Was Jerusalem a Trade Center in the Late Iron Age?

Decades of archaeological excavations in Jerusalem have revealed no major evidence of the role of the city as a trade center in the Late Iron Age. One must carefully distinguish the situation in Jerusalem from that in the other regions of Judah. For even though the integration into Assyria's economy is certainly behind the material prosperity of, for example, the northern Negev sites, the scarcity of imported goods found in the excavations in Jerusalem suggests that the commercial factor played a little role in the city's growth.

By Juan Manuel Tebes
Universidad Católica Argentina
Universidad de Buenos Aires
January 2010

There seems to be a consensus that by the Late Iron Age Jerusalem had become one of the most important cities in the southern Levant. While the reasons of its growth are still debated, they focus on Jerusalem's leading political and cultic position in the kingdom of Judah, the immigration of Israelite expatriates after the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE, and the economic "take-off" fueled by its role as main hub in the Levantine networks of trade. M. Steiner expressed the view of the majority when she argued, in an article with the self-descriptive title "Jerusalem in the Tenth and Seventh Centuries BCE: From Administrative Town to Commercial City," that "It seems that in the tenth/ninth century BCE Jerusalem was an administrative center of at least regional importance and that in the seventh century it became an urban center of exceptional dimensions" (Steiner 2001b: 281). Similarly, I. Finkelstein and N. A. Silberman (2006: 264–265) have defended that it was the incorporation of Judah into the Assyrian global economy in the second half of the 8th century BCE that can explain, coupled with the torrents of refugees fleeing the destruction of the northern Israelite state, the sudden increase of the size of Jerusalem and of the fortunes of Judah. Even from the point of view of the so-called "Minimalists," Jerusalem is seen as a city of significant political and commercial standing in the Late Iron Age; according to T.L. Thompson, because of "This growth in the wealth and prosperity of its elite […] Jerusalem became increasingly involved in the international politics of trade" (Thompson 1992: 334).

Despite this consensus, decades of archaeological excavations in Jerusalem have revealed no major evidence of the role of the city as a trade center in the Late Iron Age. One must carefully distinguish the situation in Jerusalem from that in the other regions of Judah. For even though the integration into Assyria's economy is certainly behind the material prosperity of, for example, the northern Negev sites, the scarcity of imported goods found in the excavations in Jerusalem suggests that the commercial factor played a little role in the city's growth.

A significant feature of the pottery assemblage of Jerusalem is the extreme dearth of imported vessels; that is to say, vessels that were not manufactured in Judah and transported to the city by trade. Very few of the pottery types present in Jerusalem pertain directly to the long-distance trade networks of the Late Iron period. Although some types can be paralleled with Edomite and Phoenician forms (City of David, Stratum 12: De Groot and Ariel 2000: 97), these are isolated examples that stress the poverty of the imports in the local corpus. Yet some recent reassessments of the evidence seem to have gradually changed this picture. The rather unexpected detection that one jar handle with rosette stamp—found in Building VII in the extramural quarter of the City of David—was imported from Cyprus or the Aegean (probably containing wine; cf. Franken in Steiner 2001a: 98–199) demonstrates that connections with the Eastern Mediterranean were existent. Additionally, the presence in the neighboring Shiloh's Areas G and E1 of three ostraca incised with south Arabian names—Hallal, Hali and Dad—confirms relationships with the Arabian Peninsula (Shiloh 1987). There has been some debate as to whether these finds attest the presence of people of Arabian origin in Jerusalem during this time (cf. also Sass 1990; Stern 2001: 297). The widely attested contacts of sites in the northern Negev, the Arabah, and Edom with the Hejaz (Parr 1982; Singer-Avitz 1999) makes likely the presence of Arabian people in Jerusalem in the Late Iron period.

Also, several pieces of non-ceramic evidence indicate that Jerusalem had contacts with other areas of the Near East. Fish bones found in Ophel and the City of David, consumed daily in the city, were found to be imported from the Mediterranean coastal zone (Lernau and Lernau 1989; 1992). Other types of items of luxury nature were imported from abroad also, such as Egyptian scarabs (Steiner 2001b: 285), wooden furniture from Syria (Lipschitz 1989), and decorative shells from the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Nile (Mienis 1992; Reese 1995).

Even seen from the prism of these later discoveries, the ceramic evidence of interregional contacts in Jerusalem at the end of (and indeed throughout) the Iron Age is very disappointing. This pattern is even most extraordinary given the fact that the 7th and early 6th centuries BCE represented the peak of the Iron Age long-distance exchange networks in the southern Levant, fueled by the incorporation of the local polities into the Assyrian economic sphere of influence. Imported goods as well as all kinds of cultural influence were seen throughout the southern Levant, from the southern coastal plain, the Negev to Transjordan. Two main arteries of trade communication developed as never before, namely the Phoenician trade networks of the Mediterranean and the commerce of south Arabian incense. The southern Levant was located in the intersection of both trade networks, but some areas more than others experienced their influence. For the Philistine city-states in the southern coastal plain this was certainly the climax of trade contacts with east and west, as they profited from the exporting of local (particularly olive oil) and non-local commodities (Arabian aromatics) (Faust and Weiss 2005). Sites in the northern Negev, located in the interface between southern Transjordan/Hejaz and the Mediterranean, flourished during this period for the same reason, a pattern shown by the high number of imported items—from Edom, Egypt, and Arabia—found in the area (Singer-Avitz 1999; Tebes 2006). Even in Transjordan, which housed societies more leaning towards semipastoralism, Assyrian influence on the local architecture and ceramics (Bienkowski 2000) was more predominant than what can be seen in Jerusalem itself.

There are two alternatives here: (1) the city did expand commercially but owing to certain cultural phenomena peculiar to that time that growth is not visible in the ceramic assemblage; (2) the prosperity triggered by the trade did not reach Jerusalem. The two options pose difficulties, but the second one seems to me the least problematic.[1]

A first view argues that, although Jerusalem and Judah were commercially linked with other Near Eastern zones, the social practices of that time prevented the international trade patterns to be noticeable through the ceramic assemblage. Most particularly, A. Faust has postulated that "While Jerusalem and Beersheba have indeed participated in interregional and even international trade, this is not manifested in pottery, since imported pottery was not culturally accepted in these sites" (Faust 2006: 57). Faust relates this avoidance of imported pottery to negative attitudes that developed firstly towards the Philistine decorated pottery in the Iron Age I among the people who settled in the Central Hill Country, and this continued later on to be in vogue in the Israelite polities for the rest of the Iron Age. Certainly, it is probable that the ideological background current in Late Iron Age Judah prevented the use of imported pottery, and it can be even argued that the following of certain dietary rules would have prevented the food consumption in vessels considered "impure" or non-kosher. However, Faust's assertion that all parts of the Judaean realm were bereft of imported pottery is inaccurate. As I have shown, the Negev sites were radically transformed in the Late Iron II period into way-stations of the trade of south Arabian incense.[2]

The second possibility should be taken into serious consideration. Geographical factors made the location of Jerusalem not very suitable for its becoming a major hub of commerce in the 7th century BCE. Situated as it was in the highlands of Judah, Jerusalem was outside the major venues of the Mediterranean and Arabian trade networks. Byrne (2003) has recently claimed that the flow of Arabian goods from the Hejaz to southern Mesopotamia before the Neo-Babylonian period was conducted along the Levant; direct traffic was not present until the conquest of Tayma by Nabonidus. Arabian aromatics were transported to Syria and Mesopotamia through Transjordan (the so-called "King's Highway") and to the Mediterranean through the Negev. Thus, it is no wonder that excavations in these two regions provide more non-local items than Jerusalem itself.

The above considerations lead to the conclusion that the good fortunes of Jerusalem should be attributed to political factors rather than to trade. Since the Iron Age IIA , Jerusalem functioned as the capital of the Judaean state, and until the late 8th century BCE, this was nothing more than a small hill town. As Finkelstein and Silberman (2006) pointed out, the fall of the northern kingdom and the incorporation into Assyrian’s economic orbit gave the elite of Jerusalem an extraordinary opportunity to expand its political power. It was king Hezekiah who carried out a previously unknown policy of centralization. Although the Deuteronomistic history views it as a religious reform, it was mainly aimed at centralizing the authority of the king and the elite in the capital and weakening the power of the clans of the Judaean countryside (Finkelstein and Silberman 2006: 273–274). Thus, contrary to the title of Steiner's article cited above, Jerusalem never ceased to be a primarily administrative city to become a commercial hub.

Jerusalem revolved, above all, around a Palace redistributive economy, and most other activities were to a large or minor extent related to it. The strategic position of Jerusalem in the local political arena was reinforced when agricultural produce began to flow to the city to be further processed or redistributed by the Palace. The most familiar prerequisites for a fully formed State apparatus—literacy and a centralized economy—occurred at this time. Generally speaking, there are two types of vessels that stand above the predominantly domestic nature of the local pottery assemblage. These are the storage jars with royal impressions on their handles—in the form of "private" seal impressions, lmlk, and rosette impressions—and storage jars with potter's incisions. The principal agent managing this two-way flow of products between Jerusalem and the rural areas was the Palace, who supplied with provisions to officials appointed by the crown or soldiers stationed in the various parts of the kingdom (McNutt 1999: 158). The presence of stamp impressions and incised vessels demonstrate the high degree of political and economic centralization that Jerusalem attained in the last century before its destruction (Kletter 1999: 37; Barkay 2003: 52).

To be clear, while Jerusalem was at the center of the local redistributive networks of the kingdom of Judah, networks that were mostly in the hands of the Palace and Temple's officials who also profited privately with it, the city was not an international center of trade. By trade, I understand the medium- and long-distance commerce in high-bulk commodities such as grain, oil, and non-precious metals; this is trade that in most cases leaves considerable pottery traits. What Jerusalem did import were luxury items whose traits very often do not survive in the form of broken vessels. Most imported non-ceramic items brought to the city were luxury goods demanded and consumed by the political and religious elite or procured for payment of tribute to Assyria (Hopkins 1996: 137–138; Byrne 2003: 22). The political expansion of the Judaean elite, the king and his family, the king's officials, and the Temple's high priests, brought about a concomitant increase in the consumption of luxury items. As indicated above, findings of expensive, low-bulk objects such as wood furniture, shells, and scarabs were concentrated in Jerusalem's elite quarters, the City of David and Ophel. Therefore, these items, coupled with the absence of imported pottery indicating movements of more bulky commodities, should not be taken as evidence of the city's ranking in the trade network of the period, but rather as materializations of the demand of the Palace and the Temple for such items. In D.C. Hopkins' words, "the exchange (…) of preciosities and strategic goods with lofty value to weight ratios (…) did not enhance the rural zone (…) [having] a negligible economic impact outside the palace sector" (Hopkins 1996: 137–138).

It is precisely Jerusalem's standing as a primary administrative center that can explain the above-referred ostraca with south Arabian names found in the City of David. These ostraca probably constitute the remains of the private archive of Arabian merchants living in Jerusalem. The migration of traders to cities located far away from their home base, known as "trade diasporas" (Curtin 1984), is a well-known phenomenon of antiquity and modern times, and while the best documented cases in ancient times involve the finding of large private archives—as in the case of the Old Assyrian colony in Kanesh, Anatolia—, the majority of the archaeological traits consist only of distinct architectural features such as isolated merchants' neighborhoods or specific types of buildings (Holladay 2001). An important point for the case of Jerusalem is that trade diasporas do not need to be located on hubs of trade, for merchants follow not only the movements of goods but also the places where businesses are made. Political centers and capital cities outside the main venues of trade would normally be bereft of foreign merchants, but when controlling areas with desired commodities or important trade routes, they would house guilds of traders seeking to strike good deals with other merchants or reassuring the good will of the local government. Jerusalem most likely fell in the latter case, for it is no coincidence that the Arabian merchants were in the city at precisely the time when the Judaean kingdom controlled the northern Negev, the main artery for moving goods from the Hejaz to the Mediterranean ports. The presence of a south Arabian "rade diaspora" in the city was probably aimed at assuring good relations with the Judaean Palace, while at the same time guaranteeing reasonable road tolls and taxes (cf. Holladay 2006: 327).[3]


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[1] This discussion touches one important methodological issue that is central to our understanding of the interregional contacts of Jerusalem in the Late Iron period. One should bear in mind, for example, that the ostraca with south Arabian names were found in the peripheral quarters of the city, which strongly suggests that the picture we get from the pottery assemblage is partial at best. There is no doubt that this pattern should be attributed to the fact that excavations only reached parts of the oldest part of the city (City of David) and, more importantly, did not reach—except probably for the Ophel area—the core of the official quarter of Jerusalem in the Late Iron Age, the Temple Mount, where the royal palace and temple were very likely located. More research in areas inside the Iron Age city walls is needed to shed more light on this question.

[2] Faust downplays the large percentage of coastal and Edomite pottery types found in Beersheba because they were mostly locally manufactured (Faust 2006: 52). But the point is precisely that: the people living in the northern Negev were evidently copying and adopting for themselves the forms and decorations of non-Judaean pottery. Although unfortunately detailed statistics are missing, the Edomite pottery constitutes a considerable proportion in the material assemblages of sites such as Tel Malhata and Horvat Qitmit. As I have argued elsewhere, the distribution of Edomite ceramics in the Negev reflects the "invisible" trade in Arabian aromatics transported by the autochthonous pastoral societies. Most of the Edomite pottery types found in Negev sites were manufactured in those same sites, except for the cooking pots, which were imported from Edom (Tebes 2006).

[3] Shiloh (1987: 17) raised the possibility that the south Arabian population living in Jerusalem was somehow related with the Arab tribes deported to Samaria by Sargon II. Although this is possible, the Assyrian sources only mention explicitly northern Arabian people being settled in Samaria (ANET 287; ARAB, II §17). Moreover, as Shiloh himself showed, findings of south Arabian inscriptions are not restricted to Jerusalem: they were discovered also at Bethel, Tell Jemmeh, and Tell el-Kheleifeh (Shiloh 1987:14–16), the latter two doubtlessly related to the trade of the south Arabian incense.

Comments (1)

I'm not an archaeologist but it seems like if you find something in Jerusalem that this is good evidence for it's presence in the past. But because of all the wars, I would think it's not unusual to find a whole lot of things missing from Jerusalem because of the constant war, rebuilding etc...

#1 - Brian M. - 07/07/2011 - 02:20

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