The Dark Age of Mesopotamia Redux

Between 1119 and 1032 BC, the Hittites collapse, and the prosperity of Assyria and Babylon withers.

While the Mycenaeans deserted their cities and the Dorians trickled down into them, disruption was rippling eastwards, past Troy (now shabbily rebuilt, resettled, and a ghost of its former magnificent self) and farther east, into the lands still held by the Hittites.

By this time, the Hittite empire was not much more than a shadow state. The poverty, famine, and general unrest of Tudhaliya IV’s reign had worn away its outer edges, and fighting over the throne continued. During the Mycenaean slide downwards, Tudhaliya IV’s younger son took the crown away from his older brother and claimed the country for himself. He called himself Suppiluliuma II, in an effort to evoke the great Hittite empire-builder of a century and a half earlier.

Suppiluliuma II’s inscriptions brag of his own victories against Sea Peoples. He fought several naval engagements off the coast of Asia Minor, beating off Mycenaean refugees and mercenaries, and managed for a time to keep his southern coast free of invasion. But he could not bring back the golden days of Hittite power, when his namesake had almost managed to put a son on the throne of Egypt itself.

The same wandering peoples who had pushed towards Egypt—peoples fleeing famine, or plague, or overpopulation, or war in their own lands—were pressing into Asia Minor. Some came from the direction of Troy, across the Aegean Sea and into Hittite land. Others came from the sea; Cyprus, the island south of the Hittite coast, apparently served them as a staging point. “Against me the ships from Cyprus drew up in line three times for battle in the midst of the sea,” Suppiluliuma II writes. “I destroyed them, I seized the ships and in the midst of the sea I set them on fire…. [Yet] the enemy in multitudes came against me from Cyprus.” Still other enemies crossed over the narrow Bosphorus Strait, from the area north of the Greek peninsula called Thrace; these tribes were known as the Phrygians.

There were too many of them, and the Hittite army was too small. The newcomers moved right through Suppiluliuma’s troops, scattered his defenses, and arrived in the heart of his kingdom. The capital city Hattusas burned to the ground; its people fled; the royal court dispersed like dust.

The Hittite language survived in a few separated cities around the southern edge of the old empire; Carchemish was the largest. In these last outposts of the Hittites, the Hittite gods hung onto life. But the kingdom that had worshipped them was gone.

The ebb of three civilizations in a western crescent—the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Egyptians—coincided with a sudden burst of power to the east. For a few brief years, while the wandering nomads and Sea Peoples were busy harassing the west, Assyria and Babylon brightened.

In Assyria, the king Tiglath-Pileser was crowned not long after the sack of Hattusas. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father had each in turn ruled over the Assyrian heartland—an upside-down triangle with Assur at its bottom point, stretching up and over to Erbila on the west and Nineveh on the east. It was a nice little area, prosperous and easily defended, with the richest corn-growing land in all of Mesopotamia. All three kings had been content to hold it, defend it, and keep it safe.

Tiglath-Pileser wanted more. He was the first warlike king since Shalmaneser, eight generations and a hundred years earlier. He turned against the invaders and used their attacks to take more land for himself. And for a brief period—a little under forty years—Assyria regained something like its previous luminescence.

The Phrygians, having stormed through the Hittite territory, were approaching Assyria on the northwest. In one of his earliest victories, Tiglath-Pileser beat them off. His inscriptions boast that he defeated an army of twenty thousand Phrygians (he calls them “Mushki”) in the valley of the northern Tigris: “I made their blood flow down the ravines and pour from the heights of the mountains,” he explains. “I cut off their heads and piled them like grain heaps.”

And then he went on fighting his way northwest, heading right into the face of the approaching wave. “[I set out for] the lands of the distant kings who were on the shore of the Upper Sea, who had never known subjection,” he wrote in his annals. “I took my chariots and my warriors and over the steep mountain and through their wearisome paths I hewed a way with pickaxes of bronze; I made passable a road for my chariot and my troops. I crossed the Tigris…. I scattered warriors…and made their blood to flow.”

For thirty-eight years, Tiglath-Pileser fought. An expanding list of cities, conquered by the king, sent taxes and laborers to the Assyrian palace and suffered under the rule of Assyrian governors. Among them was Carchemish; Tiglath-Pileser had taken it (according to his own inscriptions, anyway) “in one day.” Other cities gave up without a fight, their kings greeting Tiglath-Pileser’s approach by coming out and falling down to kiss his feet. Tiglath-Pileser himself travelled all the way to the Mediterranean coast, where he went dolphin-hunting on a spear-boat rowed by his men. The pharaoh of Egypt—one of the eight Rameses—sent him a crocodile for a present, which Tiglath-Pileser took back to add to his game preserve in Assur. He built shrines and fortresses and temples, each proclaiming that at long last, Assyria had another great king.

Down to Assyria’s south, Babylon also saw the rise of a great king.

Babylon and its surrounding lands had been ruled by nobodies ever since Burnaburiash, who had corresponded with Tutankhamun two hundred years earlier. Within three or four years of Tiglath-Pileser’s accession up in Assur, the undistinguished line of the Second Dynasty of Isin spat out a genetic sport named Nebuchadnezzar.

While Tiglath-Pileser fought his way west and north, Nebuchadnezzar turned east. The statue of Marduk, after all, was still in the hands of the Elamites of Susa; since its capture a hundred years before, no king of Babylon had proved himself mighty enough to get it back.

Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Elam was met by a wall of Elamite soldiers. He ordered his troops to retreat, and made a cunning plan for a second attempt. He would march his men into Elam at the very height of summer, a time when no commander with any sense would force an army to march anywhere. The Babylonian soldiers, arriving at Elam’s borders, caught the border patrols by surprise and made it to the city of Susa before anyone could raise the alarm. They raided the city, broke down the temple doors, kidnapped the statue, and departed to march in triumph back to Babylon.

Rather than waiting around for the priests of Marduk to acknowledge their debt to him, Nebuchadnezzar hired scribes to compose tales about the rescue, not to mention hymns in Marduk’s honor. Stories and songs and offerings streamed from the royal palace to the Temple of Marduk until the god stood at the top of the Babylonian pantheon; it was in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I that Marduk became the chief god of the Babylonians. And in a classic circular argument, Nebuchadnezzar reasoned that, since he had rescued the chief god of Babylon, the chief god of Babylon had set divine favor on him. The undistinguished beginnings of the Second Dynasty were forgotten; Nebuchadnezzar had the god-given right to rule Babylon.

Under these two mighty kings, Babylon and Assyria were more or less balanced in power. Sharp border spats occasionally intensified into actual battles. A couple of Assyrian frontier towns were sacked by Babylonian soldiers, and Tiglath-Pileser retorted by marching all the way down to Babylon and burning the king’s palace. This sounds more serious than it was. Babylon lay so close to the Assyrian border that most of the Babylonian government offices had already been moved elsewhere. The city was a sacred site, but no longer a center of power. And Tiglath-Pileser, his point made, marched back home and left Babylon alone. He did not intend to provoke an all-out war. The two kingdoms were equally strong, and there were more serious threats to face.

The movement of peoples from the north and west had not stopped. Tiglath-Pileser was continually fighting border battles against roving wanderers who were rapidly becoming as pervasive as the Amorites had been, almost a thousand years before. These people were Western Semites who had lived in the northwest of the Western Semitic lands, until pushed onwards by the influx of people from farther west. The Assyrians called them Aramaeans, and by Tiglath-Pileser’s own accounts, he made something like twenty-eight different campaigns to the west, each aimed at beating back Aramaean invasions.

Nor were Babylon and Assyria immune from the famine and drought, the crop failures and sickness plaguing the rest of the known world. Court records describe the last years of Tiglath-Pileser’s reign as desperate and hungry, a time when the Assyrian people had to scatter into the surrounding mountains to find food.

Babylon was in hardship too, and the city’s suffering grew more intense as Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-year reign drew to an end. The city’s troubles are described in the Erra Epic, a long poem in which the god Marduk complains that his statue is unpolished, his temple in disrepair, but he can’t leave Babylon long enough to do anything about it, because every time he departs the city, something horrendous happens to it. The current horrendousness is the hovering mischief of another god, Erra, who because of his nature can’t resist afflicting the city: “I shall finish off the land and count it as ruins,” he says. “I shall fell the cattle, I shall fell the people.” Babylon itself, shrivelled by the wind, had become like a “luxuriant orchard” whose fruit had withered before ripening. “Woe to Babylon,” Marduk mourns, “I filled it with seeds like a pine cone, but its abundance did not come to harvest.”

The dryness and failed crops suggest famine; the falling of people and cattle, a repeat visitation of the arrows of Apollo Sminthian. Sickness and hunger did nothing to improve the defenses of either city. By the time that Tiglath-Pileser’s son succeeded his father, the Aramaean problem had become so acute that he was forced to make a treaty with the new king of Babylon. Together, the two kingdoms hoped to beat off their common enemy.

The attempt failed. Not long after, Aramaeans rampaged across Assyria, seizing for themselves all but the very center of the empire. They invaded Babylon as well; the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the great king, lost his throne to an Aramaean usurper.

The Aramaeans, like the Dorians, did not write. And so as Egypt descended into fractured disorder and darkness spread across the Greek peninsula, a similar fog rolled from the old Hittite lands to cover Mesopotamia. The land between the two rivers entered its own dark age, and for a hundred years or so, no history emerges from the blackness.

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