Monthly Archives: September 2012

Moab – When is a Nation?

Posted by dianamuir on September 30, 2012
Ancient nationhood, Nationhood / Comments Off on Moab – When is a Nation?

Moab was one of a number of small Levantine polities that  offer a series of case examples of state formation and in the 10th-9th century BCE, and, possibly, shed light on the question of When is a nation?

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I find John Brueilly’s assertion that “Ancient Greece and Israel were not cases in which nationalism could or did arise,”  problematic   his assertion that “the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a case like no other,” ignorant.  The Hebrew Scriptures reveal Israelite states in Judah and Israel that are portrayed as being very  similar to its west-Semitic speaking neighbors.   The archaeology supports the text, with many other texts.  If we want to know about nations and nationalism, we would be foolish to assert that nationalism “could” and “did ” not arise in the ancient Levant before carefully examining the evidence.

Archaeology has the great charm of constantly producing new evidence, even new literary evidence, for the 10th and 9th century BCE.  With funding, we can hope soon to know a great deal more not only about Moab, but about Edom, Ammon, Aram, Judah, Israel and the Phoenecian city states.

Two key facts pertaining to questions of nationhood  in this region are that much of the physical culture is continuous across state borders, and the languages are closely related.   A similar situation  faces  historians interrogating nationalism in 19th and 20th century Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany.

In 2004 Bruce Routledge examined state formation  in  Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology.  Here, I will not review, but merely summarize those of his findings most relevant to to questions of nations and nationalism. 

Although Moab is mentioned in Bronze Age Egyptian inscriptions, it was not governed directly by Egypt even when lands west of the Jordan were.   From the Egyptian perspective, the exploitable resources in Moab were apparently not worth the trouble of exploiting.   The disruptions that mark the transition from Bronze to Iron age in the Levant are so well known that even Wikipedia covers them.    The settlers who founded the five Philistine city-states along the coast arrived during this period.   In the hill country,  the Iron Age emerges in the form of “pillared” or “four-room” houses.

Routledge: “The logic by which the community was organized changed in a relatively radical manner.  This transformation was not simply ideological or economic, as it involved changes in both modes of production and modes of identification.  If one were looking for operative symbols to characterize this transformation, it would be the shift from ‘palace’ to ‘house.'”p. 89

The shift is from a Bronze Age culture in which an upper class displays its ability to dominate in elaborate displays of prestige and imported goods in both palaces and tombs, all the way up to the level of a tomb in which a man in leg-shackles is killed to enhance the prestige of the grave goods accumulated in an elite tomb.  The Iron Age social landscape is dominated by family homes.   These are arranged, on both sides of the Jordan, in  agricultural villages of perhaps 100-400 persons, often built in naturally defended positions (perched on the rim of a wadi, fields in the bottom-lands) and surrounded by a stone fortification wall.

An interesting aspect of the  villages in Moab as Routledge reads them is that they were founded, grew, and declined in population over the course of as little as a few decades, with the more important houses inhabited first and abandoned last.  He reads this as evidence of a kind of frontier settlement that has been described in parts of Africa. (p. 111)   When arable land is plentiful, men can stake claims to leadership roles by recruiting settlers, leading them into new territory, and successful  defending productive land.   There is a social fluidity here that is not the sort traditionally understood by tribal, but based (as attested by the houses) on the option of families to choose affiliation.

In this context, the Semitic word house (byt) acquires a series of meanings encompassing not only the residential building, the family, and the temple, which, unlike the Bronze Age freestanding temples of the region, was at first a dedicated room within the house.  House (byt) could also refer to the the descendants and  of  the kind of leader who might found a village or who had founded the ruling ‘house’ of a kingdom, which would come to be known as “The House of….”

It was, of course, the gap between regional domination by  great empires centered in  Egypt and Mesopotamia that permitted the formation of Levantine kingdoms known as the House of Ammon, the House of Hazael (Aram-Damascus), the House of Gush, the House of Omri and the House of David.

“I am Mesha son of Kemosh(yat) king of Moab the Dibonite…”

These are the opening words of the  Mesha stele , a remarkable document discovered in Moab in the late 19th century and now in the Louvre.   Unlike, the Bible, we don’t have to wonder how old the various parts of the text are.   The dating is tight, ~840BCE.     We can of course, quibble about the interpretation.  Routledge argues that the stele is more or less a campaign document in  the  9th century Moabite daily plebiscite.

Mesha’s father was a Dibonite,  ruler of Dibon,  in the northwest corner of Moab.  In the stele Mesha is promoting his claim  and that of this particular House to unify and rule a dozen “houses” in geographical Moab under his kingship.   Many aspects of his claim are familiar.

Mesha argues that he has liberated Moab from an oppressive imperial power, Israel under King Omri.   Kemosh, god of Moab, favors his claim.   He has expelled occupying powers, expanding  the territory   Moab controls.  He has made it prosper, built a reservoir, cisterns, roads, a palace,  temples, and defensive walls for the cities.   Therefore the leaders and people of the various parts of the land should unite under “the centralizing triad of Moab, Kemosh and Mesha.” p. 151

Routledge does not focus as much as others have on the evolution of Moabite as a distinctive “national” language, implying, perhaps correctly, that this can be overdone in a situation where aside from the Mesha stele, inscriptions are few and almost all discovered by the destructive illegal digging for artifacts to sell on the antiquities market that is sadly rampant in Jordan.

Routledge is not arguing for a highly centralized state.  Iron age Dibon was a “regal-ritual” center, with public buildings.  More The Hague than Amsterdam.  Which is not to say that it did not exercise real power.  There was a series of border fortifications on the eastern frontier.  (p. 193)  Nor were the boasts on the stele mere royal hot air.  Thea 9th century reservoir and royal palace have been unearthed. (p. 162)  Moab, with its proto-aeolic column capitals and other royal accouterments certainly was  a kingdom in the style of the neighboring Kingdoms that flourished before   the Levant when it was conquered by Assyria.

We can hope for more light to come from new digs (and, unless the world changes, from the destructive activities of antiquities robbers.)   But the Mesha stele speaks with the voice of the Iron Age and stakes a strong claim to Moab as a unified kingdom that sounds oddly like the voices  Susan Reynolds brings us from the kingdoms of Europe.







Ottoman Depopulation

Posted by dianamuir on September 30, 2012
Ottoman Footprint / Comments Off on Ottoman Depopulation

Making a list of sources on depopulation in Ottoman lands, mostly due to failure to maintain or restore infrastructure (i.e., irrigation systems) and to administrative failure that permitted banditry and piracy (Aegean) to become so bad that population declined.

Collecting these for my own purposes as I come across them.  Sharing freely.   Glad to have examples added to this list.

Moab – a geographic designator for the arable plateau east of the southern part of the Dead Sea, now part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  The region has “dense settlement and intensive agriculture in the Byzantine period” and under the Hashemites, but “year round settlement was sparse and agriculture sporadic” in the late Ottoman period. Bruce Routledge, Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology, 2004, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 57. 


Oriental splendor in Manhattan

Posted by dianamuir on September 21, 2012
Uncategorized / Comments Off on Oriental splendor in Manhattan

Doris Duke was a rich American  with a passion for Islamic art.  She built a dazzling palace near Honolulu, using bits and pieces she picked up while traveling – like a room from Damascus that I think is lovelier than the one recently reinstalled at the Met.

An exhibit at the MAD in Columbus Circle lets you get something of the feel of the house.   And the sometimes splendid Islamic objet she collected.

It doesn’t do justice to the gardens, which are remarkable, modernist interpretations of the great gardens at the Alhambra and other Muslim palaces.

Orientalism: An American millionaire (tobacco fortune) with a passionate love for Islamic art and design.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram Hazony

Posted by dianamuir on September 10, 2012
Bible / 1 Comment

Yoram Hazony has a bone to pick with Tertullian, the second-century Christian theologian who asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

For Tertullian, the life of the mind was a choice between two paths.  A wise man took the path of Jerusalem—of faith.  Although there is a far distance between second-century Christianity and Mormonism, Tertullian’s position might be summed up in a lyric from The Book of Mormon, advertised as the “greatest Broadway musical of the 21st century”: “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.”

Tertullian wanted Christians to avoid the path of Athens, the path of intellectual inquiry.  For Tertullian, true answers to questions about the will of God could not be discovered by even the best efforts of the human mind; therefore, God sent Jesus to reveal these answers.  Tertullian advised the Christian to think just hard enough to accept the truth of scripture as taught by the church, then stop, “lest he should come to know what he ought not.”

Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, is a refutation not only of Tertullian but of a Western intellectual tradition that errs by dividing the world into opposing categories: reason versus faith, philosophy versus revelation, Athens versus Jerusalem, Plato versus the Bible.  Hazony tells us that this dichotomy fundamentally misunderstands the Hebrew Bible and the human mind.

In the New Testament, Paul offers revealed wisdom, a divine gift of ideas that the human mind is incapable of working out for itself, a gift that wise men should  accept on faith and because a series of miracles, attested to by the Gospels, proves these divine mysteries true.  Paul and the Apostles announce the “good news” of this “hidden wisdom,” secrets that the “powers that rule the world have never known” but that that “God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

The Hebrew Bible, in Hazony’s view, offers nothing of the kind.  Far from revealing holy mysteries, the final editor of the Hebrew Bible wants to “persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made, and therefore from the natures of men and nations in this world.”  This Bible is not a series of mysteries requiring divine revelation, it is a Bible of ideas with which the human mind can reason.  This Bible comes to convince the exiles in Babylon, and us, that “the law of Moses was the very first systematic expression of this natural law, written down for the benefit of Israel and of all mankind.”

Far from a Tertullianesque claim that faith trumps reason, Hebrew scripture wants readers to reason with the complex ideas it presents.

Hazony’s book targets two audiences.  First, it asks intellectuals to free their minds from Tertullian’s dichotomy and take a clear-eyed look at a Hebrew Bible that they have failed to see until now because their avowedly secular minds have been so completely blinkered by Christian paradigms.

Hazony is one of a number of contemporary scholars who contend that philosophers and historians have ignored the impact of the Bible on the development of Western political thought.  Hazony’s contribution is his thesis that political theorists have failed to perceive the Bible as philosophy because its arguments are couched in the language of metaphor and narrative.

But Hazony’s primary audience is made up of the readers of Jewish Ideas Daily.  For Hazony, it is not enough that Israel provide a refuge for the Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Egypt, Iraq, or Poland.  He wants to persuade Jews to build a state shaped by ideas found in the Hebrew Bible.

Hazony understands the Bible as a variegated “compendium.”  Its teachings cannot be distilled into a single “brief and sharply delineated” statement like a Christian catechism.  Rather, the Hebrew Bible is “a school of viewpoints” containing the political, literary, philosophical, and historical traditions of ancient Israel. As Hazony summarizes them in an article in the October issue of First Things, these writings grapple with “questions that are usually considered to be central to political philosophy,” such as “the relationship of the individual to the state, the virtues and dangers of anarchy, the reasons for the establishment of government, the dangers of government, the best form of political order, the responsibilities of rulers, and the causes of the decline of the state.”  Scholarly misunderstanding of the Bible is partly the result of the fact that the text’s consideration of these questions is not written in the form of Socratic debate.  The Hebrew Bible takes philosophical stances but presents them as metaphor, depending on “narratives for its force and significance.”

Hazony does not write simply to persuade us to agree or disagree with his interpretation of any particular story.   Reviewers who think so do him an injustice.  Instead, Hazony wants to persuade us that to read the Bible is to engage in a necessary argument over how to build a good society.

Hazony’s Bible does not deal with a God who advises us to suffer patiently until messiah comes.   It does not deal with Tertullian’s God, who saves by faith alone.  It does not deal in easy promises.  Instead, the biblical narrative presented by Hazony permits us to “position the law, and our observance of it, within a life lived according to reason.”  The stories, psalms, and prophetic books “explain the law and to qualify it so that we retain an understanding of why observance of this law is something that we should want—and that all men should want.”

Hazony’s Jerusalem is different from Athens, but not in the way that Tertullian suggests.  The Hebrew Bible is different because it calls on all human beings to wrestle with fundamental questions of good and evil.  Unlike Socrates or Tertullian, the Bible does not view the obligation and the right to contemplate demanding moral questions as the province of the elite alone.

But the characters and compositors of Hazony’s Bible also differ from those of Tertullian’s imagining in a particularly contemporary way.  They “struggle with the question of how one is to find that which will stand and that which can be relied upon to benefit mankind in the face of an epistemic jungle.”  They contend with a “confused and frightening reality in which such knowledge is chronically distant.  They believe that such wisdom can be found in the world, because they believe that God has spoken it.”

To find “that which is true and just” is not, as Tertullian would have it, a simple matter of having faith.  It demands a “lifelong quest.”

Now go and study.



Jewish Ideas Daily, Sept. 10, 2012