War in the first cities

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Author: Geoff Emberling
Date: Oct. 2006
From: Calliope(Vol. 17, Issue 2)
Publisher: Cricket Media
Document Type: Article
Length: 762 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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What would you do if your enemies planned to attack you? If you had lived in ancient Mesopotamia (within the borders of present-day Iraq and Syria), you would have had several options. You and your fellow countrymen could move away, leaving your houses behind, and either build new ones or become nomads moving around the countryside. Or, you could defend yourselves by building walls around your city. Your third choice would be to attack first.

All three strategies--relocation, walls, or war--would have serious consequences for the people and the societies involved. Families could lose their houses and everything they owned or, even worse, be killed.

Organized warfare began when there were kings who could gather large armies together. In ancient Mesopotamia, where some of the world's oldest civilizations arose, this came around 3200 B.C., more than 5,000 years ago. Before this time, fighting between villages or among other groups could be fierce, but it probably did not lead to the deaths of many people or the destruction of much property.

Some of the earliest evidence for organized warfare in Mesopotamia is carved on stone cylinder seals that show a "priest-king" with prisoners kneeling on the ground in front of him. We know the kneeling figures are prisoners because their arms are tied behind their backs and they have been stripped of their weapons and their clothes (see inset below). Archaeologists have also found evidence of city walls dating to this time. An early defensive wall was uncovered at a site named Habuba Kabira, near the Euphrates River in Syria.

Once the option of war was chosen, conflict among kings, cities, and armies continued. A carved stele (standing stone) from the city of Girsu shows a Sumerian army marching in formation with spears and shields held close together. Cuneiform texts written in Sumerian tell the story of Gilgamesh and Akka. In it, a city called Uruk was being attacked by the army of King Akka from the city of Kish. When Uruk's king, Gilgamesh, announced that he wanted to gather an army and defend the city, the council of elders refused him permission. The city's assembly of young men felt otherwise and reversed the decision of the Elders. Gilgamesh then went to war and defeated Akka. (See also pages 12-15.)

As the years passed, kings and armies continually developed new ways to fight. Mesopotamia is great for growing wheat and barley, but since there is little rain in the southern sections, people there had to build many canals to bring water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to their fields. So what does this have to do with war? Well, kings beginning about the time of Hammurabi of Babylon (about 1750 B.C.) realized that they could use canals as weapons, digging new ones to totally flood the cities of their enemies!

Hammurabi was the king of Babylon, a city near modern Baghdad. From him, we learn about another part of warfare that is still happening today--plundering, or theft.

Hammurabi is best known for his law code, a list of crimes and their punishments inscribed on a black stele about eight feet high. Hammurabi placed his stele in a temple in Babylon for all his subjects to see. (See also page 27.)

The stele was found in modern times, not in Babylon, but in a city called Susa, in modern Iran, about 200 miles to the southeast. A king of Susa, Shutruk-Nahhunte, who reigned about 600 years after Hammurabi and conquered Babylon, saw Hammurabi's stele and decided it was so impressive that he wanted it in Susa. There, he had his own name inscribed on it. So even in ancient wars, important artifacts and works of art were stolen by the victors.

The strongest armies of ancient Mesopotamia were those of Assyria. They conquered most of the Middle East by about 650 B.C. But after the Assyrians were defeated, their palaces were burned and destroyed in 614 and 612 B.C. Archaeologists digging in the Assyrian capital city of Kalhu (modern Nimrud) found stacked up in neat piles furniture and weapons that had been broken in the first attack. They also uncovered evidence of hasty attempts to rebuild the gates, ashes from massive fires that finally burned the palaces, and even the remains of people who died defending the city. To be sure, war in ancient times was as destructive and frightening as it is now!

Geoff Emberling, director of the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, directed excavations at Tell Brak, the site of an ancient Mesopotamian city, from 1998 to 2004.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A158090994