Any successful Near Eastern monarch, I’ve long held, was an actor in a great royal dynastic drama, with his political and military policies enhanced through rituals and spectacles. Analysing how rulers and heads of state stage their political acts – through the use of costumes, props, settings – can, as Lauren Ristvet argues, “provide an insight into how political decisions are made”. The central thesis in her fine study is that politics in Near Eastern civilisations were formed and maintained through the use of ritual and performance; in fact, performance was politics. She qualifies her idea with a wide chronological approach, from approximately 2600BC to 200BC, and with detailed analyses of inscriptions, architecture, art and even potsherds.
Of course, thinking about politics in terms of theatre is not new. Historians writing about the governance of Ancien Régime France, Tudor England, Mughal India and Qing China have found the metaphor of drama irresistible. No less a person than Elizabeth I declared that “We princes…are set on stages, in the sight of the world duly observed”, implying that monarchs could self-consciously regard themselves as performers in the drama of politics. While performance is a vital aspect of ancient politics no less than its modern equivalent, we have to concede that in more recent times, when real actors become heads of state, the consequences can be detrimental. Ronald Reagan once asked, “How can a president not be an actor?” He also said, “Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, coast for a while, and then have a hell of a close.”
Ristvet explores several well-chosen, but diverse, case studies to demonstrate the interaction of theatrical ritual and politics. The Babylonian Akitu festival, where the king played a ritual role intended to renew cosmic order, is analysed during the era of the Greek-speaking rulers of Mesopotamia (c.160BC). She examines, too, the early second-millennium feast of Ishtar at Mari, with its mass animal sacrifice, as a theatrical display of memory and legitimacy. Most vividly, she conjures up the ritual performances surrounding Princess Tabu-Damu’s progress into the city of Ebla and her wedding to King Ish’ar-Damu (c.2300BC).
Before these detailed case studies, though, she begins with some comparatives: the French Revolution, the Santa Fe fiesta, Mayan ancestor veneration and royal processions in Majapahit in Java. She opens with a focus on the grandiose folly of the 1971 Persepolis celebrations created by the Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, to commemorate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. But she misses the opportunity to think about the hollowness of the theatricality of those celebrations, strangely devoid of the depth of history that the event purported to celebrate. Ceremony without meaning is simply show business, and a similar reading might be had of the Shah’s ostentatious coronation ceremony in 1967 when he crowned himself, following what he insisted was ancient Persian precedent, but which was in fact a weird amalgamation of Napoleonic ceremonial and vacant theatricality.
In contrast, the ancient ceremonies Ristvet explores appear richly redolent and saturated with tradition. Her use of cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparatives could highlight such dichotomies more clearly: I’m always glad to see comparatives used, but they need to be employed thoughtfully and consistently, not as “opening credits”.
Ritual, Performance, and Politics in the Ancient Near East
By Lauren Ristvet
Cambridge University Press, 331pp, £65.00
Published 11 December 2014