Sect. 4 of Chapt. 2 of John Heise's 'Akkadian language' about the history of the Bronze Age of the Ancient Near East, including the periods: Empire of Sargon, Neo Sumerian, Old Babylonian, Old Assyrian, Late Bronze Age.

IV. History of the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia

A bird's eye view: important time periods, famous city names, dynasties, terminology, as an invitation to see literature on the Ancient Near East.

Contents of this section

  1. History of the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia
    1. Empire of Sargon of Akkad (2350-2200 BCE)
      1. Sargon (2350-2330 BCE)
      2. Naräm-Sîn
      3. Gutians
      4. Sack of Akkad
    2. Neo Sumerian Renaissance (2100-2000 BCE)
      1. Gudea of Lagash
      2. dynasty of Ur-III (2100-2000 BCE)
    3. Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BCE)
      1. Isin-Larsa period (2000-1800 BCE)
      2. Hammurabi in Babylon (1792-1750 BCE)
    4. Old Assyrian period (around 1900 BCE)
      1. Kültepe texts
      2. The commercial process
    5. Late Bronze Age
      1. Kassites in Babylon (1600-1200 BCE)
      2. Rise of Assyria

1. Empire of Sargon of Akkad

Around 2350 BCE an important change took place: the conversion from local competing city states to the first regional state, an empire in Mesopotamia. It was a change of political power, with more emphasis on the northern parts in the plains of Mesopotamia. Trade contacts are purposely centralized with the newly found city Akkad as its center. In art people are now depicted more naturalistic as well proportioned man with anatomic details. Figures on stela and cylinder seals show details in context as opposed to earlier independent elements.

Proper names of rulers are more often Semitic. Akkadian as a Semitic language now penetrates into the texts, although the Sumerian culture will still exists for centuries to come. The Sumerian language is a scholarly and liturgical language. Royal inscription are now bi-lingual. The text corpus (Royal inscriptions and charters) from this age is called Old Akkadian, abbreviated as OAkk.. The period is well defined: after the last ruler of the dynasty of Akkad, Sumerian revives (the Neo Sumerian Renaissance) and one hears little more about Akkadian until the Old Babylonian period.

Archeological excavations with full stratification results in this period are limited in number, but there seem to be no major technological advancement apart from the continuing Bronze Age. Ceramics aren't dramatical different from mass production in the previous Early Dynastic-III period, nor in the following Ur-III period. Royal inscriptions , cylinder seals and clay tablets are not found in abundance, difficult to date and with a large spread in geographical locations.

Sargon (2350-2330)

Sargon, in Akkadian sharru kënu, the 'true/lawful king' is a Semitic king and founder of a dynasty of Akkad (Sumerian Agade). The exact location of this city is unknown, but probably not far from Kish. It is newly founded around 2350 BCE. Sargon establishes an empire consisting of the entire region of southern Mesopotamia and the region along the Euphrates in northern Mesopotamia, possibly extending to Lebanon. It is the first real empire in Mesopotamia. The dynasty of Akkad lasts until ~2200 BCE and consists of five rulers.

Legend about Sargon. Sargon --the first in this dynasty-- came from Kish and had a high position in service of the court of Kish. He was an usurper (someone who unlawfully seizes the throne, often a general). After Sargon seized power in Kish he chose not to stay in the capital Kish, but to build a new capital Akkad. In epics written many centuries later (7th cent. BCE) it is told he was humble born. His father was unknown and his mother was a priestess. As newly born baby he was sent down stream the river in a basket of rushes (like Mozes so much later) and raised by a gardener under protection of the goddess Ishtar and eventually became cup-bearer at the court of Kish. After a military failure of the current ruler and some confusion about his succession, Sargon seized power. Not much is known about the exact circumstances.

At the beginning of his reign most of the south of Mesopotamia (Sumer) was under control by Lugalzaggesi. A victory over him meant a significant expansion of Sargon's territory. Subsequently he directed his attention to the north of Mesopotamia. Cities are mentioned on inscriptions, such as Mari and Tuttul on the Middle Euphrates (in modern Syria) and further north to Ebla, possibly with expeditions to Anatolia.

An important part of Sargon's policy and reason for his success, was to appoint members of his family to important posts. He wrote: 'the sons of Akkad fulfill the tasks of the enki (local autorities) in the countries'. His daughter Enheduanna became priestess in the city Ur for the city deities Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar) and An (Akkadian Anum). It was one of the most important positions in the south of Mesopotamia. Enheduanna is one of the few scribes in those times known by name (she wrote the 'exaltation of Inanna'). She was eventually dislodged by the local priests, showing this appointment to be against the will of the locals.

Another factor in Sargon's success of a central government are the written orders and in general his changes on an administrative level. He decreed a standing army of 5400 man, according to the texts. It was the first professional army. Trading was centralized in Akkad. Coastal ships from the Persian Gulf were obliged to call at the port and quaysides of Akkad.

Sargon's successors. Sargon was succeeded by subsequently his two sons. The first, Rimush, was immediately confronted with a situation that will be typical for the times to come in Mesopotamia. After the succession of a powerful ruler many cities try to get rid of their adversary, his taxes and tributes. They do that often in coalition. They test the military strength of the new king and his determination to hold to the entire territory. It even looked to me like that this is still the attitude of the ruler of Irak in modern times. Defeated by an army directed by president Bush, this ruler (who admired the military history of his country) was exercising some military adventures in the early presidency of Clinton, as if he was just trying out.

Also the next successor, his eldest brother Man-ishtushu (meaning 'who is with him?' possibly indicating that they may have been twins) was confronted with this phenomena. A long inscription on a black diorite stela found in Susa (now at the Louvre in Paris) witnesses of his victory over ''32 cities'' in Iran ''at the other side of the sea'', among which was An shan in Fars, the capital of the Elamites. The texts report an important goal of such expeditions: to return ships full of diorite, a hard black/dark-green stone used for sculptures.

Systems of naming the year. Throughout the Mesopotamian history various methods for designating the year were in use. Up to the era of Sargon a system was used by giving the year the name of a local official, the so called eponym or year-eponym. The eponym system remained in use later by the Assyrians for a long time. Other rulers use the regnal year counted from the start of their enthronement. Sargon started to call the year by the name of a significant event in that year. This system of year names provide historians with a list a principle events (of which unfortunately only a fraction is known). The current system of counting the years in a given era came much later in use in the Seleucid Era in 312 BCE. Nowadays the Jews reckon from the Creation (3760 BCE), the Christians from the birth of Christ (1 CE) and the Moslem from Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina (622 CE).


The last but one in the dynasty of Akkad was an important king. Naräm-Sîn (Akkadian, meaning 'the lover of Sîn, the moon god) and grandson of Sargon has collected many feats of arms and has a comparable status and power as his grandfather. He called himself shar kibrät arba'im 'king of the four quarters' meaning the entire known world at the time. His empire was even larger than Sargon's empire, as became clear after the surprising discovery in 1974 of the city of Ebla near Lebanon in Syria, an hitherto unexpected highly developed civilization in the far west.

Deification of a human. Naräm-Sîn was the first king to deify himself. At some point in time during his reign his name appeared with the determinative (on of the functions of some cuneiform signs) used in front of divine names. In a victory stela (now at the Louvre museum in Paris) he is depicted with a horned crown, an attribute reserved for deities. The period when his name appears without the determinative for god, is the period in which he has to deal with revolt and rebellion in his own country. In the group of texts when is name bears the divine attribute relate to the end of his reign, when Naräm-Sîn is concerned with the fighting of a new enemy, among which are mountain people called Gutians (Guti or Quti) who tried to penetrate from the north.

Deification of a human by itself is not new. Rulers like Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh also appear in lists of gods, but in the case of the self-glorification of Naräm-Sîn he called himself 'god of Akkad', a title clearly belonging to the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. She is the city patron of Akkad and owns as such all properties and estates of the city. The self-glorification may have been an act that disturbed the local priests and the leaders of the religious centers in the country (mainly in Nippur, the 'religious capital'). It is possible that it is the result a power struggle between the central government and the city states. The latter being represented by city patron deities and their priests. Naräm-Sîn's self-glorification then could be seen as a clever political act, purposely made to overrule the priests. Other (earlier) interpretations consider this struggle as a fight between Sumerian and Akkadian deities, mirroring ethnic riots between Sumerians and Akkadians for which not much other evidence has been found.


Gutians, semi-nomads from the mountains. The empire of Naräm-Sîn was threatened by hostile pressure from various sides. Among them were the Gutians. The Gutians (Guti or Quti) are (semi-)nomads from the mountains in the north (modern Iran). They are described as subhuman barbarians. According to written Sumerian and Akkadian texts, they are

'Not classed among people, not reckoned as part of the land
Gutian people who know no inhibitions,
With human instinct but canine intelligence and monkey's features'
The previously noticed absence of ethnic stereotypes in Mesopotamian literature here may have found its exception (together with texts about Amorites, people marching in from the area of Jordan and Lebanon).

Sack of Akkad

A famous text is called 'the curse of Akkad' written in Sumerian a few centuries after the presumed facts. It has a unique subject: the sack of a city who was never to be rebuild again. It was one of the most popular compositions of Old Babylonian scribes in later time, although the people kept calling themselves Akkadians. It is written as a history of the rise and fall of Akkad, but many events could not be verified by archeological findings.

Naräm-Sîn had committed sacrilege against the national Sumerian god, the supreme god Enlil, lord of the world and king of the gods (together with the heaven god an). He wanted to build a temple in Akkad for the goddess Ishtar but after performing extispicy (inspecting the bowels of an animal) to seek divine permission, the omens kept being unfavorable. According to the legend he attacked and plundered Enlil's sanctuary, the famous Ekur (Sumerian E 'building', 'temple', kur 'mountain') in the holy city of Nippur in order to enforce a positive answer. The sins of the father were revenged by the downfall of Akkad under the reign of his son, the king shar-kali-sharrï, 'king of all kings'. The god Enlil seeks revenge by making the barbarian Gutians to attack the empire.

Sack of city by divine decision. The justification of the downfall of a city is a common theme in Mesopotamia. The sack of a city or a victory by the enemies is always a divine decision. The king is the envoy of the patron god of the city. He acts on behalf of the god. If the king somehow has raised the anger of a god, he forfeits the favor of the god and is punished for it. Often one doesn't know what one's sins are, they may be performed unwillingly. The enemy king attacking a city is instrumental. The very fact of a victory proofs the consent of the god, whose city is conquered. If his statue from the temple is taken home in triumph by the enemy, than he goes voluntarily. The recapture of the statue later is seen as a renewed favor of the god. An enraged god literally turns away from you and a reconciliation is a re-turn of the god.

'The curse of Akkad' is a story written from the point of view of Sumer, often the opponent/adversary of Akkad in political matters. Most of the manuscripts are found in Nippur, the cultural capital and religious center of Sumer. (About Nippur, see e.g. Nippur, Sacred city of Enlil, supreme god of Sumer and Akkad) There are also Ur-III and Old Babylonian manuscripts. Details from excavations in Nipur do not show any signs of destruction of the Ekur-temple in that period. On the contrary: bricks carrying the name of Naräm-Sîn showed that he contributed to the reconstruction (the soft easily eroding building materials made very frequent reconstructions necessary). The bad reputation of Naräm-Sîn as a little popular and unfortunate ruler is only seen in later time, with no signs suggesting this in the contemporaneous literature.
Jerrold S. Cooper, 'The curse of Agade', 1983, John Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-2846-5, containing the transcription and translation.

Shar-kali-shari. The successor of Naräm-Sîn is his son shar-kali-sharrï, who ruled for 25 years. He uses the determinative for god in front of his name, but here the order is reversed. First he follows his father's tradition, but later while his empire crumbles and possibly under pressure of priests, he abandons the habit. In contrasts to the texts in 'the curse of Akkad' and the Sumerian King Lists, it is improbable that the Gutians were the only ones responsible for the final fall of the dynasty of Akkad.

The century to follow (until 2100 BCE) is little known (a dark age). It is the end of a period with a central government, but not a complete collapse of civilization. The city states of importance are Lagash and Uruk and a territory controlled by the Gutians. The region around Akkad still exists, with two ruling kings mentioned in the Sumerian King Lists .

2. Neo Sumerian Renaissance (2100-2000 BCE)

The last century of the third millennium the inheritance of the Sumerian culture in the previous centuries is consolidated. The age is sometimes called the Neo Sumerian Renaissance. This term is not meant as a revival of Sumerians, but as a revival of the Sumerian culture and in particular Sumerian literature. The language spoken is Akkadian. Sumerian is becoming an extinct language. It is, however, in this era the only written language, like Latin long after the fall of the Roman empire was the only written language. During the last century of the millennium no new literature is produced. The consolidation of Sumerian literature is advanced and promoted by the kings of the third dynasty of Ur, called Ur-III (the numbering of the dynasty is according to the Sumerian King Lists). Ur is in the far south of Mesopotamia.

Large archives have been excavated in the ruins of Umma, Pezrichdagan and Gursu, so the period of Ur-III is historically fairly well known.

Gudea of Lagash

A well known king is the pious Gudea of Lagash who reigned for 20 years shortly before the Ur-III period. Surprisingly this monarch is not mentioned in the Sumerian King Lists but he is known from other king lists in this period and furthermore by numerous inscriptions showing the independence of his city state. Gudea is one of the successors of the empire of Akkad and despite the formal rule of the Gutian according to the Sumerian King Lists. Gudea controlled an important part of the south of Mesopotamia (Ur, Uruk, Nippur). During his reign a sizable number of construction activities took place (especially religious architecture) and the literal creativity is large. Prosperity depended of course on agriculture, but also on trade with the surrounding countries. Many monumental and votive inscriptions have been found and about 20 diorite (dark-green granite like stone) sculptures showing often a praying Gudea. Gudea considered himself the representative of the god Ningirsu. After his death he was deified.

See for illustrations: Gudea of Lagash in the Ancient Art department of Detroit Institute of Arts.
And see a statue of Gudea at Le Louvre in Paris

New Sumerian. A very important text corpus are the clay cylinders of Gudea, known as cylinder A and B. They have been found as foundation deposits in the temple Eninus devoted to the god Ningirsu. These cylinders contain texts devoted to the achievements of Gudea. The long texts with about 1300 lines are the most ancient complete Sumerian literary composition and are an important source for understanding Sumerian. The language is called New Sumerian. Note that presently most of the knowledge about Sumerian is derived from texts in an era in which Sumerian as a spoken language was already extinct.

Transcriptions of Ur-III texts can be found the Web:
Gudea clay cylinder A and Gudea clay cylinder B

Third dynasty of Ur (Ur-III 2100-2000 BCE)

The Ur-III period is well represented in the present collection of clay tablets. More than hundred thousand clay tablets have been found of which only a fraction has been studied extensively. Transcriptions of Ur-III texts are made available on internet.

The Ur-III dynasty consists of five rulers, whose reigns add in total to 109 years. They were all great builders of temples.


The founder of the Ur-III dynasty is Urnammu, originally a general who took the title of 'king of Sumer and Akkad'. According to his own words he obtained this title from the local ruler Utuhengal of Uruk. Under this king (possibly his brother) he was appointed as governor of Ur, revolted and subsequently defeated him and king Nammahani of Lagash.

Sumer and Akkad united again. Urnammu succeeded for the last time to construct a well organized empire, in which Sumer and Akkad were united. Urnammu strived after the law and order of past times. Although he wanted a central authority, he emphasized the local interests of cities and city deities by starting early in his reign the construction of temples in other cities. Usually new rulers in their first years of reign were occupied with further military expansion and were only devoted to construction activities in the last part of their reign. Urnammu build ziggurats with a three stage system and probably with a temple on the highest level. Different types of 'high terraces' were parts of many temples in Babylonian cities since the Ubaid period. Use was made of mud bricks each stamped with the name of the city, city deity and the name of the temple. His development in temple construction was an innovation which would be used for many centuries. The legendary tower of Babylon (6th cent. BCE, so 15 centuries later) was possibly of this type. Urnammu rebuilt and enlarged one of the most famous temples in ancient time, the Ekur temple in the city Nippur devoted to Enlil, the chief god in the pantheon.

Urnammu's death is bemoaned in a lamentation hymne which is an example a type of court poetry that became in use since this period in time.

Figures elsewhere on the Web:
Foundation figurine of Urnammu at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago.
Ziggurat at Ur at UCLA Art History
Site view of Ur in its present state (at a gallery of pictures)
A closer view of the Ziggurat at ur (at a gallery of pictures)
Drawing of Ziggurat ( Link)
Additional texts on the Web:
Nippur, Sacred city of Enlil, supreme god of Sumer and Akkad


ulgi, son of Urnammu, is an important king known from odes in later texts. He was the Maecenas (patron of arts) of the Sumerian language and promoted the canonization of Sumerian literature (the language in this time period is called New Sumerian). ulgi's rule lasted for 48 years. Halfway during his reign one finds a dramatic increase in the number of texts used for economic and administrative purposes. Thousands of clay tablets per year show a reorganization of the administrative methods: everything is being recorded, possibly related with an all time low in the water supply around 2000 BCE. This is also attested from the number of irrigation works in area's already using irrigation. New facilities are being constructed bearing new names, such as words for water sluice, quay-wall, embankment, water depot. Maintenance personnel for the irrigation works becomes extremely important.

End of the Ur-III period

The end of the era of the Ur-III dynasty is caused by an attack of the Elamites in 2004 BCE, probably hastened by internal discord. With help of semi nomads from the west the Elamites captures the capital Ur and dismissed the last ruler. Many archives were buried under the ruins.

3. Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BCE)

The era following Ur-III is called the Old Babylonian or OB-period. This period is known from a large number of clay tablets, in particular letters. More and more countries use the cuneiform writing system, like Mari on the Middle Euphrates and the centers of power in the east, Elam. In diplomatic contacts and other communications in this age letters are used between kings.

The language in the OB-period is Akkadian. The dialect in Babylonia is Old Babylonian. Further upstream on the Euphrates river the dialect is Old Assyrian. Both dialects appear in writing, but during 2000-1800 BCE (also called Early Old Babylonian) texts for intellectuals are often bilingual. Sumerian is still (although to a lesser degree) a scholarly language and the first type of writing students learned at school. Sumerian compositions found on clay tablets often have an Old Babylonian origin (Early Old Babylonian Sumerian). Copying texts at school was a duty, writing (additional) lines was used as school punishment. Subject matters on exams at school could be mathematical problems and Sumerian grammatical texts. Well known schools are those at Ur and at Nippur.

The organizational structure developed in the previous period had been extremely successful to solve the major problems of the country. Babylonia was ahead in this development leaving the neighboring countries far behind. In the subsequent period the Babylonian model was taken as example by adjacent regions, in particular Assyria and Huri-Mitanni. In Assyria now as well city states develop and form political units in larger regional coalitions.

Amorites. In the OB-period one notices a further spread of other ethnical groups, like the Amorites (Akkadian amurru 'the west'). The existence of Amorites is attested in earlier texts, but their names are in particular mentioned in the OB-period from 2000 to 1600 BCE. Amorites are semi-nomads in the upper course and Middle Euphrates, who gradually become sedentary, in particular in 2000-1800 BCE. The Amorites were illiterate and did not leave written records, but their names are found in Akkadian literature. The different structure of these names indicate their language is West Semitic, in contrast to the East Semitic Akkadian language.

Isin-Larsa period (2000-1800 BCE)

Early Old Babylonian period. The period from 2000-1800 BCE is called the Isin-Larsa period, also the Early Old Babylonian period. The archeological period is the Middle Bronze Age. Hegemony in the south was exercised by the dynasty at Isin and usually had the upper hand in political and military matters. Kings of Isin often have Amorite names, the first being the last general under the rule of the last king of Ur-III. Many Amorites obtain high positions and eventually kings of cities. They apparently quickly integrate into the (Akkadian) society and seem to renounce their language, since not much is found in written form.

Well known Royal hymns are among the longest and best preserved and devoted to these kings. Liturgical texts praise e.g. the holy marriage between the king and (a sculpture of/a priestess of) the goddess Inanna/Ishtar which was performed each year to ensure prosperity.

Disappearing of Sumerian. After the Early Old Babylonian period, the Sumerian tradition gradually disappears. Copying of Akkadian texts becomes more usual, although there are still exceptions. Akkadian writing is now the first priority at school. New Sumerian compositions are still made, but are more often unrelated to the ancient Sumerian literature. The grammer often deviates.

Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BCE)

Late Old Babylonian period (roughly 1800-1600 BCE) is an important cultural revival about which we are well informed because of the large number of texts known. Kings of Babylon now rule over large parts of Mesopotamia, starting under the rule of Hammurabi, reigning from 1792-1750 BCE). 'Hammurabi' is a Amoritic name '(the Amoritic god) (H)ammu is great'. He gives the city Babylon hegemony over all of Mesopotamia. In his early reign cities like Mari (on the Middle Euphrates), Ashshur (on the banks of the Middle Tigris) and Larsa play an important role.

In Mari (with an Akkadian/Sumerian culture) thousands of letters have been found containing the correspondence (both received and sent) between kings. Mari was eventually sacked (in 1760 BCE) and set into fire by Hammurabi. Most of clay tablets in the large archives are unintentionally baked and very well preserved for millennia to come. The parts of Mari now excavated are rapidly eroding away, despite the roof that has been build over it for protection.

Hammurabi's opponents are: Zimrilim (king of Mari, 1780-1760 BCE), shamshi-Adad (king of Ashshur, 1810-1785 BCE) and Rim-Sim (king of Larsa, with a long reign 1825-1765 BCE).

Hammurabi obtains monopoly over Mesopotamia by a combination of clever politics and military successes.

Here is a picture of the Statue with the Codex Hammurabi in the Louvre, Paris

to other sections: [ index Mesopotamia] [ I. Mesopotamia] [ II. Prehistory] [ III. Protohistory] [ IV. Bronze Age] [ V. Iron Age]

4. Old Assyrian period (around 1900 BCE)

Temporal division of Assyrian period. The center of cultural and political development in the first half of the second millennium is in the south of Mesopotamia (see OB-period). Yet there are a number of important centers of cities along the Middle Euphrates in Assyria, the more northern parts of Mesopotamia. The Assyrian history is divided in

We are less well informed about the history of the Old Assyrian empire, than we know about contemporaneous Babylonia. Excavations in the past in cities like Ashshur and Nineveh have uncovered many details about the New Assyrian empire, palaces, libraries etc. However, deeper layers are more difficult to access. On the site of ancient Ashshur the present day groundwater level corresponds to the OB-period.

Under Sargon of Akkad the Assyrian city kings were vassals. Under the powerless rule in the Isin-Larsa period the Assyrian cities became more independent.

Starting in (at least) 1900 BCE the Assyrian cities had trading missions in Anatolia, modern Turkey, in a part called Cappadocia (a Persian name: 'land of the beautiful horses'). It is in the second millennium the home land of the Hittites (see review ' Anatolia throughout the ages' in ' FOCUS index on civilizations'). In modern Kültepe ('hill of ashes') in Turkey near Kayseri on the plateau of Anatolia one has found an important corpus of clay tablets, which provides most of the information about the early part of the Old Assyrian empire. These tablets are called the Cappadocian clay tablets.

Old Assyrian. The text corpus is referred to as the Kültepe texts. The grammar in this corpus is called the Kültepe grammar and the language is Old Assyrian, a dialect of Akkadian and different from contemporaneous Old Babylonian. The language is only attested in profane documents (contracts, treaties). Literary compositions are recorded in Old Babylonian, even by the scribes at the court of Assyrian Kings. K.R.Veenhof (Leiden, The Netherlands) has extensively studied the corpus of Kültepe and inferred the commercial customs in this era. The trade continued for a period of at least 75 year (about which one has data over a period of 40 years). One does not know how the trade started. The oldest tablets found already refer to a full scale trading colony. For almost a century the Assyrians keep running a regular donkey-caravan, connecting Ashshur on the Middle Tigris with Anatolia, through arid regions and across the Taurus mountains. The caravan can consist of as many as 200 donkeys, each carrying up to 100 kilos. The merchants at Ashshur exported goods that are imported from elsewhere. As most trading centers one didn't rely on one's own primary products. The economy was based on export of textile obtained from Babylonia and tin from eastern Iran or further east. Imported was almost exclusively silver and gold.
At the end of the 18th century, the merchant colony came to an end, probably after a period of political insecurity and instability.

Karum. The commercial center (Akkadian karum also meaning 'quay', a commercial center in a port) consists of a few large houses, storage rooms and rooms that can be sealed for archive and merchandise. The texts speak of two dozen or so similar trading centers, but most of them have not been located yet.

Kültepe texts

Kanesh is the ancient city situated on the hill Kültepe. Outside the city, on the base of the hill, a major trading colony has been found with a large number of clay tablets. These tablets are illegally traded since 1888 CE, until formal excavations start in 1948 CE and continue up to now.

Number of tablets. About 14000 clay tablets are now stored in Ankara, a number that is yearly increasing by several hundreds. It is still only a small fraction of the total expected tablets. Approximately 4000 tablets are available to the general scientific community. The clay tablets are originally sun-dried and stored on oak-wood shelves and beams. In Anatolia wood was abundantly available. The tablets are secondary baked by fires and now are the best preserved tablets in the Near East. Tablets, used as letters, are sometimes still wrapped in clay envelopes, called clay bullae (singular bulla). (A somewhat later example of a clay bulla in the 15th cent. BCE is presented on the Web by the Oriental Institute Museum.) The negative of the texts is still seen on the envelope, which sometimes carry the impress of cylinder seals (reference to pictures). The number of archeological findings apart from clay tablets is small. Actual merchandise has not been found and production from craftsmanship is not attested. The city of Kanesh has thoroughly been sacked, plundered and set in to fire.

Type of tablets. Approximately half of the texts are letters, of which 95% business letters plus some personal letters (wife and family). Most of the other half consists of legal documents. A small group of texts (a few hundred) are lists, notes on financial claims, memos on (extra) personnel, food, travel expenses, donkey caravans, number of donkeys that died during an expedition etc.

Contents of the tablets. The contents of the letters usually refer to the commercial process, but there are also letter about incidental problems (illness, the current political situation en route, correspondence with agents). Legal documents are about commercial contracts, loans for goods on credit, contracts with the carriers on the inward and outward journey, legal proceedings in conflicts (overdue payments), statements on testimonies, arbitration agreements, and verdicts. They all give insight in the transactions. The jurisdiction is not done at the trading colony itself, but by a special court in the city Ashshur presided by the king. Ashshur in those times is an independent city state.

In the documents reference is only made to 'the king', without further specification. Only a few Assyrian kings are called by name. The temporal order of the tablets constitutes a problem. Each year has a year-name (see also ' eponym') which was determined through a lottery and called after a local administrator (head of the city hall).

Trade regulations. Trade is regulated by treaties with local rulers. Although such treaties are not found, this is derived from the taxes that are imposed: usually a 5% charge, 10% preferential duty for the palace, and transit dues. The merchants have freedom of movement and are protected against raids, hold-ups and robbery (which were not very frequent). Trade is clearly to the benefit of all parties involved, sufficient to continue the commercial business for at least 75 years. The Assyrian caravans are important for the internal Anatolian affairs.

The commercial process

Motivation. The prime motive for trade was profit. The Akkadian terminology for 'to earn' is 'to make silver'. It is the most ancient example of a capitalistic structure with private enterprise in an open society. Earned silver was used for new investments and to buy the daily necessities of life. The Assyrian merchants must have been rich, but one doesn't know about it, because Ashshur has not yet been excavated.

Starting the enterprise. To set up a caravan a merchant in Ashshur buys his merchandise with silver. He chooses a carrier (often family) and entrusts the caravan by means of a contract for transportation. He pays export taxes and gives money for expenses and duties in transit. The journey lasts for approx. 6 weeks (25 km/day). The merchandise is sealed. Before departure of the caravan, the merchant writes an extensive letter to his representative in Kanish (an agent, often family). Goods, prices and intentions are spelled out. Each spring the caravans depart with a few hundred donkeys. The business of donkey breeding must have been great those days. The return trip (silver) requires only a few donkeys.

After 6 weeks the agent in Kanesh accepts the merchandise. He announces by letter which goods are already sold and adds taxes and expenses. The merchandise sometimes was resold to the local palace or to other local agents. The local agents, who get credit against an interest rate of 33%, leave for other parts of the country to sell the goods. The middleman often runs into financial difficulties. After reaping the profits the return trip starts with almost exclusively silver and gold. Again import- and export-taxes are raised.

Merchandise. The merchandise concerns mostly imported goods. Ashshur is a transit center. Coupons of wool are made in Babylonia. They measure 4x4.5 meter and weigh 2 to 2.5 kg and are sold in Anatolia for a price which is threefold the purchase price. Other items are tin. Anatolia is a center of metal industry, because wood kilns is abundantly available. Bronze contains about 10-25% tin. Many hundreds of tons of tin have been exported. The tin probably originates in Afghanistan. Although Anatolia has copper mines, copper is not obtained from this part of the country. The high costs of transport make copper out of Anatolia expensive. One prefers copper from the south, that is supplied by ship.

Financing the trade. The merchants usually form family concerns, with a son in the caravan business and an other as agent in Kanesh. Investments by other people also are significant. Partnerships are entered with moneylenders to finance the transactions. Investment is done in gold through so called zak-contracts (the Akkadian name). A partnership consists of 14 persons, who collect together 30 mine gold (a mine is about 500 gram). The merchant himself has a double share: the director is the largest stockholder. The value of 30 mine gold corresponds to the equivalent of 600 slaves or 1000 yearly wages of an average workman. If someone takes a share in a zak-contract he pays half of it in silver which is booked as the equivalent in gold. Silver is a medium of exchange. The contractual term is 12 years and one guarantees a profit of 100% (normal loans have an interests of 30%, so the profit is large). Dividend is paid during the term of the contract. Special rates apply at half-term withdrawal.

Current section is 'Bronze Age', to other sections:
[ index Mesopotamia] [ I. Mesopotamia] [ II. Prehistory] [ III. Protohistory] [ IV. Bronze Age] [ V. Iron Age]

5. Late Bronze Age

For an other (mainly Egyptian) view on the Late Bronze Age, see this Web page reference.

Kassites in Babylon (1600-1200 BCE)

Rise of Assyria

Maintained and updated by John Heise
first installation on jan 6, 1995
last modification on Feb 17, 1996