Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Late Bronze Age in the Middle East

Statues of Ramesses II built around 1255BC
In earlier posts, about Sumer, Egypt and Minoan Crete, I sketched a brief account of early civilisations in the region now known as the Middle East. By 1600 BC the greater Middle Eastern region had seen civilisation spread from the early cultural centres and complex trade routes linked states and empires from Iran to the edges of Greece and from the southern borders of Russia to northern Sudan. The trade routes may well have extended further for certain important commodities but, at the very least, the greater Middle Eastern region had reached a level of development that allowed communication across a wide area. I will skip over some of the events around 2500-1600BC for the moment, although hopefully I will be able to get back to them at some point, and focus on the later Bronze Age period in all its glory. I will describe the states that formed the region and then end by describing the relations that existed between them.

Map of the Bronze Age c.1400BC (not showing Elam or Mycenae)
At the eastern edge of the region lay Elam, a kingdom centred around what is now south-western Iran. This kingdom had two major urban centres at Susa and Anshan. The inhabitants spoke an isolated language that can nevertheless be translated because of their use of cuneiform however sources are quite scarce for this period. The Elamite kingdom at that time based its legitimacy on the earlier Elamite kingdoms, whose history went back almost to the dawn of civilisation but the dynasties had changed throughout the centuries. Unfortunately there is not a great deal that can be said about the Elamite kingdom of this era (at least by me) so the reader must be content with knowing that there was a strong kingdom in south-western Iran whose rulers frequently clashed with the Babylonian Kassite rulers of southern Iraq and whose power generally waxed if the power of the Kassites waned.

Illustration from a Kassite kudurru
The southern region of Iraq was ruled by a people known as Kassites from the early 1500’s BC until the early 1100’s. After Babylon was destroyed by invading Hittite armies and the last member of Hammurabi’s dynasty deposed, the Kassites took over. They spoke a language that was difficult to understand but which may have been related to Hurrian. Very few of texts in their language survive, however substantial correspondence exists between them and other rulers, using tablets inscribed with the older Akkadian language. The Kassites were not native to the region and built a new capital, Dur-Kurigalzu, from which to rule, but the city of Babylon had such a reputation that it nevertheless retained its importance. After a time the Kassites appear to have been absorbed into the greater Babylonian population. Sadly, very little has survived from this period but the Kassites left as their legacies kudurrus, which were similar to legal grants of lands and privileges. Although this was unintended, the astronomical data recorded in writing the dates on the kudurrus has greatly assisted archaeologists in dating events in Near Eastern history.

Letter from Tushratta, King of Mitanni, to Egypt
From around 1500 to 1300 BC the area roughly comprising what is now northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and Syria was ruled by a state called Mitanni. A number of different names were used for this state, including Hurri, Khanigalbat/Hanigalbat or Maryannu. Some of these may have been names of peoples within the state that were subsequently confused with the state itself. Seldom have we known so little about a state but some scholars have hypothesised that a group of Indo-Aryan speakers formed a small ruling class in the Mitanni state and that the Mitanni state may have developed the light chariot and introduced the art of training horses to a high physical peak. A manual for training horses written by a certain “Kikkuli the Mitanni” was found in the Hittite capital and dated to around 1400BC. Whether or not the Mitanni invented the light spoked chariot wheel, by around 1500BC the light chariot had become pivotal to the armies of the Middle East and the armies of the day were formed around elite chariot corps. The Mitanni state was powerful and at the height of its power was more than a match for Egypt but it had no natural defences and proved unable to control its own territory. The Hittite state in present day Turkey eroded its Syrian empire while the rising Assyrian state (near present day Mosul in northern Iraq) sapped its interior strength. Eventually the Mitanni state ceased to be a great power and became tributary to the Hittites and Assyrians before finally becoming absorbed into the Assyrian empire. For an empire that lasted over two hundred years and may have pioneered innovative military tactics we know so little about it that the location of its capital Washukanni is a mystery to this day.

Middle Assyrian Stele
The Assyrians were based very close to the centre of Mitanni power in the north of Iraq and so were unable to achieve any degree of independence for a time. Their main city of Asshur had been the capital city of a substantial but short-lived empire hundreds of years earlier so the kings of that city dreamed of re-establishing the greatness of earlier times. However, the measures needed to fend off the Kassites to the south while also shaking off the yoke of Mitanni rule appear to have forced the Assyrians to begin to use drastic (extremely brutal) tactics to achieve success. Eventually the Assyrians were able to crush the Mitanni and claim their perceived rights as great powers. At first the neighbouring powers, the Kassites and Hittites, were angry that a regional power would dare to dispute with them at their own level but they adjusted pragmatically once it was seen that Assyria was there to stay. One Hittite king contemptuously asks Adad-Nirari I (one of the first Assyrian kings to claim great power status) “So you’ve become a Great King have you?” But the next Hittite king adopts a more conciliatory tone when writing about a troublesome border town between their empires, “If Turira is yours, smash it! If Turira is not yours, write to me so that I may smash it!” Assyria had risen to the challenge of politics in the Bronze Age and the Mitanni state passed into obscurity.

Hittite Carving
The Hittite state was based in central Turkey with their capital Khattusha lying near the current town of Bogazkale. The Hittite kingdom had existed since around 1800BC and had burst onto the international scene when they had sacked Babylon around 1530BC, however, internal power struggles forced them to pull back. Around 1400BC the revived empire began pushing forward once more and they clashed with the Mitanni and Egypt over control of Syria and Lebanon. They spoke an Indo-European language but used Akkadian (the language of Babylonia) to communicate with most of their neighbours. Their cities and fortresses were impressively built from stone and they produced some vibrant artwork and carvings. They appear to have had a navy (as they seem to have included Cyprus in their empire). But their most impressive technological feat was the production of iron. They were unable to produce much of it and they were certainly unable to equip armies with it but they were able to produce small luxury iron items like knives that were traded among kings. This invention paved the way for the later mass production that enabled the Iron Age.

Hittite Depiction of Chariots
While their population was far below that of Egypt the Hittites were capable of meeting the Egyptian armies in battle. At the battle of Kadesh the forces of the Hittite king, Muwatalli II, outwitted and inflicted serious casualties on the Egyptian armies of Ramesses II. Although Ramesses’ forces recovered, the Hittites forced the Egyptians to recognise a draw and significantly, it was the Egyptians who had to withdraw after the battle. Despite successes such as these, the Hittites were unable to seriously threaten Egypt. Their population was much smaller and the neighbouring states of Kaska, Arzawa and Wilusha were continuously threatening to revolt or invade should the Hittite king ever leave them alone for any period of time.

Bust of Nefertiti
The Egyptian Empire reached its apogee in the Late Bronze Age. After having expelled the foreign Hyskos Dynasty (and having learned from them all the secrets of chariotry) the Pharaohs used the resources of Egypt to dramatically expand their borders controlling large sections of present day Libya, Sudan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Around 1350 BC Egypt suffered a setback in international affairs when the Pharaoh decided to change Egyptian religion (this event is definitely worth a blog post of its own) and the ensuing turmoil appears to have loosened the Egyptian hold on their empire. But after this setback the Egyptians did recover some of their control of the region.

Egypt was the strongest of the great powers because none of the other powers could strike it directly (they had to cross the sea, deserts or pass through the Egyptian controlled areas of Syro-Palestine). The regularity of the Nile and advanced Egyptian agriculture enabled the Pharaohs to control (and feed) large populations who could be mobilised for war if necessary. Also Egyptian mines produced seemingly inexhaustible amounts of gold allowing Egypt to exercise far greater spending power than its rivals. While these factors meant that Egypt was the most stable and pre-eminent power, it was no guarantee that its armies would be victorious once they left the safety of Egypt (as Ramesses II found out at Kadesh).

Main Entrance to Mycenae
The last of the great powers was only really acknowledged by the Hittites. This power was referred to by the Hittites as Ahhiyawa. It was located somewhere to the west of the Hittite kingdom but, even with the Hittite naval forces, it appeared that the Hittites were unable to strike at the homeland of this people. This people interfered with the kingdoms on the western coast of Turkey and were powerful enough for the kings of the mighty Hittite Empire to be forced to address them as equals. While the link is unproved and still somewhat contentious, I believe that it is fair to assume that the “Ahhiyawa” referred to in Hittite records actually refers to Mycenaean Greece.

Mycenaean Fresco of a Lady
The Mycenaean culture was centred in the south of Greece. Like the Hittites they built massive stone citadels (and tombs that mirrored the splendour of Egyptian tombs). They may not have been an empire in the traditional sense but it is likely from Hittite records that there may have been a number of powerful regional overlords who all deferred to a single overall leader. If the later writings of Homer are indication of Bronze Age culture, the portrayal of Agamemnon would back this up. The Mycenaean culture left some writings behind but these are nearly all extremely boring documents describing the daily accounts of the palaces (interesting in their own way I suppose but of very little help in getting a sense of the politics of the time). It is almost definite that they could not speak Akkadian so they were unable to communicate in the deliberations of the great powers but the distance between their realm and any empire save the Hittite one made such communication unnecessary.

Depiction of Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh
For those of you who have struggled through the blog post this far, it has doubtless been a fairly boring read and I apologise for this. Sadly, the amount of detail and time that must be covered makes it difficult to really make things interesting and no amount of pretty pictures will compensate. But I do think that this post is worth spending time on. There are some really significant things to take from this piece of history. Firstly, that each kingdom mentioned here shared broad cultural similarities, they each had kings, worshipped similar gods and used similar weapons and strategies to wage war. Each kingdom appears to have been centred to a greater or lesser extent around a bronze-wielding, chariot-driving elite.

Vase showing Mycenaean Soldiers
But the most extraordinary thing is the way that they talk. I have alluded throughout the piece to concepts such as “Great Power” status. What this meant was that each of these kings viewed the others as effectively their equal and used diplomacy to maintain this. No one empire or kingdom was strong enough to conquer the others (over the entire time period only the Mitanni kingdom falls and that takes the concerted efforts of Egypt, the Hittites and Assyria over a period of several hundred years) so by and large they simply don’t try. This fine balance may be disrupted by warfare but after the wars the kings would draw up elaborate peace treaties using a common language of diplomacy (Akkadian) that could be as scrupulously honoured (possibly more so) than treaties today. I’m not trying to imply that there was a proto United Nations at work but I do find the intricate balance of power, diplomacy and peacemaking in the late Bronze Age to be one of the most interesting political scenarios to have ever existed. It is impossible to tell how the modern world might be different had these kingdoms survived longer but it is interesting that many cultures in later times appear to have looked back to this era as a golden age.

Bronze Age around 1340BC
To give a flavour of the correspondence between the Great Kings I shall finish by showing the beginning of a translated letter sent from Assur-Uballit I of Assyria (when Assyria was just trying to establish itself as a great power) to Akhenaten of Egypt. The translation is taken from the book the Amarna Letters, which was edited and translated by William L. Moran.

Say to the Great King, king of Egypt, my brother: Thus Assur-Uballit, king of Assyria, Great King, your brother,
    For you, your household and your country, may all go well.
Lamassu from Assyrian Palace
    When I saw your messengers I was very happy. Certainly your messengers shall reside with me as objects of great solicitude.
    I send you as your greeting gift a beautiful royal chariot outfitted for me and two white horses also outfitted for me, one chariot not outfitted and one seal of genuine lapis lazuli. 
    Is such a present that of a Great King? Gold in your country is as dirt. One simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed for its adornment.
    When Assur-nadin-ahhe, my ancestor, wrote to Egypt twenty talents of gold were sent to him.
    When the king of Khanigalbat (Mitanni) wrote to your father in Egypt he sent twenty talents of gold to him.
    Now I am the equal of the king of Khanigalbat (Mitanni) but you have sent (x) amount of gold and it is not even enough for the pay of my messengers on the journey to and back….

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Before the Incas

Chimu Ear Flares
I have previously written about certain early civilisations, such as Sumer or Egypt, mainly because I find them interesting but partly because knowledge of them is useful in understanding later historical developments. I will now spend some time looking at some civilisations in South America. The great watershed event in South American history is the arrival of European culture in the 1500’s and the destruction associated with this, combined with degradable materials comprising the settlements of many existing civilisations mean that our knowledge of ancient societies in the region is fragmentary and the remains of entire civilisations may lie buried for future generations to find. I will focus mainly on the region of the northern Andes (Peru, Bolivia etc.) and sketch the civilisations in broad strokes. I apologise in advance to enthusiasts of the subject if I make occasional generalisations or errors and the omissions due to space constraints.

Pyramid at Caral
The first notable South American urban society is the Norte Chico culture in northern Peru, dating from around 3000 BC to 1700 BC. Most early civilisations begin in river valleys, where pottery and irrigation allow increased populations that morph into urban areas. Despite impressive irrigation undertaken, the people of this culture did not use pottery. They did however build stepped pyramids and create impressive textiles. Their main city, Caral (an alternative name for the culture) was unfortified and may have been primarily a ceremonial centre. Lacking ceramics, their main artistic outlet was in textiles but if archaeologists are correct, the Norte Chico civilisation may have made a striking leap forward in this area by (pardon the atrocious pun) turning textiles to text.

The threads shown in the picture are known as “quipu”. The Incas used them until the 1500’s to record numerical data but many scholars believe that the intricate systems of knots do not merely carry numbers but can denote linguistic content as well. If so, these knotted strings were in fact a writing system. Similar remains were found in the Norte Chico settlements, which would imply that this system of writing is truly ancient. It should be noted however that not all scholars are convinced that the quipu are a true writing system and the identification of them at Norte Chico sites is not entirely proved.

Interior of tunnel at Chavin de Huantar
Around 1800 BC the Norte Chico culture went into decline and the unfortified cities were abandoned. The next notable culture arose nearly a thousand years later in central Peru. This culture was referred to as the Chavin. Again, the cities are unfortified and evidence of warfare is very scarce. The culture centred on a site known as Chavin de Huantar near Lima, which contained impressive architecture and was worked upon and improved for hundreds of years. It is very speculative exactly what their religion comprised of but it is almost certain that Chavin de Huantar was a place that held religious significance for the culture and the site held labyrinthine tunnels and intricate stele. Chavin artwork is found throughout the region but the fact that only one major centre of the culture has been found and the fact that this centre, Chavin de Huantar appears to be more ceremonial than urban, might suggest that the Chavin culture was more akin to a religious phenomena than an empire or state in the traditional sense.
Moche Pottery
Around 100 AD, in Northern Peru, the Moche culture rose to prominence. While the Moche do not appear to have been a single state but rather a set of highly organised states that existed in parallel. They were skilled metalworkers and built massive pyramidal monuments. One of these monuments was so large and contained so many tombs with grave goods that the Spanish later diverted a river to aid in mining it mining it for gold. This obviously caused (severe) damage to the structure, but prior to its destruction this pyramid (Huaca del Sol) was probably the largest building in Pre-Columbian America. The Moche flourished until around the year 500AD when their society went into decline.

Pyramid of the Sun in the background. Note trees as scale
Moche Warrior

The reasons for this decline are disputed. One popular theory suggests that there was a change in the climate and that the culture was battered by storms for decades before suffering decades of drought. If this was the case it should be noted that this did not destroy the culture. There are Moche settlements dated to 800 AD, (300 years after the extreme climate event). However, the later settlements display major fortifications and the excavated walls have revealed caches of sling stones (the bow was not used by the Moche). A foreign invasion has been suggested but another plausible scenario suggests that the culture survived the climate event but that the city-states then turned against each other in an increasingly desperate competition for resources before the urban populations eventually abandoned the cities to move towards more fertile lands. Another scenario postulates that the city-states were temporarily abandoned but that the population simply shifted to different urban centres around 800 AD and that later cultures in the area should be viewed as extensions of the original Moche culture.

Pyramid at Cahuachi
At the same time as the Moche were flourishing in Northern Peru, an enigmatic culture existed along Peru’s southern coast. These people are referred to as the Nazca and while they left behind few physical remains, the remains in question are quite startling. The region is quite arid and agriculture is difficult to this day, however, the farmers of the region are able to water their crops by using underground aqueducts that have been there for an unspecified period of time. The identity of the builders is disputed and some maintain that these were built by early Spanish settlers. They could possibly have been built by an altogether unknown civilisation but the most likely candidates are the Nazca. The primary Nazca ceremonial centre was a site now known as Cahuachi, where the relatively well preserved (and partially reconstructed) remains of a pyramid stand.

Nazca Lines
More famously, they also constructed the Nazca lines. These are lines that stretch across the desert, seemingly insignificant when viewed from the plains on which they lie, but forming coherent shapes when viewed from local hills or the air. As the Nazca left no direct records (like all Pre-Incan Peruvian cultures) no one really knows what these lines are for (suggestions range from maps of the aqueducts to alien landing strips) but they do make for interesting viewing. The picture shown reveals (on close examination as it is a poor quality picture) a thick straight line and a stylised picture of a bird.

The Nazca were contemporary with the Moche and seem to have suffered the same fate, whether from climate change or invasion, as their culture fades out around 800AD. However, these cultures were succeeded by empires. The previously mentioned cultures may have been centrally organised but the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures were empires. The Wari, also known as the Huari, were a culture based in central and northern Peru, who controlled an extensive empire bound together by a corvee (taxes were paid in communal labour at the behest of the rulers) style tribute system and an intricate system of road.

Reconstructed Central Plaza in Tiwanaku
Meanwhile, in Southern Peru, a culture referred to as Tiwanaku (also known as Tiahuanaco) arose near Lake Titicaca. These were contemporary with the Wari and shared cultural links and trade ties but were almost definitely separate. The remains of the city at Tiwanaku show the skill of the architects and stonemasons who planned an executed the design. Certain people who were interested in the site believed that possible astronomical alignments of the buildings proved that the city of Tiwanaku was over 9,000 years old (as the alignments of stars shift slightly over time this is actually a semi-valid method of dating). This would have made Tiwanaku the oldest city on earth but most archaeologists are convinced that these calculations were in error and the evidence suggests that the Wari and Tiwanaku states existed roughly between 600-1100AD.

Adobe remains of Chan Chan
Decorated Wall in Chan Chan

The Chimu culture arose roughly around 900AD in the area that had been occupied by the Moche and there are many cultural similarities between the two. The Chimu left behind many artefacts and their immense adobe capital of Chan Chan still partially exists today. The Chimu were an organised state based around a narrow coastal strip. They worshipped the moon and their intensive agriculture supported a large population that was able to wage war effectively. Around the year 1300AD the Chimu state expanded rapidly until it controlled most of north and central Peru. However, their state was matched by a rising state to the south and around the year 1470AD the ruler of the Incan Empire, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, marched into Chan Chan and put an end to the Chimu empire and civilisation. Tupac Inca Yupanqui was the grandfather of the last Inca, Atahualpa and also the namesake of Tupac Amaru, whom Tupac Shakur was named after (a little bit of trivia for you there).

Chimu Llama Vase
This has been a long post but it has covered, albeit briefly, a period of four thousand four hundred years and has hopefully given a glimpse into some of the civilisations that thrived before the famous Incas and the eventual Spanish conquest.