Chapter 13

Barbers, Mercenaries, and Exiles

The young scribes continued to study to become scholars in House F at Nippur throughout the reign of Hammurabi, but soon after his death, the world around them faced growing turmoil. The warm relationship that Hammurabi seems to have achieved with his subjects, and the loyalty he inspired, did not continue into the reign of his son, Samsu-iluna (1749–1712 BCE). In the eighth and ninth years of the reign of Samsu-iluna, people in the southern reaches of his empire began to rebel, declaring their independence and placing local rulers on the thrones of their new, small kingdoms. In 1739 BCE, House F was abandoned, along with much of its neighborhood in Nippur, and the scribal school was never re-established. In Larsa, a man who became king took the name Rim-Sin (1741–1736 bce), perhaps hoping to capture the magic (and legitimacy) associated with the great Rim-Sin I, the last king to have ruled an independent Larsa; he took control of Nippur. Samsu-iluna had his hands full fighting these rebels, and he mentioned them frequently in his year-names. Within four years, from year 9 to year 13, he had fought a people called the Kassites, along with the lands of Ida-Maras and Eshnunna in the north, and Uruk, Ur, Larsa, Isin, Kisurra, and other lands to the south.1 The king of newly independent Uruk was also fighting in the same regions, against many of the same enemies, including Eshnunna and Isin,2 though he was not on the side of Samsu-iluna of Babylon. It was a tumultuous time.

Samsu-iluna himself wrote about this era of warfare in an inscription, though he presented it as a glorious victory: “at that time I defeated with weapons, eight times in the course of one year, the totality of the land of Sumer and Akkad which had become hostile against me. I turned the cities of my enemies into rubble heaps and ruins. I tore out the roots of the enemies and evil ones from the land. I made the entirety of the nation dwell according to my decree.”3 How much of this was true?

He does seem to have been successful in battle against Larsa, about which he boasted, that “The year was not half over when he (Samsu-iluna) killed Rim-Sin (II) who had caused Emutbala to rebel, (and) who had been elevated to the kingship of Larsa. In the land of Kish he heaped up a burial mound over him.” But the rest of Samsu-iluna’s boasts ring hollow: “Twenty-six rebel kings, his foes, he killed; he destroyed all of them. He defeated Iluni, the king of Eshnunna, one who had not heeded his decrees, led him off in a neck-stock, and had his throat cut. He made the totality of Sumer and Akkad be at peace, made the four quarters abide by his decree.”4 If that had all been true, why did Samsu-iluna stop commemorating southern campaigns in year-names after his thirteenth year? He seems instead to have given up on trying to control those lands. The “totality of Sumer and Akkad” was actually not at peace, not at all, and Isin, just to the south of Babylon, was probably by now the southern border of his empire.5 By the time of Samsu-iluna’s twenty-eighth year, even local Isin, so close to Babylon, was out of his reach—no tablets dating to his year-names have been found there after his twenty-seventh year.6

The south was suffering not just from local wars but also from a drought that affected much of the Near East.7 There was never much rain in southern Mesopotamia, of course, but the rains had diminished in Anatolia at this time as well, meaning that the great Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were lower in their riverbeds, and river water was essential for all life in the south. Without enough of it, people couldn’t farm, they couldn’t transport goods on the river, they might starve.

Archaeologists went looking for occupation levels dating to this era at the great cities that had dominated Mesopotamian history for so many centuries, but they found nothing. Southern cities like Ur, Uruk, Isin, Girsu, Larsa, and Eridu—all of which had been home to the brilliant culture of the Sumerian city-states, and had continued to thrive under the Akkadian kings and during the Third Dynasty of Ur—they all were at least partially abandoned during the reign of Samsu-iluna.8

Right when we would like to know more about this, the scribes fail us. Few documents were left lying around houses or public buildings in these newly empty cities, so it’s not clear just how much of the crisis was caused by the drought. Probably the people suffered famine or disease as well. Even Nippur—home to all those eager young scribes who had been learning their esoteric Sumerian literature from the master teacher in House F—even there, the texts fell silent for a while.9 Some of the residents hung on, hoping for a better future. Some moved away. Many no doubt died.

A new kingdom, calling itself the Sealand, materialized to rule over the apparently depopulated southern region. It must have been centered on the marshlands south of Ur. Its kings were able to muster troops to fight against Samsu-iluna and to take control of Nippur in Samsu-iluna’s twenty-ninth year. The Sealand was to continue to be a thorn in the side of the Babylonian kings for more than a century.

Samsu-iluna’s Northern Campaigns

Babylon could have returned to being one of the smaller states in the region, its once impressive empire having lasted just a few decades. But Samsu-iluna compensated for the losses in the south by trying to expand his empire to the north, beyond even the regions that his father Hammurabi had been able to conquer. He bragged, in the name of his twenty-sixth year, that he had supervised the quarrying of stone in faraway Amurru, to the northwest, and we know from archaeological discoveries in Syria that this claim wasn’t just hot air. A garrison town on the Euphrates called Harradum was controlled by Samsu-iluna—the documents from there date to his reign, starting in his twenty-sixth year. Two years later, in his twenty-eighth year, he attacked two kings named Yadih-abum and Muti-hurshan and “crushed [them] like a mountain with his terrifying . . . weapon and his mace.”10 He was so proud of this victory that he named the three subsequent years after the same event.

Gimil-Ninkarrak: A Chief Barber and His Neighbors

Unfortunately, we have no idea who Muti-hurshan was or where he ruled, but we do know something about Samsu-iluna’s other enemy, Yadih-Abum. This king, who was more commonly known as Yadih-Abu,11 ruled a land that lay just beyond the northern limit of Hammurabi’s conquests, on the Euphrates River in Syria. This was the kingdom centered at Terqa that carried on under local kings after the destruction of neighboring Mari. The land was probably called Hana—at least that was true later in its existence—but at this point we don’t know its name because none of the known texts mentions it. Hana is not a well-known kingdom but it was remarkably resilient over those centuries. Its independent history was just beginning during Samsu-iluna’s reign.

As is so often the case in Mesopotamian history and archaeology, the fire and fury of the king’s rhetoric in his year-name are reflected on the ground by . . . nothing at all. Samsu-iluna claimed to have “crushed”  Yadih-abu, but that king’s capital city of Terqa seems to have hummed along just fine throughout Yadih-abu’s reign and into the reign of his successor, King Kashtiliashu, and beyond. The excavations there show no sign of Babylonian troops or any Babylonian presence at all at this time. Archaeologists haven’t even found any texts dating to Samsu-iluna’s reign. But it’s not impossible that the city of Terqa did come briefly under direct rule from Babylon and that we just don’t yet have documents to prove it.

In his thirty-third year, Samsu-iluna boasted in his year-name that he “restored completely all the brickwork of the city of Saggaratu.”12 Saggaratu was to the north of Terqa; it was, in fact, where Zimri-Lim of Mari had arranged to meet his wife Shibtu with an ensemble of seven musicians only a few decades before. It’s highly unlikely that the Babylonian king could claim credit for this construction project unless it was at least underway (though “all the brickwork” has a certain hyperbolic ring to it). So Samsu-iluna probably did have a presence in the region around Terqa.

At Terqa, only a small part of the city has been excavated from this period, and it’s probably not the neighborhood that Yadih-Abu would have chosen for future generations to visit. It’s not his palace, or the great temple to Dagan, or the city wall. Those grand buildings suffered one of two possible fates. Either they are still there, but hidden underneath the modern village, called Ashara, that still sits on top of the tell, or they have long since fallen into the Euphrates. The river sliced off most of the tell at some point in its history, leaving just a semicircular section standing, like a half-eaten cake. What was found at Terqa, though, was a collection of houses and a small neighborhood shrine from this era, clustered along a narrow alleyway right at what is now the edge of the tell (see Fig. 13.1). One of the houses was chopped off by erosion from the river centuries ago, so that one half of its pantry was found full of pots and the other half was completely missing, the sheer side of the cliff face of the tell in its place.13


Fig. 13.1 Plan of Area C at Terqa, late eighteenth century bce. Gimil-Ninkarrak seems to have lived in the building adjoining the temple, his neighbor Puzurum lived across the road in building STCA (Undena Publications, Rouault 1984, ix, Fig. 1).

Among the inhabitants of the neighborhood that the excavators discovered, the most influential man was named Gimil-Ninkarrak (he was active c. 1710–1680 BCE).14 Twelve documents name him, and a number of these were found in a house where he probably lived, next door to the shrine.15 One of them reveals that he served as the chief barber.16 This was an exalted position. A chief barber did much more than shave and cut hair; with his sharp blade regularly near the throats of many powerful men in the court, Gimil-Ninkarrak would understandably have been one of the local king’s most trusted advisors. This was true of barbers throughout Mesopotamian history.

Gimil-Ninkarrak, as chief barber, would have overseen the work of barbers throughout Terqa. Barbers were professionals who shaved hair for all classes of men.17 Ur III texts show that, rather than setting up in a permanent workplace, the barbers seem to have traveled to their clients, carrying willow wood for heating water, and stools for their clients to sit on.18 But there were “bathing places” as well, where it seems that some clients regularly went for a shave.

And who needed shaving? Earlier, in Early Dynastic times and right on through the Ur III period, some men were shown in sculptures with their heads and beards completely shaven. Gudea never wore a beard in any of his many statues. Barbers would have been regularly employed to keep such men clean-shaven. They used a copper razor called a naglabu that was also used by surgeons,19 and there was definitely a connection between barbers and surgery, perhaps not surprisingly, since barbers were trusted to use sharp knives with great care.

Men grew their beards long by Gimil-Ninkarrak’s time, the Old Babylonian period, but there was still work for barbers. Artworks show that the beards of high-ranking men were perfectly coiffed, sometimes into long ringlets. Beards and hair would also need to have been cut and shaped, and unwanted facial hair shaved. According to Hammurabi’s laws, barbers also were tasked with shaving the heads of enslaved men and women in a way that set them apart from the rest of the population. This was a serious responsibility because a barber could also provide the key for an escaped slave to avoid notice. If an enslaved person could convince a barber to shave off his or her “slave-hairlock,” it would be possible to blend into society. The laws stipulated a severe punishment if a barber did this knowingly, but if he had been tricked into it, he wouldn’t be punished.20

You would think that a bald runaway slave would still stand out in a community full of men with long hair and beards, but it seems that men who worked in temples still shaved for reasons of ritual purity. Barbers could be employed by temples for this reason.21 But barbers had many other responsibilities, besides shaving. They were more often mentioned as administrators than as people involved in cutting or shaving hair.22 They often took on important responsibilities, and several of them received cylinder seals from their king—a sure sign of royal esteem.23

This was true of Gimil-Ninkarrak as well. He was the proud owner of a beautiful cylinder seal that had been a gift from King Kashtiliashu (the successor to Yadih-Abu, the king who had fought Samsu-iluna of Babylon). It was engraved with an image of a goddess, along with Gimil-Ninkarrak’s name and the name of his father. The inscription also noted that Gimil-Ninkarrak was the “servant of Kashtiliashu.” The seal had gold caps at the top and bottom, each of them intricately decorated with minute granulated gold beads set in triangular shapes. The seal itself doesn’t survive, but he rolled it on some of his documents, so we have its impression.24

In documents from Gimil-Ninkarrak’s house, from those of his neighbors, and from the shrine to the goddess Ninkarrak, a whole community emerges. The people there didn’t mean for these records to survive—no one had curated them or placed them carefully in jars for safekeeping. They were strewn around as textual garbage, no longer needed, ground into dirt floors or left in place when a room burned down, not important enough to retrieve. They comprise the usual culprits, the types of documents often found in Old Babylonian homes—contracts for the purchase of fields and houses and for the hire of laborers, loan agreements, lists of people receiving rations, letters, a few school exercise tablets. Although dozens of people are mentioned in them, five families predominate. They knew one another over at least four generations. They were one another’s neighbors and they owned adjoining fields. They witnessed one another’s contracts. Some of them were, clearly, friends. The names of many members of the families appear in a list of offerings to Ninkarrak that seems to have been displayed in her shrine, so the families were united in their devotion to their neighborhood goddess as well. In keeping with his importance to the local community, Gimil-Ninkarrak’s name is near the top of the list, behind only the king and a dignitary.25

His duties as chief barber may have taken him to the king’s court from time to time, but most of the time, Gimil-Ninkarrak’s life seems to have been very similar to those of his neighbors. Like them, he owned fields and hired laborers to help him farm. He was available when his friends and relatives needed witnesses for their contracts, and they, in turn, showed up when he needed them to witness the formulation of his own contracts. He hired a younger man, a scribe named Pagirum, to write up one of these documents. Pagirum and Gimil-Ninkarrak seem to have known one another well; in fact, Pagirum probably also worked for the king in some capacity, because he later received a royal grant of land. And here’s one of those clues that leave us wondering: each man had one son that we know of, and each named his son Iddin-Addu.26 Gimil-Ninkarrak and Pagirum both could have explained this apparent coincidence to anyone who asked. Perhaps they shared a friend or relative whose name was Iddin-Addu and they named their sons for him. Perhaps both of their sons were named in honor of an omen from the god Addu. Or perhaps it really was just a coincidence. Whatever the case, any later person who is described as “the son of Iddin-Addu” could have been the grandson of Gimil-Ninkarrak or the grandson of his friend Pagirum. We can’t know. The fact that certain names were popular and used frequently within a community makes it singularly difficult to reconstruct family trees from our distance of more than 3,700 years.

Abi-eshuh of Babylon: A King and His Dam

After Samsu-iluna’s death in 1712 BCE, his son Abi-eshuh (1711–1684 BCE) took the throne in Babylon. He seems to have been obsessed with tackling the crisis in the south and bringing an end to the power of the Sealand. After what must have been extensive consultation with engineers and advisors, he came up with a novel and, frankly, cruel idea for how to do this, one that seems not to have been tried before but was emulated many times in later history. If the marshes of the south could be made to dry out, the Sealand kings would be crippled and their people would die. Nature was doing a pretty good job of depriving southern Mesopotamia of water already; no doubt the king knew this. But what if he could speed this process along? And what if the same scheme could provide more water to cities that he hoped to repossess and bring back under Babylonian control?

Abi-eshuh’s Machiavellian idea was to build a dam across the Tigris and to channel the Tigris water west into the Euphrates. The cities downstream on the Tigris would be devastated by the loss of the water, while the cities downstream on the Euphrates would get a new infusion of water and hope.27 As it happened, Abi-eshuh’s grandfather Hammurabi had already provided one of the keys to making this possible. Back in year 33 of Hammurabi’s reign he had commemorated the construction of a canal, which he had modestly called “Hammurabi is the abundance of the people.”28 It flowed from the Tigris to the Euphrates at a point where they run relatively close together and continued south from there. Hammurabi had said that the canal would “establish the everlasting waters of plentifulness for Nippur, Eridu, Ur, Larsa, Uruk, and Isin.”29 In Hammurabi’s time, plenty of water had still flowed in the Tigris beyond the canal to supply the ancient cities of Umma, Girsu, and Lagash that lay along its banks. As far as Abi-eshuh seems to have been concerned, though, those Tigris cities weren’t worth saving, not if it meant that he could get rid of the kings of the Sealand and devastate the marsh areas in which they and their subjects lived.

This was not a project that could be done without the gods’ support, so Abi-eshuh dutifully consulted them through oracles. One of these oracles was recorded and it became a historic document, copied by scribes again and again, so that the version we have of it was written down centuries after Abi-eshuh’s reign.30 It notes that after all the planning was complete, a lamb was sacrificed and the diviner extracted its liver so as to examine its parts, “read” them, and come up with an answer to the following question:

Within the month Abu, up to its thirtieth day, (on) the day that he (Abi-eshuh) identified, thought about and planned, the day he intends and desires, should they (the troops) open a coffer dam on the east bank of the Tigris, should they place breadth facing length, should they heap in reeds and earth and so make a barrage?31

The diviner was asking not just whether the gods thought the dam was a good idea, but also whether they approved of the date the king had chosen to begin the work. It’s curious to see how Abi-eshuh’s enthusiasm for the project even comes through in the question—he had “thought about and planned” the project; he “intends and desires” a particular date. Was he trying to influence the gods to say yes?

The oracle question continued with more details about the dam. The answer from the gods? Yes. He should do it.32 Work began at once.

Consulting with the internal organs of sacrificed animals, known as extispicy, was a routine way to receive communications from the gods. It involved a kind of scientific thinking, in that the diviners believed in making observations, writing reports, and consulting those reports later in the hope of anticipating future events. (Though, of course, we would not find a scientific connection between the shape of a liver and the success of a military or building project.) The diviners who trained in reading oracles kept records; these types of priests were always literate. We’ll look into their work more later.33

Nothing remains of his dam now, but Abi-eshuh was deeply proud of it. He named the year in which it was built “the year King Abi-eshuh, by the exalted might of Marduk, placed a dam on the Tigris.”34 And then he quickly realized that his fabulous dam needed to be protected and maintained. No doubt the people who still lived downstream were furious and terrified. Where was the water they needed to grow their crops? How could they navigate boats on a river that had slowed to a trickle? A dam made of earth and reeds was vulnerable not just to the pressure of the water that now swept away to the west, down Hammurabi’s canal and into the Euphrates, but also to attacks by people suffering from its effects and no doubt determined to tear it down. The king set about building a fort right by the dam, which he would man with troops. He named it Fort-Abi-eshuh, or Dur-Abi-eshuh in Akkadian. This fort also was the subject of a year-name: “The year King Abi-eshuh built Dur-Abi-eshuh above the barrage of the Tigris.”35 It actually wasn’t the first fort that he’d named after himself. There was already another one on the Euphrates where Hammurabi’s old canal joined it.36

Now that he was in fort-building mode, Abi-eshuh constructed and manned forts in seven locations right along the Euphrates, including at Nippur (which was back under Babylonian control)37 and Uruk.38 Abi-eshuh and the kings of Babylon who succeeded him relied strongly on armed forts in order to rule their land; at least twenty-eight forts were in operation across the country, though by this time the kingdom of Babylon boasted only four actual cities: Babylon, Sippar, Dilbat, and Kish.39

We know about the world of Dur-Abi-eshuh because hundreds of tablets were written there and have been published.40 These records show that, although the south was suffering from drought, it wasn’t completely empty of people—at least not along the Euphrates. The towns on the Tigris, in contrast, suffered just as Abi-eshuh must have planned. Archaeologists working there found nothing but ghost towns during this era.41

Marduk-lamassashu and Ibni-Sin: A Vizier and a Commander in Dur-Abi-eshuh

Throughout the reign of Abi-eshuh, troops traveled easily up and down the Euphrates in boats. They also sailed from the Euphrates to the Tigris and back, along Hammurabi’s canal, which was wide and deep enough for boat traffic. One of the administrative documents recorded rations of beer for a trip made by twelve charioteers between the two identically named forts:

6 beer vats . . . as travel provisions for 12 charioteers who went by boat from Dur-Abi-eshuh at the Tigris-dam to Dur-Abi-eshuh at the outlet of the Hammurabi-is-the-abundance-of-the-people canal and have returned.

(The beer vats) were given to them when troops stayed in Dur-Abi-eshuh at the outlet of the Hammurabi-is-the-abundance-of-the-people canal.42

The forts were manned not just with Babylonian men, but with mercenaries from neighboring lands as well, including ones that recently had been enemies of Babylon.43 Some soldiers and commanding officers were identified by their nationality—including Kassites, Suteans, and Elamites—and some by their home cities. The men came from as far afield as Aleppo in Syria (ancient Halab) and Arrapha in the far north of Mesopotamia.44 This was a widespread phenomenon in this era; the Babylonian army was manned by thousands of foreign mercenaries.45 They no doubt spoke many different languages, but they shared a common employer, and all were provided with monthly pay. The scribes kept track of all of it.

A number of men show up over and over again in the records—men like the cupbearer with the patriotic name Hammurabi-lu-dari who, in the twentieth year of Abi-eshuh’s reign, was often given the responsibility of receiving barley that would be allocated to troops and workers.46 He had an inscribed seal, which he sometimes used to seal the relevant receipt tablet.

Another impressive figure who must have been a familiar sight in Dur-Abi-eshuh was the vizier Marduk-lamassashu. In years 19 to 21 of Abi-eshuh’s reign, he often worked with a commander named Ibni-Sin (and sometimes, in year 21, with two commanders both named Ibni-Sin, which must have been the cause of some confusion). The standard phrase in which their names appeared was: “(The barley) was given to them (the craftsmen, or troops, or particular groups of soldiers, listed above this section), when the troops stayed in Dur-Abi-eshuh at the outlet of the Hammurabi-is-the-abundance-of-the-people Canal” and then came the names of the men overseeing the troops on that occasion: “with Balassu-lirik, the overseer of the barbers, Marduk-lamassashu, the vizier, Sumu-hammu, the commander, Ibni-Sin, the commander, and Ibni-Sin, the commander.”47

One can’t help wondering what these men were like. Balassu-lirik, the overseer of the barbers, might have been the most powerful man on this team—as we saw with Gimil-Ninkarrak in Terqa, this was a position invested with more influence than one might think. Marduk-lamassashu, as vizier, would also have had the king’s ear. He presumably traveled with the troops and their commanders regularly between Babylon and Dur-Abi-eshuh. Was he distant and remote, or did he chat sometimes with Ibni-Sin as they supervised the troops together? There’s no way to know. Marduk-lamassashu lived on into the reign of the next king, Ammi-ditana, and still held his powerful position.48 Most of these individuals were completely lost to history until the recent publication of these records brought a small window into their world back to us, glimpsed (as so often is the case) through the prosaic records of barley and beer distributions.

So—was Abi-eshuh’s diabolical plan successful? Did he defeat King Ili-ma-ilu of the Sealand by depriving his country of water? Not at all. A later chronicle recalled this moment: “Abi-eshuh, son of Samsu-iluna, tried to defeat Ili-ma-ilu so decided to dam the Tigris, but though he dammed the Tigris he did not defeat Ili-ma-ilu.”49

Nevertheless, the forts named for Abi-eshuh continued to be occupied and manned for another century, through the reigns of the subsequent kings of Babylon: Ammi-ditana (1683–1647 BCE), Ammi-saduqa (1646–1626 BCE), and Samsu-ditana (1625–1595 BCE). And the kings of the Sealand, whose homeland had not in fact been devastated as a result of Abi-eshuh’s canal, continued to cause them frequent difficulties. Although the Babylonian kings maintained a fort all the way to the south in Uruk, it was a lonely outpost; Babylonian control didn’t really extend beyond Nippur (which was just south of the Dur-Abi-eshuh on the Euphrates). Even at Nippur, life was dramatically different from the comfortable times of the scribes in House F. That earlier era must have seemed like a different world.

Abandonment of the City of Nippur

The city of Nippur had been largely abandoned after the thirtieth year of Samsu-iluna’s reign.50 But its vast and imposing temple, called the Ekur, was still there. It could not be shut down—it was, after all, home to Enlil, the greatest of the Sumerian gods, and had been the holiest place in southern Mesopotamia at least since writing began in the Early Dynastic period, almost a thousand years before. A group of priests and officials were still living and working there throughout the reign of Abi-eshuh and into the reign of Ammi-ditana. But their peace was broken in Ammi-ditana’s eleventh year (1672 BCE), when the city of Nippur was violently attacked by troops from the Sealand.

People who had still been living in Nippur were forced to flee north to Dur-Abi-eshuh, where they would be safe behind the walls of the fort. Some officials in Dur-Abi-eshuh wrote to tell the king about their arrival from Nippur, keeping a copy of the letter for the fort’s own archives:

To our Lord (Ammi-ditana) speak. Thus report your servants:

Our Lord’s city (Dur-Abi-eshuh) and troops are well.

In the eleventh month on the twenty-eighth day, the citizens of Nippur who fled from Nippur to Zibbat-Narim (probably another name for Dur-Abi-eshuh), spoke to us as follows: “In the eleventh month on the nineteenth day five hundred enemies with equids and conscripts arrived at Nippur. They entered the Ekur-temple.”51

This was a catastrophe. The enemy troops had not only breached the city walls, they had entered the holy shrine of Enlil, and now were inside and damaging its sacred spaces. The next few lines of the letter are, unfortunately, broken, but it’s clear that the enemies went on a rampage of destruction and looting: “The walls of the temple were pierced (?) . . . They robbed . . .” But then somehow the people of Nippur were able to defend themselves. The tide turned. “They became afraid. The horsemen (?) took cover and took off.”52

The Sealand forces were not finished with Nippur, however. Just six days later, they were back: “In the eleventh month on the twenty-fifth day three hundred enemies with equids entered the Ekur again.” Once again, the text is broken at a crucial point, but again the forces defending Nippur were, perhaps surprisingly, victorious. After the break we read that “the enemy has been defeated.” Sort of. The writer, continuing to quote the people who had fled Nippur, added, “However, the enemy is still arriving at Nippur daily.”53 The letter was sent to King Ammi-ditana by two men described as “express messengers.”

Nippur continued to suffer—it was mentioned in the documents from Dur-Abi-eshuh for the last time during the reign of King Ammi-saduqa. But by then, with the original Ekur in ruins and in enemy hands, a new version of the Ekur temple had been built in the safer quarters of Dur-Abi-eshuh, the one on the Tigris.54 People still hoped, though, that someday the original temple would be restored so that Enlil could move back to his ancient home. One man’s seal inscription reads, plaintively, “May [the scribe] Nanna-mesha, who reveres the god Marduk, (live to) see the restoration of the Ekur temple and of Nippur.”55

Enlil-mansum: Temple Official

Meanwhile, the exiled officials of the Ekur temple continued to work in support of Enlil from their new quarters at Dur-Abi-eshuh. An official named Enlil-mansum had the title of “neshakkum of Enlil.” There were several men with this title, but it’s unclear exactly what they did.56 Enlil-mansum probably had a religious role, but the tablets that survive from his professional career pertain to his commercial activities.57

Enlil-mansum had close ties with an important man in Sippar—Marduk-mushallim, who managed the palace finances.58 Marduk-mushallim was a special confidant of King Ammi-saduqa, in fact. In a particularly difficult year, the king wrote to him to warn him of potential attacks on Sippar, and Marduk-mushallim was thoroughly loyal to the king in return.59 On one occasion he even alerted a superior (it’s not clear who this was) that one of his fellow officials at Sippar was not following the king’s orders. When Marduk-mushallim objected to the behavior, this man had told him: “Do not accept his (the king’s) order.”60 Marduk-mushallim was having nothing to do with such insubordination. He rushed off his letter, assuring his boss that he would continue to follow orders, while revealing his fellow official’s treachery.

Marduk-mushallim sometimes financed Enlil-mansum’s business ventures. The contracts they drew up mention a number of men who worked as couriers or traders for Enlil-mansum or witnessed his contracts. These tablets give us a sense of the close ties between people who were living and working in Dur-Abi-eshuh at this time.

Nanna-mesha (he of the wistful seal inscription) was a member of this community. He was not just a scribe. Like Enlil-mansum, he was a neshakkum of the Enlil temple. It’s no wonder that his seal inscription bemoaned the loss of the temple. The two men worked together, and Nanna-mesha turned up as a witness to one of Enlil-mansum’s contracts that helps reveal what his traders were buying for him on their business trips.

This contract was for the purchase of an enslaved woman “from the city of Awil-ili.”61 Enlil-mansum paid 12 shekels of silver for her. She was presumably destined for the temple, rather than for his own household. The clauses end by noting that there would be “three days for investigation, one month for epilepsy,” and that “he (Enlil-mansum) will be responsible for claims on her in accordance with the royal regulation.”62 Almost all the slave sales ended this way. Epilepsy was a particular worry, as it was believed to be caused by the gods.63

All the sale documents that mention Enlil-mansum were for the purchase of slaves—mostly women but some men. Many of the enslaved people came from distant cities in Elam, Gutium, Subartu, and Andarig.64 There seem to have been no “markets” where slaves could be bought within Babylonia during this era; perhaps there never had been. People generally lost their freedom as a result of falling into debt; this happened in all areas. So when the temple of Enlil wanted to purchase slaves, it seems it could not do so locally. Enlil-mansum sent his traders to distant regions for this purpose; he could trust that, for the enslaved people there, unlike those with local roots, their status would not change. No matter the reason why they were enslaved originally, they would not be freed in Dur-Abi-eshuh as a result of, say, resolving a contract or paying off a debt.65 They would be trapped in slavery for life, far from their homelands. Enlil-mansum’s impassive contracts tell us nothing of the heartbreak this must have occasioned. The temple of Enlil seems to have had an ongoing demand for enslaved men and women.

Ahunatum, a son of Enlil-mansum, got himself into serious trouble, perhaps during a trading mission either for his family or for the temple of Enlil. He was captured sometime during the second year of King Samsu-ditana (1625–1595 BCE) and held hostage. Someone must have sent a ransom request to his father, Enlil-mansum, and it was for a huge amount of silver: a whole mina.66 This was toward the end of Enlil-mansum’s career; he was probably getting on in years and would not have been able to make the trading journey himself.

Was this kidnapping a scare? Or perhaps Enlil-mansum wasn’t too surprised to get the ransom request—in this era, kidnappings of river traders seem to have become fairly common.67 In any event, Enlil-mansum determined to pay the ransom, and somehow got the silver together. He entrusted the payment to a merchant who was going to the region where Ahunatum was being held and would get the kidnappers to release his son.68 He also gave the merchant some oil with which to obtain a donkey “for safe transport,” and put it all into a contract.

We don’t know how this story ended; no record survives of Ahunatum’s return, nor do we know when or how Enlil-mansum died. He was still alive two years after the kidnapping, lending silver to another man, not for a long-distance trip to buy slaves but to buy barley locally.69

Nine years later, Enlil-mansum’s brother seems to have taken over his business. He too was a neshakkum, living in Dur-Abi-eshuh, and he lent silver on one occasion to a cook and his wife, to be paid back in barley.70 The penalty for not paying back the barley was stiff—half a shekel of silver extra per shekel borrowed! The family’s unsavory business dealings continued, for a while at least, until the records come to an abrupt end, at a time when all of Babylonia was thrown into turmoil.

Hattusili I: Expanding the Hittite Empire

In the mid-seventeenth century BCE, during the same time that Enlil-mansum was engaging in his trading expeditions, and the kings Ammi-saduqa and, later, Samsu-ditana of Babylon were struggling to hold on to the vestiges of the empire that their predecessor Hammurabi had created a century before, a kingdom in Anatolia was changing in ways that had a lasting impact on the whole Near East.

The people living on the Anatolian plateau were descendants of the population who had lived there during the time of the Old Assyrian colonies at Kanesh, still speaking the same language, which they called Neshite, but we call Hittite. Hittite was an Indo-European language, the very earliest one to be written down. Indo-European languages had existed long before this and had already diverged dramatically from Proto-Indo-European, which was the shared ancestor to ancient Hittite, Celtic, Latin, Greek, Germanic, Old Persian, Sanskrit, and all their Indo-European descendants, including modern Persian and Hindi, and most modern European languages, such as English, German, Spanish, French, Czech, Polish, and all the other Germanic, Romance, and Slavic languages.

Around 1750 BCE, a new capital city was established high on the Anatolian plateau at a site now called Boğazköy, 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of modern Ankara. A town had existed there since before the time of the Assyrian colonies, though it had been abandoned. But it was an ideal spot for a well-defended capital,71 with steep escarpments on two sides, carved by rivers flowing through the rocky landscape. The town was called Hattusa and, over subsequent years, it became home to many palaces, temples, and formidable fortifications, along with extensive residential districts. Thousands of cuneiform tablets were found there during excavations, supplying much of our knowledge of Hittite history.

The king who chose Hattusa as his capital may have originally ruled from Kanesh (also called Nesha),72 and he took the name Hattusili, “man of Hattusa,” probably in honor of his new capital. Since several later kings adopted the same name, to us he is Hattusili I (1650–1620 BCE). Hattusili didn’t invent the idea of an Anatolian empire; his predecessor Labarna had made plenty of progress in that, conquering many smaller kingdoms. But Hattusili wrote about his conquests in cuneiform, so we know much more about him, and his conquests were more extensive.

In his annals he described little but battles and raids, often boasting that, after destroying a city he “took possession of its property and carried it off to Hattusa.”73 It became important for a Hittite king to prove his prowess on the battlefield and to outdo his predecessors in his conquests.74 Hattusili I may have initiated this model of kingship. Like Mesopotamian kings, Hattusili believed that the gods had chosen him to rule. He wrote, “To me, the king, the Sun God and the Storm God have entrusted my country and my house (the palace) and I, the king, will protect my country and my house.”75

Hattusili I even took his army on campaign beyond Anatolia; on at least two occasions they crossed the Taurus Mountains and moved south into Syria, where the king continued his habit of destruction and looting, this time in the long-established and prosperous kingdom of Yamhad (the former ally of Mari). But the Hittite troops could not stay too long in Syria when they were fighting there. By late autumn they had to be home. The snows on the Anatolian plateau made travel impossible through the winter months.

Hattusili did not destroy Yamhad’s capital city of Aleppo, however. That particular act of violence was committed by his grandson and successor, Mursili I (1620–1590 BCE), once again bragging that he had outdone the achievements of the kings who came before him.

One benefit of these Syrian campaigns was that the Hittites decided to adopt the cuneiform writing system that they encountered there.76 Hittite scribes probably learned to write Akkadian and Sumerian in cuneiform from Syrian teachers who set up schools in Hatti, at least to start with. Later, the scribes adapted cuneiform to be able to record their own language of Hittite. Early documents like Hattusili I’s annals only survive because scribes copied and recopied them.

Although the Hittite kings were responsible for their brutal campaigns of conquest at this time, and made no apologies for this, daily life in the Hittite heartland was no more violent than elsewhere in the Near East. Yes, men were regularly called up on campaign and must have witnessed and participated in terrible bloodshed and destruction,77 but at home they and their families farmed, traded, went to court, married, and worshiped the gods much like their Syrian and Mesopotamian neighbors. The many cuneiform tablets found at Hattusa attest to this.

Samsu-ditana of Babylon: The End of the Dynasty of Hammurabi

King Samsu-ditana proved to be the last king of Babylon in this era. Some enemy force destroyed and looted Babylon in 1595 BCE, but we don’t know how this happened or what led up to it. Like a good detective story, tantalizing clues remain, but we can’t be sure what they mean.

The clues appear in documents, most of which were written considerably later, and by peoples who had by then become powerful in the region.78 One of the documents was a later Hittite inscription, and the Hittites have often been assumed to have been the sole aggressor against Babylon. The end of Babylon is mentioned in just two cryptic sentences of the inscription: “Now later he (Mursili I) went to Babylon. He destroyed Babylon and fought the Hurrian [troops]. Babylon’s deportees [and] its goods he kept in Hattusa (his capital city).”79 According to this, it was the Hittites who attacked and sacked Babylon, taking captives and loot back home with them (as they had done in Syria). But why did the Hittites find themselves fighting Hurrians apparently in Babylon? Hurrians lived far away from Babylon in northern Syria. More peoples were involved than just Hittites and Babylonians.

Another textual clue is found in a document from Babylon. Surprisingly, it says nothing about the Hittites, though it does describe a chaotic time in the reign of King Samsu-ditana: “When at the time of Samsu-ditana the borders of Sumer and Akkad were altered by the belligerence of the Amorites, the uprising of the Hanaeans, and the army of the Kassites, the design of the land had been obliterated and its borders unmade.”80 This writer would have us believe that three non-Hittite groups of people were responsible for the chaotic “unmaking” of the borders of the Babylonian kingdom: the Amorites, Hanaeans, and Kassites. The Amorites we have already met; even Hammurabi was an Amorite. By now, they lived pretty much everywhere in Syria and Mesopotamia. The Hanaeans were the people who lived north of Hammurabi’s Babylonian empire in what was now probably called the kingdom of Hana, the area where the barber Gimil-Ninkarrak had lived in the reign of Kashtiliashu. The Kassites were relatively new to Mesopotamia, but had been mentioned as troublemakers since soon after Hammurabi’s death. They spoke a language that was completely unrelated to Akkadian and Amorite and they may have originated in regions to the north of Babylonia. So it seems that attacks on Babylon may have come from all directions.

Another theory, proposed by historian Seth Richardson, is that before the kingdom was attacked from outside it had already been disintegrating from within.81 Fortresses, like the two Dur-Abi-Eshuhs, were spread throughout the countryside in this era and, as we have seen, they were staffed by mercenary soldiers from many different lands. These soldiers may have been paid to fight Babylon’s enemies, but their loyalty to the Babylonian king was minimal. The mercenaries could have been inspired by warlords to rebel and could have been responsible for the demise of Hammurabi’s dynasty.82

Archaeological evidence has been found that supports the idea of a violent period within Babylonia decades before the end of the dynasty. For example, a house in Sippar-Amnanum had been home to a lamentation priest named Ur-Utu whose life was turned upside down perhaps by just such a rebellion. It took place in the eighteenth year of King Ammi-saduqa (the penultimate king of the Babylonian dynasty).83 Ur-Utu lived in a comfortable house in Sippar-Amnanum where he had grown up, and he kept an archive of more than 2,000 tablets there.84 He had just begun a renovation of the house when he suddenly needed to evacuate. Hostile forces must have already been in the streets when Ur-Utu was sorting through his cuneiform tablets, madly trying to find the ones that were most important to him. He couldn’t leave without a group of contracts pertaining to real estate (these went back hundreds of years), which proved that he had the rights to his extensive fields, and he also needed to take some contracts for loans that were still outstanding; a number of people owed him silver and barley.

He had the tablets in a box and was rushing through his house. He must have heard the soldiers outside the door and the shouts of his neighbors. Then, suddenly, his house was on fire, the wooden ceiling burning fiercely, and he just had to run. He tripped and dropped the box of tablets. It was too late to salvage them; the fire was out of control. Ur-Utu fled for his life.

If Ur-Utu survived the attack, either he decided that he did not need his archive (not even the tablets that he had been trying to take with him) or he was not allowed access to his house after the fire was put out. He never returned to clean up the mess made by the fire, or to reclaim his possessions, and neither did anyone else.85 His ancestral home was abandoned, and soon that was true of the whole city of Sippar-Amnanum around it.86 Ur-Utu’s tablets stayed exactly where they were for more than 3,500 years until discovered by archaeologists, who were able to reconstruct the last minutes of his escape by the odd groupings of tablets in the rooms and on the floor.87 If an internal Babylonian rebellion brought devastation to Sippar-Amnanum, it was followed by an invasion from beyond the Babylonian borders.

Samsu-ditana has always been considered the unlucky final descendant of Hammurabi, the king who witnessed this invasion of the great city of Babylon and perhaps died as a result. But no inscription from Samsu-ditana’s own time identifies him as being related to the previous kings. Perhaps he was one of the warlords himself, leading the destruction of cities and houses, like that of Ur-Utu, before usurping the throne.88

No matter who he was, Samsu-ditana gradually lost control of the remaining cities within the Babylonian kingdom over the course of his reign. Hanaeans, Amorites, and Kassites played a part in this, to say nothing of Hurrians, Elamites, and people from the Sealand, who seem also to have been involved.89 It must have been an unstable and dangerous time.90 The Hittite raid on Babylon, led by King Mursili I, could have been the final nail in the coffin of a kingdom that had been collapsing for decades. It’s no wonder that almost no documents were written for a very long time afterward.

The gap in the records that follows this period is really striking. The sixteenth century BCE is a real “Dark Age,” not in an old-fashioned, pejorative sense, but as a time that we know almost nothing about, as though the lights had been turned out. Scribes across Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East seem not to have been needed and to have stopped taking students. Even some mathematical knowledge was lost for good as scribal schools closed their doors.

Only two Mesopotamian kingdoms in the sixteenth century BCE are known to have kept on producing documents. One was the Sealand in the south,91 and the other was Hana in the north,92 but neither is understood well. Perhaps in the future they will help fill in our understanding of this era. The Hittites, too, continued to produce some documents during this time, though Hatti descended into crisis after its attack on Babylon.

One text written during the Dark Age (but only preserved in a later copy) provides us with a glimpse of an improvement in relations between the Hittites and their Babylonian neighbors.93 It shows that the Hittite kings began to take tentative steps to join the international diplomatic community. The document is called the Agum-Kakrime inscription and it reveals a surprising, though still only vaguely discernable, new world after the end of Hammurabi’s dynasty, in which a Kassite dynasty had taken control of Babylonia. The Kassites, you may recall, were one of the groups who provided mercenary soldiers to the previous Babylonian kings and who had been among the groups threatening Babylonia. Now they were in charge in Mesopotamia and remained so for centuries.

A Kassite king of Babylonia named Agum had succeeded in convincing the Hittites to return the state gods Marduk and Sarpanitum to Babylon. The statues of the gods had been taken during the Hittite attack, and seem to have been held hostage for twenty-four years. The Babylonians, of course, were desperate to get them back. Agum’s mission must have entailed diplomatic negotiations, presumably with letters and messengers passing back and forth between Babylon and the Hittite capital. Eventually, though, when the gods returned home, Agum notes that they were sent from Hana, halfway between Hatti and Babylon. This peaceful transfer of the gods back to their homeland gives us a preview of the next era, one that eventually became a model of diplomacy and international cooperation.

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