Agriculture and populations were growing. Herding and slash-and-burn agriculture in the Middle East contributed to mobility. There were migrating herdsmen grazing their animals. Armies were on the move, as were tribal warriors, fighting in the name of their god. In the 2300s, Sumerian civilization was still thriving in Mesopotamia (today Iraq) – although it had a declining agriculture because of evaporating irrigation water leaving behind layers of salt. Sumerians wrote of the earth turning white.
Political stability was another problem. It was around 2334 BCE that a humble Semite cup-bearer to the ruler of the city of Kish maneuvered his way to power. An exceptionally talented military leader, he led an army that conquered the other Sumerican cities. Supplying an army with bronze weapons required tin and copper, and he extended his empire into Asia Minor (today Turkey) and to the Mediterranean Sea around what today is Syria and Lebanon. He appointed as governors throughout his empire men of his ethnicity. He built himself a library of thousands of clay tablets and built an efficient system of roads and a postal service. He became known as Sargon the Great and described his victories in creating a Semitic rather than Sumerian empire. But he had a deference for Sumerian deities. He attributed his victories the chief deity of the Sumerian – Enlil. He saw the goddess Inanna as his patroness. His warriors became an aristocracy, and they lived off taxes collected from the conquered.
Nineteen years after taking power Sargon died, and he left his empire to his son. Around 2150 BCE, during the rule of Sargon's grandson, Naramsin, a wave of nomads called Gutians from the Zagros mountains to the east overran the empire. The invaders were described as barbarous and rapacious. Why they were unable to defeat the invaders is unknown, but as an empire the invaded were hardly a unified people. The invaded saw the coming of the Gutians not as a product of Gutian will but as a result of Goddess Inanna having left their city because of Naramsin's sins. There was the belief that the intentions of the gods were good. Misfortune – including sickness or environmental disasters – was explained as the gods letting demons punish people for their offenses.
After only a hundred years, Sargon's dynasty was no more. The Sumerians rallied. Apparently their strength had not been adequately employed against the invading Gutiens, for the Sumerians were able to defeat and exterminate the invaders. (Empires didn't have the strength of unified nations.)
A Sumerian renaissance lasted until about 1950 BCE when, two centuries after the Gutien invasion, another invasion came from the east, by Elamites in what today is Iran. And the Sumerians were attacked from the west by a Semitic speaking people from Syria who became known as Amorites – a word meaning Westerner. The Amorites sacked and burned Sumerian cities. A fragment of Sumerian writing describes bodies dissolving like fat in the sun and their cities covered with a shroud of smoke, and the invasion was described as a result of their gods having abandoned them like migrating birds.
The Amorites founded the city of Babylon by the Tigris River. With passing generations the Amorites adopted Sumerian culture. The Sumerians were vanishing as an identifiable ethnicity, absorbed by Mesopotamia's other peoples. The Amorites increased their skills in the art of combat and extended their control over Mesopotamia. They ought off new waves of migrating peoples. They joined in the trade that remained among Mesopotamian cities, and they extended their trade into Asia Minor, exchanging woolen cloth and tin for gold, silver and copper. And Amorite merchants created colonies in parts of southern Asia Minor.
Trade was a peaceful exchange, but a competition for power would make Babylon a center of power. In the 1790s the sixth king of an Amorite dynasty at Babylon, Hammurabi, sent his armies out and conquered other kingdoms, cutting down his enemies, as he put it, "like dolls of clay." He established his authority from the Persian Gulf to Asia Minor. Like Sargon he built a new network of roads. He created a postal system, and he delegated power to governors who rule conquered territories in his name.
Babylon was a was a city with skilled artisans, architects, bricklayers and businessmen, with an efficient secular administration and a chain of command. It was surrounded by great fields of barley, melons, fruit trees and the wheat the Babylonians used in making unleavened, pancake-like bread. From their barley, the Babylonians made beer. They sheared wool from their flocks of sheep. And they imported wood from Lebanon and metals from Persia.
Babylon's story of the creation of the world was the Enuma Elish, inherited from the Sumerians. And there was a story about a great flood – the story of Gilgamesh. The story addresses the mystery of why men must die while gods live forever, and it's a story about human audacity and willfulness against the wills of the gods. He tells Gilgamesh about the god Enlil who wished to destroy all of humankind in a great flood. He tells Gilgamesh of other, kinder gods who told him to tear down his house and to build a ship, to abandon his possessions, to save his life and to take into his ship his family and the seed of all living things.
Hammurabi claimed that he received his laws from Babylon's sun god and god the of justice, Shamash. According to Hammurabi's scribes, the people of Babylon saw events as directed by the gods, and they saw Hammurabi as wise and as having created a world of order and justice under Shamash. Hammurabi's government had contracts between his subjects witnessed and ratified. A law made a doctor liable if the doctor made his patient worse, and an architect might be executed if his negligence resulted in the collapse of a house he had designed. Deeds of partnership were maintained. Properties were registers and wills were written. Landholders were protected from the landless. Hammurabi divided his subjects into classes: the nobles; merchants and ordinary farmers; and slaves. All classes were to be protected from what he believed was unnecessary abuse, but punishments were to differ according to one's class. If a noble destroyed the eye of another noble he might have his own eye put out, or if he broke the bone of another noble he had one of his own bones broken. But if he broke the bone of a common person or destroyed that person's eye, he only had to pay a fine. His Law Code is today known one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world.
Hammurabi would be thought of by historians as one of the outstanding rulers of early antiquity. But the institution called empire was doomed by an innate political weakness and the world of migration and change. During the reign of Hammurabi's son, Samsu-Iluna (between 1750-1712) there were more invasions, and there were revolts by the city-states that Hammurabi had conquered. Cultural continuity left the Babylonians believing they were being punished for the sins, and life went on.
A new era was emerging in the Middle East with more movement of armies and people, with religious continuities and diffusions. Hittite armies with chariots from Asia Minor went south into Mesopotamia. Armies led by Egyptian kings (pharaohs), also with chariots, in the 1400s went north to Syria and did battle with invaders called the Hurrians. In the 1300s the Egyptians battled against the Hittites south of Syria, in the Land of Canaan. And there, after 1250 BCE, people to be known as Hebrews, and eventually Jews, came into conflict with a people called Philistines. Armies to and fro between the civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia didn't do much to create a lasting political stability in the region.
CONTINUE READING: Canaan to King David
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.