Thursday, August 18, 2016


Phyllis Saretta, Asiatics in Middle Kingdom Egypt: Perceptions and Reality. Bloomsbury Egyptology. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. xiii, 311. ISBN 9781474226233. $120.00.

Reviewed by Thomas Schneider, University of British Columbia (

Version at BMCR home site


The book under review is a revised version of the author's dissertation (New York University 1997). As the brief introduction (chapter 1, pp. 1-9) outlines, "the ancient Egyptians had very definite views about their neighbors", and the study "intends to trace the development of Egyptian attitudes with respect to West Semites living in and out of Egypt as they appeared in art, literature and inscriptions, and as the attitudes were reflected in material culture". The book contains useful observations on artistic depictions of Asiatics but falls short of any reflected discussion of issues of cultural identity, and does not engage with much evidence and scholarship published within the last generation.

Ch. 2 (pp.11-42) lays the foundation for the study. Saretta posits that the Egyptian designation c3m "Asiatic" (attested from the 6th-18th dynasty as the generic term for people from the Near East) is a rendering of Semitic camm which purportedly meant "kin" and appears prominently in contemporaneous Amorite personal names. In consequence, Saretta identifies the c3mw as Amorites throughout her study and sees the term as a self-designation of Amorites in Egypt, "to stress their lineage, blood ties, and inner homogeneity of the group", adopted by the Egyptians (p.17). This assumption is followed by sections on the Amorites in Mesopotamia and c3mw in Egypt until the early Middle Kingdom. Saretta concludes that while the Egyptian texts describe the c3mw as purely nomadic, Mesopotamian texts reveal that Amorites were both nomadic and sedentary, a fact allegedly not known to Egypt due to its relative isolation (pp.41-2). This presupposes that c3mw and Amorites can indeed be identified with each other.1

In ch. 3, Saretta discusses "the appearance and culture of West Semitic Amorites" in Egyptian art of the Old and Middle Kingdoms (pp.43-108). In the lead-up to that analysis, Saretta aims to determine the 'mindset' of Egyptians towards foreigners, on the basis of the dubious though long entrenched view that "Egypt's stability was due largely to a fair amount of isolation from her neighbors, a situation which kept her population a homogeneous one" (p.45). In a first section on state representations of foreigners from the Old Kingdom, Saretta's specific attention is on the depicted clothing and hairdress, with a contradictory result: While for Saretta the fact that the Asiatics wear Egyptian kilts speaks for limited actual knowledge of the Levant, the wavy hair of the Asiatics from the Sahure expeditions (for which Ebla provides a parallel; pp.61f.) would instead speak for detailed knowledge. The summary of this section blurs again the intended distinction of 'perceptions' (in Saretta's view, ideology) and 'reality' (history). The ritual context of such representations, as well as the fact that they pre-date the Old Kingdom,2 and do not display clear ethnic features, show that we are dealing here with representations of political, not ethnic opposition

The next section of Ch. 3 (pp.63-108) covers the Middle Kingdom, starting with the 11th dynasty when "the term [c3mw] may be confidently construed as referring to people pictorially identifiable as West Semites/Amorites". Saretta bases this assumption on a comparison of Asiatics clad in brightly decorated textiles (battle reliefs from the temple of Mentuhotep II and the tomb of Intef) with garments attested in the investiture scene of the palace of Zimrilim at Mari and "possibly worn at the Amorite court". Is this comparison of depictions from different contexts of use, of royal and non-royal individuals, and across a wide geographic distance, viable? For the 12th dynasty (pp.67-79), Saretta assumes closer interconnections of Egypt with the Levant and thus, more accurate depictions. She identifies new hairstyles as "one of the most pronounced features of the representation of foreigners in the Twelfth Dynasty". However, none of the examples she discusses, which show at times red hair, can be firmly determined to portray an Asiatic.3

Depictions in the provincial tombs at Beni Hasan conclude the chapter (pp.80-108), of which the major part (pp.87-108) is devoted to the famous caravan of Asiatics from the tomb of nomarch Khnumhotep II, "the only detailed pictorial record in the Egyptian sources which represents Middle Bronze IIA Amorites". After analysis of the scene and comparanda from Syro-Mesopotamia, the author concludes that the people depicted are "itinerant traders/tinkers" who "carry the accouterments of their higher Amorite culture with them", hence show "the symbioses of nomads wearing and carrying the products of their sedentary kinsmen" (p.108), which is in line with her earlier twofold definition of Amorite culture. Yet, in a review of past scholarship, Susan Cohen (JNES 74 (2015): pp.19-38) has shown how this scene has become a canvas of scholarly speculation and urged for more caution in its interpretation.4

Ch. 4 (pp.109-188), focuses on evidence for Asiatics in textile working (pp. 109-121), cattle and livestock breeding/herding (pp.121-129), state labor in Sinai expeditions as well as the pyramid cities of the Middle Kingdom (Lisht, Dahshur, Illahun) (pp.129-163; 183-187), and their suggested appearance as participants in offerings and rituals (pp.163-183). Saretta claims that "Asiatics were engaged in the same professions they held in their native lands, either as servants or as free men and women." (p.109) and adduces evidence to the fact that textile industry and livestock breeding were important trades in Amorite society.5 ' In the section on "c3mw as artisans at Sinai", Saretta attempts to show that the term "men of the jmnw" attested at Serabit el-Khadim should be seen as containing the Akkadian loanword ummânu "artisans", in particular because it is used "in close proximity to the designation c3mw Amorite" (p.135). The term is also found at Lisht which is said to point to the possibility that foreigners recruited from a border region were employed at Lisht (and maybe Dahshur, pp.136f.). As the term does not use Middle Kingdom group writing as used for foreign names, the presence of an Akkadian term in the Sinai is not likely, and as a term jmnw "residents" is attested in Egyptian, this hypothesis does not seem viable.6

The remainder of ch.4 is devoted to the presence of Asiatics at the pyramid cities of the Middle Kingdom where they are well documented in the administrative papyri from Illahun. Saretta surveys possible pictorial and material evidence in support of their presence, e.g., the famous graffiti with depictions of men from below the pyramid of Senwosret III at Dahshur which would indicate either mixed Asiatic origin and/or social rank. In this context, it is regrettable that the paragon of an Asiatic settlement on Egyptian soil in the 12th and 13th dynasty, Tell el-Daba, established on behalf of the Egyptian crown, is not dealt with in detail by Saretta for comparison or contrast.7

Ch. 5 comprises a summary of the contents, an outlook on perceptions of Asiatics in the New Kingdom" (pp.189-202), followed by the endnotes (pp.203-283), chronological tables (pp.285-291), a list of illustrations (pp.293-305) and an index (pp.307-311).

The final verdict on this book is that, unfortunately, it is not what it promises to be, a book analyzing the evidence for 'perceptions and reality' of Asiatics in Middle Kingdom. The most significant drawback is the lack of any theoretically informed debate of key methodologcial concepts such as ethnicity, cultural identity, acculturation, or hybridity, and their relevance to the topic of the book, a debate that has been extraordinarily intense and productive in Egyptology within the last twenty years (cf. just W. Paul van Pelt, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23 (2013), pp.523–550). The book operates with terms such as 'foreigners', 'Asiatics' or 'alien residents' without a proper reflection of what this implies within a complex and diverse cultural reality.8


1.   Equating Egyptian c3m with Semitic camm is not possible for a term attested as early as the 6th dynasty; Saretta does not reflect here the phonological debate. The evidence does not point to the term being used by 'Asiatics' for group identification (e.g., the 'Amorite' Hyksos did not use it); rather, it seems to have been a term of ascribed identity. Sarette might have provided one piece of evidence in support of her hypothesis: the case of the deputy treasurer c3m , owner of a tomb at Tell el-Daba that features Syro-Mesopotamian culture (donkey burials, battle-axe and dagger, early Tell el-Yahudiya ware), but does not. The other term of Saretta's equation, camm, meant "paternal uncle" in Amorite and was not used for self-ascription; a meaning "kin, people" is only attested from the Late Bronze Age onward.
2.   Cf. the Gebel Sheikh Suleiman graffito for the bound walking prisoner; for a bound prisoner sculpture, the Hierakonpolis door socket in Philadelphia.
3.   In this regard, it would have been interesting to point to peculiar depictions of Asiatics: a woman (c3m.t) with Syrian garment and hairstyle who was attached to the 'Manager of the department of Asiatics' (Musée Joseph Déchelette, Roanne, no.163: now Anna- Latifa Mourad: Rise of the Hyksos. Egypt and the Levant from the Middle Kingdom to the Early Second Intermediate Period. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2015. p.120) or the servant on stela Cairo CG20103 (with shaved head, collar, a panther skin and a wide long apron).
4.   For instance Mourad (above n.3) pp.88f. has demonstrated that a classification as nomads cannot be certified and that, based on clothing and equipment, "the Asiatics are very likely of a MBIIA culture fully or partially related to a sedentary lifestyle", certainly not traders but recruited by the nomarch to procure and process galena.
5.   There are several problems: (a) this view presupposes constant first generation immigration rather than (as attested) multi-generational acculturation and professional acquisition processes; and that the Asiatics in Egypt exercised these professions prior to their immigration and that they must be considered Amorites. (b) With regard to one of the key pieces of the documentation, the famous Theban household servants of Pap. Brooklyn 35.1446, Saretta claims this is "evidence that the Asiatics, who were generally settled in the north…had become assimilated enough into the Egyptian populace to be working in the south" (p.112). There is no evidence for such phased immigration towards Southern Egypt as a consequence of advanced acculturation. Asiatics will normally have been allocated to work by state order (attested are a 'department of Asiatics' or a 'general of Asiatics' [Wadi el-Hol inscription]) or in relation to their service for private individuals. It would have been instructive here to discuss the immigration and legal scenario suggested for the Pap. Brooklyn servants by B. Menu, ENIM 5, 2012, pp.19-30.
6.   It would have been intriguing to discuss here the issue of cultural identity in a region outside Egypt. Does it make sense to say that "foreigners worked peacefully alongside Egyptians at Serabit el-Khadim" [p.129]) where Egyptians were 'abroad' and Semitic chieftains openly portrayed their Levantine identity (cf. O. Goldwasser, Egypt and the Levant 22, 2012, pp.353–374) and where the juxtaposition of Proto-Sinaitic and Egyptian scripts has fuelled a very intense debate about the significance of this Egyptian-Semitic interface for the creation of the Semitic alphabet (see O. Goldwasser, JAEI 4:3 (2012), pp.9-22). As a side-note: the interpretation of two personal names on Sinai 405 as "Shechem" and āpum = Damascus (with wide-reaching implications) is not tenable (pp.183-187).
7.   This chapter seems largely unconvincing because of its often associative and arbitrary argumentation: an unbaked clay figurine from Lisht, perhaps a depiction of a Levantine goddess, may have been created by an Asiatic workman for a Levantine cult; infant burials might be an indication of Asiatic habits if they were not Egyptian after all; Asiatic craftsmen are not attested at Illahun but if so, may have worshipped Hathor like in Sinai; etc.
8.   Since 1997 a significant amount of additional evidence and scholarship has been published that has not been integrated by the author. In English, the topic has now been studied in a more comprehensive and theoretically informed way by Anna-Latifa Mourad (see above n.3).

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