Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East – Summary

This is the normal world. You go to work in a city. All around you are enormous new buildings. They look alike. But you will never be able to afford to live in them. Because they are not really homes. They are blocks of money, bought by global investors, whose money has nowhere else to go.
ADAM CURTIS–Living in an Unreal World.

Urbanization and Land Ownership… begins by looking at the very beginnings of cities as ritual meeting places. These locations would be the places where people would come together at various times throughout the year to conduct what we might call “doctrinal rituals.” Humans, as the most social of species, used these rituals to bind disparate people together. At these sites, various transactions would take place, including feasting, trading, barter, and various dealings and exchanges including bride exchange. Because of their social role, these places acquired a “public” character early on, in the sense of establishing social order, agreed-upon rules, negotiation, and justice. These were places of exchange and communion, and remain so to this day. Most early cities (including Athens and Rome) were associated with their temples. From there, such cities developed into “ports of trade” where people and goods interacted in webs of exchange.

In the beginning, Alexander Marshack points out, the organizing principle had to be time. Hunter-gatherers, who normally were widely dispersed, needed a common means of reckoning just when to come to designated areas. Such gatherings were as much temporal as geographic events…Marshack…shows that the first written notations were calendars. They were associated with “urbanization” in the sense of scheduling when group members would come together…Ease of access to such sites…was important…the major Upper Paleolithic gathering spots, such as Les Eyzies’ caves, were situated on riverine locations.

The elaborate art that survives from these seasonal gathering sites appears to be of a ceremonial character, attesting to the complexity of the rituals being performed tens of thousands of years before the urban civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt…the social structures that shaped the way in which scattered groups convening at designated places (often ritual sites) developed already in Paleolithic times, long before the Neolithic and its agricultural revolution. These urban institutions governed temporary occupation of sites at particular times of the year to conduct exchanges of various forms, including marriages…

While archaeologists used to think that urban agglomerations just suddenly arrived on the scene sometime after the agricultural revolution due to population pressure, in fact humans had already established complex means of cooperation in war, trade, and politics long before, as Michael Hudson notes:

By the time populations settled down on a year-round basis and built temples and walls, houses and workshops, they already had developed a long legacy of customs governing how to come together. Some of these institutions evolved out of the social need to exchange food, crafts, and other basic materials and also to contract marriages linking clans, to provide various forms of mutual support, and to resolve disputes.

It was these religious/public institutions that gave cities their distinctive character, not just practical concerns arising from increased population density. The “cosmological symbolism” that began with cromlechs and tumuli became embodied in the brick and stone temples and walls as humans began to claim territories for themselves and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle during the Holocene:

It was more or less natural for compact sites in which far-flung groups of people had to congregate on mutually planned occasions to be structured, by analogy, as spatial calendars. While animals migrated back and forth across the fields and forests to mate, moult, and give birth in rhythms that marked the pulse of the archaic year, the sun and moon swept back and forth between their northern and southern solstice points on the eastern and western horizons…

The occasional character of designating certain spots for such gatherings at specified calendrical intervals may help explain the symbolism so widespread in archaic cities throughout the world, with their four quarters and four to twelve gates. This spatial symbolism of the year’s division into seasons and months – which is found in Egyptian urban symbolism… and also in China – appears to reflect the civic function of integrating early law with the natural regularities of the heavens. This “natural law” cosmology symbolized and indeed helped sanctify the worldly order emanating from urban centers.

At first glance a discussion of the cosmology of ancient urban sites might seem to have little to do with things as mundane as land use, and townhouse prices. But in archaic times the social and economic kosmoi had not yet become separated. The common objective was to create order, to make rules for people to come together in ways that were perceived to be grounded in nature and therefore mutually acceptable.

Rather than reflecting a merely technological impulse, the most archaic urban sites appear to have played a ceremonial role in creating what could be called a cosmology of social life. In the Early Bronze Age, Mesopotamia’s temples and palaces elaborated exchange relations and their associated functions such as laws, weights and measures, contractual forms, and even proclamations of “forgiveness” of various offenses, fines, and personal debts of various forms so that the community and its families could maintain their economic viability and overall balance.

Calendrical concepts from the Stone Age carried over into a general idea of “measurement” which originated in cities. Not only was land parceled out by the rulers, for example, but the time was parceled into twelve months, along with weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. It is commonly known that our twelve-fold and sixty-fold divisions in calendars and mathematics (e.g. 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in an hour, twelve months in a year, etc.) derive from these measuring systems to this very day. Standardized weights led to the first systems of money and currency. Initially, donations to the temple were standardized against weights of barley, then later against weights of silver. Commerce and law, too became standardized, and this is why cities become the very first places of formalized law and government. Written contracts overseen by scribes used standardized measures of weight and time and were stored in temple archives. It is not so much that cities exerted true political control over the countryside–as Michael Hudson points out, they did not. Rather, these temples were the root sources of the institutions that have come to govern our world.

With writing and account-keeping came weights, measures, and standardizarion, and this also shaped early urbanization. Politically, the ideology of Mesopotamian cities was to create an evenly measured and “straight” cosmology of economic and social relations. Sumerian and Babylonian iconography represents rulers characteristically holding the measuring stick and coiled measuring rope to layout temple precincts…Such orientation aimed at grounding cities and their rule symbolically in the eternal regularities of natural order, as reflected in the celestial movements of the heavens.

In the commercial sphere, the principle of equity is exemplified by common prices, at least for transactions with the large public institutions. The fact that standardized prices are to be found most clearly in Mesopotamia’s temples and palaces was inherent in their internal account keeping and planning needs, which also called for sacred oversight of uniform weights and measures. Temples also oversaw the sanctity of contracts, including property transfers. All these were standardized and made subject to strict formalities. One result was to make cities places of lawful rule, in contrast to the often wild countryside and mountains.

In my previous posts on the origin of cities, I pointed out that the earlier view of an impersonal bureaucracy and hereditary ruling class forming out of kinship structures is outmoded. Rather than anything like an impersonal government bureaucracy chosen by merit (which first developed in China), the social structures continued to be dominated by kinship relations and households, and the interaction between small, large, and institutional households formed the dynamics of emerging economic and political systems, as Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky describes:

The archaeological evidence clearly supports the contention that within greater Mesopotamia, from the 6th to the end of the 4th millennium, the household was the primary unit of production and consumption. A household may be defined as a residential group that forms both a social was well as an economic unit of production and consumption. Members of the household consisted of kin and clients providing voluntary labor. Status was defined by the ability of one member of the household to exploit the labor of another–gender and age being the variables allowing for exploitation.

Max Weber, in his study of agrarian relations was perhaps the most prominent in a long line of scholars and historians who argued for the primacy of household organizations in the ancient Near East. Unfortunately, Weber’s emphasis on the importance of the oikos, the household, was almost entirely forgotten due to…Father Anton Deimel…[Whose]…student Anna Schneider popularized the view that within Mesopotamian city states the templewirtschaft, the temple economy, formed the focus of centralized power controlling both labor and land. The idea that initially the temple, and later the palace, held absolute sway over the political and economic organization of the community remains a belief with a powerful hold on the reconstruction of ancient Near Eastern society…

Over the past few decades a concept has emerged in discussing late-fouth-millennium-Mesopotamia best referred to as the emergence of a “managerial revolution.” This view contends that there was an evolutionary displacement of the family, of the household, and of kinship by managerial bureaucracies. Central to this view is the belief that with the emergence of a managerial bureaucracy, the concomitant social and settlement hierarchies become divorced from kinship patterns and household activities. Less explicitly stated, but implied, is the emergence of a bureaucratic meritocracy and the importance of individualism within the new social order. This conventional perspective argues for the increasing importance of a faceless bureaucracy replacing an earlier significance of kinship and the household…Studies…indicate that the household, the family, and the role of kinship continued to play a decisive role in the economic and political organization of Mesopotamia…Kinship was neither marginalized nor replaced by a meritocracy of individualism, rather, and increasing managerial bureaucracy emerged that was controlled by kin-related individuals. Written records and archaeology provide evidence for the emergence of large institutional households (oikoi) by the end of the fourth millennium. These institutional households were self-sustaining and autarchic economic units. The household (oikos) constituted ‘the center of the productive economic  activities we now handle through the market.’ It contained the communities’ basic economic activities and was the focal unit of social organization. With reference to the large village (polis), the household formed the building block for all larger social, economic, and political units…

The household, as the building block of the neighborhood, the village, and the city, has an exceptionally long history in the Near East. Modern ethnoarchaeological studies attest to its enduring significance today. The evolution of the household forms the foundation for an understanding of the social order and its evolution in the Near East. Throughout most of the Near Eastern Bronze Age in Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau, and the Levant, the domestic household remained the principal institution of ownership, production, and consumption…

In my earlier post, I noted how cities became the centers of redistributive systems, and out of this evolved their essential role as centers of surplus storage, economic activity, defense, and emerging political control.

Redistributive systems involve symmetry and centricity, and as the centers of these webs of interdependence, cities, growing up around ceremonial complexes, became the nucleus of such redistributive systems. We’ve already seen that the Mesopotamian city states were ways of economically integrating people living in diverse ecological zones. One interesting paper by Elizabeth C. Stone makes a distinction between “city states” (as in Mesopotamia, Greece, and the Maya) and “territorial states” (such as Egypt and Peru). Professor Stone argues that these two forms of early states have distinctive political and economic structures which are based on the geographical character of the land the people inhabit:

…there are…key differences in the environments in which we find city states and territorial states….these are not defined by basic divisions between irrigation societies versus non-irrigation societies…Instead these distinctions focus on the two key resources for agricultural production: land and labor…territorial states are found in areas where arable land is both permanent and bounded, providing a clear opportunity for elites to maintain the necessary labor force through their control over access to arable land. City states” by contrast, are found in areas where productive land is both temporary and mutable, forcing the elites to find means other than direct coercion in order to maintain the necessary agricultural labor force.

To illustrate these differences, we can take Egypt and Inca Peru as examples of territorial states, and Babylonia, the Maya, and the Yoruba as examples of city states…control over land represented control over the labor force needed to work it in territorial states, allowed the development of a hierarchical political system in which positions of authority were carefully controlled and were assigned on the basis of inheritance. The result was a highly centralized political system based on a powerful ruler supported by an hereditary aristocracy. The rest of the population was essentially disenfranchised. As social mobility was virtually unknown, a clear and permanent divide was maintained between the elites and the bulk of the population.

…Where several of these polities were located in adjacent regions, the takeover of one by another was relatively easy. Once the neighboring elites had been co-opted into the expanding state (whether accompanied by military threats or actual battle), the land they controlled would have accompanied them. The inclusion of local elites in the new ruling class would effectively remove potential sources of opposition from within then new state…

City states, by contrast, could not use coercion in order to maintain their labor force. If they tried, there was always the possibility that people would vote with their feet and leave state society altogether. Under these circumstances, any political system had to involve the population as a whole in decision making, at least at the most basic level. Popular assemblies and advisory councils thus typify city states; they are much less common in territorial states….Decision-making in city-state societies was the result of consensus building between the various elites. The large institutions, the agriculturally based population, the merchants, and the artisans all competed with one another for political ascendancy and forged a larger consensus through the organs of popular government…

Even though these elites held real political power in city states, unlike those in territorial states, they could not become entrenched. Instead, social mobility tended to be high, as different families rose and fell in status over time. The high cost of elite status – reflecting the need to maintain the loyalty of one’s followers, coupled with a partitive system of inheritance- further weakened the population’s economic base from generation to generation. In due course, new elites would rise to the top, often based on wealth accumulated as a result of the high levels of entrepreneurial activity typical of city states- … The net effect was that the major divisions within city states were not vertically based on class as in territorial states, but rather horizontally based on affiliations between elites and their nonelites.

In the economic realm, city states placed a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurial activity. Merchants and artisans represented a significant independent segment of society. While they participated in the larger political system, they also were responsible for the economic success of the city-state system…in city states the surplus production of the agricultural sector did not fall into the hands of the central administration through direct appropriation as much as through the exchange of rural products for urban ones…without a relative degree of economic freedom, the economic fluidity needed to make possible the high levels of social mobility in city states could not have been achieved.

The downside of the city-state system lay in the impossibility of extending this political system over large distances. The city state worked because the key political players all lived in the same city and therefore had the possibility of settling their differences through face-to-face interaction….The physical separation that existed between city states, however, meant that their differences were more often settled by active warfare than by discussion.

The problems began when one city state succeeded in conquering its neighbor or neighbors. Unlike territorial states, where the hierarchical system of political organization easily could be extended to any freshly absorbed territories, this was not the case with city states. When the latter were joined together into larger imperial units-which happened with some frequency · two quite different types of political organization were in place. The process of consensus building continued within the basic units of society -that is, the old city states-but this existed side by side with the imposition of imperial rule by the conquering state. Because of the conflict between the philosophies behind these two systems, the city states never became fully reconciled to their absorption in the larger unit. This eventually lead to the collapse of the system back into city states.

These political considerations engendered very different patterns in urbanization and land-use between territorial states and city states:

…cities characteristic of hierarchical territorial states are characterized by a unified but not very large urban space, in which the major institutions–religious, political, economic, etc. are physically concentrated. The population of these centers are dominated by elites, bureaucrats, and highly skilled craftspeople — especially those who produce goods for elite consumption, with only their servants and slaves constituting any nonelite segment. Finally, it is within these cities that both wealth and high-quality luxury goods are concentrated. Beyond these settlements lie the scattered farmsteads and villages of the bulk of the population, whose material culture remains are little different from their Neolithic ancestors, since they have virtually no access to the goods produced by the urban-based artisans.

By contrast, the urban centers of less hierarchical city-state societies are large and populous, but broken into many different sectors. Most obvious are the physical divisions between the major political, religious, and economic institutions, but the residential sector is also subdivided into numerous face-to-face communities or neighborhoods. Unlike cities in territorial states, these neighborhoods are not made up entirely of elites, nor are there some elite and nonelite areas. Instead, each residential district is similar to others in providing housing for all social classes. The presence of large numbers of nonelites in these cities — many of whom are farmers — allows for a more even distribution of manufactured goods, with no segments of society denied access to these goods. Finally, since the key resource in these societies is labor rather than land ownership, even quite small settlements have their own elites and populations with access to manufactured goods.

I’ve already covered some of the concepts of land ownership my previous post on Labor in the Ancient World. Labor and land tenure are intimately intertwined: most labor throughout human history from the beginnings of agriculture through the Industrial Revolution has been done by farmers to coax a surplus from the soil. But who owns the soil? This has been a major question confronting any human society once the shift from foraging takes place. “Land reform” has been a major political issue from Babylonia to ancient Rome. The major communist revolutions in the twentieth century were all in agrarian societies and were based on land reform (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam), unlike what Marx envisioned (who believed that industrialization was a necessary precursor to Communism).

Some major ways of allocating land rights historically have been as follows:

  • Farmers own and farm their own land (Yeomanry)
  • The land is collectively owned and farmed (e.g. a Commune or Kibbutz)
  • The land is nominally owned by someone else, but farmed by others. This could involve:
    • Serfdom: farmers are “attached” to the land, that is, they are part of the property as much as the plants and trees and water, and are bought and sold along with it. Serfdom is different from slavery-instead of being bound to a person, serfs are bound to land. While this is usually depicted as a form of oppression, it does protect farmers from arbitrary eviction and the subsequent loss of land tenure. Serfdom structures appear to have been common in ancient Egypt.
    • Sharecropping: Farmers surrender a portion of their crop over to the nominal owners of the land in exchange for tenure rights. This persisted, for example, in the United States South until well into the late twentieth century. The medieval feudal system was based around sharecropping.
    • Plantations: A large-scale landed estate or ranch where a resident workforce, free or unfree (typcially the latter), lives and works on the property. These are usually large tracts of land designed to produce some sort of export commodity (grain, wine, cotton, tea, sugar, tobacco, etc.) The most famous historical examples are the Roman latifundium and Spanish hacienda. Most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.

In addition, we can distinguish three major modes of unfree (compulsory) labor:

  • Chattel slavery; People are property, and can be bought and sold. Sometimes slaves have rights, sometimes not.
  • Debt slavery (i.e. debt bondage, bonded labor, indentured servitude, etc.): Working to pay off a debt, real or imagined. A percentage (up to 100%) of your income or work output is surrendered to a creditor for a certain period of time.
  • Corvée labor: A duty to perform labor for a specified period of time, often to an institution in lieu of taxation.

The first large-scale industry where cash payment was utilized appears to have been mercenaries until the Industrial Revolution where wage slavery became the norm.

A word about that term: slavery. The reason it is used is because it was widely recognized in the ancient world that any time workers were compelled to labor at times and places and for durations not of their own choosing there was a coercive apparatus involved, and hence, it was a form of slavery. Under markets, that coercion comes from the need to continually procure enough money to purchase the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, and shelter), and the lack of ownership of income-generating property or assets. Since the worker is told what to do, when to do it, where to do it, how to do it, and how long to it for (unlike a free worker), it was commonly recognized as a form of slavery; Cicero noted that receiving a wage was itself a form of bondage: “whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves.” Although clearly distinct from chattel slavery (where workers are property and can be bought and sold), the compulsory apparatus is still there. We’ve just normalized it, much as chattel slavery was normalized everywhere in the world until the nineteenth century.

We’ve seen that corvée and debt bondage appear to be the first forms of compulsory labor to emerge. Corvée was more or less egalitarian (although managers were often exempt, as was the case in ancient Egypt). Debt bondage, however, caused classes of debtors and creditors to emerge. In extreme cases, debt was passed down through generations, leading to caste systems. Ownership of preferred plots of land and other property was likely passed down through generations as well, encouraging the inequality spiral.

As we saw in the last post, land tenure was precipitated on supplying labor for collective construction projects (i.e. infrastructure) in early societies. This seems to have been remarkably consistent in the days before labor markets and fossil fuel-powered machinery. And land ownership appears to have been primarily distributed through usufruct—rights were assigned to use the fruits of the land, but not the rights to sell or to significantly alter it (abusus).

A common question asked throughout the book is when did a true real-estate market develop? That is, when did land became an alienable “thing” that could be bought and sold by private individuals? And when did this become a true market, with prices set by supply and demand? We are so accustomed to thinking of this setup as “natural” that we forget that most cultures throughout history have not recognized the absolute alienability of land or it’s transfer via markets. The volume never really comes up with a convincing answer to this question. We have a lot of contracts on stone tablets, but it’s difficult to reconstruct any dynamics of a real estate market based on them. One scholar points out (in my opinion correctly) that the real roots of our modern real estate markets should be sought in Medieval England, and that Egypt and Babylonia have little to teach in this regard.

One can only sell, forfeit, or otherwise transfer what is privately owned. To put matters the other way around, without being able to transfer one’s land at will, there is no real “ownership” in the modern sense of the term. The public buildings and areas were the distinguishing feature of archaic cities, set apart from any single clan’s control (save that of the ruler). How then are we to explain the alienation of urban houses and gardens occurring so much more readily in Sumerian and Babylonian towns than in the countryside for rural subsistence barley-land?

At what point does the documentary record enable us to find prices for order to build a townhouse? Is there any evidence of buyers tearing down existing structures to build newer, larger, and better ones? In today’s world such shifts in land use represent the single most important economic dynamic of urbanization, as generations of real estate developers can attest.

Hudson makes an analogy with a contemporary (at the time of publication) issue – the breakup of the Soviet Union. Under Communism, all land belonged to the state, and could not be bought and sold by private sellers. Hudson points out that at the time of publication, Yeltsin was attempting to privatize land, thus establishing a real estate market. Hudson argues that the transfer of land was more like a collusion between connected insiders than anything like a true and impersonal “free” market, and points out that there are valid reasons for placing limits on land transfers. However, custom and tradition, not to mention the needs of agriculture, must have greatly constrained any true “market” in land from forming up until well after the Industrial Revolution in most places.

It is easy to overlook how culture-bound modern real estate markets are. The day before our colloquium opened in St. Petersburg, for instance, president Boris Yeltsin unveiled Russia’s proposed new income tax law, a week after issuing a decree permitting companies to obtain ownership of the land under their buildings. The decree was illegal. Only the Duma (Russia’s parliament) is empowered to enact such a law, and it steadfastly refused to do so. This created a crisis with regard to who would control the land and receive its usufruct: the community (the state or locality) or private owners, starting with the best-placed public officials and their friends. Without a land law no legal context existed for real estate rights to be sold or otherwise transferred. No clear idea could be formed of the worth of urban enterprises or their fiscal role in the post-Communist economy.

This situation is strikingly similar to that of Bronze Age Mesopotamia in a number of ways. Most obvious for purposes of this colloquium is the absence of modern market relations. Also similar is the contrast between urban and rural land. Subsistence lands could not legally be sold or transferred in the ancient Near East, and they are likewise blocked from sale in Russia today. In both cases, however, there was a jockeying for position by outsiders (especially creditors) to gain some sort of rights to this land. In Russia today the outcome remains unclear – the same kind of grey area as seems to have existed in the Old Babylonian epoch. In both cases one finds land being transferred without a legal framework to govern such transfers.

Emerging from seven decades of communism, Russians have only sketchy ideas of how to estimate land values or the price at which to rent out urban sites. Indeed, the creation of a modern “western” real estate market does not appear to be inevitable, for as debates in Russia remind us, there are good age-old reasons for not creating laws that facilitate the ready transfer of land rights. When the China Hotel in Moscow recently was sold for a million rubles, it was an insider giveaway, as were other transfers of prime sites. An anthropologist might call this ‘gift exchange” on the part of President Yeltsin to his cronies. Most land transfers (can we really call them “sales”?) in recent years have been insider deals … Indeed, one can view the past nine centuries of English history as the long consequence of William the Conqueror assigning land to his military officers…

It appears that many people owned both rural and urban properties, blurring the distinction between city and countryside. Urban “professionals” would derive income from their rural estates. Village craftsmen would have shops in urban areas. There were no real words distinguishing between urban agglomerations of various sizes; all urban areas, no matter their size, were considered of a piece.

This juxtaposition of urban to rural does not well suit the analysis of Bronze Age Mesopotamia. A symbiosis existed between cities and their surrounding lands. Most owners of townhouses held subsistence lands in the countryside, as such land provided the basis for citizenship (to use another rather anachronistic word)

The idea of cities as housing large aggregations as distinct from small villages or hamlets also is anachronistic, for the Sumerians and Egyptians used the same word to designate large and small cities alike. What was essential was not size, but structure. Indeed, “in the beginning” (prior to the Neolithic), this structure probably did not even involve year-round residence, but seasonal visitation for rituals and other social interaction. The characteristics of cities were those of gathering places and as such were influenced by the social purposes for such gatherings. These purposes were basically public and communal, such as attending the festivals that formed the basis for social cohesion in ancient times.

The essence of cities (before “the state” existed as such) was to act as the nexus of order, including legal judgment, which was long anchored in religion (at a time when religion itself dealt much more with worldly relations than is now the case). Cities were given their character largely by their city-temple and palace, at least in southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia), which forms the major focus of this colloquium.

Rural land appears to have been mostly inalienable. It was not bought and sold, but passed down in families through the generations. If land was forfeited by a family, such as through debt, it was restored to the original owners during the periods of debt cancellation (clean slates). Land and buildings in cities, by contrast, were apparently freely bought and sold, but their prices appear not to have been determined by supply and demand, or by favored location:

The term “land ownership” (and hence, of real estate or real property) …requires some caveats to be borne in mind. First of all, there were different kinds of land: subsistence lands in the countryside (which were deemed inalienable on more than a temporary basis by their holders) and surplus-producing lands that were part of the market-orchards, vegetable gardens, and townhouses. These were alienable.

The idea of ownership necessarily involves the notion of alienability, mainly through direct sale or forfeiture to creditors. Rural land could be alienated temporarily but was supposed to be redeemed by its customary holders or else was restored to them by royal edict. Permanent sale of land was limited mainly to the cities…

Inasmuch as subsistence land provided the basic means of self-support for most families, it could not be sold or otherwise alienated. But, urban townhouses were not necessary for this role. Society could afford more leeway for the transfer of these properties. Given their more or less free alienability, the question naturally arises as to how their prices were determined…There seems no trace of an early intention to increase real estate values, to say nothing of anything as modern as real estate developers hoping to see temples or other public structures built near their own sites so as to increase the value of their property.

In order to signify that such sales were final, and that all the traditional formalities were observed, the term “sold at full price” was commonly used in the documents.

Land alienations were held not to be valid unless “the full price” was paid. A modern economist would be tempted to infer that this indicates the existence of a fairly well-understood market, but that ancient societies recognized that strapped cultivators would only sell their lands (‘”lose their homestead”) under conditions of extreme economic distress. This view would suggest that land sales were only valid if sold “at the full price,” so as to save distressed sellers from being taken advantage of. However, the members of this colloquium find this not to be the case. The words do not seem to represent what they would in to day’s market economies. Transferring land “at the full price” appears to mean simply that all proper formalities were obeyed and properly witnessed by all the affected relatives and neighbors of the seller. In Sumerian times a formal meal with some exchange of presents would have been held to attest to the legitimacy of the land transfer. The meaning of “price” in the phrase “full price” thus appears to mean “condition of transfer.” In archaic times the conditions of land transfer were much more far-reaching than merely paying a sum of money.

One important concept is that you can have multiple, overlapping claims to the same land. We tend to think of absolute or “fee simple” ownership, as the norm. But even in our society, land ownership is subject to restriction – zoning laws, government panels, community groups, etc. In ancient societies, for example, you might have the people living on the land having a certain set of rights, the nominal “owners” having a different set of rights, a creditor having a different set of rights, and the community (embodied by the ruler) with a different set of rights, all to the same plot of land. As Douglass North writes:

Feudal law did not recognize the concept of land ownership. Its basic characteristic was that several person had jurisdiction or held and shared particular rights to the same piece of land. The king, the tenants in capite, the mesne tenants, and the tenants paravail (or, more simply, the king, the lords, and the peasants) each held particular rights to receive income, called incidents, from the land.

In summary, then, we can discern several broad categories of land use in ancient Near Eastern cultures:

(1) Sacred lands of the temple. Permanent and inalienable. Not under the control of any particular clan–only the ruler or the high priest. Not subject to transfers, sales, clean slates, reallocation, etc. This permanence and regularity meant that cities were the cultural, economic and political centers of their respective communities.

(2) Prebends (land stipends) set aside for maintenance of the temple staff. These lands were not alienable, but were rented out for sharecropping by the temple household. The first land rents and interest payments were charged here.

(3) Subsistence lands which were passed down through generations. Ownership was the right to the output of the land rather than absolute ownership (usufruct). Land was owned and maintained by families/households rather than solitary individuals.

(4) Rural land where usufruct rights were temporarily surrendered through debt. These reverted to their original owners during Clean Slates.

(5) Landed estates owned by the literate gentry in return for their managerial services. Many of these estates included a dependent labor force that we might call serfs.

(6) Common lands where multiple claims prevailed. These might be true commons (of which little written documentation would exist), or what anthropologists might call clan lands or corporate kinship lands. These were owned by groups–often kinship groups–rather than individuals, families, or institutions.

(7) Land which was transferred “at full price.” i.e. subject to ceremonial restrictions. The scholars find that most property transfers were not whole farms but parcels – plots of land that were too small for a subsistence farm. This suggests that transfer of lands was done piecemeal, i.e. whole farms were not bought and sold, just small pieces of land which eventually added up over time. Most likely nothing like a “market” in the modern sense.

(7) Townhouses, shops, orchards, gardens, and other “improved” property in urban areas which could be bought and sold. However, there appears to be little relation between the locations of such buildings and their prices. Urban real estate did not gain in value based on proximity to institutions or scarcity, nor was it an “investment” unlike today. Neither was urban land considered more valuable than rural land. The was no “speculative” real estate market; those developed later, for example, in ancient Rome.

Finally, I think this passage by Margaret Mead about the Paupauan Arapesh of New Guinea, quoted in Karl Polanyi’s Trade and Market in Early Empires, well captures the fluidity of economic relations in ancient cultures and the difficulty of trying to explain them in terms of our modern fossil-fuel powered market oriented money society:

A typical Arapesh man …therefore is living for at least part of the time (for each man lives in two or more hamlets, as well as in the garden huts, huts near the hunting bush, and huts near his sago palm) on land which does not belong to him. Around the house are pigs which his wife is feeding, but which belong either to one of her relatives or to one of his. Beside the house are coconut and betel palms which belong to still other people, and the fruit of which he will never touch without the permission of the owner, or someone who had been accorded the disposal of the fruit by the owner. He hunts on the bushland belonging to a brother-in-law or a cousin at least part of his hunting time, and the rest of the time he is joined by others on his bush, if he has some. He works his sago in others’ sago clumps as well as in his own. Of the personal property in his house that which is of any permanent value, like large pots, well carved plates, good spears, has already been assigned to his sons, even though they are only toddling children. His own pig or pigs are far away in other hamlets: his palm trees are scattered three miles in one direction, two in another: his sago palms are still further scattered, and his garden patches lie here and there, mostly on the lands of others. If there is meat on his smoking rack over the fire, it is either meat which was killed by another, a brother, a brother-in-law, a sister’s son, etc. and has been given to him, in which case he and his family may eat it, or it is meat which he himself killed and which he is smoking to give away to someone else, for to eat one’s own kill, even though it be only a small bird, is a crime to which only the morally, which usually means with the Arapesh mentally, deficient would stoop. If the house in which he is, is nominally his, it will have been constructed in part at least from the posts and planks of other people’s houses, which have been dismantled or temporarily deserted, and from which he has borrowed timber. He will not cut his rafters to fit his house, if they are too long, because they may be needed later for someone else’s house which is of a different shape or size…This then is the picture of a man’s ordinary economic affiliations.

As Polanyi points out in that book, unlike other commodities, if land is scarce, we cannot produce more of it, and so the price will only go up. Also, the price can theoretically fall to zero just as easily.

In a time where there are more empty houses than homeless people, economic activity is constricting to a small number of urban archipelagoes, and the average income is unable to purchase—or even rent—adequate shelter in many urban areas, we need to start thinking about new ways to distribute lands and dwellings beyond simply real estate markets. There is nothing natural or inevitable about such arrangements, as a glance through history shows.

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