Human Legacy Course/Fertile Crescent Empires

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Human Legacy Course I
Fertile Crescent Empires

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Hello and welcome to Lecture 2 of Week 2. In today's lecture, we will be looking at the Fertile Crescent Empires. Our first question of the day is:

Why did the once mighty city of Babylon fall? Dust filled the sky as the army of heavy war chariots thundered toward the city of Babylon. Each chariot was drawn by two horses and carried three soldiers armed with spears and bows, ready for combat. Foot soldiers marched alongside the chariots, gripping spears, swords, and axes as they stared grimly ahead at the city of Babylon. The hardened warriors already had two victories to their credit, but Babylon would be their greatest prize. As they drew near the city, the Hittite chariots rushed ahead, breaking through the ranks of the Babylonian army that had set out to meet them. With their king himself leading the final charge, the Hittites captured the city in a lightning strike. The Babylonian soldiers were no match for the Hittites.

In celebration, the victorious Hittites looted Babylon of its wealth. Yet for reasons now lost to time, they chose not to stay and rule the city. Instead, the Hittites loaded up their booty and returned home, some 500 miles to the west. The people of Babylon heaved an amazed sigh of relief. True, they had suffered a great defeat, but the city was still theirs. However, the Hittites’ stronger iron weapons had done their damage. In their weakened state, the Babylonians soon met defeat at the hands of other invaders, this time for good.

The Hittites

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As the Babylonian Empire declined, other civilizations prospered in and around the Fertile Crescent. Nomadic tribes from the mountains and deserts moved into the region as well, drawn by its wealth. As tribes battled each other for land, a pattern slowly emerged in which control passed from one empire to another.


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The tribes who invaded Mesopotamia included the Indo-Europeans, several tribes who spoke related languages. The Indo-Europeans may have come from the steppes, or arid grasslands, north of the Black Sea, driven out by drought, conflicts, or a lack of resources. By studying modern languages, scholars can tell that Indo-Europeans gradually spread west and south from that area.

Hittite Military Might

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The Hittites, a warlike Indo-European tribe, developed in Southwest Asia. About 2000 BC, they settled in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. There, the Hittites conquered the surrounding people to build a strong empire.

The Hittites’ success came largely through their use of the horse-drawn war chariot. The Hittite chariot was heavy and slow, but very powerful. Whereas most chariots of the time held only two soldiers, Hittite chariots held three. As one man drove, a second fought, and a third held shields for defense. This extra defender enabled the Hittites to move their chariots in close to enemy forces while staying protected, easily crushing most foes.

With these advantages, the Hittites expanded their empire beyond Asia Minor. About 1595 BC, they sacked Babylon. This conquest weakened Babylon, which soon fell to another nomadic tribe, the Kassites, who ruled southern Mesopotamia for almost 400 years.

Hittite Culture

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The Hittites, like the Akkadians and Babylonians, blended their culture with the cultures around them. For example, they used Sumerian cuneiform to write their language. In addition, they developed a law code similar to that of Hammurabi.

The Hittites did make a crucial contribution of their own to Near Eastern culture. They were the first people in the region to master ironworking techniques. The Hittites used iron mostly for making ornaments, though later peoples adopted it for tools and weapons.

Hittite rule reached its peak in the 1300s, but the Hittites remained a strong force in western Asia until about 1200 BC. Their empire then fell to powerful raiders, known to historians only as the Sea Peoples.

The Assyrians and the Chaldeans

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After the Hittite Empire fell, other peoples fought for dominance in western Asia. In time, the Assyrians used fierce determination and military might to become the supreme power in the region.

The Assyrians

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The Assyrians were originally from northern Mesopotamia, near the city of Assur along the upper Tigris River. There, they grew barley and raised cattle. Like others in the region, the Assyrians also adopted many aspects of Sumerian culture.

Because the Assyrians’ land received fairly good rainfall and lay along major trade routes, many tribes invaded, seeking to control the area. Over the centuries, the Assyrians had often been dominated by other people.

The Assyrians briefly gained power in the 1300s BC and built an empire, but it did not last. Then about 900 BC the Assyrians regained strength. They built a new empire, which came to include all of Mesopotamia as well as parts of Asia Minor and Egypt.

The Assyrian War Machine

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Assyria’s power relied on its military. Frequent warfare had hardened Assyria into a fierce warrior society. Its army included not only war chariots and foot soldiers but also a cavalry, all armed with iron weapons. In addition, Assyrian soldiers were masters of siege warfare. They used battering rams to pound through city walls or dug beneath the walls to weaken them.

Assyrian warfare also relied on terror to awe enemies and to control conquered areas. To spread fear, the Assyrians often killed or maimed captives. An Assyrian king recalled,

“Many of the captives I burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some I cut off their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses, ears, and fingers; I put out the eyes of many.”

Captives who lived were enslaved. In some cases, the Assyrians also split up and resettled conquered people to keep them from rebelling.

Assyrian Rule

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The Assyrians created an efficient system to govern their vast empire. Kings ruled through local leaders, each of whom governed a small area of the empire. In that area, the local leader collected taxes, enforced laws, and raised troops for the army. A system of roads linked the distant parts of the empire. Over these roads, messengers on horseback raced with orders, troops moved with ease, and merchants carried on a thriving trade.

To maintain peace across the empire, the Assyrians ruthlessly punished anyone who opposed them. They were widely known and feared for their harsh treatment of anyone who opposed them. One Assyrian king boasted of his treatment of a group of rebels: “I fed their corpses—cut into small pieces—to the dogs, the swine, the wolves, the vultures.” Such brutality fueled bitter hatred toward the Assyrians.

In spite of such brutality, the Assyrians produced great cultural achievements. Perhaps the greatest was the library in Assyria’s capital, Nineveh. This huge library included more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets collected from across the empire. Among them were many from Mesopotamia, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. Today the texts this library preserved are a valuable source of information for scholars.

Like many other empires, Assyria began to decline over time. As the empire grew larger, the Assyrians found it harder to control. Seeing their chance, the Chaldeans, who lived in southern Mesopotamia, and the Medes, who lived in what is now Iran, joined forces. In 612 BC they captured and torched Nineveh. With its capital and government gone, the Assyrian empire came to a sudden end.

The Chaldeans

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As Assyria crumbled, the Chaldeans swooped in to pick up the pieces. Taking much of southern and western Assyria, the Chaldeans formed their own empire.

The Chaldeans made the old city of Babylon the capital of their new Babylonian empire. Nebuchadnezzar II, the most famous Chaldean king, was known as both a warrior and as a builder. He fought the Egyptians and the Jews, capturing the Jewish capital of Jerusalem and taking many of its residents to Babylon as slaves. He also rebuilt Babylon into a place of splendor. Numerous palaces and temples, including an immense multistoried ziggurat, filled the city, and the Euphrates River flowed through the center. For himself, Nebuchadnezzar built a grand palace that, according to legend, featured the famous Hanging Gardens. There, thousands of trees and flowers grew on the terraces and roofs as if hanging in the air. Ancient writers listed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Chaldeans, who like many others admired ancient Sumerian culture, studied the Sumerian language and built temples to Sumerian gods. The Chaldeans also developed a calendar based on the phases of the moon and made advances in astronomy. In Babylon, scholars charted the positions of the stars and used them to track economic, political, and weather events.

In spite of its achievements, the Chaldean Empire was short-lived. In 539 BC, less than a hundred years after they conquered the Assyrians, a people called the Persians conquered Babylon. With that event, the Chaldean Empire came to an end.

The Phoenicians

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As great empires rose and fell, smaller states also emerged in western Asia. In an area called Phoenicia, city-states like Sidon and Tyre (capital of the Phoenicians) emerged as trading centers. Though the city-states of Phoenicia often came under the rule of foreign empires, the Phoenicians built a wealthy trading society whose legacy is still felt today.

Growth of A Trading Society

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Phoenicia lay at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, along the Mediterranean Sea. Today most of the region once know as Phoenicia is the nation of Lebanon. The land of Phoenicia rose from a narrow coastal plain to rugged hills and mountains. Because farming was difficult and resources were limited, the Phoenicians turned to trade and the sea for their livelihood. They became expert sailors, dominating trade on the Mediterranean and sailing to ports in Egypt, Greece, Italy, Sicily, and Spain. Their ships even passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Phoenician explorers sailed south along the west coast of Africa as far as modern Sierra Leone, and possibly even farther. Some historians also think that the Phoenicians sailed to the islands of Britain to obtain goods.

As trade grew, the Phoenicians founded colonies along their trade routes. One of the most famous colonies was Carthage, on the coast of northern Africa. Carthage later became a powerful city in the Mediterranean in its own right.

Trade brought Phoenicians great wealth. Local resources, although limited, included valuable export items. Giant cedar trees from Phoenicia were prized for timber. A local shellfish produced a purple dye used to color fabric, a fabric that was costly but popular with the rich. The Phoenicians invented glassblowing—the art of heating and shaping glass—and glass objects became trade items as well. Other exports included ivory carvings, silverwork, and slaves.

The Phoenician Alphabet

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Trade was not the Phoenicians’ only achievement. Perhaps their greatest achievement—and their most influential legacy—was their alphabet. To record their activities, Phoenician traders developed one of the world’s first alphabets. Letters and alphabets, which can be combined to form countless words, are more flexible than writing systems that use symbols or pictographs to represent words or ideas.

The Phoenician alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. As Phoenician traders traveled from port to port, many people adopted their new alphabet because it made writing easier. Among these people were the Greeks, who expanded the alphabet to include vowels and modified some of the letters.

The Phoenician alphabet influenced not only the ancient world but the modern one as well. The Greeks’ modified version of the old Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of the modern alphabet we use to write the English language. Many civilizations, including our own, have benefited from the innovations of the seafaring Phoenicians.


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That is the end of this audio lecture. Here is your assignment:

  • Question #1: Who were the Indo-Europeans, and how have scholars traced their migrations?
  • Question #2: What was the major cause of the Hittites’ success as empire builders in Asia Minor?
  • Question #3: Do you agree or disagree with the position that ironworking was the greatest contribution of the Hittites? Support your answer.
  • Question #4: Who was Nebuchadnezzar II, and what legendary Chaldean achievement is associated with him?
  • Question #5: What were some of the key achievements of the Assyrian and Chaldean empires?
  • Question #6: Was the Assyrian use of terror and brutality as a means of control successful? Explain your answer.
  • Question #7: Where and what did the Phoenicians trade?
  • Question #8: Why did the Phoenicians focus on trade by sea for their livelihood?
  • Question #9: Why is the Phoenicians’ alphabet considered one of their greatest legacies?

Thank you very much for listening to this. Goodbye.