Academic journal article
By Harmansah, Ömür
The Art Bulletin , Vol. 90, No. 1
MARIAN H. FELDMAN Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an "International Style" in the Ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 278 pp.; 18 color ills., 77 b/w. feo.oo
Marian Feldman's copiously illustrated, exquisitely produced monograph Diplomacy by Design investigates a small, carefully selected corpus of prestige artifacts from the eastern Mediterranean world, all dated to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400-1200 BCE). Feldman situates these objects, which feature complex pictorial representations and a common vocabulary of hybrid imagery, in the realm of diplomatic reciprocity and gift exchange among the "Great Kings" of the time, who shared a rhetoric of "brotherhood" in their correspondences. Art historical studies of ancient Near Eastern material cultures have been remarkably rare in the last couple of decades, especially if one looks for monographs of ambition and meticulousness comparable to Feldman's. The book's dense text, complex argumentation, and some thirty-five pages of endnotes prove that the volume is the fruit of many years of research, including Feldman's 1998 dissertation, entitled "Luxury Goods from Ras Shamra-Ugarit and Their Role in the International Relations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East during the Late Bronze Age," completed at Harvard University. Feldman presented the main premise of her book a few years earlier in the pages of this very journal.1
Diplomacy by Design is timely, not only as a fresh look at the extraordinarily rich world of interregional contacts around the eastern Mediterranean in antiquity but also as an attempt to rethink the status of art historical inquiry into the ancient world, precisely when traditional art historical methodologies are being challenged by interdisciplinary approaches and postcolonialism. Even though the latter has been accomplished in the book with mixed success, Diplomacy by Design is a valuable and significant addition to the field of Near Eastern studies.
The two long centuries of the Late Bronze Age are considered a culminating period of intensive cultural interactions in the eastern Mediterranean. It saw the formation of a closely knit supraregional network of maritime connectivity and commercial exchange, in which a variety of polities and cultures from the Aegean to the Anatolian coast, the Levant, Cyprus, inland SyroMesopotamia, and Egypt all participated. This network was enhanced by new seafaring technologies, notably, the development of true seagoing vessels, but, more important, by a balanced economy of entrepreneurial and palace-sponsored trade of agricultural products, raw materials, especially metals, and finished goods.2 This expansive world of commercial interactions was supported by an increasingly complex industry of craft production in the emerging urban centers of the Mediterranean, such as Ugarit, Enkomi, Kommos, and Ura/Tarhuntassa. With the help of excavated shipwrecks, especially those at Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun in southern Turkey, a counterclockwise route for merchant vessels has been reconstructed linking Crete to Egypt, the Levantine coast, the southern Anatolian coast, and eventually the Aegean (this is what the undercurrent regimes of the sea and the supercurrent regimes of the merchants allowed). Also ubiquitous for this time period is abundant diplomatic correspondence, the "greeting letters" (Akkadian Hulmanu) among the "Great Kings" of this world, especially the Hittite, Human, Assyrian, and Egyptian. One should also acknowledge their correspondence with minor, vassal kings. These letters exhibit a formalized rhetoric of "brotherhood" among kings of equal rank and provide evidence for the reciprocal exchange of prestige gifts and intermarriages among the dynastic families.
In the context of such extraordinary connectivity and reciprocity, the material world of the eastern Mediterranean emerges with its markedly hybrid objects, traveling across the sea with ease and an impressive fluidity. …