“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 9)

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a “dark age”. The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the “Age of Empires” as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom 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.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians – although there is some limited evidence that there might’ve been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni – although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the “kings” may well’ve been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There’s also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn’t a cohesive whole during this time – it may’ve been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves “Mighty King, King of Assyria”, reflecting Assyria’s return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been – not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I’s first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and “encouraged” to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon – using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as “brother”. So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented – in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I’s reign – the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom’s heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It’s very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with “Some have viewed” and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He’s the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They’re not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I’m not sure how they know it’s chronological if there are no dates – perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done – against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He’s also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to’ve been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name “the Sea Peoples” comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place – archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we’re not entirely certain but there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There’s also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It’s not at all clear why these peoples were on the move – the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there’s no consensus. There’s also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People’s migrations had on the region – although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to’ve started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear – conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II’s reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not’ve been Sea Peoples who’d settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There’s even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown – some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age – as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn’t a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia – their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering “if it really happened” and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus – whilst saying that there’s “no evidence but”. They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I’ve presented here – but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I’m sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria – the Age of Empires is about to begin.

The Stuarts; Bible Hunters

For some odd reason the BBC had a new documentary series about The Stuarts and then only aired it in Scotland. I can see that it was intended to tie in with the upcoming vote on independence but it was straightforwardly a documentary rather than a piece of propaganda. So I’m not really sure why it was kept north of the border. We only spotted it because I’d recorded something else off BBC2 Scotland to avoid a clash, and there was a trailer for The Stuarts.

The presenter was Clare Jackson, who I don’t think I’ve seen anything by before, and her thesis was that the Stuarts were the defining royal dynasty of Great Britain – despite the actual creation of the United Kingdom only happening almost by accident at the end of the Stuart era. She took us through the whole 17th Century (and a smidge beyond) in chronological order. The first episode covered James VI & I, and the early years of Charles I. The accession of James to the English throne in 1603 after Elizabeth I’s death had been a time of optimism – for James and for his new country. James’s dream was to unite the two countries in the same way that the crowns were now united, however he wasn’t able (even with his high degree of political skill) to persuade the English in particular to do this. Jackson also covered the seeds of Charles I’s autocratic leanings – in particular she pointed at his visit to Spain, whilst he was trying (and failing) to negotiate a Spanish marriage for himself. At the court of the Hapsburgs he got a taste of how royalty “should” be treated.

The second episode covered the civil wars and the Restoration. In this episode Jackson was keen to stress how the way we’re taught British history today (particularly in England) simplifies and prettifies this collection of conflicts. We’re often presented with it as “democracy vs. autocracy”, and the parts of the war outside England are often ignored. She said it is better compared to modern conflicts like the violence & genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And she emphasised the Irish parts of the Civil Wars, which were not pretty in the slightest and still have repercussions today. Cromwell is a divisive figure – either a hero (from a Protestant point of view) or a villain (from the Catholic point of view). She also pointed out how Cromwell was by the end King in all but name (hardly the champion of democracy that English school history would like to portray him as) and after he died his power and title passed on to his son. Who was sufficiently bad at the job that Charles II was invited back to England.

The last episode could be thought of as the long decline of the Stuarts … we started with the disaster that was about to be James VII & II. Charles II had been fairly astutely focused on remaining King – he might’ve had Catholic leanings and a Catholic wife but he’d stayed a Protestant (until his deathbed, perhaps). His brother James, however, did convert to Catholicism and was fervent about it – he resigned public office rather than give up his Catholicism. Charles never managed to sire a legitimate heir, so James was next in line to the throne. Charles did his best to mitigate the problems with his having a Catholic heir – he had James’s daughters brought up Protestant and married them to good Protestants (like William of Orange, a diplomatic necessity as well as an internal political one). So when James did come to the throne it was seen as a brief blip before Mary & William took over – dealable with. When James’s new wife had a son this changed and it was time for more direct action, William was invited to invade (this is the Glorious Revolution) which he did and by chance he won bloodlessly. William and Mary, and then Mary’s sister Anne after them were childless so after Anne the next possible Stuart heirs were the Catholic descendants of James. And this is what finally brought about the creation of the United Kingdom that had been James VI & I’s dream. England wanted the Protestant Hanoverans to inherit after Anne died, Scotland would’ve preferred the Stuart heir – and so the crowns and thus the countries would part unless Parliament succeeded in passing the Act of Union.

A good series, I really don’t know why it was confined to the Scottish bit of BBC2.

Bible Hunters wasn’t a promising name for a series, but actually it turned out to be pretty good (with some flaws). Jeff Rose took us through the 19th and early 20th Century attempts to find or confirm the truth of the Bible. The first episode focussed on the New Testament, and the efforts of 19th Century scholars and explorers to find early copies of the Gospels. The idea was to show that the Gospels were indeed the inerrant word of God, and that the narrative of Jesus life and ministry was correct. Egypt was the target of these expeditions because of the early monastic tradition in the country dating back to much nearer the time of Jesus life than anything in Europe could do. Some monasteries (like that at Sinai) have been inhabited continuously since at least the 3rd Century AD. What was found shook the certainty that nothing had changed as the Bible was copied and translated over the centuries. In particular the ending of the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels, thought to’ve been written first) was different, and different in an important fashion. The modern end of that Gospel has Jesus seen after his resurrection, and the women who went to his tomb are instructed to go forth and tell people the good news. The 2nd Century version of the text ends with the women finding the empty tomb, being told by an angel that Jesus has risen, and being afraid and telling no-one. The programme built this up as being a cataclysmic blow to the faithful, and certainly it causes a lot of problems if your faith requires the words in the Bible to be literally the whole truth and literally unchanging.

The second episode looked more generally at what expeditions to Egypt showed about both the general truth of the biblical world view and the construction of the canonical texts of the Bible. As the history of Pharaonic Egypt began to be examined it cast doubt on the accuracy of the Biblical stories about the history & age of the Earth. For instance when the Dendera zodiac was found it was thought to be 12,000 years old (now known to be false, it’s Ptolemaic) and how did that square with Usher’s careful calculations about the Earth having been created in 4,004 BC? And other Gospels were found buried near old monasteries – which had been hidden after the official choice of the four we now know as being the canonical books. These included a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, which gave a bigger role for women in the early church than in later times. And also Gnostic Gospels.

The format of the programme was Rose going to various places in Egypt, and also talking to various academics from a variety of institutions about the history of the people who found these things and the history of the ideas. And it was interesting to watch, but I kept running into things that made me stop and think “wait, is that really true?”. Which then casts doubt on the accuracy of other things that I didn’t already know something about. For example Bishop Usher’s calculation of the age of the Earth was mentioned, and Rose told us that “everyone believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old” at that time. But as far as I was aware by the time Usher was doing his calculations there were a lot of people (if not most people) who thought the Earth was much older than that – Usher was more of a last-gasp of outdated thought rather than mainstream. I could be wrong, it’s not an area I know much about but things like that let the doubt in. Another example was that the EEF (forerunner of the modern EES) was presented as being solely about proving the truth of the Bible when it started – but when we visited the EES last September (post) we were told that although the biblical links were used to get more funding preservation of the ancient monuments as things in themselves not as “it’s in the bible” was also an important goal. The discrepancy could well be down to spin, but again this lets doubts creep in about the accuracy or spin on the rest of the programme.

I am glad I watched it, but I don’t know if I’d trust it on the details without cross-checking the facts.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History – two part series about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, part dramatised documentary presented by Suzanne Lipscomb.

Episode 2 of Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – this was part of the BBC’s Tudor Season in 2013. It’s a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you’d need to know if you could travel back there.

Robins of Eden and The Rabbits of Skomer – two rather retro-feeling mini nature documentaries, lasting just 10 minutes each.

The Joy of the Single – programme about singles, talking to various music industry people. Covered things like the history of the single as a phenomenon, the physical object of a 7″ vinyl single and the sort of emotional impact that various singles had on these people.

Episode 2 of The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses – programme presented by Kevin Fong about the senses. Not much new footage, instead it made use of the last 40 years of Horizon to pull out illustrative bits and pieces from the archives. Some neat things to see, but in other ways it felt a bit shallow.