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The Ancient Near East in the 2nd Millennium

The 2nd millennium BC in the Near East begins with the Middle Bronze Age and ends with the Late Bronze Age. The first half of the millennium is dominated by the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and Babylon. The alphabet develops. In the middle of the millennium, a new order emerges with the Minoan Greek domination of the Aegean Sea and the rise of the Hittite Empire. The end of the millennium saw the collapse of the Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron Age.
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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).

10/03/2022 | Last update:

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Table of content:

The empires of the Bronze Age and the organization of power

Architecture in Mesopotamia

The main construction element in the Mesopotamian region was mud. For roofs, vaulted roofing was used, thus saving the need for long wooden beams. River floods and the weather could damage the wood, so it was not used.

They used the formwork technique. The walls were covered with plaster to make them stronger. In some buildings, the first row of walls was made of stone to make them stronger. The axis of the doors was also made of stone.

Houses usually had a ground floor. In cities, the ground floor could be used for a shop or workshop and the first floor for living quarters. In rural areas, the ground floor was used for living quarters and the first floor for storage. The interior was covered with hemp rugs, pillows… People ate and slept on rugs or pillows. Shelves were made of clay and plaster to store everyday ceramic objects.

Graphic reproduction of a typical Mesopotamian village
Graphic reproduction of a typical Mesopotamian village

In the palace (place of power) the architecture had the same characteristics: large walls to support vaults and to be high. These palaces served many functions: private residence of the king, spaces to house the administrative apparatus of the state (throne room, audiences, banquets, reception hall), state storerooms to store materials such as quality craftsmanship, rooms for the king’s wives and concubines. The palaces were also a centre for culture and the arts.

The temple was a sacred place that only the privileged could enter. Sacrifices were made at the gates. They were the house of the Gods. In addition to the temples, there were other large religious buildings, such as the Ziggurat, a Sumerian word meaning “elevated”. They were superimposed terraces of between 5 and 7 floors that communicated with each other. At the top was the temple of the God. The first ones were built during the third dynasty of Ur. They symbolized the centre of the world and the mystical union between heaven and earth.

Sumerian temple
Sumerian temple

Mesopotamian religion. The main divinities

  • ANU: Father of the gods. He was the god of the sky, chief god of the Sumerian pantheon until the middle of the second millennium.
  • ENLIL: Son of Anu, lord of Air, the wind and storms. He was a Sumerian god, whose temple was at Nippur, supposedly built by the hero-king Gilgamesh.
  • ENKI: Son of Enlil, lord of the earth, subsoil, primeval water, magic and wisdom. He was a Sumerian deity of the city of Eridu.
  • NANNA: Goddess of time and destiny. He is a moon god, also known as Suen and Sin.
  • UTU or SHAMASH: Of Semitic etymology, his name means “sun”. He is one of the astral gods of Babylon. He is especially related to justice and oracles. Especially venerated in the cities of Sippar and Larsa. Son of Nanna. God of Justice, dispels storms.
  • INANNA: She was the tutelary goddess of Uruk in Sumer from before 3000 BC. She is considered the Sumerian goddess of libido, war and, in her astral aspect, she is identified with the planet Venus. She seems to be the ancestor of many similar divinities, such as Ixtar, Venus or Aphrodite. Goddess of love, fertility and war.

The tutelary deity of Babylon, Marduk, is considered to be the son of Enki, when Babylon took hegemony. This is an example of how the worship of different gods and religion was linked to the political importance of cities in each period.

Hammurabi’s Babylonia (1793-1750 BC)

During the first half of the 2nd millennium, a dynasty of Amorite origin became strong in the city-state of Babylon. The best known king of the Amorite period was Hammurabi (1793-1750 BC). His dynasty (known as Dynasty I of the Old Babylonian Empire, or First Babylonian Empire) lasted until 1595 BC, when Babylon was destroyed by a raid by the Hittites (led by King Mursili I). The last king of the Hammurabi dynasty was Samsu-Ditana.

Hammurabi Stele
Hammurabi’s Stele

The Hittites sacked Babylon in 1595 BC and returned to Anatolia with their loot. Babylon was later rebuilt by the Kassites (to be known as Kassite Babylon).

King Hammurabi (1793 to 1750 BC)

Hammurabi was the sixth king of the 1st dynasty, circa 1793-1750 BC. He unified the territories of Mesopotamia. During his reign, the Code of Laws, the largest collection of laws after the Roman Code of Law, came into being.

Map of the city-state of Babylon in the time of King Hammurabi. Original source: Wikipedia.org

Stages of his reign:

  • 10 years of diplomatic work to try to build a grand coalition to avoid war in the area (cities of Babylon, Mari, Assur, Ešnunna and Larsa).
  • The following 20 years were dedicated to internal reforms (military, economic…). He made Babylon a rich and prosperous land.
  • 12 years in pursuing a policy of international conquest. He conquered Larsa, Mari, Assur and Ešnunna.

Hammurabi adopted the title of king of the four parts of the world. He wanted to become the universal lord. In the last years of his reign he published the collection of laws.

Hammurabi’s Code of Laws:

  • It contained a prologue, 282 laws and epilogues.
  • It was discovered in the city of Susa (present-day Iran) in 1901-1902 by French archaeologists. Likewise, it has been in the collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris ever since. What was the stone doing in Susa? Copies of the code of laws were found in every city. The Hittites took a copy of the code as a spoil of war.

Contents of the Code of Hammurabi:

  • The division between preface, legal text and epilogue is clear.
  • The prologue and epilogue are written in an archaic language.
  • The legal text is written in Amorite language, with a much more prosaic, colloquial language.
  • Compilation of laws: divided into articles.
  • No one could be convicted without evidence.

Hammurabi wrote the laws out of pity for private property and to do good to his subjects. The king’s power was quite limited, which is why he put the section on misfortunes in the epilogue. The king, although he felt strong, lacked sufficient power to enforce the laws.

Strictly speaking, it was not a code of laws. There were quite a few aspects of everyday life that the code reflected. We should speak of “Hammurabi’s Laws”, which were to be supplemented by other laws. Hammurabi wanted to bring some order to a bunch of cities that were far apart, cities that were forcibly in contact with each other. The most severe punishment was crimes against property.

This is the first testimony as to why there were no pyramids in Babylon, because of the unwillingness to build them. No Babylonian king had the conception of a king that they had in Egypt.

During the Kassite era, many texts have come down to us, such as the Creation Story. According to the text, the world was created by Enki. Mankind was obliged to make sacrifices to the gods.

First Intermediate Period of Egypt. Dynasties VII, VIII, IX, X and part of the XI Dynasty (2181-2055 BC)

There are no hard facts about this period. Tradition has it that the fall of the Old Kingdom of Egypt led to a period of chaos and disorder. But there is no evidence of any revolt to explain what caused the demise of the unified power.

The most widely accepted theory is that pyramid building consumed a lot of state resources. Large pious foundations were set up to take care of the pyramids and the cult. At one point, a large part of the agricultural production was mortgaged in the hands of these foundations. A few years of poor harvests were bound to raise unrest in the provinces, which would be reluctant to send grain to maintain these pyramids and foundations to the detriment of their production.

The strengthening of local power eventually destroyed unity. But the dynasties did not disappear in this intermediate period.

The Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Dynasties XI, XII, XIII and XIV (c. 2050-1750 BC).

Pharaoh Amenemhat I. 12th Dynasty (1991-1785 BC). The process of centralization of power

The first pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty was Amenemhat I (1991 – 1962 BC). He stripped the governors of the provinces of their offices and transformed them into simple administrators appointed directly by the pharaoh. He reorganized the administration. The new Egypt that emerged was administratively more organized; the organizational framework of the First Pharaonic Egypt was created.

King Amenemhat I
Decorated relief of a building of King Amenemhat I, ca. 1981-1952 BC Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1908. Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/544206

Amenemhat I subdivided the country into larger districts than the Nomos: the north (delta), the south (Nile valley) and the area bordering modern-day Sudan. He expanded the Pharaonic administration.

Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt, ancient and middle empires. Source: Wikipedia.org

Under Amenemhat I the Egyptian expansion into Palestine and Sudan began. Despite the merits of this 12th Dynasty, problems with political and territorial unity returned to the 17th-18th century BC.

Second Intermediate Period. Dynasties XV, XVI and part of the XVII Dynasty (c. 1800 BC to 1550 BC)

Under the 15th Dynasty a period of crisis began, known as the Second Intermediate Period, which led to the decline of central power. During this period, the governors acquired an important political role. This decline was exploited by the Hyksos, foreigners from Palestine, who seized power in the Lower Empire and established the capital at Avaris. In the south, the Kingdom of Thebes remained independent and became the new driving force for reunification thanks to Ammosis I, who succeeded in driving out the Hyksos for good.

The new peripheral kingdoms: Hatti and Mitani

The Hattis

The Hattis or Hattites were an ancient people who inhabited the land of Hatti (present-day Central Anatolia, Turkey). They were bordered to the north by the Pontus Mountains and to the south by the Taurus Mountains. Areas of influence: Black Sea coast (north), Syrian highlands (south) and Euphrates basin (east).

Hittite Empire
The Hittite Empire, approximate extent of the maximum area of the Hittite rule (light green) and the Hittite rule ca. 1350-1300 BC (green line)
Original source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hittites#/media/File:Map_Hittite_rule_en.svg

Chronology:

  • Origin of the Hittite people: 2000 BC.
  • Hittite Kingdom: 1600 – 1385 BC.
  • Empire: 1385 – 1178 BC.

They were an Indo-European speaking people and newcomers to the region. They were herdsmen who had adopted the light chariot technique. Likewise, they broke into the Near East around 2000 BC. This does not mean that they imposed themselves and annihilated the indigenous population. Merging of groups. The local population mixed with these Hittites. The only language that has left written witnesses has Indo-European patterns (Hittite hieroglyphs).

Assyrian colonies existed in Anatolia at the beginning of the 2nd millennium. This contact with the Mesopotamian civilization helped them to rapidly convert from nomadic to sedentary and to found a capital city.

Kingdom:

By 1700 BC, there was already a Hittite capital, Hattusa (in central Anatolia). There was a centre of power, with clear borders and a system of taxation.

Founding myth:

Labarna I, the first Hittite king between 1680-1650 BC, is mentioned as giving his name to the title of king among the Hittites. This kingdom grew until 1595 BC. They were not strong enough to unify an entire Mesopotamia.

From this action, a new kingdom appeared between Mesopotamia and Anatolia: Mitanni.

Empire:

Once Mittani was destroyed, the Hittites became strong. But the Hittite empire fell in 1200 BC. The capital was destroyed and there was never again an equal power in Anatolia. This end is linked to the arrival of the Sea Peoples.

This period saw the destruction of Troy, the invasions of the Near Eastern peoples in the Nile delta, the destruction of the cities on the Near Eastern coasts and the establishment of the Philistines in what is now the Gaza Strip.

Anatolia was agricultural: it lay within the fertile Crescent. It was also rich in timber, stone, and ore. The Hittite kings had no difficulty in the supply of materials. Their problem was their subjects: if they were pressured or dissatisfied, they fled.

It was a difficult country to control because it lacked resources. This made the creation of a central state difficult and involved local pacts with the princes (he could offer land, a share in the spoils of war and personal alliances such as marriages with the daughters of these princes, which led to succession struggles).

The best known battle between Hittites and Egyptians is the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC). Kadesh was a city in Syria. The battle was a large-scale engagement fought between Egyptians and Hittites for control of southern Syria at a date between 1295 and 1270 BC according to different chronologies, and generally dated to 1274 BC.

Mittani

The origin is an Indo-European speaking people who arrived in northern Mesopotamia in 1800 BC. They used the chariot and the horse. They merged with the Hurrians (unknown language that links with the Caucasian languages).

A powerful kingdom was formed during the 16th century BC. It arose to defend itself against the Hittites and the pressures coming from the Assyrians. It will remain until 1350 BC (territory split between Hittites and Assyrians). Resource-rich area in which it is difficult for a strong state to emerge.

Assyria, the commercial hub of the region

Geographical location:

Assyria takes its name from the city of Assur (present-day al-Charquāṭ, Iraq). They occupied the Assyrian triangle (Tigris and Sad rivers) and the Zagros Mountains. Agriculture was based on the rivers and the mountains. There were no waterworks. In the third millennium, a Sumerian colony was founded, it was the only city. What abounded were small, agricultural, sedentary colonies. Political power was very unstable.

Middle Assyrian Empire
Approximate map of the Middle Assyrian Empire at its height in the 13th century BC
Original source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Assyrian_Empire#/media/File:M%C3%A9dio-assyrien.png

Cities:

In addition to Assur, there was Nineveh and Dur Sharrukin. These were cities with army camps.

The land was rich, there were resources. The difficult thing was to create strong, permanent dynasties. The Assyrian state based its strength on control of trade routes. The state harnessed the energy of the farming communities to demand taxes and men for the army.

Assur was the northernmost city born on the Mesopotamian model. When the Assyrian state was formed, it profited from international trade and the spoils of war, easy enrichment. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium, an Amorite dynasty took over. But it did not stand out as a major political power. From the 14th century onwards, with the destruction of Babylon, Assyria saw that its time had come.

With a first king, Eriba-Adad I, he was succeeded by three great kings in the 13th century BC, who created the Middle Assyrian Empire (Adad-nirari I, Salmaneser I, who conquered Mittani and Tukulti-Ninurta I, who conquered Babylon). They were three kings who succeeded each other without conflict or civil war.

In 1200 BC came the crisis. The Arameans destabilized the area. It was not until the 11th century that a new Assyrian king was able to re-establish the territory they once controlled. He was King Tiglath-Pileser I.

Document from the time of Hammurabi:

Control of trade routes between Assur and Kanish. Type of trade: pond and fabrics were exported from the south and distributed to the markets of Anatolia and sold on a small scale in that area. In exchange for the textiles, they obtained silver and gold.

Commercial contracts:

In Kanish was the Karum, the trading quarter. Because of the dangers of the route, only one trip could be made each year. This trade did not concern necessities. The trade was carried out for economic profit. What profit could be made?

  • Whoever paid the transport costs got 10% of the price.
  • Fuel (animal fodder, people) by 2.5%.
  • The king of Kanish took 5%.
  • Karum took 10%.
  • In total, it was 27.5% of expenditure.
  • The rest went to the owner of the silver and the recipient of the goods.

It is estimated that 1 silver cycle in Assur was paid for 16 tin cycles. In Kanish for 1 silver cycle you got 6 cycles of tin. In Assur for 1 silver cycle you got 3 to 7 rolls of cloth. In Kanish for 1 silver cycle you got from 13 to 50 rolls of cloth.

Egyptian Expansionism: The New Kingdom (1570 – 1070 BC)

Egypt was once again united. In 1540 BC the Hyksos capital of Avaris was taken by the first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose I. With the final expulsion of the Hyksos, the New Kingdom pursued an aggressive foreign policy. Egyptian society opened up to the outside world. Influences from outside came in.

The period of Egypt’s New Empire (or New Kingdom) corresponds to the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties. The most brilliant period was that of the 18th Dynasty, begun by Thutmose I in 1500 BC and ending with the reign of Amenophis II in 1400 BC (Egypt’s golden age).

Then came the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaton. The 19th Dynasty is that of Ramesses, of which Ramesses II is the most important.

In the 20th Dynasty, Ramesses III, who was not a relative of the 19th Dynasty, but adopted the name in memory of the glories of that dynasty. During the 20th Dynasty, Egypt had to defend itself against foreign peoples. Conflicts with Anatolia were constant during the 19th Dynasty. The decisive battle in which Pharaoh Ramesses II defeated the Hittites took place in the city of Kadesh.

Ramses II
Ramses II during the battle. It symbolizes order against chaos. It shows the heroism of the pharaoh. Between Egypt and the Hittites the power was in stalemate.

Reformation of Amenhotep IV

Tendency to choose a single deity and make it the official deity. Amon was the official deity of the city of Thebes. Amon became the protector god who reached everywhere, and the pharaoh was the great protagonist.

The Mediterranean Periphery: Minoans and Mycenaeans

Mycenaean society was very different from archaic Greek society. The kings and palaces bore a closer resemblance to those of Near Eastern cities.

Asia Minor
Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Egypt ca. 1400 BC

The end of the 19th century saw the first major archaeological excavations to discover Ancient Greece. The first to carry out studies was Heinrich Schliemann:

  • 1868 Ithaca.
  • 1869-17 Troy.
  • 1874 Mycenae.

There were 3 cultural centres in the eastern Mediterranean at the time:

Minoan Civilization (3000 – 1200 BC)

Chronology:

  • The Early Minoan Period (2500 – 1850 BC). Before the appearance of the palaces.
  • Middle Minoan or Protopalacial (1850 – 1550 BC). Stage of the first palaces.
  • Late Minoan III or Neo-Palacial (1550 – 1100 BC).

Palaces: Knossos (neo-palacial), Festus, Malo, Myrtos, Hagia Triada. Most were located in the south of the island, in direct contact with Egypt. Cities located near the coast and engaged in trade with the Near East and the Greek mainland.

Palace of Knossos
Palace of Knossos

Thalassocracy: Crete’s maritime dominion over the Mediterranean peoples.

The various palaces on the island were independent centres; there was no Minoan state. They lived off the agricultural wealth of the area (they accumulated copper and the pond to make bronze) and trade, especially with Egypt and the Near East. They developed their own writing system: Linear A script. Furthermore, they used tablets with limited use over time. Every fiscal year they were destroyed.

In 1550 BC, on the island of Thera (present-day Santorini), a powerful earthquake caused a volcano to erupt, destroying the Minoan palaces. The Mycenaeans took advantage of this and progressively controlled all the palaces (200 years).

Mycenaean civilization

Around 1500 BC, Mycenaean palaces began to be built on the Greek mainland. They were walled. The Mycenaean king was a military leader. They were fortress cities as opposed to rural villages. Male deities predominated as opposed to the female deities of Minoan society. Cattle-breeding populations from the Balkans. They had their own script: Linear B, a Proto-Greek language of Indo-European origin. Administrative writing of more abundant palaces.

Palaces : Mycenae, Argos, Tirynthus, Pylos.

Similarities with the Minoans:

  • They were palatial societies.
  • They lived from trade with the Middle East.
  • They had kings.
  • A similar writing system.
  • They based part of their power on thalassocracy.

Differences:

  • King of military character.
  • Palaces as a fortress.
  • Male divinities.

The destruction of Mycenaean palaces took place in 1200 BC. With the arrival of the Dorians, trade relations with the Near East were severed. This is linked to movements of the Sea Peoples.

The crisis of the palaces: the Sea Peoples and the Aramaeans

Around 1200 BC, the following events took place:

  • The transition from bronze to iron.
  • The abandonment of cuneiform writing and the adoption of alphabetic writing.
  • The disappearance of the great states of the second millennium through a reconstruction of the political context: new states, new peoples and new empires.

The arrival on the Mediterranean coast of the Near East of new peoples arriving by sea brought about the fall of the Hittite Empire and the disappearance of Assyrian and Egyptian influence in the Syria-Palestine area.

The Peoples of the Sea. Testimonies:

  • Aegean: destruction of the palaces of Pylos, Mycenae and Troy. Coincides around 1200 BC.
  • Anatolia: destruction of the Hittite capital, Hattusa.
  • Destructions in Cyprus.
  • Destruction in Syria, Ugarit site.

The disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization is related to the migrations of peoples from the Balkans. There is a documented Hittite presence on the island of Cyprus before 1200 BC. Mycenaean palaces lived from trade with the Near East. If the Hittites controlled Cyprus, it meant that they controlled the trade. This caused a severe economic crisis in the Mycenaean city-states.

The Mycenaean palaces had to cope with both the economic crisis and the arrival of new peoples. All this caused the end of the palaces. The Mycenaean states abandoned the palaces to look for new lands: alone or seeking help from other peoples. In the struggles between Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites, Mycenaean groups fought in favour of one or the other. There was also piracy in the area. All this explains the movement of peoples towards the rich kingdoms of the Near East.

The situation of international equilibrium was broken. During the 1st millennium, the situation was completely different. The invasions of the peoples of the sea destroyed the palaces, which meant that relations between the various kings broke down. The palace trade disappeared.

Located east of the Euphrates River:

  • Similar reality to the 2nd Millennium:
  • Fractionation of political power without hierarchies
  • Small states emerge:
    • Citizen states.
    • Nomadic states.
  • Post-hittites: the most important principality is Carchemish.
  • New Aramaic states: Damascus.
  • Hebrews. Nomadic life. They come from the Aramaeans. Cities of the Canaanite peoples, such as Jericho and Jerusalem.
  • Amorites.
  • Moabites.
  • Edomites.
  • Amalekites. They would give rise to the Nabataeans with their capital at Petra. The Amalekites were a people of small sheep herders.
  • New arrivals:
    • Philistines. Heirs of the peoples of the sea. They come from Crete, Mycenae. They settled in the Gaza Strip and created the Confederation of Pentapolis.

Tiglath-Piliser I (the Assyrian king) carried out the expansion of Assyria between 1115-1075 BC. Babylon had a king, Nebuchadnezzar I, who created a great power. Elam between 1300-1100 BC fell to the Persians in 1100 BC, and they conquered Mesopotamia. Mitanni was re-formed as the Kingdom of Urartu (in the mountains of Mesopotamia). Urartu was invaded by another people, the Cimmerians, around 714 BC (later Armenia).

Hebrews, Amorites and Moabites were nomadic goat and sheep herding peoples who lived in close relationship with the palaces, but were not part of them. They could flee more easily from the continual fighting in the area. The Edomites and Amalekites gave rise to the Nabataeans (Petra), who took advantage of their strategic location as a transmission belt between Arab and Mediterranean trade.

The Hebrews succeeded in creating a palatial state in Jerusalem, a hegemonic state of Israelites and Jews. Cultural reality of the Canaanites and Phoenicians.

From the 8th century BC onwards, there was a tendency to build universal empires:

  • The first attempt will be that of the Assyrians.
  • The second empire will be the Babylonian Empire.
  • The third attempt will be made by the Persians.

Differences between civilizations organized around the palace and pastoralist tribal civilizations

Palace (2nd Millennium in the Middle East):

  • They were governed by an administrative code that marked boundaries. Territorial citizen state.
  • Had subjects under the authority of a palace who paid tribute. Fiscal administrative links.
  • They were self-sufficient, autonomous. They developed.

Pastoralist tribes (1200 BC Euphrates):

  • They were not governed by an administrative code, but by kinship. They created a national gentile state.
  • Community of language, religion, customs, similar and historically different forms of dress. Cultural links

For convenience in the 1st millennium one language became the lingua franca, Aramaic.

Iron smelting techniques originated in the ancient kingdom of Mittani (between Mesopotamia and Anatolia). The invasions of the Sea Peoples gave free rein to these innovations. Iron metallurgy was slow to arrive east of the Euphrates. It could not succeed until the palace craft centres were destroyed. Iron made it easy for small producers to exist, it just had to be smelted. Iron became more accessible than bronze.

Alphabetical writing:

Alphabetic writing also appeared in the area of the Tauros Mountains. Ideographic writing was a monopoly of the palaces, and when the palaces went into crisis this writing also disappeared. The cattle-herding communities needed to write. They adopted the alphabetic system of Ugarit, from Sinai, which had not succeeded because of palace pressure.

Disadvantage: it only served to write their language. So scripts began to be created for each people. It became democratized from 1200 BC, when “graffiti” were found on Egyptian monuments.


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