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Framing the Issues

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Were There Groups Outside the Control of States and Empires in the Ancient Middle East?

Although histories of the ancient Middle East focus on states and empires, there were significant nomadic groups that could pose threats to the control of governments based in cities. Nomadic tribes represented both threats and opportunities to their sedentary neighbors.

Nomads could contribute to the destruction of empires—Gutians invading from the Zagros Mountains conquered Agade in 2200 BCE, and the Medes had a hand in the final destruction of the Assyrian empire in 612 BCE.

Nomadic groups could also gradually take control of settled populations by simple migration. Nomadic Amorite tribes, originally living in the Syrian desert, gradually moved into southern Mesopotamia beginning in about 2200 BCE, where they settled in cities. Within 500 years, most of the rulers of Mesopotamian cities had Amorite names. Similarly, Kassites moved into southern Mesopotamia from the Zagros Mountains beginning in about 1500 BCE and peacefully took control of many Mesopotamian cities.

Yet nomadic groups also provided opportunities to states. The Medjay, a group living in the Eastern Desert of Egypt and Nubia, served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army and police. Nomadic tribes also provided economic benefits to settled populations in some cases, exchanging the products of their herds, as well as goods acquired in their travels, for goods manufactured in cities.

It is worth mentioning that there is some overlap between the terms “nomad” and “tribe.” Nomads are people who do not live in fixed settlements, while tribes are groups organized by ties of kinship. Most nomadic groups in the ancient Middle East were organized as tribes, but as these vignettes suggest, some people belonging to tribes lived sedentary lives in cities. Tribal organization and identity could thus encompass both nomadic and settled people.

Ancient nomads did not write their own texts or produce their own narrative art, and their campsites are elusive in the archaeological record, so we know about them primarily from the perspective of states. States attempted to conquer, pacify, settle, recruit, and trade with nomads, but they were never able to control them completely. One could therefore say that there was a persistent dual political structure in the ancient Middle East.

Supporting Links:

“Amorite.” Wikipedia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

“Sudan, 2000–1000 B.C.” Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

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