Babylon and the cities and tribes of Southern Mesopotamia

South of the Assyrian heartland lies Babylonia. As the birthplace of Mesopotamia's common cuneiform culture, the region could boast cultural traditions stretching back for millennia. But by the 8th century BC, its political unity as a kingdom under the rule of the king of Babylon had been lost and the ancient cities and tribal federations of Babylonia acted as independent units whose conflicts made the region subject to repeated political upheaval. Neighbouring states became increasingly involved in the politics of Babylonia, and foremost among them was Assyria. In 729 BC, Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) assumed the office of the king of Babylon in an attempt to defend and further Assyrian interests in Babylonia.

Who is who in Babylonia

Today, "Babylonia" is used to describe the south of modern Iraq, stretching from the Baghdad area down to the Gulf. It is a Greek term that would have been alien to its inhabitants in the early first millennium BC who would have described the region as the "land of Sumer and Akkad", a term attested from the third millennium BC onwards. Babylonia is frequently called the cradle of civilisation and the inhabitants of ancient cities such as Uruk, Nippur and Babylon would certainly have agreed with this assessment, carefully maintaining their rich heritage of architecture, literature, festivals and communal life.

The "Babylonian Map of the World", showing the city of Babylon at its centre. Photo © British Museum, BM 92687. View large image on the British Museum's website.

Babylonia's history was already long and complex by the time the expanding Assyrian empire gained political influence there in the 9th century BC, its political landscape shaped by the vicissitudes of past centuries and millennia. Babylon, which had for a millennium been the centre of authority for the entire region, had lost its dominant role and was now merely one of several prominent cities in the region. But the traditional office of the "King of Babylon" still conveyed the notion of control over the entire south of Mesopotamia and was maintained although in practice its power was now nominal and limited. The other great cities of the region, such as Nippur, Der and Uruk, were essentially autonomous. The citizens of all these cities proudly called themselves "son of Babylon", "son of Nippur" and so on.

The Aramaean and Chaldean tribes added another layer of complexity to Babylonia's political geography. From the late second millennium BC, they controlled the rural hinterland of Babylonia, including the marshlands in the extreme south, which they roamed with their flocks. The tribes were known as houses (e.g. Bit-Yakin, "house of Yakin") named after their founder, and their members called themselves sons of this founder (e.g. mar Yakin ,"son of Yakin"). Increasingly, members of these tribes settled also in the ancient cities or founded new settlements, such as Dur-Yakin. The three large Chaldean tribes of Bit-Yakin, Bit-Amukani and Bit-Dakkuri became especially powerful politically and economically: they would prove to be Assyria's major adversaries in the struggle to control southern Mesopotamia.

Royal relatives and Chaldean challengers

The relationship between the kings of Assyria and Babylon had traditionally been close. From the 14th century BC when Assyria became an independent state, the royal families had been linked by marriage. Shalmaneser III of Assyria (858-824 BC) and Marduk-zakir-šumi I of Babylon, for example, are depicted as equal partners on the front of Shalmaneser's throne base from his palace at Kalhu.

Front of the throne base of Shalmaneser III of Assyria, showing the Assyrian king and Marduk-zakir-šumi I of Babylon shaking hands in a public display of Assyro-Babylonian friendship. From Kalhu. Iraq Museum, IM 65574. Reproduced from M. E. L. Mallowan, Nimrud and its remains, London 1966, vol. 2, 447 fig. 371d. View large image.

The close family links meant that both Assyrian and Babylonian rulers felt fully entitled to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the other country at times of political turmoil. Hence, several Assyrian kings dispatched their armies to Babylonia and, in the absence of a Babylonian ruler who was legitimate in their eyes, some of them even claimed the titles of "King of Babylon" and "King of Sumer and Akkad" for themselves, including Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BC). These were the only foreign titles adopted by the Assyrian kings and this indicates that the throne of Babylon was considered equal to that of Assyria - unlike, say, the throne of Damascus or Carchemish. It highlights the close link between the ruling houses but also the Assyrian respect for Babylonia and its institutions. This 'special relationship' between Assyria and Babylonia continued throughout the reigns of Tiglath-pileser III and his successors in the 8th century, defining and shaping Assyrian strategy and policy in the south.

During the reign of Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, the complex and fractured interests that comprised the web of Babylonian politics resulted in events that were of grave concern for Assyria. Nabu-nadin-zeri of Babylon (733-732 BC), an Assyrian ally, was deposed by one of his officials, who was in turn quickly deposed by Mukin-zeri, leader of the Chaldean tribe of Bit-Amukani, illustrating both the tortuousness of Babylonian politics and the weakness of dynastic rule. This led to the intervention of Tiglath-pileser. The deposition of the pro-Assyrian ruling dynasty of Babylonia was a reason for military intervention, and their replacement with a Chaldean chieftain, openly hostile to Assyria, presented a further cause for war.

Tiglath-pileser defeated Mukin-zeri in 729 BC. But he did not annex Babylonian territories and turn them into provinces under the control of his governors, by then the established Assyrian practice. Instead, in keeping with earlier practice, he assumed the throne of Babylon directly and claimed the title of "King of Sumer and Akkad". Babylonian documents such as the King List seem to indicate that at least some Babylonians accepted the Assyrian king's claim to the throne of Babylon, as he and his successor Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC) are included in the sequence of Babylonian rulers. But when the latter's short reign was ended by the revolt of his brother Sargon II (721-705 BC), which caused rebellions all over the empire, Babylonia was again claimed by a Chaldean chief: Marduk-apla-iddina II (721-710 BC, known from the Bible as Merodach-baladan) of Bit-Yakin. Babylonia was lost to Assyria for twelve years.

Sargon II as king of Babylon

After consolidating his rule over the empire, Sargon was ready to reclaim the lost throne of Babylon. In 710 BC Sargon invaded Babylonia. The fractures and conflicting interests between the polities of the region became visible in the ensuing war when some cities and tribes quickly joined Assyria while others stayed loyal to Marduk-apla-iddina. Eventually, faced with this crumbling of support, the Chaldean abandoned Babylon and its citizens invited Sargon to enter the city (SAA 17 20-21).

Marduk-apla-iddina II (left) as king of Babylon in 715 BC, as depicted on a monument commemorating a royal land grant (kudurru). Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, VA 2663. Reproduced from L. Jakob-Rost et al., Das Vorderasiatische Museum, Mainz 1992, 109. View large image.

Once again, an Assyrian king assumed the Babylonian throne. In contrast to his Assyrian predecessors, Sargon remained resident in Babylon for five years, leaving the Assyrian heartland in the hands of his crown prince Sennacherib. Sargon began the process of properly integrating Babylonia into the empire, following a very different course than his father Tiglath-pileser's laissez-faire policy. For the first time in Assyria's rule over the south, large-scale restructuring was evident. Babylonia was split into two provinces under the rule of Assyrian governors: the province of Babylon comprised the northern part of Babylonia where most of the big cities were located, the province of Gambulu consisted of the Aramaean and Chaldean tribal areas. Under the two provincial governors operated individual city governors, also directly appointed by the Assyrian king, and military commanders based in the Assyrian garrisons securing the region. There was, however, little extensive militarisation. The Assyrian administration exerted control mainly through an elaborate intelligence system comprised of local informers and Assyrian agents. Unlike in other provinces, the hierarchical relationships in Babylonia were not clear cut, best evidenced by the fact that Sargon frequently corresponded with and intervened at all levels and various aspects of the administration.

Sargon took the role of king of Babylon seriously. He participated in all major Babylonian festivals, such as the New Year festival (akitu TT ), and restored the region's temples, a traditional duty and privilege of the king of Babylon. Sargon profoundly shaped Babylonian politics by appointing his favoured officials as provincial and city governors and stewards over the most important temples. Their correspondence with the king survives in many cases (SAA 17). As his special envoy to the region, Sargon appointed Bel-iddina, a scholar from his entourage whose task in Babylonia it was to oversee the operation of cults and to report directly to the king on the officials in the region. Bel-iddina was the king's eyes and ears amongst his administrators in Babylonia and he acted as an extension of the king's authority.

Courting the cities

Underneath the superstructure of the Assyrian administration, the institutions of the Babylonian cities, such as the city assembly and the temple communities, were largely allowed to continue as before. Some cities were even left under the control of local rulers if their loyalty was beyond doubt: the city of Nippur retained its traditional ruler, the šandabakku, while Der was governed by Il-yada', likely a local Aramaean chief. Sargon also reinstated local rulers who had been ousted by Marduk-apla-iddina, such as in Borsippa where this move garnered much popular support for the Assyrians (e.g. SAA 17 73-74).

No major deportations affected the cities of Babylonia at this time (unlike under Sennacherib after 689 BC). Sargon also courted the Babylonian cities by offering some of them tax and debt remission (anduraru) and other city privileges (kidinnu). These privileges effectively limited imperial restructuring and profits, as the citizens of these cities no longer paid (all) taxes and were exempt from the levy for military service and building work. Granting such concessions, therefore, was a considerable sacrifice of money and manpower which has no parallels anywhere else in the newly conquered regions of the empire. The reactions of the beneficiaries, who presented these privileges as their traditional right (e.g. SAA 17 23 from Babylon), were very positive. But to see this policy only as a sign of respect for the Babylonian cities would be far too narrow. Sargon's policy of rewarding the cities was also designed to strategically weaken their links and solidarity with the rural hinterland and the tribes that controlled it. His actions were motivated mainly by an attempt to counter the influence of Marduk-apla-iddina of Bit-Yakin who maintained much support in the region and even managed briefly to regain control over Babylon in 703 BC, proclaiming himself king of Babylon for a second time.

Sargon's conquest of Babylonia did not result in the wholesale annexation of territory into the Assyrian empire, in contrast, for example, to the aftermath of the capture of such functioning kingdoms as Arpad or Damascus. Instead, the challenges presented by Babylonia's fractured political landscape were met by adapting different approaches and policies designed to further and protect Assyrian interests whilst strategically showing respect for the cultural traditions and institutions of the Babylonian cities. To gain the loyalty of the urban elite of the south was clearly seen as the best foundation for Assyrian control in the region.

This meant that Sargon's attempts to integrate Babylonia into the Assyrian provincial system were necessarily hampered by the maintenance of the discrete identity of its cities. Sargon's rule did not end the extremely varied political geography but went so far as to enhance the differences between various cities and regions with a seemingly ad hoc approach to granting privileges. The Assyrian style of government in Babylonia was flexible and attuned to the political realities and opportunities in this divided land. While this served well to establish control and acceptance in the short term, the problem caused by Babylonia's varied political landscape was hardly addressed at all. The Assyrian administration only added yet another dimension to the existing setup and Sargon's reorganisation into two provinces ultimately failed. The "Babylonian Problem" was left to his successors.

Further reading:

Brinkman, 'Merodach-baladan II', 1964.
Fales, 'Moving around Babylon', 2011.
Frame, 'Babylon: Assyria's problem and Assyria's prize', 2008.
von Dassow, 'On writing the history of southern Mesopotamia', 1999.

Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.

Chaitanya Kanchan & Karen Radner

Chaitanya Kanchan & Karen Radner, 'Babylon and the cities and tribes of Southern Mesopotamia', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 []

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