The Amorite Kingdoms (2)

If we now return to the year two thousand and look at what was happening in the eastern arm of the fertile crescent between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. By 1950 BCE two city-states had carved out Empires in the south, Isin and Larsa. In North, the land was controlled by the cities of Kish, Babylon, Kazallu and Sippar. Within the hundred years that followed Babylon had conquered Kish; Kazzullu had conquered Sippar and both states began to encroach on the territory held by Isin. In the south, both Larsa and a newly emerged kingdom based on the city of Uruk had also taken land from Isin. Finally, by 1790 BCE, two kingdoms had emerged – Babylon in the North and Larsa in the south. The stage was set for the emergence of one of the great kingdoms of the ancient Near East.

The origins of the first Babylonian Dynasty are vague. It is known that they were not native Akkadians, but were of Amorite descent. It may be that they too were either mercenaries or an exiled family which found itself in control of the then relatively unimportant city of Babylon. Beyond the dates they reigned we know very little of the early kings of this dynasty. Indeed even the dates, are somewhat speculative as there are in fact four competing chronologies for this period spanning a time difference of hundred and 50 years. Using the most commonly accepted chronology we know that the first ruler Samu-Abum (Sometimes referred to as Su-Abu) seems to have come to power in Babylon around 1830 BCE. The first king who we have any detail on is Sin-Mubillat, the fifth ruler of the dynasty, who succeeded his father in 1748 BCE. Up until this point, it seems that the rulers were content to hold onto the land they held immediately around Babylon, but Sin-Mubillat began an expansion of Babylonians territory which was to be continued by his son Hammurabi.

Hammurabi (standing), depicted as receiving his royal insignia from Shamash (or possibly Marduk). Hammurabi holds his hands over his mouth as a sign of prayer (relief on the upper part of the stele of Hammurabi’s code of laws).
Head of Hammurabi (Louvre Paris)

Hammurabi, his name means “the kinsman is healer “, came to the throne of the city of Babylon in 1792 BCE, probably on the death of his father, although some sources say that his father abdicated due to bad health. He spent the next 40 years consolidating and expanding the territory held by the Babylonians.  During this time Babylon emerges as the predominant city in the southern -eastern area of Mesopotamia. When Hammurabi came to the throne in Babylon, the areas we have come to know, as Babylonia and Assyria was predominantly controlled by two rival Kings, Rim-Sin, King of Larsa in the South and Shamshi-Adad in the north. There have been some suggestions that initially Hammurabi may have came to power as a client king of the latter. In these extremely volatile times, no ruler could avoid being quickly drawn into regional conflicts. Records of Hammurabi’s early years mentioned a number of campaigns against his powerful neighbours, although the records are rather ambiguous about the outcomes. Nevertheless, these years honed his military, political and diplomatic skills. It seems that he also spent these early years consolidating his rule in Babylon and paying great attention to internal developments such as the digging of canals and the fortification of his cities, he undertook a series of public works strengthening the defences with a new city wall. He also built a number of new municipal buildings including temples. It was during this period that the city began to expand.  Then in a period of just five years from 1776 to 1771 BCE, he established control over southern Mesopotamia, Elam and Larsa forming them into the first or Proto-Babylonian Empire. In addition, he forged alliances with lands further afield such as with Zimri-Lim in Mari, Yamkhad and the Levant and there is evidence that troops from these states aided the Babylonian army’s campaigns in the south. However, having gained control of southern Mesopotamia, Hammurabi’s gaze turned to the north. He took control of Mari, although the sources differ on whether this was a conquest, a surrender or whether the people of Mali believed that being part of this new empire was in their best interests and therefore submitted as willing partners. The lands of Yamkhad in the West do not seem to have been attacked. It has been suggested that this because Hammurabi realised that the larger his empire got the more difficult it was to control and thus he called an end to his westward expansion with the submission of Mari. He also appears to have defeated an army from the Assyrian lands to the north, which is recorded as paying him tribute, although he never incorporated their territory into the empire and they were allowed to continue as a self-governing kingdom, perhaps for the same reason mentioned previously. Following these campaigns, he added a new title ‘the King who made the four quarters of the Earth obedient’.

Hammurabi enacted significant military reforms based on a standing army, backed up by a reserve. He is of course probably most famous for his law code. The code comprised of 282 laws, based on a pre-existing Sumerian law code, thought to have originated around 2000 BCE and the law code of Lipith-Ishtar, King of Isen from around 1900 BCE. I propose to return to the law-codes in another post. 

Stele containing law code of Hammurabi (Louvre Paris)
Stele containing law code of Hammurabi (Louvre Paris)
Stele containing law code of Hammurabi (Louvre Paris)
Stele containing law code of Hammurabi (Louvre Paris)
Clay tablet containing part of law code of Hammurabi (Louvre Paris & Istanbul)


This political structure of the empire was disrupted around the year 1750 BCE with the arrival of the Mittani, an Indo-Ayrian people into the region. The settled in the North Central area of the Crescent, which at that time was occupied by a people known as the Hurrians. Like the Hurrians their place of origin is unknown. Unlike the Hurrians, the Mittani were a warrior elite and have been credited with the introduction of the newly evolved, 3-man light chariot into the area. These chariots had a complement of three warriors each; an archer, a spearman and the charioteer. Study of their religion reveals a divine pantheon not dissimilar to that of early Hinduism, which may suggest that they have a similar origin as the civilisations which settled in the Indus Valley. The Mittani incorporated themselves into the Hurrian kingdom. Best guess estimates are that they made up only about 5% of the population, but because of their military prowess, they took over as the ruling elite of the kingdom. They abandoned the accommodating, non-militaristic, stance that had been followed by the Hurrians and began expanding into the Mediterranean coastlands, Northern Syria and to the Southeast into Assyria.

The death of Hammurabi in 1686 BCE, saw an immediate downturn in the fortunes of the Babylonian Empire. The Assyrians asserted their independence and a new native Akkadian kingdom arose in the area of Sumer. Hammurabi’s son, Samsu-iluna seems to have been unable to prevent these successions. The first Babylonian Empire was to struggle on for another hundred and 50 years, but this time saw the gradual reduction in the land that it held until under the last ruler of the dynasty, Samsu-Ditana it is suggested that the empire was no bigger than it had been when Samu-abum had first taken the throne 300 years before.

The 1530’s BCE saw the height of the Hittite Empire. The wonderfully named Mursilas the first, led an ambitious raid South West through Hurrian-Mittani territory, Assyria and onto Babylon, where he proceeded to sack the city. However, trouble at home forced him to withdraw from the areas he had subdued and returned to the Hittite homeland. Here he was promptly murdered, apparently by nobles angry at the effects at home of the absence of their king and of his foreign campaigns. Whilst Mursilas’ campaign did him little good, it was also very bad news for the remnant of the line of Hammurabi, who were still ruling in Babylon. They never recovered control of their kingdom and as the Hittites withdrew, the Kassites invaded from the East and much as had happened in the Hurrian kingdom, a Kassite warrior elite replaced the dynasty of Hammurabi as the rulers of the Babylonian kingdom. There is some evidence that the Kassites may have been allied with the Hittites in the taking of Babylon and that control was their reward once the Hittites retreated. It is interesting to note that the Kassites had also by this time acquired the knowledge of the use of the 3 man light chariot, possibly as a result of their alliance with the Hittites, whilst there is no evidence from the records that this had yet become part of the Babylonian military armoury. Whilst the Kassites took control of core Babylonian territory, they seemed to have had little or no interest in the lands to the north and north-east and consequently, we see at this time the rise of an Assyrian kingdom, and beyond them, the re-expansion of MIttani territory.

In the west, the Amorites continued to control Yamhad. They were under pressure from the Hittites and later the resurgent Assyrian Empire. Around 1200 BCE they finally are replaced by, or absorbed into, a new wave of Semitic speaking immigrants, part of the Ahlamu peoples whom we know as the Arameans and from whom the ancient name for Syria, Aram and the dialect of the Semitic language, Aramaic are taken. Like the Amar, they seem to be a people from the mountains of Northern Syria and seem to have lived a lifestyle very similar to the Amorites.

 The Fertile Crescent looked very different from what it had during the four or five previous centuries. A system of flourishing states whose centres of power were in close contact with one another, spreading from the Mediterranean coast to the  Persian Gulf had disappeared. Some centres still existed, but on the whole, they were a poor reflection of the past illustrious and famous predecessors. Urbanism was at an all-time low. Many cities such as Mari had been destroyed and others had been abandoned. There was a distinct lack of centralised power, discontinuation of administrative and scribal practices and the levels of economic and cultural activities decreased. It is a time about which we know very little as texts were sparingly written. New groups began to assert themselves, the Kassites in Babylon and the Hurrian/Mittani in the north but these groups had returned to a much more tribal organisation.

But before we finish – one final note about Hammurabi. In 1949 CE when the chamber of the US Congress was remodelled, 23 marble portraits were installed over the gallery doors depicting figures from history noted for their work in establishing the principles of American law. Among these are Suleiman, Sultan of the Ottoman empire, Simon de Montfort and Napoleon. The most ancient figure of all is that of Hammurabi cited as ‘author of one of the earliest legal codes’ 

Commemoration of Hammurabi in US Congress building

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