Sunday, 15 July 2012

History at risk

Ancient University in Timbuktu
I must apologise for the infrequency of my blog posts of late. Things have been very busy and it may be some time before I can resume writing about the ancient world as normal. I would however like to write a brief blog post highlighting a particular threat facing one of the world's largest repositories of ancient knowledge.

The Malian city of Timbuktu (or Tombouctou depending on your spelling preferences) is an ancient city that flourished as the seat of empires in the Middle Ages and after. It was a centre of trade and learning and tens of thousands of excellently preserved manuscripts remain in the libraries of the city. The writings range over a variety of topics and are an incomparable resource, not just for untangling the history of the region, but for understanding the history of the world at that time, as Timbuktu was a crucial component of the Eurasian trade networks of that era.

Recently, the country of Mali has experienced a secessionist movement in the north. This was composed of two groups, one of which (MNLA) was striving for a primarily secular, Tuareg-led state and the other of which (Ansar Dine) was primarily concerned with establishing a form of sharia law in the region. The two formed an alliance but recently, this alliance has fractured and Ansar Dine now control the major urban centres in the region, including the historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao.

Ansar Dine have since seriously damaged at least one UNESCO World Heritage site in the city and, according to some sources, have decided to destroy the others as well. This is a disgrace and a shame, but ultimately, shrines can be rebuilt. I am more concerned about the fate of the libraries, most of which have not been digitised, and which, if destroyed, are irrevocably lost to the world.

In fairness to Ansar Dine, they have not specifically said that they intend to destroy the manuscripts. But the blatant destruction of a heritage site does not speak well for their respect for history. Also, even if they leave the books alone there is still significant danger. Timbuktu will almost definitely become a warzone, as either the Malian army or the MNLA decide to reclaim the city from Ansar Dine. If the city becomes a warzone the books will be at risk of destruction from bombing, artillery, fires and looting. Even the best intentions of Ansar Dine would not be sufficient to protect the books.

I have noticed some people on the Internet using this episode as a way of denigrating Islam as a whole. I would urge those people to re-examine the situation. Many, if not all, of these manuscripts have been written by Muslims and many of them deal with topics such as the Qu'ran, so it would be false to use this situation to somehow imply that Islam is inimical to the study of history or any such conclusion.

I don't wish to draw attention away from the major human catastrophe in the region, as many thousands of refugees flee the cities, nor do I wish to advocate any particular course of action (certainly not any form of intervention) but I do believe that the world needs to know that this drama is unfolding and to use public opinion to persuade all the powers in the region to act in a way that protects human rights and culture.


Timbuktu Manuscripts

For up to date information on this issue please keep an eye on world news networks.

Here is a link to a BBC picture gallery on the subject:

Here is a link to an ongoing project to protect and preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts. (their blog is a useful source of information on the subject).

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part III

Kudurru of one of the last Kassite kings
This is the third post of a series about the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Click here for the links to the first and second posts.

In the east, the troubles appear to have less to do with famines and earthquakes and more to do with human frailties. The difficult times may have prompted the assassination of the powerful Assyrian king, Tukulti-Ninurta I, but assassination was not uncommon. The wars that followed between Assyria and Babylon were pointless and persistent and the collapse of the Kassite Dynasty in Babylon was the perfectly natural result of being under attack from Assyria and Elam. But the fall of the Egyptian and Hittite empires had put events in motion. Free from imperial control the newly independent peoples in Syria and Palestine may have provided inspiration to others, or possibly the migrations of the Sea Peoples, despite probably being small in numbers, may have pushed other tribes further inland.


“…The people ate one another's flesh to save their lives. Like a flood's ravaging water the Aramean rulers became strong, plundered the crops of Assyria, conquered and took many fortified cities of Assyria.” Inscription by Tigleth-Pileser I describing the attacks of the Arameans. The translation is taken from here.

Tiglath-Pileser III
When Assyria next has a strong military commander (Tiglath-Pileser I in the year 1114BC) the Babylonian threat has passed but a new people, the Arameans, inhabit Syria. Tiglath-Pileser reported that he devastated them in retaliation for their attacks on Assyria but the Arameans were to be a threat for several hundred years and it was not until around 732BC during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III that the Arameans were finally crushed by Assyria.

After the chaos surrounding the end of the Bronze Age, the old empires had either fallen, gone into terminal decline or been locked in perpetual conflict. This allowed the areas at the edges of civilisation to gain their independence and for new ideas, cultures and peoples to thrive. While the stability of the Bronze Age was sometimes viewed as golden the new cultures of the Iron Age would go on to irrevocably shape the world as we know it. In the temporary absence of the great empires political entities such as the Greek city states or the Israelite kingdoms were able to flourish and create cultural legacies that last to this day.

Temple at Delphi: a centre of later Greek civilisation


Hundreds of years later, as Greece emerged from the “Dark Ages” after the Bronze Age Collapse, the poet Hesiod immortalised the traditions surrounding the events of times past by describing two ages that had preceded his own. I believe that these two ages reflect a cultural memory of the old Mycenaean empire and the overall structure of the Bronze Age and Hesiod’s writing sums up the fear and the splendour that was associated with this memory in later times, as well as the wish that such splendour would have a form of immortality and never truly pass away. I conclude the post by quoting Hesiod in full and leaving the reader with a speculative timeline for the events mentioned above.

“Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs.  Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron.  These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.


But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus, the son of Cronos, made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of heroes who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.  Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them.  But to the others father Zeus, the son of Cronos, gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth.  And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds.  And these last equally have honour and glory.


And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth. Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards.  For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.” Hesiod, Works and Days, translation from here


Relief of Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu
Speculative timeline of events

1208BC: Simultaneous attack on Egypt by Nubians and Libyans with Sea Peoples allies

1207BC: Assassination of Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I

c.1200BC: Destruction of Mycenaean citadels at Tiryns, Mycenae and Pylos

c.1200BC: Destruction of Hittite capital of Hattusa

c.1200BC: Destruction of citadel at Troy

c.1192BC: Destruction of Ugarit

c.1178BC: Battle of the Delta: Ramesses III defeats Sea Peoples invasion of Egypt

c.1158BC: Sack of Babylon by Elamite king Shutruk-Nakhunte and end of Kassite Dynasty

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part II

Hittite Deities
“They spent their time going about the land, fighting, to fill their bodies daily. They came to the land of Egypt, to seek the necessities of their mouths.” Inscription by the Pharaoh Merneptah on the Libyan invasion, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

This is the second post of a series about the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Click here for the links to the first and third posts.

Firstly, I believe that there around 1200BC there was a major food shortage in what is now Greece and Turkey. This was not unprecedented and the empires (the Mycenaeans and Hittites) responded as they always did, by coercing the peripheral states to send food to the impoverished heartlands. The food shortage may or may not have been accompanied by a plague of some type. The evidence for plague is almost non-existent, however, famine and plague have often been closely associated in other historical periods. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride close together. The central states were weakened but not fatally so by any means. There appears to have been a food shortage in Libya at the time as well so it is unclear whether or not the famine stretched across the Middle East.

Later Greek vase with a scene of the Trojan War
“He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrows in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.” Iliad I.7, describing Apollo in his role of god of plague attacking the Greek army at Troy.

Faced with these demands and having endured years of meddling in their affairs by the two empires, the peoples of the western seacoast of Turkey began to forsake their towns and take to the sea as pirates. History knows these pirates as the Sea Peoples (mainly because this is what the Egyptians called them). The Mycenaeans and Hittites had fleets but the west coast of Turkey was at the edge of their striking range and they struggled to contain the rebellion. The rebellion meant that no food was sent to Hattusa from the west, further weakening the Hittites and the pirates began to seize food shipments for Hattusa en route from Syria and Egypt.

Hittite Relief
An Assyrian army had defeated the Hittites earlier and the Hittite king had proved unable to respond. The Hittites had had a civil war several generations previously and, with the signs of weakness in the royal house, this conflict appears to have flared up again. To make matters worse, some of the raiders joined forces with the Libyans against the Pharaoh Merneptah, who fought off the invasion but then seemed to blame the Hittites for allowing their subjects to attack Egypt, subsequently cutting off grain shipments. The northern tribes of Kaska appear to have attacked as well, doubtless feeling the strain of the famine and hoping to raid Hittite food supplies. A new king took the name of Suppiluliuma II (the previous king of that name had saved the Hittites at a time of crisis) and attempted to fend off the attacks.

Mycenaean Dagger
The Mycenaeans, who were probably never a unified people except in war, (the number of fortified citadels suggest a highly independent nobility at the very least) struggled to contain the threat. In times of crisis neighbours often attack each other and only a common enemy can force people to work together. The Mycenaean leaders may have attempted to solve their problems by going to war against a far off foe. Around this time Troy, on the north western coast of Turkey, was burnt to the ground. It is unknown if this was done by the Greeks, the Sea Peoples or others but the strength of the legend of the Trojan War suggests that the Mycenaeans attacked the western coast of Turkey around that date. If this was intended to stave off the crisis, it failed. Greek legend speaks of the absolute chaos that ensued after returning from the war. The legends of Aegisthus and Orestes may recall power struggles and civil wars at that time. The countryside was rapidly depopulating and without the food provided by these farmers, the nobility probably turned on each other.

A fragment from the citadel of Pylos speaks of posting guards to warn of sea raiders from the south (from a direction that speaks of attackers from Crete or other Greek islands) and the citadel is burned shortly afterwards. The palaces show signs of a faltering recovery but are subsequently abandoned for a final time. Legends speak of a Greek speaking barbarian tribe from the north (the Dorians) that subsequently inhabited the Mycenaean heartlands. These new immigrants were unfamiliar with the Bronze Age order of things and the remains of citadels such as the ones at Tiryns were left alone and believed to be the work of Cyclops and giants. Settlement evidence indicates major abandonment of settlements and it is possible that many Mycenaeans left Greece for more distant shores.

“Thus the watchers are guarding the coasts : command of Maleus at Owitono... 50 men of Owitono to go to Oikhalia, command of Nedwatas.... 20 men of Kyparssia at Aruwote, 10 Kyparissia men at Aithalewes...” Tablet from Pylos describing guards on the southern coast, the translation is taken from here.


It should also be noted that some of the cities destroyed at this time show signs of earthquake damage. The eastern Mediterranean is a seismically active area and a major series of earthquakes could damage city walls enough to allow small groups of raiders (or pirates) to sack cities that were caught unprepared. The activities of the empires probably helped in this, as the empires would concentrate their forces at a single point, allowing small groups of raiders to strike undefended peripheral cities with impunity.

Ruins of the city of Ugarit in Syria
“The city and the king (of Ugarit) have been annihilated by fire, half of it has been burned, and the other half is no longer there.” Abi-Milku of Tyre describing an earlier earthquake in Ugarit, , translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins




Egypt and Mesopotamia, with their high population densities and irrigation networks were probably less affected by food shortages and less susceptible to earthquakes but the chaos in the Mediterranean would have affected their trade networks. The effects of this would only be felt gradually but it would have eventually affected their economies. To remedy their deficits they, like the Hittites and Mycenaeans, would have attempted to go to war. Numerous wars between the Assyrians and Kassites occurred and Assyria might well have capitalised on the situation, were it not for the assassination of their king. As it was however, the assassination forced Assyria into civil war and the armies of Babylon, previously defeated by the Assyrians, were no match for the invading Elamites. As the empires each came under threat (each in their own way) they would have ceased correspondence with each other and the intricate diplomacy of the Bronze Age disappeared. An empire under attack could only send the most minimal aid to its allies and each empire faced their threats on their own.

Suppiluliuma II
“I mobilised and I Suppiluliuma, the Great King, immediately crossed the sea. The ships of Alashia (Cyprus) met me in the sea three times for battle, and I smote them; and I seized the ships and set fire to them in the sea. But when I arrived on dry land, the enemy from Alashia came in multitude against me for battles…” Last known inscription by Suppiluliuma II of the Hittites, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



As the central empires weakened, the previously weak sea raiders became comparatively stronger. Their acts of piracy had temporarily saved them from starvation and the earthquakes would only have aided their attacks. They appear to have switched from simple raiding and attempted to migrate en masse to new lands. But now they faced a backlash. The last known inscription of the last Hittite king speaks of a great sea victory near Cyprus and Suppiluliuma II may have attempted to capitalise on the victory (if it happened) by attacking the bases of the pirates on the south-western coasts.

“… My cities were burned and evil things were done in my country. Does my father (respectful title for a king) know that my troops are stationed in Hittite land and my ships in Lukka (western coast of Turkey) country? Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know this. Seven ships of the enemy have come here and did us much damage. Be on the lookout for other enemy ships and send me warning.” Message from Ugarit to a king in Cyprus, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



If this is what happened, the venture failed. Around the year 1192BC the armies and navies of Hittite allies are sent westwards and do not return. Possibly there was a great battle that destroyed the Hittite force or, more likely, the raiders had already abandoned their bases and slipped past the Hittite fleets but the result of the expedition was that the coastal cities of Cyprus and Syria were attacked and burned. The final messages found in the ruins of Ugarit reveal the danger that the cities had been left in and one extraordinary message has a neighbouring king pleading for Ugarit to launch one hundred and fifty ships against the threat (bear in mind that the grain ships of Ugarit appear to have been able to transport 250 tons of grain so presumably their warships were of a reasonable size). But there were no ships.

Twenty enemy ships slipped away into the mountain region and we don’t know where they have gone…” Message from king of Ugarit to ally in Cyprus, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



Gates of Hattusa, the Hittite Capital
The loss of the west and the famine in the north meant that the Hittites had abandoned their ancient capital Hattusa and the formidable walls were undefended. The Kaska tribes probably swept south to attack their ancestral foes and the empty cities were totally destroyed but it is clear that the invaders simply torched the city and made no attempt to settle. The famine stricken land of the Hittites, with their farms abandoned and granaries emptied, was now a death trap.

“Since there is famine in your house we will starve to death… The living soul of your country is no more...” Letter from a diplomat of Ugarit to a Hittite diplomat, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



The fate of the last king of the Hittites, Suppiluliama II, is unknown but with the capital burned, the people starving and the empire lost, it is doubtful that the remaining subjects, who looked to the king to placate the gods, treated him kindly. Small Hittite kingdoms in Tarhuntassa and Carchemish (tributary states to the south that were formerly subordinate to the Great King in Hattusa) survived but the empire never revived.

Hittite Chariots
The Mycenaeans appear to have weathered the initial destruction, as some of their citadels show signs of rebuilding, but the population that had supported the old order was no longer there and the citadels were abandoned. The skilled craftsmen fled to islands less affected by the wars. The nobility now faced a new threat, a flaw in their system of ruling that the changing times had exposed.

The Bronze Age empires had all depended on chariot elites to form the core of their armies. These armies were equipped with bronze weapons and depended on the trade routes to give them copper from Cyprus and tin from the west to form the alloy. The collapse of the trade routes (and the sudden exodus of skilled Hittite craftsmen from Anatolia) allowed iron-working to begin across the Near East, lessening the dependence on central organisation for weapons manufacturing.


More significantly, the desperation of peripheral peoples allowed them to fight back against the major armies of the day. Bronze Age warfare had seen swift chariot battles on the plains followed by long sieges of fortresses or mountain strongholds that resisted. The major armies would still have been able to win chariot battles but the weakened empires could no longer afford to allow their armies to waste years besieging fortresses. In other words, at a time of crisis, if a barbarian tribe could hold mountainous ground it could be difficult to defeat them without losing other areas of the empire for years and the subject kings would have been unwilling to allow their troops to be away for so long. For embattled empires like the Hittites or Mycenaeans (whose terrains were littered with mountain ranges) the weakness of over-reliance on chariots would have been fatal.

“A camp was set up in one place in Amurru (southern Syria). They (the Sea Peoples) desolated its peoples and its land was like that which had never come into being.” Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



“As for the countries who came from the land in isles in the midst of the sea, as they were coming forward toward Egypt, their hearts relying on their hands, a net was prepared for them.” Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



Drawing of the relief showing Battle of the Delta
After the fall of Ugarit and the collapse of the Hittites the Sea Peoples moved down the coast of Syria. The cities of Tyre and Sidon were spared assault and may in fact have joined forces with the invaders. Around 1178BC the Pharaoh Ramesses III faced a Sea Peoples invasion of Egypt itself. There had previously been a battle somewhere in Syria and the Egyptians depict loaded carts with women and children, suggesting that the invaders were searching for new lands. Ramesses claimed the battle in Syria as a victory but if so it was a hollow one as the enemy was now at the mouth of the Nile, threatening Egypt itself. The Sea Peoples were using new weapons, a long slashing sword based on a design from the Balkans, that had a longer reach that the Egyptian scimitar. Ramesses’ generals cunningly surprised the invaders in the marshes of the Nile Delta and used the firepower of their archers to destroy the invading armies in what is known as the Battle of the Delta. The invasion of Egypt had been halted but the Egyptian empire in Syria was no more and a group of Sea Peoples were to settle permanently along the coast in southern Syria. The name of one of their tribes, the Philistines, is the origin of our word Palestine.

Sea Peoples depicted as prisoners
“I caused the Nile mouth to be prepared like a strong wall with warships, galleys and coasters equipped, for they were manned completely from bow to stern with valiant warriors with their weapons.” Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins



Ramesses III had saved Egypt but it was a hollow victory. The loss of its empire and its isolation from other empires led Egypt to a decline. A further eight pharaohs were to claim the name Ramesses in an attempt to rekindle the glories of their predecessors but when Ramesses XI died Egypt split into two kingdoms before being temporarily taken over by Libyans.

This is the second post in this series. Please click here for the third post about the collapse of the Bronze Age.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part I

Lion Gate of Mycenae
“…You say that you have seen the boats of the enemy at sea…. Be strong! Move your chariots and troops within the walls of the city…. The enemy is very strong. ….”
Fragments from a response to a plea for help from the king of Ugarit from around the year 1190BC, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

This is the first post of a series about the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Click here for the links to the second and third posts.

I previously spoke of the complexity of the late Bronze Age, of the palaces and cities, art and literature, warfare and diplomacy that comprise our knowledge of this civilised period. In this post I will speak of how it came to an end. Around the year 1200BC many cities of the Bronze Age are burned, empires fall and entire swathes of land are abandoned for hundreds of years. Some of the more stable civilisations survive but in a reduced form, cowering behind city walls; others disappear forever. Sources for the period are very poor and civilisation declined to the point that some states lost the ability to write their own languages while in other areas place names are forgotten suggesting long term abandonment. But these tumultuous events seem to have left behind echoes and some believe that works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey might be distant recollections of these chaotic times.

A much later statue of Homer
Around the year 1208 BC Egypt was attacked by a hitherto unknown coalition that the Egyptians called the “Sea Peoples”, in alliance with Egypt’s ancient tribal foes from Libya. A simultaneous revolt of the southern region of Nubia placed Egypt under strain and the Pharaoh Merneptah (son of the builder Ramesses II) was only barely able to contain the attack. In later years a much more concerted series of attacks by the Sea Peoples were repulsed by Ramesses III but Egypt’s empire in Syria was lost and never properly recovered and one group of Sea Peoples, the Philistines settled along the coast of what were previously Egyptian possessions.

Merneptah blamed the Hittites for allowing the attack suggesting that the Sea Peoples may have been from Anatolia and from the area supposedly controlled by the Hittites. But the Hittite Empire was in serious trouble as well. A civil war had divided loyalties in the population and elites and their northern capital was abandoned for a safer location further south. Texts seem to signify a great famine in the land as well. The weakened empire lost control of western Anatolia and the northern city of Wilusha (probably the city now referred to as Troy) was burnt. Around 1190 BC the old capital of Hattusa suffered a complete destruction. In Mycenaean Greece the great palaces in Mycenae and Tiryns suffer heavy damage and burning. Surviving Linear B fragments from the palace of Pylos point to invaders from the sea, although there may have been land invaders as well. The opulent trading city of Ugarit, in modern day Syria, was burned to the ground around a similar date, while their trading partners in Cyprus see their cities burned. While the Cypriot cities are quickly reoccupied, the destruction in Ugarit was so intense that the fires turned limestone building blocks to lime and the city was never rebuilt.

Assyrian Stele
The inland empires of Assyria, Babylonia and Elam are less affected. Assyria, under the strong leadership of Tukulti-Ninurta I, was expanding at Babylon’s expense around 1200BC before his assassination. After the assassination of Tukulti-Ninurta Assyria went into rapid decline, having kings with short and uncertain reigns and inconclusive wars with Babylon. These wars weakened Babylon to the point where a strong Elamite king was able to raid the city and end the Kassite Dynasty. When Assyria recovered from the dynastic strife it was forced to fight a nearly continuous series of wars against new tribes that had occupied the neighbouring territories.

By around 1150BC the Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian empires had been seriously weakened while the Hittite and Mycenaean civilisations had fallen entirely, never to rise again. The population dropped across the Near East and when records become plentiful hundreds of years later, there are new states, peoples, cities and gods. What event or series of events was able to trigger this catastrophic change?

Relief of Hittite Chariots
Firstly I should attempt to exonerate some of the usual suspects. While contemporary sources and later myths suggest mass barbarian invasions, I doubt that barbarian invaders alone could topple the advanced Bronze Age empires. The sheer organisation of these empires meant that they could field large armies and they had fended off external attacks before. Secondly, climate change is unlikely, in and of itself, to have caused the catastrophe. The world population was quite low, arguing against large scale anthropogenic climate change. Also, the civilisations were all affected differently suggesting more local factors were at work. There is no agreement on the order of many of the events described here and even less consensus on causal factors but I shall tell the story as I understand it, giving primary quotations to back up my arguments where possible. The reader should be aware that very different interpretations are possible.

Fresco of Mycenaean Woman
I have used the book, the Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins quite extensively, and while, not all of the ideas stated here are drawn upon his research, it was the single most valuable secondary source used in researching this piece. I would quite recommend the book.

 This is the first post in the series. Click here for the link to the second post on the collapse of the Bronze Age.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Heretic Pharaoh


Statue of Akhenaten
I have previously written about the history of Egypt and also about the later Bronze Age period in the Middle East. I have decided to devote a little time to discussing one of the most controversial figures of the period, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who is pivotal to our understanding of the time and yet still an unsolved enigma.

Akhenaten was a Pharaoh of Egypt during the New Kingdom Period and reigned roughly from 1351-1334 BC. He was originally called Amenhotep and was the fourth Pharaoh of that name. However, for reasons unknown, in the fifth year of his reign Amenhotep changed his name from Amenhotep (Amun is satisfied) to Akhenaten (The Living Spirit of Aten) and moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new site in the eastern desert that he called Akhetaten but which is now referred to as Amarna.

These changes were not arbitrary. Akhenaten had apparently experienced some form of religious conversion to a new type of religion. Egyptian religion was polytheistic, worshipping many gods, with statues associated with these gods. Akhenaten focused upon a hitherto obscure deity, known as Aten, who represented the disk of the sun. There was a much better known god of the sun, known as Ra or Re, whom Akhenaten treated with some respect but he much preferred to focus on Aten, who was worshipped at the expense of all the other gods and who was represented merely as a golden circle with lines representing rays of sunlight streaming downwards.

Ruins of Amarna
Thebes, in Upper Egypt, had been the capital of the New Kingdom Pharaohs and the priesthood of the patron god of the city, Amun, had profited from the rise of his city. Magnificent temples were built in his honour, the priesthood controlled large tracts of land and the god was even mentioned in Akhenaten’s previous name. Akhenaten was changing the religion so that the sun disk replaced Aten as Egypt’s chief god. This no doubt angered the establishment in Thebes, so, to diminish Thebes, Akhenaten changed the capital. Some scholars view Akhenaten as a reformer who may have genuinely believed in the new religion. Others see him as a crusader against priestly power, while others see the reform as a cynical attempt to focus all devotion on himself as the sole spokesman of the new god. All of these ideas are plausible but hypothetical until more information is uncovered.

Nefertiti
Akhenaten also changed the art of Egypt. Since the inception of Egyptian art the Pharaoh had always been represented as a godlike figure and the only difference between the one Pharaoh and another was the hieroglyphs denoting who was represented (which was one reason it was so easy for one Pharaoh to claim another’s accomplishments for their own). Akhenaten was portrayed oddly. His stomach was displayed as protruding, his skull elongated and his face gaunt. He also allowed depictions of family life, which seldom featured in the art of previous Pharaohs. His wife Nefertiti was represented as a beautiful woman but later depictions show her as an aged queen, which would never have been shown in earlier (or later) Egyptian art.

Some scholars think that this was an attempt at naturalistic portrayal. However, there are human remains that are tentatively identified as Akhenaten’s. If the identification were proved then it would appear that these traits were exaggerated and that Akhenaten looked little like his portrait. Other scholars think that the art was an attempt to create an imposing spectacle. They argue that the statues were generally large and would be viewed from below. Statues that appear as caricatures when viewed at eye level become quite imposing when viewed from a lower angle. While I suspect that this view has a lot going for it, it fails to explain why the reliefs also use this style of portrayal.

Akhenaten worshipping Aten
The move to Amarna and the religious reforms placed certain strains on the running of the empire. The reforms were definitely unpopular with certain factions and moving the entire business of state always causes strain on a bureaucracy. But the Hittites were on the ascendant and this, coupled with the related decline of the Mitanni, meant that the Egyptian empire in Syria was under threat. Akhenaten did use diplomatic measures to try and stem the tide but significant northern cities defected to the Hittites while the southern cities in Canaan suffered persistent bandit attacks. To make matters worse, a disease swept through the Middle East (which ironically stopped the Hittite threat as their greatest military leader, Suppiluliama I, eventually died from it, although the exact chronology here is disputed) and decimated Egypt. Akhenaten survived the epidemic but passed away shortly thereafter, leaving Egypt in turmoil as his successors struggled to contain the discontent that his reforms had caused.

Statue of Akhenaten seen from beneath
His brother Smenkhkare, who probably reigned less than a year, probably succeeded Akhenaten but the exact relationship between Smenkhkare and Akhenaten is unclear. The next Pharaoh was the boy king Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun, abandoned the new capital Amarna in favour of the old capital Thebes and died after a brief reign. The usual explanation is that the priests of Amun used their influence to manipulate the young Pharaoh into abandoning the new religion but some elements of the tomb goods seem to show Tutankhamun under the guidance of the sun disk Aten. The following Pharaohs left few inscriptions and had short reigns, which is usually a good indication that the dynasty was breaking down. Finally an unrelated Pharaoh, Horemheb, came to the throne and reversed all remaining reforms and went so far as to obliterate all the records of Akhenaten and the following Pharaohs and dismantle the city of Amarna. If Horemheb ever refers to Akhenaten, he is known simply as “the enemy” and thus this remarkable reformer and his descendants effectively disappear from history until the modern era.

Horemheb: The Pharaoh who erased Akhenaten's legacy

This situation had some remarkable consequences. Because the records of the old dynasty were destroyed their memory faded and while most of their tombs were found and looted in antiquity, one minor Pharaoh of the time was so insignificant that his resting place was overlooked. Were it not for Horemheb’s destruction of records it is almost positive that the tomb of Tutankhamun would have been looted thousands of years ago.

A less shiny but more archaeologically interesting consequence was that certain records were abandoned at the city of Amarna when the state bureaucracy relocated back to Thebes. The records at Thebes were destroyed in the numerous sieges of that notable city but the records in Amarna were left to lie under sand for thousands of years and after their rediscovery they now form some of the best sources for life and politics in that period.

Mask of Tutankhamun
Because of his religious ideas, promoting one god above all others, it has been difficult for scholars to look at Akhenaten without questioning to what extent his ideas influenced/were influenced by Hebrew ideas of monotheism. The best-known example of this is where Sigmund Freud imaginatively but baselessly conjectures that Moses was a priest of Aten who fled the new Egypt of Horemheb and his descendants. The fact that Freud could get away with writing such entirely hypothetical ideas in a supposedly serious work is a good indication of the fascination scholarship has had with the idea of Akhenaten’s work. The truth of the matter is that there is simply no agreement on when (or if) the Exodus of the Bible occurred and without agreement on that crucial date it is impossible to gauge the influence that the theology of Moses and Akhenaten had on each other.

I will leave the reader with the opening of the most famous inscription of Akhenaten, which similar to Psalm 104, is a hymn of the devotee to their god. This translation is sourced from the Internet History Sourcebook.

Desecrated relief from Akhenaten's tomb
Thou dost appear beautiful on the horizon of heaven, 0' living Aten, thou who was the first to live. When thou hast risen on the eastern horizon, Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.

Thou art fair, great, dazzling, and high above every land;

Thy rays encompass the lands to the very limit of all thou hast made. Being Re, thou dost reach to their limit and curb them [for] thy beloved son; though thou art distant, thy rays arc upon the earth;

Relief showing Aten watching over Egypt
 Thou art in their faces, yet thy movements are unknown. When thou dost set on the western horizon
The earth is in darkness, resembling death. Men sleep in the bedchamber with their heads covered, one eye does not behold the other.

Were all their goods stolen which are beneath their heads they would not be aware of it; every lion has come forth from his den, all the snakes bite. Darkness prevails, and the earth is in silence,
 Since he who made them is resting in his horizon, at daybreak, when thou dost rise on the horizon, Dost shine as Aten by day, thou dost dispel the darkness and shed thy rays.

Depiction of Aten from Tutankhamun's tomb
The two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt) arc in a festive mood, awake, and standing on (their) feet for thou hast raised them up; they cleanse their bodies and take (their) garments; their arms are (lifted) in adoration at thy appearing;

The whole land performs its labour. All beasts are satisfied with their pasture; Trees and plants arc verdant. The birds that fly from their nests, their wings are (spread) in adoration to thy soul; flocks skip with (their) feet; all that fly up and alight live when thou has risen [for] them. Ships sail upstream and downstream alike, for every route is open at thy appearing. The fish in the river leap before thee,

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States


Bronze Vessel from the Zhou Dynasty
In a previous post I wrote about the Shang Dynasty, the first dynasty of China to be archaeologically attested to. As recounted in that post the Shang Dynasty came to an end after the Battle of Muye, around 1046 BC, and the Zhou Dynasty took its place.

While other states may have ruled over portions of China at the same time as the Shang, there nevertheless seemed to be a sense in which the Shang rulers were supreme. To justify the overthrow of these supreme rulers, while at the same time discouraging thoughts of similar overthrow, the Zhou formulated a doctrine known as the Mandate of Heaven. This was a fairly loose doctrine, but the main idea was that the supreme ruler was chosen by Heaven. If the ruler displeased Heaven then natural disasters would occur on earth and one of the main ceremonial duties of the rulers was to perform rituals to appease Heaven. If the disasters continued and a successful rebellion took place it meant that Heaven now favoured the new rulers, who could command the same respect for their divine ordination as the previous rulers. In other words, it legitimised rebellion but in practice made it difficult, as the dynasty only lost the Mandate of Heaven when they were actually dethroned.

Statue of Charioteer
The capital of the Zhou was originally placed in Fenghou and the rulers were able to successfully expand their territory for several hundred years. However, the ever increasing size of their domains made communication and direct rule from the capital very difficult. The Zhou rulers attempted to continue the expansion by delegating power to local leaders who, if they served the king well, were given the incentive of allowing their sons to succeed them in their position. This system grew to closely resemble the much later European system of feudalism. The advantages were that any attack by outsiders would be faced by powerful local lords who knew the area and their opponents well and who were fighting for their lands and family. The disadvantage was that by allowing local lords to establish permanent power bases for themselves they gradually put local interests ahead of imperial ones.

As early as the mid-900’s BC it appears that local lords would actually attack the armies of the emperor. Having created this Frankenstein of a system the Zhou rulers now resorted to playing coalitions of local lords against each other. Originally the Zhou fielded six armies of varying strength to protect the various sectors of the realm but these were reduced to augmenting the strength of the local armies in a national emergency.

Arrows from Zhou Dynasty
In 771 BC an internal power struggle at court led to one faction mobilising the armies of their area, making alliances with outside barbarians and marching on the capital at Fenghao. Despite desperate pleas for aid, none of the other local lords aided the emperor, who was slain and his capital burnt. Their traditional power base was gone and their armies were reduced so the court fled eastwards to a new capital of Chengzhou. Here they were further away from barbarians and nearer to lords who might support them. They were allowed to set up a new capital but given very little land in which to do so. The Zhou Dynasty’s area of direct control was now reduced to a tiny enclave where the emperor performed ceremonial duties. The local lords still pledged allegiance but it was little more than lip service. While they tolerated the existence of the defunct regime they soon began to claim the title of king for themselves and the feuding that went on between the lordships escalated.



Bronze and iron weapons from Zhou Dynasty
Before the flight to Chengzhou the Dynasty is referred to as the Western Zhou and afterwards as the Eastern Zhou. The period of 771-403BC is referred to as the Spring and Autumn Period (after a chronicle describing the period) while from 475-221 BC is similarly referred to as the Warring States Period.

Originally there were hundreds of “states”, mainly centred around the old Shang heartland on the Huang He river, however the states on the periphery were able to expand outwards thus gaining more territory and becoming stronger relative to the inner states. They were then able to absorb many of the weaker states. By the end of the Spring and Autumn Period there were four strong states, Jin, Qin, Qi and Chu. Jin was the strongest and looked as if it might have been able to conquer the other states but instead splintered after a bloody civil war into the states of Han, Wei and Zhao around the year 403BC. With the addition of Yan, which came to power later, these seven states exploited the new political realities to struggle for ultimate supremacy.

Yan Helmet
Warfare became increasingly sophisticated. Armies could number in the hundreds of thousands and chariots were used with great efficiency. The definition of a great state was “a state of a thousand chariots”, but the latter stages of the Warring States period saw chariots becoming increasingly irrelevant. Iron was used for the body armour of soldiers and the disciplined infantry armed with spears and crossbows eventually made chariots obsolete. Cities were fortified with great walls and, as the northern states focused on fighting each other, they constructed long fortifications on their exterior borders to ward off barbarian invasion while their armies fought each other. Among other developments in war this period may have even seen the first use of poison gas in battle.

Self-proclaimed experts in war, diplomacy and statesmanship roamed from state to state offering advice. The Chinese script evolved into one that is still recognisable today. This was the period that saw Sun Tzu write the Art of War. This period of conflict also saw the rise of competing philosophies and the birth of Daoism, Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism, but the intellectual activity of the time is so complex that it merits a post in its own right.

Map showing China in 260BC with Yan highlighted
The southern state of Chu was the largest of the states and had never fully been under the control of the Zhou Dynasty. It controlled the fertile Yangtze plains and had large manpower reserves but the inefficiency of its state bureaucracy hampered its expansion. Qi, on the east coast, was extremely efficient and pioneered many new ideas but found it difficult to expand. Zhao and Yan, in the north, were quite weak but were able to use their isolated position to attack central states when they were exhausted by the constant warfare. Both states copied the horse archer tactics of the northern horse-riding barbarians which gave them some advantages over chariot based armies. Wei and Han were central states with rich resources and numerous cities but their central position made them targets for the outer states.

First one state, then another, rose to prominence in the continuous wars of the time. Whenever a single state rose to power the others would coordinate their efforts in a temporary truce to cut down the rising state, with the alliance collapsing as soon as the rising state had lost pre-eminence. The states were quite evenly matched and the mobile nature of the bureaucrats of the time meant that, if one state adopted a winning strategy, the rest would soon follow suit. First Qi, then Zhao, then Chu attained prominence before foundering against the grand alliances.

Ceremonial sword from period
The state of Qin in the west of China was based near the old Zhou heartlands. Their capital of Xian was surrounded by a wall of mountains, through which there were only three passes through which an army could march. Its isolated position and proximity to northern barbarians meant that it was ignored in many of the wars of the early Warring States period. After a series of brutal but effective military reforms Qin armies were able to strike against the states of Zhao, Wei, Han and Chu with great success while the fortified passes meant that, even if their armies were defeated, the armies could regroup in safety and their heartlands were never raided. From around 300BC onwards Qin became the strongest of all the states.

The states tried to cope with the threat of Qin by forming great alliances against it. The Qin armies were well equipped and may possibly have numbered up to a million strong but the combined armies of the other states were stronger. This policy was known as a Vertical Alliance (the north and south against the west). However, the distrust that had built up between the states after centuries of warfare and betrayal meant that Qin was almost always able to detach states from these alliances by promising shares of the victory spoils. These were the Horizontal Alliances (west and north against south or vice versa). The temptation to join in the destruction of another state to enlarge one’s own possessions was very strong and by means of this tactic, Qin were able to continue expanding while avoiding facing any grand alliances.

Later depiction of Qin Emperor
In 256 BC King Nan of the Zhou Dynasty died and no one took his place. The last vestige of the old dynasty was dead but the irrelevance of the emperor meant that this was hardly noticed. In 230 BC Qin was able to destroy the state of Han, which had stood in the way of its armies when they emerged from the passes. With one of the seven states fallen and Qin’s armies far stronger than their competitors the end was near. Han had made it difficult for Qin armies to strike wherever they pleased but now they were given free access to the plains. The states of Zhao and Wei fell shortly thereafter. Chu fought off the invasion of the south initially but the returning Qin armies destroyed their capital and suppressed guerrilla resistance with extreme savagery. The northern state of Yan sent an assassin to kill the king of Qin (an incident upon which the film Hero is very loosely based) but failed. Yan was annexed leaving only the state of Qi, which surrendered shortly after, having failed to help any of the other states, possibly as a result of promises by Qin.

The ruler of Qin, King Zheng, was now ruler of all China. He renamed himself Qin Shi Huang Di, meaning First Qin Emperor. After one of the longest periods of continuous war the world has ever seen a new dynasty had been born. 

"...I have raised troops to punish violence and chaos and, with the support of the sacred power of the ancestral temples, the six kings have all admitted their crimes, and order is magnificently restored in all under Heaven." 

Excerpted proclamation of Qin Shi Huang Di quoted by Sima Qian and translated by Raymond Dawson from this edition.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Late Bronze Age in the Middle East

Statues of Ramesses II built around 1255BC
In earlier posts, about Sumer, Egypt and Minoan Crete, I sketched a brief account of early civilisations in the region now known as the Middle East. By 1600 BC the greater Middle Eastern region had seen civilisation spread from the early cultural centres and complex trade routes linked states and empires from Iran to the edges of Greece and from the southern borders of Russia to northern Sudan. The trade routes may well have extended further for certain important commodities but, at the very least, the greater Middle Eastern region had reached a level of development that allowed communication across a wide area. I will skip over some of the events around 2500-1600BC for the moment, although hopefully I will be able to get back to them at some point, and focus on the later Bronze Age period in all its glory. I will describe the states that formed the region and then end by describing the relations that existed between them.

Map of the Bronze Age c.1400BC (not showing Elam or Mycenae)
At the eastern edge of the region lay Elam, a kingdom centred around what is now south-western Iran. This kingdom had two major urban centres at Susa and Anshan. The inhabitants spoke an isolated language that can nevertheless be translated because of their use of cuneiform however sources are quite scarce for this period. The Elamite kingdom at that time based its legitimacy on the earlier Elamite kingdoms, whose history went back almost to the dawn of civilisation but the dynasties had changed throughout the centuries. Unfortunately there is not a great deal that can be said about the Elamite kingdom of this era (at least by me) so the reader must be content with knowing that there was a strong kingdom in south-western Iran whose rulers frequently clashed with the Babylonian Kassite rulers of southern Iraq and whose power generally waxed if the power of the Kassites waned.

Illustration from a Kassite kudurru
The southern region of Iraq was ruled by a people known as Kassites from the early 1500’s BC until the early 1100’s. After Babylon was destroyed by invading Hittite armies and the last member of Hammurabi’s dynasty deposed, the Kassites took over. They spoke a language that was difficult to understand but which may have been related to Hurrian. Very few of texts in their language survive, however substantial correspondence exists between them and other rulers, using tablets inscribed with the older Akkadian language. The Kassites were not native to the region and built a new capital, Dur-Kurigalzu, from which to rule, but the city of Babylon had such a reputation that it nevertheless retained its importance. After a time the Kassites appear to have been absorbed into the greater Babylonian population. Sadly, very little has survived from this period but the Kassites left as their legacies kudurrus, which were similar to legal grants of lands and privileges. Although this was unintended, the astronomical data recorded in writing the dates on the kudurrus has greatly assisted archaeologists in dating events in Near Eastern history.

Letter from Tushratta, King of Mitanni, to Egypt
From around 1500 to 1300 BC the area roughly comprising what is now northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and Syria was ruled by a state called Mitanni. A number of different names were used for this state, including Hurri, Khanigalbat/Hanigalbat or Maryannu. Some of these may have been names of peoples within the state that were subsequently confused with the state itself. Seldom have we known so little about a state but some scholars have hypothesised that a group of Indo-Aryan speakers formed a small ruling class in the Mitanni state and that the Mitanni state may have developed the light chariot and introduced the art of training horses to a high physical peak. A manual for training horses written by a certain “Kikkuli the Mitanni” was found in the Hittite capital and dated to around 1400BC. Whether or not the Mitanni invented the light spoked chariot wheel, by around 1500BC the light chariot had become pivotal to the armies of the Middle East and the armies of the day were formed around elite chariot corps. The Mitanni state was powerful and at the height of its power was more than a match for Egypt but it had no natural defences and proved unable to control its own territory. The Hittite state in present day Turkey eroded its Syrian empire while the rising Assyrian state (near present day Mosul in northern Iraq) sapped its interior strength. Eventually the Mitanni state ceased to be a great power and became tributary to the Hittites and Assyrians before finally becoming absorbed into the Assyrian empire. For an empire that lasted over two hundred years and may have pioneered innovative military tactics we know so little about it that the location of its capital Washukanni is a mystery to this day.

Middle Assyrian Stele
The Assyrians were based very close to the centre of Mitanni power in the north of Iraq and so were unable to achieve any degree of independence for a time. Their main city of Asshur had been the capital city of a substantial but short-lived empire hundreds of years earlier so the kings of that city dreamed of re-establishing the greatness of earlier times. However, the measures needed to fend off the Kassites to the south while also shaking off the yoke of Mitanni rule appear to have forced the Assyrians to begin to use drastic (extremely brutal) tactics to achieve success. Eventually the Assyrians were able to crush the Mitanni and claim their perceived rights as great powers. At first the neighbouring powers, the Kassites and Hittites, were angry that a regional power would dare to dispute with them at their own level but they adjusted pragmatically once it was seen that Assyria was there to stay. One Hittite king contemptuously asks Adad-Nirari I (one of the first Assyrian kings to claim great power status) “So you’ve become a Great King have you?” But the next Hittite king adopts a more conciliatory tone when writing about a troublesome border town between their empires, “If Turira is yours, smash it! If Turira is not yours, write to me so that I may smash it!” Assyria had risen to the challenge of politics in the Bronze Age and the Mitanni state passed into obscurity.

Hittite Carving
The Hittite state was based in central Turkey with their capital Khattusha lying near the current town of Bogazkale. The Hittite kingdom had existed since around 1800BC and had burst onto the international scene when they had sacked Babylon around 1530BC, however, internal power struggles forced them to pull back. Around 1400BC the revived empire began pushing forward once more and they clashed with the Mitanni and Egypt over control of Syria and Lebanon. They spoke an Indo-European language but used Akkadian (the language of Babylonia) to communicate with most of their neighbours. Their cities and fortresses were impressively built from stone and they produced some vibrant artwork and carvings. They appear to have had a navy (as they seem to have included Cyprus in their empire). But their most impressive technological feat was the production of iron. They were unable to produce much of it and they were certainly unable to equip armies with it but they were able to produce small luxury iron items like knives that were traded among kings. This invention paved the way for the later mass production that enabled the Iron Age.

Hittite Depiction of Chariots
While their population was far below that of Egypt the Hittites were capable of meeting the Egyptian armies in battle. At the battle of Kadesh the forces of the Hittite king, Muwatalli II, outwitted and inflicted serious casualties on the Egyptian armies of Ramesses II. Although Ramesses’ forces recovered, the Hittites forced the Egyptians to recognise a draw and significantly, it was the Egyptians who had to withdraw after the battle. Despite successes such as these, the Hittites were unable to seriously threaten Egypt. Their population was much smaller and the neighbouring states of Kaska, Arzawa and Wilusha were continuously threatening to revolt or invade should the Hittite king ever leave them alone for any period of time.

Bust of Nefertiti
The Egyptian Empire reached its apogee in the Late Bronze Age. After having expelled the foreign Hyskos Dynasty (and having learned from them all the secrets of chariotry) the Pharaohs used the resources of Egypt to dramatically expand their borders controlling large sections of present day Libya, Sudan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Around 1350 BC Egypt suffered a setback in international affairs when the Pharaoh decided to change Egyptian religion (this event is definitely worth a blog post of its own) and the ensuing turmoil appears to have loosened the Egyptian hold on their empire. But after this setback the Egyptians did recover some of their control of the region.

Egypt was the strongest of the great powers because none of the other powers could strike it directly (they had to cross the sea, deserts or pass through the Egyptian controlled areas of Syro-Palestine). The regularity of the Nile and advanced Egyptian agriculture enabled the Pharaohs to control (and feed) large populations who could be mobilised for war if necessary. Also Egyptian mines produced seemingly inexhaustible amounts of gold allowing Egypt to exercise far greater spending power than its rivals. While these factors meant that Egypt was the most stable and pre-eminent power, it was no guarantee that its armies would be victorious once they left the safety of Egypt (as Ramesses II found out at Kadesh).

Main Entrance to Mycenae
The last of the great powers was only really acknowledged by the Hittites. This power was referred to by the Hittites as Ahhiyawa. It was located somewhere to the west of the Hittite kingdom but, even with the Hittite naval forces, it appeared that the Hittites were unable to strike at the homeland of this people. This people interfered with the kingdoms on the western coast of Turkey and were powerful enough for the kings of the mighty Hittite Empire to be forced to address them as equals. While the link is unproved and still somewhat contentious, I believe that it is fair to assume that the “Ahhiyawa” referred to in Hittite records actually refers to Mycenaean Greece.

Mycenaean Fresco of a Lady
The Mycenaean culture was centred in the south of Greece. Like the Hittites they built massive stone citadels (and tombs that mirrored the splendour of Egyptian tombs). They may not have been an empire in the traditional sense but it is likely from Hittite records that there may have been a number of powerful regional overlords who all deferred to a single overall leader. If the later writings of Homer are indication of Bronze Age culture, the portrayal of Agamemnon would back this up. The Mycenaean culture left some writings behind but these are nearly all extremely boring documents describing the daily accounts of the palaces (interesting in their own way I suppose but of very little help in getting a sense of the politics of the time). It is almost definite that they could not speak Akkadian so they were unable to communicate in the deliberations of the great powers but the distance between their realm and any empire save the Hittite one made such communication unnecessary.

Depiction of Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh
For those of you who have struggled through the blog post this far, it has doubtless been a fairly boring read and I apologise for this. Sadly, the amount of detail and time that must be covered makes it difficult to really make things interesting and no amount of pretty pictures will compensate. But I do think that this post is worth spending time on. There are some really significant things to take from this piece of history. Firstly, that each kingdom mentioned here shared broad cultural similarities, they each had kings, worshipped similar gods and used similar weapons and strategies to wage war. Each kingdom appears to have been centred to a greater or lesser extent around a bronze-wielding, chariot-driving elite.

Vase showing Mycenaean Soldiers
But the most extraordinary thing is the way that they talk. I have alluded throughout the piece to concepts such as “Great Power” status. What this meant was that each of these kings viewed the others as effectively their equal and used diplomacy to maintain this. No one empire or kingdom was strong enough to conquer the others (over the entire time period only the Mitanni kingdom falls and that takes the concerted efforts of Egypt, the Hittites and Assyria over a period of several hundred years) so by and large they simply don’t try. This fine balance may be disrupted by warfare but after the wars the kings would draw up elaborate peace treaties using a common language of diplomacy (Akkadian) that could be as scrupulously honoured (possibly more so) than treaties today. I’m not trying to imply that there was a proto United Nations at work but I do find the intricate balance of power, diplomacy and peacemaking in the late Bronze Age to be one of the most interesting political scenarios to have ever existed. It is impossible to tell how the modern world might be different had these kingdoms survived longer but it is interesting that many cultures in later times appear to have looked back to this era as a golden age.

Bronze Age around 1340BC
To give a flavour of the correspondence between the Great Kings I shall finish by showing the beginning of a translated letter sent from Assur-Uballit I of Assyria (when Assyria was just trying to establish itself as a great power) to Akhenaten of Egypt. The translation is taken from the book the Amarna Letters, which was edited and translated by William L. Moran.

Say to the Great King, king of Egypt, my brother: Thus Assur-Uballit, king of Assyria, Great King, your brother,
    For you, your household and your country, may all go well.
Lamassu from Assyrian Palace
    When I saw your messengers I was very happy. Certainly your messengers shall reside with me as objects of great solicitude.
    I send you as your greeting gift a beautiful royal chariot outfitted for me and two white horses also outfitted for me, one chariot not outfitted and one seal of genuine lapis lazuli. 
    Is such a present that of a Great King? Gold in your country is as dirt. One simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed for its adornment.
    When Assur-nadin-ahhe, my ancestor, wrote to Egypt twenty talents of gold were sent to him.
    When the king of Khanigalbat (Mitanni) wrote to your father in Egypt he sent twenty talents of gold to him.
    Now I am the equal of the king of Khanigalbat (Mitanni) but you have sent (x) amount of gold and it is not even enough for the pay of my messengers on the journey to and back….