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The Chronology of the Ancient Near East

Updated: Feb 23, 2022


The absolute chronology of Near Eastern history is a difficult and controversial problem. The Mesopotamians were very good at providing sequences of rulers, but our difficulty remains in establishing a firm point in time in which they can be attached. First millennium chronology is secure due to a record of a solar eclipse that took place on June 15, 763 which allows scholars to backtrack from reliable data. But the absolute chronology of the second millennium and before is uncertain. Just keep in mind throughout this series that although we have a relatively reliable sequence of events, based on Mesopotamian king lists, that sequence cannot be absolutely dated with certainty. We will be using the most commonly used dating system, which is known as the “Middle Chronology”.

Unlike the Ancient Egyptian culture, the Near East developed writing early on and the clay tablet, the medium of writing that developed in southern Mesopotamia, was adopted by all Near Eastern cultures. These tablets have incredible durability in the dry soil of the region and the survival of hundreds of thousands of these texts distinguish the Ancient Near East from other ancient cultures. If you followed our Ancient Egypt series, you noticed our emphasis on the great tombs and on archaeological works. Literary works in Egypt were written on parchment and papyrus and did not survive well throughout antiquity. With the Ancient Near East we have more literary sources.

Prehistoric Developments

We begin with the early Neolithic human occupation of Mesopotamia which was confined to the foothill zones of the Taurus and Zagros Mountains and the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys. This period from (10,000–8700 B.C.) saw the introduction of agriculture, while the oldest evidence for animal domestication dated to the end of the 9th millennium B.C.

The Fertile Crescent was inhabited by several distinct, flourishing cultures between the end of the last ice age (c. 10,000 B.C.) and the beginning of history. One of the oldest known Neolithic sites in Mesopotamia is Jarmo, settled around 7000 B.C. and broadly contemporary with Jericho (in the Levant) and Çatal Hüyük (in Anatolia). It, as well as other early Neolithic sites, such as Samarra and Tell Halaf were in northern Mesopotamia.

The Uruk Period

Later settlements in southern Mesopotamia required complicated irrigation methods. The first of these was Eridu, settled during the Ubaid period culture by farmers who brought with them the Samarran culture from the north. This was followed by the Uruk period and the emergence of the Sumerians who developed the first city-states.

Early Dynastic Period

The entire Early Dynastic period is generally dated from 2900–2350 B.C. according to the Middle Chronology. The Sumerians were firmly established in Mesopotamia by the middle of the 4th millennium B.C., in the archaeological Uruk period, although scholars dispute when they arrived. It is hard to tell where the Sumerians might have come from because the Sumerian language is unrelated to any other known language. Their mythology includes many references to the area of Mesopotamia but little clue regarding their place of origin, perhaps indicating that they had been there for a long time.

Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium B.C. (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century A.D.

Akkadian Empire

Around 2334 B.C., Sargon became ruler of Akkad in northern Mesopotamia. He proceeded to conquer an area stretching from the Persian Gulf into modern-day Syria. The Akkadians further developed the Sumerian irrigation system. This world's 'first empire' reached its zenith under Naram-Sin, who began the trend for rulers to claim divinity for themselves.

At around 2154 B.C., the Akkadian Empire lost power after the reign of Naram-Sin, and was eventually invaded by the Guti from the Zagros Mountains. For half a century the Guti controlled Mesopotamia, especially the south, but left few inscriptions, and are not well understood. The Guti's most famous ruler was Gudea, who left many statues of himself in temples across Sumer.

Third Dynasty of Ur

Eventually the Guti were overthrown by Utu-hengal of Uruk, and the various city-states again vied for power. Rule over the area finally went to the city-state of Ur, when Ur-Nammu founded the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 B.C.) and conquered the Sumerian region. His son, Shulgi, devised the Code of Ur-Nammu, one of the earliest known law codes (three centuries before the more famous Code of Hammurabi). Around 2000 B.C., the power of Ur waned and the Amorites came to occupy much of the area, although it was Sumer's long-standing rivals to the east, the Elamites, who finally overthrew Ur. In the north, Assyria remained free of Amorite control until the very end of the 19th century B.C.. This marked the end of city-states ruling empires in Mesopotamia, and the end of Sumerian dominance, but the succeeding rulers adopted much of Sumerian civilization as their own. <