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The Conquest of the Amorites

Semitic peoples and their languages, in ancient historic times (between the 30th and 20th centuries BC), covered a broad area which encompassed what are today the modern states and regions of Iraq, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebannon, Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Sinai and Malta, as well as parts of southern Turkey, before spreading to Tunisia in the 9th century BC, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 8th century BC, and into Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Mauritania and Khuzestan (south western Iran) from the 7th century AD.

By the late 3rd millennium BC, East Semitic languages, such as Akkadian and Eblaite, were dominant in Mesopotamia and north east Syria, while West Semitic languages, such as Amorite, Canaanite and Ugaritic, were probably spoken from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula, although Old South Arabian is considered by most people to be South Semitic despite the sparsity of data.

The Akkadian language of Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia had become the dominant literary language of the Fertile Crescent, using the cuneiform script that was adapted from the Sumerians. The Middle Assyrian Empire, which originated in the 14th century BC, facilitated the use of Akkadian as a ‘lingua franca’ in many regions outside its homeland. The related, but more sparsely attested, Eblaite disappeared with the city, and Amorite is attested only from proper names in Mesopotamian records.

The earliest historic (written) evidences of them are found in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) circa the 30th century BC, an area encompassing the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq), followed by historical written evidence from the Levant, Canaan, Sinai Peninsula southern Asia Minor and the Arabian peninsula.

Later historical Semitic languages also spread into North Africa in two widely separated periods. The first expansion occurred with the ancient Phoenicians from around the 9th century BC, along the southern Mediterranean Sea all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (Phoenician colonies which included ancient Rome’s nemesis Carthage), followed by migrations of South Semites from Yemen to Ethiopia and Eritrea a century or so later.

The second, a millennium later, was the expansion of the Muslim armies and Arabic in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, which, at their height, controlled the Iberian Peninsula (until 1492) and Sicily.

Arab Muslim expansion is also responsible for modern Arabic’s presence from Mauritania, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, to the Red Sea in the northeastern corner of Africa, and its reach south along the Nile River as far as the northern half of Sudan, where, as the national language, non-Arab Sudanese even farther south must learn it.

Some recent genetic studies have found (by analysis of the DNA of Semitic-speaking peoples) that they have some common ancestry. Genetic studies indicate that modern Jews, Assyrians, Samaritans, Syriacs-Arameans, Maronites, Druze, Mandeans, Mhallami and Arabs from the regions north of the Arabian Peninsula all have an ancient indigenous common Near Eastern heritage which can be genetically mapped back to the ancient Fertile Crescent, but often also display genetic profiles distinct from one another, indicating the different histories of these peoples.

They were found to be far more closely related to both each other and the non-Semitic speaking Near Easterners, such as Iranians, Anatolians, and Caucasians, than to the Semitic-speakers of the Arabian peninsula (Gulf Arabs), Ethiopian Semites (Falasha, Beta Israel, Amharic and Tigrean speakers), and the Arabic speakers of North Africa.

The Encyclopedia Britannia states that by the mid-3rd millennium BC, various Semitic peoples had migrated into Syria-Palestine and Babylonia. Knowledge of this period was enormously enhanced by the excavations at Tall Mard Ykh, ancient Ebla, south of Aleppo (northern Syria). The palace yielded more than 17,000 inscribed clay tablets, dated to about 2600–2500 BC, which detail the social, religious, economic, and political life of this thriving and powerful Syrian kingdom. The language of Ebla has been identified as Northwest Semitic.

The Amorites are normally regarded by historians as a Semitic people; they certainly seem to have spoken a Semitic language. The term Amurru in Akkadian and Sumerian texts refers to them, as well as to their principal deity. They appear as nomadic people in the Mesopotamian sources, and they are especially connected with the mountainous region of Jebel Bishri in Syria called the “mountain of the Amorites”.

However, our evidence for all population affinities at that remote time is really quite thin; and there are plenty of historical cases of peoples adopting the languages around them. The Amorites’ original home seems to have been in Syria, rather than the Arabian desert, and it is quite likely that that part of western Asia had experienced immigration from the north-east tip of Africa.

At the end of the third and the beginning of the second millennia BC, civilization in the Fertile Crescent went through a sticky patch. The numerous city-states in Mesopotamia, Syria and Canaan were attacked by nomadic peoples they called “Amorites”. It was a time when tribes were on the loose, wandering from one area to another; it was one of those unsettled periods which have periodically occurred in the Middle East, when desert nomads seem to have the upper hand and settled farmers are on the defensive.

Ancient writers help us understand the geographic designation for Syria, one of the locales for the Amorites. Homer (Iliad ii.785) and Hesiod (Theog. 304) called the inhabitants of that district Arimoi. Compare the cuneiform Arimu or Assyrian Aramu for Aramaeans. The earliest Assyrian name was Martu, which Hommel regards as a contraction of Amartu, the land of the Amurru or Amorites.

Here we see a confusion between two different Semitic words, found in the Old Testament texts:

Hebrew amoree = Amorite, from amar, a verb, to be or make prominent, and

Hebrew aramee = Aramean, from aram, a noun.

However, both are used to designate people who occupied the same geographical area, and had similar histories. Aram is described as one of the ancestors of Abraham and the Hebrew people, Gen 10:22.

Note that the two words demonstrate metathesis, or the switching of two consonants. All Semitic words derived from a verb base; this linguistic confusion may be the reason the word aram has no verbal foundation in Hebrew. Refer to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver, and Briggs.

However, there is considerable doubt concerning their origins. This doubt may be due to the fact that they were troublesome nomads who roamed freely around the Near East. They penetrated deep into Sumeria and were believed to be one of the causes of the downfall of the 3rd dynasty of Ur (c. 2112–c. 2004 BC).

We should keep in mind that different human groups, speaking different dialects of the same language, and related genetically, may be sharply separated by modern scholarship in order to distinguish them historically. This process then blurs and obscures the biological origins and relationship among people.

Amorite (Sumerian; Mar.tu) refers to an ancient Semitic-speaking people from ancient Syria who also occupied large parts of Mesopotamia from the 21st Century BC. In the earliest Sumerian texts, beginning about 2400 BC, all western lands beyond the Euphrates, including Syria and Canaan, were known as “the land of the MAR.TU (Amorites).

The term Martu also appears in Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, which describes it in the time of Enmerkar as one of the regions inhabited by speakers of a different language. Another text known as Lugalbanda and the Anzud bird describes how, fifty years into Enmerkar’s reign, the Martu people arose in Sumer and Akkad, necessitating the building of a wall to protect Uruk.

Known Amorites (mostly those of Mari) wrote in a dialect of Akkadian found on tablets at Mari dating from 1800–1750 BC; since the language shows many northwest Semitic forms and constructions, the Amorite language was presumably a northwest Semitic dialect, as opposed to the east Semitic Akkadian language of the native Mesopotamians. The main sources for our extremely limited knowledge about the language are proper names, not Akkadian in style, that are preserved in such texts.

These Amorites appear as nomadic clans ruled by fierce tribal chiefs, who forced themselves into lands they needed to graze their herds. Some of the Akkadian literature of this era speaks disparagingly of the Amorites, and implies that the Akkadians and Sumerians viewed their nomadic way of life with disgust and contempt.

There are also sparse mentions in tablets from Ebla, dating from 2500 BC to the destruction of the city ca. 2250 BC: from the perspective of Ebla, the Amorites were a rural group living in the narrow basin of the middle and upper Euphrates. For the Akkadian kings of central Mesopotamia Mar.tu was one of the “Four Quarters” surrounding Akkad, along with Subartu/Assyria, Sumer, and Elam. The Akkadian king Naram-Sin records successful campaigns against them in northern Syria ca. 2240 BC, and his successor Shar-Kali-Sharri followed suit.

By the time of the last days of the Sumerian Ur III empire, immigrating Amorites had become such a force that kings such as Shu-Sin were obliged to construct a 170 miles (270 km) long wall from the Tigris to the Euphrates to hold them off.

During the 2nd millennium the term Amurru referred not only to an ethnic group but also to a language and to a geographic and political unit spread throughout Syria and Palestine. At the beginning of the millennium, a large-scale migration of great tribal federations resulted in the occupation of Babylonia proper, the mid-Euphrates region, and Syria-Palestine.

They set up a mosaic of small kingdoms and rapidly assimilated the Sumero-Akkadian culture. Some scholars prefer to call this second group Canaanites. Between about 2000 and 1800 BC they covered both Syria and Mesopotamia with a multitude of small principalities and cities, mostly governed by rulers bearing some name characteristic of the Semitic dialect that the Amorites spoke.

Almost all of the local kings in Babylonia (such as Hammurabi of Babylon) belonged to this stock. One capital was at Mari (modern Tall al-Sar YrY, Syria). Farther west, the political center was Aleppo; in that area, as well as in Palestine, the newcomers were thoroughly mixed with the Hurrians.

From the 21st century BC and likely triggered by the 22nd century BC drought, a large-scale migration of Amorite tribes infiltrated southern Mesopotamia. They were one of the instruments of the downfall of the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur, and acquired a series of powerful kingdoms, including the founding of Babylon as a state and usurping the thrones of the Sumero-Akkadian states of Isin, Larsa and Kish among others, culminating in the triumph under Hammurabi of one of them,that of Babylon.

The era of the Amorite kingdoms, ca. 2000–1595 BC, is sometimes known as the “Amorite period” in Mesopotamian history. The principal Amorite dynasties arose in Mari, Yamkhad, Qatna, Assyria (under Shamshi-Adad I), Isin, Larsa, and also Babylon, which was founded as an independent state by an Amorite named Sumuabum in 1894 BC. This era ended in northern Mesopotamia with the defeat and expulsion of the Amorite dominated Babylonians from Assyria by king Adasi circa 1730 BC, and in the south with the Hittite sack of Babylon (c. 1595 BC) which brought new ethnic groups — particularly Kassites — to the forefront in southern Mesopotamia.

From the 15th century BC onward, the term Amurru is usually applied to the region extending north of Canaan as far as Kadesh on the Orontes. The terms Amorite and Canaanite seem to be used more or less interchangeably, Canaan being more general and Amorite a specific component among the Canaanites who inhabited the land.

After their expulsion from Mesopotamia, the Amorites of Syria came under the domination of first the Hittite Empire and from the 14th century BC, the Middle Assyrian Empire. They appear to have been displaced or absorbed by a new wave of semi nomadic Semites, the Arameans, from circa 1200 BC onwards. And from this period the region they had inhabited became known as Aram (Aramea).

From about 1100 BC Assyrian inscriptions use the term Amurru to designate parts of Syria and all of Phoenicia and Palestine but no longer refer to any specific kingdom, language, or population. This shows how the various people had blended and mixed to blur ethnic identifications. The Amorite-Canaanite-Phoenician-Aramean-Hebrew people came all from a common Semitic stock. Since the Egyptian tomb paintings show them with blue eyes, we certainly have a genetic affinity to the blue eyes illustrated by Rahotep, Nofret, and King Hor.

The difficulty with these classifications is that Phoenician and Hebrew were almost identical to one another, with only minor inflectional differences, not more than we find among modern English speakers around the world. Since Phoenicians and Canaanites were essentially the same people this further reduces the language classes. The Amorites was also closely related; using the mother tongue of Abraham. This reduces the classes still farther. Then substantial differences exist only with Ugaritic and Aramaic, but even those are closely related.

The Bible’s internal chronology places Abraham around 2000 BC, but the stories in Genesis cannot be definitively related to the known history of that time. Most historians think that, if Abraham actually existed, then this was probably when he lived – his tale can be interpreted as a classic case of migration by a group of desert pastoralists.

Abraham is confirmed from the archives of Nuzi in Yorgan Tepe, fifteen kilometres south west of Kirkuk. The written documents from this Hurrian city of the kingdom of Mitanni (c. 1500 BC.) cast a light not only on the ancient laws of the Hurrians, but also on the legal practices of the Biblical patriarchs which agree to an amazing degree with the Biblical texts.

Abrahams clan came from Hurrian country, the region between Ur-kesh (the biblical Ur-kashdim, in north-east Syria on the present Turkish border) and Harran which is west of Ur-kesh. These migrating Hurrians were known to adopt the local languages of the lands they settled in, and so Abrahams clan adopted the Phoenician language as their own, now popularly known as Hebrew.

Whatever the correct date for Abraham may be, he represents the beginning of the nation to the Hebrews. Yahweh’s promise to the patriarch and his successors is considered to be the guarantee of national existence (Num. 32:11).

The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) contains the only surviving ancient text known to use the term Jebusite to describe the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem; according to the Table of Nations at Genesis 10, the Jebusites are identified as a Canaanite tribe, which is listed in third place among the Canaanite groups, between the biblical Hittites and the Amorites.

In the Amarna letters, mention is made of the contemporaneous king of Jerusalem was named Abdi-Heba, which is a theophoric name invoking a Hurrian goddess named Hebat; unless a different ethnic group occupied Jerusalem in this period, this implies that the Jebusites were Hurrians themselves, were heavily influenced by Hurrian culture, or were dominated by a Hurrian maryannu class.

In the Old Babylonian period, Aleppo’s name appears as Ḥalab (Ḥalba) for the first time. Aleppo was the capital of the important Amorite dynasty of Yamḥad. The kingdom of Yamḥad (ca. 1800–1600 BC), alternatively known as the ‘land of Ḥalab,’ was the most powerful in the Near East at the time.

Yamhad (also written Yamkhad or Jamhad) was an ancient Amorite kingdom centered at Ḥalab (or Ḥalba, modern day Aleppo). The ancient name of the city, Halab, is also its Arabic name in the modern day. It is of obscure origin. Some have proposed that Halab means ‘iron’ or ‘copper’ in Amorite languages since it was a major source of these metals in antiquity. Halaba in Aramaic means white, referring to the colour of soil and marble abundant in the area.

A substantial Hurrian population also settled in the kingdom, and the Hurrian culture influenced the area. The kingdom was powerful during the Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1800-1600 BC. Its biggest rival was Qatna further south. Yamḥad was finally destroyed by the Hittites under Mursilis I in the 16th century BC. However, Aleppo soon resumed its leading role in Syria when the Hittite power in the region waned due to internal strife.

The discovery of a sophisticated city with monumental architecture, plumbing, stonework, and a large population contradicts the idea that Hurrians were a roving mountain people in a strange land. Far from being yet another rough nomadic tribe, such as the Amorites or Kassites who were latecomers to the Mesopotamian party, the Hurrians and their unique language, music, deities, and rituals may have played a key role in shaping the first cities, empires, and states.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum in the region, Parshatatar, king of the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni, conquered Aleppo in the 15th century BC. Subsequently, Aleppo found itself on the frontline in the struggle between the Mitanni and the Hittites and Egypt.[22] The Hittite Suppiluliumas I permanently defeated Mitanni and conquered Aleppo in the 14th century BC. Aleppo had cultic importance to the Hittites for being the center of worship of the Storm-God.

When the Hittite kingdom collapsed in the 12th century BC, Aleppo became part of the Aramaean Syro-Hittite kingdom of Arpad (also known as the state of Bit Agusi) at the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, and later it became the capital of the Aramaean Syro-Hittite kingdom of Hatarikka-Luhuti. Aleppo itself was known as Halman, and this changed over time to Hatarikka (or Hadrach, in the Old Testament). While the Iron Age Aleppo may initially have been independent, it quickly became a south-eastern province within another Aramean Syro-Hittite state known as Pattin (or Unqi), before falling into the hands of Hamath.

In the 9th century BC, Aleppo was conquered by the Assyrians and became part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire until the late 7th century BC, before passing through the hands of the Neo-Babylonians and the Achamenid Persians.

At some point in the early second millennium BCE, the Amorite kingdom of Mari to the south subdued Urkesh and made it a vassal state. In the continuous power struggles over Mesopotamia, another Amorite dynasty made themselves masters over Mari in the eighteenth century BCE. Shubat-Enlil (modern Tell Leilan), the capital of this Old Assyrian kingdom, was founded some distance from Urkesh at another Hurrian settlement in the Khabur River valley.

Cuneiform texts from Mari mention rulers of city-states in upper Mesopotamia with both Amurru (Amorite) and Hurrian names. Rulers with Hurrian names are also attested for Urshum and Hashshum, and tablets from Alalakh (layer VII, from the later part of the old-Babylonian period) mention people with Hurrian names at the mouth of the Orontes. There is no evidence for any invasion from the North-east. Generally, these onomastic sources have been taken as evidence for a Hurrian expansion to the South and the West.

Mitanni (Hittite cuneiform KUR URUMi-ta-an-ni, also Mittani Mi-it-ta-ni) or Hanigalbat (Assyrian Hanigalbat, Khanigalbat cuneiform Ḫa-ni-gal-bat) was an Hurrian-speaking state in northern Syria and south-east Anatolia from ca. 1500 BC–1300 BC. Founded by an Indo-Aryan ruling class governing a predominately Hurrian population, Mitanni came to be a regional power after the Hittite destruction of Amorite Babylon and a series of ineffectual Assyrian kings created a power vacuum in Mesopotamia.

The land of Mitanni in northern Syria extended from the Taurus mountains to its west and as far east as Nuzi (modern Kirkuk) and the river Tigris in the east. In the south, it extended from Aleppo across (Nuhashshe) to Mari on the Euphrates in the east. Its centre was in the Khabur River valley, with two capitals: Taite and Washshukanni called Taidu and Ushshukana respectively in Assyrian sources. The whole area allows agriculture without artificial irrigation; cattle, sheep and goats were raised. It is very similar to Assyria in climate, and was settled by both indigenous Hurrian and Amoritic-speaking (Amurru) populations.


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