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The Chronology of the Ancient Near East

Updated: Nov 1, 2023


 

DW | Ancient Babylon

1.1 - The Chronology

 

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 B.C. 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 our study of the chronology 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.

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. Farming arrived in the fertile lowlands of Mesopotamia from 8000 B.C. onwards, and it transformed human society. For the first time people were able to see the revolutionary potential of an agricultural way of life.


Within a few centuries the development of irrigation allowed the idea of creating settlements to spread into central Mesopotamia, ultimately reaching the rich alluvial lands in the south, where the first cites were eventually to emerge. The expansion of farming settlement is reflected in a sequence of prehistoric cultures, each of which was characterized by a distinctive pottery style: Hassuna (which flourished between about 6000-5500 BC), Samarra (which dates roughly to 6000-5500 BC), Halaf (5500-5000 BC), and Ubaid (5300-3900 BC).


Noting geography, 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). Other early Neolithic sites, such as Samarra and Tell Halaf, were in northern Mesopotamia.


The Hassuna Period (6000-5500 BC)

The Hassuna Period, which occurred around 6000-5500 BC, marked the emergence of the Hassuna culture in northern Mesopotamia. During this time, agriculture and sedentary village life began to develop, characterized by rectangular houses and the production of pottery and stone tools.

The Samarra Period (5500-4800 BC)

During the Samarra Period (5500-4800 BC) the Samarra culture saw the rise of settlements and larger communities. Circular or oval houses emerged. Pottery production became more refined, featuring intricate designs. The Samarra culture witnessed advancements in irrigation techniques and the cultivation of crops such as wheat and barley.

The Halaf Period (c. 6000-5400 BC)

The Halaf Period, spanning from 6000 to 5400 BC, witnessed the spread of the Halaf culture across northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and southeastern Turkey. This period marked the development of larger and more complex settlements, including urban centers. The Halaf people engaged in extensive trade, and their distinctive pottery featured intricate painted designs. Additionally, specialized craft production, including metalworking, began to emerge.


The Ubaid Period (c. 5500-4000 BC)

The Ubaid Period (5500-4000 BC) is characterized by the emergence of the Ubaid culture in southern Mesopotamia, particularly in the Sumerian heartland. During this period, large, unwalled village settlements were established, featuring multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses. The first temples of public architecture appeared, along with a two-tier settlement hierarchy. The Ubaid culture witnessed the rise of the Sumerians who initiated advancements in agriculture and irrigation systems, leading to surplus food production. Social stratification increased, and communal religious practices and an incipient accounting system emerged.


The Uruk Period (4000-2900 BC)

The Uruk Period (4000-2900 BC) marked a significant shift towards urbanization and the development of city-states. Prominent cities such as Uruk, Eridu, and Ur emerged as major political, economic, and religious centers. Monumental architecture, including ziggurats and large-scale temples, were constructed. Writing systems, such as cuneiform, were invented, leading to the emergence of record-keeping and administrative practices. The Uruk period witnessed significant advancements in art, craftsmanship, and trade, with cultural influence extending beyond Mesopotamia. This period culminated in the formation of centralized states with complex social hierarchies and the consolidation of power in the hands of rulers.


Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BC)

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 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 (2334-2154 BC)

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 (2112–2004 B.C.)

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 Isin-Larsa Period (2025-1763)

The next two centuries witnessed southern Mesopotamia dominated by the Amorite cities of Isin and Larsa, as the two cities vied for dominance.


The Isin dynasty, which lasted from approximately 2017 to 1794 BC, emerged following the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Isin became the political and cultural center of the region. Under the rule of the Isin kings, the city witnessed a revival of literature, arts, and religious activities. However, their reign was marked by frequent conflicts with neighboring city-states, particularly Larsa.


The Larsa period, which spanned from approximately 2025 to 1763 BC, saw the rise of the Larsa dynasty as a major rival to Isin. Located in present-day southern Iraq, the city of Larsa flourished economically and politically. The Larsa kings, like their Isin counterparts, were patrons of art and architecture. The Isin-Larsa period is characterized by power struggles between these two dynasties, with each asserting its dominance over the other. Eventually, the city of Babylon emerged as a powerful force, bringing an end to both the Isin and Larsa dynasties and paving the way for the rise of the Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi.

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.


Old Babylonian Period (1894-1595 BC)

Babylon was a originally 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 (1650-1190 BC)

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 Kassites (1595-1155 BC)

The Kassites were a people who established a dynasty in ancient Mesopotamia, ruling over the region for several centuries. They originated from the Zagros Mountains and gradually migrated into Babylonia during the 18th century BC. The Kassite dynasty, known as the 3rd Dynasty of Babylon, reigned from approximately 1595 to 1155 BC. They brought stability and prosperity to the region, adopting elements of Babylonian culture and integrating themselves into the local society.


The Kassites' rule is notable for their patronage of literature and the arts, as well as their preservation of Babylonian traditions. However, they eventually succumbed to external pressures, particularly from the Assyrians, and their dynasty came to an end in the 12th century BC. Despite their relatively short-lived reign, the Kassites left a lasting impact on Mesopotamian history and culture.


Old Assyrian Period (2025-1364 BC)

The Old Assyrian period covers the history of the city of Ashur (Assur) from its rise as an independent city-state under Puzur-Ashur I (c. 2025 BC) to the foundation of a larger Assyrian territorial state after the accession of Ashur-uballit I (c. 1363 BC), which marks the beginning of the succeeding Middle Assyrian period.


The Old Assyrian Period is characterized by extensive trade networks and commercial activities, with the Assyrians becoming renowned as skilled merchants. They established colonies and trading posts throughout Anatolia, forging economic and diplomatic relationships with neighboring city-states. One of the key trade commodities was tin, which was crucial for the production of bronze. The city of Ashur became a bustling center of commerce and administration, as the Assyrians developed a sophisticated bureaucracy to maintain their expanding empire.


Middle Assyrian Empire (1363-912 BC)

The Middle Assyrian Empire was a powerful state that emerged in the 14th century BC and reached its height during the 13th and 12th centuries BC. It was centered in the region of northern Mesopotamia, with its capital at Ashur.

Under the leadership of kings such as Ashur-uballit I, Tiglath-Pileser I, and Ashurnasirpal II, the Middle Assyrian Empire expanded its territory through military conquests and became a dominant force in the ancient Near East.

However, the empire faced challenges and periods of decline, including conflicts with rival powers and internal strife. The Middle Assyrian Empire eventually weakened and was replaced by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 10th century BC.


The Late Bronze Age Collapse (1200-1150 BC)

The Late Bronze Age Collapse (1200-1150 BC) refers to a period of widespread societal collapse and cultural upheaval that occurred in the eastern Mediterranean region during the late 12th century BC. This tumultuous era saw the collapse or significant decline of several powerful civilizations and city-states, including the Hittites, Mycenaeans, and Egyptians, among others.

The exact causes of the Bronze Age Collapse are still debated among historians and scholars, but a combination of factors likely contributed to the collapse. These factors include natural disasters, such as earthquakes and droughts, which may have disrupted agricultural systems and caused food shortages. Additionally, the region experienced invasions and migrations by various groups, including the Sea Peoples, who are believed to have played a significant role in the collapse. These disruptions led to the breakdown of trade networks, political systems, and centralized authority, resulting in widespread social and economic instability.


The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations marked a significant turning point in history, leading to a period of decline and fragmentation that lasted for centuries until the rise of new powers and empires in the Iron Age.

Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC)

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 Neo-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 their final victory at Carchemish in 605 B.C. the Medes and Babylonians ruled Assyria.


The Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC)

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 Persians.


The Achaemenid (Persian) Empire (550-330 BC)

The Persian King Cyrus II seized power of the Near East during the reign of Nabonidus in 539 B.C. Nabonidus was such an unpopular king that Mesopotamians did not rise to defend him during the invasion. The Persian Empire developed a model for the administration of a large empire that would be copied by future rulers.

By the time Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331 B.C., most of the great cities of Mesopotamia no longer existed and the culture had long been overtaken. Eventually, the region was conquered by the Romans in 116 A.D. and finally Arabic Muslims in 651 A.D.


This is the chronology that we will cover in more detail throughout this series.

 

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