Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.16

Emanuel Pfoh, Syria-Palestine in the Late Bronze Age: An Anthropology of Politics and Power. Copenhagen international seminar.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2016.  Pp. xv 229.  ISBN 9781844657841.  $145.00.  

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan (


The book under review is an impressive and highly recommended attempt to present an overarching view of the relations of politics and power in the region of Syria-Palestine (e.g. the southern Levant) during the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1550 to 1200 BCE. The author, who has published various studies in which he combines social anthropology, biblical studies, ancient history and archaeology, tries to view the social and political landscape of Syria-Palestine during the Late Bronze Age from a social anthropological perspective. Doing so, he suggests identifying a very specific socio-political ideology—that of a patrimonial structure with distinct and multi-leveled patron-client relationships—which should be seen as central in understanding the underlying frameworks and mechanisms in this region, both during the Late Bronze as well as in many other periods.

To start with, the author sets the scene with several introductory chapters (11-62) in which he gives an overview and background of the culture, political history and international diplomacy as well as of the relevant written sources during the Late Bronze Age. Following this (63-88), Pfoh discusses theoretical issues relating to alliances and exchanges between societies, first from the view point of social theory, and then in the context of the historical sources and polities in the ancient Near East.

In Part II of the book (91-119), the author discusses the sociopolitical structures in Syria-Palestine (primarily during the Late Bronze Age but with reflection on other periods, before and after). At first (91-107) he discusses some of the analytical concepts that appear in various relevant research. In particular, he focuses on the very question of the existence of “city-states” in this region, something that is often assumed with little hesitation in historical discussions of the area. And in fact, save perhaps for some very outstanding examples (such as Ugarit), he suggests that few ancient “cities” in Syria-Palestine can be defined as city-states. In the second chapter of Part II (108-119), Pfoh brings to the forefront and provides the theoretical background for the two interpretative models most commonly used to understand the socio-political structure of Late Bronze Age Syria-Palestine: feudalism on the one hand, and the “two-sector model” on the other, both in his opinion heavily influenced by Marxist socio-economic theory. More recently, a patronage model has been suggested. Pfoh believes that the first two can be used to better understand the latter.

Part III of the volume (121-167) is the core of the book, in which the author fully develops his ideas regarding the socio-political relational structures in Syria-Palestine—patronage/client-patron relations—in the Late Bronze Age specifically, but also in pre- Classical times generally. In the first chapter of Part III (123-137), Pfoh provides the theoretical background for patronage relations. The second chapter (138-149) utilizes these concepts to show how patrimonialism is manifested in the Late Bronze Age in general, while the third chapter of Part III (150-167) demonstrates this specifically for Syria-Palestine in this time period.

Among the various points that he stresses in Part III, two are particularly noteworthy:

1. Pfoh, in my opinion quite convincingly, argues that the context and structure of the relations between the Egyptian Empire and the Canaanite vassal “city-states” were quite different from those of the relations between the Hittite Empire and their vassals in the northern Levant. Among the latter the structure was that of a patron-client relationship. On the other hand, among the former, he believes the Egyptians were not interested, or perhaps even able, to view the Canaanite vassals within a patrimonial context—but rather as lowly subjects to be exploited.

2. Following on earlier suggestions by Liverani,1 and contrary to what is often assumed, the socio-political situation in 14th-century BCE Syria-Palestine, as mirrored in the el Amarna texts, should not be seen as a period of lax control of the Egyptian empire in Canaan due to internal Egyptian issues. Rather, this reflects the general structure and attitude of the Egyptian empire towards its Canaanite vassals, which was not based on a patron-client model, as noted above.

The volume ends with Conclusions (168-171) and then bibliography and indices.

All told, this volume is a refreshing study of the Late Bronze Age Near East in general, and Syria-Palestine specifically. The author stands out from most scholars studying these regions and periods as someone who is deeply and sophisticatedly grounded in social theory on the one hand, but also very much at home with the relevant archaeological and historical sources and, apparently, a firsthand knowledge of at least some of the relevant languages. His willingness to engage, critique and blend together a broad range of opinions and approaches is noteworthy.

I would like to point out a few, mainly minor, points that crossed my mind while reading the book:

• Map 1.1 on page 26, which is a copy of a map published by Helck in 1962, is seriously outdated, and a more up-to-date map of the region should have been used.
• Pfoh accepts N.P. Lemche’s (28, n. 23) somewhat minimalistic geographical definition of Canaan, without even mentioning dissenting opinions on the matter (such as those of Na’aman and Rainey).2
• In the survey of epigraphic sources from Late Bronze Age Syria Palestine (32-34), reference should have been made to some additional sites, in particular cuneiform documents from Tel Mishrefe/Qatna.3
• On p. 35, Pfoh, like many other modern scholars, accepts without any hesitation the oft-repeated suggestion that nations and nationalism are modern concepts, unknown in antiquity, following the influential work of, e.g., Kohn, Anderson and Hobsbawm. I believe that one should take into account other opinions on this matter, such as Gat, who argues quite convincingly that nations and nationalism have deep historical roots.4
• Regarding the differentiation that Pfoh makes between the patron-client relation structure of the Hittites and the northern Levant, as opposed to that of the Egyptian empire in the southern Levant, one can wonder whether this is not only connected to Egyptian ideology as Pfoh suggests. As has been discussed previously,5 during both the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, one can see a clear differentiation, in cultural modes, influences and even scale, between the central and northern Levant which was much more oriented to Mesopotamian cultures, while most of the southern Levant was not. A good example of this is the city of Hazor, which by and large is more of a Syro-Mesopotamian city than that of a Southern Levantine one. And in fact, of all the cities in Canaan under Egyptian rule, it is the only one whose ruler is defined by the Egyptians in the el Amarna texts as a king (šarru). Thus, perhaps, these underlying structural differences between the two regions, one mostly under Egyptian rule, the other under Hittite, might have contributed to the different socio-political relational structures in these regions during the Late Bronze Age.

These, mostly minor, comments do not change the fact that this is a very useful book, as it provides an in-depth, theoretically sound and quite innovative understanding of the socio-political structure of Syria-Palestine during the Late Bronze Age specifically and the ancient Near East in general. I highly recommend the book for anyone studying ancient Near Eastern cultures and other historical or traditional cultures.


1.   See, e.g., Liverani, N. 1967. “Contrasti e confluenze di concezioni politiche nell’età di El-Amarna.” RA 61: 1-18.
2.   Compare, e.g., Lemche, N. 1998. “Greater Canaan: The Implications of a Correct Reading of EA 151:49–67.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 310: 19–24, with e.g., Na’aman, N. 1999. “Four Notes on the Size of Late Bronze Age Canaan.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 313: 31–37 and Rainey, A. F. 1996. “Who is a Canaanite? A Review of the Textual Evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 304: 1–15.
3.   E.g., Richter, T., and Lange, S. 2012 Das Archiv des Idadda: Die Keilschrifttexte aus den deutsch-syrischen Ausgrabungen 2001–2003 im Königspalast von Qaṭna. Qatna-Studien. Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen 3. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
4.   Compare, e.g., Kohn, H. 1969. The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background. Toronto: Collier; Anderson, B. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso; and Hobsbawm, E. 1990. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; with Gat, A. 2013. Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5.   E.g., Maeir, A.M. 2010. “In the Midst of the Jordan”: The Jordan Valley during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000– 1500 BCE) - Archaeological and Historical Correlates. Contributions to the Chronology of the Eastern Mediterranean, Vol. 26. Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 149–51.

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