“Early States” in the ancient Near East? Some critical thoughts

Jana Richter – University of Heidelberg

All historiography faces the challenge of moving within the discoursive horizons of its own time and necessarily having to use modern language for describing past cultures and processes. Consequently, the potential problem of applying a modern term such as that of the ‘state’ to ancient polities has not gone unnoticed, and is adressed also within Ancient Near Eastern studies.

However, modern researchers are used to live in a world, in which (nation) states form the basic unit of reference when thinking about public administration, government or sovereignty. And accordingly, many scholars do choose to operate with the ‘state’ term in their analyses of Mesopotamian societies from as early as Uruk times. This paper presents some cautionary thoughts on that matter. I argue that the main difficulty in talking of ancient ‘states’ is less the mere transfer of a modern concept, than its ambiguous meaning and judgemental implications. The non-specificity of the ‘state’ term will be demonstrated, first, through a comparative survey of some of its applications in secondary literature on Ancient Near Eastern societies, and second, through an outlook on the theoretical perspectives on statehood that have been disputed in wider social science and political philosophy. Especially this latter interdisciplinary excursus can help to observe the inherent normative element in many approaches to ‘the state’ – and, by extension, hopefully encourage us to self-critically question our own reasons for making continuous reference to ‘states’ or ‘the state’ in historical narratives.