Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Ancient Middle East

The Middle East is a large and diverse geographical area located in southwest Asia and northeast Africa. It extends over 2,000 miles from the Black Sea in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, and about 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the mountains of Iran. The term “Middle East” came into common use in the early twentieth century, but remains loosely defined. One term sometimes applied to part of this area is “Fertile Crescent,” which was coined by James Henry Breasted in 1914 to refer to the arc of fertile agricultural zones that formed the basis for early civilizations, in what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Scholars studying the ancient past usually use the term “Near East” for this area. The term cosmopolitan Middle East refers to the cultural diffusion across Mesopotamia between 1700 and 1100 BCE. This era is also known as the Late Bronze Age. During this time period there was extensive diplomatic relations and commercial contacts between states that fostered the flow of goods and ideas between cities and countries.
            In the late Bronze Age the southern part of Western Asia, the Kassites ruled Babylonia. The Babylonians however did not pursue any territorial conquest like the Kassites did. [1]The original homeland of the Kassites is not well known, but appears to have been located in the Zagros Mountains in Lorestan in what is now modern Iran, although, like the Elamites, Gutians and Manneans, they were unrelated to the later Indo-European/Iranic Medes and Persians who came to dominate the region a thousand years later. In the north, the Assyrians had their origins in the northern Tigris area. They were involved in the trade of tin and silver. The Hittites had their capital in Anatolia. They used horse drawn chariots, and had access to important copper, silver, and iron deposits. According to Egyptian Historians, [2]the Hittites were a people who once lived in what is modern Turkey and northern Syria. Most of what is known about them today comes from ancient texts that have been recovered. It would seem that the first indication of their existence occurred in about 1900 BC, in the region that was to become Hatti. There, they established the town of Nesa. Over the next three hundred years, their influence grew until in about 1680 BC, a true empire was born. During the second millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian political and cultural concepts spread across much of western Asia.
            Moving away from Western Asia, the powerful middle Egypt saw its decline preceding the New Kingdom period, as they were conquered by the Hyksos who were non-Egyptian. The New Kingdom period started when a native Egyptian dynasty overthrew the Hyksos. This period was characterized by aggressive expansion into Syria-Palestine and into Nubia. Innovations during the New Kingdom period include Queen Hatshepsut’s attempt to open direct trade with the Punt and Akhenaten’s construction of a new capital at Amarna. Queen Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh of Egypt, was [3]the daughter of King Thutmose I, Hatshepsut became queen of Egypt when she married her half-brother, Thutmose II, around the age of 12. Upon his death, she began acting as regent for her stepson, the infant Thutmose III, but later took on the full powers of a pharaoh, becoming co-ruler of Egypt around 1473 B.C. As pharaoh, Hatshepsut extended Egyptian trade and oversaw ambitious building projects, most notably the Temple of Deir el-Bahri, located in western Thebes, where she would be buried. Depicted (at her own orders) as a male in many contemporary images and sculptures, Hatshepsut remained largely unknown to scholars until the 19th century. Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt from 1473-1458 BC. In contrast to the warlike temper of her dynasty, she devoted herself to the administration and the encouragement of commerce. In the summer of 1493 B.C., she sent a fleet of five ships with thirty rowers each from Kosseir, on the Red Sea, to the Land of Punt, near present-day Somalia. It was primarily a trading expedition, for Punt, or God's Land, produced myrrh, frankincense, and fragrant ointments that the Egyptians used for religious purposes and cosmetics. Akhenaten, the heretic Pharaoh, was the son of Amenhotep IV. He turned his focus from Amon to Aton (son god) and began a cult of the sun disk-the Aton. He claimed to be the only one who could converse with this god, and he banned priests and the worship of Amon. He moved the capital from Thebes to a new city that he had built-Amarna.
In 1323 BCE, the general Haremhab seized power, and established a new dynasty, the Ramesside. The Ramessides renewed the policy of conquest and the expansion neglected by Akhenaten. Their greatest king, Ramesse II (1290-1224 B.C.E.) dominated Haremhab’s age. Ramses II was born to Queen Tuy and his father Sety I. He was given the throne at the age of about 20 and ruled for 67 years. This allowed him to be the second longest-ruling Pharaoh. Although Ramses II had a harem of wives, his special wife was Nefertari, and it was presumed that he had over one hundred children with all his wives. His love of architecture and power allowed him to erect more monuments and temples than any other pharaoh. In addition, the Syria-Palestine area was an important crossroads for the trade in metals. For this reason, the Egyptians and the Hittites fought battles and negotiated territorial agreements concerning control over Syria-Palestine.
Furthermore more, the Aegean World, 2000-1100 BCE, was the earliest civilization in Europe. [4]Two different civilizations flourished in this region from about 3000 BC to 1000 BC. The earliest is known as Minoan, because its center at Knossos (also spelled Cnossus) on the island of Crete was the legendary home of King Minos, who was (according to mythology) the son of the god Zeus and Europa, a Phoenician princess. The later culture is called Mycenaean, after Mycenae, a city on the Greek peninsula named the Peloponnesus. Mycenae was the capital of the region ruled by King Agamemnon, the Achaean leader in the Trojan War. The Mycenaeans, or Achaeans, had invaded the Greek mainland between 1900 BC and 1600 BC, and the term Achaeans was sometimes used to refer to all Greeks of this period. The center of their culture was Mycenae, which flourished from about 1500 to 1100 BC. Before 1400 BC the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans. The war against Troy took place in the 13th or early 12th century BC. The Minotaur was a savage creature who had the body of a bull and a man. In 1100 BCE, Egypt lost control over Nubia and the Hittites were conquered by unknown invaders. This led to the fall of the Bronze Age, and the rise of the Dark Age (poverty, isolation and decline of knowledge).
Also, the Assyrians were [5]Semitic people living in the northern reaches of Mesopotamia; they have a long history in the area, but for most of that history they are subjugated to the more powerful kingdoms and peoples to the south. Under the monarch, Shamshi-Adad, the Assyrians attempted to build their own empire, but Hammurabi soon crushed their attempt, and the Assyrians disappeared from the historical stage. Eventually the Semitic people living in northern Mesopotamia were invaded by another Asiatic people, the Hurrians, who migrated into the area and began to build an empire of their own. But the Hurrian dream of empire was soon swallowed up in the dramatic growth of the Hittite empire, and the young Hurrian nation was swamped. After centuries of attempts at independence, the Assyrians finally had an independent state of their own since the Hittites did not annex Assyrian cities. For the next several hundred years, the balance of power would shift from the north to the south. The Assyrian Kings were chosen by the gods, and they were highly revered. Their duties included: receiving information, hearing and deciding complaints, diplomacy, military leadership, supervision of state religion, public and private rituals, and consulting the gods for approval of decisions. Some of their Kings include: Sargon II, Tiglath-Pileser II, and Sennecherib. The Assyrians had a very strong army of half a million soldiers. They had advanced technology, and they were highly feared. The officials collected taxes and tribute, maintained law and order, and constructed and maintained public works. The three social classes of the Assyrian people are: free landowning, farmers and artisans, and slaves. Their economy was based on agriculture. Their culture was heavily influenced by early Mesopotamians, and they were very knowledgeable in Math and Astronomy. They had extensive libraries. The epic of Gilgamesh was found in one of these libraries.
Another people who had an even greater impact on history without building a great empire were the Israelites, also known as the Hebrews or Jews. [6]In the course of their history, they would establish Judaism as the first great monotheistic religion and also heavily influence Christianity and Islam. Together these are the three dominant religions throughout the Near East, Europe, much of Africa, the Western Hemisphere and Australia. In addition, these faiths have also shaped the law codes, art, culture, social customs, economics, and histories of their respective societies. Yet if it had not been for their religion, the Jews probably would not have been any more than a footnote in the history books. The Israelites were nomads and caravan traders. They practiced a patriarchal society led mainly by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After years of being enslaved by the Egyptians, Moses frees the Israelites from the pharaoh. Their road to freedom was not an easy one. The Egyptians endured calamities from God, as they refused to free their slaves. They Israelites finally crossed the Red Sea and settled in the Canaanite territory. The Israelites needed a strong central government. Thus they were led by King David, King Saul and King Solomon. Solomon was the strongest and wealthiest king Israel had. He built a temple in Jerusalem, as a well as built alliances. He has 300 wives and 600 concubines. The Israelites also had monogamous marriages: men could have affairs and the rich could have multiple wives. They lived in extended families. Women could not own property or initiate divorce. A woman caught committing adultery would be killed. They were limited to domestic duties such as caring for the kids, and cooking for the family. On the contrary, women were able to work outside the home in the urban areas of Israel. History witnessed the decline in Israel when Solomon’s sons divided the kingdom into two: North Israel (Samaria capital) and South: Judah (Jerusalem capital). The foreign invasion of the Assyrians and Babylonians also led to the weakening of the Israelites. The final straw that broke the camel’s back was the Diaspora: the scattering of the Israelite population.
Furthermore, the Phoenicians from Tyre (Lebanon) founded Carthage, an ancient city-state in the area that is modern Tunisia. [7]Carthage became a major economic and political power in the Mediterranean fighting over territory in Sicily with the Greeks and Romans. Eventually Carthage fell to the Romans, but it took three wars. The Romans destroyed Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, but then rebuilt it as a new Carthage. Although Alpha and Beta are Greek letters that give us our word alphabet, the alphabet itself comes from the Phoenicians, at least conventionally. The Phoenicians are also credited with inventing glass, the bireme (two tiers of oars) galley, the luxurious purple dye known as Tyrian, circumnavigating Africa, and navigating by the stars. After the brother of Dido (famed for her role in Vergil's Aeneid) killed her husband, Queen Dido fled her palace home in Tyre to settle in Carthage, North Africa, [8]where she sought to buy land for her new settlement. Coming from a nation of merchants she cleverly asked to buy an area of land that would fit within an oxhide. The local inhabitants thought she was a fool, but she got the last laugh when she cut the oxhide (byrsa) into strips to enclose a large area, with the sea coast acting as one border. Dido was queen of this new community. Later, Aeneas, on his route from Troy to Latium, stopped in Carthage where he had an affair with the queen. When she found that he had abandoned her, Dido committed suicide, but not before cursing Aeneas and his descendants. Her story is an important part of Vergil's Aeneid and supplies a motive for the hostility between the Romans and Carthage.
Ultimately, The Late Bronze Age collapse was a transition in the Aegean Region, Southwestern Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age that historians, such as Amos Nur and Leonard R. Palmer, believe was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive.[9] The palace economy of the Aegean Region and Anatolia which characterized the Late Bronze Age was replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages. Between 1206 and 1150 BC, the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy. In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied thereafter: examples include Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit. The gradual end of the Dark Age that ensued saw the eventual rise of settled Syro-Hittite states in Cilicia and Syria, Aramaean kingdoms of the mid-10th century BC in the Levant, and the eventual rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

[9] For Syria, see M. Liverani, "The collapse of the Near Eastern regional system at the end of the Bronze Age: the case of Syria" in Centre and Periphery in the Ancient World, M. Rowlands, M.T. Larsen, K. Kristiansen, eds. (Cambridge University Press) 1987.