of the disarticulated remains of two

or more individuals, equid bones, ceramics, and small offerings like beads and clay balls (Porter

2002: 16). The excavators emphasize the careful patterning of this mound; human bones were

not placed randomly, and the gravel and white gypsum used in the construction were deliberately

chosen and brought some kilometers (Porter 2007-2008: 202).

The White Monument is not the only locus for mortuary rituals at Banat. Indeed, the

oldest structure at the site—Mortuary Mound II—is also a conical mound built of layers of

gravel and white pisé that may have enclosed a stone cairn (Porter 2002: 16). A 2 m tall gravel

platform overlay this burial mound. The monumental Building 7, probably either a palace or

temple and a contemporary to White Monument B, was built atop this platform. Another

monumental building, Building 6, replaced it and stood when White Monument A was built.

The buildings may have been placed in this area to erase the previous mortuary monument or to

appropriate its authority (Peltenburg 2007-2008: 228).

Just south of Building 7 lay a series of burials, including Tomb 7, a five-chambered tomb

made of carefully dressed stone and used during the life-spans of the public buildings 6 and 7.

The tomb’s stone architecture and baked brick and bitumen floor parallel the architecture of the

public buildings. When the buildings were in use, the stone roof of this tomb would have been

visible and accessible, located in a courtyard connected to them. Tomb 7 contained a wealthy

primary burial; an articulated skeleton was found in the remains of a wooden coffin, with nearly

1000 gold beads, alabaster vessels, and objects with lapis lazuli inlay. The impressions of

objects that had been removed from the tomb in antiquity could still be seen in its bitumen-

coated floor. Clearly, this tomb was entered multiple times, probably as part of complex

mortuary and post-mortuary rituals. Two other articulated skeletons lay above Tomb 7, while a

third articulated skeleton was found near its entrance shaft, directly on top of the tomb’s stone

roof (Porter 2002: 18-21). Three other burials—tombs 4-6—were also located in this courtyard

and contained the fragmentary remains of multiple individuals. They are probably equivalent to

the ancillary burials found within the White Monument (Porter 2002: 17-8).

Actors, Audience, and Mise-en-scène: Pilgrimage Centers?

Architectural analysis of Gre Virike, Hazna, Jebelet al-Beda, and Tell Banat provides

information on the setting for rituals, while depositions from these sites illustrate the nature of

these activities. These locales also provide an opportunity for us to reflect upon the actors,

audiences, and mise-en-scène of these particular ceremonies, as well as the different ways they

were embedded into political negotiation.

Despite the unique nature of each of these places, these four ritual locales share many

similarities. Each monument uses height and monumentality, often incorporating a mound or a

hill into its construction. Gre Virike, Hazna, and Jebelet al-Beda also used platforms to

segregate cultic installations, in the process perhaps creating stages for the performance of

special rites. The presence of funerary monuments is also common to all of these sites. None of

them seems to have been inhabited; even Banat has no clear evidence for a domestic population.

But they did not exist in a vacuum. In order to understand the various roles they could have

played, it is necessary to look beyond the individual places and consider their wider landscape.

The Ebla tablets indicate that in the 24th century BC Northern Mesopotamia was divided into a

large numbers of small kingdoms or city-states—at least twenty such polities are known. The

cultic sites probably belonged to three or four different polities. Gre Virike may have been

located in the kingdom of Carchemish, Hazna was probably part of Nagar, Jebelet al-Beda may

have been part of Hadda or Abaarsal, and Banat was probably the capital of Armi/Armanum.

Constructing Kingdoms

Gre Virike belongs to the badalum-cities region, an area along the Upper Euphrates and

Balikh where the main political authorities were badalum-officials, not kings. The lack of

domestic settlement here suggests that the site was a place of pilgrimage that was incorporated

into a larger cultural landscape along the Euphrates (fig. 22). Survey evidence from the area

within a day’s walk of Gre Virike indicates that other sites along the river, with the possible

exception of Carchemish, were small villages, with a population of perhaps 4000 during the

lifespan of this cultic center (Ökse 2007). 64 Rather fittingly, 4000 is also the upper limit for the

number of people who could attend ceremonies at this center, based on analysis of the open

space surrounding the funerary installations here. 65 Since other cultic sites are located 15-30 km

apart on the Euphrates, Gre Virike was probably only used by people living within this radius,

perhaps including the local elites at Carchemish. This would have made the Gre Virike

pilgrimage circuit similar in size to the Ebla kingship ritual circuit. Unlike some of the other

cultic sites, Gre Virike was not placed behind a wall, nor was it located on a particularly high

terrace, perhaps emphasizing its connection to its wider community. Yet Gre Virike’s position

along the river means that its visibility is limited. The site can be seen from very few of the

contemporary third millennium settlements that have been identified from survey in this region

(fig. 23). 66 This hidden aspect of Gre Virike may have contributed to a sense of exclusivity; this

cultic place could be used only by those in the know. The kitchens and other installations around

its burial chambers attest to repeated ceremonies, perhaps ancestor rituals performed for an

audience in the lower viewing area (Peltenburg 2007-2008: 222-3). Gre Virike’s lack of

monumentality and the dearth of high status objects in these chamber graves may correspond to

the political situation of Carchemish, where there are no attested kings during this period.

Perhaps political power in the Carchemish region was founded on inclusive policies or ritual

authority—and not on the display of wealth or an architecture of domination.

The situation at Nagar is quite different. As we have seen, this kingdom with its

eponymous capital at Brak was equal in status to Ebla, Mari, and Kish during the 24th century

BC. We know that Nagar’s king traveled between the centers under his control in a royal

progress that may have contribute to his authority. 67 Although we have no record for a

specifically ritual journey like the Ebla coronation ceremony, the evidence from the Beydar seals

and the tower model from Brak provide indirect evidence for such activities. The early-mid third

millennium tower temples excavated at Hazna, located 15 km from Brak and 20 km from

Beydar, resemble the ritual structures depicted on the later Beydar seals, despite the

approximately 150 year gap between the two. Architectural elements at Hazna call to mind

exclusive political strategies, limiting access to this sacred district to all but a chosen few. This

emphasis on multiple fortification walls controlling access to the cultic spaces at Hazna

distinguishes it from Gre Virike. Such evidence parallels the presence of extensive fortification

walls and control points at the city of Beydar, indicating the importance of controlling territory

for Nagar’s king. Similarly, the presence of separate locations for elite and non elite offerings at

Hazna may have constituted a part of Nagar’s different hegemonic strategy. At Hazna, everyday

objects—probably brought as offerings—such as grain, animals, agricultural implements, and

animal figurines, were segregated from unusual, high-status donations such as the semi-precious

beads in room 149. Moreover, there is no obvious space for an audience to watch the ritual

performances, indicating that the relationship between actor and audience was different here. It

is likely that all visitors to the complex were understood as participants, perhaps stressing the

egalitarian nature of many of these rites. However, although most of the evidence at the site

results from similar ritual offerings, perhaps made by a wide spectrum of the populace, the use of

at least part of the site may have been co-opted by an elite that emphasized exclusion, not

inclusion. Once again, its position with respect to Nagar may indicate that most of its pilgrims

only traveled a day or so to reach this sanctuary.

Jebelet al-Beda also attests to the ritual establishment of a political strategy. These

unusual ruins have been interpreted as a site of worship, a victory monument, or a place of

ancestor veneration (Oppenheim 1933; Meyer 1997; Moortgat-Correns 1972; Pfälzner 2001a).

It seems most likely that this site was built and used by the inhabitants of the Kranzhügeln, the

majority of which lie between the Jebel ‘abd-al-Aziz and the Habur river. The 33 ha site of Tell

Mabtuh lies only about 10 km northeast of this monument and is the closest third millennium

settlement. Jebelet al-Beda may have belonged to a pilgrimage network belonging to the

kingdom of Abarsal, centered on Chuera, ca. 55 km northwest, or to the kingdom of Haddu, an

important center that bordered Mari on the west and whose capital has been identified as Tell

Malhat ed-Deru, ca. 55 km southeast. 68 The monument at Jebelet al-Beda seems to have more

in common with Gre Virike than Hazna. Unlike the latter site, the use of circumvallation is

limited to one of the “Grave Hills.” Moreover, the simple cist graves set on a platform, built on a

natural hill, recalls the emplacement of platforms along the Euphrates. But the stelae and statues

of Jebelet al-Beda appear more overtly political than the other monuments discussed so far. And

although the platform provides a space for ritual; it is much smaller than the one at Gre Virike

and could have accommodated at most perhaps 500 people, perhaps limiting attendance to a

certain segment of society. 69 Although it is possible that the stela and the both statue depict a

god, it is more likely that this figure was a man, perhaps a king (Moortgat-Correns 1972: 21-2).

The “king’s” power may have been grounded in the relationship of this image to the dead, its

connection to the bodies of his followers, enemies, and/or ancestors who were interred in the

surrounding graves, and his power over the living who witnessed this monumentalized

ceremony. The construction of the monument in the barren hills also expressed royal power,

demonstrating this nameless king’s ability to monopolize skilled and unskilled labor.

Finally, evidence from Banat, possibly Armi/Armanum, indicates another set of political

strategies. Unlike the other places discussed, Banat was a major center, at 40 ha, this complex

may have been the largest city on the Upper Euphrates, perhaps larger than Carchemish. In the

Ebla documentation, Armi/Armanum is a city-state ruled by an en and his elders. (Fronzaroli

2003: Texts 16 and 17; Otto 2006: 18). The importance of both an exclusive leader and a

corporate entity here, as at Ebla, corresponds nicely to the complex ritual installations. For

centuries Tomb 7 and the White Monument stood together, representing two political strategies,

usually understood to be in conflict, but here coexisting. White Monuments A and B were

probably both built and used at the same time as Tomb 7 and the associated public building in

Area C, but the different monuments may have represented different forms of political authority.

Located outside of the settlement complex at Banat, across the modern wadi from the

main site, the White Monument may be approached from any direction. Excavation and

geophysical survey revealed no enclosure walls, nor are any visible in the topographic plan.

Instead, there seems to have been entirely open access to this place. The inclusive nature of this

access parallels the inclusive nature of the monument itself. Even if there is an undiscovered

elite burial within the heart of this mound, the many other discrete deposits of human bone,

animal bone, and other ritual materials (like beads and clay balls) from each stage of its

construction emphasize its communal nature. Prior to the emergence of craft-production areas

and public buildings at Bazi-Banat, the site was probably characterized by a field of such

tumuli—as resistivity survey has located other likely burial mounds in the area. Most scholars

have assumed that these mounds were the burial places of a probably generally mobile

population (Peltenburg 2007-2008; Porter 2002). The White Monument may have served as a

testament to these nameless dead, maintaining a vital link between farmers, pastoralists, city

dwellers, and their ancestors. Its size and setting meant that it was visible for a long way,

particularly for travelers coming from the north and west, broadcasting a powerful argument

about political authority to the other populations that comprised this polity (Porter 2007: 203). 70

Unlike the White Monument, the later tomb 7 was built in a large public area. Although

initially access to this area was unrestricted, the construction of a thick perimeter wall that

enclosed Building 6 transformed its relationship with the community, isolating it from the rest of

the site (Porter 2002: 27). The tomb itself, of course, is a semi-subterranean structure that is

largely hidden from view, while its small size limits the number of people who could participate

in rituals (Porter 2007: 208). The courtyard surrounding the buried Tomb 7, however, could

have held more spectators. 71 The luxurious contents of the tomb and the small numbers of

people buried here and in surrounding graves emphasize another type of exclusivity. Tomb 7

may well have been the actual location for the celebration of exclusive rituals like the Ebla

coronation ceremony (Porter 2007: 205-7). The arcane nature of such ceremonies would also

have been powerful, both for their immediate participants and for others in the community. In

the final analysis, both monuments and their associated rituals emphasize the construction of a

shared community. Like the performances in the Mesoamerican cities of K’axob and La Corona

that brought into being ancestors and patron deities, these rituals were performative, creating an

entirely new political system.

Death, Ancestors, and Power

Beyond these four “pilgrimage sites,” the mid-third millennium witnessed the emergence

of complex ritual and mortuary practices inscribed on the landscape, cities, and palaces,

providing another context for these four centers. 72 The visibility of above-ground tombs at Gre

Virike, the stelae and statues at Jebelet al-Beda, and the White Monument at Banat finds

parallels in the construction of other hypogea in cities at Umm el-Marra in the Jabbul Plain, Bi’a,

where the Balikh meets the Euphrates, and Jerablus Tahtani, just south of Carchemish.

An elaborate mortuary complex, dating to between 2550 and 2200 BC, crowns the

acropolis of the site of Umm el-Marra, perhaps ancient Dub/Tuba. This complex consists of ten

elite human tombs, and ten installations devoted to equid burials that were at least partially

above-ground, and hence visible to residents and visitors to the city (Schwartz 2014; Schwartz et

al. 2012; Schwartz 2012, 2007a; Schwartz et al. 2003; Schwartz et al. 2000b; Schwartz et al.

2006). The tombs were built with a limestone substructure and a brick superstructure and

usually had one or two rooms. Within these chambers, human bodies lay in coffins,

accompanied by jewelry, weaponry, pottery, and cuts of meat. Each tomb yielded between one

and eight individuals, including men, women, children, and infants. A line of subterranean

“installations” containing the articulated skeletons of more than 30 equids bisected the center of

the complex. Jill Weber, the project zooarchaeologist, argues on the basis of morphological

considerations that these skeletons represent the remains of the kunga, an onager-donkey hybrid

that was associated with royalty in the Ebla texts (Weber 2012; Weber 2008). Only adult-male

kunga were found, animals that could have been harnessed to “cultic and war vehicles that

conveyed kings and gods” (Weber 2012: 169). Some of the kunga died naturally, while others

were sacrificed, perhaps to display the power of the city’s rulers over life and death. Moreover,

these animal also received offerings; human infants, puppies, and pottery were placed alongside

them in these installations. At Umm el-Marra, the association between processional animals,

royal tombs, and spatially-constructed authority provides additional insights into the Syrian


Other above-ground mortuary complexes that have been excavated at Bi’a (ancient

Tuttul) and Jerablus Tahtani illustrate similar relationships. Six tripartite structures containing

several interments were built near the center of Tuttul in the mid-third millennium. These

structures were much larger than the Umm el-Marra tombs and were entirely above-ground

(Strommenger and Kohlmeyer 2000; Strommenger and Kohlmeyer 1998). Their placement,

communal character, and wealth testifies to a similar focus on visibility and the construction of

status. Moreover, like Mortuary Monument II at Banat, which was incorporated into the

possibly palatial Building 7, the late third millennium Palace B lies atop this complex, perhaps

appropriating its authority. At Jerablus Tahtani, T. 302, a corbel, two-chambered, above-ground

burial mound was placed adjacent to the road between the city gate and the fort on the upper

terrace. The tomb contained between 20 and 30 people and was accessible through a doorway

from the road, integrating it “into a passage suitable for processions,” again attesting to the

ideological importance of such rituals within third millennium cities (Peltenburg 2007-2008:


Conclusion: Urban Spaces, Pilgrimage Networks and the Rise of Political Complexity

How should we understand the appearance of cities and territorial kingdoms throughout

Northern Mesopotamia, circa 2600 BC? I have argued that the rise of political complexity in

Northern Mesopotamia entailed the refashioning of a familiar landscape. Not only did the

growth of cities and the emergence of administrative elites who sought to establish oversight

over a larger populace transform the economic relationship between agriculturalists, pastoralists,

and artisans, it also transformed how they understood the world and their place within it. This

latter step was crucial to the success of these early polities. If Northern Mesopotamian

pilgrimage routes were intimately connected with other networks—like tribute or gift circulation,

as seems likely given the archaeological and epigraphic data—they would have provided

important justification for such economic processes.

Analysis of the textual, iconographic, and settlement evidence from around Ebla suggests

that at least two pilgrimage networks operated here. The first, documented in the coronation

rituals and the texts of offerings to dead kings appears to have been confined to Ebla’s immediate

hinterland, an area within a few days travel of the capital. Most likely the places that made up

such routes were located up to 40 km from the city. The rituals that took place within this circuit

emphasized the power and legitimacy of the kings of Ebla. The “natural links” between Ebla’s

kings and its hinterland would have been strengthened by the presence of royal funerary

monuments outside of the city, at places like Darib, Binash, and the other centers where AN.EN.KI

offerings were made. This network probably coincided with an area that had intensive economic

contact with Ebla, where many of the fields belonging to its dependents were located, which

supplied much of the city’s grain (Matthiae and Marchetti 2013). 73 In contrast, the second

network embraced a larger geographical area including much of the Orontes valley. The rituals

that were performed here, in honor of ‘Adabal, the region’s god, probably sought to insert Ebla

and its elite into a pre-existing ritual system. The different nature of these ceremonies—where

royal power was underplayed rather than overstated—might well correspond to the different

nature of political and economic contacts in this larger region. Although Ebla texts document the

exchange of livestock, textiles, and metal objects, this is probably part of a less-intensive prestige

goods system. In this scenario, the pilgrimage circuits at Ebla used different strategies to

integrate various regions into the kingdom with respect to their divergent political statuses.

Archaeological and iconographic evidence from other sites in Syria indicate that Ebla was not

alone in employing such strategies. Gre Virike may have been part of a local pilgrimage

network—within a day’s journey from Carchemish, while Hazna may have played a similar role

for Nagar. Banat and Jebelet al-Beda probably maintained local significance, resisting

incorporation into more expansive networks, like Ebla’s ‘Adabal pilgrimage route.

The Ebla texts also help us connect urban topography with these ritual journeys. The

royal bride’s slow procession to the palace is central to her ritual transformation into Ebla’s

queen, as the royal couple’s pilgrimage is to political transition within the kingdom as a whole.

The coronation ritual is an event that models and as such serves as a metaphor for the

transformation of political systems across Northern Mesopotamia. Similarly, the highly-

controlled passages to and in Northern Mesopotamian cities may have instructed the populace in

proper urban behavior and attitudes towards authority, creating a new type of citizen. Ritual and

habitual movement through these newly created landscapes—from multi-day pilgrimage routes

to the construction of walls and urban grids—was thus critical to the literal incorporation of these


Social transformation often works through ritual and changing bodily practices, which

have the power to naturalize a certain way of being (Connerton 1989; Bourdieu 1977, 1990).

These two processes are rarely separate. Rituals do not exist as words alone. It is the bodies that

perform them that give them their meaning and power. Posture, dress, and repetitive action

literally incorporate social norms; they take advantage of habitual memory and construct new

identities. As we saw in the example of the French Revolution, moments of rupture or social

transformation justify themselves by changing both commemorative ceremonies and bodily

practices, initiating new styles of dress, calendars, and festivals to instantiate this change. 74 The

establishment of new ritual circuits that coincided with other changes in landscapes of

movement, including the construction of city walls and urban grids, inaugurated new ways of

being in Northern Mesopotamia. A similar process may have taken place several hundred years

later on Crete, when a ritual landscape marked by peak sanctuaries (resembling sites like Gre

Virike) was appropriated by a nascent elite. 75

The reconstruction of these North Mesopotamian ritual systems has relied heavily upon

analysis of the Ebla ritual texts and sealings produced and used only in elite contexts, clearly

skewing our understanding of ritual life and political negotiation among all members of the

community. When it comes to understanding possible pilgrimage sites, however, the

archaeological finds at Hazna, Gre Virike and Banat’s White Monument suggest that these

religious landscapes were not entirely under elite control. Ethnographers and historians have

long recognized the ambiguous quality of rituals, which can serve the interests of both authority

and resistance (Kertzer 1988; Mather 2003). This can be particularly true of pilgrimage

(McCorriston 2011: 27-8; cf. Turner 1979). The celebration of official rituals in newly built,

asymmetric palaces or temples may have enacted one particular vision of the way things should

be, while the more popular rituals that were performed at Banat’s White Monument or the

meager offerings left at Gre Virike may have enacted another. In the end, each polity was the

site of constant political struggle between a range of actors. Political authority was not set in

stone at the moment that the city was built, but was instead continuously negotiated, through

ritual as well as more quotidian means.

III. Memory

An Event that Presents: The Feast of Ištar and the Kispum Ritual

Once a year, the statue of the goddess Ištar traveled to the city of Mari on the Middle

Euphrates as part of a grand religious occasion. Officiates brought sheep, goats, flour, and

bread for Ištar's sacred meal to commemorate ritual events including her departure from her

temple at Dêr, her journey to Mari, and her installation in that city’s temple. Unlike other

religious celebrations, which usually involved small numbers of participants, this festival

brought together the entire political community of the kingdom, a role that one of its alternate

names, “the Feast of the Land,” explicitly recognized. 76 It did so not only by honoring Ištar, a

goddess linked to victory, kingship, and various tribal confederacies, but also through a series of

rituals that created blood obligations and established a larger community of the living and the

dead. Indeed, the ancestor ceremonies, particularly the kispum that were attached to this

celebration were central to politics, ritual, and community identity at Mari. People from

neighboring kingdoms held similar ceremonies. To the east, in the Ida-Maraş, Apum, and south

of the Sinjar mountains, the elunnum rite played a similar role, while to the northwest in Aleppo,

the hi’ârum festival—named after the sacrifice of a donkey—served the same purpose. Like the

Mari celebration, these other festivals connected the ascent of Ištar, ancestor commemoration,

animal sacrifice, and diplomacy (Durand and Guichard 1997: 38-9; Eidem 2011: texts 5 and


The ritual cycle of the Feast of Ištar included sacrifices outside of Mari, the major

ceremony when the goddess entered the city, the feast of the rāmum (a burial cairn), the

pagra’um offering of animal corpses to Dagan, and of course, the kispum ritual for the ancestors

(Jacquet 2012: 21-4 and 52-5). 77 The feast of the rāmum was celebrated at a stone tomb,

probably located in the countryside, although such tombs could also be erected in cities. The

kispum ritual included sacrifices within the palace in the “Room of Thrones,” where offerings

were made to the lamassatu-statues of the Akkadian kings Sargon and Naram-Sin. Other kispum

offerings took place in the city’s temples, and in the countryside, at the kisikkum, probably a

cairn that marked burials. Finally, on the day of the full moon, priests laid out circular tent

foundations to create a ritual place for the sacrifice of a donkey. Like the kisikkum, tent footings

are generally stone circles, similar to the cairns and tumuli in Middle Bronze Age cemeteries.

Here, the ritual explicitly connected these simple nomad dwellings and the domain of the dead.

The sacrifice of a donkey emphasizes the dual political and religious nature of this ritual.

In the diplomatic correspondence, this sacrifice was performative and enacted a treaty between

two polities (Charpin 1990, 1992; Tadmor 1985). Along with the ritual gesture of “touching

one’s throat,” a donkey sacrifice consecrated the solemn oath that the treaty represented

(Durand 2008: 578; Munn-Rankin 1956: 89-91). The donkey’s blood was a metaphor for the

blood of the rulers, and by spilling and mixing it, they became blood brothers. Indeed, a later

king of the city of Eluhut described an alliance as “the sharing of blood” (Eidem 2011: 89, p.

315). 78 The presence of this sacrificial rite does not just call attention to the treaty ritual; it

actually is the setting for this staging of brotherhood. Letters describe treaty conventions that

took place at rāmū, stone cairns, as in these ceremonies (ARM 23 319: 7). After the sacrifice

established their brotherhood, these new “brothers” or “sons’ were required to participate in

the kispum ritual for the kingdom, to honor the dead of their new family. 79 Indeed, one of the

most famous letters from Mari, which describes the relative power of the great kings during

Zimri-Lim’s reign, does so in this context:

Concerning the message that my lord sent to the kings, which said, ‘Come to the

sacrifice of Ištar'. I had them assemble at Šarmaneh and I addressed them as

follows, saying 'There is no king who on his own is the strongest. Ten or fifteen

kings follow Hammurabi of Babylon, the same number follow Rim-Sin of Larsa,

the same number follow Ibal-pî-El of Ešnunna, the same number follow Amût-pî-

el of Qatanum, twenty kings follow Yarim-Lim of Yamhad” (Dossin 1938: 118-9,

A.482: 22-27)

A king’s subordinates, or “sons,” and his allies, or “brothers,” were required to attend this

ritual cycle every year in order to establish, renew, and strengthen their connection to the

kingdom’s present and past. This was the occasion when the king designated officials and

acknowledged client kings, when accounts were settled and taxes paid.

Participants in the kispum ceremony were not just dignitaries like the royal family,

ambassadors, and priests. Other celebrants included the muškēnū (Akk. sg. muškēnum), the

citizens of Mari who were separate from the palace establishment (Durand 1991: 21, n. 18;

Charpin 1988: 19; Schloen 2001: 285-7). Indeed, the celebration of this kispum as a state ritual

cited a ceremony that took place in private houses and cemeteries, as part of regular obligations

to the ancestors. In the palace, administrative dockets record fortnightly offerings of bread and

grain for the kispum ceremonies, according to the phases of the moon (Jacquet 2002; Jacquet

2011: 43-6). Families and households held similar rites in houses or at family tombs, leaving

bread, meat, and beer to feed the dead (Bayliss 1973: 115-22; Tsukimoto 1985; Toorn 1995). As

a family ritual writ large, the Feast of Ištar created new ties, establishing a new type of

community. The ceremony thus united all of the constituencies of the kingdom, through a

celebration of a common past.

Memory, Mourning, and Legitimacy

The Feast of Ištar affirmed the ancestor as a potent symbol in the early second

millennium BC, and honoring the dead as a powerful political and religious practice. Unlike the

Ebla Coronation Ritual, this ritual does not seek to transform a political situation but to perform

an image of an ideal polity. As an event that presents, this ritual holds up a sort of funhouse

mirror to existing political relationships, one that makes them look both natural and durable. In

this chapter, we will examine how this ritual works and particularly how the past gains authority.

Why is memory such a salient concept at this time and place? The answer may be found

in the particular political and social context of this period. Cross-culturally, the commemoration

of the past occurs most often during periods of rapid transformation when previous social

patterns are disrupted (Connerton 2011; Ricœur 2004; Hobsbawm 1983). As Karl Marx

famously described the establishment of the Second Republic and the subsequent ascent of

Napoleon III:

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of

the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and

things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods

of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their

service, and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to

present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this

borrowed language (Marx 1994 [1869]: 189)

Rather like the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France, the early 2nd millennium BC

was a period of instability and social change, which witnessed the creation of myriad polities

following nearly three centuries of settlement abandonment (fig. 24). The political landscape of

this “recovery” was highly fragmented and competition between small kingdoms from Iran to the

Northern Levant was omnipresent. But a unitary cultural landscape emerged that transcended

the region’s linguistic and ethnic diversity, despite the enduring political divisions and the

transience of individual kingdoms. The performance of elite rituals and daily practices that

depicted a shared past—grounded in an understanding of death, ancestors, and belonging—

created a common framework for activities in the Old Babylonian present.

A growing recognition of the use, appropriation, and “invention” of the past has been a

potent theoretical force in the humanities and social sciences. 80 This fascination with cultural

memory, heritage, and the relationship between modernity and forgetting has only become more

pertinent in the last decades as communication technologies have increased life’s tempo. There

is a growing tension between the desire to memorialize recent events—perhaps most pointedly

September 11, 2001—and the way that information overload and consumer culture both conspire

to reduce the temporality of lived memory and to consign even significant moments to oblivion

after only a few months or years (Connerton 2009).

During the last decade, archaeologists have explored how memory and the past are

implicated in landscapes, rock art, and scholarly practices in places as diverse as Neolithic

Britain, the American Southwest, and Ancient Greece. 81 This interest in memory has coincided

with a time when archaeologists have become more aware of the political consequences of how

they retrieve, curate, and interpret the past. Since the 1980s, archaeological heritage has become

increasingly politicized in many countries and the number of stakeholders and interested parties

has grown exponentially (Vitelli and Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2006). The enactment of NAGPRA

legislation in the United States and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Act in

Australia have initiated new discussions about heritage that explicitly include indigenous and

descent groups and have changed normative practices of archaeology (Phillips et al. 2010).

Several national and ethnic groups have employed archaeology to buttress their claims to

specific territories, in processes as disparate as the Martu’s successful legal case to gain native

title to a 130,000 km2 tract in Western Australia based partially on the presence of rock art in the

region to the employment of archaeological data in the argument for a Greater Israel (Codding

2012; Abu El-Haj 2001). Although this process has roots in the 19th century, it has become

increasingly pertinent in the last few decades, particularly in places undergoing state formation

such as the former Soviet Union (Kohl et al. 2007; Kohl and Tsetskhladze 1995; Shnirel'man

2001, 1996). At the same time, several nation-states, especially areas that were formally

colonized, have laid claim to material excavated from their territories and held in museums in the

US and Europe (Edgeworth 2006; Mashberg 2013). The resulting debates over the status of

these objects have helped crystallize competing understandings of who owns the past (Meskell


In the Middle East, the conflicts and revolutions of the last two decades have resulted in

widespread looting of museums and the destruction of archaeological sites, focusing attention

upon the role of the past in the present. In 2000, global organizations widely decried the

dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the name of Islam by the Taliban in Afghanistan

(Meskell 2002). Two years later, the international community similarly censured the US

government for not preventing the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in the chaos that

followed the American invasion (Pollock 2003b; Rothfield 2009). The disappearance of iconic

objects like the Warka vase—televised to worldwide audiences—raised questions about who is

responsible for the past (Pollock and Bernbeck 2005). Reports of looting in Syria and Egypt

during 2010-2013 have ignited similar discussions about heritage, its political association, and its

connections to people outside of national communities (Gerstenblith 2012). In Egypt

particularly, much of this debate has raised issues that resonate with many of the positions that

emerged during the conflict over the Persepolis festival (above, introduction).

But these concerns are hardly new. In most places and periods, the present has been

“among, other things, a battleground about the interpretation of the events and meaning of the

past” (Yoffee 2007: 1). The past, memory, and history, all controversial now, were no less

contested in the past. Earlier states also harnessed history to justify territorial gains. Aššur-Dan

(935-912 BC), king of Assyria, for example, describes his conquest of the Jezirah as “[bringing]

back the exhausted [people] of Assyria [who] had abandoned [their cities (and) houses in the

face of] want, hunger, (and) famine (and) [had gone up] to other lands” (Grayson 1991: RIMA II

A.0.98.1, 60-7). The people Aššur-Dan “brought back” had probably not lived in this territory

for at least a century, probably more. Similarly, modern looting, the transfer of particularly

culturally significant items from the defeated to the conquerors, recalls ancient practices of

appropriating the past. The Code of Hammurabi and the Victory Stela of Naram-Sin were both

found in Susa, not Babylon or Akkad where they were initially erected. Elamite soldiers looted

these objects, already antiques, from Babylonia in the late second millennium BC (Bahrani 2008:

51: 51, 114, note 20). The antiquarian interests of political leaders like Saddam Hussein echoes

similar interests of Mesopotamian kings and officials, including Nabonidus, who sent workers

armed with picks and baskets to excavate Akkad (Winter 2000), and the scribe Nabû-zuqup-

kēnu, who copied archaic texts from Babylon for the royal Assyrian library (Garrison 2012: 30-

1; Frahm 1999).

As the ancient evidence for looting and excavation in the Near East makes clear,

heirlooms, ruins, and history were particularly salient categories in Mesopotamia. People could

appropriate history in different ways, sometimes to establish a shared past, but also to deny one

to others. In this chapter, I will investigate “memory work” in a way that acknowledges both the

contingent way in which every present constructs its past and the multiplicity of pasts produced

within this framework (Mills and Walker 2008). Memory work invokes a specific, appropriate

past through citation, references to past words, things, or practices that give an object or

ceremony an archaic flavor even when it is an innovation (Jones 2007: 55).

I will begin by outlining the complicated political history of the early second millennium

BC. Second, I will consider the archaeological and textual evidence for collapse and the rupture

of settlement systems, economic strategies, and social practices from ca. 2150-1800 BC as this

provides a necessary background for the renegotiation of political authority in the 18th century

BC. Finally, I will turn my attention to how and why people drew upon ancestors and the past in

their performance of specific social and political identities. After considering the part the past

played in collective representations during the Old Babylonian period, I will analyze mortuary

landscapes, monuments, and the use of antiques and archaizing objects by kings, priests, artisans,

pastoralists, and villagers as settings and props for rituals. Memory, the past, and the ancestors

were widely salient categories—undergirding resettlement and establishing a symbolic system

that could unite the disparate groups of the early second millennium BC. The flexibility of these

categories, realized in ritual, allowed for the construction and legitimation of households, tribes,

and polities. But the past, mourning, and ancestor veneration could also challenge political

authority. Indeed, the political instability of the period cautions us against assuming that a

discourse of antiquity provides a successful hegemonic strategy.

Political Instability

The last few centuries of the third millennium BC saw the disappearance of the urban

system that was sketched in the last chapter. The incursion of the Akkadian kings into Northern

Mesopotamia and the subsequent collapse of that empire in the wake of a brutal drought led to a

political and social reorientation (Ristvet 2012; Sallaberger 2007; Weiss 2012). Following the

withdrawal of the Akkadian empire from the north, probably during the reign of Šar-kali-šarri

(2175-2150 BC 82), this area was reorganized into a series of small kingdoms or city states. At

Mari, the descendants of Akkadian governors formed a dynasty that retained the old title

Šakkanakku, but became independent rulers for 350 years (Durand 1985). Urkiš moved to fill

the population and political vacuum in the Habur Plains, establishing “The Kingdom of Urkiš

and Nawar,” probably centered in an area along the modern Turkish/Syrian border, between

Urkiš and Nabula (perhaps ancient Nawar), or along the Jaghjagh between Urkiš and Nagar

(Weiss 2012a). Similarly, both Aššur and Nineveh were probably political and religious centers

on the Tigris (Michalowski 2009; Sallaberger 2007).

Given our limited archaeological and textual information for the period 2150-1900 BC, it

is difficult to delineate the forms that these polities took or the strategies that they employed. We

know the most about Mari, the Kingdom of Urkiš and Nawar, and Aššur, but in this case, “the

most” means a handful of inscriptions (three in the case of Urkiš), occasional references in Ur III

administrative texts about deliveries of animals from these cities to Puzriš-Dagan, and the

excavation of singular buildings on a few sites—including Mari, Nagar, Urkiš, Kaḫat (Tell

Barri), and Arbid (Weiss 2012b; Sallaberger 2011; Sallaberger 2007). Unfortunately, while Mari

and Aššur do appear occasionally in Ur III documentation, and Aššur may have been either a

province, or more likely, an independent kingdom whose kings recognized the rulers of Ur as

their overlords (Michalowski 2009), there is very little information about any political centers in

the Jezirah. We know nothing about the geographical extent of these polities, nor how that

changed over time. There are similar gaps in our knowledge of the political organization of

other areas in Northern Mesopotamia.

Just after 1900 BC, the political situation and the nature of our documentation change

dramatically. Instead of an unpopulated backwater, the Jezirah, the mātum elītum, became a

prized territory, contested by every major power in the area for over a century (Lafont 2001).

This area’s potential agricultural wealth, lush pasture, and position astride the Aššur-Anatolia

trade routes combined to make it appealing to neighboring kingdoms. The kings of Ešnunna,

Mari, Ekallātum, Susa, Babylon, and Aleppo jockeyed to establish control. 83 The frontiers of

individual kingdoms fluctuated due to the machinations of the great powers, warfare with

neighboring polities, and the constant threat of raids from a variety of urban and non-urban


During the late 19th century, Naram-Sin of Ešnunna, Yahdun-Lim of Mari, and Samsi-

Addu of Ekallātum all established a fleeting supremacy over part of the territory. 84 Kinglets in

the western Jezirah from the Balikh to the Jaghjagh accepted Yahdun-Lim’s hegemony in this

region (Charpin & Ziegler 2003: 38). Across the Jaghjagh, the land controlled by Samsi-Addu,

the kingdom of Apum, began. After several years of warfare between Mari and Ekallātum,

Samsi-Addu conquered all of Mari’s former clients in Northern Mesopotamia and Mari itself

(Charpin & Ziegler 2003: 48).

During the final ten years of his reign, Samsi-Addu organized his conquests, creating a

tripartite administration for his kingdom. He placed his eldest son, Išme-Dagan, on the throne of

Ekallātum, the principle eastern city (Charpin 1997a: 371-2), and his younger son, Yasmah-

Addu, on the throne of Mari, the principle western city. Samsi-Addu created a new capital for

himself at Šubat-Enlil/Šeḫna, in the center of his kingdom. In the eleventh or twelfth month of

1776 BC, according to the Middle Chronology, after a short illness, Samsi-Addu died (Charpin

& Ziegler 2003: 137). 85 His kingdom did not long survive him (Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 162-

8; Whiting 1990). Išme-Dagan managed to hold onto Ekallātum and the districts along the

Tigris, but at Mari, Yasmah-Addu’s realm collapsed almost immediately. A coalition of local

powers—including Sim’alite nomads and petty kings deprived of their thrones—rebelled against

Yasmah-Addu and secured Mari and the Banks-of-the-Euphrates for Zimri-Lim, who promptly

established hegemony over the petty rulers of the Ida-maraş (Charpin and Durand 1985; Charpin

and Ziegler 2003: 144). Zimri-Lim ruled Northern Mesopotamia for just 12 years, until

Hammurabi of Babylon defeated him and destroyed Mari. For the rest of the 18th century,

Babylon and Aleppo vied for control over the region.

This whirlwind survey of the political history of Northern Mesopotamia in the early

second millennium BC emphasizes the political instability of the period. Clearly dynastic

succession did not operate to ensure continuity or stable transitions. The nearly continuous

warfare, constantly shifting alliances, and incessant jockeying for hegemony of an ever changing

group of major players suggest that the international system, such as it was, provided little

stability (Guichard 1999: 29).

Tribal Politics

This historical survey probably over-emphasizes the importance of urban politics in the

period, identifying kings only with their capital city. The voluminous Mari correspondence

indicates that tribal allegiance was just as important. I use the term tribe to designate a political

group defined by an accepted mechanism for resolving conflicts, which often bases membership

on constructed kinship (Tapper 1990: 51; Khoury and Kostiner 1990). Such groups might divide

into subsections at different levels and coalesce to form tribal confederacies that can include tens

or hundreds of thousands of members across ethnic and linguistic divisions (Tapper 1997). I am

not using tribe to denote an evolutionary stage, a social group, nor as shorthand for “pastoral

nomads.” Rather, their political role is central to this definition of the tribe. As a result, tribes

are not always easy to separate from other polities and often share a complex relationship with

them. 86

These complexities are one of the most distinctive aspects of the textual record of this

period. In a letter found at Mari, Hammurabi of Babylon called Zimri-Lim, “the king of the

Sim’alites,” emphasizing his tribal affiliation, rather than his urban identity (ARMT XXVI 385:

6'; Fleming 2004a: 160). Hammurabi’s choice of phrase indicates the importance of this

connection to the personal authority of this monarch. Similarly, the titles of several kings in

treaties and on official seals call attention to their position as rulers over both sedentary and

semi-sedentary peoples. In the best preserved treaty from Šeḫna, LT-3, concluded between Til-

Abnû of Apum and Yamşi-Hatnû of Kaḫat, for example, Til-Abnû and his kingdom are

described as “[the] son of Dari-Epuh, king of Apum, his servants, his elders, their sons and the

whole of the land of the Hana” (Eidem 2011: LT3). The phrase “king of the land of Hana”

parallels the legal description of Zimri-Lim in the treaty between Mari and Babylon, where he is

called “son of Yahdun-Lim, king of Mari and the land of the Hana” (Durand 1986:

M.6435+M.8987: 25-6; Fleming 2004a: 148-50). In both of these cases, Hana probably

represents the pastoral component of a specific tribal affiliation.

The four major tribal confederacies during this period in Northern Mesopotamia were the

Sim’alites, Yaminites, Numhâ, and Yamutbal, each of which consisted of several smaller tribes

(Fleming 2004a, 2004b). We know the most about Zimri-Lim’s tribe, the Sim’alites, who were

at home in the Ida-Maraş, and are often just called “Hana” or nomads in the Mari documentation,

and almost as much about the Yaminites, the main confederacy along the Euphrates and to the

west, to which most of the villages near Mari belonged (Durand 2004). Ben-Sim’alite, the name

for a member of the confederacy, means son of the right, and Ben-Yaminite, son of the left. The

designations indicate that members of the two confederacies considered themselves related,

while the terms have been usually interpreted as geographic, either referring to north and south

(Heimpel 2003: 15-17; Charpin, 1986 #600: 155), or perhaps to the right and left banks of the

Euphrates. The Numhâ, the third confederacy, may have been Til-abnû of Apum’s tribe. Towns

and cities with this affiliation are generally found in the hilly arc of Northern Mesopotamia, in

the piedmont and around the Jebel Sinjar, probably along the Tigris (Heimpel 2003: 17-8), and

possibly in the kingdom of Apum and the Eastern Jezirah (Ristvet 2012b). The Yamutbal lived

just south of the Numhâ, in the area between the hilly belt and the desert. They also lived along

the Tigris from Maškan-Šapir to Larsa in Southern Mesopotamia. These territories, however, are

only approximate. The Mari letters provide intricate detail about the different status of villages,

while members of different confederacies grazed their sheep on pastures in widely distant areas

of Northern Mesopotamia. Indeed, assuming that it is possible to easily map tribal status onto

the landscape misunderstands the fluid nature of both settlement and identity politics during this


Tribal affiliation structured land ownership, rights to pasture, and military organization.

A letter written to Zimri-Lim about a dispute between the rulers of two small kingdoms in the

Ida-Maraş, Šuna, and Kiduh, provides useful insight into the authoritative nature of tribal

affiliation. The rulers of both cities, who claim the same village, agree to abide by the judgment

of the local river god. Two men and two women from each kingdom must take a handful of

earth and plunge into the river, as they shout, "I swear that this town is my town." The people

from Šuna will claim it as the share of the Yabasum, while those from Kiduh (in the land of

Apum) will assert that it was given to the Hana of old. 87 The phrase “of old” is clearly important

in this context as it cites the past as a source of authority at a time when political upheaval and

agricultural expansion may have threatened access to fields and pasture.

There is a certain sleight of hand performed by the reiteration of these tribal names and

their claims to authority, one rather similar to our attempts to draw distinct borders around tribal

territories. Within the documentation, citations of tribal status work as appeals to tradition,

making these identities immutable facts on the ground and giving them an authoritative history,

as the land dispute between Šunâ and Kiduh demonstrates (ARM 28 95). 88 Perhaps as a result,

several scholars have assumed that such tribal structures were the normal organizing principles

from a very early period in Mesopotamia. 89 But the deep history that we grant to these

individual tribes or practices was manufactured. There is no clear textual evidence for these

tribes as political actors before the third dynasty of Ur. Indeed, the importance of tribes in the

early second millennium BC was historically contingent, a response to the politics of the Ur III

dynasty and the changing environmental and social milieu in Northern Mesopotamia

(Michalowski 2011; Porter 2012; Ristvet 2012b; Ristvet and Weiss 2014).

Tribal affiliation was neither immutable nor necessarily assigned at birth. Instead, it

could be actively constructed, like ethnic identity (Barth 1969; Metcalf 2009). A letter found in

the Mari archives documents a situation in which one group sought to change their affiliation

from the Yaminite to the Sim'alite confederation. Although native to the Yahruru, since they

possessed no hibrum or kadum, Yaminite terms that probably referred to a transhumant group

and an anointed chief respectively, Uranum and the elders of the town of Dabiš asked to enter the

Sim’alites as part of the Nihadum tribe (A. 981; Wossink 2009: 133; Fleming 2004a; Durand

1992; Sasson 1998; Fleming 2004b). In order to do this, it was necessary to “slay the treaty

donkey,” tying tribal affiliation into the ritual system of alliance, ancestor veneration, and

political belonging. Clearly, shared tribal identities could reflect political contingency, rather

than long-lived tradition. It is difficult for us to disentangle what the common “tribal”

designation that both Larsa (Emutbal) and Andarig (Yamutbal) use might mean, but it is not

necessary to assume either the migration of tribes south to Larsa or north to Andarig as has been

done previously (Michalowski 2011; Porter 2012). Instead, we must explicitly recognize the

flexibility of this tribal system, the ways that different actors may modify it in response to new

opportunities and challenges. Tribes in Northern Mesopotamia were a political system, one that

was neither separate nor distinct from urban politics.

The Dynamics of Resettlement

More than sixty paleoclimate proxies from the Mediterranean, Western Asia, and

adjacent areas indicate that from ca. 2200-1900 BC much of Mesopotamia experienced a

decrease in overall precipitation and an increase in climatic instability. 90 This was part of a

widespread global phenomenon—reflected in additional climate records from North America,

China, and parts of Africa, South America, and Antarctica—that divides the middle from the late

Holocene in one schema (Walker et al. 2012). People living in large permanent river valleys like

the Euphrates, Tigris, and their major tributaries and in paludal and karst-spring fed areas were

able to weather these changes (Roberts et al. 2011; Weiss 2013) and some of these areas were

either unaffected or saw a population increase (Kuzucuoğlu 2007; Schwartz 2007b). But settled

agriculturalists in the plains of Northern Mesopotamia were hard hit by the drop in rainfall,

which decimated crop yields, and made earlier agricultural systems untenable (Weiss 2012a;

Ristvet and Weiss 2014). Recent excavations and archaeological surveys in Northern

Mesopotamia provide a precise chronology for this transformation of settlement and economic

systems in the light of sustained drought and political collapse ca. 2200 BC, complementing the

historical and paleolcimatic records. They reveal a general pattern of abandonment, followed by

a resettlement that employed new agricultural and pastoral strategies and established new trading

systems (fig. 25; Weiss 2012b).

From 2200-2100 BC, sparse permanent settlement characterized much of the plain. This

pattern is particularly well documented in the Habur triangle. In the Tell Leilan region, for

example, 18 sites show evidence of occupation during this century, but more than half of these

may have been temporary or small-scale settlements (Arrivabeni 2012: 268). This is a dramatic

decrease from the 55 sites during the previous century, all of which showed evidence of long-

term settlement (Ristvet 2012a: 249). Surveys around Tell Brak show an even more pronounced

pattern of disruption, with just three settlements dating to this century (Colantoni 2012: 48).

This general trend is confirmed in the more extensive survey of the entire Eastern Habur basin

where Meijer noted a drop in the number of EB IV sites (Meijer 1986). In the marginal areas of

the Jebel ‘Abd-el-Aziz, the Western Habur Plains, and the Middle Habur, sedentary settlement

either wholly disappeared or decreased substantially.

Similar changes in the overall number of settlements and population occurred in

northwestern Syria and along the big bend of the Euphrates, where the evidence reflects an urban

decline, although fewer sites were abandoned (Cooper 1997, 2006). Cities like Hadidi, Sweyhat,

Titriş, Kurban Höyük, and Banat contracted in size and lost urban institutions, becoming small,

undifferentiated village communities (Cooper 1999: 323; Meyer 1996: 138; Peltenberg 2000:

184). To the west, much of the Jabbul plain was abandoned at the end of the third millennium

BC, with clear evidence of occupation present at four villages (Schwartz et al. 2000a: 451). A

survey of the arid high-plateau east of Sweyhat found no evidence for settlement (Danti 1997).

The only areas where life went on as usual, or where new settlements were founded, were along

the largest, permanent rivers, including the Middle Euphrates, Turkish Euphrates, and Upper

Tigris (Algaze 1989; Algaze et al. 2012). Even in these river valleys there were changes in

political organization, with the disappearance of cities and increasing numbers of small, rural

settlements (Erarslan 2009) .

Excavations at individual sites indicate that political decline accompanied the

abandonment of much of this area. Akkadian style seals may have continued in use in some

places, but no new seals were manufactured for more than a century, nor do any tablets date to

this period (McCarthy 2011, 2012). Although Urkiš and Nagar were probably occupied

continuously (Weiss 2012a), at Urkiš, the palace was abandoned around 2100 BC (Pfälzner

2012; Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2001, 2002). Similar continuity may be seen at Kaḫat,

and perhaps at Arbid, but these show little evidence for complexity (Orsi 2012; Kolinski 2012).

In general, however, there are few data for settlement during the EJZ5 (2100-2000 BC) and

OJZ1 (2000-1850 BC) periods (Kolinski 2007). Indeed, the only material from the OJZ 1 period

that has so far been published comes from one building at Tell Leilan and a few houses at

Mozan, providing evidence of the beginning of a change in the area’s fortunes (Weiss et al.

2012: fig. 16; Bianchi 2012: 15).

Between 1900 and 1850 BC, settlement in much of northern Mesopotamia rebounded. In

the eastern Habur Plains, the Tell Leilan survey documents this shift best. In this area, probably

coinciding with the kingdom of Apum, the number of settlements around Leilan rose twenty-fold

from the post-Akkadian period, corresponding to a population boom, while the nature of

settlement changed dramatically (Ristvet 2012b). Unlike the large, long-lived settlements of the

Early and Late Bronze Age, these Middle Bronze Age settlements tended to be small and short-

lived. Urban centers, which probably had few residents outside of administrative complexes,

usually had a large number of satellite villages, highlighting a different relationship between

rural and urban centers during this period (Ristvet and Weiss 2014). Leilan, Hawa, Rimah, and

Mari exemplify this pattern of “hollow cities”. Other surveys undertaken in the Syrian and North

Iraqi Jezirah reveal a similar pattern. The area surrounding Hamoukar, for instance, had eight

small to medium sites for this period (Ur 2010b). In Iraq, the North Jezirah survey also shows

the proliferation of small sites around Tell al-Hawa, now reduced in size from its third

millennium extent (Wilkinson and Tucker 1995: 53-4). In the Brak survey area, the early second

millennium BC sees a settlement recovery, and an increase in site numbers from 3 to 113

(Colantoni 2012). Additionally in some cases, new ecological zones were colonized, probably

by pastoralists. At Leilan, the early second millennium sees the first extensive settlement—

much of it temporary—around the wadi ar-Radd marsh—while in the North Jezirah the dry,

southwestern region was first occupied by small, perhaps transient, villages (Wilkinson and

Tucker 1995: fig. 37).

In the western half of the Habur triangle, roughly corresponding to the Ida-Maraş,

settlements show robust nucleation in the MBA, without the settlement rebound seen further to

the east. Populations were concentrated in towns like Chagar Bazar, Arbid, and Mozan, while

their hinterlands tended to be dominated by pastoralists, not farmers. The scant Habur ware

recovered from the large tells in the West Habur may be pastoral campsite residue (Lyonnet

1996, 1997, 1998, 2009). In the 12 km around Beydar, only two sites had major early second

millennium BC occupations and two additional sites had possible occupations (Wilkinson 2000).

The area south of the Habur triangle, along the Lower and Middle Habur and in the western

steppe was almost entirely uninhabited during the early second millennium BC (Wilkinson 2002;

Hole et al. 1993). Taban may have been the only settlement along the Middle Habur, a region

which was dominated by pastoralists according to both evidence from survey and texts (Durand

2009; Ohnuma and Numoto 2001).

Finally, settlement numbers continued to increase or remain constant along the Middle

and Upper Euphrates and Upper Tigris, in the same areas that had experienced settlement

continuity or population growth previously. Along the Middle Euphrates, at least 27 sites

belonged to the Middle Bronze Age, more than double the number recorded during the late third

millennium (Geyer 2001b: 113). Further north, along the Syrian Upper Euphrates there are 36

sites for this period, the second largest peak in settlement for the region (Conteson 1985: 111-

112). The resettlement of the dry-farming plains near the Euphrates followed the same pattern.

Northeast of Sweyhat, Berthold Einwag noted that MBA sites are numerous, while in the better

watered western half of the Jabbul Plain survey area, settlement rebounded (Einwag 1993: 37;

Schwartz et al. 2000a).

History and the Politics of Emplacement

We can see both the significance of this rupture and the importance of the past to people

caught up in the resettlement, by examining where new settlements were founded. When

establishing new villages, creating political capitals, and constructing cemeteries, people

connected these new places to earlier settlements, despite the absence of settlement continuity.

The vast majority of villages were founded on prehistoric mounds; in fact, only 13 out of 157

(8%) of early second millennium BC sites in the Leilan survey do not have evidence for earlier

periods of occupation. Ten of these sites were probably short-lived pastoralist occupations,

meaning that only three settlement sites were founded ex novo. A similar trend can be observed

in the North Jezirah survey, where only 5 of 43 sites (9%) are new foundations (Wilkinson and

Tucker 1995). Around Tell Brak, the initial survey by Eidem and Warburton found previous

settlement at all early second millennium BC sites (Eidem and Warburton 1996), although it is

not clear if this pattern holds for the Brak Sustaining Area Survey which located many more

sites, but has not yet been fully published. This general trend may also be observed in Western

Syria. North of the Jabbul Lake, 22 MBA settlements were established on top of earlier tells

(Schwartz et al. 2000: 451). Similarly, isolated graves and cemeteries could be placed on

abandoned mounds, as at Tell Ghanem al-Ali, indicating the continued importance of these

abandoned settlements (al-Maqdissi 2010). 91

Important third millennium cities had a particular resonance within this resettlement.

When Samsi-Addu needed a capital, he chose Šeḫna, a major third millennium city, which had

been resettled perhaps a century earlier (fig. 26). Before Samsi-Addu made this city his capital,

occupation here was likely limited to a small group of houses near the city wall and a single

building on the Acropolis (Weiss 1990a; Monchambert 1984; Weiss et al. 2012). The imposing

ruins of the mound, however, and its towering third millennium city walls created a focal place

in the landscape. Šeḫna is not the only city with evidence for earliest settlement; indeed all

major second millennium BC sites had been previously important, depite evidence for settlement


This preference for founding towns on archaeological sites is not normative. In the first

quarter of the third millennium BC (2800-2600 BC), in the Leilan survey, 9 out of 32 sites (28%)

were new establishments. Similarly, the later second millennium BC saw people move off tells

and onto the plains, setting up several settlements in previously uninhabited locations. And in

the early first millennium BC, during a similar period of settlement recovery, few villages were

founded on archaeological sites (Wilkinson and Barbanes 2000; Wilkinson 2003; Wilkinson et

al. 2004). 92

There are probably many factors that accounted for the decision to build on ancient tells.

The mounds may have provided a focus in this flat landscape, or their height may have been

useful for defensive purposes. But these sites may also have been landmarks in a mythological

or ancestral landscape. Their ancient remains could have been part of a matrix of meaning that

resonated beyond the elite circle of the texts (Steadman 2005). Settlement choices are important

precisely because they indicate a general interest in or respect for the past, and not one that is

limited to the royal court, or even the elite as a whole.

While the foundation of settlements on ancient mounds was one strategy of creating ties

between individual villages and cities and local history, people also commemorated earlier

religious and royal histories when affirming larger political territories, such as kingdoms and

regional confederacies. Contemporary texts emphasize that people conceived of the landscape as

both historical and mythical. A treaty between Šeḫna and Kaḫat describes Kaḫat’s territory, west

of Šeḫna as “from Nawar to Nawar,” a phrase that probably cites both the journey of the goddess

Nawar to mark boundaries and this region’s illustrious past (Eidem 2011; Guichard 1997; Eidem

1991c, 1991b). An annual cultic journey undertaken by Dagan between Terqa, Tuttul, and Mari

probably played a similar role in the constitution of that kingdom (Pappi 2012). Here, the texts

emphasize the long history and the religious significance of these ancient cities, which were

important in the third millennium BC, explicitly linking this past glory to contemporary political

processes (Ristvet 2008).

Middle Bronze Age Economics

The significant shifts in the number and nature of settlements probably index changes in

agricultural and pastoral production strategies, land tenure, and trade relationships. Several areas

that had seen agricultural exploitation and permanent settlement during the mid third millennium

BC became pastureland by the end of that millennium and remained so during the Middle

Bronze Age, including the Middle and Lower Habur, the Western Jezirah, and the Jebel ‘Abd-el-

Aziz. All of these regions corresponded to important areas of pasture in the Mari letters for

seasonal herding groups belonging to several different tribes (Yamada and Ziegler 2011; Durand

2004; Ziegler 2011). Seeds found in animal manure indicate that all settlements increasingly

relied on pasturing rather than foddering animals (Colledge 2003). At Brak and Leilan, there is

evidence for more crop diversity and greater dependence on sheep and goat pastoralism

(Colledge 2003; Smith 2012; Meadows, personal communication; Weber 2001). In Western

Syria, the early second millennium BC saw the introduction of a different pattern, with a new

focus on hunting onagers in the steppe surrounding the site (Weber 2000: 435; Nichols and

Weber 2006). Similarly, archaeobotanical evidence indicates that there was a general

diversification of cropping, unlike the barley monoculture seen in the mid to late third

millennium BC (Smith and Munro 2009).

The proliferation of small, short-lived village sites is probably related to changing

conceptions of ownership. The Mari documentation suggests that land-ownership was organized

by tribal affiliation for both sedentary and semi-sedentary units (Charpin 2010c), as the dispute

between Šuna and Kiduh already demonstrated. Administrative texts from Mari regularly list

villages within the provinces of Terqa, Saggaratum, and Mari according to tribal affiliation. 93

These census or tēbibtum documents, probably related to occasional redistributions of land,

record populations of between 35 and 700 people in each settlement (Villard 2001; Kupper 1950;

Kellenberger 2000). It is likely that these settlements included temporary camps as well as

villages, since we have many more toponyms than archaeological sites. A flexible land tenure

system may have enabled villagers to relocate when water or soil became exhausted and is well-

adapted to the drier conditions during this period (Ristvet 2012b).

The shift of settlement during the late third millennium to the Turkish Tigris and

Euphrates heralded a change in trading networks across this area (Ristvet N.D.-a). This probably

began during the third dynasty of Ur, in the 21st century BC, when we have evidence for the

presence of a rich merchant named Puššam at Urkiš. Puššam’s house was equivalent in size to

some Mesopotamian palaces and contained more than 250 sealings attesting to commerce. His

name is Hurrian, like many of the names at Urkiš, but the house’s style and its contents both

resemble material from the Diyala. This building has been described as a trading depot, as well

as a residence, since it is well-equipped with store-rooms (Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner

2001). By around 1900 BC, evidence from Kaneš indicates that a complicated network of local

and long-distance traders had grown up in Northern Mesopotamia and Southern Anatolia

(Barjamovic 2011). Several cities in Northern Mesopotamia served as stages in the journey from

Aššur to Kaneš, including Šeḫna, where the discovery of an Old Assyrian treaty provides

evidence for the operation of a trading colony (Veenhof et al. 2008; Eidem 1991a). Shifts in

land tenure and the institution of new networks of merchants were thus implicated in the

settlement transformation during this period and created unique challenges to the negotiation of

political power.

Collective Representations: The Past in the Past

The re-establishment of political authority in Northern Mesopotamia took place as part of

this resettlement. These polities established themselves as the heirs of both the few surviving

cities of the third millennium BC and of the pastoralist groups who achieved new prominence

during the same period. Ancestry and continuity with a certain past probably sanctioned an

ideology of inheritance, cloaking new political and economic forms in the reassuring mantle of

antiquity. But why was the past authoritative during this period? How did people in Northern

Mesopotamia conceive of history? How did the kispum ceremony become an event that

symbolized the composition of different polities? Before I discuss the archaeological evidence

for death, ancestor rituals, and the material engagement with the past—the materialized symbols

that gave the kispum its force—it is necessary to consider the role of the past and to delve into

emic conceptions of time and history.

Literature, History, and the Ancestors

In the Old Babylonian period, history and literature did not exist as stand-alone

categories; rather what we call historical and literary texts were part of the ritual apparatus of

ancestor traditions. Scholars rarely highlight the connections between history, literature, and

ritual during this period. Few discussions specifically distinguish between the textual records of

North and South Mesopotamia, particularly since they both employ the same dialect. As a result,

it is often assumed that literature played the same role in the north as it did in the much better

attested south, where it has been interpreted as the source of an invented tradition that created an

esprit de corps among the scribal elite (Veldhuis 2011, 2004). 94 But the limited numbers of

historiographic and literary texts found in Northern Mesopotamia, as well as their distinctive

archaeological contexts, make this assumption is untenable.

An examination of archiving practices in Northern Mesopotamia illustrates the

differences between the two areas. The approximately 50,000 cuneiform tablets from the late

19th and early 18th centuries found at Mari, Leilan, Rimah, Chagar Bazar, and Kültepe consist

almost entirely of administrative documents and letters. Only a handful of literary texts (fewer

than 20), and a smaller number with “historical” information, have been found at Mari, Leilan,

and Kültepe, in contrast to the well-known scribal schools in the Babylonian cities of Nippur, Ur,

and Sippar which contained hundreds or thousands of copies of such works (Delnero 2012).

Moreover, tablets in the north, particularly non-administrative texts, come from different

contexts than in the south, testifying to different rates of literacy and a distinct milieu for scribal


In general, tablets are found in many more contexts in southern than in northern cities,

suggesting that writing was more widespread. The majority of excavated houses in Nippur and

Isin, for instance, contained tablets (Charpin 2004; Wilcke 2000; Veldhuis 2011), while in

Northern Mesopotamia, the only private archives that have been found come from two houses at

Mari and the archives of Assyrian traders at Kaneš (Charpin 2011; Cavigneaux 2009). 95 Outside

of Kaneš, there are very few contracts or other private documents in the north. This has

important implications for literary texts in particular. At Nippur and Ur, the two Old Babylonian

sites with the largest number of literary tablets, most of these were found in private houses, often

interpreted as scribal schools (Delnero 2012; Tinney 1999; Veldhuis 2004), unlike in Northern

sites. The Northern Mesopotamian school texts that we have actually reflect a different

approach to education, with little evidence for learning the royal praise songs, hymns, myths,

epics, and debates that are so prominent in the south (Hecker 1993; Cavigneaux 2009). Instead,

north of Babylonia, writing was limited to an institutional context, and non-administrative

texts— ritual texts, incantations, historiographic compositions, omen compendia, and epics—to a

ritual one.

The historiographic texts from the north include two from the Mari palace archives—the

Mari Eponym Chronicles and the Revolt Against Naram Sin—and two texts from a recently

excavated schoolhouse, called Chantier K—Šulgi B and the Epic of Lugalbanda (Cavigneaux

2009: 52; Weiss et al. 2012). Outside of Mari, the archives of the Eastern Lower Town Palace at

Leilan contained a copy of the Sumerian King List (Vincente 1995), and houses of Assyrian

traders at Kaneš yielded five eponym lists, a Sargon legend, and copies of inscriptions of the

Assyrian King Erišum (Veenhof, Eidem, and Wäfler 2008: 44-5).

The findspots of historical texts in Northern Mesopotamia underline their ritual context.

Room 108 in the palace of Zimri Lim of Mari, located to the west of the “Court of the Palms”

(room 106), yielded most of the non-administrative texts found at the site, including the legends,

ritual texts, incantations, and Hurrian language compositions (Kupper 1978; Salvini 2000: fig. 5).

This room thus housed a ritual archive of texts related to religious ceremonies that were

conducted in the adjacent ceremonial spaces. This reception suite, which included the court of

the palms, decorated with the painting of the “Investiture of Zimri-Lim” and the entrance halls

64 and 65, served as the location for the king’s meal and the fortnightly kispum meals, the main

political rituals within the court. 96 At Šeḫna, the Sumerian King List was found in room 22, as

part of a dossier related to treaty negotiations, an enterprise that was as ritual as it was political,

and which was connected to the elunnum, a rite that paralleled the “Feast of Ištar.” 97 Finally, the

historiographic texts from Kaneš provide an interesting counterpoint to the royal archives of

Šeḫna and Mari. Unlike material found at those cities, the Kaneš texts were written in a different

dialect, Assyrian, and by a very different group—private merchants who conducted trade in wool

and tin between Aššur and Anatolia (Veenhof et al. 2008; Ristvet and Weiss 2011). The

resemblance of these texts to other historical texts from the north, however, suggests that they

were also part of the apparatus of ritual.

The contents of these texts explicitly link them to the kispum ritual. The Mari kispum

text lists the Akkadian kings Sargon (2334 to 2279 BC) and Naram-Sin (2254-2218 BC) and the

Yaradum and Numhâ, tribal names, as recipients of kispum offerings (Durand and Guichard

1997). In its citation of these names, the kispum ritual echoes contemporary king lists—namely

the Sumerian King List (SKL), the Assyrian King List (AKL), and the Genealogy of the

Hammurabi Dynasty (GHD), probably another kispum document. 98

The GHD, a text that was probably composed at Sippar, represents an understanding of

contemporary history and geography that grows out of and informs ancestor veneration practices.

Lines 11-28 of the composition record the names of the direct ancestors of King Ammişaduqa of

Babylon. This provides a key to understanding the first ten lines, which contain names of tribes

belonging to the great confederacies of Mesopotamia, who were probably also imagined as

eponymous ancestors, as was probably the case for the tribal names mentioned in the Mari

kispum text. Since tribal designations also crystallized a primary sense of political identification

for villages, towns, and pastoralists, their invocation here also has geographic implications.

The GHD ends with an invitation to named and unnamed ancestors to come and partake

in the feast of the dead. It does so in a way that emphasizes this inclusive geography:

The palû of the Amorites, the palû of the Haneans, the palû of Gutium, the palû

not recorded on this tablet, and the soldier(s) who fell while on perilous

campaigns for their (lit: 'his') lord, princes, princesses, (36-38) all persons from

East to West who have no one to tend or care for them, come ye, eat this, drink

this, (and) bless Ammişaduqa, the son of Ammiditana, the king of Babylon (lines

29-43). 99

Here, commemoration becomes a way of creating a shared polity, one that ties together kings,

tribes, and soldiers, both living and dead. The list of the four palû, usually translated as dynasty,

in lines 29-32, may be understood in terms of both time and space. The three named dynasties

could describe the entities who exercised political authority from the fall of the Akkadian empire

to the rise of Babylon, with the final palû, “the one not recorded on this tablet,” designating

primordial events (Finkelstein 1966: 97-9). At the same time, these palû correspond to major

geographical divisions, the territories of Syria to the west (the Amorite palû), the Jezirah to the

north (the Hanean palû), and the Zagros to the east (the Gutian palû) (Jacquet 2002: 59-60). The

genealogical lists of previous kings, tribal names, and palû construct a specific Babylonian

history, geography and politics, based on an understanding of the foundational importance of

ancestors. They ascribe an antiquity to contemporary territorial and political divisions, while

claiming this entire territory as Ammişaduqa’s inheritance. The GHD and the Mari kispum ritual

both record religious events in which citations of history and genealogy work to produce a

unified political order, one which transcends the social fragmentation of a world divided between

tribes, languages, and subsistence strategies.

These texts provide a very specific framework for understanding the other scattered

literary works from this period, which tend either to contain “genealogical” information or to

refer to the glorious deeds of past kings. The AKL, although redacted much later, includes a list

of 27 kings reputed to be Samsi-Addu’s ancestors, divided into the 17 kings “who lived in tents”

and the 10 kings “whose ancestors are known.” 100 11 of the names in the GHD and AKL are

variants of the same tribal designations (Finkelstein 1966). Moreover, the period between the

historically documented Akkadian dynasty and the reigns of Samsi-Addu and Hammurabi in

these genealogies is nearly identical, spanning 27 and 26 kings respectively. It is difficult to

know precisely when the Samsi-Addu section of the AKL was first composed, but given the

similarities with the GHD, it is likely that this section of the list was originally another kispum

text (Finkelstein 1966; Yamada 1994: fn. 22). We should probably understand the sole redaction

of the SKL known from Northern Mesopotamia, the Leilan recension, as another document

linked to the kispum in the north (Durand 2008: 333-4), although probably not in the south

(Michalowski 1983; Marchesi 2010; von Dassow 2012). The list of bala (the Sumerian term for

palû) may have provided additional, symbolic ancestors for Samsi-Addu and the later kings of

Šeḫna. Samsi-Addu probably used the SKL to assert his position in the long political history of

Mesopotamia. Moreover, the geographic expansiveness of the text provided an ideological

justification for Samsi-Addu’s own empire-building.

This desire to connect contemporary political expansion to glorious historical empires

probably explains the presence in palace archives of the other historical texts from this period:

legends, chronicles, and inscriptions of past kings. Jean-Marie Durand, has argued that the

“Revolt Against Naram-Sin” may also have formed part of the kispum ceremony; its recitation

would have honored this king who was so significant to Samsi-Addu (Durand 2008: 333-4).

Similarly, the Mari Eponym Chronicle, a list of momentous events from Samsi-Addu’s reign,

may have been compiled for the funeral and commemoration rites for Samsi-Addu at Šubat-Enlil

(Durand 2008: 334). 101 Writing down Samsi-Addu’s accomplishments was one way to transform

him into a glorious king, to make him into an ancestor like those he celebrated in the kispum.

Similarly, the Epic of Zimri-Lim may also have been written to commemorate this king in

preparation for his eventual death (Durand and Guichard 1997: 42). The historiographic texts

from Kaneš probably played a similar role, despite the city’s cultural differences. A previously

unknown legend of Sargon of Akkad found in an Assyrian merchant’s house has been variously

described as a straightforward historical narrative (Hecker 2001), an erudite scribal parody

(Foster 2005: 71; Van de Mieroop 2000), and an improvisational tale based on historical sources

(Cavigneaux 2005). The most likely interpretation, however, argues that this tablet, with its

repeated praise of Adad and Ištar, was part of a series of ancestor rituals (Dercksen 2005: 121-3;

Alster and Oshima 2007: 5). Although the kispum is not attested at Kaneš, evidence of ancestor

rituals comes from references to the eṭēmmu or “ancestral spirit” in Old Assyrian letters and a

month name, ab šarrāni (father of the kings), that may refer to an official cult for royal ancestors

(Dercksen 2005: 122). The inscription of Erišum at the site, and perhaps even the eponym lists,

may have been used in similar rituals, although the latter were probably also kept for practical

reasons (Veenhof 2003). The presence of these texts in private houses may indicate broader

participation in ancestor rituals in Northern Mesopotamia and an appreciation for legendary

history beyond the palace. 102

Divine Will and Divination

In historical texts from Northern Mesopotamia, the past emerges not only as the domain

of the ancestors, but also as a reflection of the gods’ plans for humanity. In the SKL, the concept

of bala or palû, which as we have already seen refers to a division of time, often a dynasty, or the

length of a reign, is understood as divinely ordained. In this schema, kingship descends from

heaven and the gods grant each city a short time of supremacy, before kingship devolves to

another place (Michalowski 1983; von Dassow 2012: 118-20). This view clearly informs the

GHD, and helps explains why Ammişaduqa situates himself as the heir of all of these palû.

This view of history as a manifestation of divine will permeates Old Babylonian sources,

probably indicating that it was widely held in scholarly and perhaps other circles. A letter from

Mari is perhaps the best example of this belief. Speaking through his priest, the god Addu

explains the salient events of the 19th and 18th century to Zimri-Lim in the following terms:

I have given the entire land to Yahdun-Lim, and thanks to my weapons, he had no

rival. He abandoned me and that which I had given to him; I gave to Samsi-

Addu... I have given to you the throne of your father, I have given to you the

weapons that I used to fight the Sea… I have anointed you with the oil of my

invincibility, so that no one can face you. Listen to my only command. When

someone has a lawsuit and calls to you saying, “someone has wronged me,” give

him justice. Respond to him correctly. That is what I desire from you. When

you embark on a campaign, do not embark upon it without taking oracles. When

I am favorable in one of my oracles, then you may embark upon a campaign. If I

do not answer favorably, then do not leave. (Durand 2002: 39 [A. 1968])

This is an extraordinary passage, in which Addu, city god of Aleppo, but a deity important

across Northern Mesopotamia, asserts responsibility for the operation of history. Rather than

portraying recent history from the viewpoint of Aleppo, or even of Mari, Addu claims universal

authority and grants Zimri-Lim supremacy as long as he acts virtuously. Moreover, this is not a

unique document. Rather, references in letters from Zimri-Lim, Yasmah-Addu and Yarim-Lim

of Aleppo indicate that this theological understanding of history was widely shared (Charpin

1998: 84-7).

Outside of the letters, this notion of theological time is most visible in divination, a

practice that is hardly attested in the third millennium but is increasingly prominent in the early

second millennium (Richardson 2010). The first lines of this letter explain that the document

itself is an interpretation of an omen, while the closing lines emphasize the importance of

divination for the operation of kingship. Like history, divination was a domain in which the

actions of humans, gods, and ancestors in the past, present, and future were intertwined (Bahrani

2008: 65). Divination comprises a semiotic system in which various signs in the natural world

were understood to reflect the will of the gods and presage future outcomes (Annus 2010;

Bahrani 2008: 60-5). These signs could be mutable; indeed they emerged from a dialogue

between the diviner and the god and could be averted through ritual action.

Hence, divination practices constructed an authoritative past, establishing an

understanding of past, present, and future as a reflection of the will of the gods. At the same

time, this notion of time allowed diviners to look to history to avert future tragedy. The authority

that diviners thus granted to the past is exemplified by the 32 annotated liver omens found

alongside the ritual texts in Room 108 at Mari (Rutten 1938). These unusual texts are among the

first examples of divination literature known from Mesopotamia. They were written in the

šakkanakku script, with some deliberately archaic signs, unlike most of the other texts in the

palace (Richardson 2010; Gelb 1956). Moreover, several of the liver omens referred to historical

figures, including kings of Akkad, the third dynasty of Ur, Isin, and perhaps an earlier governor

of Mari (fig. 27).

The Mari liver omens are part of a system of divination that understood past political

history as a reflection of a complicated relationship between kings and gods. But these objects

are recursive, relying upon their own supposed antiquity to construct the authority of antiquity.

Although some Assyriologists believe that these omen texts comprise observed divination

practices in the late third millennium (Goetze 1947: 264-5; Starr 1991, 1983), their sign forms

make it far more probable that they were written in the early second millennium and made to

look antique (Gelb 1956: 7; Richardson 2010: 240-1). Rather than ancient historical documents,

the liver omens were imitations that drew upon a broader, ritual interest in a political past, one

exemplified by the kispum text that formed part of the same archive (Richardson 2010: 234-5).

Indeed, divination as a whole was not entirely divorced from the larger conception of the past as

the domain of the ancestors. As the kispum text tells us, divination was an essential part of this

ritual and many other political and religious activities (Durand and Guichard 1997: text 4: i: 13-

5). The presence of the liver omens in Zimri-Lim and Yasmah-Addu’s palace was performative,

demonstrating both their divine right to rule and constructing historical continuity between these

reigning kings and earlier dynasties at both Mari and in Mesopotamia generally.

Seth Richardson has recently argued that the political role of divination was transformed

during the nearly half a millennium of the Old Babylonian period (Richardson 2010). The

political instability that is such a striking feature of this period, the complex dynamics of

resettlement, and the appearance of new social forms all required the adaptation of new political

strategies, like divination, and new ways of understanding a world that was both divided and

united in novel ways. The liver omens with their archaizing script and historical information

underwrote the novel ambitions of both kings and diviners. While these omens connected

contemporary kings to a series of far-flung ancestors, this innovative technique also provided

divination priests with access to enormous influence, an authority that “paralleled the military

power of generals and the political power of viziers” (Richardson 2010: 255). Rather like the

ritual system that comprised the Feast of Ištar and the kispum ceremony that allowed for such

novel flexibility in creating “families” and constructing powerful ancestors, divination used

antiquity to underwrite a political system that gave new actors access to power.

Materialized Symbols: Death, Ritual and the Authority of the Past in Daily Life

The conception of history as a domain that belonged to the ancestors and reflected

providence provides a framework for understanding how the past became meaningful as part of

resettlement and political transformation. Perhaps the most significant way that both states and

individuals negotiated their own pasts was through the elaboration of burial traditions and

commemorative rituals. Tombs and houses were the site of commemorative practices that

helped to create new ideas of kinship and belonging. Stone circles and ancient graves became

places of official ritual, like the Feast of Ištar, where collective entities like tribes and city

councils reaffirmed their commitment to a certain political order through a discourse of family

and history. These monuments and practices gained importance through their resonance with

domestic practices. Beyond the domain of the dead, individuals constructed the past as an

authoritative sphere by burying heirlooms in foundation deposits in temples and emulating third

millennium pottery, seals, and statuary.

The Archaeology of Death and Ritual

In order to evaluate the political significance of memory, we need to investigate not just

the intellectual apparatus of ancestor ceremonies or divination practices, but also the traces left

by actual rituals. Although the period sees a range of tomb types and burial locations—in

houses, intramural cemeteries, and necropoles in the steppe—funerary rituals and understandings

of death were probably similar across most of Mesopotamia, regardless of whether the graves

belonged to city-dwellers, villagers, or pastoralists.

The materials that accompanied the dead tended to be uniform, regardless of the form of

the grave (which ranged from a simple pit to an elaborate vaulted tomb) and included jewelry

and other items of personal adornment, beer drinking sets, and occasionally cuts of meat (Galli

and Valentini 2006: 60). The contents of a grave rarely indicated the wealth or the importance of

the deceased, as funerary rituals do not seem to have been an occasion when people reflected

upon social status, unlike in the preceding millennium. The placement of people within a burial

plot probably had more significance; burials in houses and cemeteries clustered in discrete

groups, presumably related to households, families, or clans. 103 Usually, each tomb group had a

central grave, which was a mound, stone circle, or vaulted mudbrick structure visible above the

ground. Commemoration ceremonies or other post-mortuary rituals were most often performed

at these central sepulchers and not at the subsidiary tombs.

There are two Akkadian words for tomb that were in use at Mari, qubūrum (Akk. pl.

qubūrū) and Kimaḫḫum (Akk. pl. Kimaḫḫū), and it is unclear precisely how they differ. Steven

Lundström has argued, on the basis of the grave inscription of the tomb of Yaba, the wife of

Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC), that Kimaḫḫum designates a built tomb, usually a vaulted

mudbrick structure that can be entered after death (Lundström 2000: 9-12). Although this

reference comes from more than a millennium later, Kimaḫḫum also seems to designate a built

space where offerings could be made in the Mari texts (Jacquet 2012b: 124-5). Since this

description corresponds nicely with the archaeological evidence for central tombs, I will refer to

them as Kimaḫḫū.

Some of these tombs contained more than one interment, including people who were

clearly buried at different times. 104 Within houses, kimahḫhū could be placed either within

courtyards or beneath the floors of special rooms. Their construction was undertaken at the same

time that the house was built and was an essential part of it, emphasizing their importance to the

household as a whole (Valentini 2002; McMahon et al. 2009: 122-3; Valentini 2003). Kimaḫḫū

have been found in towns across Greater Mesopotamia, including Arbid, Aššur, Kaḫat, Chagar

Bazar, Mohammed Diyab, and Urkiš in the north, and Isin, Uruk, Larsa, Sippar, Ur, and Susa in

the south and east (Galli and Valentini 2006: 58; Wygnanska 2011 (2008)). Some of the

excavated examples were either empty (tomb 18, Chagar Bazar), or contained few human

remains (graves 593 and 840, Kaḫat; also Aššur and Susa). In certain cases, this was probably

because the tomb was never used (McMahon et al. 2009: 122) or its contents were later removed.

If the inhabitants of a tomb were honored ancestors, who had to be fed and cared for, then it is

possible that when it came time to abandon the family house the residents brought the bones of

their ancestors to their new abode (Bottéro 1980: 28; Valentini 2003: fn. 50). 105

Kimaḫḫū were at the center of ancestor devotion in many households and settlements,

and several excavated examples show evidence of continued care long after death. The best

evidence for this comes from Ur, where 20 houses yielded evidence of vaulted tombs built of

baked bricks. In general, these family tombs were placed under the floor of the back room and

were often associated with an altar and sometimes a hearth in a “domestic chapel” (Galli and

Valentini 2006; Brusasco 1999-2000). In Northern Mesopotamia, there is also evidence of later

ritual practice. At Kaḫat, vessels were found in the shaft leading to vaulted tombs (Valentini

2003: 284). They were probably offerings made either immediately after the tomb was sealed or

as part of later commemorative ceremonies. Kispum texts from Mari document donations of

various types of oil and bread, and occasionally honey, sesame, gruel, or alappānum-sauce as

part of a fortnightly ceremony, although these practices usually took place in the palace and not

at the royal graves (Jacquet 2012b: 129-30). 106 Vessels found at different levels within the

entrance shafts at Arbid, for instance, are probably the remains of multiple oblations of bread and

oil made over several years or decades (Wygnanska 2011 (2008): 610; Bielinski 2005: 486).

Other material found on house floors, above the openings of tombs, has also been interpreted as

the remains of commemoration rituals. On the floor of room 583, above tomb 570 at Kaḫat, a

large quantity of smashed bowls, cups, colanders, and pots was found, possibly the remains of a

funeral feast. Similarly, animal figurines found discarded on the floors of houses above vaulted

tombs at Kaḫat may represent animals presented to the dead (Valentini 2003: 285; fig. 28).

There is also evidence of animal sacrifice at some Kimaḫḫū. A puppy and a complete,

but unarticulated, equid skeleton, probably belonging to an onager, were buried in the entrance to

a Kimaḫḫum at Arbid. They may represent the remains of animals that were killed as part of a

commemoration ritual. An equid skull was found on top of another vaulted tomb at the site,

while another puppy was buried in front of a third tomb (Wygnanska 2011 (2008): 610).

Similarly, at Mozan, a donkey was interred in front of the chamber of tomb 37 (Dohmann-

Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2001: 129-33). The presence of these equid burials calls to mind the

donkey sacrifice during the kispum ritual that takes place as part of the Feast of Ištar. Several

letters from Ibal-Addu, the king of Ašlakkâ, a kingdom located in the Ida-maraş, probably not far

from Tell Arbid, describe a treaty alliance between the cities of this region and the Sim’alites

(ARM II 37; Finet 1993: A.1056, A.2226; Malamat 1995: 226-7). In these letters, the Mari

representative insists that a donkey foal be sacrificed for the treaty ritual, rather than the puppy,

kid, or calf that the Sim’alites offer. Clearly, however, other young animals could take the place

of the sacrificial ass in this sacrifice and ceremony, particularly from the standpoint of the


Another set of objects that may be connected to ancestor practices are rough basalt

figures, sometimes called “stone spirits” (fig. 29). These sculptures, which range in size from

just 9 cm high to 1.45 m have been found across Northern Mesopotamia during the entire bronze

age. 107 Unlike many Mesopotamian statues, they tend to be only vaguely anthropomorphic, with

the head, nose, waist, and arms usually only roughly marked (Carter 1970). In many cases, the

sculptor used the uneven exterior of the stone to suggest a human figure emerging from its

surface. At Kaḫat, a stone figure was excavated from the same stratum as the Kimaḫḫum, tomb

570, while another figure was found incorporated into a Neo-Assyrian level. Contemporary

Sumerian ritual texts from Southern Mesopotamia indicate that figurines, like the lamassatu in

the Mari kispum texts, could represent the dead in ancestor rituals (Katz 1999: 109). The Kaḫat

statues may have represented ancestors—perhaps lamassatu of ordinary people—and

participated in ancestor rituals within these private houses (Valentini 2003: 284-5).

Another stone spirit—a male figure carved from white limestone—stood in the Old

Babylonian (level 8) shrine at Tell Brak, surrounded by bowls and grain measures (Oates et al.

1997: 33-5, fig. 229: 95). This vaulted shrine closely resembles a Kimaḫḫum in construction

method and may have been linked to a cult of the dead. It is possible that these stone figures

were related to the sikkanātum (Akk. sg. sikkanum) or bethels documented in the Mari texts.

Sikkanātum were standing stones connected to certain deities, particularly Ištar of Dêr, who was

honored in the Feast of the Land during Zimri-Lim’s reign, and played a role in the cult of the

dead (Durand 2005: text 12; 1985b).

Outside of settlements, there were vast cemeteries of burial mounds located in the steppe,

crowning hills, and lining the Euphrates escarpment, which were probably constructed by semi-

pastoralists. MBA cemeteries have been excavated along the Middle Euphrates at Baghouz,

‘Usiyeh, and Shuweimiyeh and in the Jebel Bishri. These burial mounds are unusual in a

Mesopotamian context—indeed ‘Usiyeh and Shuweimiyeh are the only two such cemeteries that

have been recovered in Iraq—although they are reminiscent of tombs found in Arabia and the

Southern Levant. Recent survey of the Middle Euphrates has located seven other possible

cemeteries near Mari (Geyer et al. 2003: fig. 10). Around Dura Europos, for example, there are

at least 1000 tumuli that range in date from the Early Bronze Age to the first centuries AD

(Kepinski 2008: 166). Burial mounds are also attested in the Tabqa dam area and in the desert

west of the Euphrates (Kepinski 2008: 167).

The materials used to make these large graves varied. At ‘Usiyeh and Shuweimiyeh, for

instance, tombs were built of vaulted mudbricks and covered with mounds, and were probably

Kimaḫḫū like those found within settlements of the same period (Kepinski 2007, 2008). At

Baghouz, these central tombs were cist graves built of stone, sometimes covered by a mound,

although erosion had removed this structure in many cases (Du Mesnil du Buisson 1948). The

gravel mounds that covered tombs may have imitated tells, explaining why graves were

sometimes placed on abandoned mounds (Abdul-Amir 1988: 309; Killick and Black 1985).

The tombs themselves were often square, but they were surrounded by circular enclosure

walls. Other features could be built alongside the grave, including platforms or stone benches

(Abdul-Amir 1988: 186 and 309; Killick and Black 1985: 226). Additionally, some circular

enclosures contained more than one grave or no grave. This suggests the symbolic importance of

these architectural elements, which resemble the tent footings that were laid as part of the kispum

ceremony. As is the case with house tombs, graves in these cemeteries usually have a single

interment, although some of the larger graves at ‘Usiyeh were collective (Numoto and Okada


In many ways, the cemeteries at Baghouz, ‘Usiyeh, and Shuweimiyeh mirror the

arrangement of burials in urban sites, like Kaḫat and Arbid. Once again, there is great variation

in the grave form, which may include jar burials, simple pits, and built tombs, and much less

variation in grave goods, attesting to standardized ritual practices. Indeed, the grave goods

accompanying the dead here are usually identical to the items found in graves within settlements.

Generally, a few personal items such as jewelry, or occasionally weapons, were placed alongside

the deceased, who were sometime laid to rest on beds (Du Mesnil du Buisson 1948; Kepinski

2008). Otherwise, the only grave goods tend to be dishes for the funerary feast, sometimes set

out on tables and including large jars, smaller jars or cups, and smaller bowls. Beer drinking was

probably the most important part of this feast since large jars and often strainers are found in

almost every grave while smaller bowls were not always part of the assemblage (Du Mesnil du

Buisson 1948: 36-51). 108 Several of the graves contained pottery that was either imported or

imitated traditions found outside of the Middle Euphrates valley, including Isin-Larsa jars from

Southern Mesopotamia, Habur ware from the Jezirah, and pottery from Western Syria and the

Upper Euphrates (Kepinski 2007: 127; Abdul-Amir 1988: 185; Oguchi 2006).

Further to the west, along the Jebel Bishri, survey and excavation have revealed part of a

vast MBA cemetery complex on the western and northern flanks of these mountains. Survey in

the north documented at least 25 cairn fields and 398 individual cairns, while another survey

found an additional 50 cairns in the west, although most of the area remains unexplored. 109 This

mountain has long been associated with pastoral nomads, both because of its climatic

marginality—it lies between the 100 and 200 mm isohyets, and is too arid for rainfed agriculture,

but has rich pastoral resources—and because of references in inscriptions beginning in the third

millennium BC. 110 Bishri has provided some of the earliest evidence for the development of

burial practices in this period, which saw a move from graves within or near settlements to the

creation of cemeteries in areas of pasture, perhaps part of a larger shift in the construction of

identity. 111

The cairn fields on the Jebel Bishri tend to follow the general topography of the hills and

are located either on the edge of mesas or on ridgelines, but not on fluvial plains. Clearly, this

emphasizes their visibility, while the ridges provided limestone for construction materials. Most

cairns are located about 100 m apart, forming rows that average 1-2 km in length, but may span

8 km. Evidence from both survey and excavation suggests that they were constructed over a

short period of time (Fujii and Adachi 2010). Radiocarbon dates from the Tor-Rahum 1 cairns

all date to between ca. 1900 and 1600 BC (Nakamura 2010: table 2). Excavations at eight cairn

fields have revealed similar grave goods, probably indicating that they are all contemporary.

Generally, the largest cairns were first built in the north, and smaller cairns were then placed to

the south. Although many cairns were looted, grave goods and skeletal remains were located in

each field (Fuji and Adachi 2010: 66). The bioarchaeologists interpret the disarticulated skeletal

remains in this grave as secondary burials, rather than the result of disturbance (Nakano and

Ishida 2010: 105; Nakano 2009). These cairns may have been family tombs, as they contain

skeletal remains from individuals of different ages, who were probably interred at different times

(fig. 30). The excavators suggest that they are primarily the graves of semi-nomadic people,

given their location in the steppe.

These stone cairns connected the domains of death, memory, and territory. The

excavated remains from the Jebel Bishri reveal some of the ways that these tombs were

incorporated into social practices. The cairns were not built and then forgotten; rather they

remained memorial places, clearly visible on the larger landscape. The secondary burials within

the cairns show that they were implicated within a long chain of death, burial practices, and

commemoration ceremonies. The numerous stone features associated with many of these cairns

probably date to different periods, and also attest to the long life histories of these monuments

(Fuji and Adachi 2010).

These cairns did not serve simply to commemorate an individual. Instead, the multiple

burials within each grave group probably represented households, pastoral groups, or lineages.

Hence, their placement mirrors the topography of cemeteries within settlements (Kepinski 2007:

127, 2008: 169, 2006: 111). The arrangement of these graves participates in the same process of

ancestor creation as the donkey sacrifice, creating alliances and affirming power relations.

Moreover, the cairns in the steppe and graves in settlements indicate that this ritual was not

limited to urban rulers, but could be performed by pastoralists, villagers, and city-dwellers, who

all shared a unified symbolic system.

Ancestors, Monuments and Politics

Stone and earthen cairns were designated by at least two terms in the Mari texts:

humūsum (Akk. pl. humūsū), a pile of stones, and rāmum (Akk. pl. rāmū), a burial cairn (Durand

2005). The role of cairns as commemorative monuments within the landscape, which often, but

not always mark burials, may help to explain why only some cairns on Mount Bishri and in the

cemeteries along the Euphrates are associated with human remains (Nakano and Ishida 2010;

Nakano 2010). These emic categories also provide a way to think about other enigmatic

monuments from this period. In the Mari texts, humūsū can be made for several reasons: to

commemorate a particular victory; to create a place for a treaty negotiation; or to mark the death

of a specific person (Durand 2008: 352; 2005: FM VIII 33: 18-25). Both humūsū and ramū are

powerful places for religious and political ceremonies. They are not only important at the

moment of interment, but remain focal points long afterwards. The humūsum constructed to

mark the treaty alliance with Šuda, for example, was supposed to last forever, and be the site of

repeated offerings (Jacquet 2011: 75; Durand 2005: 33: 24-5, ARM 23 319: 7). Similarly, a

Mari letter shows that people associated a given cairn with an individual or event and honored it

long after the funeral had ended. Indeed, destroying a humūsum may provide an excuse for war

(Charpin 2010a: 245; Durand 2008: 326; 2005: no. 30, p. 97). Continuous veneration practices

provide a new way to interpret the scattered animal bones found associated with several cairns at

Bishri, which could be the result of repetitive ritual activity (Nakano 2010; Nakano and Ishida

2010). The Mari texts also remind us that commemorative ceremonies did not only take place at

the graves, but also in other places where burials were not present.

The role of the humūsum in commemorative practices provides a context for unusual

ritual constructions in the city of Umm el-Marra, probably ancient Tuba, Ebla, and at the ‘Usiyeh

cemetery. Although in the Mari documentation, humūsū are usually located in the countryside,

like the ‘Usiyeh example, there is at least one reference to a monument of this kind inside a city

(ARM 26/1 218: 7; Durand 2005). The different settings for these ritual installations—on a hill

overlooking the Euphrates far from contemporary settlement and within settlements—may reveal

another way that ritual practices transcended the urban-rural divide.

At the summit of Umm el-Marra’s Acropolis, Monument 1, a circular stone platform

with a diameter of 37 m was built above a series of elite third millennium graves (see above,

chapter 2; fig. 31). 112 Fill within the platform incorporated late third millennium pottery sherds,

perhaps another way to connect this new construction to the past (Schwartz 2014). This platform

resembles the cairns and mounds found in the pastoralist cemeteries at ‘Usiyeh, Shuweimiyeh,

and Bishri. Moreover, the position of the monument draws attention to the earlier graves. Umm

el-Marra experienced at least a century of abandonment prior to the construction of this feature.

Monument 1 could have provided a way for the site’s new rulers to appropriate its past, and

perhaps to claim its dead as their own ancestors. Alternatively, the monument may have denied

access to that past, performing a type of compulsory amnesia (Schwartz et al. 2012: 53).

The best evidence we have for the rituals that may have occurred here comes from a

series of installations excavated nearby. On the north side of this feature, the excavators

identified six pits, containing fragments of pottery, animal bones, terracotta animal figurines, and

one human figurine made of bitumen. An unusual, deep shaft, with a diameter of about 1 m and

a depth of more than 6 m pierced this monument, cutting through the tell and into the bedrock

below. Near the bottom of the shaft lay 13 people who had been killed with a blow to their head

(Schwartz 2012; Schwartz N.D.). They had been interred alongside a dog, while small birds had

been placed in niches around them. The shaft contained ten levels of animal skeletal material

that had been deposited on top of these human remains. Each level was separated from the next

by layers of homogeneous clay soil and included the remains of donkeys, other equids, sheep,

dogs, and birds. Layers 2 and 8 included only the rear half of equids. Several complete fetal

animals were buried here and fetal bones of most of these species were found in nearly every

level. The careful interment of the animals and the diversity of species indicate that this was a

ritual installation, rather than a trash pit (Schwartz et al. 2012: 178).

Similar ritual pits have been found in sacred contexts at MBA Ebla, where they are

associated with a square platform, Monument P3, which was dedicated to Ištar. 113 Despite its

different shape, it provides a close parallel to Umm el-Marra’s Monument 1. Within this square,

a series of different ritual installations were excavated. These include smaller pits (about 1 m

deep), termed bothroi, that contained a variety of materials, including carinated bowls with food

offerings, two dog and bird burials, a sheep burial, and a human and sheep skull, together with

other animal bones and a small pottery assemblage (Nigro 1998). In addition, two 11 m deep

cisterns, termed favissae, contained hundreds of pots with food offerings, figurines, metal cultic

objects, and large quantities of sheep bones (Marchetti and Nigro 2000, 1997). The most

common type of carinated pot held the bones of goats and doves mixed with charcoal.

Depositions within this pit were separated by layers of clean clay or limestone, reflecting the

ritual nature of their deposition (Marchetti and Nigro 1997: 4-7). 114

The two different features at Umm el-Marra and Ebla, the pits versus the deep shaft, may

contain the remains of the major types of offerings that were made in political and ritual contexts

at Mari, the naptanum, a sacred meal, and the niqûm, usually an animal sacrifice (Jacquet 2011:

20). At Umm el-Marra, the trash pits probably contained the remains of sacred meals, which

could have accompanied the niqûm sacrifice, while the deep shaft probably contained years of

niqûm-offerings. The situation may have been reversed at Ebla, where the favissae contained the

remains of sacred meals, while evidence of the niqûm is preserved in the bothroi. We know that

these offerings could be made for humūsum monuments from the Mari administrative texts,

which document the sacrifice of a sheep to this monument (Jacquet 2011: 75, ARM XXIII 319:

7). Moreover, we know that some of the rituals associated with the Feast of Ištar were

performed at stone circles like humūsū and rāmū, including the ceremony named “the feast of the

rāmum (Jacquet 2012a: 21-4). I suspect that Monument 1 and Monument P3 were both humūsū,

stone monuments where rituals were performed on a monumental stage before the populace.

Many of the animals found in cultic contexts at Umm el-Marra and at Ebla represent

species that are illustrated on the Stela of Ištar, found in a contemporary shrine on Ebla’s

Acropolis. One side of the stela depicts a priest with a hare, dove, and ram, while elsewhere a

priestess prepares to sacrifice a goat (Marchetti and Nigro 1997: 32; Matthiae 1987). The equid

remains found in the Umm el-Marra deep shaft, however, could also result from rituals of

alliance. In the famous letters from Ibal-Addu of Ašlakkâ, discussed above, what unites the

different animals—calves, donkey foals, kids, and puppies—that the Sim’alites bring for

sacrifice as part of the treaty festival is their youth, nicely echoing the presence of infant and

fetal remains in the shaft (Malamat 1995: 229). In West Semitic sources, other young animals

are sacrificed in covenant ceremonies; a lamb is offered as part of the treaty enacted at Sefireh in

the first millennium BC (Lemaire and Durand 1984). Similarly, for the covenant between

Abraham and Yahweh, Yahweh ordered Abraham to bring a young heifer, nanny goat, ram,

turtle dove, and pigeon, “all of which he cut in half and laid against each other, except for the

birds” (Gen. 15:9-10). This biblical emphasis on cutting animals in half, or otherwise

manipulating their remains, mirrors the deposition of some of the animals in the shaft, such as

the rear halves of the two equids. 115 This evidence for animal sacrifice recalls the connection

between humūsū and diplomatic practices in the Mari documentation. Monument 1 thus may

have been a locus connected to the ancient royal ancestors of the city, where alliances could be

concluded and the political unity of a potentially fractious region could be performed.

Alternatively, in light of the human sacrifices found at the bottom of the well, it may be better

interpreted as a monument to victory, a commemoration of conquest, and a violent erasure of an

earlier status quo.

At ‘Usiyeh, salvage excavations in Area A, which comprises a 100 X 100 m mound with

a thin scattering of deposits, revealed an unusual set of ritual features that share some similarities

with Monument 1 or Monument P3 (fig. 32). The heart of this complex is an unusual,

underground stone structure, covered by an 80 cm high stone platform, associated with a

gypsum-plastered floor (F2). To the east, stone steps led down to another gypsum surface

associated with stone walls and drains (F3). Two stone lined pits were built on either side of this

lower surface. Although this later platform had been greatly disturbed by erosion, it was

probably originally a stone circle, like Monument 1, but on a much smaller scale. Scattered

within these constructions were other stones, associated with concentrations of artifacts. A 3m

wide cobble wall, shaped like a horse-shoe, surrounded the entire area, enclosing 25 X 34 m.

Fragments of at least four life-sized terracotta lions found near the gypsum floor and

stairway (F2) might have been apotropaic sculptures that protected the entrance to this shrine.

Otherwise the main finds included anthropomorphic terracotta figurines, two masks, four stamp

seals, thirteen cylinder seals, thousands of beads, Isin-Larsa pottery sherds, and large quantities

of burnt animal bones (Oguchi and Oguchi 2005; Fujii and Matsumoto 1987). Some of these

objects were heirlooms, including all of the stamp seals, while others, such as the cylinder seals

CS1, CS2, and CS3 were decorated with older Akkadian or Ur III motifs (Oguchi 2002: 29-34).

Although all of the materials from Area A were deposited during the early second

millennium BC, the underground structure here is almost identical to a construction at the same

site, dated to the mid-third millennium, and called the “ED III Grave,” although it contained no

human remains. That structure had a shaft leading to two rooms that were filled with ED III

pottery and animal bones, while an adjoining corridor was empty. In the open part of the shaft,

skeletons of at least three equids were found, along with a copper rein ring decorated with a bird

(Abdul-Amir 1988: 181; Roaf and Postgate 1981: 198). Given that these two structures are

nearly identical in plan, construction technique, and size, they either date to the same period or

the builders in Area A consciously imitated the earlier tomb. The gypsum platform built above

the Area A tomb is presumably another example of a humūsum, one that incorporated an earlier

mid-third millennium burial into a MBA ritual platform. The lion statues may also indicate a

connection to Ištar, as is the case at Ebla, and possibly at Umm el-Marra. Unfortunately, few

details of the excavation of the “ED III Grave” at ‘Usiyeh have been published, and we do not

know if this structure was also reused later. Certainly, the shaft leading into the heart of the

monument, with successive equid burials is reminiscent of the material from Umm el-Marra. It

also recalls the connection between humūsum, rāmum and donkey sacrifice in the Mari texts,

although equid burials are quite common in third millennium mortuary contexts as well (Weber

2012: , above chapter 2). 116

‘Usiyeh’s Area A, Ebla’s Monument P3, and Umm el-Marra’s Monument 1 provided

stages for open air performances like the Feast of Ištar, alliance rituals, or the kispum

ceremonies. The difference in their locations indicate that such rituals occurred at different

scales and in diverse places, among farmers and herders, and people belonging to several tribal

confederacies. As performance spaces, these platforms emphasized both inclusivity and

exclusivity. Most people at Ebla, Umm el-Marra, or the countryside around ‘Usiyeh may have

been able to see rituals performed on these high, open platforms from afar, but enclosure walls

surrounding each monument indicate that attendance was limited to a smaller group.

As Glenn Schwartz, the excavator of Umm el-Marra, has argued, the circularity and size

of Monument 1 means that there are “no bad seats, so to speak, implying a communal

arrangement deemphasizing hierarchical distinctions among the onlookers” (Schwartz N.D.). At

the same time, the Umm el-Marra Acropolis wall enclosed Monument 1, and its narrow gate

meant that entrance to this space was highly regulated Excavations indicate the presence of

open space to the north of the monument, between the northern gate, where an audience for these

rites may once have stood. It is difficult to estimate the size of this space, given the limited

exposure here, but if the entire area between the wall and the monument was free, the space

could have held as many as 2500 people, corresponding rather nicely with estimates for the

population of the town. 117 If the open space was this large, then the Acropolis Wall may have

separated outsiders from insiders, the residents of the town from those in the surrounding

countryside. Alternatively, if it were smaller, then only a segment of that population, perhaps the

elite, could have attended the commemorative ceremonies that unfolded within these walls. At

Area P, in Ebla, the vast size of the space enclosed within the temenos walls would have allowed

the entire population of this town, and perhaps even people from surrounding villages to

participate in rituals here. 118 Similarly, rituals performed at Area A at ‘Usiyeh would have been

visible from a distance, given its location on a mound atop a prominent plateau, but the enclosure

wall meant that actual attendance would have been limited, creating an intimate space.

This may have allowed for the dissemination of different ideologies to the elite and the

populace as a whole. Elizabeth Brumfiel has analyzed a parallel case at the Aztec city of

Tenochtitlan, where differing access to ceremonial space communicated different messages.

Human sacrifice performed on top of the Templo Mayor, the main temple in the city, was

announced by “the beat of drums and the blare of trumpets,” making it visible and audible to

anyone in the city, and impressing them with the power and violence of the Aztec rulers

(Brumfiel 1998: 6-7). But the temple itself lay inside a walled precinct that was accessible to an

elite few. As a result, only the elite could see the imagery on its façade which connected the

temple to the birth of the chief god Huitzilopochtli, and provided a justification for the Aztec

Empire’s war machine.

At Umm el-Marra, ‘Usiyeh, and Ebla, the ideological messages were probably different.

At Umm el-Marra and ‘Usiyeh, rituals within these spaces may have connected the elite to

specific ancestors through practices including human and animal sacrifice, regular offerings, and

the reuse of earlier monuments. The placement of Monument 1 in the center of Umm el-Marra,

and its construction as part of the resettlement of this town, makes a powerful case for the past as

a source of legitimacy. Similarly, area A, built on the remains of a third millennium monument,

may have linked intimate ceremonies at this temple to the region’s past, while providing a ritual

space for the hundreds of graves that encircled it, and which were probably built by pastoralists.

Celebrations of the Feast of Ištar probably made a similar distinction between the ceremony

celebrated by the king and his allies, which united the land, and the private kispum offerings

made by the populace.

The Past, Heirlooms and Legitimacy

The Mari liver omens, Monument 1 at Umm el-Marra, and Area A at ‘Usiyeh are just a

few of the archaic (or archaizing) objects and ancient places that were central to political identity

in the early second millennium BC. Within settlements that were themselves often chosen for

reasons of antiquity, there was also an effort to forge connections with the past by manipulating

ancient objects or their imitations. Heirlooms and archaizing objects from this period were

incorporated into various practices at temples, workshops, and households. 119

Early second millennium temples have yielded large numbers of heirlooms and

archaizing objects. In Northern Mesopotamia, Samsi-Addu and Yarim-Lim left foundation

deposits that contained objects from the third millennium BC. In other Northern Mesopotamian

temples at Rimah and Leilan, heirlooms were also preserved, perhaps as a way to anchor temples

that were new constructions in past religious practices. 120 Such practice were meaningful

because in many cities in Mesopotamia, temples were built in the same location over

generations, sometimes even millennia. This was true in Southern Mesopotamia at cities like Ur

and Uruk in the early second millennium BC, as well as in some cities in the North, like Aššur,

Mari, and possibly Nineveh (von Dassow 2012; Ziegler 2004). But settlement abandonment and

political transformation meant that in Northern Mesopotamia, many second millennium temples

were built anew. Given this dislocation, heirlooms and archaizing objects may have linked new

temples and renovations of existing temples to an authoritative past.

At Aššur, in the cult room of the temple of that city’s eponymous god, a copper hoard of

objects from the third millennium, dating from both the Akkadian empire (2334-2193 BC) and

the third dynasty of Ur (2110-2004 BC), was buried under the floor. These pieces were probably

placed in a ceramic container during Samsi-Addu’s reign and deposited as part of his renovation

of the temple (Westenholz 2004: 12; Harper 1995: 37-8). Other archaic objects found in

contemporary levels within the sacred precinct at Aššur include three diorite or basalt statue

fragments that resemble the statuary of the Akkadian king Maništušu (Andrae 1938: 88). They

may either be antiques from the third millennium or imitations of earlier sculptures. The latter

seems more likely, since unlike Akkadian statues, incision rather than relief is used to render the

details of the dress, while the depiction of the hair style and details of the fringes also suggest

that they are second millennium copies. The statues may have functioned as lamassatu and

received offerings during the kispum festival (Eppihimer 2009: 240). 121 In this case, like the

copper hoard, the statues would have participated in rituals that explicitly connected a royal

present to an ancestral past.

Similar objects were found near the Ištar temple at Nineveh, although the spotty

excavation history of this site makes retrieving their actual context difficult (Reade 2005a). In a

provocative analysis of the archaeological data from the late third millennium BC, Joan

Westenholz argued that all of the “Akkadian” artifacts found at Nineveh, including the famous

head of Sargon, were either brought from Aššur or were 2nd millennium copies of objects known

from elsewhere (Westenholz 2004). The head of an Akkadian ruler and an Akkadian spearhead

were placed in the foundations of the phase 7 construction of the Ištar temple, forming a neat

parallel to the copper hoard in the Aššur temple. The objects were found alongside a large

fragment of Samsi-Addu’s inscribed cylinder, detailing his building activities in Nineveh, and

may have comprised a foundation deposit (Reade 2005b: 361). These relics, and Samsi-Addu’s

claims that he reconstructed the Emenue temple of Ištar of Ninet, first built by the Akkadian king

Maništušu, served to legitimize his conquest of Nineveh (Westenholz 2004: 11-6). Samsi-

Addu’s cylinder both described the discovery of Maništušu’s earlier inscriptions and may have

imitated certain features of this older foundation deposit (Reade 2000). Other objects from this

religious district include a stone pedestal with relief decoration that was probably carved in the

Old Babylonian period. Its style and imagery, however, which depicts ten scenes of either a

bull-man or a hero defeating a lion, follow Akkadian conventions (Gut et al. 2001: 90-2). This

object could have been made for the Ištar temple, perhaps as a material reinforcement of Samsi-

Addu’s act of homage to Maništušu (Reade 2005: 362). In addition to these elite objects, more

quotidian antiques were also curated and probably used in temple practices. These include third

millennium pots, which were found in a room of the temple alongside Old Babylonian tablets

(Reade 2005: 367).

The presence of ancient pots in the Old Babylonian Ištar temple at Nineveh echoes a

similar practice at the Leilan Acropolis temple (Weiss 1990a; Ristvet and Weiss 2012; Weiss

1985). Here, 160 Ninevite V incised sherds, dating to the mid-third millennium BC, were found

on the building level II floors of the temple, representing nearly 5% of all pottery. 122 Although it

is possible that some of these sherds came from eroded bricks, many of them are large and finely

decorated, unlike the scrappy fragments usually recovered from building materials (fig. 33).

Moreover, Ninevite 5 sherds cluster in certain rooms, and were not found spread out across the

building. Instead, the majority of the examples come from the western half of the palace,

particularly rooms 12 and 19. This suggests that at least some of these sherds were

systematically collected and stored within the temple, perhaps as a way to link religious activity

at this site to a local past.

How precisely these heirlooms were integrated into temple practice remains unclear, but

evidence from artisanal production may provide some insight. The type pottery for this period in

Northern Mesopotamia is painted Habur ware. Although the MBA sees the appearance of

painted wares across the Near East, Habur ware was probably not derived from a neighboring

tradition (Stein 1984). Rather, the continuity of production processes implies a local origin. As

E.A. Speiser first argued in the 1930s, on the basis of the pottery from Billa, Habur ware shares

basic motifs with Ninevite V painted and incised pottery (Stein 1984; Speiser 1933; Oguchi

2001). Potters may have collected the Ninevite V sherds from the surface of the tell and used

them for inspiration when painting designs on Habur ware. Antique pottery was also collected

and stored in the second millennium temple at Rimah, along with a third millennium cylinder

seal (Oates 1970: 18; Oates 1968: 119), while the slightly later HH temple at Brak has an

example of a third millennium pot stand, and a mid-second millennium reworking of it (Oates

1987: 196; Oguchi 2001: 84). People used pots painted with these ancient motifs in houses,

temples, and other contexts, perhaps integrating a particular view of the past into the

consumption of both sacred and mundane meals.

Samsi-Addu was not the only Old Babylonian king who incorporated past objects into

contemporary religious practice. As part of the renovation of the temple of Šamaš at Mari

commissioned by Yahdun-Lim, 15 foundation deposits were placed in the inner cella

(Margueron 2004). Nine of these were baked bricks inscribed with a 157-line text outlining

Yahdun-Lim’s pilgrimage to the Mediterranean, his success in crushing the rebellions of both

pastoralists and urban kings, and his construction of this magnificent abode for the sun god, to

whom Yahdun-Lim gave credit for his successful reign. The other six deposits, however, were

all anepigraphic and consisted of heirlooms, presumably ancient foundation deposits encountered

during the renovation of this temple and reburied along with Yahdun-Lim’s inscriptions. Four of

these deposits contained a copper nail piercing the center of a square plate and may be dated to

the Ur III period. The other two deposits were Pre-Sargonic and consisted of, respectively, a nail

thrust through a copper ring and a copper sheet, terracotta brick, and gold and carnelian beads

(Parrot 1954: 161-2; Ellis 1968: 69-70). Yahdun-Lim’s reuse of these ancient foundation

deposits is arresting in light of the design of the temple and the form of his own building

inscriptions, which are conspicuously innovative, employing strategies never before seen at

Mari. The temple—which included a massive brick platform within the temenos walls—

resembles no earlier, local religious architecture, but may instead be a nod to Southern

Mesopotamian traditions (Margueron 2002, 2004). Perhaps in light of this innovation, also seen

in Yahdun-Lim’s radical substitution of the Southern Mesopotamian Old Babylonian script for

the traditional Šakkanakku one (presumably in imitation of Naram-Sin of Ešnunna, Durand

1985a: 170-2), this king, like Samsi-Addu in Aššur, found it necessary to display his close

connections to Mari’s past rulers.

Evidence of seal production and use indicates that antique motifs were popular with

artisans and seal owners and that the engagement with antiquity displayed in temples echoed a

more widespread reverence for the past in Northern Mesopotamia. In Taya level II, a room

adjoining a seal workshop yielded a black stone cylinder seal that depicted two scenes: one of a

hero struggling against a lion and another of two people holding vases. Although the subject

matter is Akkadian, certain details including the rendering of the lion’s mane, the hero’s cap, and

the hair on the figures with the vase are Old Babylonian. This, and the seal’s presence in an

early second millennium workshop make it likely that it was an Old Babylonian copy (Reade

1973: 171-2).

Some merchants chose to use heirloom seals in daily business, displaying a reverence for

the past in situations divorced from the temple. A late Old Assyrian economic tablet and its case

were impressed by an Akkadian seal that names Naram-Sin of Akkad in its inscription (Gelb and

Sollberger 1957: 175). Another Akkadian heirloom seal belonged to an Assyrian named

Abšalim at Kültepe-Kaneš (Leinwand 1992: 149), while Ur III seals were even more common at

the site (Epihimer 2013: fn 36; Waetzoldt 1990). One seal used at Kaneš had belonged to an

official serving the Ur III king Ibbi-Sin. Although its Old Assyrian owner had it recut, the new

seal design preserved part of the inscription with the names and titles of Ibbi-Sin, suggesting that

the prestige of these kings was deliberately retained (Epihimer 2013: fn 60). Akkadian-inspired

contest seals have also been found at Aššur (Moortgat 1988: no. 467 and p. 42), while at

Nineveh, a series of seals portrayed a third millennium combat scene, depicted in an archaizing


Similarly, Old Assyrian royal seals mimic Ur III presentation scenes. These are

translated into an Assyrian context, transforming the seated figure from the king of Ur into the

god Aššur and thus materializing Assyrian ideology, while continuing to draw upon archaic

tradition (Eppihimer 2009: 180-3). The specific use of the presentation scene is probably related

to Aššur’s particular relationship with the Ur III empire, as a client, not a province. There is

little evidence for the use of Ur III seals during the height of this empire at Aššur, making the

later adaptation of this iconography particularly interesting (Epihimer 2013). Other high level

seals from this period also gesture to the past. Many seals at Ešnunna, also incorporate both Ur

III and Akkadian seal iconography, despite their employment of elements of Old Babylonian

style (Reichel 2001; Eppihimer 2009). Elsewhere, high-ranking officials over more than 70

years at Tell Leilan commissioned seals featuring the man with a mace, a figure that referenced

Akkadian art (and who also appears in the Samsi-Addu stela, see below) (Weiss 1990a; Parayre

and Weiss 1991; Parayre 2004-2005). Outside of Tell Leilan, this image appears on royal seals

in Mari, Yamhad, and Qatna and probably created “a visual lingua franca in the administrative

seals of the kingdoms of Syria,” one which employed an archaic image of kingship (Eppihimer

2009: 235).

The clearest connection between death, ancestor creation, and antiquities can be found in

heirlooms deposited in specific graves at Arbid, Rimah, and Aššur. Most of the antiques found

in graves are personal items that may have protected the individual and linked him or her to the

ancestors, perhaps indicating a vernacular understanding of the past and its qualities. At Tell

Arbid, an infant jar burial found near some eroded walls, perhaps belonging to modest houses,

contained two small pottery vessels, some beads, and a lapis pendant depicting a human-faced

bull in repose, one of the classic motifs of the late third millennium BC. This amulet is clearly

Akkadian in style and is presumably either an heirloom or an imitation of an older object

(Bielínski 2000: 320, fig. 4). At Rimah, two burials were found associated with phase II of the

vaulted building, which given the early Habur, Isin-Larsa, and Ur III pottery found here probably

date to the very beginning of the second millennium BC. A complete Ninevite 5 vessel was

found near the mouth of one of these skeletons (Oates 1970: 17-18). Although the excavator

thought the pot was too unprepossessing to be a family heirloom, its deposition mirrors the

curation of third millennium pots and sherds elsewhere, suggesting that its presence indicated a

similar interest in the past.

The most elaborate example of heirlooms as grave goods comes from the excavation of

Grave 20 at Aššur, which contained a rich assortment of jewelry and weapons (Calmeyer 1977;

Harper 1995; Hockmann 2010). This tomb was excavated in September 1912 and although the

excavator, Walter Andrae, kept exemplary records, it is difficult to reconstruct certain aspects of

the grave, since the human remains and the pottery vessels found here were discarded in the

field. Andrae indicates that the remains of four individuals were found in this pit (Andrae 1938:

79), a finding that has been disputed based on the modest skeletal remains in the sketch (Harper

1995: note 2), but which is possible given our knowledge of contemporary burial practices. Four

gold diadems were found near the skull, examples of funerary headbands found in Mesopotamia

beginning in the Akkadian period. The largest diadem in Grave 20 imitates earlier examples in

shape, although the circle pattern probably dates it to the second millennium BC (Harper 1995:

48-9). The numerous beads found in the burial include some made of gold and lapis lazuli,

probably from the mid to late third millennium BC in southern Mesopotamia (Harper 1995: 55-

7), and carnelian beads probably manufactured in the Indus Valley in the late third millennium

BC (Harper 1995: 31). The three lapis lazuli seals found in the grave show a similarly complex

engagement with the past in both their materiality and iconography. The seals include one that

dates to the Ur III period, one that was made in the Ur III period, but was re-cut in the early

second millennium BC, and one that was carved during the Old Assyrian period, but was

modeled after an Ur III presentation scene (Harper 1995: 60-2). Metal vessels in the grave were

also probably either heirlooms or copies of older objects. The wealth and sheer quantity of

heirlooms in grave 20 set it apart from other funerary contexts, but their presence is part of a

more widespread practice of burying ancient objects with the dead.

Across Northern Mesopotamia, imitating the past in seal carving, statuary, and pottery

was part of broader practices of historical commemoration that recalled the Early Dynastic

period, the Akkadian empire, and the third dynasty of Ur. The presence of antique objects in

graves, archaic decoration on pottery, and heirloom seals owned by private individuals indicates

respect for the material remains of the past beyond the domain of ritual. It is within this larger

context that various actors negotiated their political ambitions.

Actors, Audience, and Mise-en-scène: Ancestors, Tribes and Politics

The political fragmentation of Old Babylonian Northern Mesopotamia meant that

ambitious kings needed to develop new paradigms for conceptualizing their kingdoms and their

relationship to other polities. As we have seen, many of these newly-founded kingdoms

constructed a specific vision of a shared past—one that laid claim to specific ancestors through

funerary and commemorative rites. This domain of the ancestors was fluid and could be

employed in many ways, depending on the concerns of the individuals involved. The rich

textual record of the period allows us to discern different strategies employed by individual

kings. Understanding the practices of non-royal actors within the sources is more difficult,

however, the rich archaeological and textual evidence provides some insight. Here, I will

consider how different people—particularly Samsi-Addu, Zimri-Lim, and the anonymous

members of the Sim’alite and Yaminite confederacies in ‘Usiyeh, Umm el-Marra, and ‘Arbid—

negotiated the domain of the ancestors during this period of political recovery.

Kings and the Politics of Commemoration

Samsi-Addu, who briefly united Northern Mesopotamia from ca. 1808-1776 BC, linked

his reign to the local histories of individual city-states as well as to the third millennium

Akkadian empire. At Aššur, Samsi-Addu styled himself as the prefect of the city god, following

in the footsteps of earlier Assyrian kings (Kupper 1985). Similarly, at Mari he claimed that the

city-god Itûr-Mêr granted him power, like his predecessors from the Lim dynasty. Finally, at

Tuttul, he thanked the local god Dagan for awarding him the city, imitating Naram-Sin’s actions

in his inscriptions. At the same time, Samsi-Addu titled himself “king of Akkad” in a votive

dedication to Ištar at Mari (Kupper 1985: 148), and called himself šar kiššātim, king of the

universe, in emulation of those third millennium kings (Villard 2001: 13). But Samsi-Addu’s

devotion to this earlier dynasty went beyond titulary. As we have seen, he boasted that he

restored a temple first constructed by the Akkadian king Maništušu at Nineveh (Grayson 1987:

RIMA 1 A.0.39.2), and was probably responsible for burying copper objects from the Akkadian

period in the foundations of temples at Nineveh and Aššur. Moreover, Samsi-Addu and his son,

Yasmah-Addu, both traveled to Akkad, the ancient Akkadian capital which may have belonged

to the kingdom of Ešnunna (ARM 24 165; ARM 1 36). Akkad, a locale that was significant both

for Samsi-Addu and for the kings of Ešnunna, may have been the setting for diplomatic rituals

between these great powers (Charpin and Ziegler 2003 90-1). He also portrayed these

connections visually. In the Samsi-Addu stela, the costume of the main figure, who may be

Samsi-Addu, or a divine entity, echoes that of Naram-Sin on his Sippar stela (Eppihimer 2009:

228). This figure, a personification of kingship, is also depicted on the seals of high officials in

the period (see above). The manufacture of the stela, and of other Old Babylonian sculpture like

the stela of Daduša of Ešnunna, may be understood as a ritual practice that grew out of a

Mesopotamian understanding of inscription as performative rather than mimetic, the idea that

writing or drawing could actually bring a certain reality into being (Bahrani 2008: 57, 146-7,

2003: 133-8) . Some of these statues and stelae may also have participated directly in

commemorative rituals as lamassatu (see above).

In short, Samsi-Addu drew upon a heterogeneous past, referring both to specific urban

histories, as well as pan-Mesopotamian traditions. This syncretistic strategy can be seen also in

the celebration of the Feast of Ištar at Mari under Samsi-Addu’s son, Yasmah-Addu. The Ištar

honored in this ceremony may have been Dêritum (Jacquet 2012b), a goddess from a city

upstream, but it could equally well have been Ištar of Irradân, a goddess from the area of

Ekallātum, particularly since a ritual text related to this goddess was found at Mari and may be

part of the Feast of Ištar cycle (Durand 1985a: 161; Durand and Guichard 1997: 23; Durand

2008: 333-341). Ištar of Irradân’s sojourn at Mari could have dramatized the union of the Tigris

and the Euphrates, acting to suture the geographic division of the kingdom. The naming in the

kispum ritual of the two tribal groups, the Yaradum, perhaps the people of the Middle Euphrates,

and the Numhâ, Samsi-Addu’s tribe, whose basic territory was south of the Sinjar and along the

Tigris, may have accomplished something similar (Durand and Guichard 1997: text 4: 20-1).123

Finally, offerings to Sargon and Naram-Sin could have provided a geographically neutral

reference for the kingdom as a whole.

It is possible, of course, that Samsi-Addu considered these kings his direct ancestors, and

that he was actually from Akkad, however, this seems unlikely, given the general interest in the

Akkadian kings during this period. 124 The little that we know of the political history of Northern

Mesopotamia from the fall of the Akkadian empire to the rise of Samsi-Addu suggests that the

cities that continued to function during this period based their sovereignty at least partially on an

earlier relationship with Akkad. This is true for the Šakkanakku dynasty at Mari, probably also

in Aššur, and perhaps in Urkiš and Nawar as well (Sallaberger 2007). As a result, it seems likely

that the Akkadian empire, and associated Southern Mesopotamian iconography, served as a

potent unifying symbol precisely because it did not belong to any particular tribe.

Samsi-Addu was far from the only king who employed historical references as a

legitimizing strategy during this period. Indeed, each Old Assyrian ruler in the 19th century bears

the name of an earlier ruler, either an Akkadian king like Sargon and Naram-Sin, or an earlier

Assyrian king, like Puzur-Aššur II and Erišum II (Eppihimer 2009: 191). At Ešnunna, Ipiq-Adad

II and Naram-Sin drew upon a variety of sources in constructing their expanded titulary,

including local practices and Akkadian and Ur III precedents. Like Samsi-Addu, Ipiq-Adad II

adopted the Akkadian title “king of the world,” which he had inscribed on a stone cylinder

dedicated to the god of Dur-Rimuš, a city named after the Akkadian king (Saporetti 1999),

illustrating the complex ways that kings could reference the past textually and materially.

Similarly, Naram-Sin of Ešnunna, whose name obviously echoes a historical figure, employed

the same title in some of his year names (Eppihimer 2009: 195-6). It is also possible that the

Ešnunnean kings, Ipiq-Adad II, Naram-Sin, and Daduša, adopted divine kingship in imitation of

the Akkadian and Ur III kings. We have already seen how these kings displayed their links to

the past artistically and perhaps ritually. 125

The king we know the most about in this context, however, is Zimri-Lim, the last king of

Mari. Zimri-Lim’s memory practices were designed to emphasize his connections to Mari’s

earlier rulers and to his Sim’alite ancestors, not to a more inclusive past (Charpin 1998: 99-101).

Upon his ascension to the throne, for example Zimri-Lim performed a sihirtum, a ritual circuit

around Mari. This traditional act was also documented in texts from the late šakkanakku period

(Durand 2008: 199-254; Dossin 1967; Durand 1980). This devotional journey, in which Zimri-

Lim toured the city of Mari, donating sheep to the temples of the major deities of the city and

kingdom, may have linked his reign to that of earlier kings of the “Lim dynasty” and rejected the

spatial configuration of the kingdom under his immediate predecessor, Yasmah-Addu.

The celebration of this event was probably commemorated in the wall paintings that

adorned the Mari palace. Both the "Investiture of Zimri-Lim" in courtyard 106 and the

"Sacrifice of Water" in Room 132 probably depict ritual activities which took place in temples

around the city of Mari during Zimri-Lim's accession (Barrelet 1950: 33-35). It is possible to

interpret the Mari Wall Paintings as a visual representation of both a specific historical moment,

the investiture of a king and the ritual obligations he performed, and a timeless statement of the

king's relationship to the gods, their temples, the city, and the kingdom. 126

Zimri-Lim’s coronation, which probably took place during another sihirtum in Terqa,

soon after he came to power, took advantage of the particular resonance of this place, where

earlier kings of Mari including Yahdun-Lim may have been buried and where special kispum

rituals were celebrated (Pappi 2012: 584; Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 178-9). By including the

arms of Addu, the ceremony also connected Zimri-Lim’s exploits to the god’s mythical battle

against the sea, placing his actions in the framework of history as divine will. Like Yahdun-Lim,

whom he designated as his “father” in an act of constructed kinship, Zimri-Lim traveled to the

Mediterranean in his 9th year to wash his weapons in the sea, a journey that also alluded to

Addu’s victory. Zimri-Lim’s royal progress had important political and diplomatic implications

for the kingdom of Mari as well. The journey affirmed the close relationship between Mari and

Yamhad, while performing rituals in both Sim’alite and Yaminite villages symbolically united

Mari's often fractious kingdom (Durand 2002; Pappi 2012).

Zimri-Lim’s celebration of the Feast of Ištar exemplified many of these same strategies,

by linking him to Yahdun-Lim, Yaggid-Lim, and a specifically Sim’alite past. The goddess who

was honored in this festival was probably Ištar of Dêr (Dêritum, Jacquet 2012: 21-4). Durand

interprets the place name Dêr as “nomadic camp” and has suggested that this city was

represented in the festival because of its location at the boundary of the Jezirah and the Middle

Euphrates. These were the two main territories under Zimri-Lim’s control, identified with the

Sim’alites and Yaminites respectively (Durand and Guichard 1997: 39-40). 127 When Dêritum,

goddess of the steppe, entered the capital of Mari, this served as a metaphor for the rule of the

Sim’alite Lim dynasty, uniting the sedentary and nomadic elements of the kingdom. Ceremonial

acts undertaken as part of the sacrifice of Ištar also stressed unity, particularly the mixing of

different types of flour, and of course, the exchange of blood in the donkey sacrifice (Durand

2008). At the same time, the incorporation of commemorative rites honored the ancestors of the

dynasty, the different tribal groups that made up the kingdom, and sometimes even neighboring


Tribes, Towns, Councils, and Ancestors

Samsi-Addu and Zimri-Lim’s celebration of the “Feast of the Land” expressed particular,

political strategies that strengthened their kingship, however, this festival and the related

celebrations elsewhere in Northern Mesopotamia and Syria also entailed broad political

participation and may have articulated collective ideas of government (Fleming 2004a: 179).

Other political actors—including town councils and pastoralist groups—could also manipulate

the flexible and inclusive ancestor ideology of the festival and associated ritual practice.

As the most powerful center in the Habur Plains during the first part of the Ur III dynasty,

Urkiš had a long political history. By the 18th century BC, however, the town’s influence and

population were on the wane and it was dependent upon the neighboring city of Ašnakkum

(Durand 1997: 50). This ancient town provides important evidence for an alternative political

strategy, one that takes into account the city’s historical legacy. Although Zimri-Lim did appoint

a man called Terru to rule Urkiš, this king held little political authority. Terru’s correspondence

with Zimri-Lim makes it clear that the elders of Urkiš were the real political force in the town.

Indeed, in the alliance between the Ida-Maraş and the Sim’alites the elders and heads of Urkiš

were the signatories, not the king (Fleming 2004a: 198). At Urkiš, as in at least two other

ancient cities that survived the political instability of the late third millennium, Tuttul and Imar, a

council of elders represented the town either in addition to, or instead of, a king. Hence, in all

three cities, authority was based on age and position within a family or household.

Excavations at Urkiš demonstrate how burial rituals and household practices helped to

articulate ideas of legitimacy based on kinship as an alternative to kingship. In the early second

millennium BC, there is no evidence for a palace atop the third millennium abode of the Hurrian

Kings, nor is the House of Puššam, which is palatial in size, rebuilt. Instead, a neighborhood of

simple houses grew up on top of the tell, in the ruins of the House of Puššam, some of which

contained Kimaḫḫū, with evidence of offerings. House 5, a small courtyard house, for example,

contained two vaulted tombs in its courtyard, one of which was empty but may have served as a

ritual space (Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2001: 29-31, Abb. 23-4). A donkey was sacrificed

in the entrance chamber of the other grave, while in the main chamber a person lay surrounded

by containers of food (Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2001: Abb. 25). The sacrifice of this

animal in a family tomb recalls those performed during the kispum ceremony of the “Feast of the

Land,” the animals killed to form or renew alliances, and other donkey burials from Arbid,

‘Usiyeh, and Umm el-Marra. Here at Urkiš, houses replaced palaces as kingship yielded to

corporate power, a power that was grounded in an ideology of kinship and alliance. But despite

the differences in scale, the same complex of symbols and rituals was used to construct authority.

In the Mari documentation, councils of elders were important in towns like Urkiš, but

also among groups in the steppe, attesting again to shared “urban” and “nomadic” social

institutions. The consent of tribal elders among the Nûmha, Yaminites, and Sim’alites was

necessary to negotiate alliances (Fleming 2004a: 199-200). Remains from rituals at the cemetery

of ‘Usiyeh, probably the burial place of Sim’alite semi-pastoralists who lived in the region of

Suhûm, provide evidence for some of these strategies. Letters from Mari underline the

importance of tribal institutions in the management of this district, which is administered

differently from other regions of the kingdom of Mari. The person responsible for managing the

province, Meptûm, bore the title of mer’ûm, or chief of pasture, and used local juridical and

administrative institutions to resolve disputes (Lacambre 2006: 139). A tablet outlining a legal

case found at Mari provides good evidence for the importance of communal leadership in

Suhûm. The 37 heads of Yumhammu represented the town of Sapiratum in a dispute between

the king of Mari and a local landowner, both of whom claimed ownership of a plot of land

(ARM VIII 85+; Fleming 2004a: 201-2).

The juridical importance of tribal ties at Sapiratum, probably only about 10 km from the

cemetery of ‘Usiyeh, provides a context in which to interpret the graves and monuments located

here (Charpin 1997b). Area B at ‘Usiyeh contains a mix of grave types, arranged in groups that

constitute burial mounds, each of which may represent a societal unit, like that headed by the

Yumhammu elders. Excavations in Mound 1 revealed six graves. A central stone-built chamber

grave that had been robbed in antiquity was surrounded by pit graves containing infants and

adults and two mudbrick chamber graves, one of which contained multiple interments. A

similar, stone built Kimaḫḫum was found at the center of Mound 2. In both cases, the

arrangement of the graves probably both reflected and helped constitute an understanding of a

household or lineage (Oguchi and Oguchi 2005: 167-8). The occupant of the Kimaḫḫum may

have corresponded to one of the heads of household, of the type that were called upon in the land

dispute at Sapiratum. The ritual complex uncovered in Area A (see above), in contrast, may

have corresponded to an inclusive ritual space, one that served a community that comprised

many households. Here, the construction of a circular monument to cover the underground

structure that either was, or closely resembles, an Early Dynastic tomb, illustrates how a mostly

mobile community rooted this notion of collectivity in the materiality of the past.

If Urkiš indicates how ancestor rituals helped construct corporate leadership in a city that

survived from the third millennium BC, and ‘Usiyeh highlights the importance of the past for

collective authority among semi-pastoralists, Umm el-Marra illustrates how people could

manipulate the past in the face of abandonment and political transformation. The construction of

Monument 1 atop the free-standing graves that crowned the site in the mid to late third

millennium BC created a new place of commemoration. No palace has been found at Umm el-

Marra, nor is one attested in the texts. Instead, this city appears in the Mari documentation as the

cult center of a manifestation of Ištar, a goddess to whom Zimri-Lim’s Yamhadian queen Šibtu

was particularly devoted (Catagnoti 1992). It is possible that as in Urkiš or Sapiratum, collective

governance was the main source of authority in Tuba. As a possible humūsum, Monument 1

dramatizes the creation of that collectivity. Moreover, excavation of the shaft in Monument 1

documents the long duration of these practices. At the bottom of this installation, the deposition

of human remains beneath the layers of sacrificed animals may date to the founding of the MBA

occupation here (Schwartz 2012). Like much of Northern Mesopotamia, Umm el-Marra

experienced at least a century of abandonment, perhaps more, based on the published

radiocarbon dates (Schwartz et al. 2012: 174-5, Table 1). The foundational act for the

reoccupation of the site appears to have been the construction of Monument 1, and the sacrifice

of several people in the ruins of the monumental tombs of the third millennium BC (Schwartz

2014). The later animal oblations may recall the initial sacrifice in a treaty ceremony that

employed the symbolism of blood, ancestors, and kinship to create new political realities. 128 The

burials of these sacrificed animals resonated with other ritual practices within the town. Equid

bones were buried in house foundations, while a complete skeleton was interred in a doorway

(Schwartz et al. 2003: 345-6). These offerings within individual houses may have helped to

construct families or households, while the sacrifices at Monument 1 could have created a new

sense of belonging for the entire community.

Interrogating the formation of collectivities and how they operated is essential to

understanding politics apart from kingship. The evidence from Urkiš, ‘Usiyeh, and Umm el-

Marra illustrates how collectivities could employ some of the same ritual paraphernalia as the

great kings. In each of these cases, the past, kinship, and ancestors were important in different

ways. The particular historical role of Urkiš probably made it a ritual center for Ašnakkum,

while donkey sacrifice at a family tomb indicates that the principles of alliance operated on the

level of the family as well as the polity. At ‘Usiyeh and Umm el-Marra, where there is not

continuity between the third and second millennium BC, people reused ancient tombs,

transforming them into new centers for commemoration. The rituals that were enacted in these

two spaces were probably very different, given the evidence for bloody sacrifice at Umm el-

Marra, versus feasting and perhaps the donation of valuable objects at ‘Usiyeh. But at both sites

heads of households, elders, and other political actors used an ideology of ancestors and a

reverence for the past to sustain conditions in the present.

Conclusion: Mourning and Memory

In the early second millennium BC, people used the past to make sense of the present

during a period of social and political change and instability. This engagement with the past

emerges from death and commemorative rituals, like kispum ceremonies, and from monumental

construction, settlement choices, administration, and craft production. This wider engagement

transcended individual kingdoms and created a symbolic vocabulary for religion, rulership, and

diplomacy. This was materialized in pervasive architectural styles like the columned

“Babylonian” temples, found across the Greater Near East (fig. 34), in the adoption of the Old

Babylonian dialect, and in the widespread employment of the man with the mace for political

legitimation. The active engagement with history was not limited to Northern Mesopotamia.

Indeed, the Akkadian kings had served as model rulers for Southern Mesopotamian kings

beginning in the Ur III period and history was an abiding concern of kings and scholars in both

the late third and early second millennium BC (Michalowski 2003b; Veldhuis 2004). But this

articulation of the past was important precisely because of the clear break between the Early and

Middle Bronze Ages, the emergence of a new political geography. 129 An engagement with

ancestors and history established political legitimacy in individual cities, created a shared

Amorite koine, and grounded the practices of daily life in newly settled cities and villages. 130

One of the contradictions inherent in commemoration is that the ritual observation of

certain acts by definition occludes others (Ricœur 2004). We have seen this already at La

Corona, where Chakaw Nahb Chan and K’inich [?] Yook’s celebration of a new series of patron

deities promoted a particular history by appropriating the ancestral shrines of their rivals and

erasing their authoritative claims in both the present and the past. And of course, both the Fiesta

de Santa Fe and the execution of Louis XVI espouse particular visions of history, while denying

other interpretations. If all political communities are born from foundational acts of violence—

the people murdered and then thrown into the Umm el-Marra Monument 1 shaft, or the wars

prosecuted by Yahdun-Lim and Samsi-Addu—then there are two sides to the legitimization of

this state of affairs. Commemoration always emerges at moments when possible alternative

claims may be made, although the paradox of this process is that commemoration itself denies

those alternatives. What is remembered and what is forgotten are both crucial to the politics of

commemoration. Ernest Renan famously defined the nation in similar terms:

Yet the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common

and also that they have all forgotten many things. No French citizen knows if he

is a Burgundian, an Alan, a Taifale, or a Visigoth; all French citizens need to have

forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, and the massacres that took place

in the Midi in the thirteenth century. 131

It is through forgetting—as well as remembering—that a community of citizens comes into

being. In Renan’s list of historical atrocities, he elides the victims and aggressors until they

become merely an undifferentiated mass of French citizens, perhaps even ancestors. As Homi

Bhabha writes, “to be obliged to forget—in the construction of the national present—is not a

question of historical memory; it is the construction of a discourse on society that performs the

problem of totalizing the people and performing the national will” (Bhabha 1994: 230). The

communities that arose in the 18th and 19th century BC were far from nations in a modern sense,

but their citation of a unified past, one in which forgetting plays as much a part as remembering,

was essential to their constitution as a body politic.

But this political order was not stable. The Feast of Ištar sought to hold a mirror up to the

political organization of MBA kingdoms, to recast political alliances as kinship, to naturalize an

unstable, contingent political system, and to root contemporary politics in the distant past. But

audiences do not always accept such idealized performances and may respond with cynicism.

This is clearly the case for other “events that present,” like the Persepolis celebration. Indeed

these events always leave open the possibility of inversion, that the audience will overturn the

dominant reading and obliterate these pretensions to authority. Understanding reception in the

Ancient Near East nearly always relies upon a heavy dose of speculation, but the Mari letters

hint that Zimri-Lim and Samsi-Addu’s clients did not ascribe the same importance to the Feast of

Ištar that their overlords did. Although we have letters inviting allies to the Feast of Ištar (ARM

2 78; ARM 26/1 25; FM II 122; FM 8 12), these invitations were often ignored (ARM 26/2 352).

A letter from Yaqqim-Addu, the governor of Saggaratum, complains that he was unable to

convince two out of three of his clients to travel to Mari for the Feast of Ištar, even though they

offered no excuse (ARM IV 66). Such a situation hints at Zimri-Lim’s inability to compel

attendance, to manufacture consent, or to make Mari’s political rhetoric acceptable to many of

his allies and subordinates. Unlike Renan’s example, these polities never succeeded in creating a

stable and enduring political order, despite the attempts of political leaders to dramatize

alliances, to ground political communities in a distant past, and to forget more recent political


IV. Tradition

An Event that Re-presents: The Akītu Festival

Twice a year, Babylonian and Assyrian cities celebrated the Akītu festival to mark the

spring and fall equinox. The festivities lasted several days during which gods (or their statues),

priests, kings, and even a baker took part in purification rites, processions, and public

recitations. Perhaps the best-known example of the festival was the spring celebration in

Babylon, which coincided with the beginning of the year. 132 The šešgallu-priest opened the

public part of the Akītu on the equinox by reciting the Babylonian creation epic, Enūma eliš, to

the statue of Marduk, the city god of Babylon. This event and the contents of this tale framed the

rest of the ritual actions. Enūma eliš narrates the story of the birth of the gods, the creation of

the world, and Marduk’s elevation to the head of the pantheon. The poem celebrates Marduk’s

exploits in the heavens (particularly his role as the god who determines the fate of the world)

and Babylon’s preeminence on earth. This festival served to remake and affirm a specific series

of relationships between the king, the priests, the citizens, and the gods of Babylon.

In many ways the gods, particularly Marduk and his son Nabû, the god of wisdom, were

the true protagonists of the ritual. Nabû traveled from his cult center of Borsippa to Babylon to

participate in the festivities, while Marduk decreed the fates of the city and the country, affirming

their destiny for the coming year. The god then left the temple in Babylon and traveled to the

Akītu temple, located outside the city walls. Babylonians lined the processional way and the

canals in order to see the gods’ voyage to the Akītu Temple, also called the house of offerings,

and their return to Babylon. This event marked the only time when the populace was in the

presence of the divine.

The king had another critical role to play in order to maintain his divinely granted

authority. On the day after the equinox, following the purification and exorcism of Marduk and

Nabû’s temples in Babylon, the king went to the canal to greet Nabû. Afterwards, the priests

escorted him to the Esagila, but before the king entered Marduk’s cella, the high priest stripped

him of his royal insignia, slapped him, and dragged him into the sanctuary by his ears. Once

they reached Marduk’s statue, the priest then forced the king to prostrate himself and swear the


I have not sinned, Lord of all Lands! I have not neglected your divinity!
I have not ruined Babylon! I have not ordered its dissolution!
I have not made Esagila tremble, I have not forgotten its rituals!
I have not struck the cheek of those under my protection!
I have not humiliated them!
I honored Babylon and I have not destroyed its walls!” 133

Upon hearing the king’s protests, the high priest returned the scepter, loop, mace and crown,

and then struck his cheek for a second time. If the king wept, it meant that Marduk would favor

him and the city for another year. This ritual humiliation thus affirmed the relationship between

the king and his god, as well as between the king, his city, and its citizens.

The people of Babylon also participated in this ceremony in two ways. First, they

provided an audience for this celebration of Marduk’s power and Babylon’s pre-eminent status,

which was illustrated by the arrival of gods from across Babylonia. Second, the citizens also

took part in a symbolic ritual humiliation. The day before the equinox, artisans including

metalworkers and carpenters worked together to fashion two figurines from cedar wood (Black

1981). These small statues, seven fingers high, were dressed in red and had their right hands

raised in prayer to the god Nabû. They held a snake and a scorpion respectively in their left

hands. Initially, these human effigies stayed in the temple of the minor god Madānu, a building

called the Erabiriri, or “the house of the shackle which holds in check,” a virtual prison. 134

Later in the festival, two days after the equinox, a priest slapped the figures and threw them into

the fire to be purified, perhaps echoing the king’s ritual humiliation. This act probably purified

the entire city, setting things in order for another year.

Finally, the Babylonian priests acted in and directed the ritual. Indeed they supplied the

script, were responsible for the mise-en-scène, and provided the authoritative interpretation.

Within the ritual, the priests were responsible for the re-establishment of order, for Bel’s yearly

triumph over chaos (Sommer 2000; Pongratz-Leisten 1994). As a result, they assumed an

authority that rivaled and sometimes outranked the king’s. Hence, this festival served to both

affirm and construct their social power within Babylon.

Invented Traditions

The Akītu festival first appears in Early Dynastic calendars (Cohen 1993: 30;

Sallaberger 1993), but the celebrations in Babylon, and particularly the reconstruction above,

comes from a text dated to the Seleucid period, just a few centuries before the cuneiform

tradition died out completely. 135 Analyses of the festival have been fundamental to

reconstructions of Mesopotamian religion in particular and studies of the sacred in general.

Mircea Eliade’s classic interpretation of this festival as an annual recreation of the world and a

restoration of kingship relies upon the recitation of Enūma eliš and emphasizes the timeless

nature of this annual ritual (Eliade 1959). In another influential study, Jonathan Z. Smith has

drawn attention to the king’s ritual humiliation, a part of the ritual that makes the best sense if

the king making the confession was not a native Babylonian, but a foreigner, a reading that takes

into account the text’s Seleucid date. Indeed, Smith sees the Seleucid Akītu as a reinterpretation

of a more archaic ritual, one which employs traditional religious practice and doctrine to try to

influence events, to rectify the problem of the loss of native kingship (Smith 1982). Both

interpretations of the festival highlight the importance of tradition in first millennium Babylonia,

albeit in diametrically opposed ways.

In doing so, they provide a particularly good instance of a historiographic trend in

treatments of Babylonia in the later first millennium BC, particularly in the Seleucid era (fig. 35).

Over the last century, scholars have variously depicted Seleucid Babylonia as a case study of

“Hellenization” (Tarn and Griffith 1952; Rostovtzeff 1941), as a self-consciously traditional,

impermeable society that rejected Hellenization (Walbank 1993; Oelsner 2002), and as a society

where innovative Greek and “traditional” Babylonian material culture could both be found

(Langin-Hooper 2007, 2011; Sherwin-White and Kuhrt 1993; Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987;

Petrie 2002; Hannestad 2012). These interpretations are contradictory, and depict very different

societies, but they share an unlikely similarity, an uncritical use of the concept of “tradition.”

While notions of foreign, Greek culture are often problematized, Mesopotamian elements are

simply accepted as “local,” “traditional,” and hence normative (Yoffee 2005; Rempel and Yoffee

1999). But what does it mean to say that a certain practice, element of material culture or text is

“traditionally” Babylonian in the Hellenistic period, 250-500 years after the death of the last

“native Babylonian” king? The idea of tradition in the Seleucid period is clearly itself


Scholars of Hellenistic Babylonia are hardly alone in their refusal to query the category

of tradition; there have been few attempts to theorize tradition in history or the social sciences

(Connerton 2011; Shils 1981; Boyer 1990). One reason for this may be a lingering orientalism,

which brands tradition as the purview of backwards, unchanging, or indeed “traditional”

societies (Said 1978; Wolf 1997: 13), coupled with an enlightenment (and post-enlightenment)

mindset that contrasts tradition and modernity to the discredit of the former (Giddens 2000; Beck

et al. 1994). The great interest in categorizing and understanding modernity in the last two

centuries has led scholars to see tradition merely as a “foil, a residual category…. a comparative

point of reference for understanding the present” (Connerton 2011: 121).

I will follow Eric Hosbawm in distinguishing between tradition and custom, defining

tradition as “a set of practices… of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain

values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the

past” (Hobsbawm 1983: 1). Hence, tradition refers to events or practices that are repeated, that

are understood to be inherited from an earlier period, and that are particularly significant to their

participants (Boyer 1990: 1-3). Traditions may be invented at particular moments for particular

reasons—like the British coronation ceremony—and are almost always manipulated and

redefined by a range of interested actors (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Giddens 2000). This

process is not necessarily cynical; the dynamics of transmission involve innovation, what Paul

Connerton terms “creative recovery,” since the “very act of restituting a presence to what was

past produces something new” (Connerton 2011: 122). 136 Custom, in contrast, refers to any

activity, significant or not, that is subject to precedence (Hobsbawm 1983: 2-3). Custom is often

conservative, but rarely invariant. In this sense, custom regulates much of daily life, including

agriculture, family life, and domestic practices, while tradition presides over special occasions or

particular marked spheres, such as religion, politics, or scholarship.

This chapter will investigate how both custom and tradition were employed in Hellenistic

Mesopotamia by a range of different actors. First, I will outline a brief political history of the

later first millennium BC. Second, I will analyze archaeological evidence of settlement patterns,

urban planning, domestic practices, and household production in order to examine whether and

how customary practices may have changed during the Hellenistic period. Third, I will consider

the collective representation of tradition, how Babylonian scholars articulated this notion, and

why it became so important to politics. Fourth, I will analyze the materialized symbols through

which these ideas were expressed, particularly the temples that provided the setting for political

performances by the priesthood, citizenry, and Seleucid kings. Finally, I will discuss specific

enactments of the Akītu festival and how they were implicated in various political strategies. 137

In many ways, the Akītu festival nicely dramatizes the gap between invented traditions

and customs in a colonial setting. The necessity of cultural translation in the Seleucid empire no

doubt ensured that the “meaning and symbols of culture [had] no primordial unity or fixity; that

even the same signs [could] be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized, and read anew” (Bhabha

1994: 55). As an event that re-presents, that overturns a political and religious order in order to

reaffirm it, the Akītu festival opened up a different space for contestation than the other rites that

we have considered up to this point. Events that re-present are notoriously unstable. As we saw

in the Fiesta de Santa Fe, such rites can be recast by different publics to present very different

arguments, including ones that are critical of the status quo. The manipulation of traditions in

this ritual thus helped to establish a new system of meaning and practice for the diverse

populations of Babylonia (Van der Spek 2009).

Hellenistic Babylonia

One of the biggest political changes leading up to and during the Hellenistic period (330-

100 BC) was the loss of Babylonian sovereignty to conquerors, who unlike their Amorite,

Kassite, Chaldean, and even Achaemenid predecessors, did not adopt Akkadian as a primary

administrative language, nor style themselves as Mesopotamian monarchs outside Babylonia. In

539 BC, the last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, surrendered to Cyrus. What had been an

empire in its own right for almost a century became a province of Achaemenid Persia

(Dusinberre 2013). The city of Babylon maintained its status as an imperial capital, although it

was just one among many of the places where the peripatetic Achaemenid court could convene.

200 years later, in 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the last Achaemenid king, Darius III, at

Gaugamela, near Arbela. He spent the next seven years marching east, completing his conquest

of the Achaemenid Empire by campaigning in Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Indus.

By 324 BC, Alexander had returned to Babylon, a city that he planned to make the capital of his

vast empire. He died there a year later, in a palace first built almost three centuries before during

the height of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Over the next quarter century, nearly continuous

warfare and diplomatic negotiations led to the fragmentation of Alexander’s conquests into

smaller kingdoms. With the exception of a seven-year period (316-309 BC) when Antigonus

laid claim to Babylonia and the east, the general Seleucus established an empire in Mesopotamia,

Iran, and much of the central and eastern districts of the Persian Empire. Seleucus’ wife, Apame,

was the daughter of the Persian satrap of Bactria and their descendants ruled Syria, Babylonia,

Iran, and parts of Central Asia for more than 150 years. Around 300 BC, Seleucus established a

new capital, 60 km north of Babylon on the Tigris river, which he named Seleucia. Its

foundation echoed the establishment of similar eponymous cities by Alexander and the other

successors in the old Persian Empire. Soon afterwards, the Seleucid kings founded the Syrian

Tetrapolis in the fertile Orontes valley near the Syrian coast; these included the other capital,

Antioch, as well as the royal cities, Apamea, Laodicea, and Seleucia Pieria (Sherwin-White and

Kuhrt 1993; Grajetzki 2011). Babylon remained an important regional city, but seems to have

gradually lost population and influence over the next few centuries.

When the period in question ended is more difficult to determine. In the mid-third

century, the Seleucid kings began to lose control of their eastern and northern satrapies,

including Parthia and Bactria as well as cities and districts in Anatolia. Yet, they continued to

rule most of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Western Iran until 141 BC, when the Parthian king

Mithridates invaded Babylonia. Over the next decade, the Seleucid kings campaigned to re-

establish their jurisdiction over this territory, but by 129 BC, they were forced to give up such

pretentions. The Seleucid kings continued to govern Syria from Antioch until the Romans

defeated them in 63 BC (Green 1990). Despite the loss of Seleucid sovereignty, the Parthian

kings appear to have made few changes in Babylonia before the later part of the reign of

Mithridates II (124-88 BC). As a result, I will follow many scholars and consider the entire

period from 330-100 BC “Hellenistic.”

The City and Countryside

These two centuries witnessed changes in the rural and urban landscapes of Babylonia

that correspond to economic and social shifts that transformed the nature of settlement in

Mesopotamia in the later first millennium BC. For Southern Mesopotamia, our best source of

evidence remains Robert McCormick Adams’ extensive surveys from the 1950s to 1970s

(Adams 1965, 1981; Adams and Nissen 1972). Although they covered much of the southern

alluvium, producing general maps of a large region, their survey methodology meant that they

under-reported small sites (Adams 2008: 6). More recently, the availability of high quality

satellite imagery has allowed for further analysis of urban layout (Stone 2009; Witsell 2009), as

well as new work on canal systems and geoarchaeology (Hritz 2010; Hritz and Wilkinson 2006;

Hritz 2005). Both lines of evidence indicate growth in the number of sites, with new

interconnections and changes in the use of space in these cities and villages during this period.

Settlement, Irrigation, and Trade

After more than a millennium of decreasing population and urbanism in Babylonia, the

late first millennium experienced a massive population increase. In the area between Uruk and

Nippur, settled area and settlement numbers nearly doubled from the Neo-Babylonian-

Achaemenid period to the Seleucid-Parthian period, while the percentage of settled area

occupied by urban centers increased from 36% to 55% in the Seleucid-Parthian period (fig. 36;

Adams 1981: fig. 40). A majority of these cities were newly founded (28 out of 55), perhaps an

indicator that “we are dealing with fairly abrupt, probably state-directed” settlement policies and

urbanization (Adams 1981: 178). An even more extreme trend appears in the Diyala survey,

where there was an increase from 81 Neo-Babylonian-Achaemenid sites, all rural, to 205

Seleucid-Parthian sites occupying 1857 hectares, 69% of which is urban (fig. 37). The striking

urbanization of this area coincided with the construction of the great Seleucid and Parthian

capitals, Seleucia and Ctesiphon, which converted this from a border district to the heartland of

two empires (Adams 1965: Adams 1965: 62-65; Adams 1981: 178-179, table 19). Similar

changes occurred around Kish, where site numbers again nearly doubled from the Neo-

Babylonian to the Achaemenid/Seleucid period, from 29 to 50, reaching a new peak (Gibson

1972: Table 3, fig. 13). Much of this population increase was probably also a result of Seleucia’s

foundation (Gibson 1972: 51), and is partially due to factors including the resettlement of

Aramean and Chaldean populations and immigration from Greece and other areas of the

Achaemenid and Seleucid empires.

The irrigation systems that served these sites were also transformed. During the second

and early first millennium BC, most settlements were arrayed along widely-spaced, linear canals.

Beginning in the mid and accelerating in the late first millennium, canal construction created a

lattice-work pattern that divided the alluvium into uniform polygons and allowed for the

extension of agriculture (Adams 1981: 188). These irrigation canals brought new land into

cultivation and established a more integrated transportation network, probably contributing to

population growth. This new network had important implications for daily agricultural practices

and lines of communication across Mesopotamia. Official irrigation projects targeted the Tigris

beginning in the Neo-Babylonian period, a trend that continued with the foundation of Seleucia.

This accompanied a larger shift in long-distance trade networks, since ocean-going boats could

navigate the Tigris as opposed to the shallower Euphrates. Navigable canals connecting the

Tigris and the Euphrates near the north edge of the alluvium tied this network into caravan trade

routes across the Syrian desert (Adams 1981: 182). This realignment of trade also had

implications for sites in the Gulf: in Failaka and Bahrain.

The two sites in Failaka (ancient Ikaros) and Bahrain (ancient Tylos) provide evidence

for Seleucid interest in Indian Ocean and Arabian trading networks. Ikaros (modern Failaka)

was a fortress, a Seleucid military installation, which gradually became home to a larger

community that remained “dependant on Seleucid influence” (Mouton 2009: 201; Potts 1990:

155-196). Its location, close to Babylonia, helps to explain its very similar material culture.

Qalat al-Bahrain, in contrast, was a local settlement that was closely tied to other settlements on

the island and to east Arabian communities, although it also was part of a larger Hellenistic

political sphere (Mouton 2009: 188-9). Elsewhere on the Arabian coast, imported material

indicates trade connections between settlements from the interior of Arabia and the Seleucid

empire. These are no doubt at least partially connected to the incense trade well-known from

sources during this period (Salles 1987: 100; Potts 1984: Map 4).

Seleucid Urbanism

An important element of the transformation of Seleucid settlement was the foundation of

new cities and towns and the expansion of settlement in already existing cities. Excavations at

Seleucia-on-the-Tigris provide a glimpse into the organization of space at a capital. According

to Pliny, at its height, Seleucia rivaled Rome and Alexandria and was home to more than

600,000 people (Pliny HN 6.122). This 550 ha city was built on an orthogonal plan with blocks

of 72 X 145 m, the largest in the Hellenistic world (Invernizzi 1993: 235; Gullini 1967; fig. 38).

Limited excavation indicates that the majority of these blocks contained large courtyard-style

houses and shops facing the streets (Hopkins 1972). Although remains of a fortification wall

have not been located through excavation, historical sources indicate that such a wall did exist

(Invernizzi 1993).

Seleucia was divided into two unequal halves by a canal off of the Tigris. The area north

of the canal seems to have represented the official quarter of the city, where the main theater,

agora, archives building, palace, and temples were probably located. Tell ‘Umar, a 13 m high

artificial mound measuring 94 X 79 m at its base is situated at the northern limits of the city, and

provides a focal point for this public area. This enigmatic construction, which was built entirely

of unbaked mudbricks, has resisted interpretation, despite years of excavation. Antonio

Invernizzi and his colleagues suggest that it was initially conceived as a theater, and that the

massive mudbrick walls or platforms made up the substructure of the cavea, the circular seating

space (Invernizzi 1993; Messina 2010). But this artificial mound has also been interpreted as a

ziggurat, or part of a religious complex (Hopkins 1972; Downey 1988). Although it seems

unlikely that ‘Umar was a ziggurat, its final appearance, unusual for a theater, may have

referenced this local religious form (Ristvet N.D.-b). South of Tell ‘Umar was an open square,

probably the city’s agora, whose dimensions were equal to one city block. The archives

building, a public facility for storing private documents or copies thereof, stood along its western

side. On the agora's eastern side was a stoa, with a plan similar to the archives building,

adjacent to private houses (Valtz 1986, 1988, 1990). A similar arrangement probably existed on

the square’s south side where more houses and a figurine workshop were excavated. 138

As Seleucus' royal city, Seleucia was, of course, unusual among urban centers. But

despite much of the Greek character of this city, whose urban layout, particularly the relationship

between its agora and theater, is typical for Hellenistic cities in the Mediterranean and the east,

elements of its spatial organizations cite the urban plans of earlier Babylonian and Assyrian

capital cities. Invernizzi has argued that the off-center location of Seleucia's public quarters,

particularly the relationship of Tell 'Umar to the northern city wall, echoes the position of the

palace and official quarters at Babylon, Nineveh, and Nimrud, rather than the placement of

official quarters in Hellenistic cities (Invernizzi 1994).

Beyond Seleucia, many of the newly-founded villages and towns in the later first

millennium are organized differently than older settlements. These settlements tend to be larger

and have an average size of 7.71 ha. They are also less nucleated; evidence for settlement is

often dispersed over scattered mounds (Adams 1981: 229). Moreover, preliminary analysis of

Quickbird imagery of these unexcavated sites indicate that houses and other buildings were

generally larger, with more open space between them (E. Stone, personal communication, 2011).

These changes in settlement organization have obvious implications for population density and

hence population estimates for the region. Although there are important continuities with the

past, these dispersed settlements may reflect (and participate in) changes in property relations,

family structure, community politics, and a host of other social practices.

This period also saw the extension of urban settlement within older cities like Uruk and

Nippur (Gibson 1992: Fig. 11; Finkbeiner 1991b; fig. 39). In Babylon, a series of texts known as

“Tintir=Babylon” provide topographic information from the Assyrian to Parthian periods

(George 1993a; Veldhuis 1998; George 1992). Contemporary texts list the names of five city

quarters known from Tintir during this period, probably indicating that much of the city

remained populated (Boiy 2004: 80-1). The two royal residences also remained in use, although

they were remodeled with Mediterranean-style tiled roofs. Merkes, Babylon’s elite

neighborhood, was also occupied during the Hellenistic period, after, perhaps a series of

destructions in the fifth century BC (Baker 2007, 2011; Koldewey 1914; Miglus 1999).

Nonetheless, its street grid is unchanged from the Neo-Babylonian period and the layouts of

most of these houses are the same as well, although a peristyle was added to at least one house

(fig. 40; Boiy 2004: 11). Yet Babylon was also the site of a Greek polis, known from

inscriptions found in both Greek and Akkadian (Van der Spek 1993a). Several new buildings

related to this community and the city's new political status were erected during the third and

second centuries, including a Greek theater in the part of the city called Homera. The theatre

was probably known as the bīt tamarti in Akkadian texts and was the regular meeting place for

citizen assemblies (Potts 2011; Wetzel et al. 1957: 16-7).

Uruk also maintained the same basic urban grid of a central religious quarter and

surrounding neighborhoods from the earlier first millennium BC, although the layout of many

individual urban districts was transformed. We do not have as clear a picture of Uruk's

neighborhoods as Babylon’s, as few excavations focused on neighborhoods of private houses.

But excavations in U-V 18 make it clear that the groundplans of the houses did not change

substantially from the Achaemenid to the Hellenistic period (Kose 1998: 337-73; Hoh 1979).

Otherwise, we have archaeological and textual evidence for continued settlement at Babylon,

Borsippa, Larsa, Kish, Marad, and Kutha (Van der Spek 1987: 74). Many of these cities

probably retained the same general urban plan that they had in earlier periods, conditioned as

they were by the existing urban infrastructure, but there were also important new constructions,

including temples and palaces.

These changes in settlement patterns, irrigation systems, and urban organization indicate

that the later first millennium BC was not a time of stagnation or little change. Rather from the

Achaemenid to the Parthian period many of the basic patterns of agricultural and settled life in

Babylonia were transformed. The major changes were not simply the result of Seleucid

government policies, although such initiatives probably did contribute to certain processes,

including canal construction, the foundation of cities, and increased settlement in Seleucia’s

hinterland. Nor were they associated with a simplistic model of “Hellenization.” The language

and aesthetic choices of the inhabitants of Babylonia had little to do with how they chose to

farm. But it is essential to recognize how different rural and urban life had become in the later

first millennium, despite important continuities in house plans and street grids.

Domestic Practices

Within houses, the distribution of artifacts including pottery, figurines, sealings, and

coins indicate that many domestic practices had also altered during the Hellenistic period.

Pottery and terracotta figurines are the two most common classes of artifacts found in

excavations of this period, while sealings and coins are found in both domestic and

administrative areas. Variations in the quantities, forms, and deposition of these common goods

are related to changes in artisanal production, household consumption, taxation, foodways,

religious practices, and perhaps identity construction. Innovations in seal form, their ownership

and the types of materials sealed indicate similar transformations in economic and administrative

practice. Similarly, although full monetization of the Babylonian economy did not occur until

later, the increasing presence of coins and their growing use for various forms of payment was

another important innovation.

Consuming Empire? Pottery and Foodways

In 1967, Eva Strommenger identified a radical change in Southern Mesopotamian pottery

forms that began in the early years of the Seleucid period (Strommenger 1967: 33). Although

most Seleucid pottery continued to be made from local plain and glazed ware and potters never

adopted Greek-style decoration, many of the most common forms from the Hellenistic period

have no equivalencies in earlier levels at Uruk. The new forms that occur most frequently in

Uruk are associated with serving and preparing food (Petrie 2002). These include the

introduction of new table wares and cooking pots (Petrie 2002: table 3), which existed alongside

many shapes derived from earlier forms. The adoption of new dish forms may be related to

serving new types of food, a pattern well documented in Rome, the Inka empire, and

Achaemenid Sardis (D'Altroy et al. 1998; Dusinberre 2003). The emergence of new types of

cooking utensils demonstrates changes in food preparation techniques. Seleucid cooking pots

had different physical characteristics from earlier ones, which would have affected the types of

food they could be used to prepare. The most common cookwares are probably adaptations of

stewpots used to cook meat and fish found across much of the Hellenistic world. Although this

pattern is far clearer in the Seleucid period, Achaemenid rule also affected the distribution of

certain vessel types and probably foodways (Dusinberre 1999; Dusinberre 2013). Analysis of

Seleucid pottery from a range of sites allows us to quantify what changed and investigate how

these new forms were related to social and economic practices.

It is clear that this shift is not due solely to imported pottery or the adoption of Greek

ceramic manufacturing processes. There are vessels imported from the West, found at Uruk

(Strommenger 1967: 32), Seleucia (Valtz 1993: 169-170, fig. 1: 1-5), Babylon (Hannestad 1990),

and Failaka (Hannestad 1983: 53), but the quantity of imports is small (Hannestad 1990: 182).

Instead, the majority of vessels were made from local clays, using manufacturing techniques

already well-known in earlier periods. At Uruk, a potter’s quarter consisting of many kilns with

associated wasters and overfired vessels was located north of the main occupied area during the

site survey, testifying to an extensive Seleucid ceramic industry (Finkbeiner 1991b). Analyses of

wasters and sherds indicate that potters continued to use the fast wheel for all but the largest

vessels, which were probably partly hand-made. Very few examples of mould-made pottery

have been found in Seleucid Babylonia, although this technique was popular elsewhere in the

Hellenistic world (Rotroff 1982), and present in Northern Mesopotamia and Syria (Hannestad

1990), both in the form of imports and locally made bowls.

Similarly, “Hellenistic” influence appears to be limited to form, not to decoration.

“Greek” pots often appear in common and glazed wares and do not show the same surface

treatment and ornamentation found elsewhere in the Hellenistic world. The types that appear in

Babylonia are found across the Seleucid empire, from Syria to Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan, and in

Greece itself (Hannestad 1990; Bernard 1973). Petrie’s study of Hellenistic pottery at Uruk

identified 34 “Babylonian” shapes and 13 “Greek” shapes. The Greek forms that occur most

frequently at Uruk include table wares such as fish plates, plates with thickened interior rims,

bowls with incurving rims, and bowls with angled profiles; four types of cooking pots, the lopas,

chytra, and two types of pots with rolled handles; and storage amphorae (Fig. 41, Petrie 2002:

table 3). The most common of these are the plates. Indeed the plate with the thickened rim is the

single most common form found in excavations and survey at Uruk. The plates and bowls

probably formed a class of table wares that also included several shapes with Neo-Babylonian

parallels and was found in temple quarters and private houses at Uruk.

Innovations in cooking ware are even more pronounced. In the Uruk survey, none of the

cooking pots from the Seleucid period have direct antecedents in earlier Neo-Babylonian levels

(fig. 42). 139 On the survey, these common forms were found over much of the site, while in

excavation cooking pots have been published from houses in U/V 18 and J/K 17/18, but are not

reported from the sanctuaries (Finkbeiner 1991a, 1991b). A few examples do occur, however,

elsewhere: at the Ebabbar temple in Larsa (Lecomte 1993: fig. 16, p.20), the fortress at Failaka

(Hannestad 1983: 63-4), and in houses at Seleucia (Valtz 1991: 54, fig. 3: 26-9). Of these types,

the chytra and the lopas, well-known from Classical and Hellenistic Athens, are also found at

Uruk, Seleucia, and Failaka (Hannestad 1990). The chytra is a deep stew pot with one or two

handles that was used to cook meat and vegetables in soups, porridges, and stews (Rotroff 2006:

186-7). The lopas, by contrast, is a specialized pan used for cooking fish, which was fried, or

“perhaps first braised, then stewed in its juice or a sauce” (Rotroff 2006: 178-9). At Athens, the

lopas was slightly more common than the chytra during the Hellenistic period (Rotroff 2006:

179). In Uruk, this trend is reversed, and we find more examples of chytrai (Finkbeiner 1991a,

1992). Moreover, the other two “Greek-derived” cooking pots are also deep stew pots with

handles. Elsewhere, in a Hellenistic context, they would probably also be termed chytrai.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to tell how different these cooking pots were from

their antecedents in the early first millennium BC, as few cooking pots from Neo-Babylonian

contexts have been published. Cooking pots are generally recognized by their distinctive fabric.

These pots are usually tempered with materials like grog, mica, shell, calcite, or other minerals

that increase their resistance to stress brought on by rapid heating (Rice 1987: 229). They tend to

have coarse, porous textures and often show evidence of soot and other marks of use wear.

Unless reports describe fabric in detail it can be difficult to discern whether or not a vessel was

used for food preparation. A handful of cooking pots have been published from Neo-Babylonian

levels at Isin (Hrouda 1981: Taf. 32: 29), Nippur (McMahon 2006: 177: 12; Gibson 1978: fig.

68: 29-31), and Uruk (Cancik 1991: Taf. 166: 12). These earlier pots are characterized by

thicker walls, taller profiles, more restricted mouths, and flat bases. The Seleucid examples, in

contrast, tend to have rounded bases, interior glazing, and variable wall thickness (Finkbeiner

1991a: 107). These characteristics would have changed the way these pots could be used for

cooking. The rounded base, for instance, meant that the pot could not be set down, but must

have been suspended over a heat source (perhaps by use of a pot stand). The glaze would have

made the vessel less permeable, allowing for faster, more even cooking, with less evaporation.

Changes in these pots may have been related to the introduction or development of new styles of

food preparation—since cookware is often adopted specifically in order to make special foods. 140

Given the close association of cooking pots and cuisine, cookware tends to be resistant to

change, even in other colonial examples where hybrid pottery types are common (Dietler 2010;

Antonaccio 2004).

Although the Seleucid period in Babylonia probably saw the development of certain

hybrid foodways, the same is not true for drinking practices. Drinking vessels in Seleucid

assemblages, which include two types of handled jars, Mesopotamian amphorae, and eggshell

ware bowls and cups, show little change from the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid period.

Greek-inspired drinking vessels occur at Failaka and Uruk, but in very small quantities

(Hannestad 1983: 20-3). In fact, we find some forms, like the lagynos for wine decantation, only

at Seleucia (Valtz 1993: 172; fig. 2) and specialized wine vessels only at the colony at Failaka

(Westh-Hansen 2011: 111-2), indicating that Greek drinking practices, and perhaps wine

consumption more generally did not become widespread in Babylonia. Instead, people probably

continued to drink beer, employing the same cups and jugs that they had for centuries.

It is unclear, of course, to what extent people living in Uruk thought of fishplates,

incurved rim bowls, Greek amphorae, or the cooking pots that we label chytrai and lopades as

“Greek.” Unlike archaeologists, most producers and consumers of such vessels were probably

not used to producing typologies that clearly distinguished local and “foreign” features.

Babylonian fish plates did not have the painted fish that make these dishes so distinctive in 4th

century Italy and Greece (Rotroff 1997). The indentation in the center of these dishes may have

been designed to hold sauce, although it seems likely that this sauce (date syrup?) was quite

different from what might be found on a Mediterranean plate, while the fish, if the plate ever

held such a delicacy, presumably came from the Tigris or the Gulf. Indeed, the very different

local ware-types used for these forms and their lack of decoration clearly distinguish these bowls

from their Mediterranean counterparts. Edward Keall argues, apropos Parthian pottery at

Nippur, that the most common forms show clear continuity with millennia-long traditions, even

during the period when Greek influence was assumed to be at its height (Keall and Ciuk

1991). 141

The lack of specificity of most of the supposedly Greek forms in Babylonia, many of

which were probably chosen because they fit within familiar food consumption patterns, may be

critical to understanding this pattern. The adoption of new shapes of stewpots, while a

distinctive shift, still meant that cooks in Babylonia were preparing stews or meat and fish

cooked in sauces as people had before, albeit perhaps favoring a thicker consistency, as the

popularity of plates rather than bowls suggests. This may also explain why certain practices

never caught on. People did not begin drinking wine outside of a few self-consciously Greek

places, like Seleucia or the colony atIkaros, perhaps both due to the difficulties of grape

cultivation in Babylonia and a lack of interest in a drinking culture that differed so dramatically

from earlier practices. Michael Dietler applies a similar analytical framework to Mediterranean

France from the late seventh to the late first centuries BC and argues that the complex

interactions between locals at the port of Lattes, Greek colonists at Massalia, and the Roman

wine trade led to certain practices like wine drinking being adapted to a pre-existing tradition of

feasting, not the wholesale importation of symposia (Dietler 2010). Although Greek colonies in

Southern France existed within an entirely different political context, one that is not

characterized by the same relationship of domination, this pattern of selective importation and

accommodation seems to hold true generally in cases of cultural contact (Dietler 2007: 234;

Stockhammer 2012).

The analysis of Seleucid pottery—like that of much of Seleucid material culture and

history—has often emphasized a dichotomy between Greek and Babylonian practices. Although

there has been an increasing interest in hybridity in the archaeology of colonialism (Langin-

Hooper 2007; Stockhammer 2012; van Dommelen 1997), understanding the complexity of these

processes in practice has proved difficult. Often, scholars characterize pots as either Greek or

Babylonian and depict hybridity as an awkward grafting of the features of one culture onto that

of another (Langin-Hooper 2007). In postcolonial theory, however, hybridity does not designate

the sterile mixing of two hermetic cultures, but a process of cultural production that creates

something entirely new, as well as a space of iteration that to some extent reflects and reveals

power dynamics (Bhabha 1994). 142 In the colonial context of Seleucid Babylonia, technological

production, foodways, and dinner wares participated in this process. A Babylonian “lopas,”

made from a particular clay found near Uruk, according to local shaping techniques, missing

handles that are in other places characteristic, is not a knock-off of a well-known Greek form, but

a product and tool for a diverse group of people, who enjoyed a distinctive cuisine. The same is

true for a glazed fish plate used in the Rēš temple at Uruk, or for a “Babylonian-style” amphora

from a villa belonging to a Greek-speaking family in Seleucia.

Figurines and Domestic Life

If Seleucid Babylonian table-wares and cooking pots may imply the development of a

new fusion cuisine, figurines provide further evidence of changes in household production and

consumption patterns. First, the sheer quantity of figurines from Hellenistic Babylonia hints at

the commodification of these objects. After pottery, figurines are the largest corpus of material

known from Seleucid Babylonia (Langin-Hooper 2011). Although scholars writing about

figurines tend to note this in passing, they rarely put it in diachronic context. Instead, as is the

case for ceramics, most studies of figurines focus on categorizing these objects as either “Greek”

or “Babylonian,” with the assumption that Babylonian forms are clear representations of a

continuous tradition, and Greek forms represent innovation (Karvonen-Kannas 1995; Klengel-

Brandt and Cholidis 2006). What these studies miss is the simple fact that the archaeological

contexts and quantity of all the figurines in the last third of the first millennium BC is very

different from that of earlier periods.

These differences are clear from finds of figurines in surveys and excavations. The Uruk

surface survey, for example, recovered 771 terracotta figurines that could be dated to period.

505 of these (65%), are from the Seleucid-Parthian period (Wrede 1990: 218; 1991). The

excavated data from Babylon show an even more pronounced trend. Although large numbers of

excavated figurines remain unpublished, the diachronic distribution of figurines from the

collection at the Vorderasiatisches Museum illustrates this pattern more generally. Of the 4239

anthropomorphic figurines published to date, 3539 of them or 83.5% come from the “Late”

period (Achaemenid-Parthian), while only 538 or 12.5% come from the first half of the first

millennium BC, despite the large expanses of houses of both periods that have been excavated

(Klengel-Brandt and Cholidis 2006). This increase in the quantity of figurines probably implies

changes in the manufacture, function, and social context of these objects.

Indeed, the increasingly large number of figurines suggest that their production,

consumption, and disposal patterns were transformed during the second half of the millennium.

The incorporation of new manufacturing techniques—like the double-mold—and the

development of a range of figurines that combined local and imported elements in novel ways,

testify to a strong workshop, as well as a large market. The introduction of different mold types

had profound consequences for the way these objects were made and handled. The widespread

adoption of these methods indicates substantial and probably on-going exchange between

artisans familiar with both manufacturing traditions (Langin-Hooper 2007: 156). Stephanie

Langin-Hooper has persuasively argued that Hellenistic terracotta figurines are representative of

a multi-cultural society that no longer made a clear distinction between Greek and Babylonian

iconography and manufacturing practices, and that the “foreign or traditional” aspects of the

figurines were not their most salient characteristics (2007: 163; fig. 43).

Excavations at Seleucia in 1972, 1975, and 1989 revealed a workshop that specialized in

the production of terracotta figurines in the early Parthian period and found evidence that similar

workshops occupied this area in earlier and later periods. The workshop comprised several

rooms and a courtyard with a kiln, which was the locus for much of the production of these

objects (Valtz 1990; Invernizzi 1977: 9). A shop that sold figurines was located next door,

opening onto the square. According to the preliminary reports, the workshop, located on the

south side of the Archives square, specialized in the manufacture of female figurines, although

the shop carried a wide range of terracotta items, including column capitals, column bases, and

plaques (Invernizzi 1973-74: fig. 10; 1977: figs. 1-2). These objects were not, however,

“uniform in either style or quality, but like the assemblage of Hellenistic figurines as a whole

combined Hellenistic and Babylonian motifs and manufacturing techniques” (Invernizzi 1977:

9). Figurines from the shop could be finished differently, with some kept plain and others

painted, presumably to appeal to the different tastes, desires, and resources of customers

(Invernizzi 1977: 10). 143 Another Parthian terracotta workshop was excavated on the western

side of the archives square at Seleucia, in the ruins of the archive building. Here, a small kiln

was uncovered in a courtyard, while hundreds of fragments of terracotta figurines lay nearby

(Invernizzi 1972: 15). Once again, this workshop seems to have produced a range of human and

animal figurines of different styles and qualities, as well as masks, and pinakes depicting erotic

scenes (Invernizzi 1972: 16).

Unraveling precisely how these figurines were used and why they occur in such numbers

is difficult, since few of these objects have been found in primary contexts. Different figurine

types were no doubt purchased for a variety of reasons. Their physical characteristics indicate

some of the different ways people may have interacted with these figurines. Types made using a

single mold would have been presented differently from figures in the round made with the

double-mold technique. Some figurines, like the naked, wreath-wearing children with their

splayed limbs, or female figurines with movable arms, were probably made to be held and

handled (Langin-Hooper 2011: 103-5). Others, like plaques, or the “woman and child” figurines,

which often have plinths, were made to be displayed (Langin-Hooper 2011: 124).

Figurines in the Seleucid period occur in a wider range of contexts than in earlier periods,

probably indicating that the roles that these objects played had also changed. Although they are

generally found in houses, as they had been for millennia, they began to appear in temples and as

grave goods. At Uruk, for example, the majority of excavated Hellenistic figurines were found

in trash deposits in the Rēš, Ešgal, and (Parthian period) Gareus temple, although they also

appear in large quantities in the only excavated houses from this period. 144 Similarly, at

Babylon, the majority of figurines come from trash deposits associated with private houses in

Merkes, but a few figurines were found at Homera, near the theater, possibly in debris taken

from the Etemenanki, perhaps suggesting that some of these terracottas were used in temples or

theaters as well (Koldewey 1914). These temple contexts indicate a clear change from the

beginning of the first millennium BC. Of the published terracotta figurines from Uruk, there are

only ten figurines that may date to the first half of the first millennium BC that were found in the

Eanna, the major Neo-Babylonian temple, and some of these might actually date to the Seleucid

period. Given the lack of recorded provenience for many examples, it is difficult to delineate

any meaningful variation in the types found in different contexts. In general, however, similar

types of figurines are found in both the temples and the houses. This is not surprising,

particularly when we consider that the same is true for pottery assemblages during this and other

periods (Lecomte 1987, 1993). Figurine use in the divine household probably imitated similar

patterns in ordinary households. In both religious and domestic quarters, figurines were

generally found discarded in trash deposits, like pottery sherds.

In contrast, in Greece, figurines were long-used as votive deposits. The life-like Tanagra

figurines known from the Hellenistic Mediterranean are most often found in graves and temples

(Jeammet and Matthieux 2010). In Seleucid Babylonia, although these figurines could be used

in the temple, they were nonetheless integrated into ritual life differently. There is little

indication that these objects were ever treated as votive deposits. This is true not only at Uruk

and Babylon, where many archaeologists would expect the figurines to continue to be integrated

into local practices, but at Seleucia and Failaka as well, despite their larger “Greek”

communities. 145

In some sites, figurines also began to appear in graves during the Seleucid period,

alongside more traditional funerary goods like pottery. Only certain figurine types, particularly

those of reclining women and terracotta masks, are found in graves at Babylon (Koldewey 1914:

285; Westh-Hansen 2011: 109). Masks also appear as grave goods in Nippur (Legrain 1930:

11). The reclining woman figurine, however, is absent; its place might be taken by the terracotta

appliqués of women on many slipper coffins (Langin-Hooper 2011). In contrast, there seem to

be very few figurines in the graves of Uruk and Seleucia, and masks and reclining women are

found in a variety of contexts in both cities (Van Ingen 1939: 31; Ziegler 1962). Like the temple

figurines, these funerary terracottas indicate a complicated process of translation and

hybridization in a syncretistic, Hellenistic world. The differences that emerge between the sites

are intriguing, as they may indicate that figurines were incorporated differently into local

practices in various Babylonian cities.

Coins, Debt, and Payment

The last category of finds—coins—indexes household production, and the changing

economic relations of private individuals with each other, the temples, and the Seleucid

government. Silver and bronze coins appear on sites beginning in the late fourth century and

increase in quantity thereafter. Although very few Achaemenid coins have been found in

Southern Mesopotamia, the majority of these may also date to after the fall of the empire. Coins

are a much smaller class of find than pottery sherds or figurines, but they occur in both

excavation and survey collections from sites including Babylon, Uruk, Seleucia, and Susa.

There are 134 Seleucid period coins from Uruk and more than 539 Parthian period coins

(including several hoards, Leisten 1986: table 4). Most of the Seleucid coins are stray finds, and

many of them come from surface survey, since so few Hellenistic houses have been excavated in

this city. At the same time, references to payment in silver in texts begin to mention particular

denominations. Indeed, it seems possible that for certain accounts rendered to the crown, coins

had become the preferred method of payment by the end of the fourth century. A citation in an

astronomical journal from Babylon notes that the Babylonians refused to accept the new-fangled

bronze currency, indicating that this new reliance on coinage, rather than shekels of silver or

liters of barley, could be controversial (Sachs and Hunger 1988: 334-347; Joannès 2006: 110).

Nonetheless, the vast majority of coins that we have from Seleucid Babylonia are bronze, since

the more valuable silver was both rarer and more likely to be recycled. Clearly, despite

resistance to coinage, people employed it in a range of transactions.

There were probably many reasons that silver coins became popular in this period. The

purity of the silver made them attractive to nearly everyone, while their use may have quickly

become de rigueur for merchants engaged in transactions with other areas of the Hellenistic

world. Like the fish plates, lopades, or double-molded figurines, coins were probably adopted

and integrated into Babylonian exchange for a number of reasons, not least because they made

sense within a pre-existing cultural framework and were required in certain contexts by the state.

Payment in silver had been standard for millennia by the Seleucid period, and beginning in the

Neo-Babylonian period more taxes had to be paid in silver rather than in kind (Jursa 2010: 657-

60), setting the stage for the increasing use of coinage (UET 4 43, Joannès 2006: 109).

At least some parts of the economy, however, remained seemingly unaffected. There is

no evidence for forced conversion to a monetary system everywhere, nor do coins become the

dominant form of payment in all transactions. At least this is the case for sales recorded in

contracts and other cuneiform texts, documents that admittedly relate to only a small segment of

the economy. Indeed, our cuneiform contracts probably emerge from only that part of the

economy that is not subject to Seleucid taxation or control (Doty 1977). The types of

transactions outside of Seleucid regulation changed over time, as the disappearance of cuneiform

slave sales in Uruk demonstrates (Oelsner 2003). A survey of the sealed documents indicates at

least some of the domains that remain unregulated for most of this period—including sales and

leases of real estate, prebends, and other immovables, as well as letter-orders, pledges, receipts

of various commodities, and a few marriage contracts (Wallenfels 2000: 333-4).

Monetization, privatization, and economic integration clearly increased, however, over

the longue durée from the Neo-Babylonian to the Parthian periods (Jursa 2005a; Van der Spek

2011; Joannès 2006). A series of archives belonging to families connected to temples (the Egibi,

Murašu, Muranu, and Rahīm-esu dossiers) shows increasing use of tax farming, marketing, and

privatization over this half-millennium, until by the Parthian period, in the Rahīm-esu archive, all

rations are paid in silver, not in kind (Van der Spek 1998, 2011). By the Seleucid period, the

Muranu archives indicate that a private individual had taken control of the temple’s ration

system, “a core area of the temple economy and administration which had remained unaffected

by the tendency to “farm out” numerous other branches and parts of the temples’ economic and

administrative activities in earlier centuries” (Jursa 2006: 177). Muranu and his son, Ea-

Tabtanâ-bullit, collected tithes in kind for the Esagila in Babylon, controlling large quantities of

barley, dates, and other agricultural products. They also both collected and invested taxes owed

in silver to an institution called the Bīt abistāti (Jursa 2006: 150-1), probably named after a

specific tax paid in specie. Although the activities of this family are similar to those of earlier

entrepreneurs, they are much more extensive. The increasing use of both tax farming and money

imply widespread changes that would have affected most of the population.

Other evidence supports this reconstruction of the increasing monetization of the

Seleucid economy. Unlike the Achaemenid kings, the Seleucid kings had primarily monetary

expenses, and for this, they needed to find ways to extract as much silver from their subjects as

possible (Van der Spek 2011; Aperghis 2004). Estimates of Seleucid taxation in Babylonia show

that taxes on land were high, valued at perhaps 40% of agricultural production as a whole

(Aperghis 2004: 258). Much of this was paid in kind, but probably not all of it. Taxes on trade

in salt, slaves, and a general sales tax are well documented at Uruk and Seleucia, and were paid

in silver (Aperghis 2004: 176-7). As the government demanded more payment in silver, large

numbers of people would have been drawn into a market economy. Settlement patterns and

particularly the extension of the canal network would also have increased opportunities for

marketing and made transportation from farms to urban markets faster. Such a situation would

have presented opportunities for enrichment for families like the Muranu, whose activities

probably included the development of deposit banking (Jursa 2006: 173). At the same time, of

course, the requirement to pay taxes in silver could have led to the impoverishment of many

small farmers, who were victims of this new entrepreneurial class and were now directly subject

to price fluctuations in urban markets, rather like rice farmers in Majapahit Java.

Collective Representations: Scholarly Texts, History, and the Transmission of Knowledge

Up to this point, I have emphasized the many ways in which Babylonia during the Seleucid

period was quite different from earlier periods, focusing particularly on changes in rural, urban,

and household practices. These changes do not result from a simple Hellenization of this

society. Rather they emerge from and relate to widespread economic changes. I have

expounded these transformations in order to emphasize that daily life in Seleucid Babylonia was

not a continuation of timeless urban and rural lifeways. On the contrary, many customary

practices were in a state of flux. These shifts in daily practice created new types of citizens, with

different opportunities and constraints. But despite these profound social shifts, which

accompanied dramatic political changes, Mesopotamian traditions continued to be important to a

wide range of actors including temple officials, wealthy families, and the Seleucid kings.

Indeed, tradition could be a domain of competition, where different people sought to establish

their authority via chronological anteriority.

This is particularly true for the domains of Babylonian and Hellenistic scholarship.

Babylonian priests, scholars, and citizens, three categories that often overlapped in practice,

sought to establish tradition as a potent source of authority, drawing upon both Babylonian and

Hellenistic ideas. They did so not only by copying old texts in new ways, and evincing a

continued respect for older tradition, but also by composing new texts and even inventing new

genres. Similarly, authors writing in the Seleucid empire emphasized the importance of history,

antiquity, and religious tradition in order to root the Seleucid kings in this foreign territory, after

the loss of their Macedonian homeland (Kosmin 2014). Historical accounts that highlighted

Babylon’s antiquity also helped to establish its superiority, particularly vis-à-vis Egypt, as the

Seleucids competed with their Ptolemaic counterparts (De Breucker 2011: 650; Beaulieu 2006;

Tuplin 2013). As a result, scholarship became a space of hybridity, a middle ground, where

intellectuals could create works that were startlingly innovative, ironically transforming

knowledge in the service of tradition. It is this intellectual ferment that framed political and

religious performances in the temples and administration and made the Akītu festival a potent

political force.

Preserving Scholarly Knowledge

Late Babylonian scholars explicitly connected themselves to their predecessors through

the study and preservation of ancient texts. The available textual and archaeological sources

indicate that such textual transmission occurred in two often interconnected settings: temples and

private houses belonging to priests. It is possible that the Esagila temple in Babylon

“approached in scope and size” Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh and served to archive

cuneiform scholarship from the ages (Beaulieu 2005: 119; Clancier 2009). Unfortunately, the

complicated history of illicit digging and poorly recorded early excavations at Babylon means

that although many of the scholarly texts we have from that city probably came from the temple,

it can be difficult to reconstruct this ancient library (Robson 2008: 221-226). We do know that

the Esagila sponsored the work of hundreds of scholars, including scribes, diviners, and

astronomers among others, many of who were engaged in copying and collating traditional

knowledge. Late Babylonian scholars, like their predecessors in the early first millennium BC,

were interested in copying a wide range of texts with long traditions. In addition to series like

Enūma Anu Enlil, these included chronicles, king lists, epics, and fictitious royal letters (De

Breucker 2011: 641). Scholarly texts found in Uruk indicate that the two temples there served a

similar role.

But private houses belonging to priests also served as schools and loci for preserving

traditional knowledge, as they had done since at least the early second millennium BC. One of

the best attested examples of this comes from a private house in Uruk, belonging to a family of

ašipu-priests or exorcists (fig. 44). From 1969-1972, Manfred Hoh and his colleagues excavated

two houses at Uruk in U/V 18 that date to the Seleucid and Achaemenid periods (Hoh 1979).

One of these houses yielded two separate archives of scholarly and literary texts, with a few

contracts mixed in for good measure, belonging to different families of ašipu-priests. In the

earliest level, IV, there were 180 tablets and fragments belonging to the family of Šangi-Ninurta

who lived in the house in the 420s BC. Similarly, in the later level, II, there were about 240

tablets belonging to the Ekur-Zakir family, who lived in the house approximately a century later.

These tablets are an interesting mix of ancient texts and entirely new compositions.

Eleanor Robson has recently studied the colophons of these tablets, which provide information

on how the texts were written, to investigate the production of knowledge in Mesopotamia

during the late periods. She has found that an unusually high percentage of the tablets, 27%,

have surviving colophons, almost half of which explicitly state that they are copies of earlier

manuscripts on tablets or writing boards. In several cases, the colophons describe the originals,

which came from the Eanna temple at Uruk, as well as other Babylonian cities including Kutha,

Meslam, Dêr, and Babylon (Robson 2011: 565-6). The colophons work performatively,

demonstrating that these scribes portrayed themselves as part of a long tradition of Babylonian

scholars. Paradoxically, of course, the unusual nature of this activity makes these scribes unlike

many of their predecessors; since colophons are generally rare. 146 Members of the two families

of ašipu-priests were not the only people who wrote the texts found in this house; others were

written by student-scribes from elsewhere, coming from as far away as Der, indicating that this

concern with preservation was widespread (Robson 2011: 570).

The emphasis on copying these texts visible in the colophons is also reflected in an

innovation in the materiality of the tablets. All of the tablets from the Ekur-Zakir archive were

baked in antiquity, which is extremely unsual. 147 A large and finely built oven found in the

courtyard of this house may have been used as a tablet kiln. Near the oven lay four poorly

formed and three carefully modeled, uninscribed, and unbaked clay tablets, providing support for

this hypothesis (Hoh 1979: 29-30). The majority of the tablets were found in a niche in nearby

room 1, while other tablets were found scattered in rooms 3 and 7 (Robson 2008: 238). Firing

inscribed tablets would have added a new stage to tablet manufacture and indeed the scribal

curriculum. It also markedly changed the physical characteristics of the inscribed objects. One

reason for this innovation was probably an interest in preserving scholarly texts in a durable

form, less susceptible to degradation. The insistence of the colophons that many of these tablets

were copies of old and perhaps decrepit writing boards lends support to this (Robson 2011,

2008). As a result, this is an important example of the paradox of tradition during the Seleucid

period, by seeking to preserve old, traditional texts, the ašipu-priests in fact are innovators,

changing the nature of these artifacts and their role as scholars.

A similar example of innovation as a handmaiden of tradion may be seen in some of the

last tablets ever written. 16 texts written in a combination of Akkadian, Sumerian, and Greek

were found in Babylon in the 1870s, along with literary tablets and other school texts. 148 Like

the compositions found in the ašipu’s house, the Greco-Babyloniaca tablets were the detritus of

scribal education, written by some of the last scribes educated under the old Mesopotamian

curriculum. They probably date to some time between 50 BC and 50 AD, at least a century after

the Seleucid kings had abandoned Babylon. The texts they learned to write and pronounce, with

the help of Greek transcription, included prayers to the god Nabû, word lists, incantations, and

even traditional works of Akkadian literature, like Tintir = Babylon (Westenholz 2007: 280).

The strikingly novelty of writing Akkadian and Sumerian in an alphabetic script allowed priests

to transmit not only two dead languages, but also the literary and scholarly heritage of Babylon.

They did so, no doubt, because Babylonian religion still mattered. Even in this late period, the

temple remained part of a larger social framework, one that continued to uphold and transmit a

three millennia tradition to justify their power.

Astrology, Astronomy, and History

An examination of scholarly tablets that are not copies allows us to see another aspect of

the Seleucid construction of tradition. Here, I want to consider the scholarship of priests in

temples and schools in the interrelated domains of astrology, astronomy, and history. Many of

the texts that make up these genres were entirely new, first written during the latter half of the

first millennium BC, but were cast as part of a priestly heritage. Rather like the archaizing liver

omens we considered in chapter 3, each of these genres both recursively constructed and relied

upon notions of antiquity and tradition, despite their radically innovative form. Such tablets

were found in the same two contexts as copied texts: the major temples of the period, especially

in Babylon and Uruk, and in the private houses of people connected to the cult. Despite the

many copies of well-known texts found in the Ekur-zākir family house, for example, there are at

least seven original compositions, including one in which the scribe seeks to contextualize the

relatively new idea of the zodiac within an older tradition of extispicy, by equating the zodiac

with zones of the liver (Robson 2011: 568).

It seems likely that the Esagila in Babylon was the center of historical, astrological, and

astronomical scholarship in Mesopotamia. Nearly all of the examples of chronicles and

astronomical diaries come from this city, although astronomical and astrological texts are a large

part of the scholarly corpus elsewhere as well (Ossendrijver 2011: 220-1, fn. 32). 149 The ṭupšar

Enūma Anu Enlil, the “astronomer-priests,” played a prominent role in this temple, charged with

producing astronomical and astrological documents including the tersētu tablets (probably the

ephemerides, tables that forecast the position of heavenly bodies at a given time), the diaries, and

the almanacs (McEwan 1981). The council of the Esagila, and quite possibly royal officials,

confirmed the appointment of each new ṭupšar Enūma Anu Enlil, underlining their significance

within this milieu, where they seem to be form the preeminent class of temple officials and

scholars. The Esagila may have been the institution to which Berossus, who composed a history

of Babylon in Greek, also belonged. Seneca is one of the many ancient writers who recorded

that Berossus, whose Akkadian name was probably Bel-re'ušu, served as a priest of Marduk in

Babylon (Lambert 1976a).

Historians have used the seemingly dispassionate historical information within the

chronicles and astronomical diaries to confirm and supplement material from the Greek

historiographic tradition, but have not always considered the relationship of these texts to

scholarship more generally. The diaries record daily observations of astronomical and weather

phenomena. At the end of each month, they sometimes provide information about the market

price of five commodities, the level of the Euphrates, and political events, which are usually

military or cultic (Rochberg 2011: 629-30). Some of the chronicles may be excerpted from the

astronomical diaries, but the exact relationship between the genres is unclear. 150 Berossus’

composition is also connected to these other genres, although it was a narrative history of

Babylonia, beginning with the creation of the world and ending (presumably) with the reign of

Antiochus I, to whom the book was dedicated (Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987; Verbrugghe and

Wickersham 1996; Verbrugghe 2011). In composing his history, Berossus presumably drew

upon Babylonian records like the chronicles and astronomical diaries. But he reshaped this

source material and wrote a book that combined Greek and Babylonian historical methods and

conceptions in order to present Babylonian ideas to a Seleucid audience.

One way to understand the cultural context of the diaries and chronicles, and of much of

the source material for Berossus, is to consider them as part of the scholarly apparatus of

divination, which relied upon such empirical observation (Rochberg 2004, 2011).

Mesopotamian diviners examined numerous phenomena, including both “provoked” and

“unprovoked” omens. The former were understood as messages that the gods conveyed in

response to certain questions (such as via the liver of a sacrificed sheep), while the latter were

those that priests or other individuals observed in nature. Celestial omens fell into the second

category, and their importance probably increased during the course of the first millennium BC.

Certainly, the number of these astronomical, astrological, and celestial divination texts grew vis-

à-vis other types of omen texts (Rochberg 2004, 2011). The regular observations of

astronomical phenomenon at Babylon, which began in the 8th century BC, may have supplied

raw material for divinatory science. In this case, political observations could be linked to other

observed phenomena in terms of the “if p, then q" formulae used for divination (Rochberg

2010a). Work on Mesopotamian astronomy has made it clear that priests drew upon the

astronomical information contained in the diaries when composing ephemerides and developing

techniques for prediction (Steele 2011). Perhaps historical information was noted for the same

reason, in order to provide the source material for later divination, although there is no definite

proof of this (Rochberg 2011).

As we have already seen, for much of Mesopotamian history, divination was an overtly

political activity (see above, chapter 2), and the “heavenly writing” that diviners sought to

interpret was believed to contain messages about the activities of kings and kingdoms (Koch

2011: 461; Van der Spek 2003: 295). In the late second and early first millennium BC, the

palace employed diviners directly and there was a general obligation for the populace to report

any possible omens to the king. The 7th century BC correspondence between diviners and the

Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal nicely demonstrates the political context of the

activities of these priests, who combined the function of astronomers, astrologers, and diviners

(Parpola 1993). However, with the fall of the last Neo-Babylonian king, the exclusively royal

context of divination ended (Rochberg 1993). The historical information recorded in the

astronomical diaries and the chronicles makes it clear that the priests of the Esagila continued to

concern themselves with the destinies of kings. But they no longer worked for the palace

directly. Instead, the temple gradually supplanted the palace as the center of divination, during a

period when it was also renegotiating its relationship vis-à-vis foreign kings and the larger

community. The development of astrology, predictive astronomy, and a new non-royal calendar

were part of this larger shift. Although these developments did not result from any particular

Achaemenid or Seleucid policy, the general political context remains important to understanding

this process. Many of these astronomical techniques were startlingly innovative when compared

to the longue durée of Mesopotamian celestial observation and divination, but were nonetheless

portrayed as essential to traditional Mesopotamian scholarship. As such, they provided a

justification for the political and social power of the priests.

Late Babylonian horoscopes illustrate how the scope of traditional divination practices

broadened, from an exclusive focus on the ruler to include ordinary citizens (Rochberg 2004:

62). These texts first appeared in the fifth century BC, in the early Achaemenid period, but most

of our examples come from the Hellenistic period, and include some of the last texts ever written

in cuneiform. We only know the names of the subjects of horoscopes in a few cases; the

majority of these documents simply use the phrase “a child is born.” Of the 28 extant texts, three

contain personal names; two of these are Greek, Aristokrates and Nikanor, and one is

Babylonian, Anu-Bēlšunu (Rochberg 2004: 103-4). We do not know anything more about

Aristokrates and Nikanor, who may have been Greek or merely had Greek names, but Anu-

Bēlšunu is probably a member of the Uruk citizenry, a ṭupšar Enūma Anu Enlil or astronomer-

priest and a lamentation priest employed by the Bīt Rēš, who wrote many of the astronomical

and astrological texts from Uruk (Beaulieu and Rochberg 1996: 93-4). Although most

horoscopes only contain planetary information, some of them, including Anu-Bēlšunu’s, include

predictions based on this information. These predictions, which are similar to those found in

nativity omens, demonstrate the development of horoscopes with reference to traditions of astral

divination. Clearly if the position of the planets had significance for the king and kingdom in

earlier periods; in third century Uruk, this could also influence the lives of the priesthood, a

group who were in the process of assuming many of the traditional responsibilities of Babylonian


The late Achaemenid period also saw the emergence of mathematical astronomy. Rather

than merely observing the heavens, priests developed computational models that enabled them to

predict astronomical phenomena, including the rising and setting of different heavenly bodies.

This allowed them to compile ephemerides, tables that forecast the position of the moon and

planets at any given time (Rochberg 2011: 629-30). Together, of course, astrology and

computational astronomy had the longest afterlife of any form of Mesopotamian scholarship,

contributing to Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, Persian, and Arabic astronomy, astrology, and

mathematics (Rochberg 1999-200: 238-9; 2010b; Brown 2010b). The ability to predict the

position of astral bodies in both the future and the past allowed for the casting of horoscopes as

well as ritual preparation. Although the calculation of ephemerides is a precondition for the

practice of horoscopy, it is unlikely that mathematical astronomy was developed in order to draw

up horoscopes for the Babylonian elite, or at least it is difficult to demonstrate this based on the

information preserved in the two types of texts. 151 Instead, the emergence of both computational

astronomy and horoscopy was part of the same larger social and political shift, in which the

temple and the citizenry assumed prerogatives that had been previously reserved for the king and

court alone.

Computational astronomy gave astronomer-priests control over time; another sphere of

scholarship and practical life that had previously fallen under royal purview. As late as the Neo-

Babylonian period, the king could set the calendar, designating when to add an intercalary

month, according to the advice of his scholars. A letter from Nabonidus, the last Neo-

Babylonian king, for example, informs the priest Kurbanni-Marduk that he has decided to add a

month to the calendar (YOS 3 115; Parpola 1983: 504). With the loss of Babylonian

sovereignty, however, this changed. Already in the early Achaemenid empire, the priests of the

Esagila appear to have been responsible for issuing such decrees, and by the reign of Xerxes, a

regular system of intercalation was instituted. This system, based on astronomical calculations

and predictions, was no longer subject to palace oversight (Steele 2011: 475-8). This shift from

royal control of the calendar to a regular astronomically-derived system mirrored the move from

natal omens with implications for the king alone to individual horoscopes. These changes in

astrology, computational astronomy, and the reckoning of time were all part of a general shift in

intellectual traditions, as scholarship broadened from an exclusively royal concern to a system of

thought developed for the benefit of the temples and urban elites.

Increasingly accurate predictions also had practical implications within cultic settings,

particularly for ritual performance. Rituals for the sky god Anu, for example, the deity honored

in the Bīt Rēš, usually occurred at “celestially significant moments,” like equinoxes, or other

periods when astral bodies were in specific conjunctions (Robson 2008: 260). Proper execution

of these rituals relied upon astronomical calculation, based both on observance and mathematical

models. Priests also needed to be able to predict other inauspicious events, like eclipses, so that

their ominous consequences could be averted. An eclipse ritual from the Bīt Rēš, probably

composed during the Hellenistic period but part of a more extensive tradition of averting the evil

of such an event, lists certain activities and prayers that must occur at the beginning, midpoint,

and end of the eclipse. In this case, correct performance of this ritual required predictions about

the exact timing of an astral event (Linssen 2004: 109-116; Rochberg 2004: 243). The

emergence of new genres of astronomical and astrological texts thus enabled the continuation of

traditional Babylonian religion and strengthened the position of the Babylonian and Uruk

citizenry vis-à-vis the Achaemenid and Seleucid administrations.

Berossus’s Babyloniaca provides a final example of a novel textual genre in the service

of tradition. As I have already hinted, like these new generes of astronomical and astrological

texts, in the late Babylonian period, historiography probably emerged from divination science.

Hellenistic scholars experimented with historiography and nearly half of all of the known

chronicles (21 of 54) date to this period (Van der Spek and Finkel 2004). Historical information

in the Hellenistic period astronomical diaries also tends to be more detailed than in the earlier

examples. Like these other texts, the Babyloniaca is both a conservative work that aims to

disseminate Babylonian history and historiography and a radical rethinking of this genre.

Berossus’ attempt to translate Babylonian scholarship into Greek history echoes the strategies of

other members of the Uruk and Babylonian citizenry to harness Babylonian traditions in order to

gain political and cultural capital.

Analyzing Berossus’ work and its larger context is difficult given its complicated

transmission history and the few fragments that we have at our disposal. Everything that we

know about this book comes from 22 quotations and paraphrases of the Babyloniaca that appear

in the works of classical and late antique authors, and 11 statements that various authors made

regarding this text. 152 Most of the quotations are from authors who wrote centuries after

Berossus, and many of them refer not to the original work, but to an epitome written by

Alexander Polyhistor. Moreover, the transmission histories of these manuscripts are often

complicated as well. Only fragments of Eusebius, for example, one of our best sources for

Berossus, are available in Greek, and historians rely instead on an early Armenian translation

(Kuhrt 1987a: 35). Nonetheless, the general framework of the Babyloniaca can be reconstructed,

even if historians disagree about precisely where all of the fragments fit.

Berossus’ work was probably divided into three books. The first book began with a

description of the geography and natural history of Babylonia and then provided an account of

the creation of the world and of the first sage, Oannes, who gave civilization to humankind. The

second book narrates the history of Babylonia from the first king, Aloros, to the reign of

Nabonassar, while the third book recounts the period from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great, a

period for which the chronicles and astronomical diaries provide fuller records. In organizing

and recounting this history, Berossus followed both Mesopotamian and Greek conventions in

order to develop a case for the antiquity of Babylonian culture and hence its importance (De

Breucker 2011: 650; Tuplin 2013).

In composing his Babyloniaca, Berossus drew upon a wide variety of sources that

probably included the chronicles, astronomical diaries, mythological accounts, and other

traditions that may have been transmitted orally or through other media. Robert Drews has

shown that there are great similarities between the description of Sennacherib’s attack on

Babylon in the Babylonian chronicle ABC 1 and in fragment 7, 29 of Berossus (Drews 1975:

54). Similarly, the basic structure of Berossus’s book 2 appears to mirror that of the chronicles

and king lists. According to Eusebius, Berossus merely listed the names of the kings and

recounted a few events from their reigns. For Book 3, however, for which Berossus had detailed

sources as well as popular traditions, he probably adopted a more narrative style, as a

comparison of his version of the reign of Nabopolassar to the chronicles shows (De Breucker

2011; Glassner 2004; FGRH 680 F8a). Similarly, Berossus’s description of the origins of the

world clearly draws on the Babylonian creation myth, Enūma Eliš, and Sumerian flood stories

(his hero is named Xisuthros, echoing the Sumerian Ziusudra, rather than the Akkadian Uta-

napištim), as well as other sources that have not survived (Kuhrt 1987: 46).

In addition to his focus on political history, a traditional Babylonian trope, Berossus’s

interest in the role of sages echoes the attention to the relationship between scholars and the court

in the unusual composition, “The Uruk List of Kings and Sages” (Beaulieu 2006: 143). This

document, written by Anu-Bēlšunu of Uruk, the subject of our best-known horoscope, lists

famous kings and their ummānu or advisors. The last entry in the text is probably Nikarchos, a

well-known governor of Uruk (Lenzi 2008). Beyond Berossus and the Uruk list, two dozen

examples of seals from Uruk featuring apkallu, half-human, half-fish figures like Oannes, testify

to contemporary interest in these scholars. Most of these seals belonged to members of the

Kidin-Anu family, who were exorcists, astrologers, and high officials at the Anu temple

(Wallenfels 1996: 120-1; 1993). It is likely that Berossus highlighted the importance of these

sages, particularly the fish-man Oannes, for the same reason that the Urukean citizenry did, as

part of an argument for the critical role of Babylonian priests and scholars in the Seleucid


In order to make his case more persuasive, Berossus also adopted Greek literary

conventions and perhaps most importantly, composed his history in Greek (Tuplin 2013). The

book was clearly organized as a Hellenistic ethnography, and hence follows earlier works by

Hecataeus, Herodotus, and perhaps even Megasthenes (Kuhrt 1987: 47; De Breucker 2011:

647). It seems likely that Berossus was well-versed in earlier Greek scholarship on Babylonia,

as he criticized Greek accounts for their inaccuracies regarding Semiramis. This criticism,

however, was itself a Greek historiographic trope (Kuhrt 1987). In addition to this

organizational framework, Berossus also incorporated certain Greek rhetorical devices. His

description of the origins of the world from water, for example, was an allegorical account that

parallels cosmological narratives developed by different schools of Greek philosophy. Similarly,

Berossus introduced himself and his sources in the preface to his book. This strategy of

centering the author and justifying his authority was a Greek, but not Mesopotamian, practice

(De Breucker 2011: 648).

Given the sources at our disposal, it is impossible to evaluate the impact of the

Babyloniaca on Hellenistic Babylonia as a whole or the Seleucid court in particular. It is clear,

however, that this work did not become the standard account of Babylonian history for a Greek-

reading audience and that Herodotus and Ctesias remained far more influential. Indeed, little

would survive of the Babyloniaca at all, except that some of Berossus's tales became important

to Jewish and Christian authors when they sought to affirm the truth of their religious tradition in

the first centuries AD.

Apart from this religiously motivated accounts, later Classical tradition did not remember

Berossus as a historian, but instead as a priest of Bēl and an authority on astrology. In addition

to the historical quotations from the Babyloniaca, scholars in the classical world attribute several

fragments about astronomical and astrological matters to Berossus. Since the early twentieth

century, however, historians of science have assigned the authorship of these astronomical and

astrological quotations to a “Pseudo-Berossus,” a position that has become canonical within

ancient history and Assyriology. As Amelie Kuhrt has demonstrated, there are no clear

Babylonian sources for the two longest statements regarding the moon and the end of the world

in these astronomical fragments (Kuhrt 1987a: 39-44; Lambert 1976a), although these sources

may be drawn from mythological traditions like Enūma Eliš or not be extant (Burstein 1978: 15).

But as we have seen, history, divination, astronomy, and astrology were categories that were

difficult to separate in Seleucid Babylonia, particularly within the Esagila temple, the scholarly

context in which Berossus presumably composed his Babyloniaca (De Breucker 2013). Given

this, it would be rather surprising if Berossus had not been trained in both astronomy and

astrology (cf. Steele 2013).

I suspect that the categorical denial of Berossus the astronomer has much to do with

shifting fashions within scholarship, and particularly the view that Babylonian astronomy was a

“closed chapter” in the history of sciences, with little effect on classical scholarship, which was

prevalent until the last decade or so (D. Brown 2010). Perhaps now that most scholars have

accepted the influential position of Babylonian astronomy and astrology in the Hellenistic world,

it is time to reconsider the traditions of Berossus the astrologer/astronomer. If we evaluate

Berossus in this light, as a scholar, Babylonian priest, and member of the Babylonian citizenry,

than we can interpret his work as part of a sophisticated argument for the importance of a

Babylonian scholarship that included recent advances in astronomy and astrology. Like his

contemporaries in Babylon and Uruk, Berossus grounded his authority in the hoary antiquity of

the scholarly tradition that he exemplified, while also drawing on up-to-date scholarly

information from Greek and Babylonian sources and packaging his entire book in a novel form.

Materialized Symbols: Temples and Tradition

Temples served as critical loci for scholarship, religion, and local community engagement. They

provided the settings for the public events and daily practices that affirmed the power of tradition

in Seleucid Babylonia. When Seleucid kings and governors undertook temple renovations, they

were following in the footsteps of scores of rulers before them. The same is true of temple

officials at Babylon and Uruk, who ensured that the temples remained important economic

centers and continued to practice rituals, reciting prayers in Sumerian, a language that had been

dead for nearly two millennia. At the same time, priests both drew upon and affirmed traditions

in scholarship. Promoting tradition in Babylonia was far from a politically neutral act or a

natural outgrowth of millennia of royal, religious, and scholarly activity. Instead, the Seleucid

kings, temple officials, and citizenry all sought to reinterpret traditional Babylonian culture as

part of a larger political argument directed towards the multiethnic communities of Babylonia.

Rebuilding the Temple

Some of the best evidence of engagement with Mesopotamian tradition during the

Seleucid period comes from archaeological and epigraphic material resulting from temple

construction or renovation. We have archaeological evidence for work on temples in Borsippa,

Uruk, Babylon, and Larsa and textual references that indicate additional construction in Ur (Boiy

2010). These temples comprise some of the oldest and most important in Mesopotamia,

including the Esagila in Babylon, the Ezida in Borsippa, the Ebabbar in Larsa, and the Eanna in

Uruk, along with new temples, like the Rēš and Ešgal in Uruk. The sponsors of these

construction projects, Seleucid kings and high officials, furnished many of these religious

establishments with building inscriptions. Together with the architectural evidence, these

inscriptions allow us to see how different actors negotiated Mesopotamian religion and Seleucid


The Ezida, Nabû’s temple in Borsippa, was excavated in 1879-1880 by Rassam for the

British Museum, who was also running simultaneous excavations at Babylon (fig. 45). Neither

Rassam nor Daud Thoma, his chief foreman, was often present at Borsippa, and as a result,

although we have a composite plan of the temple, we do not have a clear idea of its stratigraphy

and so cannot evaluate the effects of the Seleucid renovation. In light of this, it is rather

surprising that we do have a context for a cylinder building inscription, which was “encased in

some kiln-burnt bricks covered over with bitumen,” in the wall between room A1 and court 1

(Reade 1986: 109). The cylinder, which records the repairs that Antiochus I made to the Ezida,

is the last known cuneiform royal building inscription (fig. 46). Much about the cylinder is

strikingly traditional, including its general appearance, script, language, organization, and ritual

descriptions. The first audience for this text was presumably the Ezida priesthood and perhaps

other Babylonian scholars, who no doubt were also involved in its composition (Sherwin-White


A recent article proposes that Antiochus used the cylinder to provide a traditional

Babylonian framework for a Seleucid imperial program. Paul Kosmin contends that the text

establishes an equivalence between Nabû and Apollo, at least partly through homonymy, by

referring to Nabû repeatedly as aplu, Akkadian for heir. Moreover, he argues that the cylinder

may have been modeled on Nebuchednezzar’s building inscription, given its shape, use of

archaizing sign forms, and in its unusual incorporation of a prayer for the extension of the

empire. Antiochus’ emulation of Nebuchadnezzar II in this text is “part of the remarkable

reimagining of this greatest of Neo-Babylonian kings in the early Hellenistic period,” when the

Seleucid court developed the figure of Nebuchadnezzar into a heroic fore-runner of the Seleucid

kings. Megasthenes and Berossus describe Nebuchadnezzar as a powerful monarch who

extended his empire all the way to Spain (Kosmin 2013; Kosmin 2014).

The Antiochus cylinder also records that monarch’s plans to rebuild the Esagila in

Babylon. Similarly, Strabo and Arrian both note that Alexander intended to rebuild the ziggurat

in Babylon, the Etemenanki, although his early death prevented the completion of this task.

Entries in the astronomical diaries also mention “clearing the dust” from the Esagila on several

occasions, presumably as part of renovation campaigns (Van der Spek 2006: 266-75). There is

some evidence at the Esagila and Etemenanki of Seleucid period work, although the nature of the

excavations here, where extensive tunneling was used, destroyed much of the evidence (Wetzel

et al. 1957: 29-33). The hill of Homera, the site of the Greek colony in Babylon, was composed

of debris from the Neo-Babylonian period, which served as foundations for the city’s theater

(Schmid 1995: 92-5; Koldewey 1914). Within this debris are fragments of bricks and a building

inscription of Nebuchadnezzar that belong to an earlier construction phase of the Etemenanki,

perhaps indicating that this material came from temple renovations. Greek literary sources make

it clear that Alexander’s attention to the main temple in Babylon was part of a larger political

strategy of respect for Babylonian religious tradition. The same sources, as well as Babylonian

inscriptions, indicate that the Esagila continued to be important even after Babylon lost its status

as an imperial capital (Downey 1988: 7-14; Van der Spek 2006).

There is also evidence of temple construction at Uruk, although the individuals who

commissioned these projects were not kings. Three of the excavated temples at Uruk were built

during the Seleucid period, the Rēš and Ešgal 153 sanctuaries in the center of the city, and the

Akītu temple outside its walls (Kose 1998). The Eanna precinct and the Ziggurat of Anu, the sky

god, were also repaired during this period, although major cult activity had moved into the Rēš

temple (Kose 1998: 257-276). Although all of these buildings are recognizably traditional

Babylonian temples, “they do not represent merely a restoration of earlier temples; rather, they

are either new creations or radical redesigning of the earlier structures” (Downey 1988: 16). The

Rēš temple, dedicated to Anu, is built on a badly destroyed Assyrian temple, but Ešgal, dedicated

to Nanaya, is built on a site where there is no evidence of an earlier building. Both temples are

unusually large. The Bit Rēš is 201 X 162 m (fig. 47) and the Ešgal is 198 X 205 m (fig. 48),

while the Neo-Babylonian Esagila in Babylon was 79 X 86 m. But in terms of plan they are

similar to earlier cultic buildings, with large fortification walls and several courts with attendant


Building techniques at the Rēš temple follow Neo-Babylonian precedent, by employing

laid bricks throughout, unlike in the Achaemenid period, where monumental buildings had a pisé

core with brick facing. Builders decorated the temple with glazed baked bricks with relief

decoration, some portraying animal bodies and other designs like stars and palmettes, perhaps in

imitation of earlier decorative motifs like the Ištar Gate at Babylon (Downey 1988: 22). A

fragmentary Greek inscription was found on some of these bricks, and a frieze probably ran

immediately below the roof of the Rēš temple, as in Achaemenid or Greek temples (Oelsner

2002: 187; Kose 1998: 75). Access to the Anu-Antu temple at the Bīt Rēš was complicated, but

it differs from most of the temples of Babylon by increasing the visibility of the cult image,

which could be seen from the main entrance, unlike in earlier temples (Downey 1988: 42).

The Ešgal temple also followed a Babylonian court plan. The baked brick temple in the

southeast corner of the precinct enclosed an area of 104 X 87 m. Glazed bricks in blue and

white, as well as some with designs in relief ornamented its walls. One of the most interesting

features of this temple is its building inscription, in Aramaic, which ran across the lowest row of

glazed bricks in the cult niche. This short inscription does no more than name the builder, “Anu-

Uballiṭ, whose other name is Kephalon” (Boiy 2010: 217; Falkenstein 1941: 31; Bowman 1939),

but its choice of language is unusual for a temple building inscription. Anu-Uballiṭ-Kephalon

also rebuilt the cella of Anu and Antum in the Rēš Temple, where he left bricks inscribed in

Akkadian (Dijk and Mayer 1980; Jordan and Preusser 1928: 47; Boiy 2010: 216). In his work

there he was following in the footsteps of an earlier Anu-Uballiṭ, also called Nikarchos, who

deposited an Akkadian cylindrical building inscription in the Rēš temple’s foundations during his

renovations (YOS 1 52; Doty 1988; Clay 1915). This Nikarchos is probably the last ruler to

feature in “The Uruk List of Kings and Sages.”

The varied building inscriptions of the two Anu-Uballiṭs provide an intriguing glimpse

into the position and political strategies of two powerful officials in Uruk. Although there are

other non-royal building inscriptions, these are quite rare in earlier periods. 154 The range of

media used in the inscriptions—a cuneiform cylinder, a cuneiform brick inscription, Aramaic

and perhaps Greek inscriptions decorating the cella—highlights the interest of the two Anu-

Uballiṭs to finding innovative ways to establish and express their authority. Like the architects

whose use of tradition was innovative in the two major Hellenistic temple complexes, Kephalon

and Nikarchos used the polysemous idiom of building inscriptions to establish their power in


Kephalon and Nikarchos were not alone in their efforts. Their use of Aramaic and Greek

building inscriptions alongside Mesopotamian cuneiform is paralleled in a contemporary secular

building, a palace that Adad-nadin-Aḫḫe built in the ruins of Girsu’s main temple, the Eninnu.

The construction of this palace used ancient bricks, from the third millennium king Gudea’s

temple-building activities, as well as bricks stamped with Adad-nadin-Aḫḫe’s name in Aramaic

and Greek (Downey 1988: 48; Sass and Marzahn 2010: 11, 214-5; fig. 49). The palace itself was

divided into a public area and private residential zones. The great court stood at the heart of the

public area and was decorated with statues of Gudea, gathered from various sanctuaries, with

most of them probably coming from the ruins of the Eninnu itself (Parrot 1948: 16, 155). Here

again, we see an urban official constructing a new building in a long-abandoned city and

employing a mix of traditional and contemporary features in this center of power.

Temple construction and the deposition of building inscriptions were essential ritual acts

in Mesopotamia generally and Seleucid Babylonia particularly (Ambos 2004; Linssen 2004).

These particular inscriptions and their associated ceremonies probably reached a larger audience

than earlier Mesopotamian building rituals had. The Greek and Aramaic building inscriptions

were not buried in the foundations of the Rēš and Ešgal temples, but displayed on their walls,

accessible to the priests, but also to the citizenry who gathered in the courtyard in order to take

part in the assembly (see below). The same is true in Adad-nadin-Aḫḫe’s palace. Far from

being obscure rituals, these performances probably contributed to the self-definition of

Urukeans, helping to bring into being both a religious and a civic community.

The Temple, the Assembly, and Civil Authority

Construction techniques, decoration, and building rituals are just the beginning of the

ways that different constituencies employed tradition as part of a political dialogue. During this

period, the temples came to exercise important political and civil functions vis-à-vis the Seleucid

court. The activities of the two Anu-Uballiṭs demonstrate this clearly. Anu-Uballiṭ Nikarchos

was initially a member of the temple clergy, before going on to hold the political position of

šaknu or governor (Clancier 2011: 759). Anu-Uballiṭ-Kephalon’s own title seems to have been

rab ša rēš āli ša bīt ilāni ša Uruk (Van der Spek 1994: 601; Doty 1988: 98), or chief of the Uruk

clergy, but he was also probably responsible for urban administration. The Rēš temple thus had

a judicial role that included oversight of both temple and civic affairs (Clancier 2007: 31-2).

In this, Uruk was not unusual, as during the Hellenistic period, chief priests and temple

assemblies in other cities, including Babylon, Larsa, Nippur, and Kutha also probably held both

temple and civic offices (McEwan 1981: 157; Clancier 2011: 759). The title ša rēš āli is also

attested at Nippur, perhaps indicating that the head of the temple also served as the head of the

community of citizens in this city (Joannès 1988). In Babylon, the chief-priet of the Esagila

retained the title of šatammu, but had both administrative and cultic responsibilities, like the rab

ša rēš āli of the other cities. He usually appears in texts with the kiništu, the temple assembly

(Van der Spek 2009, 2006). Indeed, the Esagila’s dual administrative body was important

beyond Babylon, as it also managed affairs in Borsippa, Dilbat, and Kutha. At Babylon, the

members of this assembly were the only people in the city officially known as “Babylonians,”

mārē Bābili, probably a term that designated citizenship (Clancier 2007: 28). It is possible that

“Urukean” had the same connotation in that city (Clancier 2011: 757). Even if it did not, it is

clear from the names and patronymics in the documentation that a small number of “great”

families controlled Uruk’s temples, assembly, and probably civic affairs.

This role for the temple, and for the attached citizenry, is not new. During the Neo-

Assyrian period the chief administrator of the Esagila temple in Babylon held a similar position,

as can be seen in the letters between the šatammu and Esarhaddon (Nielsen 2011). This may

also have been true during the Achaemenid period, but there is no direct documentation of this

relationship. 155 And asssemblies, of course, had long been characteristic of Mesopotamian cities

(Van de Mieroop 1999; Seri 2005). Seleucid assemblies in Babylon met in the “House of

Deliberation” in the Juniper Garden of the Esagila, and it is likely that other assemblies also met

in temples (Sachs and Hunger 1996: 431, no. 93 A, rev 25; Boiy 2004: 84). In a Hellenistic

context, the Seleucid administration probably interpreted them as a Mesopotamian form of boulē

or civic assembly. Indeed, Greek and Mesopotamian understandings of citizenship and civil

government appear to have established a “middle ground” in the operation of the temple

assembly (White 1991). No doubt both the Uruk and Babylonian elite and the Seleucid

administration benefited from the increased political power of the temples. The great families

who controlled the priesthood had a vested interest in exercising economic and political power

within the city, while the Seleucid kings needed an institution to work through. It is easy enough

to see this resulting from the actions of both the citizenry who could position themselves as

interlocutors and the Seleucid court. The urban citizenry, or the Chaldeans, to use the Hellenistic

term for this group, was well-suited to this role (Clancier 2011: 758-62). The Seleucids were not

along in employing this strategy; temples had a similar function in Ptolemaic Egypt. The

Ptolemies encouraged the temple’s traditional economic, cultic, and political position, in order to

further their own administrative and economic goals. At the same time, Egyptian priests

emphasized the temple’s traditional responsibility of granting political legitimacy to maintain

and perhaps gain power and political maneuverability (Manning 2010: 82-3, 96).

Archives, Administration, and Community

Temples sought to justify their role as the center of the Babylonian communities not only

through scholarship or religious means, but also by emphasizing the importance of other

traditional practices. The persistence of non-scholarly texts written in Akkadian during this

period requires explanation, in light of the fact that most practical texts were written on other

media, and probably in other languages so that they could be used in both royal courts and in the

temple. We know of several cases where both a leather scroll and tablet recording the same

transaction were drawn up from references in the tablets. In at least one case, it is clear that the

leather text was drawn up a month before the cuneiform copy was made, indicating that it was

the primary document (Clancier 2005: 89). There are at least 23 cases where the same witnesses

appear on tablets and bullae from Uruk, documenting parallel recording practices on leather and

in cuneiform (Wallenfels 2000: 340). So why did people in Babylon and Uruk, and perhaps a

handful of other centers, continue to write contracts and some administrative texts in cuneiform,

particularly when they already had a copy of them on leather in Greek or Aramaic?

I suggest that to a large extent the composition of these texts was an exhibition of

Babylonian identity and part of a wider argument for the importance of this community within

the Seleucid empire (Clancier 2011: 766). Most Hellenistic contracts were well made and

beautifully written in a clear cuneiform script, with carefully applied seal impressions marking

the tablet’s edges (Clancier 2011: 762). At Uruk, contracts generally used a landscape format

and had thick edges, to allow space for seal impressions, a practice that began in the late

Achaemenid period. In Babylon and Borsippa, however, a portrait orientation is more

common. 156 These documents were probably created as part of scribal training, as a way to

preserve and transmit knowledge of disappearing genres. The elegant, clear script used on these

tablets would have demonstrated a scribe’s mastery of this ancient form. The use of cuneiform

contracts in temple courts may have helped to set apart the citizenry who employed this archaic

medium from the rest of the population of Uruk and Hellenistic Babylonia (Clancier 2011). In

this case, the act of pressing a seal into a cuneiform tablet may have marked someone as a

member of a group, a performative activity that established a specific identity. Such legal

activities, although perhaps not religious, are best understood as performances of tradition,

demonstrations of the citizenry’s ancient prerogatives to the community itself and to the Seleucid


It is clear that many people chose to continue using cuneiform documentation,

highlighting the cultural importance of these activities beyond the realm of scholarship. As we

have already seen in the Abu-Uballiṭs’ building inscriptions, however, many of these

“traditional” activities were paradoxically innovative. This is particularly clear when

considering sealing practices. On one hand, this period sees an almost total adoption of signet

rings. Although rings were occasionally used earlier, particularly in the late Achaemenid period,

their ubiquity is a Seleucid phenomenon (Wallenfels 1994: 1, 1996). Only four impressions

from cylinder seals and ten impressions from Achaemenid stamp seals occur in the Hellenistic

Uruk corpus, which contains 1523 seals used by 1100 different people (Wallenfels 1994: 143-4).

On the other hand, like the pottery and the figurines, most seal imagery combines Babylonian,

Greek, and Persian motifs in ways that were also common during the previous Achaemenid and

even Neo-Babylonian periods. The only exceptions to this trend are the rare gemstones, which

feature a different array of designs, many of which seem to have been introduced from Greece,

although the majority of these rings were owned by people with Babylonian names (Wallenfels

1994: 145). The practice of identifying seal owners on tablets shows just how many people

continued to use cuneiform contracts. In addition to the 1100 different seal users, over 3000

people were named in the texts, demonstrating the popularity of this system.

The changing role of temple archives in the larger community also illustrates both

continued interest in using traditional cuneiform on the part of the populace and how non-

traditional these practices were when compared to the earlier first millennium BC. 157 Cuneiform

tablets, along with bullae or napkin rings that once held leather scrolls, have been found in both

the Rēš and Ešgal temples and represent traces of Seleucid practices that differ from those of

earlier administrations. The composition of these archives is distinct from those of early Neo-

Babylonian/Achaemenid ones, like that from the nearby temple complex of Eanna in Uruk, or

the Ebabbar in Sippar, the two best-documented archives from the long 6th century (Kümmel

1979; Jursa 2005b; Bongenaar 1997). Although private contracts and some literary texts were

kept together with institutional documents in both temples, in these and other Neo-

Babylonian/Achaemenid temple archives, unwitnessed administrative texts are the largest single

category of texts (Gesche 2001; Jursa 2005b: 45; Pedersén 1998: 206). 158 This is not the case for

Hellenistic period temples, which contained very few administrative documents. Instead,

contracts, including large numbers from private contexts, and literary tablets dominate the

excavated collections from the Uruk temples. As a result, they resemble private rather than

official archives from earlier periods (Oelsner 1996, 2003).

In fact the large number of sealed contracts and literary texts held in temple archives

probably indicate that their archival function had changed. The storage of private documents in

temple archives nicely reflects the situation in the Archive Building at Seleucia on the Tigris,

where 25,000 perishable documents, known only from their sealings, were stored (Invernizzi

2003). Antonio Invernizzi, Seleucia’s excavator, describes the building as a city archive,

accessible to members of the community who needed to preserve legal documents or copies

thereof (Invernizzi 1996, 1994) (fig. 50). 159 The Rēš temple probably served a similar function

for members of Uruk’s citizenry. Documents stored here would have been easily available for

legal proceedings that probably took place when the council assembled in the courtyard of this

temple. Temples in other cities may have also served the same role, although the evidence is

more equivocal. 160

Actors, Audience, and Mise-en-scène: Kings, Priests, and Festivals

Babylonian temples were a stage for quotidian political performances of Babylonian

communities, for meetings of the assembly, legal affairs, and other overtly political activities.

They also provided the setting for the Akītu ritual, an event that re-presents, breaking down the

established order only to resurrect it. This was a celebration in which Seleucid kings and priests

in Uruk and Babylon invoked tradition as part of political negotiation, as a method to strengthen

hegemony. But events that re-present always contain the possibility of anarchy, by providing

spaces in which to debate the current political order and sometimes contribute to its overthrow. I

will explore three performances of festivals in Seleucid Babylonia, each of which participated in

politics differently.

On April 6, 205 BC, Antiochus III, the Seleucid king, visited Marduk’s temple in

Babylon in order to take part in the rituals on the eighth day of the spring Akītu Festival. What

precisely happened in the Esagila is unclear, although the astronomical diaries record that

sacrifices were offered for Ištar of Babylon and the life of the king (the latter was understood as a

Greek, not Babylonian, practice) (Sachs and Hunger 1988: no. 204, C, rev. 14-8; Sherwin-White

and Kuhrt 1993: 130-1; Van der Spek 1993a). It is probable that when Antiochus entered the

temple, he participated in the ceremony whereby Marduk determined the destiny of the king and

his land for the upcoming year. Afterwards, Antiochus “took the hand of Bel,” probably a

gesture in which he reaffirmed his kingship, and led the god into the city. Then, as the populace

of the city lined the processional way, the king and the statues of the gods paraded through

Babylon, before traveling by boat to the Akītu temple (Black 1981; Bidmead 2002; Cohen 1993).

Marduk would stay outside of the city for three days before returning to the Esagila, causing

order to triumph over primal chaos for another year (Sommer 2000: 89-90).

Antiochus III’s celebration of the Akītu festival was critical both to the legitimacy of

Seleucid kingship and to the way the Babylonian citizenry constituted itself as a body politic.

His visit to Babylon for this festival followed five years of hard campaigning in the northern and

eastern provinces of the empire, during which he re-established Seleucid dominion over much of

the Caucasus and Iran and even reaffirmed an alliance with Sophagasenus, who ruled the lands

beyond the Indus (Sherwin-White and Kuhrt 1993: 198-9). In recognition of these military and

diplomatic successes, Antiochus’ Greek contemporaries referred to him as basileus megas, great

king, a translation of an originally Akkadian title, inherited from the Seleucid’s Persian

predecessors. Antiochus’ participation in the Akītu festival can be seen against this backdrop, as

a way for him to reassert his authority in the heartland of his empire, by affirming his position as

a traditional Mesopotamian king. Moreover, Antiochus’s performance of the rites at the apex of

the festival, when the fate of the land was cast, underscored both his past successes and set the

stage for a brilliant future.

Eighteen years later, after his disastrous defeat at the hands of the Romans at

Thermopylae, and the treaty of Apamea in which he ceded all Seleucid territory in Asia Minor,

Antiochus returned to the Esagila of Babylon once more, perhaps seeking both gold to repay his

debts and confirmation of a legitimacy that may have seemed increasingly shaky. He spent at

least ten days in Babylon and its environs, offering sacrifices to the gods and for the lives of his

wife and sons at the Esagila, the Ezida, and the Akītu temple. As part of this affair, the šatammu

and the assembly of Babylonians gave him a gold crown weighing 1,000 shekels, a gesture that

was meaningful in both Babylonian and Hellenistic contexts. Later, another gold crown, gold

box, and a purple garment that had once belonged to King Nabonidus were removed from the

temple’s treasury, although whether they were used as props or costumes for various ritual

activities, given to Antiochus, or merely shown to him, is not clear (Boiy 2004: 156-7; Sherwin-

White and Kuhrt 1993: 216; Sachs and Hunger 1988: no. 187: rev. 4’-18’). Nabonidus’ garment

may have been particularly important, given the Seleucid kings’ treatment of their Neo-

Babylonian predecessors as symbolic ancestors (Kosmin 2014). Antiochus’ last visit to Babylon

did not coincide with the Akītu festival, but many of his activities during this month recalled that

ritual, particularly his sacrifices at the three temples. This visit may have sought to demonstrate

and re-establish this king’s charismatic position, as the chosen of Marduk, prior to a second set

of campaigns in the east.

The participation of Antiochus III in the festival and other rituals at the Esagila can be

interpreted in various ways. From the perspective of the Seleucid administration, this act may

have been meant to coney respect for a hoary religious tradition or have been an example of

Hellenistic syncretism From the viewpoint of the temple, however, the festival may have

provided a way for the Babylonian priesthood to register a silent protest against Greek rule (Scott

1990, 2012). Certainly, the šatammu may have used the ritual humiliation of the king to

demonstrate that his jurisdiction was greater (Smith 1982). Even if this part of the ritual was an

older survival, as seems likely (Michalowski 1990), each performance of it was probably made

appropriate to that year’s political events. The Babylonian priesthood were the keepers of

traditional religion, but they were also knowledgeable actors who used their religious knowledge

as a way of asserting authority in other domains as well. As a consequence of this position, they

emerge as the guardians of Babylon’s wealth and arbiters of the king’s legitimacy. Their

importance is highlighted by the fact that Antiochus’ participation in the Akītu festival was

unusual enough to feature in the astronomical diaries, suggesting that the king rarely took part.

Usually the priests alone directed the festival, the same way they took charge of governing the

Babylonian community, the reckoning of time, and all the other previously royal domains that

they had quietly usurped during the Achaemenid and Seleucid periods.

The autumn Akītu festival, as celebrated at Uruk, in the vast Akītu temple complex

excavated in 1954-1956 north of the city walls (fig. 51), afforded the priests and officials of this

city another opportunity to reimagine tradition and politics (Kose 1998: 277-289). Like the

spring Akītu festival in Babylon, the Uruk celebration lasted for 11 days and included several

similar rites. As in Babylon, on the eighth day of the festival the city god, in this case Anu, the

sky god, led a parade of gods on their journey to the Akītu temple. The procession left the Rēš

temple via the grand gate where the high priests, exorcists, “temple enterers” and brewers of the

temple greeted him, and traveled, partly by water, to the Akītu temple (Falkenstein 1941;

Pongratz-Leisten 1994; Linssen 2004). On the ninth day they returned and Anu was seated on

both the dais of destinies and the dais of kingship, probably re-establishing his position as king

of Uruk and his responsibility for the fate of the land. One of the most interesting features of the

long festival is the minor role of the king, who is portrayed as just another participant (Linssen

2004: 76). Indeed, unlike the priests who took part in all stages of the rite, the king only appears

on day 8 when he is sprinkled with water along with the other Urukeans. As a result, in direct

contrast to the king’s starring role in the Babylon festival, the Uruk ceremony celebrated and

affirmed the dominant role of the Uruk citizenry. Unlike their counterparts in Babylon, the

priests of the Reš temple in Uruk did not need to humiliate the king as part of the ceremony.

Instead, they wrote him out of the festival, performing a political vision that ignored the

Seleucids completely, denying their authority.

Conclusion: Performing Tradition

During the Seleucid period, the house and the countryside were not sites of

Mesopotamian tradition. Rather, self-consciously traditional Mesopotamian activities were

connected to religion and the temple. Indeed, Mesopotamian temples, archives, and scholarship

served as “protected enclaves” or, to use the French historian Pierre Nora’s term, lieux de

mémoires, separate and protected from the vicissitudes of ordinary life. As Nora writes:

Lieux de mémoires arise out of a sense that there is no such thing as spontaneous

memory, hence that we must create archives, mark anniversaries, organize

celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and authenticate documents because such things

no longer happen as a matter of course. When certain minorities create protected

enclaves as preserves of memory to be jealously safeguarded, they reveal what is

true of all lieux de mémoires: that without commemorative vigilance, history

would soon sweep them away (Nora 1996: 7).

The priests and citizenry of Uruk invested in Mesopotamian scholarship and religion in order to

construct their authority based on tradition and a pragmatic openness to Hellenistic practice. For

their part, Alexander and especially the Seleucid kings also used Mesopotamian forms, including

cuneiform, as part of their political program of establishing belonging far from Macedon. The

very real transformation of so many elements of quotidian existence during the later centuries

BC made the continued citation of tradition particularly important. Like Nora’s lieux de

mémoires, these practices seem fragile, apt to disappear at any moment. As in Majapahit,

choreographed appeals to tradition in Babylon were an elite response to widespread change.

The Akītu festival was also a lieu de mémoires, one that despite its seemingly static and

traditional nature, could be manipulated differently by an elite that was far from united. The

festivals we have examined are all examples of performances in which actors employed ancient

rituals to make different, strikingly non-traditional cases about political roles and responsibilities

in Seleucid Babylonia. It is difficult to uncover how ordinary citizens responded to these

spectacles of authority. Given the important adjudicatory role of the audience in Greek drama

(Roselli 2011), perhaps including those plays staged at the theater in Babylon, it seems unlikely

that they were silent, naïve, or unquestioning, even when viewing a “traditional” Babylonian

ritual, like the Akītu festival. The people who lined the processional ways of Babylon and Uruk

probably formed sophisticated, and perhaps critical, audiences. They may have taken advantage

of these festivals to imagine an alternative to the empire, a world in which the king was

powerless, an idiot, or absent altogether.

V. Community

Performance and Public Events in the Ancient Near East

From Hayam Wuruk’s royal progress to the Akītu Festival, rituals provide an opportunity

to celebrate, establish, and negotiate political identities and practices. But understanding the

performance of politics—the significance of and roles played by the Persepolis festival in the

Iranian revolution or the Ebla coronation ceremony in the rise of this city-state—requires

attention to broader symbolic systems and the ways they are materialized through daily practice

in a world of things. This makes it essential to consider performance in all of its aspects,

including theatricality, everyday life, and performativity.

The preceding chapters considered the intersection of ritual, performance, and politics

through a close reading of three different rituals taken from different times and places in the

ancient Near East, which represented three different types of public events. Each chapter

analyzed how the rituals drew upon a system of collective representations in order to establish

their “scripts” and how they were deployed through a range of materialized symbols—settings

and props that gave them a certain narrative force that endured long after the performance ended.

The chapters also considered the mise-en-scène of individual performance events, the different

ways that political actors enacted their visions, and how the responses of the audience informed

the broader efficacy of the political performance.

Events that model—transformative rituals—like the Ebla coronation ceremony, the

execution of Louis XVI, or the transformation of individuals into ancestors at K’axob, work to

effect certain political transitions. This process served to transform Tabur-Damu and Iš’ar-Damu

into the king and queen of Ebla to such an extent that the documentation never addresses them

by name again. Alternatively, events that present—rituals that mirror an idealized reality—like

the Majapahit processions, Persepolis festival, or the kispum ritual at Mari—may be used by

political elites to develop specific arguments. Unlike the first type of ritual, these performances

do little more than establish a specific rhetorical framework, indeed, by presenting an image of

authority that is at odds with reality, they may backfire, and rarely create a stable political order.

Similarly, events that represent—rituals that allow for the dissolution and recreation of a stable

order—like the Fiesta de Santa Fe or the Akītu festival—provide a locus for dissent and political

negotiation. Such festivals may either strengthen or threaten an effective hegemony.

The specific concepts that each chapter explored—movement, memory, and tradition—

are also critical to the establishment of these broader symbolic systems, as they are foundational

for any community. They may be understood and negotiated differently, but together their

interpretation is part of a larger practical system, one that provides a common-sense framework

for daily life (Roseberyy 1994). Although the particular meaning assigned to them within a

political configuration could be and were contested, the elaboration of such abstractions

structured the arena in which politics were performed. Movement, memory, and tradition lay at

the heart of complex symbolic systems that were articulated in grand rituals like the Ebla

coronation journey, the Feast of the Land, and the Akītu festival. These rituals mattered,

however, only in the sense that they were related to processes and understandings that were more

widely applicable. The power of tradition emerged not just from Antiochus’s celebration of the

Akītu festival, but instead from how that celebration cited, affirmed, and helped to create a

specific idea of what tradition should be and do.

The ambiguous and arbitrary nature of these concepts is crucial to their role as “nodal

points” that helped to partially fix meaning, in a way which is by definition contingent (Laclau

and Mouffe 2001: xi). Within any political domain, hegemony is the struggle over symbolic

systems. It is a contest over how certain concepts are defined with respect to others and over

which ideas will become the source of ultimate meaning (Žižek 1989: 87). Indeed, to a large

extent, this is the form that politics takes. Hence, politics is a contest over the negotiation of

meaning, practiced in the design of road networks, funerals, the construction of temples, or the

writing of history. In archaic states, with limited effective power over their inhabitants, such

ritual performances are how “the group… teaches itself and masks from itself its own

truth…tacitly defining the limits of the thinkable and the unthinkable and so contributing to the

maintenance of the social order from which it derives its power” (Bourdieu 1990: 108).

Each of the chapters has highlighted a different abstraction, but all three were contested

in each period, as they are in all political communities. As a nodal point, a particular concept

may become meaningful (or overdetermined) for a wide web of social relations, but no polity is

ever organized around just one central idea (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 139). The case studies

highlight the multiplicity of strategies that different individuals chose to employ in three

different situations: the rise of the first city-states in the third millennium BC, the re-

establishment of political authority in the early second millennium BC, and the Seleucid

colonization of Babylonia in the late first millennium BC.

Up to this point, I have emphasized contingency, seeking to understand the

establishment, re-establishment, or negotiation of political authority in terms of particularities,

the specific ways that the control of movement, the commemoration of ancestors, or scholarly

traditions brought specific polities into being. Here I would like to adopt instead a comparative

and synthetic approach and reflect on the case studies, and what they may tell us about the

longue durée of Mesopotamian history. I will consider several concepts that are implicit in all of

the chapters—community, instability, and political strategies—and which are essential to the

investigation of Ancient Near Eastern polities, before concluding with a brief meditation on


Performing Community

I have argued that in Early Bronze Age Ebla, Old Babylonian Mari, and Seleucid Babylonia,

people created political communities through performance, both in rituals and through everyday

enactments of particular identities that drew upon the same system of collective representations.

The performative dimension of politics actualized certain political communities. These

communities were not necessarily unitary, and the sense of belonging generated within ritual or

daily practice was often weak, however, the emergence of a collective identity was an essential

part of politics. Given this, it is necessary to reflect on the nature of communities in general, and

political communities in particular, in order to unpack some of the implications of this process.

Community (Gemeinschaft) emerged as a critical analytical category in 19th century

sociology, where it was almost always contrasted with society (Gesellschaft). In this sense,

community represented the natural human social unit, a close-knit group of people living in

small, rural villages, united through kinship, geographical proximity, economic interest, place,

and history. In contrast, society meant industrialized urbanism, where organic solidarity

produced by the faceless mechanisms of the economy and the state was opposed to the

mechanical solidarity based on kinship and proximity that prevailed in a community (Tönnies

1988; Durkheim 1984 [1893]). In this and subsequent work, communities are characterized by

cohesiveness and solidarity, a sense of unity created from daily interactions and exchanges

within a particular setting. Members of a community recognize a number of shared

commonalities and also distinguish themselves from non-members, creating a sense of “us” and

“them.” Although the notion of community expanded greatly during the course of the twentieth

century to include multiple, overlapping urban communities based around neighborhoods,

workplaces, schools, churches, bowling alleys, or bars (Putnam 2000), most work on community

in the twentieth century continued to portray communities as natural (Mac Sweeney 2011: 12-4).

In the past thirty years, however, there has been an increasing recognition of the fact that simply

living or working in the same space does not automatically give rise to a community, in terms of

a collective sense of “us,” a shared identity. In this sense, community is a mental construct, an

imagined solidarity that is symbolically constructed, emerging from cultural practices rather than

social institutions (Cohen 1985). This imagining, however, must be materialized through social

practice. The symbolic construction of a community is realized on a number of levels. If

communities are imagined and are constructed through social interaction, than they are neither

primordial nor universal. Community identity may only be salient in certain situations and at

certain times (Mac Sweeney 2011: 18).

There are two relevant points for the performance of politics in the Ancient Near East

that can be taken from more than a century of community studies. First, one of the

commonalities at Ebla, Mari, and Seleucid Babylonia is the tension between small-scale

communities and larger political formations. Second, it is clear that although stable political

communities—defined in terms of a sense of belonging—are rare, there is a larger sense of a

shared civilization that transcends political divisions. In the Ancient Near East, small-scale

communities were not always rural communities, as they were for Tönnies or Durkheim, rather

they included herding groups, neighborhoods, tribes, and cities. During each period, some of the

meaningful social divisions are different, although others remain important loci for community

and corporate identity throughout this longue durée. Each of the public events that we

considered mediates between these tensions in order to bring a larger political community into

being, through pilgrimage in the Ebla coronation rite, the commemorative rituals in the Feast of

the Land, or the dissolution of political order in the Akītu festival.

Similarly, the more extensive political communities that we may see in Northern

Mesopotamia, the Middle Euphrates, or Babylonia are not nations. Their commonality is not

constructed in terms of shared language or ethnicity. Indeed, it is hard for us to even evaluate

ethnicity as a category. Although certain ethnic terms survive in texts, their referent and context

of use are unclear; and they do not appear to be particularly significant in social life. Even the

categories that are salient in the Ancient Near East, such as citizenship or tribal affiliation, do not

often correspond with larger political realities. There is no pan-ethnic identity or language

community that can give rise to a cohesive collective identity like nationalism. Given this, do

any of these polities represent coherent communities?

In certain cases we do see the appearance of larger political communities that consist of

fields of practice and sometimes administrative units. Nonetheless, these political formations are

rarely stable, do not have defined borders, and tend to cohere only in situations in which ritual

systems coincide with economic, administrative, and political networks. In other words,

establishing a community requires all aspect of performance—from public events to daily life—

to be performative.

In the Ebla region, for instance, the small area defined by the Ebla Coronation journey,

regular deliveries of agricultural produce, and administrative intervention, probably did conceive

of itself as a community, but not one that necessarily coincided with the various political or

material culture divisions that historians or archaeologists draw. Indeed, this territory, located

within one or two day’s travel from the city of Ebla, represented neither the territory that Ebla

claimed to rule nor the territory defined by caliciform pottery, both of which were more

expansive (Milano and Rova 2000; Matthiae and Marchetti 2013). But it was an important

economic and ritual unit all the same, one brought into being through both practice and public

events. More extensive networks, such as the one formed by Ebla’s allied towns and client

kings, were necessarily weaker, tied together by symbolic deliveries of metals and textiles, the

raison d’être of the administration, and the participation of Ebla’s elite in a series of religious

performances like ‘Adabal’s ritual circuit, elite funerals, and royal weddings (Biga 2010).

The same is probably true of many of the mātu during the early second millennium BC,

like the Land of Apum or even Mari, whose constituent territories on the Banks-of-the-Euphrates

were administered as a unit for at least a century. Here, the ritual invocation of a specific past,

through the kispum and other ritual journeys like the sihirtum, were linked to individual polities.

Rituals on the level of the polity only worked, however, when they drew upon widely shared

ideas of history and cited practices like ancestor veneration and the curation of heirlooms that

also occurred in settlements as a whole. Unlike their third millennium predecessors, the

emerging polities, however, were conceived less as territories and more as various peoples. The

continued survival of the smaller kingdoms during this period relied upon negotiations between a

range of sedentary and semi-sedentary actors. Perhaps as a result, although lands were

important, other community identities were more significant for many people, especially ties to a

particular settlement and/or tribe.

During the Seleucid period, in contrast, the increase in trade, more stable administrative

divisions, and improvements in the transportation and communication networks may have led to

larger territories with shared identities. Certainly, the role of the šatammu-priest at the Esagila,

who controlled not only the affairs of the temple, or even of Babylon’s citizenry, but were also

responsible for people living throughout Northern Babylonia, may have helped create a

community. This new regional organization may have promoted a pan-Babylonian identity that

undercut older, city-based political affiliations, although cities remained essential to political

self-determination. This process, relying as it does on colonial conditions, resembles the

establishment of a Pan-Hellenic identity during the Roman Empire under similar constraints

(Alcock 1993; Alcock 2002). The number of students from across Babylonia learning how to

read and write Akkadian and Sumerian in an early Hellenistic schoolroom in Uruk is another

aspect of this process. This community may have been partly constituted in opposition to the

dominant Greek culture (Van der Spek 2009), and although it never coincided with an

independent political unit, remaining at all times subject to Seleucid hegemony, it comes closest

to a “national” community in Anderson’s sense (Anderson 2006).

The second important point, the creation of a broader, shared civilization, is particularly

apparent in the first two case studies. In the mid-third millennium BC, this probably

corresponded to the “Kish civilization,” and included the diplomatic partners of the Ebla court

from Kish in the south to Nagar in the East and perhaps beyond. 161 The use of the term Kish

civilization is not meant to describe the Middle Euphrates and Northern Mesopotamia as a proto-

empire, subordinate to this central Mesopotamian city, instead it merely indicates a wide

diplomatic network, whose participants exchanged high status gifts and brides, and supported

each other in negotiations and in military affairs. By the early second millennium BC, the area

from Haşor in the southwest, to Ekallātum in the East, and Larsa in the south formed a cultural

koine, based on a common diplomatic language, shared religious symbols, and a flexible tribal

system. Apart from this broad, pan-Mesopotamian network, certain cities probably had closer

relations, particularly Ešnunna, Babylon, Mari, Halab, and Ekallātum. In the Seleucid empire,

there may have been a similar koine defined in “Hellenistic,” not Babylonian, terms.

States and Instability

While it seems clear that Mesopotamian political communities were not nations, an

assertion that would strike few scholars as debatable, there is growing evidence that they were

not really “states” either. At least, they were not states in the classic sense that this term has

been used in anthropology and political philosophy. I am not the first person to argue this, and

this is not a place for an extended discussion of the intellectual history of the state or its use in

anthropological archaeology. 162 Instead, I am interested in the specific ways that these polities

differ from later ones, and the social and political implications of these differences. As Lisa

Wedeen has noted in the case of contemporary Yemen, a performance perspective may be

particularly useful for political analysis in situations in which state institutions are lacking.

Indeed, an exploration of the “performative dimensions of political life” can “[account] for the

fragility and contingency of solidarities in a way that many explanations do not” (Wedeen 2008:

213). One of the most significant consequences of the absence of such institutions in both

Yemen and the Ancient Near East was pervasive political instability, a process that framed much

of the operation of politics in both contexts.

The most influential definition of the state in twentieth century political theory is Max

Weber’s formulation in “Politik als Beruf” that the state is the single entity within a given

territory that exercises an exclusive monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (Weber et al.

2004: 33). Weber’s definition implies a process in which the state expropriates the resources for

effective decision-making from individuals and other groups and concentrates “all the material

resources of organization in the hands of its leaders” (Weber et al. 2004: 37-8). In modern

political theory, the state has come to be described as a political entity that controls a definite

territory, where it has a monopoly on violence, and which it governs using an enduring system of

administration, one which will outlive any particular politician. Although each element of this

definition might be necessary to describe modern states adequately (a point about which there is

considerable debate), taken as a whole this definition really only applies to Europe after the

sixteenth, or even eighteenth, century. But as Weber recognized when he formulated this

argument, it coincides well with vernacular understandings of the modern state (Osiander 2007;

Abrams 1988; Ferguson and Mannsbach 1988). Certainly, the three polities that I have

investigated here cannot be easily characterized in these terms, but given the normative force of

Weber’s definition, it is instructive to consider just how the actual practice of politics in these

examples differs from this paradigm.

There are three points that are particularly important in this regard. First, the space of

these polities was often discontinuous, defined by porous borders and consisting of non-

contiguous territories. Second, the enforcement of official policies throughout this territory was

similarly variable, with any individual king able to exercise effective power only in certain urban

spaces and over certain activities. This meant that although most polities did claim a monopoly

over violence, both in the persecution of warfare and the enforcement of justice, this claim was

rarely realized in practice. And third, the clearest difference between a Weberian state and these

Mesopotamian polities lay in their inability to establish an even more fundamental monopoly,

one over political power. In each of the case studies, multiple actors had authority over domains

of life—including violence—that in other times and places are the domain of the state—of the

king and his central administration. These other actors could include tribes, city councils, temple

establishments, and kinship networks. Even when the central administration had great effective

power—such as in the Akkadian Empire or the third dynasty of Ur—their most critical concern

remained extractive rather than managerial, the administration operated under patrimonial rather

than bureaucratic principles, and they always had limited effective control. 163 Although not all

of these characteristics apply to all of these polities, they are often important factors in what

seems to be a pervasive instability.

Mesopotamian kingdoms were rarely, if ever, firmly bounded entities. Instead, like other

pre-modern polities, they are better understood in terms of their shifting frontiers, as an

archipelago of cities and villages scatted across a territory that was contested by other political

actors (Scott 2009; Smith 2005). Two examples from the early second millennium BC illustrate

this point. In the late 18th century, Šeḫna controlled towns both east and west of the Jaghjagh,

entirely separated by Kaḫat, the kingdom centered on this river. Shepherds from Šeḫna,

however, had the right to pasture their sheep along the Jagjagh, Middle Habur, and in the Sinjar,

three territories that were independent of Šeḫna and under the nominal authority of other

kingdoms (fig. 52). Sheep from various sovereign kingdoms could also graze in Šeḫna’s

territory (Ristvet 2008). Similarly, during the 19th century BC, Larsa recorded five victories over

a city called Pī-Nārātim, probably a small town located only 34 miles away, and not in a

contested border region. The fact that this minor settlement, located so close to Larsa, “required

repeated pacification,” highlights the difficulties of maintaining control over a contiguous

territory and the scope for independent actions by individuals outside of the administration

(Richardson 2012: 19). The discontinuous nature of Larsa’s territory is particularly intriguing

given the very different social and environmental conditions that prevailed in Southern

Mesopotamia, resulting at least partly from frictionless water transport, which encouraged the

formation of extractive polities that more closely resembled Weberian states in the late third

millennium BC. Clearly, such intermittent control was the normative situation in the early

second millennium BC and must be understood in cultural and political terms, and not only

environmental or economic ones. We may have hints of a similar situation in Northern

Mesopotamia in the 24th century BC, where the territory that Ebla controlled was rarely stable,

but instead contracted and expanded as a result of yearly raids and skirmishes. The government

of Seleucid Babylonia appears to have managed to impose a more even presence across a

developed and populous territory, but even here Arab raids highlight the discontinuous nature of

the polity (Boiy 2004: 179-80; Shayegan 2011: 206-8).

The second major difference has to do with the almost intractable problem of effective

governance. Pre-modern states always faced the problem of scattered peoples, of individuals

who could escape taxation and official oversight through mobility. This is again most visible in

the early second millennium BC, given the largely mobile population of pastoralists and shifting

village cultivators who could easily evade the jurisdiction of small states. The preserved sections

from three of the five Leilan treaties include stipulations about people who have fled the control

of a polity, indicating the difficulties that states had in retaining people who could easily vote

with their feet (Eidem 2011). In some cases, the people concerned were slaves or captive, but

others may have been ordinary citizens, although the Akkadian terms are not always clear

(Eidem 2011: 341-4). The royal correspondence describes two other groups of people who lived

outside of the effective jurisdiction of any polity: the ḫabirū and the ḫabbātu. Although these

terms may be “virtually synonymous,” in the Mari and Leilan letters, the ḫabirū were emigrants,

who “often acted as rebels against the authority they had escaped.” The ḫabbātu, on the other

hand, were mercenaries outside the control of any one power, who alternately served or

threatened various polities (Eidem 2011). 164 No fewer than 16 letters from Tell Leilan mention

this group, who appear in large numbers (Hazip-Teššup, the king of Razamā hired 10,000

ḫabbātum troops) and who pose a clear danger when not employed. When the ḫabbātu raided

the country of Numhâ, Ewri an official stationed east of Apum, wrote letters to the king, warning

him of the dangers coming his way. He described the ḫabbātu as “eating the Land of Numhûm

clean,” adding that they did not leave so much as “a nail in a wall” (Eidem 2011: letter 172, line

8-11). Eidem hypothesizes that their importance in the second half of the 18th century BC

resulted from the “elimination” of kingdoms including Ešnunna, Larsa, and Mari from the

international stage. This created a world divided between just Babylon and Yamhad, neither of

which could establish lasting hegemony over Greater Mesopotamia, nor consistently employ

these surplus soldiers, who refused to live as simple farmers or pastoralists (Eidem 2011: 20).

The difficulty of enforcing policies and compelling obedience from their subjects helps

explain a puzzling fact that emerges from the cuneiform record. In these texts, Mesopotamian

polities seem to often suffer from a shortage of labor, not land. Archaeologists tend to assume

the opposite and often posit persistent land shortage as a driving force in history. But land is

never at a premium in sale documents, making this assumption untenable (Van Driel 1998: 34-

5). Indeed, the prices paid for land, much of which is itself underutilized, in land sales from the

early second millennium BC and the early first millennium BC tends to be the equivalent of the

value of only two to four annual harvests (Van Driel 1998: 39-48). Similar conditions held in the

Seleucid period (Aperghis 2004; Van der Spek 1993b). The low price suggests that there was

always enough land; the main limiting economic factor tended to be people. This also makes

sense of the nature of most Mesopotamian administrative texts, particularly in the third and early

second millennium BC. At Ebla and Beydar there are few texts about agriculture and land,

instead most texts record ration distributions to personnel or track scarce commodities

(Sallaberger 1996). The great tebibtum or census undertaken during Samsi-Addu's reign was

about ensuring the loyalty of both settled and nomadic subjects, and recruiting soldiers (Talon

and Hammade 1997; Kellenberger 2000; Michel 1990; Castillo 2005: 133-4). Like many of the

administrative procedures that we have considered, it is as ritual as it is political; tebibtum means

purification and the lists that we have documenting its operation record the presence of religious

symbols and officials (Talon and Hammade 1997: 15).

The final major difference is partly derived from the problems of effective governance

and has to do with the inability of Mesopotamian polities to consistenly maintain their positions

as authorities of last resort. The activities of the habīru and ḫabbātu in Apum or the Arab tribes

in Seleucid Babylonia testify to the fact that polities did not exercise a monopoly on either

legitimate violence or political authority within their territory. During the early second

millennium and the first millennium BC, tribes, especially, were key political actors, not just

among semi-nomadic pastoralists, but in farming villages along the Middle Euphrates and in

cities like Mari and Šeḫna. As we have seen, pastoralists, villagers, and city-dwellers could all

have a tribal affiliation during the early second millennium BC. Recognizing that tribes, even in

ancient Mesopotamia, were not timeless, sui generis entities, but instead historically contingent,

is essential to understanding their political role during this period. My point here is not that

states and tribes were diametrically opposed entities, always in conflict, as that is quite obviously

not the case in the Mari documentation (Ristvet 2012b; Fleming 2004a; Durand 2004; Porter

2012). Tribes and cities could remain autonomous entities, but often had overlapping spheres of

authority. In some cases, for example, during the reign of Zimri-Lim, as we have seen, urban

kings could define themselves in terms of their tribal identities and employed tribal

organizational principles in the military and administration (Fleming 2004a; above chapter 3).

Both tribes and states were part of the same spectrum of politics, and could “diverge and merge

in a myriad of combinations over time” (Porter 2012: 13). What is important is precisely this

ambiguity. Neither polity was a distinct entity, nor did urban authority supplant tribal authority

following a long period of sedentarization. In other words, kings, urban centers, or states did not

have a monopoly on political power, rather tribes exercised political authority as well. They

could engage in conflicts, enact alliances, and decide land disputes, in concert with, or in

opposition to, urban polities. In the late first millennium BC, tribes also appear as essential

political entities, although their relationship to communities in Babylonia is different (Boiy 2004:

178-80; Sherwin-White and Kuhrt 1993: 18).

But tribes organized as competing and sometimes complementary polities were not the

only political actors. We have no information, for example, that they existed in this form during

the 24th century BC, although there were obviously pastoralists outside of the control of any

kingdom. Instead three other political institutions that could compete with the royal

administration are also relevant in these case studies—kinship networks, councils of elders, and

temples. In all periods, family connections were no doubt important, but it is hard to trace the

authority that individual families or other lineage-based organizations wielded and how that

changed over time. Families exist on the edges of our documentation and understanding the

dynamics of kinship is not possible from material culture alone. During the early second

millennium BC, family connections are particularly important for land tenure, which seems to

have been managed communally either by tribes or kin groups (Van Koppen 2001; Charpin

2010c). A similar situation of communal landownership is much better documented during the

Akkadian period in the stela of Maništušu (Gelb et al. 1991). It is difficult to tell if this was also

the norm at Ebla, although David Schloen suggests as much by translating the term NA.SE11,

which describes landholders and ration recipients, as heads of households (Schloen 2001: 281-2).

Kinship networks are also the institutions that resolved most disputes in Mesopotamian cities,

making them the usual locus of legal authority. Such communal organizations probably had

jurisdiction over cases in which the disputants were not employed by the palace (Yoffee 1988:

105). Indeed, the palace intervened rarely and certainly had no monopoly over “justice,” despite

the rhetoric of royal inscriptions and law codes (Bottéro 1992: 160-1; Wells 2005; Roth 1995).

It is quite possible that law was the domain of community institutions because only they had the

power to enforce their decisions. Royal law codes seem to be “barely interested in policing” and

rarely specify just who will incarcerate lawbreakers, or mete out punishment to the condemned

(Richardson 2012: 34).

As this example illustrates, in all three periods, councils held real power. In the case of

second millennium BC Urkiš, the town council clearly provided an alternative to the king. This

institution was not subordinated to his authority, nor was it merely another part of an essentially

unitary political system; rather the council and the hapless Terru, Zimri-Lim’s appointee to the

throne of Urkiš, were bitter rivals who both sought to have the final word in diplomacy, warfare,

and other official matters (chapter 3, above). A similar situation may have unfolded in a town

like Lu'atum in Ebla's sphere of authority, which was ruled alternately by a council and the king

of Ebla, although we do not have the same detailed documentation (chapter 2, above).

There are other, archaeological attestations of power sharing in individual cities. Both

third millennium Nabada and second millennium Šeḫna had two palaces in different parts of the

city that were occupied simultaneously. At Šeḫna, we know that one of the palaces belonged to

the kings of Leilan from Samsi-Addu to the fall of the city, while the other palace was built by

Qarni-Lim, king of Andarig, and probably occupied by this king and his successor Himdiya, who

acted as senior partners in the kingship at Apum in the last years of Zimri-Lim's reign (Ristvet

and Weiss 2011; Van de Mieroop 1994; Pulhan 2000). We do not have the same epigraphic

information regarding the two palaces in Nabada, but it is possible that they attest to a similar

competitive situation (Pruss 2012).

In Seleucid Babylonia, the heads of major temples and the temple's assembly were

responsible for judging and administering the Babylonian community. Temples had

considerable economic clout, including being the authority of last resort for most land

assignments. Although the interests of the temples and communities of prominent Babylonians

often coincided with those of the central administration, this was not always the case. As a

result, we can clearly see friction and negotiation between the Seleucid crown and the

Babylonian temples. Neither party always has a monopoly over either political or economic

policy in these cities (Van der Spek 1993b: 76-7).

Political Strategies

Officials of the three Mesopotamian polities that we have considered—Ebla, Mari, and

Seleucid Babylon—all sought to control the practices of their inhabitants by negotiating with,

accommodating, and usurping the authority of other political actors. Michel Foucault has

analyzed the different ways in which modern states employ the legal code, disciplinary

mechanisms, and the apparatus of security as part of the establishment of sovereignty. These are

different techniques of power that emphasize respectively law and punishment; surveillance and

correction; and organization and regulation. These strategies co-exist within modern societies

(and perhaps all societies), although the apparatus of security, with its emphasis on statistics and

its laissez-faire approach to “natural” processes, has been dominant since the 18th century. 165

The polities under consideration could not employ such a system, but depended instead on a

mixture of “legal” and disciplinary strategies, as well as on technologies of spectacle. In a world

where mechanisms for enforcement hardly existed, polities employed charisma, tradition, and

bodily practices as techniques of legitimacy. As I have argued, ritual performance, which

pervaded many aspects of government, was one way that polities established their power.

Throughout these millennia, politics remained personal, and rulers relied upon charisma

in the Weberian sense of exceptional, god-given ability (Launderville 2003; Weber 1968). In

royal inscriptions, which provide perhaps the clearest statements of this charismatic principle,

gods can choose, appoint, name, or determine the fate of individual kings. They can bestow

divine radiance, love, might, and kingship. Gods may even, to cite a popular metaphor, entrust

the king, as shepherd, with the lead-rope of the people, his flock. The word that comes closest to

charisma in Akkadian is melammu (Sum. mé-lam), which can be understood as a divine sheen,

an awe-inspiring aura, and a terrible radiance (Winter 1994; Oppenheim 1943; Cassin 1968).

Melammu is a divine attribute and an “almost independent magical object,” that symbolizes the

awesome quality of divine power and its destructive and protective aspects (Ataç 2007: 296).

This concept is absent from early descriptions of kingship, but it surfaces as a royal attribute by

the end of the third millennium BC. Šulgi, Hammurabi, and Samsuiluna are all described as

possessing melammu. 166 Although this terminology is not used in the north, the letter from Nur-

Sin to Zimri-Lim states that Addu gave Zimri-Lim kingship and “anointed him with the oil of

his radiance” (Durand 2002: FM 7 38: 4'), illustrating a similar concept. On a more general

level, kings in all three periods proclaim that they are chosen by the gods in some way, a notion

that clearly emerges in both Samsi-Addu’s titulary and the Antiochus cylinder.

The implications of charismatic kingship go beyond this acknowledgment of the will of

the gods. The importance of this principle may account for literary texts that describe the

exploits of kings like the Epic of Zimri-Lim or legends of earlier kings. But a reliance on the

personal rather than the institutional qualities of kingship may also explain why kings rarely

delegate their authority. A letter from the governor of Qaṭṭunan to Zimri-Lim is about the

slaughter of one bull, and the suet that is rendered from its carcass. In his report on this matter,

the governor notes that this is just one in a series of letters concerning the fate of this animal:

When my lord stayed in Hušlan, a bull who was part of the annual tax, choked. I

wrote to my lord about it and my lord answered as follows, “Kill that bull! Its

meat and its suet must be preserved!” This my lord wrote me. When my lord

returned to Hušlan, I reminded my lord about that bull and my lord told me the

following, “it must be properly dealt with.” And after I withdrew, nobody

reminded my lord about the meat of that bull. Now I arrived and the meat of that

bull and its suet have been properly dealt with. The meat did not spoil. My lord

must write to me and they will carry that meat to Mari. Otherwise my lord must

write to me, and tell me to do this or not (Heimpel 2003: ARM 27 129, p. 454).

The expectation of the king's personal attention to matters that might seem mundane also

emerges at Ebla. Only a handful of letters and diplomatic texts were preserved in these archives,

but they report on activities like merchants trading small numbers of animals (30 sheep) and

attending funerals (Fronzaroli 2003: ARET 13, 14).

It is also possible to interpret the personal interest of the king in household details in

patrimonial terms. The king may be simply acting as the head of a household and hence properly

attending to every detail of his estate. The importance of kinship terminology and household

concerns appears in both administrative vocabulary and practices. David Schloen has argued

that this metaphor served as the essential model of politics in the bronze age, but clearly

elements of it may have persisted longer (Schloen 2001). The importance of kinship, ancestors,

and inheritance emerges most clearly from the various attempts of people during the early second

millennium BC to use the “authority of the ‘eternal past’” to sanction the present (Weber et al.

2004: 34). But of course something similar is present at Ebla, when kingship may only be

transferred at the royal mausoleum, placing political authority quite literally in the hands of the

ancestors. And the transmission of traditional knowledge in Hellenistic Babylonia—either

scholarly or religious—shares in this same concept of inheritance.

The transmission of tradition—and indeed the apparatus of power—works through bodily

practice. This has its own logic, particularly in areas of life not governed by writing or

scholarship. Many spheres of knowledge may only be transmitted to the next generation by

inscribing them on the body, through daily performance; the practical effect of habitual learning

is essential to socialization. In Bourdieu's words, “what is ‘learned by body’ is not something

that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is” (Bourdieu 1990:

73). Going on a pilgrimage, burying one’s relatives, or impressing a ring into a tablet were all

activities that inculcated knowledge, that naturalized politics, that performed citizenship, and in

so doing, created a certain type of political actor.

As a result of all of these tendencies, kings in the polities that we have considered (and

probably in general in Mesopotamia)—never succeeded in appropriating all political authority,

leaving them and their polities vulnerable and making their states weak, despite their claims of

autocracy. This may partly explain why so few states in Mesopotamia lasted for much more than

a century. Kassite Babylonia and the Neo-Assyrian empire remain the major exceptions to this

trend, yet even the latter only maintained its full supremacy for little more than a hundred years.


But despite this seeming fragility, a self-consciously Mesopotamian civilization survived for

three millennia. This survival obviously must be problematized, particularly in light of the

obvious fact that traditions, and indeed the past were constructed in particular ways at particular

periods, according to a logic that is often obscure to us and has little to do with our own

traditions of historiography (Michalowski 1999). True continuity was rarely the norm, as it

hardly ever is (cf. McCorriston 2011). A continued emphasis on continuity is probably due to

the power that antiquity and the past exercised in different periods of Mesopotamian history, the

power of history in history (above, chapter 2). It is certainly possible to draw a line from the

intersection of genealogies, funerary practices, and the creation of political power at Mari (and

even earlier at Ebla) and the king list that lies at the heart of Berossus' history. It is essential to

realize, however, that each of these functioned as political arguments in very different contexts.

The understanding of certain concepts like divination, ancestors, or ritual were transformed over

time, even when the same, unchanged, texts were transmitted. But this constructed argument for

continuity was still powerful. This, after all, is why the ancient Near East still resonates in the

21st century—because the study of this civilization, although lost immeasurably to us, has been

used to create a new prehistory for both “Western” and “Islamic” civilizations—and as a result,

for much of the world.


Fig. 1 Actors portraying Achaemenid soldiers with a wheeled tower in the Persepolis parade,
October, 1971 (Photograph courtesy Bob Dyson)

Fig. 2 The execution of Louis XVI, January 21, 1793 (Courtesy of the British Library)

Fig. 3 Brahu temple, Trowoulan, Majapahit period (Photograph courtesy Tian Yake)

Fig. 4 Volunteers portraying Don Juan De Vargas and Conquistadors during the Santa Fe Fiesta
(Photograph courtesy Robert Hanelt)

Fig. 5 Map of K’axob (After McAnany et al. 2004, fig. 2.1)

Fig. 6 K'axob, Operation 1: Phase 9 (After McAnany et al. 2004, fig. 2.10)

Fig. 7 K'axob, Burials 1-1 and 1-2 (After McAnany et al. 2004, fig. 6.8 and 6.9)

Fig. 8 Panel 1, La Corona, Dedication of Patron Deity Temple (Photograph courtesy Joanne

Fig. 9 Map of Northern Mesopotamia 2600-2300 BC (Base map by author, using ESRI
Topographic Data [Creative Commons]: World Shaded Relief, World Linear Water, and World

Fig. 10 Tell Leilan (ancient Šehna), the modern road runs through the ruins of the northern city
gate in the outer city wall; the walled Acropolis is visible in the background (photo by author)

Fig. 11 Main Street,” the main entryway to the palace at Beydar (ancient Nabada) is visible on
the south-east side of the citadel. Each checkpoint where access can be controlled is marked
(After Lebeau and Suleiman 2006, courtesy Marc Lebau)

Fig. 12 The Palace in Area F, “The Official Block,” of Tell Beydar. A) Phase 1, B) Phase 2, C)
Phase 3a, D) Phase 3b (After Bretschneider 2003: Plan 1, courtesy Marc Lebeau)

Fig. 13 Spatial graph of Beydar, Area F, Palace. A) Phase 1, B) Phase 2

Fig. 14 Chuera (ancient Abarsal?) citadel plan with the main ceremonial street marked (after
Meyer 2007: fig. 2 and fig. 9)

Fig. 15 Axonometric reconstruction of the plaza and palace G, (After Matthiae 1981, Fig. 12)

Fig. 16 Ritual journeys in the Kingdom of Ebla, ca. 2350 BC

Fig. 17 Wagon sealings from Northern Mesopotamia: a) Beydar seal 4 (Scene 60; Jans and
Bretschneider 2011: 76-82); a), b) Išqi-Mari royal seal 1 (after Beyer and Lecompte 2014: fig.
3b), c) Išqi-Mari royal seal 2 (after Beyer 2007: fig. 18)

Fig. 18 Tombs and offering chambers at Gre Virike, Period IIa (after Ökse 2005: Fig. 3)

Fig. 19 Ritual buildings at Hazna (after Munchaev, Merpert and Amirov 2004: tabl. 3)

Fig. 20 a) Statue from Jebelet al-Beda (Oppenheim 1933, pl. 62a) and b) stela from Jebelet al-
Beda (Oppenheim 1933, pl. 63a, Both photographs courtesy Hausarchiv Sal. Oppenheim,
Cologne, Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung)

Fig. 21 Plan of Bazi/Banat (ancient Armanum?) with the location of the fortified gate building on
Jebel Bazi and the lower citadel wall (after Porter 2002: Fig. 2, courtesy of A. Porter)

Fig. 22 Possible pilgrimage networks on the Upper Euphrates

Fig. 23 Intervisibility and viewshed analysis at Gre Virike

Fig. 24 Mesopotamia from 1900-1500 BC (Base map by author, using ESRI Topographic Data
[Creative Commons]: World Shaded Relief, World Linear Water, and World Countries)

Fig. 25 Survey areas in the Habur plain, Syria. Areas of decreasing population are in dark gray,
and areas of increasing population are in white (Base map by author, using ESRI Topographic
Data [Creative Commons]: World Shaded Relief, World Linear Water, and World Countries)

Fig. 26 Tell Leilan/Šubat-Enlil, 1900-1700 BC

Fig. 27 AO19833, Obverse and Reverse, Historical liver omen from Mari that mentions Sargon
(© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 28 Kahat, Stratum 31 B (After Valentini 2003, Fig. 3)

Fig. 29 A) MBA ceramic figurine from Tepe Gawra (32-21-544) and B) Stone figurine from
Billa (92-4-1), (Courtesy of Penn Museum, photo by author)

Fig. 30 Wadi Hedaja 1: General View of BC-10 (Fuji and Adachi 2010, Fig. 5, Courtesy of S.

Fig. 31 Umm el-Marra, Monument 1, from North (Schwartz et al. 2012: fig. 19, photograph by
James van Rensselaer IV, courtesy of G. Schwartz)

Fig. 32 Area A, 'Usiyeh (After Oguchi and Oguchi 2005, Fig. 2 and Fig. 3)

Fig. 33 Ninevite 5 Ware from the Leilan Acropolis Temple, Room 19 (photo by author)

Fig. 34 Leilan Acropolis Northeast Temple, isometric plan (Weiss 1982: fig. 8, photograph by H.
Weiss, Yale University, courtesy H. Weiss)

Fig. 35 Seleucid Babylonia and Syria (Base map by author, using ESRI Topographic Data
[Creative Commons]: World Shaded Relief, World Linear Water, and World Countries)

Fig. 36 Seleucid-Parthian period sites and canals from the Heartland of Cities Survey, (After
Adams 1982, fig. 40)

Fig. 37 Seleucid-Parthian period sites and canals from the Diyala Survey (After Adams 1982,
fig. 42)

Fig. 38 Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Corona, 1104-2138F (Aug 16, 1968)

Fig. 39 Uruk during the Seleucid-Parthian period (after Finkbeiner 1991: Beilage 31, Courtesy of
the DAI)

Fig. 40 Babylon city plan, based on the 1974 survey (Courtesy archive Centro Scavi Torino)

Fig. 41 Serving wares from Seleucid-Parthian Uruk (“Greek-inspired” shapes on left;
“Babylonian” shapes on right) (After Finkbeiner 1991 a: Tafel 167 and 169, courtesy of the DAI.
Numbers for each sherd are the same as in the original publication)

Fig. 42 “Hellenistic” Cooking ware from Seleucid-Parthian Uruk (left) and Athens (right) (After
Finkbeiner 1991a: Tafel 168 and Rotroff 2006, courtesy of the DAI and Agora Excavations,
American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Numbers for each sherd are the same as in the
original publications)

Fig. 43 Seleucid terracotta figurine, made in a “Greek” double mould but with “Babylonian
features,” Babylon BM 94344 (Courtesy of the British Museum)

Fig. 44 U-V 17-19, Level II, Ekur-Zakir Family House (after Schmidt et al. 1979, plates 68 and
69, courtesy of the DAI)

Fig. 45 The Nabû Temple, Borsippa (After Reade, 1986, Fig. 1)

Fig. 46 Antiochus Cylinder, BM 36277 (Courtesy of the British Museum)

Fig. 47 Bit Rēš Temple (After Downey 1988,fig. 4. Courtesy of the DAI)

Fig. 48 Ešgal Temple (After Downey 1988, fig. 6. Courtesy of the DAI)

Fig. 49 Brick stamped with Adad-Nadin-Ahhe's name in Greek, palace of Girsu, AO29776 (©
RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY)

Fig. 50 Archives Building, Seleucid, Isometric Drawing (After Invernizzi, 2003, courtesy of

Fig. 51 Akītu Temple, Uruk Akītu Temple, Uruk (After Downey 1988, fig. 8. Courtesy of the

Fig. 52 Reconstructed Territory of Apum and Kahat, ca. 1730 BC. Kahat is in light gray and
Apum is in dark gray. Dotted lines represent modern rainfall isohyets. (Base map by author,
using ESRI Topographic Data [Creative Commons]: World Shaded Relief, World Linear Water,
and World Countries)

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Woods et al. 2013.

The classic studies are Adams 1965, 1966, 1981; Adams and Nissen 1972; and Johnson and Wright 1975. More

recently, see Algaze 2008; Stone 2007.

In this regard it is interesting to note that Near Eastern archaeologists have only rarely participated in many recent

volumes on ideology, performance, ritual, memory, or materiality, see: Mills and Walker 2008; Claessen and Oosten

1996; Inomata and Coben 2006; Kyriakidis 2007; Van Dyke and Alcock 2003; Bernbeck and McGuire 2011. Of

course, several Mesopotamian historians and art historians have adopted perspectives that emphasize political

economy and ideology, most notably Postgate 1994a; Yoffee 1995; Bahrani 2008; Winter 2009.
See particularly Schechner 1993; Handelman 1990; Turner 1969; Durkheim and Halls 1984; Durkheim 1995.
Similarly, in the early 2000s, Frank Rich, who began his career as a theater critic, became one of George W.

Bush’s most influential critics. For many commentators, Rich’s background made him an ideal person “to explain a

political culture increasingly dominated by simulation and spectacle,” Greenberg 2006. Jeffrey Alexander has

similarly applied performance analysis to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and presidency (2011, 2010).
This understanding of performance, in terms of practice, performativity and the physical world, closely resembles

elements of “practice theory,” particularly structuration as explicated in Giddens 1984; Bourdieu 1977.
Descriptions of the Persepolis festivities are drawn from numerous accounts in the popular press and books,

including: Milani 2012: 322-4; Sciolino 2000: 161-6; Shawcross 1988: 39-44; McWhirter 1971; Life Magazine

There is of course, a huge bibliography on cultural history in revolutionary France. I am particularly indebted in

this account to the following: Hunt 1984, 2008; Ozouf 1975; Shaw 2011; Furet 1992; Sonenscher 2008.
These numbers are based on the size of the plaza, calculated from McAnany 2004a: Fig. 2. The estimates for how

many people the plaza can hold assume estimates of .46m2, 1m2, and 3.6m2 per person, as in Inomata 2006. Gilibert

uses a slightly smaller estimate for a crowd, assuming .4m2 per person (Gilibert 2011: 103). The estimate of the

population of K’axob given by the excavators is vague, “in the tens of thousands” McAnany 2004b.

These estimates are calculated using the same parameters as in 9. The size of the plaza was estimated based on

Baron 2013: fig. 6.2.

This discussion is drawn from Handelman’s typology of events that model the lived-in world, present the lived-in

world, and re-present the lived-in world (1990: 23-58).

Geertz does address the subject of ritual failure in his analysis of a funeral in Java, however, where the practices

performed as part of a slametan ceremony increased social tension (Geertz 1973: 142-169). But the problem with

this analysis, as Bell aptly indicates, is that it assumes stasis in the symbolic system thus not allowing for the change

that the article sets out to analyze (Bell 1992: 33-5).

Obviously this literature is immense and includes seminal works by Victor Turner (1969, 1974, 1979, 1982;

Turner and Schechner 1986), Mary Douglas (2002), Ronald Grimes (1985, 1990), Roy Rapaport (1984; 1999),

Catherine Bell (1992, 2007; Bell and Aslan 2009), and Jonathan Z. Smith (1978, 1982, 1987) among others, drawing

on earlier work by Durkheim (1995) and Van Gennep (1961).

In this Wedeen draws upon the work of Althusser, particularly his idea of interpellation (1971). Maintaining the

distinction between theatrical performance and daily practice can “expose the multiple ways in which actors can be

“hailed” or “interpellated,” brought into being as a national community—at least some of the time” (Wedeen 2008:

The Chicago Assyriological Dictionary provides a discussion of the semantic range of these terms diachronically

(for mātum, CAD M, part 1, 414-421; for ālum, CAD A, 379-388). For a general discussion of settlement terms,

their political connotations, and archaeological profile, see Postgate 1994a: 73-87; Stone 2007; Adams 2008;

McMahon 2013. For the political connotations of alum, see Seri 2005: chapter 5; Van de Mieroop 1999; Fleming

It should be noted that the phrase šarrutam epēšum occurs in the Mari correspondence and Old Babylonian royal

inscriptions. It is also common during other periods. It is absent, however, from the Ebla texts. For šarrūtam

epēšum and bēlūtam epēšum (see, CAD E, 219-220 and 205, and CAD Š, part 2114-123).
Following Slavoj Žižek, I define ideology as the general material process of the social production of ideas, beliefs,

and values, which are functional to relations of power in some non-transparent way (Žižek 1994: 8). This definition

of ideology is similar to William Roseberry’s reworking of the Gramscian notion of hegemony as “a common

material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about, and acting upon social orders characterized by

domination” (Roseberry 1994: 361). Defining ideology as a material process thus opens up the possibility of

understanding it both as ritual and in daily life.

The literature on ritual texts in Mesopotamia is vast. For a recent introduction to much of the literature on magic

rituals see Schwemer 2011, with bibliography. For important publications of rituals and their broader context, see

Maul 1994; Ambos 2004. For a more general introduction to religion in the Ancient Near East in general, see Snell

2011, for Mesopotamia, see Bottéro 2004. For the past decade, groundbreaking work on ritual in the ancient world

more generally has emerged out of the Heidelberg project on ritual dynamics, particularly Weinfurter et al. 2005;

Hüsken 2007, for the complete list see http://www.ritualdynamik.de.

In the Ancient Near East, this art historical approach has been applied mostly to monumental art from the Iron

Age, as well as some second and third millennium sculpture, see Gilibert 2011; Winter 1992; Bahrani 2008; Denel

2007; Harmanşah 2013; Smith 2006; B. Brown 2010; Mazzoni 1997; for a similar approach in Mesoamerica, see

Guernsey 2006, 2012; Guernsey et al. 2010; in the Classical world, see Kondoleon et al. 1999.
See, in general Smith 2003; Inomata and Coben 2006. Once again, in the Ancient Near East, this approach has

usually focused on Iron Age performance spaces, see Pucci 2008; Harmansah 2007; Harmanşah 2013; Gilibert 2011.

For Mesoamerica, see Inomata 2006; Schele and Mathews 1998, for the Andes, see Coben 2006; Moore 1996.
In general see the essays in Kyriakidis 2007; Mills and Walker 2008; Berggren and Stutz 2010. For

Mesopotamia, see Winter 1999; Cohen 2005; Pollock 2007.

Laclau and Mouffe have been criticized for their ideational approach, their rejection of the Marxist notion of an

ideological superstructure separate from the economic conditions of life. Clearly, their post-Marxist understanding

of hegemony and ideology is not the same as Althusser’s (Smith 1998; Torfing 1999). Nonetheless, there is nothing

that prevents applying Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas about signification, culture, and hegemony to the material world

as well; indeed, their own analysis of leftist politics suggests that this is not an oppositional reading (Laclau and

Mouffe 2001: 149-194).

ARET XI includes three ritual texts; two long texts, 1 and 2, and a shorter précis, 3. Most scholars now agree that

1 and 2 record the coronation/wedding ceremonies of Ebla’s last two kings and queens, Irkab-Damu and his

unnamed bride, and Išar-Damu and Tabur-Damu. The third text, which is quite abbreviated seems to be a general

summary of the ritual procedures necessary for a coronation. The description of the ritual here is an amalgamation

of both 1 and 2, since the texts are broken, but where they coincide are nearly identical. Certain details are also

drawn from text 3—such as the rituals in the ma-ra-sum (Biga 2007-2008; Fronzaroli 1992; cf. Viganò 1995, 2000).

In addition, three administrative texts—TM.75.G.1730, TM.75.G.2164 and TM.75.G.2417—have been linked to

these rituals, and contain many parallel passages. Although there are as yet no editions of them, I have relied on

Maria Giovanna Biga’s discussions to provide other details for the ceremony and their preparations (Biga 1998;

Biga 1992; Biga 1996, 2003). Recent analysis of these and other administrative texts has led Biga to conclude that

the festival actually occurred after the marriage, and is a ritual of the renewal of royalty, like the Egyptian Sed

Festival (Biga 2010: 37-9), but she has not yet published all these data, so this narrative is still based on Fronzaroli

and Biga’s earlier interpretation that the ritual is a ceremony performed at the marriage and coronation of each king

(Fronzaroli 1992; Biga 2007-2008). I am grateful to Vanna Biga for discussing these matters with me and

generously providing me with her articles.

For references to these gifts see Biga 1998; Biga 2003; for textiles, TM.75.G.2164 and TM.75.G.2417; Biga 1992:

For metals, TM.75.G.1730.

I follow Matthiae, Archi, Milano and Biga in assuming that the SA.ZAki corresponds to Palace G on the Acropolis

of Tell Mardikh, see Matthiae 2009: 275, fn. 12, contra Porter 2012: 217. Soundings in 1968 underneath the second

millennium Ištar temple revealed part of an earlier temple that may have belonged to Kura here (Matthiae 2008: 34).
It is unclear how to read NE, the first sign of this toponym. Archi and Bonechi both read Binaš—and it is under

this form in most toponym lists outside of ARET XI, while Fronzaroli uses the form Nenaš in the official

publication and is followed in this by Biga and Porter. I follow Archi and Bonechi here. Binaš was probably the

site of the tombs of three kings of Ebla, and otherwise of little importance. Although the Ebla texts mention

deliveries of textiles for an assembly (UNKEN-ak NE- na-ášKI, ARET III: 277 II 5) and a lady of Binaš (dam /Ne-

na-ášKI ARET III: 878 r. III: 3), few personal names from this town are known, and most of the references are cultic

(ARET IV: 1; r. XII: 21, where Binaš is associated with Kura, the god of royalty (Archi et al. 1993; Bonechi 1993;

Porter 2012; Biga 2007-2008).

The only exception to these offerings are the events that transpire the day after they leave Ebla, when the king and

queen sit on the thrones of their ancestors at a place called the waters of Mašad of Nirar (ARET XI 1 21; ARET XI 2

21). The exceptional nature of these activities foreshadows the ritual that occurs in Binaš.

Ibbini-Li’m, Šagiš, and Išrut-Damu are dead king of Ebla, whose names are written with the divine element, the

dingir sign. On the possible meaning of this sign in this context, please see discussions in Archi 1988; Biga 1998,

2007-2008, 2012; Fronzaroli 1988, 1992, 1993; Porter 2002, 2012; Stieglitz 2002.
This English translation follows Fronzaroli’s Italian translation of ARET XI 1 55–65 and ARET XI 2 58–68. It

differs only in the treatment of gu4 ABxÁŠ, which I render as “ancestor bull.” 58. [mu-DU]/ [en]/ [wa]/ ma-li[k]-t[um]/

si-i[n]/ é ma-tim... / 59. ba4-ti/ [dKu]-┌ra┐/ [wa]/dBa-ra-ma/si-┌in┐/┌é┐ [ma-tim]/ [wa]/ mu-DU/ dKu-ra/ wa/ dBa-ra-

ma/ si-in/ 1 é-duru5KI/ 60. wa/ ┌al6┐-┌tuš┐/ 61. wa/ mu-DU/ en/ si-in/ é-duru5KI-sù/ 62. ap/ ma-lik-tum/ si-in/ é-

duru5ki-sù/63. ù-lu/ ba4-ti/ en/ wa/ ma-lik-tum 1 gu4 AB×AŠ 2 udu 1 kù-sal 1 buru4- MUŠEN bar6:kù/ dingir I-bí- NI-Li-

im/ 2 udu 1 kù-sal 1 bu[ru4]- MUŠEN bar6:kù dingir/Sa-gi-su 2 udu 1 kù-sal 1 buru4- muŠEN ┌bar6┐:┌kù┐/dingir Iš11-

ru12-ud-Da-mu/En-na- NI ┌nídba┐/ 64. zi-ga/ ti-TÚG/ en/ wa/ ma-lik-tum/ è-ma/ wa/ al6-tuš/ al6 / GIš-<<ušti(n)>>/ a-

mu a-mu-sù / 65. wa/ en-nun-ak/ u4 è/ dUtu/ 66. dUtu-ma/ è/ KA.DI/ KA.DI/ balag-di [bal]ag-┌di┐/ balag-di/ ša-ti/ dTU/

sur-ak/ 67. wa [du11]-┌ga┐/ [níg-mul!-mul (AN.AN:AN.AN)]/ [níg-mul!]-┌mul!┐ ([AN.AN]:┌AN┐. ┌AN┐)/ 68. wa/ níg-

mul!-mul! (AN.AN: AN.AN)/ dTU/ dKu-ra gibil/ dBa-ra-ma gibil/ en gibil/ ma-lik-tum gibil.
There has been more attention to the archaeology of pilgrimage elsewhere (Graham-Campbell 1994; Bradley

1999; Kelly and Brown 2012; Shaw 2013).

Estimates place the number of documents in the Ebla archive between 2,000 and 7,000; providing a more precise

figure is difficult because of the degree of fragmentation of many of the texts (Archi 1986b; Milano 1995: 1223). At

Beydar, ca. 250 tablets have been excavated (Ismail 1996; Milano et al. 2004). In addition to these archives, there

are a small number of contemporary (i.e. Early Dynastic) texts from Mari (Charpin 1987), including some from

excavations in the 1990s and 2000s, which have not yet been published (Cavigneaux 2009: 51). There is also on ED

text from Brak (Michalowski 2003a), although most Brak texts come from the following Akkadian period (Eidem et

al. 2001). There are no other tablets before the Akkadian period from Northern Mesopotamia. For recent historical

studies of this period in the north, see Sallaberger 2011, and for the south, see Bauer et al. 1998.
Ristvet N.D.-a; Rova and Weiss 2003; Ur 2010a: 401; Porter 2012; cf. Meyer 2011.
This area did see a few, large late Chalcolithic settlements, most noticeably Tell Brak, but the overall

concentration and nature of urbanism is entirely different in the mid-third millennium BC (Ur 2010a; Ur et al. 2007).

Based on a population estimate of between 60-200 people per hectare for cities between 100 and 125 ha. These

estimates come from ethnographic work in contemporary Iranian villages (Kramer 1980; Weiss 1986). For a

different approach to calculating population, see Postgate 1994b.

The literature on this topic is vast. For lithics, see Hartenberger et al. 2000; Thomalsky 2011, for metals, Potts

1997; Bianchi and Franke 2011: 201-3, for cylinder seal production, Moorey 1999: 103-6; Gorelick and Gwinnett

1990: 53, in general, Wattenmaker 1998.

For recent summaries of ethnographic literature on tribalism, see Porter 2012; Salzman 2004.
Many Ebla specialists see no evidence for tribes, or even relations with pastoralists (Astour 1992: 54-55; Milano

1995: 1222; Archi 2006; cf. Porter 2012). Fronzaroli, Biga, and Bonechi have argued for some “tribal structures,”

although in Biga’s case this seems to have more to do with the importance of kinship in Ebla than for tribes like

those known from later periods (Biga 2010: 30-2; Bonechi 2002). The best data for tribal social organization, in this

political sense, are references to the “da-mu” which means “kin” and should perhaps be understood as “a social

organization which can detach its personnel at the request of the Eblaic administration” (Fronzaroli 1998: 112). Da-

mu generally surface in an administrative context and are not necessarily pastoralist or tribal although Fronzaroli

does understand them as a tribal group and suggests that some type of diffuse—perhaps tribal—authority

characterizes Ib’al and DUki (ARET 13:11, 12, 13).

For general archaeological approaches to feasting and politics, see Aranda Jiménez et al. 2011; Bray 2003; Dietler

and Hayden 2001. For the Near East, see Helwing 2004; Pollock 2003a.
For Eannatum’s campaigns, see Frayne 2008: RIME 1 E1.9.3.1, rev. vi 5, E1.9.3.5, vi 17, E., ii 2. Subartu

is a geographic term which is used both generally for the area to the north of Sumer and Akkad and more narrowly,

to refer to the area of the East Tigris. For discussions of the terms, see Sallaberger 2007, fn. 24; Steinkeller 1993:

77, Weiss 1986; and Michalowski 1986.

For the historical geography of Ebla in the third millennium see Astour 1988a, 1988b; Milano and Rova 2000;

Archi 1990, 1992; Bonechi 1993, 1998; for Mari, Biga 2008; for Nagar, Archi 1998, in general, Milano and Rova

This treaty is one of the most famous texts found at Ebla. The most recent translation/commentary is that of

Fronzaroli (2003), but there are several important earlier treatments as well: Sollberger 1980; Edzard 1992; Pettinato

1986; Lambert 1987; Kienast 1988.

For habbatu in the early second millennium BC see below, conclusion and Dercksen 2001; Eidem 2011.
For other archaeological approaches to sovereignty, see Lindsay and Greene 2013; Smith 2011.
The most notable exception to this list of fortified settlements is Brak, ancient Nagar. The lack of identified

fortifications at Brak is puzzling, however two separate surveys have failed to locate it (Emberling et al. 1999: 23;

Jason Ur, personal communication).

For a similar approach to space in Neo-Hittite cities, see Pucci 2008; Gilibert 2011.
This description is based on material from field F dating to phase 3a/b (Beydar Phase IIIb, ca. 2450-2300), as

described in Bretschneider 2003; Lebeau 2003; Lebeau and Suleiman 2007. It is also probably valid for the earlier

phase 2 palace (Debruyne 2003). Additionally, the Italian excavations at Beydar have revealed an elaborate inner

city gate and gatehouse (Milano and Rova 2003: 375).

The spatial analysis applied here comes from Hiller and Hansen (1984: 147-155) as modified in Markus 1993: 12-

14. See also Smith 2003: 242-253.

Real relative asymmetry (RRA) is calculated by first determining the mean depth for the system, by calculating

the depth for each space (the number of spaces one must pass through to reach it) and then averaging them. The

equation for relative asymmetry is RA = 2(MD − 1) ⁄ k – 2, where RA is relative asymmetry, MD is mean depth and

k is the number of spaces in a system. Calculating real relative asymmetry then requires dividing relative

asymmetry by a constant based on the number of spaces in a system. A table of such constants can be found in

Hillier and Hanson 1984: 112, table 3. Values less than 1 describe relatively integrating systems, while those over 1

“indicate a non-distributed space, one in which control is potentially strong” (Smith 2003: 244).
The (RRA) of Palace F is 2.554, a value that was calculated using Pfälzner 2011: fig. 43.
For Mesopotamia, see especially Seri 2005; Fleming 2004a; Peltenburg 2007-2008; Porter 2002; Charpin 2007;

Yoffee 2005. For heterarchy in archaic polities more generally, see Blanton et al. 1996; McIntosh 1999.
But see the contradictory interpretation and translation of this term in CAD R: 317-321.
For excavations at Chuera, see most recently Meyer 2010b; Moortgat-Correns 2001; Orthmann 1995. For the

earlier excavations, see the preliminary reports published by Moortgat and Orthmann by Harrassowitz and then

Gebr. Mann: Moortgat-Correns 1988; Orthmann et al. 1986; Moortgat and Moortgat-Correns 1978, 1976, 1975;

Moortgat 1967, 1965, 1962, 1960.

The low population estimates for Ebla is based on the assumption of 60 people per hectare; the high estimate

comes from personnel lists, see Archi 1992: 24-5. Ebla is 56 ha and Chuera is 65 ha.
Excavations of hollow ways around Tell Brak confirm a third to fourth millennium date for these features,

unsurprising given the date of the main occupations at this mound (Wilkinson et al. 2010). Many of the hollow

ways present in the Jazirah probably date to other periods as well. This is particularly likely for some of the longer

tracts hollow ways associated with tells that were not occupied during the third millennium BC, several examples of

which are present in the Leilan survey area (Ristvet 2005). New work on hollow ways has documented their

association with Iron Age, Roman, and Sassanian period sites (Casana 2013).
The texts TM.75.G.2377 and TM.75.G.2379 document this cultic journey and are published in Archi 1979. Other

published and unpublished Ebla texts that refer to this event are published in Archi 2002: 26-29.
See Mantellini, Micale, and Peyronel 2013; Ascalone and D’Andrea 2013; Mantellini 2013 with references. For

an earlier survey around Tell Afis, see Ciafordoni 1992 and in the plain of Antioch, see Casana and Wilkinson 2005.
Of course, in light of the fact that the coronation journey takes four days from Ebla and Binash, it is certainly

possible that Binaš is located further from Ebla.

Also referred to as Wagon 01 and Beydar Sealing 1 (Jans and Bretschneider 1998: 170, Bey. 1; Jans 2004: Scene

60; Jans and Bretschneider 2011: 76-82).

Other wagon sealings from Beydar are illustrated in Jans and Bretschneider 2011: 76-82.
This scene is also found among unprovenanced seals in the Marcopoli collection in Aleppo and the British

Museum, see Amiet 1980: P. 103, 1351, 1354. At Ebla, although no classic Syrian ritual scenes have been found,

Donald Matthews interprets the court style as one which has fused the Syrian ritual scene with the ED IIIb contest

scene, presumably drawing on the associations of both indigenous religious understandings of kingship and

imported ideas of the king as hero (1997: 121).

This was calculated using the same parameters as in note 9.
Of course, it is likely that Nagar became an important power long before the Beydar texts were written, as the

earliest phases of the administrative building at TC may demonstrate (Emberling et al. 2003).
I base this date-range on the published Ninevite 5 pottery from the site, which in its latest phase includes late

excised forms in the final period, as well as metallic ware and probably corresponds to the earliest phase of EJZ 3a

(Munchaev et al. 2004: fig. 38, p. 209; Rova 2011).

Recent analyses of Early Bronze Age occupation at Carchemish have reached diametrically opposed views of the

size and importance of the city. Working from the material retrieved in the British excavations before WWI,

Falsone and Sconzo have argued that these excavations identified late third millennium domestic architecture in

Carchemish's lower town and that it is likely that its earth rampart and gates were constructed during this period,

making it a town of some 40 ha (Falsone and Sconzo 2007). In contrast, Guy Bunnens estimates that only

Carchemish's main tell was occupied, making it only four ha in size, much smaller than several other nearby mounds

(Bunnens 2007). If Carchemish was 40 hectares, it would have dominated this region; otherwise the area would

have been defined by small settlements.

This is based on fig. 22 for the size of the open area, the other parameters are the same as in fn. 9.
This is based on line-of-sight and viewshed analysis conducted in ArcGIS. Elevation data for this analysis came

from Aster GDEM missions, which has a 30m resolution, supplemented with information on the height of each site.
For the texts, see Ismail et al. 1996: texts 94, 101, 106 and 122, for commentary, see Jans and Bretschneider 1998:

173; Wilkinson 2009: 158; Van Lerberghe 1996: 121; Sallaberger and Ur 2004: 69-70; Bretschneider et al. 2009:17.
A new archaeological project that has focused on surveying the area around Khirbet Malhat may provide new

evidence for Hadda (Quenet 2012).

This is calculated using the same paramaters as fig. 9, using the area as depicted in Moortgat-Correns 1972: Tafel

This is based on line-of-sight analysis conducted in ArcGIS, which indicated that the White Monument could be

seen from up to 40km to the south and 30km to the west. The parameters are the same as for the analysis around Gre

Virike (see note 66).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to estimate the size of this courtyard and the possible number of people who could

gather here, given the limited excavation and the published plans.
The rich and complex record of third millennium burials in the Middle and Upper Euphrates and in Western Syria

has received a great deal of attention in the last decade or so (Cooper 2006; Carter and Parker 1995; Peltenburg

2007-2008; Laneri and Morris 2007; Akkermans and Schwartz 2003). In addition to the sites that I discuss in this

section, there are also extra-mural cemeteries at Hassek Höyük, Tawi, and Halawa, and a cemetery not associated

with a settlement at the Birecik Dam (Dugay 2005). Moreover, excavations at Titriş Höyük have revealed a

fascinating pattern of extramural and intramural tombs (Laneri 2007). Finally, the hypogeum at Tell Ahmar remains

an important example of a visible, above-ground monument (Thureau-Dangin and Dunand 1936).

Although real estate documents attest to elite ownership of far-flung land—from the Amuq to Carchemish—these

estates seem to be the exception rather than the rule (Milano 1996: 140).
But cf. (McCorriston 2011: 198-216). Arguing from evidence from South Arabia, McCorriston contrasts the

punctuated tempo of pilgrimage with daily practices and argues that the former works as a metastructure through

landscape. Broader landscapes are clearly important to the construction of such systems, but at least during this

period in Mesopotamia, we have rich evidence (of the type not available in Arabia until the immediately pre-Islamic

period) of the intersection of occasional pilgrimages with more frequent practices.

For a recent summary of the extensive literature on peak sanctuaries, see Kyriakidis 2005: 124-127.
For discussion of this festival, see Lafont 1999: text 4 (M.12803): 20-1; Durand and Guichard 1997: 32(A.1043).
Reconstructing the ritual cycle is difficult, since the texts are fragmentary and the entries in administrative texts

referring to these occasions tend to be terse. There are also significant differences in the celebration of these rituals

during the reigns of Yasmah-Addu and Zimri-Lim (see below). Additionally, two different interpretations of this

cycle have been proposed by Assyriologists. Jean-Marie Durand, working mostly from the ritual texts and the

letters, believes that all of these rituals are part of one, state ritual cycle, and this is the interpretation I have followed

in this reconstruction. Antoine Jacquet, in contrast, arguing from the administrative texts, sees them all as separate

(Jacquet 2012b: 130, fn 49). No matter which interpretation we follow, it is possible to reconstruct the ritual

calendar from contemporary letters, administrative dockets, and ritual instructions. If we see them as one festival,

then Ištar’s journey, and the rituals that made up this feast, including the celebration of the kispum festival, took

more than a month and were celebrated at different times of the year during the reigns of the two kings, from the end

of month 8 to the beginning of month 10 in the time of Yasmah-Addu (ca. 1795-1776 BC) and during month 10 to

12 in Zimri-Lim's time (ca. 1775-1762 BC, Lafont 1999: 68-9).

Another letter from Tell Leilan describes deliveries of blood for alliance ceremonies, underlining the importance

of this both as metaphor and actual practice (Eidem 2011: 185; Lafont 2001: 275; Veenhof et al. 2008: 312-3).
Jonker 1995; Durand and Guichard 1997: 40; Toorn 1996: 46-65; for an extended discussion of these metaphors

Schloen 2001; Tsukimoto 1985.

See particularly Connerton’s work on the subject, with references (2011, 2009, 1989). At the same time,

exploring how memory works and contributes to a particularly human consciousness has emerged as a significant

topic in cognitive science and evolutionary anthropology. For a recent overview of the literature in psychology, see

Baddeley 2012, for its use in evolutionary anthropology and psychology, see the papers in Aiello 2010; Coolidge

and Wynn 2009.

Important work on this topic includes Lillios and Tsamis 2010; Barbiera, Choyke, and Rasson 2009; Boric 2010;

Mills and Walker 2008; Yoffee 2007; Jones 2007; Van Dyke and Alcock 2003.
Calendar years follow the Middle Chronology.
Several texts from Yahdun-Lim’s reign attest to Naram-Sin of Ešnunna’s presence in Upper Mesopotamia

(Charpin 1994). For the campaigns of the later Ibal-pî-El during the reign of Zimri-Lim (Charpin 1992b, 1992a;

Lafont 1992), for the Elamite adventure in the land of Apum, see (Charpin 1986; Durand 1986; Vallat 1996;

Charpin 1990), Babylon’s control over Upper Mesopotamia is, for obvious reasons, not directly attested at Mari,

although dockets hint at their presence (Charpin et al. 2004; Charpin 1995), but is clear from the Rimah tablets

(Dalley et al. 1976), as well as Old Babylonian year names (Hunger 1976-1980). Finally, evidence for the

importance of Aleppo comes from documents dated to the reigns of Yahdun-Lim, Zimri-Lim, and the later Leilan

kings (Mutiya, Till-abnu, and Yakûn-ašar), see Charpin 1992c; Charpin and Durand 1985; Eidem 2011.
For further details of the historical reconstruction of this period, see Wu 1994; Charpin et al. 2004; Charpin and

Ziegler 2003.
An absolute chronology for the period before the 14th century continues to elude scholars. I follow the Middle

Chronology here, because it seems to best accord with the radiocarbon dates and dendrochronology evidence from

Acemhöyük (Manning et al. 2003, 2001; Kuniholm et al. 1996). For a recent summary of the issue, with

bibliography see (Schwartz 2008).

Several anthropologists have viewed tribes not as timeless, sui generis political forms, but as the creation of

modern states (Fried 1975; Marx 1996; Asad 1978). Obviously, over the last two centuries state administrators have

created tribes and appointed chiefs in several countries (notably Iran) in order to control a diverse agricultural and

pastoral nomadic peasantry. While this view is presentist and based on the contingencies of 18th-20th century

imperialism, the extensive overlap between “tribes” and other polities—which maintained a self-conscious tribal

referent—might suggest that a similar process was at work in the second millennium BC. Certainly administrators

in the Mari archives refer to villages and nomads as belonging to different tribal confederations (Koppen 2001),

whether in doing so they are creating an administrative fiction or recording a cultural or political allegiance is

unclear. Both processes may be at work.

This text has been treated several times. I follow Kupper and Fleming’s interpretation of the text, and not

Durand’s reconstruction, which does not seem justified based on the surviving wedges, Kupper 1998: ARM 28 95;

Durand 2004; Fleming 2004a.

Several other letters also cite past precedent, including FM 2 118 18’, Lafont 1994.
This is apparent in several of the discussions of Mari, where both archaeologists and historians apply Mari tribal

frameworks to earlier and later periods, using them to explain 3rd millennium polities, see Fleming 2004a; Porter

2004, 2002; Lyonnet 2004; Durand 2004, for instance, or assuming that they represent deep structures, see Van

Driel 1997-2000; Rowton 1974; Porter 2012. For a similar critique of this in Jordan, see Routledge 2004.
The literature on the 4.2 ka BP climate event and the human response to it has exploded over the last twenty years.

For the initial statement of the problem, see (Weiss et al. 1993). For recent summaries of the paleoclimatology

record with references, see (Roberts et al. 2011; Weiss 2012a; Staubwasser and Weiss 2006). For recent analyses