Updated: Jun 19
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.
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.
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.
The Old Babylonian Period, the Hittites, and the Kassites
The next two centuries or so saw southern Mesopotamia dominated by the Amorite cities of Isin and Larsa, as the two cities vied for dominance. This period also marked a growth in power in the north of Mesopotamia. Eshnunna and Mari, two Amorite-ruled states also became important in the north.
During this time, Babylon was a minor and relatively weak city-state, overshadowed by the older and more powerful states such as Isin, Larsa, Assyria and Elam. This all changed when Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 B.C.), the Amorite ruler of Babylon, turned the city into a major power and eventually conquered Mesopotamia and beyond. After his death, the first Babylonian dynasty lasted for another century and a half, but his empire quickly unraveled. Babylon once more returned to the status of a small state. The Amorite dynasty ended in 1595 B.C., when Babylonia fell to the Hittite king Mursilis I, after which the Kassites took control.
The Hittites occupied the ancient region of Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor) and developed a culture that eventually expanded into an empire that would go on to threaten the Ancient Egyptians. The Hittite Empire reached its peak between the reign of King Suppiluliuma I (c.1344-1322 B.C.) and his son Mursilis II (c.1321-1295 B.C.) after which it declined and, after repeated attacks by the Sea Peoples and the Gasga tribes from the north fell to the Assyrians.
The First Rise of Assyria
The Assyrian nation rose to a relatively strong and stable condition, and peace was made with the Kassite rulers of Babylonia. However, a period of Mitanni domination occurred from the mid-15th to early 14th centuries B.C. This was ended by Ashur-uballit I who overthrew the Mitanni Empire and founded a powerful Assyrian Empire that came to dominate Mesopotamia and much of the ancient Near East. This empire endured until 1076 B.C. with the death of Tiglath-Pileser I which occurred during the Bronze Age collapse.
Bronze Age Collapse
Records from the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. are sporadic in Babylonia, which had become overrun with new Semitic settlers, namely the Aramaeans and Chaldeans. The 10th century B.C. was even worse, with very few inscriptions. Mesopotamia was not alone in this obscurity: the Hittite Empire fell at the beginning of this period and very few records are known from Egypt and Elam. This was a time of invasion and upheaval.
Assyria was in a stronger position during this time and, beginning with the campaigns of Adad-nirari II, Assyria again became a great power even to the point of overthrowing the 25th dynasty of Egypt. The Assyrian Empire became the largest and most powerful the world had yet seen. This lasted until the fall of its capital, Nineveh, at the hands of the Babylonians, Medes, Scythians and Cimmerians in 612 B.C. After the final victory at Carchemish in 605 B.C. the Medes and Babylonians ruled Assyria.
The Neo-Babylonians and Medes
With the recovery of Babylonian independence, a new era of architectural activity ensued, particularly during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (604–561 B.C.). He is credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—said to have been built for his homesick wife Amyitis. Whether the gardens actually existed is a matter of dispute. He is also notoriously associated with the Babylonian exile of the Jews. The Neo-Babylonian Empire would fall to the final Near