“Consider Jerusalem! This neither my father nor my mother gave to me. The strong hand of the king gave it to me.” – EA 287:24-28
What do the earliest texts from Jerusalem say about its political status? Our evidence consists of six letters dating from the 14th century B.C.E., written by a man named Abdi-Heba, who describes himself as a “soldier,” rather than a “king” or even a “mayor.” They describe deteriorating military conditions: Abdi-Heba begs repeatedly for a single unit of archers to defend Jerusalem, which will otherwise be lost to bandits and the treachery of other local rulers.
Abdi-Heba was sure the Pharoah was ignoring him, and he was probably right.* Like many other diplomatic letters from the region, they are addressed in a pleading tone to the Egyptian Pharoah and were found in the archive of a large imperial bureaucracy, the ancient Egyptian “Foreign Service” in the royal capital of Amarna. From the obsequious notes to the scribe found at the end of four of the five well-preserved letters, it is clear that Abdi-Heba knew the Pharoah would never read them, and would only hear of their contents if he flattered the agent in charge of the “Syria Desk,” as the great Assyriologist Leo Oppenheim described it.
William Moran noted long ago** that Abdi-Hepa describes his status as ruler in a unique way, not found in any of the 380 or so other Amarna letters. His plea to “Consider Jerusalem!” repeats a theme that appears in four of the five well-preserved letters. In the careful translation of William Moran, the other passages read:
“Behold, I am not a mayor; I am a soldier of the king, my lord. Behold, I am a friend (?) of the king and a tribute-bearer of the king. It was neither my father nor my mother, but the strong arm of the king that placed me in the house of my father.” EA 288:9-15
“I am not a [mayor]; I am a soldier [for the king, my lord.]” EA 285:5-6
Why does he keep telling the Pharoah he's not a mayor? His rhetorical purpose is clearest in this passage: “Seeing that, as far as I am concerned, neither my father nor my mother put me in this place, but the strong arm of the king brought me into my father's house, why should I of all people commit a crime against the king, my lord?” 286:9-15. His peers, the mayors, have been accusing him to the Pharoah.
To defend himself against charges of treason, and quite unlike a typical king, Abdi-Heba insists repeatedly that he did not inherit his position! His rhetorical point is this: it is precisely because of his lack of conventional legitimacy that he is the king's man in a way that none of the other local rulers all. Rather, he owes his power not to inheritance but gained it entirely through the Pharoah's military force: Jerusalem was either conquered by Egyptian forces or mercenaries in Egyptian employ. Abdi-Heba may have been a local mercenary leader (the goddess in his name is Hurrian) or from a local family with a claim—or aspiration-- to power: it depends on how literally one takes his reference to the king putting him in his father's house (not “returning” him, as Mari letters refer to the restoration of a dynasty).
Whom does the ruler of Jerusalem consider his peers? The only people to whom he compares himself are the haziannu, a term Moran translates “mayor.” The term is well-known and its translation is uncontroversial: here is how the major dictionaries render it:
Concise Dictionary of Akkadian “mayor, village headman”
CAD “chief magistrate of a town, of a quarter of a larger city, a village or large estate—mayor, burgomaster, headman”
Is it possible that there is a split in political designations—that Abdi-Heba's self-designation is merely self-abnegating rhetoric, and that he was called a king at home? After all, in the 9th-century Assyrian-Aramaic bilingual from Tel Fekheriye, the ruler calls himself “governor” in the cuneiform portion but “king” in the Aramaic version. Fortunately we can have good evidence for at least one local ruler: Ugarit was a major city-state of the Late Bronze Age, from which both substantial native archives and diplomatic letters to Egypt were preserved. We know that the king of Ugarit was called a king in native documents but was politically subservient to both Hatti and Egypt during this period. Did he deny his native kingship to the Pharoah?
No: in EA 47:14-19 Ammishtamru or Niqmaddu complains that “[to a]ll the messengers of [other?] kings [you gi]ve your tablet...to me, however, [and to] my messengers [you have not giv]en your tablet...” Similarly, in EA 49, Niqmaddu of Ugarit demands that the king give him as a gift two Cushite palace attendants and a physician: a move that clearly assumes a level of reciprocity Abdi-Heba wouldn't dream of.
Thus, on current evidence, the only known ruler of Jerusalem in the 14th century B.C.E. considered himself a military commander, on par with mayors and village headmen.
In the exemplary publication of the new Jerusalem fragment by Eilat Mazar, Yuval Goren, and my colleagues Wayne Horowitz and Takayoshi Oshima, Mazar makes clear that no Late Bronze Age structures have been discovered yet: ““Like in the Ophel excavations, no architectural remains earlier than the Iron Age IIa were found during Mazar’s City of David excavations,” p. 5
Given that we have no idea of the extent of settlement, I concur with Christopher Rollston that the press release's claim that the letter comes from a “king” and that Jerusalem was a “major center” at the time is premature. The press release, naturally, speaks modern language and draws on modern assumptions about what constitutes political importance. People in ancient Canaan--including the writers of the Amarna letters--did not necessarily share these assumptions. And the fragment--the linguistic features of which haven't been fully discussed--and Abdi-Heba's situation are important for reasons I'll discuss in the next post.
*As Leo Oppenheim wrote, “We cannot and will not know whether the letters written in Akkadian and Hittite to the Egyptian court were ever read to the Pharoah or just filed in the archives of the Foreign Office, we cannot opt for either of the offered possibilities, both of which may in some way have corresponded to reality.”
EA 316 “seems to show that the correspondence coming from Palestine and Syria was brought not directly before the Egyptian king but rather to the 'Syrian desk' in the Foreign Office, to be referred then to the specific departments according to the content of individual letters." -"A Note on the Scribes in Mesopotamia" Assyriological Studies 16 (1965) 253-56
**Moran, William L. 1975. “The Syrian Scribe of the Jerusalem Amarna Letters,” in Unity and Diversity: Essays in the History, Literature, and Religion of the Ancient Near East (ed. H. Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts; Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press) 146-166.