Personal exile in the ancient near east.

AuthorWestbrook, Raymond

Personal exile was an ongoing phenomenon in the ancient Near East that had a special dynamic, giving rise to its own political conventions, legal regulations, and literary reflections. While sharing some features with the mass deportations used as a policy tool by imperial powers of the region, such as the exile of the inhabitants of Judah to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24 and 25), (1) personal exile could have very different practical effects and certainly did have different psychological consequences. Unlike deportees, the individual expatriate was uprooted not only from his geographical but also from his social environment.

In the Egyptian story of Sinuhe from the early second millennium, the eponymous hero was a high official at court who observed something he ought not to have and judged it necessary to flee for his life. His first-person account gives a dramatic description of his crossing the frontier: (2)

I reached the Walls of the Ruler, which were made to repel the Asiatics and to crush the Sand-farers. I crouched in a bush for fear of being seen by the guard on duty upon the wall. I set out at night. At dawn I reached Peten. ... An attack of thirst overtook me; I was parched, my throat burned. I said, "This is the taste of death." I raised my heart and collected myself when I heard the lowing sound of cattle and saw Asiatics. One of their leaders, who had been in Egypt, recognized me. He gave me water and boiled milk for me. I went with him to his tribe. What they did for me was good. (B 16-28) A local ruler, who knew of his reputation, then engaged Sinuhe as a military commander. He spent many successful years in the ruler's employ, marrying the ruler's daughter and becoming a tribal chieftain. Nonetheless, he still pined for his homeland and in his old age the Pharaoh finally granted his petition to return home and be buried in Egypt. He left behind his children and exchanged his extensive estates for a house and garden.

Sinuhe's story reveals how much personal exile was a concept of the city-dweller. (3) For pastoralists, whether nomads or semi-nomads, home was where they could find sustenance. For urbanites, the ties of one's native city (as a socio-political entity) could be stronger even than those of family. A Mesopotamian law looks askance at one who went into exile to avoid taxes or similar public obligations and imposes an appropriate punishment. According to Codex Eshnunna [section]30: (4)

If a man hates his city and his lord and runs away, and another marries his wife, whenever he returns he will have no claim to his wife. Sinuhe was fortunate enough to fall among friends and to find gainful employment. Apart from facing economic hardship, even starvation, a fugitive was cut off from the social support network of family, clan, village, or town. In a system where redress for homicide or other serious wrongs was through legally sanctioned revenge by the family, clan, or, failing these, the ruler, not only the livelihood and property but the very life of anyone outside the network was at risk. Without asylum, the lone fugitive had the protection neither of his own ruler nor of the host population, who could mistreat him at will. In the Bible, Cain bitterly complains to God about the fate that he faces in exile (Gen. 4:14):

"I must hide myself from you and become a rootless wanderer and anyone who encounters me may kill me." In a letter to the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil, Hattusili III of Hatti disingenuously claims as regards his own subjects: (5)

If a man who has committed an offense against the king escapes to another land, it is not acceptable practice to kill him. My brother ask and they will tell you ... If they do not kill an offender, would they kill a merchant? The Hittite king is arguing that it would be impossible for his people to contemplate murdering a foreign merchant, who is on legitimate business and enjoys the protection of his own sovereign, when they have scruples about murdering a fugitive, who may be killed without consequences.

In the case of Cain, God responds by guaranteeing that he will personally avenge Cain's murder and places a mark on Cain's forehead as notice thereof to all comers--a sort of portable asylum (Gen. 4:15).

Even the grant of asylum, however, did not always guarantee the fugitive's personal safety. When the kingdom of Mittani fell to Assyria, a Mittanian chariot commander fled to Babylonia with 200 chariots and their crews. As the prologue to the Treaty between Sup-piluliuma of Hatti and Shattiwaza of Mittani tells it, the Babylonian king took them into his army, but humiliated their commander by reducing him to the ranks alongside his own charioteers and then contrived to have him assassinated. A Mittanian prince who had also received asylum in the Babylonian court took the hint and promptly fled to the Hittites. (6)

For fugitives, being a mercenary was one of the few useful services that they could hope to offer the host kingdom. (7) Reliance on one's sword, for personal protection and employment, seems to be the fate that king Lugal-anne of Uruk mockingly assigns to the priestess Enheduanna of Ur when he drives her out of the land. In the Sumerian poem The Exaltation of Inana, Enheduanna tells the story of her expulsion: (8)

He (Lugal-anne) stood there in triumph and drove me out of the temple. He made me fly like a swallow from the window; I have exhausted my life-strength. He made me walk through the thorn bushes of the mountains. He stripped me of the rightful crown of the en -priestess. He gave me a knife and dagger, saying to me "These are appropriate ornaments for you." (104-8) The fate of the fugitive in exile is exemplified by an Akkadian term for refugee: habiru. (9) In the Late Bronze Age we find habiru being used to designate mercenary soldiers at the hire of various city-states in the Levant. At the same...

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