Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Mitanni

Map of the Middle East in 1400 showing Mitanni kingdom
After the fall of Babylon to the Hittites, centralised power in Mesopotamia declined. Mursilis I, the king of the Hittites was assassinated and his successors did not consolidate his conquests. The Assyrian kings controlled the area around Asshur but were too weak to conquer areas far from their city. The Kassite tribes established themselves in Babylon but were engaged in subduing opposition from the southern dynasty of the Sealand kingdom (when Sealand was an actual kingdom and not a vanity micro-state off the coast of Britain). The Egyptians had not yet extended their empire into Palestine and would not establish true power in the region until after Tuthmosis I raided as far as the Euphrates around 1500BC. This left a power vacuum in what is now Syria, with isolated cities and tribes scattered across the plains of the Euphrates and Khabur rivers.

Into this vacuum came the Mitanni, whose kingdom was also referred to as Khanigalbat. They are (to me at least) the most mysterious of the ancient empires. They left few marks on the landscape: no gigantic buildings; no works of art. There are in fact few physical traces of their existence. However for a short period they were able to contend with the greatest powers of the era, clashing with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites and Assyrians before eventually disappearing.

Egyptian chariot with light-spoked wheels of the period
Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni
Manual on Training Horses, excavated from Khattusha

Warfare in the region changed around this time. Earlier civilisations, such as the Sumerians, had used chariots but their chariots were more like war-carts or war-wains. They had four heavy, solid wheels and were pulled by onagers or donkeys. These Sumerian “chariots” would have functioned as mobile battle platforms for archers and spear throwers if they were used in battle at all. With the onset of the Late Bronze Age the great powers began to use war horses to pull chariots that had two spoked, ultra-thin wheels; that could travel at great speeds, whirling elite troops from one side of the battle to the other, wheeling and firing barrages of arrows and charging down infantry as needed. It is unclear if the Mitanni were the innovators in this regard (I suspect that they were not, as the Hittites were also known as charioteers) but they were adept at the new style of warfare. The late Bronze Age was the golden age of chariot warfare, with Egyptians, Assyrians, Hittites, Mycenaeans and Mitanni all fielding elite units. After the Bronze Age Collapse chariots continued to be used but cavalry was favoured, as being more manoeuvrable.

A fascinating series of texts were excavated from Khattusha, the capital of the Hittite Empire, known as the Hittite horse texts. One of these is a copy of a text from the 1500’s BC, written by Kikkuli the Mitannian, which was preserved and recorded by the Hittite scribes, probably as a manual for training chariot horses for war. Many people have taken this to be a sign that the Mitanni invented or transmitted the secrets of chariotry to the region. However, all it proves is that there was at least one person from the Mitanni state who was deemed an expert.

Teshub, lord of heaven and earth, Sin and Shamash, lords of heaven and earth, Teshub, lord of Kurinni of Kapa, Nergal of Kurta, Teshub, lord of Uhushuman, Ea-sharri, lord of wisdom, Anu, Antum, Enlil and Ninlil, the gods Mitrashshil, the gods Uruwan- ashshil, the god Indar, the gods Nashatianna, Ellatsha, Shamanmin- uhi, Teshub, lord of Washshukkani, Teshub, lord of all of Irrite, Partahi of Shuta, Nabarwa, Shuruhi, Ashur, the star, Shala, Nin-egal, Dam- kina, Ishhara, the mountains and the rivers, the gods of heaven and the gods of earth, by the words of this treaty may they stand, and may they give ear. For they are the witnesses.
Treaty between Suppiluliuma I, King of the Hittites and Shattiwaza, King of the Mitanni showing Indo-European god names (Indar similar to Indra) amid the Mesopotamian and Hurrian gods called to witness the treaty

Amarna Letter
Linguistically the Mitanni kingdom is very interesting. The main population spoke a language called Hurrian, which is only related to one other language (Urartian), which makes their language fascinating in its own right. Some linguists have suggested that Hurrian is the basis that Tolkien used in creating the Black Speech of Mordor, as certain structures appear to be similar between the languages and Tolkien would certainly have been familiar with the recent translations of Hurrian.This is speculation however and was never confirmed in writing by Tolkien.

However, their ruling class seems to have had names that used a different language, a very antiquated form of Indo-Aryan, (referred to in academia (and Wikipedia) as the Indo-Aryan superstrate in Mitanni). It is unlikely that at the time of the Mitanni Empire that the rulers actually spoke this Indo-Aryan tongue but they preserved a number of words (particularly those relating to horses and gods) that used this language, rather like how fragments of Latin have survived in academic and legal use in English. Like the other societies of the time the Mitanni were fairly ecumenical with their gods and worshipped the gods of Mesopotamia, as well as the Hurrian gods but the ruling classes do seem to have retained a few of the gods of the Indo-European pantheon as well.

It’s easy to get overly carried away with speculations about what the Indo-Aryan words in Mitanni mean for linguistics and theories about where the Indo-European language originated. But it must be borne in mind that the Mitanni sources are very scarce. Nearly everything recorded of them comes from their neighbours who may have garbled the transmission. Until more information comes to light it would be best to withhold opinion.

In the early 1400’s BC the Mitanni were ruled by Shuttarna who had built a strong kingdom near the Khabur River. His son Parshatatar extended the kingdom significantly, taking Aleppo, controlling south-west Anatolia (known as Kizzuwatna) and raiding as far in the other direction to the east. Parshatatar may have fought with the Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis I who led a raiding expedition as far as the Euphrates, although I think it more likely that the clash took place in the reign of Shuttarna. Oddly, as the Egyptians had never seen a major river that flowed southwards, they referred to the river found on this expedition as the river that flows backwards (Herodotus later said the same thing about the Nile in reverse). The clash between the Mitanni and the Egyptians was the first time Egypt had met another empire that could match it in combat (the Hyksos had invaded from outside Egypt and conquered it but the Hyksos had never been part of an empire). The clash between the two powers augured badly. At this point the Mitanni would have been stronger than the Hittites, Assyrians or Babylonians but would not have expected an attack from the south.

Tuthmosis I had raided as far as the Euphrates and even crossed it in a symbolic gesture but there had been no pitched battles or major engagements between the two powers and the cities that had supposedly were conquered by the Egyptians stopped acknowledging supremacy as soon as the armies were removed. His grandson Tuthmosis III would change this. Early in his reign he realised that the Canaanite kings were preparing to withstand Egypt. They were led by someone from Kadesh, a strategic city in southern Syria that was within the sphere of Mitanni influence. After winning a decisive victory against the Canaanite alliance at Megiddo, Tuthmosis received gifts from the kings of the Middle East, except the Mitanni.

Modern drawing of the Seal of Shaushtatar
"Year 23, first month of summer, day 16, (arrival) at the town of Yehem. His majesty ordered a consultation with his valiant army, saying: "That wretched foe of Kadesh has come and entered into Megiddo and is there at this moment. He has gathered to him the princes of all the foreign lands that had been loyal to Egypt, as well as those from as far as Nahrin, consisting of ---, Khor and Kedy, their horses, their armies, their people. And he says--it is reported--'I shall wait and fight his majesty here in Megiddo....'" 
Inscription of Tuthmosis III from the temple at Karnak describing the alliance that fought him at the Battle of Megiddo.

The Mitanni were not expecting an attack as their border cities were still untouched and the Pharaoh had no way of transporting a large army across the Euphrates. Tuthmosis III is sometimes called the Egyptian Napoleon but the Egyptian Hannibal would be appropriate as well. As at Megiddo, where Tuthmosis III had used forced marching over difficult terrain to gain tactical advantage over the Canaanites, he now stole a march on the Mitanni. Raiding a coastal city he captured a large amount of boats which he transported overland as part of his army before rapidly bypassing and capturing the cities between him and the Euphrates. Once across the River, with the Mitanni army unready for war, Tuthmosis III plundered wherever he pleased before retreating with large quantities of spoil.We must of course remember that these events are described only from Egyptian sources. Tuthmosis III was undoubtedly a great general but the Egyptian Pharaohs had a penchant for describing every battle as a great victory, even if it was a tactical or strategic defeat.

And my Majesty sailed to the northern border of Asia. My Majesty ordered that many ships be built of cedar from the mountains of God's Land in the neighbourhood of the Mistress of Byblos. They were placed on wagons towed by bulls. They travelled ahead of my Majesty to ferry across that river that is between this foreign land and Naharin - a king to be boasted of because of his two arms in melee, and who crossed the Euphrates after them who had attacked him, as the first of his army while seeking that miserable enemy in the foreign lands of Mitanni, while he fled for fear before His Majesty to another land, a far place.
Then my Majesty established my stele on that mountain of Naharin, as one extracted from the mountain on the western side of the Euphrates.

Napata Stele of Tuthmosis III describing the campaign against the Mitanni 

The probable king of the Mitanni at this period was Shaushtatar, who seems to have been a great general. He had attacked the city of Asshur and carried away the great ceremonial gates of the city, reducing Assyria to a mere vassal state. When Tuthmosis III had surprised the Mitanni before the armies may have been engaged to the east. Now awakened to the danger, the Mitanni garrisoned the west of their empire properly and further campaigns by Tuthmosis III in the region proved fruitless, with one “great victory” earning a paltry ten prisoners as captives. Tuthmosis III died and Shaushtatar prepared for war to carry the battle to the Egyptians, before dying himself.

Amarna Letter from Tushratta
Instead of the expected clash of superpowers something unexpected happened. Peace broke out. Amenhotep II of Egypt does not seem to have campaigned in Syria and his son, Tuthmosis IV and Artatama I of Mitanni made a peace treaty that included marriage alliances and Mitanni princesses becoming part of the Egyptian royal family. The two empires corresponded and their rulers addressed each other as “brother”. It was the beginning of the Bronze Age diplomacy that became famous with the discovery of the Amarna Letters. At this period the Hittites were beginning to threaten Mitanni again but the establishment of peace between Egypt and the Mitanni allowed the Mitanni kingdom to reach the height of its power under Shuttarna I.

... he asked for the daughter of my grandfather, the sister of my father. He wrote 5, 6 times, but he did not give her. When he wrote my grandfather 7 times, then only under such pressure, did he give her
Letter from Tushratta of Mitanni to Akhenaten of Egypt describing the marriage alliance between their royal houses.  

The prosperity of the Mitanni kingdom was short-lived. Shuttarna I was murdered and after a power struggle his son Tushratta was able to kill the murderer, his brother Artashumara. Tushratta was to be the last of the Great Kings of the Mitanni. He was a contemporary of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt, to whom he was related by marriage, and also contemporary with the greatest general of all the Hittite kings, Suppiluliuma I. In the chaos after the murder of Shuttarna, another Mitanni king, Artatama, had set up a rival kingdom. Suppiluliuma I supported Artatama and attacked the Mitanni three times, at one point apparently forcing Tushratta to abandon his capital.

You are the one who knows the words of Mimmuriya, your husband, but you have not sent me yet the gift of homage which Mimmuriya, your husband, has ordered to be sent to me. I have asked Mimmuriya, your husband, for massive gold statues ... But your son has sent gold-plated statues of wood. As the gold is like dust in the country of your son, why have they been the reason for such pain, that your son should not have given them to me? ... Neither has he given me what his father had been accustomed to give.
Letter from Tushratta, King of the Mitanni to Tiye (Queen Mother of Egypt and mother of Akhenaten)

Map of Middle East showing Khanigalbat (Mitanni)
being squeezed between Assyria and the Hittites
To make matters worse for the beleaguered empire, the Assyrians had cast off the Mitanni yoke and were supporting factions in the warring empire. In the face of these wars Tushratta fought back and won some successes but the armies of the Hittites were relentless. Tushratta sent a series of letters to Akhenaten asking for large quantities of gold. After the continual wars and Hittite conquests the Mitanni finances were probably not good. No help came from the Egyptians, who were involved in religious reforms and appeared unable to even control their vassals in Palestine and southern Syria. As later civilisations in Syria and Palestine would learn, Egypt was powerful but not necessarily a reliable ally. Tushratta was murdered, possibly by his brothers but probably by his sons, as Suppiluliuma I took the vital city of Carchemish on the Euphrates cutting the Mitanni off from their rich tribute cities on the Syrian coast.

A confused series of events follows, with Artatama II and Shuttarna III ruling as quick usurpers from within the royal family. Shuttarna III returned the great doors of Asshur to the Assyrians and called in Assyrian aid against the Hittites and his enemies within his family. The Assyrians came but ended up attacking the Mitanni capital before Suppiluliuma I attacked both forces and installed Shattiwaza, the brother of Tushratta, on the throne. Shattiwaza was installed, not as a Great King, who could address the Pharaoh of Egypt as an equal, but as a vassal of the Great King of the Hittites. At this point all the satellite states of the Mitanni had been lost to the Hittites and the Assyrians, leaving only the heartland remaining. The Kassite Babylonians were claiming that Asshur was their vassal city but the Assyrians were determined to be recognised as Great Kings in their own right.

Akhenaten: contemporary of Tushratta
and Suppiluliuma
Shattuara was installed as king of the Mitanni by the Assyrians but rebelled. His son Wasashatta also rebelled against the Assyrians and his revolt was ruthlessly crushed by Adad-Nirari I of Assyria. While Wasashatta may have escaped, the rest of the Mitanni royal family were captured and taken to Asshur. Their fate was probably not pleasant.

You continue to speak about [the defeat] of Wasa[shatta and the conquest?] of the land of Hurri. You indeed conquered by force of arms. And you conquered […] and have become a Great King. But why do you still continue to speak about brotherhood and about seeing Mount Amanus? What is this, brotherhood? And what is this, seeing Mount Amanus? For what reason should I write to you about brotherhood? Who customarily writes to someone about brotherhood? Do those who are not on good terms customarily write to one another about brotherhood? On what account should I write to you about brotherhood? Were you and I born from one mother? As [my grandfather] and my father did not write to the King of Assyria [about brotherhood], you shall not keep writing to me [about brotherhood] and Great Kingship. [It is not my] wish.
Letter from Mursilis II of the Hittites to Adad-Nirari I of the Assyrians

Mursilis II of the Hittites still treated the Assyrians as arrogant upstarts, possibly justified as Adad-Nirari I called himself not only a Great King but held the title King of the Four Corners (or King of the Universe). Mursilis II was overthrown by his uncle, the great general Hattusili III who had led the Hittite armies against Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. Hattusili III acknowledged Adad-Nirari I as a Great King and corresponded with him respectfully concerning their borders which now lay near the Euphrates River. The rich coastal cities that had been subject to the Mitanni were now subject to the Hittites, who now had made peace with the Egyptians after their strategic victory/stalemate at Kadesh. The Mitanni heartlands were held by the rising power of Assyria and were incorporated into Assyria proper. The old capital of Washukanni had been abandoned and the new capital of Taite had been turned into a wilderness by Adad-Nirari.

To the Sun my father say: thus says the king of [Ha]nigalbat (Mitanni) your son.
 Pe[ace] be with the Sun my father.
I trust the Sun my father. As for me, I thus say, like my father, let the Sun say […]
What sin did I commit against my father? ...
If a man has two judges], the one comes forth and the other does not c[ome forth]. Now the king of Ashur my enemy has asked, and, in accordance (with the words) of Adad my lord, he acted.  The Sun, my father, heard.  I am living in the city Sinamu and Ehli-sarruma has sent his message to me. He wrote the following: [….]
Letter from a king of the Mitanni (probably Shattuara II) to a king of the Hittites (probably Hattusili III)

A stele possibly showing
Adad-Nirari I, a destroyer of the
Mitanni kingdom
There was possibly another Mitanni king, Shattuara II who was in the dangerous situation of ruling almost nothing and yet being claimed as subject by two Great Kings. He seems to have written a letter to Hattusili III begging for assistance, writing as a powerless subject to a Great King. He was crushed by Adad-Nirari’s son, Shalmaneser I who was the first Assyrian king to practice deportations of conquered peoples. It is possible however that this episode was invented by Shalmaneser I after campaigns in the region, claiming the deeds of his father as his own. In any event, power held in the region was now held by Assyrian governors rather than Mitanni kings and thus the Mitanni disappear from history.

The Mitanni are not renowned in history. Their achievements are mainly depicted as negatives, recorded by their neighbours who were often enemies. They left no monuments or cities and little art; their language and substrate languages have vanished from the earth, leaving no literature or epics behind. We know that they were great charioteers and horsemen at a time when the chariot ruled the battlefield and horsemanship was vital to empires but we do not know if they were the developers of these techniques and technologies or if they simply excelled in the technologies of others.

One of the things that the Mitanni, or more strictly speaking, the Hurrians, left us is some of the earliest notated music, found in their tributary city of Ugarit near the Syrian coast. After thirty-three hundred years it still sounds, not bad at all. The video below gives an artists rendering of the Hymn known as Hurrian Hymn Six.

Their main legacy may be great power diplomacy. When the Mitanni and Egyptian kingdoms corresponded as respectful and powerful equals they laid the foundations for the diplomacy and trade of the Late Bronze Age, where Great Kings addressed each other as brother and tried to avoid confrontations. Diplomacy certainly predates the Mitanni but the idea of powerful kingdoms with smaller satellite states maintaining balance was new. Most diplomacy before this had simply been between city-states. Ironically the new diplomacy came into its own when the Mitanni had effectively been removed from the scene.

Even if we allow them a pivotal role in the development of Late Bronze Age diplomacy the Mitanni are still largely silent. But this may not always be the case. We know that they had at least two capitals; Washukanni and, at later periods, Taite. These have never been found but we do know that they lie somewhere near the Khabur River in Syria. There may well be archives of letters and literature lying beneath the ancient mounds that will one tell the tales of this empire to the world.

At present this land is controlled by Daesh, (or IS/ISIS/ISIL) who are barbarically destroying the heritage of the region. Even the items that they do not destroy but sell on the black market are a blow to humanity, as a looted item has no context and has lost most of its historical value. I hope that one day the cities of the Mitanni are discovered but while the thuggish barbarians still roam the land, wrecking the treasures they do not understand, perhaps it is best that they stay hidden.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A Hittites documentary

A documentary on the Hittites by the BBC. It contains some very interesting shots of reconstructions of Hattusha but some of the history is a little hyperbolic and possibly inaccurate in places.

It is a good watch nevertheless. Enjoy!

Making history

Pluto and Charon
Happy Bastille Day!

This is a blog about ancient history but it is important to remember that we live in an era where history is being made on a colossal scale on a daily basis. Today, humanity will, for the first time, have a spacecraft arrive at a dwarf planet nine billion miles away. Despite the fact that the spacecraft was the fastest object ever to be launched it has taken nine years to traverse the oceans of space and reach its goal. It is the first trans-Neptunian object to be visited by a spacecraft and the information that it will give us about the Solar System will advance the cause of science.

In other news (yesterday), a new particle was possibly confirmed in the Large Hadron Collider. A possible penta-quark was observed and while the results are still to be reviewed, if this was to be deemed viable it would show a huge leap for science, from the very large to the very small.

History is a continuous process and we live in an exciting epoch.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The First Emperor Documentary

An impressive documentary on the First Emperor of China, who was mentioned previously in the post dealing with the Warring States.

I will hopefully be able to post another in-depth post in the not too distant future (possibly on the Mitanni?). In the meantime, enjoy.

The Bruce Invasion of Ireland

I recently came across a very decent documentary done by RTÉ showing the Bruce Invasion of Ireland. In some ways it probably overstates the Irish support for the invasion and downplays the significance of the civil war in the O'Connor clan in Connacht, which was very important from my reading of the sources.

Regardless, it is a well-executed and impressive documentary about the times in Scotland and Ireland in the years preceding the first outbreak of the Black Death.


The Time of the Amorites: Part II

The top of the stele of the Law Code of Hammurabi
Enki has esteemed him truly in the shrine, the august place -- the king who loves purification rites and is well-suited to the pure divine powers, the king who is skilled in the precious plans, who is reverent, eloquent and deft, the shepherd, favourite of Lord Nunamnir and beloved of Mother Ninlil, ......, who delights the great prince Enki, ......, who is cherished by holy Damgalnuna: the good shepherd Hammurabi.
Praise Hymn of Hammurabi

This is the second part of the post about the Amorite rulers and the period from the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur to the fall of the Old Babylonian Empire, from 2004BC to 1595BC (Middle Chronology). Please click here for the first post.

If the robber is not caught, then shall he who was robbed claim under oath the amount of his loss; then shall the community, and . . . on whose ground and territory and in whose domain it was compensate him for the goods stolen.
Law Code of Hammurabi: Article 23

Hammurabi is the king best known to posterity from this period. Other rulers, such as Shamshi-Adad, are not really remembered. But what has cemented Hammurabi’s legacy in contemporary thought is not the scale of his conquests but the famous law code that was discovered. This is a law code that details emphasises the role of the ruler as shepherd of the people and intermediary between the people and the gods. It would appear to be much more violent than modern legal systems but allowances must be made for the fact that societies that have no facilities for imprisonment or police forces in the strict sense of the word nearly always have harsher laws. The standard legal procedure was what is known as lex talionis, best known from the Old Testament phrase “an eye for an eye.” The law code was far from unique; there are similar codes that predate and postdate it and share many features with it. However, as it was one of the first ones to be discovered by archaeology and because, despite its harshness, it still contains concepts such as the presumption of innocence, it has grabbed the imagination.

Figure from Larsa/Isin
And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations; That these made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar. All these were joined together in the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea. Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled. And in the fourteenth year came Chedorlaomer, and the kings that were with him, and smote the Rephaims in Ashteroth Karnaim, and the Zuzims in Ham, and the Emims in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in their mount Seir, unto Elparan, which is by the wilderness. And they returned, and came to Enmishpat, which is Kadesh, and smote all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, that dwelt in Hazezontamar. And there went out the king of Sodom, and the king of Gomorrah, and the king of Admah, and the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (the same is Zoar;) and they joined battle with them in the vale of Siddim; with Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and with Tidal king of nations, and Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar; four kings with five. And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there; and they that remained fled to the mountain. And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way.
Genesis 14:1-11 (King James Version translation)

The Law Code of Hammurabi stands as one of the prime exhibits of the Louvre in Paris and a bas-relief of Hammurabi adorns the US Congress buildings in recognition of his prowess as a lawmaker. Some people who are familiar with Genesis in the Old Testament may remember notes about Hammurabi in the story of Abraham. While certain scholars thought that Hammurabi might be mentioned in Genesis this is now thought to be unlikely. Shinar is the Hebrew name for the plains around Babylon and Amraphel sounds like it might possibly be a Hebrew version of Hammurabi’s name. The description of a powerful Elamite king with allies from the Mesopotamian plain is not unlike the situation of the early reign of Hammurabi but the names of the other kings and cities do not match well (no Chedorlaomer of Elam is known to history for example). Also, the five cities of the plain are usually located in the Dead Sea Valley and there is no record of Hammurabi or other Mesopotamian monarchs controlling or attacking these regions in this era. The archives of Mari and Ebla might shed more light on this but for the moment the identification has to be treated as very hypothetical at best. It is interesting however that tar pits are mentioned in the Genesis passage; considering Hammurabi’s obsession with bitumen in his disputes with Zimri-Lim.

The valiant Ninurta is your helper. In the E-kur, Nuska the august minister of Enlil, the assembly leader of all lands, is your foremost palace superintendent. Throughout your life, may you carry your neck high; in princely manner may you lift your head high! Prolong the days of his life for Samsu-iluna, of princely worth!

Venus Tablet of Ammi-saduqa
Praise Hymn of Samsu-iluna

After the death of Hammurabi his son Samsu-iluna succeeded him and the empire almost immediately began to disintegrate. A large rebellion saw the southern regions of old Sumer break away. A person named Rim-Sin, who was probably related to the Rim-Sin defeated by Hammurabi, united nearly all the old Sumerian cities in rebellion against Babylon. Samsu-iluna was victorious but at a heavy cost and he appears to have commanded his troops to be very destructive of the old cities of the south, tearing down walls and possibly killing the priests who kept the records. The records of the old Sumerian cities begin to become silent at this time. To the north and east the Elamites and the city of Asshur tried to gain independence but were fought off by Samsu-iluna who also fought off a raid by a people called the Kassites.

Abi-eshuh, son of Samsu-iluna, set out to conquer Iluma-ilu. He dammed the Tigris but did not capture Iluma-ilu.
Chronicle of the Early Kings

Samsu-iluna had held the empire together (barely) but his successor, Abi-eshuh, was unable to replicate the success. The south had broken away and a new dynasty (called the Sealand Dynasty) had arisen. Abi-eshuh appears to have tried an engineering solution to the problem, campaigning against the Sealand kings and trying to control the water flows. It is unclear what is being attempted. Did he try to use this as a way of entering cities via the water gates, as Cyrus was said to have done millennia later? Was he trying to create a reservoir that could be loosed against the enemy to drown them? It is unclear but the attempt failed.

Year 8: superior Venus vanishes E on Adar 27 and after 2 months 16 days appears W on Simanu 13
The Venus Tablet of Ammi-Saduqa

Ammi-Ditana succeeded Abi-Eshuh, reigning over a much reduced empire peacefully for a number of years. His son Ammi-Saduqa also reigned in relative peace. The main significance of Ammi-Saduqa’s reign to history is that during his reign certain observations of the planet Venus were made that can be matched against known astronomical data. Because the years of the king are known and those of his successors and predecessors are also recorded, this date should allow all of Mesopotamian history to be dated quite accurately. However, due to certain ambiguities and because astronomical planetary phenomena repeat themselves the dates may have three possible interpretations (up to 120 years apart). Most historians follow the Middle or the Low Chronology but High, Middle and Low all have their advocates and good historical rationales.

At the time of Samsuditana the Hittites marched against Akkad.
Ea-gamil, the king of the Sealand, fled to Elam. After he had gone, Ulam-Buriaš, brother of Kaštiliašu, the Kassite, mustered an army and conquered the Sealand. He was master of the land.

Hittite chariot from later Bronze Age

Chronicle of the Early Kings

Samsu-ditana was the last king of the Hammurabi’s Dynasty. An impressive raid by Mursilis I, King of the Hittites, overthrew Babylon in 1595BC (Middle Chronology). Mursilis was too far from his base in Anatolia to hold Babylon however so he retreated (being promptly assassinated upon his return). The Kassite tribes moved into the vacuum as the Amorite tribes had done previously and the later Bronze Age kings of Babylon would be Kassites.

This period of four hundred years, with the initial instability followed by the empire-building of Shamshi-Adad and Hammurabi and the empire maintained by Hammurabi’s successors saw a number of impressive building works and projects but most of these have succumbed to the ravages of time. If Abi-eshuh was even able to attempt to dam the Tigris this speaks to considerable technological prowess. But the main legacy is their obsession with writing. I find it unusual that records of ownership are given such priority in the Code of Hammurabi. As long distance trade could not have proper witnesses the clause mentioned above meant that practically every transaction required recording, a far larger task than could be handled merely by scribes. The trading class must have acquired the rudiments of reading and writing leading to very high literacy rates by ancient standards. It is in this fertile ground of a reading population that the standard text of the first recorded epic (The Epic of Gilgamesh) received its standard form.

Kassite kudurru boundary marker
The tavern-keeper spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
"lf you are Gilgamesh, who killed the Guardian,
who destroyed Humbaba who lived in the Cedar Forest,
who slew lions in the mountain passes,
who grappled with the Bull that came down from heaven, and
killed him,
why are your cheeks emaciated, your expression desolate!
Why is your heart so wretched, your features so haggard!
Why is there such sadness deep within you!

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet X

The Time of the Amorites: Part I

Ziggurat of Ur
When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid as solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the wellbeing of mankind.
The prologue of the Code of Hammurabi rendered by Jon Roland of the Constitution Society

I’ve written about the Sumerian civilisation, from the beginning of Mesopotamian history until the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur in 2004BC (Middle Chronology) and I’ve written a little bit about the Bronze Age Kassites (more to follow about them later) but I haven’t dealt with the intervening period, so here goes.

After the fall of Ur, the kingdom of Elam (located in present day south-western Iran) dominated the south of Mesopotamia. A number of small city-states in Mesopotamia had small kingdoms that negotiated and fought each other but there was no dominant empire to replace the great Sumerian kingdom of Ur. These cities had had powerful governors during the time of Ur and these now became independent kings. Cities such as Ebla, Mari, Asshur, Babylon, Larsa and Eshnunna were the main centres of power in the Mesopotamian region.

Sumerian now had ceased to be spoken by most of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Semitic language, Akkadian was widely used. Sumerian did however continue to function as the language of learning, much like Latin in the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Scribes would be trained to write in Akkadian but also to be able to write parallel texts in Sumerian as well. These parallel texts over the next millennia would provide the key to translating Sumerian. The fact that Sumerian is a language isolate means that it would have been almost impossible to translate were it not for the fact that there are numerous parallel texts, creating a multitude of Rosetta Stones as it were.


A new people group moved into Mesopotamia from the west. The Akkadian word for the west and the western peoples roughly translates as Amurru, so these people have been referred to as the Amorites. It is unclear if this is the same group that are mentioned as inhabiting Canaan in the Bible, as the Hebrew derivation is different. They spoke a Semitic language and had been known in Mesopotamia since around the time of Sargon of Akkad, albeit as nomads on the outskirts.

As the Third Dynasty of Ur collapsed and city states became independent the Amorites moved into the power vacuum and took over many of the cities of Mesopotamia. The language was very similar to Akkadian and they probably had similar gods. In any case they effectively merged with existing Akkadian culture and the scribal tradition continued. In archaeological terms a dark age merely means an era where texts are scarce, regardless of whether civilisation declined in other respects. The continued literary tradition means that although the Amorites were “barbarian invaders” this era is still well-documented. Interestingly the sheer amount of independent cities appear to have made this era the age with the highest literacy in cuneiform writing, with many individuals outside the scribal class being able to write.

Inscription of Yakhdun-Lim, the king ousted by Shamshi-Adad
It is however, quite difficult to categorise the era well. There were a host of small kingdoms and we have a large amount of texts dealing with diplomacy between them. Alliances and betrayals happened with bewildering frequency and dynasties rose and fell like pendulums in a hurricane. Isin was initially dominant in the south before eventually being eclipsed by Larsa, while in the north Mari eventually became more powerful than Ebla.

To the east lay Elam, a powerful kingdom that was a dominant force when the cities were divided but which did not have the resources to fight the cities of Mesopotamia when they were united. To the south lay the marshy sea where the trade with Meluhha (probably the Indus Valley) and other civilisations continued. To the west lay the desert, where pastoral nomads roamed. To the north-west lay the cities of Mari and Ebla in modern day Syria and to the north was the city of Asshur, which was destined to change history but was at the time a small insignificant city.

Mural from the wall of the palace of Mari showing the
Investiture of Zimri Lim after his return
Shamshi-Adad, son of Ila-kabkabi, went to Karduniaš (Babylon) in the time of Naram-Sin. In the eponymy of Ibni-Adad, Shamshi-Adad went up from Karduniaš (Babylon). He took Ekallatum, where he stayed three years. In the eponymy of Atamar-Ištar, Shamshi-Adad went up from Ekallatum. He ousted Erišum, son of Naram-Sin, from the throne and took it. He ruled for 33 years.
Assyrian KingList

Around 1830BC a man called Shamshi-Adad came to power as the ruler of a small city in northern Mesopotamia. Some initial setbacks at the hands of the king of Eshnunna forced him to flee to the minor city of Babylon for a time but soon he had become king of both Ekallatum and Asshur before expelling the prince Zimri-Lim from Mari, after the probable death of his father, and controlling it as well. Shamshi-Adad had forged an empire in the north of Mesopotamia.

To stabilise this empire Shamshi-Adad parcelled out the cities under his rule to his sons, while he remained as overall ruler in his new capital of Shubat-Enlil. He did not get on with his younger son, who had the difficult task of controlling the city of Mari, and the correspondence between the two gives a revealing picture of father-son relationship problems throughout the millennia.

How long do we have to guide you in every matter? Are you a child, and not an adult? Don't you have a beard on your chin? When are you going to take charge of your house? Don't you see that your brother is leading vast armies? So, you too, take charge of your palace, your house!
Letter from Shamshi-Adad to his son Yasmakh-Adad (viceroy of Mari) comparing him to his brother Ishme-Dagan in a none-too-favourable light.

Shamshi-Adad held his empire together until his death but the empire did not long survive its creator. Zimri-Lim returned to Mari after the hapless son of Shamshi-Adad (Yasmakh-Adad) was expelled from Mari, probably by the armies of Eshnunna. Ishme-Dagan managed to hold the core of his father’s empire together but the kingdom was now merely a minor player again. However the fact that Shamshi-Adad had been able to create this empire showed that a strong ruler could potentially unite the warring cities, if they were cunning enough with both swords and letters.

Hammurabi, king of Babylon, mustered his army and marched against Rim-Sin, king of Ur. Hammurabi captured Ur and Larsa and took their property to Babylon.
From the Chronicle of Early Kings

The Code of Hammurabi
Hammurabi was a king of Babylon, which was a small city state that had never previously achieved political prominence. His early reign involved making strong diplomatic contacts with other powerful cities in Mesopotamia, while acknowledging the general overlordship of the king of Elam. The Elamites attacked Eshnunna in an attempt to push their power into the plains of Mesopotamia. Hammurabi seems to have been allied with the Elamites at this time but soon after made an alliance with Larsa to attack and defeat the Elamites before turning on the city of Larsa with the aid of his ally Zimri-Lim of Mari.

“I told you my concerns… Why do I want Hit? Your country’s power lies in donkeys and chariots. My country’s power lies in ships. That is exactly why I really want the bitumen and pitch from that city. Why else would I want the city from him? In return for Hit, I will listen to anything Zimri-Lim asks.”
Hammurabi writing to Zimri-Lim of Mari

In recent history control of resources, particularly oil, has been cited as a cause of wars between states, with many alleging that it was the underlying cause for the latest Gulf Wars. Even Daesh or IS are concerned to seize wells and refineries in Iraq and Syria. The oldest known diplomatic dispute that eventually led to war was actually in this region under Hammurabi. Oil was not used as a fuel source. Before refineries to transmute the petroleum and wells to drill for the easier grade the only oil available was that which oozed from the ground naturally in a sticky tar like bitumen. This tar was used to caulk the river ships that were used for trade along the Tigris and the Euphrates and was a valuable resource. Hammurabi wanted to gain control of the town of Hit, where these bitumen deposits were plentiful. Unfortunately for Hammurabi this town was controlled by his ally Zimri-Lim and there are letters where Hammurabi demands that the town be ceded to him. Zimri-Lim refused and when hostilities later broke out this was undoubtedly a motive for Hammurabi’s attack. This is the first verifiable war fought with petroleum as a possible motive.

Ask the oracles about Hammurabi of Babylon. Will this man ever die? Does he speak honestly with us? Will he declare war? Will he start a siege when I am on campaign in the north? Ask questions about that man. When you have done the questioning once, repeat it and write me all the answers to your questions.
Zimri-Lim of Mari writing to his wife Shibtu asking for oracles about his ally Hammurabi

The ruined ziggurat at Mari
After Larsa was crushed Hammurabi attacked Mari and possibly killed Zimri-Lim. The remaining territory of the city of Asshur paid tribute after this. A later revolt by Mari was crushed by Hammurabi and the city never regained prominence. At the time of Hammurabi’s death he had subjugated most of present day Iraq and most of eastern Syria.

This post has become significantly longer than anticipated so I will break it into two with the second to follow shortly. Please click here for the second post.