A description of the concept of a Disembedded Capital with examples of failed capitals
The term 'disembedded capital' is surely one that has been under a heavy fire of criticism over the last few decennnia since it was first coined, this does however not mean that it can not be used when placed in the right context. In my opinion the city of Tell el-Amarna seems to be a perfect example of a disembedded capital since it truly matches the idea of a de novo1 construction and a radical change in the court culture. Other cities, such as Tenochtitlan in Mesoamerica or the Assyrian cities in the Near East are often named as possible candidates for the title of disembedded capitals but in this paper I will prove that they do not live up to this aspiration. The aim of this paper therefore is to establish a conclusion as to what a disembedded capital should and would be, after which we will be able to determine if Tell el-Amarna really was a disembedded capital or not. Next to the main subject concerning Tell el-Amarna I will observe some other capital cities that are named to be potential candidates for the title of disembedded capital and prove them to be something else entirely.
''Disembedded capitals were typically founded by new elites, either usurpers or reformers, as part of innovations designed to simultaneously undercut competing factions and create new patterns of allegiance and authority. But while intended to break away from existing power relationships, in order to function disembedded capitals were necessarily reembedded back into those structures, In an evolutionary sense disembedded capitals were short-lived phenomena which tended to create long-term societal problems.'' (Joffe 1998, 549)
The concept of a disembedded capital is a simple one and the most important factor in it is that the capital should introduce a new form of government or religious order. The most important reason a ruler would take the effort of constructing a new capital for himself is the prestige it granted him. A city of great magnificence and beauty served as a solid foundation for the power and wealth of the owner of it, the king. The reason why a king would be looking for a new foundation of power is possibly because the old power base does not support him sufficiently enough to his liking. This could very well be the case when a new king ascended to the throne by heritage or usurpation. The building of a new capital would allow such a new ruler to establish his own seat of power from which he could deal with any upstart troubles in his land. Religious power rested in the hands of the priests who served the king bust mostly themselves, therefore the seizing of religious power was also an important reason for erecting a new power base. Joffe provides us with a list of nine requirements for disembedded capitals, which makes it easy for us to test our exemplary capitals. This list should not be seen as written in stone though and some amendments are likely needed to perfect it (Joffe 1998, 551).
''1. A site being newly founded, or greatly expanded in a particular period or phase.
2. Evidence that a site has been founded or expanded by a new socio-political or ethnic group, such as changes in pottery and other material culture, architecture, foodways, or administrative practices.
3. A significant shift in regional settlement patterns. This may entail either a decline in, or expansion of, rural settlement and similar changes in middle-level settlement.
4. Evidence of centralized administrative activities, such as writing, sealing, storage, or redistribution.
5. Evidence of a sudden appearance or an increase in flows of specialized materials into a site.
6. The presence of military equipment and personnel within the new site.
7. Sudden shifts in the evidence for political legitimation, such as new iconographic techniques, a new symbolic vocabulary, or the distinctive combination of new and old elements.
8. The association of religious and palatial institutions within a new site.
9. A non-organic urban pattern, in which residential, administrative, and royal elements are rigidly planned and segregated.''
1. Tell el-Amarna
Tell el-Amarna did not exist at all before the reign of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV who came to power in the late 14th century BCE after his father Amenhotep III died (Bard 2008, 221). After about six years Amenhotep IV, who had changed his name to Akhenaten or Achnaton, left the traditional royal court at Thebes and moved to the newly constructed city of Akhetaten. This new city was located on the eastern bank of the Nile, much more to the south than any previous royal residence (Bard 2008, 222). This is a clear first sign that Akhenaten wanted to evade the old establishment at Thebes and start with a clean record at his new capital. Fortunately for us the remains of this city are very well preserved in the desert sands of southern Egypt so we can study and analyze them thoroughly. Akhenaten constructed Tell el-Amarna de novo on a plateau which allowed almost unlimited construction (Joffe 1998, 553). The most important reason for the creation of Amarna and the abandonment of Memphis seems to have been a religious one. Amenhotep IV, whose name was an honoring of the god Amun, changed his name to Akhenaten which meant as much as ''useful to Aten'' (Kemp 2006, 298). The reason he did this was to clarify that he did not worship the traditional god Amun but the god Aten.
Akhenaten went a few steps further in his devotion to Aten by forbidding the worship of any other god during his reign. In his new capital of Akhetaten Akhenaten built a series of magnificent temples for his deity (Kemp 2006, 284). Since all other divine beings were essentially forbidden by the pharaoh the priests that served those gods lost their royal funding and a large share of their power. The king altered the the cult of Aten in such a way that he was recognized as the son of the deity and therefore needed to be worshipped as well (Bard 2008, 222, Joffe 1998, 552-553). Huge statues and reliefs with the pharaoh and his queen Nefertiri on them are common at Akhetaten and they must have served the purpose of glorifying the pharaoh and his wife. These statues were unlike any sculptures before the 'Amarna-Period' since the pharoah was not depicted as a muscular ruler who struck fear into his enemies and awe into his servants. Instead Akhenaten was depicted as a physically untrained man. While most previous royal artwork only depicted the ruling pharaoh in a victory pose, the 'Amarna-Period' artwork shows intimate scenes where Akhenaten takes his queen Nefertiri or one of his daughters on his lap, a novelty to Egyptian art.
Another striking change occurred during the reign of Akhenaten, the use of the official language changed. In the New Kingdom Late Egyptian was the commonly used language but Middle Egyptian remained to be the official language for religious and royal writings. At Akhetaten however, no Middle Egyptian was found and Late Egyptian seems to have been used for all purposes there (Bard 2008, 228). Akhenaten not only erected a new capital for himself de novo but he also radically changed religious and symbolic aspects of daily Egyptian life during his reign. The example of Akhetaten or Tell el-Amarna as a disembedded capital matches Joffe's description perfectly, except maybe for the part concerning the idea that it would create long-term societal problems in Egypt (Joffe 1998, 549). The city was created de novo and as a means to gain a new power base, away from the established foundation of power. Akhetaten was most likely very much self-sufficient because of the large food producing facilities found in the city (Joffe 1998, 554). The definition provided to us by Joffe then moves away from the Akhetaten example since Joffe clearly states that a disembedded capital had to reembed itself into the old system in order to be sustainable. Akhenaten did not try to reembed his new capital into the old system and because of this his city was deserted after his death. The radical change of religious conviction from an entire pantheon of gods to the worship of a single almighty deity was too much change for the millennia old religious beliefs of the Egyptians. The relatively short reign of Akhenaten ensured that his radical changes did not gain a very strong foothold in the land. The revolution of Akhenaten was a short lived one, after seventeen years his reign was ended with his death and very soon his son Tutanchamen turned all of his father's decisions back in order to restore the old order. Since Tutanchamen was only a child when he ascended to the throne it is highly unlikely that he made these decisions himself. The power and influence of high ranked military men or members of the priesthood might have convinced Tutanchamen to break with his father's radical beliefs and turn things back the way they were before the 'Amarna Revolution' (Bard 2008, 229, Joffe 1998, 556).
2. Alternative candidates
There is a large variety of capital cities in the ancient world that seem to be disembedded capitals, but most of them are by definition no such thing. As a first example I'll observe the Assyrian capitals, followed by Baghdad and finally I will analyse the city of Tenochtitlan in Mesoamerica.
The Assyrian capitals are four in number and all located in the same fertile area of what is now northern Iraq. In order of appearance we have; Assur, Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh as the historic capitals of Assyria. Assur served the Assyrians as their first capital and the centre of worship for their prime deity, the god Assur. The city itself was ancient and not built by one specific ruler who wanted to increase his prestige. In the 9th century BCE a new capital was founded by king Assurnasirpal II who ruled from 883-859 BCE (Joffe 1998, 558). Nimrud was located only sixty-five kilometres north of the site of Assur, the new capital of Assyria was built in a well defended position between two rivers. The construction of this city could therefore be seen from just a military perspective since nothing else changed but the location of the capital. The city of Assur remained the most important religious centre in the Assyrian empire and no new religious or symbolic foundations were laid by Assurnasirpal II as far as we know today (Joffe 1998, 558). This effectively denies Nimrud the status of a disembedded capital.
The next Assyrian capital in the line of history would be the Fortress of Sargon, otherwise known as Dur-Sharrukin or by the modern name of Khorsabad. This fortified city was constructed by Sargon II after he ascended to the throne of the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE (Joffe 1998, 559). The construction of this new capital lasted for sixteen years and only after that could Sargon II inhabit it. Unfortunately for him he died on campaign only one year after the inauguration of his city. Unlike Nimrud, Khorsabad was not inhabited for some time after the death of its royal builder. Sargon II's successor, Sennacherib, immediately moved his capital to the already existing city of Nineveh (Joffe 1998, 560). Nineveh was an already established settlement and therefore does not meet the requirements for a disembedded capital. Khorsabad on the other hand seems to have more features that correspond with Joffe's list.1 Sargon II obviously wanted to fortify his power position by building a new capital. Khorsabad is located only twenty kilometres from Nimrud and together with Assur, Nimrud and Nineveh located in the same fertile area of Assyria. The fact that Khorsabad was not truly build in a new area, away from the established power foundations, means that it can also not be called a disembedded capital. Sargon II seems to have altered some of the old laws that were in use at Assur during his reign (Joffe 1998, 562). These changes did not involve any religious or ideological alterations but they only served Sargon II as a tool to appease the population of Assur by granting them tax-exemption and other beneficial rights. These changes are not radical enough to speak of the founding of a new order so Khorsabad should definitely be removed from our list of potential disembedded capitals.
Another potential candidate for the title of disembedded capital, according to Joffe, is the city of Baghdad in modern day Iraq. This city was originally nothing more but a monthly marketplace until caliph al-Mansuri founded his new capital here in 762 CE. Baghdad very soon become a huge city because of the mass transportation of workers to the construction of the site. The location of the new capital was chosen out of military and political considerations since the caliph wanted to increase his grip on the eastern part of his empire (Joffe 1998, 563). The core of the city was build according to a plan, it did not evolve organically. The creation of a new capital more eastwards than the previous capital does not necessarily mean that the caliph meant to break with the existing order and establish a new one. Al-Mansuri did not break with the existing order since the construction of his new capital did not come with radical changes in the religious or ideological field. Some changes did occur in the military and political field since the caliph wanted to stabilize his rule, but nothing changed very radically (Joffe 1998, 563-564). Baghdad can therefore also be removed from our list of potential disembedded capitals.
As a final example I will analyse the city of Tenochtitlan, the island capital of the Mexica people. The Aztec people that founded this city were not creating a new order by the erection of a new power base. They merely struggled to survive and defend themselves against their enemies, the founding of Tenochtitlan only took place because the island on which it was build gave the Aztecs considerable defensive benefits. A de novo construction, the building of Tenochtitlan was no break with the existing order of religious and symbolic life, nor did it change any military or political philosophies for the Aztecs (Leonardo López Luján 2006, 9). Tenochtitlan can not be seen as a disembedded capital.
We have observed the founding of a number of capital cities that are named to be disembedded by Joffe in his article "Disembedded capitals in western Asian perspective." By using the list of requirements Joffe provides us with in that same article we have been able to determine that none of the cities that he tackles in his article are actually disembedded capitals. Most of the cities that are treated by Joffe have some features of a disembedded capital but none of them have all the requirements needed to attain that title officially.
Tell el-Amarna or Akhetaten seems to be the best example of a disembedded capital since it only has one flaw on its feature list. The fact that Tell el-Amarna was constructed de novo and it broke away from the established order of religious and symbolic life in Egypt means that the city of Akhenaten was truly meant as a disembedded capital. The fact that Akhenaten ruled for only a short time and that he did not succeed in giving his new order a steady footing meant that soon after his death all his radical changes were replaced by the old order and removed from the official Egyptian history by his successor Tutanchamen.
Since none of Joffe's disembedded capitals actually turned out to be disembedded capitals we must conclude that the first real disembedded capital has yet to be identified by historians or archaeologists. Until that time we must treat the term 'disembedded capital' as a theoretical issue, a hypothetical theory which has not been proven as of yet. In the end the term 'disembedded capital' could start to mean something real if the definition is changed or when a truly disembedded capital matches all the requirements needed to gain that title officially.
For now Tell el-Amarna is our best example of a capital that is almost disembedded.
Bard, K.A. (2008), An introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt, Oxford
Joffe, A. H. (1998), "Disembedded capitals in western Asian perspective." in Comparative Studies in Society and History 40/3: 549-580.
Kemp, B.J. (2006), Ancient Egypt, Anatomy of a Civilisation, New York
Luján, Leonardo López (2006), Tenochtitlan, Oxford.
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