1779- 1757 BC


Like Shamshi-Adad, Iakhdunlim, his unsuccessful opponent at Mari, was a Western Semite whose forebears had abandoned the nomadic life in order to settle in the Euphrates valley.

The origins of his dynasty are obscure. Of his father Iagitlim we know only that he came into conflict with Shamshi-Adad’s father, after having been his ally. But it was Iakhdunlim who seems to have laid the foundations of Mari’s greatness.

In a building-record, which by its flawless material execution and brilliant literary qualities shows how far the sons of the desert had adopted Babylonian culture, Iakhdunlim recalls the triumphant campaign he had waged, as the first of his line, on the Mediterranean coast and in the mountains, from which he had brought back valuable timber, while at the same time forcing the country to pay tribute.

It has been seen that Shamshi-Adad boasted that he had done the same thing, which cannot be considered a real conquest. Moreover, Iakhdunlim’s power was not wholly secure in his own territory; he had to withstand both attacks by the petty kings of the middle Euphrates and the incursions of nomads, Benjaminites and Khanaeans. It was against the last of these that he had his most striking successes, imposing his rule on them from that time onwards. Once the country was pacified he was able to build a temple to Shamash and to undertake great irrigation projects, designed, notably, to supply water to a new city. It is a fact, as he himself claimed, that he had strengthened the foundations of Mari. Although his kingdom was shortly to fall into Shamshi-Adad’s hands, his work was not in vain, since it was eventually taken up by his son Zimrilim.

The latter did not wait long after the usurper’s death to ascend the throne of Mari. We are no more in a position to give an account of the new king’s reign than to understand how the reconquest took place. More than thirty year-names have been recovered, but the order of their succession is not known. State correspondence makes it possible to reconstruct certain events, but the constant instability of the political situation in Mesopotamia at this time obliges us to show extreme caution in arranging the letters.

Basically, Zimrilim’s kingdom was made up of the middle Euphrates and Khabur valleys. To the south it cannot have reached farther than Hit. To the north it undoubtedly included the mouth of the Balikh, but beyond that it is uncertain whether there lay territories directly dependent on Mari and administered by district governors, or simply more or less autonomous vassal princedoms.

In his attempts to expand Zimrilim directed the best part of his efforts towards the 'High Country', that is to say Upper Mesopotamia, which in those days was split up into numerous little states. In particular the region, bordering on the upper Khabur, which at Mari was called Idamaraz, appears to have been under his control all the time. But Zimrilim’s policy was to impose his tutelage on the petty monarchs of the 'High Country', or even simply to draw them into alliance with him, rather than to annex their countries—no doubt because he had not the resources to do so. This line of conduct was fairly general. We have only to listen to the report of one of Zimrilim’s correspondents: “No king is powerful by himself: ten or fifteen kings follow Hammurabi, king of Babylon, as many follow Rim-Sin, king of Larsa, as many follow Ibalpiel, king of Eshnunna, as many follow Amutpiel, king of Qatna, twenty kings follow Iarimlim, king of Iamkhad ...”  Grouping their vassals about them, the 'great powers' of the time entered in their turn into wider coalitions, aiming at supremacy, but these formed and broke up as circumstances and the interests of the moment dictated.

In this changing world, between negotiations and battles, Zimrilim’s policy nevertheless kept certain constant factors in view—it remained loyal to the alliances with Babylon and Aleppo. In this the king of Mari obeyed a vital necessity, for his country was above all a line of communication linking Babylon with northern Syria, and he needed to retain the goodwill of the powers which guarded both ends. These powers, for their part, had every interest in protecting the freedom of trade and leaving the burden of doing it to an ally. But once Hammurabi, after unifying Babylonia, felt strong enough to assume control himself and reap the profit from it he did not hesitate to subjugate Mari.

It is understandable that in these conditions political intrigue was extremely vigorous, leading constantly to fresh conflicts. Zimrilim recognizes this in a message which he sends to his father-in-law the king of Aleppo: “Now, since I regained my throne many days ago, I have had nothing but fights and battles”. The opponents were manifold; first, enemies outside, the most dangerous of whom was Eshnunna, frequently operating in concert with its ally Elam, and not afraid to send its troops into the heart of the High Country. There were also rebellious vassals whose loyalty had to be enforced. Lastly, and perhaps above all, there were the nomads, constantly on watch at the edge of the desert, whom no defeat could disarm once and for all. Zimrilim boasts of having crushed the Benjaminites in the Khabur valley, but a victory like this could, at the most, procure only a momentary respite, for the struggle between nomads and settlers, having its origins in physical conditions, could never cease. Without any respite, new groups came to replace those who had left the desert to install themselves in the sown lands. The threat was there each day. Not content with raiding the flocks or plundering the villages, the nomads became bold enough to attack important localities, whether caravan cities or towns on the banks of the Euphrates. The anxiety to ensure the policing of the desert and to contain the movements of the nomads must have been among Zimrilim’s main preoccupations. No negligence could be permitted, lest it should be the start of a catastrophic invasion, for every advance of the nomads brought with it an inevitable process of disintegration. Despite the measures taken, security remained precarious. Sometimes it happened that the nomads infested the whole countryside and were brought to a halt only before the ramparts of the towns. The king himself was advised not to leave the capital. Clearly, a struggle like this must have been a considerable embarrassment to Zimrilim’s policy, using up his resources and weakening the country's economy.

This state of affairs was certainly not what the country had known in the time of Shamshi-Adad. Relations with the Benjaminites, in particular, had distinctly deteriorated. Shamshi-Adad was at the head of a powerful, centralized state, making the nomads, whose movements he could control over vast areas of land, acutely aware of his authority. Zimrilim, on the other hand, absorbed in exhausting competition with other sovereigns, had relatively limited means at his disposal and reigned over a smaller territory, entirely surrounded by steppe.

However, the archives seem to reflect the image of a prosperous, vigorous country. The palace of Mari enrolled a large staff, in which singing girls, for example, are to be counted in tens. We see executives in movement all the time, hurrying in from all the surrounding countries, while reports pour in addressed to the king by his representatives and by the ambassadors he maintains at the principal foreign courts. The inventories bear witness to the wealth of precious things, and the accounts record the arrival of foodstuffs and luxury products, the latter generally sent by kings of neighbouring lands, to whom Zimrilim replied in kind.

Archaeological discoveries have given this picture material form.

We have a message in which the king of Aleppo communicates to Zimrilim the wish expressed to him by the king of Ugarit to visit the palace of Mari. This palace is in fact the most remarkable monument that excavations have found there. It is of gigantic proportions.  More than 260 chambers, courtyards and corridors have already been counted, arranged according to a plan in the shape of a trapezium, but one part of the building has entirely disappeared; the complete structure must have covered an area of more than six acres. The decoration of the private apartments and some of the reception rooms is up to the standard of this royal architecture. The brilliant art of the fresco-painters is displayed particularly in the great compositions of the central court, leading to the chamber with a podium and the throne room. In the scene which has given its name to the main painting, the king is receiving investiture at the hands of the goddess Ishtar, shown in her warlike aspect. The luxurious refinement of the decoration has its counterpart in the comfort of the domestic installations. But the palace was not simply the king’s residence; it was also an administrative centre, with a school for training scribes, its archive-repositories, its magazines and workshops.

It is impossible to believe that a building like this could have been the work of a single person. Moreover, the successive stages in the plan or in the construction can be picked out without difficulty. But Zimrilim was responsible for the latest architectural phase and left his mark in the form of bricks inscribed with his name. The occupant of such an imposing palace, which excited the admiration of contemporaries, needed abundant resources, as reading of the records suggests. Hence arises the question of Zimrilim’s resources—what did his wealth come from? The reports of his provincial governors reveal the attention paid by the king to agriculture and to the irrigation-works upon which it depended. There was an extensive network of canals, the most important of which (still visible today) had been dug on the orders of Iakhdunlim. These made it possible, at the cost of unremitting efforts, to extend the area under cultivation. But despite their fertility the Euphrates and Khabur valleys, closed in by arid plateaux, are not enough to explain Mari’s prosperity, for as a result of a famine, caused no doubt by war, we even find Zimrilim having corn brought from Upper Syria.

The geographical position of Mari provides the answer to our question: the city controlled the caravan-route linking the Persian Gulf with Syria and the Mediterranean coast. Merely to trace the main destinations of trade on the map establishes how much it followed this route. Along it Babylonia received the timber, stone and resinous substances of Lebanon and the Amanus mountains, the wine and olive-oil of Syria. Other products too reached Mari from more distant countries, perhaps to be re-exported. Thus Zimrilim sends Hammurabi of Babylon some object, or a piece of cloth, coming from Crete. On the other hand the Cypriot copper which is several times mentioned in the accounts, no doubt remained at Mari, because Babylonia had other sources of supply.

In any case, the city kept up close relations with the Mediterranean ports of Ugarit and Byblos, and even with Palestine. Babylonian messengers went through Mari on their return from a long stay at Hazor in Galilee. In the other direction, Babylonia had little to export. But she kept up a vigorous flow of trade with Tilmun, the island of Bahrain, from which she got notably copper and precious stones. An embassage from Tilmun to Shubat-Enlil has been observed returning home by way of Mari—this was in the reign of Shamshi-Adad. Moreover there were other routes, bringing the products of central Asia, which ran into Babylonia. Along one of these lay Susa, another came down the Diyala valley. It was no doubt by this route that lapis-lazuli, quarried in Afghanistan, was brought. One text does in fact mention lapis-lazuli as coming from Eshnunna. It was also through Mari that the tin imported by Babylonia from Elam passed westwards towards Aleppo, Qatna, Carchemish and Hazor.

The chamber of commerce (karurriof Sippar had good reason to keep a mission in the capital of the middle Euphrates, which was one of the cross-roads of international trade. The numerous stores and repositories of the palace, in which even now rows of enormous jars have been found, bear witness perhaps to Zimrilim’s direct participation in this profitable business, without taking into account the revenue he got from it to swell his treasury. In spite of the struggles caused by interstate rivalries the whole of western Asia at that time shared a common civilization.

There was no splitting up into compartments, and despite temporary restrictions men and merchandise could move about from the Persian Gulf to Upper Syria, and from Elam to the Mediterranean coast. It was the prominent part played by Mari in these exchanges which guaranteed its material prosperity and placed Zimrilim on a level footing with the principal sovereigns of his time, permitting him to finance expensive campaigns or to act as intermediary between the kings of Aleppo and Babylon.

But in the last analysis, this power was artificial and could give only a false security. The glamour is deceptive, the wonders of Mari more brilliant than solid. Without natural defences and without hinterland, spread out along the Euphrates and Khabur valleys, and plagued by the disturbing proximity of the nomads, the country could not put up any serious resistance to the pressure of a real military power. So long as Hammurabi was kept occupied on other frontiers, he played Zimrilim skilfully, leaving him the profit he gained from his situation as well as the duty of protecting the route to the west. But as soon as his hands were free he changed his policy. Mari was eliminated in two stages, the second ending in the city's occupation and final ruin. Here is the palpable weakness of its position: the middle Euphrates would never again seem a political factor of any importance. Mari’s prosperity was vulnerable because it depended to a large extent upon external circumstances. Its high point coincided with a moment of equilibrium, the fortunate conditions of which did not recur. Zimrilim had the merit of turning it to the best possible account.