Foreigners in the ancient Near East.

Author:Beckman, Gary

The concept of foreigner is by its very nature a relative one, not only positionally--depending upon which community is the source of this characterization of another person or persons, but also in terms of scope--the breadth of the group beyond whose real or imagined genealogical and/or spatial boundaries an individual is to be considered an outsider. For example, in third-millennium B.C.E. Sumer, whose city-states shared a common language and religious system, the inhabitants of the city of Umma nonetheless held even the men of neighboring Lagash to be foreigners, (1) if not so alien as the people of the Zagros mountains to the east. In contrast, most of the residents of central Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age, although belonging to diverse ethnic groups and speaking several--sometimes unrelated--tongues, were "men of Hatti" (LU.MES [.sup.URU Hatti], the people we today call "Hittites." (2)

I will discuss here the role of foreigners in the civilizations of ancient Western Asia, concentrating on the cuneiform cultures with which I am most familiar--Sumer and Akkad of the third millennium, Babylonia and Assyria of the second and first millennia, and the Hittites of the second millennium.


Native terms for "foreigner" include Sumerian, (3) Akkadian ahum, (4) and Hittite arahzena-, (5) the basic semantic notion in each instance being that of externality or peripheral location, rather than hostility, the words for which latter concept are kur, nakrum, and kurur, (6) respectively.7 But of course by their circumstances or from particular characteristics-- personal names, epithets, and so on--we may also detect in the texts the presence of foreigners who are not explicitly labeled as such.


AT HOME To begin our survey with foreigners as groups located--as is only meet--within their own countries, we may observe that the Mesopotamians and the Hittites could find the ways of others somewhat distasteful. For instance, in a Sumerian myth set down in writing in the early second millennium a goddess contemplating marriage to Martu, the eponymous deity of the West Semitic Amorites, is cautioned by her companion concerning the nature of his people:

Now listen, their hands are destructive and their features are those of monkeys; (An Amorite) is one who eats what (the Moon-god) Nanna forbids and does not show reverence. They never stop roaming about ... , they are an abomination to the gods' dwellings. Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance. (The Amorite) is clothed in sack-leather ... , lives in a tent, exposed to wind and rain, and cannot properly recite prayers. He lives in the mountains and ignores the places of gods, digs up truffles in the foothills, does not know how to bend the knee (in prayer), and eats raw flesh. He has no house during his life, and when he dies he will not be carried to a burial-place. My girlfriend, why would you marry Martu? (8) Centuries later, in the mid-fourteenth century, the Hittite Great King Suppiluliuma I warns a vassal from an underdeveloped region with whom he has just concluded a marriage alliance:

Furthermore, this sister whom I, My Majesty, have given to you as your wife has many sisters from her own family as well as from her extended family. They (now) belong to your extended family because you have taken their sister. But for Hatti it is an important custom that a brother does not take his sister or female cousin (sexually). It is not permitted. In Hatti whoever commits such an act does not remain alive but is put to death here. Because your land is barbaric, it is in conflict (with these norms). There one quite regularly takes his sister and female cousins. But in Hatti it is not permitted. (9) On a lighter note, the Neo-Assyrian monarch Assurnasirpal II (ninth century) remarks in his annals that the people of the town of Zipirmena in the eastern region of Zamua "chirp like women" in their speech, (10) and a Hittite writer mocks the neighboring Kaska people as "swineherds and weavers of linen," (11) apparently occupations of low status. (12)


Bemused disapproval and contempt could give way to real rancor when large bodies of outsiders erupted into the territory of a culture, bent upon conquest or at least plunder. The marauding mountaineers whose raids brought an end to the Akkadian Sargonic dynasty a little after 2200 are depicted in a retrospective account as "those who do not resemble other people, who are not reckoned as part of the Land, the Gutians, an unbridled people, with human intelligence but canine instincts and monkeys' features." (13) And in the Old Babylonian period (c. 1740), the upstart King Rim-Sin II of Larsa(?) describes an adversarial group as "the enemy, the evildoers, the Kassites from the mountains, who cannot be driven back to the mountains." (14)


Nonetheless, throughout the three thousand years of literate Mesopotamian civilization, individual foreigners and small groups continually infiltrated the land of high culture and assumed various roles within the native society, most frequently as common laborers, but occasionally appearing in rather lofty governmental positions. This wide spectrum of occupational trajectory is best observed during the Ur III period at the close of the third millennium, when Amorites are attested as harvest laborers on the one hand and as city governors and generals on the other. (15)

Since the previous life experience of these newcomers was in a society at a lower level of social and political organization than that which they encountered in Mesopotamia, they consequently tended to assimilate rather rapidly to Sumerian and later to Babylonian culture. Indeed, the monarchs of most of the minor states that sprang up on the ruins of the empire of Ur were Amorite princes, who combined the roles of urban king and tribal sheikh. The most famous of these rulers, in antiquity as now, was Hammurapi of Babylon. By the time they achieved dominance, these rulers and their kinsmen had abandoned their ancestral West Semitic tongue(s) in favor of the Akkadian of Babylonia and had otherwise fully assimilated into the Mesopotamian cultural environment.

It is difficult to identify individual immigrant foreigners in the textual record. Out of necessity, scholars have employed such criteria as onomastics, language use, and ethnic epithets to pick them out. But the very fact that a person with a good Akkadian name might be labeled as an Amorite, for example, demonstrates the inexactitude of this approach. And if due to the practice of papponomy a second-generation Babylonian was given the name of his immigrant Amorite grandfather, did this make him an outsider in the eyes of his neighbors? In any event, once a line of newcomers has become fully integrated into their new society, they disappear into the mass of the population as far as the modern historian is concerned. (16)


It may be assumed that in both Mesopotamia and Hatti the voluntary immigration of individuals or families was tolerated, while the incursion of armed groups was resisted, but the presence of certain classes of outsiders was actively encouraged by the leaders of society. Most prominent among welcome foreigners were merchants. (17) The security of their persons and merchandise was of special concern to rulers. Should they not be protected, long-distance trade would suffer if not collapse.18 Therefore the Hittite Laws stipulate:

If anyone kills a merchant, he shall pay 100 minas of silver, and he shall hold his household responsible for the fine. If it is in the lands of Luwiya or Pala, he shall pay the 100 minas and also replace his goods. If it is in the land of Hatti, he himself shall also bring that merchant to burial. (19) The penalties specified here are most substantial.

The well-being of foreign businessmen was indeed a source of concern at the highest levels. Thus we read in a letter from Hittite Great King Hattusili III of the mid-thirteenth century to his Babylonian counterpart Kadasman-Enlil II:

[Because] you wrote to me as follows: "My merchants are being killed in the land of Amurru, the land of Ugarit, [and the land of Subartu]"--they do not kill (as punishment) in Hatti ... If the king hears about it, [they pursue] that matter. They apprehend the murderer [and deliver him] to the relatives of the dead man, [but they allow] the murderer [to live. The place] in which the murder occurred is purified ... Would those who do not kill a malefactor kill a merchant? [But in regard to] the Subarians, how should I know if they are killing people? Now [send] me the relatives of the dead merchants so that I can investigate their lawsuit. (20) At least during the third and second millennia, foreign merchants might even establish their own semi-autonomous residential quarters, usually just outside their host city in the karum, (21) or commercial district. (22) We also read of a "Street of the Men of Isin" in Sippar-Jabrurum, (23) and of a Meluhha village in Sumer, the latter probably originally a settlement of traders from the Indus Valley culture. (24)

By far our fullest documentation on this topic comes from the excavation of the karum at Kanesh, modern Kultepe near Kayseri. This site has yielded the voluminous records of a network of trading colonies maintained by merchants from the city of Assur across northern Syro-Mesopotamia and throughout central Anatolia during the twentieth through eighteenth centuries. (25) Save for the presence of these cuneiform archives documenting the business activities of their...

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