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Who were the Syro-Palestinains? II: City States

Ancient Syria-Palestine was not a single state, but a series of individual city-states, each with its own ruler. Watch Dr Bruce Routledge explain more
Syria-Palestine in the Late Bronze Age is quite different from the great empires like Egypt or the Hittites. Society was organised around what we might, for lack of a better term, call small city-states; essentially, a principal city and the surrounding villages under its control. The largest of these city-states, kingdoms like Ugarit or Mukish, are located in the north, near the modern border between Turkey and Syria. In these kingdoms, the principal city had perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, and controlled upwards of say, 200 villages, each with a population of 100 to 200 inhabitants. Further south, in what’s now modern Israel and Palestine, where both rainfall and soil fertility are lower, the city-states were much smaller in size.
Jerusalem, for example, may have only had 1,000 or fewer citizens. And the surrounding countryside seems to have had very few Late Bronze Age villages. It’s important to remember that Syria-Palestine, in this period, was a conflict zone caught initially in between Egypt and Mitanni, and then in between Egypt and the Hittites. In this unstable area, archaeology indicates that some people did prosper; those who were tied to the international world of empires, of diplomacy, and international trade. However, for most people, they saw a marked decline in their standard of living. Cities located along major trade and transport routes do show large levels of material wealth, evidence for international traded goods, and particularly, connections to Egypt.
However, once you move off of these main routes, into rural areas, we find that many villages were abandoned, and there’s a general decline in the settled population. In the highlands around Jerusalem, for example, much of the population appears to have been mobile, engaged in pastoral nomadism through much of the year. The internal organisation of these city-states is illustrated by really a interesting find from the so-called treasury at Megiddo, one of these cities that prospered under the Egyptians. This is an ivory plaque that’s etched with this scene. It shows a ruler sitting on the throne, decorated with Sphinxes. Now, in the Amarna letters, they’re very careful not to call these local rulers kings.
Instead, they use the Akkadian word, hazanu, that we translate as mayors or princes. This probably reflects their lower status relative to truly great kings, like the pharaoh. At the same time, these hazanu would still have lived in palaces that were much larger than average houses. Although, only the very largest of these palaces, such as the Palace at Ugarit, would be in any way comparable to that of an Egyptian palace. They had entourages, which we could see here in the form of musicians and servants bringing food and drink in elaborate vessels. And also, interestingly, if you look on the far right of the scene, you can see a charioteer who’s leading inbound and naked prisoners of war.
Now, charioteers, in the Amarna letters, are called marianu. And this term seems to refer to a kind of aristocratic elite who are associated with warfare and land ownership. The identity of the prisoners is less clear. They could just be soldiers from a neighbouring city-state, but they might be members of one of the peripheral groups who appear to have been just outside of the control of the mayors. In the Amarna letters, one such group are the Haribu, and these are people who appear to have dropped out of the established political order, and are living as mercenaries or bandits outside of the control of the mayors.
Habiru, in the Amarna letters, are seen as very dangerous and subversive elements who threaten the established order of Late Bronze Aged society. At the same time, the headdresses that these prisoners are wearing suggests that they could be pastoral nomads. The Egyptians referred to such pastoral nomads as Shasu, and they were mobile individuals who seemed to live a life not unlike some Bedouin of the recent past. Because they were mobile, they too were outside of the direct control of the mayors, and also even eventually or ultimately, outside of the control of the pharaoh.
The group that’s missing from this scene is probably the most important, and these are the agricultural labourers who ultimately provided the wealth of the mayor and the charioteers. In the Armana letters, these people are called hupshu, and we can translate that term fairly loosely, as peasant. Now, hupshu were free labourers. They weren’t servants or slaves, but their labour appears to have been available to the mayors in some way, perhaps as sharecroppers, or as tax farmers. What is clear is that when the countryside was insecure, or when there was famine, if the mayor was not able to provide for his hupshu, they would abandon their fields and go on in search of greener pastures.
This was a very big concern for the mayors, and they frequently wrote to the pharaoh, asking for him to send them a few archers, or a shipment of grain so that they could keep their peasants happy, keep them working on their lands, and keep the local social order stable and continuing.

Now that we know a about the attraction of the Syria-Palestine area, Dr Bruce Routledge provides some more detail.

In this video, he tells us about the organisation of Syria-Palestinian people into city-states during the Late Bronze Age. How many different social groups did he allude to? Is there anything that surprised you about the social hierarchy of this time? Why do you think that some groups decided to opt out of this hierarchy completely? Place your theories and observations in the comments section.

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