Following the collapse of the Ur III state (ca. 2112–2004 B.C.) at the end of the third millennium B.C., rulers took control of individual cities in southern Mesopotamia and local dynasties formed. Throughout the early second millennium B.C., these local kings vied for power. Dynasties of rulers at Isin, Larsa, and then Babylon gained, in succession, control over large portions of southern Mesopotamia. These cities have given their names to modern chronological periods: the Isin-Larsa period (ca. 2004–1763 B.C.) and the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1894–1595 B.C.). Although modern chronology draws a distinction between these periods in southern Mesopotamia and the Old Assyrian period in the north, city rulers throughout the ancient Near East—including Syria in the west and Elam in the east—maintained regular contact through acts of peace and war.
The first dynasty to reestablish suzerainty over much of southern Mesopotamia came from the city of Isin. These kings gained control of the former Ur III state’s political and religious capitals (Ur in the south and Nippur in the north) and styled themselves after the earlier kings, using titles like “king of Sumer and Akkad” (59.41.86; 59.41.84). Although the kings of Isin never gained control over all the cities of the south, they were included at the end of the Sumerian King List, a Sumerian-language composition that idealizes dynasties going back to antediluvian times as strictly sequential—each having a divinely appointed “turn” (Sumerian: bala)—and never coexisting.
In the early nineteenth century B.C., the city of Larsa, south of Isin and closer to Ur, increased its territorial holding at the expense of other nearby cities. In ca. 1793 B.C., King Rim-Sin (r. ca. 1822–1763 B.C.) conquered Isin and gained control over much of southern Mesopotamia, including the ever-important religious city Nippur. While Rim-Sin has been overshadowed in modern times by other Mesopotamian rulers, he reigned longer than any other king in Mesopotamian history.
Just one year after Rim-Sin’s conquest of Isin, a ruler named Hammurabi (r. ca. 1792–1750 B.C.) ascended the throne of Babylon, a city that lay to the north of Nippur and past the reach of the Isin and Larsa kings. Kings of Babylon had been slowly amassing a small territory in central Mesopotamia, and Hammurabi intensified that effort with stunningly successful results. In some thirty short years, he gained control over the territory of Rim-Sin in the south and dismantled centers of power to the west, north, and east. In addition to being a cunning diplomat and brilliant strategist, Hammurabi also memorialized himself as a pious ruler, builder, and lawmaker—the ideal king. His success transformed Babylon from a city of little importance into the political (and later religious) capital of Mesopotamia.
Hammurabi and many other rulers of the early second millennium B.C. identified themselves as “Amorite” (Akkadian: amurru, Sumerian: mar.tu) kings. Amorite peoples of this period were well integrated into urban society, yet southern Mesopotamian records often portray them as living outside cities in tribal groups. The Epic of Gilgamesh, first written in Akkadian at this time, preserves this attitude toward nonurban peoples in its depiction of the wild man Enkidu—who, according to the story, is a capable defender of flocks but lacks table manners and is in need of a shave. Unfortunately, little information about economically crucial nomadic populations survives in the archaeological record, and our knowledge of the Amorites derives almost solely from the records of those who rose to power in various cities across the ancient Near East.
The creation of the state of Babylon moved the center of power north from that of the old Ur III and Isin-Larsa states and would have been met with aversion by elites in the far south. Nonetheless, Hammurabi’s successors continued to rule southern Mesopotamia for a century and half before their power began to crumble (86.11.111). And even after the sack of Babylon by the Hittite army in 1595 B.C. spelled the end of the Old Babylonian period, the city retained its prominence throughout the second and first millennia B.C.
Art and Culture
An unmatched number of literary works in the historic Sumerian language have survived from the early second millennium B.C. Hymns (86.11.62), myths, epics, letters, and more were copied as part of a scribe’s training (86.11.251) in small schools throughout Mesopotamia. Our earliest knowledge of many Akkadian-language literary works—including the Gilgamesh epic, and the story of a flood survivor—comes also from this time. In many cases, the new Akkadian works are found alongside differently told Sumerian versions. The dynamic mixture of traditions old and new is evident in two ceramic heads in the Museum’s collection (1972.96; 1989.281.7): the large, attentive eyes are reminiscent of worshipper figures set up in temples during the Early Dynastic period (ca. 2900–2350 B.C.).
People of the ancient Near East inhabited a world that was saturated with supernatural powers, and the arts of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods show the range of deities available to the individual as sources of protection and well-being (47.1a-h). Cylinder seals with presentation scenes (1987.96.5; 1986.311.39) and terracotta plaques with a variety of figures divine and otherwise (32.39.2) are known in large quantities from these periods. Both cylinder seals and the molds used to make terracotta plaques are negative images capable of producing raised relief images in clay over and over again. Accessible to a broad range of the population, not just the elite, cylinder seals and terracotta plaques maintained a relatively stable repertoire of imagery that spread throughout Mesopotamia and, in the case of the cylinder seals, inspired motifs in Iran (1987.343), Syria (1991.368.5), and Anatolia (1991.368.3).
A lesser-known category of objects dated to this period are the openwork bronzes known in forms both simple (1980.407.3) and complex (1998.31), which are well represented in the Museum’s collection. Slots and circular openings (1984.454.1a,b) as well as rollers (1980.407.1) suggest that textiles, straps, or strings were threaded through the plaques. The exact use of the plaques, however, remains unknown. As materials like textiles do not survive in the archaeological record, we are left to imagine the richness of the objects that included such carefully crafted and decorated bronzes.
Perhaps the most famous work of art from the early second millennium B.C. is the highly polished black basalt stele of the Babylonian king Hammurabi uncovered by archaeologists at Susa in 1902—the so-called Code of Hammurabi. Rulers throughout Mesopotamian history were careful to depict themselves as divinely appointed, just kings (1971.71), and King Hammurabi was no different. Carved on top with an image of the king standing before Shamash, the sun god and god of justice, and beautifully engraved with hundreds of legal decisions, this monumental stele publicly declares Hammurabi’s divinely sanctioned juridical power. Although Shamash appears on the top of the monument, the prologue of the text as well as other works of art attest to the new importance of the god Marduk (86.11.313; 1985.45), who was tied to Babylon as its chief deity for the rest of Babylon’s history.
Knott, Elizabeth. “The Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian Periods (2004–1595 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/isin/hd_isin.htm (February 2017)
Bahrani, Zainab. “The Monumental Force of the Law.” Chapter 6 of The Infinite Image: Art, Time and the Aesthetic Dimension in Antiquity. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
Moorey, P. R. S. “Bronze Rollers and Frames from Babylonia and Western Iran: Problems of Date and Function.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale 71, no. 2 (1997), pp. 137–50.
Podany, Amanda. Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Van de Mieroop, Marc. King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
Knott, Elizabeth. “The Amarna Letters.” (October 2016)
Knott, Elizabeth. “Ancient Near Eastern Openwork Bronzes.” (January 2017)
Knott, Elizabeth. “The Middle Babylonian / Kassite Period (ca. 1595–1155 B.C.) in Mesopotamia.” (June 2016)