A Concise History of Mesopotamia (10): the Neo-Assyrian period (911-609 BC)

At the beginning of the first millennium BC, Assyria was dominated by Aramean tribes, who invaded the region en masse and weakened the once great empire. For more than a century, no ruler was strong enough to push them back and famine and poverty raged in the land. It was only at the beginning of the ninth century BC that a breath of fresh air arrived in the form of Adad-nirari II.



Renewed expansionist energy (911-824 BC)

The first expansionist move of the Neo-Assyrian rulers was to conquer the territory between the “Assyrian triangle” (Ashur, Niniveh, Arbela) and the loop of the Euphrates to the west. Adad-nirari II (911-891) managed in seven campaigns to shift the border to the Habur-region; his successor Tukulti-Ninurta II (890-884) gained ground up until the Upper Tigris; but it was only under Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) that the wished-for territory was submitted with the help of Neo-Hittite states. The conquered people were subjugated to the payment of tribute but could largely retain their local autonomy. That strategy required an almost permanent presence of the Assyrian army and each year the king set out to confirm his power with a great exhibition of strength and terror: whomever refused to pay tribute, was annihilated. This policy of terror and scorched earth is vividly described in royal inscriptions and annals:

“king who subdues those insubordinate to him, he who rules all peoples, strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes, trampler of all enemies, he who smashes the forces of the rebellious, king who acts with the support of the great gods, his lords, and has conquered all lands, gained dominion over all the highlands and received their tribute, capturer of hostages, he who is victorious over all countries…” (Standard Inscription of Ashurnasirpal II)


Relief of the Northwest Palace at Kalhu

With the expansion of the Assyrian territory, much wealth flowed into the hands of its rulers. It enabled Ashurnasirpal II to create a new capital at Kalhu (Nimrud) with a formidable palace, which functioned not only as the seat of power, but as a museum of the king’s great deeds as well: in the throne room orthostats were installed on the walls showing military campaigns, ritual performances and royal feasts and the doorways were flanked by the great protective lamassu’s (winged bulls with human heads). To prevent that anyone would ever remove this exhibition of Ashurnasirpal’s deeds meant for eternity, he had everything inscribed with long formula cursing the one disturbing it all. (It did not prevent the modern archaeologists to transport it all to their musea though)


Black obelisk

The next aim of the Assyrian rulers was to reach the Mediterranean, which especially under Shalmaneser III (858-824) became the main goal for territorial expansion (trade!!). However, he met a lot of opposition from the Aramaic states, that had organised themselves in a confederation. Yet, he managed to conquer the tribe of Bit-Adini and renamed Tel Barsip, one of the cities on its territory, “Kar-Shalmaneser”. After his defeat of the city-state of Damascus, the coastal city-states of Tyre and Sidon submitted voluntarily, as well as the kingdom of Israel. Two sources are very revealing on this subject: the Black Obelisk and the bronze gates of Balawat. Both depict Shalmaneser’s campaigns (for example to the source of the Tigris) and the subjected people bringing tribute (for example Iaua of the “house of David” – Israel).


Bronze gate of Balawat

Relations with Babylonia to the south were quite stable during this period, because of a peace treaty that had been signed under Adad-nirari II. When the Babylonians were more and more threatened by Chaldean confederations they even sought the help of Shalmaneser III, who willingly provided it. Unfortunately, any attempt at conquering territory in the east (Elam) failed, even though multiple efforts were undertaken.

Crises (823-722 BC)

Now that even the wealthy Phoenician city-states were forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians, the riches entered the empire abundantly and one would expect that the Assyrian heartland and its inhabitants thrived because of it. However, the fruits of the expansion arrived almost exclusively in the hands of the highest elite, leaving everyone else as poor as they had been before the conquests. That sparked unrest, and from 827 BC onwards, revolts surged in the big Assyrian cities (Ashur, Niniveh, Kalhu), but in smaller provincial centres as well.

lamasBy the time Shamshi-Adad V (823-811) came to the throne, the nobility had formed a front against the court and all the king’s attention went to putting down the revolt, resulting in the loss of control over the western territories. After ending the rebellion, Shamshi-Adad did not manage to regain all the land between Assyria and the Mediterranean, but he rather chose to consolidate the northern border with the kingdom of Urartu, where he strangely enough encountered a coalition of Persians and Medes.


The Assyrian rebellion caused the relationship between Assyria and Babylonia to change: to be able to defeat the rebels, Shamshi-Adad had asked the Babylonian king for help, who provided it under conditions that were humiliating to the Assyrian. When in 813 BC a political crisis arose in Babylon, Shamshi-Adad immediately saw his chance and took control of the region. Nonetheless, the southern Chaldean tribes remained independent and would cause a great threat to Assyria.semiramis stele

Things did not get better under Shamshi-Adad’s successors: when he died, his son Adad-nirari III was still too young to reign, so his mother Sammu-ramat acted as regent. Military business was left to the head of the army Shamshi-ilu, who performed this job under the next three kings as well. When Adad-nirari III (810-783) then finally came to the throne, he re-established Assyrian sovereignty in the west and Hatti, Amurru, the Phoenician cities and Israel again delivered yearly payments of tribute. Yet, the threat from the north had become substantial, and the next king Shalmaneser IV (782-773) was unable to do more than defend the northern border. His successors Ashur-dan III (772-755) and Ashur-nirari V (754-745) had to handle the plague and multiple uprisings in Ashur.

Finally a king arose who knew how to handle things. Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727) made a coup on the Assyrian throne and went on to subdue the southern Babylonian confederations, manage the northern menace of Urartu and consolidate the western territories. Babylonia, where from Shamshi-Adad V onwards an Assyrian puppet king had reigned, he now integrated into the Assyrian empire by putting it under his direct political control. Tiglath-Pileser’s son Shalmaneser V (726-722) stepped into his footsteps, but his promising career was violently by a revolution of the palace, led by his brother, who we know as Sargon II (721-705).

The Sargonids (721-609 BC)

Sargon (Akkadian sharru kin) means “rightful king”, which immediately makes clear that he was not. The choice for the name set the tone for his reign, since the great Sargon of Akkad was well-known in Mesopotamia, even after more than a millennium, being the first ruler to conquer an empire:

“My name, which the great gods assigned to me in order to uphold law and justice, to help the powerless prevail and to protect the weak”

The provinces profited from the political upheaval in the capital to revolt. In Babylonia, Merodach-Baladan seized control and when Sargon marched south to reclaim the throne, the Babylonians entered into a coalition with Elam. The Elamite army pushed back the Assyrians, leaving Babylonia in the hands of Merodach-Baladan. In contrast, the revolts in the western territories were soon crushed. In 717, the city of Carcemish was conquered, which not only provided massive booty, but added significantly to the power of Sargon too, since the city had been the religious and political capital of the once great Hittite empire.



The amassing of booty resulted in a change in the economy of Assyria, where silver now became the standard means of payment (instead of bronze). The wealth also enabled Sargon to build a new capital, this time on a virgin site: the construction of Dur-Sharrukin was begun in 713 BC. It was built almost perfectly symmetrical, with the enormous palace and temples on the one side and the arsenal on the other. A ziggurat flanked the palace, in which the walls were decorated with reliefs.

After more victories in the west (Philistine, some Neo-Hittite states) and in the Zagros mountains, Sargon turned his attention again towards Babylon, where he now achieved success and repelled Merodach-Baladan from the throne, taking it for himself and leaving his son Sennacherib in charge in the north. However, when the region of Tabal in central Anatolia rebelled, Sargon went there in order to take charge of the situation. The Assyrian army was defeated and the king died on the battlefield, his body lost to the enemy – a catastrofe for the Assyrians, whom believed that unburied persons would never be able to enter the netherworld and be miserable for eternity. The city of Dur-Sharruken was abandoned, being considered a bad omen for Sargon’s death.

Nonetheless, Sargon was succeeded without problems by his son Sennacherib (704-681). He immediately had to face a coalition of Chaldeans, Elamites and Arab tribes led by Merodach-baladan II in Babylonia; yet, he managed to repress them and installed another Assyrian puppet king on the throne in Babylon. After new problems arose in the region, he made his son Ashur-nadin-shumi viceroy there.


The Siege of Lachish

Sennacherib also met with resistance in the western provinces and especially the episodes in Israel are well-known from the Bible, but also from the Assyrian reliefs at Niniveh (Sennacherib’s new capital) and from archaeological excavations. While the Assyrian army was plagued by the plague when laying siege to Jerusalem, they did achieve victory over Lachish, one of the other large cities in the region. The city was destroyed and its population deported or killed.


“After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified cities, thinking to conquer them for himself.” (2 Chron. 32)

Still the problem of Babylon was not solved: Ashur-nadin-shumi was killed and a new coalition between Babylonians and Elamites was formed. Sennacherib saw no other solution than to march south and destroy the city of Babylon, god-napping its city god Marduk and leaving its population desperate but temporarily under control.

When choosing his youngest son Esarhaddon (680-669) as successor, Sennacherib was killed in the temple of Ninurta at Kalhu by one of his other sons, and it took Esarhaddon some time to end the political turmoil and get rid of his brothers. Vis-à-vis Babylon, he adopted a new policy: he started large re-building projects and intervened between the Chaldean tribes, spreading dissension and thus neutralising them. When new threats appeared in the north in the form of Cimmerians and Scythians, he used more diplomatic than military means to turn them northwestwards, away from Assyria. However, his policy towards the western territories remained brutal, taking away the independence of some city-states by turning them into provinces. Furthermore, Esarhaddon implemented an expansionist policy and conquered parts of Lower Egypt, up until Memphis.

The heir Ashurbanipal (669-627) consolidated the territory conquered by his father, but little by little peripheral regions were given up, such as Cyprus and Egypt (even though Ashurbanipal held power there for some years). In Babylon, his brother Shamash-shuma-ukin was in control, yet in 652 he switched sides and led the rebellion of Chaldeans, Arameans and Elamites. It took Ashurbanipal four years to conquer his brother. Both Babylon and Susa are destroyed. The military and financial power of the Assyrians started to wane, and when Ashurbanipal died, civil war and external enemies threatened the existence of the Neo-Assyrian empire.

ashbpThe succession of Ashurbanipal was problematic, with his sons Ashur-etel-ilani (630-626) and Sin-shar-ishkun (626-612) fighting over the throne. Furthermore, in 627 the circumstances in Babylonia changed again, when Nabopolassar ascended the throne. The situation was now fully reversed: Babylonia waged war as an independent state against an Assyria that was severely weakened. From 615 the Medes joined forces with the Babylonians and soon Assyrian cities started to fall: Arrapha (615), Ashur (614), Niniveh (612). Sin-shar-ishkun disappeared and Ashur-uballit II (612-609) was named king of Assyria, but even with the help of the Egyptians he did not manage to save the empire. In a final battle at Harran (609), the coalition of Babylonians and Medes crushingly defeated the Assyrian army. That was the end of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.


Further reading

(Later on I will write a blog post about the King and his Scholars)


A Concise History of Mesopotamia (9): the Middle-Assyrian period (ca. 1500-1000 BC)

While it is possible to reconstruct the history of southern Mesopotamia throughout the second millennium BC – in spite of the many lacunae in our sources – we are quite unable to do the same for Assyria: the period between the reign of Ishme-Dagan (1781-1741) and that of Puzur-Ashur III (1521-1498) is so badly documented that we can speak of a “Dark Age”. The Assyrian King List – drafted in the eighth century BC – gives names of kings, but further documentation is lacking.


In modern literature the Middle-Assyrian period starts with the reign of Puzur-Ashur III, to whom later Assyrian kings referred as their progenitor. The much later “Synchronistic History” (8th century BC) recounts the relationship between Assyria and Babylonia at that time and shows how Assyria found itself in a precarious position between the Great Powers of the day: Kassite Babylonia, Mitanni, the Hittite empire and Egypt further to the west. Contemporary evidence emphasizes this picture, since Puzur-Ashur clearly undertook many building activities to reinforce the city of Assur. Nonetheless, from what we can deduce from our sources, Assyria was at this time still a small independent state.

The 15th century BC is then again a Dark Age. However, circumstantial evidence shows how the Assyrian kings maintained diplomatic relations with the Egyptian pharaohs by exchanging precious gifts. Up until recently it was believed by modern scholars that this relationship between Assyria and Egypt incited Mitanni to undertake action and incorporate Assyria in its empire. Yet, there is almost no evidence to support this claim, and Assyria remained an autonomous state.


letter from Ashur-uballit I to Akhenaten (Amarna-archive)

The first Assyrian to call himself “King of Assyria” (shar mat Assur) was Ashur-uballit I (1353-1318) – though it might have been his father Eriba-Adad I as well. By choosing this title, the Assyrian king expressed a new political mindset: before, the word “king” was only used to refer to the god Ashur, the human ruler being only his representative on earth (earlier titulature: “representative of Enlil”) ; furthermore, the insertion of the word mat (“land”) showed how the Assyrians saw their state as territorial. In a letter sent by Ashur-uballit to Akhenaten of Egypt, the Assyrian addresses his colleague with “brother” and calls himself “great king” (sharru rabu), placing himself and his state on the same level as the other Great Powers: Egypt, Hatti and Kassite Babylonia. To ensure good relations with the latter, the daughter of Ashur-uballit married the Kassite king Burnaburiash II. However, a (much!) later source tells us how their son was killed and replaced by a Kassite noble, leading Ashur-uballit to conquer Babylon and put a pro-Assyrian ruler on its throne. Further military actions were undertaken in Arrapha, a vazal state of Mitanni. As far as Mitanni is concerned, it is still not entirely clear to which degree it had control over Assur and its environment at this moment: was Assyria fully independent? was it obliged to pay tribute?


From the beginning of the 13th century BC onwards our sources become more abundant and diverse. The ascension of Adad-nerari I (1295-1264) heralded a new age for the Assyrian state. At this point, Mitanni had become a weak empire, having had to cede large chunks of its territory to Hatti and Assyria. It is there that the Assyrians poached on the Hittites’ territory: in a denigrating letter, a Hittite king lets Adad-nerari know that he might have conquered pieces of land, but that he should not consider him as his “brother”. It did not come to confrontations outside of those epistolary sneers, though.  A more substantial threat came from the south, where Kurigalzu II (whom Ashur-uballit had installed on the throne in Babylon) was victorious against Elam and decided to take on Assyria. Even though the Babylonians initially obtained victory, the Assyrians hit back and a new border in favour of Assyria was established. The military successes of the Assyrians are not only recounted in cuneiform texts (such as building inscriptions) but are visible too in the building activities which Adad-nerari undertook, since some of the materials used stem from conquered regions.

Shalmaneser I (1263-1234), Adad-nerari’s son, was the first to implement a strategy that the Assyrians would continue to use for many centuries: when he conquered the northern land of Urartu, he took away a substantial part of the (young, male) population and resettled it elsewhere, amongst others in the capital Assur. This way, the Assyrians destabilized the local society and ensured that the young men would grow up in a pro-Assyrian context. After having defeated Urartu, Shalmaneser gave the final blow to Mitanni and came face to face with Hittite forces. There are no accounts of battles between both states, but from administrative sources it becomes clear that the Assyrian king employed large troops at the Euphrates. Furthermore, the Hittite king Tadhuliya IV addressed Shalmaneser in one of his letters as “brother”, thus recognizing Assyria as one of the Great Powers, which now ruled the region of the northern Euphrates.

Tukulti-Ninurta (1233-1197) can be considered the greatest ruler of the Middle-Babylonian period. At the beginning of his reign he already had great ambitions, when writing to his Hittite colleague:


“I wish to accomplish something! If the kings of other states would become hostile and would attack me, I would be able to make a name for myself!”

Yet the Hittite king did not take the threat seriously – which he should have done, because Tukulti-Ninurta fought the Hittites for years on end until he managed to break their power. Strangely enough, there are almost no traces of this great accomplishment in the Assyrian sources, aside from the following mention:

“At the beginning of my reign, I took away 28800 Hittites from Syria to my land.”

The Hittite sources, on the other hand, show the despair of Tadhuliya IV to keep things under control, amongst others by forcing vazals to fight for him or to break commercial bonds with Assyria. In vain.

Schermafbeelding 2018-05-31 om 14.41.53

The Ancient Near East in the 11th century BC

After this episode, Tukulti-Ninurta directed his attention towards Kassite Babylonia, where he captured the king and sent him and his family into exile. To prevent the Assyrians from taking full control, Enlil-nadin-shumi ascended the throne in Babylon and swore loyalty to Assyria. Nonetheless, Tukulti-Ninurta still invaded Babylonia a few years later and added “King of Sumer and Akkad” to his titulature. After his victory, he built a new capital only 3 kilometers north from Assur: Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta (“quay of Tukulti-Ninurta), probably to be able to “rule more freely” with new infrastructure and away from the old notability in Assur. However, that did not keep him safe, because after having reigned for 27 years, he was killed by his own sons and other nobles:

“[his son] and the nobles of Assyria revolted against Tukulti-Ninurta, who had mistreated Babylon, removed him from his throne, imprisoned him in a room in Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta and killed him.” (Chronicle P)


The period following the assassination of Tukulit-Ninurta was characterized by political turmoil in which the kings succeeded each other very quickly. In Babylonia, Adad-shuma-usur took advantage of the situation and got control over Babylon by instigating a rebellion, while Ninurta-apla-ekur reigned at Assur. He was succeeded by his son Ashur-dan I (1168-1133), whose 46 year-long reign is very badly documented. When the Elamites raided Babylon in 1155 BC, the Assyrians lost some territory on the eastern Tigris, leading to renewed struggles between Assyria and Babylonia, which continued throughout the reign of Ashur-Dan’s successor Ashur-resh-ishi.


Prism of Tiglath-Pileser I

Some modern researchers would suggest to consider Tiglath-Pileser I as the first ruler of the Neo-Assyrian empire, because of his many innovations vis-à-vis his predecessors. Yet, his most important accomplishment was to consolidate his empire by pushing back the peoples that came to fill the void left after the defeat of the Hittites, or by pursuing and punishing the Arameans who undertook raids against Assyria, or by affirming the borders between Babylonia and Assyria. He furthermore traveled throughout his empire to collect tribute and gifts (amongst which, most famously, a hippopotamus).

Under Tiglath-Pileser’s successors, the Aramean threat became more substantial, severely weakening the empire at moments; a situation from which local rulers profited to try to establish independence. Yet, despite those difficulties, the Assyrians managed to defend their territory adequately and to keep most of its borders intact. What is more, they continued to undertake expeditions to far-away places and they maintained positive diplomatic relations with Egypt. In building projects they came up with innovations that would last through the following centuries, as for example the planting of gardens.

Still, after the reign of Ashurnasirpal I (1049-1031) the sources go quiet again, and no more royal inscriptions detailing royal campaigns are known to us. When the sources appear again, the cape of 1000 BC has been rounded, and a new Assyria emerges.

Further reading


A Concise History of Mesopotamia (8): Kassite Babylonia (1595-1155 BC)

After the Hittites under Mursili I sacked Babylon and retreated, the city and its environment were left without a ruler. In the south of Babylonia, the so-called Sealand Dynasty (or Second Dynasty of Babylon) came to power, cutting off the rest of Mesopotamia from the trade routes going over the Persian Gulf to India. Probably they also ruled the city of Babylon for a while, however, that did not last long, since the power vacuum in Babylonia proper was quickly filled by a new dynasty, one that would reign for more than three centuries: the First Kassite Dynasty.

kassites x

A reconstruction of the Kassite Dynasty

Where exactly the Kassites came from is still debated today. The most accepted view is that they originally lived in the regions at the foot of the Zagros-mountains to the north-east of Babylonia. Unfortunately we know barely anything about the language they spoke, since it was almost solely preserved in names. Kassites are attested in Babylonian sources from the 18th century BC onwards, not only as hostile groups living at the margins of Babylonian society but as mercenaries in the army and agricultural labour forces as well. Some researchers associate the success of the people with the use of two wheeled horse-drawn chariots, which were started to be used around the same time. It is impossible, though, to make a direct connection between both phenomenons.

Due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to reconstruct the political history of the period. For the first century of their reign, there is almost no documentation about the Kassite rulers. Later, the material becomes more abundant, but there are two problems with it: the Kassites abolished the practice of using year names – making it very hard to set a chronological frame – and most of the texts remain unpublished today, including the largest part of the 12000 tablet-counting archive from the city of Nippur. Most of what we learn as “Kassite history” comes from (much!) later compositions, but it is uncertain to which degree those (hi)stories are correct.


Letter from the king of Tyre to the Egyptian pharaoh

Even though often considered as a “Dark Age” in Mesopotamian history, the region flourished under Kassite rule, as can be gleaned from archives that were found outside of Mesopotamia. In Egypt, the Amarna-archive offers valuable insights in the diplomatic relations of the time: correspondence between the Kassite king and the Egyptian pharaoh was written in Akkadian, which served as a lingua franca at this time. In Hattusha, capital of the Hittite empire, another smaller archive of Akkadian texts was found. It is clear that Babylonia was one amongst the other “great powers”: the Kassite kings addressed their Egyptian and Hittite colleagues with “brother”, sent them lavish gifts and married their daughters or sisters.



Kudurru of Meli-Shipak II (Louvre)

The wealth of the state is visible too in the many refurbishments taking place in its cities, and not in the least in the creation of a new capital, Dur-Kurigalzu, that lay on the trade route to the Diyala, by which lapis lazuli (an important diplomatic gift) was imported. In fact, the country was so rich under the Kassites, that some Assyriologists have claimed that gold became the standard for business transactions for a while, unique in Mesopotamian history (silver was more common). One kind of source attests very well to the fact that wealth did not remain in the kings’ hands but was shared with local institutions and persons: kudurrus (Akkadian “boundary”) are small stone steles which record land grants to private persons but temple institutions as well. They contained an inscription describing the donation, a curse formula, and visual representations of different deities ranged from great gods (upper part) to local gods (lower part). Kudurrus were mostly placed in temples – they are thus not real “boundary stones” delimiting fields. Some of the steles were retrieved in Susa (Iran), where they had been brought as booty by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in ca. 1160 BC (as well as the Codex Hammurabi and the Stele of Naram-Sîn).

Apart from kudurrus, we do not have much contemporary evidence of the cultural flourishing that characterised the period, even though we know that there must have been a huge creative production at the time. The corpus of Babylonian literary works that is preserved in later sources attests to the intense scribal activity that took place in the Kassite period, when “standard” editions of “classical” stories were created and new compositions were made. Furthermore, a new religious concept arose: the personal god, who served as an intermediary between a normal human and the great gods. Some famous stories that originated at the time show how people started to think more critically about the human-god relationship, for example Ludlul bel nemeqi (“I will praise the lord of wisdom”):

“I wish I knew that these things were pleasing to a god. What seems good to oneself could be an offence to a god, what in one’s own heart seems abominable could be good to a god!”

(Ludlul II, 33-35)

In all this, the city of Babylon was the centre – even though it had been replaced as political capital by Dur-Kurigalzu. Its city-god, Marduk, became head of the Babylonian pantheon, replacing Enlil of Nippur. It proved fatal, then, when in 1155 BC the Elamite king Kutir-Nahhunte came and abducted the cult statue of Marduk: the god had left his city, showing his disappointment and rage, and leaving it to crumble and perish. The Elamite coup resulted in the end of the Kassite dynasty, which left Babylonia again without a ruler.

Further reading

A Concise History of Mesopotamia (7): Old Babylonian period (1800-1600 BC)

From the political turmoil that marked the first two centuries of the second millennium BC emerged a strong dynasty, which managed to conquer a vast empire. The most prominent figure of this time was Hammurabi, who would be remembered throughout Babylonian history. Yet, the dynasty’s sudden rise to power under this ruler resulted in an as quick decline, and 150 years after Hammurabi, peoples from the west put an end to the famous First Dynasty of Babylon.

The First Dynasty of Babylon

dynastyAs in many other Mesopotamian cities at the time, Babylon came to be ruled by Amorites some time at the beginning of the second millennium BC. The early phase of Amorite rule remains in the dark, still we do know from later Babylonian tradition that Sumu-abum was considered to be the founding father of the dynasty. He did not, though, engender the rest of the dynasty’s rulers: his successor Sumu-la-El was not his son and is thus sometimes seen as the ‘real’ founding father.

It is only with the reign of Hammurabi that some clarity is provided by the sources. Unfortunately, barely any contemporary material from Babylon is available, because of the state of the archaeological site: the high level of ground water prevents any deep digging. Luckily, other sites have provided abundant material, for example Sippar, but also Mari on the northern Euphrates.

map hammu

When Hammurabi came to power, he reigned over a small state in northern Babylonia, including the cities of Borsippa, Sippar, Kish and Dilbat. At this instance, the ruler of Babylon was but a vazal of the much greater powers of Larsa (ruled by Rim-Sîn) and Assyria (under Shamshi-Addu I). However, around Hammurabi’s 30th regnal year, power relations shifted when he joined forces with Mari and defeated Rim-Sîn of Larsa. He now ruled the whole south of Mesopotamia and converted Babylon into the new political and religious capital of a growing empire, ideologically building on the tradition from Nippur. (This is very clear in for example cultic texts from which we have multiple versions, where a section about Babylon is added after the city became the capital of a large empire)

When this was accomplished, the Babylonian empire grew quickly with the seize of Eshnunna in the Diyala-region, after which Hammurabi turned against his former allies and conquered Assyria and Mari and took control of important northern trade routes in the Jezireh. Hammurabi’s persona proved to be a crucial factor for keeping the empire together. Already under his son Samsu-iluna the outer regions had to be given up and it seems that that was the trend during the rest of the dynasty’s rule: little by little the empire shrunk and grew weaker.

Samsu-ditana was the last ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon. He stood powerless against the threat from the west in the form of Mursili I, king of Hatti. Mursili sacked Babylon in 1595 and retreated afterwards, creating a power vacuum that would be filled by yet another non-native people: the Kassites.

The Codex Hammurabi

hmmu.jpgPerhaps the most famous object of Mesopotamian civilization is the Codex Hammurabi stele, today to be found in the Louvre. The stele was excavated in Susa, a site in modern Iran, which might perhaps raise eyebrows. As I illustrated here, ancient objects can travel a long way before they end up in a specialist’s hands and the same is true for the Codex. Its original place was likely the temple of Shamash in Sippar, which was plundered in 1155 BC by Shutruk-nahhunte of Elam who brought the Codex and other objects back with him to his capital. But that episode of Mesopotamian history will have to wait for another time.

hammu2As its name states, the Codex Hammurabi is a collection of lawas, which was inscribed on multiple steles and placed in sanctuaries and/or public places throughout the empire. Aside from those, there are as well copies on cuneiform tablets from as late as the second half of the first millennium BC. The debate about the Codex’s function is still ongoing today. Some claim it was simply used to practice law, even though that would not have been very practical, since the laws are presented in a casuistic form. That means that instead of providing general rules to follow, the Codex gives very specific cases with very specific outcomes:

9. If a man, who has lost anything, find that which was lost in the possession of (another) man; and the man in whose possession the lost property is found say: “It was sold to me. I purchased it in the presence of witnesses:” and the owner of the lost property say: “I will bring witnesses to identify my lost property”: if the purchaser produce the seller who has sold it to him and the witnesses in whose presence he purchased it, and the owner of the lost property produce witnesses to identify his lost property, the judges shall consider their evidence. The witnesses in whose presence the purchase was made and the witnesses to identify the lost property shall give their testimony in the presence of god. The seller shall be put to death as a thief; the owner of the lost property shall recover his loss; the purchaser shall recover from the estate of the seller the money which he paid out.

The way in which the laws are phrased, is furthermore similar to that of other genres, most importantly of omina. Omina are collections of predictions based on certain phenomena that could be very real (the birth of a malformed child) or rather unrealistic (the birth of a lamb with multiple heads). The connection between law-giving and predicting the future remains controversial.

Then there are also those researchers who wish to consider the Codex as a piece of royal propaganda. For in the prologue and epilogue to the corpus of laws, the Codex portrays Hammurabi in a very favourable way.

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 well-being of mankind.


Hammurabi in worshipper position before the sun god, Shamash. Top of the Stele.

Nonetheless, even though the Codex Hammurabi cannot serve straightforwardly as a source for jurisdiction in the Old Babylonian period, it does provide a lot of information about Babylonian society at that time. For example, the laws differentiate between three social groups: the awilu or free men, the wardum or slave (defined physically by a tattoo and/or hairstyle) and the mushkenu, an in-between class that is difficult to define in modern terms. Issues handled in the Codex concern family law (marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance), economic regulations (land tenure, medicine, prices and salaries, professions), possesions (theft and slaves) and criminal law (penalties).

In total there are 282 cases described, each of them giving a certain insight in social issues as we still know them today.

Further reading

A Concise History of Mesopotamia (6): ca. 2000-1800 BC

Around 2000 BC the Ur III-empire disintegrated into smaller political units. In the south of Mesopotamia, some rulers managed to continue along the same ideological path of their Ur III-predecessor, although on a much smaller scale. Assyria, on the other hand, focused its attention on long distance trade, thus laying a firm basis for what would become a large empire one day.

Isin-Larsa period

“Then Ur was defeated. The very foundation of Sumer was torn out.

The kingship was taken to Isin.”

In the Sumerian King List we can read that after Ibbi-Sîn’s reign kingship was granted to Ishbi-Erra, a high official of the city of Isin under the former. Apparently, he managed to politically separate himself from the Ur III-empire, but it is not entirely clear whether this was right before or after its fall. What is obvious, however, is that the Isin-kings tried very hard to place themselves in line with the Ur III-rulers.


A version of the Sumerian King List (aka Weld-Blundell Prism)

Most obviously, that was done with the creation of the Sumerian King List, which originated in this period and is the ultimate means to legitimacy: by according themselves a place amongst the great dynasties of Mesopotamia, the Isin-kings created a firm ground for their rulership. Furthermore, they built on the ideology of the Ur III-kings, using the same methods to justify their reign, such as the deification of the king (visible in names of high officials) or the promulgation of law codes.


How hard they might have tried, the political power of the Isin-dynasty remained nonetheless restricted to a small area around the city. In the south of Mesopotamia, other – stronger – political units arose, most importantly the city of Larsa, where an Amorite dynasty ruled. During the last centuries of the third millennium BC, Amorite tribes had come from the west (Syria) to Mesopotamia, where they quickly established city states.

The exact reason for the rivalry between Isin and Larsa is unclear, but it seems that it had something to do with the lack of attention to matters of irrigation in Larsa by the Isin-kings. In retaliation, Sumu-el, ruler of Larsa, ordered the diversion of several canals leading to Isin, which subsequently led to a rapid decline of that city. However, Isin was officially only conquered by the last king of the Larsa-dynasty, Rim-Sîn. Apparently, that was such an important event that the next thirty years of his reign were named after it!

“With the elevated weapon of Anu, Enlil and Enki the true shepherd, Rim-Sin, conquered the royal city Isin, and all its inhabitants, as many as there were, caused its many inhabitants to preserve their life, and made its royal name famous for all time” (Rim-Sîn 30)

Still, no big empire arose in the south of Mesopotamia during the first centuries of the second millennium BC. That would have to wait until the rise of yet another city ruled by Amorites: Babylon.

Old-Assyrian period

While the south of Mesopotamia is characterised by political fragmentation in this period, the sources from the north provide the image of a different situation there. The city of Assur developed into a large centre of political, cultic and economic activity, although one cannot speak of it as the capital of an empire (yet): the Assyrians did not conquer territory, but engaged in strong, economical interaction with the regions to the north-west of Assur. The leader of the city was not called “king” and was probably considered a primes inter pares by the elite families.




The largest find of cuneiform texts for the Old-Assyrian period comes from modern Kültepe – ancient Karum Kanesh in Anatolia. Karum in Akkadian means “quay” or “port”, but also more generally “commercial district”, and the Assyrians had established multiple of them throughout the region. Karum Kanesh, however, seems to have been the most important one. The city was divided into a local part and a quarter where Assyrians lived. Even though interactions between both parts are not frequently attested, we know that Assyrian men could take an Anatolian wife.

Trade was organised mainly by families: the men would travel to Anatolia with products to sell, including tin and textiles. The women would stay at home and produce the textiles, but also manage every matter connected to the family and household. In letters between husbands and wives, we see how high the level of independence was for the women “staying behind”: they signed contracts, sold their products locally and arranged marriages for their daughters without needing the consent of their husband. The men, on the other hand, sometimes had another wife in Karum Kanesh – a practice that goes against the normally attested monogamy in both Assyria and Anatolia. When the men returned back home, they left their Anatolian wife the means to come by, sometimes even the house in which they lived.


In some cases it was more profitable to travel in larger caravans, a situation for which larger trade associations were created. The costs of transport were very high, considering the amount of time spent on the road and the risk that traveling entailed. In the table, one can see how Assur and Kanesh were two crucial centra on the trade route between east and west: from Iran came tin and from Babylonia came textiles, that were then brought by Assyrian merchants to Kanesh, where they sold it for gold and silver (materials naturally lacking in Mesopotamia). From Kanesh, the Assyrian products continued their journey westwards; the Assyrians themselves returned home with the precious metals.

The political landscape changed considerably at the end of the 19th century BC, when another Amorite called Shamshi-Addu (I) conquered Assyria and started to fulfill his imperial ambitions, that would only be stopped by Hammurabi.




Further reading

A Concise History of Mesopotamia (5): Ur III (2100-2000 BC)

At the end of the Old-Akkadian period the Akkadian empire dissolved into a number of smaller city-states governed by a local king. The Sumerian Kinglist mentions Utu-Hegal who reigned eight years over Uruk. After him the List gives the names of kings who ruled at Ur. Since that is the third dynasty of that city mentioned in the List, the period in which they reigned is called “Ur III” by modern scholars. Other names for the period are “Sumerian renaissance” or “Neo-Sumerian” age, because – in contrast to the previous Akkadian period – Sumerian was now (again) used as main language in administration, education and literature. But nota bene: voices have been raised claiming that at this stage Sumerian was already a dead language, which merely existed in written (and not spoken) form. In any case, Akkadian is also well-attested in this period, even in the names of kings.


Ur III administrative tablet

Even though the absolute chronology of the Ur III-period remains uncertain, its history is based on a firm relative chronology derived from yearnames: as in the Old-Akkadian period, Ur III-kings named the years of their reigns after important military and religious events. Those names were then used as a uniform system throughout the empire to date -mainly administrative – texts. It can be stated with little doubt that the Ur III-period is one of the best documented periods in history: there are approximately 90000 texts available! From that source material we can glean large views of the economic and political system, but also of daily life in almost colourful detail. Thus the texts show an extremely centralised empire managed by a huge bureaucracy.

Political history

The first king of the third dynasty of Ur was Ur-Nammu, who called himself “King of Sumer and Akkad”, thus exhibiting the size of his kingdom. It is not entirely clear how he came to power: probably, he overthrew Utu-hegal of Uruk when he was still governor of Ur. During his reign, Ur-Nammu undertook many building projects, the most famous of which is the building of the ziggurat at Ur. (A ziggurat was part of the temple complex in the form of a tower; its cultic significance is very debated. We all know the ziggurat of Babylon that is described in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.)


The ziggurat of Ur today.

Ur_Nammu_code_IstanbulFurthermore, Ur-Nammu was responsible for starting a policy of reorganisation aimed at centralisation that would continue to be implemented by his successors. His reforms included the creation of the “Codex of Ur-Nammu”, which constitutes of a list of casuistic laws, such as:

“If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.”

However, today it is more or less accepted that the code was made under Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi and only later attributed to him. Shulgi is the most famous ruler of the Ur III-dynasty who ruled for 38 years. During that time he firmly established a large empire including large parts of Elam in the east. It seems that most reforms were carried out by this king, resulting in a heavy bureaucratised society. A new capital was founded, named Puzrish-Dagan (“protected by the god Dagan”; modern Drehem); a large amount of written sources stems from this place. The scribal curriculum underwent some changes as well: Sumerian (re)gained an important place and new literary genres were created, most importantly the royal hymn. At this time, kings were deified and a special cult was installed for them in the empire’s temple. The royal hymn had its function in that cult.

After Shulgi’s long reign, the empire slowly started to disintegrate. The yearnames of the following three Ur III-kings – Amar-Sîn, Shu-Sîn and Ibbi-Sîn – show a growing struggle with the ever slower bureaucracy and with threats from neighbouring regions, especially from the western tribes of the Amorites. Moreover, by the end of the 21st century BC, local governors had again taken so much power in hands that they must be considered to have acted independently (for example Ishbi-Erra of Isin).

Organisation of the empire


Organisation of the Ur III-empire

Perhaps instead of considering the Ur III-empire as a centralised state, one should speak of a centrifugal state: by means of different systems the Ur III-kings managed to bind a large territory to them, with strong control of the core region that lessened the farther away from that core one goes.

The central provinces were governed by an administrative and judicial ruler called “ensi”, who stemmed from a local elitist family and the function usually remained in that family. Military responsibility lay with the “sagin”. Above the “ensi” and “sagin” stood a “sukkal”, and all the “sukkals” were subordinate to the “sukkalmah”. The central regions were submitted to a special tax-system called “bala” (meaning “cycle” or “rotation”). If I understand it correctly, not every central province had to pay tribute at the same time; instead, one province at a time had to do so, after which the obligation “rotated” to the next. Furthermore, taxes were calculated based on the province’s capacities. The bala-system thus formed an easy way to redistribution of means.

The peripheral provinces were organised differently: they were not subjugated to the bala-system, but were instead required to pay tribute each year. Moreover, their command lay solely with a military leader and a professional army was stationed there permanently (compare with the Roman limes). Finally, there were those regions that did not stand under political control of the Ur III-kings. Still, they ensured friendly relationships through diplomatic marriages: princesses and even princes were forced to marry with far-away rulers to keep the peace.

At the heart of this all was the city of Ur. Sadly, it was in later tradition not remembered for its glory; rather, it entered history as a city destroyed by outer forces, most famously sung in the “Lament over the Destruction of Ur”:

“Oh city, a bitter lament set up as thy lament; thy lament which is bitter – O city, set up thy lament. His righteous city which has been destroyed – bitter is its lament; his Ur which has been destroyed – bitter is its lament.”

(Translation by S.N. Kramer)

Further reading

A Concise History of Mesopotamia (4): the Age of Agade (2350-2100 BC)

The very first (documented) empire in world history was conquered by Sargon, king of Agade, around 2350 BC. After Lugalzagesi had reunited some southern city-states under one rule, Sargon seized control of the whole region of Sumer (the south of Babylonia) and Akkad (the north). By implementing a strongly unifying political, cultural and economic policy, he managed to gain control over an empire that included parts of Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and modern Iran. (NB: in modern scholarship, “Agade” is used to denote the city and “Akkad” to name the region; this is purely modern convention, because the same word was used for both in Akkadian)


Sargon and his sons

About Sargon “the Great” we do not know much. His name literally means “the legitimate ruler” and as history teaches, kings who emphasize their legitimacy are rarely the rightful ruler. Two accounts about Sargon’s descent were created many centuries after he lived. The oldest one tells how Sargon’s father was a date-grower with connections to the court of the king of Kish. In an unspecified way Sargon became the cupbearer of the king, who then died. Sargon seized this opportunity and established his reign. A much younger story is the so-called Birth Legend of Sargon, a “rags to riches” account of how Sargon was conceived by a priestess and an unknown man, after which he was put in a basket on the river Euphrates (sound familiar, doesn’t it?). He was found by the royal water-drawer Aqqi, who adopted him and installed him as royal gardener when he had reached the appropriate age. Sargon was then noticed by the goddess Ishtar and managed to become king with the gods’ help:


Sargon, mighty king, king of Agade am I; My mother was a priestess, my father I knew not; My father’s brothers dwell in the mountains; My city is Azupiranu, situated on the banks of the Euphrates; My mother, the priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me; She placed me in a basket of rushes, she sealed the lid with bitumen; She cast me into the river which did not rise over me; The river bore me up and carried me to Aqqi, the water-drawer; Aqqi, the water-drawer, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer; Aqqi, the water-drawer, adopted me, brought me up; Aqqi, the water-drawer, set me up as his gardener; As a gardener, Ishtar loved me; For 56 years I exercised kingship. (Birth Legend of Sargon)

Sargon reigned for 56 years and conquered a huge empire. To ensure the goodwill of the gods, he installed his daughter Enheduanna as high priestess of the moon god Nanna in Ur. Her main task was to pray for the life of her father the king, but she also engaged in writing literary works. Enheduanna is the first author known by name in world history (making her very popular in modern feminist discourse). A corpus of temple-hymns has been ascribed to her:

My lady, the great Anuna gods fly from you to the ruin mounds like scudding bats. they dare not stand before your terrible gaze. They dare not confront your terrible countenance. Who can cool your raging heart? Your malevolent anger is too great to cool. Lady, can your mood be soothed? Lady, can your heart be gladdened? Eldest daughter of Suen, your rage cannot be cooled! (Exaltation of Inanna)

Schermafbeelding 2018-02-25 om 16.17.56

Obelisk of Manishtushu (Louvre)

Schermafbeelding 2018-02-25 om 16.21.51Rimush, Sargon’s eldest son, succeeded his father and had no problems with re-establishing control over the empire with his “bloody policies”: in his royal inscriptions, he gives the exact count of dead in battle, a novelty that would remain in use for quite some time. Rimush reigned for less than a decennium, for he was killed by courtiers – legend has it that they used cylinder seals which were worn around the neck (strangling) and contained sharp pieces (stabbing).

His brother Manishtushu replaced him on the throne – his fifteen year-long reign is considered to be a period of consolidation and peace. An important innovation was the use of diorite for the creation of royal inscriptions. It was obtained in the regions along the Gulf Coast, indicating that Manishtushu conquered territory there.




Whereas Sargon entered Mesopotamian history as the ultimate successful ruler, his grandson Naram-Sin was portrayed as a haughty king who was led by hybris. It is true that Naram-Sin is the first Mesopotamian ruler to deify himself during his lifetime. That was done by adding the cuneiform sign for god (“dingir”) before his name in written documents. However, it seems that his reign was far from unsuccessful.

He begot more than ten children: the boys were appointed in strategic political functions, and the daughters were installed as high priestesses in the most important cult centres of the empire or married off to secure positive diplomatic relations. Naram-Sin was also a good strategic ruler: his most famous campaigns include the one to the source of the Tigris-river in Anatolia, and the one against the Lullubi, pictured on his “Victory Stele”.

Schermafbeelding 2018-02-25 om 16.31.18.png

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (Louvre)

Under Naram-Sin’s rule several reforms were introduced that led to a higher level of standardization. The most prominent were on the level of language and writing. For non-literary texts, a new tablet-format, which was thinner and square/rectangular rather than roundee, was used (see the photo’s below). The script became more regular and systematic. Most importantly, Akkadian was now used for most written documents, instead of Sumerian as in previous periods. The spread of the language was accompanied by the idea of an Akkadian identity and culture: people who lived in Akkad and/or spoke Akkadian called themselves “Akkadian”; objects coming from that region were “Akkadian” as well. Further steps towards standardization included the introduction of a standard Akkadian measuring system.

Sharkalisharri and the end of the Akkadian empire

In Mesopotamian tradition, the Akkadian empire ended after Naram-Sin’s death. The fact that Sharkalisharri reigned for twenty-five years after that, contests that idea however. It is unclear whether the empire collapsed under his reign or that he managed to maintain it and that it only did so when his rule ended. It is nonetheless certain that enemies attacked from all sides; especially the Gutians in the north were very persistent. After the death of Sharkalisharri, a period of anarchy broke out – the Sumerian King List accurately notes “Who was king? Who was not king?”

Two more kings – Dudu and Shudurul – ruled over Akkad, but the empire was at that time confined to a small state around the city of Agade. Especially in Sumer, independent city-states arose once more. Gudea of Lagash was one of those persons who profited from the lack of power experienced by the Akkadians. I have written a blog post about him before. After Shudurul’s death, the empire of Akkad vanished. The city continued to exist until the Hellenistic period – it has, however, never been found by modern archaeologists.

Further reading

A Concise History of Mesopotamia (3): Jemdet Nasr and Early Dynastic (3100-2350 BC)

Jemdet Nasr (3100-2900 BC)

Uruk-jemdetnasr.pngJemdet Nasr is a site in northern Babylonia after which a period of Mesopotamian history is named. Often it is not considered as an independent stage of historical development, but included into the Uruk period. The most important difference between the two, however, is that from this period onwards the cuneiform script was used to represent a language and not merely concrete objects: from now on, writing represented Sumerian, though it must be said that at some instances Semitic (Akkadian) words can be found. The theory today is that while Sumerian was the standard language in the south, Akkadian was spoken in the north of Babylonia.

During the Jemdet Nasr period the level of urbanization reached its first culmination; irrigation and other agricultural techniques were successfully harnessed to feed a large population and social stratification becomes ever more clear from the written sources. By the end of this period the political landscape of southern Mesopotamia consisted of several large city-states.

Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BC)


Weld-Blundell Prism, a manuscript of the Sumerian King list

The Early Dynastic period is not named after a site as the previous periods, but its name stems from the Sumerian King list (about which I already wrote here), in which Mesopotamian dynasties following one another are enumerated. However, the oldest manuscript of the list dates to the beginning of the second millennium, which means that there is a gap of approximately a thousand years between the document and the events which it describes. Today the text is no longer accepted as a source for the reconstruction of early Mesopotamian history, but the term “Early Dynastic” remains in use.

mesopotamiairaq2500bcBased on excavations in the Diyala region (in the north of Mesopotamia) the Early Dynastic period was divided into three units: Early Dynastic I (2900-2700 BC), Early Dynastic II (2700-2600 BC) and Early Dynastic III (2600-2350 BC). For the former two, there are only very few written sources, which has led scholars to base themselves on later literary texts, such as the story of Gilgamesh of Uruk and Akka of Kish. In that story, the ruler of the city is assisted by a council of old men and one of young men; therefore people have spoken of an “early democratic system” in Mesopotamia. It is, however, doubtful that a later epic can serve as a credible source for this early period.


Standard of Ur

For the Early Dynastic III period, more written and iconographic sources are available, enabling us to say something about the political situation in Babylonia. The political landscape was organised in city-states ruled by a “king”, who bore different titles in different places (lugal, ensi or en) – probably those titles developed from differing systems but had similar political meanings. The “king” was assisted by officials, a large part of which was member of the royal family. We know, for example, that the wife of the ruler of the city-state of Lagash had her own economic “household”; sons were very important in this field too. On the upper level of the Standard of Ur (picture above) one can see the “king” seated on a throne facing right. He is the largest figure depicted. Opposite from him one sees his messmates holding drinking cups; smaller figures represent servants, and the whole is accompanied by music.

babbe374d71de91d5c914cfe31c636dbAnother object shows that the city-states did not live peacefully together. On the so-called Vulture Stele a war between the state of Lagash and the state of Umma is depicted. Eannatum, king of Lagash, is shown in different scenes of battle – one can recognize him as the largest figure in them. The stele illustrates how the city-states could muster a well-organised army. What is furthermore interesting, is the fact that the largest figure on it is a god, who holds the enemy in a net. That is a typical feature of this and later periods of Mesopotamian history: there is no differentiation between the religious and the secular; everything is owed to the gods.


Oval temple in Khafajah

From that idea came a long-standing misconception about the earliest Mesopotamian economy that all the land was owned by temples and that every person was employed by the temple (“theocratic temple-state”). However, it is clear that this was not the case: land was owned by private families on the one hand, the most important of which was the family of the “king”, and by temples on the other. What one can say, nonetheless, is that there were no separate religious and secular spheres with competing interests: maintaining the gods came on the primary level, maintaining oneself on the secondary.


tablet mentioning Uruinimgina

The very first “social reforms” can be placed in this period as well. King Uruinimgina of Lagash issued a decree, in which he stated that the “the widow and the orphan are no longer at the mercy of the powerful man”. The decrees themselves have not been preserved as such, but from other texts we know that he fixed prices and tried to go against power abuse. Two of the decrees are still a bit controversial today: they are about adultery by women and the following punishment. No laws from Uruinimgina against adultery by men are known.


Mace head of Mesilim, king of Kish

Even though every city-state had its own “king”, there is evidence for the fact that there was a person who regulated inter-city conflicts: he is known under the title “king of Kish”. Kish was another city-state in southern Mesopotamia, and apparently whoever reigned there, held some power over the rest of the region. Still this cannot be considered as a person ruling over a state; the different city-states were independent units. That changed when Lugalzagesi, “king” of Umma, came into power and started an expansion policy. He conquered a small state of multiple city-states and paved the way for Sargon of Akkad, about whom I will tell you more in the next blog-post.


Palace of Ebla

Before ending this post, it must be noted that several city-states outside of Mesopotamia were highly influenced by Mesopotamian culture during this period. The most important one perhaps is Ebla in nowadays Syria, where cuneiform writing was adapted to write their own Eblaite language. In its palace, a huge archive was found, from which the link with Mesopotamian city-states becomes clear. Another significant city was Mari on the Euphrates, which seems to have been built as a colony and was not different in culture from the southern Mesopotamian city-states. Apparently, Ebla and Mari were at war for some time; however, the destruction of Ebla only preceded that of Mari by a decade, when Sargon of Akkad conquered his empire.

Further reading

A Concise History of Mesopotamia (2): from Samarra to Uruk (6th-4th millennium BC)

The earliest history of Mesopotamia is based on non-written sources (pottery), for the obvious reason that writing was still to be invented. One can say that it started in the sixth millennium BC. Many millennia before that period, around 10.000 BC, the Neolithic Revolution had taken place, which means that people became sedentary and used agriculture as the basis for food production. It seems however that there were not yet any settlements in the alluvial plain of Mesopotamia, a phenomenon that has been linked to the local climate.

Chalcolithicum (6th millennium BC)

The rain does not always stay in the plain, as is evidenced by the southern Mesopotamian alluvial plain where until the beginning of the fifth millennium BC the climate was too hot for people to be able to settle. The north of Mesopotamia, which lies in the foothills of the surrounding mountain ranges (Zagros and Taurus), had a better climate, seeing that there is more than 200 mm of rainfall per year. That is the needed minimum for dry-farming, a method of farming that does not require irrigation. It is there that the first notable settlements grew. (In general terms, this period is called “Chalcolithicum” which combines the Greek words for coper and stone and indicates that both those materials were now used to create objects)


We recognize and divide the most important settlements into “cultures” by pottery finds. The most important one is the Halaf-culture, characterized by pottery of fine quality with geometric and animal patterns. It spread from what is nowadays northern Syria to the rest of Syria, a large sphere of influence for this early period. Other smaller but still important early cultures are the Samarra-culture and the Hassuna-culture. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say much more about these first stages of settlement than what kind of pottery was used and how far it spread.

Ubaid period (5th millennium BC)

Around the beginning of the fifth millennium BC a climate change occurred in the Ancient Near East which resulted in the fact that the alluvial plain of Mesopotamia became cooler and dryer. The rivers Euphrates and Tigris carried less water and the yearly inundations had less impact on the land. Thus the land surrounding both rivers became easier to manage, and more and more people went to settle there. It is often suggested that the need for irrigation is linked to the need for organisation on a large scale, and that this is how settlements grew into cities. Others think that it grew more organically: irrigation led to better use of arable land, with higher yields per field, thus less land was needed to feed a group of persons. Different groups of people moved closer together (since they needed less land) which then led to conflicts between the groups. Rules were established, and social stratification – one of the characteristics of urban life – took roots.

ubaidWe notice in this period a change in architecture, which became more complex, suggesting a growing social stratification (elite versus commoners) and urbanisation as well. New techniques were invented, most importantly ways of making pottery on some kind of wheel. That gave rise to a new form of ceramics with typical all-round patterns. The first finding spot of this kind of pottery was Tell el-Ubaid, after which the fifth millennium was then called. It lies in southern Mesopotamia and was excavated by Henri Hall and Sir Leonard Woolley during the Interbellum.

The most important site of the Ubaid period is Eridu, where buildings designated as temples have been found. In Mesopotamian tradition, this is the primal city of civilization, which is not that far from the truth.

Uruk period (4000-3100 BC)

The Uruk period is generally considered the period of explosive urbanisation and the development of culture. It is called after the city of Uruk which grew exponentially at the beginning of the fourth millennium BC, as is witnessed by its temple Eanna. In a second stage, the phenomenon of urbanisation started spreading at a fast rate; therefore, some researchers wish to speak of “city-states” or the like, as existed in later periods of Mesopotamian history.Schermafbeelding 2018-01-28 om 12.49.43

Some important innovations encouraged urbanisation. A second agricultural revolution took place (the first being the Neolitich Revolution mentioned above): the plow pulled by animals was invented and irrigation techniques were refined, which led to the creation of a new, more regulated agricultural landscape. A change happened in stock breeding too, because sheep were now mainly kept for wool production and cattle as labour force instead of for meat. Furthermore the domestication of the donkey enabled people to trade over long distances – the donkey being an important means of transport.

uruk potteryBecause of those changes, wool became the primary material for textile production; flax was now less used, and thus more fields were freed for the production of sesame, used to make oil. A new pottery wheel was invented leading to the mass production of ceramics, which is visible in the fact that this period’s pottery is not decorated.

It is not easy to reconstruct socio-political life, because all monumental buildings that were found have been interpreted as temples, not as palaces. We do know from iconography that there was a leader of society, typically pictured with a long (woolen?) skirt, a collar-like beard and a hat or headband. He figures in scenes of combat, as builder of temples and as high priest in the cult; therefore, he is sometimes called “priest-king” by modern scholars. From this we know that social stratification was far advanced by this time, and that we may assume that there was a stark central authority.

uruk vase

Uruk Vase. In the left upper corner the figure of the “priest-king” is depicted in a ritual. He faces the goddess Inanna who stands to his right just before the reed standards.

UrukHeadAll that led to a “managerial revolution”: accounts were kept by means of bullae in which tokens that represented livestock and other objects were kept as a means of security or contract. Those were sealed with cylinder seals, another invention of the time that would be in use until the end of Mesopotamian culture. Art became more realistic and humanist; a beautiful example known as the Lady of Uruk is shown here. Towards the end of the Uruk period – the so-called Late Uruk Period (fase IV) – the cuneiform script was developed, first only in linear form (pictograms), later representing a language (Sumerian).  Hence, from the end of the Uruk period onwards, we can speak of a real history of Mesopotamia.

Further reading

A Concise history of Mesopotamia: introduction

In the coming weeks I will present a concise history of Mesopotamia here on Tuppu. I have to start with a short remark about the use of the word history. Usually, a distinction is made between history and prehistory, based on the available source material: pre-history is reconstructed on the basis of archaeological sources, while history is mainly reconstructed from written texts. However, Assyriologists tend to start their (hi)story some time before the invention of writing, around the beginning of the fifth millennium, because this period is crucial for the reconstruction of the societies in which writing began.


Seeing that Assyriologists have to handle more than five millennia, it is obvious that a certain division into periods is available. I give you the overview in the following table, but nota bene that chronology remains a sensitive subject.

5000-4000 BC Ubaid
4000-3100 BC Uruk
3100-2900 BC Jemdet Nasr
2900-2350 BC Early Dynastic
2350-2100 BC Old-Akkadian/Sargonid
2100-2000 BC Ur III/Neo-Sumerian
2000-1800 BC Isin-Larsa 2000-1800 BC Old-Assyrian
1800-1600 BC Old-Babylonian
1595-1155 BC Middle-Babylonian/Kassite 1400-1050 BC Middle-Assyrian
626-539 BC Neo-Babylonian 883-610 BC Neo-Assyrian
539-331 BC Persian/Achaemenid
331-141 BC Hellenistic
141 BC-224 AD Parthian/Arsacid

It is important to note that until 1595 most dates are approximative. For the Ubaid and the largest part of the Uruk period we are dependent on archaeological sources, but even for the periods when writing was widely used in the third and first half of the second millennium it remains difficult to date these periods exactly due to the way in which the Mesopotamians themselves dated their texts.

The most important source for the chronology of the third millennium is the so-called “Sumerian Kings List”, in which all the dynasties that had governed Mesopotamia up until then were written down. There are however more disadvantages than advantages to the list: in some instances it is broken and therefore the sequence of reigns is interrupted. The fact that some reigns last for more than a hundred years is problematic too: apparently, mythological ideas krept into the composition. A last problem is that the document lists all the reigns linear; in other words, every dynasty comes after another and none reign together. Nonetheless we know that some kings ruled at the same time. A fun fact is that the Ur III period of the modern chronology is called so because it is the third dynasty of the city of Ur listed in the Sumerian Kings List.

Another tool for dating before the thirteenth century BC are the year names of kings. In archival documents we find for example: “Year in which Sargon destroyed Elam”; another year is called “Year in which Mari was destroyed”. In some instances it was possible to recreate a relative chronology with those year names, which means that based on several data we can place one year before another. However, it does not allow us to give exact dates to the events described (only in some rare cases is it possible). The events described in the year names are in general military campaigns, building projects (walls, canals, temples) and cultic issues.

“Year in which Naram-Sin chose the en-priestess of Nanna by means of the omens.”

“Year in which the temple of Ishtar in Akkad was built.”

“Year in which Naram-Sin after campaigning against [Azu]hunum defeated it.”


K.160, Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa

One important document that was used for a long time for exact dating is an astronomical text from the first millennium BC in which mention is made of the visibility of the planet Venus in the eigth year of king Ammisaduqa (of whom we know that he lived in the Old-Babylonian period). Since Venus reappears every 64 years, it was possible to establish three possible dates corresponding to the mentioned appearance: 1710, 1646, and 1582 BC. In general, Assyriologists use the middle chronology (1646), though recently some advocate for the use of the short (or low) chronology.

From the middle of the second millennium BC onwards, a conventional way of dating was by counting the number of years that the present king was in power. Combined with information gleaned from kinglists (literally lists of kings and the number of years they reigned), this proved useful for our modern chronology. In Assyria, a different system was in use: each year the royal official titled limmu was elected who was to give his name to the year (eponym system). Here as well lists they drew up lists with the different limmus that had been under a given king.

As closer as we get to our age, the easier it gets to date. During the Seleucid period (305-141 BC) the Seleucid era (SE) was the common dating device. Today we too use an era – the Christian one – in which we count the years from the birth of Christ until our day. The same was true for the Seleucid era, but the starting point was not the birth but the return of Seleucus I to Babylon in 311 BC. Furthermore, it ran until the sixth century AD, which gives us a lot of connection points to establish an absolute chronology for that period.

Often it remains difficult to find the exact that of certain events. However, for a general overview there is plenty of information from different kinds of sources.


344776_lAside from archaeological sources – both sites and objects – Mesopotamian history is for the largest part built on the study of written texts. The most important languages used were Sumerian and Akkadian, but others are relevant for our study as well, such as Eblaite, Ugaritic, Hettite, Luwian, Elamite, Old-Persian, Aramaic, Greek etc. Clay tablets are the most frequent carriers of cuneiform writing, the biggest advantage of which is the fact that they are very sustainable and do not perish in fires and other situations of destruction. Other carriers of cuneiform writing are only indirectly attested since they have perished over time: wax tablets and leather, which was not very suitable for cuneiform writing, but was rather used for the alphabetic Aramaic. On the picture to the left you can see two scribes, one of which writes cuneiform on a clay tablet (in the front) and the other who takes notes in Aramaic on a leather scroll (in the back). Lastly it should be mentioned that writings occur on other objects too, such as cylinder seals, reliefs, stelae and others.

Fortunately for us the ancient Mesopotamians put a lot of things into writing, going from simple notes to literary masterpieces. In between those two lie many different genres, which can be grouped into administrative (letters, contracts, debt notes, payments etc.), legal (contracts, royal edicts, law codices, legal decisions, etc.), religious (rituals, prayers, hymns etc.), literary (epics, stories, etc.), and scholarly texts (medicine, magic, word lists, astronomy etc.) – though some compositions are not easy to categorize. Some of these genres are well attested in certain periods and not in others; and for some periods there is a lot of written material while for others there is barely any.  This is mostly due to coincidence. However, Assyriologists believe that  their material is representative enough to write a reliable history.

In the coming weeks I will introduce to Mesopotamia’s history and take you through the most important political events, economic systems, religious developments and social life. A lot of information will have to be put into relatively short blog posts, so be prepared for a joyride through history!

Further reading

  • https://cdli.ucla.edu/tools/yearnames/yn_index.html
  • Kuhrt, A. The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 BC. London-New York, 1995.
  • Bottéro, J. La Mésopotamie: l’écriture, la raison et les dieux. Paris, 1987.
  • Cambridge Ancient History volume I-IV.
  • Joannès, F. The Age of Empires: Mesopotamia in the First Millennium BC. Edinburgh, 2004.