The term colonization has strong semantic associations with imperialism, especially that of nineteenth-century Europe where colonies were the political, military, and economic possessions of metropolitan powers, held by force and controlled by a bureaucratic machinery. Typical colonial situations involved dominant foreign minority populations that enjoyed juridically privileged access to land, labor, and raw materials, and that retained adherence to metropolitan imperial powers. Ancient empires differed from modern empires in their political structure and in their general emphasis on war loot and tribute payments. Even so, ancient systems minimally involved garrisons and bureaucratic outposts; the Akkadian “palace” at Tell Brak and the Gasur (Nuzi) archive reflect this military and administrative presence in northern Mesopotamia during the twenty-third century BCE. Imperialism could also involve direct control of land, whether by settling soldiers in the margins of empire (e.g., the Ur III state in the twenty-first century BCE and also the Athenian and Roman empires of later times), or by creating latifundia, large plantations worked by bound or slave labor (e.g., Achaemenid Persians in Babylonia). The Assyrian and Babylonian policy of deporting conquered peoples to create pacified labor pools in the first millennium counts as another form of imperial colonization.

New Foundations.

Although these imperial situations contain aspects of colonialism, several other kinds of situations in the ancient world created nonimperial colonies. The new Phoenician and Greek foundations around the Mediterranean basin during the Iron Age (eighth–sixth century) exemplifies one of these situations. Here, a population emigrated from an existing city-state to establish another. Unlike imperial colonies, these new communities were politically and economically independent from the founding city-state and displaced the indigenous population. The motives for the colonizing movement were variable, including competition for land and for the wealth that land represents, creation of trading stations with access to new markets, relief from overpopulation and food shortage in the mother city-state, and exile of disaffected political factions.

Trade Colonies.

Commercial communities that formed foreign quarters in cities were another, common “colonial” situation in the ancient Near East. In such cases, the foreigners were temporary residents who invested in financial instruments, not land or labor. The activities of these communities were commonly based on agreements between the local ruler and the trading association or foreign state in order to make more predictable (reduce risks) the commercial colony's legal standing, the conditions of trade, and protection costs. These agreements also acted to limit the political, and even economic, power of trading communities. Designated ports-of-trade established analogous legal conduits of trade in which trading privileges and restrictions were established by the local authority. Commercial colonies should be distinguished from trade diasporas in which dispersed members of an ethnic group (e.g., Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Indians in more recent Asian history) possessed special status as traders across vast regions, but did not enjoy connections to a metropolitan government.

The Akkadian word karum refers to the port or commercial quarter of Mesopotamian cities in general where explicit rules of conduct enforced peaceful and profitable trade with neighboring city-states and with more distant regions. The karum institution could operate in both nonimperial and imperial settings. For example, the karum at Sippar in northern Babylonia provided the institutional setting for traders from other Babylonian kingdoms and from Aššur, early in the second millennium; Sippar also hosted permanent communities from Eshnunna, Isin, and other Mesopotamian cities. Similarly, the Assyrian empire maintained karums for trade with Egypt and with Arwad (and from there with the Mediterranean), in order to regulate and supervise trade with places still outside direct imperial control. Other examples of a similar system, though less well known, include the community of Old Babylonian traders in the Persian Gulf (the alik Dilmun), and the Greek emporia (trade centers) at al-Mina (Syria) and Naukratis (Egypt).

The Old Assyrian Cappadocian karum system provides the best-known example of ancient commercial colonization. In operation during the early centuries of the second millennium, the karum system involved the presence in autonomous (and previously existing) cities of Central Anatolia of Assyrian traders and their families (which often included local wives). The traders represented private family firms or joint investment ventures based in Aššur, under the provisions of treaties between the local Anatolian king and the Assyrian authorities. The traders formed their own institutional structure and offices, to regulate the activities of, and to adjudicate disagreements between, members of the karum community, and to represent the karum in the local royal court. The best-known Assyrian karum in Anatolia is Kaneš (Kültepe) in Cappadocia; the textual evidence indicates that Assyrian trading colonies also existed at Alişar, Boğazköy (the later Hittite capital), and other places. The Kaneš archives record the transactions of Assyrian traders bringing woolen textiles and tin to Kaneš and beyond, where these commodities were exchanged for silver and other commodities to be trafficked in Aššur.

Archaeological Cases.

As the review of colonies in the ancient Near East suggests, many of the clearest examples date to the second and first millennia BCE, when the textual sources provide most of the evidence. In earlier periods or in less habitually literate areas of western Asia at any time, archaeological evidence suggests colonialism in certain cases.

The Uruk expansion.

The Late Uruk period of southern Mesopotamia presents very strong evidence for a colonial expansion into the surrounding regions. The archaeological evidence falls into several distinct patterns. In the Susiana plain of western Iran, an essentially Uruk assemblage replaced the indigenous culture. The transformation was virtually complete; the previous tradition of painted pottery and stamp seals disappeared, replaced by Uruk pottery and the Uruk administrative technology (cylinder seals, jar sealings, bullae [impressed tags of metal or clay that in Uruk times formed hollow balls] and tokens, and eventually numerical notation tablets). This cultural replacement strongly suggests colonization and cultural absorption of the Susiana plain into southern Mesopotamia.

New foundations outside southern Mesopotamia represent a second pattern, best seen at Habuba Kabira, Tell Qannas, and Jebel ῾Aruda on the middle Euphrates in Syria. Habuba Kabira South, the town, and Tell Qannas, the acropolis, formed a walled settlement at least 20 hectares (50 acres) in size. The settlement possessed regularly laid-out streets, and gives every indication of being a planned foundation. Just to the north Jebel ῾Aruda contained monumental buildings surrounded by residential structures, and may have been the administrative center for the Uruk communities in the area. The material culture in these sites was almost entirely Uruk in nature, including a wide variety of southern Mesopotamian pottery, administrative devices, and styles of public and private architecture. Habuba Kabira and its sister sites seem to have been occupied 150 years or fewer, toward the end of the Late Uruk period.

Godin, in the Zagros mountains of southwest Iran, presents another distinctive pattern; Uruk materials are associated with a walled compound that contains small rooms arranged around a courtyard (Godin V) within an otherwise local settlement (Godin VI). Inside the Uruk compound, roughly one-third of the pottery is local and the rest Uruk related; in addition to the pottery, Uruk materials include seals and sealings, and numerical notation tablets. Like Habuba Kabira, the Uruk presence at Godin V appears to have been relatively short-lived and dates toward the end of the Late Uruk period. Some scholars have attributed Godin V to the slightly later Proto-Elamite phenomenon.

Other sites combine Uruk and local traits. For example, at Hassek Höyük in southeastern Turkey the architecture is strongly Uruk in character, but the local Late Chalcolithic pottery outnumbers the Uruk-related assemblage and both local and Uruk seals occur. Elsewhere, southern Mesopotamian materials, often only beveled-rim bowls and a few other pottery types, appear as minor elements in otherwise local Late Chalcolithic sites in western Iran, Syro-Mesopotamia, and eastern Anatolia. Southern Mesopotamian materials even appear in the eastern Nile Delta, at Tell Fara'in (Buto).

The Uruk expansion has received several different interpretations. Some have considered it to represent flight from the growing power of state government in southern Mesopotamia. Others have appealed to a Greek analogy, thinking of colonization as relief from overpopulation as well as a search for trading opportunities. The most common explanation is commercial, in which the Uruk settlements and enclaves were optimally situated to direct both riverine and overland traffic into southern Mesopotamia. In its strongest form, this argument considers the Uruk expansion to have been a conscious, state-directed policy of empire, probably the consequence of competition among the emerging city-states. Although sites like Habuba Kabira and Godin V date to the late Late Uruk period, the Uruk expansion actually began in Middle Uruk times. The expansion therefore was not simply a sudden explosive state-administered enterprise, and took several distinct forms (e.g., new foundations, commercial colonies) through time, for which no single explanation can adequately account.

Egypt in Early Bronze Age Palestine.

A similar situation appears in southern Palestine and northern Sinai during Early Bronze (EB) Age I times (c. 3400–3000). Surveys and excavations in northern Sinai and southern Palestine have revealed a complex picture of intensifying Egyptian involvement with the southern Levant. Early Gerzean (Naqada II) pottery, both imported and locally made, appeared in sites like Tel ῾Erani, Fara H, and Taur Ikhbeineh during the early EBA I period, and the evidence hints that some Egyptians lived in southern Palestine (e.g., the concentration of Egyptian artifacts in a single building at Fara H). In the reciprocal direction, notable amounts of early EB I pottery and some cast copper objects in Palestinian forms appeared at Maadi and Minshat Abu Omar in Lower Egypt. These early EB I manifestations of an Egyptian involvement with southern Palestine culminated during the late EB I, when evidence for colonies becomes widespread.

The two best-known sites are Tel ῾Erani and ῾Ein-Besor. Egyptian pottery appears virtually throughout the Tel ῾Erani sequence, and accounts for nearly half the pottery in stratum V, to which is also assigned a serekh (palace-facade design pattern) of dynasty o (3200–3100 BCE). Petrographic analysis of the Egyptian pottery indicates that most of it was made in southern Palestine, and only a small proportion was imported from Egypt. The pottery locally made in Egyptian styles significantly has a diversity of functional forms, whereas the imported pottery is mostly containers. At ῾Ein-Besor III, roughly 90 percent of the pottery is Egyptian in style, and most of it seems to have been imported; as at Tel ῾Erani, the pottery assemblage covers a wide range of functional forms, and other Egyptian objects also occur. A small house built according to Egyptian standards contained a corpus of Egyptian-style clay bullae used to track grain and other goods collected as taxes, and their subsequent distribution. Petrographic analysis indicates that the bullae were locally made, and the seals impressed on the bullae differ in workmanship and sign combinations from those found in Egypt. The bullae seem to reflect the internal administrative regulation of an Egyptian community at the site.

Clusters of very small sites of this period are strung out along the northern Sinai coast. The heavy erosion or deflation of these sites may account for the lack of stratigraphy and the apparent absence of architecture. The sites contain cooking and baking installations, domestic pottery (including baking trays and bread molds), and stone tools. Roughly 80 percent of the pottery is Egyptian (dynasties 0–1, c. 3200–2900 BCE); petrographic analysis indicates that it was produced in Egypt. In contrast to the wide functional range of the Egyptian pottery, the local pottery consists mostly of storage jars.

The EB I episode of an Egyptian presence in southern Palestine has been variably interpreted. Most recent assessments of Egyptian colonization indicate that it endured some 150 to 200 years and involved at least several hundred people whose communities performed the full range of activities expected in both domestic and public administrative contexts. Some scholars see these communities as Egypt's first military foray into the area. In this scenario, the Egyptian settlements in northern Sinai and southern Palestine represent way-stations and forts in a crown-sponsored system of administered trade. Other interpretations strip away the aspect of military control, and describe the Egyptian communities as forming a purely peaceful commercial network. State sponsorship of the commercial network is unnecessary to this interpretation, and the local nature of the ῾Ein-Besor sealings suggests minimal, direct crown involvement in this community. In both scenarios, the basic incentive for colonies was improved access to Asiatic commodities, which may have included various woods, resins, honey, turquoise, and copper.

Other early cases.

The Proto-Elamite period (c. 3100–2900) of southwestern Iran witnessed a phenomenon of expansion similar to that of Uruk Mesopotamia. During this period, an assemblage of beveled-rim bowls, painted pottery, Proto-Elamite seals and sealings, and Proto-Elamite tablets appeared at Susa (immediately after the Late Uruk period) and at Tal-i Malyan in Fars (the Banesh phase). This same complex of items also appeared in local contexts at places like Tepe Sialk on the Kashan plain and Tepe Yahya in Kirman, and elements of the complex have been found as far east as Shahr-i Sokhta in Seistan and Hissar on the Damghan plain. The Proto-Elamite expansion is often seen as an effort to control trade routes and to acquire foreign materials; less thoroughly documented than the Uruk case, however, its use of commercial colonies, new foundations, and/or imperial colonization remains uncertain.

The Indus (Harappan) civilization provides a final example of early colonization, revealed by an enclave of small Harappan settlement in eastern Bactria, and strongly Harappan settlements around the Gulf of Oman. Shortugai in Bactria and approximately 700 km (435 mi.) from the Indus Valley contains a completely Indus assemblage, including painted pottery, inscribed sherds, stamp seals, and construction along Indian standards. On the southeastern Arabian coast, the buildings at Ras al-Junayz belong neither to local nor to Harappan architectural traditions; but the artifacts from these buildings include numerous Indus-style objects (painted pottery, inscribed sherds, seals, beads, and ivory objects) alongside pottery painted in local Arabian styles and locally made stone bowls. The location of Shortugai and Ras al-Junayz at strategic points on trade routes or near raw materials (lapis lazuli, copper, possibly tin) have lead many scholars to interpret them as trading communities. But these settlements represent different situations—Shortugai appears to have been a thoroughly Harappan settlement inhabited by people from the Indus valley, whereas Ras al-Junayz expresses a strong Indian presence in a local context.


In the above examples, a basic distinction is made between nonimperial and imperial varieties of colonization. The clearest examples of nonimperial colonization were commonly associated with trade. In many cases, commercial colonies were permanent communities that operated under formal agreements between local authorities and the metropolitan government or trade association. Greek colonization of the Mediterranean basin aside, these commercial colonies typically were uninterested in agricultural land or labor. Ancient empires focused on extracting tribute payments, rather than direct control over land and labor. This kind of imperialism required that military garrisons and bureaucratic officials be stationed in subject areas, but often did not encourage the presence of wider segments of the dominant society. Accordingly, colonization was a secondary aspect of ancient empires before the Achaemenids. Moreover, empire and trading colony were alternative ways of acquiring foreign goods, and trade often led to empire. An early (literary) example is Sargon's excuse for campaigning in eastern Anatolia to protect Mesopotamian traders there, and the Akkadian habit of referring to places by their desirable products (e.g., the Silver Mountain). The Late Uruk expansion may present an older example, in which new foundations at places like Habuba Kabira may have attempted direct control over trade that previously had been less formally conducted.

[Most of the sites and civilizations mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Algaze, Guillermo “The Uruk Expansion: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Early Mesopotamian Civilization.” Current Anthropology 30 (1989): 571–608.
    Review of evidence for the Uruk expansion and presentation of the informal empire and control of trade argument. See as well Algaze's The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Early Mesopotamian Civilization (Chicago, 1993), together with critical commentaries from other scholars
  • Amiet, Pierre. L'âge des échanges inter-iraniens. Paris, 1986.
    Magisterial overview of interregional connections on the Iranian plateau during the fourth and third millennia BCE, addressing Late Uruk, Proto-Elamite, Indus, and Central Asian materials
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon. “New Light on the Relations between Egypt and Southern Palestine during the Early Bronze Age.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 281 (1991): 3–10.
    Recent summary of the evidence for the Egyptian presence in southern Palestine during the EBA I, presenting the commercial colonies interpretation
  • Boardman, John. The Greeks Overseas. Rev. ed. London, 1980.
    Standard review of Greek colonization in the Mediterranean and Black Sea
  • Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge, 1984.
    Reviews “trade diasporas” and commercial colonization in history, with special attention to Asia and Africa, providing a set of useful concepts for understanding these phenomena
  • Doyle, Michael. Empires. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.
    Comparative study of the sociology of ancient and modern empires, with special attention to understanding the conditions of formal versus informal empire and colonization
  • Finley, Moses I. “Colonies: An Attempt at a Typology.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, ser. 5, vol. 26 (1976): 167–188.
    Thoughtful investigation into the varieties of colonialism in the ancient and modern world
  • Francfort, H.-P. Fouilles de Shortugai. Paris, 1989.
    Final report on the French excavation at this Indus site in eastern Afghanistan
  • Joffe, Alexander. “Early Bronze I and the Evolution of Social Complexity in the Southern Levant.” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 4.1 (1991): 3–58.
    Interpretive essay on the antecedents to EBA II–III urbanism of the southern Levant that assigns a limited role to EBA I Egyptian colonization
  • Kemp, Barry J. “Imperialism and Empire in New Kingdom Egypt, c. 1575–1087. B.C.” In Imperialism in the Ancient World, edited by P. D. A. Garnsey and C. R. Whittaker, pp. 7–57. Cambridge, 1978.
    Review of Egyptian imperialism and colonization that distinguishes the situation in Nubia from that in Syro-Palestine during the Late Bronze Age
  • Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. “The Proto-Elamites on the Iranian Plateau.” Antiquity 52 (1978): 114–120.
    Review of evidence for the Proto-Elamite involvement on the Iranian plateau, seen in the context of trade
  • Larsen, Mogens T. The Old Assyrian City-State and Its Colonies. Copenhagen, 1976.
    Standard discussion of the political, legal, and economic organization of the Old Assyrian Cappadocian trade
  • Larsen, Mogens T., ed. Power and Propaganda: A Symposium on Ancient Empires. Copenhagen, 1979.
    Collection of essays on the motives and representations of imperialism in ancient western Asia, and discussions of the relationship between trade and imperialism
  • Oren, Eliezer D. “Early Bronze Age Settlement in Northern Sinai: A Model for Egypto-Canaanite Interconnections.” In L'urbanisation de la Palestine à l'âge du Bronze ancien: Bilan et perspectives des recherches actuelles; Actes du Colloque d'Emmaüs, 20–24 octobre 1986, edited by Pierre de Miroschedji, pp. 389–405. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 527. Oxford, 1989.
    Presents the imperial control interpretation of the Egyptian presence in southern Palestine during the EBA I
  • Stolper, Matthew W. Entrepreneurs and Empire: The Murasû Archive, the Murasû Firm, and Persian Rule in Babylonia. Leiden, 1985.
    Examines the financial and administrative impact on land-tenure and taxation of the Achaemenids in Babylonia

Christopher Edens