Saturday, October 06, 2007

Abu el-Haj: archaeology, scholarship - Assyrian destruction of Samaria

Having run through her peer reviews, in this and the following paired post, I explore questions of archaeological knowledge raised by Nadia Abu el-Haj's (2001) facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society. The next post addresses the Roman destruction of Jerusalem; this one addresses the Assyrian destruction of Samaria.

Assyrian destruction of Samaria

I have neither the historical knowledge nor the acquaintance with the section that he referred to to be able to judge for myself, but biblical and ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Prof. Aren M. Maeir (2004) may have made one of the few substantial criticisms of Abu el-Haj when he relayed that,
she [2001: 313-314] quotes a discussion between a guide and a tourist in which the guide claimed that Jerusalem had been saved from Assyrian conquest in 701 B.C.E. through the judicious actions of the Judean king Hezekiah and the participant dissented, claiming that Hezekiah's actions resulted in the destruction of the neighboring Israelite kingdom [Samaria],
then dissected it:
Although the tourist's objection would appear to undermine the guide's interpretation (Abu el-Haj ends the note by stating that the guide felt uneasy), this is a ludicrous claim, since the Israelite kingdom had been conquered twenty-one years earlier! Abu el-Haj seeks to undermine the "normative" narrative but in fact demonstrates the limited knowledge of her informants, as well as her own lack of relevant knowledge-or her willingness to "skim over" the "damning details."
It does appear that Maeir was correct, but on one occasion putting too much trust in one source in two years of fieldwork and more of research was not the gravest error Abu el-Haj could have committed. Whatever the explanation turns out to be, Maeir's interpretation was certainly justifiable.

Understanding, misunderstanding

Given the campaign against Abu el-Haj and even her peers' misuse of her work against her, it seems reasonable to entertain at least one possible alternative before accepting Maeir's interpretation: could this have been a misunderstanding? Could this have been merely a matter of (terribly) poor phrasing in the participants' discussion (inadvertently preserved by Abu el-Haj's faithful quotation of it)?

Could there have been a miscommunication because of the use of the phrase "the destruction of a kingdom" by Maeir to mean narrowly, "the conquest of a previously independent state", but by the discussion participants to mean more broadly, "the devastation of a territory"? I'm now only able to clip snippets from the relevant section, so this is unavoidably piecemeal, but I was able to grab a few lines that might help.

It appears that those involved in the discussion Abu el-Haj reported in her book were at the Western Wall Tunnels (which Judean King Hezekiah had built in 701 B.C.E. as part of the defences against the Assyrian King Sennacherib's looming attacks, apparently designed simultaneously to supply water to the besieged and to cut it off from the besiegers), so the discussion would have been about the events of 701 B.C.E.

Professor of Jewish studies Michael Fishbane (2002) said that,
In response to a widespread revolt in Palestine, Philistia, and Egypt that followed the death of Sargon II (705 B.C.E.), King Sennacherib of Assyria (701‑681 B.C.E.) invaded Judah and besieged Jerusalem.
That revolt was led by Hezekiah. Professor of biblical studies Dennis R. Bratcher (2006) explained:
[in 704] Hezekiah was ready for a break from Assyria and withheld tribute, an open signal of rebellion. Other states in the area joined the rebellion and Hezekiah, in brokering an alliance with Egypt over the objections of Isaiah (Isa 30, 31), became the leader of the revolt. It took Sennacherib until 701 to quiet the other provinces sufficiently to turn his attention to Hezekiah.
Hezekiah instigated the revolt, which the other vassal states then joined, for which Sennacherib laid waste to them; however, the other states do not appear to have included Samaria.
Sennacherib marched from the north into Palestine intent on devastating cities that had rebelled. He began along the northwestern coastal area of Phoenicia and the seaport of Tyre, which quickly fell. The defeat of Tyre caused many of the city-states as far away as Moab and Ammon to promptly reassert their allegiance to Assyria. However, the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ekron along with the Kingdom of Judah continued to refuse tribute to Sennacherib. Determined to teach the rebellious cities a lesson, Sennacherib continued his southward march. In a short span of time, he had secured all of the Philistine territory along the coast and turned inland to deal with Hezekiah and Judah. The Assyrians destroyed a great number of towns in Judah and finally laid siege to Jerusalem itself.
The (former) Kingdom of Samaria is not mentioned as rebelling with the other vassal states or as being subjugated by the Assyrian Empire, so it must be assumed that it existed only as a province of the Assyrian Empire and was uninvolved in the revolt and unaffected by its suppression.


In the part of the conversation that I could access, first(?), Abu el-Haj quoted (with her own inserts),
Participant: "So, the destruction of Israel [the Northern Kingdom that was destroyed by the Assyrians] was because of Hezekiah's actions." [The guide had explained to us that Hezekiah had rebelled against the Assyrian kings, refusing to pay the required tithes. He thus knew they would try and come down and conquer his kingdom; en route...]
(Presumably, this finished something like: "he thus knew they would try and come down and conquer his kingdom; en route, they would destroy the Northern Kingdom or the other kingdoms".)

Second(?), Abu el-Haj quoted (with my inserts),
Guide: "The [destruction of the(?)] Northern Kingdom in part... was because the the Assyrians came down to conquer Judea, and they conquered everything else that was in their way en route as well'.
Both of these snippets approximately fit with Fishbane's (2002) and Bratcher's (2006) descriptions of the events of 704-701 B.C.E.; however, neither acknowledge either the other kingdoms' rebellions or the Northern Kingdom's involvement, acknowledging only the "collateral damage" inflicted by the Assyrian Empire in its suppression of the Judean rebellion.

Third(?), Abu el-Haj quoted,
Participant: "So, in some way the fall of the Northern Kingdom was not because of the Northern Kingdom's actions but because of what the Southern Kingdom did."
Guide: [in a voice conveying some unease with this interpretation, or at least some doubt about it] "Yes."
This is (though he didn't quote it) presumably what led Maeir's interpretation of the discussion, with its talk of 'the fall of the Northern Kingdom'. It does appear that Aren M. Maeir (2004) was correct, but I would reiterate what I said before I explored (and dismissed the alternative explanation): on one occasion putting too much trust in one source in two years of fieldwork and more of research was not the gravest error Abu el-Haj could have committed.


It is not clear whether Near Eastern archaeologist Professor William G. Dever has read Abu el-Haj's book, but it seems he had two extracts presented to him by journalist Gabrielle Birkner (16th November 2006). Before relaying Prof. Dever's comments, Birkner gave two examples of why 'it has been widely dismissed by archaeologists as a political treatise, full of erroneous statements and unsubstantiated claims'.

First, Birkner (2006) claimed that, 'Ms. Abu el-Haj suggests Jerusalem was destroyed not by the Romans, but by the Jews themselves due to rising class tensions among them' (which is wholly incorrect and with which I deal in the following post). Second, she paraphrased Maeir's introduction to the case of the Assyrian destruction of Samaria, quoted his rebuttal, then reported that,
Mr. Dever... said Ms. Abu El-Haj seems intent on writing Jews out of ancient Middle East history, and demonizing a generation of apolitical Israeli archaeologists in the process. Barnard should deny Ms. Abu El-Haj tenure, he said, "not because she's Palestinian or pro-Palestinian or a leftist, but because her scholarship is faulty, misleading and dangerous."
Again, it's not stated whether Prof. Dever had read the book when he commented or whether he was asked for comment upon extracts (although it's not an idle question in this matter, as demonstrated by Dr. David Ussishkin's (5th December 2006) carefully-qualified comments upon that material presented to him by Martin Solomon).

It's not clear whether Prof. Dever's opinion would have been different had he known that Abu el-Haj did not deny the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but it is the allegation that she did that I examine in the following post.

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