How Bronze Age Trade Was Conducted DOCUMENTARY
Martial excellence under king Ashurbanipal gave the great Neo-Assyrian Empire its popular reputation. However, even further into the ancient past, early bronze age people of Ashur earned fame and dominance through a completely different aspect of civilisation - commerce and trade. Welcome to our video on the merchants of Old Assyria, how they operated and why their activities may have led to the rise of one of the bronze age’s most iconic Anatolian empires.
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The urban expansion led to Ur’s peak population of 200,000, making it the largest city that the world had ever seen. Unfortunately, a combination of climate change, internal strife and Amorite invasions led to the empire’s destruction. The climactic blow landed in 2004 BC when the Elamites put Ur to the torch . This marked
the twilight of a new age, during which independent city-states were locked in a mix of conflict and trade. The decentralisation prevailed across the wider region - in coastal Canaan, the mountainous lands of western Iran, and, crucially for our story, Anatolia. One of the small polities which first matured during the period was Ashur, a small city on the western bank of the Tigris.
Ashur at the dawn of the second millennium BC had no more than 15,000 citizens, unlike the highly populated cities of Sumer did not have the agricultural base to develop. The city and the small amount of territory it controlled , lay on the wrong edge of Mesopotamia’s greatly productive zone. Rainfed farming was not capable of sustaining crops in Ashur’s lands, but the terrain was suited for the herding of cattle . Nevertheless, as historian Amelie Kuhrt phrases it, Ashur was an important ‘nodal point’ in trade routes connecting Anatolia to Sumer and Iran. Lacking a massive population and a strong army, the kings of Ashur instead leveraged their commercial potential and geographic position. Texts discovered at the city of Ebla , suggest that merchant caravans from Ashur were transporting vast quantities of tin as early as the 24th century BC.
To bolster the markets of Ashur even more, savvy monarchs such as Ilushuma and his successor Erishum gave Sumerian traders tax exemptions on certain products and a number of other privileges. One consequence of this economic boom was the expansion of the Assyrian mercantile network. A particularly promising destination for Ashur’s enterprising traders was Anatolia. Most of the source material illustrating what occurred during this fascinating period originated at an archaeological site around 1,200 kilometers northwest of Ashur, near a city which was known as Kanesh during the Bronze Age.
At the turn of the twentieth century, cuneiform tablets began appearing on the antiquities market, artifacts written in the Old Assyrian dialect of Akkadian. This alerted archaeologists to the existence of a site from which these documents were being extracted, and they quickly set out to find it. A breakthrough was made by Czech ‘hittitologist’ Bedrich Hrozny in 1926, when he designated the origin point of the tablets to a small site 90 meters northeast of the main mound at Kültepe, central Turkey. Kültepe rises to a height of 20 meters above the plains surrounding it. With a diameter of just over 500 meters, the strangely smooth-sided hillock stands out in the surrounding landscape.
In reality, the smaller site discovered by Hrozny was a settlement of expatriate merchants whose homeland was the faraway city of Ashur. It was a separate ‘Assyrian quarter’ to the main settlement of Kanesh - itself a large circular city with a palace which was, in ancient times, built atop Kültepe proper. Since 1948, when thorough excavation began, over 21,500 tablets excavated from this unique site and two peripheral ones have given us a rich understanding of this period and, in particular, about the relationship that the site’s former inhabitants had with the native peoples. From the Kanesh documentation, we know that at the turn of the second millennium BC, Central Anatolia was dominated by several Hatti kingdoms known as matu, of which Kultepe’s denizens inhabited just one.
Bordering Kanesh, for example, were Burushattum and Wahsusana, south of the Kizil Irmak basin. The territories and spheres of influence which each of these realms controlled cannot be determined with such patchy and unreliable information. However, we can be more certain about their internal structures. Each had a capital city and an area of surrounding territory which the polity’s ruler - the rubaum, nominally controlled.
This overall ruler was a broadly monarch-like figure who exercised varying amounts of authority over semi-autonomous peripheral settlements, the colonists of Kanesh and other Assyrian guest enclaves among them. Most or all of these intercity mercantile enclaves were in contact with one another, even possessing a kind of collective hierarchy, with the Kanesh ‘karum’, as it was known, sitting at the very top. Other prominent cities of Anatolia were also accompanied by Assyrian karum, while smaller townships may have played host to a so-called wabartum, around a dozen or so smaller caravanserai-like waystations. An extraordinary exchange of communication between a new rubaum in Wahsusana and the city’s local karum gives us an example of just how this complex hierarchy worked.
When this regional ruler notified the karum that he had just succeeded to his father’s throne, he sent an offer of a renewed trade treaty with it. However, the reply this rubaum received shows us that even the highest strata of bronze age Anatolian society often had to be reminded of the complex Assyrian mercantile practices and procedures that had to be followed even by him. In this case, it seems that the local Wahsusana officials did not have the autonomy to treat their local strongman. “We answered: ‘The karum at Kanesh is our superior. We shall write so that they may write either to you or to us. Two men from the land will come to you and then they can make you swear the oath!” The eagerness of Hatti rulers to engage with merchants was motivated by the main commodity supplied by the Assyrians - a mysterious metal known as annukum.
Although it was once argued that this enigmatic material might have been lead, we are now almost certain that it was tin - the Bronze Age’s equivalent of crude oil. Relatively rare and only available in certain places, tin was used in the creation of bronze, the eponymous metal of the era which was used to craft almost every tool used in daily life - weaponry, kitchenware, farming equipment, and many other necessities. Lacking an indigenous source of the priceless strategic metal, rubaum such as those present in Wahsusana and Kanesh were instead forced to fall back on imports. The most feasible method for the Anatolians to import tin was engagement with the Assyrians, who in turn probably obtained it from the mountains of southwest Iran - ancient Elam.
On top of this, traders from Ashur also supplied fine woolen textiles from their native Mesopotamia. Crafted in pieces which were each around four meters square, only a small amount of them were produced in Assyria itself, while most were created in Babylonia, a land renowned for its fine quality of fabric. The Mesopotamian civilisations had what might be called a ‘secret formula’ for creating their textiles, part of which has been passed down to us in a letter. This document was sent by a high-ranking Assyrian merchant in Anatolia named Puzur-Ashur, to a weaving woman in Ashur itself known as Waqartum, and details this process - “The fine textile which you sent me - keep producing similar textiles, send them to me with Ashur-idi2, and I will send you half a mina of silver each.
Let them comb one side of the textile, they should not shear it; its weave should be close. Compared with the previous textile which you sent me, process one mina of wool extra in each piece, but keep it thin! The other side one should comb only slightly. If it is still hairy, one should shear it like a linen cloth.” While Bronze Age Anatolia was indeed deficient in some vital resources like tin, the land did have a number of natural resources to exchange with their Assyrian partners who, after all, weren’t there out of goodhearted charity. They wanted a healthy profit out of the deal as well. The region which would eventually become Roman Asia was praised by Cicero almost two millennia later as a land of great wealth, fruitful for the many goods which could be extracted from it.
Assyrian merchants were keen enough to notice this, specifically coveting Anatolia’s copper, silver and gold reserves. Such precious resources would be obtained by exchanging tin and textiles, and then sent back to Ashur as a type of ancient remittance. Booming commerce such as that between the Assyrian karum and their Anatolian hosts gave rise to financial institutions which serviced and further enabled the marketing of goods. We know, for example, that a system of credit equivalent to our business loans existed in the region.
However, with interest rates ranging from 30% to a staggering 180%, these ‘services’ might best be compared to modern day loan sharks, exploiting desperate or recklessly enterprising individuals. Sometimes, the debtors were forced to sell their family members into slavery, to dig their way out of the financial hole. Tensions between creditors and borrowers seem to have been an understandable source of social tension within the Anatolian kingdoms. When this became especially bad, rubaums repeatedly tried to ameliorate the issue by cancelling all debts and resetting from a blank slate.
As a precautionary measure, creditors would write up contracts binding people to at least part of the loan, even if the rubaum voided all debts. In the case of a family who owed grain and silver to a man named Peruwa, the contract states - “If the king cancels the obligation to pay debt, you will pay me my grain.” The surviving texts also inform us as to how Assyrian enterprise in Anatolia was conducted and how the Hatti responded and interacted with them. Operations were overseen by an arm of the Assyrian state known as the ‘Bit Alim’, or ‘House of the City’.
This institution seems to have been a powerful assembly of Ashur’s great trading families, who had a hand in almost all of the important policies enacted by the state. This included export taxes and diplomacy with Anatolian principalities near the Assyrian colonies. However, the distance between Ashur and the trading colonies meant that day-to-day enterprise was in the hands of wealthy Assyrian entrepreneurs known as ummeanum. How these private investor-like figures ran trade was almost entirely based on preference. He could maintain a purely family-focused business, managing his people and products from Ashur whilst sending younger male relatives to manage undertakings in Anatolia. Or he could form a cabal or consortium with other oligarchs, banding together to achieve monopolies over certain goods.
Another relatively common option for the ummeanum was to permanently settle in the trade colonies. Seeing better prospects for commerce and livelihood in the northwest, Assyrian merchant families might emigrate there, creating households, bringing their wives from Ashur or even marrying local Hatti women. Whatever the specifics of each family and each private businessman, ummeanum mostly entrusted the business to an operations manager known as a tamkarum - who would decide which goods would be sold, where it would be sold and to whom. The ‘blue collar’ employees of the Ashur-Anatolia trade network were known as kassaru - caravan personnel who were hired to ferry the merchandise back and forth. Two-thirds of their year was spent as a commercial traveller on the road, while the remaining third - the winter, was their time off. The average trading caravan was made up of at least 200 and perhaps as many as 250 black Cappadocian donkeys, each hauling an average of 65 kilograms of tin and 25 pieces of fabric.
The merchandise was placed in two sacks, one slung on either of the donkey’s flanks. These so-called ‘side packs’ were not to be opened during the journey, and may have been sealed to ensure they weren’t. However, there was also a smaller saddle pack containing provisions for the journey, such as light snacks, animal fodder, private possessions of the traveller and other personal effects. On the surface, the effort appears to have been worth it, as profits would often reach 100% from the tin and 200% when textiles were sold.
As is the case in most commercial enterprises throughout history, however, the kassaru and their business superiors were subject to constant taxation as they moved through different lands - 5% on textiles here, 3% on tin there. Sometimes local rulers would even claim the right to purchase 10% of a textiles shipment before they were even taken to market. Royal palaces also had the only claim to extremely rare luxury items, such as the quasi-divine meteoric iron.
In return for claiming such privileges, various states would grant the Assyrian merchants privileges including promises of protection and residential rights. Because they took on all the risks and made the effort organising the system, Assyrian traders understandably wanted to keep as much profit as possible. To this end, they quickly started finding loopholes and using savvy tactics to prevent local rulers from leeching their hard-earned revenue. A standard way of bypassing the taxman was to leave the main highway and instead travel on side roads, known to the Assyrians as ‘harran suqinnim’ - literally translated as ‘narrow track’. These backroads were less likely to be under the active supervision of any regional polity and therefore could be used to avoid the arm of the regional power.
However, there was a reason that such roads weren’t popular with the general population. In part due to the lack of state control in these areas, they would likely be swarming with outlaws and brigands ready to plunder the caravan’s merchandise and potentially far worse. Going by alternate routes also meant moving away from established sources of food and water. Experienced Assyrian traders would share this knowledge with their other, less experienced countrymen who had to make the journey.
A letter from a man named Buzazu to his business partner Puzur-Ashur, who was conducting trade near Hurrama, advises such a course of action. He also advises another, more risky method if passage on the ‘narrow track’ was not possible: “Let the merchants bring all the tin in quantities of 1 talent each into the town, or make packets of 10 to 15 minas each, and let the kassaru bring them into the town under their loincloths. Only after they have safely delivered 1 talent are they allowed to bring another talent into the town.” Such unorthodox methods of smuggling could pay dividends, but were also incredibly risky for those employing them. Being caught by the agents of an Anatolian principality could lead to the seizure of all goods in the caravan and even imprisonment for its members.
However useful the Assyrian traders were to the Hatti kings, they had to be incredibly careful not to make enemies of their hosts by cheating them out of money. In cases where merchants would violate agreements with the rulers in such a way, the latter were quick to enact severe punishment on the perpetrators. Over the centuries, the wealth generated by Assyria’s mercantile activities in Anatolia gradually began intermingling with other factors to provoke a profound political shift in the area.
The different kingdoms slowly developed a ‘greater sense of territorial consciousness’ - where were the merchants travelling? Who had the right to exact tribute from them? If my neighbor has a monopoly over the trade routes, how can I take control of them? The many routes, roads and paths used by the Assyrian merchants also produced a regular web of communications throughout Anatolia, enabling ever closer contact between the Hatti kingdoms. This mixture of territorial aggrandizement, economic motivation and better communication led to the intensification of conflict among and within states such as Kanesh and Wahsusana. The starkest example of this new era of warfare in the Anatolian world was Kanesh’s destruction at the midpoint of the nineteenth-century BC at the hands of a ruler known as Uhna - Hatti king of Zalpa, which was probably a small kingdom in the Pontic region. The destruction of Kanesh decapitated the network of Assyrian settlements and, as a result, the people of Ashur ceased all operations until stable conditions returned a few decades later.
The return to commerce was short-lived as a renewed era of the conflict began around 1750, when a mysterious King of Kussara Anitta, waged a series of wars of conquest, bringing the Hatti world under his rule. This unprecedented regional centralisation destabilised the economy, leading to conditions that were not conducive to a profitable enterprise and the Assyrian merchants could no longer operate as they had done for centuries. By about 1,700BC, the merchant colonies were gone, but their legacy paved the way for one of the greatest Bronze Age empires - that of the enigmatic Hittites. More videos on the Bronze Age are on the way, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see the next video in the series.
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