The Kassites

Around 1595 BC, following a raid by Hittites from Anatolia, the first surviving allusion to kings of Babylon concerns members of the Kassite dynasty. The Kassites, a tribal people of unknown origin who had been present in the land in small numbers at least since the reign of Hammurabi’s son, Samsu-iluna (1749–1712 BC), had become peaceful farmers and loyal soldiers after an initial period of hostile behavior. The Kassites would rule Babylon for over 400 years. Official inscriptions usually only mention the construction of temples and palaces and the gods to whom these buildings were dedicated. In Babylon itself, archaeological traces of the Kassite period are rare. Their military history is known only through a few references in scattered documents, and it is primarily the archives of foreign countries that provide information on the history of their international relations.

Little is known about the early Kassite dynasty. Its rule was apparently limited to the northern and middle parts of the Babylonian kingdom until roughly 1475 BC, when the southern part came under the control of Prince Ulam-Buriash—brother of King Kashtiliashu III—who gave himself the title of “king of the land of the sea” (nothing indicates that he ruled over Babylon itself). The subsequent unification of Babylonia put an end to rivalries between city-states and gave birth to a political model that survived for as long as the kingdom remained independent. Political stability was further reinforced by the maintenance of royal power in the hands of the same family for over 200 years, accompanied by military superiority over neighboring countries thanks to innovative chariot technology combined with traditional know-how in raising horses, two factors crucial to warfare in the late Bronze Age. The Kassites also established a hierarchical system for the administration and taxation of provinces that would last, with just a few minor changes, for over 800 years.

After obscure beginnings, around 1400 BC the Kassite dynasty attained international scope. Kassite kings established diplomatic relations with Egypt, Hatti (in Anatolia), Assyria, and Elam, reinforcing these relations by arranging marriages with other royal families. Babylonia became part of a vast trade network that extended from the Aegean Sea to Afghanistan and to the southern Persian Gulf. Babylonian textiles, horses, and chariots were sold westward, while luxury items such as lapis-lazuli arrived from the east. Babylonian merchants traveled through Syria and Palestine, and Babylonian cylinder seals have been found as far as Thebes in Greece. In payment, Babylon amassed large quantities of precious metals, especially gold.

Babylonia also enjoyed a cultural renaissance under the Kassite dynasty. Although foreign in origin, the Kassites respected local culture and religious practices. They built temples to traditional gods and basically promoted the use of the Sumerian and Akkadian languages in written documents. Schools for scribes continued to function, notably at Nippur and Ur; many of the major families of scribes of the first millennium BC date back to the fifteenth or fourteenth century BC. The Babylonian calendar and methods of reckoning time were refined and simplified. Babylonian doctors were highly appreciated abroad as well as at home. Local craftsmen were pioneers in the realm of glass-making, then undergoing extensive development. They also explored new artistic forms for stelae (such as kudurru documenting land granted by kings) and for carved gems. Artisans furthermore did much brick-carving for architectural decoration. Their artistic talents earned them an international reputation, so that in the thirteenth century BC the Hittite king Hattusilis III insisted that his Babylonian counterpart send him one of his sculptors.

The dynasty seems to have enjoyed its heyday from 1400 to 1225 BC. During that period King Kurigalzu I (circa 1385 BC) had a new, highly impressive stronghold built to the north of Babylon; called Dur-Kurigalzu, it was conceived as a second capital. Furthermore, the same king and his successors rebuilt or repaired the main temples in all the major cities of the kingdom.

Starting in 1225 BC, Babylonia’s fortunes waned. Assyria invaded the country, defeating and overthrowing King Kashtiliashu IV (1232–1225 BC). Taking advantage of this weakness, Elam attacked Nippur and Isin. Assyrians ran the central government. Within two decades, however, Babylonia recovered enough strength to defeat Assyria and intervene in its domestic affairs. Babylonia became prosperous again in the early twelfth century BC, notably during the reigns of Meli-Shipak (1186–1172 BC) and Marduk-apla-iddina I (1171–1159 BC), and commercial expeditions headed for Syria and the mountains to the northeast.

In 1158 BC, Assyria and Elam invaded the land, and the king of Elam overthrew the king of Babylonia. In a matter of years, the Kassite dynasty not only collapsed under the pressure of its neighbors, but was further humiliated by the confiscation of the sacred statue of its protective god, Marduk.

Nebuchadnezzar (1125–1104 BC) and Babylon at the end of the second millennium BC

With the collapse of the Kassite dynasty, Elamite armies ravaged Babylonia, notably in the north and east. A new local dynasty, initially arising from Isin in central Babylonia, slowly regained control of the region, if rather timidly at first. It then ruled for several decades in the shadow of Elam. This 2nd dynasty of Isin (1157–1026 BC) managed to take over Babylon, but its early military offensives against Elam and Assyria were unsuccessful.

The fourth king of the dynasty, Nebuchadnezzar I (1125–1104 BC), launched a surprise campaign and drove his troops deep into Elamite territory; defeating the Elamite king Hutelutush, he recovered possession of the cult statue of Marduk. This campaign and the return of the sacred statue to its temple represented a turning point in the history of Babylonia. Nebuchadnezzar I’s victory and the veneration of Marduk spawned numerous epics, hymns, and predictions, which the scribes would continue to copy for centuries to come.

Babylonia retained military superiority for the next quarter of a century, but the Assyrians soon became as powerful as their southern neighbors; under the dynamic reign of Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076 BC), they invaded northern Babylonia and reached the capital. Shortly afterward, around 1080 BC, Babylonia and Assyria found themselves facing a new enemy, the Aramaeans, who poured into the two countries for over a century, sacking cities, looting temples, and cutting trade routes, including the one between Babylonia and Assyria.