Moab – When is a Nation?

Posted by dianamuir on September 30, 2012
Ancient nationhood, Nationhood

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.







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