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….