Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hasmoneans in the News

The (descendants of the) guys who gave you Hanukah apparently ruled over a larger area of the Land of Israel than historians have long assumed. New finds in southern Israel seem to confirm the claim of Josephus that the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai conquered large areas in the south. According to archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority, a fortress inside a former Nabatean caravanserai (a kind of inn for traders) in the Negev was actually built and controlled by Hasmonean forces. Archaeologists had previously thought that the fortress was built by the Romans. The Hasmoneans held the structure and effective control over the Nabateans' primary trade route, from 99 until 66 BCE.

28 comments:

Adam E. said...

Very timely news!

Noah K said...

This is actually really disturbing. I guess the Israel Antiquities Authority is capable of vulgar nationalist interpretations of material recovered within the Green Line. And here I thought you only had to watch them in the Territories! As someone who always wants to give the IAA the benefit of the doubt, or at least views charges of gross bias leveled against them by foreign scholars with caution, this is painful. My first thought was, "It's bad reporting. The journalist doesn't get it." Turns out Ha'aretz copied and pasted from the IAA website! Check your facts guys: Matityahu wasn't the High Priest. Some form of trickle-down Hasmonean propaganda may have convinced them of this. Or popular wisdom, I don't know.

It's good to see that the great tradition of Yigal Yadin of "vindicating" Josephus through Negev archaeology is alive and well. Yadin's work on Masada, that rallying point, that nexus of ideology and archaeology, has been roundly criticized for twisting evidence to fit Josephus's accounts. But in that case (also a fort), territory wasn't what was at issue. And this is what actually makes me nauseous. The claim here is that this Negev land belonged to "Jews" and not to "Arabs," at precisely the peak in Nabatean (ancient Arab) power in the region. Go to Petra. All that stuff was built precisely in this period.

Now I don't think you need to be an archaeologist or an historian to be skeptical of that claim. But what is the claim based on? The re-identification of a fortress as "Hasmonean." Never mind that this kind of "infrastructure" passed from one political authority to the next. Never mind that the notion of a distinct Hasmonean material culture (sorry guys, coins don't count; and they don't tell you who was sovereign at the findspot), is, I am sure, and this is not my field, problematic. We had Moshe Fischer out here last year. A really excellent, excellent scholar, whom the Israelis were able to "purchase" from the Romanians a generation ago. Perhaps it was his training outside of Israel, but I am sure he is laughing at this. His site Yavneh-Yam, a coastal site in the South, is a great example of how difficult it is to identify "Jewish" material culture from Levantine sites in this period.

The truth is that "territory" is very difficult to demarcate in this world. The IAA says this garrison being Hasmonean means they "ruled" the surrounding region and even locked out the Nabateans somehow. That takes a great deal of imagination and little understanding of the "geopolitical" landscape in this period. The landscape was extremely, extremely fragmented. We hear of deals struck between different petty dynasts and the last Hasmoneans all the time. These always involved control of garrisons. If anything, the South was to see the emergence of an Arabish power source that ultimately defeated the House of Matityahu. And here, I am talking about Herod. One might argue that it was precisely his Idumean/Nabatean connections and his control of garrisons (like Masada) that provided him with a base from which to unify territory that had been politically and indeed ideologically fragmented under the final Hasmoneans.

Amos said...

The scholar whom they quote, Tali Erickson-Gini, seems to have done most of her work on the Nabateans, not the Hasmoneans. Maybe the IAA press release, which of course coincides with Hanukah, and is an effort at public relations, gives a nationalist interpretation. But I think this quotation in the article simultaneously undermines such a view:

"Another interesting fact", Dr. Erickson-Gini said, "is that the army that Alexander Jannaeus engaged was for the most part a mercenary force that was composed of non-Jewish soldiers."

She added that "apparently Alexander Jannaeus and his widow Queen Salome Alexandra could not depend on Jewish soldiers because of the sharp political divisions that existed among the people."


Maybe I'm naive, but I am not sure this is part of some kind of contestation of "Arab(ish" claims to the land. It's true that the Hasmoneans are still celebrated as Jewish patriots, but I doubt that many Israelis think of the Nabateans as somehow connected to Arabs. People know the Nabateans from 'En Avdat and maybe Petra, because they go on visits there. As for Herod and the Idumeans - I think they have kind of been claimed as Jews in the (secular) imagination.

Noah K said...

Which view is undermined by those comments? I agree, they are very troubling for anyone who wants to claim that Hasmonean = Jewish. But the claim here is that what was thought to be "Nabatean territory" is now being claimed as "Hasmonean territory," which I firmly believe is meant to be understood as "Jewish territory," "Eretz Yisrael," etc. If this woman is trained as a "Nabateanist," it would be very interesting to hear her definition of "Nabatean territory." There is a dissertation under preparation in my department now on Nabatean history and archaeology. When I read this man's chapter recently, I honestly found this to be one of the most interesting problems.

As for whether the Israeli public knows the difference between a Nabatean and an Idumean, I don't really have any access to that, nor do I care strongly either way. Maybe they should work on that in the education system, though, I don't know. Amos knows my personal view that archaeology doesn't have a huge role to play in national identity in Israel going forward. I am just embarrassed as a member of the scholarly community that works on this stuff. The irony is that the Hasmoneans themselves were enormous maximalists when it came to what they thought was their kingdom, namely, the land of the Bible. Remember Josephus proudly claims Hasmonean descent too. To have modern scholars "vindicating" their territorial claims strikes me as perverse.

I didn't know that there were "Arabish" claims to the Negev. I thought that was settled in 1948. These ideologues may be trying to aggrandize Hasmonean history without specifically targeting Arab heritage. On the other hand, I use the term "Arabish" in my comment as it is not so less meaningful in the period under discussion than "Jewish." Herod's homies from this very place, Josephus tells us, were still worshiping their local gods while serving the king. In other words, the power brokers in the region in this period weren't in any meaningful sense "Hasmonean" or "Jewish."

Finally, the reason this is so troubling to me is that I am both a member of this field and someone who cares about Israel's image abroad. So I think it's a disgrace.

Amos said...

I think that quotation about the army being composed primarily of non-Jewish mercenaries complicates a view of the Hasmonean kingdom as some kind of prototype of the Jewish nation-state.

I'm personally curious about what Erickson and others will publish about this in scholarly journals. I'm sure it will be more nuanced than this press release. I'm not bothered by it nearly as much as you are though. I really don't think it makes a difference to any nationalist claims that the Hasmoneans or Nabateans controlled the Negev. The Land of Israel, which of course does not have a clear referent (I mean, there are different ideas in Jewish sources about its exact contours) was controlled by non-Jewish rulers for many centuries before and after the Hasmoneans.

Also, if people want to talk about "sovereignty" over the land of Israel (Jewish or otherwise) - this strikes me as totally anachronistic.

Noah K said...

You don't think it makes a difference to any nationalist claims that Hasmoneans are said ("unequivocally") to have ruled territory that belongs to the modern state of Israel? Are you serious? Then what's the point of releasing this before Hannukah? Isn't that the whole point?

I think it's pretty well established that some Israeli academics have seen in the Hasmoneans prototypes for the modern Israeli warrior-rulers. That of course required a substantial rehabilitation of their memory in Jewish culture.

Check this too:

http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Israel+beyond+politics/Hasmonean-rule-extended-to-Negev-10-Dec-2009.htm

Amos said...

I meant that it doesn't confer any legitimacy on nationalist claims, in my mind. After all, Hasmonean rule only lasted for a century. The Land of Israel had many rulers before and after them. Why should this period be particularly important?

The reason this find was announced before Hanukah was that the festival is the story of the Maccabbees = Hasmoneans.

Noah K said...

All that to determine that Israeli government propaganda doesn't work on the mind of a Berkeley PhD student in Jewish History. And we could be educating people who visit Avdat. For the record, it doesn't work on me either. And that is why I pointed out the factual errors and tendentious claims in the IAA's own press release.

Noah K said...

Hasmonean period is important to a lot of people because it was last "independent" Jewish state in Land of Israel before 1948. Is that really contentious?

Nobody said...

Noah K

I think you are simply hallucinating. Maybe the reporter exaggerated some parts of the story to make it look more dramatic, maybe even some people would like to inflate the Hasmonean legacy as a matter of national pride or something. But nationalist claims to territory that belongs to the modern state of Israel!!! Wow!!!

By the way I liked this part.

Noah K said...
You don't think it makes a difference to any nationalist claims that Hasmoneans are said ("unequivocally") to have ruled territory that belongs to the modern state of Israel? Are you serious? Then what's the point of releasing this before Hannukah? Isn't that the whole point?

Amos said...
The reason this find was announced before Hanukah was that the festival is the story of the Maccabbees = Hasmoneans.

Ha ha ha

:D :D

And regarding this:

Finally, the reason this is so troubling to me is that I am both a member of this field and someone who cares about Israel's image abroad. So I think it's a disgrace.

You should not care so much for the image. Anyway, we don't have so much of it left intact. In fact, you may even avoid hurting it even more, if you go more easy with your interpretations.

Nobody said...

By the way there are no comments on this article since yesterday. No one gives a shit about it. Probably the readers failed to see how much this important finding can support Israel's territorial claims in Negev

:D :D

Amos said...

Nobody,

Noah never said that the findings were being used to support ISRAEL's claims to the Negev or anything else. His point was that the IAA was was appealing to the nationalist imagination by making the Hasmoneans seem more powerful than they really were. This is a distortion of the past for the aims of the present; archaeology should not be manipulated in this manner.

Nobody said...

@Amos

Is it appropriate to ask this Tali to come and comment on this?

Amos said...

yes

Tali said...

Hmmmm, I find it rather bizzare that anyone would bother to politicize this particular discovery.

It is unfortunate that the Y-Net article hasn't appeared in English - it contains far more details.

Readers would see there that the Nabataeans were in control of the Negev (south of the Beersheva Basin) for centuries before and after; the Hasmonean conquest was a brief episode.

How anyone could claim that the IAA or anyone else (including me) are making some political statement is simply ridiculous. The publication of the discovery was timed to coincide with Hannukah because we thought it would be more relevant for non-specialists at this season.

By the way, I presented the evidence of the discovery in a conference in Berlin last week to group of specialists working in Petra and elsewhere and they found it to be of great of interest - no one considered it to have any ideological or political implications.

Sorry about the the Mattatiyahu reference (not mine - a press mistake).

In any case, thanks for inviting me to join your discussion. I hope this clears things up.

If there are any details that I can add that you may find of interest, just let me know

Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini

Amos said...

Dear Tali,

Thank you so much for your comment on our blog. Have any papers based on this work been published? If so, could you share the reference with us? Many of our readers have access to JSTOR and Muse or to research libraries.

There has been an ongoing discussion among some of us about the IAA in general. Do you find that the Authority comes up frequently against criticism that its research is political in some way? Just curious.

Amos said...

BTW, who were some of the other participants at this conference in Berlin? I met one Syrian guy who was working on similar stuff at the Freie Universität a few years ago.

Tali said...

Shalom Amos,

I have been working in the IAA since 1993. In my opinion, the claims that the IAA has any kind of ideological or political agenda are unfounded.

I realize that some of my politically motivated colleagues in Israeli academia make these claims frequently, usually in reference to on-going work in the Jerusalem area.

However, I do not believe this to be the case. If anything, there is a preponderance of leftists among our ranks.

From my experience, archaeologists in the IAA are among the best in the field. The field experience of even our junior employees far exceeds that of most university professors.

That is not to say that academic archaeologists are lacking in any respect - they are provided the time and funds for research in a way that most of us can only dream about.

I can honestly say that the IAA is a highly professional organization.

There, now your respondents have a new subject to wrestle over! (I think the Hasmonean fort is more interesting but obviously I am in the minority).

Hag Sameah

TEG

Tali said...

Amos,

Profs. Stephan Schmid and Ricardo Eichmann organized the conference on Central Places in Arabia.

Participants included Prof. David Graf (Miami), Zbig Fiema (Helsinki), J-M and Jaqualine Dentzer (Paris), Laila Nehme (Paris), Robert Wenning (Muenster), Michael McDonald (UK), Francois Villanue (Paris), John Oleson (Victoria), John Healey (Oxford), Michael Mouton (Paris)and a number of others.

Tali said...

PS

Sorry that I forgot to answer your original inquiry:

the discovery concerning the Hasmonean fort is quite recent and has not yet been published in any professional journal.

The gap in Nabataean presence in the Negev in the early 1st c. BCE was already noted by the late Prof. A. Negev and myself in publications. This gap was attributed to the conquest of Gaza by Alexander Jannaeus in 99 BCE.

There was also evidence of Hasmonean presence at Nessana (Nizzana)published by the late Prof. D. Urman (BGU).

The big discovery is that we have been able to positively identify a Hasmonean fort and pottery assemblage at Horvat Ma'agurah. This in turn leads to the conclusion that the late Hellenistic fort discovered by the Colt Expedition in the '30s was also Hasmonean (there is alot more material and also coins from several areas at that site).

Nobody said...

What happened? You are deleting my comments now?

Very nice of you

:D :D

Criticker said...

Hello everyone, this is Criticker:

Dear Noah K,
Thank you for your passionate and extremely well written first comment. I really enjoyed reading it, and truly admire your writing. However...
it seems to me that your comment above would have benefited more from an exposition of the actual archeological points of contention. Instead, you jumped to a harsh condemnation of IAA practices and an interpretation of motives which is difficult to substantiate.
You confronted the article from your previous knowledge, which I do respect. Yet, you neglected to discuss the actual discovery on its own terms. What I mean is that you dismissed the discovery on the sole basis of its allegedly nationalistic presentation.
Therefore we must conclude that you just meant to pick at this harmless discovery, and voice sensationalistic and redundant anti-Israel sentiments.

Please heed the advise,
of Criticker the Wise

Noah K said...

Hi Critiker,

Thank you for your advice, seriously. As this was a comment, not a post, I did not lay out my critique in a systematic way. I am probably going to do that this week, though of course, part of the problem is precisely that grandiose, "sensationalistic" claims are being made in the IAA press release without adequate presentation of evidence. I don't doubt that the evidence was subjected to professional scrutiny at a Berlin conference. But the IAA press release is all we have in front of us. As to whether I am being "anti-Israel" in my comments, I stand by my record of many posts on this blog. In my opinion, to critique official Israeli narratives of history is not to be anti-Israel, though many far more capable critics than I have been accused of just that! On the other hand, it's not the worst thing I've been called here (same goes for my colleagues). And just a little editorial note for the Kishkushim community: if you call people names on our site or otherwise engage in what we deem to be abusive language, your comments will be deleted.

Nobody said...

Noah K said...
Hi Critiker,

Thank you for your advice, seriously. As this was a comment, not a post, I did not lay out my critique in a systematic way. I am probably going to do that this week, though of course, part of the problem is precisely that grandiose, "sensationalistic" claims are being made in the IAA press release without adequate presentation of evidence. I don't doubt that the evidence was subjected to professional scrutiny at a Berlin conference. But the IAA press release is all we have in front of us. As to whether I am being "anti-Israel" in my comments, I stand by my record of many posts on this blog.


You still don't get it. To say that the IAA is packed with amateurs who have little idea of what they are doing.. Ok, maybe. It's hard to judge for non professionals. To say that bombastic claims are being made out of some nationalist bias... hmmm well, I assume that it's not uncommon among archeologists digging in their home countries. It's a bit hard to remain objective in this situation. I guess some people get carried away. Though it's getting quite personal I would say. One should have a very good reason to accuse a colleague of having such a bias. It's very dismissive.

But to throw in territory and the stuff, to say that it's intended to diminish the importance of Arab legacy in Negev. This is a 100% anti Israeli propaganda. This is actually 100% politicization of science. And the speed with which it's done and this is not the first time on your record in this blog, and the lack of any obvious basis for such accusations, does not really leave much space for doubt re your general orientation. It does not really sit well with this "As someone who always wants to give the IAA the benefit of the doubt". And this is very very obvious, Noah K

Noah S. said...

Nobody,

I say this as an objective observer: People can't take you seriously if you exaggerate or condescend. Is the politicization of science to which you point *really* 100%? As it was in Nazi Germany? Words matter. If you abuse them, you lose credibility.

Nobody said...

To attribute political motives to another scientist in a way that puts his credibility in question is politicization of science. If it's 100% politicization? Like in Nazi Germany? Well, now you really got me. All I can say that I was not comparing Noah to Nazis.

Nobody said...

Anyway, if I offended anybody (which I did) I apologize. Actually I am always offending people, it's just that usually I don't apologize

Nobody said...

I mean it's 100% some kind of politicization of science. It's about dragging politics into science. You say they are unprofessional, ok. You want to say that they are hallucinating about all kinds of stuff out of fascination with national mythology, say it. But to claim that there is a coordinated attempt on the part of the IAA (in which Tali is taking part) to stamp out the Arab legacy or to substantiate some territorial claims, and to do it in this way. It's just what I said