The Rise of Assyria in the Late Bronze Age

In the middle of the 14th century B.C.E., the King of Assyria, Ashur-uballit, (ca.1363-1328 B.C.E.), advanced his kingdom to become a Great power in the Near East.

During the Amarna Age, when Ashur-uballit became King of Assyria, his land was a vassal state of the Hurrian Empire, known to the Assyrians as Hanigabalt. This Hurrian land was referred to in the Amarna Letters as Mittani, and was a powerful ally of Egypt and rival of the Hittites. Around 1350 B.C.E., a conflict within the Hurrian royal dynasty saw the Kingdom divided in a near state of civil war, with two brothers as rival claimants to the throne. Eventually the division was settled, and a young man named Tushratta (ca 1370-1330 B.C.E.) became the King of Mittani.

Assyrian Independence From Mittani

In a deft political maneuver, Ashur-uballit allowed the loosing claimant, a prince named Artatama, to find refuge in the Assyrian lands. This alliance made Tushratta’s claim the the throne of Mittani inherently unstable, and the conflict seriously undermined diplomatic relations with Egypt. To make matters worse for Tusharatta, his brother would also sign an agreement of cooperation with the aggressive Hittite King, Suppililiuma.

In his next move, while Tushratta was forced to defend against Hittite incursions and work to patch relations with Egypt, Ashur-uballit took the initiative to gain independance for Assyria. The first challenge the Assyrians faced were certain claims placed upon their territories by the Kassite Kings of Babylonia. It appears that the Babylonian King, Buranburiash, (ca 1359-1333 B.C.E.), did attempt to claim Assyria as a new vassal following the wain of Hurrian power.

Babylon And Assyria In The Amarna Letters

From the Ancient Egyptian diplomatic archive known as the Amarna Letters comes Amarna Letter 9, (EA 9), which sheds light on this conflict between Assyria and Babylonia. In this missive, Burnaburiash writes to the Egyptian throne of Amenhotep III, (ca. 1390-1353 B.C.E.) and, after a customary greeting, he complains to the Pharaoh that Egypt’s recent gifts of gold are inadequate. Burnaburiash hearkens back to recent history, when Egypt had sent large quantities of gold to Babylonia.

In the past, Babylonia had been a stalwart supporter of Egypt in its conflicts. Now, in this letter, the King of Babylon wants to know why Egypt has received emissaries from Assyria. Burnaburiash claims that these diplomats, coming from territory he has claimed for Babylon have traveled to Egypt without his permission and should be sent home to him empty handed. Despite his protests, Burnaburiash eventually accepted a settlement with Assyria that saw him wed a daughter of Ashur-uballit. This saw the formation of an alliance that would entwine the politics of the two Kingdoms for centuries to come.

Problems With Trade Between Egypt and Assyria

Another letter from the archive, EA 15, seems to imply that that the relationship between Egypt and Assyria was indeed a recent occurrence. In this short letter, Ashur-uballit writes to the Pharaoh that “up until now my predecessor’s have not written.” Ashur-uballit sends along a “Greeting Gift” of lapis lazuli, a chariot and horses.

However, the contents of EA 15 seem to conflict with another letter written by Ashur-uballit to Akhenaten (ca B.C.E.). In EA, 16 Ashur-uballit begins with a greeting and a “Greeting Gift” but then the Assyrian King mentions an ancestral relationship between the two powers. The King goes on to complain about the small amount of gold forthcoming from Egypt, as he is building a new palace and has need of great quantities of gold.

In the letter, the Assyrian King states that, “gold in your country is like dirt, one must simply scoop- it up.” He goes to recount prior trade, recalling that in the days of his ancestor Ashur-nadin-ahhe, (ca. 1403 to 1393 B.C.E.) that 20 talents of gold had been sent and the same amount had been sent to the King of Hanigabalt. Ashur-uballit then declares himself to be equal to the King of Hanigabalt, which infers that by this time Assyria had shaken off Mittani control as well as resisted attempts at Babylonian dominance.

Ashur-uballit then explains that the Suteans, a tribal people from Syria, were responsible for the recent delays in the return of Egyptian messengers. The Suteans appear to have been active in the middle Euphrates region, and their activity could be interpreted as a sign of the collapse of Hurrian power in the region.

However, there is apparently no good reason for Assyrian messengers to have been delayed in Egypt and, in a refrain typical of foreign kings writing the Pharaoh in the Amarna Letters, Ashur-uballit complains that his messengers are being delayed unfairly in Egypt. He asks, “Why should my messengers be made to stay out in the sun, and so die in the sun?” Ashur-uballit explains that if there was a profit in this for the king then he would not see a problem, but as it is he does not understand the delay.

Ashur-uballit Invades Babylon

Upon the death of Burnaburiash his son from the marriage to the Assyrian Princess ascended the throne of Babylon. He was soon killed by Kassite nobles, angry at the fact that his grandfather is the Assyrian King. Ashur-uballit avenges the death of his grandson Ashur-uballit by invading Babylonia and defeating those responsible.

With this victory, Burnaburiash placed the Kassite, Kurigalzu II, on the Babylonian throne as an ally. Over the coming decades, Kurigalzu II would prove to be the greatest conqueror and warrior of all the Kassite Kings, eventually even leading an attack against his former Assyrian sponsors.

Although Assyria’s power would wain for a time before the kingdom would again rise to become master of the Near East, this period marks the migration of political power northward from Babylonia to upper Mesopotamia. In future centuries, the Assyrians would build an Empire that would control all of the Great Kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age.

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