BMCR 2008.04.39

Regime Change in the Ancient Near East and Egypt: From Sargon of Agade to Saddam Hussein

, Regime change in the ancient Near East and Egypt : from Sargon of Agade to Saddam Hussein. Proceedings of the British Academy ; 136. New York: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2007. xv, 232 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0197263909 $74.00.

One of the tasks of the historian is to elucidate change in past societies. Indeed, unless he or she is concerned with a temporally quite narrow slice of the past, consideration of change lies at the very heart of the historian’s work. But, of course, change occurs (or better, may be observed) at different rates in various areas of any particular culture—in political leadership, ideological structures, economics, technologies, etc.

The task set by the organizers of the conference whose presentations form the basis of the volume here under review was to examine the continuities that might persist across political upheavals in states of the Old World. Convened in London in September 2004, the meeting was originally entitled “Steady States,” but perhaps in light of the currency that the phrase “regime change” has achieved in the recent rhetorical armory of American foreign policy, it is these words that are featured in the book’s ultimate title.

Contemporary concerns undoubtedly also led to the inclusion as an afterword of an essay not presented on the London program, Peter Sluglett’s overview of regime change in Iraq. Of the pieces from the original roster, six deal with ancient Mesopotamia, four with pharaonic Egypt, and one each with early Islamic Iran and Egypt.

In her introduction, editor Harriet Crawford points to the tentative lessons to be drawn from the totality of the papers and the attendant discussions among the participants: 1) To the chagrin of traditional archaeologists, changes in material culture do not necessarily coincide precisely with regime change (p. 1). And 2) Significant alterations in the cultural and administrative realms are first noticeable “about fifty years” (p. 4) or “one or two generations” (p. 5) after major replacement of the ruling group. As the essays of Michael Jursa and Petra Sijpesteijn demonstrate explicitly, this is because it takes that long for the newcomers to develop their own administrative cadres, and concurrently, for those bureaucrats active under the previous regime who have transferred their allegiance and continued to serve the new masters to die out (p. 6). While there is nothing startling about these conclusions, it is interesting to see them confirmed by examples from a rather wide variety of pre-modern societies.

The focus in the essays here is either upon iconography or upon administrative practice, two areas for which relatively abundant material is available for most literate societies of the deep past. I continue with brief characterizations of the various contributions:

Richard Zettler (“Dynastic Change and Institutional Administration in Southern Mesopotamia in the Later Third Millennium BCE: Evidence from Seals and Sealing Practices”) shows how in the early years of the Ur III dynasty (close of the third millennium), cylinder seals featuring the traditional motif of a contest between mythological characters gave way to those with a scene in which a man is formally presented to a deity or king. He plausibly relates this development to the increasing centralization of administration under the kings of Ur.

Kathryn E. Slanski (“The Mesopotamian ‘Rod and Ring’: Icon of Righteous Kingship and Balance of Power between Palace and Temple”) examines a symbol frequently presented by deities to Mesopotamian rulers in royal iconography, concluding that the “rod and ring” are actually a coil of rope and a measuring stick, symbolic of the straight lines laid by a good architect and metaphorically, by a benevolent king. While this interpretation is without doubt correct, since the time Slanski composed her text, strong doubts have been expressed concerning the authenticity of one of her primary pieces of evidence, the so-called “Burney Relief.”1

Tonia Sharlach (“Social Change and the Transition from the Third Dynasty of Ur to the Old Babylonian Kingdoms c. 2112-1595 BCE”) emphasizes discontinuities between the society of the Ur III period and that of the following Old Babylonian epoch (twentieth through early sixteenth centuries). She concentrates on change in two areas: First, a king of Ur would not have interfered in private economic affairs as did most Old Babylonian monarchs, who frequently issued edicts canceling debts. And second, the important role played by High Priestesses (en) in the cult of the earlier era had largely been abolished under the later Amorite dynasties.

Michael Jursa (“The Transition of Babylonia from the Neo-Babylonian Empire to Achaemenid Rule”) identifies the Babylonian revolt against Xerxes and its savage repression as the occasion on which the administration of Mesopotamia was removed from the hands of the traditional native elites and turned over to various outsiders—primarily Iranians, but also people from the Levant and parvenu Babylonians.

Erica Ehrenberg (“Persian Conquerors, Babylonian Captivators”) posits that the introduction of Achaemenid elements into the glyptic art evidenced by seal impressions in Persian-dominated Babylonia must have occurred during the second half of the reign of Darius I or that of Xerxes, a period for which we have practically no preserved material. This gap in the documentation is surely due to the events discussed in the previous essay.

Sheila Canby (“The Royal Hunt in Islamic Art: a Symbol of Power or an Enduring Image?”) discusses the artistic motif of the royal hunt on horseback as a metaphorical depiction of royal mastery in Iran from the Sasanians through the Qajars.

Stephen Quirke (“The Hyksos in Egypt 1600 BCE: New Rulers without an Administration”) considers the ephemeral rule of the Hyksos (“Hill-Land Rulers”, so p. 124), stressing the near total absence of documents produced under their rule. He suggests that their ascendance resulted from a “bucolic revolt” rather than a military incursion into the northeast of the country.

Robert Morkot (“Tradition, Innovation, and Researching the Past in Libyan, Kushite, and Saite Egypt”) contrasts the archaizing artistic production of the Libyan Twenty-second Dynasty, which borrowed elements from iconography of the Middle and even the Old Kingdom, with the monuments of the Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty, which introduced novelties into the royal regalia and depicted its pharaohs with negroid features.

Alan K. Bowman (“Egypt in the Graeco-Roman World: from Ptolemaic Kingdom to Roman Province”) illustrates how the creation of the Roman province of Egypt in 30 BCE was preceded by Roman political and economic penetration of the Nile Delta and Valley, so that while the political transformation “brought change to the lives of Egyptians, … it would be rash to claim that it was a total transformation” (p. 179).

Petra M. Sijpesteijn (“New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest”) makes it clear that the arrival of the Arab armies in Egypt had negligible initial impact on economic or cultural life and caused little change in administrative personnel and practice, except at the very highest levels. More thoroughgoing changes, including the imposition of Arabic as the language of government, took place only a half-century after the conquest.

Peter Sluglett (“Regime Change in Iraq from the Mongols to the Present: an Essay in haute vulgarization.”), in chronicling the changes in those groups exercising sovereignty over Iraq from the devastating incursions of the Mongols in the thirteenth century to Operation Iraqi Freedom and its tragic-comic aftermath, demonstrates the basic continuity in administration from Ottoman through early republican times, that is, until the revolution of 1958.

This well illustrated volume is recommended for general libraries as well as for cuneiform studies and Egyptological collections. Its contents are rather too miscellaneous and its price too high to justify purchase for the library of an individual scholar.


1. See Pauline Albenda, “The ‘Queen of the Night Plaque’ — A Revisit,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 125 (2005) 171-90.