Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Middle Babylonian / Kassite Period (ca. 1595–1155 B.C.) in Mesopotamia

Modern chronology uses the sack of Babylon by a Hittite army in 1595 B.C. as the dividing line between the Old Babylonian (1894–1595 B.C.) and Middle Babylonian (1595–1155 B.C.) periods in southern Mesopotamia. Yet the powers that arose in the wake of Hammurabi’s dynasty were already emergent in the decades leading up to the Hittite raid. Cities in the deep south broke off from the Babylonian state (they became known as the First Sealand Dynasty), and the Kassites, a non-Babylonian people identifiable by their distinct language and thought to originate in the Zagros Mountains east of Mesopotamia, took part in regional fighting. Although events following the Hittite raid remain obscure, rulers with Kassite-language names eventually assumed political power in southern Mesopotamia—first in the area around Babylon, and then by conquering the southern cities held by the First Sealand Dynasty around 1475 B.C. Their period of rule, known as the Kassite period, was so long lasting that it is virtually synonymous with the Middle Babylonian period.

Kassite wealth and control of resources was such that the ruler Kurigalzu I could, around the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century B.C., build a new royal city that bore his name (Dur-Kurigalzu, “Fortress of Kurigalzu”), filled with a palace and temples. He ruled a territorial state (Babylonia) that stretched as far south as Dilmun (modern Bahrain) in the Persian Gulf, and he and his descendants were in regular contact with rulers in Mitanni and then Hatti and Assyria in northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia, Egypt to the south, and Elam in Iran to the east (as witnessed in part by the Amarna Letters). Information about the heyday of the Kassite period, however, is skewed by the modern constraints of archaeology: thousands of administrative records from the city of Nippur were recovered, for example, but the remains of Babylon dated to the Kassite period have been little explored due to the presence of remains from later periods above them and the high level of the groundwater at the site today.

Interactions with other rulers and states, while economically necessary and largely beneficial for the elite, were not always peaceful. Kassite rulers clashed with rulers in Assyria and Elam. Tukulti-Ninurta of Assyria conquered Babylon in 1225 B.C., but the Kassites survived Assyrian pressure until twelfth-century wars with Elam finally resulted in the end of their suzerainty. During subsequent raids, Elamite troops stole numerous monuments from sanctuaries across southern Mesopotamia and carried them back to Susa, contributing to the unevenness of the archaeological record for this period. These raids led to the collapse of the Kassite dynasty in 1155 B.C.

At the end of the Middle Babylonian period, power in southern Mesopotamia returned to Isin in the deep south (identified in modern chronology as the Second Dynasty of Isin, ca. 1155–1026 B.C.), and the Elamite forces were first repelled, then attacked, when king Nebuchadnezzar I (ca. 1125–1104 B.C.) sacked Susa in ca. 1100 B.C. The statue of the god Marduk, stolen by the Elamites, was returned to Babylon, the now-established seat of cosmic and earthly rule. We know little about this and other southern Mesopotamian dynasties of the late second millennium B.C., as events across the ancient Near East ushered in an age of political turmoil, where again the textual record falls silent.

Art and Culture
Despite the unevenness of the archaeological record, various media reflect the development of the arts during the Kassite period. Kassite rulers, it would seem, both mastered and manipulated traditional Mesopotamian forms and expressions of kingship. The ongoing construction of (elite) identity was a thoughtful response to the historical traditions of Mesopotamia on the one hand, and contemporary internationalizing trends on the other.

Kassite rulers belonged to an international world of closely connected royal courts, as documented in part by the Amarna Letters. Far-reaching connections helped secure precious and semi-precious stones (e.g., 1994.433), but Kassite craftsmen also worked with clay to create carefully modeled representations of humans and animals (1989.233). Kassite artists also experimented with the molding and glazing of brick, a new technology that was developed further in later Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid architecture (31.13.1; 31.13.2).

Cylinder seals in the Kassite period were carved with elongated figures and long inscriptions, usually prayers, on colorful precious and semi-precious stones that would have been imported from afar (1985.357.44; 1985.357.25; 1985.357.29). Beyond emphasizing the amuletic power of seals of precious stones, the prayers inscribed on them demonstrate the carvers’ careful attention to text, with beautifully carved inscriptions. (A second style of Kassite-period cylinder seal carving appears to respond to contemporary trends in Egypt and Assyria.) Kassite cylinders were often set in granulated gold caps (47.1l), a setting that would have accentuated the stones’ brilliant colors and added to their amuletic efficacy.

As in preceding periods, Kassite rulers expended enormous effort on the restoration and construction of the gods’ abodes. The remains of their building works can still be seen in Iraq today, and are memorialized by inscribed dedicatory objects like stelae and foundation bricks that would have been deposited in temples (61.12 and 59.41.82; 41.160.187). The role that cuneiform writing played in the construction of Kassite royal identity is clearly visible in these works, as well as in other media from this period. Their inscriptions are written in the already long-dead Sumerian language, with carefully carved archaic forms of the script. Contemporary and later Assyrian records recall the Kassite rulers as the stewards of literary compositions and erudite knowledge, attributing to them early attempts in collecting and codification.

Perhaps the most distinctive remains of the Kassite period are the inscribed monuments known today as kudurrus, or “boundary stones.” Although highly polished stone monuments (called narus) are known throughout Mesopotamian history, this new form of naru emerged during the Kassite period. Contrary to what their name suggests, kudurrus were set up inside temples, where they acted as monumental records of real estate transactions meant to last for eternity. Their decoration often includes rows of divine symbols, most representing Mesopotamian deities but also including those of gods introduced by the Kassites. Kudurrus continued to be popular in southern Mesopotamia after the end of the Kassite period (1985.45), one among many legacies of Kassite rule.