Archaeology in north-eastern Syria was once a poor relation to the great sites that lie to the south and over the Iraqi border. Southern Mesopotamia is long established as the area that shows the urban roots of advanced civilisation. Ur may or may not be Abraham’s birthplace but by the 3rd millennium bc it was certainly the centre of a sophisticated court society. Nineveh, lying adjacent to modern Mosul, rivals — and may surpass — Ur in antiquity and was an Assyrian centre by the end of the 2nd millennium bc.
Widespread looting and military action now make archaeological investigation next to impossible at such centres. But digging has continued over the border with Syria, and recent finds at the site of Tell Brak are producing new answers to the questions of where and when our kind of civilisation began.
It has long been known that the Akkadian king Naram-Sin had a palace here in the late 23rd century bc. Tell Brak lies in a fertile basin, and its logistics meant that the town commanded the routes that led to and from the Jazirah desert. Max Mallowan’s team in the 1930s uncovered the site’s significance as it evolved in the centuries immediately before Naram-Sin’s reign. Archaeologists returned in force 30 years ago, and the work recently done by the Cambridge team led by Augusta McMahon push the settlement’s date of origin back to the late 5th millennium bc. Localised production of ceramics and objects made of obsidian glass — probably imported from Anatolia — show that Tell Brak was an international commercial centre even at this astonishingly early period.
But it is the seals stamped on the drinking cups that catch the historian’s eye as they emerge from the earth, because they delineate a lion caught in a net — a symbol of royalty wherever it is found in the ancient Middle East. Here, therefore, were kings. Tell Brak’s discoveries mean that we now have to look to the north of those classic southern Mesopotamian sites when searching for the roots of urban sophistication. Historians will also have to revise by up to a millennium the earlier dates given for the emergence of these stratified societies and hierarchies of power. Those lion seals are a powerful reminder of the deep roots of kingship, an institution that has a longer continuous history than that of any other system of power.
With kings go priests. The idea of a power that is sacred — along with that of a god or gods who bestow blessing and legitimacy on the successful ruler — is basic to kingship in all its forms. There are, of course, other features that recur: the projection of monarchical authority through acts of self-publicity and building programmes, examples of which range from the tombs of pharaohs and the mausoleums of Roman emperors through to the Versailles of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci.
Patronage also has to be distributed in the form of lands and jobs to key supporters. William the Conqueror changed the pattern of English kingship by ensuring that the nobility held their lands as — essentially — tenants of the crown. Napoleon Bonaparte’s career showed how kingship could be revived for a post-revolutionary age, and his institution of the Légion d’honneur exemplified his belief that ‘men are led by baubles’.
Kingship also needs to win foreign battles and suppress internal mutinies. It then celebrates its triumphs in rituals, processions and festivals whose supposedly antique details are often feigned — as in the case of the English Order of the Garter and Peter the Great’s invented Order of St Andrew.
But it is divine approval that lies behind all the symbolic actions: its sanction ensures that rebellion can be portrayed as sacrilegious as well as treasonous. The Divine Right of Kings may have been a novel bit of political theology in early modern Europe — the time when it developed as a hard-and-fast doctrine. But successful monarchs on the make and weaker ones fearful of a fall have invariably prayed in aid to divinities. Ancient Mesopotamia in its successive civilisations — from Sumerian and Akkadian right through to Babylonian — sets the pattern, since these were temple as well as palace societies. The maintenance of order in these domains revolved around agricultural surpluses: priests stood by the side of kings in determining who got what in that division of the harvests.
Europe’s tradition of ‘sacral kingship’ as both an idea and an institution harks back to the temple at Jerusalem in the mid-10th century bc with Solomon’s emergence as a king over Israel. Anointment by holy oil showed the charisma of a new royal ideology that had turned its back on Israel’s history as a mere federation of tribes. Unity at the centre was what mattered now — and it was the job of the royal cult to produce a national solidarity with the king playing a central role in the high feasts celebrated at the temple.
Democracy’s secularising ways can seem a very light brush compared to a once-dominant system: rule by aristocratic males who professed a religion and hunted wild animals for recreation, who waged war during the campaigning season and spent the rest of their time at court absorbed in intrigues centred around a central monarchical figure. This is where power lies in most human societies before about 1789. That dynastic order now seems exotic, secretive and ‘unconstitutional’, but the overwhelming majority of subjects seem to have thought of it as an entirely natural dispensation.
The fact that the 20th century was so secularising a period in industrialised Europe makes it difficult for most Westerners to appreciate the old order’s religious basis. Elizabeth II is probably the last European ruler who actually believes in ‘sacral kingship’ as a contract between god and ruler. But the Queen’s subjects by and large find the idea of the sacred either alien or preposterous. A very ancient link and source of royal authority has therefore been dissolved — a fact that lends additional instability to the prospect of her eldest son’s reign.
It is appropriate, though, that the Middle East should now produce the latest historical evidence of kingly rule. Saudi Arabia and Jordan slip easily enough into what now seems to be a 6,000-year history of regal tradition within the region. And even Middle Eastern countries without a formal monarch — such as Syria — conform to the ancient norms and protocols of palace societies with factions forming and rumours whirling around the ruler. The years since 1948 show the profound gap between this ancient version of power and the novelty of the Israeli alternative — a product of the European 19th-century world-view about what constitutes a well-run state: nationalist identity, democratic institutions and advanced technology. Modernity here meant jettisoning sacral kingship and breaking those flasks of holy oil. But if we want to know what our ancient and not-so-ancient rulers were really like, we should look to the rest of the Middle East today.
Hywel Williams is a contributing editor of The Spectator. His latest book, Sun Kings: A History of Magnificent Kingship, is published by Quercus.