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History of Ancient Mesopotamia

General information about Mesopotamia and its peoples

Geographical description

Map of Mesopotamia III thousand BC

Map of Mesopotamia III thousand BC

Mesopotamia (Mesopotamia) ancient Greek geographers called the plain area between the Tigris and Euphrates, located in their lower and middle reaches. Mesopotamia was bordered on the north and east by the marginal mountains of the Armenian and Iranian highlands, on the west by the Syrian steppe and the semi-deserts of Arabia, and on the south by the Persian Gulf. Now almost the entire territory on which ancient Mesopotamia was located coincides with the territory of the state of Iraq.

The center of development of the most ancient civilization was located in the southern part of this territory — in ancient Babylonia. Northern Babylonia was called Akkad, southern Babylonia was called Sumer. In northern Mesopotamia, which is a hilly steppe that passes into mountainous areas, Assyria was located.

Ubaid culture

Even before the arrival of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, there was a peculiar culture called the Ubeid culture. It existed in the VI-early IV thousand BC and it is believed that the tribes that bear this culture were Subarii and they came from the north-east, from the foothills of the Zagros range in the Neolithic era.

The arrival of the Sumerians

No later than the fourth millennium BC, the first Sumerian settlements appeared in the extreme south of Mesopotamia. As already mentioned, the Sumerians were not the first inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia, since many of the toponymic names that were used there after the settlement of the lower Tigris and Euphrates by this people could not have come from the Sumerian language. The Sumerians found in southern Mesopotamia tribes who spoke a language (“banana language” – the language of the Ubaid culture) different from Sumerian and Akkadian, and borrowed from them the oldest place names. Gradually, the Sumerians occupied the entire territory of Mesopotamia (in the north-from the area where modern Baghdad is located, in the south-to the Persian Gulf). But where the Sumerians came to Mesopotamia, it is not yet possible to find out. According to a tradition among the Sumerians themselves, they came from the islands of the Persian Gulf.

The Round Seals of Sumer

Round seals. The Jemdet Nasr era.

The Sumerians spoke a language whose kinship with other languages has not yet been established. Attempts to prove the relationship of Sumerian with the Turkic, Caucasian, Etruscan or other languages have not yielded any positive results.

Semites (Akkadians)

In the northern part of Mesopotamia, since the first half of the third millennium BC, Semites lived. They were the pastoral tribes of ancient Near Asia and the Syrian steppe. The language of the Semitic tribes who settled in Mesopotamia was called Akkadian. In southern Mesopotamia, the Semites spoke Babylonian, and to the north, in the middle part of the Tigris Valley, the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian.

For several centuries, the Semites lived near the Sumerians, but then they began to move south and by the end of the third millennium BC they occupied all of southern Mesopotamia. As a result, Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian. However, the latter remained the official language of the state chancellery in the XXI century BC, although in everyday life it was increasingly replaced by Akkadian. By the beginning of the second millennium BC, Sumerian was already a dead language. Only in the deep swamps of the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates could it survive until the middle of the second millennium BC, but then it was replaced by the Akkadian. However, as a language of religious worship and science, Sumerian continued to exist and be studied in schools until the first century AD, after which Cuneiform, along with Sumerian and Akkadian, was finally forgotten. The displacement of the Sumerian language did not mean the physical destruction of its speakers. The Sumerians merged with the Babylonians, retaining their religion and culture, which the Babylonians borrowed from them with minor changes.

Schumer's Cylindrical Seal

Cylindrical printing. The Jemdet Nasr era.


At the end of the third millennium BC, West Semitic pastoral tribes began to enter Mesopotamia from the Syrian steppe. The Babylonians called these tribes the Amorites. In Akkadian, Amurru meant “west”, mainly in reference to Syria, and among the nomads of this region there were many tribes who spoke different, but close to each other dialects. Some of these tribes were called Sutii, which means “nomads”in Akkadian.

The vessel. Schumer

The vessel. Style “Susa A”. IV thousand BC.

Kuti and Hurrians

From the third millennium BC in northern Mesopotamia, from the upper reaches of the Diyala River to the lake. Urmia, on the territory of modern Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, was inhabited by the tribes of Kuti, or Gutiyas. Since ancient times, Hurrian tribes have lived in the north of Mesopotamia. They were apparently autochthonous inhabitants of Northern Mesopotamia, Northern Syria, and the Armenian Highlands. In Northern Mesopotamia, the Hurrians created the state of Mitanni, which in the middle of the second millennium BC was one of the largest powers in the Middle East. Although the Hurrians were the main population of Mitanni, there were also Indo-Aryan-speaking tribes. In Syria, the Hurrians appear to have been a minority of the population. In terms of language and origin, the Hurrians were close relatives of the Urartian tribes that lived in the Armenian Highlands. In the III-II millennium BC, the Hurrian-Urartian ethnic group occupied the entire territory from the plains of Northern Mesopotamia to the Central Transcaucasia. The Sumerians and Babylonians called the country and the Hurrian tribes Subartu. In some areas of the Armenian Highlands, the Hurrians were still preserved in the VI-V centuries BC. In the II millennium BC, the Hurrians borrowed the Akkadian cuneiform script, with which they wrote in Hurrian and Akkadian.


In the second half of the second millennium BC, a powerful wave of Aramaic tribes poured from Northern Arabia into the Syrian steppe, into Northern Syria and Northern Mesopotamia. At the end of the XIII century BC, the Arameans created many small principalities in Western Syria and southwestern Mesopotamia. By the beginning of the first millennium BC, the Arameans had almost completely assimilated the Hurrian and Amorite populations of Syria and northern Mesopotamia.

Statue of a praying ruler. Schumer.

Statue of a praying ruler. Limestone. Uruk.

In the eighth century BC, the Aramaic states were invaded by Assyria. However, after that, the influence of the Aramaic language only increased. By the seventh century BC, all of Syria spoke Aramaic. This language began to spread in Mesopotamia. His success was aided by the large Aramaic population, and the fact that the Arameans wrote in a convenient and easy-to-learn script.

In the VIII-VII centuries BC, the Assyrian administration pursued a policy of forcibly relocating the conquered peoples from one area of the Assyrian empire to another. The purpose of such “shuffles” is to complicate mutual understanding between the various tribes, to prevent their rebellions against the Assyrian yoke. In addition, the Assyrian kings sought to settle the territories devastated during endless wars. As a result of the inevitable confusion of languages and peoples in such cases, the winner was Aramaic, which became the dominant spoken language from Syria to the western regions of Iran, even in Assyria itself. After the collapse of the Assyrian empire at the end of the seventh century BC, the Assyrians completely lost their language and switched to Aramaic.

The Chaldeans

Beginning in the ninth century BC, the Chaldean tribes related to the Arameans began to invade southern Mesopotamia, which gradually occupied all of Babylonia. After the conquest of Mesopotamia by the Persians in 539 BC, Aramaic became the official language of the state office in this country, and Akkadian was preserved only in large cities, but even there it was gradually replaced by Aramaic. The Babylonians themselves had completely merged with the Chaldeans and Arameans by the first century AD.

Early States of Sumer

At the turn of the IV and III millennia BC, approximately simultaneously with the emergence of the state in Egypt, the first state formations appeared in the southern part of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. At the beginning of the third millennium BC, several small city-states formed on the territory of southern Mesopotamia. They were located on natural hills and surrounded by walls. In each of them lived about 40-50 thousand people. In the extreme southwest of Mesopotamia was the city of Eridu, and near it the city of Ur, which was of great importance in the political history of Sumer. On the banks of the Euphrates, to the north of Ur, was the city of Larsa, and to the east of it, on the banks of the Tigris, was Lagash. A major role in the unification of the country was played by the city of Uruk, which arose on the Euphrates. In the center of Mesopotamia on the Euphrates was Nippur, which was the main sanctuary of all of Sumer.

In the first half of the third millennium BC, several political centers were created in Sumer, the rulers of which bore the title lugal or ensi. Lugal means “big man”. This is what kings were usually called. Ensi was the name of an independent ruler who ruled a city with the nearest district. This title is of priestly origin and indicates that initially the representative of the state power was also the head of the priesthood.

The rise of Lagash

In the second half of the third millennium BC, Lagash began to claim the predominant position in Sumer. In the middle of the XXV century BC, Lagash in a fierce battle defeated his constant enemy-the city of Ummu, located to the north of it. Later, the ruler of Lagash, Enmeten (circa 2360-2340 BC), victoriously ended the war with the Ummah.

Seal of the Ruler of Lagash

The seal of Lugalanda, ruler of Lagash.

Lagash’s internal position was not solid. The people of the city were deprived of their economic and political rights. To restore them, they united around Uruinimgina, one of the city’s influential citizens. The latter deposed an ensign named Lugalanda and took his place himself. During his six-year reign (2318-2312 BC), he carried out important social reforms, which are the oldest legal acts known to us in the field of socio-economic relations. He was the first to proclaim the slogan that later became popular in Mesopotamia: “Let the strong not offend widows and orphans!”The levies on the priestly staff were abolished, the subsistence allowance of the forced temple workers was increased, and the independence of the temple economy from the tsarist administration was restored. Certain concessions were also made to the ordinary segments of the population:

the payment for the performance of religious rites has been reduced
, some taxes on artisans have been abolished
, and the duty on irrigation facilities has been reduced.
In addition, Uruinimgina restored judicial organization in rural communities and guaranteed the rights of the citizens of Lagash, protecting them from usurious bondage. Finally, polyandry (polyandry) was eliminated. Uruinimgina presented all these reforms as a contract with the chief god of Lagash, Ningirsu, and declared himself the executor of his will.

Prince Di-Utu, grandson of the King of Uruk

Prince Di-Utu, grandson of Lugalkisalsi, King of Uruk. Detail. Limestone. Around 2400 BC.

However, while Uruinimgina was busy with his reforms, a war broke out between the Lagash and the Ummah. The ruler of the Ummah, Lugalzagesi, enlisted the support of the city of Uruk, captured Lagash, and reversed the reforms introduced there. Lugalzagesi then usurped power in Uruk and Eridu and extended his rule over almost all of Sumer. The capital of this state was Uruk.

Economy and economy of the Sumerian States
The main branch of the economy of Sumer was agriculture, based on a developed irrigation system. The Sumerian literary monument, called the “Agricultural Almanac”, dates back to the beginning of the third millennium BC. It is clothed in the form of a lesson given by an experienced farmer to his son, and contains instructions on how to preserve the fertility of the soil and stop the process of salinization. The text also provides a detailed description of the field work in its time sequence. Cattle breeding was also of great importance in the country’s economy.

The craft developed. Among the city’s artisans, there were many house builders. Excavations in Ur of monuments dating back to the middle of the third millennium BC show a high level of skill in Sumerian metallurgy. Among the funerary equipment found made of gold, silver and copper helmets, axes, daggers and spears, there are coinage, engraving and grain. Southern Mesopotamia did not have many materials, and their findings in Ur indicate a lively international trade. Gold was brought from the western regions of India, lapis lazuli-from the territory of modern Badakhshan in Afghanistan, stone for vessels – from Iran, silver-from Asia Minor. In exchange for these goods, the Sumerians sold wool, grain, and dates.

Relief depicting the king of the city of Lagash

Relief depicting Ur-Nanshe, the king of Lagash. Limestone. Around 2500 BC.

From the local raw materials, the artisans had at their disposal only clay, reeds, wool, leather and flax. The god of wisdom, Ea, was considered the patron saint of potters, builders, weavers, blacksmiths, and other artisans. Already in this early period, bricks were fired in kilns. Glazed bricks were used to cover the buildings. From the middle of the third millennium BC, a potter’s wheel was used for the production of tableware. The most valuable vessels were covered with enamel and glaze.

Already at the beginning of the third millennium BC, bronze tools were made, which remained the main metal tools until the end of the next millennium, when the Iron Age began in Mesopotamia.

To obtain bronze, a small amount of tin was added to the molten copper.

Mesopotamia during the reign of Akkad and Ur

Beginning in the XXVII century BC, the northern part of Mesopotamia was inhabited by Akkadians. The oldest city founded by the Semites in Mesopotamia was Akkad, later the capital of the state of the same name. It was located on the left bank of the Euphrates, where this river and the Tigris most closely approach each other.

Bronze head of Sargon of Akkad

The head of the king (Sargon of Akkad). Bronze. Nineveh. Around 2250 BC.

The Reign of Sargon the Ancient

Around 2334 BC, Sargon the Ancient became king of Akkad. He was the founder of a dynasty: starting with himself, five kings, son succeeding father, ruled the country for 150 years. Probably, the name Sargon was adopted by him only after his accession to the throne, since it means “true king” (in Akkadian, Sharruken). The personality of this ruler during his lifetime was shrouded in many legends. He was talking about himself: “My mother was poor, I did not know my father… my mother conceived me, gave birth secretly, put me in a reed basket and let me go down the river.”

Lugalzagesi, who had established his authority in almost all the Sumerian cities, engaged in a long struggle with Sargon. After several failures, the latter managed to win a decisive victory over his opponent. After that, Sargon made successful campaigns in Syria, in the areas of the Taurus Mountains and defeated the king of the neighboring country Elam. He created the first permanent army in history, consisting of 5,400 men, who, according to him, dined at his table every day. This was a well-trained professional army, whose entire well-being depended on the tsar.

Under Sargon, new canals were built, an irrigation system was established on a national scale, and a unified system of weights and measures was introduced. Akkad conducted maritime trade with India and Eastern Arabia.

Naram-Suen Board

A statue of a praying woman. The Kingdom of Mari

A statue of a worshipper, donated to the temple of the goddess Ashtarat. Alabaster. Marie. Around 2400 BC.

At the end of Sargon’s reign, a famine caused an uprising in the country, which was suppressed after his death, around 2270 BC, by his younger son Rimush. But he later fell victim to a palace coup that gave the throne to his brother Manishtush. After fifteen years of rule, Manishtushu was also killed in a new palace plot, and Naram-Suen (2236-2200 BC), son of Manishtushu and grandson of Sargon, ascended the throne.

Under Naram-Suen, Akkad reached its highest power. At the beginning of the reign of Naram-Suen, the cities of southern Mesopotamia, dissatisfied with the rise of Akkad, rebelled. It was only suppressed after many years of struggle. After consolidating his power in Mesopotamia, Naram-Suen began to call himself “the mighty god of Akkad” and ordered himself to be depicted in reliefs wearing a headdress decorated with horns, which were considered divine symbols. The population was supposed to worship Naram-Suen as a god, although no king of Mesopotamia had ever claimed such an honor before him.

Naram-Suen considered himself the ruler of the entire known world and bore the title “king of the four countries of the world”. He waged many successful wars of conquest, winning a number of victories over the king of Elam, over the Lullubean tribes who lived in what is now Northwestern Iran, and also subjugated the city-state of Mari, located in the middle Euphrates, and extended his power to Syria.

The Fall of the Akkadians

Statue of the King, Kingdom of Mari, Mesopotamia

Statue of King Igu-Shamagan. Ninni-Zaza Temple. Gypsum. Marie. Around 2400 BC.

Under the successor of Naram-Suen, Sharkalisharri (2200-2176 BC), whose name means “king of all kings”, the collapse of the Akkadian empire began. The new king had to enter into a long struggle with the Amorites pressing from the west and at the same time resist the invasion of the Kutians from the northeast. In Mesopotamia itself, popular unrest began, the cause of which was acute social conflicts. The size of the royal economy increased enormously, subjugating the temple economy and exploiting the labor of the landless and landless Akkadians. Around 2170 BC. Mesopotamia was conquered and plundered by the Kutii tribes who lived in the Zagros Mountains.

III Dynasty of Ur

By 2109 BC, the militia of the city of Uruk, led by its king Utuhengal, defeated the Kuti and drove them out of the country. After defeating the Kuti, Utuhengal claimed to rule over all of Sumer, but soon the rule over southern Mesopotamia passed to the city of Ur, where the third dynasty of Ur (2112-2003 BC) was in power. Its founder was Urnammu, who, like his successors, bore the magnificent title “king of Sumer and Akkad”.

Under Urnammu, the royal power became despotic. The tsar was the supreme judge, the head of the entire state apparatus, and he also decided issues of war and peace. A strong central administration was established. In the royal and temple farms, a large staff of scribes and officials recorded down to the smallest detail all aspects of economic life. The country had well-established transport, messengers were sent with documents to all parts of the state.

A goat leaning on a bush.

Goat leaning on a bush. From the royal graves in Ur. Shells, lapis lazuli, gold. Around 2500 BC.

Urnammu’s son Shulga (2093-2046 BC) achieved his deification. In the temples, his statues were placed, to which it was necessary to offer sacrifices. Shulgi issued laws attesting to the existence of a developed judicial system. They, in particular, established a reward for bringing a runaway slave to his master. There were also penalties for various types of self-harm. At the same time, unlike the later Laws of Hammurabi, Shulgi was not guided by the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but established the principle of monetary compensation to the victim. The laws of Shulga are the oldest legal acts yet known to us.

The Fall of Ur

Under the successors of Shulga, the Amorite tribes who attacked Mesopotamia from Syria began to pose a great danger to the state. To stop the advance of the Amorites, the kings of the third dynasty of Ur built a line of fortifications of great length. However, the internal situation of the state was also precarious. The temple economy required a huge number of workers, who were gradually deprived of the rights of free members of society. For example, the temple of the goddess Baba in Lagash alone had a land area of more than 4,500 hectares. The army of Ur began to suffer defeats in the wars with the Amorite tribes and the Elamites. In 2003, the power of the third dynasty of Ur was overthrown, the last representative of its Ibbi-Suen was taken captive to Elam. The temples of Ur were looted, and an Elamite garrison was left in the city itself.

Babylonia in the second millennium BC.

The time from the end of the reign of the third dynasty of Ur to 1595 BC, when the rule of the Kassite kings was established in Babylonia, is called the Old Babylonian period. After the fall of the third dynasty of Ur, many local dynasties of Amorite origin emerged in the country.

The head of Gudeus, ruler of Lagash

The head of Gudeus, ruler of Lagash. Girsu. Around 2150 BC.

Around 1894 BC, the Amorites established an independent state with Babylon as its capital. Since that time, the role of Babylon, the youngest of the cities of Mesopotamia, has steadily grown over the centuries. In addition to the Babylonian state, there were other states at this time. In Akkad, the Amorites formed a kingdom with its capital in Issin, which was located in the middle part of Babylonia, and in the south of the country there was a state with its capital in Larsa, in the north-east of Mesopotamia, in the valley of the Diyala River, with the center in Eshnunna.

Hammurappi Rule

In the beginning, the Babylonian kingdom did not play a special role. The first king to actively expand the borders of this state was Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC). In 1785 BC, using the help of Rimsin, the representative of the Elamite dynasty in Larsa, Hammurabi conquered Uruk and Issin. He then assisted in the expulsion from Mari of the son of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad I, who ruled there, and the accession of Zimrilim, a representative of the old local dynasty. In 1763. Hammurabi captured Eshnunna and the following year defeated the powerful king and his former ally Rimsin and captured his capital Larsa. After that, Hammurabi decided to subjugate Mari, which had previously been a friendly kingdom. In 1760, he achieved this goal, and two years later destroyed the palace of Zimrilim, who sought to restore his independence. Hammurabi then conquered the area along the middle course of the Tigris, including Assur.

Samsuilun Rule

After the death of Hammurabi, his son Samsuiluna (1749-1712 BC) became king of Babylon. He had to repel the onslaught of the Kassite tribes who lived in the mountainous regions to the east of Babylonia. Around 1742 BC, the Kassites, led by their king Gandash, marched on Babylonia, but were only able to establish themselves in the foothills to the northeast of it.

The Fall of Babylon and the arrival of the Kassites

At the end of the XVII century BC. e. Babylonia, which was experiencing an internal crisis, no longer played a significant role in the political history of Front Asia and could not resist foreign invasions. In 1594 BC, the rule of the Babylonian dynasty came to an end. Babylon was captured by the Hittite king Mursili I. When the Hittites returned with rich booty to their country, the kings of Primorye, the coastal strip near the Persian Gulf, captured Babylon. After that, around 1518 BC, the country was conquered by the Kassites, whose rule lasted 362 years. The whole of this period is usually called the Kassite or Middle Babylonian. However, the Kassite kings were soon assimilated by the local population.

Statue of the Ruler of Lagash

Statue of the ruler of Lagash. Alabaster. Girsu. Around 2130 BC.

Legal acts of Babylonia

In the second millennium BC, the economy of Babylonia underwent radical changes. This time was characterized by an active legal activity. The laws of the state of Eshnunna, compiled in the early twentieth century BC in Akkadian, contain tariffs of prices and wages, articles of family, marriage and criminal law. For adultery on the part of the wife, rape of a married woman and abduction of the child of a free man, the death penalty was provided. According to the laws, the slaves wore special brands and could not go outside the city without the permission of the owner.

The laws of King Lipit-Ishtar, which, in particular, regulate the status of slaves, belong to the second half of the XX century BC. Penalties were imposed for the escape of a slave from his master and for harboring a runaway slave. It was stipulated that if a slave married a free man, she and her children from such a marriage became free.

The laws of Hammurabi

The most outstanding monument of ancient Eastern legal thought is the Laws of Hammurabi, immortalized on a black basalt pillar. In addition, a large number of copies of individual parts of this sudebnik on clay tablets have been preserved. The law book begins with a lengthy introduction, where it is said that the gods gave Hammurabi the royal power to protect the weak, orphans and widows from resentment and oppression from the strong. This is followed by 282 articles of laws covering almost all aspects of the life of Babylonian society at that time (civil, criminal and administrative law). The Code concludes with a detailed conclusion.

The laws of Hammurabi, both in content and in the level of development of legal thought, represented a great step forward in comparison with the Sumerian and Akkadian legal monuments that preceded them. The Code of Hammurabi accepts, though not always consistently, the principle of guilt and ill-will. For example, there is a difference in the punishment for premeditated and unintentional murder. But injuries were punished according to the ancient principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. In some articles of the law, a class approach is clearly expressed in the definition of punishment. In particular, severe punishments were provided for obstinate slaves who refused to obey their masters. A person who stole or hid someone else’s slave was punishable by death.

A statuette of a noble woman. The Gudea era. Steatite. Girsu. Around 1250 BC.

A statuette of a noble woman. The Gudea era. Steatite. Girsu. Around 1250 BC.

In the Old Babylonian period, the society consisted of full-fledged citizens, who were called “sons of the husband” and mushkenums, who were legally free, but not full-fledged people, since they were not members of the community, but worked in the royal household, and slaves. If someone inflicted self-harm on the “son of the husband”, the punishment of the guilty person was imposed on the principle of talion, i.e. “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, and the corresponding self-harm inflicted on the mushkenum was punishable only by a monetary fine. If the doctor was guilty of an unsuccessful operation on the “son of the husband”, then he was punished by cutting off the hand, if a slave suffered from the same operation, it was only necessary to pay the owner the cost of this slave. If the builder caused a house to collapse and the son of the owner of the house died in its ruins, the builder was punished with the death of his son. If someone stole the property of the muskenum, the damage had to be repaired tenfold, while for the theft of royal or temple property, compensation was provided for thirty times.

Relief depicting Ashunasirapal II. Kalhu. IX century BC.

Relief depicting Ashunasirapal II. Kalhu. IX century BC.

In order not to reduce the number of soldiers and taxpayers, Hammurabi sought to ease the fate of those segments of the free population who were in a difficult economic situation. In particular, one of the articles of the law limited debt slavery to three years of work for the lender, after which the loan, regardless of its amount, was considered fully repaid. If the debtor’s crop was destroyed due to a natural disaster, the loan and interest repayment period was automatically postponed to the next year. Some articles of the laws are devoted to the rental law. The rent for a rented field was usually equal to 1/3 of the crop, and the garden-2/3.

In order for the marriage to be considered legal, it was necessary to conclude a contract. Adultery on the part of the wife was punishable by drowning. However, if the husband wanted to forgive the unfaithful wife, not only she, but also her seducer was released from punishment. Adultery on the part of the husband was not considered a crime, unless he seduced the wife of a free man. The father had no right to disinherit his sons if they had not committed a crime, and he had to teach them his trade.

The soldiers received land grants from the state and were obliged to march at the first request of the king. These allotments were inherited through the male line and were inalienable. The creditor could only collect for the debts the property of the warrior that he himself had acquired, but not the allotment granted to him by the king.

Assyria in the III-II millennium BC

Statue of Ashurnasirapal II

Statue of Ashurnasirapal II. Sandstone. Kalhu. IX century BC.

The situation of Assyria in Mesopotamia

In the first half of the third millennium BC, the city of Ashur was founded in Northern Mesopotamia, on the right bank of the Tigris. The whole country located on the middle course of the Tigris (in the Greek translation — Assyria) was also named after this city. By the middle of the third millennium BC, people from Sumer and Akkad had established themselves in Assur, forming a trading post there. Later, in the XXIV-XXII centuries BC, Ashur became a major administrative center of the Akkadian state created by Sargon the Ancient. During the third dynasty of Ur, the governors of Assur were the proteges of the Sumerian kings.

Unlike Babylonia, Assyria was a poor country. Ashur’s rise was due to its favorable geographical location: it was the site of important caravan routes, through which metals (silver, copper, lead) and timber were brought to Babylonia from Northern Syria, Asia Minor, and Armenia, as well as gold from Egypt, and in exchange Babylonian agricultural and handicraft products were exported. Gradually, Ashur turned into a major trade and transshipment center. Along with him, the Assyrians established many trading colonies outside of their country.

The most important of these colonies-factories was located in the city of Canes (Kanish) in Asia Minor (modern Russia). the area of Kul-Tepe, near the city of Kaysari in Turkey). An extensive archive of this colony has been preserved, dating back to the XX-XIX centuries BC. Assyrian merchants brought dyed wool fabrics to Kanes, the mass production of which was established in their homeland, and exported lead, silver, copper, wool and leather home. In addition, Assyrian merchants resold local goods to other countries.

The relations of the members of the colony with the inhabitants of Canes were regulated by local laws, and in internal affairs the colony was subject to Ashur, who imposed a considerable duty on its trade. The supreme authority in Assur was the council of elders, and by the name of one of the members of this council, which changed annually, events were dated and time was counted. There was also a hereditary position of ruler (ishshak-kum), who had the right to convene a council, but without the latter’s approval, he could not make important decisions.

The conquest of Assyria, first by the Babylonians, and then by the kingdom of Mitanni
To hold the caravan roads in their hands and seize the new routes of Assyria, it was necessary to have a strong military power. Therefore, the influence of ishshak-kum began to gradually increase. But in the second half of the XVIII century BC, Assyria was subdued by the Babylonian king Hammurabi. Around the same time, Assyria lost its monopoly in the caravan trade.

By the middle of the second millennium BC, the weakened Assyria was forced to recognize the power of the Mitanni kings. Around 1500 BC, the Mitanni reached the zenith of their power, capturing areas of Northern Syria. But soon the decline of Mitanni begins. First, the Egyptians drove the Mitanni out of Syria, and around 1360 BC, the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I defeated them. Then the Assyrian king Ashuruballit I took advantage of the defeat of Mitanni and seized part of the territory of this state. Later, the king of Assyria, Adadnerari I (1307-1275 BC), fought with Babylonia and conquered the entire territory of Mitanni. After that, he wanted to make an alliance with the Hittite king Hattusili III and suggested that he consider him his brother. But the answer was insulting: “What is this talk about the brotherhood?.. After all, you and I, we are not born of the same mother!»

The Rise of Assyria

Relief from the palace at Dur Sharrukin

Relief from the palace in Dur-Sharrukin. VIII century BC.

In the second half of the 13th century, under King Tukulti-Ninturta I (1244-1208 BC), Assyria became the most powerful state in the Middle East. The Assyrian ruler, having captured Babylonia, appointed his governors there and brought to Assur from the temple of Esagil in Babylon a statue of the supreme god of the Babylonians, Marduk. During numerous wars, the power of the Assyrian king increased significantly, but the country was exhausted, weakened by internal unrest. In one of the texts it is reported, for example, that in the middle of the XI century BC. The king’s son and the nobles of Assyria rebelled, threw the ruler from the throne, and killed him with the sword.

The period of the XV-XI centuries BC is referred to in the history of Assyria as the Middle Assyrian. To this time belong the so-called Middle Assyrian laws, which were the most cruel of all the Ancient Eastern laws. Initially, the land in Assyria belonged mainly to members of the communities and was subjected to systematic redistribution. But starting in the 15th century BC, it became the subject of purchase and sale, although it was still considered the property of the communities.

Slaves at that time were very expensive, and there were few of them. Therefore, the rich sought to enslave the free farmers through usurious loan transactions, since the loan was issued on difficult terms and secured by the field, house or family members. But the laws to some extent limited the arbitrariness of the creditor in relation to persons given in debt collateral. However, if the loan was not repaid on time, the hostage became the full property of the lender. If the debt was not paid on time, the creditor could do whatever he wanted with the hostage: “beat, pluck the hair, hit the ears and drill them” and even sell them outside of Assyria.

Babylonia in the XII-VII centuries BC and the Assyrian empire

The Struggle of Babylon and Elam

At the end of the XIII century BC, the decline of Babylonia begins. A century later, the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte I decided that the hour of reckoning with an old enemy had come and, attacking Babylonia, sacked the cities of Eshnunna, Sippar, Opis and imposed a heavy tax on them. The son of Shutruk-Nahhunte, named Kutir-Nahhunte III, continued the policy of plundering Babylonia. The Babylonians united around their king Ellil-nadin-ahhe (1159-1157 BC) to liberate the tormented country. However, the war, which lasted three years, ended in a victory for the Elamites. Babylonia was captured, its cities and temples were plundered, and the king and his nobles were taken captive. Thus ended the almost six-century rule of the Kassite dynasty, and an Elamite protege was appointed governor of Babylonia.

But soon Babylonia began to gain strength, and under Nebuchadnezzar I (1126-1105 BC), the country began to flourish briefly. Near the fortress of Der, on the border between Assyria and Elam, a fierce battle took place, in which the Babylonians prevailed over the Elamites. The victors invaded Elam and inflicted such a crushing defeat on it that it was not mentioned in any source for three centuries after that. After defeating Elam, Nebuchadnezzar I began to claim power over all of Babylonia. He, and his successors after him, bore the title ” king of Babylonia, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four countries of the world.” The capital of the state was moved from the city of Issina to Babylon. In the middle of the XI century BC, the semi-nomadic tribes of the Arameans, who lived to the west of the Euphrates, began to invade Mesopotamia, plundering and ravaging its cities and villages. Babylonia was again weakened for many decades and, in alliance with Assyria, was forced to fight against the Arameans.

Eagle-headed deity from the palace in Kalhu

The eagle-headed deity from the palace in Kalhu. IX century BC.

The new heyday of Assyria

By the end of the 10th century BC, the Assyrians had regained their dominance in Northern Mesopotamia and resumed a series of campaigns. By that time, the Assyrian army was outnumbered, organized, and outgunned by the armies of the rest of the Middle East. The Assyrian king Ashurnasir-apal II (883-859 BC) passed through the territory of Babylonia and Syria, exterminating the inhabitants of these countries for the slightest resistance. The unruly were flayed, impaled, or bound into whole living pyramids, and the remnants of the surviving population were taken captive.

In 876 BC, the Assyrian army during one of the campaigns passed to the Phoenician coast. When the Assyrians, under the leadership of their king Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC), made a new campaign in Syria in 853 BC, they met with an organized resistance from the states of Syria, Palestine, Phoenicia and Cilicia. At the head of this alliance was the city of Damascus. As a result of the battle, the Assyrian army was defeated. In 845 BC, Shalmaneser III raised an army of 120,000 men and again marched against Syria. But this action was not successful. However, a split soon occurred in the Syrian union itself, and taking advantage of this, the Assyrians in 841 BC took another campaign and managed to establish their rule in Syria. But Assyria soon lost control of its western neighbor again. Under Adad-nerari III, who came to the throne as a boy, his mother Sammuramat, known in Greek legend as Semiramis, actually ruled for many years. The campaigns in Syria were resumed, and the supreme authority of the Assyrian king over Babylonia was established.

Arrival of the Chaldean tribes

Since the ninth century BC, for many centuries in the history of Babylonia, a large role was played by the Chaldean tribes, who spoke one of the dialects of the Aramaic language. The Chaldeans settled between the shores of the Persian Gulf and the southern cities of Babylonia, in an area of swamps and lakes along the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates. In the ninth century BC, the Chaldeans firmly occupied the southern part of Babylonia and began to move north, taking in the ancient Babylonian culture and religion. They lived in clans, under the leadership of leaders who sought to maintain independence from each other, as well as from the Assyrians who tried to establish their power in Babylonia.

Relief from the palace of Tiglapalasar III

Relief from the palace of Tiglapalasar III. VIII century BC.

Under Shamshi-Adad V (823-811 BC), the Assyrians frequently invaded Babylonia and gradually took over the northern part of the country. This was taken advantage of by the Chaldean tribes, who took possession of almost the entire territory of Babylonia. Later, under the Assyrian king Adad-Nerari III (810-783 BC), Assyria and Babylonia were on fairly peaceful terms. In 747-734 BC, Babylonia was ruled by Nabonasar, who managed to establish a stable rule in the central part of the state, but over the rest of the country he exercised only weak control.

Strengthening of Assyria under Tiglath-Pileser III

The new strength of Assyria falls during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC), who carried out important administrative and military reforms that laid the foundations for the new power of the country. First of all, the governorships were divided up, the rights of the governors were limited to the collection of taxes, the organization of subjects to perform duties and the leadership of military detachments of their regions. The policy towards the conquered population has also changed. Prior to Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian campaigns were mainly aimed at plundering, collecting tribute, and taking some of the indigenous inhabitants of the captured territories into slavery. Now such people began to be resettled en masse in ethnically alien areas, and in their place they brought prisoners from other areas conquered by the Assyrians. Sometimes the population was left on the land of their ancestors, but was heavily taxed, and the conquered territory was included in Assyria. It paid with the products of agriculture and cattle breeding, was involved in construction, road and irrigation duties, and was partially obliged to serve in the army (mainly in the wagon train).

Wall painting of the Assyrian palace

Wall painting of the Assyrian palace in Til Barsip. Northern Syria. VIII century BC.

A permanent army was created, which was fully supported by the state. Its core was the “royal regiment”. The army consisted of charioteers, cavalry, infantry, and sapper units. The Assyrian warriors, protected by iron and bronze armor, helmets and shields, were excellent soldiers. They were able to build fortified camps, build roads, use wall-breaking metal and incendiary weapons. Assyria became the leading military power in the Middle East and was able to resume its policy of conquest. The advance of the Urartians into the areas previously captured by the Assyrians was stopped.

In 743 BC, Tiglath-Pileser marched against Urartu, who sought to establish his rule in Syria. As a result of two battles, the Urartians had to retreat behind the Euphrates. In 735 BC, the Assyrians made a campaign through the entire territory of Urartu and reached the capital of this state-the city of Tushpa, which they, however, could not take. In 732 BC, they captured Damascus. At the same time, Assyria also subjugated Phoenicia.

Three years later, Tiglath-Pileser captured Babylon, after which Babylonia lost its independence for a century. However, the Assyrian king refrained from turning it into an ordinary province, and retained the status of a separate kingdom for this country. He solemnly reigned in Babylonia under the name of Pulu and received the crown of the Babylonian ruler, performing the ancient sacred rites on the day of the New Year holiday.

The Assyrian empire now encompassed all the countries “from the Upper Sea, where the sun sets, to the Lower Sea, where the sun rises” – in other words, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Thus, the Assyrian king became the ruler of all of Anterior Asia, with the exception of Urartu and a few small areas on the outskirts.

Tiglath-Pileser’s successors, Sargon II (722-705 BC), Sinahherib (705-681 BC), Asarhaddon (681-669 BC), and Ashurbanapal (669 — around 629 BC), were successful enough to maintain a gigantic empire for a hundred years. For a short time, the Assyrians even managed to subdue Egypt.

The Demise of Assyria and the New Babylonian Empire

In the last years of the reign of Ashurbanipal, the collapse of the Assyrian power began, and its individual centers began to compete with each other. In 629 BC, Ashurbanipal died, and Sinshar-ishkun became king.

The Babylonian Revolt

An episode of Sennacherib's military campaign in the swamps of Southern Mesopotamia

An episode of Sennacherib’s military campaign in the swamps of Southern Mesopotamia. Gypsum. The Palace of Sennacherib. Nineveh. VIII century BC.

Three years later, an uprising broke out in Babylonia against Assyrian rule. At its head was the Chaldean chief Nabopalasar. In his later inscriptions, he emphasized that he had previously been “a small man, unknown to the people.” At first, Nabopalasar was able to establish his power only in the north of Babylonia.

After restoring the traditional alliance of the Chaldean tribes with Elam, Nabopalasar laid siege to Nippur. However, pro-Assyrian sentiments were strong in the city, and it was not possible to take it. In October 626 BC, the Assyrians defeated the army of Nabopalasar and broke the siege of Nippur. But by this time Babylon had gone over to the side of Nabopalasar, and on November 25 the latter solemnly reigned in it, founding a new, Chaldean (or New Babylonian) dynasty. However, there was still a long and bitter war with the Assyrians.

The arrival of the Medes and the destruction of Assyria

It was not until ten years later that the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Uruk, and in the following year also Nippur, which, at the cost of great privation and suffering, had so long remained loyal to the Assyrian king. The whole territory of Babylonia was now cleared of the Assyrians. In the same year, Nabopalasar’s army laid siege to Assyria, the capital of Assyria. However, the siege was unsuccessful, and the Babylonians retreated, suffering heavy losses. But soon Assyria was hit by a crushing blow from the east. In 614 BC, the Medes surrounded the largest Assyrian city of Nineveh. When they failed to take it, they besieged and captured Assur and exterminated its inhabitants. Nabopalasar, true to the traditional policy of his Chaldean ancestors, came with the army when the battle was over and Assur was reduced to ruins. The Medes and Babylonians formed an alliance between them, cementing it with a dynastic marriage between Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabopalasar, and Amytis, the daughter of the Median king Kiaxar.

Although the fall of Assur weakened the Assyrian power, while the victors were busy dividing the spoils, the Assyrians, under the leadership of their king Sinsharishkun, resumed hostilities in the Euphrates Valley. But in the meantime, the Medes and Babylonians jointly besieged Nineveh, and three months later, in August 612 BC, the city fell. This was followed by a brutal massacre: Nineveh was sacked and destroyed, its inhabitants were slaughtered.

The man with the kid. From the palace of Sargon II

The man with the kid. From the palace of Sargon II in Dur-Sharrukin. Painted plaster. The end of the VIII century BC.

Part of the Assyrian army managed to break into the city of Harran in the north of Upper Mesopotamia and there, under the leadership of its new king, Ashur-uballit II, continued the war. However, in 610 BC, the Assyrians were forced to leave Harran, mainly under the blows of the Median army. A Babylonian garrison was left in the city. But the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II, fearing an excessive reinforcement of Babylonia, a year later sent strong reinforcements to help the Assyrians. Ashuruballit II again managed to capture Harran, killing the Babylonians stationed there. However, Nabopalasar soon arrived with the main force and inflicted a final defeat on the Assyrians.

As a result of the collapse of the Assyrian power, the Medes seized the indigenous territory of this country and Harran. The Babylonians were entrenched in Mesopotamia and were preparing to establish their control over Syria and Palestine. But the Egyptian pharaoh also claimed to rule in these countries. Thus, there are only three powerful states left in the entire Middle East: Media, Babylonia, and Egypt. In addition, there were two smaller but independent kingdoms in Asia Minor: Lydia and Cilicia.

The Wars of Babylon and Egypt

In the spring of 607 BC, Nabopalasar handed over the command of the army to his son Nebuchadnezzar, concentrating in his hands the management of the internal affairs of the state. The heir to the throne was tasked with seizing Syria and Palestine. But first it was necessary to capture the city of Karkemish on the Euphrates, where there was a strong Egyptian garrison, which included Greek mercenaries. In the spring of 605 BC, the Babylonian army crossed the Euphrates and attacked Karkemish simultaneously from the south and north. Even outside the city walls, a fierce battle began, as a result of which the Egyptian garrison was destroyed. After this, Syria and Palestine submitted to the Babylonians. A little later, the Phoenician cities were also conquered.

While in conquered Syria, Nebuchadnezzar received news of his father’s death in Babylon in August 605 BC. He hastily went there and on September 7 was officially recognized as the tsar. In early 598 BC, he made an expedition to Northern Arabia, seeking to establish his control over the caravan routes there. By this time, King Joachim of Judea, prompted by the persuasions of Necho, had fallen away from Babylonia. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem and took it on March 16, 597 BC. More than 3 thousand Jews were taken captive to Babylonia, and Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah king in Judea.

In December 595-January 594 BC, unrest began in Babylonia, probably coming from the army. The leaders of the rebellion were executed, and order was restored in the country.

A kneeling figure from the palace. Mesopotamia

A kneeling figure from the palace in Kalhu. IX century BC.

Soon the new Egyptian pharaoh Aprios decided to try to establish his power in Phoenicia and captured the cities of Gaza, Tyre and Sidon, and also persuaded King Zedekiah to rebel against the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar decisively pushed the Egyptian army back to the former border and in 587 BC, after an 18-month siege, captured Jerusalem. Now the Kingdom of Judah was liquidated and annexed to the New Babylonian empire as an ordinary province, and thousands of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (all the nobles of Jerusalem and some of the artisans), led by Zedekiah, were taken captive.

Babylonia under Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus

Under Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylonia became a prosperous country. This was the time of its revival, economic and cultural rise. Babylon became the center of international trade. Much attention was paid to the irrigation system. In particular, a large basin was built near Sippara, from which many channels were formed, with the help of which the distribution of water was regulated during droughts and floods. Old churches were restored and new ones were built. In Babylon, a new royal palace was built, as well as the construction of the seven-story ziggurat Etemenanki, called the Tower of Babel in the Bible, was completed, and the famous hanging gardens were laid out. In addition, powerful fortifications were erected around Babylon to protect the capital from possible enemy attacks.

In 562 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II died, and after that, the Babylonian nobility and the priesthood began to actively interfere in the policies of his successors and eliminate the kings they did not like. Over the next twelve years, three kings succeeded to the throne. In 556 BC, the throne went to Nabonidus, who was an Aramean in contrast to the previous New Babylonian kings of Chaldean origin.

Nabonidus began to carry out religious reform, putting the cult of the moon god Sin in the first place, to the detriment of the cult of the supreme Babylonian god Marduk. In doing so, he seems to have sought to create a powerful power by uniting around him numerous Aramaic tribes, among whom the cult of Sin was very popular. However, religious reform led Nabonidus to conflict with the priesthood of the ancient temples in Babylon, Borsippos, and Uruk.

The king who kills the lion. Nineveh

The king who kills the lion. Gypsum. Ashurbanipal Palace. Nineveh. VII century BC.

In 553 BC, a war broke out between Media and Persia. Taking advantage of the fact that the Median king Astyages recalled his garrison from Harran, in the same year Nabonidus captured this city and ordered the restoration of the temple of the god Sin, destroyed during the war with the Assyrians in 609 BC. Nabonidus also conquered the region of Thame in northern Central Arabia and established control over the caravan roads through the desert through the oasis of Thame to Egypt. This path was of great importance for Babylonia, since by the middle of the VI century BC. The Euphrates changed its course, and therefore sea trade through the Persian Gulf from the harbors in Ur became impossible. Nabonidus moved his residence to Teima, entrusting the rule of Babylon to his son Bel-shar-utsur.

The Fall of Babylon

While Nabonidus was engaged in an active foreign policy in the west, a powerful and determined enemy appeared on the eastern borders of Babylon. The Persian king Cyrus II, who had already conquered Media, Lydia, and many other countries as far as the borders of India, and had at his disposal a huge and well-armed army, was preparing to march against Babylonia. Nabonidus returned to Babylon and began to organize the defense of his country. However, the situation in Babylonia was already hopeless. Since Nabonidus sought to break the power and influence of the priests of the god Marduk and neglected the religious holidays associated with his cult, influential priestly circles, dissatisfied with their king, were ready to help any of his opponents. The Babylonian army, exhausted in the years of wars in the Arabian Desert, could not repel the onslaught of the many times superior forces of the Persian army. In October 539 BC, Babylonia was invaded by the Persians and lost its independence forever.

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