World-System Research and Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors (Part III)

By Juan Manuel Tebes
Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina
Universidad de Buenos Aires
March 2011

It might be argued that, given the limits in our knowledge on the events that took place in ancient Israel’s southern periphery during the Iron Age (see World-System Research and Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors [Part II]), a World-System view is fully inadequate for explaining the historical processes going on in the local societies. Nothing is further from the truth. I would suggest that the World-System theory is the only model capable of elucidating the continuous changes in the local sociopolitical and economic structures, both on a macro- and a micro- level, and at the same time illuminating (if not predicting) the ups and downs in their relationships with the contemporary core societies and their subservient peripheries.

As already noted in Part I, World-System analysis has moved afield from Wallerstein’s original formulation. However, for readers still wary of more general, theoretical studies based on inter-societal comparisons, I have good and bad news: the bad news is that theoretical models cannot replace missing data; the good news is that these models – based on many similar historical cases – can be used to circumvent the big holes in knowledge. In a sense, it is a way (in some cases the only one) of moving forward without neglecting the very same data from which we are departing from.

If used with due caution, inter-societal comparisons can greatly facilitate the construction of historical models. For instance, what do the United Fruit Company plantations in the Third World countries of Latin America and the “enclave” economies1 (plantation, mining enterprises, etc.) controlled by ancient Empires have in common? Although both cases belong to completely different political and economic systems (a modern, market-oriented Capitalist exploitation vs. ancient economic systems based on slave or corvée labor producing for tribute), “enclave” economies triggered similar sociopolitical consequences in the peripheral societies so dominated (see, for example, the case of the Timna copper mining in Tebes 2008: 34).

A World-System Perspective for Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors

During the first millennium BCE, Edom, the Negev, and northwestern Hejaz passed through a series of socio-political and economic fluctuations inextricably related to changes occurring in the Iron Age World-System. Economically and politically, they integrated into this system as peripheries of more complex core societies. Contrary to traditional studies that failed to recognize how different local peoples were from modern nation-States and the “tribal kingdom” model that stressed the tribe as a static, almost non-historical entity, a World-System perspective demonstrates that the local, essentially tribal society, evolved through a series of phases of chiefdom formation and posterior dissolution (Tebes 2008). Interrelated political events and economic factors that had long-lasting impact on the autochthonous tribal groups need to be seen under the light of these systemic interactions.

From an outward perspective, the Iron Age World-System connected this area with regions far away from it through a multifarious chain of social, economic, and political interlinks. Thus, Eric Wolf’s tenet that “In both hemispheres populations impinged upon other populations through permeable social boundaries, creating intergrading, interwoven social and cultural entities” (Wolf 1982:71) is true for 1400 AD as much as for the Iron Age. In this way, events and long-time processes taking place in Persia, Anatolia, and the Aegean world could have multiple repercussions in ancient Israel’s southern neighbors. The systemic crisis that fell upon the Eastern Mediterranean trade networks during the 12th century BCE – itself provoked by multiple causes beyond the scope of this article – caused the end of the shipments of Cypriot copper to Egypt and the Levant, thus leading to the renewal in the exploitation of the copper mines of the southern Arabah (Knauf & Lenzen 1987; Liverani 1987).

Although there is evidence of contacts between the ancient Mediterranean area and the Syro-Arabian region before the Late Bronze Age, it is in this period when a fluid, systemic relationship developed linking both areas. However, the systemic flow thereafter was neither continuous in time nor uniform in the areas involved and contacts between the Mediterranean and the Syro-Arabian area fluctuated between periods of fluid (12th-11th centuries BCE, restricted to northwestern Hejaz and southern Transjordan; late 8th-4th centuries BCE, encompassing the central Hejaz, Transjordan, and Syria) and limited (10th-8th centuries BCE) economic and cultural flows.

Regular, systemic flows between the Mediterranean basin and the Syro-Arabian area were not restricted to low-bulk, high-price commodities such as incense but also involved other material goods and ideas. These included exchange of high-bulk commodities, movements of population, and two-way flows of cultural goods.

In the latter case, scholars have traditionally stressed the diffusion of cultural traits (deities, iconography, scripts [Parker 2002]) from the neighboring sedentary states to the Syro-Arabian communities. While this flow is undeniable, evidence exists (and more research is needed) for the transmission of Syro-Arabian cultural, religious, and cultic ideas to the Mediterranean basin (e.g., the Hejazi Qaus cult: Rose 1977). At the same time, the intricacies of the flow of Syro-Arabian goods to the Mediterranean – particularly aromatics (incense), metals (copper) and precious metals (gold) – in one or another way shaped the Eastern Mediterranean society, altering costs and changing the (almost exclusively elite) consumption patterns (see the excellent article by Holladay 2006).

Fluctuations in the ancient Mediterranean World-System influenced the socio-political configurations of the Syro-Arabian tribes. Tribes are not static entities, and, in fact, change is the norm for them: they are bound to internal transformations, driven by geographical, economic, and external factors. A key feature is that social inequalities arise primarily because of their interactions with States; these interactions can, in turn, lead to the emergence of chiefdom-level polities. Although a series of factors can cause the emergence of chiefdoms, their development is ultimately related to their position inside the World-System (Kristiansen 1991: 24-25) and particularly the external influence of the neighboring core States, which can take the form of political/military pressure or economic expansion.

In some cases, the States’ influence is direct, characterized by military and political pressure. Here, stratification develops out of concern of the community’s autonomy and the local “chiefs” and their subordinates are no more than a military class aimed at checking the core’s power (e.g., the Arabian “sheikdoms” of 9th-6th century BCE Syria; Eph‘al 1982).

However, in most cases the external influence is economic, particularly when the core economy goes far beyond the States’ boundaries and penetrates into the peripheries, generating internal hierarchies. This expansion can take different forms, but trade networks and “enclave” economies (such as the Ramesside copper mining at Timna) are the most significant for our case. When interregional trade transcends into the peripheries, goods imported from the core societies are used by the local elites as “political currency” to forge the loyalty of clients, therefore enhancing the chiefs’ ability to mobilize labor and encourage surplus production (Kipp & Schortman 1989). The monopoly in the acquisition of foreign goods also connects the elites to an “international style” (ibid.; Earle 1991: 7) that is used to justify their authority given their contact with an external source of power inaccessible to others, style that is also imbued with a supernatural matrix that legitimatizes them in front of the population.

Although by no means accepting the Eastern Mediterranean meanings in toto, cultural traits adopted by the Syro-Arabian communities evoked a cultic and political symbolism that was attractive in the area and could have been used by the local emerging chiefs to foster their “international” credentials in front of the local population. This elite “emulation” was a general phenomenon of the local elites who, by adopting some elements of the Egyptian or Mediterranean material culture, linked themselves to the center of “civilization” of that time, in doing so transferring some of the outer prestige to their own persona. Ultimately, the local leaders might have used the distribution of decorated pottery with obvious symbolic overtones (e.g., Qurayyah [Tebes 2007], Tayma, al-’Ula and Edomite pottery [Thareani 2009]) to highlight their ideological connection with the neighboring urban societies, initiate or reinforce existing commercial and political links with other autochthonous groups, and buy or retain the favor of clients whose chiefs had no access to such desirable goods.


1 For the notion of “enclave” economy, see Cardoso & Faletto 1976.


Cardoso F.H. & E. Faletto. 1976. Dependencia y Desarrollo en América Latina. México, Siglo XXI.

Earle, T.K. (ed.) 1991. Chiefdoms: Power, Economy and Ideology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Eph‘al, I. 1982. The Ancient Arabs: Nomads on the Borders of the Fertile Crescent 9th-5th Centuries B.C. Leiden, Brill.

Holladay, J.S. 2006. Hezekiah’s Tribute, Long-Distance Trade, and the Wealth of Nations ca. 1000–600 BC: A New Perspective. In S. Gitin, J.E. Wright & J.P. Dessel (eds.) Confronting the Past: Archaeological and Historical Essays on Ancient Israel in Honor of William G. Dever. Winona Lake, IN, Eisenbrauns, 309-332.

Kipp R.S. & E.M. Schortman, 1989. The Political Impact of Trade in Chiefdoms. American Anthropologist 91: 370-385.

Knauf, E.A. & C.J. Lenzen. 1987. Edomite Copper Industry. SHAJ 3: 83-88.

Kristiansen, K. 1991. Chiefdoms, States, and Systems of Social Evolution. In T.K. Earle (ed.) Chiefdoms: Power, Economy and Ideology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 16-43.

Liverani, M. 1987. The Collapse of the Near Eastern Regional System at the End of the Bronze Age: the Case of Syria. In M. Rowlands, M. Larsen & K. Kristiansen (eds.) Centre and Periphery in the Ancient World. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 66-73.

Parker, S.B. 2002. Ammonite, Edomite, and Moabite. In J. Kaltner & S.L. McKenzie (eds.) Beyond Babel: A Handbook for Biblical Hebrew and Related Languages. Resources for Biblical Study 42. Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 49-50.

Rose, M. 1977. Yahweh in Israel – Qaus in Edom? JSOT 4: 28-34.

Tebes, J.M. 2007. Pottery Makers and Premodern Exchange in the Fringes of Egypt: An Approximation to the Distribution of Iron Age Midianite Pottery. Buried History 43: 11-26.

Tebes, J.M. 2008. Centro y periferia en el mundo antiguo. El Negev y sus interacciones con Egipto, Asiria, y el Levante en la Edad del Hierro (1200-586 a.C.) Ancient Near East Monographs 1. 2nd. ed. Buenos Aires, SBL & CEHAO.

Thareani, Y. 2009. The Spirit of Clay: “Edomite Pottery” and Social Awareness in the Late Iron Age. BASOR 359: 35-55.

Wolf, E.R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley, University of California Press.

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