The Dark Age of Mesopotamia



After their victory over the Kassites the Elamites did not occupy Babylonia for long, either because the conquest of vast territories in western Iran absorbed all their energy or because they already felt the presence of the newly arrived Medes and Persians as a dagger in their back. However this may be, the Elamite garrisons withdrew or were expelled, and princes native of Isin founded the Fourth Dynasty of Babylon, also called ‘Second Dynasty of Isin’. Soon the new kings were powerful enough to interfere in Assyrian domestic affairs, and when Elam sank into anarchy after the brilliant reign of Shilak-Inshushinak, the Babylonian Nebuchadrezzar I (c. 1124 – 1103 B.C.) attacked that country. A first campaign met with failure – Elamite followed and I fled before him; I sat down on the bed of weeping and sighing’ – but the defection of one of the Elamite lords, Shitti-Marduk, who fought on the Babylonian side, made the second campaign a glowing success. The account of the war, written on a kudurru granting privileges to Shitti-Marduk as a reward for his assistance, is one of the most poetic military records of antiquity.

From Dêr, the holy city of Anu, he (the King of Babylon) made a leap of thirty double-leagues. In the month of Tammuz (July – August) he took the road. The blades of the picks burn like fire; the stones of the track blaze like furnaces; there is no water (in the wadis) and the wells are dry; stop the strongest of the horses and stagger the young heroes. Yet he goes, the elected king supported by the gods; he marches on, Nebuchadrezzar who has no rival…

The battle was fought on the banks of the River Ulaia (Karun):

At the command of Ishtar and Adad, the gods of the battle, Hulteludish, King of Elam, fled and disappeared for ever, and King Nebuchadrezzar stood up in victory: he took Elam and plundered its treasures.

Among the booty was the statue of Marduk, taken to Elam at the end of the Kassite dynasty. This gave Nebuchadrezzar an aura of glory, and perhaps enabled Marduk to reach the top of the Mesopotamian pantheon, but his victory had no lasting political results. Elam was not truly conquered, and Nebuchadrezzar’s successors had to fight not for the possession of foreign lands but for the protection of their own kingdom against the eternal rival: Assyria.

Despite a serious crisis of succession and the temporary loss of their eastern provinces to Shilak-Inshushinak, the eleventh century as a whole was for the Assyrians an epoch of prosperity. Ashur-dân I, ‘who attained to grey hair and a ripe old age‘, and Ashur-rêsh-ishi, both contemporaries of the first kings of the Fourth Dynasty of Babylon, received tribute from the Sutû, kept the Ahlamû at bay, won a few battles over the Babylonians and did a considerable amount of repair work on the palace and temples of their capital-city. But at the end of the century storms gathered at the four points of the compass, which could have destroyed Assyria had it not been for the restless energy of one of the two or three great Assyrian monarchs since the days of Shamshi-Adad: Tiglathpileser I (1115 – 1077 B.C.). To the north the Mushki – perhaps related to the Phrygians – had crossed the Taurus with twenty-thousand men and were marching down the Tigris valley in the direction of Nineveh; to the east the Zagros tribes were hostile; to the west the Aramaeans – now mentioned for the first time – were established in force along the Euphrates and had started crossing the river; and to the south Marduk-nadin-ahhê, King of Babylon, had captured Ekallatum, bringing his frontier up to the Lower Zab, thirty kilometres only from the city of Assur. Tiglathpileser first marched against the Mushki and massacred them and their allies. Then, anxious to secure his northern frontier, he went up ‘to the heights of the lofty hills and to the top of the steep mountains’ of the land of Nairi, penetrated into Armenia and set up his ‘image’ at Malazgird, far beyond Lake Van, while one of his armies chastised, the lands of Musri and Qummani at the foot of the Taurus range. The Aramaeans were forced beyond the Euphrates and pursued to their stronghold Jabal Bishri, west of Deir-ez-Zor, but the Syrian desert was swarming with this new, tough enemy:

‘Twenty-eight times,’ says the king, ‘I fought the Ahlamû-Aramaeans; (once) I even crossed the Euphrates twice in a year. I defeated them from Tadmar (Tidmur, Palmyra), which lies in the country Amurru, Anat, which lies in the country Suhu, as far as Rapiqu, which lies in Kar-Duniash (Babylonia). I brought their possessions as spoils to my town Assur.’

It was probably in the course of these campaigns that Tiglath-pileser ‘conquered’ Syria and reached the Phoenician coast, where he received tribute from Arvad, Byblos and Sidon. Finally, came the victorious war against Babylon:

‘I marched against Kar-Duniash… I captured the palaces of Babylon belonging to Marduk-nadin-ahhê, King of Kar-Duniash. I burned them with fire. The possessions of his palace I carried off. The second time, I drew up a line of battle chariots against Marduk-nadin-ahhê, King of Kar-Duniash, and I smote him.’

To these military exploits, the King of Assyria added hunting activities, and he was out for big game: four wild bulls ‘which were mighty and of monstrous size’ killed in the country of Mitanni, ten ‘mighty bull elephants in the country of Harran and in district of the River Khabur‘, 120 lions slain on foot, 800 lions laid low from the royal chariot and even a narwhal ‘which they call sea-horse’ killed in Mediterranean waters near Arvad.

The murder of Tiglathpileser, however, put an end to this glorious period. The mounting tide of Aramaean invasion, the desperate efforts made by the Assyrians to dam it up, the irremediable decadence of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad wide open to the Sutû and the Aramaeans, foreign wars, civil wars, floods, famine, such is the pitiful picture offered by Iraq during the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. If ever there was a time of ‘troubles and disorders’, of confusion and hardship, a dark age rendered even darker by the paucity of our sources, it was the 166 years which elapsed between the death of Tiglathpileser I (1077 B.C.) and the advent of Adad-nirâri II (911 B.C.).

Through the fragmentary annals of the Assyrian kings we can follow in broad outline the Aramaean progression in northern Mesopotamia. Under Ashur-bêl-kala (1074 – 1057 B.C.) they were still on the right bank of the Euphrates, but fifty years later they had crossed the river and advanced as far as the Khabur. A few decades later, during the reign of Tiglathpileser II (967 – 935 B.C.), we find them around Nisibin, half-way between the Khabur and the Tigris. Ashur-dân II (934 – 912 B.C.) tried to push them back and claimed great success, but it appears clearly from the annals of Adad-nirâri II and of his successors that at the dawn of the ninth century the Aramaeans had settled en masse all over the steppe of Jazirah: there were Aramaean kingdoms on the Euphrates (Bit-Adini) and on the Khabur (Bit-Bahiâni, Bît-Hadipé), and powerful Aramaean tribes occupied the mountain Tûr ‘Abdîn, north of Nisibin, and the banks of the Tigris. Caught between the nomads and the highlanders, Assyria was threatened with asphyxia.

In Babylonia the situation was even worse, as shown by the ancient chronicles. Under the reign of Nebuchadrezzar’s fourth successor, Adad-apal-iddina (i..1067 – 1046 B.C.), the Sûtu plundered and ruined one of the greatest sanctuaries of Akkad: the temple of Shamash in Sippar – an event which probably gave rise to the great Babylonian poem of war and destruction known as the Erra epic. Between 1024 and 978 B.C. Babylon had seven kings divided between three dynasties. The first of these dynasties (Babylon V) was founded by a Kassite born in the Sea-Land; the second (Bit-Bazi), probably by an Aramaean; the third, by a soldier, also born in the Sea-Land but bearing an Elamite name. Under Nabû-mukin-apli (977 – 942 B.C.), the first King of Babylon VIII, all kinds of bad omens were observed and ‘the Aramaeans became hostile’. They cut off the capital-city from its suburbs, with the result that for several years in succession the New Year Festival (which required the free movement of divine statues to and from Babylon) could not be celebrated: ‘Bêl (Marduk) went not forth and Nabû went not (from Barsippa to Babylon)’. The following monarchs are hardly more to us than mere names on a list, but in all probability it was during this obscure period that a number of Aramaean tribes known from later Assyrian inscriptions – the Litaû, Puqudû, Gambulû – settled between the lower Tigris and the – frontier of Elam, and that the Kaldû (Chaldeans) invaded the land of Sumer. No one could have then imagined that three hundred years later the Kaldû would give Babylon one of its greatest monarchs, the second Nebuchadrezzar. But in that short interval the Assyrian empire had grown, reached its peak and collapsed.

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