Amorite (Sumerian 𒈥𒌅 MAR.TU, Akkadian Tidnum or Amurrūm, Egyptian Amar, Hebrew אמורי ʼĔmōrī, Ancient Greek Αμορίτες) refers to an ancient Semitic-speaking people from ancient Syria who also occupied large parts of Mesopotamia from the 21st Century BC. The term Amurru in Akkadian and Sumerian texts refers to them, as well as to their principal deity.
In the earliest Sumerian sources, beginning about 2400 BC, the land of the Amorites ("the Mar.tu land") is associated not with Mesopotamia but with lands immediately to the West, including what is now modern Syria and Canaan. 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". The ethnic terms Amurru and Amar were used for them in the Akkadian Empire, Assyria and Egypt respectively. 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.
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.
According to the Hebrew scriptures, Amalek is distinct from the Amorites. "The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan." (1769 Oxford King James Bible "Authorized Version", Numbers 13:29)
From inscriptions and tablets
In the earliest Sumerian texts, all western lands beyond the Euphrates, including Syria and Canaan, were known as "the land of the MAR.TU (Amorites)". This term 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.
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. 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, for example:
- The MAR.TU who know no grain... The MAR.TU who know no house nor town, the boors of the mountains... The MAR.TU who digs up truffles... who does not bend his knees (to cultivate the land), who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after death...
- They have prepared wheat and gú-nunuz (grain) as a confection, but an Amorite will eat it without even recognizing what it contains!
As the centralized structure of the Ur III empire slowly collapsed, the component regions began to reassert their former independence, and places where Amorites resided were no exception. Elsewhere, the armies of Elam were attacking and weakening the empire, making it vulnerable. Some Amorites aggressively took advantage of the failing empire to seize power for themselves. There was not an Amorite invasion as such, but Amorites did ascend to power in many locations, especially during the reign of the last king of the Ur III Dynasty, Ibbi-Sin. Leaders with Amorite names assumed power in various places, including Isin and Larsa. Babylon, hitherto a politically and military unimportant town was raised to the status of an independent city state under Sumuabum in 1894 BC, and later empire under the Amorites. The Elamites finally sacked Ur in ca. 2004 BC. Some time later, the most powerful rulers in Mesopotamia (immediately preceding the rise of Hammurabi of Babylon) were Shamshi-Adad I and Ishme-Dagan of Assyria, also regarded as Amorites, although Shamshi-Adad I claims decendancy from the native Akkadian king of Assyria Ushpia in the Assyrian King List.
There is a wide range of views regarding the Amorite homeland. One extreme is the view that kur mar.tu/māt amurrim covered the whole area between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean, Arabia included. The other extreme is the view that the “homeland” of the Amorites was a limited area in Syria (Jebel Bishri). One minority theory refers to Arabia in general as the area from where the Amorites once came. Another refers to a limited area (unknown) in Arabia, the mountain district of Martu. However, as the Amorite language is a north western Semitic language, it is likely that they originated from what is now modern Syria.
Effects on Mesopotamia
The rise of the Amorite kingdoms in Mesopotamia brought about deep and lasting repercussions in its political, social, and economic structure, especially in southern Mesopotamia.
The division into kingdoms replaced the Sumero-Akkadian city-state in southern Mesopotamia. Men, land, and cattle ceased to belong physically to the gods or to the temples and the king. The new monarchs gave, or let out for an indefinite period, numerous parcels of royal or sacerdotal land, freed the inhabitants of several cities from taxes and forced labor, and seem to have encouraged a new society to emerge, a society of big farmers, free citizens, and enterprising merchants which was to last throughout the ages. The priest assumed the service of the gods, and cared for the welfare of his subjects, but the economic life of the country was no longer exclusively (or almost exclusively) in their hands.
In general terms, Mesopotamian civilization survived the arrival of Amorites, as the indigenous Sumerian-Akkadian civilization had survived domination during the restless period that had preceded the rise of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The religious, ethical, and artistic directions in which Mesopotamia had been developing since earliest times, were not greatly impacted by the Amorites' hegemony. They continued to worship the Sumerian gods, and the older Sumerian myths and epic tales were piously copied, translated, or adapted, generally with only minor alterations. As for the scarce artistic production of the period, there is little to distinguish it from the preceding Ur III era.
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.
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).
The term Amorites is used in the Bible to refer to certain highland mountaineers who inhabited the land of Canaan, described in Genesis 10:16 as descendants of Canaan, son of Ham. They are described as a powerful people of great stature "like the height of the cedars," (Amos 2:9) who had occupied the land east and west of the Jordan. The height and strength mentioned in Amos 2:9 has led some Christian scholars, including Orville J. Nave, who wrote the classic Nave's Topical Bible to refer to the Amorites as "giants."
The Amorite king, Og, was described as the last "of the remnant of the Rephaim" (Deut. 3:11). 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.
The Biblical Amorites seem to have originally occupied the region stretching from the heights west of the Dead Sea (Gen. 14:7) to Hebron (13:8; Deut. 3:8; 4:46-48), embracing "all Gilead and all Bashan" (Deut. 3:10), with the Jordan valley on the east of the river (4:49), the land of the "two kings of the Amorites," Sihon and Og (Deut. 31:4; Josh. 2:10; 9:10). Both Sihon and Og were independent kings. These Amorites seem to have been linked to the Jerusalem region, and the Jebusites may have been a subgroup of them. The southern slopes of the mountains of Judea are called the "mount of the Amorites" (Deut. 1:7, 19, 20).
Five kings of the Amorites were first defeated with great slaughter by Joshua (10:10). Then more Amorite kings were defeated at the waters of Merom by Joshua (Josh. 11:8). It is mentioned that in the days of Samuel, there was peace between them and the Israelites (1 Sam. 7:14). The Gibeonites were said to be their descendants, being an offshoot of the Amorites that made a covenant with the Hebrews; when Saul would break that vow and kill some of the Gibeonites, God sent a famine to Israel.
The view that Amorites were fierce, tall nomads led to an idiosyncratic theory among some writers in the 19th century that they were a tribe of "Aryan" warriors who at one point dominated the Israelites. This was because the evidence fitted then-current models of Indo-European migrations. This theory originated with Felix von Luschan, who later abandoned it.
In reality the Amorites are known to have exclusively spoken a Semitic language, followed Near Eastern Semitic religions and had distinctly Semitic personal names. Their origins were believed to have been the lands immediately to the west of Mesopotamia, in the Levant (modern Syria).
- E. Chiera, Sumerian Epics and Myths, Chicago, 1934, Nos.58 and 112;
- E. Chiera, Sumerian Texts of Varied Contents, Chicago, 1934, No.3.;
- H. Frankfort, AAO, pp. 54–8;
- F.R. Fraus, FWH, I (1954);
- G. Roux, Ancient Iraq, London, 1980.
- Amorites in the Jewish Encyclopedia
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