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Opportunism in Contested Lands, B.C. and A.D. Or How Abdi-Ashirta, Aziru, and Padsha Khan Zadran Got Away with Murder

Morris, Ellen F.

Several years ago, in an effort to learn more about life in war-torn Afghanistan, I purchased a copy of "The Bookseller of Kabul" by Åsne Seierstad. The narrative focuses on events in the life of the family that she lived with in Kabul in 2002, just following the retreat of the Taliban. In one chapter, however, the action veers seventy or so miles away to the wild, mountainous borderlands that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan. Seierstad writes of encountering a powerful warlord, Padsha Khan Zadran, while shadowing a journalist covering Operation Anaconda, the U.S. military’s major offensive against Taliban remnants in southeastern Afghanistan. This evoked for me a strong sense of déjà vu and one of those wonderful—and admittedly uncommon—sensations that the gap of more than three millennia that separates current affairs from those of the Late Bronze Age is not entirely insurmountable. The past is indeed a foreign country, as is the Near East in general; however, Seierstad’s discussion of a mountain warlord in Afghanistan, and the research that I’ve subsequently conducted on his checkered and ultimately illustrious career, has greatly informed my own thinking about a family of mountain warriors that lived in Lebanon during the second millennium B.C.

Abdi-Ashirta and his descendants ruled Amurru in the hundred years or so between the mid fourteenth and mid thirteenth centuries B.C. Amurru, nestled high in the Lebanese mountain range, stretched from a point somewhere north of Byblos to another south of Ugarit, and from the Orontes River to the western foothills near the Mediterranean coast. As can be chronicled from an archive of letters discovered in Egypt and an archive of treaties discovered in Hatti, the ruling clan of Amurru switched loyalties at a dizzying speed.

While both Padsha Khan Zadran and the rulers of Amurru paid lip service to loyalty, an examination of the documents concerning them demonstrates that each manipulated their ostensible overlords to achieve their own ends, even to the point of assassinating governors sent by the imperial powers to monitor their behavior. Yet these mountain warlords for the most part got away with murder and with other treasonous activities, and were in fact ultimately rewarded for their efforts by the very governments they betrayed. In seeking to explain the convergences in their narratives, this essay identifies eight structural similarities between the warlords of Afghanistan and Amurru. It also poses a series of questions of anthropological and political import. How did these leaders gain such latitude to behave in ways that surely should not have been tolerated? How did they construct their powerbase and maintain it, despite operating on a world stage populated by far richer and more powerful political entities? Why did they court imperial intervention at the same time as they aggressively betrayed the interests of their overlords? And what were the motivations of these men for playing such a dangerous game in the first place? The answers to these questions illuminate at least one variant of the dynamics still apt to occur in polities lying outside the firm grasp of imperial control.

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Also Published In

Millions of Jubilees: Studies in Honor of David Silverman, vol. I
Supreme Council of Antiquities Press

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
Supreme Council of Antiquities Press
Published Here
June 14, 2018