Bronze Age Egypt or the Levant – which was the greater economic power?

by Edward Pegler on 18 May, 2012

A think piece for my own benefit on whether the Bronze Age Levant’s innovation is a better indicator of economic success than Egypt’s monumentality. I suspect not but I think it could be close.

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Consider the glories of ancient Egypt for a moment, whether it’s Karnak, Luxor, or Memphis, and it’s difficult to not be impressed by the majesty of it all. This was a truly great civilisation of the Bronze Age.

Compare this with the coastal strip of the eastern Mediterranean, known as the Levant, and most people would struggle to name much worth recording there from the Bronze Age. Experts know better, of course, and could mention cities such as Byblos, Ugarit, Ebla, Aleppo, Kadesh, etc (some slightly interiorish, admittedly). These were all great centres of trade in their time. Each one had a king, each could be thought of as a mini-state.

Ugarit, Syria

Perhaps the reason that they’re not well known is that they left no massive monumental ruins like the Egyptians did. Perhaps part of their problem is that these individual cities spent much of their time as vassals of other empires, Egyptian, Akkadian or Hittite.

So in terms of economic history, which should be considered more important: the mighty Egypt or the small states of the Levant?

Definitely the Levant – the case for technology

The answer seems simple. The Levantine states of course. After all, it was these states that ran the maritime trade networks of the Eastern Mediterranean, unlike Egypt that managed little more than sending boats up and down the Nile. It was in these city states that alphabetic writing was developed, ultimately usable by your average trader, whereas Egypt used cumbersome monumental hieroglyphs, largely unchanged through time, that even in their cursive form were the preserve of scribes. It was the Levant that moved rapidly into the Bronze Age when Egypt effectively stayed in the Copper Age.

This seems even clearer when one thinks of the reason why Egypt and the other great Bronze Age empires spent so much of their time fighting for control of the Levantine trade. The Levant was where the economic action really was.

Possibly Egypt – the case for monumentality

But there’s something missing here and I think it would be useful to take the example of North Korea for comparison. North Korea is effectively a failed state. The leadership continue to pretend that things are ok, with giant monuments to the glory of Kim Blah Blah, etc. and this looks very much like the kind of thing that you might see in ancient Egypt. State control in both appears to be acute. Bureaucracy and the resulting corruption necessary to get anything done must be, and must have been, crippling for both.

But here’s the big difference. Egypt maintained its standing and civilisation for over two thousand years whereas North Korea is likely to implode in less than fifty. Would historical China be a better point of comparison? I don’t really know.

North Korea is destined to fail because its economic situation is one of borrowing by a government elite without being able to afford. The economic prosperity of the system (“the productivity of the masses”, if you like) is not enough to support the spending of the elite. Ancient Egypt, on the other hand, managed to support a system of iron government control and, probably, corruption and still managed to keep going.

So underneath all of that rampant spending on useless mausolea must have been a phenomenal economy, squeezed and squeezed by elite consumption and corruption, yet still managing to turn a (largely) consistent profit, even supporting a middle class of sorts. Even allowing for recycling through grave robbing, that seems truly impressive.

Hum ho, I don’t know

The cities and towns of the Levant were not immune to such corruption and elites, but I suspect that their elites were on a much smaller scale, possibly even with limited powers over their citizens. But perhaps it’s a matter of different business models. The Levant seems to have been a great controller of East-West flow of goods (Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and Persia particularly) whereas Egypt was the great North-South controller (Mediterranean to Sahel and, perhaps, Arabia).

But I think it’s not just that. Bronze age long-distance trade seems to have been a funny thing, concentrating on high-end goods (aka luxuries). I’d guess that the Bronze age cities of the Levant traded many and varied luxuries through their entrepots, to some of which they added value to through manufacture. I suspect that Egypt traded simpler luxuries such as gold, incense, slaves and exotic animals and simply relied on absolute control of sources.

Interestingly the Bronze Age Egyptian state managed to weather the storm of the massive economic collapse and resulting refugee crisis (the “Sea Peoples”) which closed the Bronze Age. The Levantine cities were pretty much flattened. This is presumably as much to do with Egypt having a large army as anything else, but again says much about the economic power of Egypt that it didn’t simply collapse.

On the other hand, Levantine trade returned to full strength in a few hundred years whereas Egypt never did. Whatever happened at the end of the Bronze Age, Egypt’s economic basis was permanently damaged and perhaps Egypt was simply being bypassed in the new economic conditions of the Iron Age. This probably says much about the changed economic conditions of the Iron Age but I couln’t tell you what that change was.

Photo Credits (abu simbel)

Life and Death in Ancient Ugarit by Natasha Sheldon (post)



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