Chapter 2: Kingdoms and Empires

The period from 3000 BC through to 1500 BC saw the formation of large, well-organized kingdoms in Egypt[1] and Anatolia.

The first large states

The long, narrow lower Nile valley lends itself to the formation of a single state to rule it. At this stage in world history, well-nigh impenetrable barriers guarded this land: to the north, the sea; to east and west, the desert; and to the south, a series of easily guarded cataracts rushing through narrow ravines.

From around 3000 BC, the lower Nile valley came under the united control of one regime. The rulers of what modern scholars call the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt brought the entire lower Nile valley under their firm control. It was these pharaohs who presided over construction of the earliest and most enduring of man-made Wonders of the World, the Pyramids.

Mesopotamia is far less amenable to unified control. Its broad plain, with its two great rivers and many branches, are wide open to outside attack or immigration. Protecting the settled farming communities has always been difficult, right up to the present day. Local power centres have therefore tended to be the norm. It was inevitable, then, that the land of Mesopotamia should produce a multiplicity of small city-states; and equally inevitable that any attempts to unite them under one rule would be short-lived.

Nevertheless, it was the Mesopotamians who produced the first real empires in world history.

The first empires

The first of these to appear was the large but relatively short-lived empire of Sargon[2] and his successors. This state covered most of Mesopotamia and some of Asia Minor and Syria, reaching as far as the Mediterranean Sea. It clearly had a major cultural influence on Middle Eastern history. Brief as it was, it led to the imposition of the Akkadian language as the chief language of Mesopotamia.


Bronze head of a king, most likely Sargon of Akkad but possibly Naram-Sin. Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities – Encyclopedia Britannica Online

This Akkadian empire was followed by another empire, centred on Ur,[3] a Sumerian city-state located near the coast of the Persian Gulf.

The Amorites

By this time, much of the Middle East was being effected by the migration of a nomadic people called the Amorites.

We have seen how nomadic peoples, sheep- and goat-herders, sprang up on the fringes of the Tigris-Euphrates plain. Some time after 2500 BC such a people, the Amorites, settled the dry grasslands between Mesopotamia[4] and Syria.[5]

Sometime before 2000 BC, they began to move out of these wild wastes into the civilized lands on either side. There is increasing evidence that this expansion of nomadism was linked to the onset of a dry period, which lasted for some 200-300 years. The area of cereal-growing shrank as marginal lands, with restricted access to water, were abandoned. Conditions may well have become much more suitable for herders than farmers in many places. This dry period seems to have affected the whole of the Middle East, as well as south east Europe. [6]

In any event, the Amorites [and their close relatives the Canaanites][7] had soon conquered cities and founded kingdoms in Syria, Canaan and Mesopotamia. The most successful of these new states was that centred on Babylon;[8] under its famous king, Hammurabi (reigned c. 1792-1750 BC), it came to rule an extensive empire covering Mesopotamia and much of Syria.

Code de Hammurabi, roi de Babylone ; face avant, bas-relief. Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Code de Hammurabi, roi de Babylone ; face avant, bas-relief.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

The Chariot

The coming of the chariot was a significant development in Middle Eastern history, as it was in other regions. It was probably introduced by Indo-European speaking[9] peoples coming into the region, either from the steppes of central Asia or eastwards from the Balkans, in Europe. Any ruler with a force of chariots at his call had an immediate advantage over any opponent who did not, and this military technology spread rapidly through the Middle East.

These Indo-European chieftains set up kingdoms which were to rule large tracts of the region – the Hittites[10] in Asia Minor, the Mitanni[11] in northern Mesopotamia and Syria, and the Kassites[12] in southern Mesopotamia. Non Indo-Europeans also adopted this technology, with for example Assyrian rulers soon had chariots in their army.

The Hyksos

The civilization of Ancient Egypt, which up to now had flourished in relative isolation, was also deeply affected by these upheavals; in fact it suffered the first major invasion from the north since the founding of the united Old Kingdom of Egypt in 3000 BC.

The Hyksos[13] were a nomadic people, quite likely near relatives of the Amorites. They entered Canaan from the eastern deserts at the same time that the Amorites were founding kingdoms in Syria. Whilst in Canaan the Hyksos adopted the chariot, and with this technology invaded Egypt. There, they defeated the old-fashioned (and chariot-less) Egyptian army and established a powerful kingdom around the Nile Delta.

In due course, this provoked a national response under capable Egyptian leaders who drove the Hyksos out and established the New Kingdom of Egypt[14] over the entire country. To achieve this, they too adopted the chariot as an important part of their army.

Link: map of the Middle East in 1500 BC


Great powers

The Middle East was by this time dominated by large and powerful states, and the relationships between them as they competed with one another for power and influence. New Kingdom Egypt, under its warlike pharaohs, was a major power in the region throughout this whole period. To its north, first the Mitanni and then the Hittites[15] challenged Egypt for control of Syria[16] and Canaan.[17] These powers in turn were faced with a strong and ambitious Assyria,[18] centred in northern Mesopotamia, while southern Mesopotamia was under the Kassite[19] dynasty, ruling from their capital, Babylon. Another people to mention were the Minoans[20] of Crete, where Knossos was undoubtedly the centre of wealthy and powerful state.

For the first time in world history, a group of major powers were involved in a long-lasting system of alliances, in which sophisticated diplomacy regulated the relationships between them. A glimpse of this can be seen in a cache of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt[21] and other leading Middle Eastern states of the time, known as the Armana letters. Found in the Egyptian desert, these letters were written in Babylonian cuneiform. They were clearly written by highly educated civil servants working in a government bureaux devoted to foreign affairs.

Diplomacy and war

This alliance system was underpinned by marriage agreements and exchanges of gifts, and the territories between the leading powers were partitioned into spheres of influence. When these alliances were not able to contain the aggression of one power or another, war broke out, on a scale not seen before.

The first battles of which any details are known occur in this period. The leading armies now all contained large contingents of chariots. These were expensive to maintain and repair, and the crews who manned them required long training to manoeuvre them in battle. Armies were therefore more professional than before, more expensive, and required more elaborate organization. The states which maintained them, therefore, had to develop more effective tax raising capabilities than before, and larger and more complex bureaucracies. 




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