Elliot Fernandez

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The Ancient Near East in the 1st Millennium

The First Millennium BC encompasses the Iron Age in the Ancient World and sees the transition from the Ancient Near East to classical antiquity.
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Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

24/03/2022 | Last update:

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The new Syria-Palestine reality

The Phoenician cities

On a narrow strip of land between the mountains of Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea and with very favourable conditions for agriculture, a series of cities arose that would soon become very powerful. In what is now Lebanon, vineyards, olive trees, fruit trees, etc. were already being cultivated in the 1st millennium BC. The only problem was the narrowness of the territory.

In this coastal strip, the most important cities were: Arwad, Byblos, Beruta or Beritos (present-day Beirut), Sidon and Tyre. These cities enjoyed great prosperity from 1200 BC onwards. These cities never formed a political unit. The term “Phoenicians” was invented by the Greeks. The Phoenician cities were the result of a long process of sedentarisation by the Amorites, who had founded cities that were part of the Canaanite culture. The coastal cities based their life on trade.

Phoenician territory
Map of the Phoenician territory and the main cities. Source: Wikipedia.org

From the 12th to the 10th century BC, it was a time of great prosperity. Complete independence of the city-states. Cities were very active in trade and craftsmanship. The Phoenicians became the merchants of the whole area.

From the 9th century BC, the political reality began to change. The Assyrians regained strength and crossed the Euphrates River. In the middle of the 9th century BC, Shalmaneser III (Assyrian king) forced all the Phoenician cities to pay a tax. This control increased until the middle of the 8th century BC, when Tiglath-Pileser III conquered all the Phoenician cities except the southernmost, Tyre.

In the 7th century BC, with the Assyrian Empire gone, the successors, Babylon, occupied the Phoenician cities and conquered Tyre. This meant the loss of independence for these Phoenician cities, which they would never regain.

Commercial issue

The Phoenicians went to the West to look for unprocessed products (silver, metals, gold). In the East they were looking for swords, slaves… The political situation in which the Phoenicians found themselves was not very organized. The Phoenicians had an advantage, as they brought processed products and obtained raw materials in exchange. They made expeditions in search of ivory. International trade moved to the Red Sea.

Tyre’s suppliers: there were major absences, such as Egypt, which produced nothing of interest, and Babylon, as a result of the Assyrians’ blockade of them. Most trade was by land, despite being coastal cities. Only exotic goods could arrive by sea.

Trade in the 2nd millennium BC was the work of the great states. In Egypt, trade was managed by the pharaoh. They were expeditions of states with whom he maintained diplomatic relations. In contrast, Phoenician trade in the 1st millennium BC consisted of private fleets, protected by local commerce. The Phoenicians were merchants, specializing in the transport and resale of goods.

There are two major periods in this trade:

11th-10th centuries BC:

  • Trade specialized in long-distance expeditions, to Ophir (a city in the Bible known for its riches and which scholars believe may be in Central Africa, where oil, frankincense) or Ardis (western Mediterranean, silver and pond) were traded.
  • Annual rhythm. In summer, the ships left the Phoenician cities. They stayed at their destination for a year and returned to Phoenicia the following summer.
  • The ships made few stops.
  • These were precious commodities.
  • The kingdoms encountered by the Phoenicians were in embryonic formation.

4th-7th centuries BC:

  • Travel was much more frequent.
  • They can be archaeologically verified.
  • They were carried out in western mining areas such as Sardinia, the Iberian Peninsula, Tunisia, Sicily and Atlantic Africa.
  • They begin to have very close competitors, such as the Greeks and the Etruscans.
  • The products exchanged were also different. At this time Tyre was isolated.
  • The process of Phoenician colonization of the Mediterranean.
    • 11th-10th centuries: Establishment of permanent factories in Cyprus.
    • 8th century: Parallel to Greek colonization, establishment of permanent factories and stable colonies, foundation of Carthage. Changes in the Phoenician cities, some Phoenician centres were abandoned and left for their colonies. The fall of Tyre in 573 BC.
Trade routes of the Phoenician cities
Map of the trade routes of the Phoenician cities through the Mediterranean. Original source: Wikipedia.org

It seems that the alphabet came to the Iberian Peninsula thanks to the Phoenicians. Iron metallurgy arrived via the colonizations.

Israel and Judaism

Terminology:

  • Hebrews: ancient Semitic people with some common features, such as language (a particular dialect of Amorite). They were not a politically united people.
  • Israelites: the political entity formed by the 12 tribes of Israel, descendants of Jacob, which takes the nickname Israel (in Hebrew).
  • Jews: also known as the Jewish people are a nation and an ethno-religious group that originated in the territories of the Israelites or Hebrews of the ancient Near East.

The term Jew came into being when the reality of the state of Israel had disappeared. Religious identity replaced political identity. The Hebrews existed before the state of Israel was established.

When the Hebrew ethnic group existed, they were not politically united. When the Hebrews formed the political unit, Israel, not all the original groups were present. Before 100 B.C. we speak of tribes of Hebrews.

Chronology

  • 1200-1000 BC: period of the Judges. Period of the Hebrew tribal groups and the constitution of an ethnic political state, thanks to the union of the 12 tribes. Tribal groups prevailed: Hebrews, Amorites, Moabites and Amalekites. They formed alliances with each other. These tribes fought against the city-states in the area. The tendency of these groups was to create centralized monarchical states. A king could favour these struggles, against the Philistines.
    • The confederation of the 12 judges of the tribes chose Saul as the first of the kings of Israel. It cannot be understood without the figure of Samuel, the prophet. This monarchical power was weak, and Saul eventually fell. A new military leader, David, was elected.
  • 1000-960 BC: there was a division of the tribes between those who followed Saul’s son and the followers of David.
    • David became the head of the most powerful tribe, the Kingdom of Judah.
    • Saul’s son Ishbaal was the leader of the rest of the tribes, the king of Israel. His reign lasted only 2 years.
    • When Saul’s only son died, David was chosen as the only king of all Israel. His policy was to create a territorial state. He conquered Jerusalem and made it the capital of the new kingdom of Israel.
Israel
Map of the division between the two kingdoms, in northern Israel and southern Judah. Source: Wikipedia.org

David’s kingdom

  • David created the state of Israel.
  • He played a leading role in the conquest of Israel, the Jordan Valley…
  • He built his palace and organized the royal court.
  • Solomon, son of David, set up the administrative apparatus of the new state and put an end to expansionism.
  • Construction of the temple of Judah/Yahweh.
  • In 926 BC, the kingdom was divided again.
    • In the north, the dynasty of David (Kingdom of Israel) continued to reign.
    • To the south, the dynasty of Solomon’s heirs (Kingdom of Judah).
  • In the north, they returned to tribal organization. They set up the Council of Wise Men who met in Samaria.
  • The arrival of the Assyrians brought about the fall of northern Israel. The Assyrians practised a policy of deportations.
    • Jerusalem withstood the Assyrians thanks to its walls.
    • In 611 BC, the Assyrians fell to the Babylonians.
    • The deportation of the Hebrews meant the elimination of Israel.

Jewish eschatology: since the kingdom of Israel had been eliminated, God’s coming was to be expected. They endured as long as they could in exile in Babylon.

Universal empires

The situation in the Middle East during the 1st millennium was as follows:

  • The Sea Peoples, around 1200 BC, brought about the fall of the Hittite empire and the revolt of the Egyptians.
  • Triumph of iron metallurgy over bronze.
  • Adoption of the alphabet over ideographic scripts.

These phenomena led to the emergence of new political realities such as the State of Israel and the Phoenician city-states.

  • Return of large supra-state organizations.
  • The universal empires: Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian and Persian.
  • The period ends with the end of the state organization of Israel, which was transformed into a spiritual identity, Judaism.
  • These Near Eastern kingdoms were continued by Alexander the Great (Hellenism) and Rome. Transmission of all these political and cultural phenomena from the Near East to Western culture between 500 BC – 600 AD.
  • It was not until 600 AD that the ancient states of the Middle East were reunified under Islam.

Assyrian Empire

The city of Babylon had a statue dedicated to the deity Marduk in the time of King Hammurabi in 1790 BC. When the Hittites took the city in 1595 BC, they took this statue. When Babylon regained its power, it also took back the statue of Marduk in 1550 BC. The Assyrians, in the 13th century BC. (ca. 1244 BC), occupied the city and took the statue back. It returned to Babylon at an unknown time. In the 12th century BC, the statue was in the city of Susa. The statue of Marduk returned to Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar I, indicating that Babylon had regained its power.

Assyrian Empire
In green, the expansion of the territories of the Assyrian Empire. Source: Wikipedia.org

Chronology:

934-859 BC:

  • The Assyrian Empire expanded towards the Euphrates. They controlled all the lands from their original territory to the Euphrates. They did not reach Babylon.
  • Resumption and consolidation of Assyrian power in the 2nd millennium.
  • Internal reorganization.
  • Opening of new irrigated areas.
  • Consolidation of the Assyrian kings.
  • Future territorial expansion.

Years 859-727 BC:

  • Expansion and growth crisis.
  • They controlled Babylon and the surrounding lands. These new lands were ruled by the generals who helped conquer the lands. This caused frequent tensions between the Assyrians. The generals became more powerful than the king himself. Long period of civil wars.

Years 727-705 BC:

  • Sargon II consolidated the Assyrian empire by creating a strong and united administrative system. The kingdoms would be run by officials.
  • He created a new capital, Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin). The king founded the capital to escape the power of the nobles.

705-612 BC:

  • Fall of the last independent city, Nineveh.
  • The period of the rise of Assyrian power.

In this period, the Assyrian Empire faced two major difficulties in ensuring its survival:

  • External difficulties: they had 3 kingdoms that were difficult to control: Egypt, Elam and Urartu. These states eventually fell to the Assyrians, but this caused them many problems.
    • Egypt: not an Assyrian province, as they could not control it directly.
    • Elam: Something similar happened. Elam bordered the Iranian plain, where the Persians were. Elam was a buffer. When the Assyrians occupied Elam they had to face the Persians directly.
    • Urartu: border with Mesopotamia and the Iranian plain. The Assyrians fought against Urartu constantly. When Urartu was threatened by the Medes and Cimmerians, they let it fall into their hands. With the demise of Urartu, the Assyrians had to protect the borders of the Medes and Cimmerians directly.
    • A final external problem was added, the Arabs. Thanks to the domestication of the dromedary, they began to move more freely around the Arabian Peninsula and control trade. The Arabs begin to gain strength against the Assyrians.

Internal difficulties:

  • Babylon created in 612 BC a coalition between several enemy states of the Assyrians that succeeded in wiping out the Assyrian Empire, led by the Babylonian kings Nabopolassar and the kings of the Middle Empire.
  • Babylon was a city of up to a million inhabitants. Finally, a Canaanite dynasty prevailed.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire

Events between 612 BC (the fall of Nineveh) and 539 BC (the fall of Babylon)

Middle East around 600 BC
Map of the Middle East around 600 B.C. At this time the Assyrian Empire disappeared and the Chaldeans and the Medes divided it up. As well as the victory of the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar II against the Egyptians that allowed him to control the whole region of Canaa. Source: Wikipedia.org

Babylon in the time of the Assyrians:

  • Palaeobabylonian stage: Hammurabi (2nd millennium). Babylonian casita. Aramean’s movements, clashes with Assyrian resistance on the Euphrates coast. These Aramean tribes are called Chaldeans. Eventually they imposed themselves on the whole region and created the Babylonian Empire.
  • At the beginning of the 2nd millennium, Lower Mesopotamia was undergoing an urban crisis.
  • At the end of the 10th century, the whole region of ancient Sumer was known as the Country of the Sea. Water was more predominant than land.

Babylon also suffered a severe period of crisis:

  • Years 813, 729, 703, 689 BC: 4 destructions at the hands of the Assyrians. The cause was a Babylonian revolt against Assyrian control. Each time Babylon was destroyed, it recovered. It was a permanent revolt.

The fall of the Assyrians was the result of an alliance between the Babylonian king Nabopolassar and the Median king Cyaxares. They attacked them until they destroyed the last independent city, Nineveh, in 626 BC.

The Medes were not used to running a large state, but they were used to running a federation of tribes. They preferred to finish off the Assyrians and cede control to their allies. Babylon also preferred to defeat the Assyrians.

In 612 BC there was the pact of division of territories. The Babylonians would control all of Mesopotamia. Assyria and Egypt (which they never got) and all the lands surrounding Assyria were left to the Medes. This pact lasted 100 years, until it was broken because the reality of the Iranian tribes changed. The personal coalition was no longer content with control of these lands, but saw itself as capable of controlling the richest lands in the Middle East.

Nebuchadnezzar II

After the fall of Nineveh, they launched a campaign to control the cities of the Near East. They occupied Tyre and Jerusalem. The chronicles of Nebuchadnezzar II prefer to emphasize his restoration work in Babylon. Babylon was at a time of prosperity:

  • End of the wars against the Assyrians. Development of agricultural production and demography.
  • Centre of the new Empire. Flow of loot and taxes.
  • The great trade routes no longer passed through Babylon, the flows from Asia were controlled by the Medes and Persians and reached the Mediterranean through Anatolia. Babylon was left in a rich but isolated area.
  • The new economically strong centres were:
    • The Arab roads along the Red Sea.
    • The cities of the Mediterranean coast, especially the Phoenician ones.
  • Babylon remained the political centre of the region, but not the economic centre. The great roads no longer passed through Babylon.

Babylon was a centre of international culture, with a strong ethnic syncretism. We find groups speaking Aramaic, Akkadian, Chaldean, Kassites. We find deportees from Assyrian times. This great international culture was drowned out by the traditional culture. The official model of culture tended towards archaism, nationalism to the extreme. The Chaldean kings, in order to justify their power, return to ancient traditions. They called themselves kings of Akkad. They recovered the Akkadian language. Furthermore, they begin to study Sumerian. They continued to use cuneiform writing. They did not accept architectural novelties. Any public act had to be blessed by the stars.

In 539 BC, the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, was dethroned by Cyrus II the Great, who entered Babylon as a liberator. The Babylonian dynasty disappeared.

Egyptian decadence

During the 1st millennium, Egypt experienced an immense crisis. Egypt ceased to be a great power as a universal empire. Egypt’s history was turbulent.

Chronology:

  • Third Intermediate Period (1085-664 BC)
  • First Persian period (664 – 404 BC)
  • Low Empire (404-380 BC)
  • Second Persian period (343 BC)
  • Hellenistic period

Third Intermediate Period (1085-664 BC)

  • Egypt was divided into the hands of different mercenary groups that held sway in Egypt and controlled the country.
  • The XXII dynasty achieved a first unification. Dynasty of Libyan origin and held the country together for 200 years.
  • The XXIIIrd and XXIVth dynasties saw a period of disunity.
  • The 25th Dynasty was a time of internal strife. The princes of Upper Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush, triumphed. They unified the country again. Their capital was Napata (present-day Sudan).
  • In 661 BC, they welcome the arrival of the Assyrian armies that occupied the country from 661 to 664 BC.

Low Period (664-525 BC)

  • Known as the Saite period, the last dynasty before the Persian conquest.
  • Capital in Sais.
  • The best known pharaoh is Psamtik I, who tried to restore some prestige to Egypt.
  • First arrival of Greeks in the country, who were granted a city of their own by the Pharaoh, Naucratis, and around Egypt they founded Cyrene.
  • In 525 BC, the Persians arrived.

Late or First Persian Period (525-404 BC)

  • Persian presence in Egypt.
  • The Persian king became pharaoh.
  • Revolt between 403-402 that restored independence.
  • In 343 BC, the Persians returned. They created the 21st dynasty. It will last until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332.

The Persians came to Egypt with the will to integrate, not destroy. In the Saitic period there were cultural phenomena, as with Hammurabi. They stuck to the old hieroglyphic tradition.

Royal Necropolises

  • New Empire: Thebes
  • XXth Dynasty: 18th-11th Dynasty tombs looted
  • Dynasties XXI and XXII: Tanis (delta)
  • Dynasty XXIII: Leontopolis (delta)
  • Dynasty XXIV: Sans (delta)
  • Dynasty XXV: Napata

Cities had to defend themselves from their surroundings. Fragmentation of the administration.

The Persians

In 1800 BC, the first pastoral peoples entered the Iranian plain from Central Asia. They originated from a region along the Indus. A sedentary culture had developed there by 2500 BC, known as the Indus Valley Civilisation, in cities such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.

The early Aryans or Proto-Indo-Europeans are thought to have begun to branch out and expand around 3000 BC and in the middle of the second millennium. The Indo-Iranians reached Iran and India, where some scholars believe they destroyed the Indus Valley civilization around 1500 BC.

Between 1300 and 900 BC we find a strongly Aryanized Iranian plain, with a number of federated tribal organizations (herdsmen groups, herds of cows in the waterlands and goats, sheep in the arid areas).

Assyrian pressure on these Iranian peoples forced the creation of a counter-power to stop Assyrian expansion. In 625 BC the story begins, with the rise to power in Media of their king Cyaxares, who established an alliance with Babylon to attack the Assyrians. In 612 BC, Media and Babylonians occupied the last Assyrian city. The kingdom of Cilicia, Egypt and Media lived in peace for 30 years.

In the division of the Assyrian Empire, the Medians bore the brunt. The situation began to change from 550 BC onwards. The Persian king Cyrus II the Great gained hegemony within the Iranian confederations. He became related to the Median royal family and gained power. The Persians had a different way of relating to their neighbours. The first thing Cyrus II of the Achaemenid dynasty did was to attack the Kingdom of Lydia in 547 BC and Cilicia.

The Persian empire
The Persian empire in 490 BC

Between 545 and 539 BC, Cyrus II the Great wanted to ensure internal peace between the Iranian groups. In 539 BC, he returned to the Near East and conquered Babylon, creating the central core of the Persian Empire.

Cyrus II’s son, Cambyses II, conquered Egypt and began the expansion of the Mediterranean, which was to be the work of the next king, Darius the Great. Persian expansionism provoked the first Median War (a war in which most of the united Greek cities, led by Athens, fought against the Achaemenid Empire (empire of the Persians), also known as the Median Empire).

First Medical War

The conquest of Phrygia and Lydia led to the conquest of the Greek cities of Asia Minor. These cities appealed to Athens and Sparta for help, but in the end it was Athens that helped them. The Ionian revolt failed, in about 500 BC. Darius the Great, as king of a great empire, had to move elsewhere to secure control of his empire. With an empire of this size, there was a lot of instability.

For this reason, Darius appointed his generals as governors of the province of Phrygia and Lydia to ensure the complete pacification of the area. Darius’ army, now commanded by Artaphernes and Datis, a middle admiral, was sent in early September 490 BC to land in the bay of Marathon and threaten a land attack on Athens. This army numbered no more than 25,000 halflings and 1,000 cavalrymen, as it was transported entirely by sea.

The arrival of the Persians in Attica provoked the defensive organization of the inhabitants of Athens. 40 km from Athens, the Athenians defeated the Persians against all odds. The first Medical War, won by the Athenians, was followed by a second part in the second Medical War.

The Second Medical War (480 – 479 BC)

Battle at the Pass of Thermopylae (480 BC). The Spartan heroes were killed. The Persians returned to Athens. The Battle of Salamis took place there. The Athenian fleet by sea managed to break up the Persian fleet. The Persian army retreated, and the Persians were again attacked by the Greeks at the Battle of Platea (479 BC).

After the experience of the Medical Wars and in order to prevent further Persian attacks, the Greek cities joined together in a great military alliance to prevent the return of the Persians. It became known as the Delian League, led by the Athenians.

End of the Persian Empire

The Persian Empire continued to survive despite defeats until a strong power was created between Thrace and Greece in Macedonia, led by Philip II of Macedon (359 BC – 336 BC), who after conquering Greece wanted to conquer the Persian Empire.

The Persian Empire was conquered by Philip II’s son, Alexander III the Great (336 BC – 323 BC). In 334 BC, he began the conquest of the Persian Empire. After three victories against the Persian army, he gained control of the Empire. In 336 BC, the Persian Empire came to an end.

The Assyrians had a mentality of eliminating the enemy. The Persians acted with a criterion of absorption and integration. They ruled one way in Iran, another in Egypt…

The Persians incorporated three major Iranian concepts:

  • That of the warrior: Persian kings were shown as great warriors, good hunters and strong warriors.
  • Gentilic aspect: all Persian kings come from the Achaemenid clan.
  • Ethics, their particular religion, Mazdaism, the result of the preaching of an obscure prophet, Zoroaster (6th BC), based on dualism, good and evil. It was not the official Persian religion, it was only the religion of royalty.

The Persians established the capital, Persepolis. The Persian court moved frequently to Ecbatana, Babylon or Susa.

Darius unified the system of weights and created the first Middle Eastern coinage, the gold dinars and the silver dinars.

Near Eastern elements that the Persians copied:

  • The title of the Great King, typical of the Mesopotamian dynasties.
  • Typically, Persian cut.
  • Provincial government inherited from Babylon.
  • The tax system.
  • Military organization.

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