Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

Armenia Azerbaijan Bahrein Cyprus Georgia Iran
Iraq Israel Jordan Kuwait Lebanon Oman
Qatar Saudi Arabia Syria Turkey United Arab Emirates Yemen

A General History of the Middle East


1792 to 930 B.C.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Amorite Period
Iron, the Metal of Mars
The Assyrian Debut
The "Hittites"
The Hurrians
The Kassites
The Eleventh Plague
Israel Becomes a Nation
The Warrior Pharaohs

Part II

The First Arabs
The Middle Assyrian Empire
The Aramaean Arrival
The Middle Elamite Period
The Other Nebuchadnezzar
Suppiluliumas the Great
Mursilis the Defender
Tiglath-Pileser I
Israel: The United Kingdom
Kadesh, the Greatest Chariot Battle of All
Go to Page Navigator

The First Arabs

Today Arabia is a desolate land of sand, but it wasn’t always that way. Like the Sahara, much of it was greener at the dawn of history. The monsoons of the Indian Ocean swept over it regularly (nowadays the coast of Oman is the only part of the Middle East that sees monsoon rains), rivers and lakes dotted the landscape, and African-style savanna filled in spaces between the bodies of water. Water buffalo, hippopotami, oryxes, gazelles, goats, wild cattle and camels were commonplace.  Humans passed through the area to hunt this game, and left behind many stone tools for today’s anthropologists to find.

Then suddenly the climate changed. Perhaps because of the ice age’s end, the winds bearing rain clouds stopped blowing. The rivers and lakes dried up, a merciless sun caused temperatures to rise as high as 130o F., searing windstorms churned the topsoil into sand dunes, and the wildlife either died or went away. Man also moved out, migrating either north to the Fertile Crescent, or west across the Red Sea to enter Africa. It appears that this spell of hyperaridity was worldwide; North Africa, northwest India, and Australia show signs that they got their deserts around the same time.  By 2500 B.C. the process was complete. Little life remained besides a few tribes, the camel, and the small, scraggly frankincense tree.

Now the Arabian peninsula was the kind of place that travelers preferred to go around, rather than through. Occasionally a Semitic tribe would migrate out of it, adding its heritage to the cultures already existing in the Fertile Crescent. Two such migrations, those of the Amalekites and Aramaeans, took place in the period covered by this chapter. The nomads who stayed behind were knitted together by tribal loyalties and alliances. All self-respecting Arabs could trace their lineage back several generations, and if several families had a common ancestor, they considered themselves one tribe. The Banu Harith, for example, were descendants of one Harith, while the Banu Bakr descended from a patriarch named Bakr.

An important step was the domestication of the camel, which took place sometime around 2000 B.C. The camel is a thoroughly useful animal, because it can carry loads up to 400 lbs.; it can go for as long as 3 days without water in summer’s blistering heat and even longer in winter. In addition, its hair can be woven into clothes and tent fabrics; its dung serves as fuel for fires when no wood is available; the nomads can live on its milk, and in desperate circumstances, the meat. Finally, it served as a mount in wartime and as a symbol of wealth. Large sums of money, like the dowry of a bride or the payment to end a blood feud, were measured in camels. The Arabs had previously owned herds of cattle, goats and donkeys, so life in the desert was possible, but it was precarious nonetheless. If a caravan failed to reach a spring or if they found it fouled or dry, both animals and men were likely to perish.  However, the unique features of the camel made the nomadic lifestyle profitable. Now Bedouins could travel faster, and in straight lines across the desert, instead of meandering from one oasis to another. As long as nobody else knew how to use the “ship of the desert,” the Arabs would generally be free from foreign rule.

And the Arabs loved their freedom. True, they had to live in one of the world's harshest climates, but at the same time they had no oppressive government to worry about. Within the tribes, each member had a proud sense of equality. The desert allowed no second-class citizens; all were subject to the rules of survival, custom, and lineage. Even the tribal sheikh held his position not by hereditary right, but by the consent of his fellow tribesmen.

In the absence of laws and kings, the virtues of loyalty, generosity, and courage determined the rules of human relations.  Loyalty was necessary for survival; no man could live in the desert without his tribe, and no tribe could function if its members did not support one another.  Generosity was important for similar reasons; in a land where wells were more precious than gold, it became an honorable act to aid the passing stranger.  Courage demanded the protection of the tribe's women from enemy raids, and a willingness to participate in counter-raids; thus one's skills in archery and horsemanship were very important.

Those skills were put to the test frequently, because the number of wells and grazing areas were limited, leading to competition between the tribes.  A Bedouin might kill his last camel to feed a stranger--the rule of generosity demanded it--but if he needed another camel, he simply took it.  So armed bands were constantly roaming across the dunes to rustle livestock from rival camps. The object of these raids was always plunder, not combat. The spilling of blood was something to avoid if at all possible, for it could spark a feud that nobody wanted; an insult to one individual was an insult to all and demanded vengeance in kind.  Despite all efforts to avoid them, tribal feuds broke out constantly. One of the most famous, celebrated in song and legend, erupted between the Taghlib and Bakr tribes in the fifth century A.D. and lasted for forty years.  Its cause: a Taghlib chief accidentally wounded a Bakr matron's favorite she-camel!

Because the Bedouins had few material possessions and were always on the move, poetry became the art form best suited for them.  The appearance of a poet in a tribe was always a good reason for celebrating, because a poet could inspire his friends and demoralize his enemies. He also served as community spokesman, journalist, public relations man, and historian of his people's valiant deeds. Arabic is still a literary language today, rich in many different meanings and styles of speech.

The footloose Bedouins looked down their noses at their cousins who chose to settle at an oasis, but they could not have survived without them.  The oasis was both a garden and a marketplace, supplying the nomads with apricots, oranges, sugarcane, melons, pomegranates, and products from the "mother and aunt of the Arabs": the date palm. The sedentary Arabs also made and sold essential manufactured goods like weapons, tools, pottery, and textiles. In return, the Bedouins offered camels, milk, hides, and protection from raiders--which sometimes meant they agreed not to raid the place themselves.

Originally the Arabs came from at least two distinct Semitic families.  According to Arab genealogical tradition, the inhabitants of southern Arabia are descended from Qahtan (Joktan in Genesis 10), while the northern tribes came from Adnan, a descendant of Abraham's son Ishmael.  Sometime the Qahtani Arabs are called "True Arabs," since they were the only ones who spoke Arabic in the pre-Islamic era; the Aramaic-speaking Ishmaelites were "Arabized Arabs" by comparison. However, both ethnic groups have mingled so much over the years that every Arab today carries the heritage of many peoples in his family tree.  To render the picture even more confused, there are also references to the "Lost Arabs," Semitic or Hamitic groups that lived in Arabia before the Arabs moved in. The Mahra, a dark-skinned Veddoid (Australoid) tribe in the easternmost province of modern-day Yemen, and the Shahra of neighboring Oman, may be descended from them.(16)

Scholars notice enough similarities between early south Arabian and Mesopotamian civilizations to suggest that the Sumerians helped get the Arabs started on the road to civilization. The best evidence for contact is the early Arab or "Sabaean" religion, which focussed on worship of the moon; remember that the moon-god was also chief over the Sumerian city of Ur.  The early Arabs had many gods, and each tribe called them by different names, but the moon was always supreme, so much so that the crescent would one day become the symbol of Islam, while all other forms of idolatry were eradicated.

The early Arabs were animists, believing that there were spirits in the objects around them: rocks, trees, bodies of water, etc. They called these spirits djinni (genies) if they were seen as friendly, and afrit or ghuls (demons) if they were not; they were given a lot of respect whatever their attitude happened to be.

Presumably the elements of civilization got into Arabia because Sumerian traders brought them there. The Sumerians had foodstuffs and fine manufactured goods to trade, but what could the Arabs give in return? The answer came from the little hardy tree that lived among them.  Burning its wood produced a smoke that was so sweet-smelling and clean, that the Arabs soon got the idea that it was the fragrance of Paradise.  It removed the musty odor of well-worn clothing; at cremations it covered the smell of burning flesh; it made water taste better, and could speed up the healing of wounds.  So they wouldn’t have to cut down their frankincense trees, the Arabs instead made cuts in the branches, and came back to gather the sap after it had dried. The best frankincense came from trees that grew in the Dhofar mountains of southern Oman, where extremes of heat and rainfall made the sap particularly potent.

By the mid-third millennium B.C., the Sumerians were using frankincense in their temples; the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead mentioned its use not long after that. Soon every religion--even the monotheism of the Israelites--required incense in its offerings.  Likewise the harvesters of frankincense made their job a religious affair; if the Roman author Pliny (the Elder) can be trusted, during the peak gathering month (August) they would only wear white outfits, abstained from sex, and could not touch a corpse until the collecting was done.

Civilization started in south Arabia (modern Yemen) at an early date, because that land got more rainfall, and thus supported a larger population, than the lands around it. The oldest state there was Ma'in, or the Minaean kingdom; it may have been started as early as 1200 B.C., and was certainly in business by the time other states appeared five hundred years later.  No inscriptions by the Minaeans mentioning wars or other military activities have ever been found, suggesting that Ma'in was a peaceful state that lived by trade and generally got along well with its neighbors.

Despite Ma’in’s apparently peaceful intentions, its existence was a challenge to the tribes living east of it, for they still had better frankincense than what the Minaeans could produce.  This was especially the case with the people of ‘Ad, who lived in the Dhofar region and claimed descent from a patriarch named Uz(17) The ‘Ad had previously dwelt in small settlements on the coast, and wandered in and out of the mountains at harvest time.  Now they felt the need to unite, so they could effectively deal with any challenge from other Arabs.  They did this by building the city of Ubar, at the Shisur oasis, around 900 B.C.  Shisur was the only significant source of water on the southern edge of the Rub al-Khali, Arabia’s nastiest corner.  Caravans could still collect frankincense from Dhofar and travel along the coast, but if they wanted to go directly across the desert, they had to stop at Ubar--and the ‘Adites made sure they paid well before they could rest and water their camels.

Before I continue the narrative, this would be a good place to mention my views on the Book of Job.  This superb piece of literature has generated all sorts of controversy regarding the authorship and historicity of the document.  Critics date the composition of the book anywhere from Patriarchal times to as late as 400 B.C. (Eissfeldt, Volz) or even the third century B.C. (Cornhill).  The moderate view puts it in the time of Solomon (Franz, Delitzsch, Keil), because of similarities with the Book of Proverbs (compare Job 15:8 and chapter 28 with Proverbs 8).  I take the "high chronology" viewpoint, and ascribe a very early date to the story, for the following reasons:

a. No date or place is given as a reference point, except in the very first verse, "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job." Uz is an archaic term, seldom used elsewhere in the Bible(18); we used to think it meant Syria or northern Arabia. Now with the recent archaeological discovery of Ubar (1992), it appears that Uz was another name for Dhofar, Oman’s southernmost province. Arab tradition seems to clinch this by asserting that the tomb of Job is in the mountains just outside Salalah, Dhofar’s seaport. If the book was written in a later, better known era, the author probably would have given more names and dates as references, like the name of the nearest reigning king; note that this is done with all but three of the books written by Old Testament prophets (the exceptions are Joel, Obadiah and Habakkuk).

b. William F. Albright identified Job's name as coming from the root word 'Iyyob; he points out that this name appears in the Execration Texts as that of a prince living near Damascus when the Amorites ruled Mesopotamia. Albright also certified the name of Bildad (one of Job's three "comforters") as a shortened form of Yabil-Dadum, another name used in the early second millennium B.C.

c. Another one of Job's friends is named Eliphaz the Temanite.  Esau had a son by that name (Genesis 36), and some scholars think that either this is the same Eliphaz, or a relative by the same name from the family of Teman (a grandson of Esau). The youngest of Job's friends, Elihu "the Buzite," had an equally noble lineage; Buzite could mean he was descended from Buz, a son of Abraham's brother Nahor.

Top of the page

The Middle Assyrian Empire

While Babylon (called "Kar-Duniash" by its Kassite rulers) committed itself to peaceful cultural pursuits, Assyria was more interested in military matters. This was because of geography; Assyria had rich, desirable farmland, watered by rain and by the Tigris River; moreover, it was right on the trade routes between Babylonia, Anatolia, and the Zagros mts. Consequently, Assyria often attracted predatory raiders from the Arabian desert or the grim Zagros highlands. The Assyrian response was an early example of a popular saying: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" For survival's sake, they overcompensated, becoming fierce warriors and the most ornery people in the entire Middle East. Once they had successfully defended their homeland, they went forth to conquer a ring of buffer states, and finally, in a progression that was perhaps inevitable, they expanded the realm into an empire whose military might would be second to none. In so doing, they wrote a bloody chapter in history, one that was especially ugly because of the atrocities which they seemed to glory in.

The first important Assyrian monarch since Hammurabi's era, Assur-uballit I (1215-1179 B.C.), made it clear that from now on Babylonia would have to consider Assyria an equal. First he conquered Nuzi, the minor Hurrian state on the Tigris. Then near the end of his reign he used skillful political maneuvering to put his part-Assyrian, part-Babylonian grandson, Kurigalzu II, on the throne of Babylon--but with results he had not foreseen. Once he was king, Kurigalzu became a true patriot of Babylonia and a protector of her interests. On the middle Tigris he built a fortified city named Dur-Kurigalzu (now called Aqarquf, a suburb of modern Baghdad); it served at the Kassite capital while he was king. The city's huge ziggurat, 170 feet high, is the largest still standing today; early European travelers mistook it for the Tower of Babel. Around 1170 B.C., Kurigalzu temporarily occupied Elam, and fought an inconclusive border war with Assur-uballit's son, Enlil-Nirari.

During this time, Assyria was still a vassal of Mitanni, so if Assur-uballit had succeeded with his plans, Babylon would have become the puppet state of a puppet state. A later king, Adad-Nirari I (1157-1125 B.C.), tried to show his independence by writing a letter to the king of the Hittites, in which he called the Hittite ruler "My brother," as if they were equals. This caused the Hittite monarch to write back, "Why should I write to you about brotherhood? Were you and I born of the same mother?"

It was the next Assyrian king, Shalmaneser I (1125-1095 B.C.), who established a new order by breaking Mitanni's hold on his land. In the same year as Thutmose III's first campaign, Shalmaneser also began his military career; he conquered part of Cappadocia, destroyed a fortress named Arinnu, brought back a basket of dust from the fort and symbolically poured it out in front of an Assyrian temple. Shortly after that, he sent gifts of lapis lazuli and ornamental wood to Thutmose, a move that showed not only that he was impressed by the Egyptian victory at Megiddo, but also that his foreign policy was independent of Mitanni. The following year saw Urartu, a province in what would later be known as southern Armenia, attempt to break away. Because Mitanni saw Assyria as its own breakaway province, its king, Shattuara, supported the rebellion by blocking the local mountain passes and waterholes, and by calling in the Hittites and the Ahlamu (see below). In desperation the thirsty Assyrians attacked Mitanni instead of the rebels--and won. In an early example of the frightfulness that would become Assyrian policy after this, Shalmaneser brought home 14,400 defeated enemy soldiers as slaves--after first securing their docility by blinding each of them in one eye. He also claimed to have devastated nine fortified temples, 180 Hurrian cities, and the Hittite and Ahlamu armies. Around the same time Mitanni was hit by the Egyptians as well, but our chronology isn't clear enough to determine if Thutmose benefitted from the strike Shalmaneser made, or vice versa.

Meanwhile on the southern front, Babylonia and Assyria coexisted like the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta for another century; the former superior in culture, the latter superior in warfare. The balance suddenly tipped in favor of the warrior kingdom when the Elamites, who had been quiet for centuries, became active again. The unfortunate Kassite king of Babylon, Kashtiliash IV, found himself caught between two enemies, Elam's Untash-Gal and Assyria's Tukulti-Ninurta I (1095-58). As a result, Babylon was captured by the Assyrians, and Tukulti-Ninurta humiliated Kashtiliash when he "trod with my feet upon his royal neck as though it were a footstool." Babylon's largest statue of the god Marduk was hauled away to Assur. Afterwards they remembered that victory as Assyria's proudest moment.

It turned out to be a mixed victory. A faction sympathetic to Babylon and its culture arose in the Assyrian court. Some Assyrians came to see the stealing of Marduk as a sacrilege. When Babylon rose in a successful revolt, they took it as a sign that Marduk was angry with Tukulti-Ninurta's misdeeds. The king was assassinated in a conspiracy of nobles that included his son, and Assyria spent the next century in confusion and economic disarray. The statue of Marduk was sent back to its rightful home.

Top of the page

The Aramaean Arrival

The Aramaeans played an important role in the late bronze and early iron ages, but we don't know much about how they got started. We know they were a Semitic people because their language, Aramaic, is a Semitic tongue. We also know that they were descended from a grandson of Noah named Aram, and their original home was in or near northern Arabia, because the Arabs in the northern half of the Arabian peninsula used Aramaic until the time of Mohammed. But that's it. We do not know if they were always nomads before they migrated into the Fertile Crescent, or if they once had a city to call their own. During the reign of Naram-Sin (see Chapter 1), Akkadian records mentioned a city named Aram or Arami, but there is no information to tell us where it was. Furthermore, we can't even be sure the city had anything to do with the Aramaeans. A case can also be made for the Aramaeans coming from Oman, because another name for Ubar, the lost Arab city, was Iram.

The next clues come to us in the late bronze age. That is when a tribe called the Ahlamu ("wanderers") appeared in Akkadian-language clay tablets. We noted in the previous section that the Ahlamu fought on the side of the Hurrians, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser I defeated both. Other tablets, including the Amarna letters in Egypt, mention the Ahlamu in Assyria, Babylon, Nippur, and even Bahrein. Finally another Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser I (see below), used the words Ahlamu and Armaia (Aramaean) interchangeably, so we know he's talking about the Aramaeans, and after his reign the term Ahlamu passes out of use, so they're just called Aramaeans from then on.

One reason why it's hard to trace the Aramaean migration is because we don't have any artifacts that we can indisputably call "Aramaean." Although they kept their language, it appears that once they entered the Fertile Crescent, they adopted the religion and art of their neighbors. For example, a favorite god of theirs was Adad (also spelled Hadad), the Mesopotamian storm-god; others included the Canaanite El, the Babylonian Sin and Ishtar, and the Phoenician goddess Anat.

The first place settled by the Aramaeans in the Fertile Crescent was the upper Euphrates valley, where they gradually evicted/assimilated the previous inhabitants. They were established here by the 11th century B.C., if not sooner. From there they spread east into northern Mesopotamia (hence the Biblical name of Aram-Naharaim for that region), and they took Syrian cities such as Arpad, Aleppo, and Til Barsip. They also moved south into the region of Hamath, Damascus, Mt. Hermon and the Bekaa Valley, where they fought Israel's King Saul and were eventually conquered by David. By the time of Solomon's death, Aramaeans were the main ethnic group of Syria, which allowed them to establish several small kingdoms when they regained their independence. The most important of these kingdoms was based in Damascus, and we'll be hearing from it in the next chapter.

Top of the page

The Middle Elamite Period

What went on in Elam between 1500 and 1350 B.C. is obscure. It looks like the tripartite leadership of the Sukkalmah remained in charge, but we know nothing of the rulers besides their names. Toward the end of this time, there was a sudden urban migration, as people abandoned many of Elam's villages and moved to the cities. It looks like there was more than one crop failure, around both Susa and Anshan, and the peasants went to the cities because they thought that would be the best place to find food.

After this slump, the Elamite kingdom's fortunes improved under the next three dynasties, so scholars call this era the Middle Elamite period (ca. 1350-950 B.C.). These dynasties originated in Anshan, rather than Susa, and their rule emphasizes the increasing importance of the eastern mountains to Elam. The first dynasty, the Kidunids (ca. 1350-1250), had five rulers, starting with one named Kidinu; their relationship to each other is unknown. They took on the titles "King of Susa and Anshan" and "Servant of Kirwashir"; the latter was an Elamite deity from the highlands, signifying that the gods from that area, which previously hadn't been important in Susa, would now get equal time with the urban deities the kings had worshipped previously, like Inshushinak, the protector of Susa. The Kidunids were also different because they used Akkadian in their inscriptions almost as often as the Elamite language (later dynasties limited the use of Akkadian to diplomatic correspondence).

The most important of the Kidunid monarchs was the last, Tepti-ahar, who built a majestic ceremonial city at Haft Tepe, nine miles south of Susa. Forgotten by history, the only visible remains at Haft Tepe were fourteen mounds, until Ezat Negahban, an Iranian archaeologist, excavated them (1965-79). A new series of excavations have been carried out since 2003 by a team of German-Iranian archaeologists, headed by Behzad Mofidi.

Negahban found several buildings forming a large complex, more than 230 feet long and 98 feet wide, surrounded by a wall. The purpose of those buildings was explained by a monumental stone with an inscription in the Akkadian language, stating that this place was the tomb of Tepti-ahar and his favorite servant girl, and next to it was a chapel so that priests, servants and guards could maintain and protect the tomb. Indeed, an intact tomb was subsequently discovered, but more than two people were buried in it. Two skeletons, presumably the king and aforementioned servant girl, lay on one brick platform, while seven more skeletons were on a second platform, and a heap of human bones (enough for an additional fourteen skeltons) were found near the entry passage. A smaller tomb next to the main one, a simple chamber with no door, contained another 23 skeletons, fourteen of them laid in a row facing north. Apparently the Elamites, like the Sumerians, buried servants with their kings; Negahban thought some of the skeletons might have been Tepti-ahar's wives as well. The surrounding temples and workshops contained painted clay figures and clay tablets. Many of the clay tablets were administrative or educational texts, showing us that as in Iraq, temples served as more than just places of worship.(19)

We know more about the next dynasty, the Igihalkids (ca. 1250-1060 B.C.); the names of ten Igihalkid kings have come down to us. The fifth king of the dynasty, Untash-Napirisha, ruled in the late twelfth century B.C. and besides enlarging Susa, he built a new city called Dur-Untash (modern Chogha Zanbil), twenty-five miles southeast of Susa. He may have wanted to make this the new capital and religious center of Elam. At first he intended to dedicate Dur-Untash to the god Inshushinak, but later changed his mind, dedicating it instead to Napirisha, the god protecting Anshan (another name for the city was Al-Untash-Napirisha, we don't know if this name came from the king or the god). Its chief monument is the largest ziggurat built outside of Iraq; once it towered at least 170 feet, and in a ruined state, it is still 82 feet high. We believe Untash-Napirisha had plans to build twenty-two temples at the site; however, he only completed eleven before his death, and the next kings chose to stay at Susa, rather than build the rest. Still, the site remained sacred, though almost deserted (only priests and their servants ever lived here), until it was destroyed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 640 B.C. One of Untash-Napirisha's successors was Untash-Gal, who we mentioned previously, and the last king of the dynasty, Kiddin-Khutran, likewise led two successful raids on Babylonia.

A new dynasty was founded by the next king, Khallutush-Inshushinak, but these rulers are now called the Shutrukids, after the second king, Shutruk-Nahunte I (ca. 1047-1017). A clay tablet in the Vorderasiatisches Museum of Berlin has an Elamite king staking his claim to all of central and southern Iraq, because several kings of the Igihalkid dynasty had married Kassite princesses, and some of the children from those unions had gone on to become kings of Elam. We believe Shutruk-Nahunte wrote that letter, and his claim was rejected, because late in his reign he led vast armies into Iraq, plundering the lands of Sumer, Akkad and Eshnunna as they had never before been plundered. Among the treasures carried back were Hammurabi's law code (it would rest in Susa until French archeologists discovered it in 1901 A.D.), and--most humiliating of all--the statue of Marduk.(20) In 1019 B.C. he killed the king of Babylon, Zababa-shuma-iddina, and declared that his son, Kutir-Nahunte III, would inherit that throne. However, the Kassites crowned one more king after Shutruk-Nahunte went home, so three years later Kutir-Nahunte, who had just succeeded his father in Susa, marched into Iraq and deposed the last Kassite monarch, Enlil-nadin-ahi. Other campaigns were directed against Assyria, bringing Kutir-Nahunte as far north as the neighborhood of Nineveh (Kirkuk in modern Iraq).

Top of the page

The Other Nebuchadnezzar

From this low point, the Babylonians made a remarkable comeback. Forced to choose between ruling from Babylon and returning to Susa, Kutir-Nahunte did the latter, so Itti-Marduk-balatu, a prince from the city of Isin, took the throne, founding the fourth dynasty of Babylon in 1015 B.C. Kutir-Nahunte soon died and was followed by his brother, Shilkhak-Inshushinak, and while this king reported several campaigns against Mesopotamia, his main accomplishment was the building/restoration of twenty temples. To the Elamites, this meant decorating the monuments with bricks painted in blue, green and white glazes, and topping them off with relief scultures of people and gods with horned crowns and/or animal heads. The next king, Khutelutush-Inshushinak, was not competent enough to even follow peaceful pursuits; one tablet identifies him as the son of Shutruk-Nahunte by his own daughter, Nahunte-Utu, so apparently the results of incest show in the king's lack of ability. This allowed another king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar I (1001-979), to regain some of Babylon's prestige by turning the tables on his enemy; he began his reign by attacking and defeating the Elamites on the banks of the Ula, a tributary of the Tigris; then he raided Susa and brought Marduk's statue home. Khutelutush-Inshushinak fled to Anshan, returned to Susa after the raid, and was followed by a king named Shilhana-Hamru-Lagamar; after that nothing more is heard from the Shutrukids.

Back in Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Hittite king Suppiluliumas, who appears to have tried imitating his predecessor Mursilis I by invading Mesopotamia (999 B.C.). He also reversed the trend of recent years by invading Assyria, advancing to within 20 miles of Assur before his army was turned back.

Despite these successes, Babylonia's good time was shorter than that of Elam. In 944 B.C. the Assyrians placed an Aramaean, Adad-apla-iddina, on the throne of Babylon, presumably to divert Aramaean expansion away from themselves. The darkest years in Mesopotamian history now began; the next five kings came from three different dynasties, and one of them, Mar-biti-apla-ushur, was an Elamite by birth. Then around 900 B.C., Nabu-mukin-apli founded the dynasty known to historians as Babylon VIII. His reign saw Babylon besieged by the Aramaeans, and the New Year Festival, which required that statues of the gods be carried to and from Babylon in a parade, had to be canceled nine times: "Bel (Marduk) went not forth and Nabu went not [from Barsippa to Babylon]." Therefore we must now lower the curtain on Elam and Babylonia, though both kingdoms continued to exist. When we look at them again in the next chapter, they will be allied but fighting a losing struggle against Assyrian domination.

Top of the page

Suppiluliumas the Great

When we last looked at the Hittites, they were a kingdom in the Cappadocian highlands, with neighbors who were more often than not unfriendly: Mitanni to the east, Kizzuwatna to the south, a tribe called the Kaska (also spelled Kaskians or Gasgas) to the north, and Arzawa, an Indo-European kingdom to the west. The first Hittite king after Telepinus that we know anything about was Tudkhaliyas I (1125-1100)(21). Kizzuwatna controlled the mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates, the easiest path between Turkey and Syria, and when Tudkhaliyas could not destroy that kingdom, he formed an alliance instead, allowing his army to pass through Kizzuwatna to go after Mitanni. One author I read suggested that Tudkhaliyas and the kings after him came from a dynasty that actually was native to Kizzuwatna, since that kingdom was not as hostile as the other neighbors of the Hittites, and because some Hurrian names began appearing in the Hittite royal family after this date (remember the Hurrian influence in Kizzuwatna).

Tudkhaliyas I was succeeded by Tudkhaliyas II, who conquered Arzawa and Assuwa (another western kingdom, from which the Greeks later got the name of Asia), captured and destroyed Aleppo, defeated Mitanni, and eventually absorbed Kizzuwatna into his growing empire. However, he had no luck against the Kaska, and the next three kings who came after him, Arnuwandas I, Hattusilis II, and Tudkhaliyas III, were all sons of his who were constantly on the defensive. The Kaska, or somebody else who wanted to see the Hittites go down in ruin, managed to burn down Hattusas at one point, and Arzawa regained its independence; a few letters from the king of Arzawa have turned up among the Amarna letters in Egypt(22).

The Hittites may have been down but they were not out; in fact, their best years were about to begin. The next king was another son of Tudkhaliyas II, Suppiluliumas I (1030-992 B.C.). He had gained some military experience by going on his father's campaigns, allowing him to serve as both a general and military advisor. However, he was passed over more than once for the throne, because his brothers were older. When Tudkhaliyas III became king, he only ruled briefly before Suppiluliumas overthrew and succeeded him. This was a clear violation of the laws of Telepinus, and the priests remembered it as the worst crime of the royal family.

After taking over, the first thing Suppiluliumas had to do was strengthen defenses at home. It may have been at this point that the great walls found around Hattusas were built; they enclosed an area of 300 acres, showing that Hattusas wasn't just a mountaintop fortress anymore. Suppiluliumas is also credited with building the primary temple of Hattusas, which was dedicated to the weather god Teshub and his wife, the sun goddess Arinna.

The walls of Hattusas
How the walls of Hattusas looked, when they weren't in ruins.

In the second year of his reign, Suppiluliumas was ready to settle the grudge with Mitanni. Since we last saw Mitanni, it had grown unstable; Artashumara, the son and successor of Shuttarna II, was murdered by a certain UD-hi, or Uthi. Tushratta, a brother of Artashumara, became king next, and somehow he managed to get rid of the assassin. Suppiluliumas first tried a straightforward march on Aleppo from the Cilician Gates, but that failed, so he regrouped and tried again six years later. This time he planned more carefully, and took an unexpected path, by way of Malatya and the upper Euphrates valley. Like Thutmose III outside Megiddo, he met little resistance, and went on to sack the capital of Mitanni, Washukkanni. Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, fled from the invaders and was put to death by disgusted members of his own court; the throne passed to his son Artatama II. Then Suppiluliumas went home by a different route; he took Aleppo, placed his son Telepinus (also called Telepinus the Priest) in charge of that city, persuaded nearby cities like Nuhasse and Alalakh to submit to him, defeated Kadesh because it did not submit with the rest of northwest Syria, annexed Mt. Lebanon, and marched south almost as far as Damascus before returning to Anatolia.

Suppiluliumas felt the need for another Syrian campaign in 1021 B.C. Although he had left Mitanni unoccupied, Artatama refused to become his vassal. Egypt was too far away to send aid (Tushratta had pleaded with Akhenaten to send him a gold statue), so the Mitannian king instead turned to the Assyrians, forming an alliance with them against the Hittites. Artatama was soon succeeded by his son Shuttarna III, who continued the pro-Assyrian policy.

Meanwhile, Suppiluliumas went first to Armenia, conquering the Ishuwa district, which had most recently been part of Mitanni; Suppiluliumas claimed it had once belonged to the Hittites, and revolted in the days of his grandfather. Once that was done, he went to Carchemish, a pro-Mitannian city he had bypassed last time, and took it after a seven-day siege, followed by a "terrific battle" on the eighth day. Because Carchemish was an important crossing point over the Euphrates, another son of the great king, Piyasilis (Sharri-Kushuh), was now appointed "king" of Carchemish.

Besides being an talented builder and soldier, Suppiliumas was also an accomplished diplomat. Whenever possible, he reinforced his treaties by marrying off a relative to the other treaty partner, and then he added remarks to the treaties asserting that his new in-law was an uncouth barbarian who needed to learn how to behave decently. For example, when he gave his sister to Prince Hukkana of Azzi-Hayasa (a city-state in northwest Armenia), he filled the treaty with this lesson in etiquette:

"Furthermore, my sister, whom I, the Sun, have given you to wife, has many sisters of varying degrees of kinship. They are now your sisters too, because your wife is their sister. But there is an important precept in the land of Hatti: no brother may have sexual intercourse with his own sister or female cousin. This is not seemly. At Hattusas, anyone who does such a thing does not remain alive; he is slain. Your country being uncivilized, it is customary for a sister or female cousin to have intercourse with their own brother. At Hattusas, this is not permitted."

Suppiluliumas goes on in several more paragraphs to mention other sexual perversions that were punishable by death in his country.

A diplomatic marriage eventually gave Suppiluliumas control over Mitanni. After the murder of Tushratta, another one of his sons, Shattiwaza (also spelled Mattiwaza), fled to Babylon, but it does not look like he persuaded Nebuchadnezzar I to give him any aid, because later he showed up in Hattusas with nothing but the clothes on his back. Recognizing this ripe opportunity, Suppiluliumas treated him generously, giving him fine new clothing and promising to help him gain his rightful throne. Since he had another sister available, he married her to Shattiwaza.

The next time a Hittite army marched against the Hurrians, it was led by two princes, Piyasilis and Shattiwaza. While they crossed the Euphrates and won a battle at Irridu, an Assyrian army, "led by a single charioteer," marched to Washukkanni. It seems that Shuttarna had sought Assyrian aid, and either the force sent in response was disappointing, or he changed his mind, because he refused to let it into the capital. The Assyrians at once put Washukkanni under siege, and since sieges were something the Assyrians were brutally efficient at, most of the inhabitants of Washukkanni quickly decided that the Hittites were a lesser evil. They sent a message to Piyasilis and Shattiwaza, and the two princes marched to the rescue, taking the cities of Haran and Pakarripa on the way. They never encountered the Assyrians, who apparently withdrew when they heard a larger force was coming, and Shattiwaza became king of what remained of Mitanni, now reduced to a buffer state between Hatti and Assyria.

The Hittite Empire.
The Hittite Empire at its peak, under Suppiluliumas I, Mursilis II, and Muwatallis II.

Because giving his daughters to foreign princes had worked so well, Suppiluliumas tried to have it the other way. He got the idea that it would be good to be related by marriage to the Babylonian king, so he wrote to Babylon, asking for a Babylonian princess. The Babylonians eventually sent him a princess, who went down in history under the Hittite name of Tawananna Malnigal. However, the king was already married, and apparently wasn't allowed to have more than one wife at a time. He solved this dilemma by divorcing and sending away the mother of his children, so that the Babylonian could be crowned queen. This would cause trouble in the next generation, because she outlived Suppiluliumas, and after the king's death, she still had considerable power, as high priestess of the realm.

Finally, a very special correspondence deserves to be told about here. In the previous section, we mentioned that late in his reign, Suppiluliumas invaded Babylonia, and suffered one of his few defeats, at the hands of Nebuchanezzar I. On his way back from that campaign, Suppiluliumas was in the vicinity of Carchemish, when he received a letter from Egypt with an extraordinary proposal. The author of the letter was a widowed queen, whose name became Dakhamun when translated into the Akkadian language. She wrote, "My husband, Nib-Khururia(23), has recently died, and I have no son. But thy sons, they say, are many. If thou wilt send me a son of thine, he shall become my husband."

Such a marriage would have given the Anatolian monarch indirect control of Egypt, making him the most powerful ruler in the known world. It seemed too good to be true. His council agreed that such an offer was unprecedented, so he sent his chamberlain to investigate. This offended the queen, and in her follow-up letter she reproved the king for his lack of faith: "Why didst thou say, 'They wish to deceive me?' If I had a son, would I of my own accord to the humiliation of my country write to another country? Dost thou not trust me now? . . . Not to any other country did I send, but to thee alone. Thy sons, they say, are many. Give thou one of my sons to me, and he shall be my husband, and furthermore, he shall be king in the land of Egypt."

This convinced Suppiluliumas of the queen's sincerity, and he decided to grant her request. A son named Zannanza headed for the Nile valley, but at the border of Egypt, he was waylaid and murdered, presumably by someone who did not want to see a Hittite become the next pharaoh. Seeking revenge, Suppiluliumas marched into a part of Syria still claimed by the Egyptians. However, the Egyptian prisoners brought back from that campaign were carriers of a pestilence, which soon infected and killed Suppiluliumas. His eldest son and heir, Arnuwandas II, also succumbed to it after a brief reign, and his youngest son, Mursilis II, took his place.

Top of the page

Mursilis the Defender

Mursilis II (991-966 B.C.) inherited an empire covering nearly 300,000 square miles; if you include the states which paid tribute, this included most of present-day Turkey, and part of Syria and Lebanon. He also inherited more problems than he deserved, but he handled them all effectively. First was the epidemic that killed the previous two kings; that would be a problem throughout his reign. The victims of the epidemic included his two brothers who were governors of Carchemish and Aleppo; that especially hurt, because they were his strongest supporters. Judging from the records he left us, Mursilis was remarkably sensitive and honest for an Oriental monarch; he had been struck by lightning when he was a child, and that left him with a bad speech impediment, which he saw as a curse from the weather god. When he consulted the oracles to find out what was causing the epidemic in his realm, he learned that the kingdom was being punished for two sins committed by his late father; Suppilulumas had usurped the throne from his brother, and he had attacked the Egyptians in Syria, an act the gods opposed. Because of that, he never missed a chance to make offerings to the gods, and he wrote many prayers in which he tried to take the blame for the sins of his ancestors, in the hope that this would stop the plague. Once he even rushed back to Hattusas from a distant campaign, just to celebrate Purulli, the weather god's spring festival.

At home Mursilis also had to deal with an overbearing Babylonian queen, Tawananna Malnigal, the third and last wife of Suppiluliumas. Tawananna wasn't her real name, but her title, and according to Hittite law, the queen mother outranked all other women, including the wife of Mursilis; the king's wife could not even be called queen while the queen mother was alive. When his wife died suddenly, Mursilis went to the oracles again, and found that the queen mother had been practicing sorcery. This was a capital offense according to Babylonian law, but Mursilis thought it was good enough to simply banish his stepmother from Hattusas. However, it took longer to uproot the disreputable practices she had introduced at court; he even had to expel a prostitute from the palace.

The most serious problem of all was the assortment of hostile neighbors. The only one that didn't give him trouble was Egypt. The glorious XVIII dynasty was dying, and its last three pharaohs (Tutankhamen, Ay and Horemheb) stayed home, letting the country recover from the excesses of Akhenaten's religious revolution. However, other enemies, especially the Kaska tribesmen and the king of Arzawa, greeted Mursilis with contempt, calling him inexperienced because only the premature death of his brother Arnuwandas allowed him to become king. Mursilis wrote down one of their taunts in his Annals:

"You are a child; you know nothing and instill no fear in me. Your land is now in ruins, and your infantry and chariotry are few. Against your infantry, I have many infantry; against your chariotry I have many chariotry. Your father had many infantry and chariotry. But you who are a child, how can you match him? (Comprehensive Annals, AM 18-21)"

Mursilis wasn't really a child; one of his elder brothers would have surely gotten the crown had Mursilis been unable to rule on his own. Nevertheless, he spent the first ten years of his reign fighting wars all along the frontiers, to deal with the local princes who saw the change of kings in Hattusas as an opportunity to revolt. First, he fought the Kaska for two years; he lost Nerik, the holy city of the weather god, but otherwise secured the northern border. Then he went after Uhhaziti, the king of Arzawa, who was attempting to persuade Hittite allies to become his allies. Two more years of fighting followed, which ended when Uhhaziti was killed and Arzawa began paying tribute to Hattusas again.

For the campaign against Arzawa, Mursilis appears to have received help from the Ahhiyawa, another western people. The name of these people suggests they were an ethnic group we know very well--the Achaeans, Homer's Greeks. Moreover, Hittite records identify the leader of Ahhiyawa as Attarisyas--a name which sounds like Atreus to the classically-minded. Scholars have long debated whether the Ahhiyawa were actually the Greeks (this author believes they were), but plenty of evidence suggests Anatolian-Greek interaction existed. It is worth investigating whether the name Alaksandu is an Anatolian rendition of Alexander, if Millawanda, an Ahhiyawan city that Mursilis attacked, is the Greek Miletus, and if Tawagalawas is how the scribes of Mursilis rendered the Greek name Eteocles. Nor did all the borrowing of words go in one direction--the name Mursilis became the Lydian Myrsus and the Greek Myrsilios. Some have even suggested that the word "Amazon" is Hittite for "a woman [Am] from the land of Azzi."

The one enemy Mursilis could not beat was Tiglath-Pileser I, the king of Assyria. He lost Commagene and the eastern half of Cappadocia to the Assyrian conqueror, though he managed to protect Hattusas itself. That was the situation when Mursilis died and was succeeded by his son Muwatallis II (966-938 B.C.).

Top of the page

Tiglath-Pileser I

The Assyrians were ready for another generation of greatness when Tiglath-Pileser I (985-956 B.C.) became king, and eagerly marched forth to deal with Assyria's many enemies. The first to fall were the Mushki, a tribe that had migrated from the Taurus mountains to the upper Tigris valley; before long the severed heads of Mushki chiefs decorated the gates of Nineveh, the northernmost Assyrian city. Next came the first of the previously mentioned campaigns against the Hittites. Then Tiglath-Pileser trounced the Nairi, the people along Assyria's northern border, who were currently in rebellion. From them Assyria extorted an enormous annual tribute of 12,000 horses and 2,000 cattle. On the way back from Armenia he invaded the Hittites again, annexing everything northeast of present-day Malatia. Next he moved into Mitanni, and won the submission of a Hittite army that had moved into that area. Presumably he went on to annex the Hurrian kingdom, because we never hear of Mitanni again; henceforth it is merely the Assyrian province of Hanigalbat. Then he hurried south to stop the previously mentioned Babylonian invasion, led by Nebuchadnezzar I. After Nebuchadnezzar died, Tiglath-Pileser struck to the south again, capturing several cities of central Mesopotamia, including Babylon and Sippar.

The biggest menace to Tiglath-Pileser turned out to be the Aramaeans. This Semitic tribe frequently raided Assyrian territory until Tiglath-Pileser crossed the Euphrates, scattered them, and pushed on with his army until he reached the Mediterranean. Here he won trade agreements with the Phoenician city-states, and in recognition of his success, he was honored with a trip to Egypt and the gift of a crocodile from the Egyptian pharaoh himself (that pharaoh was probably Horemheb). Between wars Tiglath-Pileser, like all Assyrian kings, kept in shape by going on grand hunts for the biggest game around; among the kills he claimed were four wild bulls "of enormous size," ten bull elephants(24), 920 lions, and a creature called "a sea-horse" (a dolphin or whale?), which he harpooned from a boat in the Mediterranean.

Despite 28 campaigns against the Aramaeans, Tiglath-Pileser never completely subdued them, and most of Syria went to Israel by default (we're now up to the time of King Solomon). Upon Tiglath-Pileser's death his conquests revolted, shattering Assyria's far-flung domain. The Aramaeans poured in between the cracks, compressing Assyria into a strip 100 miles long and 50 miles wide. Because of those losses and the Aramaean attacks, Assyria saw hard times for 45 years. We used to think that the Assyrian kingdom was always united, but the clay tablets containing the official Assyrian chronicles, the so-called "Limmu List," record no less than 8 kings for this period, so it now appears that a king reigned in Nineveh as well as in Assur.(25) Not until 911 B.C. would Assyria resume the march that would win for it supremacy over the whole Middle East. By then, the Assyrian pattern of life would be fully developed.

Top of the page

Israel: The United Kingdom

By the middle of the eleventh century B.C., the Israelites came to the conclusion that government by judges wasn't working very well. The Philistines had been on the march for more than a generation, despite the efforts of the last three judges (Samson, Eli and Samuel). Unlike the Canaanites, the Philistines had not been on the list of Israel's enemies at the time of the Exodus, but their continued occupation of the southern coastal plain--land allotted to the tribes of Simeon, Judah and Dan--put them on that list anyway. Philistine chariots, coupled with their iron monopoly (1 Sam. 13:19-20), forced the Israelites to keep to the hills, leaving the lowlands to the Philistines. And though Philistia was a confederation of five city-states (Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath), rather than one kingdom, its five kings agreed on all important matters, giving them a unity that Israel lacked. Eli fell and died of a broken neck after hearing about one particularly humiliating battle, in which the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant; afterwards they held it for seven months.

To solve this problem, the Israelites went to Samuel and told him, "Give us a king." Samuel went and found for them the sort of king they wanted: an impressive-looking fellow who stood head and shoulders over everybody else. And although the Bible does not say it, Saul was also a good political choice, because he came from a small, centrally located tribe (Benjamin); had the king come from one of the two largest tribes (Judah or Ephraim), the rivalry between the tribes might have escalated into civil war.(26) The first actions of his reign were good ones; he uprooted Philistine garrisons only a few miles away from Gibeah (Saul's hometown and capital), and led successful campaigns against other nearby enemies like Ammon, Moab, Edom, the Aramaeans, and the Amalekites (1 Sam. 14:47-52).

Next came the long-awaited campaign to crush the Amalekites. The campaign was a success, but when Saul captured the Amalekite king, Agag, and a good portion of his livestock, he violated God's command; he was supposed to destroy the Amalekites, not rob them. Samuel gave Saul an important lesson in morality ("To obey is better than to sacrifice!") and announced that God would take Saul's kingdom from him. Saul slipped into bouts of insanity after that, and Samuel went and found a man after God's own heart (David) to be the next king.

Saul met his end in 1010 B.C., when the Philistines marched into the Jezreel valley; Saul and three of his sons were slain in the battle on Mt. Gilboa. A two-year civil war followed between David and Saul's last son, Ishbosheth; it ended when the latter was assassinated and David became king of the whole realm. In 1003 B.C. David was ready to take Jerusalem, a Jebusite (Canaanite) city that had been avoided by Israelites previously. Because Jerusalem was on a high place, and well-protected by high walls, capturing it was expected to be difficult. Indeed, the Jebusites boasted that the blind and the lame among them could defend the city. However, Joab, David's man on the spot, resorted to a sneak attack; he found out that the Jebusites got their water from a spring outside, located the secret tunnel leading to the spring, and sent his soldiers through the tunnel to break into the city. After this conquest, Jerusalem, rather than Shiloh or Gibeah, would be seen as Israel's most important city, both as the capital and as the center for worship of the One True God. However, most of Jerusalem's expansion, including the building of the famous Temple, would be done by David's son Solomon.

David's forty-year reign (1010-970 B.C.) was a time of rapid growth in both strength and prosperity. Like Saul, David spent much of the first half of his reign leading a string of successful military campaigns. 2 Samuel 8 reports that he conquered Moab, the Aramaean states of Zobah and Damascus, and Edom; he also broke the power of Philistia, and took the city of Gath from them. After Zobah and Damascus fell, the king of Hamath (modern Hama), a third Aramaean state, submitted willingly, because he had been a rival of the other two. On the other hand, the campaign against Ammon was the longest of David's career, because the Ammonites enlisted Aramaean fighting men to help them. The siege of Rabbath-Ammon (modern Amman, Jordan) took several years, and because David couldn't be away from his court for that long, he went back to Jerusalem, leaving Joab in command for most of the siege. It was during that time that the scandal involving Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite took place, resulting in David's greatest failing (see 2 Samuel 11 & 12). When the end of the siege was near, Joab called David back, because he felt it would be unseemly for anyone but the king to get the credit for taking an enemy capital. Among the treasures captured was a crown that weighed at least seventy pounds, that once belonged to Milcom, the god of Ammon. Although 1 Chronicles 20:2 claims that David put the crown on his head, he obviously could not have worn it for long (compare it to the crown of Khosrau I in Chapter 8).

The second half of David's reign wasn't as happy a time as the first. There were two serious rebellions, from David's son Absalom and from a Benjaminite named Sheba. The Philistines made trouble again, and when David led the force to put them back in their place, he nearly got himself killed, and his men told him not to go on any more campaigns (2 Samuel 21:17). Then came a severe pestilence, which the Bible tells us was caused by an act of disobedience; David conducted a census of the people, after God specifically told him not to do it, and David showed pride in his own strength when the results came back (2 Samuel 24). When David was on his deathbed, Adonijah, the oldest surviving son, tried to usurp the throne by crowning himself, but David was able to nip that revolt in the bud by declaring once more that Solomon, and not Adonijah, was his heir. One of his last requests to Solomon was that his general Joab be put to death. Although Joab had always been loyal to David, he killed a lot of people while carrying out David's orders; at least two of his victims, Abner and Amasa, were not enemies of the king, and thus innocent.

Because of David's victories, Solomon never had to do any fighting, so his reign (970-930 B.C.) was a time of peace. In the time of Moses, the Israelites had been promised all the land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates (Deuteronomy 1:7 and 11:24), and in Solomon's day this became a reality. 1 Kings 4:24 emphasizes this, by telling us that Solomon's empire stretched from Tiphsah, a town on the bend of the Euphrates River (Thapsacus in classical times), to Gaza. In practice, however, this was more of an economic union than a state held together by the strength of arms. Lebanon, for instance, was never under Solomon's rule, and important cities in northern and western Syria like Carchemish, Aleppo and Kadesh still gave their allegiance to the Hittites. When David conquered Damascus, he did not install an Israelite governor, but put a compliant Aramaean named Rezon (992-937 B.C.) in charge. And north of Damascus we hear no reports of Solomon stationing any troops, so to determine which side a city was on, we have to look at whether it paid tribute to Egypt, Israel, Hatti or Assyria. We are told in 1 Kings 10:28-29 that Solomon made a good business out of matching horses from Cilicia with chariots from Egypt. For his own army he maintained 1,400 chariots, more than half the size of the chariot force the Egyptians and Hittites had. But judging from the activities of the pharaohs at this time (Horemheb, Ramses I, Seti I, and Ramses II at the beginning of his career), it appears that Solomon let the Egyptians defend the kingdom for him; that may be why an Egyptian princess was his chief wife.(27) While the other empires suffered temporary eclipses of their fortunes, Israel was the wealthiest and strongest kingdom in the Middle East, and people like the Queen of Sheba came to marvel at the splendor and proverbial wisdom of its king.

Israel: the Early Kingdom Era
Israel between 1400 and 930 B.C. The green area is where the Israelites were settled during the time of the Judges; the purple line marks the border of the empire of David and Solomon.

Solomon and Sheba on Solomon's ivory throne.
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The elaborate throne is described in 1 Kings 10:18-20.

Whereas Saul and David had spent their early years on the throne conquering, Solomon devoted his first twenty years to building projects, specifically his palace, God's Temple(28), and associated buildings like the "House of Lebanon," which may have been a Phoenican trading center, because his main business partner was King Hiram of Tyre. In his latter years, however, Solomon went from wisdom to foolishness. He married hundreds of foreign wives for political reasons, and drained the treasury by building temples to their idols. The people groaned under the financial and physical burdens laid upon them, as everything Samuel had once predicted about kings now came true. Before the end of Solomon's reign, there was an unsuccessful revolt from Hadad, a prince in Edom, and a successful revolt by Rezon of Damascus. The conversion of Jerusalem into a holy city for all religions doomed its future.

Top of the page

Kadesh, the Greatest Chariot Battle of All

Ramses I, the founder of Egypt's XIX dynasty, was a former general, so one might expect him to be interested in a Thutmose-style military campaign. He was too old to try it himself, and died after sitting on the throne for less than two years, but he left a vigorous middle-aged son, Seti I, who was eager to go. Besides gaining prestige for Egypt by recovering the lost empire, Seti had two reasons to march into Asia. First, the alliance Horemheb forged with Israel required that Egypt come to Israel's defense when necessary, and as we saw at the end of the previous chapter, Israel had to deal with revolts near the end of Solomon's reign. Second, a state of war had existed with the Hittites for the past generation, ever since the son of Suppiluliumas had been killed on his way to Egypt. Now the Hittites were expanding southward, so Seti would stop this menace before it got any closer.

Even before he inherited the crown from his father, Seti began the task of creating a supply line to the Levant, by marching along the Mediterranean coast as far as El-Arish, building and securing a string of forts across the Sinai peninsula. At this point, the main opposition came from a group of people called the Shasu, meaning "a people who move on foot," probably Bedouins. Then in the first year of his own reign (951 B.C.), he captured a city which he called Pekanan, because it was in the land of Canaan--most likely Gaza. From there he followed the coastal road taken by the Thutmoses, until he got to the Jezreel Valley, before turning inland. Next he split the army in two: one half attacked the town of Beth-Shan, while the other took Yanoam (a city not yet located) and Hamath, which had given aid to Beth-Shan. The enemy at Beth-Shan was identified as the Habiru, which sounds very much like "Hebrew," but this does not neccesarily mean he was fighting the kingdom of Israel. David Rohl and other scholars have pointed out that whenever the term Habiru appeared elsewhere, like in the Amarna Letters, it meant ruffians or cutthroats, rather than a specific nation. Therefore it appears that Seti was helping King Solomon put down a rebellion of disgruntled Israelites, like those that would soon back Jeroboam; afterwards he left a unit of Egyptian soldiers stationed in Beth-Shan. Finally he advanced up the coast as far as Tyre, before going home for the winter.

It was on his second campaign that Seti engaged the enemy he had been preparing to meet on his first campaign. Moving up the coast again, he knocked the Hittite army out of Lebanon, and occupied Syria west of the Orontes River. However, he could not establish permanent Egyptian garrisons to enforce his authority. As Thutmose III had done, he did not conquer Lebanon and western Syria so much as flip their city-states, changing them from being pro-Hittite to pro-Egyptian. If he could have stayed, Seti might have established complete control over the Levant, but he had to return to Egypt to fight the Libyans, an enemy closer to home. Then he spent a few years building temples, because a great pharaoh was expected to be a builder as well as a soldier. He did eventually come back for one or two more campaigns, but aside from capturing Kadesh, it is not clear what he achieved.

After Seti left, his Hittite opponent, Muwatallis II, quietly moved into Syria and started taking back Kadesh and the other lands his predecessor had lost. He also moved the Hittite capital from Hattusas to Tarhuntassa, officially because of an omen. Today's scholars have not yet located Tarhuntassa, except that they know it was somewhere in Kizzuwatna.

For his right-hand man, Muwatallis relied on his younger brother, Hattusilis. However, Hattusilis did not get off to a good start in life. His autobiography has come down to us, and they tell us that he was a sickly child. One day the goddess Ishtar appeared to the king at the time, Mursilis II, and gave him a solution:

"The years which remain for Hattusil are only few. His health is poor. Give him to me: he shall be my priest, and he will return to health."

Mursilis took the advice and made Hattusilis a priest of the Babylonian goddess. Although Hattusilis was always in frail health after that, he did live long enough to enjoy what was a successful life by most measures. After Hattusilis grew up, when Muwatallis moved to Tarhuntassa, he put Hattusilis in charge of both the army and Hattusas, and Hattusilis used his new authority to recover the northern city of Nerik. Giving that much power to someone who is not king is often dangerous, and almost immediately, a senior prince named Sin-Uas accused Hattusilis of plotting to seize the throne. However, he did not produce sufficient evidence; Muwatallis overruled his father's advisor and acquitted Hattusilis.

With both the Egyptians and the Hittites having powerful, experienced armies, the stage was set for one the great showdowns in military history. Readers familiar with World War II will know that the biggest tank battle of all time was fought at Kursk, in 1943 A.D., and likewise, you are about to read about the biggest battle on record that involved chariots. However, Seti I would not lead the Egyptians because he died around 940 B.C., so Seti's role now passed to his son Ramses II.

Whereas Seti might have negotiated an agreement with the Hittites over Syria, because he knew he could not be everywhere at once, Ramses was too young to be cautious. The new pharaoh was determined to go down in history as Egypt's greatest king, so he was not the type to share his glory--or Syria--with anyone. In the spring of 938 B.C., Ramses led his army through Israel, again following the coastal road. The battle that took place when he reached Kadesh is described in the annals of both sides, and is the first battle in history where tactical information has survived, so we can tell it in detail.

The battle of Kadesh
The battle of Kadesh. Source: The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian force consisted of 20,000 footsoldiers and 2,000 light chariots, divided into four brigades named after Egyptian gods: Amen, Ra, Ptah, and Sutekh (Set or Seth). The brigades were strung out along the road, each several miles from the others. Accompanying the Egyptians were 5,000 Ne'arim, elite soldiers from pro-Egyptian client states, who sailed from Gaza to Sumur (the nearest Syrian port) in boats.(29) Against this, the Hittites assembled an even larger force: 37,000 footsoldiers (which included their allies) and 2,500 heavy chariots. As Ramses approached Kadesh from the southwest he could not see the Hittite force waiting for him, because it was hiding on the other side of the city. He became overconfident when he met two Bedouins with pro-Hittite sympathies, who told him that the enemy had retreated to Aleppo when they heard the Egyptians were coming. Eager to catch up with them, Ramses took the Brigade of Amen and marched around the city's west wall, leaving the other three brigades behind. Meanwhile Muwatallis moved the Hittites south along the east wall, keeping the city between himself and the pharaoh.

On the north side of Kadesh, the Egyptians captured two spies, and beat them until they got a confession of where the Hittites really were. Realizing that he had walked into a trap, Ramses sent messengers to the other brigades, urging them to hurry up and join him, but he was too late. At that point, the Hittite chariots ambushed the Brigade of Ra on the south side of the city, cutting one fourth of the Egyptian army to ribbons. The survivors fled north to the Brigade of Amen, and the Hittites pursued them, cutting off Ramses from his reinforcements and avenue of escape. Trapped with his back to the river, Ramses might have ended his career right there, had not Hittite discipline broken down when they saw an opportunity to raid the pharaoh's camp. Ramses saved himself by leading several charges that drove the nearest enemy soldiers into the river. Then in the nick of time, the Ne'arim arrived as reinforcements, and the Brigade of Ptah hit the Hittite chariots in the rear.

The Egyptians got the better of the melee that followed. On the Hittite side, Muwatallis lost two brothers, his secretary, the chief of his bodyguard, and several high-ranking officers. The prince of Aleppo fled the scene and nearly drowned while trying to swim across the river; later Egyptian artists carved a humorous relief sculpture of his troops upending him on the riverbank, to drain out the water he had swallowed. But so far it had been mostly a clash of chariots. On the second day the infantry from both sides caught up with the chariots and entered the fray. Against the Hittite infantry, Ramses could make no headway, so after several hours of fighting, when Muwatallis sent envoys to offer a cease-fire, he accepted.

Because Muwatallis had sued for peace, something most military commanders will not do when they are winning, Ramses claimed victory. Nevertheless, he immediately ran back to Egypt, leaving Kadesh to the Hittites. At home he adorned temples with pictures of his most heroic moment, fooling the world into thinking he was an Egyptian superman. Meanwhile the Hittites advanced southwards and occupied Upi, a province in central Lebanon that included the Bekaa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Before the year ended, Muwatallis died, leaving behind two sons with Hurrian names, Urhi-Teshup and Ulmi-Teshup. Ulmi-Teshup was already the governor of Tarhuntassa, so Urhi-Teshup was crowned and given the new name of Mursilis III. But because he was the son of a concubine, rather than a queen, questions arose about whether Mursilis was qualified to be king; the Hittite court was largely dominated by his uncle, Hattusilis, who still controlled the army. Because the changing of monarchs in an Oriental country is always very important, other matters had to wait until this issue was settled. Consequently, Mursilis moved the capital back to Hattusas, so he could keep an eye on Hattusilis, and refused to go fight in any wars, out of fear that Hattusilis would stage a coup while he was away. This allowed Ramses to come back in 936 B.C. and recover Upi. One year later he led another campaign into northern Syria, and according to his accounts, when Ramses attacked the city of Dapur, he was so brave--and so foolhardy--that the battle went on for two hours before he bothered to put on his armor.

Hattusilis marched into Syria to engage the Egyptians, but before any new battles took place, Mursilis recalled him. He did that because while Hattusilis was marching with the army, he behaved like he was the king, and his old adversary Sin-Uas again accused him of coveting the throne. At the trial Hattusilis deftly reversed the roles and accused his accuser, charging Sin-Uas with impiety, which had always been a serious offense in the Hittite law codes. Mursilis ruled in his brother's favor and delivered Sin-Uas into his hands. Hattusilis pardoned Sin-Uas because of his age, but exiled the prince's sons to Cyprus.

As it turned out, Sin-Uas was right when he warned the king of his uncle's ambitions. In 932 B.C. Mursilis took away two cities that Hattusilis ruled, Hakpissa and Nerik, and Hattusilis launched a revolt. He quickly gained the upper hand, seized the throne, and crowned himself King Hattusilis III. When various plots to oust his uncle failed, Mursilis fled to Egypt, and tried to obtain help from Ramses, his former enemy. Hattusilis in turn demanded that Ramses extradite his nephew to Hatti. Instead, Mursilis simply disappeared after leaving the pharaoh's court, and Ramses claimed to have no knowledge of the ex-king's whereabouts. In other times this would have been an excuse for war, but Hattusilis was tired of fighting Egypt, and had other things closer to home to worry about, like the Assyrians making trouble. Consequently, when he and Ramses signed a peace treaty in 922 B.C., the treaty allowed fugitives to return to their country of origin without fear of punishment, so long as they weren't high-ranking officials like Mursilis. For twenty-six years (932-906) Hattusilis III ruled as the sole Hittite king, and spent much of it justifying how he had taken the throne in the first place, as if he had always been the rightful king. A copy of the true story, however, was kept in the archives of Hattusas, perhaps because of the guilt he felt from breaking the oath of loyalty to his nephew, and that is why we know what really happened.

This is the End of Chapter 2.


16. Some of these tribes do not speak Arabic. The Shahra, for instance, have eight sounds in their language which Arabic doesn’t have, so today they use the Arabic alphabet with eight additional letters in it. Presumably this means their language is older than Arabic, for languages get simpler over time, in grammar and pronunciation.

17. Clapp, Nicholas, The Road to Ubar, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pg. 81.

18. The only other verses where it is named as a geographical location are Jeremiah 25:20 and Lamentations 4:21.  People named Uz are mentioned in Genesis 10:23, 22:21, 36:28, and 1 Chronicles 1:17.

19. The Elamites had the same open-minded attitude toward the gods as the Hurrians, combining worship of their own deities with imported ones like Ishtar. Negahban suggested that the Elamite name for Iran, Haltamti, might have meant "Land of the Gods."

20. Though Shutruk-Nahunte was the greatest of all Elamite kings, only historians bother to remember him today. We got a reminder of that in the 2002 movie "The Emperor's Club," where the professor has one of his students read the following inscription:
"I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand [sic] and Sussa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte - 1158 B.C."
The point the professor was trying to make is that if a conqueror does nothing besides defeat/rob/destroy his enemies, leaving no accomplishments but military ones, he will become a forgotten egomaniac, like Shutruk-Nahunte is to most of us. See also my essay
"Civilization: Has It Been Worth It?"

21. Have you noticed how all the Hittite kings have names that end with "s"? This was the conventional spelling for at least half of the twentieth century, presumably because most Old Iranian, Greek, and Roman names for men ended with "s", and those for women ended with "a"; remember that it wasn't too many years earlier that archaeologists discovered the Hittites were Indo-Europeans, too. However, nowadays such suffixes aren't seen as important, so more recent textbooks may spell the names as Tudkhaliya, Suppiluliuma, Mursili, etc. I was educated in the old school, so I prefer to use the names ending with "s", just as I'm likely to say "Moslem" instead of "Muslim" when I write about Islam (see Chapter 9 and beyond).

22. The capital of Arzawa was Apasas. Some believe this could be an old name for Ephesus, the largest city of western Asia Minor in the classical era (see Chapters 6-8).

23. All we know for sure is that this happened late in Egypt's XVIII dynasty, the era called the "Amarna Period." Therefore whoever this Dakhamun was, she must have been a queen we already know under an Egyptian name. Most history books identify her as Ankhesenamen, the young widow of Tutankhamen, but the dates now suggest two other candidates are more likely: either Nefertiti or Meritaten, the wife of Smenkhkare. One theory has proposed that Smenkhkare himself was the ill-fated Hittite prince, which would explain his very short reign.

24. Wild elephants lived in Syria, providing a source of ivory for Phoenician artisans, until hunted to extinction around 800 B.C.

25. This is a good place to point out that Middle Eastern chronologies and histories can get confusing at times, from excessive use of the word "king." The same term can apply to either the emperor of a realm more than a thousand miles wide, or to the mayor of a single city. Sometimes an effort is made to distinguish between the former and the latter by calling the most important monarch the "Great King," or "King of Kings," but this isn't done often enough to make everything clear. As a result, we may have two or more minor kings sharing power, as was the case with the Philistine confederation, but later on historians will write about them as if only one king ruled at a time. Another example comes from the first chapter of Judges, where the Israelites capture a king named Adoni-Bezek, cut off his thumbs and big toes, and he laments that the punishment he inflicted on seventy other kings has now been visited on him. Adoni-Bezek's victims must have been the petty kinglets of city-states, or we would have seen him mentioned prominently elsewhere.
The author heard of still another case while rewriting this chapter, in 2007. Japanese excavations at Tell Taban, a town on the Khabur River once named Tabetu, revealed a number of brick inscriptions mentioning local kings, who ruled during the Middle Assyrian era. The tricky part is determining whether any of these kings ruled on their own, or if they all were merely sub-kings under the Assyrians (the oldest king listed, Adad-bel-gabbe, appears to have been a son of Tukulti-Ninurta I).

26. After Saul the kingship passed to the tribe of Judah. Note how quickly the Ephraimites found a leader of their own when the crown of David and Solomon went to a weak king, Rehoboam.

27. Solomon was the first Israelite leader who could afford chariots; in all previous battles, Israel only fielded footsoldiers.
You probably have noticed that most of the pharaohs who appear in the Bible aren't given names like Thutmose, but simply called "Pharaoh." Horemheb, the military man who sat on Egypt's throne at the end of the XVIII dynasty, is the best candidate for the Pharaoh who destroyed the Canaanite city of Gezer, and then gave it to Solomon, as a wedding present to go with his daughter (1 Kings 9:16). Earlier in the dynasty, pharaohs took the daughters of foreign kings, but this is the first time we hear of a pharaoh giving his daughter in marriage to a foreigner. Because of his humble origin, Horemheb would have had less of a problem with this than a king who had royal blood on both sides of his family.

28. Pi is probably the most useful irrational number; every civilization that needed to measure round objects has tried to compute its value. The Babylonians used fractions to get a simple but effective estimate, at 25/8, while the Egyptians calculated it as 256/81. Both civilizations were using pi by 1700 B.C., but this is just the oldest mention of pi in literature; for all we know they could have estimated pi at an earlier date. Later on the Greek mathematician Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) gave pi a value of 3.1485, by measuring a 96-sided polygon, while Zhu Chongzhi (429-500 A.D.), a Chinese mathematician, used a 12,288-sided polygon to guess a value of 355/113. Finally in the fifteenth century, an Indian mathematician named Madhavan of Sangamagramam calculated pi to eleven decimal places, the longest before today's computers, but still he realized that the number of digits could go on infinitely after the last one he found.
On the other hand, in the Old Testament, 1 Kings 7:23 talks about a great bronze basin (called "the sea") that King Solomon put outside his temple, and measures it as having a diameter of ten cubits (about 180 inches) and a circumference of thirty cubits, suggesting that the author thought the value of pi was exactly 3! Detractors have used this verse as evidence that the Bible is inaccurate, not to be trusted. In defense, I would point out that the verse doesn't say whether the measurements were made on the inside of the basin or the outside, and since verse 26 tells us the basin was a hand-breadth thick, or four inches, the difference between the outer and inner circumference could be as much as twenty-five inches--enough to explain the discrepancy between 3 and 3.14. Or there could be a simpler explanation: the author of 1 Kings rounded off the exact amount, or that two different people did the measuring (a cubit was supposed to be the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, so if no standard was used for measurements, a long-armed person's cubit would be different from someone else's).

29. The Ne'arim probably included Israelites from King Solomon, because that name means "youths" in Hebrew. As for the boats, they were most likely Phoenician (remember Hiram of Tyre).

Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A General History of the Near East


Other History Papers

Beyond History