Chapter 9

Merchants and Families

At some point during the Isin-Larsa period, a scribe wrote down an itinerary, carefully listing on a clay tablet all the stops on a land route that stretched north and west from Larsa to Syria.1 The tablet includes seventy place-names, each representing the endpoint of a day’s journey of about 24 to 29 kilometers (15 to 18 miles). Many of the places are not known from any source outside of this list—these must have been the names of small villages or even inns along the way—but others were major cities. This tablet gives us a window into travel during this time, and we know that people did travel—a lot—many of them probably using this exact route.

The itinerary makes mention of an army and it seems to be the record of, or maybe a plan for, the movement of a group of soldiers right across Mesopotamia and Syria. It’s unclear why they were traveling so far; perhaps they were going as reinforcements to support an ally in warfare, or perhaps they were functioning as an armed guard, accompanying luxury gifts sent by one king to another.

Soldiers were not the only ones to use the route, however; far from it. Even if they didn’t travel the whole way, any number of people would have needed to take this road, including messengers, merchants, traveling artisans, people visiting distant relatives, and government officials.

A Journey North from Larsa

A group of travelers following the itinerary would have traveled north from Larsa, hugging the route of the Euphrates (see Map 2). They passed the familiar repeating sights of palm trees, long rectangular fields flanked by canals, and villages of mudbrick houses.

The travelers arrived in Babylon after being on the road for seven days. Even at times when the kings of Larsa and Babylon were hostile to one another, people probably had little difficulty entering the enemy city. Babylon had a city wall and a palace, and it would not have struck visitors as all that different from the other cities they had passed along the way.

An envoy transporting a letter from King Sumu-El of Larsa to King Sumu-la-El of Babylon would have ended his journey here. The rest of the itinerary off toward Syria would have been irrelevant to him. He delivered his letter to the king and could have returned to Larsa with an answer for his own king, possibly inside two weeks, especially if he took a boat downstream, which could have sped up the return journey.

We read that the soldiers about whom the itinerary was written stayed in Babylon for eleven days and then continued on.2 They were not alone; many travelers needed to go farther. Notable among them were textile weavers and traders. The best fabrics were made in the south—that was common knowledge—and southern cloth became ever more valuable the farther from home it was sold. Weavers from Larsa could get a good price if they sold their goods to trading caravans that kept going beyond Babylon and headed for the city of Ashur. Caravans from the south regularly brought textiles to Ashur, and their arrival was anxiously anticipated there.3

The traders from the south would, therefore, have continued on from Babylon to Sippar, where they arrived two days later. So many people took this road that inns were provided along the way where one could find a bed and food. In other regions, and probably in Sippar as well, these inns even provided places to store valuables. Sippar was a big city, home to the sun god Shamash, and it probably provided several types of accommodations. As in Babylon, the soldiers following the itinerary stayed in Sippar for longer than one might expect—ten days this time. We are not told what they were doing there, but they were clearly in no hurry to get to their final destination.

The next stretch of the itinerary left the banks of the Euphrates behind and took the soldiers (and our trading caravan carrying southern textiles) north along the route of a wide canal that flowed from the Tigris to the Euphrates, and then north again along the Tigris River toward the city of Ashur. The soldiers from Larsa paused again for another ten days not far from Sippar at a place called Apil-Sin where they “girded themselves,” perhaps before moving on into hostile territory. Had they not stopped, the journey from Sippar to Ashur would have taken eleven days; travelers following the itinerary apparently continued to keep up the grueling pace of about 24–29 kilometers per day.

The City of Ashur

Visitors approaching on the road from the south might not have noticed the rise in elevation that marked the approach to Ashur, but they would have seen the curved city wall from quite a distance. When Ashur was founded, around 2500 BCE, its early inhabitants no doubt realized that the triangular site would be relatively easy to defend. It needed just one stretch of city wall, because two branches of the Tigris River came together here and had cut high escarpments out of the rock. The city towered 40 meters (about 130 feet) above the river, with the rivers providing a natural moat and steep cliffs on two of its three sides.

By this time, the early second millennium BCE, Ashur extended over about 40 hectares (about 100 acres) and had a population of just 5,000–8,000 people. A thousand years later, it would become a great city, the religious heart of the immense Neo-Assyrian Empire, but no one would have guessed of its future glory at the time when our textile caravan from Larsa arrived there. A Larsan trader visiting Ashur for the first time would not have been impressed by its size, but he might have noted some striking differences from the southern cities he knew. First, there was the local dialect. Although someone speaking the southern Mesopotamian version of Akkadian could understand the dialect of Ashur, the two were distinct, even when written down. The Assyrians (as the residents of Ashur are traditionally called) also used different month names for their calendar from those of their southern neighbors, and their artists created distinct cylinder seals.

Even the city itself would have felt a little foreign to someone from Larsa. For one thing, the citadel on which it was built was natural and rocky, rather than being the result only of the accumulation of human debris, as was the case for southern tells. Its people had an unusual city god as well. Ashur (who shared his name with his city, also an uncommon phenomenon) wasn’t a cosmic god, but seems to have been in some way embodied in the rockface below the temple.4 At the highest point of the city, overlooking the river, stood the imposing temple to the god Ashur. It would have been inconceivable to the Assyrians to build a temple to Ashur in any location other than this—this was where Ashur was physically present. The temple was large, measuring 108 meters (354 feet) by 54 meters (177 feet), with a central courtyard, and although it was frequently rebuilt and restored, its physical plan remained almost unchanged until the seventh century BCE.5

The government in Ashur was very different from those of its southern neighbors. Even though the city-state had a hereditary ruler, these men didn’t use the title “king.” Each one was a “governor” (ensi) who served the god Ashur (though we refer to them as kings anyway). In the eyes of the Assyrians, the god himself was in charge. In practice, though, much of the power in Ashur was held by a City Assembly. It was this assembly, rather than the king, that made decisions and it could also serve as a court of law.6

Even though the fields around Ashur were not particularly productive, the city flourished. It had a singular advantage: Ashur was located at a crossing of several traditional roadways. You might think that this would have inspired the kings there to impose high taxes on any traders passing through town, and thereby to increase the fortune of their city. But an early king made a very different decision. Erishum I of Ashur, who ruled from 1974 to 1935 BCE (a whole century before Sumu-El ruled in Larsa), proclaimed that no taxes at all would be imposed in Ashur on traded goods, including metals like gold, silver, copper, and tin, and even on staples like barley and wool.7 Trade there was to be free. Did Erishum proclaim this decision because he foresaw that it would be a boon to his state? Or did he do it for more pragmatic reasons that resolved some issue of the time about which we know nothing? Either way, it turned out to be a wise choice.

What happened was that merchants interested in buying or selling metals and textiles from across the region seem to have gravitated to Ashur, where they would not owe taxes on the transactions. Assyrian entrepreneurs then purchased these goods—especially tin and lapis lazuli from the east, and textiles from the south (and from weaving enterprises in Ashur itself)—and found ways to sell them in distant markets that needed or wanted them. The market that proved the most profitable for Ashur was far to the west, in Anatolia.

Our textile caravan from Larsa might have received not just one offer for their cloth there, but competitive offers from a number of trading firms. Of course, woolen cloth was woven in Ashur as well, but local textiles were considered less valuable than those from the south.

The movers and shakers in Ashur, including the members of the City Assembly and various high officials, were almost all merchants. For 200 years, from around 1970 to 1770 BCE, Ashur’s heart and soul, its economy, its very raison d’être, lay in its merchants and their far-flung trading activities. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that the merchants commanded so much power, and that the Assyrian kings were relatively weak.

Every year, one of the merchants living in Ashur (though many of them did not live there, as you will see) was chosen to be the principal official for the city for that year, the limmum. The choice of who would take this role seems not have been on the basis of his wisdom or skill or even interest in the job; instead, the limmum was selected by lot.8 This man became responsible for collecting taxes, making loans, and convincing people to repay their debts. He lived in a public building for the year, assisted by a number of other officials.

It is emblematic of the difference between Ashur and the contemporary southern kingdoms that the kings in Ashur did not name the years after their great achievements, as kings did in the south. Instead, each of the years was named for the limmum officer who served that year. Each man may have been chosen by chance, but he gained a kind of immortality from his service—his name continued to be used for decades afterward to refer to events in the year of his limmum-ship. (Although women participated in trading activities and worked for merchant firms, the limmums were all men.) And now, all these thousands of years later, historians continue to use these names to understand the sequence of events of the era, even if the lives and achievements of the individual men are largely lost to us.

A master list of 145 of the limmum names, inscribed on a cuneiform tablet, was found in 2001, and other lists that have been found can be compiled to provide a sequence of the names of limmum years from 1972 to 1718 BCE. In ancient times these lists helped scribes keep track of the sequence of years and to calculate how much time had elapsed between, say, the year Iphurum, son of Ili-elliti, and the year Shu-Ishtar, son of Ikunum (not to be confused with Shu-Ishtar, son of Shukutum, who had served as limmum two years earlier!). Now historians find the lists to be crucial for the reconstruction of the chronology of what is called the Old Assyrian period, which was contemporary with the Isin-Larsa period in the south.

We know a great deal about Ashur in this era; it is one of the best-documented eras in all of Mesopotamian history. Oddly enough, though, this is not because of findings in the city of Ashur itself. There, a paltry number of royal inscriptions and only twenty-four clay tablets have been found.9 If all we had as evidence for the state of Ashur in the early second millennium were the documents that came out of the ground in the capital city, we might think that Ashur was not unlike the kingdoms of the south. In particular, we would know nothing of its remarkable trading activities. Its kings made many of the usual boasts in their inscriptions. They were especially concerned with noting their piety in building and reconstructing temples for the gods.

One early king of Ashur seems to have claimed to have conquered lands in the south. This was King Ilu-shuma, who ruled in the early twentieth century BCE, and boasted that he “established the freedom of the Akkadians (southern Mesopotamians) and their children. I purified their copper. I established their freedom, from the marshes and Ur and Nippur, Awal, and Kismar, Der of the god Ishtaran, as far as the city (Ashur).”10 It’s an odd way to describe a conquest, though, and most of the named cities clearly didn’t fall under the actual rule of Ashur. It may be instead that Ashur was successful in a bid for trading privileges with these regions, even before Ilu-shuma’s son Erishum I abolished taxes on traded items.

The City of Kanesh: Trading Center in Anatolia

The reason we know so much about Ashur, even in the absence of much written evidence from the city itself, is that as many as 22,460 documents written by merchants from Ashur have been excavated hundreds of miles from the city, at a place called Kanesh, now called Kültepe, all the way off in central Anatolia not far from the modern Turkish city of Kayseri.11 The city of Kanesh, it turns out, was the focus of the trading activities of the merchants of Ashur, the place where the merchants (who ran the City Assembly and served as limmums) created their wealth, and a place where many men from Ashur lived and worked. Excavations there have shown that Kanesh was inhabited by local Anatolians, for the most part, while the Assyrians lived in a community, often referred to as a colony, on the outskirts of the town.

The documents from Kanesh are astounding. They provide details about all manner of complex and ingenious details of trade in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries BCE. They even tell us how Ashur was ruled—it is from the Kanesh texts, not from anything in Ashur itself, that we know about the City Assembly, the annual appointment of the limmum, and the roles of other officials. And most of all, the tablets tell us about the people who lived in Ashur and Kanesh—about their interests and concerns.

The whole trading enterprise was based on the fact that the people in Kanesh wanted to acquire tin and textiles, and that the people in Ashur wanted silver and gold. The Assyrians therefore met this need by bringing tin and textiles to Anatolia, and selling them (at a hefty markup) in exchange for silver and gold, which they then carried back to Ashur.

How did the Assyrians discover an untapped market hundreds of miles from home? We don’t know; by the time the texts that survive were being written, the trading system was thoroughly established. But we do know that the Assyrians weren’t alone; Syria was home to a competing network of merchants who also traded with Anatolia. According to a letter found in Kanesh, merchants from the Syrian city of Ebla showed up there at one point, interested in trading copper. Also, seal impressions of Syrian kings and a Syrian princess have been found in an Anatolian palace at a place called Acemhöyük. Even the Babylonians seem to have been involved in long-distance trade. A Babylonian official named Lagamal-gamil used his personal seal on a door sealing at the Anatolian site of Tilmen Höyük. He was probably there to trade for timber, silver, or wine.12 Unlike at Kanesh, we don’t have thousands of documents recording these other trade networks, but this doesn’t mean that such documents don’t exist in the ground somewhere. The fact that so much research has been done on Assyrian trade gives the impression that the Assyrians somehow monopolized long-distance trade in this era, but it’s almost certainly not true. The Assyrian merchants provide a case study of a phenomenon that may have been widespread. Trade was no longer monopolized by the great temples and palaces in this era, and private merchant enterprises took full advantage of this.

Textiles and tin in one direction, silver and gold in the other—that was the core of the Assyrian operation, and these commodities maintained an enterprise upon which families could get very rich. But here’s a strange thing—the Anatolians who snapped up Mesopotamian cloth weren’t short of wool; they could and did make their own fabric on local looms.13 They simply seem to have particularly treasured the Mesopotamian textiles (and especially those not from Ashur but from southern cities like Larsa). It seems that, in the eyes of the people of Kanesh, the Mesopotamians made better cloth than they did. Perhaps it was finer, or warmer (good for Anatolian winters), or in brighter colors, or it had more patterns or embroidery than local wares. We have no way to know, because not a shred of it survives. All we have instead are the Akkadian words for different types of textile wares, which bring to mind no images at all.

As for tin? Everyone needed tin. Ever since the invention of bronze, tin was a necessity, not a luxury. But it didn’t originate in Ashur. The tin used throughout the Near East at this time seems to have been mined in what is now Uzbekistan, at a staggering distance of about 2,700 kilometers (1,680 miles) from Ashur.14 We know almost nothing about the journey that brought it to Ashur—who mined it, who refined it, who carried it across Iran and into Mesopotamia (though we do know that, just as was true of the southern textiles, it wasn’t the Assyrians who did this—foreign merchants brought the goods). No doubt, their trading mechanisms were just as complex as those we do know about, of the Assyrians who bought the tin from them and moved it on farther west. Each time it changed hands, the tin became more and more expensive. In Ashur one shekel of silver bought fourteen shekels of tin. By the time it reached Anatolia the price had doubled; a shekel of silver bought only seven shekels of tin.15

When the Assyrians came home with silver from Anatolia, they were, in a way, bringing home not a commodity, but hard cash. Silver provided the foundation of the Mesopotamian economy by this time, even though every shekel of it had to be imported. People were sometimes paid for their work in silver, loans were made in silver, houses were bought in silver. The Assyrians who brought it back with them from Anatolia could immediately invest it right back into their businesses, buying more tin and textiles for the next trip.

Gold, curiously enough, was not a medium of exchange like silver. In fact, gold was categorically not to be sold to anyone outside their community; the City Assembly had created a legal prohibition against it: “Assyrians can sell gold among each other but, in accordance with the words of the stela, no Assyrian whosoever shall give gold to an Akkadian, Amorite or Subarean. Who does so will not stay alive!”16 It was, though, prized for jewelry and was even more valuable and rare than silver.

Kanesh has been excavated in a systematic way since 1948. It is a truly huge site, one of the largest occupation mounds in Turkey. Not only is the tell itself 550 meters (1,800 feet) across and 20 meters (65 feet) high, but suburbs extended around the town as well.17 Sometimes an ancient city takes on more importance now than it really had in ancient times just because it has been excavated (and especially if documents were found there), but this isn’t the situation with regard to Kanesh. It would have been well known and important in ancient times because it was located in a strategic spot on the Anatolian plateau; like Ashur, it benefited from being at a crossroads of routes that had been traveled for centuries. One was a north-south road, coming up from the Mediterranean in Cilicia, one was an east-west road, and the last was a southeast-west road.18 The people of Kanesh suffered through cold, snowy winters and hot summers. But the region’s average of sixteen inches of rainfall, spread across the year, allowed farmers to grow their crops without the need for irrigation canals, and they seem to have had no shortage of food.

Kanesh, like other Anatolian city-states of the time, was ruled by a royal couple, the king and queen holding power together, though the king generally took the lead, and men dominated the official positions that supported the administration.19 Their palace on the tell commanded the heart of their city. In the twentieth century BCE, the palace seems to have been circular, which is odd, because rectangular buildings had long been the norm in Anatolia.20 The city also housed temples to the local gods, and large residential districts. The people of Kanesh would not have thought of themselves as living in a backwater, or in somewhere peripheral to their neighbors in Mesopotamia. Although the Assyrians played a big role in trade in their region, the more important connections for the people of Kanesh were with neighboring states, each with a capital at a major city.21 Like almost all ancient peoples, they probably believed themselves to be living in the center of the universe. Theirs was an urban, sophisticated culture, and (as in other parts of the Near East) the Anatolian city-states seem to have frequently gone into battle against one another.22 The Assyrians were in Kanesh to trade not by some happy accident but because, if you wanted to get hold of silver, it was the place to be. When necessary, the merchants coped with the disruptions caused by local wars or coups, writing letters to warn one another of potential difficulties.

One curious thing about the culture of Anatolia in this period is that all of their administration, all of their building, all of their communication, everything they did, appears to have been achieved without the use of a writing system. Until the Assyrians showed up, scribbling away in cuneiform and littering the town with thousands of clay tablets, the ancient Anatolian sites are silent, devoid of texts. However, it’s possible that the Anatolians did have their own script, a system of hieroglyphs (which is well known in Anatolia for later eras), but that they wrote only on organic materials at this period.23 These documents would have disintegrated. Although the evidence is limited, this would help explain how Anatolian officials could manage the administrative complexities faced by the governments there.

The cuneiform tablets of the Assyrians weren’t found in the palace at Kanesh, or in other public buildings, or on the tell at all, for that matter. They were found in private houses in the suburbs to the northwest of the main city. This is where the Assyrians had settled, living among local Anatolians in an area of dense housing, with no parks or open spaces. They called this area the “karum” or trading center. The main roads in the karum ran parallel to one another, and were wide and paved, with drains built under the paving to prevent flooding. Smaller dirt roads led from the main streets to blocks of houses or to individual front doors. The town would have been crowded and noisy, like Mesopotamian towns of the same era, though the streets looked different, with houses built of stone and wood rather than mudbrick.

Archaeologists found at least seventy archives in the houses of the karum, each of them representing the business activities of a family of Assyrian merchants between around 1970 and 1835 BCE. The documents tended to be found in a storeroom in a house, where they were kept in boxes, jars, or baskets, or on shelves. The merchants kept their clay tablet records for a surprisingly long time—and not just contracts, business reports, and judicial records that might need to be referenced later, but letters between family members as well. Some families archived just a few documents, others kept hundreds. From these, we know the names of the merchants and the names of their relatives and employees, and we know about their trading ventures, their troubles, their profits and losses, their family tensions, and their joys. Unfortunately, for most of the merchants, we don’t know exactly which archive came from which house. Oddly enough, when archives can be linked to particular houses, they don’t necessarily correlate with one family. A single house could contain the records of several merchants. This seems to be because merchants didn’t like to leave their archives or other valuables in their own homes when they were away—the records could instead be entrusted to someone else in their absence, and that is where they were found, all these centuries later.24

Ashur-idi, Ashur-nada, and Their Relatives: A Trading Family

One of the houses was home to a man named Ashur-nada, son of Ashur-idi. One hundred seventy-six documents relating to him and his family have been published, so we know a great deal about them.25 None of their records were discovered during formal excavations, unfortunately; they were sold on the antiquities market in the early twentieth century, before excavations began, and are scattered in museums around the world. Ashur-nada is one of the few ancient Near Eastern individuals (other than kings) for whom enough evidence survives that an entire book has been written about him and his world; it was authored by historian Mogens Trolle Larsen.26

Ashur-nada might have lived in almost any of the known houses in the karum. We can, though, guess what his home might have looked like; many of the houses were similar in structure (see Fig. 9.1).27


Fig. 9.1 Simplified plan of a house used by an Assyrian merchant in the karum at Kanesh, twentieth–nineteenth century bce (based on Hertel 2014, 38, Fig. 9).

It would have been entered from the street by walking down a few steps. This was because the street level rose over time (as a result of mud and refuse that accumulated there), whereas the floor of the house was swept regularly and its level remained unchanged. A small hallway area led into a large main living room, which also often served as a kitchen. It had an oven, a hearth, and storage bins for grain, along with grinding stones and pestles. In winter, the heat from the oven would have been welcomed by the family that gathered there. Houses in the karum were built right up against one another, often sharing walls, which would also have insulated the rooms from cold in winter and heat in summer. A second downstairs room provided space for storage. Some such rooms were heavily built and secured, probably so that the merchants could store the textiles and tin that they planned to sell, or the silver and gold they were shipping home, and this is where Ashur-nada’s archives would have been kept as well. Some houses had a third downstairs room, and many had a well-built stairway of wooden steps, presumably leading to a second story. Some of the households had as many as nine or ten people living together, so they probably slept in several different rooms on both floors.

Ashur-nada was the Anatolian representative of his family’s firm, which was headed by his father, Ashur-idi, who lived back in Ashur. Ashur-idi wrote regular letters to his eldest son Ashur-nada, and to his two other sons.28 All three of the brothers were involved in the business and all of them lived most of the time in Anatolia, far away from their homeland.

The family patriarch Ashur-idi was not a calm man. He had a lot on his plate. The success of the family business ultimately came down to him. A lot of people, not just his sons and their families, depended on him to keep everything running smoothly. It’s a curious fact that, even though Ashur-idi must have thought about the activities of the family firm in Anatolia every day of his adult life, there’s no evidence that he ever actually traveled there.29 Perhaps this contributed to his nervousness; the only way he could contact his sons in Kanesh was by letter, and his only means of persuading them to do what he requested for their shared trading business was through the vehemence of his language.

I should note here that, unfortunately for historians, the merchants of Ashur tended to use the same personal names over and over when naming their children. There were, for example, at least twenty-five different men named Ashur-idi (each of them listing a different man as his father) among the Assyrian merchant community, and twenty-two men named Ashur-nada.30 That means that a random reference to Ashur-nada that doesn’t identify him by his father’s name could be to the merchant we are interested in, or could be a reference to any one of twenty-one other men; it is often almost impossible to know which man is intended.31 Only when his father was named can we be certain that we’re dealing with the right man.

As far as Ashur-nada’s family in Ashur goes, the name of his mother is unknown. Ashur-idi remained married to this woman, the mother of his three sons, but they only ever referred to her in letters as “our mother.” Although no such images survive from Ashur or Kanesh, a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque of a man and woman provides a clue about the ideal of married life. The couple have their arms around one another and seem affectionate (see Fig. 9.2). Even in an arranged marriage, the Mesopotamians hoped that the husband and wife would become fond of one another. That said, one imagines that Ashur-idi’s wife must have needed reserves of patience to cope with the ever-roiling emotions of her husband.


Fig. 9.2 Molded terracotta plaque of a couple, c. 2000–1700 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Most wives of Assyrian merchants were involved in the family business, and this was probably true of Ashur-idi’s wife as well. Such women lived in Assyria, never traveling to Anatolia with their husbands (if their husbands traveled), but corresponding with them regularly. Women were responsible for weaving cloth not just for the household, but also for sale in the long-distance trade. They received pay for the textiles they made, money that was theirs to keep. Sometimes, though, they were unable to keep up with the demands of the men in the family for cloth to sell. One woman wrote to her husband: “As to the textiles about which you wrote to me in the following terms: ‘they are (too) small, they are not good’; was it not on your own request that I reduced the size? And now you write (again), saying: ‘process half a mina (of wool) more in your textiles.’ Well, I have done it.”32 One can sense this woman’s exasperation with the changing requests.

Having brought up her three sons to adulthood (along with daughters, possibly, though they are not mentioned), Ashur-idi’s wife then committed to bringing up three or more of their grandchildren, namely Ashur-nada’s son and daughters who lived in Ashur. The grandparents took them in presumably after the death of their mother.33 Perhaps Ashur-nada wanted them to learn about the family business, or perhaps he simply couldn’t bring them to Kanesh to be with him until they were older.

The children do not seem to have been happy in Ashur, though. Something drove them over the edge and they ended up renouncing their grandparents in Ashur and setting off for Anatolia to be with their father. Ashur-idi wrote to his son Ashur-nada about this, at the end of a fairly routine letter about tin and textiles. He wrote, “I have raised your son, but he said to me: ‘You are not my father.’ He got up and left. Also your daughters have I raised, but they said: ‘You are not our father.’ Three days later they got up and left to go to you.” It’s curious that the usually volatile Ashur-idi described this so calmly, belying what must have been a major family crisis. He even ended the letter with the non-committal “so let me know what you think.”34

This terse passage leaves so many questions unanswered. The children must have been at least teenagers at this point. What triggered their departure? How did they get to Anatolia? What did Ashur-nada do when he found out about this? Was he angry? Was he sympathetic? We don’t know, but we do know that the children needed a loan in order to cover their expenses after they left their grandparents’ house, and also probably to pay for their journey to Anatolia.

Luckily, Ashur-nada had a friend in Ashur who decided to help the children find a loan to support themselves. But he wasn’t about to pay for the cost himself; that was their father’s responsibility. This friend wrote to Ashur-nada, before the children made it to Kanesh. The friend wrote that he and another man “have borrowed 30 minas of copper in a merchant-firm, at the (interest) rate 10 shekels per mina (monthly), and your son and daughters have spent it. . . . Please take care to send the silver and the accrued interest so we may pay in full to the merchant.” This was a lot of copper. A mina was about equivalent to a pound, or 450 grams, so the friends had borrowed (and the children had spent) about 13.5 kilograms of copper. The children needed more, though: “Also, send silver so that your children do not starve.”35

In any event—family dramas aside—like the heads of all the Assyrian merchant families, Ashur-idi devoted a lot of his time to accumulating textiles and tin to be shipped to Kanesh. In order to buy the goods, he was in constant need of silver generated from the goods that had already been sold, and he needed it to be sent back to Ashur as quickly as possible and not hoarded by family members in Anatolia.

The Ashur-idi merchant firm wasn’t a particularly large or wealthy one. They did fine much of the time, but there’s a note of panic in many of Ashur-idi’s letters, as though the whole enterprise might collapse at any moment. At one point, things got so bad that he told Ashur-nada and one of his brothers that they must take the drastic step of selling off most of their assets in Kanesh: “Please,” he wrote, “the very day you hear this letter, you must offer for sale the houses, both of your slave-girls and both of your grinding-girls, and send me the silver!” This wasn’t just Ashur-idi being dramatic (though he could certainly be guilty of this); he realized that this abrupt sale would leave his sons with nowhere to live. He continued, “Then you must rent a house and settle there.” But he wasn’t done with his appeal. He repeated himself: “Please, please, pay heed to the words of the letter! Sell everything!” It was worth pointing out that the gods would punish the men if they disobeyed: “If you have not sold (everything)—as the words of the gods are urgent—you will perish!”36 Ashur-idi had creditors and investors he needed to pay, and every moment wasted brought him closer to bankruptcy.

Of course, his letter would have taken weeks to get to Kanesh, and even if Ashur-nada and his brother did as their father requested and sold their houses and slaves the very day they got the message, the silver this generated wouldn’t have reached Ashur for months after Ashur-idi sent the letter. One has the sense that the sons probably didn’t obey the command, and that Ashur-idi, despite his protestations, did in fact survive financially and continue to trade. There’s even an Ashur-idi, described as the son of Shuli, who served as limmum at a time when our Ashur-idi would have been quite elderly. We can’t be certain that these two were the same man, but there are several indications that they might have been. It’s rather heart-warming to think of him administering the city of Ashur for a year in his old age, an eminent figure in the community, though perhaps the people he worked with might have been less than happy with the situation, if his temperament was unchanged.

The logistics of the trade between Ashur and Kanesh are well understood. Once a merchant such as Ashur-idi had gathered together a shipment of the right size, he had to join, or create, a caravan to transport it. For this, trained donkeys were essential. Donkeys were really the fifth major item of trade. They were purchased in Ashur and often sold, along with the tin and textiles, once the caravan reached Kanesh. A donkey cost around 16 or 17 shekels of silver and then also had to be furnished with trappings for the trip, such as packsaddles and blankets, which cost another 2 or 3 shekels, so the donkeys were big investments. Fortunately, if they made it to Anatolia (and not all of them did), they were worth more there and could be sold for a profit. Some were simply kept on hand by the merchants for further trading missions within Anatolia.

Each male donkey could transport approximately 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of merchandise.37 Males were preferred because they were stronger than females, and the merchants needed to hire men to drive the donkeys, with no more than two donkeys assigned to each driver. As the caravan grew in size, with more merchants signing up to join in, there must have been a lot of activity on the streets of Ashur. Tin was packed into saddlebags, which were slung over a blanket and packing saddle so as to rest on each side of the donkey. Textiles were rolled up and placed on the donkeys’ backs. As many as 300 donkeys could be involved in a single caravan, with as many men accompanying them.38 Letters in clay envelopes were entrusted to men making the journey, with clear instructions about whom they were to be delivered to. Presumably some other people, like the children of Ashur-nada, joined the caravan simply because they needed to get to Anatolia. Everyone going traveled on foot—the donkeys were too valuable as pack animals to take riders.

Ashur-idi rarely contributed more than two donkeys to a caravan. His letters often refer to a shipment of two talents and ten minas of tin, along with from 4 to 75 textiles.39 When no tin was sent, Ashur-idi’s contribution to the caravan usually varied from 11 to 72 textiles—a single donkey could carry between 20 and 30 of them. On one occasion he managed to put together 144 textiles, but that was a remarkable amount for him.

Once the caravan was assembled, the merchants and donkeys left the city in a long procession, and could travel west on one of a number of roads, all of which seem to have avoided passing through the rival trading territory of the western Syrian kingdoms. A lot of research has been done to identify the exact routes taken, but we can’t be completely sure how they went. The merchants visited karums in towns along the route in northwest Syria, and then the whole caravan ventured up into the Taurus mountains, making its way through well-traveled passes. Inns along the road provided fodder for the donkeys, but the general sense one gets is that the merchants didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about donkey welfare and that the donkeys weren’t especially well taken care of. When one died or ran away it was possible to buy a new one in the next town, or to rent one for a stretch of the journey. This was not a situation in which the arrival of merchants in a town was ever a surprise—along the whole route, the local people expected the regular visits of caravans and must have found many ways to take advantage of the merchants’ needs. Donkeys were probably readily available.

It’s intriguing to wonder about what languages the Assyrians used once they were out of the Akkadian-speaking regions of northern Mesopotamia. In Kanesh, several local languages were spoken, notably the Indo-European language of Hittite (to which we will return later),40 but also some other Indo-European tongues and a local language known as Hattic. Almost certainly the merchants who regularly lived and traded in Kanesh were at least bilingual and were comfortable speaking Hittite when they were there, but did they also speak Hurrian, for use when traveling through northern Syria? Did they hire translators? Did the local people along the route learn to understand and speak Akkadian so as to be able to work with the caravans? Probably it was a mix, depending on the individuals. In whatever way they did it, they managed to communicate just fine.

There’s evidence that during the summer the caravans may have traveled in the early morning and late evening, and perhaps even at night, so as to avoid the heat of the day. In the wintertime, the passes through the mountains were often covered in snow, making travel impossible. Timing a caravan trip right was important. If everything worked well, the journey from Ashur took six weeks. One imagines that some of the travelers became close friends in the process (if they were not friendly already, given that these journeys took place regularly) but that tensions erupted from time to time as well.

Once the donkeys and merchants finally reached Kanesh, they had to stop first at the palace of the local king and queen, pulling up in the big circular courtyard. There, the king of Kanesh got to choose what he would take as his taxes on each load (he took a 10 percent tax—one out of every ten textiles) and he could also purchase additional goods from the merchants at the going rate if he chose to. This was all governed by a detailed treaty between the king and the merchants to which they had all sworn an oath.41 In exchange for the taxes that he received from the merchants, the king agreed to protect them while they were in his realm, even to the point of paying them for any textiles that were stolen from them there. The king of Kanesh also agreed not to use his position of power to intimidate the merchants. He could not “take [a textile] away by force,” nor could he “purchase it at a low price.”42 He had to be fair to the Assyrian merchants so that the trading relationship they enjoyed continued to be productive for all parties.

The traveling merchants were then allowed to leave the main city through the gate and arrive, finally, at the homes of their Kanesh-based family members in the karum. Ashur-nada would have greeted his children when they arrived (happily, one hopes, in spite of the money they had cost him by leaving their grandparents) and checked all the goods from Ashur against the letter that listed what had been sent. The men who worked for the firm no doubt sat down together soon afterward and decided which items in the shipment should be sold there in Kanesh and what should be sent on to one of the forty other towns and cities in Anatolia where Assyrian merchants did business. They had to decide which of the brothers would take the goods and when would be a good time to do so. Everyone also certainly asked questions, shared gossip from home, and caught up on what had been happening in Kanesh. There must have been news of babies and marriages, illnesses and deaths in both communities. Ashur-nada’s children were presumably anxious to explain their defection from their grandparents’ care, and full of excuses for why and how they used up the 30 minas of copper that their family friend had borrowed for them.

After they arrived in Kanesh, Ashur-nada’s children would have initially joined his household there. Their father had an Anatolian wife and a second family, as did many of the merchants. This was true even of merchants who, unlike Ashur-nada, still had a wife alive in Ashur, even though marriage was supposed to be monogamous in Ashur.43 Marrying a second (Anatolian) wife was not a secret nor was it frowned on. As long as each wife stayed in her separate region, the arrangement was considered respectable.44 Ashur-nada’s children from Ashur probably met their stepmother (who gloried in the name Shishahshushar) and their half-siblings for the first time when they arrived. For that matter, the children were probably not particularly familiar with their father, as he seems to have resisted traveling to Ashur and generally stayed in Anatolia as much as he could. (It’s tempting to speculate that he could cope with his temperamental father better at a distance of several hundred miles than when in the same room!)

Ashur-nada’s letters are much less emotional than those of his father. He seems to have been uncomplicated and businesslike, though he did lose his patience a little with his father sometimes. Once, when Ashur-idi accused him of not repaying him some silver, Ashur-nada wrote back, “instead of sending me these angry messages, let [the gods] Ashur and Ilabrat be my witnesses that I have scraped together what I had in my possession, and that I did pay . . . my balance payment.”45

Ashur-nada may not have seen his children all that much even after they moved to Kanesh to be with him, because he was often away traveling around Anatolia. His archive includes plenty of letters written home from these trips. His work beyond Kanesh was not just in selling goods that had arrived from Ashur; he also bought and sold local copper and wool in the course of his travels, profiting in the end by obtaining more silver.

The name of Ashur-nada’s son, who had left his grandfather so dramatically, was Iddin-Ishtar, and it’s clear that his relationship with his grandfather remained rocky long after he and his sisters had moved to Anatolia. Iddin-Ishtar began working with his father Ashur-nada for the family firm and eventually, after his father’s death, he took over control of the Anatolian branch. So presumably he grew up to be an upstanding member of the community. But his mercurial grandfather didn’t trust him. On one occasion Iddin-Ishtar was back in Ashur, presumably for business reasons, and he succeeded in angering his grandfather again. Ashur-idi wrote, “As to Iddin-Ishtar—not only has he continually robbed me, he took me to the office of the firm, and then he broke into the house and absconded!”46 Ashur-idi didn’t just want to be repaid for the amount that he maintained had been stolen from him by his grandson, he wanted personal vengeance. He told Ashur-nada to “seize Iddin-Ishtar and have him pay 3 minas of silver out of his own silver, and send him to me so I can release my anger on him!”

There’s less information in the letters about the silver that was sent home than about the goods that were shipped to Anatolia in the first place, but what was sent back to Ashur was never heavy enough to warrant using a donkey. The average that the Ashur-idi firm sent back at any one time was about 7.5 minas of silver.47 A mina was approximately a pound, so a man could carry the silver back easily. Fortunately, a mina of silver in Ashur could be exchanged for 14 minas of tin, or a great many textiles, so the whole system was profitable, even for a relatively small trader like Ashur-idi.

Trade continued between Ashur and Anatolia for more than a century, but life and government in Ashur were upended in the early eighteenth century BCE when an imperialistic king named Shamshi-Adad expanded his control over all of Upper Mesopotamia. His empire and its successors provide the historical context of the next chapter.

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