THE EMERGENCE OF STATES
- Mesopotamia was highly able to absorb new populations, but the process was by no means smooth and unproblematic because it demanded considerable social adjustment to settled and urban life. Although scholarly sources always stress cultural continuity, the different values of immigrant peoples did contribute to changes in political structure and social norms. Mesopotamian culture was always heterogeneous. In the third millennium, Akkadian and Sumerian were two of the languages that were expressed in writing side by side. In later periods, too, ethnic and linguistic differences within the population continued to exist, and some ruling dynasties were of foreign origin. The fact that there were always a number of urban centers, with their own institutional bases and traditions, mitigated the overwhelming influence of mass immigration and centralizing politics.Although cities were the most typical and arguably the most efficient sociopolitical units in Mesopotamia, competition between them could lead to violent conflicts that at times engulfed the whole region. To counterbalance such threats to overall stability, cities could unite to form alliances; there is some evidence that this was attempted during the Early Dynastic period. Amore lasting solution was the formation of a unified state governed by a king whose authority was recognized voluntarily by or imposed forcefully upon all cities. As long as kings respected the prerogatives of the more powerful religious institutions and provided an efficient and coherent military policy toward neighboring countries and raiding tribes at the borders, they could count on the collaboration of the urban citizenry. The palace was responsible for the maintenance of infrastructure (especially canals) and of public buildings (e.g., city walls) and the repair of sanctuaries. The king could order conscripted labor for the army and civilian projects. He could invest revenue from military campaigns (i.e., slaves, tribute in kind, silver and gold) for such purposes as well as for the endowment of temples. At some periods land, especially in peripheral regions, could be awarded to trusted individuals in perpetuity.The first unified state was that founded by Sargon of Akkad around 2350 B.C. His inscriptions stress, on the one hand, that he secured access to far-flung trading sources (e.g., the timber-bearing mountains of the Amanus or the silver mines of Anatolia) and that he honored the great gods of “Sumer and Akkad.” His successors had to suppress internal rebellions and campaign to secure control over their foreign conquests. They also interfered in land ownership and redistributed large tracts of agricultural land to private persons. The Akkad Dynasty was the first experiment with centralization; after its demise the country reverted to the particularism of independent city-states. Too-stringent demands in the form of taxation and conscription and insufficient investment in public works, as well as lack of respect toward the old centers of religion, usually provoked rebellion and insurrection. Determined rulers with a well-motivated army could repress such challenges to their power for a while but not forever. Internal unrest often invited foreign aggression, either from neighboring states or from tribal groups looking for new territories. Many a Mesopotamian dynasty was brought to an end in such circumstances. The strong reaction against repressive states often led to a more or less prolonged interval between the end of one regime and the implementation of another.Toward the end of the third millennium, the Third Dynasty of Ur reunited the country once more and initiated centralization on an unprecedented scale: all cities were forced to adopt a standard system of time reckoning, weights, and measures; all senior appointments were made by the king; and all local institutions became subject to central control and taxation. This was sustained by a well-trained army of bureaucrats who supervised all areas of production. In subsequent periods, the control of the state was relatively weaker, and Old Babylonian kings relied on personal charisma and the use of force to command allegiance.The Kassite Dynasty (1600–1155 B.C.) ruled Babylonia for some 500 years and seems to have managed to curb the political independence of the old cities by encouraging smaller economic units, such as small towns and villages, in the countryside. However, how successful this policy was is hard to determine because of the lack of written sources for much of this period. The last 200 years of Kassite rule were also overshadowed by massive immigration from the east, ecological problems, and foreign invasions. Such natural and man-made upheavals of the countryside had devastating effects on the population. Famine and disease decimated the densely inhabited urban quarters and caused cities to be more or less abandoned, sometimes forever. Throughout Mesopotamian history, there were cycles of prosperity and economic and political stability, interrupted by ecological depravation and social unrest. The myths of the flood as a punishment for human “noise”—a result of overpopulation—articulates that the ancient world was well aware of how precarious the balance between growth and sustainability was, despite the unprecedented carrying capacity of the alluvial landscape.
Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. EdwART. 2012.
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