Ancient History & Civilisation



After this broad, if sketchy, survey of the Near East, we must now return to Mesopotamia, which we left, it will be remembered, at the end of Hammurabi's reign, in the middle of the eighteenth century B.C.

The ethnic movements just described were then about to bear fruit: the Hittites were enforcing their rule upon the indigenous populations of Anatolia; the Hurrians were peacefully invading northern Syria and northern Iraq; and behind the Zagros range an Aryan aristocracy was organizing the Kassites into a nation of warriors. If the Babylonian court was aware of these changes, it probably saw in them little cause for alarm, since none of these peoples yet appeared to constitute an immediate danger to Iraq, and indeed, the first cracks in the edifice erected by Hammurabi resulted not from foreign aggression, but from its own intrinsic weakness. The empire of Babylon was the work of one man and rested almost entirely upon his powerful personality. Built up in a few years through the aggregation of five sovereign states, each of them with a long tradition of independence, it had been forcefully and prematurely centralized. The efforts made by the king to concentrate in Babylon the political, economic and spiritual life of the country might in the long run have benefited Mesopotamia as a whole, but their immediate effect was to ruin the provinces and to create a considerable amount of discontentment particularly in the once prosperous cities of Sumer and in Assyria, where the memory of Shamshi-Adad's great deeds was still alive. Small wonder, therefore, that the death of Hammurabi (1750 B.C) was followed by an outburst of revolts leading to the rapid disintegration of his kingdom. These revolts were relatively easy, three of the four states annexed by Hammurabi being vassal kingdoms, and they were also popular since the king of Babylon had purchased or simply taken vast estates, the market was in the hands of rapacious businessmen, and the provinces, notably in southern Mesopotamia, were getting increasingly poorer to the benefit of the capital-city and its immediate surroundings.

The kings who succeeded Hammurabi tried in vain to quell the general rebellion, then resigned themselves to the breaking down of the Babylonian empire, but they proved unable to cope with the new situation by applying the right policies.1 To compensate for their loss of revenues from tenant farmers' rents and taxation, they tried to increase agricultural production in the smaller territory that remained in their possession. To replace the dwindling profits of a declining trade with the Gulf countries, many merchants acted as bankers: in collusion with the Palace, they offered the small farmers and shopkeepers loans for equipment.2 Thousands of families were endebted for ever, while many private lenders were enriched to the point of threatening the power of the State. Moreover, it seems that in order to produce more and more cereals, landowners violated the rule of fallow, thereby reducing the fertility of the soil and accelerating its salinization.3 Thus, within a century (1700 – 1600 B.C. in round figures) Babylonia went from political disintegration to economic disorders and ecological disaster. The kingdom became decrepit and a small blow, a short-lived raid of the Hittites, brought about its collapse and that of its First Dynasty.

Ironically, it was the princes of the Kassites, a people regarded as inferior and semi-barbaric, who ascended the throne left vacant, apparently took the necessary measures and gradually transformed Babylonia into a prosperous kingdom honoured and respected by its powerful neighbours. The Kassites reigned for more than four centuries, and we can only regret that the paucity of our sources makes this long and interesting period one of the least-known in the history of ancient Iraq.

Hammurabi's Successors

Hammurabi's son and heir, Samsu-iluna (1749 – 1712 B.C.), was apparently endowed with some of his father's qualities, for he fought with remarkable endurance against the various enemies of Babylon.4 But it was like mending a ragged cloak: for every rent patched a new one appeared, and the final result was an enormous loss of territory. Thus in the ninth year of the reign an adventurer calling himself Rim-Sin, like the last King of Larsa, led a revolt in the districts bordering Elam and kept afield for at least five years before he was caught and slain.

The King of Eshnunna, who had sided with him, was captured and strangled in Babylon. During the long and bloody war which followed, Samsu-iluna pulled down the walls of Ur, plundered and set on fire all its temples and partly destroyed that city.5 Uruk shared about the same fate, which gave the Elamites a pretext to intervene: Kuturnahhunte I entered that city and took away, among other treasures, a statue of the goddess Inanna which Ashurbanipal recovered a thousand years later. After a few years of respite, a certain Iluma-ilu – pretend-edly a descendant of Damiq-ilishu, the last king of Isin – raised the flag of independence in Sumer, became the master of the entire country south of Nippur and founded the so-called ‘Second Dynasty of Babylon’ or Dynasty of the Sea-Land which lasted until 1460 B.C.6 At about the same time the north-eastern districts, under Babylonian obedience as a result of Hammu-rabi's last campaign, also recovered their freedom probably through the rebellion of one of Shamsi-Addu's obscure successors, Adasi, who remained famous in Assyrian annals for having ‘ended the servitude of Assur’.7 In addition to facing this series of domestic disasters, Samsu-iluna had to protect his kingdom against the threat of foreign invasion: we learn from year-names that he defeated a Kassite army in his ninth year and an Amorite army in his thirty-fifth year – not to mention the frequent incursions of Sutaean raiders who captured men and women and sold them as slaves to the Mesopotamians themselves. At the end of this disastrous reign Babylon was safe, but the kingdom, amputated of its northern and southern provinces, had shrunk back to its original boundaries: those of the country of Akkad.

Samsu-iluna's four successors, however, managed to preserve their reduced heritage for about a century. Abi-eshuh (1711-1684 B.C.) repelled a second Kassite attack, tolerated or perhaps encouraged the settling of Kassite individuals in Babylonia as agricultural workers, but was unable to prevent the Kassite chief Kashtiliash I from becoming King of Hana in about 1700 B.C.8 In a grandiose effort to dislodge Iluma-ilu from the swamps where he had taken refuge he dammed the Tigris, but failed to catch his rival, who continued to reign unchallenged over Sumer. There is some evidence that Ammi-ditana (1683-1647 B.C.) reconquered, at least temporarily, some of the territories lost by his predecessors. Ammi-saduqa (1646 – 1626 B.C.) is famous not for his military achievements, if any, but for his ‘edict of justice’ (meshârum). This document is of considerable interest for the light it indirectly throws on the economic situation of the time and the efforts made by the king to alleviate the burden of his subjects. It proclaims, for the whole population, the remitting of all debts and an amnesty for arrears, rents due and loans ‘for necessities’, and for some categories of people the suppression or reduction of licences and certain taxes, as well as the abolition of imprisonment for debt, going as far as threatening with death penalty the bailiffs who would dare take debtors to court.9 All that the last king of the dynasty, Samsu-ditana (1625 – 1595 B.C.), has left us is a list of the year-names of his reign. As did all good Mesopotamian kings, all the successors of Hammurabi restored temples, dug canals and built fortified towns in many parts of their reduced and impoverished kingdom. It is doubtful whether these keen, capable and pious monarchs, who year after year offered to the gods their own statues, ever suspected that the storm which was to sweep away their throne was gathering in the distant north-west, far beyond the snow-capped Taurus mountains.

We have said earlier that a Hittite prince of whom very little is known, Labarnas I, had founded in Anatolia and immediately enlarged a kingdom which he ruled from the unidentified city of Kussara. Labarnas II, his son (c. 1650 – 1620 B.C.), added to the royal domain the principality of Hatti, in the great bend of the Kizil-Irmak River, took for residence the then deserted city of Hattusas (modern Boghazkoy) and from then on called himself Hattusilis, ‘the man from Hattusas’. This warlike monarch soon found the frontiers of his kingdom too narrow and looked for other lands to conquer, but the fierce Gasgas tribes who dwelt in the Pontic range to the north, the Luwians to the west and the Hurrians to the east opposed to his ambitions a triple barrier. Only to the south was the road relatively free – it had been opened, it seems, by Labarnas I as far as Cilicia – and it led beyond the Taurus to Syria, and beyond Syria to either Egypt or Mesopotamia, fertile lands where a thousand years of civilization had accumulated an enormous amount of alluring wealth. The Hittites, therefore, marched southwards. The fragmentary annals of Hattusilis,10 mention at least two campaigns in that direction, in the course of which Alalah was destroyed, Urshu (a town on the Euphrates, to the north of Karkemish) besieged and taken, and the troops of Aleppo defeated in Commagene. Aleppo itself (Halpa), then the capital-city of the powerful Amorite kingdom of Iamhad, could not be conquered, and Hattusilis appears to have lost his life in the war. But his adopted son and successor, Mursilis I (c. 1620 – 1590 B.C.), succeeded where his father had failed:

‘He destroyed the city of Halpa,’ says a Hittite text, ‘and took to Hattusas prisoners from Halpa and its treasures.’11

After Aleppo, Karkemish succumbed. From Karkemish the Hittite army followed the Euphrates downstream and suddenly appeared at the gates of Babylon. Just what happened then we do not know. Babylonian writers are naturally reticent about this painful affair, and only in a chronicle of much later date do we find the laconic entry:

Against Samsu-ditana the men of Hatti marched, against the land of Akkad.

But the Hittite text already quoted is more explicit:

Thereafter he (Mursilis) went to Babylon and occupied Babylon; he also attacked the Hurrians and kept the prisoners and possessions from Babylon at Hattusas.

Thus Babylon was taken and plundered. We know from other sources that the statues of Marduk and his consort, the goddess Sarpanitum, were taken away as booty and, for some obscure reason, left behind at Hana when the Hittites retreated. As for Samsu-ditana, he lost his crown as well, probably, as his life. Thus disappeared in one day and presumably without much resistance the dynasty which an obscure Amorite sheikh had founded and which Hammurabi had made famous. It had lasted three hundred years (1894 – 1595B.C.).

Iraq under Kassite Rule

The Hittite campaign, if it had been followed by the permanent occupation of Babylon, might have changed the course of Oriental history. It proved, however, to be no more than a daring razzia. Soon after his victory Mursilis returned to Hattusas, where dangerous palace intrigues required his presence, and never came back. After the withdrawal of the Hittite army the fate of Babylon is not known with certainty. It would appear that the Kassite ruler of those days – most probably the eighth king of the dynasty, Agum II (Kakrime) – sat on the throne left vacant by the death of Samsu-ditana, and from then on a long line of Kassite monarchs was to govern Mesopotamia or, as they called it, Kar-Duniash for no less than four hundred and thirty-eight years (1595 – 1157 B.C.).12

Established in Iran from time immemorial, the Kassites (Akkadian kashshû) originally occupied the central part of the Zagros range known today as Luristan, immediately to the south of Hamadan. Unlike their northern neighbours, the Guti and the Lullubi, they played no part in Near Eastern politics during the third millennium. Their sudden aggressiveness, in the middle of the eighteenth century, seems to have been stimulated by the Indo-European warriors who had come from the east a century or two before, taught them the art of horse-rearing and taken control of their tribes. Since we possess no text entirely written in Kassite, but only Akkadian texts containing Kassite words and expressions, a short bilingual list of gods and a list of personal names, all we can say about the Kassite language is that it was agglutinative and perhaps distantly related to Elamite.13 The Indo-European element is attested by the presence in the Kassite pantheon of Aryan gods such as Shuriash (Ind. Surya), Maruttash (Ind. Marut) and Buriash (perhaps identical with Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind), side by side with Sumero-Akkadian deities and with Kassite gods proper (Kashshu, Shipak, Harbe, Shumalia, Shuqamuna). On such scanty evidence rests our knowledge of the ethnic and cultural background of these highlanders.

Unfortunately, we are not much better off as regards the period of Kassite domination in Iraq. As archaeological excavations progress no doubt more documents will come to light, but all we have at present is about two hundred royal inscriptions – most of them short and of little historical value – sixty kudurru (see below) and approximately 12,000 tablets (letters and economic texts), less than 10 per cent of which has been published. This is very little indeed for four hundred years – the length of time separating us from Elizabeth I. The bulk of our information derives, in fact, from sources foreign to the kingdom of Babylon, such as the el-Amarna correspondence found in Egypt (see Chapter 16) or the ‘Synchronous History’, a chronicle written by an Assyrian scribe in the seventh century B.C.14 This silence makes the Kassite period one of the most obscure in Mesopotamian history, and the words ‘dark age’ and ‘decadence’ come easily to mind. Nevertheless, if we make full use of our sources and if we take into account the monuments erected by the Kassite kings, these long years of political stagnation appear, compared with the last years of the First Dynasty of Babylon, as an epoch of revival and even of progress, at least in some fields. There is no doubt, for instance, that the Kassites restored order, peace and unity in a country devastated by half a millennium of war, kept up with Mesopotamian traditions and behaved in every way like good, sensible Mesopotamian monarchs. Thus one of the first acts of Agum Kakrime (c. 1570 B.C.) after he became King of Babylon was to bring back from Hana the statues of Marduk and Sarpanitum and to reinstate them in their temples lavishly furnished for the occasion.15 This gesture was calculated to win him the heart of his subjects, but it had a deeper significance: it meant that the foreigner recognized Marduk as the master of his new kingdom and intended to pose as the legitimate successor of the extinct dynasty. Some eighty years later Ulamburiash defeated Ea-gâmil, King of the Sea-Land, thereby recovering for Babylon the entire country of Sumer (after 1500 B.C.). Whether there were other, unrecorded and less successful wars between Babylonia and Assyria, or whether the Kassites gave up all hopes of imposing their authority over the former northern provinces of Hammurabi's empire, we do not know; but one of Agum's successors, Burnaburiash I, signed an agreement with the Assyrian prince Puzur-Ashur III concerning the frontier which, somewhere around Samarra, separated the two kingdoms. A century or so later, a similar treaty was signed between Kara-Indash and Ashur-bêl-nisheshu (1419 – 1411 B.C.).16 Thus was consecrated the division of Mesopotamia into two parts: Assyria and Babylonia, a dichotomy whose effects were to be felt for nearly a thousand years. In their own domain the Kassite kings undertook to rebuild and embellish the old and famous sanctuaries of Nippur, Larsa, Ur and Uruk. One of them, Kara-Indash, has left in the E-Anna precinct of Uruk a very interesting piece of work: a temple, the façade of which was made of bricks moulded in such a way that, when put together, they made up life-size figures of divine beings in low relief.17 This ingenious technique – perhaps a substitute for rock carving – was then new in Mesopotamia; it was used later by the Chaldean dynasty in Babylon and by the Achaemenians in Susa and Persepolis. The most enthusiastic of Kassite builders, however, was Kurigalzu I (c. 1400 B.C.), who not only restored the sacred city of Ur destroyed under Samsu-iluna but founded a new and important town, now represented by the ruins of ‘Aqar Quf.

The 57 metre high tower of ‘Aqar Quf, casting its shadow over the plain and standing a conspicuous landmark thirty-three kilometres due west of Baghdad, is the core of a huge ziqqurat which once rose in the middle of Dûr-Kurigalzu, the fortified city (dûru) and royal residence of King Kurigalzu. Excavations carried out at ‘Aqar Quf have unearthed the base of the ziqqurat with its monumental staircase, three temples and part of a palace.18 The palace was decorated with frescoes and comprised an ambulatory with square pillars, another architectural novelty. The temples were dedicated to the divine family Enlil, Ninlil and their son Ninurta. The presence of these Sumerian gods in a city founded by a Kassite king shows to what degree the foreigners had been assimilated. Various objects of interest were found in the temples and the palace, including a more than life-size statue of Kurigalzu engraved with a long Sumerian inscription, painted terracotta figurines modelled with considerable skill, and splendid gold jewels.

The Kassites are sometimes credited with the introduction of the horse into Mesopotamia. This is not strictly correct. The ‘ass from foreign countries’ (anshe-kur-ra), as the Sumerians called it, appears sporadically in texts of the Ur III period, and horses are mentioned under their Akkadian name sîsû in the royal correspondence from Mari.19 But the use of the horse as a draught animal was certainly made more common during the Kassite period by the Hurrians and by the Kassites themselves. The appearance on Near Eastern battlefields of fast horse-driven chariots created, as expected, a revolution in warfare, while the replacement of load-carrying donkeys by horse-driven wagons made commercial transport easier and faster. Several other


Terracotta heads of a man and a lioness from Dûr-Kurigalzu (‘Aqar Quf), Kassite period.
After Taha Baqir, Iraq, VIII, 1946.

major or minor changes were wrought by the Kassites or, at least, took place during their reign. They range from the way of measuring fields to the fashion of dressing and cannot be described here in detail. Two of them, however, are of particular interest to the historian. One is the substitution for the old dating system of year-names of a simpler system, whereby the years of each reign, counting from the first New Year following coronation, were expressed in figures, e.g. ‘first, second, etc., year of King N’. The other novelty is the kudurru. The Akkadian word kudurru means ‘frontier, boundary’, and these little steles are often called ‘boundary stones’, although they were in reality donation charts, records of royal grants of land, written on stone and kept in temples, while copies on clay were given to the landowners.20 A kudurru was usually divided into two parts: on the recto or on the upper part of the stele were sculptured in low relief the images of the gods – often replaced by their symbols: a sun-disc for Shamash, a moon-crescent for Sin, a hoe for Marduk, etc. – under whose guarantee was placed the donation made by the king,21 on the verso or under the sculptures was engraved a long inscription giving the name of the person who benefited from the grant, the exact location and measurements of the estate, the various exemptions and privileges attached to it, a list of witnesses and finally, multiple and colourful maledictions against ‘whosoever in the future should deface, alter or destroy’ the kudurru.

These small monuments are, with cylinder-seals and terracotta statues and figurines, about the only works of art of the Kassite period that have survived. While the sculpture on kudurru is predominantly symbolic and static, the designs on the seals comprise novel geometric figures (lozenges, crosses, crescents) and a variety of animals previously not represented, such as the fly, the bee, the grasshopper, the dog or the monkey, usually ‘in motion’. Many seals bear a relatively long inscription giving the name, father's name and profession of the owner sometimes followed by a prayer or an incantation.22 In literature the Kassite period was marked by considerable efforts to salvage the cultural heritage handed down from more creative ages and by a new, typically priestly approach to ethical problems. Scientific works, such as medical and astronomical observations compiled during the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods were copied and grouped into collections; dictionaries and lists of cuneiform signs were composed. Under the First Dynasty of Babylon, most of the great Sumero-Akkadian myths and legends had been rethought, recast into a simple, clear, elegant language and rejuvenated; under the Kassite rule they were edited by generations of temple scribes and couched in a rather sophisticated dialect, ‘Standard Babylonian’, markedly different from the vernacular ‘Middle Babylonian’. The religious and philosophical concepts traditional in Mesopotamia were preserved, but in the relationship between men and gods the stress was put on resignation rather than on confidence, on superstition rather than on faith. Pieces of wisdom literature, such as Ludlul bêl nêmeqi (see p. 101), are highly representative of the new spirit,23 while the current bigotry is reflected in ‘hemerologies’ (i.e. calendars of propitious and ill-fated days) and in collections of incantations against demons. All this was perhaps not very original, but at least the erudite priests of Babylon saved the Mesopotamian culture from oblivion, just as the European monks in the Middle Ages saved the Graeco-Roman culture. Such was the prestige of Mesopotamian literature in the ancient Near East that it was adopted in many countries from Anatolia to Egypt: the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, was translated into Hittite and Hurrian, and copies of Babylonian legends were found on the banks of the Nile. Moreover, the Babylonian language was lingua franca in all Oriental courts and diplomatic circles throughout the second half of the second millennium, at a time when Babylonia was, politically speaking, almost inactive. Thus if in the new international concert Mesopotamia played only third or fourth fiddle, she still ranked very high in the field of civilization.

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