A brief history of the Fertile Crescent 3000BCE – 570BCE (1)

Posted: January 26, 2016 in Ancient Near Eastern History, History

The fertile crescent stretches from the northernmost tip of the Persian Gulf along the River systems of the Euphrates and Tigris to the north-west then west to the Mediterranean and South down the coastal strip to the border of Egypt. The land which it encloses on three sides is primarily desert, a harsh environment in which to live, or travel. Thus, most trade from east to west and vice versa would be made through the fertile crescent and this, together with its agricultural value made the land so important.

Fertile Crescent (By 92bari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Fertile Crescent (By 92bari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Around the year 3000 BCE, the city states of the Sumer region began to reach out with their influence, both in terms of trade and in the necessity to take control of surrounding land in order to feed the growing populations within the cities. This inevitably led to clashes over land between rival cities and the subsequent development of military forces, both to protect the land they held and as we shall see, increasingly to take land that was held by others. Thus, in the next 500 years, there followed a series of wars between city states. Sometimes these campaigns would result in conquest and sometimes merely in the establishment of a tribute system by which the subservient city paid its dues to the controlling authority, but remained self-governing and independent. One symbolic gesture of this relationship seems to have been the removal from subjugated cities of the statues of their gods which were then transported to the victorious city where they were displayed in the Temple, one presumes, as an indication that the God had left its original city and now resided with, and thus favoured, the victors. You may recall that we discussed this during the foundation of Uruk. Thus, although sources such as the Sumerian Kings list gives us an indication of the existence of a high king, a king over all other Kings, it seems likely that most cities remained independent entities during this period. It is clear from the sources that the fortunes of individual cities waxed and waned and during this period as a number of different cities held the throne of the high king at different times during this period.

The city state settlements had begun to spread first North and west across the Fertile Crescent into what we would know today as Syria. These settlements included Mari in the middle Euphrates Valley, Ebla and Nagar in central Syria and Ugarit on the coast.  It is likely that they started out a small city states maybe even as was the case with Babylon as a tent city, a resting place for merchants and travellers and a trading post.  It is interesting to consider the expansion of these cities and why it might have occurred. Certainly at this time there is clear indication that these cities resembled the city states of Sumer in their structure and the archaeological evidence indicates the presence of Sumerian merchants within the cities. Whether the arrival of these merchants was the primary event for city foundation, that is the merchants travelled from Sumer in search of resources which were not available in their homelands and having found them in faraway places set up trade stations, which then developed into cities or whether alternatively these merchants travelling out from Sumer found already existing urban populations in these places and set up trade posts within them is not at all clear.


Sargon the Great (Photograph: Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities (Encyclopedia Britannica Online.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sargon the Great (Photograph: Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities (Encyclopedia Britannica Online.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The situation in Sumer started to change around the year 2340 BCE when an Akkadian king named Sargon began to take direct control over a number of city states. The Akkadians lived in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to the north of the Sumerian city states with their capital at Assur. Archaeology indicates that they had Sumerian-type of city organisation and religious ritual; although it appears that they did have their own gods or at least their own variants on the Sumerian gods. They spoke a Semitic language. Sargon, which means the righteous king, was originally the cupbearer to the King of Kish, one of the Sumerian city states. Details of the story are rather hazy, but it seems he assassinated his master, recruited an army of Akkadians and proceeded to start to conquer the cities of Sumer. He also had a liking for collecting titles: some were fairly straightforward – King of Kish; King of Sumer; King of Akkad, but others represented his connection to the gods: Ensi of Enlil, the God of winds or appointed of Auo, God of the heavens or Lord of the Universe. By 2300 BCE, Sargon’s Empire stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean (modern day Lebanon, Syria and south-east Turkey) through the fertile crescent to Sumer and the Persian Gulf. His descendants followed his lead. Naram-Sin, his grandson invaded Elam, on the eastern side of the Persian Gulf, central Turkey and pushed South into the Levant. Like his grandfather, he also collected titles including King of Kings; King of the four corners of the universe and ‘he who will be deified to join the gods’.  But this was not just a period of conquest, it was also a period of growing administration. From this time we have the first records of tax, mostly levied against conquered people, to pay for the bureaucracy and the army. We also have a number of ambitious building projects in both the Akkadian cities and in those of their subject peoples. The great Ziggurat at Ur dates from this period. The line of Sargon the Great came to an end with the invasion in 2193 of the Gutians, believed to be a people from around the shores of the Caspian Sea, an area which would be a recurrent source of trouble to the peoples of the fertile crescent. We know they captured and sacked the Akkadian capital, Assur, although after this they vanish from history and are presumed to have returned to their homelands. There was now a short period when there seems to be no controlling authority in the area. In 2112 Ur-Nammu, Lugal of Ur, established the neo-Sumerian empire covering the lands of Sumer and Akkad with its capital at Ur. He went on to conquer Northern Elam and establish hegemony over the Mediterranean and Levantine areas of the old Akkadian Empire. His son, Shulgi, is more renowned for his cultural impact on society. His is the earliest law code yet discovered, a fragment containing 47 clauses and it is during this period that the first records are made of ancient Sumerian myths. In around the year 2006, the Elamites regained their northern territory and continued to press north into the neo-Sumerian empire eventually sacking the city of Ur.


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