Scholars will explore conflicts between tribal, national allegiancesBy William Harms
Since ancient times, the role of tribes in the Middle East has been a source of misunderstanding.
“We need to better appreciate the role of tribes and the loyalty people feel toward them,” said Jeffrey Szuchman, a post-doctoral fellow at the Oriental Institute. People in the Middle East frequently have mixed allegiances between their tribal and national identities, and the conflict can undermine their concept of legitimacy of the modern states, he said.
The conflict between state authority and tribal allegiance has long been a source of strain. Scholars have frequently misunderstood the role tribes played and had to rely on limited information.
In order to move that scholarship in a new direction, Szuchman has organized a conference, “Nomads, Tribes, and the State in the Ancient Near East: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives,” to be held Friday, March 7 and Saturday, March 8. The conference is free and open to the campus community. More information is available at http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/symposia/2008.html.
The conference will bring together an international group of archaeologists, socio-cultural anthropologists and historians from the Oriental Institute and other universities to apply the diverse techniques of their various fields and various regions of the Near East to the study of tribes and nomadic groups.
“By focusing on the social and political context of nomadism in the ancient Near East, this conference does an extremely valuable thing: It pushes us to reexamine some of the most basic theoretical categories that we use in trying to understand the organization of ancient state societies,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “Once you add nomads into the equation as either rivals of the state, or as an organizing element of the state itself, then this can completely transform our understanding of how these societies developed and changed over time.”
Experts on the topic from the Oriental Institute are Robert Ritner, Professor in Near Eastern Languages & Civilization and the College, and research associates Abbas Alizadeh and Donald Whitcomb.
Research on the topic has been limited by biases about nomads and tribal people, which was reflected in written texts authored by urban elites. Additionally, archaeologists have had difficulty constructing a record of peoples who moved frequently.
“All these problems pose obstacles to reconstructing the complex dynamics of tribe-state interactions in antiquity. This conference brings together a diverse group of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists to explore new ways of approaching the study of nomadic populations and encounters between tribes and states,” Szuchman said.
The conference papers will be published in a volume in the Oriental Institute Seminar Series. Publication of the proceedings of the conference is made possible through the Arthur and Lee Herbst Research Fund.