This lecture covers the history of Mesopotamia from the disintegration of the Sumerian Empire to the great Bronze Age collapse. We’ll explore the destructive force of the Elamites and the Hittites as well as the imperial ambitions of the Babylonians, the Mittani and the Assyrians.
Heirs of the Sumerians
By the mid-20th century BCE, Sumerian Civilization had already been through a lot:
- It had been co opted by the Akkadians
- It had been conquered by the Guti.
- It had thrown off its invaders, and started a new Sumerian Empire with Ur as its capitol
Then, in 1950 BCE, a new group of people entered the scene, the Elamites, a fierce people living to the southeast of Mesopotamia. The Elamites, like the Guti before them, seem to have been more interested in pillaging than empire building. It would take another thousand years before the Elamites would mount their own bid for control of the empire. Nevertheless, the Elamites destroyed the power structure that held the Sumerian empire together.
After a thousand years, the Sumero-Akkadian empire was dead at last.
Yet the idea of a united Mesopotamian empire lived on as new peoples tried their hand at imperialism. With the break down of the empire at the hands of the Elamites, a new people, the Amorites, came to conquer much of southern Mesopotamia, including an important religious center called Babylon. Like the Sumerians before them, the Amorites began by creating minor kingdoms or city states, which vied with one another for power. The earliest of these were two cities, Isin and Larsa.
For about 200 years, these two were rivals and struggled with each other for supremacy.
Then around 1830, the city of Babylon took advantage of the distraction of these two power players and established itself as an independent kingdom. Yet Babylon was small compared to the older kingdoms around it. Surrounded by enemies, Babylon extended its power slowly.
It would take the better part of a century before a Babylonian leader was brazen enough to attempt to recreate the grand Mesopotamian empire. That leader’s name was Hammurabi.Hammurabi inherited a central, but rather unimportant kingdom of Mesopotamia.
He led a well disciplined fighting force to the conquest of his Amorite rivals, Isin and Larsa, as well as the already ancient cities of Ur and Uruk. By the time he was done, Babylon would be the seat of an empire stretching for thousands of miles. But Hammurabi was not sated with mere conquest.He wanted to build an empire to last. Like Ur Nammu, he established a centralized bureaucracy with taxes. He rebuilt old imperial roads and cleared out the canals, allowing trade to form once again. Like all Babylonian kings, Hammurabi was a member of the priestly caste and was likely considered an avatar of the city’s patron deity, Marduk.
During his reign, Hammurabi established Babylon as the holiest of Mesopotamian cities, where all future emperors would need to be crowned. Yet perhaps Hammurabi’s greatest accomplishment was his Code of Laws. It was likely inspired by the code of Ur Nammu, the law of the last great Mesopotamian empire.
The foremost of these were the Hurrians, also known as the Mittani. They filled the vacuum left by the Hittites, building an empire in northern Mesopotamia. Pressing east into the lands of the Assyrians and west into Anatolia.The Mittani left very little behind in terms of material culture; almost everything we know of them comes from references from other cultures.
Still their empire survived until around 1350 BCE, when a battle of succession left them vulnerable to a new Hittite assault. This weakened the Mittani enough for the Assyrians to overthrow their masters and create their own empire.
The city of Assur had been a powerful player in Mesopotamian politics since at least the 25th century BCE. Likely founded as a Sumerian administrative center, Assur had been dominated by Akkadians, Amorites, Babylonians and Hurrians. Now was their time to seize control.
They did so with great alacrity, devouring northern Mesopotamia.Where the Babylonians had been farmers and merchants ruled by priests, the Assyrians were first and foremost warriors. While their kings might have traced their descent from the city’s patron diety, Ashur, it was in essence a military aristocracy. Yet, like the Babylonians before them, the Assyrians assiduously copied the accomplishments of their predecessors and had not yet begun to generate a unique culture of their own.
Meanwhile, southern Mesopotamia was being forcibly unified under the rule of the Kassite Babylonians. Although the Kassite capitol was actually Mari, the Babylonians had so established their city as an imperial seat that the Kassite kings needed to be considered Babylonians to be considered Emperors of their region. They abandoned Mari, early on, and established the longest lasting Babylonian dynasty, which would survive almost 600 years.
Thus, with the destruction of the Mittani, the stage was set for a rivalry between three powerful empires. The Assyrians to the northeast, the Hittites to the northwest and the Kassite Babylonians to the south.
These three empires would vie with one another for power. Frightened by the growth of Assyrian power, the Babylonians allied with the Hittites to curb their expansion, but it proved pointless. For the second and third times, Babylon was sacked and burned to the ground by a succession of Assyrian kings. Yet no sooner would a new ruler of Babylon be named than he would try to break free of Assyrian control.
The Bronze Age Collapse
This struggle for power would continue until roughly 1200 BCE, when a series of invasions from all directions tore bronze age civilization to shreds.From the north, Phrygians began raiding Assyria, and Thracians swept into the lands of the Hittites.
From the east, the Elamites invaded once more, pillaging and burning Babylon for at least the fourth time. From the deserts to the south, a new people, the Arameans, poured into Mesopotamia, making travel and trade between cities very dangerous indeed. And in the west, a mysterious group of invaders known only as the sea peoples, crushed kingdoms along the Mediterranean from Egypt to Greece.Trade ground to a halt, populations plummeted, literacy all but disappeared, entire empires disappeared overnight and civilization itself seemed to teeter on the brink of annihilation.
This period is known as the Bronze age collapse. Many civilizations would not survive this catastrophe. The Hittites vanished without a trace, and the civilizations that survived would take over 300 years to recover.