World History 1 49 - 4.1.1 Power Politics in the Near East

The end of the third millennium BCE was a transformative, if sometimes chaotic, period in Mesopotamia. Foreign invaders from the north, east, and west put tremendous pressure on the rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the last Sumerian dynasty. One of the greatest threats came from nomadic peoples then living in the desert regions of Syria. Raiding by these Amorites was considered such a problem that in approximately 2034 BCE, Shu-Sin, ruler of Ur, constructed a 170-mile wall from the banks of the Euphrates to the Tigris to keep them out. The strategy ultimately failed, and in the reign of Shu-Sin’s son Ibbi-Sin, the Amorites breached the wall and began attacking cities. They were soon joined by the Elamites from the east. As raids by these groups increased in volume and intensity, city after city fell, and the Third Dynasty of Ur disintegrated. By around 2004 BCE, all that remained of Ibbi-Sin’s empire was the city of Ur itself. In that year, it too was sacked by the Elamites and others.

Amorites then spread out across Mesopotamia, establishing powerful cities of their own. They adopted the region’s existing religious traditions, its local customs, and the Akkadian language. They also embraced the political culture of rivalry, and their two most prominent cities, Isin and Larsa, fought for supremacy. The drive for dominance stoked the same kinds of innovation and expansion that had characterized the first city, Ur.

The Rise of Babylon

During the later stages of the competition between Isin and Larsa, a new power emerged in southern Mesopotamia. This was the city of Babylon. Unlike Ur, Babylon had not previously been an important city-state. Its name is of unknown origin and was likely pronounced Babil. Akkadian speakers of the area called it Bab-ili, which meant “gateway of the gods.” In 1894 BCE, an Amorite chieftain named Sumu-adum took the city and installed himself as ruler. His successors expanded their control over the surrounding area, building public works projects and digging canals. But this expansion was modest, and by about 1800 BCE, Babylon controlled only a relatively small territory around the city itself. Indeed, at this time, it was just one of a handful of small states making up a loose coalition in Mesopotamia.

It was during the reign of Hammurabi in eighteenth century BCE that Babylon rose as a center of power and the administrative capital of a new Mesopotamian empire (Figure 4.4). Early in his reign, Hammurabi made an alliance with the powerful Assyrians to the north. This pact gave him the protection he needed to expand his kingdom, taking control of Isin, Uruk, and other key cities of southern Mesopotamia. Soon Babylon had become a major center of power in the south and the target of rival kingdoms. In approximately 1764 BCE, a coalition led by the city-states of Elam and Eshunna invaded Babylonian territory, hoping to capture Hammurabi’s powerful realm, but it failed, and Hammurabi turned his attention to the south. Eventually, he sent his armies even against his former ally, Assyria. By 1755 BCE, he had transformed the small kingdom he inherited into the center of a Mesopotamian empire to rival any that had come before it.

A picture of a rounded black stone carving on a beige background is shown. Various sized holes are strewn all throughout the stone. A man in a long ruffled skirt is shown seated at the right in a tall chair with his feet resting on a bricked platform. He wears a tall pointed headdress that extends down his bare chest in thin rows. He is shown handing a long thin object with his right hand to a man standing in front of him dressed in a long robe and a round hat. No facial details are seen.
Figure 4.4 This relief at the top of a seven-foot stone stele from the time of King Hammurabi shows him (at left) receiving his royal insignia from a seated god, likely Marduk. This grant makes it clear that Hammurabi’s right to rule comes directly from the heavens. The lower portion of the stele includes his famous law code. (credit: “Louvre - Hammurabi's Code” by “Erin”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

At its height during Hammurabi’s reign, the Babylonian Empire stretched from the upper reaches of the Euphrates River, not far from modern Aleppo in the north, to the Zagros Mountains in the east and the Persian Gulf in the south (Figure 4.5). But these extensive borders did not long survive the death of Hammurabi himself. Under the rule of his son Samsu-iluna, Babylon faced resistance from the Kassites of the Zagros Mountains and from a newly formed kingdom called Sealand in the marshy region near the Persian Gulf. The empire’s territorial control continued to decline until, by the reign of Samsu-ditana in the late sixteenth century BCE, all that remained was the small region around the city of Babylon itself. In this weakened state, Babylon was sacked by a new emerging power, the Hittites, and the dynasty of Hammurabi came to a definitive end.

Two maps are shown. The map on the left shows the northeastern tip of Africa, the Middle East, and the southeast corner of Europe. The Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea, the Bab el Mandab Strait, the Arabian Sea and the top of the Persian Sea are labeled. These countries are labeled: Tukey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, and Sudan. The capital city of each country is shown as well. A square section of this map in Iraq and the western part of Iran is highlighted with a red box and shown enlarged as a second map. The second map shows an area running from left to right on an angle that is highlighted green. The following cities, from north to south, are labeled in this green region: Mari, Eshnunna, Sippar, Babylon, Kish, Nippur, Isin, Lagash, Uruk, Larsa, Ur, and Eridu. The city of Assur in the northwest corner of the map and the city of Susa in the western area of the map are labeled outside of the green area.
Figure 4.5 Under Hammurabi, the Babylonians expanded out of Babylon to conquer much of Mesopotamia and construct the region’s first empire, shown here in green. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Hittites

Unlike the Babylonians, the Hittites were not from Mesopotamia, nor were they members of the Semitic language group. Rather, they were an Indo-European-speaking group that emerged as a powerful force in Anatolia starting in the 1600s BCE. Their precise origins are not known, but they were likely immigrants to Anatolia who blended into the local population and adopted much of its culture and religion. By 1650 BCE, the Hittites dominated central Anatolia from their capital at Hattusas. Their expansion across Anatolia and into Syria continued into the early sixteenth century BCE under the reign of Mursilis, during which time the growing kingdom also set its sights on Babylon.

Possibly as a demonstration of military might or simply to seize an opportunity, the Hittite army descended into Mesopotamia and took the city of Babylon. Despite the success of the campaign, Mursilis’s power in Anatolia began to weaken during his absence. He was assassinated soon after he returned, and the Hittite Empire began to crumble as its subject kingdoms rebelled and it was consumed by war. By 1500 BCE, order had been restored, but the new rulers struggled to return the Hittites to their former glory.

Beginning with the rise of the Hittite king Tudhaliyas I in 1420 BCE, the Hittite Empire experienced a revival and new imperial growth (Figure 4.6). By the reign of Suppiluliumas I in the mid-fourteenth century BCE, it had become arguably the most powerful empire in the Near East and a major rival of New Kingdom Egypt. The two realms vied for control of the eastern Mediterranean in the 1300s and 1200s BCE, eventually facing off in the epic Battle of Qadesh in 1274 BCE.

A map is shown of the Middle East and the northeast corner of Africa. The Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) are labeled. Most of the country of Turkey is highlighted green as well as most of Syria and Lebanon. Most of Iraq is highlighted orange and labeled “Mesopotamia.” The orange also overlaps part of the green in Syria and the southeastern edge of Turkey. The country of Israel is covered with black dots. The black dots overlap the green highlights in Syria and Lebanon as well as some of the orange in Syria and the southern portion of Turkey. The black dots are labeled “Levant.” Along the western coast of Turkey, the regions are labeled from north to south: Wilusa, Seha R. Land, and Arzawa. Along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey the regions are labeled Lukka, Tarhuntassa, and Kizzuwanda from west to east. In the middle of Turkey the regions are labeled Pitassa and Lower Land and in the east there are labels for Kaska, Land of Hatti, Upper Land and Isuwa. An island south of Turkey is labeled Alasiya. The areas where the green orange, and black dots overlap has labels for the regions of Hurrian Lands, Mitanni, Amurru, Nuhasse, Amka, and the Syrian Desert. In Saudi Arabia along the Tigris River is an area labeled Assyria. Cities labeled in Turkey from west to east include: Troy, Milawata, Hattusa, and Kanesh. In the Middle East the cities labeled include: Carchemish, Alalah, Aleppo, Ugarit, Qatna, Qadesh, Gubla, Damascus, Babylon, and Jerusalem. In Egypt the city of Cairo is labeled on the Nile River.
Figure 4.6 Shown in green at its greatest extent in the thirteenth century BCE, the Hittite Empire included all of Asia Minor to the borders of Assyria and parts of Syria. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Generally accepted as a draw or possibly a narrow Hittite victory, the fighting at Qadesh is most memorable for ultimately leading the two forces to recognize that they had more to gain from peace than war. In 1258 BCE, the Hittite king Hattusilis II and the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II signed one of early history’s greatest peace treaties (Figure 4.7). The agreement confirmed Hittite control of Syria and Egyptian dominance over the Phoenician ports of the eastern Mediterranean. However, little more than fifty years later, the once-powerful Hittite Empire collapsed, never to reappear.

A picture of two pieces of a brown stone tablet are shown on a black, maroon, and beige background held up by a wire stand. Fragments of the top half of the stone and the small piece of the right side have script on them while the pieces that are chipped off show the smooth stone underneath. Clear thick glass is shown replacing the pieces of the stone that are missing in the bottom half.
Figure 4.7 These carved fragments are from one of many copies of the Egypto-Hittite Peace Treaty of 1258 BCE. (credit: “Treaty of Kadesh” by Iocanus/Museum of the Ancient Orient/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

The Hittite Empire was not the only important Near Eastern power to disintegrate during this period. Across the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia beginning around 1200 BCE, kingdoms and empires from Greece to Mesopotamia went into a decline so extensive it is now called the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Although its trigger remains unknown, the collapse coincided with widespread regional famine, epidemic disease, war, and waves of destructive migrations across the eastern Mediterranean. By the time calm returned around 1100 BCE, the region had entered a new era, the Iron Age. This was a period in which iron replaced bronze as the metal of choice for tools and weapons, and new and more sophisticated empires expanded across the Near East.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

For a few centuries after the Late Bronze Age Collapse, Mesopotamia experienced transformations that dramatically reshaped the region and set the stage for a new imperial era. During the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE, decline came to both Assyria and especially to Babylonia, where dynasties competed for control. Complicating the situation for the Babylonians, a Semitic group of unknown origin called the Chaldeans took control of far southern Mesopotamia during this period. Assyria in the north fared a little better but also struggled to reestablish control over northern Mesopotamia. One of the major factors limiting Assyria’s ability to grow was the presence of a group of West-Semitic seminomads called Aramaeans. The Aramaeans likely emerged first in southern Syria; they exploited Assyrian and Babylonian weakness to expand into Mesopotamia, disrupting Assyrian trading routes as they went. By the tenth century BCE, they had become the dominant population in western Mesopotamia and controlled a number of powerful kingdoms there.

It was only around 900 BCE that Assyria was able to reestablish control over northern Mesopotamia. This marks the birth of what historians often refer to as the Neo-Assyrian Empire (to distinguish it from the Old Assyrian Empire of 2000–1600 BCE and the Middle Assyrian Empire of 1400–1100 BCE). Beginning in the reign of Ashurnasirpal II in the early ninth century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire began a steady march toward imperial dominance across the Near East, asserting control over many Aramaean kingdoms in Syria and eventually over Babylonia itself. By the end of Tiglath-Pileser III’s reign in 727 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire had become the dominant power in the Near East. Over the next several decades, successive Assyrian kings were able to build an expansive empire across Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean through wars of conquest. In 671 BCE, King Esarhaddon invaded Egypt and added that center of wealth and power to his kingdom.

With this conquest, the Neo-Assyrian Empire achieved a degree of territorial control far surpassing that of any earlier empire of the region (Figure 4.8). But its supremacy was not to last. Beginning in the last decades of the seventh century BCE, two growing powers threatened and eventually overthrew Assyria. These kingdoms were Babylonia and Media.

A map is shown. The areas shown include Europe in the northwest along with Asia Minor, Central Asia in the northeast, Persia in the east, North Africa in the southwest and the Arabian Peninsula in the south part of the map. The Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf), the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman are labeled. An area is highlighted orange that encompasses the eastern section of Turkey, all of Syria and Iraq, western Iran, all of Lebanon and Israel and most of Egypt. The cities labeled within that orange area include, from north to south, Tarsus, Harran, Nineveh, Assur, Kish, Byblos, Damascus, Babylon, Uruk, Ur, Jerusalem, and Memphis. The Taurus Mountains and the Zagros Mountains in the north of this orange area are labeled and the Sinai Peninsula in northeast Egypt is labeled. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are also labeled as is Van Golu (Lake Van), the Dead Sea, the Suez Canal, the Nile River and Lake Nasser.
Figure 4.8 This map shows the Neo-Assyrian Empire (in orange) at its height, around 670 BCE. Note the major cities and peoples consumed by its conquests. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

During the period of Assyrian expansion, Babylonia had been reduced to a vassal state of the empire, meaning it was nominally independent in the running of its internal affairs but had to bow to imperial demands and provide goods and soldiers when commanded. But in 616 BCE, the Chaldean Babylonian ruler Nabopolassar attempted to take advantage of a period of Assyrian weakness by launching a bold attack against the Old Assyrian capital of Asshur. Although the attack failed, it encouraged the Median dynasty to risk its own attack into Assyria. The Median Empire, a kingdom in northwestern Iran, had only recently unified and strengthened, largely because Assyria had devastated the rival kingdoms around it, such as Elam. The attack on Assyria proved successful, and Asshur was destroyed in 614 BCE. Shortly afterward, the Babylonians and the Medes entered into an alliance to overthrow Assyria. Assyria received support from Egypt, but it was unable to prevent the Babylonian-Median alliance from overwhelming its forces and capturing its cities. In 612 BCE, the Babylonians and the Medes reduced the once-great Assyrian city of Nineveh to rubble, killing the Assyrian king in the process. The remaining Assyrian forces fled west and held out for a few more years. By 605 BCE, however, the Assyrian Empire had been defeated and its people carried off into slavery.

The victors divided the spoils. The Median Empire took the areas to the east, north, and northeast and expanded its control to central Anatolia, much of western Iran, and the southern area between the Black and Caspian Seas.

The Babylonians, often called the Neo-Babylonians to distinguish them from Hammurabi’s subjects in the Old Babylonian period, took control of the western portion of the former Neo-Assyrian Empire. This included much of Mesopotamia, Syria, and the important Phoenician ports along the Mediterranean (Figure 4.9). Under king Nebuchadnezzar II, they waged war in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean to weaken Egypt’s power. Then, in 601 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar attempted a bold invasion of Egypt itself, only to be repulsed by strong resistance.

A map of the Middle East is shown with southwest Europe in the top left corner and northeast Africa at the bottom left. The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are shown in the north, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea are shown in the west, and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Sea), the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman are shown in the south. An upside down “U” shape is highlighted green from the west coast of Arabia up through Israel, Lebanon, Syria and into the southeast corner of Turkey and then back down through Iraq ending at the Persian Gulf. The cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Babylon are labeled within the green area. Memphis is labeled in Egypt. The Caucasus Mountains are labeled to the west of the Caspian Sea and the Taurus and the Zagros Mountains are labeled in Turkey and Iran, respectively.
Figure 4.9 By 550 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire (shown in green) had extended its control over Mesopotamia, Syria, and Judah, and even into the Arabian Peninsula. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax