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Civic community and public space in the ancient Near East. The case of Hittite Anatolia at the end of the Late Bronze Age (14th-13th centuries BCE).

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People power under the Hittite Empire

An Italian archeologist used modern techniques to analyse the ancient port city of Ugarit in today’s Syria. Her research under the EU project, COMPUS, overthrows colonial assumptions that citizens in the Late Bronze Age were just hapless victims of despotic kings.

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Our modern view of the empires that ruled the Mediterranean and Near East in the Late Bronze Age is shaped by excavations of temples, palaces and their treasures, which began around 1850. But the two-year EU project COMPUS has shown it is time to look more deeply at other architecture. By doing so we get a better understanding of those ancient societies, and the surprising political role ordinary citizens played under the sphere of influence of the Hittite Empire, says Italian archaeologist Professor Alessandra Gilibert. With the support of the Marie Curie programme, Prof. Gilibert, working as a fellow at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, carried out the first close analysis of public space in the ancient port city of Ugarit, in modern Syria. She used new techniques to unearth the way Late Bronze Age citizens – between 1550 to 1200 BC – gathered in places like squares, concluding rulers worked hard to design public spaces, so ensuring the loyalty of the population. “Scholars still tend to assume public space did not play any significant role in the cities of the ancient Near East,” said Prof. Gilibert. “My research proves this assumption wrong.” Prof. Gilibert analysed the objects found at Ugarit’s squares, based on the excavations carried out since 1928, when the city was accidentally uncovered. She used computer modelling to predict the movements of citizens and rated the importance of public space based on the presence or absence of significant buildings in its surroundings. Citizens shopping around She is convinced her integrated method for ‘reading’ cities will inspire other scholars interested in comparative urban politics. “They will look critically at the previous common assumption that in the ancient Near Eastern cities there were no citizens but only passive subjects of despotic governments,” she said. Prof. Gilibert’s work supports previous written evidence which suggests citizens could have been influential through formal assemblies where they voiced their opinions, and less formal gatherings at religious festivals or taverns. “In the Late Bronze Age, people came into contact with different kinds of governance because, along with the great empires, there were monarchies, oligarchies, chiefdoms and even semi-democracies of some sort,” explained Prof. Gilibert. “Urban dwellers were limited in their political freedom but they did have some power of choice, either by moving to another city or by supporting change within their city of origin.” Studying the cities controlled by the Hittites, as a whole, helps explain the Hittites’ survival among the ‘Club of the Great Powers’, which included rivals Babylonia, Egypt and Assyria. It may also hold clues to the regime’s ultimate demise with cities being absorbed into other forms of governance or disappearing altogether. Today’s governments faced with rising popular discontent could also take away a few lessons. “By studying the way crisis and change happened before, we can gain deep insights into how to understand, predict, steer and act on current political change,” said Prof. Gilibert. “The transition from the Late Bronze Age into the Iron Age teaches us, among other aspects, that urban squares are a powerful political tool and a critical arena for political negotiation.”


COMPUS, Hittites, Late Bronze Age, Ugarit, comparative urban politics, public space, squares

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