“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 8)

The next section of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE and focuses on the kingdoms in the west of the region – for instance the Hittites & the Mitanni. It also looks at their interactions with Egypt, because this is the era of the Amarna letters and the era of the Battle of Qadesh.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1650-1550 BCE: The Second Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1479–1458 BCE: Reign of Hatshepsut in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Western States

We start with the Old Hittite Kingdom in which parts of Anatolia, northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia were ruled over by Hittite kings from their capital in Hattusa. It last from around 1650 BCE to 1400 BCE, and is known from their own records: thousands of cuneiform texts were found in Hattusa dating from this period. The original origins of the Hittite people isn’t known, but they had probably been living in Anatolia for a few centuries by the time the Old Hittite Kingdom rose to prominence – Assyrian texts from before this period mention individuals with Hittite names in Anatolian cities. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language (so from the same broad family as English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit etc). Most of the other peoples in the region spoke Semitic languages (like Egyptian and Akkadian), or spoke Sumerian (which is a language with no known relatives). Rather conveniently for modern scholars some of the records discovered in Hattusa were bilingual and written in both Hittite and Akkadian.

The first king of the 15 or so who ruled the Old Hittite Kingdom was Huttusili I who conquered territory as far as the Euphrates River. His successor Mursili extended the kingdom as far southeast as Babylon but after his assassination the Hittites abandoned the territory across the Euphrates River. The next few kings all took the throne by assassinating their predecessor (or his heirs) and knowledge of this period mostly comes from a text known as the Proclamation of Telepinu. In this the new king (Telepinu) attempts to lay out rules for how the succession should work in the future, making it a strictly patrilinear succession. However he died without a direct male heir, and so these rules failed at the first hurdle. The second hundred years of the Old Hittite Kingdom seems to’ve been almost as turbulent politically as the first!

The kingdom of Mitanni is the next state the book considers. They started out as a confederation of Hurrian states in inland Syria & northern Iraq around 1600 BCE. The Hurrian language is part of a now extinct language group, and the people who spoke it are believed to’ve migrated from the Trans-Caucasus region. By 1450 BCE the Mitanni Kingdom was a prominent player in Upper Mesopotamia. Sadly none of their own records have been discovered so they’re mostly known from what the Hittites & Egyptians had to say about (and to) them. By 1500 BCE the Mitanni state had expanded into most of Syria, and this later brought them into conflict with an expanding Egypt (during the reign of Tutmosis III). Relations between the Mitanni and the Egyptians were somewhat warmer by the reign of Akhenaten – perhaps because the Hittites and Assyrians were both expanding again by this stage, and with these northern neighbours the Mitanni could do with southern allies. But not long after this the Mitanni state began to fragment and was subsequently defeated by the New Hittite Kingdom. It did continue to exist as a small buffer state between the Hittites and the Assyrians until around 1290 BCE, but the Mitanni’s days as a major state were over.

The power vacuum left in Babylon by the sacking of the city by the Old Hittite ruler Mursili was eventually filled by a Kassite dynasty who ruled c. 1570-1155 BCE. Quite a lot of evidence for these kings comes from their diplomatic correspondence (and diplomatic marriages) with the rulers of nearby states including the Egyptians and the Hittites. As well as the diplomatic evidence for these kings internal affairs are known from the administrative archives of Nippur. The Kassite people originally came from north-eastern Syria and had migrated into Mesopotamia sometime around the 18th Century BCE. The Kassite rulers of Babylon were thoroughly Babylonised, building temples to Babylonian gods, collecting & creating the Babylonian literary canon and preserving the Babylonian scribal tradition.

The New Hittite Kingdom starts immediately after the end of the Old Hittite Kingdom, but it sounds like the first three or four kings are more of a transitional period. The true start of the return to prominence of the Hittites comes when Suppiluliuma I successfully carries out a coup against his brother in 1344 BCE. Most of what is known about this ruler comes from “The Deeds of Suppiluliuma”, which was written during the reign of his second successor. He ruled for nearly 20 years, and re-established the Hittite kingdom as a marjor state. He not only re-conquered Anatolia, he also conquered the Mitanni and several other kingdoms in Syria, and forced these states to sign long lasting peace treaties. He is also the King of the Hittites who a Queen of Egypt apparently wrote to asking for one of his sons to marry after the death of her husband (the Pharaoh) without an heir so that she could avoid being forced to marry a commoner. Suppiluliuma I is said to’ve been suspicious, but then sent one of his sons who was promptly murdered after he crossed the border – and this is the justification for subsequent tensions between the Hittites and the Egyptians. The Queen in question is often supposed to be Ankhesenamun (Tutankhamun’s widow). However (and the book sadly doesn’t mention this) the story is only known from one text dating from the reign of one of Suppiluliuma I’s successors, and I think there’s significant doubts about its truthfulness – it’s actually more likely to be Hittite propaganda. (Charlotte Booth talked about this a bit in the talk she gave to the EEG in July about Horemheb.)

According to texts from his son Mursili II’s reign called the Plague Prayers, Suppiluliuma I and his son (and first successor) Arnuwanda II both died of an epidemic of plague brought back with captives from a successful Syro-Palestinian military campaign. Which Mursili II believed was due to divine disfavour regarding the fratricide which let his father take the throne, and the campaign itself being in violation of a treaty with Egypt. This latter concern didn’t stop Musili II’s successor Muwatalli II from antagonising the Egyptians further, resulting in the Battle of Qadesh (more on this later in this post). The treaty after the battle was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III, who had usurped the throne from Muwatalli II’s son. Quite a lot of what we know about his reign (and his immediate predecessor’s) comes from his “Apology”, an autobiographical text that explains why he thought he should depose his nephew (who subsequently fled to Egypt, much to Hattusili III’s disgust). Hattusili III’s wife is also known from texts – in particular letters between herself and Ramesses II after Hattusili III’s death. She was acting at that point as Queen Mother, and is accorded the same sort of respect as Hattusili III by Ramesses II. It’s not clear if she was unusually respected for a Queen Mother, or if it’s just that she’s the only Hittite Queen Mother whose correspondence survives.

The capital of the Hittite kingdom was the city of Hattusa, which was located near the modern town of Bazkoy in northeast Central Anatolia (in Turkey). It was founded at some point early in the 2nd Millennium BCE, and was originally relatively small compared to other ancient Near Eastern cities. It was sacked a couple of times between 1750 BCE and 1400 BCE, then rebuilt extensively by Suppiluliuma I. This later city had two main regions: the royal acropolis (including large temples), and the lower city. Population estimates for this period range from 10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

Having made a comprehensive tour of the major players in the western part of the Middle East during this period the book now devotes a few pages to the minor Mediterranean and Syro-Palestinian states each of whom get a couple of paragraphs. I’m pretty much going to name check them here, rather than devote much attention to them. Ahhiyawa is considered a diplomatic equal to the Hittites, given the correspondence during the New Hittite Kingdom period. Both textual and archaeological evidence suggests these people may be the Mycenean Greeks. The Luwians lived in Western Anatolia and were at times a vassal state of the Hittites, and the language (a close relative of Hittite) was dominant in the region after the fall of the New Hittite Kingdom. Carchemis and Aleppo were both part of the array of small Syro-Palestinian states, as were Astata, Alasiya (modern Cyprus) and Alalakh. All of these states were at times vassals of the Hittites and at times more independent. The state of Ugarit was caught between the two superpowers of the Hittites & the Egyptians – and thus were courted by both with offers of support against the other. The Amurru people were further south, and in the Egyptian sphere of influence – and a thorn in the sides of their neighbours, who complained to the their mutual overlords about the Amurran’s employment of bands of mercenary warriors known as the ‘Apiru to harass their neighbours.

The last couple of double-page spreads of this section look more closely at the interactions of the Middle East with their Egyptian neighbours. The first of these talks about the Amarna Letters – a collection of cuneiform tablets discovered in the Egyptian city of Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) which was briefly the capital of Egypt during Akhenaten’s reign (and only existed for that 20 years). 90% of the 380 surviving tablets are copies of the diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and their neighbours from Year 30 of Amenhotep III’s reign through Akhenaten’s reign, Smenkhare’s reign and into the first year of Tutankhamun’s reign. Most of them are the incoming correspondence, although some are outgoing (either unsent or copies, it’s not known which), and all are composed in Akkadian which was the diplomatic lingua franca of the era. Some of these letters are to rulers that the Egyptians at least superficially regarded as their peers – addressing each other as “brother”. However it’s notable that in the marriage alliances Egyptian women never married foreign princes, instead the default was vice versa. Other letters are between Egypt and its vassal states.

The Battle of Kadesh

And the section finished with a closer look at the Battle of Qadesh – which Ramesses II depicted on several temple reliefs (the above picture is from the Ramasseum). The site of the battle was strategically important – it sat on the crossroads of two major trade routes, and dominated the fords of the Orontes River. It had been significant in Egyptian foreign affairs even before Ramesses II’s campaign – for instance it lead the coalition of rebellious towns that Tutmosis III defeated at Megiddo c.1457 BCE. During the reign of Akhenaten the Egyptians made two unsuccessful attempts to remove the Hittites from the region, and for the next generation or so the city swapped allegiances several times. By the time of Ramesses II the Egyptians felt it necessary to make a concerted effort to recover Qadesh and reassert their power in the region. The Battle of Qadesh took place in c.1275 BCE, and the Egyptians record several accounts of it – all of which talk about Ramesses II annihilating the Hittites. But if you read between the lines, and remember that the Egyptians didn’t tend to write down bad things, you can see that the truth is more of an inconclusive draw. About 15-20 years after this the two sides signed a peace treaty – which rather astonishingly not only survives in both Hittite and Egyptian documents, but the two versions are also in agreement with each other! There was indeed peace (relatively speaking) for the remainder of the time that the Hittite state existed. This section of the chapter finishes with the note that “Soon thereafter, Qadesh was destroyed, probably by the Sea Peoples”. I don’t imagine the Qadeshian citizens had enjoyed any of its turbulent history, however!

The next (and last) part of this chapter of the book is about the rise of the Assyrians, on their way to be the first large scale empire in the Middle East.

“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 Cyrus Cylinder: Unexpected Discoveries and the Rediscovery of Meaning” Irving Finkel (Part 2 of BSS Study Day)

For the second part of his Bloomsbury Summer School study day on cuneiform Irving Finkel talked about the Cyrus cylinder which was found in Iraq during excavation at Babylon in 1872. It is a cylinder of baked clay which is covered in cuneiform writing, and you can see it at the British Museum. The largest part actually belongs to the BM, and there’s another fragment that they have on permanent loan from Yale. (My photo below is actually of a replica, I think the real thing was on loan somewhere at the time I took the photo a couple of years ago.)

Cyrus Cylinder

It was written at the behest of King Cyrus in 539BC, shortly after he invaded Babylon. This was apparently a bloodless conquest and it was the end of native rule in Babylon: the previous king was the last Neo-Babylonian king. The text starts with a description of the chaos in Babylon before Cyrus came along (which made me think of the Egyptian 1st Intermediate Period texts where a nomarch’s tomb will announce how he brought order out of the chaos that Egypt was in). It continues by saying that the chaos was so bad that the gods had left their temples, and the god Marduk went in search of a candidate to rule Babylon instead of the current king. He found his ideal man in Cyrus – not a Babylonian but from Iran (Persia).

The text implies that Cyrus was a Marduk worshipper, but this is probably propaganda – especially as the Babylonian King whom he overthrew (Nabonidus) particularly worshipped a different one of their pantheon (which didn’t go down well with all of his people). Finkel pointed out that one would never read a modern text (newspaper article, press release, whatever) credulously so why do so for an ancient text? Propaganda and spin is nothing new. A more cynical reading of the text is that Cyrus took advantage of a schism in Babylonian society and picked a religious side that was opposite to the King whilst still popular with the public – and so rode that wave to a “welcomed” conquest.

In another act of propaganda Cyrus had Nabonidus’s name removed from any places where it was. There are a couple of pieces of evidence for this – the first is a tablet that has written on it a satirical poem about Cyrus doing so. And it’s backed up by a large stone stela which has on its front a relief of a king with a big blank space next to it where one would expect an inscription. If you look at the sides of this stela there are inscriptions naming Nabonidus. Finkel suggests that this stela perhaps once stood in an alcove & so when the men came to chisel off the inscriptions they only saw the front one and the sides got overlooked.

When it was discovered the Cyrus cylinder was a particularly big deal to Victorian London society because Cyrus is also mentioned in the Bible. He is the King who let the Jews return to Israel after the long exile in Babylon. However this interest resulted in the cylinder being built up into even more that it actually is. One myth is that it’s the actual decree permitting the Jews to go home – which is rubbish, it never mentions the Jews. Another (slightly more recent) myth is that it was the first charter of human rights … which is also rubbish. It does say that Cyrus will rule as a just king etc etc, but that’s a pretty standard thing for rulers of that time and place to say particularly after they’ve conquered somewhere. “Your old king was crap in all those ways; I will be awesome in all these ways”. But Finkel did say that even though the text itself has no relation to our concept of human rights the cylinder has taken on a sort of second life in modern Iran where it is a symbol of pride in their ancient civilisation and of human rights.

Another thing often said about the Cyrus cylinder is that it’s unique – this is also rubbish. This seemed implausible to experts from the start (it’s the sort of text you expect to be churned out by a conquering king) and there has been recent proof that it is indeed not one of a kind. Both Finkel and a colleague have discovered fragments of the Cyrus cylinder text in the British Museum’s collection of tablet fragments. These two fragments overlap with the text, but also with the missing portions of the cylinder. And they are from flat tablets rather than cylinders. So they are definitely from one or more separate copies of this text. Interestingly the fragments are also better quality than the cylinder, which is both of poor clay and lower quality writing. Finkel said this was probably because the Cyrus cylinder was intended to be buried – so people wouldn’t see it particularly often. He thinks there were probably thousands of copies of the text buried and distributed amongst the land that Cyrus ruled over (and beyond).

One of the (several) tangents that Finkel went on during this talk was about some fossilised horse shanks from China which were discovered with cuneiform on them that turned out to be the Cyrus cylinder text. The text had many omissions and was overall poorly copied, leading to thoughts that they were a fake. But equally the signs used for the text weren’t the same as those the cylinder – they were a different style and from a different period. So legitimate signs, and clearly not (poorly) copied straight off the Cyrus cylinder, which might incline one to think they were real. Finkel said he nearly published something saying they were real for these reasons, but shortly before the book was sent to the publisher he discovered where they’d been copied from! Wallis Budge (he of several Egyptology books of slight dubiousness by modern scholarship standards) had published an article about the Cyrus cylinder text. In it he’d presented the cuneiform using these different forms of the signs, and had presented the exact bits of text the horse shanks had (pooly) copied. So that was the origin of these fakes!

The two take home messages from this particular talk were first that one shouldn’t take anything at face value. And that there are no unique things in history, if we think there’s only one that just means we haven’t found another. And Finkel finished up with an anecdote of a surprising example of this – the Ishtar Gate from Babylon seems a prime candidate for uniqueness. However! A life size replica has been discovered in Persepolis built during Cyrus’s reign, outside his palace. Clearly he was pretty impressed by it when he conquered Babylon.