|' CHAPTER 4
' STATE FORMATION AND PROTO-NATIONALITIES IN THE
' ANCIENT MIDDLE EAST
' SECTION B
"Egypt is, and has always been, the valley of the Nile- a green strip averaging about 30 miles wide, with
fierce desert hills on either side."
- Philip Adler, World Civilizations, 1996 (24).
“Egypt treated its women better than any of the other major civilizations of the ancient world. The
Egyptians believed that joy and happiness were legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family
as the major source of delight.”
- James C. Thompson, 2005
' Ancient Egypt, a theocracy which lasted longer than any other civilization- more than three thousand
years, has surely been the world’s most enduring example of a society based on charismatic authority
and dependence. However, recent findings related to its little known origins suggest that it too may
have passed, albeit relatively briefly, through a progression of stages similar to those we have
observed among the Sumerians. What recent findings? Modifying the famous observation of Herodotus
that Egypt was the gift of the Nile, recent writers have argued persuasively that Egypt was also the gift
of the desert (e.g., Friedman, 2002; Wilkinson, 2003). These writers by no means question the
importance of the Nile. The astounding fertility that the silt deposits from its annual floods brought to
the Nile’s narrow floodplain was surely an indispensable basis for the prosperity which Egypt enjoyed
for several millennia. What the recent writers have added is an appreciation of the heretofore largely
unrecognized extent to which inhabitants of desert areas to the east, west, and south of Egypt’s Nile
valley laid the foundation for what the world came long ago to know as Egyptian civilization.
' The fundamental fact underlying this reinterpretation of Egyptian prehistory is that from about 8500
to 4300 BCE these now desert areas to the west, east, and south had sufficient rainfall to grow grass
(Friedman, 2002, xiii, passim). As grasslands, these areas supported a human population that
subsisted in some measure by hunting and gathering, but increasingly by herding domesticated
animals and occasionally growing crops. J.M. Malville, et. al identified that, from 9000-2,800 BCE, the
summer monsoons most often associated with central Africa shifted north “into Egypt, and temporary
lakes or playas were formed” (1998, 488). These monsoonal conditions apparently prevailed
throughout the entire Predynastic era (c.6000-3100), before the southward shift in the monsoons
around 2800 (Early Dynasties era) rendered areas beyond the Nile Valley “once again hyper-arid and
uninhabitable… [perhaps stimulating] social differentiation and cultural complexity” (488). Recent
studies have linked the “deceleration of global sea-level rise” from 6500-5500 with the formation of the
Nile Delta system and farming settlements (Kennett, 2006, 86). From 6100-6000 “larger communities”,
including one village with more than 18 houses have been found; where the “construction of wells may
be the first indication of emerging social control” (Malville, 489). The Kennetts also note that Nile flood
levels generally dropped between 3000-2000 BCE, with a number of “central African rift lakes
[desiccating] completely” between 1400 and 1000 (Ambrose & Sikes 1991) (Kennett, 78-79). Thus as
the area gradually became more and more arid from the later Predynastic era (part of the same climate
trends noted for Mesopotamia in the previous chapter), people moved in greater densities towards the
Nile, where both water and vegetation (and eventually people, too) were abundant (Hendrickx, 2000,
35; Wenke, 1991. 290-291; Wilkinson, 2003, 178).
' But Egypt in the centuries leading up to its initial unification, some five millennia ago, was still a
“somewhat wetter” place than it is today. The land “was fertile in a broad swath… on either side of the
Nile. Many Egyptians still lived in huts made of papyrus or mud; raised wheat, barley and livestock; and
paid homage to the local chiefs… already coalescing into larger kingdoms, as they were in the
neighboring land of Nubia, just upriver… Egyptians were closely tied to the Nile’s annual flood cycle,
and…were acutely aware of its influence on agriculture” (Lemonick, 1992, ‘68’).
An Orderly, Tight Cage
' Eugene Weber and others have observed that it was lucky for the kings and later pharaohs that the
floods (unlike in Mesopotamia) came so regularly (Weber, 1989); as such knowledge enhanced the
authority of rulers and their control over an uneducated populace. With the desiccation trend and
increased population densities along an increasingly narrow green strip of Nile Valley, it is also
significant for relations of dependency and political control that the people of the Nile typically had no
other options for migration. The cage of the state in ancient Egypt was certainly less escapable than
most, as nearly all surrounding territories, by at least the mid-third millennium BCE, were uninhabitable.
' As Norman Yoffee has noted, it is only Egypt, among the earliest states, that “seems a complete
exception” to the typical pattern of city-states, “since it was from the start” a unitary or “regional state”
(Yoffee, 1995, 302). Its rulers “never lost sight of the ideal of political unity” that was “deeply embedded
in Egyptian religion and cultural beliefs” (Trigger, 2000). Indeed the entire state itself remained
conservatively “confined to the Nile” for more than half of its history, from 3200-1500 BCE (Mann,
1986, 75)- an unmatched record for stability at the time. Economist Robert C. Allen notes not only the
longevity of Egyptian civilization, but that state formation there occurred “much more rapidly after the
adoption of farming” than anywhere else in the Near East (1997, 135). Such rapid state development is
of course much easier when the population is less mobile. In Egypt, unlike its contemporaries, farmers
“could flee tax or rent collectors only along the river. The population control problem was…simpler than
elsewhere” (Allen, 135).
' How did desert peoples, while they still lived primarily in outlying regions away from the Nile, lay a
foundation for Egyptian civilization? Rock art (from as early as the 7th millennium) developed themes
which were to characterize Egyptian civilization for millennia into the future. Among these themes,
according to Dirck Huyge (2002, 201), was the ceaseless conflict between order and chaos. This is the
same theme that Barry Kemp argued (1989; 1995) was to form the religious basis for Egypt’s enduring
pharaonic power. The earliest identifiable objects are geometric designs, followed somewhat later by
very many drawings of animals, weapons, and traps (Smith, 8). Prominent also in the desert art were
boats, anthropomorphic figures, cattle, and other symbolic depictions which would figure prominently in
the religious art that so preoccupied later Egyptian society (Huyge, 2002, passim; Wilkinson, 2003,
passim; Wendorf & Schild, 2002, passim; Darnell, 2002; Brewer & Teeter, 1999; Kupa, 2002; O’Connor
& Reid, 2003; Redford, 2002).
' Historian Paul Johnson notes, however, that by the 3rd dynasty in the Old Kingdom, the
dominance of the pharaonic institution had “matured” Egyptian art, from the rough-and-tumble of both
its Predynastic past and that of its contemporaries. The Predynastic emphasizes “the brute power of
' arms, muscles, jaws, teeth- indeed, one palette shows the king as a lion, tearing open an enemy’s stomach…
' Predynastic females are fat and heavy; with bulging breasts and buttocks. Battle scenes stress the physical
' carnage… In Babylonian and later Assyrian art, these elements remain… Mature Egyptian art- that is, art from
' the Third Dynasty onwards- eliminates such things, and much else… Ugliness, savagery and obscenity are
' systematically excluded… The Assyrians portrayed the lion as a ferocious best of prey; the Egyptians as a royal
' animal…. Egyptian women are slender, young and delectable… with not an once of spare fat. Schafer
' compares them to ‘the profiles of precious vases.’…. the noble Egyptian is never seen off-balance or engaged
' in violently uncontrolled activity…. It was the Egyptians who first perceived man as created in god’s image, so
' it was natural that they should portray him as a magisterial and self-confident being” (1999, 47-49).
' Egyptians were perhaps also more “mature” in regards to the role of women in society. Egyptologist
Michael Rice reminds us that females were “far more important than in any other early society. Women
were not confined to the home or the harem as in many later societies… One in eight of the
biographies in Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt are of women; no other society of comparable antiquity
would be able to provide… anything like it” (1999, xiii). What specifically, beyond Herodotus-like
hyperbole, made ancient Egyptian women remarkable? Even though Egypt was a patriarchal society by
today’s standards, women had a number of important rights denied their contemporaries (except
apparently in Babylon, and to a lesser extent in western Anatolia and Crete). These included: marriage
contracts, initiating divorce and other court actions, remarriage, the right to inherit, own, and manage
property, and the right to conduct other business, legal, and financial matters (Edwards, 2005; Trigger,
2003, 194; Watterson, 1997, 16)- all largely based on the larger region’s primordial tradition of
matrilineal descent1. Rights tended to be a matter of social class, as opposed to gender, ethnicity, or
nationality. Johnson concluded that the "affection the Egyptians were not ashamed to display towards
their children was related to the high status women enjoyed in Egyptian society" (1999, 121).
' Perhaps these ancient family values also led to the mummification practices, pioneering afterlife
beliefs and general piousness for which ancient Egypt is renown. As migratory hunting camps
developed into more permanent agriculture-based villages in the Early Predynastic (6000-4500 BCE),
cemeteries moved further and further beyond village territory. In the Old Predynastic (4500-3550), the
distinctively southern culture (agrarian) and northern culture (still mostly hunting, fishing, and
pastoralist) began to mix and converge culturally. As Smith explains, the “people of these communities
must have made a start at the long task of controlling the flood-waters by dykes and canals… which
could be undertaken only by joint effort… of several communities which came to accept the leadership
of one of the villages and the pre-eminence of its local god” (1998, 8). It is in the later Old Predynastic
that we find also the earliest evidence for mummification in Egypt- not among royalty, but originating
from female working-class inhabitants of Hierakonpolis, in Upper Egypt (Rose, 2001, 13). Five hundred
years older than “the next known example of mummification”, the Hierakonopolis mummies would
appear to indicate that at least one cardinal invention of Egyptian culture originally sprang from the
grass roots, and not the top-down.
Kinship Bases of Identity (and lack thereof) in the Predynastic
' Pastoralists seem to have occupied the Nabta Playa region in southern Egypt from at least 8000
BCE, during the unusually northern summer monsoon period (9000-2800) (Malville, et. al, 1998, 488).
What was the basis of the groups in which these, and subsequent, migratory grassland people lived?
We know relatively little about such groups, but there is reason to believe that what held them together
was kinship. Michael Hoffman observed that very early migratory peoples usually lived (as noted in
chapter 2) in groups of a few families (Hoffman, 1988, 33); sufficient in number to avoid in-breeding.
Toby Wilkinson thought the size of groups a little larger, 50 to 200; but he also noted that “extended
families” were still at the base of groups (2003, 120). That both authors were forced to speculate rather
than to cite specific evidence makes the case a little uncertain. Such speculations, however, are closely
in line with the views of virtually all anthropologists. Kinship was the usual basis of human groups prior
to the advent of agriculture and societal complexity. Anthropologists find such groups to be typically
small, egalitarian, and at least semi-nomadic.
' In far northern Egypt, however (not unlike far southern Mesopotamia at the time), the Nile alluvial
delta was forming between 6500 and 5500 BCE (Kennett, 2006). It therefore seems not unreasonable
to conclude that villages and proto-farming communities were forming in the northern delta as far back
as the 6th millennium. We can only theorize, however, as no known language sources refer to the
newly-formed delta at this time; and nearly all would-be Predynastic delta archaeological sites have
been buried under millennia of silt (Redford, 1992, 10).
' Although the Egyptian and Mesopotamian regions were influenced by much of the same climatic
trends between 10,000-1000 BCE, there were also consequential differences. For example, it appears
from recent climatology studies that- despite the Persian Gulf alluvial and Nile delta forming
approximately concurrently- the northern monsoons ended in Mesopotamia perhaps 1000 years before
they ceased in southern Egypt (Kennett, 2006). This would explain the former region’s head start in
urbanization, state formation (see table 4.1), and the development of writing, noted by a great many
authorities. The village stage of social organization in Mesopotamia almost seems transitory in
hindsight; whereas in northern Egypt proto-farming and agriculture-based villages may have been
prevalent for more than three thousand years before the advent of urban areas (i.e. populations in the
tens of thousands). Perhaps it follows from this contrast of city vs. village heritages (Integration state
formations vs. Circumsribed land/Conflict theories) that the more suddenly urbanized Mesopotamia
would tend to maintain territorial (integration theory) bases for nationality far longer than would Egypt,
where territorial-based identities seem more fleeting in comparison.
' Some authorities even insist that ancient Egypt was a civilization without cities (e.g. Baines & Yoffee,
1998, 208-09), and that view is not without foundation. In Sumeria, estimates for the proportion of the
population living in an urban setting range as high as 80-90 percent (Yoffee, 1995, 1387). For dynastic
Egypt, however, it appears that the vast majority of the people lived in rural villages. Furthermore
Hierakonpolis, perhaps the largest city in Predynastic Egypt, had at the highest estimate about 15,000
people (Kerisel, 2001, 24). The largest city in roughly contemporary Sumeria appears to have had
several times that number. Nevertheless an increasing number of authorities on ancient Egypt seem
persuaded that its unification into a regional state, c.3100 BCE, resulted from competition among city
states in Upper (southern and central) Egypt. Although “there is very little evidence of large cities much
before 1500 B.C.”, Edward Soja claims “there can be no doubt that Egypt was…city-centered … from
the start” (Soja, 2000, 53). He explains that the anomaly is due to successive pharaohs ‘ habit of
abandoning old sacred cities for new (53).
' Several other significant factors seem more likely to cloud understanding of the prehistory of Upper
and Lower Egypt. First, as the term “prehistory” connotes, their distinctive cultures predate the
development of writing. Second, when writing did start to emerge towards the end of the 4th millennium,
Egyptians kept most of their records on papyrus, a reed-based material which did not survive in such
quantity as did the clay-based inscriptions of the Sumerians (Baines & Yofee, 1998, 211; Kerisel, 2001,
32). Thus a good part of what we know- or think we know- about these early Egyptian cities derives
from interpreting archaeological evidence, especially pottery and art. Egyptian art, as befits a
theocratic society, is of course full of religious symbolism. This brings us to the third major problem in
depicting the Predynastic. Interpretations of the symbolism in such religious art are, to understate the
case, not always in full agreement.
' Donald Redford, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (2001), noted still two more
problems. “One is always tempted to read more into our meager sources than is justified…”
Furthermore the Egyptian preoccupation with mythology “effectively destroys history…“ It is difficult to
write history, he concluded, about “a society that essentially denied history…” (Redford, 2003, II, 5-6).
With these new findings and old analytical difficulties in mind, let us now take a closer look at the
formation of proto-Egyptian identity in the Predynastic. We should first note, however, that chronicling
the two-to-three thousand years of the Predynastic Era into agreed-upon categories has also
traditionally been another area of difficulty (Savage, 2001, 106). For the purposes of identity and
nationality formation, however, the following three compartments will do:
Early Predynastic- 6000-4500 BCE (predominantly kinship-based)
Old Predynastic- 4500-3550 BCE (kinship-to-territorial transition)
Middle/Late Predynastic2 - 3550-3150 BCE (territorial-to-charismatic authority/dependency)
' Grain-grinding cultures had apparently coexisted with hunter-gatherers for thousands of relatively
wet and humid years prior to the advent of Upper Egypt’s Tasian and Badarian pottery cultures around
the mid-5th millennium. With increasing aridity from 4300 BCE (Kennett, 2006), however,
agriculturalists’ “fluctuations of yield” problem apparently became more of a matter of life and death,
motivating the development of interregional integrations and chiefdoms. These developments, as we
shall see below, tended to dissipate traditional ties of extended kinship in the Old Predynastic (c.4500-
3550)- at least among the majority of commoners.
' Although it can be said that the Egyptian elite and their writing system (like the Chinese) were
devised mostly to “keep track of kinship and lineage ties” in addition to major historical events (Soja,
53), there appears to be little evidence indicating that the dynasties’ focus on pedigree resonated with
the larger public; and a pursuant kinship-based identity in Egypt was consistently lacking from Old
Predynastic times onward.
' Perceptions of ethnicity3 based on physical characteristics were perhaps lacking as well. For
example, slaves could dispute their status if they wished. Serfdom5 was the much more common
institution from earlier times- and could either be ascribed from birth, or fallen into from war or
criminality (Trigger, 1996, 315). Perhaps due to Egypt’s relative lack of kinship identity, what seems
salient is that “whether the slave was foreign or Egyptian, the overwhelming impression created by the
documents is that the relationship between slave and master was often very good and was essentially
paternalistic in character” (315). Trigger also pointed out that, some two millennia later, there may well
have been "no individuals in the Late Period who satisfied in all respects the definition of a slave in
Roman or Athenian law...” (1996, 314). According to Jon White, slavery was "a minor and haphazard
affair... [involving] almost without exception foreign captives" (1967, 61).
' Shared language, as is often the case in multi-ethnic societies, appears to have been a more salient
factor for common identity. Redford points out that it was during the Early Dynastic/Archaic era (c.3100-
2650) that Egypt decided to shelve any efforts to impose “domestic authority” (governance) upon
peoples who did not already speak Egyptian- except for the sparsely populated Nubia region, adjacent
upstream to the south6 (Redford, 2004,19).
From Kinship to Territorial/Charismatic Identity
' With the advent of the Old Predynastic, or “Amratian” cultural era in Upper Egypt, chiefs tried to
legitimate their new positions of authority, developing north-south and foreign trade, a taste for exotic
goods, and religious theology. According to anthropologist Fekri Hassan, by 4000 BCE, “settled
communities had…developed a distinct division of labor between men and women and ritual and
religious beliefs in which women, grain, fertility, and death were salient and interrelated elements”
' An eventful period followed, during which Egyptian identity "was forged. Egypt was settled by
refugees from the deserts of the eastern Sahara and the southern Levant, fleeing from mid-Holocene
droughts, and became a melting pot of indigenous Nilotes and desert herders, part-time cultivators,
and hunters” (Hassan, 135). The astounding productivity which characterized the Nile floodplain was
clearly evident- and contended for- as pastoralists began to move there in greater numbers. In time
they developed competing city-states which bear resemblance in some respects to those of their
Sumerian contemporaries, some 1700 kilometers to the east.
' It seems reasonable to conclude that extended kinship ties were lost for most folks during this initial
urbanization in the later Old Predynastic. Ian Shaw reminds us that Egyptians “for much of their history”
have been relatively flexible and open in regards to ethnic distinctions (not counting language), seeing
“themselves as midway between the black Africans and the paler Asiatics…. neither Nubian nor Syro-
Palestinian origins were regarded as particularly disadvantageous factors in terms of individuals’ status
or career prospects” (Shaw, 2000, 315).
' Kinship identity factors were on the way out in the Old Predynastic- at least in Upper Egypt (from
whence most of the sources are from)- but apparently “charismatic” (as opposed to democratic/civic)
institutions were quick to fill the void. While no democratic institutions comparable to the assemblies or
councils of Mesopotamia have yet been found, Hassan reminds us that “legitimation of the status of
chiefs through affiliation with the traditional and supernatural power associated with women, fertility,
and death and the acquisition of exotic goods stimulated trade and an industry in funerary goods”
(Hassan, 135). This taste for luxury and status differentiation was not new, however, as “Clear social
distinctions existed between elites and nonelites as far back as the Badarian [later 5th millennium]
period. Anderson (1992) suggests that a two-tiered social hierarchy existed in which elite graves
contained exotic goods, such as ivory” (Savage, 2001, 119). Over a few more centuries, moreover, the
“enlargement of economic units through alliances, with occasional incidences of fighting,” lead to the
rise of "a state society governed by supreme rulers” in the Middle Predynastic era (135). Perhaps it is
best to take a closer look at the pivotal Middle/Late Predynastic era (3550-3150 BCE), in view of the
era’s largest city.
' Hierakonpolis (city of the falcon) is the name bestowed several millennia later by conquering Greeks
upon the city, 650 km up the Nile from Cairo, and much closer to the border with Sudan. Its Egyptian
name was Nekhen, “city of the falcon god, Horus” (Adams, 1995, 3). For this study the crucial
questions about Hierakonpolis are two:
First, did a territorial basis of identity replace a sense of identity based primarily upon kinship?
Second, did the egalitarian traditions typical among those who lived by herding, hunting and gathering,
as had the back-country dwellers who settled Hierakonpolis, continue for some time? To put that
second question another way, how quickly did civilization and urbanization bring hierarchical structures-
political, economic, and social- to a previously egalitarian people?
' To attempt to answer those questions we must of course look at the history of the city. How much do
we know about it? The candid answer is not much. Much of it in fact remains to be excavated.
Furthermore a good part of what one authority asserts, another disputes.
' It does seem clear, however, that as rainfall diminished in the surrounding area (starting from the
Old Predynastic), more and more people came to settle at its site along the Nile. They did so in part
perhaps because Hierakonpolis was near two significant wadis (sometime streams, but more often dry
ravines) (Adams, 1995, 21). The wadis may indeed have served as migration routes from the desert to
Hierakonpolis, as they probably had for groups of semi-nomadic herders in the past (see Wilkinson,
2003, 104-05). As the city became a major trade center in the mid 4th millennium BCE, the wadis also
served as trade routes, into both eastern and western deserts (Adams, 21).
' Gold was the most treasured resource of both the eastern desert and Nubia, farther upstream from
Hierakonpolis along the Nile. Although it remains uncertain how early either source became significant
(Klemm, 2002), Wilkinson asserts boldly that the gold trade created Hierakonpolis. He asserts further
that exploitation of gold resources enabled the local “headman” there to accumulate wealth, which then
served as a foundation for increasing his political power (2003, 123-24). A more generalized affirmation
of this assertion appeared earlier in the work of B.G. Trigger. Trigger found with reference to Upper
Egypt in general that the gold trade with the eastern desert might have “enhanced the regulatory
power of those headmen whose communities were well situated to exploit these resources and may
have been a major factor promoting the emergence of those communities...” (Trigger, 1982, 545).
' Hierakonopolis was the best situated of these trade centers, and only in Upper Egypt could “the
expansion of river-borne trade be combined with access to the major wadi routes through which metal
and mineral resources were procured from the Eastern Desert” and Sumer (Wengrow, 2006, 76). The
eastern route was particularly important in establishing a “prestige-goods system” of “political
advantage”, gained through exercizing control of long-distance/luxury trade routes (75). This power
increased during the Middle Predynastic, with the (apparently) initial establishment of a pack-donkey
caravan across the Sinai to Mesopotamia (Wengrow, 76).
' Hierakonpolis is thought to have first been settled around 4000 BCE, and had developed into a
regional center for trade a number of centuries before the Late Predynastic and Unification eras.
Cialowicz found that in the period from 3900 to 3550 (the Old Predynastic), “Trade intensified in all
directions…“ but especially toward Nubia (Cialowicz, 2001, 63). Hoffman found “exotic” goods in graves
dating from as far back as perhaps 3800 BCE (Hoffman, 1979, 143; Savage, 2001, 129). Friedman
reported finding imports from Palestine and Nubia dating from 3500 to 3400 (Friedman, 1996, 29).
Hoffman (1979, 367) also found what he took to be the world’s oldest known brewery, which he dated
to about 3400 (Hoffman, 1979, 367). More significant still was the city’s mass production of pottery that
Hoffman also established (Hoffman, 1979, 366ff). By 3250, the city had erected a protective wall
(Hoffman, 1988, 47), probably Egypt’s first, and had a population of about 10,000 (Hoffman, 1979,
366ff). Kerisel put the figure at 15,000 (Kerisel, 2001, 24), but quotes from others have generally been
' Hassan concluded that trade played a significant role in the development of a number of Upper
Egyptian “chiefdoms and statelets” after 3600 (Hassan, 1995, 675-76). But probably between 3200-
3100, the principal of these rival polities, Nagada (110 Nile km to the north), was "absorbed by
Hierakonpolis”, with the sites in the broader Nagada region declining economically (Savage, 2001,
129). It thus appears reasonable to conclude that there might have been a window of territorial identity
in Upper Egypt during the Middle Predynastic (3550-3150)- i.e. after the widespread development of
trade routes and some urbanization in the region, but before the largest of these trade cities imposed
political dominance upon the others. This period of post-kinship and pre-charismatic authoritarian
identity could have been as short as three centuries, or perhaps as long as five.
' The Hierakonpolis wall of c.3250 is suggestive in this respect, but there is additional evidence as
well that city residents did develop an identity based on their residence during the Middle Predynastic.
Hoffman insisted that rival city-states in Upper Egypt were contending over territory five centuries
before the unification in 3100 (Hoffman, 1988, 45). Bard identified three such cities (Abydos and
Naqada, in addition to Hierakonpolis) as those competing for dominance (Bard, 2000, 63). She also
identified access to materials from the eastern Mediterranean, including not only luxury items, but also
timber for boat construction, as at stake in the competition (Bard, 2000, 62; cf. Mazar, 1995, 1523).
Clearly the evidence for a territorial basis of identity in Upper Egypt is less compelling than that for the
Sumerian cities. It does, however, provide evidence for asserting that, well before the dynastic era, a
great many people in 4th millennium Hierakonpolis had strong reasons to base their group identity on
the city rather than on kinship.
' This window of territorial identity in the Predynastic had no shortage of factors working against it. In
addition to the luxury trade and new economic/class bifurcations, superior copper weapons were also
made feasible with foreign trade and contributed to the political centralization trend (Hoffman, 1991,
207-08). The dessication trend was also still worsening. Hoffman notes that- also around the 32nd
century BCE- “the entire site of the settlements along the Great Wadi was abandoned and the
population moved back toward the alluvium… most likely… [due to] a deterioration of the climate”
(1991, 307). Carneiro's circumscribed land theory of state formation seems much more apt for the Late
Predynastic than integration models.
' Earlier Hoffman had suggested “that a strong, centralized late Predynastic state” had come to
dominate not only all of Upper Egypt, but also at least some of the northern delta and Sinai (Hoffman,
1979, 366). What was happening- as Hierakonpolis grew and contended vigorously with its rivals- to
the egalitarian traditions its people had presumably inherited from their semi-nomadic, hunting-
gathering, and pastoral precursors? We should concede at once that we have seen no evidence that
the people of Hierakonpolis or any other Egyptian city ever enjoyed civic institutions and privileges as
reported in Sumerian cities. We have seen no citations to evidence of a popular assembly, a council of
elders, or to the election of a leader. On the other hand, neither have we seen citations to evidence
that they did not. The reasonable assumption appears that egalitarian traditions, whatever their local
manifestations, dried up rather quickly in the small cities the new urban areas of Predynastic Egypt.
' What basis exists for such an assumption? Authorities seem in general agreement that even in very
early Hierakonpolis the trend was towards hierarchy. Prosperity and growth apparently came quickly.
Grave sites reveal that differences in status began early and increased (Hoffman, 1979, 17, 110, 143;
Cialowicz, 2001, 63-64; Hendrickx, 2000, 40-41; Midant-Reynes, 2001, 44, 47-49, 53; Bard, 2000, 61).
The exotic goods found at early grave sites were luxury items, which served to elevate the status of
those wealthy enough to import them (Hoffman, 1979, 339). Indeed Hoffman concluded that perhaps as
early as 3500 BCE the city had “all the fundamental elements of later royal capitals- palace, temple,
and royal necropolis...” (368). Robert McCormick Adams agrees that Hierakonopolis’ regional
dominance initiated the unification trend, adding that kingship seems to have emerged "probably
through internal assimilation and conquest in the formative period of the late fourth millennium.... the
unity of the country- typically known as the “Two Lands” and long lacking an overall proper name- was
vested in king and kingship… the sole formal intermediary with the gods’” (Adams, 1998, 191).
' Precisely when kings appeared at Hierakonopolis is not at all clear. William Murname asserted
rather broadly that in Egypt, like Mesopotamia, kingship seems to have "developed around the figure of
war leaders in the different protostates...” (Murname, 1995, 693). Barry Kemp noted (as did Paul
Johnson, above) that the conflict theme was evident very early at Hierakonpolis, in depictions of an
exalted leader smiting enemies. War leaders at Hierakonpolis probably evolved into kings- exercising
charismatic authority- at least a century before such a model was imposed upon Egypt at large (Kemp,
1995, 684-685). As archaeologist Brian Fagan lucidly explains, the city's "leaders grew wealthy on the
' Nile trade, despite ecological disaster. A combination of drought conditions, rapacious goat and sheep
' herds, and deforestation by potters degraded the surrounding grassland. Hoffman believes that some of
' the local rulers wisely invested their wealth in irrigation agriculture instead of dry farming, thereby insulating
' the community from famine. They developed water-control systems, raised agricultural productivity, and
' controlled the stores of grain. These same men developed such secular power from their mastery of the
' inundation, that they may have become symbolic of the authority of the sun-god- they became rulers on earth
' of a world created by the sun. These leaders, thus, were the ancestors of the first pharaohs. Their notion of
' kingship formed the foundation for dynastic Egyptian ideology. In later times, the king was creator on earth,
' a perfect reflection of the sun in the sky, the two forming a partnership against chaos. Order and stability:
' these two words epitomize the ideological foundations of Egyptian civilization" (Fagan, 1998, 279).
' Abydos and Naqada were the principal rivals to mid-to-late predynastic Hierakonpolis. In the
context of social stratification, developments in these smaller cities (approx. 140 and 100 river km north
of Hierakonpolis) seem to have followed rather closely the pattern observed at Hierakonpolis (Bard,
2000, 64; Midant-Reynes, 2000, 44). The principal difference appears to be that Abydos, the burial
place of a number of early kings of unified Egypt, shows much more extreme stratification and opulence
than does Hierakonpolis (Bard, 2000, 64).
' The rivalry among these and perhaps other cities bears directly on the replacement of a kinship
basis of identity with one based on territorial residence. These rivalries therefore demand more
attention. Although one cannot be exactly certain how or even when Egypt became unified (Wenke,
1991, 318), authorities seem generally to agree that unification involved competition among several
city-states of Upper Egypt. They seem in agreement also that among these were Hierakonpolis,
Abydos, and Naqada. Of the three, Abydos was farthest downstream, and Hierakonpolis farthest
upstream, with Naqada (whose ancient name, Nubt, meant “city of gold”) in the middle. Barry Kemp
observed that such proto-states seem to have experienced a succession from 1) small, egalitarian
communities to 2) agricultural towns, to 3) “incipient city states”, and that “conflict,” implying warfare,
was a prominent theme in the art of the later (1989, 33).
' Kathryn A. Bard notes in “The Emergence of the Egyptian State (c.3200-2686)” that exotic goods
in the burial sites “probably” reflected “competition and the aggrandizement of local polities in Upper
Egypt....” (2000, 61). Her somewhat tentative conclusion was that Naqada was “vanquished,” but that
Abydos “went on to control the entire country, perhaps in alliance with less powerful elite groups… at
[more populous] Hierakonpolis…” (64). Reinforcing Kemp, both Michael Hoffman (1991, 366-68) and
Barbara Adams (1995, 46, 80), while hedging their bets, seemed to see Hierakonpolis as the more
likely initiator of unification. Encroaching deserts such as ultimately forced complete abandonment of
Hierakonpolis surely increased further competition for arable land, with cities farther up the Nile
vulnerable to those downriver in their trade. Such trade, as mentioned above, was important to the
ruling elites. Their wealth and status depended in some measure upon the ability to export not only
their own city’s products, but also- especially for Hierakonpolis- those from Nubia and the eastern and
western deserts. Exporting those products was of course prerequisite for securing exotic imports as
gifts to the gods and as status/authority symbols.
' Perhaps anthropologist Stephen Savage has best summed up what appears to be a nascent
consensus regarding the precocity of Hierakonpolis, and the gradual development of complex society
in Predynastic Egypt: “a number of small polities coalesced into three or four larger entities during the
late Predynastic, followed by the assimilation of the northwestern Delta by the Thinite rulers. The effort
to control trade… encouraged the expansion of Upper Egyptian… influence northward” (Savage, 2001,
101; 1997). Egypt’s unification appears less likely to have transpired from conquest politics, as from
the desire of elites (in both Upper and Lower Egypt) to “retain and extend economic, political, and
ideological control of the Nile Valley” (Savage, 1997, 226). This emergent view of history’s first
unitary/centralized nation comports well with Fried’s Conflict theory of state formation (table 4.1).
' Uncertainty regarding the primacy of Upper Egyptian cities in the Middle Predynastic continues
still, perhaps underscoring our point- that rivalry among these and other polities surely intensified
identification by residents, especially the elite, with their own city-state, rather than with kin groups. By
3100 BCE, however, one must presume that identity, amongst the majority, had long since begun to
shift towards manifestations of charismatic authority- which would provide the primary basis of group
identity in Egypt for most of the next three millennia. This Egyptian identity had its initial origins in an
inclusive sense of territoriality, but was thereafter buried under (elite-created) religious and other
charismatic authority qualifications. This heritage was evident more than two millennia later, in the
lessons of Herodotus: “the oracle of Amen-Ra…had declared that Egypt included everything which was
' covered by the waters of the inundation, and that everyone was an Egyptian who lived north of Elephantine
' and drank the waters of the Nile… Egyptians considered everyone a foreigner who did not speak Egyptian
' (II, 18; 158, 5). Nowhere does Herodotus give any indication that racial considerations were an issue of…
' importance; domicile [territorial] and culture [charismatic], not physical characteristics [kin-ethnic], were the
' key criteria…. Herodotus found the Egyptian attitude to foreigners a mixture of cultural superiority and distaste,
' a distaste, moreover, which was not infrequently powerfully reinforced by religious taboos” (Trigger, 1996, 317).
Charismatic Authority & Dependency
“It may be said that early Egypt’s unique contribution to the human experience was the recognition and
naming of the archetypes which go to make up an ordered human existence. Of such archetypes the
most enduring and universal was undoubtedly the concept of kingship.... From the end of the 4th
millennium BC, the pattern established in Egypt was to be repeated in many regions of the world… not
of diffusion but of a similar response to similar social needs and opportunities…”
- Michael Rice, Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt, 1999 (xxx).
It is a “difficult dynamic… ancient states seem to oscillate between periods of successful centralization
and loss of control.”
- Joyce Marcus & Gary Feinman, Archaic States, 1998 (ch. 1).
' Prolonged exposure to conditions of extreme danger may lead people to abandon either a kinship
and/or a territorial basis of identity and develop instead a sense of individual dependence upon a
charismatic leader or institution. Egyptian identity manifested for several millennia, as we see it, one of
the world’s most renown examples of a society in which the sentiment of nationality did arise from such
feelings of dependence upon a charismatic-justified leadership. Did such dependence derive from
prolonged exposure to conditions of extreme danger?
' Many authorities, particularly Barry Kemp (1989, 1995), have argued that order was the highest
value in Egyptian theology. Egyptians saw order as being in constant tension with the deeply dreaded
“chaos.” Studies of the art of earlier desert societies in the region based on kinship show substantially
less prominence given to the theme of order versus chaos. Middle Predynastic city-states, with a more
territorial basis of identity, are also different artistically, demonstrating much greater attention to
themes of conflict- especially of leaders smiting enemies. Thus it appears that the theme which Kemp
and others find so pervasive in Egyptian art became much more so after the development of rival city-
states than it was before. Similarly the exaltation of a superior ruler- invariably larger than others
depicted- enjoying implied support from the gods, was a powerful theme in the art of the contending
' Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson reminds us that, as Egypt “progressed on the path to statehood, social
distinctions… became increasingly explicit in the mortuary”, as well as the artistic record (1999, 31).
Local elites, “royal families in every sense” by the Late Predynastic, had “successfully monopolized”
economic resources to a degree that they “were able to command sufficient labor to construct
monumental tombs” (31)- to themselves of course. The “birth of the Egyptian state with its rigid
hierarchies” (31) is most often traced through the rise of packaged funeral practices. Wilkinson adds
that around the end of the Old Predynastic “an ideology of power was being formulated by the ruling
lineages of Upper Egypt… [including] royal iconography… [marking] the beginning of a phase of rapid
social change which, with accelerating speed, led to the emergence of classic kingship ideology
within… some two hundred years” (by c.3300 BCE) (Wilkinson, 31; Hassan, 1988). Soon thereafter, the
writing system of hieroglyphics (‘words of the gods’) was developed, c.3300-3000. In contrast,
Mesopotamian kings were at first (and for a longer time- at least in the north) “elite landowners,
perhaps important figures in community assemblies”- local lords, “whose acquisition of power was
internal” (Adams, 2000, 191).
' Further complicating the matter is the likelihood that the Predynastic rulers of Upper Egypt, when
formulating their own particular “iconography of rule, seem to have borrowed various elements from
contemporary Mesopotamian culture” (Wilkinson,32; Rice, xvii-xviii)- not surprising given the trade links
established between the two regions, significant from the Middle or perhaps even Old Predynastic.
Smith reminds us however that the “manifold nature of Egyptian religious beliefs defies summary
treatment”, because of its accumulation of “beliefs over the centuries through an additive process…
reluctant to replace one idea wholly with another” (1998, 4). What does seem clear is that Egyptian
state formation appears to have relied- even more than did Mesopotamia- on religious iconography
and notions of divine kingship. Rice speculates that, from the earliest Predynastic times, ”local chiefs,
some of whom probably exercised considerable personal power, were perhaps already identified as
divine or semi-divine beings, an aspect of Egypt’s African inheritance” (1999, xix).
' Unfortunately we know relatively little about the lengthy period of contention among rival city-states
which preceded Egypt’s unification. Surely such conflict among city-states reinforced powerfully the
sense of urgency about the need for order (charismatic authority); although continued city-state
warfare tended to be- over the near term at least- a formula for chaos (charismatic dependency), as it
was so often in contemporary Mesopotamia. Unification under a king with absolute (temporal and
spiritual) power, on the other hand, did foster order. And so the cycle of centralized, bureaucratic-
absolutist order (state authoritarianism) was interspersed with typically shorter eras of state breakdown
and anarchy (charismatic dependency), through more than three millennia of Egyptian history. Surely
such an enduring system would find resonance in other societies and other eras- as indeed the
governing paradigm of charismatic authority and dependency has (see chapter 3).
' Climate factors should not be overlooked in Egypt’s transition from Predynastic kinship and
territorial identity to a unified system of charismatic authority. Malville reminds us that a “southward shift
of the monsoons in the Late Neolithic” had rendered southern Egypt “hyper-arid and uninhabitable” by
around 2800 BCE- creating an “exodus” (or more likely a series of mass migrations) from the Nubian
Desert that seems likely to have stimulated social differentiation and cultural complexity in Predynastic
Upper Egypt (1998, 488). There is also evidence of declining Nile flood levels from 3000-2000, and-
also significant- central African rift lakes desiccating completely between 3400-3000 (Kennett, 79).
' Rice (1999, xxxi-xxxii) notes that, from “the early centuries” not only was the king of unified Egypt
considered a god, but “was presumed to be the god, the Master of the Universe, by whose will the sun
rose, the Nile flooded and the stars turned… a breathtakingly audacious concept…. the Two Lands
were the heavenly mansions brought down to earth because of him… because he was the incarnation
of the archetypal god of kingship, Horus.” After a thousand years or so, Horus came to be “represented
as the son of Osiris, a latecomer into the Egytpian corporation of divine entities…who came to
symbolize the king-after-death… The king was not merely the equal of the gods; at certain occasions
he was their master and they deferred to him.... The king was the supreme priest of Egypt…
consecrating himself to himself” (Rice, xxxii). This approximates many classic definitions of absolutism,
and ancient Egyptians seem to have been the first in history to have institutionalized it so thoroughly,
' Eventually, however, court priests and nobles would become, arguably, more powerful than the
royalty- as early as the 5th and 6th dynasties (c.2498-2345) according to Weber (1989)- as state
apparatus grew more elaborate. As they would in imperial China some millennia later, “clerical
bureaucrats…rose out of the temple servants originally appointed to serve and glorify the king.…
[some titles however].… must have had a far greater antiquity, reaching back to some structure which
existed before the accepted appearance of the monarchy” (Rice, xxxii-xxxiii). Regardless of the exact
dates, sometime in the second half of the 3rd millennium the “employment of short-term expediencies,
' beloved of all politicians in every generation with no concern for those who would follow them, was a device
' first practiced by the Egyptian monarchy in the closing decades of the Old Kingdom, to secure the loyalty of the
' great magnates by bestowing on them more and more royal lands and showering them with privileges and
' exemptions which eventually were to cripple the state” (Rice, xxxiii).
' With the growth and increasing autonomy (at least from the royal families' control) of the
charismatic authority (CHA) state, pharaohs’9 pyramids became comparatively smaller and the state
grew more bureaucratic. Trigger notes that “the life of the Ancient Egyptian was document-ridden in the
extreme.… aggravated by the fact that, when any transaction of sale or purchase took place, all the
documentation relating to the relevant item which had ever existed… had also to be transferred to the
purchaser. Most families…kept their own archives” (1996, 314).
' After the Old Kingdom’s collapse into what Weber has termed “a de-centralizing counter-action”
(Weber, 1989) of fragmentation, private armies, and anarchy (the First Intermediate Period, 2134-
2040), the restored Middle Kingdom king was still officially considered “a god but, more important…was
the Chief Executive of the Two Lands” (Rice, xxxiii). The 12th dynasty’s Ramesseum Papyrus (c.1971
BCE), the world’s oldest surviving papyrus document- apparently “intended for the king’s accession or
for his jubilee ceremony”- instructs on the performance of ritual acts, mostly concerning “the king’s
relationship to Horus, Osiris, and Seth” (Trigger, 1996, 72), whom apparently he was not presumed to
be anymore. Trigger reminds us, however, that due to the mythical nature of Egyptian history, and
because Egyptian thought “did not demand that the connection between assertions be made explicit, it
is difficult both to reconstruct from any text… and in the end…escape from simply describing the
various theological facets of kingship in the Egyptians’ own terms” (Trigger, 73).
' The three intermediate periods of the dynastic era, intervals of chaos following breakdowns of the
unity provided by the dynastic system, provided rationales and reinforcement of the basic concern for
order and authority. The fact that several previously un-walled cities (Brewer & Teeter, 1999, 52) built
defensive walls during the intermediate periods helps make the point. The anarchy of these
intermediate periods, surely must have reinforced belief in the precariousness of order and thus the
need for strong authority to keep chaos in check; hence the recurrent strong state (charismatic
authority)- weak state (charismatic dependency) cycle- which we believe not only endured for an
amazing 3000 years in Egypt, but has also characterized a rather weak sentiment of nationality in most
people, in most states and societies on the planet, for most of recorded history. It has been the most
common paradigm or operating system throughout recorded history. It might even be argued that the
charismatic authority-charismatic dependency cycle is (or at least has been) the natural state of
' Having ancient Egyptians clinging to authority, John Baines and Norman Yoffee remind us, was also
in the interest of the governing elite. Expanding on the anthropological assertion that social
stratification is a basic hallmark of civilizations and states, they assert quite broadly that the “terms of
order, the negotiation of order, and its appropriation by elites are defining activities of civilizations.”
More specifically: “The elite appropriation of order is one of many legitimations of inequality, which was
perhaps most extreme in Egypt” (Baines & Yoffee, 1998, 213).
' One should not be left with the impression, however, that Ancient Egypt was not without its humane
points. In addition to the relative gender equality noted earlier, it should be remarked that the Nile state
appears to have gradually grown more tolerant and inclusive10 culturally (though not so politically) over
the millennia. Military technology was both generally slow to develop (with the exception of the reactive
18th and 19th dynasties) and often had to be imported, as the inward-looking society got involved in
few foreign wars, vis-à-vis its contemporaries. Chahira Kozma reminds us that people with disabilities
were also accepted in ancient Egypt. The recorded daily activities of dwarfs suggest their "assimilation
into daily life, and their disorder was not shown as a physical handicap. Wisdom writings and moral
teachings… commanded respect for dwarfs and other individuals with disabilities” (2006, 303). Egypt, if
only by force, could also have multiethnic dynasties. The 15th dynasty Hyksos, c.1648-1540, were a
Semitic-speaking people from the Canann region to the east; whereas the 25th dynasty Kushites,
c.752-656 BCE, were largely black Africans from Nubia. Ian Shaw reminds us that, despite Egypt’s
history of struggles with its southern neighbor, the “demonstrably negroid features of the high official
Maiherpri did not prevent him from attaining the special privilege of a burial in the Valley of Kings”
c. 1479-1425 (2000, 315). Similarly, a near-eastern man “rose to the rank of vizier (the highest civil
office below that of the king himself)” in the late 18th dynasty (Kozma, 315)- unthinkable in the city-
states of ancient Greece. Indeed, as Egyptologist John Ray has observed, “For much of its history it
attracted skilled immigrants, who proceeded to declare themselves more native than the natives” (Ray,
' Ancient Egypt’s succession to charismatic authority seems consonant with depictions in art during
the later Predynastic periods. Conflict is a recurring theme. Kings are often depicted in relation to
violence. Frequently they appear with various symbols of gods, particularly the falcon god, Horus
(Baines, 1995a; 1995b; Baines & Yoffee, 1998; O’Connor, 1990; O’Connor & Silverman, 1995; O’
Connor & Reid, 2003; Bard, 2000; Midant-Reynes, 2000; Huijge, 2002). Thus the people of Egypt, like
the Sumerians, seem to have based their identity successively on kinship, and then territory, before
finally settling on permanent institutions of charismatic authority. It is largely due to geographical
differences between the two civilizations that a territorial basis of nationality in Nile-dependent ancient
Egypt was relatively transient in development, compared to the two river systems of Mesopotamia.
Table 4:3: Bases of Nationality in Ancient Egypt
Time: 6000-3150 3100-2650 2650–2134 2030-1640
Era: Predynastic Proto/Archaic Old Kingdom Middle Kingdom
Population11 350k-870k 1mn. 1.6mn. 2mn.
Climate: wetter lower water table; 'hyper-aridity; uninhabitable
' loss of monsoons beyond Nile Valley'
' Lower Nile: delta formed; lower floods ‘Asiatics’->Hyksos
' proto-farming villages
' Upper Nile: summer monsoons; desiccation, migration, Seth- drought, Thebes-Amun
' seasonal pastoralists/H-Gs & centralization storms & discord
Basis: Kinship- (Early & Old PreDyn) Charismatic Authority Charismatic Authority-Dependency
' Territorial- (Old & Mid PreDyn) (strong state/weak state cycle)
' Charismatic Auth.- (Late PreD) ‘Devine will’ ‘Devine will’ Codified law
' Pharaoh-centered Priest-centered
State Origin: Integration or Circumsc.Land Conflict Conflict Conflict
State Form. & Institutionalist Marxist Marxist Institutionalist '
Maintenance: (conforming) (repressing) (repressing) (conforming) '
|Charismatic Dependency, Books, and the rise of Ethnic Identity
"Oh living Aten, who initiates life.... Oh sole god, without another beside him! You create the Earth
according to your wish.... You are in my heart, and there is none who knows you except your son."
- Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten), 1353 BCE (Gore, 2001, 34)
“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel. You have seen what I did to the
Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if [ital.
added] you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all the
peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
- Exodus 19:6, Verses 3b-6 (Goodblatt, 71).
' According to Muzhou Pu, foreigners could have been “a visible element” in Egyptian society as far
back as the Old Kingdom, when Nubians and Libyans were recruited as mercenaries in campaigns
against the Asiatic “Sand-dwellers”, from whom captives were in turn often taken to Egypt as slaves
(2005, 106, 108). The Middle Kingdom centralized bureaucracy in its efforts to restore national order,
replacing the old provincial governors with a vast army of appointed officials, many of them ‘Asiatics’. In
the New Kingdom, Nubians and Libyans assumed positions in the Egyptian police force (108). Egypt
was, by the second millennium at least, a melting pot. As Egyptologist James Allen reminds us, the
“open nature of Egyptian society could include such immigrants as long as they offered allegiance to
the pharaoh and became useful members of society”, and many foreign slaves eventually became
naturalized via adoption or marriage into Egyptian families (2000, 32).
' Although Egypt’s lost wars and invasions by foreigners were “disturbing, several periods of foreign
occupation did not in fact substantially alter the traditional governmental and social structure or its
supporting religious ideology”, due largely to the traditionally sustaining “sense of Egyptian
superiority…its supernatural validity, which made reverses abroad, however serious, mere incidents” in
an Egypt-centered cosmic drama (Trigger, 1996, 194). Perhaps it was this religious-nationalist
blinkeredness that lead Egyptians to overlook the development of large populations of foreigners-
particularly in the eastern delta region- wherefrom the Hyksos (‘rulers of foreign lands’) ethnicity is
thought to have arisen in the 17th century BCE. In any event, by the imperial decline of the 13th
dynasty (1783-1640), Egypt (particularly northern Egypt) was, in the words of Weber (1989), “no
longer an oasis, but a backwater”, and the Second Intermediate Period (1640-1532) of chaos &
charismatic dependency had begun.
' The Hyksos era (c.1648-1540) is important because it halted the charismatic authority-charismatic
dependency cycle of dynasties; and is so doing providing opportunities- both for substantial Egyptian
reforms and for the development of distinct ethnic identities in Egypt. The Hyksos were of course
themselves an ethnic group in Egypt, apparently originating in the Canaan region immediately to the
east (although the Torah12 traces Hebrew ancestors back to the Ur region of Sumer, in what could
have been c.2000 BCE), and are said to have worshipped Baal, in the then-acceptable Egyptian form
of Seth. Thomas Levy and Augustin Holl remind us that the “formation of ethnic identity is a complex
but dynamic process … sometimes [involving] 'foundational' events, such as key migration [sic],
encapsulated in the 'social memory'…. However, it is more often structured according [to/with]
opposite cultural 'archetypes'” (2002, 83). Canaan, or Palestine, located at the crossroads of the old
world’s three continents, has of course long been a meeting place for peoples of different nationality-
albeit for the most part from pastoralist cultures. The beginning of Hyksos rule in the north of Egypt,
according to Trigger, may be seen as “a combination of various Palestinian groups migrating direct
' from southern Palestine into the eastern Delta, intent upon settlement, and more mobile fighting groups,
' perhaps centred on or in loose federation with a main army making for Memphis, fanning out and taking over
' various delta cities… leaving others still in the charge of their Egyptian rulers, perhaps by prior arrangement”
' (1996, 158).
' The consolidation of the new Hyksos order, imposed on Lower Egyptian chaos, may have been
significantly aided by ‘the gods’- or at least the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Thera on Santorini
island, between far south Greece and Turkey in the Aegean. Recent estimates have placed the
eruption- reportedly the second largest in human history- sometime between 1660-1613 BCE (Balter,
2006, 508), although the approximate dating is still much disputed. Even at the very least impact,
Thera could have effectively blacked out some days in northern Egypt, dropped temperatures for some
time, and contributed to unexpected crop failures and diminished trade to the north. Perhaps not quite
biblical-league oddities and disasters, but folk tales can be hyperbolized (as well as agglutinated). One
should also bear in mind that the psychological and social effects of natural catastrophes- particularly
in ancient times of poor communication- can be far more damaging to order than actual physical
' In any event, the foreign subjugation brought by the “previously unknown” Hyksos/Canaanites “sent
shock waves through the Egyptian psyche”, and after about a century of foreign rule, “native Egyptians
from their base at Thebes finally broke Hyksos power” (Redmount, 2001, 80), with a series of military
campaigns lasting about two decades. The first century Jewish historian Josephus, citing the great 3rd
century BCE Egyptian historian Manetho, wrote that the Hyksos leadership was besieged in their
eastern delta capital of Avaris, when the Egyptian army, under the command of 18th dynasty founder
Ahmose, “came to a composition with them, that they should leave Egypt, and go, without any harm to
' be done to them, whithersoever they would; and that, after this composition was made, they went away with
' their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand, and took their journey
' from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria; but that as they were in fear of the Assyrians, who had then the
' dominion over Asia, they built a city in that country which is now called Judea” (Flavius, Book 1:14).
' Trigger adds that, in “view of the likely origin of the Hyksos it would not be surprising to find that a
part of southern Palestine remained under their hegemony” (1996, 159). Moreover, the Palestinian city
states appear to have “suffered a drastic decline in population and urbanism… corresponding to the
expulsion of the Hyksos” and rise of the New Kingdom (Higginbotham, 2000, 1).
' Whether or not this compact and migration is the primary fact upon which the later Book of Exodus
is based, after the expulsion of the Hyksos, historian David Daiches reminds us, “the Hebrews in Egypt
were left without protectors. Contemporary documents show that the Hyksos who escaped slaughter
were enslaved. It is reasonable to suppose that the Hebrews, now unprotected by the Establishment,
were also enslaved at this time" (Daiches, 1975). Daiches further noted that “most scholars now agree
that there is some connection between the Hyksos rule of Egypt and the settling of the Hebrews there.
It seems reasonable… that the Hyksos, who themselves had traveled the caravan routes to Egypt for
centuries before they finally took power there, favored other 'Apiru groups13 and encouraged them to
settle” (Daiches, 1975). These Apiru/Habiru-Hebrew folk appear not to have been “a race or a nation,
but of a class of people who worked the caravan routes of the Middle East; the word probably means
something like donkey-drivers or caravan-men.” They “traveled and traded with their families and flocks
and herds, never settling for long in one place… [operating] sometimes as smiths and traded among
other things in musical instruments” (Daiches, 1975).
' Numerous studies have traced the word Hebrew back to the Akkadian habiru (Lemche, 1979;
Loretz, 1984; Lemche, 1984)- a word that apparently meant something like ‘fugitive’ (Lemche, 1980; Na’
aman, 1986; Allen, 1997). More recently, Simcha Shalom Brooks has found the “Habiru…in over 200
written documents covering much of the second millennium BC…. However, as a general Western
Asiatic phenomenon they ceased to exist historically speaking” beyond that time (2002, 65). The
Semitic root of habiru is based on either “‘br or ‘pr… Habiru… must be a derivation from the verb ‘br…
' meaning to pass or to trespass (for example, a border)…. If we read it as in Akkadian ‘piru, then it derives from
' the noun ‘pr… meaning dust. In that case ‘piru may have the meaning of ‘low (social) standing’. It is also quite
' possible that the Habiru immigrants were regarded as being of low standing… the majority of them moved in
' small bands, often under the leadership of one man… The Habiru had neither tribal territory nor fields or herds,
' and so often they posed a threat to sedentary society.... the Habiru groups appeared in various places throughout
' the Western Asiatic region, though they had nothing necessarily in common with each other, except for their
' social status” (Brooks, 2002, 65-66).
' Van de Meiroop adds that widespread rural indebtedness led many habiru to seek “refuge outside
the structures of the state…. That term was used in records from almost all great states” of the late 2nd
millennium, referring not to “an ethnic group but to a social one. Habiru were outcasts from society who
sought refuge in territories that were difficult to control… outside the structures of the states” (2004,
187-88). So it would seem that not all habiru were Hebrews, but that all of the eventual Hebrew tribes
were overwhelmingly composed of habiru.
' Perhaps a key factor that distinguished Hebrews from other habiru (or at least from the vast
majority of other ancients14) was primogeniture. As Brooks notes, by at least the time of ancient Israel
(c.1000 BCE), “the rule was that only sons were entitled to inheritance and the eldest son held the
privileged position… a double share of the father’s inheritance. The same appears in documents
from… southern Babylonia” (2002, 68). He adds that “because heads of household and their lineage
members exercised complete rights over inheritance in landholdings, inequalities within the various
groups in Israel would inevitably have developed long before the Monarchy” developed (68). Thus, as
would be the case in later primogeniture societies (i.e. Early Modern England and Japan), additional
sons “could no longer depend on farming for their livelihood, but had to adapt to a bartering system in
order to supply themselves… In the early Iron Age [late 2nd millennium BCE]… the situation may have
become so desperate that there was no alternative for many young unmarried males but to leave their
homes” (68). Brooks notes that the Hebrew-primogeniture phenomenon may well “explain where
members of David’s band came from… David himself… came from a similar background; after all he
was Jesse’s eighth son…. This socio-cultural situation might be considered one of the prime reasons
for the eventual emergence of centralized rule”, as the “Monarchy… offered a solution for the so many
dispossessed young men…” who would eventually wind up in the military, government, or priesthood
' The Late Bronze Age (c.1550-1200), Carol Redmount reminds us, was a cosmopolitan era of
“unprecedented international contacts… throughout the eastern Mediterranean. People, goods, and
ideas flowed freely”, in what was perhaps the first “age of empire… [and] international way of life”
(2001, 79). Perhaps the largest of these rivalrous states was the new (post-Hyksos) Egyptian empire,
which dominated the southern Levant during this time, with overseers reporting directly to the king and
garrison troops “stationed in various cities to protect the vassal princes (Helck 1960; 1971: 246-255)”
(Higgenbotham, 2). Moreover, c.1300-1100, the Ramesside pharaohs “introduced a new expansionist
program, involving the gradual annexation of the southern Levant”- a shift from economic and political
domination to outright military occupation (Higgenbotham, 3).
' What preceded the Ramesside militarist era however, is, has been, and probably will be,
controversial. We do not claim to have all the correct answers from this time, but merely to identify the
broad strokes of what transpired, in relation to and evident by changes in the patterns of nationality
and group identity evident in both Egypt and the Levant, during the half millennia from approximately
1350-850 BCE. Five hundred years (23 generations) is a long time, and there were many themes that
had an impact on nationality, including the bronze-to-iron transition (see chapter 5). Moreover, the
higher incidence of famine- brought about largely from the accumulated effects of overgrazing and
wood collecting in semi-arid and arid environments- seems to have also undermined imperial authority
throughout the eastern Mediterranean by the turn of the millennia. Perhaps this generally worsening
environment (in addition to the more widely available iron) provoked the growing pessimism and
militarism of the late second millennium. In any event, the hard times (irony intended) seem to have
eventually motivated lasting changes in the spiritual environment to match those of the physical. With
the fall of (CHA) empires came the rise of smaller ethnic identity (ENI) kingdoms- some of which were
greatly assisted by the new trend of monotheism.
' Perhaps we should start this story in the mid-14th century BCE- a time of strong authority (CHA) for
the 18th dynasty- when an ‘eccentric’ second-son ascended to the pharaohship. Not the boy ‘King Tut’
of post-1920s legend, but his father15 (or grandfather), Amenhotep IV. Several years into his reign
(1352-1336), Amenhotep (‘Amun is Content'), promoted the previously low-ranking sun disk god, Aten,
to the position of chief deity- a form of henotheism or monolarity- and changed his name to Akhenaten
(‘He Who is of Service to Aten’). Speculations on his reasons for initiating this have been quite broad,
and will not be recounted here. What is clear, however, is that Akhenaten showed an increased
antipathy towards the powerful temple priests and their Amun (‘The Hidden’, i.e. god of air or night)
religious establishment- recognized earlier by his father, who appears also to have resented them. In
fact, Amenhotep III, according to National Geographic senior editor Rick Gore, “late in his reign, and
perhaps chafing from political friction with the priests of Amun… decided that he was not only the son
of Amun but also the incarnation of [the sun god] Re- and thus at least equal to Amun”, and began
building monuments to his own divinity (Gore, 2001). Thus it appears that- at a peak of Egyptian
charismatic authority- three generations of pharaohs (Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and little
Tutankhamun) were involved in an attempt to wrest political power from the Thebes-based priestly
establishment- with the military almost certainly occupying the crucial middle ground between the two
camps. After a decade or two the effort collapsed, and may have appeared to many learned Egyptians
(nearly all of whom would have been clerics) as something like a throw-back to the presumed tyranny
of the Old Kingdom16 (where sun gods were more prominent), as opposed to the Middle Kingdom’s
bureaucracy and relative rule of law.
' Indeed, Aten was only to be interpreted via his prophet, Akhenaten; thus rendering the high
priesthood bureaucracy of the Middle Kingdom subordinate, if not redundant. In subsequent years the
upstart pharaoh (r.1352-1336) would confiscate Amun temples and revenues, and even moved the
entire capitol from Thebes- where Amun also developed- to the empty (but presumably more sunlight-
friendly) deserts east of the Nile, halfway between Thebes and Memphis, where the sun disk was
worshiped in broad daylight, as opposed to the darkened rooms of Amun. Also about midway through
his reign, Akhenaten initiated what appears to be history’s first known ban on idolatry. According to
sociologist Rodney Stark, “Overnight, the Egyptians, including thousands of priests serving other
temples, were expected to be monotheists… an attempted revolution imposed from above and quite
lacking in popular support” (2003, 32). Although speculations on the extent of Aten’s resonance in the
different regions of Egypt vary widely, there is no doubt that the palace intrigue weakened the
dynasty's hold on power over the long run.
' Amun was not content. After a decade or so of such conflicts, the Hittites had begun “toppling
Egypt's allies. In the midst of growing chaos Akhenaten died. No one knows [exactly] when or how”
(Gore, 2001). Within several years of his death in 1336, “the old orthodoxy was restored. Akhenaten's
enemies soon smashed his statues, dismantled his temples, and set out to expunge all memory of him
and [queen] Nefertiti” (Gore). Egyptologist Jan Assmann suggests that the Hittite raids of the late
Amarna and ensuant 20 years of plague- “the worst epidemic” of Near Eastern antiquity- helped form
“the trauma that gave rise to the phantom of the religious enemy” (1997, 25). Indeed “so thoroughly
had he been exorcised” that Egyptologists were not even aware of Akhenaten or the Amarna until 19th
century archaeology discoveries (Gore, 2001).
' The images unearthed of him and Nefertiti are both diverse and often bizarre (in addition to
refreshingly family-centered). This is probably more indicative of (history’s first known) artistic
renaissance than of the family’s physical condition, or of the radical irrelevancy of gender to sun-disks.
At least the artistic culture of the Amarna period, despite the political failure, is generally noted for its
revolutionary “naturalism and lifelike fluidity“, which “began to show up in everything from sculpture to
the canopic jar lids” (Goodale, 2000, 19).
' After two short-lived regents of controversial identity, the 9 or 10 year old Tutankhaten ("Living
Image of Aten"), was made Pharaoh in 1333 BCE. In 1331 the 11 year-old, obviously a tool of the old
guard despite his ancestors, renamed himself Tutankhamun ("Living Image of Amun"), lifted the ban on
the old gods, and ordered the moving of the capital back to Thebes and the eradication of Amarna
temples. King Tut (and the 18th dynasty) would die without an heir eight years later (1324), perhaps
from a badly broken leg and gangrene. General Horemheb (r.1319-1292; inserted into the records as
Amenhotep III's successor) assumed the pharaohship for the next 27 years, obliterating all records of
Akhenaten and Nefertiti that he could (Gore, 2001).
' Thus was the New Kingdom’s half-century transition from strong state stability (order/charismatic
authority), to a weaker state of disarray (chaos/charismatic dependency), and back. It appears,
however, that the Amun priests’ and military’s victory over Aten and monotheism was costly over the
long-term, perhaps pyrric. The 19th dynasty (1295-1186), despite its new-found military successes,
marked a time of cultural stagnation and decline. Egyptian art returned to its classic, ritualized style.
The often bright, optimistic scenes of the 18th dynasty appear to have been replaced with a brooding
pessimism about the life hereafter, embodied in the early dynasty’s Book of the Dead- a collection
(c.1240 BCE) of spells and other writings placed in tombs to guide souls on their journey to the
afterlife. Although the gradual disappearance of women as bureaucrats and chief priests had
undoubtedly began many centuries earlier, by the later New Kingdom the removal of females from the
political and administrative spheres was readily apparent. In 1274, the new militarist caste dynasty
achieved an actual pyrric victory of sorts against the rival Hittite empire at Kadesh in northern Canaan.
Within a century of the (first international) Kadesh peace treaty (c.1258), however, the Hittite empire
had dissolved, and New Kingdom Egypt was in a spiral of decline that would only end centuries later in
the Third Intermediate period.
' How were two great powers brought low so quickly? Although it is well-known that the Hittite Empire
(see chapter 5) was dependent upon its initial advantage (from c.1500 BCE) in iron-working
technology, the diffusion of these new weapons- both far superior to and more widely available than
bronze- is only one of many sea-changes evident from the 13th century. In addition to the iron diffusion
and de-forestation mentioned above, Ian Shaw points out that the 13th and 12th centuries witnessed “a
series of major crop failures in the northern and eastern Mediterranean” that “appear to have triggered
of large-scale migrations though Anatolia and the Levant” (2003, 321). Among “the new migrants” were
“a loose confederation of ethnic groups from the Aegean and Asia” (321). How were these (often
famine-driven) migrants to form groups and nationalities? Military historian William Weir points out that
much of the Aegean area, by at least the early 12th century, was in a state of “something approaching
chaos.” Lydian “Troy was destroyed…the Hittite power... was…extinguished…
' Egypt was twice attacked by… the 'Peoples of the Sea'… Mycenaean kingdoms were destroyed…this all
' happened within a hundred years… The whole known world changed. The Egyptians say the 'Peoples of
' the Sea' were joined by the Libyans from the desert west of Egypt and that they included a large number of
' peoples who have been identified by authorities as Achaean Greeks (Mycenaeans), Dorian Greeks, Philistines,
' Sardinians, Etruscans, Lycians, Sicilians, and others. It was a mass movement, a wandering of peoples that
' moved down the east shore of the Mediterranean by land and sea, crushing Anatolian and Syrians states on the
' way to Egypt. Pharaoh Merneptah defeated the first invasion, which…occurred soon after the destruction of the
' Hittite [empire]” (Weir, 2005, 6).
' According to many scholars, it was also in this rather dreary and militarized century (c.1260-1160)
that a discontent Egyptian of Levantine heritage by the name of Moses may have begun to articulate
an ethnic identity and monotheistic theology to some of the numerous Hebrew peoples resident in
the declining empire. Of course this was only one century after the death of Akhenaten and the
Amarna revolution. Before going too far with this, however, one should acknowledge, as Egyptologist
Jan Assmann has, that we “cannot be sure that Moses ever lived because there are no traces of his
earthly existence outside the tradition” (1997, 1-2) of Hebrew religious writings, created several
centuries after the character’s purported existence. Rather ironically, “Moses is a figure of memory but
not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory. Since memory is all that counts
in the sphere of cultural distinctions and constructions, we… [speak] not of Akenaten’s distinction, but
of the Mosaic distinction” (2). Could it be that the monotheism ideology which initially failed within a
charismatic authority political environment eventually found a smaller, if more secure, home within an
ethnic group identity? After all, the leaders of prospective nations (particularly in that increasingly
chaotic era) “had to create an allegiance to the state among people accustomed to thinking…in terms
of kin. One way to do this is by fostering the impression that the state is a tribe. The king is portrayed
as the father of the people… held to descend from a common ancestor” (Olson, 2002, 104), however
fictive, mythological, or (as modern Hollywood might claim) ‘historical fiction’. Obviously, this is much
easier to achieve within the confines of a prospective ethnic group, than within the multi-ethnic empire
that was New Kingdom Egypt. Assmann reminds us that, prior to Akhenaten and ‘Moses’, “nobody
' contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship…. The Mosaic distinction
' was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn….
' We may call this new type of religion “counter-religion” because it rejects and repudiates everything that went
' before and what is outside itself as “paganism.”…. Whereas polytheism, or rather ‘cosmotheism,’ rendered
' different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural
' translatability…. Both the concept of idolatry and the repudiation of it grew stronger and stronger in the
' course of Jewish history…. This hatred was mutual and the ‘idolators’ did not fail to retaliate” (1997, 3-4).
' Matthias Schulz, in a somewhat polemic Der Spiegel cover story, asks how was it that monotheism
as developed in Canaan ran so differently from (the not so strict) monotheisms of the East. First of all,
developing distinctive and salient ethnic identities- as opposed to merely the usual extended kin
networks- appears to have required considerable time, trial, and error, in addition to a particularly
stringent monotheism. There were at the very least some five centuries between the purported first
articulations of a Hebrew monotheist identity and the “ripening” of what could be called a Jewish ethnic
national identity during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BCE (Schulz, 2006). As late as the
latter 10th century, “Jahweh was revered only in the north Sinai as a local weather God”, prior to the
violent “Jahweh only movement” fanatics (Schulz) of the 9th century. The two Hebrew kingdoms of
Israel and Judah were warring, and sometimes even allied with non-Hebrew neighbors against each
other, perhaps inspiring Sigmund Freud’s later observations on 'the narcissism of minor differences'17.
' Then again, the Hibiru/Hebrews, to the extent that their culture originated in Sumer, would always
have been a diverse and complex/competitive group, both spiritually as well as physically. Perhaps
Schulz’s question can be answered most simply by noting that the obstreperous Hebrew culture in early
first millennium Canaan could merely have been a westward extension (due to the Levant’s drier
climate/lower population density) of the equally obstreperous Sumerian cultures of early second
millennium Mesopotamia. Both nationalities seem to have shared the most fundamental attitudes- a
zealous guarding of their political independence/freedom, and fierce opposition to (or resentment of)
imperial subjugation. As noted in the Mesopotamian section of this chapter, these were Sumerian
cultural traits long before population densities and empires (both tending to cause charismatic
dependency) grew oppressive enough to drive the formation and maintenance of similar attitudes in
the hilly and less-watered lands of Canaan. Canaan of course was no ordinary desert, but located at
the primary crossroads of three continents. As subjugation to, or hiding from, neighboring nationalities
were not acceptable options, the early Hebrews developed a fighting faith- probably even more so than
did their neighbors. Perhaps it is ironic- in a land that pioneered primogeniture (see above)- that the
Hebrew people would no longer accept also-ran, minor, out-group status within the multi-ethnic empires
' With the end of the First, or “Greek”, Dark Ages (c.12th-8th centuries BCE), empires- Assyrian,
Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian/Achaemenid- began to reassert their designs on the Levant.
Perhaps it is only after the 6th century conquest of Judah and subsequent (at least for the nobility)
Babylonian captivity that “Jahweh priests got the upper hand” in Hebrew politics, an example of
philosopher Karl Jaspers’ pivotal “axis time” of world history- when, for the first time, the individual was
able “to oppose internally the whole world” (Schulz). Such distinct opposition to the ways of the old
Bronze Age (internationalist) world, as developed by the Hebrew tribes of the Levant, took the form of
“a patriarchy unequalled.” The Jahweh of up to 586 BCE apparently had a wife, Aschera; but against
her “ran the prophets’ storm… [so] From Babylonian exile he returned as a widower” (Schulz, 2006). It
is not often noted, however, that by no means did all of the Judean nobility- now called Jews- return to
re-order (what was to be the first of many subsequent) new Jerusalem. Much of the nobility remained
garrisoned in Babylon, which remained a primary Jewish center throughout the diaspora of the late
antiquity and medieval eras, and where much of what would eventually become the Hebrew bible (both
the Torah and the later Talmud) was written and edited (Harle, 1998).
' In any event, Moses or not, Canaan was certainly under to yoke of the Egyptian empire throughout
most of the New Kingdom, but liberated from it during the relative disorder of the ‘Greek’ Dark Ages
and Third Intermediate Period (1075-715). This state of relative autonomy was suspended with the 586
BCE conquest and subsequent half century of 'Babylonian captivity'. The new Judaism that returned
from Babylon around 537, however- apparently under the graces of Persian emperor Cyrus the Great-
was a much more thorough, and obsequious, body of instructions than prior Hebrew works. Jewish
historian David Goodblatt notes that this new Bible (Torah, Old Testament) taking form “provided
materials for the construction of a national identity. Indeed some have asserted that
' accomplishing such a construction was the motivation for the composition of its components in the first place…
' at least some biblical books were created in an effort at ‘ethnogenisis’…. Mullen suggests that… [Deuteronomy]
' was created in the period of Babylonian Exile in order to shore up a threatened Judean identity…. [and that]
' the Tetrateuch… was compiled during the Persian era in order to create a ‘group ethnic identity.’ Eventually it
' was prefixed to the Deuteronomic history” (2006, 30).
' Why did this religious ethnicizing take place in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE? Perhaps because
Hebrew ethnic identity, accustomed to minority status, felt newly threatened, due not only to the
‘captivity’, but also to the displacement of the (distinctive) Hebrew language with the (regional) Aramaic
language. According to Goodblatt, “All the evidence…points to Hebrew as the spoken and written
language of the country” through the fall of Israel in the north and Judah in the south (51). A couple
centuries later, however, many “scholars argue that the Hebrew of Second Temple [515 BCE-70 AD]
literature betrays strong Aramaic influences… [suggesting] that Aramaic was the spoken (and even the
more common written) language of the authors… Reinforcing this argument is epigraphic evidence”,
where Aramaic finds outnumber those in Hebrew (Goodblatt, 52).
' So it would appear that the old Hebrew ethnic identity, for various reasons, was being transformed
into what one could call a more complicated (multi-faceted) Jewish identity. One may have noticed
earlier from this section’s introductory quote from Exodus that it is a multi-dimensional appeal (surely
ingenious for its day), incorporating both charismatic authority and civic aspects in addition to ethnic.
By the latter first millennium BCE, ‘the Jews’ were no longer simply the Hebrew ethnicists of the prior
thousand years in Canaan, but something more complicated, and humane. Let us now look, if only
inadequately briefly, at each of these trichotomy factors (charismatic, ethnic, civic), as pioneered in the
post-Babylonian Jewish nationality mix.
' First of all the new promulgated Judaism was remarkable, according to international relations
professor Vilho Harle, in “achieving a unity of belief and observance among Jews in their wide
dispersion.… the fundamental principles of the Jewish religion had a central role in achieving this…
God himself was made the basis of human relations (Moore 1954 I: 110-11, 115)” (1998, 73). This is
charismatic authority, nothing new to the region. But the strict monotheism was: “There was a definite
line never to be crossed: rebellion against God by worshipping other gods threatened to destroy the
very basis of society…. The primary image of God is that of a king who has laid down certain laws for
[ALL] his subjects to obey” (Harle, 73), not just a certain class or caste. Could such a theological
strategy have worked in Amarna Egypt eight centuries earlier, or was the relative democratization (or
tribal paternalism) implicit in strict monotheism impossible to even dream of, yet alone accomplish, in an
empire as diverse and great as New Kingdom Egypt?
' Restrictive monotheism did catch on in the Levant, and was eventually even agreed upon (in texts
at least) by the 3rd century BCE- after more than two centuries of “interminable and bitter debate”
(Harle, 73) between the (post-Babylonian/elite) Judeans and (ethnically mixed/lower social class)
Samaritans. The new Judaism left important questions unclear, like who exactly were Jahweh’s
subjects, or how could one determine descent from the ‘house of Jacob’. Such (some would say
inevitable) opaqueness in terms of ethnic questions invited contestations over the matter of who were
the true Jews, or Jahweh’s chosen. In fact, the tradition of ethnic in-fighting between the Jews of the
Levant, sometimes approaching civil war, persisted- despite the accomplishment of the single Torah-
until Roman times. Also the question of interpreting the “kingdom of priests” reference quoted above
(Exodus 19:6)- are Israelites “kings and priests only with regard to the rest of the nations? Or does the
verse assert an egalitarian Israel in which there is no distinction between king and subject, priest and
layperson?”- was clearly decided in favor of the former (Goodblatt, 72). The latter “idea appears in
Christian sources only later” (73). And of course the religion has never sought converts outside of the
pre-existing ethnic group. That theological innovation would have to wait several more centuries for the
advent of Christianity.
' While Jewish monotheism’s contribution to rule of law, (eventual) egalitarianism, and civicness has
often been noted, the cardinal role of technology in enabling these communications is all too often
overlooked. Harle reminds us that “Jewish doctrine seems to share a general idea of contract as the
basis of social relations… the contract between man and God was put in the very center of Jewish
doctrine” (1998, 74). Implicit in the notion of a contract or covenant is not only the concept of volition
(free will), but also that of conditionality. For example, the Exodus verse cited above (19:6) promulgates
the conditional tense: “Now, therefore, if you will obey…” While the use of the word if is hardly anything
remarkable to modern readers, it may have been an innovation at the time- at least for the written
words of an authority figure. One should bear in mind that the conditional- and its facilitating of
contracts entered under free volition- may have been much less prevalent prior to the facilitation of
written language fluency by the addition of vowels in the upper first millennium BCE. Communicating
anything conditional across language and ethnic barriers is a formidable task. Communicating the
conditional via proto-writing systems of heavy bricks or un-erasable mud was likely unrewarding as well.
Can there be a contract or covenant (legal) culture without widespread use of the conditional in formal
documents? Could there have been widespread use of the conditional (in government and officialdom
writings at least) without the economy and transferability of paper? The Hebrews’ centuries-long
experimentations with monotheism (originally expressed without the conditional and without alphabet in
14th century Egypt)- as well their later publishing and propagation of their results on paper technology
(also originally from Egypt)- set forth a process, that of contractual law between volitional (free) parties,
that would eventually prove to be the primary bedrock of medieval and modern western civilization (see
chapter 6)- true to the obstreperous and empirical Sumerian traditions of Mesopotamia, from whence
they originated. Perhaps it is because the progression of Jewish identity has had such a long
experience with all three factors of the national identity trichotomy- charismatic, ethnic, and civic- that
Jews often seem so well-adjusted (at least outside of the supposed Hebrew state of Israel) to the
relative social complexities of modern (urban) life.
' Back in Egypt, the Third Intermediate (1075-715 BCE) was characterized by “political fragmentation
and the re-emergence of local centres of power; a substantial influx of non-Egyptians (Libyans and
Nubians)” that “permanently modified the profile of the population… Egypt as a whole became more
inward-looking, its contacts with the outside world (and its impact on the Levant in particular) greatly
reduced in scale” (Taylor, 2003, 324). Violence and the dreaded chaos, however, were “not endemic”,
and “the period as a whole was stable and represents far more than a temporary lapse from traditional
pharonic rule (an unfortunate implication of the customary designation ‘Intermediate’). Many of the
events and trends of these years were permanent in their effect” (324). Assmann adds that “a new
‘theology of will’ institutionalized personal piety by giving direct rule to the gods through priest kings
and a new emphasis on divine oracles that were theoretically accessible to everyone, particularly at
festivals” (Smith, 2005). The first millennium BCE was typified by a continuance of Egypt’s retreat from
imperialism and militarism, in favor of the more religion-based civilization of later Greek and Roman
' The numerous empires outside the Nile Valley felt not so inclined, and Egypt in the first millennium
BCE found itself absorbed into a succession of internationalist states- Assyria, Persia, Greece, and
finally Rome, creating “heightened opposition between the Egytpian ‘self’ and the foreign ‘other’”
(Smith, 2005). Increasingly, the intricacies of “religion became the only arena of power available to the
indigenous elite under foreign rule” (Smith). By the latter half of the first millennium BCE, Egypt, like
Judea, had become “an enclave culture, and we see a similar emphasis on law and ritual, ethnic and
ritual purity, taboos, and secrecy, with apocalyptic disaster as the result when these are abandoned.
Egypt was the only part of Alexander’s empire where native styles of art and architecture were retained
in the face of Hellenization” (Smith).
' Apparently this was accomplished rather deliberately, as Egyptian guides and interpreters
intentionally mislead their conquerors, in an effort to, according to Assmann, “dismantle the boundaries
between foreigners and Egyptians that [had] formed under the oppressive rule of [the prior] Assyrians
and Persians” (Smith, 129-30). James P. Allen adds that in Ptolemaic and Roman times, “the fad for
new and clever spellings was so popular that the hieroglyphic system itself was practically reinvented”,
becoming “much more difficult to read… even for specialists” (Allen, 2000, 30). This nationalist strategy
of sorts seems to have been largely successful, at least during the Ptolemaic era (305-30 BCE), as
Greek “intellectual, mythological, and iconic forms were transformed” through the encounter (Smith,
130). Even Plato used this great age of Egyptian culture “to show that Greek myths about the past
were foolish stories told by provincials” (Grafton, 1997).
' An interesting study from religion scholar Gregory Shushan (2006) may help to further illustrate
some differences in the Greek and Egyptian national characters of the time- let’s call them ethnic and
charismatic archetypes, respectively. Shushan examined the archive records, c.200 BCE, of two men at
ancient Egypt’s “only extant collection of personal dreams…with associated documentary texts”- the
Sarapieion dream incubation and interpretation complex at Memphis (Shushan, 129). Both men
inhabited the temple and probably knew each other. One was an Egyptian priestly scribe, Hor. The
other a Greek recluse, Ptolemaios. The archives reveal Hor’s preoccupation with authority figures, and
all 12 of his main dreams “feature at least one divinity”, in contrast to only 3 out of 30 for Ptolemaios
(135-36). The Greek seems to be “generally more concerned with personal struggles”, and his dreams
appear “not to reflect a magical tradition” (136). Unlike Ptolemaios, Hor was more interested in oracular
dreams than personal, showed a concern for sustenance and proper burial, did not record any sexual
dreams, and showed a “general preoccupation with authority figures… anonymous individuals in his
dreams are consistently feared and respected” (137-38). Interestingly, “the roles played by such
figures in… Ptolemaios’ archive have no such consistency” (Shushan, 137). Whether Mr. Shushan
becomes as acclaimed as Herodotus for revealling to us the minds and social psychologies of differing
nations in antiquity, we would venture the opinion that most foreign travellers of the first millennium
BCE would note similar 'national' differences. After all, observational learning from one's family and
neighbors was all there was, prior to the advent of books and ensuing innovations in mediated culture
technologies in the modern era.
' What can one conclude from all this? Ancient civilizations tended to originally form out of necessity,
most often simply from population growth and/or (in the ancient Near East at least) desertification and
loss of productive land. Although Mesopotamian states appear to have had democratic institutions from
the earliest of times, all ancient societies tended to develop sharper social hierarchies and institutions
of charismatic authority (be they predominantly religious or military in character) over the centuries.
When these hierarchies grew too sharp, communication too restricted, economies too stagnant, or
foreign attacks too disruptive, the authority of the state apparatus would break down, into periods of
charismatic dependency. During such periods of disorder or chaos, either the state could reform and
recover its charismatic authority, and/or ethnic splinter groups could attempt to win their own
sovereignty. Due primarily to geography, the former was more likely within the confines of the Nile
Valley, while the latter scenario was much more prevalent in less constricted geographies, such as
Mesopotamia, where sovereign city-states at times numbered in the dozens. One large ethnic group
appears to have spent considerable time in both Sumer and Egypt before pioneering the theocratic
concept of strict monotheism to win their sovereignty from both Nile and Mesopotamian-based empires.
In so doing the Hebrew tribes, and moreover the post-Babylonian Jews, appear to have forged the
ethnic nationality par excellence, capitalizing on prior innovations (largely from Egypt) that the more
conservative/authoritarian Egyptian society would not allow to propagate due to a traditional fear of
' Through Mesopotamia and Egypt, we see a pattern of kinship groups forming (often relatively short-
lived) territory-based group identites. These groups then- due to the population and desiccation
pressures throughout the region in antiquity- developed instead institutions of charismatic
authority/absolutism. The failure of charismatic authority often drives the formation of hitherto
oppressed ethnic groups. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, such ethnic groups often then
gradually evolve into more prosperous and open, civic nationalities.
' Ancient Egypt & Canaan
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' text copyright 2008 Philip L. White and Michael L. White