In the mid-1700s a literate people with a Semitic language moved through Canaan, took control of some cities there, and then conquered northern Egypt. It is not known who they were, except that the Egyptians called them Hyksos (hyk khwsht), which identifies them only as foreigners. Like the Kassites, the Hyksos had horses, and they had lightweight chariots. They introduced Egyptians to the wheel and to new weapons of war. They introduced the Egyptians to new musical instruments, new techniques in making bronze and pottery, new animals, new kinds of crops, and new gods.
Meanwhile, by the year 2000, an illiterate, warlike, Indo-European people called Hittites had migrated on foot southward into Asia Minor, where they overran and conquered tribal, bronze-age farming communities. Like Sargon’s warriors, the conquering Hittites made themselves an aristocratic warrior elite living off the labors of those they had conquered. And like Sargon and others they saw their victories as willed by their gods and as proof of the righteousness of their conquests. Like others, the Hittites made deities of their dead kings, but they saw their living kings as human and expected them to obey their laws. Their neighbors considered them sexually lax. But the Hittites were less brutal than some: they disliked the mutilations of human bodies that they saw among other peoples, and they were less inclined to punish people by killing them.
From those they overran the Hittites learned how to make bronze. And sometime after the coming of the Kassites to Mesopotamia, the Hittites acquired horses and chariots. With horses and light chariots, the well trained, highly disciplined Hittites launched a new conquest of neighboring peoples in Asia Minor. A horse pulling a man on a lightweight chariot was faster than a horse carrying a man on its back, and the Hittites were able to move rapidly, sometimes under the cover of darkness, and spring surprise assaults upon their adversaries.
The Hittite king, Mursilis I, forced a loose federation of city-states into the first Hittite empire. A Hittite army crossed the Taurus Mountains into Mesopotamia, and, in 1593, they sacked Babylon, ending the dynasty that had been created there by Hammurabi. But Babylon was too distant for the Hittites to rule — 1200 miles from their capital at Hattusas — and the Hittites withdrew from Babylon.
The Hittites remained the leading power north of Egypt until 1590, when the Hittite king, Mursilis, was assassinated by his brother-in-law. More palace intrigues and murderous struggles for power followed among Hittite princes, priests, nobles, regents and ambitious widows. It was to be a recurring development elsewhere in the world, and for the Hittites it brought what it would often bring to others: a decline in power.
After the Hittite invasion of Mesopotamia, an Indo-Iranian people called Hurrians, from the Zagros Mountains, poured into Mesopotamia and overran the Assyrians. The Hurrians settled down, gradually adopted civilized ways and became dominant in such cities as Mari, on the upper Euphrates, and Nuzi, which became a thriving commercial center. Then came another wave of Kassites, who occupied Babylon and briefly overran other parts of Mesopotamia. Kassite warriors settled down, adopted Mesopotamian culture and made themselves warrior-aristocrats. A few of them became rulers of great estates from which they dominated surrounding territory. And from this elite came Babylon’s new kings.
More than a century after the Hyksos invaded Egypt, protracted struggles between the Egyptians and Hyksos resulted in a new pharaoh, Ahmose, uniting Egypt and driving the Hyksos across the Red Sea. Egypt’s elite was wounded in pride by what had been the Hyksos conquest, and Ahmose’s successor, Thutmose I, pursed the Hyksos through Canaan and into Syria, with the Egyptians supporting themselves by booty as they went. The Egyptians believed they were on a holy crusade and that they were protected by their gods. Thutmose expanded Egypt’s empire southward into Nubia, and he boasted that he had made Egypt superior to every other land.
Egypt’s advance in Syria was halted by the Hurrians, and in the mid-1400s, Egypt allied itself with the Hittites while it continued to clash with the Hurrians. Egypt gained wealth from booty, but it failed to push the Hurrians out of Syria. Eventually the Egyptian, Thutmose III, negotiated peace with the Hurrians. And two successive Hurrian kings married their daughters to the Egyptian kings Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III.
It was now the Hurrians who weakened themselves with internal conflict, and the Hittites — who had regained their strength — warred with the Hurrians and further weakened them, and this helped Assyrians in northeastern Mesopotamia free themselves from Hurrian domination. Having experienced oppression under the Hurrians, the Assyrians were motivated to build a great military machine, led by their horse-breeding and landed nobility. The Assyrian king, Ashur the Great (who ruled from 1365 to 1330), married his daughter to a Babylonian, and he invaded Babylon after Kassite nobles there murdered his grandchild. Ashur’s successors continued Assyria’s war against the Babylonians and the Hurrians, and by around 1300 the Assyrians controlled all of Mesopotamia.
During the mid-1300s, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (also known as Akhenaton, or Akhenaten) tried to force his subjects to worship the god Aton, whom he believed was the god of the universe. Egypt, meanwhile, had withdrawn from Syria and Canaan. After 1300 BCE, the pharaoh Ramses I and his son Seti I revived Egyptian imperialism. Seti went with his army into Canaan and re-established Egypt’s imperial administration there. Then he clashed with the Hittites over control of Syria. During the reign of Seti’s son and successor, Ramses II, the Hittites pushed south and retook the city of Kadesh, seventy-five miles north of Damascus. Ramses II tried to retake Kadesh but failed, and a war between Ramses and the Hittites dragged on until the 21st year of Ramses’ reign, when the Hittites saw a growing danger from other enemies. Then Ramses and the Hittites signed a treaty they called an “everlasting peace.” Egypt was to control lands as far north as Lebanon, and the Hittites were to control lands north of there. The Hittites gave Ramses a Hittite bride, and Ramses returned to Egypt, where he portrayed his exploits in Syria as a great victory — for he was supposed to be divine and incapable of failure. To celebrate his victory and create symbols of his glory, Ramses ordered the creation of great buildings and monuments across Egypt. [note]
When warring against the Hittites, Ramses II, it is written, used the torture of prisoners to try to learn Hittite positions.
While the Egyptians had been reestablishing their empire, tribal peoples from Central Asia had been moving westward with their herds, running from droughts. They pushed on other tribal peoples, and around 1200 BCE these tribal peoples pushed into Asia Minor. Around this time, the Hittites suffered from a plague that greatly reduced their population and made them vulnerable to attack. The Hittite capital, Hattusas, was overrun and was burned to the ground, and the Hittite empire collapsed. The heart of Hittite territory became occupied by an illiterate people called Phrygians, while people in Cilicia and Syria held onto their Hittite culture and identity. Migrants overran the island of Cyprus and other copper producing areas. The invasions disrupted trade in West Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean region, and bronze production declined. People sought a substitute for bronze and started producing more iron, which required a higher temperature and a greater sophistication in smelting.
Nomads called Chaldeans pushed against the Babylonians and against the Assyrians. A camel breeding Bedouin people called Aramaeans from northern Arabia marauded their way across Mesopotamia. The Chaldeans settled near what had been Sumer. The Aramaeans settled around the upper Euphrates River and in Syria and established numerous city-kingdoms. Assyria became exhausted from warring against the invaders. Its trade fell, but it held onto much of Mesopotamia and territory as far as the Caucasus Mountains. With the passing of generations, some Aramaeans maintained their nomadic ways and became the foremost traders in West Asia. Their language spread, and in the coming centuries Aramaic would be the most widely spoken language in West Asia — the language resorted to for diplomacy and business, and a language spoken by those called Hebrews.
Centuries of migrations into Mesopotamia had resulted in genetic and cultural blending. Sumerians had integrated with Semites. Hittite queens had Hurrian names. Kassites had integrated with the Amorites. Aramaeans assimilated and intermarried with various peoples. At least one Aramaean married Assyrian royalty, and around the year 1050 another Aramaean became king of Babylon. Cities in Mesopotamia, Syria and Canaan — especially port cities — had become cosmopolitan. And in much of Mesopotamia, Syria and Canaan an ethnic tolerance had developed.
The people of different areas in Mesopotamia had come to worship gods that were similar in character and sometimes in name. The goddess Ishtar was worshiped in various cities, but with different characteristics in different cities. The Sumerian god Enlil was also worshiped among various peoples in Mesopotamia. Enlil was looked upon as the force behind hurricanes and floods, and being the creator of floods he was viewed as the god of punishment. It was to Enlil that the righteous prayed in attempts to inflict punishments on those they thought to be sinners. Another god worshiped across Mesopotamian was Ea, who, as described in the Gilgamesh epic, was a god of knowing, understanding and wisdom. Mesopotamians also believed in a sun god commonly called Shamash, who was the giver of light and life. They saw Shamash as a giver of justice and as able to see wickedness and evil in people.
Mesopotamians continued to believe that not fearing the gods was the greatest of human errors. They believed in discovering what they had done wrong in the eyes of the gods so that they could make amends. Someone suffering from an ailment might ask himself whether he had alienated a son from his father or a father from his son, or a daughter from her mother or a mother from her daughter, or a brother from brother, or a friend from a friend. He might ask whether he had offended his father or mother, sister or brother, or a god or goddess. He might ask whether he had used false scales or had erroneously moved a boundary stone. He might consider whether he had approached his neighbor’s wife, carried off his neighbor’s clothes, told lies or whether his heart had been untrue. To avoid wrongdoing, one scribe suggested charity: responding with kindness to “an evil doer,” or providing an enemy with justice, or honoring and clothing one who begs for alms.
Meanwhile, Mesopotamians living in villages and towns faced the problem of rubbish, sewage and contaminated water. Royal families and some others among the wealthy had indoor lavatories, but most people in villages and within town walls used nearby fields or orchards as their lavatory. Most towns or cities had no rubbish collection. Refuse was often merely thrown into the streets, where pigs, dogs and rats were free to scavenge. Often corpses were buried in very shallow graves. And with rains and a waterlogged ground, sewage and refuse washed into local rivers and contaminated water supplies. The result was typhus and other epidemics, which spread and lasted for years, while people saw disease as the result of sin or the work of demon-gods or someone’s witchcraft.
In addition to appealing to the gods, Mesopotamians saw remedy to illness in sprinkling cleansing water upon the sick. Coincidences led them to believe a variety of specious remedies and things to avoid. In Babylon, the sick were left in the street so that any passerby might advise them. There and other places in Mesopotamia, priests attempted to foretell the course of a disease by examining the livers of sacrificed animals.