Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Middle East and the Western Mediterranean

A. The Assyrian Empire, 911-612BCE

1. The Assyrian Army--peasant farmers, accustomed to defending themselves from raiders from the mountains to the north and east, and the arid plains to the south, provided the foot soldiers for the revival of Assyrian power. These farmers joined the Assyrian army because of promises of land, and the labor to work that land (slaves, and other indentured peasants from the larger landholding class), as well as the wealth to be gained from sacking those cities and villages the army conquered. After early successes,the king could then use propaganda about his favor among the gods in order to gain support for the continuation of these battles, and to gain new recruits.

2. God and king--the Assyrian belief system was predicated upon the idea that the Assyrian gods chose their king; even though the king chose his successor, that decision did not take hold until these gods demonstrated their support through oracles, revealed through their priests--and agreed to by the Assyrian nobles.

a. The king was also the main military commander, supervised the state religion, attended elaborate rituals in both public and private, adjudicated disputes between subjects, managed a large ring of spies, and oversaw the upkeep of temples. He made no major decisions without consulting the gods, who again demonstrated their judgment through oracles. Military success was, of course, the means of demonstrating the correctness of the oracle, and proof that Ashur (the leading Assyrian god) superiority over other gods in the region.

3. Conquest and Control--superior military organization and technology explains much of the Assyrian success.

a. Professional army--although the initial successes of the Assyrian army was because of the skill and espirit de corps of these farmer/soldiers fighting for more land, they were soon  replaced with professional soldiers--both Assyrians and selected subject people--that at times exceeded more than half a million troops.

b. Weaponry--Assyrians were skilled in the manufacture of iron, and used it in a variety of weapons. These weapons, in combination with the use of horses, allowed the Assyrians to overwhelm most of their opponents.

c. Tactics--the Assyrians were able to innovate in the area of combat engineering, constructing tunnels under the walls of cities, building portable towers for archers, using battering rams against locked city gates.

d. State terror--Assyrians used extremely harsh measures to inhibit resistance to their attempted conquests--burning people alive, skinning people, and beheadings were just a few of the tactics they used.

e. Mass deportation--they removed thousands of conquered people from their homes, a tactic that was part of the Assyrian effort to soften resistance to their rule. While this seems quite harsh to us today, it should be noted  that this was common practice over much of the Middle East at this time.

f. Paying for conquest--the expense for all of this was born by those conquered, who were required to pay tribute and taxes for the Assyrian cost  of conquest--and for the elaborate castles and temples that were built in Ashur to demonstrate the greatness of the Assyrian king.

g. Effectiveness--the effectiveness of these policies can be judged by the fact that, while the Assyrians could control the area immediately around Ashur, their ability to control areas further away required a near constant state of warfare.

4. Assyrian Society and Culture--the Assyrians were hierarchially directed, with the king at the top, nobles, priests, and government officials at the next rung of the social ladder, and at the bottom were most Assyrians and conquered peoples.

B. Israel, 2000-500BCE

1. Significance--although its neighbors probably viewed it as relatively insignificant, since the area controlled by the Israelites was relatively small, not terribly strategic, and only "controlled" by them for a relatively short period of time. Nevertheless, the invention of Judaism, which begat both Christianity and Islam, has made Israel much more prominent than its modest history during this era would suggest.

2. Origins, Exodus, and Settlement--the information we know about the early history of Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the royal annals of Egypt and Assyria.  Much information also comes from the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament, for Christians).

a. Tanakh--is a compilation of several collections of materials that originate with different groups and advocate particular interpretations of past events. Traditions about the Israelites early history were long transmitted orally, and not until the 10th century BCE were they written down; the text we have today dates from the 5th century BCE, and largely reflects the viewpoint of the priests who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem.

b. The history of ancient Israel follows a familiar pattern in the ancient Middle East: Nomadic pastorlists, occupying marginal land between inhospitable desert and settled agricultural area; Sometimes engaging in trade, but also occasionally stealing from nearby farms and villages; eventually settling  into agricultural life themselves.

c. Father Abraham--Israelite tradition claims its founding from a man named Abraham, who rejected idol worship in favor of the Israelite god Yahweh. Abraham's son Isaac and grandson Jacob succeeded him as leader of this small group. Jacob's squabbling sons (from several wives) sold their youngest  brother into slavery into Egypt.

d. Exodus--Joseph became very successful in Egypt, and was well-placed to help his people when drought struck their country. The Egyptians, however, thought  little of these rough herders, and with building projects looming, chose to enslave this group. This enslavement lasted until Moses, raised with the royal family after his fortuitous rescued from the Nile River, was able to lead the Israelites out of Egypt after Yahweh cursed the land with ten different plagues.

e. Wandering in the Desert--on the way back to reclaim Israel, Moses stopped at Mt. Sinai to make a sacred covenant with Yahweh. In his absence, the Israelites immediately began worshiping other gods, incurring Yahweh's wrath, and cursing themselves to wander in the desert for forty years.

f. Back to Canaan--the Israelites claimed to have conquered several Canaanite towns (including, most famously, Jericho), but this contention is not supported by archeological evidence. The period around 1200BCE (when the Israelites arrived) is one of great disturbances throughout the region, with governments in turmoil, and a great number of people on the move. We do know there was not a great cultural break in these cities in Canaan, so it seems most likely that, except for religious practices, the Israelites largely assimilated into Canaan society.

3. Rise of the Monarchy

a. Conflict with the Philistines--the  troubles in the region that brought the Israelites to Canaan also  brought a people called the Philistines, who had a series of conflicts with the Israelites. This led to an Israeliste religious leader named Samuel to annoint the first Israelite king, Saul, around 1020BCE. When Saul was killed in battle, he was succeeded by David (1000BCE), who in turn was succeeded by his son, Solomon.

b. Solomon ruled ca.  960-920BCE, and during his reign the Israelite  monarchy reached its apex. Solomon consolidated the political and religious centers at Jerusalem, building an impressive Temple, and installing priests to offer sacrifices to Yahweh. The Temple priests became quite wealth as a result of this arrangement, which emphasized the growing inequality gap between the rich and poor in Israelite society--and making way the path for a series of fiery prophets who condemned this arrangement.

4. Fragmentation and Dispersal--this growing inequality gap contributed to the fragmentation of Israelite society.

a. Death of Solomon--around 920BCE, along with the resentment fostered by inequality, continued royal demands for money and labor for elaborate building projects, and the neglect of tribal prerogatives, led to splitting the kingdom in two: Israel in the north, with its capital at Samaria; and  Judah in the south, in the area around Jerusalem. These two kingdoms were sometimes allied, and other times  at war.

b. The final formulation of monotheism takes place at this time, but many Israelites were still attracted  to the ecstatic religious practice around the worship of the Canaanite storm god Baal and the fertility goddess Asherah--although later prophets condemned this practice.

c. The Assyrian Threat--although the two kingdoms were reunited in the attempt, resistance proved futile to the invasion of the Assyrians in 721BCE. The Assyrians invaded and quickly conquered Israel, destroyed the kingdom, and exported most  of the people living there (as they did all areas they conquered). Judah was able to hold  out for another century, alternating resistance with paying tribute.

d. The Babylonian Captivity--this is the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora (the migration of Jews around the world). Most did so well in their new homes that they turned down an offer from the Persian king Cyrus to return to their homeland 50 years later--although a small group did return, rebuild a more modest Temple, and edited the Tankh into its present form. This group was unable to re-establish Israelite control in the region, however.

C. Phoenicia and the Mediterranean, 1200-500BCE--Phoenicia is the name given to them by the Greeks; they called themselves the Canaanites.

1. Phoenician City-States--the problems around 1200BCE caused several Canaanite cities to be destroyed, and the Canaanite cities that remained were on the coast. By 1100BCE,  the Canaanite territory had shrunk to a narrow strip in present-day Lebanon, between the mountains and the coast. From this vantage point, the Phoenicians began to engage in trade, which spurred the development of  the port city of Tyre, which was located on an offshore island.

2. Expansion into the Mediterranean--after 900BCE, Tyre turned its attention westward, and established a colony on the island of Cyprus. Being hemmed in by an aggressive Assyrian opponent, merchants and officials in Tyre looked westward to expand and establish colonies like Gades (Cadiz) at the Straits of Gibraltar, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, and Carthage.

3. Rise of Carthage--the most important of these Phoenician colonies was located in northern Africa, near the present-day city of Tunis.

a. By 500BCE, Carthage had a population of roughly 400,000 people, making it by far the largest city in the ancient world.

b. Political organization was dominated by merchants, rather than by birth. This aided Carthage in avoiding the political conflict that created difficulties in Greek city-state and in Rome. Carthage concentrated on maintaining sea lanes, and ensuring that they received the lion's share of the "carrying trade."

4. War and Religion

a. Carthage did not attempt to rule a huge land area; in fact, it only directly controlled an area sufficient to provide food for its population, and allowed the other Phoenician outposts a great deal of  autonomy. Army service was not required of the population.

b. The two major gods--storm god Baal Hammon   and female fertility god Tanit, were powerful and capricious entities that had to be appeased--sometimes by the sacrifice of the children of their followers.

D. Conclusion--by 650BCE, Assyrian stood unchallenged in Western Asia. Its now lengthy border, and the ill-will fostered by the brutal methods used to get and keep this empire were already at work undermining it. The emergence of two new groups of people in the region--the Chaldaens and the Medes (an Iranian people), would eventually work to topple the Assyrian control, and open new opportunities.

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