Ancient History & Civilisation



Three out of the four centuries covered by the Kassite period were occupied by violent conflicts between the great nations of the Near East. The main reasons for these conflicts were the conquest of Syria by the Egyptians, the renewed claims of the Hittites over that country and the formation of a large Hurri-Mitannian Kingdom extending from the Mediterranean to the Zagros and acting as an obstacle to Egyptian, Hittite and, later, Assyrian ambitions. But while the territories disputed – Syria and Jazirah – lay within a short distance of Babylon, the Kassite monarchs were either too weak or too wise to allow themselves to become involved in the conflagration, and it was not until the middle of the fourteenth century that Assyrian pressure forced them into war. From 1600 to 1350 B.C. in round figures the Babylonians enjoyed almost complete peace, with the exception of their victorious war against the Sea-Land and of skirmishes along their northern frontier; and when the whole Orient after 1480 B.C. went up in flames they alone sat back, watching what has been aptly described as ‘a scrum of empires’. Because of the comparatively minor role played by Babylonia and, for a long time, by Assyria in the great political turmoil of the second millennium, we need not give here more than a summary of these intricate events, the details of which can be found in any history dealing with the wider aspects of the ancient Near East. Some emphasis, however, will be placed on those events which took place in Mesopotamia proper or influenced the destinies of that country.1

Egypt versus Mitanni

The effects of the new political situation arising from the invasion of Egypt by the Hyksôs (c. 1700 B.C.) and from the fall of the First Dynasty of Babylon (1595 B.C.) were not felt immediately. In the light of the few available data, the sixteenth century appears as a relatively stable period during which the nations whose armies were later to stand face to face on the battlefields of Syria were dressing their wounds or furbishing their weapons. In the reign of Amosis I (1576 – 1546 B.C.) the Hyksôs were driven out of the Nile delta, but the first Pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty were too busy enforcing their authority within their own country to engage in foreign adventures, and even the famous campaign of Tuthmosis I across Syria up to the Euphrates (c. 1520 B.C.) was a raid without lasting consequences. In Anatolia the Old Hittite Kingdom was slowly crumbling, undermined by palace revolutions no less than by foreign attacks. The king who had taken Aleppo and Babylon, Mursilis I, was assassinated in 1590 B.C., and his successors surrendered all claims over the territories south of the Taurus mountains. In Assur reigned the descendants of Adasi, the prince who had shaken off the Babylonian yoke; but for a few building inscriptions and for a reference to Puzur-Ashur III in the Synchronistic History2 these princes would remain for us mere names on a list. As for Babylonia, she was being reunited and reorganized by the Kassites, obviously unwilling or unable to indulge in dreams of expansion. Perhaps the most active of all Oriental peoples during that period were the Hurrians and their Mitannian war-lords. While the complete absence of textual evidence precludes any positive statement, we may at least surmise, on the basis of subsequent events, that the Hurri-Mitannians were taking advantage of the vacuum created in northern Syria and northern Iraq by the collapse of the Ham-murabian empire and the withdrawal of the Hittites to build themselves a great kingdom in those regions.

Then, suddenly, at the dawn of the fifteenth century, trouble broke out in the Near East, coming from an unexpected direction. Sheltered by the deserts which border the Nile valley, Egypt had lived for two thousand years isolated politically, though not commercially, from the rest of the Orient. Its north-eastern frontier, it is true, was vulnerable, and on several occasions the ‘vile ‘Amu’, the ‘Sand-farers’, the hated Asiatics had crossed the isthmus of Suez, made armed incursions into the delta and given cause for serious concern; they had, however, never succeeded in gaining full control of the country. But the long and humiliating Hyksôs episode had taught the Egyptians a lesson: in order to avoid a similar invasion, they must fight the Asiatics in their country of origin and reduce them to servitude. It was with this idea in mind that Tuthmosis III in 1480 B.C. undertook the conquest of Syria, opening new fields to Egyptian ambitions and setting a pattern of Egyptian politics which can be followed throughout history down to the present day. The fact that it took him seventeen years to become the master of Palestine and of the coastal strip of Lebanon and Syria proves that he was up against forces far superior to those of the Syro-Palestinian princelings, or that his opponents received all the support in men, horses and weapons that only a powerful state could afford. The true enemies of Egypt in Syria were neither the Canaanites nor the Amorites, but the Hurri-Mitannians, long entrenched in those regions and now strongly organized. The kingdom of Mitanni occupied the region called Hanigalbat by the Assyrians, that is the steppe between the Euphrates and the Tigris, to the south of the Taurus range, and somewhere in this area – possibly near the head of the Khabur river – lay its capital Washukkanni, the exact location of which has not yet been determined.3 Its northern and southern frontiers were probably as ill-defined for the Hurri-Mitannians as they are for us, though we know from Hittite sources that the Hurrians were established in Armenia, threatening the Hittite kingdom. During the fifteenth century northern Syria to the west and Assyria to the east were under Mitannian allegiance. The first king of Mitanni whose name has survived, Paratarna (c. 1480 B.C.), is mentioned in the statue inscription of Idrimi, King of Alalah, who refers to him as his overlord, as well as in a tablet found at Nuzi, near Kirkuk.4 Also found in this city was the seal of Paratarna's successor, Shaushatar.5 In addition, there is ample evidence of a Hurri-Mitannian political influence in Ugarit, in Qatna and, indirectly, in Palestine. An even greater influence can be detected in northern Iraq, and there is every reason to believe that all the Kings of Assur who reigned between 1500 and 1360 B.C. were the vassals of the King of Mitanni: when one of them dared to revolt, Shaushatar, we are told, plundered Assur and took to Washukkanni ‘a door of silver and gold’.6

The victories of Tuthmosis III put only part of this vast kingdom under Egyptian domination. In Syria the Mitannians kept Alalah and Karkemish, whence they were able to foster in the districts they had lost rebellions serious enough to justify three Egyptian campaigns under Amenophis II. Under Tuthmosis IV (1425 – 1417 B.C.), this state of permanent though indirect hostility came to an end, and the most friendly relations were established between the courts of Thebes and Washukkanni: ‘seven times’ the pharaoh asked Artatama I of Mitanni for the hand of his daughter,7 and Amenophis III (1417 – 1379 B.C.) married Shutarna's daughter Kilu-Hepa.8 The fear of the Hittites is often given as the reason for this sudden and complete change in politics, but this is by no means certain. In about 1450 B.C. Tudkhaliyas II in Anatolia had founded a new dynasty and immediately reasserted Hittite rights upon the districts south of the Taurus by taking Aleppo – possibly acting in collusion with Tuthmosis III.9 His immediate successors, however, entangled as they were in Anatolian wars, could hardly be considered so dangerous for both Egypt and Mitanni as to provoke a rapprochement between the two countries. The truth, in all probability, is that the Egyptians realized their inability to occupy the whole of Syria, and the Mitannians their inability to regain ground in Palestine and on the Syrian coast; both accepted the status quo and turned an old enmity into a friendly alliance.

The Time of Suppiluliumas

After the time of Shamshi-Adad and Hammurabi the fourteenth century B.C. is the most copiously documented period in the second millennium. Hittite annals and treaties, Assyrian inscriptions, Assyrian and Babylonian chronicles and, above all, the four-hundred-odd letters written by the kings of Western Asia, great or small, to Amenophis III and IV and found at el-Amarna in Egypt10 throw on these years of armed conflicts and subtle diplomatic moves the most welcome light. Moreover, these documents bring out with particular clarity some of the most powerful or fascinating personalities of the ancient Orient: Amenophis IV (Akhenaten), the mystic pharaoh more interested in religion than in politics; Kurigalzu II, the only Kassite king who could pose as a conqueror; Ashur-uballit, the shrewd prince who liberated Assyria and turned it again into a great nation; and surpassing them all in merit, the energetic Hittite monarch who imposed his mark upon the whole period: Suppiluliumas.11

During the first quarter of the century the diplomatic and matrimonial ties already existing between Egypt and Mitanni were reinforced and extended to other nations, giving the entire Near East the appearance of a happy family in which Egypt played the part of the wealthy relative. Tushratta, having succeeded his father Shutarna on the Mitannian throne (c. 1385 B.C.), gave his daughter Tadu-Hepa to Amenophis III as spouse, and when the old Pharaoh fell ill he sent him the image of Ishtar of Nineveh, who was reputed to cure the most intractable diseases. Similarly, the Kassite Kadashman-Enlil I added his sister and his daughter to Amenophis's opulent harem and received from him large quantities of gold. Even the Assyrians, no doubt with the consent of their Mitannian overlord, sent ambassadors to the court of Thebes. But in 1380 B.C. Suppiluliumas became king in Boghazkoy and a few years later led the Hittite army into Syria. A direct attack against Aleppo – now once more in Mitannian hands – having failed, in a second campaign he crossed the Euphrates near Malatiya, entered the land of Mitanni from the north, plundering Washukkanni on his way, turned westward, again crossed the Euphrates near Karkemish, subdued the region called Nuhashshe to the south of that city, ravaged Qatna and captured the stronghold of Qadesh (Tell Nebi Mend, south of Homs), which marked the northern limit of Egyptian dominion in Syria. At the same time he skilfully played on the rivalry between Syrian princelings and managed to put under Hittite suzerainty the kingdoms which did not lie directly across his path, including Ugarit and Alalah. Finally, leaving behind him a number of ardent supporters, he returned to the Anatolian homeland, where important and difficult tasks were to absorb his activities for about twenty years.

This brilliant military and diplomatic exploit was a severe blow to the Egyptians and a near disaster for the Mitannians, who found themselves deprived of all their possessions west of the Euphrates. In Syria some of the most enterprising local rulers backed by the Hittites fell upon their neighbours, who cried to Egypt for help, and their clamour – mingled with the clamour of Palestinian chieftains continuously attacked by bands of habirû – fill the el-Amarna archives. But most of these letters remained unanswered. Amenophis III, too old and too ill to intervene, died soon after the Hittite campaign, leaving the throne to the weak, effeminate and theologically minded Amenophis IV (1379 – 1362 B.C.), himself for a long time under the influence of the queen-mother Teye. For various reasons Amenophis IV refused to be involved in the Syrian imbroglio, but otherwise pursued the foreign policy of his predecessor, marrying the youngest of his father's Mitannian wives, Tadu-Hepa – perhaps the same person as the charming ‘Nefertiti’ – and remaining on the best possible terms with his contemporary, the Kassite Burnaburiash II (1375 – 1347 B.C.). Details of the good relations between the pharaoh and the king of ‘Kar-Duniash’ can be read in the el-Amarna correspondence. The two monarchs, the two ‘brothers’ as they call each other, exchange presents, the Kassite offering horses, lapis-lazuli and other precious stones, the Egyptian, ivory, ebony and above all gold. Occasionally the quantity of gold received did not quite tally with the quantity announced, and the King of Babylon complained bitterly:

‘The former gold which my brother sent – because my brother did not look to it himself, but an officer of my brother sealed and sent it – the forty minas of gold which they brought, when I put them in the furnace did not come out full weight.’12

But these were only passing clouds. In spite of the distance – ‘the road is very long, the water supply cut off and the weather hot’13 – messengers went to and fro between the two countries at the risk of being attacked by Canaanite bandits or by bedouins. We also learn that Amenophis IV married one of Burnaburiash's daughters and that on this occasion the pharaoh sent to Babylon an enormous number of bridal gifts, the list of which makes up more than 307 lines of text in four columns!14

If the Egyptians closed their ears to the appeals of their Syrian vassals, why, it may be asked, did the Mitannians remain passive in front of the Hittite aggression and did not even attempt to recover their former dominion? The answer is that they were themselves in the throes of civil war. Tushratta owed his crown to the murder of his elder brother, and his authority was challenged by several members of the royal family. As he ascended the throne of Mitanni, another of his brothers, Artatama, declared himself ‘King of Hurri’ and founded a separate dynasty, though it is by no means certain that the kingdom was divided between the two rivals as some historians believe. The Kings of Hurri – Artatama and his son Shutarna II – sought assistance outside their own country and engaged in friendly relations with the Assyrian princes still under Mitannian obedience. Soon there was a strong pro-Hurrian and pro-Assyrian party in Washukkanni itself. Palace intrigues, no doubt fomented by the two allies, culminated, in about 1350 B.C., in the death of Tushratta, murdered by one of his sons. Unable to preserve his throne, the legitimate heir, Mattiwaza, fled to Babylon, where Burnaburiash, faithful to his neutral policy, refused to grant him asylum, and finally took refuge at the Hittite court, while Assyria and another small state of the Upper Tigris valley, Alshe, ‘divided the land of Mitanni between themselves’.15 Thus without shooting an arrow Ashur-uballit I of Assyria (1365 – 1330 B.C.) not only freed his country from Mitannian domination but brought about the downfall of the kingdom to which his fathers had paid tribute. Encouraged by this success, he took the titles ‘Great King’ and ‘King of the Universe’, corresponded directly with his ‘brother’ Amenophis IV,16 and gave his daughter in marriage to Burnaburiash in the hope that his grandson would one day reign over Babylonia.

All this happened shortly after Suppiluliumas departed from Syria. When he returned, twenty years later, the political situation in the Near East had changed to his advantage. In Egypt Amenophis IV had died in 1362 B.C. and his successors – including the famous Tut-ankh-Amôn – were too busy repairing the disastrous results of his religious policy to pay much attention to Syrian affairs. In northern Mesopotamia the Mitannian kingdom had disintegrated, and Ashur-uballit was building up his Assyrian forces. In Babylonia, after a short civil war provoked by the murder of Ashur-uballit's grandson,17 Kurigalzu II had ascended the throne in 1345 B.C.; but the eyes of this great builder and warrior were turned not towards the west but towards the east: he attacked and defeated Hurpatila, King of Elam, and governed that country for at least part of his reign.18 The main objective of Suppiluliumas was therefore to liquidate any remaining pocket of resistance and to organize the territories conquered. He signed treaties with obedient Syrian princes, gave Aleppo to one of his sons and Karkemish to another, with the mission of helping Mattiwaza to recover his throne.19 In the ensuing war Mattiwaza was successful for a while but finally defeated, and the Assyrians advanced as far as the Euphrates, erasing all traces of the Mitannian kingdom. When Suppiluliumas died (1336 B.C.) the whole of Syria up to the region of Damascus was firmly in Hittite hands, but Assyria was the second great power in the Near East.

Assur and Susa versus Babylon

For the Hittites, to whom the Achaeans and other warlike people established along the coasts of Asia Minor denied access to the Mediterranean, the possession of active and prosperous ports, such as Ugarit and Sumur,20 was undoubtedly an asset. Moreover, Syria itself was fertile and could also be used as a starting point for future military operations in Mesopotamia or in Egypt. But these advantages were to a great extent upset by the duplicity and unruly behaviour of the local chieftains: rebellions soon followed Suppiluliumas's death, obliging his son and successor, Mursilis II (1335 – 1310 B.C.), to intervene in person, and it might have been of some comfort for him to know that at the same time the King of Egypt, Seti I, had to bear a similar burden in his Palestinian dominion. Probably fomented by the Hittites in Palestine and by the Egyptians in Syria, these revolts were but the symptoms of a deeper conflict between the two great nations, a conflict which reached its acme when the young and ambitious Ramesses II (1304 – 1237 B.C.) decided to repeat Tuthmosis's exploits and to bring the frontier of his kingdom up to the Euphrates. The war he waged against the Hittite Muwatallis ended in one of the most famous battles of antiquity, Qadesh (1300 B.C.), but no decisive result was obtained.21 Both enemies claimed victory and retained their respective positions. Sixteen years later, however, Ramesses signed with Hattusilis III of Hatti a peace treaty of which we possess by chance the Egyptian as well as the Hittite version22 – the latter, incidentally, in Akkadian language – and even married a Hittite princess. Were the two champions tired of fighting, or did the growing strength of Assyria reconcile them as the Hittite menace had once reconciled Egyptians and Mitannians? The importance given in the treaty to clauses of mutual assistance in case of war, together with the overtures made at the same time by Hattusilis to the Kassites, seem to give weight to the second theory.

Ever since Assyria had become a nation her fortune had been written on the map. To the north and east the narrow strip of Tigris valley belonging to the god Ashur was surrounded by high, almost inaccessible mountains haunted by predatory peoples, such as the Guti and Lullubi, which could only be kept at bay by frequent and difficult police operations. To the west the steppe of Jazirah stretched for hundreds of miles, wide open to hostile armies or to nomadic raiders; the possession of that steppe spelled safety for the Assyrians, but it also meant the control of important trade-routes and, eventually, of northern Syria, with a window on the Mediterranean. Finally, to the south and within a short distance lay the rich plain and opulent cities of the Mesopotamian delta, a constant source of temptation but also of worry, since Akkadians, Sumerians and Babylonians had always claimed lordship over the northern half of Mesopotamia. During the second millennium the frontier in this area was heavily fortified, and when Babylon was strong all the Assyrians could expect to gain was a few villages; when it was weak, however, all hopes were permissible, including that of access to the Gulf. These geographical considerations account for the triple series of wars which fill Assyrian annals from the thirteenth century onwards: guerrilla wars in the mountains, wars of movement in Jazirah and wars of position on the middle Tigris. These were the price Assyria had to pay not only for her expansion but also for her freedom.

As soon as Ashur-uballit had delivered his country from Mitannian domination hostilities opened on these three fronts. His son, Enlil-nirâri, was attacked by Kurigalzu but they soon made peace and, we are told, ‘they divided the fields, they divided the district, they fixed (anew) the boundaries’.23 The fragmentary annals of Arik-dên-ilu speak of campaigns in the Zagros, while we learn from those of his successor, Adad-narâri I, that he threw his armies across Jazirah and conquered – at least momentarily – that region ‘as far as Karkemish which is on the bank of the Euphrates’;24 another text shows him forcing the Kassites into a new frontier agreement.25 But the greatest warrior of the dynasty was undoubtedly Shalmaneser I (1274-1245 B.C.), who, having subdued ‘the mighty mountain fastnesses’ of Uruadri (Urartu, Armenia) and ‘the land of the Guti who know how to plunder’, turned against Assyria's former allies, the Hurrians, attacked Shattuara, ‘King of Hanigalbat’ and his Hittite and Ahlamû mercenaries and defeated them:

‘I fought a battle and accomplished their defeat. I killed countless numbers of his defeated and widespreading hosts… Nine of his strongholds and his capital city I captured. One hundred and eighty of his cities I turned into tells and ruins… Their lands I brought under my sway, and the rest of their cities I burned with fire.’26

It was perhaps this exploit, performed a few years after the battle of Qadesh, that brought together Egyptians and Hittites, for the Hurrians had now lost their last stronghold, and the Assyrians in Karkemish were at the gates of Syria.

In the middle of the thirteenth century the critical situation of Babylon, already threatened by its powerful neighbour, was aggravated by the sudden reappearance of Elam on the political stage after an absence of about four hundred years. The new dynasty which occupied the throne in Susa was made of energetic princes determined, among other things, to assure their authority over the Kassites of Iraq as well as over those who had remained in Iran. Shortly after 1250 B.C. the unfortunate Kashtiliash IV found himself caught between two enemies: Untash-napirisha – the Elamite ruler who built the magnificent ziqqurat and temples of Chogha-Zambil, near Susa – and the Assyrian Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244 – 1208 B.C.).27 The Elamite won a battle, but Tukulti-Ninurta occupied the capital-city. This exploit filled the Assyrians with considerable pride and forms the subject of the only Assyrian epic tale that has come to us: a poetic and, naturally, strongly biased, narrative known as the ‘Tukulti-Ninurta Epic’.28 In this the blame is put entirely on Kashtiliash, who is accused of having broken his oath and plotted against Assyria, thus deserving to be abandoned by the gods of his country and defeated. Yet the shorter account of the war in a building inscription found in Assur gives the impression that Tukulti-Ninurta acted without being provoked:

‘I forced Kashtiliash, King of Kar-Duniash, to give battle; I brought about the defeat of his armies, his warriors I overthrew. In the midst of that battle my hand captured Kashtiliash, the Kassite king. His royal neck I trod on with my feet, like a galtappu (stool). Stripped and bound, before Ashur my lord I brought him. Sumer and Akkad to its farthest border I brought under my sway. On the lower sea of the rising sun I established the frontier of my land.’29

Three princes, puppets of the Assyrian, sat in quick succession on the throne of Babylon and were in turn attacked by the Elamites, who advanced as far as Nippur. But after seven years of servitude the Babylonians themselves restored their national dynasty. Says a Babylonian chronicle:

The nobles of Akkad and Kar-Duniash revolted, and they sat Adad-shum-usur on the throne of his father.30

As for the Assyrian monarch who had been the first to reach the Persian Gulf, he died ignominiously several years later, no doubt in punishment for his crimes:

As for Tukulti-Ninurta who had brought evil upon Babylon, Ashur-nadin-apli, his son, and the nobles of Assyria revolted, and they cast him from his throne. In Kâr-Ninurta they besieged him in his palace and slew him with the sword.31

Weakened by family dissensions and internecine warfare, his successors launched only small-scale offensives against Babylonia, and it was the Elamites and not the Assyrians who, in 1160 B.C., delivered the mighty blow which brought the Kassite dynasty to its knees. That year Shutruk-nahhunte left Susa at the head of a vast army, invaded southern Iraq and plundered it as it had never before been plundered. Famous monuments, masterpieces of Mesopotamian sculpture such as the stele of Narâm-Sin, the Code of Hammurabi and the Obelisk of Manishtusu were carried away to Susa for ever. Shutruk-nahhunte's elder son, Kutir-nahhunte, was appointed governor of Babylonia. A Kassite prince with the good Babylonian name of Enlil-nadin-ahhê (‘Enlil gives brothers’) managed to stay on the throne for three years but was finally defeated and captured by Kutir-nahhunte after a fierce struggle (1157 B.C.). Babylon was occupied. Supreme humiliation: the god Marduk was taken in captivity by the Elamites as he had been taken by the Hittites 438 years before. Thus ended the longest dynasty in the history of Babylon.32

The fall of the Kassite dynasty may be used as a convenient landmark in the history of ancient Iraq, but it was almost insignificant compared with the events which took place in the Near East during the twelfth century B.C. When the Elamites invaded Babylonia the Hittite kingdom of Boghazkoy had already disappeared; Egypt, which had just escaped another invasion from the east, was greatly weakened by internal divisions; the Philistines were established in Canaan, Moses was leading his people into the Promised Land, the nomadic Aramaeans were threatening both the Syrian princes and the Assyrian monarchs, and far away in the west the Dorian Greeks were invading the Hellenic peninsula. Once again the Indo-Europeans had moved into Western Asia, spreading the use of iron as their forebears had spread the use of the horse, and opening a new age in the history of humanity, but also starting a chain reaction of ethnic movements accompanied by political convulsions which rapidly changed the face of the Orient.

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