Chapter 4: Multinational Empires

The early 1st millennium BC saw the Middle East covered by a patchwork of small and medium-sized kingdoms. On the Syrian coast, the Phoenician cities had risen to prominence as maritime trading states, and over the next two or three centuries would spread the Middle Eastern techniques, above all the alphabet, to the peoples further west. To its south and east, small Aramaean and Israelite kingdoms squabbled with one another. The kingdom of Assyria still held out in northern Mesopotamia, shrunken and defensive; and in southern Mesopotamia, the Babylonians had experienced invasion and upheaval.

Assyria and its successors

From 800 BC, however, the days of independence for these small kingdoms were numbered, as they fell under the domination of the kingdom of Assyrian.[1] From the mid-8th century the Assyrian empire directly governed a huge swathe of the Middle East, from the Mediterranean coast to the Gulf coast, and it pioneered many of the techniques of imperialism[2] used by later empires. Assyrian conquests were often accompanied by the destruction of whole societies,[3] as large numbers of their people were resettled far from their homelands. The Middle East became a melting pot in which long-established peoples lost their historic identities. The most famous example was fall of the kingdom of Israel,[4] in 722 BC.

In Asia Minor,[5] the wealthy kingdoms of Phrygia and Lydia were able to resist Assyrian encroachments, but suffered from the first great invasions into the Middle East by nomadic peoples from the steppe. The Cimmerians and Scythians came sweeping down and inflicted great destruction on the stable societies of northern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. By the time they retreated, the great Assyrian empire was gone.[6]

Pygian building: reconstruction by Georges Jansoone - Self photographed

Pygian building: reconstruction by Georges Jansoone – Self photographed

In its place, two ancient states had reappeared on the stage, Egypt[7] and Babylon. They were joined by an entirely new empire, that of the Medes, a people new to history who had migrated down from central Asia and settled in Iran during the previous centuries.

From the end of the 7th century to the late 6th century, these three powers, together the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, virtually divided the Middle East between them. It was during this period that the kingdom of Judah was destroyed[8] by Babylon (586 BC).

The Persian Empire

From the 540s, all four powers fell one by one to the Persians, who thereby established the largest empire yet seen in human history (and the largest, in terms of area, in the Ancient World).

Persian rule was comparatively mild, and unlike their predecessors, they left local peoples and their cultures in place. Indeed, they actually encouraged the resettlement of the exiled Jews[9] back in their homeland around Jerusalem.

By 500 BC, many local loyalties had been the undermined by the state-sponsored resettlements of the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the inhabitants of the Middle East were accustomed to living in huge multi-national states under imperial regimes. One common language, Aramaic, covered the region (although the official language of government was Persian), and with it, the Aramaic alphabetical script. Middle Eastern trade communications were further strengthened by the empire-spanning Persian road network.

Example of a bilingual Greek and Aramaic inscription by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great

Example of a bilingual Greek and Aramaic inscription by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great

New directions in religion

Also, by 500 BC the Middle East had become the first region to become acquainted with a new development in religion, monotheism.

The Israelites had focussed their worship on the One God, Yahweh, which, paradoxically, had been strengthened by a period of exile in Babylon for many of the religious elite.

The Persians had developed their own monotheistic faith in Zoroastrianism (perhaps more accurately Zoroastrianism should be described as a dualistic faith, as it holds that two gods, one good and one evil, battle for control of the cosmos, though good is assured of ultimate victory).

What connection, if any, there was between the origin and early development of the two religions is unknown, although modern scholars often see a strong Zoroastrian influence on later Judaism.

For two centuries after 500 BC, the Persian empire ruled almost the entire Middle East.

Then, in a few short years after 334 BC, the conquests of Alexander the Great transformed the region.



Link: map of the Middle East in 500 BC

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