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.

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