The Kassites

Author: Robert Guisepi

The History of The Kassites including their kings, cities, art and contributions to civilization

The Kassites were an ancient people known primarily for establishing the second, or middle, Babylonian dynasty; they were believed (perhaps wrongly) to have originated in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. First mentioned in Elamite texts of the late 3rd millennium BC, they penetrated into Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium, were repulsed by Hammurabi's son, but secured holdings within the Tigris-Euphrates valley on the northern frontiers of Babylonia and later established the second Babylonian dynasty. Chronicles and king lists are imprecise, and although the Kassite kings traditionally ruled over Babylonia for 576 years, it is probable that the first Kassite kings reigned in Babylonia simultaneously with the last kings of the first Babylonian dynasty; thus Gandash, the first Kassite king, possibly began his reign about the middle of the 18th century Bc, but not at Babylon. 

The Kassite kings appear to have been members of a small military aristocracy but were apparently efficient rulers and not locally unpopular. Their capital city was Dur-Kurigalzu. The horse, the sacred animal of the Kassites, probably first came into use in Babylonia at this time. Contemporary Kassite records are not numerous. Most belong to the archives of the guenna (provincial governor) of the city of Nippur and seem to indicate a feudal system of government during the 14th and 13th centuries. 

One Kassite invention was the boundary stone (kudurru), a block of stone that served as a record of a grant of land by the king to favored persons. The interest of the boundary stones for modern scholars is not only economic and religious but also artistic. The temples that the Kassite kings built or rebuilt are mainly in the Babylonian tradition, although one Kassite innovation was the use of molded bricks to form figures in relief. 

In the 12th century Elam struck the final blow at Kassite power in Babylonia, already weakened by local insurrection. In the 1st millennium the Kassites withdrew to the Zagros Mountains, where they opposed the eastward expansion of Assyrian power and paid tribute to Persia. They were conquered by Alexander the Great but later regained their independence. 

The Kassites in Babylonia 

The Kassites had settled by 1800 BC in what is now western Iran in the region of Hamadan-Kermanshah. The first to feel their forward thrust was Samsuiluna, who had to repel groups of Kassite invaders. Increasing numbers of Kassites gradually reached Babylonia and other parts of Mesopotamia. There they founded principalities, of which little is known. No inscription or document in the Kassite language has been preserved. Some 300 Kassite words have been found in Babylonian documents. Nor is much known about the social structure of the Kassites or their culture. There seems to have been no hereditary kingdom. Their religion was polytheistic; the names of some 30 gods are known. 

The beginning of Kassite rule in Babylonia cannot be dated exactly. A king called Agum II ruled over a state that stretched from western Iran to the middle part of the Euphrates valley; 24 years after the Hittites had carried off the statue of the Babylonian god Marduk, he regained possession of the statue, brought it back to Babylon, and renewed the cult, making the god Marduk the equal of the corresponding Kassite god, Shuqamuna. Meanwhile, native princes continued to reign in southern Babylonia. It may have been Ulamburiash who finally annexed this area around 1450 and began negotiations with Egypt in Syria. Karaindash built a temple with bas-relief tile ornaments in Uruk (Erech) around 1420. A new capital west of Baghdad, Dur Kurigalzu, competing with Babylon, was founded and named after Kurigalzu I (c. 1400-c. 1375). His successors Kadashman-Enlil I (c. 1375-c. 1360) and Burnaburiash II (c. 1360-c. 1333) were in correspondence with the Egyptian rulers Amenhotep III and Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV). They were interested in trading their lapis lazuli and other items for gold as well as in planning political marriages. Kurigalzu II (c. 1332-c. 1308) fought against the Assyrians but was defeated by them. His successors sought to ally themselves with the Hittites in order to stop the expansion of the Assyrians. During the reign of Kashtiliash IV (c. 1232-c. 1225), Babylonia waged war on two fronts at the same time--against Elam and Assyria--ending in the catastrophic invasion and destruction of Babylon by Tukulti-Ninurta I. Not until the time of the kings Adad-shum-usur (c. 1216-c. 1187) and Melishipak (c. 1186-c. 1172) was Babylon able to experience a period of prosperity and peace. Their successors were again forced to fight, facing the conqueror King Shutruk-Nahhunte of Elam (c. 1185-c. 1155). Cruel and fierce, the Elamites finally destroyed the dynasty of the Kassites during these wars (about 1155). Some poetical works lament this catastrophe. 

Letters and documents of the time after 1380 show that many things had changed after the Kassites took power. The Kassite upper class, always a small minority, had been largely "Babylonianized." Babylonian names were to be found even among the royalty, and they predominated among the civil servants and the officers. The new feudal character of the social structure showed the influence of the Kassites. Babylonian town life had revived on the basis of commerce and handicrafts. The Kassitic nobility, however, maintained the upper hand in the rural areas, their wealthiest representatives holding very large landed estates. Many of these holdings came from donations of the king to deserving officers and civil servants, considerable privileges being connected with such grants. From the time of Kurigalzu II these were registered on stone tablets or, more frequently, on boundary stones called kudurrus. After 1200 the number of these increased substantially, because the kings needed a steadily growing retinue of loyal followers. The boundary stones had pictures in bas-relief, very often a multitude of religious symbols, and frequently contained detailed inscriptions giving the borders of the particular estate; sometimes the deserts of the recipient were listed and his privileges recorded; finally, trespassers were threatened with the most terrifying curses. Agriculture and cattle husbandry were the main pursuits on these estates, and horses were raised for the light war chariots of the cavalry. There was an export trade in horses and vehicles in exchange for raw material. As for the king, the idea of the social-minded ruler continued to be valid. 

The decline of Babylonian culture at the end of the Old Babylonian period continued for some time under the Kassites. Not until approximately 1420 did the Kassites develop a distinctive style in architecture and sculpture. Kurigalzu I played an important part, especially in Ur, as a patron of the building arts. Poetry and scientific literature developed only gradually after 1400. The existence of earlier work is clear from poetry, philological lists, and collections of omens and signs that were in existence by the 14th century or before and that have been discovered in the Hittite capital of Hattusa, in the Syrian capital of Ugarit, and even as far away as Palestine. Somewhat later, new writings appear: medical diagnoses and recipes, more Sumero-Akkadian word lists, and collections of astrological and other omens and signs with their interpretations. Most of these works are known today only from copies of more recent date. The most important is the Babylonian epic of the creation of the world, Enuma elish. Composed by an unknown poet, probably in the 14th century, it tells the story of the god Marduk. He began as the god of Babylon and was elevated to be king over all other gods after having successfully accomplished the destruction of the powers of chaos. For almost 1,000 years this epic was recited during the New Year's festival in the spring as part of the Marduk cult in Babylon. The literature of this time contains very few Kassitic words. Many scholars believe that the essential groundwork for the development of the subsequent Babylonian culture was laid during the later epoch of the Kassite era.

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