Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
This episode we meet a foreign dynasty who become the quintessential Babylonians, and preside over a golden age. The early history of the Kassites is still shrouded in mystery. And many details of their activities remain to be discovered by future researchers. It’s a bit like studying English history, without being sure quite how many Henry’s there were, or which one is involved in a particular event.
But under the Kassites, Babylonia flourishes. It forms part of the international network of great powers, in regular correspondence with the Egyptians and the Hittites. It’s a time of huge investment in the traditional infrastructure of the country. And under them, learning and literature blossom.
Our guest is an expert in the Kassites. He offers us a gentle introduction to their world and their legacy. How do we identify them? And where can we explore their history?
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Jonathan, how nice to hear you this morning. Lovely to see you.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Tim Clayden, and I’m a Bursar at one of the Oxford colleges–Green Templeton. But I’m also a member of Wolfson College, Oxford, where I did my doctorate in the archaeology of the Kassite period in Iraq. So I’m an independent researcher on Kassite culture, history, anything to do with the Kassites.
The first question, then, is who were the Kassites and what do we know about them?
A great place to start, Jonathan. The Kassites were not indigenous to Babylonia. We’re talking about ancient Iraq. And they ruled Babylonia for about 300 years from about 1450 BC to 1154 BCE. But they had been in Babylonia for about 300 years prior to that. But that’s another story.
They had their own language, although we know very, very little about it. We’ve got the remains of a couple of dictionaries. Some of them are in the British Museum. And they give the Akkadian equivalents of a few words. Akkadian being the language of ancient Iraq. And there’s a lot of discussion about whether the language has an Indo-European root or not. But frankly, we know so little about it, that it’s difficult to be conclusive. They adopted the Babylonian religion. They had a few deities of their own–Shuqamuna and Shumaliya, but fundamentally they accepted the indigenous Babylonian religion. They arrived in a period when there was a bit of a dark age between the famous Old Babylonian period of the first half of the second millennium BCE. And essentially they bridge the dark age between that and when they took over in the late 15th century, early 14th century, by which time they were also present in the Gulf, and up towards the border with modern day Iran. So they became one of the great kingdoms of the ancient Near East, equivalent to the pharaohs over in Egypt, and–when the Assyrian Empire grew–to the Assyrian Empire.
They were great traders. But in truth, we don’t know an awful lot about their history. Sadly, those documents have not survived. We do know they had battles with the Assyrians to the north, and with the Elamites over in modern Iran, but they were builders, traders. They were good Babylonians, by and large. It came to an end in the 12th century, when the Elamites from the east finally conquered them. But they lived on more or less, one way or another, for another 200-300 years. And indeed, there’s traces of them in some of the classical sources during the campaigns of Alexander the Great. So they were around for a long time.
You said they weren’t originally from Babylonia. Where did the Kassites come from? And what do we know about their arrival in Babylonia?
We don’t really know where they come from. But all the evidence very, very strongly points to them coming from the east, somewhere in the mountains, to the east of modern Iraq, and particularly down the Diyala corridor. Some of the early evidence we have for them comes in texts from the ancient side of Nuzi, south of Kirkuk. And that’s in the late 15th century where we know they were settled. But much earlier than that, in the reign of Samsu-iluna in the 18th century, the mid-18th century, they started appearing in the texts. And they seem to have integrated into Old Babylonian society. We see them in a range of roles–merchants, bakers, just generally all over. But their specialisation appears to have been as soldiers, and they served as mercenaries. It’s a modern term. But this wasn’t unusual in the Old Babylonian kingdom. People from a variety of nationalities–Elamites from the Sealand, from various tribes, the Suhu, also served in detachments, named detachments, in the army of the Babylonian king.
But they appeared in the reign of Samsu-iluna. We see them coming up in the texts. And their initial appearances, they’re quite violent. Some of the year names–the year names, which were used to date the tablets, the texts, administrative texts of the Old Babylonian kingdom–they recorded the key event in the year of a king’s reign. We see them appearing in a couple of those, and they’re quite violent. So although they do appear to have integrated quite quickly, aspects of their arrival were quite violent. But they mixed into society very quickly. And they became, as I say, most prominent–and we are dependent on survival of texts–they became most prominent as soldiers serving the Babylonian king.
There’s some evidence that they may have come in waves in a couple of tribes. But again, that’s still quite early days on being able to be definitive on that. But once integrated, they seem to have adapted themselves to the life of Old Babylonian society pretty well. And it’s interesting their arrival coincides with collapse of control of southern Babylonia on the part of the Old Babylonian kingdom under Samsu-iluna based in Babylon. Now, it had been thought at one point that the Kassites helped precipitate that, but there’s no real evidence for it. What actually happened in the south is unclear. Obviously, people carried on living there, but the control of that area from Babylon was limited.
And in its place, a new kingdom, the kingdom of the Sealand Dynasty, which has only really come to life in the last 12-15 years with the publication of tablets, and the excavation of a couple of sites. They seem to have spread their influence from the south, getting as far north as the great city of Nippur, which is sort of halfway up southern Iraq. But the Kassites lingered on. And by the time we get to the 15th century, they really got into conflict with the Sealand and eventually took over. There is some evidence that immediately after the collapse of the Old Babylonian Empire, beginning of the 16th century, about 1595 BC, very soon after that–30 or 40 years later–they started settling around, actually now within the suburbs of modern Baghdad at a site called Tell Muhammad. But it’s still quite unclear just where they fit into the story.
There’s no real archaeological type fossil, as it were, that we can point, that points to the Kassite arrival. All this evidence comes from texts. So I think it’s easiest to say they came in from the east in the 18th century, started integrating into the Old Babylonian society. And we know that from the names and the professions, they were obviously specialists as soldiers. And eventually, in the mid-15th century BCE, conquered the Sealand dynasty and took over control of Babylonia. And remained in control for another 300 years.
So we have this group who arrive in Iraq, and they rule a great kingdom that rivals Egypt. But what makes the Kassites so interesting and important to study?
I think one of the key characteristics of the Kassite dynasty is that they kept ancient Babylonian civilisation not just alive, but they refurbished it. When the great king Kurigalzu took the throne round about 1400 BCE. We don’t know exactly when he took over, but he died something like 1375 BCE. When he took control of the country, one of the first things he did was really refurbish many of the temple complexes in the southern cities of Babylonia. We recall that they had probably been … well, they had no royal patronage. Royal patronage was important to keep these buildings alive and going. The great temples, they had no royal patronage for 300-400 years since the reign of Samsu-iluna. Kurigalzu in what was obviously a very, very deliberate political–not just political as in politics, but in a geopolitical, as an expression of where he was ruling–statement, rebuilt some of the temples, the great cities of Ur, for example, down in the south, and so on. And he refurbished those temples, restored the cults, got them all back up and running.
There’s a fascinating excavation going on at the moment being led by Iraqi colleagues from the University of Babylon at the great site of Dilbat, where we see again, it’s a very new, breaking excavation, evidence for his rebuilding the great temple there. So the fact that that refurbishment, that repair, that restoration of ancient Babylonian temples and cultic practices after 200-300 years, of really not much going on at all, and if we remember that these buildings are all built of mud brick, and you have to keep repairing refurbishing and patching mud brick, because the rain simply melts it. 200-300 years of neglect would have seen these buildings in a pretty sorry state. Well, he pulled them back together again.
We also see very early on from even before the reign of Kurigalzu, so in the late 15th century, we know that the king in Babylonia, the Kassite king, was in contact with the pharaoh in Egypt. Well, that’s a long way away from southern Iraq. But they were on corresponding terms, and called each other “brother”. And that’s fascinating, because what it suggests is that there’s a whole backstory, as it were, to what was going on in that part of the ancient world, before the records give us evidence for what was really happening. So the fact that this group of people took control, didn’t come in introducing and imposing new buildings, new religions, but pretty much adopted the ancient religion that had been there for a millennia. And refurbished and restored is in itself interesting, really interesting. And then they became a great power. So when they started off, it was the Hittites, the Egyptians and the Babylonians. And then, a little while later, the Assyrians to the north in northern Iraq, their power grew and they became another part of the club of great powers, as it were. At the start of that, the Babylonians rather objected. They weren’t particularly keen on seeing a new member join that club. And indeed, north and south ancient Iraq remained enemies throughout the history, so warfare between the two areas in the Kassite period continued.
They also codified much of the literature. So they set up scribal schools, and cuneiform and Akkadian as you know, Jonathan, it’s your field of expertise, this is a complex language. It’s a complex script. It requires an enormous amount of training. And they took on the inheritance of all these ancient texts, which would have been physically quite interesting how they found them. All the centres would have been not quite in ruins. The great city of Nippur continued, but they were sufficiently interested. They went and looked for them. And so some of the great stories that have survived from ancient Iraq were pulled together and codified in the Kassite period. Again, that’s really interesting.
And the fact that it was a stable dynasty. It remained pretty much in place for 300 years. There was a short interregnum in the 13th century, when the Assyrians finally conquered the Babylonians, they took their king, the Babylonian king Kashtiliashu, back to Assyria and there’s evidence, they sort of kept him and his family as sort of honoured guests, honoured captive guests, in the royal court. And the Assyrians controlled the high politics of Babylonia for perhaps 20 years, 10-20 years. But that really is the only break. Otherwise, the dynasty carried on all the way through. So for me, it’s that these strangers who came in in the 18th century, ended up the ones who restored, codified, stabilised, made Babylonia great. It’s just interesting how that process happened. So that’s why I would say they’re fascinating–an international, literate power.
They’ve also left an important physical legacy, haven’t they?
They have Jon, and one of the most striking remains in modern Iraq from the ancient period is the city Kurigalzu–the Kurigalzu who I was talking about just now, who started his reign about 1400 BC. And it’s the city of modern Aqar Quf, which is now on the western outskirts of modern Baghdad, about 20-30 kilometres to the west. And it was named for Kurigalzu, so the ancient name was Dur Kurigalzu, named after the king. And it is the best remains we have a ziggurat that survived from ancient Iraq. The ziggurat still stands about 57 meters high. It stands on a limestone ridge, the whole city stood on a limestone ridge, which in a plain that would have been surrounded by water for large periods of the year, it would have been the most striking sight on the horizon of a city wall and there’s great ziggurat. It’s still one of the highest points in Iraq, and is an absolute landmark, was a landmark all the way through to the early 20th century for travellers coming across the desert from Syria.
And there’s a whole city there, a massive temple complex, large palace, and we have evidence for some of the private housing. So that is the very, very visible remains. Our Iraqi colleagues have been excavating the site since about 1942. And it has been restored, very heavily restored most recently and has been, and let’s hope it will be again one day, a tourist attraction for visitors from Baghdad. So that’s a very visible, easily accessible remain from the Kassite period. But Kurigalzu who also built in other cities–at Ur, again, worked on the ziggurat, but he didn’t build a ziggurat. But he did repair a lot of the temples and the temple structures around them.
Other kings built in cities like Larsa and Isin. So it’s mainly temples. Unfortunately, because they built in mud brick, they’re not very spectacular looking at them today. When I take my wife to these sites, “It looks”, she says, “Well, looks like a lot of mud hills”. And to a certain extent, that’s exactly what it is. But if we try and think of what it would have looked like when they did rebuild the cities, it would have been very, very spectacular. So they did all that work. At the moment our Iraqi colleagues from the University of Babylon are excavating a fascinating site at Dilbat, where they found a temple that we didn’t know about, again, refurbished by king Kurigalzu. So you know, new discoveries are coming all the time. But if you Google Kassites, the first image you’re bound to come up with 99 times out of 100 is a photograph of the ziggurat, Aqar Quf, Dur-Kurigalzu.
As an archaeologist, what would you expect to find on a Kassite site, apart from the monumental architecture? Are there any characteristic objects that suggest you found Kassite levels?
I am an archaeologist. And what you hope to find are texts which tell you a bit more about what was going on. But on the sites that have been excavated, you find things like kudurrus. Now kudurrus are stone monuments, a bit like a milestone in scale. So perhaps half a meter, 60-70 centimetres high and made of stone. So very rare in Babylonia to find things made of stone. And they bear inscriptions from the king, giving a grant of land to somebody to whom they wanted to show favour. And these have been found a place like Larsa, Ur, Dur-Kurigalzu, there’s quite a lot of them around, but very spectacular and they have symbol of the gods carved on them as well. So they would be protecting these grants. So there’s sort of a contract saying the king gives you this grant of land, and it’s yours and your descendants forever and the gods protecting that grant or the terms of the grant. And then they would have been set up in a temple to give added protection. So you might be lucky finding one of those.
There’s a lot of pottery, obviously. And there’s a very distinctive type of pottery from the Kassite period, so-called goblet or flask. It’s got a sort of flat foot and then a flute. And then it narrows at the top to a mouth. We don’t know what was in them, but they’re about 20 centimetres, 20-30 centimetres, high and they are absolutely characteristic of the period. You know you’re on a Kassite site when you find a fragment of one of these goblets. They’re instantly recognisable.
Some of the other more spectacular things that have been found are fragments of glass axes. They were found at Nippur. And these were axes made to be put in a temple. They bear inscriptions, dedicatory inscriptions of the king. So to the god Enlil, one of the chief gods of the Babylonian pantheon, and one of the chief deities worshipped in ancient Nippur. And they were carved onto axes made out of glass to make them look as though they were lapis lazuli. It was done in the 13th 14th century BCE. And they’re quite big. They’re about 20 centimetres long. They have a haft, so they would have had a wooden handle in them. And they are the earliest, largest bit of inscribed glass that we’ve got from Babylonia. Chemical analysis on them has shown that they are made of Babylonian, Iraqi materials. They’re not imports. So although glass was being made in Syria and Egypt at the time, this is an indigenous industry. They’re rather nice. And there’s also not infrequently on sites, a form of dedicatory object called eyestones.
You’ve worked on eye stones, haven’t you? What are they? What is an eye stone?
They’re called eye stones. In fact, they were called eye stones in ancient Babylonia. And they are pretty much what the word says. They’re flat disks with a rounded upper surface, perhaps the size of a thumbnail, some a little bit larger, but more or less on that scale, with a dark centre–the pupil of the eye–and a white outer ring. And they again bear a dedicatory inscription almost exclusively, from the king to a deity. So, you know, to the lord Enlil, may he protect the life of his servant, king Kurigalzu. And they’re pierced. So they were probably worn as part of necklaces on the statues of deities inside the temple. And the Kassites, they didn’t invent these; they appear in the Old Babylonian period as well. But they were most popular in this period, in the period of the Kassites.
The next time they show such a degree of popularity is in the Neo-Babylonian period, many, many centuries later, under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar the Second. But there’s a lot of Kassite eye stones. And they’re rather beautiful things. And there’s a lot of other bits and pieces. But Kassite texts, as I say, are relatively rare surprisingly. We haven’t found many of the archives that must have existed. Most of the texts we have come from the ancient city of Nippur. But they do appear at various other sites, including all the way down in the Gulf, down in Bahrain, and Failaka. So showing that the Kassite kingdom extended all the way down there, or at least merchants from the Kassite kingdom got down to into the Gulf. But unfortunately, there are not as many Kassite texts as one would like. But then that’s probably always the case.
Where can people go to see Kassite objects like this now?
Well, obviously the best place is Baghdad, and I do hope Iraqi friends are able to go there and see them. But if you’re not lucky enough to go to Baghdad, then the British Museum in London has a very good collection. Particularly of kudurrus, many of which are now on public display. So they’re easy to see. But there’s other Kassite objects there. The Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin has again a very, very fine collection, particularly from the site of Babylon. And many of the objects on display there, including a reconstructed wall relief from the ancient city of Uruk. And it’s one of the features of the Kassite period that they decorated some of their temple exteriors with molded mudbrick depictions of gods. And the one in the Vorderasiatisches Museum there shows the gods in molded mudbrick from a temple surround, as I say, from Uruk. it’s male and female and they’re holding little jugs with flowing water coming out. It’s very beautiful. It’s almost life size. It’s very spectacular. The Louvre of course in Paris has got a number of Kassite objects on display. The Met in New York, and the Ashmolean here in Oxford has a few. There are also quite a lot of objects in the museum in Istanbul. Because of course, when some of the very earliest excavations took place in Iraq up until the First World War, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. So many of the objects that were excavated before 1914, they ended up in Istanbul and many of them are on display there. So there’s quite a range of places to see them.
And if that inspires us to learn more, where’s a good place to start with that?
I think there’s perhaps a number of ways, Jonathan. For easy entry into the background as it were, the subject area, the history, the chronology, I would recommend, there’s a couple of books on the history of Babylon, which I would recommend. The first was by Joan Oates called Babylon, which is now quite old, but is still very, very good. And it’s got a chapter on the Kassites, and the Kassite period. And it just puts it into context. Her description of the period is still very valid. There’s also a book that’s just come out a few years ago by Paul-Alain Beaulieu from Canada. And again, the history of Babylon. He’s got a very good chapter of the Kassite period. And just this period, Stephanie Dalley, one of our colleagues here in Oxford has published a history of Babylon, which again, includes a very good chapter on the Kassite period. So I think that would give you a very good background to the subject. You know, how it fits in, and the broad outlines.
If you want to get more involved in some of the interesting questions that are developing at the moment. And I should say, in the last 10-15 years, there’s been a crop of young scholars coming through doing some fabulous work on the Kassite period. It’s great, really nice for me to see the generation of new scholars doing some really good work coming through. And there’s two volumes I would recommend that would give you absolute up to date information and outline of some of the current issues. The first is a book called Karduniash: Babylonia under the Kassites, which was published in 2017. And that was edited by Alexa Bartelmus and Katya Sternitzke. It’s got a collection of papers which pretty much covers all the current issues. And then there’s another one that appeared last year, Babylonia under the Sealand and Kassite dynasties, edited by Susanne Paulus and myself, which brings the whole thing up to date, even more. We included the Sealand dynasty, because being totally frank, up until 15 years ago, what we could say about the Sealand dynasty would fit in big letters on a very small stamp. We now know a huge amount more. And it’s giving us a much more interesting complex vision of what was going on in southern Iraq in ancient Babylonia in that period between Samsu-iluna and the emergence of the Kassites 300-400 years later.
So those last two recommendations are very academic. But I would say very readable and come with very good book lists. Between them, you’ve got pretty much every book, article, paper that’s going on the Kassites. The first one, Karduniash, includes a masterful summary by the doyen of Kassite studies, Professor John A. Brinkman from Chicago. And anybody wanted to do anything on Kassite history, Kassite texts, would want to read that.
Another easy way of keeping in touch is through membership of organizations like the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, BISI. It’s based here in the UK. Subscriptions are relatively cheap, and especially cheap for students. And there’s an annual journal, there’s talks, there’s a website presence. It happens that I serve on the council for BISI at the moment, but I’ve been a member for many, many years. And it introduces you to the community of people studying the subject. It’s ancient and modern. If you’re looking for a way into the field, into the study, into the area, then you could do a lot worse than join BISI.
What about your own work specifically? How can we follow your ongoing research?
For those who use it, Academia. All my papers are loaded up on Academia. And I say “all”; there’s about 15 or so, all about the Kassites. I’ve just had a paper published in Italy in the journal Mesopotamia, actually looking at the dated Kassite texts from Iraq. So having a look at that. In the volume I edited, I do a review of the Kassite period at Ur, looking at the physical and textual evidence. I also give a little review of the earlier history of the Kassites in the area, because Ur is right at the epicentre of where the Sealand dynasty came to power and from there extended power over the rest of Iraq. So the Kassite appearance in Ur is quite interesting. So I’ve done that.
I’ve done a study on the glass axes I was talking about; the inscriptions were done, were studied by a colleague now at Philadelphia, Grant Frame. So you could see the objects and the inscriptions they bore. And eye stones. But they’re all available on Academia. All available for free download, and very, very happy to be in correspondence with anybody who wants to find out a little bit more about the Kassites. It’s easy to get me through Academia. I’m in correspondence with several scholars at the moment doing doctorates and the like research, always happy to look at ideas, proposals, papers, comment, and generally support the study. So, yeah, Academia is probably the easiest way to get my research.
Thank you very much.
My absolute pleasure. It’s a fascinating area of study. And there’s no end of interesting research topics, things to look at. There’s a lot of unpublished material. Anybody who’s interested in, I do encourage, go and have a look in the local museum, talk to the museums about it. There’s a lot of material around. It’s a fascinating period. I get teased now when I go to conferences: “Ah, it’s the Kassite man!” It’s a badge I wear with honour.
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