Palaces are generally defined as royal residences. Building inscriptions sometimes provide names and chronological data of the kings who built, extended or refurbished them. In prehistoric levels, or in the absence of any written evidence, the designation of a building as a ‘palace’ is based mainly on architectural features, such as the size and number of rooms, the strength of its walls, the presence of defensive structures, the employment of expensive materials etc. Not every building with these or some of these characteristics need necessarily have been a ‘royal residence’. Sanctuaries and palaces are not always easy to distinguish (eg MARI, Early dynastic ‘palaces’). Industrial premises, barracks and armouries, or communal stores of goods are alternative purposes for large and well-protected buildings.
In order to analyse the organisation of a palace plan one has to understand the concept of kingship prevalent in the given time and place. At one end of the scale is the petty king who is little more than a chieftain, or a military leader in times of crises. If he is successful in establishing himself in peaceful times and comes to an arrangement with the local priesthood he might build himself a large and well-appointed house, where he would keep any accumulated wealth and his own person safe behind strong walls. His sons and successors would, if all went well, enlarge and strengthen the premises. Small kingdoms and city-states were very common throughout the Ancient Near East, especially in Mesopotamia, Syria and the Levant. Their political and economical prosperity was subject to sudden changes because of the continuous rivalries between them.
The classical example and probably the best preserved archaeological setting for such a ‘petty kingdom’ was Mari. This is also one of the rare cases where we have a very good idea of the sort of activities that went on in this vast building, due to the extensive cuneiform archives. Mari was a very important trading post and manufacturing centre that maintained a widespread net of diplomatic and economic connections. The plan of this palace reflects the efficient organisation and the strictly hierarchical structure of a successful 2nd-millennium small kingdom. It was planned carefully before construction began. (See also TELL MARDIKH, KISH, RAS SHAMRA, CARCHEMISH, TELL HALAF, ZINJIRLI.)
Then there was the concept of divinely decreed kingship. This could lead either to the deification of the living ruler (as in some Sumerian and Egyptian dynasties), or to his position as the representative of the community, who enjoyed the privilege of close contact with the gods (as in Assyria and Babylon, for instance). The emblematic and symbolic role of such a king transcended his functions as a political and military leader, important and crucial though they were. The palaces were built to meet the demands of royal rituals (almost exclusively so at PERSEPOLIS). There were temples within the palace complex allowing the king to