King David & King Solomon
A History of Mankind (46)
(This post is a sequel to this earlier post. To learn about the history of the Hyksos ancestors of the Canaanite Jews, you should read this older post. To see all posts in a list arranged by subject, click here)
The other early monotheistic religion, one that eventually would have its own idea of a Persian-style savior, had a much less impressive start than Zoroastrianism, but surely made up for that over the next few centuries. It developed in Palestine, not exactly a backwater: rather, a place strangely abandoned by big power politics since the Sea Peoples' migrations.
Long centuries of Hittite, Mitannian and Egyptian interventions gradually gave way to a power vacuum during the 12th century BC, leaving local strongmen truly independent from outside forces for the first time. Egyptian garrisons vanished, and trade with Egypt declined considerably as the country fell into a long slump, driven by Libyan encroachment especially along the Nile Delta, the natural conduct for all Egyptian trade towards the north and east.
From 1077 BC, what Egyptians later called their 21st Dynasty ruled parts of northern Egypt from Tanis, but Libyan warlords probably controlled much territory in happy disregard of the supposedly supreme authority of the pharaoh. The south was in similar disarray: while the High Priests of Amun maintained control over Thebes and, generally speaking, much of Upper Egypt, acting as sovereigns, Piankh-the-grave-robber was unable to put down a rebellion in Kush/Nubia, fomented by viceroy Panehsy, who set up his own state there, the start of centuries of Nubian independence and the most fruitful and peaceful era in the history of that land.
Like Hyksos before, Libyans remained a bellicose minority, somewhat Egyptianized and yet fairly hostile to many Egyptian traditions, for centuries. Some Libyans adopted Egyptian names, dress, and burial customs, and the Libyans of this era do not figure as 'foreigners' in the Egyptian graphic or textual record, possibly because they were too powerful to be caricaturized: the distinctive ethnic features associated with Libyans in earlier, New Kingdom art – yellow skin, sidelocks, tattoos, feathered headgear, penis sheaths, and decorated robes – no longer appear. Still, prominent Libyans kept very un-Egyptian names, and were appointed chiefs of Libyan tribes generations after they moved to Egypt; a feather worn in the hair survived as a distinguishing mark of Libyan chieftains.
Egypt's tumbling prestige and obvious weakness is evident in the “Story of Wenamun”, a literary tale written in the hieratic script in which Wenamun, an emissary of the High Priest, is received with derision and hostility when he travels to Byblos, in Phoenicia, to acquire timber for a ship – and is made to pay for the timber instead of taking it for free, as was custom. Wenamun can't obtain the money from the broke court at Tanis, and his ship is blown off course on his way back, all the way to Cyprus, where he's almost killed by an angry mob, before he puts himself under the protection of local queen Hatbi.
“Story of Wenamun” may have been an elaborate joke that was reproduced a few times – it was found written on the back of an administrative document for the export of commodities – or a widespread, much-copied tale of the era, in which sophisticated Egyptians had a chuckle at their own expense.
In any case, the tale symbolizes a once-dominant, now-declining civilization that has lost all credit, in theory ruled via a cash-strapped court, but effectively run as a theocracy from Thebes. It appears that 11st century BC pharaohs were effectively directed by the Great Priests through the skillful use of oracles, with regular Festivals of the Divine Audience at Karnak, and cash infusions. In fact, it's possible that at least some, if not all, of the pharaohs of the era actually lived in Memphis, closer at hand for the Theban power-brokers, with Tanis used as a ceremonial connection to the great days of the first few Ramesses.
With Egypt's retrenchment and Hatti's collapse, several Assyrian kings tried to impose their will over the Levant, but they only achieved limited success. It was only during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (r. 1114–1076 BC) that Assyrian armies managed to subdue most of Syria and get Phoenician cities to pay protection tribute.
Tiglath-Pileser I was an interesting character, equally given to conquest and to record annals of his campaigns for the future use of chroniclers and his descendants. After a series of battles against Neo-Hittite warlords, he also was the first Assyrian king to take control over much of southern Anatolia, and secure tribute from a certain Ini-Teshub from Carchemish who styled himself as a latter-day king of Hatti. His most daring campaign seems to have reached Arwad, a tiny fortified island-city off the Syrian coast, from which he briefly sailed the Mediterranean on a ship from which he killed a narwhal, to the great excitement of his companions and – one assumes – veiled glances from his Phoenician vassals, amused by the rustic enjoyments of the bellicose but unpolished Assyrians.
These campaigns turned Assyria into the most prominent Fertile Crescent power for most of the next half a millennium, but also set a pattern for the future Assyrian empire, which – like Hatti before – was rarely quite as imperial as its rulers would have liked, and never a stable fact on the ground that persisted for centuries, like the later Persian or Roman empires.
After his naval exploits against fearsome Mediterranean beasts, Tiglath-Pileser I got in trouble with Arameans, a rising Semitic elite that had replace Neo-Hittites in control of Syria's largest and wealthiest cities.
The Arameans probably based their rise on proto-Arabic migrations from the ever-more arid lands between the Euphrates and modern Jordan, which boosted the Semitic population in Syria, leading to an acculturation process that eventually wrested control from Neo-Hittite, Indo-European and Hurrian elites and reclaimed much of Syria for Semitic-speaking peoples and warlords, after centuries of non-Semitic dominance.
This meant a displacement of Neo-Hittite warlords towards Anatolia, where they set up their last strongholds, and of Assyrian influence – to the point that it would be several generations before future Assyrian kings returned to Syria and Phoenicia to ask for tribute, and they would indeed be immediately forced to defend their territory from Aramean invaders.
This was an era of particularly acute instability, reflected in “The Dialogue of Pessimism,” a Mesopotamian dialogue between a master and his servant published around this time: it expresses the futility of human action, with a master that keeps proposing courses of action, that a slave rejects by providing good reasons why they will fail. The popular text has parallels with wisdom literature such as the Instructions of Amenemhat, but is written in Akkadian and circulated widely throughout the region.
At the same time, these developments created an alternative, non-Mesopotamian center of Semitic culture from which the Aramean language spread, eventually becoming the dominant Semitic tongue. And there's also the fact that Aramean hostility meant that Tiglath-Pileser I never quite reached Palestine, which is in itself of significant historical importance. He in fact may have avoided the region purposefully, since at the time it was quite a patchwork of warring tribes, independent cities and towns and various marauders fighting each other, but in any case his absence allowed local politics to develop relatively unimpeded by external influence – a rarity in Palestinian affairs, before or since.
Canaanites, the ancestors of the Biblical Jews, were spread thin about the land but concentrated on the hill country now knows as Transjordan, and the Jordan River valley. Much of the coast, meanwhile, was under the control of the Philistines, mostly Indo-European descendants from the Sea Peoples who appear to have maintained the disorganized ways of their ancestors.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to A History of Mankind to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.