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Early Bronze Age of Mesopotamia

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The Early Bronze Age gave birth to civilizations that would later be the world's greatest powers.

Following the collapse of Ur, the political landscape from ~2000 BC to ~1600 BC was similar to the Early Dynastic era, with military men ruling numerous states from western Iran to the Mediterranean coast. These men fought incessantly, joined in ever-shifted alliances, and turned against one another.

The territory did not immediately fragment when Ur lost hegemony over Sumer and Akkad.

Early in the reign of Ibbi-Sin, a general under his authority named Ishbi-Erra established a dynasty at Isin and seized much of the region. When Elamites captured Ur, Ishbi-Erra returned and freed the city. He thus was heir to the much-reduced Ur III state and controlled most of the south, and was recognized by the Nippur priesthood. For a century the region was at peace. However, this peace was short-lived. In the late 20th century a rival dynasty to Isin established itself at Larsa. It soon took the south and east of Babylonia, confining Isin hegemony to central Babylonia.

By the 19th century, Isin and Larsa erupted into open warfare and Isin lost its suzerainty over many cities. Thus, it was in the 20th and 19th centuries that Mesopotamia decentralized and local dynasties arose.

The region had the greatest number of rival dynasties at this time, several of which were acknowledged by the Nippur priesthood in turn. Rulers set their own year-names, so the presence of tablets with a particular city-dynasty's year names allows modern scholars to identify where and when a certain city-dynasty held control. The most prominent dynasties were Isin and Larsa in the south, Babylon in the north, and Eshnunna and Assur east of the Tigris. There were other brief kingships, including at Uruk, Kish, and Sippar. Elam remained outside Babylonian political life.

The powerful kings of these dynasties forced smaller kings to be their vassals. Despite the political fragmentation, Babylonia was still unified ideologically with Nippur as the religious capital. Nippur set a monthly calendar whose month names were the official standard of the region.

Political control of Nippur, which shifted several times, granted a king the oft-apocryphal title king of Sumer and Akkad; also, the blessing of Nippur's priesthood endowed a king with special status. This was the context for the creation of the Sumerian King list, a document that insisted that there was only one king at a time.


Isin Dynasty

2017 BC

A general under Ur king Ibbi-Sin named Ishbi-Erra founds dynasty at Isin and seizes much of the region.

Ishbi-Erra Takes Ur

When Ur was captured by the Elamites, Isin king Ishbi-Erra returned to liberate Ur and became heir to the much-reduced Ur III state. The Isin dynasty thus controlled most southern cities, and even undertook public works in several of them, in addition to being recognized by the Nippur priesthood. For a century the region was at peace.

Larsa Dynasty

Late 20th cent

In the late 20th century a rival dynasty established itself at Larsa, soon taking the south and east of Babylonia and confining the Isin kings' power to central Babylonia.

Karum-Kanesh II

~1910 - 1830

Isin and Larsa War


Beginning of open warfare between Isin and Larsa. Larsa king Abi-sare openly attacked Isin, enabling other cities to escape Isin suzerainty.

Political Fragmentation

19th cent

The region had the greatest number of rival dynasties at this time, several of which were acknowledged by the Nippur priesthood in turn. Rulers set their own year-names, so the presence of tablets with a particular city-dynasty's year names allows modern scholars to identify where and when a certain city-dynasty held control.

Kudur-Mabuk Dynasty


After a period of internal instability with various short-lived rulers often from different families, the throne of Larsa was seized by Kudur-Mabuk. Based east of the Tigris in Mashkan-shapir (the easternmost city of Babylonia), Kudur-Mabuk was likely an Elamite. In 1834 he placed his son Warad-Sin (1834 - 1823 BC) on Larsa's throne; when Warad-Sin died, his brother Rim-Sin replaced him. Kudur-Mabuk meddled in local affairs until his death in ~1829 BC, after which Rim-Sin impressed with his military might.


1822 - 1763

Rim-Sin had the longest reign recorded in Mesopotamian history. His life has been reconstructed from varied sources including year names, economic records, and letters; these vividly illustrate the vicissitudes of kingship. Upon accession, the Kudur-Mabuk dynasty controlled a 230 km long stretch of eastern Babylonia from Nippur and Mashkan-shapir in the north to the head of the Persian Gulf in the south, where it extended westward to include Larsa and Ur. Babylon, Isin and Uruk states bordered it from the north to the south. Upon Kudur-Marbuk's death, Rim-Sin exerted his military might and in 1810 he defeated a coalition of forces led by Uruk, Isin, and Babylon, and captured some villages near Uruk. He succeeded near Larsa and recaptured Nippur (lost to Isin in his ninth year) and in 1800 destroyed Uruk.

When Rim-Sin took Isin in 1793, Larsa's only remaining rival in Babylonia was the state of Babylon. Rim-Sin spent his remaining reign consolidating power in the south by concentrating administrative functions in the capital, and reducing economic independence of what had once been city-states. When Rim-Sin reached old age, Hammurabi swiftly seized the south and eventually took Larsa itself. Rim-Sin's organization was left in place and Larsa remained in control of administration in southern Babylonia. Rim-Sin had thus laid the groundwork for Hammurabi's central Babylonian state.

Karum Kanesh IB

~1810 - 1740

Shamshi-Adad I

1808 - 1776

Shamshi-Adad of Ekallatum takes Assur to become king of Assyria, then extends his power to unite northern Mesopotamia. In old age, his land is attacked by his two major neighbors Yamkhad and Esnunna. Upon his death in battle or of natural causes, Assyrian hegemony recedes to its thereafter nucleus around Ekallatum and Assur.


Mari archives


1792 - 1750

Hammurabi inherits the throne of Babylon.


1766 - 1761

Hammurabi of Babylon conquers southern Babylonia.


Eshnunna sacked by Hammurabi


Mari conquered by Hammurabi

Babylonian Recension


By the 13th year of Hammurabi's son Samsuiluma, the south and middle of Babylonia had been lost -- Babylonia had receded to its core state around Babylon. However, the internal politics of Babylonia were stable and Hammurabi's dynasty lasted until its topple by Mursili in 1595.

Hattusili I

Early 17th cent

Hattusili unified much of Anatolia and Syria into the Hittite state.

Mursili's Destructions


Hattusili's successor Mursili destroyed Yamkhad's capital Aleppo and Babylonia's capital Babylon, ending Hamurrabi's dynasty. Mursili was assassinated and usurped by his brother-in-law Hantili upon his return home, but Hantili quickly met the same fate and Hittite hegemony retreated to its core heartland. A power vacuum had developed: from the myriad small powers at the start of the 2nd millennium, Shamshi-Adad, Hammurabi and Hattusili had created great states; these states were now wiped out, reduced to their core heartlands, and the landscape thus reverted and a Dark Age ensued.

Origins of Great Powers in North Mesopotamia, South Mesopotamia and Anatolia

In the second half of the period, some dynasties succeeded in establishing short-lived hegemony over larger territories. They appeared in various regions of the Near East due to an individual's military success and disintegrated soon after their founder's deaths. First, Shamshi-Adad I unified northern Mesopotamia; then Hammurabi Babylonia; and later Hattusili I Central Anatolia. Though the landscape was predominantly of small states, these ephemeral regimes over large territory anticipated the great empires of later centuries.

In Mesopotamia, records of events have primarily derived not from capitals but instead from cities controlled by territorial rulers. The inverse is true in Anatolia, with information on the Old Hittite state deriving primarily from the capital at Hattusa; however, these texts are dated centuries later, and as copies of the original royal annals they must be checked carefully against contemporary sources.

Writing and Economy

Despite political fragmentation and extensive conflict, there are no signs of economic decline in the first three centuries of the second millennium. Urbanization remained dense, and documents from an increasingly large number of cities show high levels of economic activity. Even the city of Ur flourished despite being deprived of its widespread hegemony. Fundamental changes took place in the administration of the economy, however. In the 21st century BC the Ur III state bureaucracy had supervised virtually everything and employed large segments of the population as a labor force, which it supported with rations. The early 2nd millennium heralded a privatization of the economy through a gradual and likely unintentional process. The large institutions, palaces and temples, still held extensive resources, large tracts of land, and were great consumers of goods and services.

At the start of the 2nd millennium, cuneiform writing became a common skill. This literacy spanned from southwestern Iran to central Anatolia and western Syria, with the epicenter at Babylonia. The lingua franca of Babylonia was Akkadian, which was used even by non-native speakers (Amorites, Hurrians, Elamites). The exception to this was Assur, a merchant colony where an Akkadian dialect called Old Assyrian took hold. Its signs were altered and often read unconventionally (remarkably, their hometowns kept the Babylonian system). Also, Sumerian flourished as a diglossia language of culture and ritual, but almost exclusively in Babylonia.