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Morris Silver
Economics Department
City College of New York

TOPIC VI: Land Markets in the Ancient Near East: A Critique of the Primitivist Perspective (Revised May 23, 2002)

1. Mesopotamia

With the exceptions of the Ur III Dynasty (2112-2004) and the Middle Babylonian period (1595-1155), sales and leases of privately owned (nonpalace and nontemple) fields are common in all periods of Mesopotamian history from the middle of the third millennium to the sixth century B.C.E. Sumerian texts of the third millennium refer to gan-sam "saleable land" (Diakonoff 1996: 55). Moreover, the records of northern and southern Babylonia dating from the third millennium, the most ancient available, provide ample and conclusive evidence of sales of fields to (invariably) individuals by individuals. For the second half of the second millennium we have land sale documents from outside Babylonia from such sites as Ugarit, Alalakh, Emar and Nuzi. But the evidence for land sales is especially abundant for the Old Babylonian period.

Old Babylonian Period: North versus South

Renger's view is that the south did not know sales of arable fields. However, in the Old Babylonian period sales of fields are found in the south as well as in the north. (This is emphatically not to say that arable field sales are documented in every city in every year of the Old Babylonian period.) Renger (1995: 301) surveys more than 500 northern sale contracts for houses, orchards and fields: "A very considerable part deals with the sale of fields from one private individual to another." For the south Renger (1995: 296) reports that of about 250 sale contracts dating to the first half of the eighteenth century for a combination of three southern cities (Ur, Larsa and Kutalla): "Most of them concern houses and orchards. Not quite ten percent deal with fields".

Renger (1995: 296) struggles unsuccessfully to negate his "not quite" 25 southern field sales by suggesting that they "pertain to very small plots, marginal land, or a combination of both." To begin with the obvious: whether about 25 field sales out of 250 cases should be considered common or uncommon would of course depend on the (unknown) distribution of southern land among houses, orchards and grain fields. The fact is that Renger's pronouncements about the absence of a market for arable fields in the south are contradicted by his own evidence. Moreover, Renger faces a most difficult task in explaining why in the south, unlike the north, only the very worst fields were sold!

Old Babylonian Period: Individual versus Group Ownership of Fields

In a large number of early second-millennium texts recording the sale of small parcels of privately owned arable land in southern Babylonia, the vendors appear to be groups (not individuals) in only 30 percent of the cases. Although the eminent Soviet Assyriologist Diakonoff (1974b: 49, n.13) would like to identify these "groups" as "family communes," he admits that the "kinship relations of the individual vendors between themselves is in such cases not always indicated." He adds, with respect to the sale of date plantations and gardens, that in both the north and south the percentage of group vendors is insignificant. Along the same line, in seeking to relate inheritance laws to "underlying economic structures," Skaist (1975: 244-45) concludes, "the sale of land by more than one person, e.g. partners, is rare in comparison with the sale of land by one individual. Moreover, the sale of land by a single individual is made without reference to any permission that may have been granted by the members of the family that one would expect if we were dealing with joint property." In attempting to rebut this hard evidence, Skaist offers the thought that perhaps the sellers were acting as "trustees." This evidence discredits Diakonoff's (1974b: 51) claim that "private property in the modern sense was not known in any of the ancient societies." Exactly, what the "modern sense" is, of course, open to discussion.

The Property Rights Argument

In 1999 the Assyriologist Piotr Steinkeller (1999a: 294) wrote:

As for the southern [Babylonian] system of land tenure the ownership of arable land was an exclusive prerogative of the gods. Accordingly, there was no individual ownership in arable land and, consequently, holdings could not be alienated.
The evidence simply does not support Steinkeller's position . Steinkeller also asserts that "apparent instances of the alienation of arable land-for example those documented in the sources for northern Babylonia during the Sargonic and Old Babylonian periods-involved the transfer of possession rights only" (Steinkeller 1999a: 296; emphasis added). According to Steinkeller (1999a: 296) "the idea that an individual could be the exclusive owner of an immovable property is a very recent notion."

However, "property right" (better "property power") should be visualized as a vector of distinct rights over an object:

1. Right to use in all relevant uses (universality);
2. Right to exclude others from using;
3. Right to benefit from use;
4. Right to physically transform;
5. Right to alienate or transmit.

The right of an individual to an object does not necessarily include each and every one of these rights (see Silver 1989: 17-18).

The Mesopotamian evidence demonstrates that individuals and institutions benefited from, invested in, transformed, and conveyed arable land. Thus, while we have no Ur III land sale texts, we know that individuals owned and conveyed arable lands by inheritance. This is rather clearly demonstrated in a legal text from Nippur (NATN I 302 = CBS 9792) wherein a woman named Geme-Suena sued to recover fields bequeathed to her deceased husband by his father (Owen 1979). Moreover, there is no evidence suggesting that owners were abnormally constrained in the uses to which they put their purchased or inherited fields. (Note the evidence of the giving out of grain fields to be transformed into orchards.) No more than this is required for economically viable private property!

Basically speaking, Steinkeller (1999a: 297 with nn. 25, 26) wishes to support the "temple-state" concept against B.R. Foster. Steinkeller places supreme power in the hands of a "secular manager" called the ensik. The latter, he says, controlled huge areas of land that could be deeded to an heir or even sold as "was the case at least in the Sargonic and Ur III periods." However, Steinkeller's argument fails because, aside from the factual question of the importance of the ensik, land that may be deeded to an heir or sold by an individual is individual property.

Schloen, arguing much like Steinkeller, believes that the ruler owned all the land. Thus he argues with respect to Ugarit:

No king of Ugarit is known to have purchased land from one of his subjects; but even if there were evidence that the king had paid to obtain the use of a certain plot of land, it need not imply that the crown had no prior rights over such property: the payment could be seen simply as compensation to the previous occupant for the loss of his use of a hereditary holding.(Schloen 2001: 230)
Several comments are in order. First, and most obvious, if the king had "prior rights" why would he pay "to obtain the use of a certain plot of land"? The land is his. Second, and most important, Schloen's formulation is incapable of being contradicted by evidence. His view that the ruler had "prior rights" over all the land is an a priori statement ("model") masquerading as an empirical proposition. Third, the Ugaritic queen Ahat-milki (Hurrian Sharelli) purchased land on several occasions. The lands were not purchased from the king! Heltzer's (1976: 103) reasonable conclusion is that these purchases negate the view that the king owned all the realm's lands (cf. Adamthwaite 2001: 129-30).

In fact there are references to purchases of land by kings. To cite one example, in the Neo-Assyrian period king Sargon purchased land needed for his new capital: "the price of the field of that town I paid back to their owners according to the record of the purchase documents (ki pi tuppate sajjimanute), in silver and copper." (Fales 1996: 19) Apparently, some of the lands Sargon acquired had been purchased, not inherited, by the present owners. In this case, as in the others mentioned below, there is no evidence for the assertion that the king confiscated the land. Indeed, if all the land were his there would be no question of confiscation and no reason for the ruler to go through the motions of pretending to make a purchase. Surely, the fact that the king held "prior rights" over the land would have been no secret to the public!

A strong testimony to the idea of private property in arable land is provided by an Akkadian letter of the eighteenth century B.C.E. from Mari. The letter (number 45) was written by king Zimri-Lim to Yaqqim-Addu, governor of Saggaratum. A man protested to the king that a royal official had tried to take away his field in the following terms: "I hold 10 dikes of field (an item of) the last will (of my father) which my father purchased for me" (Heimpel 1997: 65, n.5). In other words, the individual believed that not even the king had a right to seize his land because he had inherited it from his father who had purchased it. Unless this man was a complete lunatic there is nothing "very recent" about the idea of private property!

The evidence for individual ownership becomes even more striking when due allowance is made for double counting among sellers and when so-called "secondary sellers" (actually witnesses) are eliminated . The most conspicuous participants in the land market are temple and palace officials, merchants, scribes, and shepherds. Women participate frequently as both sellers and buyers of land. Based on their consideration of the professions and titles of buyers and sellers, Gelb, Steinkeller, and Whiting (1991: 17) explain that in the third millennium "practically anyone could be either a seller or a buyer. This is especially important for the fields, since this evidence shows that landed property could be sold and consequently 'owned' by private persons and not exclusively by the temples or state as claimed until recently."

For example, a text from Lagash (southern Babylonia) of the mid-third millennium lists among the sellers of parcels of land the "big ones of the land," whose number includes a woman, and the "small ones of the land," also including a woman (Glassner 1989: 83-4). The obelisk of Sargon's son Manishtushu (2269-2255), according to Bottéro (1967: 114), "lists the lands he has acquired for sums adding up to something like 650 pounds of silver; there are about 650-odd acres of arable land in four large lots, each made up of parcels bought from individual proprietors (ninety-eight in all) and handed out by him to forty-nine new occupants" (but compare Gelb, Steinkeller, and Whiting 1991: 16). The sellers are designated as be-lu gan "lords of the field."

Again from Lagash there is a fragmentary text (ITT 2 5798 + 5893) in which king Sharkalisharri (2217-2193) purchases a large quantity of land (fields?) from a number of sellers. The document mentions several temple officials who are jointly identified as belu parsi of Lagash. Steinkeller (1999b: 556) translates this term as "temple-administrators" and he asserts that "the land transferred undoubtedly came from temple estates with which the sellers were institutionally connected." There is room for doubt, however. First, "the names and titles [if any] of the first five or six of the sellers are not preserved" (Steinkeller 1999b: 556). So perhaps they were private persons not temple-estate managers. Second, as I read Steinkeller's (1999b: 560-61) translation, it is not at all clear that the belu parsi were sellers of the land. It is significant in this respect that in Sumerian administrative and legal texts of Ur III times a term (lu-mar-za-k) that is the equivalent of bel parsi "describes a type of official witness" (Steinkeller 1999b: 562). There are, therefore, grounds to suspect that Lagash's belu parsi were not sellers but witnesses to the sale of the land. This much is clear: we are dealing with a land sale.

There is no evidence at all to reinforce Steinkeller's (1999b: 558) last line of defense against ancient private property that "these were compulsory sales, of course, which in the final analysis, amounted to confiscations."

Yet another Sargonic text (ITT 1 109) from Lagash mentions a large amount of silver as the "price of a field" (Steinkeller 1999b: 557). The size of the field and the identities of the transactors are not mentioned. A Sargonic text (Birmingham City Museum A501-1982) from Umma in southern Babylonia mentions a relatively large sale of fields by three sellers to a single buyer. The text does not include a list of witnesses, which suggests to Steinkeller (199b: 566) that it is a memo rather than a sale document proper. Steinkeller (1999b: 556) remarks that "Almost certainly, institutional-and not private land-is meant here." But the evidence does not justify Steinkeller's certainty. If any of the contractors were acting on behalf of an institution we might reasonably expect their administrative titles to be mentioned. They are not mentioned, however (Steinkeller 1999b: 557). Thus, the greater likelihood is that the fields belonged to the transactors, not to institutions. The sellers may well have been high Umma officials and the buyer "if one considers the high amount of the price paid must have been an important person" (Steinkeller 1999b: 557). But this is beside the point of whether the fields sold were privately owned.

2. Evidence for Other Areas

Important data testifying to a land market in the early second millennium are also available in Akkadian documents from Susa, a city in Iran on Mesopotamia's border. Land sales are found, as are sharecropping agreements and fixed rental contracts. Numerous deeds attest to the individual nature of land tenure. Children, having inherited their father's wealth, might divide it among themselves by casting lots and selling their property individually. In fourteenth-century Assyria, heirs to a landed estate might sell claims on the inheritance prior to the announcement of the details; the buyer received the option to "choose and take" from among the portions of the inheritance (in the scholarly literature this practice is called Gattungskauf or nonspecific sale). More generally, individuals were able to sell land termed zittu (inherited) as easily as land termed shi'amatu (purchased). Deeds of landed estates were deposited with creditors to secure loans. Contracts from Nuzi in eastern Assyria dating to the second half of the second millennium are of great interest and have been extensively discussed in the literature. Suffice it to say that Nuzi is noted for its ma_ru_tu-contract which disguised land sales as adoptions of the purchaser by the landowner. (I have discussed these texts elsewhere.) Sales of privately owned agricultural land, including the land of defaulting debtors, are also recorded in the early and later second millennium at Alalakh and Ugarit. Thus a resident of Ugarit named (C)huttenu sold 3 ik of this fields and its dimtu-building and received from Yapsharru 3 ik of arable land and 500 (sheklels) of silver (Heltzer 1996b: 180). Women appear in texts of Ugarit as purchasers and sellers not only of land but also of farmhouses, olive trees, and vineyards. For instance, Bat-rabi and her son Shubammu sold land to Tallaya daughter of ..., and so on. These transactions might involve relatively large sums (see Heltzer 1996b: 181-2). Further, an important text lists by name those individuals of two villages who owned fields in a third village. The text does not explain how the outsiders acquired their fields, but purchase is certainly not excluded.

We may also note the patriarch Abraham's purchase of land for silver in Genesis 23.12-18. Turning to other biblical evidence, note the report that King Omri "bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver; he built (a town) there and named the town which he built Samaria after Shemer" (1 Kings 16.24). Then there is King Ahab's famous, not to say infamous, offer to purchase for silver (or exchange) Naboth's vineyard in order to turn it into a vegetable garden for his palace (1 Kings 21.1-2). Naboth refused the offer saying that the vineyard was the "inheritance of my fathers" (v. 3). Baruch Levine (2003: 450) suggests that the "story seems to be predicated on the right of a landowner to refuse to sell to the king his 'ancestral estate'..." The other side of the coin, unless we assume that Ahab was completely out of touch with economic realities, is that the story is predicated on the existence of private property and a land market in Israel's supposedly "clan-based economy". No doubt the story truly reflects Naboth's motive in refusing to deal. Economists, however, are trained to be suspicious of noneconomic motives and must be forgiven for detecting "economic man" even in the most unlikely scenarios. Naboth's vineyard was after all strategically situated next to the palace and his refusal to sell an "ancestral estate" might be understood as a bargaining ploy to extract a higher price from Ahab. An economist might even venture the thought that Naboth's disguised attempt to exploit his (local) monopoly position was what so upset and angered Ahab (v. 4).

3. Some Evidence for Land Prices

Fragmentary land price data are available for Babylonia in the earlier second millennium. For one northern Babylonian city, Sippir, R. Harris (1975: 277) provides land rents, classified by irrigation area and date (indicated by the ruler's name), that show considerable variation. The field prices assembled by Stone (1977: 272) for Nippur in central Babylonia likewise vary substantially over time. Texts from Nuzi show steep variations in field prices even when account is taken of whether the field is irrigated or adjoins a watercourse (Zaccagnini 1979: 5-6). Beckman (1997: 100) examined 56 field sales at Emar and found that the prices ranged from 0.83 shekels to 215 shekels per sqare ik (assuming 120 cubits per ik.) Hallo's (1981) hypothetical restoration of a later-second-millennium cuneiform letter fragment found at Tell Aphek conveys the idea that articles (houses and fields?) in short supply sold at high prices.

Admittedly, sources of the observed variability in Near Eastern land prices would be difficult to isolate and quantify. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the evidence provides little comfort to those who, like Polanyi, would deny a role for supply and demand in determining land values.

4. Urban Real Estate Market

A few words may now be appended with respect to the urban real estate market. There is evidence that in Old Babylonian Sippir "roofed areas" were generally more expensive than "open areas," including unbuilt lots, courtyards, and unimproved land (see Van De Mieroop 1999: 270-1). This differential is as expected. However, Van De Mieroop (1999: 274) adds "It seems rare that someone moved into a neighborhood and bought himself a house as we do today." The texts do not disclose whether the buyer of a house is or is not a total stranger. Kozyreva's (1999) findings are of interest in this connection. In some 1,200 private urban real estate transactions in southern Mesopotamia dating to the early Old Babylonian period, the god most frequently mentioned in the seal inscriptions was the West Semitic deity Amurru. Therefore, "It seems logical to conclude that a considerable proportion of urban real estate buyers were the people who had moved into the cities rather recently, i.e., newcomers or their descendants" (Kozyreva 1999: 356). Van De Mieroop offers no convincing rebuttal to Kozyreva's logic. More basically, there is ample evidence of an urban real estate market including the sale and rental of houses or parts of houses (see e.g. Greengus 2001: 260-2).

5. Egypt

Baer (1962: 25-26) notes that "private individuals could own farm land at all periods of ancient Egyptian history," and the "acquisition of fields for private purposes is ... mentioned, from the earliest periods."

In the mid-third millennium, the mother of the entrepreneur/official Metjen conveyed her estate by means of an amat-per "house document". Metjen himself purchased land that was (k)her "under" persons termed neseweteyew "king's people" or, better, "citizens, subjects" (see Eyre 1999: 41). It quite possible that the sellers were seweteyew "colonists" This is the judgment of Mller-Wollerman (1987) who notes among other arguments that the word is determined by a sitting man and a sitting woman.

Somewhat later in the third millennium, we encounter such testimonies as "I 'sealed' a field of 23 arouras" "I bought twenty head of people and the 'sealing' of a large field" (Fischer 1961b: 49). The "sealing" refers, of course, to a deed. Baer (1962) explains that a term nemehew-na-land means "privately owned." The term is found in a document of the late Twentieth Dynasty (Papyrus Valencay 1) and in the late Twenty-third Dynasty, Stela of Ewerat. Ewerat states that he purchased land from private owners. It seems clear that the nemehew are private owners. Eyre's (1987b: 209) suggestion that they are a class of persons holding royal land in return for rendering military service is contradicted by the evidence that their plots were alienable and their payment of money or crop-taxes directly to the royal treasury.

However, Menu (2001a: 424) states that "The soil of Egypt is the exclusive property of the king." This assertion is the product of a "model", not of evidence. The evidence shows nothing of the kind. Indeed, Menu (2001a: 425) mentions fields termed nemehew "privately owned". Further, when, in the fourteenth century, Akhenaten constructed the city of Amarna the ruler did not claim (in his "Earlier Proclamation") that the land, like the rest in Egypt, was his "exclusive property". Instead, Akhenaten justified his claim by noting simply that the territory was not the property of of a deity or ruler and "not the property of any people to do business of theirs with it." In short, the land was unused and Akhenaten had found it "widowed"/"abandoned" (Murnane and van Siclen 1993: 37-8).

Documents quoting prices for fields are relatively rare. When, however, the available price data pertaining to different historical periods are compared they display wide fluctuations. Relatively low prices are noted for well-water-irrigated land and for "tired" land. Eyre (1987b: 204) notes that rental contracts are unknown in the New Kingdom. However, a (sharecropping) rental contract of the sixth century calls for the landlord to receive one-third of the grain crop while the tenant is to take "two-thirds in the name of oxen, seed-grain, and men" (G.R. Hughes 1952: 18, 75; there is some hint of sharecropping during the New Kingdom, ). The lessor also reserves the right to restitution for damage to his land. In other texts of this period the lessor calls upon the lessee to "make flax on the waste lands" (van Heel 1998: 342-43).