Sunday 29 May 2016

The Persian Empire

From provincial beginnings, a dynasty of kings - the Achaemenids - emerged to exert power across the continent of Asia from Mediterranean to Northwest India. The empire of the Persian  kings was one of an unpredictable scale.

When the Assyrian empire fell in 612 BC, they left rich cities and trade links open for exploitation for their successors. The bulk of Assyrian lands was taken over by a dynasty ruling from ancient city of Babylon. These neo-babylonian kings rebuilt Babylon into an imperial Capital.

Detail of Ishtar Gate, Babylon, c.580 BC    

After the fall of Assyrian empire, the state of Medes developed a luxurious empire to match their Mesopotamian neighbors. Greek historians, influenced by Persian views,describe how Medes fell. Of the Persians who attended their court, one individual, Cyrus, supposedly took over the empire from within.  

Cyrus the Great,

Contemporary chronicles  unearthed in Babylon instead tell how Cyrus conquered lands surrounding Mesopotamia in the mid 6th century BC before conquering the capital itself. First to fall was Lydian kingdom in the west of modern Turkey. Next to fall to Cyrus was the Babylonian king Nabonidus. Cyrus's son Cambyses was also successful in invading Egypt in 524 BC.

The Cyrus Cylinder
This clay foundation document inscribed in Akkadian, the traditional literally language of Babylon, gives Cyrus's carefully positive account of his conquest of the city in the 540s BC, in which he ws welcomed by the locals as a better ruler than his predecessor, the Babylonian king Nabonidus. 

When Cambyses died, his brother Bardiya was proclaimed king, but he was proved impostor and replaced by Darius I. In a foundation document from Susa ,Darius claimed that the building materials had come from far-flung corners of his realm, from India to the Ionian coast.

When Persian held Greek cities on the Ionian coast revolted in 490s BC, Athens and Eretria sent help from mainland Greece. In response the Persian leader sent a punitive expidition in 490 BC and another led by Darius's son Xerxes in 480 BC. But in following years Persians had to withdraw from Greece due to their acts of defiance.

Persian Empire under Xerxes I (485-465 BC).

Despite withdrawal from Greece, Persia continued to wield influence in the Mediterranean. The Persian throne did not come under any threat until the invasion of Alexander the Great in 334 BC.

Despite their success, the Persians left no sustained historical account of themselves. The kings did, however, leave monumental statements on their palace walls about how they had wished to be seen. Images and texts found in Darius I 's palace at Susa, show Darius boasting of massive excavations for a platform for his columned halls. This relief shows Persian guards dresses in colorful robes.

Relief in the Palace of Susa
A griffin designed to sit at the top of a column watches over Persepolisthe ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire(ca. 550–330 BC). This city was developed by Darius I and his successors from 519 BC. The structures included massive columned audience halls and smaller palaces build of stone and mud-bricks.


Under Darius, his son Xerxes and subsequent kings, the image of the monarch carved into the walls of their palaces remained unchanged, emphasizing the continuity of their family line. Here, a royal heir in his court robe resembles the king exactly.

A royal heir

The Persian wars between the Greek city-states and the Persian empire are seen as a period that defined ideas of "East" and "West". Afterwards East would be regarded as foreign to the West and vice versa. 

The last king of Achaemenid Dynasty was Darius III ,who lost half of his empire to the invasion of Alexander. He was apparently imprisoned and killed by his own entourage in 330 BC. Although Alexander cut a swath through the ruling elite and burned a part of Persepolis, the structures and traditions of Persian empire exerted a huge influence on rulers and empires who followed. Sassanid emperors who ruled Persia centuries later identified themselves as heirs to the Achaemenids. 

Saturday 21 May 2016

Frontiers of Power

From 7000 BC, ambitious powers began bidding for supremacy over all the known world. Each of these imperial movements, from Assyria to Rome , encountered barriers to its empire-building. Chief among them were the terrain and climate of the Eurasian continent, and resistance of neighboring powers.

Between 1550 - 700 BC the rich, ambitious monarchies of Egypt and Assyria expanded beyond their territories into the disputed lands of the Levant.  The Assyrians heartland lay in the upper part of Mesopotamia, but in 800 BC they dominated their neighbors more than any state had done before. But the empire at last fell  to the Babylonians in  c.612 BC.

The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, Babylon
 in the 
Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

The vast size of these empires was hard for the inhabitants to comprehend, but imperial powers used symbols to reflect the rich diversity if their empire. On unifying the fragmented states of China, the founding emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang shaped his vast tomb into a microcosm of the land he ruled.

Hatra was a rich trading city in territory disputed between Rome and Parthia between 150 BC - 224 CE. At times, it was one of several prominent semi-independent states between the great Roman and Parthian empires. Hatra's circular layout reflected Parthian city patterns, while architecture revealed Roman influence.

Ruins of Hatra

Each dynasty or empire developed their own ideas about the world. In Assyrian and Babylonian rule from the fertile low lying planes of Mesopotamia, mountains were seen as wild, chaotic places threatening danger. On the other hand, the mountainous homeland of the Macedonian Greeks and Persians helped to instill in them a hardy self-image. 

Dura Europos was founded in 303 BC during Greek rule of Mesopotamia, on a trade route on the river Euphrates. The city came under Parthian, Roman, then Persian control. Its cultural diversity is reflected in its religious buildings, which include both the earliest preserved synagogue and this church.

A chruch in Dara Europos

Bisitun was a sacred mountain beside a site used successively as a staging post, garden and palatial retreat. The mountain towered over the route from Babylon, on the low Mesopotamian plain, to the Iranian plateau. In 515 BC , Persian emperor Darius I carved monumental relief with an imperial inscription proclaiming his sovereignty over both plateau and plain.

Mountain relief at Bisitun

Kushan statues such as this are the relics of a tribal power that in 1 - 250 CE consolidated a huge land empire between the Hindu Kush mountains and the river Ganges. Known to both Roman and Chinese imperial powers, the Kushans formed a crucial zone of cultural zone.

Kushan Statue

This Greek depiction of northern nomads, known as the Scythians demonstrates trading contact at the meeting point between settled and nomadic worlds. The Scythians were a group of nomadic tribes sharing a common culture and related languages, who spanned the steppe lands from Siberia to southeast Europe.

 Greek hoplite and Scythian archer marching together to battle.

The Great Wall of China began as a piecemeal chain of defenses, but during the unification by the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, the sections were joined and reshaped to become a frontier wall against raid by northern nomads, such as Xiongnu. 

The Great Wall of China

The rise and fall of dynasties and empires across Eurasia bequeathed a powerful idea of the inevitable fall of  all worldly power. Later states with global ambitions looked back on a series of civilizations whose heirs they presumed themselves to be.

"The Fall of Babylon", John Martin, 1831

Due to Babylon's dramatic role in Bible, its fall became archetypal example of the decline of a once-great state. Its apocalyptic destruction was often depicted in art in the 19th century CE.

Sunday 15 May 2016

Conquering Sea and Desert

During the 2nd millennium BC, a variety of people in desert and coastal areas fringing more populated regions established vital trading networks that linked a cross section of cultures. By around 3000 BC trading centers were developing in Eastern Mediterranean, the Arab peninsula, and Nubia.

Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon formed the core of a great maritime trading network. These city states on the east Mediterranean coast, a region known as Canaan and as Phoenicia to the Greeks, prospered between 1200 - 600 BC. Phoenicians prowess made them the control center for routes crossing the Mediterranean.    

In 3rd millennium BC, Nubia(modern Sudan) was forging links with Egypt by trading goods, providing a corridor to Africa through which Egypt obtained ebony, ivory, incense, and exotic animals.

Ivory comb, Egypt's Old kingdom

In Arab world,by the 9th century BC there were major centers in southern Arabia(modern Yemen), including the Minaean and Sabaean kingdoms and in the north. The life of semi-nomadic Arabs were transformed by the domestication of the camel, around 12th century BC.

Camel trails marked out routes that became part of "Incense Road" carrying incense and spices. Only the Arabs knew the secrets of traversing their dangerous desert routes. This knowledge made them powerful and wealthy, and they did their best to shroud their trails and sources in fabulous myth.

Stone Slab,Nubia

This stone slab(stela) from the Amun temple at Kawa shows a Nubian king called Ary,who may be 8th century BC founder of the "kingdom of Kush"(In Egypt and Sudan), worshipping the gods Amun, Mut and Khonsu.

Another trade route was located around the kingdom of kush ,in southern Nubia, bringing precious metals such as ivory and gold to the ancient world. By 8th century BC, Kush, and its capital Napata, was enjoying a glorious period as a major trade center freed from Egyptian domination. The two cultures had lasting effects on each other.

Gold Band

This beautiful gold band was found at Enkomi on Cyprus, ancient Alashiya, and once decorated a luxurious garment. It dates to 13th century BC when Enkomi was a major port on world's trade routes - clear from the band's mix of Middle Eastern and Mycenaean Greek motifs.

The earliest archaeological evidence for the Phoenician colony at Carthage dates to the second half of the 8th century BC. Traditionally, the date of this trading post is given as 814 BC.

Remains of Phoenician colony 

Warships were powered by a combination of sails and rowers and by the 600s BC, when the Phoenicians supplied vessels to the Persians for their battles with the Greeks. 

The Phoenicians first introduced this distinctive "Black-on-Red" pottery to Cyprus. This flask dates from c.700 BC, by which time the Cypriots had evolved their own version of their style.

"Black-on-Red" pottery

Skilled seafarers and navigators, the Phoenicians built sophisticated multi oar galleys (as on these coins from Sidon) designed to speed over vast distances, and made great contributions to the ship building technology. They probably developed a bireme with two banks of oars, the main warship of 700s BC.

Coins from Sidon

This relief from the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II(721-704 BC) in Khorsabad(North Iraq) shows a wood shipment being unloaded. Assyria imported top quality cedar for its palace building from Lebanon.

Relief depicting Wood transportation 

In the southwest of Arabian peninsula, the kingdom of Himyarites eclipsed that of the Sabaeans by 3rd century CE and remained to dominant Arabian state until the 500s. Its trading ships plied regular routes along the East African coast, creating strong links between Mediterranean and Africa. It exported African Ivory to the roman empire and maintained a brisk trade in precious resins.

Himyarite Relief

From the 1st millennium BC onwards, the Arab's spice and incense routes started bypassing the desert in favor of travel by sea.



Saturday 7 May 2016

Rulers of The Iron Age

By the 9th century BC, a great Assyrian Empire dominated the Middle East and stayed in power for two centuries. It is often seen as the first real "world empire", and much of it's success can be traced to a stable political system and skillful exploitation of new Iron Age warfare techniques.

The Assyrian empire's roots can be traced to the period 2000 - 18000 BC when Shamshi Adad I created a kingdom including the great trading city of Ashur ,once an independent city state. In 14th century BC, Assyrian lands expanded over all of modern North Iraq, and came into conflict with Babylonia and the Hittites. Like all other Bronze Age powers, Assyria declined but the state survived.

The period 800 - 700 BC is termed as the "neo-Assyrian" period. The military success in the Neo-Assyrian period was due to Assyrian's effective adaptation of Iron Age warfare techniques. Their highly disciplined army featured a mix of chariots, infantry and horseback riders. This was the first army to use cavalry units and use of Iron weapons gave them a great advantage over others.

Assyrian soldiers attacking the city of Lachish

SEMITIC - A language group that includes Hebrew and Arabic, and a description of people from the Middle East who trace their ancestry to the biblical Noah and his son Shem. The group includes both Jews and Arabs.

Royal bloodline played a key role in the kingdom so that no outsider could become king. A crown prince and heir apparent was selected as soon as a new king took the throne. There was always a successor and he played an important role in running the empire.

Assyria was organized into provinces and newly conquered kingdoms were incorporated as one. The governors in charge of the provinces were appointed by the king himself. The king relied on eunuchs to be governors as they could not have children and there was no danger they would start their own dynasty.

Regional Power

Assyrian governors often enjoyed great wealth. This mural detail is from a governor's residence at Til Barsip during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III(744 - 727 BC).    

Jehu, king of Israel, prostrates himself before the 9th century BC Assyrian king Shalmaneser III . The scene is one of several such reliefs on a public monument erected at Nimrud in 825 BC.

Tribute from Israel

Assyria conqured Egypt in the 7th century BC and ended the rule of the Nubian dynasty. They put native Egyptian Saite dynasty into power as puppet rulers but Egypt regained Independence under Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus I(664 - 610 BC).

The Assyrian empire, so aggressively  built, could not withstand internal divisions. On king Assurbanipal's death in 627 BC, the empire endured a succession crises, and when the Babylonians and Medes attacked and captured the city of Ashur in 614 BC, the empire quickly disintegrated.
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