The Rise of Empire
The first empires in the ancient Middle East were relatively brief conquests of one state by another. These early empires did not control territory in the way that countries do today, but were networks of power centers surrounded by uncontrolled space.
The Akkadian empire was the first empire in the Middle East. Its capital city was called Agade, which was probably near Baghdad although archaeologists have not yet located it. Beginning in about 2350 BCE, the Akkadian empire conquered a series of small states in Sumer (southern Iraq) and larger states in northeastern Syria, and ruled a territory stretching 500 miles for perhaps 150 years. Akkadian kings raided as far west as the Mediterranean Sea and as far south as Oman. Middle Kingdom Egypt also extended beyond its traditional borders in about 2000 BCE, building massive fortresses to control part of Nubia to the south.
Like the rise of the state, the development of empires was accompanied by an increasing sophistication of art, architecture, and literature. While it is understandable that we often celebrate these cultural achievements, it remains the case that early Middle Eastern empires were based on the exercise of military force to subjugate their neighbors. The concentration of wealth that supported the construction of palaces, statues, and public rituals was based in part on tribute and the spoils of war.
A very significant increase in the scale of conquest and administration of conquered territories was the Egyptian empire of the New Kingdom, which, beginning in 1550 BCE, conquered and administered a territory stretching nearly 1,400 miles from Syria to Nubia. The horse and chariot were introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos in about 1700 BCE, but the Egyptians were the first empire to use them extensively in their military campaigns. This period was a great international age in which the Mitanni empire of northern Syria and the Hittite empire of central Anatolia expanded, struggled for power, and exchanged correspondence with Egypt that is now known as the Amarna letters.
The Egyptian empire was the first of several ancient Middle Eastern empires of roughly similar size, followed by the Assyrian (883-612 BCE) and Babylonian (612-539 BCE) empires. The Assyrians were the first to use iron extensively. This was not a strictly technological advantage because early iron weapons, armor, and tools were softer than bronze implements of that time. But iron was much more commonly available than tin (one of the components of bronze), so it may have afforded a logistical and organizational advantage to the Assyrian army.
Building on the network of vassal states, roads, and even the art style of the Assyrian empire, the Persian empire extended control over an area perhaps four times as large, from Bactria in the east to Anatolia and Libya in the west. The Persians ruled this area for nearly 200 years until they were conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. The Middle East remained divided into smaller empires (Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanian) from that time until the rise of the Islamic empire during the seventh century CE.
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. How do societies make decisions when they are small scale? How do those patterns of decision-making change as those societies grow larger?
2. What stages did some societies go through as they developed into empires? What are some differences between settlements of 3,000 people and those with 20,000 people?
3. What special qualities and sophisticated elements characterize the early Middle Eastern cities?