Reading History #9 – The Clash of Empires

Copyright @2015 by Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  1. What distinguishes the civilizations of the Bronze Age?
  2. What accounts for the development of advanced technology by peoples beyond the core of Fertile Crescent civilization?
  3. Why couldn’t the Hittites maintain stability following their conquest of Babylon?
  4. Who are the Canaanites and why do they become increasingly important during the Bronze Age?

Then the men of Judah went with their fellow Israelites and attacked the Canaanites living in Zephath, and they totally destroyed the city…. Judah also took Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron — each city with its territory. The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with scythes…. Now the tribes of Joseph attacked Bethel, and the Lord was with them. When they sent men to spy out Bethel, the spies saw a man coming out of the city and they said to him, ‘Show us how to get into the city and we will see that you are treated well.’ So he showed them, and they put the city to the sword but spared the man and his whole family. He then went to the land of the Hittites, where he built a city and called it Luz.

Book of Judges



A towering figure in 20th century historical scholarship, Fernand Braudel, once remarked that the story of the Bronze Age could easily be written dramatically in a single sentence: “it is replete with invasions, wars, pillage, political disasters, as long-lasting economic collapses, the first clash between peoples.” He also said that we could, if so inclined, write a more positive story of mutually beneficial contact, one that focuses more on commercial, diplomatic, and cultural exchange. 1 Whether or not one chooses to write a narrative of commerce and internationalism or war and contraction depends upon the meaning that any individual historian derives from studying the available evidence. Only since the mid 19th century has it been possible to make informed historical arguments (theses) about these first civilizations. Until then scholars could not even read the majority of existing sources from the period which are written in cuneiform and hieroglyphic. The literary evidence for the early Bronze Age, however, is thin, and the storyline necessarily remains somewhat simplistic as Braudel suggests. A more clear picture, however, emerges after around 1500 BCE or so.

What is certain now about the late Bronze Age history is that a web of relations existed among the various states of the Aegean and Near East. Sumerian and Egyptian cultures dominated in the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Valley respectively and the Hittites embraced the Anatolian plateau. Interaction was extensive and dynamic. Great and small states alike sought wealth through trade and power through wars of conquest. A complex international system of exchange radiated from the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Minoans, and Mycenaeans all interacted. One modern scholar characterizes it as “a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day.” 2 Barbarians — meaning uncultured strangers or ‘those who don’t live like we do’ — existed beyond the core civilizations, and they too played a dynamic role in shaping the narrative of the period. By 1600 BCE, to use the phrase of one modern historian, “history was speeding up and civilization was providing men with new opportunities.” 3 Great change was afoot and complexity increased. Babylon, the city that had hummed and drummed for seven hundred years, though still thriving under Hammurabi’s line of kings, was put to fire and sword in 1595 BCE by one of a handful of peripheral peoples who, as outsiders, had developed their own unique cultures and, due to technological developments and increased complexity within their own societies, had become fully-fledged civilizations in their own right.

Great state powers, like great men, often have difficulty looking into the future, to a time when they may not be king of the hill or the dominant player in the economic markets. In short, mistakenly believing that blessings conferred shall be forever enjoyed, they fail to envision their own doom and, as a consequence, fail to adjust to changing circumstances. Anyone who has a knowledge of history knows, however, that status, strength, and well-being are fleeting and no thing in this universe endures forever changeless. History provides many examples of great powers that, upon reaching the Hyperion heights of wealth and military power, failed to maintain the achievement for long. The Mongols conquered and unified the largest territorial empire in history, stretching from China to Europe, but lost it all within fifty years due to family squabbles and poor domestic policies. Adolf Hitler established an empire in the heart of Europe that he declared would last for a thousand years; it was a smoldering heap of rubble within twelve. The Mughal emperors had only just established their authority over most of India by the 17th century when the English East India Company appeared and wrested it from them. And Britain, at the height of her own imperial rule in 1900, could scarcely fathom the loss of every major colony within two generations.

Did Babylonians possess similar myopia? In all of the abundant sources from the Old Babylonian Empire, there is no expression of concern for the state of the state, no voice for systemic reforms or calls to address external threats. In short, there is no indication that those in charge saw any trouble on the horizon, let alone foresaw the complete collapse of the empire. The Babylonians, too, may have considered that the good things were so ordained and unchangeable. We see no great building projects like those of Amar-sin devised to get the attention of the gods. As far as Babylonians were concerned Marduk continued to look favorably upon them from his ziggurat. His power was absolute and his authority, as every person knew religiously, remained unalterable. But that turned out not to be the case at all.

In 1600 BCE, the city of Babylon still dominated Mesopotamia. But then, as you read in the previous chapter, aggressive and well-armed foreigners rode — and they did ride, an important innovation in their war skills — out of the hills and swept into the fertile plains, driving like van Helsing’s stake into the heart of the Babylonian Empire. The Hittites struck from the north-west and the Kassites from the south-east. Sources tell us that in 1595 BCE a Hittite king named Mursili I conquered the Amorite kingdom of Yahmkad (modern Syria) by seizing its main city of Aleppo, which controlled the access route into the Euphrates Valley. Then, with uncharacteristic swiftness, Mursili moved his forces into the plains and his fierce horsemen ended up at the gates of Babylon. The Hittites defeated the Babylon, destroyed a significant part of the city, and returned back north again with equal speed, thereby, according to archaeologist Eric Cline, “conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history”. 4

The question we must first confront is HOW, how did these fringe peoples who barely appear in the imperial archives, within the span of about fifty years, rock the world of the Babylonians and break apart the once proud empire? The answer appears to lie in their technology. When they came, the Hittites, and their Kassite allies, came wielding advanced military technology, new materials (iron) and new weapons (the two-wheeled war chariot and compound bow) that transformed warfare during the 16th century BCE. Military technology and innovative tactics tipped the balance in favor of the more mobile and deadly hill peoples. Against iron-tipped javelins and arrows and swift-moving battle-chariots, the old bronze-equipped Babylonian soldiers didn’t stand a chance.

Horses had been domesticated in the central Eurasian steppes around 3500 BCE. They were a fixture in the high pasture lands of the Taurus and Zagros Mountains by 2000 BCE and both the Hittites and Kassites used them extensively in their armies. However, horses remained rare in the river valleys, found as prized possessions of kings only. Riding horses and attaching them to war carts, skills perfected by the peoples outside of the Babylonian Empire, fundamentally transformed warfare and gave a decisive advantage to the invaders. Horse-warriors did not stand with a pack of spearmen, but rather fought with javelin or compound bow either from atop the animal or from a mobile platform (chariot) pulled behind the animal. Besides having more powerful weapons, the warrior on horseback possessed a psychological advantage over the bronze-clad men on foot. Since their first appearance, cavalry has proved extremely useful on the battlefield as a shock force capable of breaking lines of men. You can imagine the fear that a 1000 lb. animal, especial in full gallop, puts into a man standing in its path. The Hittite war-chariot, too, with it’s new iron fittings and spoked wheels, proved both agile and shock inducing, devastating on the ancient battlefield. Eventually all the major states of the Near East used war-chariots in their armies, but when they first appeared, these new mobile weapon-platforms proved superior to anything the Babylonians could put into the field. The Hittites shredded the armies of the Babylonians.

By 1550 BCE the Babylonian Empire effectively ceased to exist. In 1531 BCE Mursili I returned for a final knockout blow, one more a kick to a body already down. That year the city of Babylon itself was sacked and burned a second time. For the next 500 years Babylon remained weak and insignificant, dominated by Kassite, Elammite, Aramean, and Assyrian kings.

Hittite Rule

The conquest of Mesopotamia was, however, short-lived for Mursili I. The Hittites, far from the homeland and their capital city of Hattusas, almost immediately turned over the city to allies and returned to their home territory. A significant Kassite presence already in southern and eastern Mesopotamia probably contributed to the decision to turn over the ruins of Babylon to them, but political concerns also drew the king back to the hills of Anatolia. And within the year Mursili himself was dead, assassinated by members of his own family.

After the reign of the conqueror Mursili, the Hittite empire was ruled essentially by whichever warlord happened to be at the top of the pile at the moment and seize the iron-throne. So what happened when a king died? Squabbles broke out among his sons and relatives and any other puffed-up strong man who happened to consider himself worthy of the throne. This was incredibly destabilizing to the Hittite state and partly explains why the Hittites never managed to maintain authority over territory in Mesopotamia. When Mursili I was killed, a power struggle began which shook the Hittite Empire for seventy years. The army went leaderless, a power vacuum appeared, sons killed fathers and princes fought each other to earn the right to rule. All of their conquests of lands that has once been Babylonian slipped from their control. Generals were assassinated, armies dissolved in the field, and, like a great wave that had swept down from Taurus Mountains, the invaders dissipated across the plains or returned to the mountains, leaving Mesopotamia in shambles, to be fought over by petty kings. One of those states, the kingdom of Yahmkad, which Mursili I had taken in 1595 BCE, was reconstituted by an extremely warlike people calling themselves the Assyrians. They established their main palaces at Ashur and Nineveh, both on the Tigris River. It was Assyria that would ultimately inherit leadership over the northern remnant of Babylonia, building a state that eventually extended westward to the Mediterranean, into the region which is modern-day Syria.

The disasters that befell the Hittites for three generations after Mursili’s death prompted an adjustment to the laws of kingship and inheritance. In an attempt to stabilize the throne, King Telipinu issued an edict c.1450 BCE, which decreed who exactly should inherit his title upon death. “Let a prince– a son of the first rank only be installed as king! If a prince of the first rank does not exist, (then) let he who is a son of second rank become king.” King Telipinu’s Law of Succession is a landmark of sorts historically. While it doesn’t seem to have done much to stop the downward spiral of the Hittite Kingdom, which entered a century of darkness after Telipinu, it did establish a certain precedent for many lines of royalty to follow. It is the first instance of the legal establishment of the idea of primogeniture, i.e. the custom that the first-born son should inherit his father’s title immediately upon death. Land inheritance and the succession of hereditary title have generally followed Telipinu’s Law ever since.

The core territories of the Hittites did survive. The ability to work iron also spread rapidly in the wake of the earlier Hittite victories. Iron was used because its durability and flexibility make it a more effective material for weapons. Iron ore, while scarce, was also more readily available than tin and copper. Tin was only available in quantity from a region that is now Tajikistan and it had to be carried nearly 2500 miles to reach Hittite cities. One historian has speculated that tin was to the Bronze Age what gasoline has been to modern America. By 1000 BCE, iron was being used by all the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, though it was still a relatively scarce and certainly a valuable material. The need for more of this ore by every advanced city of the Near East was responsible for extending the reach of Egyptian and Near Eastern merchant-adventurers, who established some of the first trading routes into Europe where the ore was mined.

The Big Three

Between about 1450 BC and 1250 BC, the three most significant military states of the Near East — Egypt, Assyria (a renewed northern Babylonia of sorts, that ruled from the cities of Ashur and Nineveh on the Tigris River), and the Hittite Empire — directed the collective efforts of their peoples into what, from the perch of the 21st century, looks a lot like one continuous brawl for royal bragging rights. Small kingdoms were battered successively by one then another of the Big Three. And for two hundred years they battled each other along a 400 mile frontier in north-western Mesopotamia, razing cities and enslaving populations.

Essentially, by the mid-13th century BCE these three empires fought each other to a standstill, each secure in its home territories, the core of its civilization, but volatile and changeable at the edges. Unable to make any substantive gains deep into the lands of its enemies and exhausted from the attempts, the main players settled into a truce of sorts. But before reaching a state of armed peace, there had been a great deal of fighting and jostling for hegemony. New civilizations appeared on the periphery of the Big Three and began to show their mettle economically and culturally, though they tended to stay out of the military power-struggles in the Near East. We will look at two of these, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, in the next unit.

While Egyptian civilization had been developing as a military power since the age of its first kings, c.3000 BCE, it was only during the period known as the New Kingdom (c.1550-1070 BCE) that the Egyptian pharaohs attempted to expand beyond the strip of territory along the Nile River. The Egyptians were a relatively new player in the fire and sword game of Mesopotamian great-power politics. From their home territories in Africa, during the New Kingdom period Egyptian armies first crossed the Sinai into the narrow strip of land bordering the coast of Mediterranean Sea, into the land controlled by a people known as the Canaanites. Canaan found itself pinioned between the competing interests of all three of the great powers. Its location straddles the main land routes that connected Egypt, Assyria, and the Hittite Empire. Those routes were vital to trade and the movement of armies, too strategic to be ignore by the great powers. In the year 1457 BC (or maybe 1479 BCE) Thutmoses III, the greatest military leader in ancient Egyptian history, led his army northward and crushed a coalition army of Canaanites and Hittites near the fortress city of Megiddo, a name that will, because of Christian Scripture, forever be associated with a cataclysmic clash of arms. There, nearly 35,000 men battled for command of the pass that permitted access to the strategic gateway into the Upper Euphrates River valley. (This area is essentially modern day Jordan.) When all was said and done, after nearly seven months of fighting, Thutmoses III controlled the city. Egypt maintained its grip on the region throughout his reign, garrisoning local cities, and enslaving local populations. By the end of his fifty four-year reign, Thutmoses III had launched sixteen full military campaigns into Asia, battling the Hittites, Assyrians, and their allies. Egyptian chariots had even washed their wheels in the waters of the Euphrates.

By 1450 BCE Egypt’s empire had reached the point of its greatest territorial extent, but was it perhaps overextended? During the next three hundred years, Egypt, along with all of the other regional great powers, struggled mightily to maintain the empire in the face of what might only be described as a ‘perfect storm’ of destabilizing factors that ultimately proved lethal to the international system of the late Bronze Age.

The Book of Exodus, the second book of Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament), tells us that the Israelites had by this time left their lands ‘beyond the rivers’ and become a significant and troublesome people in the Land of Canaan. Anxious that the Israelites might ally with his enemies, a ‘new king of Egypt’ decided to conquer and destroy them. Israelite slaves were forced to work on Egyptian construction projects, including two entirely new cities on the banks of the Nile River, until they were liberated by a fondling Hebrew raised by the pharaoh’s daughter, a man called Moses. You may know the story yourself. The adopted prince, Moses, under the direction of his god (Yahweh), then led his people out of slavery in Egypt and back to the land of Canaan. The story may tell us something about the history of the region during this period, but there are lots of red flags for the historian.

The problem for scholars seeking to confirm the Biblical narrative of the Hebrew exodus remains a lack of evidence beyond the religious text. There is no evidence, for example, of the widespread destruction of Canaanite cities during the period that might corroborate what we read in the books of Joshua and Judges, the two Biblical books that deal with the conquest of Canaan after the Hebrews were supposedly released from captivity in Egypt. What we do know is that by c.1200 BCE, the Israelites (Hebrews) appear for the first time as an identifiable, culturally distinct, people in Canaan. Israelite culture, argues Cline, “along with the Philistines and the Phoenicians, rises up out of the ashes of the destruction of the Canaanite civilization… The Israelites are among the groups of peoples who will make up the new world order, emerging out of the chaos that was the end of the Late Bronze Age.” 6


1 Fernand Braudel, Memory and Mediterranean, New York: Vintage Books (2002), 111.

2 Eric Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2014), 171.

3 Roberts, 85.

4 Cline, 36.

5 Cline, 30.

6 Cline, 95-96.

7 Paul Johnson, History of the Jews, New York: Harper Perennial (1988), 25.

PHOTO: Heiroglyphics and depiction of the exploits of Thutmoses III from Karnak Temple, Egypt, by Intuitmonster (2012).


One response to “Reading History #9 – The Clash of Empires

  1. Pingback: Homework for the Weeks of 7 and 14 Oct, 2013 | STA Cities and Civilization

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