Chapter 3: Ancient Empires The Middle East Sources: World History: a story of Progress

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Chapter 3: Ancient Empires

The Middle East

Sources: World History: A Story of Progress. Ed. Terry L. Smart and Allan O. Kownslar. Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York, 1987. 23-29.

Human Heritage: A World History. F. Kenneth Cox et al. Charles E Merrill Publishing Co. ;Columbus, OH, 1981. 108-118
The Hittites

The Hittites were one of several civilizations that developed along the borders of the irrigated river valleys about 2000 B.C. They were probably nomadic herders in the grasslands north of the Black and Caspian (KAS-pee-un) seas. About 1650 B.C. they moved south through the Caucasus (KAW kuh-sus) Mountains and into the area that is now modern Turkey. By 1600 B.C. the Hittites had formed a confederation of states with a capital at Hattusus (HAT-too-shus). As you just read, the Hittites invaded Babylon about 1600 B.C. but withdrew to the west of Mesopotamia.

The Hittite Empire
At the height of their power, the Hittites had a strong army, and their confederation was ruled by a king. One Hittite king, Suppiluliumas (soo-pee loo-lee-OO-mus) I, who ruled from 1375 B.C. to 1335 B.C., extended his rule almost to the borders of Egypt. While problems within Egypt diverted the attention of its rulers, the Hittites tore away the region of northern Syria from Egypt.

For many years thereafter, the Hittites and Egyptians often clashed. A peace treaty was finally arranged after a battle in 1296 B.C. between the Hittite king, Muwatallis (moo-wah-TAHL-iss), and Ramses (RAM-seez) II of Egypt. Peace then reigned for about seventy years, but the Hittites never fully recovered from the effects of the wars. By the end of that time, the Hittite Empire had lost much of its power. About 1200 B.C. the Hittites were overcome by warlike people from southeast Europe and from the Aegean (ih-JEE-un) Sea region. However, during their reign, the Hittites made important contributions to the civilization of the ancient Middle East.
Hittite Art and Architecture
The Hittite art that has survived includes primarily sculpture and architecture. It can be seen in the remains of huge, squat public buildings, ornamental gateways, and reliefs. The sculptured reliefs depict gods in the form of human beings. All Hittite gods are pictured with sacred animals: for example, the characteristic animal for the weather god was the bull; that for the sun-goddess was a lion.
The architecture of Hittite defense fortifications was outstanding for its time. The Hittites built their towns in places where nature provided protection. Their capital, Hattusas, was located on a peninsula at the intersection of two deep gorges with sheer cliff faces. Strong fortifications appeared on the side that allowed easy access. The Hittites built two parallel stone walls with linking cross walls between them and filled the extra space with rubble. Above this were brick superstructures. The Hittites planned all gateways, walls, and towers so that any visitors or invaders would be exposed to the Hittite defenders. A tunnel to permit surprise expeditions against the enemy existed under the wall of one of the gates.

Hittite Law
The legal system of the Hittites was one of their most significant achievements. Their code was less severe than the Code of Hammurabi. Punishment by death was limited to serious crimes, such as treason, and the payment of fines was a more common punishment for lesser offenses. Elders served as judges in local courts and attempted to make unbiased judgments. Persons accused of crimes were allowed to question their accusers and to defend themselves during their trials.

Commerce and trade were vital to the Hittites, and their laws strictly controlled economic life. Set prices were established for luxuries and necessities. Wages and fees were also set, and a woman was paid less than half of a man’s salary.

The Hittites’ Ironworking
Although bronze was in wide use in the ancient Middle East by 2000 B.C., the Hittites were the first people to successfully use iron for making tools and weapons. Earlier peoples, like the Sumerians, had known of iron but did not make as much use of it. Some peoples in the Middle East had made a few tools by hammering iron from fallen meteors. However, such supplies of iron ore were very limited, and the use of them was very expensive.
Around 1400 B.C. the Hittites developed a new method of ironworking. They invented a furnace which, by forcing air through it to make the fire burn hotter, could produce enough heat to purify the iron ore by separating it from other elements. The new process produced strong rust resistant iron tools and weapons. These tools and weapons gave the Hittites a great advantage over their neighbors.

For a long time the Hittites kept their method of making iron a secret, and they would not trade iron goods with other people out of fear that their methods of iron production would be discovered. However, about 1200 B.C. when the Hittite Empire fell, the metalworkers moved to other parts of the Middle East, taking their knowledge of ironworking with them. As a result, the use of iron tools and weapons spread throughout the region. Historians mark this time as the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age in the ancient Middle East.

The eventual spread of iron production throughout the ancient Middle East after 1000 B.C. brought important changes to farming as well as to warfare. Iron plows and sickles helped farmers clear more fields and increase food production. Farmers now had to have specialists to make their iron tools, so they had to depend on people in the towns. Thus, ironworking brought about a closer relationship between the people of the countryside and the towns.

The Assyrian Empire
The fall of the Hittite Empire was, in part, due to a general wave of invaders throughout much of the Middle East. One of those groups was the Assyrians, who for years had waged wars against the Babylonians and aggressive mountain people to the north and east of Babylonia. About 1000 years after Hammurabi ruled, the Assyrians rose to power in Mesopotamia. Their country, Assyria, lay in the upper part of the Tigris River valley. The Assyrians spoke the same language and used the same writing system as the Babylonians. The Assyrians built up a powerful army. By 1100 B.C. they defeated their neighboring enemies. By 800 B.C. they were strong enough to take over cities, trading routes, and fortresses throughout Mesopotamia. Years of warfare turned these fiercely independent Assyrian farmers into an efficient military organization. By about 900 B.C. the Assyrians moved into the northern part of Mesopotamia and built city-states. The first people to use iron widely they expanded their vast empire by warfare, using iron weapons, chariots, and cavalry.

THE ASSYRIAN ARMY The Assyrians were warriors. Experts believe their liking for war was influenced by geography. Assyria’s rolling hills and rain-watered valleys did not provide protection against invaders. Assyrian shepherds and farmers had to learn to fight to survive. In time, fighting became a way of life.

The Assyrian army was well organized. It was divided into infantries, or groups of foot soldiers armed with shields, helmets, spears, and daggers. They also had units of charioteers, cavalry, and archers.
At first the Assyrians fought only during the summer months when they did not have to be concerned about planting and harvesting crops. Later, as they took over more land, soldiering became a year-round job. When the Assyrians needed more soldiers, they hired them from other places or forced the people they had conquered to serve.
Assyrian power was due partly to Assyrian weapons. The weapons, which were made of iron, were harder and stronger than weapons made of copper or tin. Iron had been used in the Middle East for many centuries. But until about 1400 B.C. it was too soft to be made into weapons. Then a people called Hittites developed the process of smelting. They heated the iron ore, hammered out its impurities, and rapidly cooled it. This made the iron stronger and harder. The Assyrians borrowed the skill of smelting from the Hittites.
The Assyrians were cruel warriors. For several hundred years their armies spread death and destruction throughout the Middle East. They were especially skilled in attacking cities. They tunneled under the walls or climbed over them on ladders. They used beams mounted on movable platforms to ram holes through city gates. Once they captured a city, they set fire to its buildings and carried away its citizens and goods. Anyone who resisted Assyrian rule was punished. Those who did not resist had to pay heavy taxes. The Assyrians also found a way to conquer people without fighting. They spread stories about their own cruelty. Their neighbors got scared and surrendered.

KINGS AND GOVERNMENT: Assyria’s kings were strong leaders. They had to be to rule an empire that extended from the Persian Gulf in the east to the valley of the Nile in the west. Assyrian kings spent much of their time fighting battles and punishing enemies. But they were also involved in such peaceful activities as building cities and palaces. Nineveh (NIN-uh-vuh), the Assyrian capital, was a large and prosperous city. It had a continual supply of fresh water that was brought in from mountain streams. It also had the world’s largest cuneiform library, built on the orders of Assurbanipal (ah-shoor-BAHN-ih-pahl), an Assyrian king. The library contained thousands of clay tablets from all over Mesopotamia and, from these preserved records, scholars have been able to trace how this once peaceful people became a warrior society. The tablets have also provided information about the Assyrian religion and indicate that many of the Assyrian religious beliefs were borrowed from the Sumerians. Indeed, Assyrian scribes copied, studied, and accepted the ideas in many Sumerian and Babylonian texts.

The Assyrian kings had to control many peoples spread over a large area. To do this, they divided the empire into provinces. They then chose officials to govern the provinces. The officials collected taxes and made certain the king’s laws were obeyed. The provinces were linked by a system of roads. Although only the roads near major cities were paved, all were level enough for carts and chariots to travel on. Over the roads moved the trade of the empire. Government soldiers were posted at stations along the roads to protect traders from bandits. Messengers on government business used the stations to rest and change horses.
In time the empire became too large to govern. After Ashurbanipal died, various conquered peoples worked to end Assyrian rule. One group was the Chaldeans. In 612 B.C. they captured Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. The Assyrian Empire crumbled shortly after. The Assyrians made great contributions to the science of warfare and the organization of government. They divided their army into corps of infantry, chariotry, engineers, and supply, even using camels for desert warfare. They organized their empire into provinces or states, each ruled by a governor and protected by a military garrison. In order, to control rebellious peoples they even moved entire populations in some areas, but this was not enough to preserve their empire. There were often revolts by the people they had conquered and the continual warfare depleted the supply of soldiers. In order to keep the army at its full strength, soldiers had to be draft from among the defeated enemies. These foreign soldiers did not fight as willingly as did the Assyrian troops; the capital of the weakened Assyrian Empire finally fell about 612 B.C.
The Assyrian Empire was defeated by an alliance of Chaldeans (kal-DEE-unz) who came from Babylon, Medes (MEEDZ) who came from a plateau area in the east called Media, and the Scythians (S1TH-ee-unz) who came from the area north of the Caspian and Aral (AR-ul) seas. Ironically, it was these people who had adopted the military innovations of the Assyrians and improved upon them. They were part of a military revolution that occurred between 850 B.C. and 700 B.C. in the Middle East. People learned how to handle weapons effectively while mounted on horseback or camelback. The ability to maneuver quickly gave them a significant advantage over foot soldiers. Soon after the Assyrians were defeated by this group led by the Chaldeans, the alliance crumbled. The Scythians returned home with their booty, and the Chaldeans and Medes divided up the conquered territory with the Egyptians, who had been overrun by the Assyrians about 900 B.C.

The Chaldeans/Babylonians
The Chaldeans combined the remains of the Assyrian Empire with their own kingdom to form a new empire ruled by the strong leader Nebuchadnezzar (neb-uh-kud-NEZ-ur). At its height, the empire covered most of the Fertile Crescent.

BABYLON The Chaldeans called themselves Babylonians. They built a new capital at Babylon in which nearly 1 million people lived. Babylon was the world’s richest city up to that time. It had its own police force and postal system. The huge brick walls which encircled the city were so wide that two chariots could pass on the road on top of them. Archers guarded the approaches to the city from towers built into the walls.

In the center of the city stood palaces and temples. A huge ziggurat reached more than 300 feet, or over 90 meters, into the sky. Its gold roof could be seen for miles when the sun shone. The richness of the ziggurat was equaled by that of the king’s palace. The palace had “hanging gardens.” The gardens consisted of a series of terraces planted with large trees and masses of flowering vines and shrubs, all of which seemed to hang in mid-air. Nebuchadnezzar built the gardens to please his wife. To please the people, Nebuchadnezzar built a special street near the palace. It was paved with limestone and marble, and lined by walls of blue glazed tile. Each spring thousands of pilgrims crowded into Babylon to watch the gold statue of the god Marduk being wheeled along the street. The people believed that the procession would make their crops grow and help keep peace in the empire.
Babylon was a rich and important city in which the arts and commerce were highly developed. In its schools, scientists made maps of the heavens and also worked out a system for recording the length of the year, similar to the one we use today. Chaldean astronomers believed that changes in the heavens revealed the plans of the gods. So they studied the stars, the planets, and the moon. They recorded what they learned. Once they understood the movement of heavenly bodies, they made maps that showed the position of the planets and the phases of the moon. They developed one of the first sundials, and they were the first to have a seven-day week.
Outside the center of Babylon were houses and market places. There craftspeople made pottery, cloth, and baskets which they sold to passing caravans, or groups of traveling merchants. Traders came to the marketplace from as far away as India and Egypt. Trade helped make Babylon rich.
Babylon was the center of a great civilization for many years. But as time passed, the Chaldeans began to lose their power. They found it hard to control the peoples they had conquered. Some years crops were poor and trade was slow. Then, in 539 B.C., Persians from the mountains to the northeast
captured Babylon. Mesopotamia became just another part of the Persian Empire.


Originally the Persians were part of a people known as Aryans, who were cattle herders from the grasslands of central Asia. About 2000 B.C., however, the Persians began to separate from other Aryans. The Persians may have been searching for new pastures for their cattle. More likely they were drawn further west by reports of the rich civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. They finally settled on a high plain between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea where they established Persia. Today this region is called Iran, or “the land of the Aryans.” Modern Persians are Iranians.

The Persians lived peacefully in the highlands for over 1000 years. They divided most of the country into large farms owned by nobles. The nobles spent most of their time riding horses and practicing archery. Their farms were worked by laborers. There was little water on the hot plain. Farmers depended on springs that came dòwn from the mountains. The farmers dug underground tunnels from the springs to the fields. The tunnels kept the water from evaporating in the hot sun. With the water the farmers were able to grow wheat and barley and to pasture flocks of fat-tailed sheep.

CYRUS THE GREAT About 600 B.C. the Persians were conquered by the Medes, a neighboring people. But the Medes were soon overthrown by the Persians under King Cyrus. Cyrus was one of the greatest conquerors in the history of the ancient Middle East. In only eleven years, between 550 B.C. and 539 B.C., he invaded lands from the heart of India in the east to Babylonia in the west. Cyrus’ armies entered Babylon in 539 B.C. and, according to his own records, the city surrendered to his army without a battle. This event marked the end of the independent political organization of the older civilizations of Mesopotamia. From this time onward, the cities of the river valleys were united under one administration with the plateau region of present-day Iran.
ARMY AND EMPIRE Cyrus then organized an army to conquer new territory. The army grew until it numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Its officers were Persians, while its soldiers were either Persians or conquered peoples. The best fighters in the Persian army were the Immortals. They earned this name because their number never fell below 10,000. When an Immortal became sick, was wounded, or died, another soldier took his place. The Immortals had the honor of leading the army into battle.
Within a short time the Persians ruled an empire that stretched from Egypt to India. The Persians were mild rulers who allowed their subjects to keep their own language, religion, and laws. The Persians believed that loyalty could be won more easily with fairness than with fear or force. They wanted their
subjects to pay taxes and to produce goods for trade. They felt these things would not be done if those under their rule were treated badly. One of the strongest Persian kings was Darius. He wanted a monument to honor his military victories. So he brought craftspeople from many lands to build a grand palace-fortress-treasury in the capital city of Persepolis. Buildings with many columns were constructed on giant stone terraces. In the gateways, workers carved figures which were half-human and half-beast. Persepolis became the most magnificent city in the empire.
The king did not govern the empire alone. There were many officials to carry out his orders. They all spoke Aramaic, the language used by Middle Eastern merchants. The king chose a governor, a secretary, and a general for each of the 20 satrapies, or provinces, of the empire. In each province the three officials collected taxes of gold, silver, sheep, horses, wheat, and spices and sent them to the royal treasury in Persepolis. The officials also settled local quarrels and protected the people against bandits. Each reported separately to the king. This forced them to be honest. If one official was keeping taxes or behaving badly, the others were sure to tell. The king would then remove the dishonest official from office.
Another group of officials was the inspectors. Called “The Eyes and Ears of the King,” they traveled all over the empire. They decided if people could afford to pay their taxes. They also checked on rumors of possible rebellion. The inspectors never warned any provincial official they were coming. This made officials careful about doing a good job. The last group of officials was the judges. They made sure that the king’s laws were carried out properly.

FAMILY LIFE Persians lived in houses with pointed roofs and porches that faced the sun. Poor families had one-room houses. Noble families had houses with one set of rooms for men and another for women and children.

Persian families were large. Fathers ruled their families in much the-same way the king ruled the empire. A father’s word was law. Poor children worked with their parents. The children of nobles were cared for by their mothers until they were five years old. Then they were raised by slaves. Often they did not see their fathers until they reached adulthood. Boys were trained to ride horses, to draw a bow, and to speak the truth.

Girls were not trained in any skills. Rich women lived very sheltered lives. They spent most of their time at home apart from the men. If they had to leave the house, they stepped into a closed litter, or a carriage without wheels that was carried by servants. Poor women had more freedom, but they had to work hard.

RELIGION At first the Persians worshipped many gods. About 570 B.C. a religious leader named Zoroaster told the Persians about two gods. One god, Ahura Mazda, was wise and truthful. He created all good things in the world. The other god, Ahriman, made all evil things in the world. Ahura Mazda and
Ahriman were at war with each other all of the time. Zoroaster said that human beings had to decide which god they would support. Zoroaster then listed the good and bad deeds a person had performed. Good deeds were keeping one’s word, giving to the poor, working the land, obeying the king, and treating others well. Bad deeds included being lazy, proud, or greedy. Zoroaster could tell from the list which god a person had chosen. He believed that in the end Ahura Mazda would defeat Ahriman. People who supported Ahura Mazda would enjoy happiness after death. Those who supported Ahriman would be punished.

TRADE The Persians thought they should be warriors, farmers, or shepherds. They refused to become traders. They believed that trade forced people to lie, cheat, and be greedy. They did, however, encourage trade among the peoples they conquered.

The Persians improved and expanded the system of roads begun by the Assyrians. One road, the Royal Road, ran more than 1600 miles, or over 2500 kilometers. A journey that took three months before the Royal Road was built took only 15 days after it was built. The Persians also opened a caravan route to China. Silk was first brought to the West along this route.
The Persians spread the idea of using coins for money. The first known coins had been made in Lydia, a tiny kingdom in Asia Minor bordering on the Aegean Sea. After conquering Lydia, the Persian king decided to use gold coins in his empire. This helped to increase trade. It also changed the nature of trade. Merchants who had sold only costly goods began to sell everyday, cheaper things as well. They sold chickens, dried fish, furniture, clothing, and pots and pans. Since people could get more goods, they began to live better than they had before.
The Persian Empire lasted for more than 200 years, eventually being defeated about 330 B.C. by the armies of Alexander the Great.

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