An Overview of the Ancient People of Middle Eastern History
The Sumerians are one of the very earliest civilizations on earth, with evidence of their activity as early as 5,000 BCE. It is still unclear as to where they originated from, but it is believed they emerged somewhere from modern day Turkey and Iran. Of course, other scholars will differ on this.
According to Colin Renfew’s 1980 work, Archaeology and Language, he states that it was the spread of agriculture that allowed the spread of civilization and language.
By 3,500 BCE the Sumerians had established cities in the Fertile Crescent, the fertile strip of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which allowed them to flourish. One of the most famous Sumerian cities was Ur, the home of the nomad called Abram (later known as Abraham) who went on to become regarded as the ancestor of today’s Semitic races. Ur was inhabited from around 5,000 to 300 BCE and is famous for its spectacular royal tombs. Dated from 2,500 BCE, the tombs revealed a wealth of artefacts that give us great insight into their lives.
The Sumerians are credited with the discovery of the wheel and are known for their ziggurats. In addition to this, the 60 minute hour and 360 degrees that form a circle were created by the Sumerians. The Sumerians also developed an early form of alphabet called cuneiform which is the oldest known written language to date.
The Hittites were an Indo-European group from Anatolia, located in modern day Turkey. Scholars have credited them with introducing the Iron Age, using iron weapons instead of bronze and copper. Some have stated that the Hittites were the ancestors of the Kurds, but this is incredibly difficult to prove or disprove.
The Hittite empire reigned for 600 years, beginning sometime around 1800 BCE. They reached their heights in power and size around 1380 – 1350 BCE but were ultimately destroyed around 1200 BCE. Scholars have credited this to a group of people known as the Sea People, who are thought to have come from present day Libya and various areas of Northern Africa.
The Phoenicians were a Semitic race who rose to greatness from modern day Lebanon in around 3000 BCE and they should not be confused with the separate Mediterranean race, the Philistines, who bordered them.
They were the great trading nation of the ancient world. They explored beyond the Pillars of Hercules and even got as far as Britain where they traded for tin. They founded the Carthaginian colony in Northern Africa, the home of the great military leader, Hannibal, one of the greatest enemies of Rome, as well as colonies in Sicily and Spain.
They are famous for their practice of child sacrifice to their gods and their chief god, Baal, was a source of continual temptation to the Jewish people. However, they are mostly famous for their invention of the first phonetic alphabet and the fact that all others stem from it.
Assyrians and Babylonians:
The Assyrians rose around 3000 BCE, the successors of the Sumerians. The Babylonians emerged sometime around 2000 BCE who conquered the Sumerian empire. The most famous Assyrian leader, Hammurabi, is known for his role of law-giver. It was his legal codes established the basics of fairness in punishment and justice.
For some time, neither Assyrians nor Babylonians had the upper hand. However, around 1200 BCE the Assyrians discovered iron, which they might have adopted from the Hittites. Their use of iron gave them the advantage over the other Bronze Age tribes.
In 745 BCE, the new king Tiglath-Pileser III began a series of campaigns which included the territory of the Jewish kingdom (known today as Israel). The Assyrian king Sennacherib moved the capital to Nineveh, situated opposite the modern day city of Mosul.
The Assyrian empire stretched from Turkey to the Persian Gulf and across to the sandy lands of Egypt. However, the neo-Babylonian group known as the Chaldeans began to cause trouble.
Under the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon became the capital once more. In 586 BCE, the Chaldeans captured the Jewish kingdom of Judea and sent the people into exile.
The Chaldeans imparted a great gift onto the world – the Aramaic language. The Book of Daniel is largely written in this language. It exists today in the liturgical language of Syriac but is a close relative of Arabic.
However, this great dynasty fell to Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE and so began the first Persian Achaemenid dynasty that used Aramaic as their official language.