Early Assyria

Patriarchs, in the Abrahamic tradition, are the twenty ancestors from Adam to Abraham. Jewish traditions narrows this definition to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. The first ten patriarchs are called antediluvian as they came before the flood.

Noah was the patriarch and hero of the story of The Great Deluge and had three sons Ham, Shem and Japheth. As Noah, his sons and their wives were the only survivors of the flood, the whole population of earth (or at least the middle east) are believed to be descended from Noah. Japheth is believed to be the progenitor of the Europeans with one of his sons, Ashkenaz being the originator of Germany hence the name Ashkenazic Jews for a group of Jews settled in Germany during the middle ages. The sons of Ham were believed to have populated Canaan and Africa. Shem is the forefather of the Semitic people. Semitic refers to people of middle eastern origin that share a same language family. Semitic now normally refers to the Jewish people.

Shem had five sons:

Elam who created the Elamite nation in the Zagros mountains

Arpachshad, who founded the city of Ur and is the ancestor of Abraham

Lud, the ancestor of Lydians.

Aram, whose descendants may have founded Damascus and Bactria.

Assur was the fifth son of Shem. One tradition has it that it was Ashur who founded the cities of Assyria, Assur and Nineveh prominent among them, and was later deified as God Assur. Other tradition has it that the mighty hunter Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham built these cities along with the cities of Babel, Akkad and Sumer. Biblical translations is confusing here as Ashur can refer to both the person and the city (region). Thus whether it was nimrod who went to Ashur and founded these cities or it was Ashur that built them is confusing and is translated differently in different versions of Bible.

All this mythology are obviously not the literal truth but like most mythology, may have some grains of truth in them.

Assyria, with its major cities and capitals of Assur and Nineveh, was centered around the Upper Tigris river. During the era of the Akkadian and the Sumerian empire, it is believed that they were subject nations of these empires. After the downfall of the Sumerian Ur III, Assyrian gained independence and managed to keep this freedom, despite attacks by the Amorites and increasing pressure from the Gutians and the Elamites. It is believed that an Assyrian king Ushpia built the first temple for God Assur in the city, probably giving the city its name in the process.

Assyrians had extensive trade with Asia Minor (Anatolia or the Asian part of Turkey) and established the first Special Economic Zone! I am kidding man! But they did establish colonies in Anatolia that had special tax status.

We have already seen the attempt by Shamshi-Adad I to establish an Assyrian empire the attempt that eventually died with him. Ishme-Dagan, the able son of Shamshi-Adad I managed to repel Hammurabi attacks but during the reign of Ishme-Dagan’s successors, Hammurabi managed to add Assyria to his empire.

After Hammurabi, the power of the Babylonian empire started to wane. Assyrian’s under the king Adasi were finally able to shrug off the yoke of Babylon and become an independent nation. Assyrians were able to maintain their independence for the next two hundred odd years and were little trouble with their numerous neighbors.

In the 15th century BCE, Shaushtatar, a Hurrian king of Mittani (A region in the SouthWest Anatolia), sacked Assur and bought Assyria under Mittani rule. The Assyrian seemed to be a client nation under the Mittani influence with considerable freedom to manage their state.

The Four Quarters of the World

Many of the kings of the Greater Mesopotamian region proclaimed themselves to be the “King of Four Quarters”. This term is apparently similar to the Indian term of Cakravartin. A Chakravala Chakravartin is the one who has conquered the four continents. Only Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka are qualified with this title.

In the Mesopotamia, the Four Quarters referred to Martu in the west, Subartu (or Assur) in the north, Elam in the east and Sumer in the south. Naram-Sin of Akkad, grandson of Sargon of Akkad, was apparently the first to boast of being the King of Four Quarters.

The Akkadian empire, originating in the central Mesopotamia was the first of the great empires. The cause of its destruction was the invasion of Gutians. Gutians belonged to the Zagros mountains somewhere to the North of Elam. The end of Akkadian empire gave rise to the Sumerian or the Ur III empire. Its destruction was caused by the attacks of Amorites from Martu in the west and conquest by the Elamites from the East.

The Amorite dynasty in Babylon reached its peak with Hammurabi. Apparently forgetting his heritage, Hammurabi destroyed Mari, the great city of the Amorites. Defeating the Elamites in the west, the Larsans in the south, the Amorites of Mari in the east and Eashunna in the north, he became the King of Four Quarters. Whether he defeated the Assyrians is unclear to me at the moment.

Below are some of the maps that have helped me understand the locations of the various cities and kingdoms. All of them are sourced from Wiki. The links to the original wiki page is also given for attribution.

Cities of Sumer
Cities of Sumer


The Akkadian Empire
The Akkadian Empire


Hammurabi's Babylon
Hammurabi’s Babylon


Location of Elam (Highlighted) and other nations
Location of Elam (Highlighted) and other nations


Map of Mesopotamia with the modern countries and cities marked in addition to the ancient ones.
Map of Mesopotamia with the modern countries and cities marked in addition to the ancient ones.


The Tigris and Euphrates river that defined the history of the region from time memorable.
The Tigris and Euphrates river that defined the history of the region from time memorable.


The map of the Assyrian empire
The map of the Assyrian empire



The Amorite “invasion” was one of the main reasons of weakening of the Ur III and its eventual capitulation to the Elamites. I have put invasion in quotes because there was no systematic attack by the Amorite. The Amorites were mountain dwellers, most likely nomadic tribes from the region of modern Syria and Levant. Due to the severe drought that had already claimed the Akkadian empire and which will eventually claim Ur III, these nomads started moving towards the more fertile regions of the Tigris and Euphrates river. Naturally they were in conflict with the original Akkadian-Sumerian inhabitants of the region. Shu-Sin, the penultimate king of the Ur III dynasty even ordered a 270 km wall to be built between Tigris and Euphrates with the intent of stopping the Amorite revolt. This wall was perhaps the first wall in History to mark a national boundary rather than the usual wall around private property or a city. The Akkadians and the Sumerians viewed the Amorites with disdain little knowing that the Amorites will soon become their masters.

Many Amorite dynasties arose in the different city states of the Mesopotamia. Bab-ilani, gate of the Gods or Babylon, as we know popularly, was one such small city state established by Sumu-abum. The dynasty started by Sumu-abum is known as the First Babylonian Dynasty. Under the first 5 kings of this dynasty, Babylon was little more than the city and its surrounding areas, though by the time Sin-Muballit abdicated, it had conquered the neighboring smaller city states of Kish and Sippar.

Hammurabi was the sixth king of this dynasty and later the First king of the Babylonian Empire. The Mesopotamia of Hammurabi was a geopolitical mess with various kingdoms vying for power. Shamshi-Adad I of Upper Mesopotamia was on an expansionist drive. Elam of the Elamites (Remember them from the sacking of Ur?) in the east, Eashnunna in the north along the Tigris, along with the other smaller cities completed the picture. Shamshi-Adad conquered the cities of Assur and Mari making him the ruler of the upper Mesopotamia. Yakhdun-Lim, the king of Mari, was assassinated by his own servants before he could proceed to put a curb to Shamshi-Adad’s expansionist policies. After Yakhdun-Lim’s death, his kingdom soon fell to Shamshi-Adad. Shamshi-Adad’s kingdom disintegrated after his death. The incompetence of his sons, which he too had realized while he was still alive, lead to the end of Shamshi-Adad’s kingdom.

Hammurabi’s reign lasted from 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE (Middle chronology). Hammurabi may have been a reluctant emperor. Elamites had invaded the Mesopotamian plain and conquered Eshnunna in the north. They tried unsuccessfully to create tension between Babylon and the kingdom of Larsa to the south. This only resulted in their forming an alliance to take the battle to the Elamites. Though the alliance was successful, Hammurabi felt that the Larsans did not fulfill their treaty obligations. Hammurabi attacked and conquered Larsa in turn. The journey to the south resulted in the territories in the north rising up in revolt. This led to war in the north with the eventual result of conquest of Eashunna and Mari. Within a span of few years, Hammurabi was the emperor of the entire Mesopotamia.

Hammurabi is most widely known for his Code of Law. The complete translation of the code is available here.

The code dates back to around 1772 BCE, perhaps before Hammurabi set out on his conquest.

Diorite stele in the shape of an index finger. The top portion depicts Hammurabi receiving the code from a God.
Diorite stele in the shape of an index finger. The top portion depicts Hammurabi receiving the code from a God.

The code consists of 282 laws with an prologue and an epilogue. The prologue provides an example of divine mandate. It says that Anu and Bel, the two primary deity of the Sumerian people, gave Hammurabi the mandate to bring righteousness to the land of Babylon and punish the wicked and protect the weak. Babylon is predicted to be an everlasting kingdom. The prediction is soon found wanting as evidenced by the sack of Babylon just two centuries (approximately) later. Hammurabi is named the king of the four quarters of the earth (Similar to Chakravarti Samrat). The next paragraph of the code explains the greatness of Hammurabi in much detail. He even personally penetrated the secret caves of the bandits, or so is claimed.

It seems that one of the drawback of the code of Ur-Nammu that we saw in the last post, namely, the relative low cost of accusing someone falsely and paying a small fine if proven false was corrected gloriously by the great Hammurabi. Now if the accused escapes the Ordeal of Water, the accuser forfeits his life as well as his house.

“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged” is enforced for incompetent judges in the code. A judge who gives an incorrect verdict has to pay fine that is twelve times the value he had set as fine and is permanently removed from the job.

Putting to death is the most common punishment. The temple thief and the guy who disposes of the stolen goods are both put to death. If I lose a pen and then sees it with someone else and exclaims, “hey that’s mine” but later is unable to bring witnesses to prove my statement, then I will be put to death. If I can bring witnesses, but the person who has the pen could not bring witnesses to prove that he bought the pen legitimately, then he is put to death. If both of us do bring witnesses, then the merchant who sold the pen to the accused is put to death. If you hide a runaway slave in your house then you will be put to death. The code is funny in some instances. It mentions different kind of robbery, stealing from palace, from temple, breaking into house, stealing slaves, stealing minor son and the punishment in every case is death. I don’t know why they didn’t simply say, “You steal, you die” and be done with it.

One rule that should be enforced in the today’s world of complex CDOs, CMOs, CBOs and ABSs is the one that deals with brokers. It states that if a merchant entrusts some money to an agent and the agent suffers loss in the investment, the agent should make good the capital of the merchant. It appears that Hammurabi had lost some serious money in the crash of 1780s BCE.

The laws seemed very liberal when it comes to women’s rights. Rape, which is euphemized as “being surprised” results in, you guessed it, death and the lady is deemed blameless. In case a husband does not return from a war and there isn’t enough income for the wife, she is free to go with some other person. Separation of husband and wife is also properly codified. Having a second wife if the first one has borne children is not permitted. If the second wife is a maid-servant (slave) and she bears children then she gets the status of wife and cannot be sold as slave. Infidelity and resultant murder seems to be common. If a man and a woman kills their respective spouses, they are to be impaled. Incest is punished by death.

After a long list of laws dealing with different cases of marriage, dowry and personal property, we come to law number 196, the most famous of Hammurabi’s laws. Lex Talionis. An eye for an eye. As if tit for tat was not clear enough, the later laws specifies more specific body parts. Bones for bones. Teeth for teeth. Though if you do this to a slave, the punishment is monetary rather than physical. If a man strikes a blow to a free born woman, his daughter is put to death.

Laws goes into details of what to pay the physicians if they cure the disease and how he will lose his hands if he loses the eye of the patient. If you hire an ox and then puts out its eyes, you pay half its value to the owner. I don’t know why the fetish with the eyes. If a builder builds a good house he gets two shekel per “sar” and if the house falls and kills the owner then the builder is a dead man. The next several laws gives down the payments to be made for various services and what is the fine in case the service is not rendered properly or if it is misused. The absolute value of the fee must be difficult to manage in the age of inflation.

The epilogue consists of warning to his successor rulers to not change his words and lists down the various curses to those kings who dare to not follow his rules. He warns them to not remove his name from the law or change his monuments. He curses them with drought, rebellion, defeat in war, rusting of weapons, imprisonment, forgetfulness, idiocy, a life filled with sighing and tears, a life like death, untreatable diseases and loss of limbs among other things. There is little wonder that the Code of Hammurabi is still found in tablets that are almost 3700 BCE old. No mortal fucker can dare to change his code.