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.
“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.
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.
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.
- Veenhof, Klaas & Eidem, Jesper. The Old Assyrian Period. Fribourg/Göttingen, 2008.
- Michel, Cécile. Correspondance des marchands de Kaniš au début du IIe millénaire avant J.-C. Paris, 2001.
- Larsen, Mogens Trolle. The Old Assyrian City-State and its Colonies. Kopenhagen, 1976.