Conference Report: The Strange and the Familiar

On August 23 and 24, the international conference “The Strange and the Familiar: Identity and Empire in the Ancient Near East” was held at the University of Helsinki. The conference was generously supported by the Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions (CSTT), the Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires (ANEE), and the Finnish Institute in the Middle East (FIME).

The conference analyzed the interaction of identity and empire in the ancient Near East during the second and first millennia BCE, themes that interact closesly with the research goals of ANEE. As the conference’s own title “the Strange and the Familiar” attested, another key aim of the conference was the investigation of how identity could be created through contrast, particularly with the foreign or unfamiliar, as well as considering how the frontier and the lands and peoples beyond it could be used as that marker of "otherness" necessary for identity construction.

Over four seperate sessions (Center and Periphery in the Late Bronze Age; Assyria and Babylona I; Assyrian and Babylonia II; Successors of Mesopotamia: Later Empires and Biblical Traditions) the conference papers and subsequent discusson tackled a number of themes, many of which intersected with the original guiding questions of the conference:

  • How do empires construct their own internal and external identity?

  • How are the borders of empire constructed and defined? How may a border be considered not only geographically, but also culturally, legally, and politically?
How is the foreign 'othered' within the space of empire? How are the inhabitants of conquered territories assimilated by empire? Alternatively, how do they maintain their own unique identity under empire?

  • What mechanics of power are employed by the empire to control its more peripheral regions? How is this control represented across textual genres?

  • How can we trace the impact of empire in the areas under imperial control? What can other avenues of evidence, such as archaeological and material finds, tell us about the influence of empire on identity?

Of course, the conference also moved into different directions over the course of the two days, ending with final closing remarks by Martti Nissinen and Saana Svärd. Here, the respective directors of CSTT and ANEE discussed the conference as a whole and the ways in which we may approach such topics as the interactions of inside/outside groups in empire, among others – leading to a final and increasingly messy diagram, added to and altered by a number of conference participants!