Iron Age I (1200-1000 BC)

Aside

“The Bible,” Episodes 3 and 4: The Protestant Midrash is Strong in This One

After last week’s opening episodes, I still held out hope that The Bible would show improvement as it moved into better documented periods of history.

This was only partially vindicated. On the strong side, the narrative and storytelling really took off in these episodes. Samson’s one man war against the Philistines, the manhunt for his capture, and his death in a collapsing Philistine temple were exceeded in thrilling drama only by the tragedy of Saul’s rise to power and descent into madness. Saul and Samson (played by Francis Magee and Nonso Anozie) gave the series something it lacked up to this point: Complex, internally conflicted, morally ambiguous characters.

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III's mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III’s mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

The series gets some plaudits for its accurate depiction of the Philistines, who are shown as suitably Aegean in appearance, with accurate dress, leather cuirasses, feathered headress helmets, and long broadswords. Most of our knowledge of Philistine battle dress comes from the Medinet Habu reliefs of Rameses III, and the costume designers for this show did their homework in this regard. The series also gave a nod to scholars who translate kidon in 1 Samuel 17:6 as an Egyptian khopesh (sickle-sword) by showing Goliath armed with a large version of that weapon.

The geography of the episodes was also much improved. While not exact matches, Jerusalem was shown on a hillside, Jericho was shown in the Rift Valley at the foot of hills, and Saul’s war in southern Israel actually looks like southern Israel. The one obvious goof in this regard are the external shots of Saul’s hometown of Gibeah, which is shown situated at the foot of a massive cliff in the series. Ancient Gibeah was actually on a hilltop, with expansive 360-degree views of the surrounding territory.

    Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Yet, the series continued to make a large number of basic factual errors which directly contradict history, archaeology and the biblical text. The Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle is repeatedly violated by Joshua and David seeking to pray before the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, in the opening scene of Episode 3 the Ark is sitting in the open, shaded from the sun by a tarp. The characters continue to write in block Hebrew script (500 years too early), Delilah is paid to betray Samson with silver coins (also 500 years too early), the Philistine temple has proto-Ionic column caps (an Israelite phenomenon) and (my favorite) a Canaanite soldier is seen fighting Joshua in hand-to-hand combat while wearing a Roman lorica segmentata cuirass.

cavalry

What is much more baffling is the presence of cavalry throughout both episodes both in battle and as messengers. Chariots were common in Late Bronze and Iron Age I warfare, but we have no evidence of mounted cavalry in the Near East until Tukulti-Ninurta II introduced them into the Assyrian army in the early 9th century BC.[1] Even then, Assyrian cavalry had no spurs or saddles (although these may have been necessary in the film for safety reasons). For the wars between the Israelites and Philistines in the 11th century BC, cavalry comes three centuries too early. Donkeys were the transport animal of choice. Chariots would have been the only use for horses, which were extremely expensive and hard to care for.

In a previous article on Mary I used the term “Protestant Midrash” to describe interpretations of the Biblical text which have no explicit textual basis and are not historically supported, but have entered into tradition anyways because they teach a desirable moral lesson. The Bible is full of this.

The most obvious example is the series’ treatment of Samson. Much of the plot revolves around Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman, her murder, and his subsequent relationship with Delilah. In the book of Judges, Samson’s father disapproves of his marriage, asking “Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?”[2] His father in law then gives his wife to a Philistine husband, and she is later murdered by a Philistine mob.

samsonClearly, tension between the Aegean Philistines and semitic Israelites led to both communities disapproving of intermarriage. The Bible then tries to translate this into terms understandable to the modern viewer by keeping the Philistines Greek but casting an Afro-British actor as Samson. This takes the moral lesson out of the world of the Iron Age southern Levant and into the cultural language of our modern world, in order to teach a lesson about racism.

While admirable in intent, this ahistorical method of storytelling misses a much bigger story that is lurking under the surface of the Biblical text, waiting to be unearthed by historical scholarship.

David’s companion Uriah appears as a major character throughout episode 4, loyally fighting alongside David until David has him killed and takes his wife. But look closely at Uriah’s identity in 2 Samuel 11:3 or 1 Chronicles 11:14. Uriah the Hittite. That’s right, Uriah was neither an Israelite nor even a Semite, he was of Indo-European ancestry. How did this happen? Later on in 2 Samuel, David buys a threshing floor in Jerusalem from a man named Aravnah the Jebusite. It seems that David did not massacre the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he captured it. They were still living in the city and Israelites were living alongside them.

This implies that not only did the Israelites not massacre the entire Canaanite population of the land from Dan to Beersheva, it indicates that non-Israelite inhabitants of the land could rise to positions of great prestige in the early Israelite kingdom. The moral lessons here – of meritocracy, of earning rank on the basis of ability, of a society based around allegiance to a common set of religious ideals rather than ethnic ancestry – are profound. Yet, you’d miss them entirely in the Bible of our popular cultural imagination. It takes a careful, scholarly reading of the text to bring it into the light.

Regardless, I’ll still be watching. This show may still have some surprises yet. Also, most of the critics whose names have been attached to this series are New Testament scholars, so I’ll be interested to see how the second half of this series (which begins next week) is going to look.

References:

[1] H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria (Londong: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 71-72.

[2] Judges 14:3

Image Sources: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pulasti_%28Philistine%29_and_Tsakkaras_%28painting%29.png; Photo of Gibeah © Christopher Jones 2012; last 2 are screen caps from the series.

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.


A Gallery of Inventions

Part 2: More Inventions of the Ancient Near East
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

It is not a stretch to say that the ancient Near East is known in the modern world primarily for its inventions. World-changing Near Eastern inventions such as agriculture, metallurgy, the wheel, writing and the chariot are well known. Yet, these are just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Near Eastern ingenuity and engineering. Here, we will examine some more familiar everyday items that trace their origins to the ancient Near East.

1. Pin Tumbler Locks

Simple barred doors are effective at keeping people out of something, but they suffer from a major flaw: They can’t be opened from the outside. You can lock your front door to keep intruders out at night, but a barred door won’t do you any good to keep people out of your house when you’re not there.

So the solution was to figure out ways to lock and unlock doors from the outside. At around 2000 BC, the Egyptians invented a complex key system that involved using strings to manipulate several cylindrical pieces of wood through a hole. When the space between the cylinders on the string lined up with the edge of the door, the door opened.

Modern replica of an Assyrian pin lock. The back plate would be bolted to the outside of a door. The paddle-shaped object is the key, which is inserted into the bar and pushes up the pins, allowing the bar to be removed.

A less clunky and more elegant solution to the problem came from Assyria. The palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (built from 717-706 BC) featured a new type of lock that used loose pins to hold the bolt in place. This was a simple version of the modern pin tumbler locks used on most doors in the modern world.

This lock worked by putting the bar on the outside of the door instead of the inside. This bar had a notch cut into it, and holes drilled into the top. When the bar was in place, loose pins in the door dropped into the holes and held the bar in place. To unlock the door, a key with pins sticking out of the end that matched the holes was inserted into the notch and used to push the pins upwards, allowing the bar to be slid free of the door.

The Romans later copied this design, and modern pin tumbler locks operate on the same principles. Their main improvements in modern locks have been to make the pins different lengths (so different keys open different doors), make the whole system smaller and add rotation to make it easier to open.[1]

2. Penicillin

Ancient Egypt was famous throughout the ancient world for its advanced medical practice and excellent doctors. Numerous papyri survive which contain instructions on the diagnosis and treatment of injuries. While doctors in the rest of the world were a singular profession, Egyptian doctors developed a range of specialized fields including dentistry, gynecology and proctology. While many of the prescriptions for drugs are now known to be useless, in some cases the Egyptians stumbled upon something useful.[2]

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, a textbook on treating wounds, head trauma, fractures and spinal injuries of the upper body that dated from the 17th century, recommended the following diagnosis and treatment for a wound that appeared to be infected:

If thou examinest a man having a diseased wound in his breast, while that wound is inflamed and a whirl of inflammation continually issues from the mouth of that wound at thy touch; the two lips of that wound are ruddy, while that man continues to be feverish from it; his flesh cannot receive a bandage, that wound cannot take a margin of skin; the granulation which is in the mouth of that wound is watery, their surface is not and secretions drop therefrom in an oily state.

Thou shouldst say concerning him: “One having a diseased wound in his breast, it being inflamed, (and) he continues to have fever from it. An ailment which I will treat.”

Thou shalt make for him cool applications for drawing out the inflammation from the mouth of the wound:

a. Leaves of willow, nbs’-tree ksnty. Apply to it.

b. Leaves of ym’-tree, dung. hny-t’, ksnty, Apply to it. Thou shalt make for him applications for drying up the wound: a. Powder of green pigment wsb-t, thn.t, grease. Triturate bind upon it.[3]

Blue Penicillum bread mold, whose antibiotic qualities were utilized but not fully understood by the ancient Egyptians.

We now know that willow bark has antiseptic qualities that reduce inflammation. Later Egyptian doctors took this treatment further and began prescribing “bread in a rotten condition” to be applied to infected wounds that were discharging pus. Blue bread mold is better known in the medical world by its scientific name Penicillum, making the ancient Egyptians the first to use antibiotics.[4]

Some scientists have expressed skepticism that the amount of penicillin absorbed would have been enough to be effective, but even trace amounts applied directly to a wound would have had some effect on the infection.[5]

The Egyptians did not know that infection was caused by bacteria and did not understand the scientific principles underlying the use of antibiotics. Rather, they figured out the effectiveness of bread mold by trial and error. While throwing anything at an infected wound in hopes that something would work, some Egyptian doctor somewhere decided to try moldy bread, and – surprise -  he got results.

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The Edge of the World: Life in the Phoenician Colony of Gadir

In ancient Greek and Roman geographic texts, Gadir (known in Latin as Gades, in Greek as Gadeira, and in modern Spanish as Cadiz) stands out as a marker, a boundary. Here was the end of the line, the western edge of civilization, the last traces of urban, settled familiar society. Gadir was inhabited by “people who dwell at the limit where the world ends.” To the north were the barely explored coasts of Iberia, Gaul, Britainnia and mysterious Hibernia (Ireland). To the south lay the even less well known shores of Africa, a land of inhospitable terrain, strange peoples and terrifying wildlife. Due west lay the great Ocean which ran around the edges of the world. Rumors and legends persisted of land across the waters to the west, of Hesperides, of Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blessed, but none had been there, for the gods did not permit man to cross.[1]

What was life like on this colony at the edge of the world? Archaeological excavation of the city has been limited, because the site has been continuously inhabited and any large-scale excavation would involve unacceptable demolition of the modern city of Cadiz. We are left with the descriptions of ancient historians and what archaeological evidence is available.

Gadir is situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Oddly, given its location on the far edge of the Mediterranean world, the ancient sources indicate that the city was the first Phoenician colony founded in the western Mediterranean. The dates given by Velleius Paterculus and Pomponius Mela indicate that the colony was founded shortly after the Trojan War, at around 1100 BC.[2] This would mean Gadir was founded before Carthage, before Utica, before Lixos or any of the other Phoenician colonies. Archaeologists have long disputed the early dates given to Phoenician colonization, but more recent discoveries have placed the founding of the first Phoenician colonies back to at least the late ninth century, definitely prior to Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean.[3] The earliest colonial outposts were likely small and would have left little to no archaeological evidence behind. Alternately, the founding date could have been the date of first contact with the area and establishment of trade, with permanent settlement structures being built at a later date. Whether Gadir was founded in 1100 BC or several centuries later, its great age and precedence over the western Greek colonies seems assured.

The Pillars of Herakles: The Rock of Gibraltar in the foreground and Jebel Musa in the background.

The people of Gadir traced their history to an oracle received by the people of Tyre directing them to set up a colony at the “Pillars of Herakles” (the strait of Gibraltar). They sent out an exploratory expedition, which reached the strait but assumed that the passage marked the edge of the world and did not dare to go further. They landed on the Mediterranean side of the straits, but the omens from their sacrifices proved unfavorable and they returned to Tyre. A second expedition was dispatched some time later, which plucked up the courage to venture through the straits and along the Atlantic coast of Spain for 1500 stadia. They found an island, but once again the omens proved unfavorable and the expedition returned. The third Tyrian expedition to the region founded the colony of Gadir.[4] Despite the founding story’s emphasis on the role of oracles, the tale as handed down to us does not mention any favorable omens associated with choosing the successful site. While other texts such as the Voyage of Hanno attest to the great influence given to divination and oracles in Phoenician exploration, one can also safely assume that the third expedition built on the discoveries of the first two. The idea of several scouting expeditions being made in preparation for finding an area for permanent colonization is entirely plausible.

Phoenician colonists were careful and shrewd in selecting the locations for their cities. They preferred to site colonies on small offshore islands or peninsulas, where they could be secured against sieges and attacks. They chose islands with good harbors and easy access to favorable trade winds. Because Phoenician colonies were primarily trade-driven rather than settlement-driven, they only needed small outposts rather than large land areas.[5]

Map of the island of Gadir as it appeared in ancient times.

The Tyrian colonists founded Gadir on what was then three small islands at the mouth of the Guadalete River. In today’s city of Cadiz, the islands have since filled in with sediment and connected to the mainland to form a narrow peninsula. The city of Gadir was built on the northern end of the islands, farthest away from the mainland. There was a temple to Ba’al Hemmon in the city proper, but on the tip of the south side was situated a temple to the god Melqart, which would grow to great size and become world famous by time of the Roman Empire. The nearby Guadalquivir River allowed easy access to the interior of Spain for communications and trade

The economic benefits of the site were enormous. The island was just offshore of the Spanish kingdom of Tartessos. The Tartessans appear to have been on friendly terms with the Phoenicians at Gadir and traded heavily with them. Tartessos was rich with mines that produced lead, tin, silver, copper and gold. The most valuable of these minerals was tin. Tin is required for the manufacture of bronze, yet it is a very rare mineral. On the other hand, bronze was used to make almost everything in the ancient world, even after the introduction of iron. Tin was only found in significant amounts in a few locations known to the ancient Mediterranean world, notably Britain, Spain and Germany.[6]

Two of these three locations were most easily accessed through the ocean route. Ships can move faster and carry more goods than caravans of pack animals moving overland. The colony at Gadir put the Phoenicians in prime position to trade not only with Tartessos but with the entire Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula as well as the mysterious “Cassiterides”, the “tin islands” commonly associated with the coast of Cornwall. What’s more, the location of Gadir meant they were now in a prime position to monopolize this trade by controlling the Straits of Gibraltar. At first, there was no competition, for no other nation thought to sail this far to trade. By the 6th century BC, all the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean became part of the Carthaginian empire, and from then on Carthage set their foreign relations and national trade policy. The Carthaginian treaty with newly Republican Rome in 508 BC set spheres of influence and trade for each nation. The Romans were forbidden from trading or traveling anywhere west of what is now the north coast of Tunisia. Polybius speculates that this was to prevent the Romans from becoming familiar with the area, and he was probably right. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the Greek colonists in Massalia (modern day Marseilles, France)  ceased trading with Tartessos at around 500 BC. It seems that the Carthaginians had a general policy by 500 BC of prohibiting non-Carthaginian trade in their western territories.[7]

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Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 2

The first installment in this series examined the role sea power and maritime commerce played in the society of the Late Bronze Age culture of Ugarit. While Ugarit actively pursued overseas trade, it never developed open and democratic institutions as a society. It may have been on its way towards doing so, but the Sea Peoples intervened and destroyed the city before that could happen.

The second installment in this series will examine the Phoenicians. Phoenicia is generally defined as the middle Canaanite city-states located in what is now Lebanon, which from 1200 BC onwards developed in a different fashion from their southern Canaanite brethren. While southern Canaanites city-states remained land-based powers that would soon be conquered or absorbed into Israelite or Philistine society, the middle Canaanite states took to the sea.[1]

The Phoenician city-states were well located for becoming maritime states. The coast of Lebanon is marked by a number of bays which serve as natural harbors. These harbors are lacking further south along the coast of what is now Israel, where the coast runs in a smooth curve down to the Nile Delta. What’s more, the Phoenician city-states were shielded from land invasions by the dual obstacle of the Lebanon and anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Some of the cities were founded on even more geographically inaccessible locations. Sidon was built on a headland shielded by islands. Tyre was built on an artificial island created by filling in the space between two smaller islands (the space between the island and the mainland has since been filled in as well).[2]

Google Earth images showing modern-day sites of Phoenician city-states. Note all of them are on peninsulas with natural harbors. Tyre was an island until Alexander the Great built a causeway connecting it to the mainland during his siege of the city in 332 B.C.

As a result of geography, each Phoenician city was isolated not only from the threat of land invasion but from each other.[3] Therefore, the states operated independently of each other. Like the Greek polis, the Phoenician qeret (Phoenician for city-state) became the main political unit, and the unit to which a Phoenician owed his primary loyalty.

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The Battle of the Nile Delta, 1178 B.C.

This is the first in a monthly series which will examine battles in the history of the ancient Near East.

Egypt in the early 12th century BC was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. But Egypt’s power was falling from its height 50 years earlier under Rameses II. After Rameses II died in 1212 BC, his son Merneptah had to contend with a Libyan invasion in 1207. Civil war came to Egypt in 1204 as Amenmesse and Seti II fought over who would succeed Merneptah. Seti II emerged the victor two years later, but within the next decade the kingdom was plunged into war again between Sethnakhte and Queen Tewosret. This conflict ended with Sethnakhte’s victory, and ended Egypt’s 19th dynasty and ushered in the 20th.[1]

When Sethnakhte’s son Rameses III took the throne in 1186, Egypt was clearly weakened by the internal and foreign wars. Yet, Egypt’s condition was enviable compared to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world. In a series of events which marked the end of the Bronze Age in ancient history and ushered in the Iron Age, most of the other powerful empires of the time were going up in flames. The Hittite capital of Hattushas had been sacked and burned. Troy was destroyed, Ugarit sacked, most of the Mycenean cities in Greece were obliterated. Dozens of cities all along the Anatolian coast were wiped out.

The culprits were a disparate group of maritime-inclined cultures known as the Sea Peoples. Who the Sea Peoples were and where they came from has been much discussed. Each ancient writer who listed the names of their peoples listed different but overlapping names. Generally, they seem to have come from the Aegean, the southern coast of Anatolia, Crete and possibly Greece. Like the Viking raiders of early medieval Europe, they first took to the sea to engage in piratical raiding, possibly due to harsh economic times at home and the abundance of readily available loot abroad. Again like the Vikings, their focus soon changed from raiding to finding new places to settle their populations.

The Sea Peoples first attacked Egypt in 1181 BC, during the reign of Rameses III. A few tribes of the Sea Peoples aided a large force of Libyans in attacking Egypt from the western desert. The result was a disaster for the Libyans, as their force was defeated, scattered and many of its members sold into slavery in Egypt. Despite the disaster, a different and much larger coalition of Sea Peoples planned another invasion.[2]

Countdown to Invasion

Rameses III’s inscription at the temple at Medinet Habu describe the beginnings of the war:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered into the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up at one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward to Egypt while the flame was being prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[3]

The Sea Peoples had already, according to Rameses, destroyed Hatti (the Hittite empire), Kode (Cilicia), Arzawa (in southwestern Anatolia), and Alashiya (Cyprus). They gathered in Amor in Syria to plan the combined attack on Egypt.

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