Amorite nomads from the west establish themselves as local dynasts who
initially form petty competing kingdoms throughout the region. Shamshi-Adad (ca. 1830–1776 B.C.) unites much of northern Mesopotamia, from Ashur
on the Tigris to Mari on the Euphrates. His death allows Hammurabi (ca.
1792–1750 B.C.), king of Babylon, to expand his control of the south
and unify much of Mesopotamia. The empire declines under succeeding kings
and is brought to an end in a raid by the Hittites from Anatolia circa 1595
B.C. The Hurrians, who establish a state called Mitanni, dominate northern
Mesopotamia, while in the south, the Kassites come to control Babylonia.
By the mid-fourteenth century B.C., the emerging powers of the Hittites
in Anatolia and the Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia bring an end to
Mitanni’s power. The Assyrians briefly expand their control over Babylonia
and Syria. Toward the end of the period, a number of sites are violently
destroyed. The Hittite empire and numerous city-states in Syria and the
Levant collapse, while Mesopotamia suffers a decline.
From Ashur on the Tigris, Assyrians create a network of caravan routes, stretching from the plains of Mesopotamia through the steep passes of the Taurus Mountains into Anatolia. Here they establish trading colonies, where goods including textiles, metals, and other prestige items are exchanged. Cuneiform tablets, often enclosed within sealed clay envelopes, found in Anatolia, document these transactions. These seal impressions display a wide variety of local, Syrian, and northern and southern Mesopotamian styles.
Continuing the tradition of earlier kings, Hammurabi allows “justice to prevail in the land” by collecting together 282 laws dealing with commercial, family, and property matters. They are preserved on a stele where Hammurabi is depicted in relief receiving the rod and ring, symbols of kingship, from the sun god Shamash. As part of his expansionist policy, Hammurabi destroys the palace of King Zimri-Lim at Mari on the Euphrates River in Syria. The palace is decorated with wall paintings and stone statuary, and a massive archive of cuneiform tablets provides a wealth of information about contemporary political events. The most popular cylinder seals of this period are made of hematite. This hard lustrous steel-gray stone is carved using a drill and cutting wheel rather than with handheld tools.
Dynamic interaction across the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean brings about a period of internationalism characterized by the transmission of artistic motifs and styles through portable items such as ivories and seals. While many languages are spoken throughout the Near East, Akkadian and the cuneiform script dominate the written record. At the site of the Egyptian capital at Amarna, an archive including cuneiform letters chronicles the correspondence among rulers of Egypt, the city-states of Syria and the Levant, Assyria, Babylonia, Anatolia, and Mitanni.
A characteristic monument of the period, the Kassite kudurru, or boundary stone, is used to record royal grants. Inscribed in cuneiform, kudurru are decorated in relief with royal and divine figures. In the north, Assyrian cylinder seals emphasize balance and composition with new subjects. Seal cutting, on a wide variety of hard stones, produces beautiful designs such as animals moving across landscapes or winged horses protecting their offspring from lions or griffins.
“Mesopotamia, 2000–1000 B.C.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=03®ion=wam (October 2000)