Near East

Geographically, the Near East extends from the western coasts of Turkey and the Levant to the eastern border of Iran. All its different civilizations, which span millennia, are culturally and historically referred to as 'Near Eastern'. 

Around 8000 B.C., in many places across the Near East, people who had up to then lived as hunter-gatherers began to establish fixed settlements and to practise agriculture and stock breeding. From about 6200 B.C. on, pottery started to be manufactured, and from roughly 5000 B.C. metal objects. The population increased, the settlements grew, and in many places artificial irrigation became necessary. All this ultimately required social organization, and in about 3400 B.C. some settlements emerged as city-states.


In 3400 B.C. Mesopotamia began to be successively dominated by different peoples. Over many centuries the Sumerians and the Akkadians alternately gained and lost power. Early in the second millennium the town of Assur in the north had the upper hand, but later Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 B.C.) put an end to the old Assyrian empire. In 1595 B.C. Babylon, in turn, fell victim to the Hittites from Anatolia. From the fourteenth century on, the Assyrians again became more powerful, and in the ninth and eighth centuries they conquered all of Syria. In 612 B.C. Nineveh fell and the Babylonians were then the new rulers of Mesopotamia. King Nebuchadnezzar II took Syria, and in 597 and 586 B.C. Jerusalem, which marked the start of the Babylonian exile of the Jews. In 539 B.C. the Persian king Cyrus II annexed Mesopotamia to his empire.


Cuneiform writing appeared around 3300 B.C. in Mesopotamia and continued in use until the beginning of our era. The name refers to the wedge-shaped markings of the characters (cuneus is Latin for 'wedge'). These were pressed into the clay with a reed stylus which made a triangular imprint; their long, tapering form was made by moving the stylus as if to draw a line. Cuneiform was adopted over the entire Near East to write very dissimilar languages. The script found acceptance for administration and contracts as well as for religious and literary writings. It was deciphered in the nineteenth century thanks to the efforts of Georg Grotefend and Henry Rawlinson.

Cylinder seals

From the sixth millennium on, seals were used to 'sign' a statement. About 3400 B.C. in Mesopotamia the stamp seal was replaced with the cylinder seal. It has the shape of a cylindrical bead with an axial hole, and could be worn suspended from a cord. An image was cut into the outer surface, and when it was rolled over a moist clay surface the image appeared in relief in the clay. Cylinder seals were manufactured in all kinds of material ranging from semi-precious stones to glass paste.


In the territory of present Iran, Elam was dominant for most of the fourth millennium. About 2000 B.C. Indo-European tribes lived in northeastern Iran. The extent of their settlements can be traced by the geographical dispersion of their characteristic polished pottery. By roughly 1300 B.C. they reached Amlash (APM09176), whereas in Luristan, renowned for its bronze objects, the earliest polished pottery is found not until the eighth century. Subsequently, power was in the hands of the Medes who were in 559 B.C. defeated by the Persian king Cyrus II. The great flowering of the Achaemenian empire then began, which lasted until the invasion of Alexander the Great (APM16073) in 333-332 B.C. After the collapse of Alexander's empire, the Parthians ruled Persia. For many years they resisted the Romans, who never succeeded in bringing Persia under their authority. A new dynasty emerged in the third century A.D., the Sassanids, which looked back to the old Achaemenian empire (fig. 70). The last Sassanid king was assassinated in A.D. 651, marking the end of antiquity in the region.


In Syria, too, settlements emerged before 3000 B.C. which eventually grew into city-states. About 1500 B.C. the Mitanni and the Hurrians formed a state which the Hittites annexed around 1355 B.C. In the twelfth century B.C. many different peoples in the eastern Mediterranean began to migrate. These so-called Sea Peoples ravaged the coasts of Syria and Palestine, and possibly contributed to the downfall of the Hittites. Afterwards, the coastal towns flourished anew and became the home base of the Phoenicians. Syria was under Assyrian rule in the ninth century B.C. and, after Assyria's fall, became part of the Persian empire and, then, Alexander the Great's.


Selenkahiye was a settlement on the Euphrates in Syria, which a team from the University of Amsterdam  excavated in 1972-1975, under the direction of Professor M.N. van Loon. They established that the settlement lasted only from 2400 to 1900 B.C. and had five settlement phases. A few hundred artefacts from Selenkahiye are now kept in the Allard Pierson Museum. Besides much thin-walled pottery, they include jewellery, working tools, weapons and clay statuettes of animals and people. To ward off evil, the human figures were often buried under the thresholds of houses, a practice which is also met in Mesopotamia.


In Anatolia, the central region of modern Turkey, walled towns appeared as early as the fifth millennium B.C. Later they became actual citadels, a good example of which is the earliest phase of Troy (2920-2350 B.C.) During the eighteenth century B.C. the Indo-European Hittites steadily became more powerful and succeeded in ruling over Anatolia until 1180 B.C. Because of the incursions of the Sea Peoples, among other events, the Hittite empire fell. Other peoples like the Phrygians, Lydians and Carians filled the vacuum. Greek colonists settled on the western coast of modern Turkey. The last king of Lydia, the legendarily wealthy Croesus, was defeated by the Persian king Cyrus II in 547 B.C., and Anatolia was added to the Persian empire. Afterwards Anatolia was conquered by Alexander the Great and, in turn, the Romans. South-east of the Black Sea, the kingdom of Urartu, renowned for its metalwork, established itself in the ninth century B.C. From the earliest years, Urartu disputed with Assyria about the silver, copper and iron ore mines. During the seventh century it lost more and more territory to Assyria and was finally ruined.

  • Troy

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