Saturday, 11 July 2015

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.

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