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A Short History of the Middle East
By Gordon Kerr
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2016 Gordon Kerr
All rights reserved.
The Middle East occupies a unique position in the history of humankind. It was probably in that area that, around 8,000 years ago, we first began to cultivate food crops and domesticate certain animals after perhaps a million years of subsisting on wild vegetables and hunting. It was this development, the result of a great deal of trial and error, that led to the advancement of human civilisation. Soon, great civilisations were appearing that would wax and wane throughout history up to the present day. They overlapped and interacted, often going to war with one another, their peoples merging and interbreeding through the centuries.
The first evidence of people becoming sedentary and beginning to establish urban centres has been found in the Mesopotamian Basin. This area, the name of which means 'land between rivers' (the Tigris and Euphrates), is home to many of the world's oldest major societies and is often described as the 'cradle of civilisation'. The first cities in history developed here during the Chalcolithic period of the Bronze Age from round about 5300 BC.
The Sumer and the Akkadian Empire (c. 5300-1700 BC)
First signs of the Sumerian civilisation, one of earth's oldest, can be dated back to roughly 5000 BC. The Sumerians are believed to have migrated to Mesopotamia from the areas of modern-day Turkey and Iran although there is no real certainty about this. One and a half thousand years later they had built cities in the Fertile Crescent, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates that provided the means to live in what was essentially a desert. Sumer became divided into a dozen or so independent city states each of which surrounded a temple dedicated to a god or goddess. The earliest city in Mesopotamia and, therefore, the oldest city in the world, is said to be Eridu in southern Mesopotamia. Four other cities were built before, it is suggested, being wiped out by a great flood which may be no more than myth.
These first cities came under the control of the Akkadian Empire between the twenty-fourth and twenty-second centuries BC. This empire was founded by Sargon the Great (r. c. 2334 BC-2279 BC) who led his forces in the conquest of the Sumerian city-states. Sargon's empire grew to incorporate not just large parts of Mesopotamia, but also parts of present-day Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. It was amongst the first multi-ethnic, centrally ruled empires in history.
The Akkadian language became the lingua franca of the Middle East, used in government and administration while the Sumerian language remained in everyday use and in literature. Even when Sumer was no longer a great power, its language continued to be used in schools in the later civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria, in the same way Latin would later be used in mediaeval Europe. As well as being the inventors of bureaucracy, the Sumerians were amongst the first people to use the wheel. There is evidence that wheeled vehicles were being used from the second half of the fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia.
Following a period of decline between around 2193 and 2154, the empire collapsed after an invasion by a nomadic people from the Zagros Mountains known as the Gutians. The Sumerian king, Ur-Nammu (r. 2112-2095 BC), finally drove out the Gutians and restored his own people's rule. This 'Sumerian Renaissance' was the last great period of Sumerian power. By this time, however, Akkadian-speaking Semites were beginning to increase their presence and power in the region. Competing local powers such as Isin, Larsa and Babylon started to dominate the southern part of Mesopotamia and Babylon would become increasingly powerful.
At this time there was also a shift in population to the north. In the south, agriculture was in decline due to poor soil resulting from the silting of the Mesopotamian Delta. This led to an almost 60 per cent population decline between 2100 BC and 1700 BC. Sumer eventually fell under the control of the Amorites, a Semitic-speaking people from ancient Syria. This 'Dynasty of Isin', as it is known in the list of Sumerian kings, ended with the rise to power of Babylonia around 1700 BC with the notable Hammurabi as its ruler.
The Babylonian Empire (1894-333 BC)
Babylon was a small and unimportant city when the Amorites came to power around 1894 BC but during the reign of the great king Hammurabi (r. c. 1792-1750 BC) it rose to prominence. It had been a minor city-state, dwarfed by other, older states but Hammurabi's father Sin-Muballit (r. c. 1812-1793 BC) began the expansion of Babylonian power with the conquest of Borsippa, Kish and Sippar.
When Hammurabi took the throne, the region was controlled by a number of local powers. Eshunna ruled the upper Tigris River; Larsa controlled the river delta; and Elam, in the east, regularly raided and took tribute from the weaker states in the southern part of Mesopotamia. In the north was the formidable Assyrian Empire with its colonies in Asia Minor. It had expanded into central Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Hammurabi reunited Mesopotamia, but his most important legacy was the code of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi. One of the first written sets of laws in history, it was carved upon a stele that was located in a public place in Babylon where everyone could see it. Later, it was discovered in 1901 in Iran and taken to the Louvre in Paris where it can now be viewed. The code consisted of 282 laws, inscribed in the Akkadian language on 12 tablets. Dealing with such things as theft, dishonest dealings, violence to others, financial transactions and relations between various social classes, it was invariably harsh in its punishments:
'8 – If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death ...'
The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon (1904), translated by Robert Francis Harper
Soon after the death of this great king his empire began to disintegrate. Nomadic people began to arrive – the Central Asian Hittites and Mitannians; the Elamites who settled in Chaldea to the east of the Mesopotamian Basin; the Aramaeans from the Syrian Desert and the Assyrians from northern Mesopotamia. The Amorites continued to rule a much-reduced Babylon for several hundred years more and a number of Neo-Babylonian empires and kingdoms emerged. The last Amorite ruler was overthrown by the Hittites following the 'sack of Babylon' in 1595 BC, although the Hittites soon moved on, leaving the Kassites to take control. The Kassites – Babylon's longest-lived dynasty – ruled until 1157 BC when Elam conquered it and then a few years later it was retaken by the native Akkadian-Babylonian, King Nebuchadnezzar I (r. c. 1125-1104 BC). Eventually, in 627 BC, after a period of chaos and three centuries of Assyrian rule, the Chaldeans seized the throne, ruling until 539 BC and conquering Assyria in the north of the region and Syria as far as the city of Tyre.
In 539, Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530 BC), ruler of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the First Persian Empire). Cyrus claimed to be the legitimate successor to the ancient Babylonian kings and he was ruler of almost the entire civilised world at that time. In 333 BC, the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC) captured Babylon and, ten years later, died there. It was then absorbed, along with Assyria, into the Seleucid Empire. At this time, a new capital, Seleucia, was constructed and Babylon became neglected. The Mesopotamian Basin was ruled by the Persians – under the Parthians and then the Sassanids – before the Arabs arrived in 640 AD. Once again, Mesopotamia became a centre of power.
Ancient Egypt (3100-30 BC)
The River Nile has been the lifeblood of Egypt for millennia, providing a fertile floodplain that allowed humans to develop a sophisticated centralised society. Around 120,000 years ago, it was the abode of nomadic hunter-gatherers but, as North Africa became increasingly arid, populations gravitated towards the Nile where they began to develop an agricultural economy. Chiefdoms emerged and bureaucracy was necessary to settle such matters as disputes over farmland. Soon, around 1.8 million people were living and working on the long strip of arable land alongside the river. At around the same time as the Sumerian-Akkadian civilisation was emerging in Mesopotamia, Egypt was entering the Early Dynastic Period that followed the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt around 3100 BC. A capital was established at Memphis from which the first pharaohs controlled the labour force and farming in the Nile Delta. They also brought in revenue from the lucrative trade routes to the Levant that passed through Egypt. The pharaohs amassed great wealth which can be seen in the elaborate tombs that housed their bodies after death. This period established the institutions and system of centralised control that would help to create and maintain one of the greatest and longest-lasting civilisations the world has seen.
From 2686 until 2181 BC, the period known as the Old Kingdom, there were great advances in technology, as well as in art and architecture. Some of the enduring achievements of Ancient Egypt were created, such as the pyramids at Giza and the Great Sphinx. Agricultural yields were increased with coordinated irrigation networks. Both the construction of irrigation systems and the building of the pyramids were the work of vast numbers of peasants, conscripted into these ambitious communal projects. Meanwhile, a justice system maintained law and order. After around five centuries, the Old Kingdom collapsed under economic pressures leading to a period of turmoil during which the pharaohs' power greatly diminished and was challenged by regional governors. The First Intermediate Period – 2181 to 1991 BC – brought famine and civil war. Control of parts of Egypt was seized by local rulers and the country was split in two, rulers in what became Herakleopolis controlling Lower Egypt, and Upper Egypt being ruled by the Intef family in Thebes. Eventually, the Theban rulers came out on top and Egypt was once again unified.
The success of the Intef rulers and the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty signalled an economic and cultural renaissance with land reclamation and irrigation projects being undertaken. Valuable territory in Nubia was recaptured and in the Eastern Delta, the Walls of the Ruler fortification was constructed by Amenemhat I (r. 1991-1962 BC) to protect Egypt's eastern approaches. Literature flourished and portrait sculpture soared to new levels of sophistication and detail.
The Second Intermediate Period, from 1674 BC to 1549 BC, brought a gradual decline in Egyptian fortunes and a Semitic Canaanite people, the Hyksos, seized power, forcing the government to flee to Thebes. The pharaoh was obliged to pay tribute to the Hyksos but Ahmose I (r. c. 1539-1514 BC) finally drove them from the country. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1549-1069 BC) fostered a period of prosperity and security and the empire grew to its greatest extent, stretching from Niya in the northwest of Syria to the fourth waterfall of the Nile in Nubia. Great construction projects included the temple at Karnak, the largest of all Egyptian temples. There were great pharaohs too – Hatshepsut (r. 1473-58 BC), one of the few women pharaohs, Akhenaten (r. 1353-36 BC) and Ramesses II 'the Great' (r. 1279-13 BC). Ramesses is recorded as having signed the first known peace treaty, with the Hittites after the indecisive Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. Following this battle, reluctant to engage with the powerful Middle Assyrian Empire, Egypt withdrew from Western Asia. Southern Canaan was lost to the Assyrians and corruption and civil unrest became rife.
The start of Egypt's Third Intermediate Period was dominated by the High Priests of Amun at Thebes who had little respect for the pharaoh. At the same time, Berber tribes from the area of modern Libya settled in the western Nile delta and began to carve out autonomy for themselves. The Libyan Berber or Bubastite dynasty ruled for two centuries. In 727 BC, King Piye (r. 752-21 BC) of Kush – in what is now the Republic of Sudan – conquered Egypt, establishing the twenty-fifth dynasty. The country was reunited and restored to its former glory with a resurgence of the arts and architecture. In 671 BC, however, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (r. 681-69 BC) invaded and brought the Kushite Empire to an end. Egypt was free of Assyrian vassalage by 653 BC but, in 525 BC, it was conquered by Persian king Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BC). In 332 BC, the Persians ceded Egypt to Alexander the Great and after Alexander's death, one of his generals, Ptolemy I (r. 323-283 BC), was appointed satrap of Egypt. He proclaimed himself king in 305 BC, viewed by Egyptians as the successor to the pharaohs. His family would rule until 30 BC. Alexandria became the capital and, with the famous Library of Alexandria at the centre, became a hub of learning and culture.
Egypt was of great importance to Rome which relied on its grain but as family feuds, rebellion and civil unrest destabilised the country, the Romans invaded to safeguard their grain imports. After Octavian – later Emperor Augustus – defeated Mark Antony (83-30 BC) and the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII Philopater (r. 51-30 BC) at the Battle of Actium, Rome made Egypt a colony, ruling through a prefect.
The Hittites (1650-1200 BC)
From around 1650 to 1200 BC, the Hittites dominated much of Anatolia (roughly modern Turkey) and the neighbouring regions. Their language was of the Indo-European family and they called their land Hatti. It is assumed that the Hittites arrived in Anatolia before 2000 BC, possibly from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe around the Sea of Azov in modern-day Ukraine. They either conquered or were assimilated into the native people who were already established there. They took time to integrate, initially living separately in various cities but before long strong leaders began to unite the various groupings of Hittite people, to conquer central Anatolia and establish the Hittite kingdom.
King Hattusili (r. ca. 1586–1556 BC) is usually credited with founding the Hittite Kingdom, conquering territory to the north and the south of Hattusa – near modern Bogazkale in Turkey – which he made the capital of his kingdom. From this defensive stronghold he led his armies into the plains of Syria, campaigning in the Amorite Kingdom of Yamkhad. His son, Mursili I (r. 1556-26 BC) captured its capital, Khalpe (modern-day Aleppo) in 1595 BC. That same year, Mursili captured Mari (modern-day Tell Hariri in Syria) and Babylon. The strain placed on Hatti's finances caused by his campaigns brought strife at home, however, and on his return he was assassinated, his foreign conquests lost as Hatti dissolved into chaos. A period of weak rulers and inactivity ensued until, between 1400 and 1200 BC, centralised power and authority were re-established. Meanwhile, in the early fourteenth century BC, Hatti came under attack by the people known as the Gashga from the Pontic Alps to the north of the Hittites' territory. King Tudhaliya II (r. 1380-1360 BC) and his son King Suppiluliuma I (r. c. 1344-1322 BC) consolidated Hittite territory to the north and Hattusa was recaptured and fortified. Advances were made into Syria and there is evidence that the Egyptians began to accept the Hittites as their equals. Suppiluliuma's son Mursili II (r. 1321-1295 BC) expanded the empire.
In the thirteenth century BC, Muwatalli II (r. 1295-1282 BC) made Tarhuntasha his capital, moving the centre of power away from the threat of the Gashga. Control of western Anatolia was maintained and, in the Levant, a Hittite victory over an Egyptian army, led by Ramesses II, expanded the empire as far to the south as Damascus. During the reign of Tudhaliya IV (r. 1237-09 BC), however, the Assyrians began to raid the empire's eastern borders and captured territory from them in Syria. Finally, around 1200 BC, the empire began to disintegrate. The Hittite homelands became vulnerable to attack from every direction and in 1180 BC Hattusa was destroyed by a coalition of peoples – Kaskas, Phrygians and Bryges. The Hittite kingdom that had achieved so much was no more.
The Phoenicians (1550-300 BC)
The trading culture of the enterprising ancient Semitic seafaring nation of Phoenicia spread across the Mediterranean between 1550 and 300 BC. It was situated on the western shoreline of the Fertile Crescent along the coast of modern Lebanon, some of its cities reaching as far as the western Mediterranean. The Phoenicians' origins are unclear. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 BC) claimed that they originally lived on the shores of the Erythraean Sea – the ancient name for the northwest Indian Ocean. They migrated, he claimed, to the Mediterranean and started to embark on long voyages, bringing back goods from Egypt and Assyria. Whatever their origins, the high point of their culture and power was between approximately 1200 and 800 BC although many of their important settlements were already established by that time. This coalition of independent city-state ports was also linked to other ports on the Mediterranean islands and on other coastlines, making it ideally suited for trade between the Levant and the rest of the world. The most important of the trading posts the Phoenicians established on the Mediterranean coast was Carthage in modern Tunisia, established around 814 BC during the reign of Pygmalion of Tyre (r. 831-785 BC).
Excerpted from A Short History of the Middle East by Gordon Kerr. Copyright © 2016 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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