(Ancient) Booty and (Modern) Refugees

I have been in the West Bank for one month now – one month of my ten-month Fulbright gone, one month of my sabbatical down the drain. And what have I accomplished? In some ways, very much indeed: meeting neighbors; developing good relationships with the family who sells me vegetables (only what is in season; the West Bank makes you into a locavore whether you want it or not) and at the small shop where I buy eggs (one at a time) and spices; arranging for my teaching placement at Bethlehem University. I’ve swept up enough dust to make a new stone block for my little cave-apartment, started studying Arabic again (rather than hoping for a miraculous return of my previous linguistic ability!), and joined a small women-only gym. On the other hand, the research-and-writing side of my Fulbright and sabbatical is not going as quickly as I’d like; it’s so hard to start writing, and I now have only nine months left to get some words out (please feel free to analogize here).

My project focuses on women, children, and warfare in the biblical and classical worlds:

  • ‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator… happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ (a lament of the Judaean exiles in Babylon; Psalm 137:8-9 [NRSV])
  • ‘Just leave the war to menfolk.’ (Lysistrata’s husband’s reply to her inquiry about the war; Aristophanes, Lysistrata 519-520 [Oxford World Classics])
  • ‘No one had any thought for plunder. In such fashion the troops, maddened by the massacre at Cenabum and the toil of the siege-work, spared not aged men, nor women, nor children.’ (the fall of Avaricum to the Romans; Caesar, Gallic War 7.28 [Loeb Classical Library])
  • ‘Children and kin are by the law of nature each man’s dearest possessions; they are swept away from us by conscription to be slaves in other lands: our wives and sisters, even when they escape a soldier’s lust, are debauched by self-styled friends and guests.’ (the Briton Calgacus about the Roman occupation; Tacitus, Agricola 31 [Loeb Classical Library])

Despite Lysistrata’s husband’s words, warfare in the ancient world was not the purview of men alone. Women and children joined the (male) soldiers to fight off attacks in cities and on campaign. They cared for home and land while the men were away at war. Women and children mourned the deaths of fathers and husbands and sons, and they themselves died by famine and sword during siege.

Moreover, women and children were used as propaganda by victors and losers. The Assyrians were masters of this process:

Siege of Lachish (British Museum; photo by C. Reeder)

Siege of Lachish (British Museum; photo by C. Reeder)

This relief from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh celebrates the Assyrian destruction of the Judaean city of Lachish. Women and children, followed by a man driving oxen, march away from the besieged city towards the enthroned king—this is a scene of the king reviewing the booty taken from the city, and the women and children are booty just as much as the cattle and grain and other goods. On viewing an image like this, the Assyrian royal family, administrators and palace workers, and ‘guests’ of all sorts would be reminded of the king’s power, vast enough to destroy cities, to move people around the empire, to take away a nation’s future. Sennacherib’s victory is carved in the bodies of women and children.

The Romans ‘slaughtered the unarmed and the armed alike, women as well as men; cruel anger went even so far as to slay infants.  Then they threw firebrands into houses and demolished what could not be consumed by the flames. So delighted were they to destroy even the traces of the city and to blot out the memory of their enemies’ abode’ (Livy 28.20.6-7 [Loeb Classical Library]).

These texts and monuments, of course, were created by and for men, most often even more limited to victorious men. Few records remain from the defeated, and fewer yet from women. Their perspectives and experiences have to be reconstructed from the glimpses we catch in the conquerors’ texts and images. The perspectives and experiences of modern women and children in similar situations of warfare can be of some help in this process. Part of my project this year is to explore the use of contemporary statistics, reports, and personal narratives of women and children in war to fill in the blanks in our knowledge of warfare in the ancient world.

Compare, for instance, Sennacherib’s booty from Lachish with this image:

Ayda Refugee Camp, Bethlehem (photo by C. Reeder)

Ayda Refugee Camp, Bethlehem (photo by C. Reeder)

As in Sennacherib’s palace relief, we see a line of men, women, and children leaving a destroyed city. But this image was created by the descendants of the deported, not by the victors; it decorates a wall in a refugee camp that has existed for some sixty years now, not a royal palace. Instead of a celebration of victory, this mural is a commemoration of loss, and as such it is very different from the Nineveh relief.

Like the Nineveh relief, though, the Ayda Refugee Camp mural is also a political statement. The photographer who intrudes into the scene (interestingly, the only figure in the image with a face) offers a subtle call to remember, to record, to make such loss known. The slogan painted above the scene—in English rather than Arabic—calls for an end to the ongoing Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes. Sennacherib’s relief displays the conqueror’s power to the viewer; the refugee camp mural demands the viewer’s sympathy for the conquered.

The refugee mural, and the stories that go along with it, may help illuminate the perspective of Sennacherib’s silent booty. Surely the sense of loss and the need to remember link the two groups of refugees (cf. Ps 137:1-6). Might the Judaeans (and Israelites, for that matter) in Assyria have painted politically-charged images in their new homes? Did they share their stories with other exiles, with Assyrian neighbors? It may be a bit unusual to use contemporary Palestinian experiences, narratives, and images of warfare to reconstruct the experiences of biblical women and children, but in fact similarities in geography and society, and the location of warfare in and around the home (rather than far away on a field of battle), do link the ancient and modern worlds. Here’s hoping, anyway, that something constructive comes of this project.