“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 7)

After the collapse of the Ur III Dynasty in the Middle East around 2000 BCE the region fragmented into several different rival states which fought amongst themselves trying to establish overall political control. This lasted throughout the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age, until the Assyrian Empire rose to control the whole region in the late 8th Century BCE. This chapter of the book is split into three sections, and this blog post is only really about the first of these which covers the earlier and more southern & eastern states in the region.

Orientation Dates

  • 2100-1600 BCE – the Xia Dynasty in China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE – Egypt’s Middle Kingdom

Power Struggles: Kingdoms at War

The chapter as a whole is positioned as being about power struggles between the various polities, although it is mostly a geographical and temporal survey of the states in question. In fairness to the book it seems hard to draw out a narrative for this period that covers the whole region. Before there were either a collection of culturally related but politically distinct city states, or the Akkadian Empire or Ur III Dynasty empire. After this, there will be the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire. But this intermediate period has some key players and a whole selection of minor or temporary states – followed by the rise of the Assyrians (which is interrupted by the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE). So despite my increasing tendency to judge this book harshly (it really needed a stronger editorial hand at the tiller) it also seems a complex period to distil into a single chapter overview.

The Growth of City States

One of the themes immediately after the collapse of the Ur III Dynasty is that the Amorites infiltrate into the pre-existing settlements and city states of the region. The Amorites are a cultural group from what’s now Syria and in contrast to the many city states of Mesopotamia they were still nomadic to some degree until the Middle Bronze Age. They first show up in the historical record during the Akkadian Empire, and are also one of the peoples against whom the Ur III kings built their walls. During the Middle Bronze Age they seem to have had a knack for integrating into and coming to dominate the elites of many city states. For instance there are 17 Amorite “kings who dwelt in tents” who become part of the Assyrian King List, despite the fact that they are clearly not from Assur and not Assyrian.

One of the cities the Amorites ruled was Eshnunna – located in the Diyala River Valley in modern east central Iraq, with a modern name of Tell Asmar. This city had been a significant Sumerian city in the Early Dynastic period, but after becoming independent from the Ur III Dynasty c.2017 BCE it is ruled over by a series of 19 Amorite kings. The penultimate one of these was Dadusha who issued a legal code that has survived in two copies. Like the slightly later (but better known) code of Hammurabi the laws are of the format “if X occurs, then Y shall be done”. The 60 or so laws cover a wide variety of subjects from loans and deposits to sexual offences and marital rights.

Around 1766 BCE Eshnunna was captured by the Elamites whose heartland was to the north in modern southwestern Iran. The Elamites had been ruled over first by the Akkadians and then the Ur III Dynasty, from whom they won their independence around the same time as Eshnunna did. They spoke a language that is an isolate with no known relatives either modern or ancient. Their conquest of Eshnunna and thus foothold in Mesopotamia made them a “power-broker” in the politics of the region. But c.1500 BCE their ruling dynasty collapses (for unknown reasons) and subsequently they are less important politically. They continue to exist as a culture, however – 500 years later Elamite archers are referred to as an important part of the Persian army.

The city of Assur was captured by Amorites around 1814 BCE, the conqueror (Shamshi-adad I) went on to add most of Upper Mesopotamia to his kingdom before he died in c.1781 BCE. Before he took over Assur he was king of an Amorite city to the south by the bank of the Tigris River. However, the Eshnunna discussed above captured his city driving him into exile in Babylon. Once he returned and captured Assur he took pains to retroactively integrate himself and his father into the pre-existing Assyrian elite – both of them appear on the later Assyrian King List and he claimed descent from the earlier rulers of Assur. He reigned as “Great King” or “King of the Universe”, installing his sons as subsiduary kings in strategic locations (one in his original city, and one in Mari which was a prominent city on the Euphrates River). His empire didn’t long outlast him – his sons failed to rule the territory as a cohesive unit and some of their subject cities took advantage of the disruption. One of these sons (Ishme-dagan) was put back on his throne in Ekallatum with the help of Hammurabi but this reduced his status from king in his own right to a vassal of the Babylonians.

Hammurabi had come to the throne of Babylon c.1792 BCE when it was a small state surrounded by more powerful rivals – by the time he died in c.1750 BCE he ruled over the whole of Mesopotamia proper. He wasn’t the first ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon, but we don’t know much about the rulers for the hundred or so years preceding him. Judging by Hammurabi’s name, and the names of some of his predecessors they are likely to’ve been Amorites originally. At the start of Hammurabi’s reign he concentrated on internal affairs – infrastructure, his code of laws – rather than on expansion of his empire. Babylon was at this time a “junior partner” in an alliance with Shamshi-adad I of Assyria, a situation to be reversed later in Hammurabi’s reign as I discussed above. By 1763 BCE Hammurabi was starting to flex his muscles (metaphorically speaking), and he unified Southern Mesopotamia under his rule shortly after – starting to call himself King of Sumer and Akkad in the style of the Akkadian empire from the 3rd Millennium BCE. He went on to conquer much of the north as well over the next decade. When he died his large state didn’t long outlast him with various territories declaring independence during the reign of his successor. However the book (rather vaguely) still positions this as the start of some sort of continuity for the next 1,000 years of Babylon as a key political player in the region albeit with interruptions and changes of dynasty.

Documentary sources for life in Hammurabi’s Babylonian state come from a couple of different sources. One of these is a large number (thousands) of legal contracts discovered at several different sites throughout southern Mesopotamia. These cover subjects such as purchase of property, loans of silver or barley, marriages, divorces and so on. As well as contracts there are also lawsuits, and most famously the Code of Laws set down by Hammurabi in the early years of his reign. These give evidence of the day to day life of the state which is complemented by a collection of hundreds of letters between Hammurabi and his subordinates (and amongst those subordinates). The letters mostly date to the last dozen or so years when the empire was at its largest and discuss things such as tax collection, the repair & dredging of canals and so on – the bureaucratic minutiae of running a large empire. A third source is less bureaucratic – the literature of the era also survives, including copies the scribes made of literature from earlier times. This includes the creation of the Epic of Gilgamesh from several different earlier Sumerian sources. The scribes didn’t just translate or copy the original Sumerian stories, they wove them together into a cohesive single narrative.

This section of the chapter also includes a double page spread about iron. The Iron Age isn’t considered to start in the Near East till around 1200 BCE, later than the scope of this chapter, but there is some sporadic use of iron before this (even going back as far as the 5th Millennium BCE) . This is known both from objects that’ve been discovered by archaeologists, and also by textual references (such as a gift of an iron ring from the King of Mari to a neighbouring king around 1780 BCE). Early iron objects were probably mostly made from meteoric iron, but some iron would also have been produced as a by-product of copper smelting. Even at the time iron was considered superior to bronze, it was just harder to produce and to work. Once the appropriate techniques had been discovered they remained specialised knowledge in a few regions before gradually spreading throughout the Middle East in the late 2nd Millennium BCE. The book also mentions in passing that the current chronology of iron working may be too conservative – there are iron working installations discovered in Georgia that at the time this book was written were tentatively dated to 1500 BCE, which pushes back the iron age in that area by a few centuries.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 6)

The last part of the Mesopotamia chapter in this book covers the Third Dynasty of Ur, which was a Sumerian empire that arose a short time after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. The book doesn’t give dates for the empire – having looked at the wikipedia page I think that’s because there’s a high degree of uncertainty about when the dates were. Two different possibilities are 2112-2004 BCE or 2055-1940 BCE.

Orientation Dates:

  • 2181-2055 BCE – Egypt’s First Intermediate Period
  • 2100-1600 BCE – the Xia dynasty of China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE – Egypt’s Middle Kingdom

The City of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur rose to prominence in Mesopotamia a little while after the Akkadian Empire fell. In between the region was dominated by the Gutians, who were a mountain people and we know little about them. The ruler of Uruk eventually raised an army to drive out the Gutians, but it was Ur-Nammu from the city of Ur who founded a new empire. It’s not clear how Ur-Nammu actually came to power – there’s evidence he might’ve been a governor under the king of Uruk, or perhaps a military leader. And then he either inherited from or lead a coup against the king of Uruk and founded the only Sumerian Empire in Mesopotamia’s history. The empire (often referred to as Ur III) reached as far as Syria and Elam and was divided into two parts. The core of the empire was under the king’s direct rule, and the peripheral territories were independently ruled but economically controlled by the empire (i.e. paying tribute).

When Ur-Nammu died (perhaps in battle) after a reign of 17 years he was succeeded by his son Shulgi, who reigned for 48 years. One of these two rulers wrote a code of laws that still survives in fragmentary form, and is the first we know to’ve existed. Traditionally it’s ascribed to Ur-Nammu, but the book suggests that Shulgi is more plausible given his longer reign (over an empire that already existed rather than needing to be conquered). Shulgi also reorganised the administration of the empire – under his rule the city state rulers became governors with no military power, and he stationed garrisons in particularly troublesome regions. He instituted a practice of using an army of foreign mercenaries to control the outlying territories. He was deified during his lifetime, although most of his achievements as listed in the book seem prosaic rather than godly! These included standardising tax collection, developing state archives and a state army.

Shulgi was succeeded by his son Amar-Sin, who fought many wars against the Amorites and the Hurrians. He only reigned for 10 years before dying of natural causes and being succeeded by his brother Shu-Sin. The Amorites continued to fight against the Ur III empire, and pushed them back to their heartlands. Shu-Sin actually constructed a wall between the two rivers to try and hold back the Amorites. The book doesn’t say if this worked or not … After Shu-Sin died (after a decade on the throne) he was succeeded by his son Ibbi-Sin who was to be the last of the kings of Ur III. He built walls too, round cities rather than between rivers however. Despite a fairly long reign (perhaps 20 years) he wasn’t a strong king and the empire began to crumble almost immediately.

At its height the empire of the Ur III dynasty was a sophisticated and prosperous society. Taxes were collected across the empire on crops, livestock, labour and land. Any surpluses (I’m unclear if the book meant from the taxation or more generally) were redistributed fairly – not just to the temple bureaucracies but also to the poor. How much the common people actually benefited from the prosperity of the empire isn’t entirely clear, nor is their precise place in society. An older theory is that they were pretty much just indentured servants, but more recent analysis is that it’s more complicated. In theory it should be possible to find out a lot about the Ur III economy as thousands of texts detailing commercial transactions such as loans, leases of land and slave purchases etc have been found from this period. But the book says that no-one has done a systematic analysis of them in order to gain a complete picture (reading between the lines it sounds like the author of this particular section doesn’t agree with what analysis has been done). One thing these texts demonstrate at even a cursory level of analysis is that despite this being a Sumerian Empire, Akkadian is the language of administration. The book says that Sumerian was still the language of literature and every literate citizen had to learn it, but Akkadian was the language that people actually used for their day to day lives.

Why did the Ur III empire fall? The book says that it might better to cast this as “how did it ever succeed in the first place?”, but sadly doesn’t answer that question but goes on to consider why it fell. The suggestion is that it was a perfect storm of adverse conditions including climate change, attacks from nomadic groups from outside the empire (for instance the Amorites) and urban restlessness, combined with a king whose administrative & leadership weren’t up to the (admittedly difficult) job. Despite the broad brush strokes being unclear the details of the last king’s downfall are quite well known – royal correspondence, poetry and an administrative archive from the period have all survived. Ibbi-Sin had been persuaded to appoint Ishbi-Erra as governor of some of the cities of the empire whilst Ibbi-Sin was away fighting the Elamites. Ishbi-Erra began to assume royal privileges and he eventually proclaimed himself ruler over all of southern Mesopotamia including Ur itself where Ibbi-Sin still ruled. The Ur III empire took another 14 or so years to properly fizzle out, finished off by a famine. There’s surviving poetry recording the end of the empire that is similar to the later Book of Lamentations in the bible.

As well as this historical trot through the rise & fall of Ur III this section of the book also includes a couple of sections on the arts & architecture of this period. The first of these is about ziggurats which were the longest lasting temple designs in the Middle East: the earliest known date to at least the 4th Millennium BCE and they were still being built in the 6th Century BCE. They are monumental structures composed of two to seven tiers of platforms rising high into the sky. Access was via ramps, and at the topmost level there was an altar for making burnt offerings (or alternatively for cooking meals for the gods). As with Egyptian temples (and in contrast to Christian churches) these were not places for public worship, instead they were a place for the god to live. The platforms emphasised the separation from humanity on the ground and the gods in the sky, and only priests and rulers were permitted to go up to the top.

Replica Headdress & Jewellery

The last double page spread of the chapter looks at the precious metal working and jewellery of Mesopotamia from it’s earliest known examples through to the end of the Ur III empire (I think, the dating isn’t clear in the text). Gold and silver aren’t found in Mesopotamia, but precious metal working still starts early in the 4th Millennium BCE with imported raw materials. The preferred designs were natural and geometric motifs, like leaves or spirals. Jewellery was made from gold or silver leaf and set with semi-precious stones. It was worn by both men & women, and possibly children too, as well as by statues of the gods. Jewellery might confer protection on the wearer – for instance lapis lazuli items meant you were protected by the sky god Anu. The picture above shows a replica of a headdress found by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s in the royal tombs at Ur (it’s in the British Museum now). These tombs are the source of a lot of our knowledge of Sumerian jewellery, in particular the tomb of Queen Pu’abi (and all her (young, healthy) attendants who were all interred at the same time).

The fall of the Ur III empire is considered the dividing line between the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age, and the next chapter on the book is about the power struggles between the various kingdoms of that period.

In Our Time: The Estruscan Civilisation

The Etruscans were one of the other cultures to live in Italy in the 1st Millenium BCE. They are often overlooked in favour of the Romans (who conquered them), but they were a power in their day and even ruled over Rome for a while early in its history. They were the subject of an In Our Time episode from 2011 which we listened to recently, and discussing Etruscan history and culture were Phil Perkins (Open University), David Ridgway (University of London) and Corinna Riva (University College London).

The Etruscan culture began around 800 BCE and lasted for the next 800 or so years. They lived north of Rome in an area roughly the same as modern Tuscany – the similarity of the words Etruscan and Tuscany is not a coincidence. Their origins are obscure, Herodotus said they came from Lydia (in modern Turkey) and there is some controversial DNA evidence that suggests a Middle Eastern origin but as described by Perkins* this is unconvincing. The study only looked at Y chromosome sequences from modern inhabitants of Tuscany, and it’s not clear how (or if) they decided who was likely to’ve been descended from the Etruscans. Nor did their results give any indication of when this Middle Eastern origin was so it’s not clear if it has any bearing on distinguishing the Etruscans from other inhabitants of Italy – after all, most of our ancestors in Europe came via the Middle East on the way out of Africa many 10s of millennia ago! The consensus from the experts on the programme was that this was all rather implausible, and it was more likely that their immediately preceding history was as inhabitants of Italy. Interestingly, however, their language is not an Indo-European language and has no modern relatives.

*Perkins didn’t explain it terribly well though – I wasn’t clear if he didn’t understand it very well or if he just wasn’t producing a coherent explanation.

There is not much surviving textual evidence from the Etruscans themselves – most of what is written down is by the Romans. There is no surviving Etruscan literature at all, and only a few inscriptions. These are in both temples and tombs and written in a modified Greek alphabet, but they just tend to name people or gods and give genealogies. Why there is no literature is an interesting question with no clear answer. It seems implausible that they didn’t produce any written literature – given the time and place where they lived, and the level of sophistication, wealth and power shown by the archaeological evidence. This implies that the literature was destroyed – and one persistent theory is that there was a purge during the time of the Roman Empire (after Claudius was Emperor, I think they said) to wipe out the memory of their rival civilisation. Nobody on the programme was willing to say that this was true, but they seemed to agree that it was pretty plausible it’s just there’s no evidence for it one way or the other.

In contrast to the paucity of texts from the Etruscans there is a wealth of archaeological evidence. The way they phrased it on the programme was that in Tuscany it’s not the Roman ruins you go to see, it’s the Etruscan ones. Even by the standards of Italy this is an area rich in ancient sites. Tombs and graveyards are the main sources of information about the Etruscans – these sites include grave goods, wall paintings and some inscriptions. A few temples and city buildings have also been excavated.

Thinking of the Etruscans as a state is anachronistic. Like Greek culture of the time they were a group of independent city states which shared a common language, culture and religion. Their religion is only known from what the Romans wrote about it, but it appears to’ve been different in emphasis to the surrounding cultures. The origin story for their religion is someone (a mythical/mystical figure) teaching them how to interpret the omens. The worshipper doesn’t pray to the gods and ask them for help or favours. Instead one’s religious duty is to interpret the messages the gods are sending via signs & portents – a one way route of communication.

The 6th Century BCE was the heyday of the Etruscan culture. The hills of Tuscany have rich mineral deposits including both tin and copper. Together these metals make bronze – and so were much sought after at the time. The Etruscans could not only outfit their own people with weapons and tools, but also traded extensively around the Mediterranean. They were later called a warlike people, but the consensus on the programme was that there’s no evidence of them being worse than anyone else at the time. This was, after all, a warlike period. Their artistic culture is sometimes dismissed as “copying the Greeks but getting it wrong” but the experts were unanimous in declaring this bobbins (rather more politely tho). The Etruscans had a sophisticated artistic and architectural style, which had clearly been influenced by the Greeks but was also uniquely their own. They did often employ imported Greek artists, as they were seen as the best of their day. Ridgway referred to their style as being less bland than the Classical Greek style.

The Etruscans had an influence on Roman art, culture and politics. This is not surprising, as Rome is not very far from Etruscan territory and early in its history it was “just another city state” rather than being the juggernaut of empire that it later became. Early in Roman history they were even ruled by one of the Etruscan city states. Later however the Romans conquered and assimilated the Etruscans. As pointed out above, the Etruscans weren’t one cohesive unit so the Romans could conquer them a bit at a time rather than face all of them en masse. They had influence in the Roman political arena much later than one might expect, given they were conquered by Rome around the 4th Century BCE. The Emperor Augustus was supported during the civil war (preceding him becoming Emperor) by several old Etruscan families. These families were the aristocracy of the old Etruscan city states but had been assimilated into the Roman society and political elite by this point. However they were seen as a distinct and influential cultural bloc, that was necessary to get “on side” if you were making a power play. Later still Claudius was married to the daughter of one of these families (who persuaded him to write a history of the Etruscans, now sadly vanished without trace).

I knew pretty much nothing about the Etruscans before I listened to this programme, beyond the simple fact of their existence. I know the British Museum has a room displaying their culture, and this programme has made me want to have a proper look at it sometime.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 5)

The Middle East book is starting to get into the realm of real dates for events, and so I’m including some reference points for what else is happening in the world c.2900BCE to c.2200BCE. For this chapter my only points of comparison are in Egypt – the earliest potentially datable Chinese dynasty were the Xia in 2100BCE so a little later on.

Orientation dates:

  • c.3150-2686 BCE – Early Dynastic Egypt, the first two dynasties.
  • 2686-2181 BCE – Old Kingdom Egypt
  • c.2560 BCE – building of the Great Pyramid at Giza

The Emergence of City States

Despite the title of this section of the chapter it is not so much about the birth of city states as a concept (that was the last bit of the chapter) but more about the growth of these and the first couple of unified empires in Mesopotamia. At first the early city states were independent of each other, and were frequently in conflict over the limited agricultural resources of the region. This Early Dynastic Period (2900-2300 BCE) is characterised by rivalries between the city states. The first to establish itself as a major centre for the surrounding region was Uruk, with Lagash and Umma developing into such after 2500 BCE. Some cities became more symbolically important – like Nippur (which was where the shrine of Enlil (a major deity) was), or Kish. In both cases being able to say you were king of the city implied that you were endorsed by their gods and so “should” have sovereignty over other cities. The first ruler over a unified Sumeria came from Umma and reigned from 2375 BCE to 2350 BCE, but Lugalzagesi’s empire didn’t outlive him. The first lasting empire was that of Sargon, ruler of Akkad, who proclaimed himself King of Sumer and Akkad (a title that was used for the next 200 years).

The Royal Standard of Ur (see pic below) dates from this era (c. 2600-2400 BCE) and there’s a small sidebar in the book about warfare in Sumeria illustrated by the decoration on this object. Most of the soldiers would’ve been foot soldiers – but they did also have chariots of a sort. They were drawn by onagers (wild asses) and were heavier than later chariots, so probably actually used as mobile observation platforms than as battle weapons. At first the military leadership was separate from the city rulership, but as warfare became more important the two roles merged.

Royal Standard of Ur

Again the book is a trifle confused in its organisation as the next double page spread about the city of Uruk reiterates much of the info that the previous section of this chapter gave us (but with new pictures). The key point for this era is that Uruk’s political importance decreased in the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period. However, the increasing importance of the legends of Uruk’s foundation by Gilgamesh indicate that the city continued to have religious significance.

The city state of Lagash rose to prominence during this era. The state of Lagash had three centres: the economic one was the city of Lagash itself, Girsu was the religious and political centre and there was a further temple precinct at Nina. The people of Lagash seem to’ve been particularly keen on war, as evidenced by their local patron gods. One was their version of the war god Ninurta, called Ningirsu – who was also patron of irrigation (a key area of conflict with the nearby city state of Umma). And the other patron god was the war and fertility goddess Nina, who was related to Inanna/Ishtar. As well a belligerence against their neighbours this is also the first place where a revolt against the city rulers is recorded, and the king instated after the revolt is thought to’ve created the first law code in Mesopotamia. Sadly no dates given for this king, Urukagina, but as it’s mentioned he’s several hundred years pre-Sargon of Akkad he must’ve reigned long before 2350 BCE. Perhaps contemporary with the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu or maybe even earlier than that.

As well as the Sumerians and the Akkadians there were other cultures in and around Mesopotamia during this period. The Amorites were one of these – the name we use for them derives from the Sumerian word for westerner (amurru), and they initially lived between the Sumerians and the Cananites & Egyptians. The Sumerians regarded the Amorites as barbarians, but evidence from their cities (such as Mari or Ebla) suggests otherwise. These cities had extensive libraries and there is evidence they were hubs on the trade networks running between Mesopotamia and Old Kingdom Egypt. The Amorites may also have founded Bablyon (although Sargon of Akkad is later credited with this) – this would be after the Akkadian Empire collapsed when the Amorites were filling the local power vacuum. There were also Hatti in central Anatolia (who were not the cultural ancestors of the Hittites despite the face we use the same name for the two cultures), and the Elamites who lived to the east of Sumer.

The Akkadians lived to the north of the Sumerians, and even before the Akkadians ruled Sumer there was a lot of cultural contact. The Akkadian language is a Semitic language, so from a completely different family to the Sumerian language, but there is evidence of word borrowing between them. In particular the Akkadians picked up words for writing and gardening from the Sumerians, whereas the Sumerians picked up words for war, herding and religion from their neighbours. The most obvious cultural exchange between the two peoples was that the Akkadians learnt and used the Sumerian writing system (cuneiform). This was to continue long after the Akkadian Empire collapsed – Akkadian written in cuneiform was to be the diplomatic language for the next couple of millennia in the region. It’s been suggested that in the reverse direction the Sumerians acquired elements of Akkadian theology. They began to worship some of the same gods (notably Shamash and Ishtar). The conceptualisation of the gods as capricious or malicious may also have been Akkadian in origin. As an aside the book notes that while in the Old Testament flood story God floods the world because of mankind’s wickedness, in the Sumerian version of the myth the gods do it because humanity is too noisy!

Sargon of Akkad established the world’s first empire c.2350 BCE, and unsurprisingly we don’t have much concrete information about his rise to power. Legends about him are reminiscent of later biblical stories (for instance like the stories of King David). His conquests started with Kish (in the north of Sumeria) and then Umma, which was one of the largest Sumerian city states at the time. Despite the need to constantly put down rebellions in previously conquered city states Sargon extended his empire to the Levant and to the Taurus mountains in Turkey. The rebellions eventually lead him to change the government in the city states he conquered – he installed his sons as the new governors and his daughters as high priestesses. There is little written about Sargon in contemporary sources – he only appears in the records of Susa (the Elamite capital city). Most of our information comes from later legends and King Lists. These say that he reigned for 56 years, and it was a turbulent period as he was unable to stabilise his control of his empire and was constantly fire-fighting against rebellions. The next four rulers of the empire reigned for 86 years between them. These kings included Sargon’s son (with a reign of only 9 years) and his grandson Naram-Sin who reigned for 30 years. The office of chief priestess of Sin (the Akkadian’s primary god) also became hereditary and was always a daughter of the king.

The empire was never particularly stable – all the kings had to frequently wage war to enforce taxation and tribute requirements from the regions outside their core area of Babylonia, and to protect necessary trade routes. However one area of success was in the organisation of agricultural production. Competition for agricultural resources had been one of the major sources of rivalry between independent city states, and so the Akkadian empire centralised (and protected) the storage of grain and distributed it as rations throughout their empire. This meant that there were no famines for over a hundred years despite decreasing rainfall and flooding in the highlands – the continued rainfall in the lowlands enabled sufficient grain production to keep the empire fed.

After 150 years the Akkadian Empire abruptly collapsed for reasons that are unclear. Previous hypotheses have focussed on the internal turbulence of the empire – suggesting potential problems such as the cost of all the military campaigns that were necessary. The book dismisses these theories as “logical but unconvincing”, in large part because these problems were the same throughout the whole of the empire’s history. A more recent hypothesis is to do with climate change (which is, of course, the trendy theory for collapses of civilisation these days …). There is evidence from sediment cores that suggests that around the time of the Akkadian Empire’s collapse there was a sudden shift towards more arid conditions. This same shift is seen across a wider region than just Mesopotamia – it’s a current hypothesis to explain the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well. Backing this up is archaeological evidence from Tell Leilan in northern Mesopotamia, where the remains of domesticated sheep & cattle from this period show signs of extreme water deprivation. Textually the climate change hypothesis is backed up by ancient sources that blame the fall of the Empire on the displeasure of the gods with Naram-Sin who attacked the city of Nippur and sacked the temple of Enlil. And so the gods cursed Akkad and “… the great agricultural tracts produced no grain. The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine. The gathered clouds did not rain… People were flailing at themselves from hunger.”.

After the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the next power to rise up in the region was a Sumerian dynasty – the Third Dynasty of Ur – which formed the only Sumerian Empire. And that’s what the next section of the chapter is about.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 4)

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation

The next chapter of this book deals with the wave of urbanisation in Mesopotamia starting around 6,000 years ago, and the emergence of city states. This is the rise of what we call civilisation – urban culture as opposed to village/farming culture. Obviously as with any dividing line it’s reasonably arbitrary: the Ubaid culture discussed at the end of the previous chapter (post) consists of large villages with public buildings, sometimes surrounded by smaller satellite settlements. There’s a hierarchy within the population, and indications of centralised administration of resources. This is well on the way to the same sort of city organisation that characterises the urban cultures of this chapter – it’s just not quite as well developed as it becomes after this arbitrary line in the sand.

The chapter is divided into three parts (and I’m only really writing about the first one in this blog post). Firstly it covers the early Sumerian period where true city dwelling develops and writing is invented. Next is the emergence of city states, and the first empire (the Akkadian Empire). And lastly the return to prominence of the Sumerian city of Ur after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.

An Urban Explosion

This section of the chapter opens with a double page spread on “The Sumerian Question”, to which scholars apparently have no clear answer: where did they come from? Were they the people who had always lived in southern Mesopotamia (since there were people there), or did they migrate into the area in the 4th Millennium BCE? Or were they a combination culture of the indigenous hunters & fishers, merged with incoming farmers from the north, or from Bahrain*? There are various bits of evidence that hint at one or another of these possibilities. For instance there are indications of a pre-Sumerian culture in the area with links to the Samarrans in the north of Mesopotamia. And there are loan words from other (unknown) languages in the Sumerian vocabulary, indicating contact with some other culture. The Sumerian language is a language isolate. This means that it has no living relatives, and in fact there are no other dead languages that appear to be related to Sumerian. Other languages spoken in Mesopotamia after this period are all Semitic languages (it’s a bit hard to tell for sure what was spoken contemporaneously with Sumerian as only Sumerian was being written down at this time). The writing that the Sumerians invented long outlasted their language – cuneiform was still being used in the first centuries CE, but spoken Sumerian began to die out in the 2nd Millennium BCE. After this it lingered on as the language of religion and epic poetry but gradually became more & more obscure until dying out, entirely.

*This is not quite as out of left field as it might sound, Sumerian legends mention Dilmun (modern day Bahrain) so there’s a potential link to there.

The initial part of this urbanisation of Mesopotamia is referred to as the Uruk Period, because it was dominated by the city of Uruk which became the first city state. This era is characterised by increasing social stratification, regulated agriculture and the development of writing. The latter two of these go together as the earliest use of writing in the region was keeping track of goods – the early cities in Mesopotamia were well organised economically compared to the earlier and contemporary villages. These cities relied on domestic agriculture for food and trade for many of the other necessities of civilisation. So Sumerian trade colonies spread throughout the rest of the region. Uruk and the other Sumerian cities of this period were centred around temples and ruled by priestly officials. This structure was not spread to other surrounding cultures, which did develop cities similar to the Sumerian model except ruled by secular authorities.

Archaeological evidence at Uruk shows the development of an improved pottery wheel, wheeled vehicles, the plough and the pottery kiln. The new pottery wheels changed the material culture of the region significantly – in the Ubaid Period pottery was distinctively painted, but in the Uruk Period this was replaced by mass-produced unpainted wares. There is also archaeological evidence of an increase in the scale of slave labour – in particular of forced migrations of peoples from many different places into Sumeria. Settlement sizes and numbers increased dramatically during the Uruk Period across the whole of Mesopotamia and later in the period many of these have fortifications, indicating a rise in militarisation. An interesting unanswered question about this period is what the relations between the main cities of the region were. Were they all mostly-independent regional centres, with Uruk the largest of them with a limited central administrative role? Or was there a form of pre-imperialism whereby Uruk was in some sense ruling over the other cities? At the end of the period there was a collapse of whatever sort of organisation existed and the region fragmented into several smaller polities – so clearly there was some degree of organisation above the city level.

The structure of this chapter is a little confused as after talking about Uruk it then jumps back in time for a brief discussion of Eridu, which was the first temple town. The foundation of Eridu pre-dates Uruk by at least a thousand years and it was an important ceremonial centre during the Ubaid period. Sumerian mythology describes Eridu as having been founded before the flood (as detailed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). However despite the early founding of Eridu, Uruk became a city state first and Eridu only later. Rather frustratingly the book doesn’t clearly say what makes a city a city and a large village a large village. Perhaps it’s a “you know it when you see it” sort of thing? What the text does get across is that it’s the complexity of the society that matters – elites supported by the agricultural output of the farmland around, including priestly, political and military classes as well as artists and craftspeople. Cities could be pretty large, as well: some had populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Temple towns developed on the rivers of the region, and water-borne trade was important in providing the resources needed to build their public buildings as well as the water itself being used to irrigate the fields. The towns and cities were dominated by temples built in the shape of artificial mountains. These ziggurats were a form of sacred architecture used in Mesopotamia for thousands of years after this. The administrative buildings of the city were associated with the temples. Urban life had existed for a few hundred years before writing was invented – which then made the bureaucracy of the cities much more efficient (as well as enabling accurate communication across large distances or times). An aside in the text here mentions that their counting system was based on base 60 and we still use it for time and angles, which I knew before but I still find a bit astonishing how that has persisted over such a long time and over such a vast cultural gulf.

Each city had at least one temple, and thus a patron god. All the Sumerian cities revered the same pantheon of deities but religious practice was focussed on the god to which the city’s shrine was dedicated. These gods included Anu (father of the gods, with a temple in Uruk), Inanna/Ishtar (queen of the gods, with a temple in Uruk too), Enki (god of wisdom & water, with a temple in Eridu), Ninurta (war god, Lagash), Sin (moon, Ur), Nabu (wisdom, Borsippa) and Shara (minor war god, Umma). Education and art in Sumer were associated with the temples. Libraries were maintained in temples by priests and scribes, and decorative arts were dedicated to the gods (and later to the rulers of cities).

Sumerian society was highly stratified, and had a very high regard for ownership of property. Writing developed, as I said, to track goods and later many of the texts we have are related to property transactions and lawsuits. I’ve just started translating very simple examples of these sorts of things in my Akkadian course (so from a bit later on in time from the Sumerian period). These give an impression of a pretty litigious society in their matter of factness about such things e.g.: “Takūm-mātum daughter of Amurrûm and her mother, Rabbatum, bought a field from Ãlikum son of Arwûm. Ãlikum son of Arwûm, Sumu-ramê and all his sons sued Takūm-mātum and the judges of the house of Shamash rejected their lawsuits.” It’s not just ownership of property that the Sumerian society was keen to control and codify – the book also mentions increasingly complicated systems for recording the passing of time and for recording boundaries, goods and services.

This section of the chapter ends with a double page spread about cuneiform writing. The book says it was the first writing system, but I believe the jury is still out on whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians got there first (and on whether or not these two systems developed wholly independently or whether one copied the other). Although cuneiform started out as pictographs over time it was simplified into clusters of wedge shapes for each sign – I think of it as looking like a drunk bird staggered across the surface (although a pretty regimented drunk bird, as the signs are generally in neat rows). I also find them hard to memorise because there’s a lot of them that are pretty similar to each other, and they all come in many forms. Complicating this writing system still further is the fact that each sign may have multiple different logographic (whole word) or syllabic meanings assigned to it. The converse is also true – there may be more than one sign for any given syllable. Although developed for Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to write several other languages, most importantly Akkadian. Akkadian took on a role in the ancient Middle East similar to that of Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of bureaucracy, scholarship and of diplomatic correspondence, and the use of it long outlasted the culture and empire that originally spread it across the region.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 3)

This is the second half of the second chapter of this book (I’ve read a lot more of it I promise you, it’s just the blog posts are lagging behind both in terms of being written and in terms of being published; you never know, I may’ve finished the book before you read this!).

The Fertile Crescent

Neolithic Era

We now move into the Neolithic era – the first farmers, who definitely live in permanent settlements and grow their own food (both plant and animal). There is also a shift from relatively small groups to larger communities and a move from an egalitarian society to a stratified one. Archaeologists divide the Neolithic into four phases. The first two of these are called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) – not the most catchy of names, but the important point here is that pottery develops relatively late compared to agriculture or sedentarism. PPNA runs from c.9800-8800BC, PPNB is the next couple of thousand years (8800-6800BCE). This sequence is based on excavations at Jericho, which is thought to be the oldest site where agriculture is found. During PPNA Jericho was a regional centre, covering 6 acres with satellite villages within a day or two’s walk. Anatolian obsidian and imported greenstone artifacts have been found at Jericho, as well as the first monumental structures: a stone tower approximately 8m high with an internal staircase, which was used as a burial place. Göbleki Tepe was another regional centre during this period.

During PPNB communities became much larger, the villages from this period are around 34 acres in size. The Neolithic way of life was spreading outside the Levantine area. Burial practices were becoming more elaborate. Since late Natufian times people were buried with their heads removed then placed in the grave. During PPNB some skulls would be disintered and plastered and decorated. After some time (“after long usage” says the book) the decorated skulls would be reburied in groups. Society was also becoming more stratified – a consequence of the closer proximity of larger numbers of people. Archaeologists can tell that by things like the variation in house sizes, and access to useful resources (like burnt lime in this case). The larger social groups also lead to more widespread use of art and cult objects – to bind people together with shared cultural experiences. There’s evidence of some sort of magical use of cattle figurines (perhaps to ensure success in hunting). There are also signs of ancestor cults – see above about the decorated skulls, but also large statues that are interpreted as divine ancestors. Which the book notes are reminiscent of biblical and Sumerian legends about the creation of mankind from the earth, being made of mud and plaster.

During the Pottery Neolithic periods (c. 6800BC-5800BC) the new technology of pottery changes how households are organised – it gives more options for preparing, cooking and storing food. Sites from this period have more rubbish dumps and more storage areas as people have more possessions. Over time there is an increase in complexity of Neolithic settlements – each village gets bigger, and the houses get larger. Dwellings were now built around courtyards – a style that’s still used in the Middle East today – with from 8 to 24 rooms around the courtyard, suitable for housing an extended family rather than just a nuclear family (as was the case with pre-pottery Neolithic dwellings).

Having introduced the Neolithic cultures in overview, the book now moves on to consider a couple of aspects of Neolithic life in more detail, plus a couple of the cultures of the late pre-Pottery Neolithic/early pottery Neolithic period. The first section is about the domestication of animals. This happened after the beginnings of farming, and took a few millenia before people had the suite of animals available that we expect today. It can be a bit difficult to tell when and where an animal species begins to be domesticated, but progress of domestication can be tracked to a fair degree from archaeological evidence. At first it was a case of keeping wild animals in a protective environment, but then inbreeding, and human selection, began to change the domesticated species towards smaller & less aggressive animals (which can be seen through things like horn size). I’d always assumed that a food animal would be the first domesticated species but it turns out that domestication of the dog began significantly before other animals – c.12,000BCE which is during the Natufian culture at the end of the Paleolithic period. Sheep and goats were next, c.9,000BCE, followed by pigs and cattle over the next 3000 years. The various beasts of burden were much later – donkeys c.4000BCE, horses c.1500BCE (in the Middle East, earlier elsewhere) and camels 1200BCE. Domestication of food animals also allowed the agricultural way of life to spread into the more arid areas of the region – with nomadic pastorialism becoming the main way of life in the desert regions by the end of PPNB.

The new lifestyle of the Neolithic – farming and permanent settlements – allowed populations to grow beyond the limits the hunter-gather lifestyle had imposed. This didn’t just mean that villages increased in size, it also meant that there was pressure for people to move to new areas and set up new villages there. There’s a suite of technologies that are sometimes called “the Neolithic Package” which are first seen in the Levant, and then spread from there through Asia, Europe and Africa. As outside the Levant everything seems to arrive at once in any given area it’s assumed that this whole way of life spread (with people?) from the Levant. The technologies are domesticated plants (wheat, barley, peas), domesticated animals (goats, sheep, cattle and pigs), three flint tool types (arrowheads, sickle-blades and axes), digging wells for water supplies, various cultic characteristics (Mother Goddess figurines and dancing scenes). And later pottery is part of the mix. (Note (as the book does) that domestication of plants and animals did take place independently in China.) This period (PPNB) is also when the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Crete were colonised – there’s evidence of flourishing villages with all the technology of the day. I find this faintly astonishing – boats feel like sophisticated technology to me, so the idea that people could sail the Mediterranean before they had knowledge of pottery is surprising.

‘Ain Ghazal is a major Neolithic site near modern Amman in Jordan. It starts as a normal small village but during the PPNB period it reaches 35 acres in size – one of the largest settlements of the time. Each house was made up of one or two rectangular rooms, with floors and walls plastered with lime plaster. There are also round storage spaces. Burials of the community show evidence of stratification – some individuals have richer burials than others in “better” sites. The skulls may be removed and decorated – sometimes the decoration is removed and buried again (without the skull, which may’ve been redecorated). The more elaborate burials were under the floors of the houses, less elaborate ones were in pits outside houses. And still others appear to’ve been placed in rubbish dumps. The most important discoveries from ‘Ain Ghazal are the art objects – lots of animal figurines, mostly cattle. And some of the earliest statues of humans – made from reed frames which are coated with plaster and hae painted features. The book notes in passing that some of these have 6 fingers or toes, which seems odd to me. After the PPNB period ‘Ain Ghazal declines – it shrinks, and the number of art objects discovered also drop off.

Çatal Hüyük (in modern Anatolia) is the next Neolithic site discussed in the book, but the two page spread feels rather like it’s been rather brutally edited down from a larger piece and the remaining text isn’t quite coherent. There are no dates for the site in the text, although they refer to it as the “earliest city”. It had around 5,000 inhabitants, in houses that are packed so closely together there’s no ground between them – access is from the roof via ladders. There are lots of burials within the houses, under the sleeping platforms. These are described as family groups in the book, but a TV series we watched recently (Ascent of Woman) interviewed an archaeologist currently working on the site who says that recent DNA evidence shows the groups are no more related with in the group than across the whole population. Which he interpreted as children being fostered out to other familes – interesting if so as that’s not really a social pattern we see any more (I think!). Some famous figurines have been found at this site too – including statuettes of a woman (the Mother Goddess?) giving birth on a chair/throne flanked by two leopards or lions. The really exciting thing about the Çatal Hüyük site is that there aren’t just figurines but also wall paintings. Although there appears to have been some doubt about the reality of these? There’s an off-hand reference in the text to newer excavations finding evidence that “Mellaart’s initial claims […] to be more reliably based than first suspected.”. Which is … an interesting turn of phrase, particularly after they mention that Mellaart got chucked out of Turkey when he fell out with the authorities there over this excavation. But I do rather wish this section had told us more about the city and dropped fewer hints about scandals of archaeology! A tangent to follow up on one day! 🙂

The last few sections of this chapter start narrowing the focus down to Mesopotamia – as the following chapter is about early urbanisation in that region. The Late Neolithic (pottery Neolithic) looks in retrospect like a filler period between two stages in cultural development – it’s after the “Neolithic Revolution” of agriculture and before the “Urban Revolution”. I’m not sure I like this way of thinking about it but the book does go on to explain that we don’t know much about the period – mostly it’s characterised by different types of pottery without much other feel for the cultures. Interestingly administration and a concept of property exist during this period – I’d assumed that came in with cities – but there’s evidence from 6,000BCE from Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria of clay sealings for jars or rooms which show if someone who shouldn’t have has opened it. The period is divided into four broad cultures – pre-Hassuna, Hassuna , Samarra and Halaf. The latter three are named after the sites the cultures were first discovered. The Samarran culture is the one that Tell Sabi Abyad belongs to – the book positions it as a sort of proto-Sumerian culture. Not only are there the clay sealings there are also clay tokens that may be the very early antecedents of cuneiform writing. And some symbolism may prefigure later Mesopotamian religious iconography – particularly scorpion motifs (later associated with the goddess Ishtar).

With the arrival of pottery archaeology gets quite a bit easier. Pottery doesn’t decay, even if broken, and large amounts of it are made (and thrown out). Functional vessels can be made in a large variety of styles, and different cultures tend to have different fashions & traditions. This gives you information about trade networks and about how cultures evolved over time. Different styles within a culture can also demonstrate things about social stratification. In the Halufian culture of Late Neolithic Mesopotamia in particular very fine pottery was used as elite status symbols. Pottery at the time would’ve been the (relatively) new technology and also the exotic metals or other materials (such as ivory) used for later status objects weren’t as available.

The Halaf culture was primarily in the north of Mesopotamia, and overlapping slightly with them were the southern Mesopotamia based Ubaid culture. This is the last of the pre-urban (and pre-historic) cultures that the book considers. Ubaid culture begins in the south and then spreads throughout the rest of Mesopotamia and beyond – whether by migration of people or trading of objects & ideas is unclear. As well as the physical artifacts this culture is characterised by the development of the first irrigation canal networks. This is an important stepping stone on the way to urbanisation in Mesopotamia. The canals make agriculture a bit easier, thus freeing up labour for other purposes like crafting or bureaucracy. They also require a more complex degree of social organisation – someone(s) needs to make decisions about what is built, someone(s) needs to organise the labour force and so on.

The next chapter of the book moves on to the rise of true urban settlements – as well as the development of writing and the beginning of city states.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 2)

The next chapter of this book covers the vast swathes of prehistory in the Middle East, taking us from the first migrations of pre-homo sapiens humans out of Africa all the way through to about 6000 years ago just before the first cities of Mesopotamia. Which is rather a lot of ground to cover! So much so that I have split the chapter into two blog posts, the first of which covers the Paleolithic cultures and the second will cover the Neolithic.

The Fertile Crescent

This is not just the story of the Middle East over this period, but also the story of humanity as we go from early humans to modern humans, and from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmers living in permanent settlements. The introductory 2 page spread for this chapter suggests that one reason everything seems to happen first in the Middle East is due to geography. It’s on a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, so it was the best informed region – all knowledge flowed through there as it spread. And then could be combined with the other new ideas from other areas to produce leaps in technology.

Paleolithic Era

Early humans (Homo erectus) begin to spread outside Africa within a few hundred thousand years of their evolution. The earliest traces of humans date to 2.6 million years ago (in Ethiopia) and the earliest non-African evidence is from Dmanisi in Southern Georgia dating to 1.8 million years ago. These hominids presumably migrated via the Levantine corridor, as the only land route between the two areas. The next oldest site where human tools (and three teeth) have been found is in the Jordan Valley. Judging by the tools found at a wide variety of sites across the Middle East there were three or four different waves of migration out of Africa by Homo erectus. One of these migration waves also provides evidence of the first controlled use of fire – which I think I should’ve known pre-dated modern humans, but if I did know I had forgotten.

The Middle Paleolithic era lasted from around 250,000 to 45,000 years ago, and it was during this period that Homo erectus was replaced by Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The dominant theory 40 years ago (based on archaeological evidence from Europe) was that first came the Neanderthals and they were then replaced by our own species before 40,000 years ago. Excavations in the Levant have changed this picture significantly. There are Homo sapiens sapiens remains as old as 100,000 years ago at site in the Levant, and Homo sapiens neanderthalensisas young as 50,000 years ago. There have also been skeletons found that display different combinations of characteristics from the two groups. What’s more the tools produced in the various different sorts of sites show no significant difference between the sites in terms of material culture and way of life. So perhaps the two species co-existed (for around 50,000 years or so). The double page spread about this era ends with a set of questions we don’t know the answers to yet – including whether or not the Neanderthals were actually a separate species.

The boundary between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic (c.45,000-50,000 years ago) is marked by changes in tool technology. The shift was from tools formed as flakes or points to elongated blades which have a better edge-to-mass ratio and can be more efficiently produced. Interestingly as well as a local development of this tool culture (or perhaps brought by newcomers from Africa) there is also evidence of migration* into the area from Europe. The tools these immigrants brought with them are also blade based, but not the same as the ones produced in the Levant. These migrants are relatively restricted to one geographical region and one time period (32,000 to 30,000 years ago). An oddity of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic culture is that there is no evidence of art: no cave paintings, no figurines, no engravings. If I remember right the same is also true of Chinese prehistory … is art another of those ideas that is thought of only rarely and then spreads to become universal? Although having said that, we are very limited in what we can find evidence of – music, singing, dancing, drama and so on aren’t necessarily going to leave traces in the archaeological record.

*I’m not quite sure from the book why they know (if they know) that it’s the tool users that migrated rather than just the technology moving.

The next period of Middle Eastern prehistory is referred to as the Natufian period, and once again it’s characterised by a particular sort of tool. They give a technical description in the book, but basically the main form is small crescent-moon shaped tools for hunting and food preparation. The Natufian period falls into two phases: early from ~15,000-13,000 years ago and late from 13,000-11,500 years ago. This culture shows the first signs of sedentarism – with permanent, year-round villages. The communities still seem to have been hunter-gatherers, which was interesting as I previously thought the general idea was that settlement and agriculture happened the other way round. During the second phases of this period there’s actually more mobility in the communities, but they seem to have more clearly defined territories even if they’re not sedentary. I’m not actually sure what the evidence for this is, they don’t mention it in the book. However the authors do say that the second phase lines up with a signicantly drier period and so perhaps there wasn’t sufficient food at any given site to support a permanent population. Agriculture may or may not have begun during this period (experts are divided) but taming and domestication of the dog were definitely begun by the Natufians.

In contrast to the earlier Levantine cultures the Natufians are art producers. They produced both standalone things (like decorated bowls and slabs as well as figurines) and personal accessories (like necklaces, belts, etc). And the beginnings of trade are visible – for instance artifacts made of Anatolian obsidian have been found in the core Natufian region (the Levant from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan Valley). Natufian sites also have evidence of the first large scale cemetaries. There isn’t really a pattern to how bodies were treated. Generally the body was buried in a flexed position, sometimes in a single occupant grave, sometimes in a larger grave. Some bodies have decoration and/or ornaments, some graves have carefully place stones, others are just a pit refilled after burial. The book doesn’t speculate at all about potential elite/non-elite distinctions – perhaps it’s clearly random when you look at the data?

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 1)

This post is about the first chapter from the new non-fiction book I’m working my way through. It’s a complete change of pace from the previous one – the only thing in common is that it’s a history book, but it’s about a different time, a different place and it’s a very different sort of book. The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed is a big glossy book from the publisher Thames & Hudson, part of their series about Ancient Civilisations – I’ve previously read the one about China in this series (first post about that book). The format is a series of one or two double page spreads each about a particular subject. It’s written by 14 authors, but they’re not credited on individual sections – Stephen Bourke is the “Chief Consultant” and so I’m listing him as the author. The book covers the history of the Middle East from before the evolution of anatomically modern homo sapiens through to the Islamic conquest in the mid-7th Century AD.

Introducing the Middle East

The book opens talking about what they mean by the “Middle East”. It’s a term that’s relatively recently coined (at the start of the 20th Century) and is already falling into disfavour for its Eurocentrism. It is also a very nebulous term, and their definition boils down to “that bit there between Asia and Africa, you’ll know it when you see it”. The core modern countries are Bahrain, Egypt (not covered in this book), Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Another reason that the term Middle East is not entirely favoured is that it elides the diversity of the peoples who live in the region. Modern ideas about race and ethnicity don’t map well onto ancient ones – both are equally complex, just not the same. So scholars categorise the ancient peoples by the languages they spoke or the polities (city or state etc) they belonged to. There are several groups that were prominent during the period this book covers, and the authors devote a double page spread to a brief overview of who was where when. Which also gives an overview of the history that will be discussed in more detail in the book, so I think it’s worth me writing more about it than just a brief summary.

Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq) was a region of two parts – north and south. The earliest* group to live there were the Sumerian speakers in the south. They were conquered by an Akkadian speaking group in the late third millennium BC. Some time after this the people living in the north came to be known as Assyrians (after their city of Assur) and the people in the south as Babylonians (after Babylon). Akkadian and Sumerian are used throughout the succeeding couple of millennia, eventually being supplanted by Aramaic.

*When they say “earliest” here, I think we’re talking about historically and not considering the prehistoric cultures of the region, but I’m not quite clear on that.

Through the Bronze Age the peoples who lived in the southern Levant were called Canaanites by the Egyptians (tho they probably didn’t call themselves that, and wouldn’t’ve thought of themselves as a cohesive group). They spoke a Semitic language (the same family as Akkadian belongs to) and lived in large city states throughout what is now Israel. Around 1200BC much of their civilisation vanished, and their city states were destroyed. Their culture survived in part via the Phoenicians (who were also ancestors of the Carthaginians). In the area where the Canaanites had lived several small kingdoms now formed – the Philistines, Israelites, Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites.

The longest lasting culture in Anatolia was the Hittites, who spoke an Indo-European language and were most powerful in the Late Bronze Age. Between them and northern Mesopotamia were the Hurrians. In the Late Bronze Age these people had a kingdom that stretched across modern day southeast Turkey, north Syria and north Iraq, which was called Mitanni.

Ancient Iran has been inhabited as long as Mesopotamia, but less is known about the earliest people there as their script (Proto-Elamite) hasn’t been deciphered. The first culture whose name we know were the Elamites, who lasted from 2700BC through till 559BC – the book isn’t entirely clear (maybe it isn’t known) whether these are the same people as wrote proto-Elamite or not. In the first millenium BC the Medes were also living in northwest Iran, and were an important power in that region. Iran was unified in the Achaemenid period (559-331BC) which lasted until Alexander the Great conquered the region. When the Classical Greeks refer to “Persians” they are generally talking about the Achaemenids. Post-Alexander Iran was first controlled by his successors in the Seleucid Dynasty and then by the Parthians. They ruled until 224AD when they were overthrown by the Sasanians.

The next section of this chapter feels a tad out of place – it considers the economic & agricultural activity of the region but mostly from a modern perspective which seems outside the scope of the book. It does point out that most of the agricultural production even now is of indigenous species which were first domesticated in the region (and subsequently exported as crops & technology). Other resources discussed are the timber industry in ancient Lebanon (now not thriving due to over-exploitation in the past), and modern oil reserves.

Water is such an important and contested resource that it gets its own double page spread. Because much of the region is arid or semi-arid control of water and management of water is critical to a civilisation’s survival. Particularly in Mesopotamia where the amount of rainfall is insufficient for any agricultural activity, irrigation is essential. The major rivers in the region are the river Jordan, and the two rivers between which Mesopotamia lies (the Euphrates & the Tigris). The latter two both start in Turkey and are a source of modern tensions as damming projects in Turkey and Syria have knock-on effects in Iraq. The rivers were & are vital for food production, and the seas of the region, as is generally the case in the ancient world, were the main transport links between this and other places.

This chapter finishes with a brief overview of archaeological work in the region with some basic grounding in what archaeology actually entails. And makes for rather sad reading in the wake of IS destroying and looting so much that they’ve come in contact with – which we’ll now never fully understand.

Lost Land of the Tiger; Out of Egypt

We’ve watched much less TV at home over the last couple of weeks as we’ve been away a fair amount. One of the series we finished relatively recently was Lost Land of the Tiger which I found rather disappointing. The basic premise was that the best way to save tigers in the wild is to establish a conservation zone along the Himalayas which should allow the remaining small pockets of tigers in that region to link up and become a sustainable population. The snag was that no-one knew if there were any tigers right in the middle of this region, in Bhutan. So a team of scientists and BBC wildlife documentary makers (photographers & so on) went to Bhutan to see if they could find signs of tigers. And to do a survey of the general ecological health of the Bhutanese countryside for the Bhutanese government.

What I would’ve liked to see was lots of footage of wildlife (and hopefully tigers). What we got was lots of footage of people looking for/at wildlife (and hopefully tigers). And a really really obvious and somewhat clunky narrative structure – I felt it was far too obvious that there were bits being hammed up for the cameras to “make a good story”. All that aside what we did get to see of the actual wildlife was pretty cool. They did find tigers, as well as other big cats. And there was also the surprise discovery that tigers can live at much higher altitudes than previously thought, which means that the potential conservation zone can include more territory (and territory that’s less interesting to humans, too). Because of the clunky narrative structure it was clear from the beginning of episode 1 that this was going to be the case, and we had to wait till the end of episode 3 for the evidence (clumsy foreshadowing, they had it). But it was still pretty cool to see.

I wouldn’t recommend it particularly, but J liked it more than I did I think.

One of the things that J’s parents had recorded for him from the Discovery Channel (which we don’t have at home) for us to watch while we visited was a series called Out of Egypt (link to a press release for it as I couldn’t find a programme homepage). This series was presented by Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist, and it was a comparison of various widespread human cultural characteristics across a wide sweep of ancient cultures. She started each episode with something in ancient Egyptian culture and then looked at how other civilisations did this same thing. We managed to watch the last third of episode 3, then episodes 4-6, then 1-2 (due to how the Sky box had filed them in its recordings) – which wasn’t ideal but they did work well as standalone episodes too.

She covered quite a wide range of subjects. For instance one episode (the first I think) looked at urban living and how it arose in different places from the truly ancient cities of the Middle East to more recent but still ancient cities in South America. She looked the various ways society changes with urban living, both good and bad. Other episodes looked at things like how sacred violence shows up in many different cultures & societies – she went from the Egyptian imagery of the Pharaoh smiting his enemies to the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition, via the Aztecs, and looked at how similar or dissimilar the forces shaping this ritual or religious use of violence were.

I really liked this series. You don’t often see series that cover such a wide subject – this did a good job of looking at a variety of different cultures and asking both how we are all the same despite our different cultures, and how our cultures have shaped us into different people. And astonishingly for a Discovery channel series it didn’t set out to “solve the mystery” or to provide a definitive answer to some question, instead it was a thoughtful overview of a complicated subject.

Other TV we’ve watched recently:

Episode 2 of Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

Episodes 1 and 2 of John Bishop’s Australia – comedian cycles along the east coast of Australia 22 years after he first made the trip.

Episode 1 of Talk to the Animals – Lucy Cooke does a survey of animal communication.

Bolsover Castle – an episode of the Secret Knowledge series, this one presented by Lucy Worsley. She talked about the castle’s first owners & builders, and the meanings of the decor & architecture. Only Worsley would match her gloves to the details on the castle 😉 A tad amateur in feel (I think this series often is), but rather good.

Also watched a couple of Egypt documentaries we’d seen before – Egypt’s Mystery Chamber (I have a mini-review of it here), and episode 1 of Egypt’s Golden Empire which I didn’t write a proper review of before either.