The Ancient Near East
The Ancient Near East
The donkey was domesticated from the African wild ass in Northeast Africa some 7–6,000 years ago. This chapter looks at what happened when donkeys turned right and exited Africa into Asia. Though tracking their movement as far as India and China, its principal focus lies in the Ancient Near East, the region stretching from Israel north to Turkey and eastward into Iraq and Iran that is often termed the ‘Fertile Crescent’. Within this vast area, donkeys were used in daily life, including the agricultural cycle, just as they were in Egypt. But like there they also acquired other, more specialized uses and associations. Thus, after tracing the donkey’s spread I look at its role in three key aspects of the Near East’s earliest civilizations: the organization of trade; the legitimization of kingship; and religion. By 3500 BC the earliest cities had already emerged in Mesopotamia, the ‘land between the rivers’ Euphrates and Tigris. Over the course of the next 1,500 years, urbanization gathered pace across Palestine and Syria in the west, northward in Turkey, and east through Iran. Within Mesopotamia the independent Sumerian city-states of the south developed increasingly monarchical forms of government, seeing brief unity under the kings of Akkad and the Third Dynasty of Ur in the late third millennium BC. Then and later a city-state pattern of political organization also held in northern Mesopotamia (for example, at Aššur and its neighbour Mari) and in the Levant. In the mid-second millennium bc, however, much larger kingdoms emerged: the Hittites in central Turkey, Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, and Babylonia in its south. The Hittites, in particular, competed with Egypt for control of Syrian and Palestinian cities like Ugarit. When these Bronze Age powers collapsed around 1200 BC, their disappearance opened a window for smaller states like Israel to flourish briefly in their wake. Subsequently, however, first Assyria (911–612 BC) and then Babylon (612–539 BC) established much more centralized and extensive empires across the Near East before being subsumed within the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great and his successors.
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