Why the World’s First Empire Disappeared
Why the World’s First Empire Disappeared
Who wouldn’t want to live in a land so green, with soil so rich, a climate so conducive to agriculture, that prosperity was guaranteed?
Such a land existed. This was Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, during its earliest days.
People lived as families. Families founded villages, which grew into cities. Food was plentiful and easy to come by. The population blossomed. There was no need for conflict.
Yet one man, born into this idyllic setting, changed everything forever.
About 4,300 years ago, a mighty tyrant forced the peoples of this region to bow to his rule. His armies marched from the giant cosmopolitan metropolises of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to the agricultural exporting centers in northern Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean enclaves of present-day Lebanon. City after city allied itself with him—or succumbed to his advancing armies.
The world’s first dictator and empire was born. He was the king of the Akkadians.
The Akkadians were an aggressive and expansive people who assimilated the Sumerians and were known for starting wars with neighboring territories. At their height, they held sway over the entire region encompassing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the region north and west into modern-day Syria, and the area south into the Jordan Valley and modern-day Israel. Famous cities such as those listed in Genesis 10:10 (Babel, Erech, Accad and Calneh) all belonged to the Akkadians.
The success of this empire marked a huge turning point in the history of mankind. And it holds a lesson for today that is more relevant than ever.
A Treasure Trove From Antiquity
The ancient city of Tel Qarqur in northwest Syria is currently ground zero for archeological discovery from this age of man. For the past three decades, archeologists have been excavating what looks like a giant pile of dirt there. That mound of rubble is a unique treasure trove. It is a window into the past.
Tel Qarqur has an astounding history. For instance, in 1861, at a site in Turkey, archeologists unearthed the now-famous Kurkh monolith. The large stone monument describes Tel Qarqur as the site of a great battle between Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, and an alliance of 12 coastal kings. Included on the list of kings was Ben Hadad of Damascus and “Ahab the Israelite,” both of biblical fame. According to the stone’s text, King Ahab’s force of 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers was the second-largest contingent within the resistance opposing the Assyrians.
Although this specific battle is not recorded in the Bible, Ahab’s association with Ben Hadad is. In 1 Kings 20, the Bible describes how God miraculously intervened to help Ahab completely destroy two of Ben Hadad’s larger invading armies. After Ben Hadad humbly begged Ahab to spare his life, Ahab made a treaty with him and set him free. It was most likely then that the two kings joined forces to fight the Assyrians.
But the ancient city of Tel Qarqur is also famous for its earlier, even more intriguing history.
Ancient Civilization Collapse
Over the years at this Syrian dig site, archeologists have discovered large fortifications, a temple complex, baths, small decorative figurines and various types of pottery. Today, using ground-penetrating radar, scientists are documenting the existence of large, sprawling residential and other structures surrounding the city center.
Such finds are not altogether unusual. But what makes them so unique at the excavation in Tel Qarqur is the fact that they are dated to 4,200 years ago.
Forty-two hundred years ago is an interesting date for three reasons. First, scientists note that 4,200 years ago, ancient civilizations across virtually the entire Middle East experienced sudden, dramatic collapse. It was a time of depopulation and great mass migrations, as people headed out in just about any direction they could.
“There was widespread abandonment of many of the largest archaeological sites and ancient cities in the region and also large numbers of smaller sites,” says Jesse Casana, professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. Harvey Weiss, professor of Near Eastern Archeology at Yale, goes even further, stating, “Abandonments are evident at almost all excavated sites of this period across the Habor and Assyrian plains.”
It was shortly after this time that the Akkadian Empire disintegrated.
Only 4,300 years ago, the fertile Mesopotamian region was dominated by the Akkadians. However, a hundred years later, “the region’s new urbanites abruptly left their homes and fled south, abandoning the cities for centuries to come” (Discover, March 1998).
So, for around 100 years, the Akkadian Empire flourished. Then it mysteriously and suddenly collapsed, and the cities were abandoned.
Tel Qarqur, for some reason, was an exception to the rule, growing and even expanding.
For many years, scientists have been puzzled over the collapse of the Akkadian Empire. Some have attributed it to political disintegration or incompetent administrators. Others have credited invasion by hostile tribes or disruptions in trade routes. But for the most part, scientists have never really understood what caused this rapidly growing empire to experience such a dramatic population decline, and why it led to the wholesale abandonment of previously prosperous cities throughout the whole region.
Today, some scientists have another theory as to why the Akkadian Empire collapsed so quickly. This is the second reason 4,200 years ago is an interesting date.
Scientists are now discovering that about 4,200 years ago, the Middle East was suddenly rocked by widespread drought—one that sent people fleeing an onslaught of hot wind and dust storms. Drought-like conditions lasted for about 300 years.
Weiss claims that “4,200 years ago, there was an abrupt climate change, and abrupt drying, and abrupt deflection of the Mediterranean westerly winds that transport humid air into the eastern Mediterranean region.” Rainfalls were reduced by somewhere between 30 and 50 percent.
At Tell Leilan, an ancient city in northern Iraq, archeologists have dug up dramatic evidence of this massive drought.
Forty-three hundred years ago, Tell Leilan was a thriving city. Its population was expanding and its influence in the agricultural north growing. Then sometime over the next hundred years, something very interesting took place, not only in Tell Leilan, but also in Nineveh and many other cities across the Fertile Crescent: The first city walls were built.
The Akkadians were known for constructing city walls. And at Tell Leilan, the perimeter walls were huge. There were inner and outer walls, each 8 meters thick—large enough for two horse-drawn carts to drive side by side on the top.
These giant walls were a sign not only of economic prosperity, abundant crop yields and burgeoning populations—but also of political stratification and the threat of warfare.
Yet as big as Tell Leilan’s walls were, they could do nothing to protect it from drought.
Sometime around 4,200 years ago, Tell Leilan was abruptly and completely abandoned and its large walls covered in dirt. But not just any dirt: Archeologists note that city structures, including the walls, are covered in 3 feet of extremely fine, wind-blown dirt. And the layers of earth contain no traces of human habitation for the next few centuries. Much of the dirt also holds little or no evidence of earthworm activity. Both factors point to a period of severe water limitation.
“These data define the effects of an abrupt climatic change at approximately 2200 b.c., namely imperial collapse, regional desertion, and large-scale population dislocation,” says Wiess.
It was this drying trend that caused the Akkadians’ rain-based agricultural society to collapse, argues Weiss. And even cities like Ur, which practiced irrigation-based agriculture, would have been affected, because their large populations made them dependent on food imports from northern allied cities like Nineveh.
With falling food production, populations were forced to migrate elsewhere. This is why widespread archeological evidence shows cities across the region being abandoned and depopulated for the next 300 years.
This drought is documented in Genesis 12, where Abraham is said to have left the land of Canaan and traveled into Egypt because “the famine was grievous in the land.”
Some scientists, however, are not convinced that climate change was the main cause for the collapse of cities in the Middle East. Conventional wisdom dictates that these civilizations, with their large grain storage structures, advanced trade systems and institutions of government and taxation would be immune or at least highly resistant to natural disaster. And besides, if drought were the primary cause, why would all these cities have collapsed so abruptly?
The Bible’s Answer
What these scientists, and even Harvey Weiss, don’t understand is that there was another, perhaps even greater force that caused people to abandon the cities of Akkadia 4,200 years ago.
Bible scholars know that something else dramatic and sudden occurred right about that time.
Not long after the Flood, a man named Nimrod became the world’s first emperor—and its first dictator. The exact date of Nimrod’s rule was preserved by Roman historians. Velleius Paterculus cites an earlier source in his book Roman History, saying, “Between this time [the time when Rome conquered Philip, king of Macedon] and the beginning of the reign of Ninus [another name for Nimrod] king of the Assyrians, who was the first to hold world power, lies an interval of 1,995 years” (emphasis added).
Assyrians was the Roman name for the people ruling over northern Syria and Iraq—the same people that scholars today call the Akkadians.
Since Philip was conquered around 197 b.c. (at the battle of Cynoscephalae), Nimrod probably began his reign sometime around 2192 b.c., or a little over 4,200 years ago. But as the Compendium of World History by Herman L. Hoeh brings out, Nimrod was really ruling even earlier, in conjunction with his father, Cush.
The Bible records how this first emperor gained his power, too. The land of the Fertile Crescent was very productive, but as Genesis records, wild animals were causing problems. Because the people’s weapons at the time were so primitive, and some larger species of animals were alive that have since become extinct, there was a great danger to life.
Nimrod, a renowned hunter, organized the people together for protection against the ferocious beasts.
However, Nimrod decided there was a better way to protect the people from the roaming wild animals than by constantly fighting them: It was to build defensive walls around their cities. Thus the people were protected, and Nimrod was able to rule over them. This arrangement was agreeable to the people: “They said … let us build us a city and … make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad” (Genesis 11:4).
“The people not only protected themselves from the wild animals by building a walled city, but also established authority of their own—‘let us make us a name,’” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in his book Mystery of the Ages. “This was to be a central place of mankind’s authority—the necessity of their obedience to God was not going to be recognized! Nimrod was their leader. Also they built a tower whose top was to ‘reach unto heaven.’ With a tower this high, they could do as they wished—disobey God and still be safe from His punishment which had drowned the inhabitants of the Earth before. This was mankind’s first act of open rebellion against God after the Flood—they thought they had placed themselves out of God’s reach if they wished to disobey Him. They, like Satan, thought that if they could ‘ascend above the heights of the clouds,’ they could ‘be like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:14).
Why, then, does the Bible say the Akkadian Empire—which was actually Nimrod’s empire—collapsed so suddenly?
Confirming the Bible’s Account
During Nimrod’s day, everyone spoke the same language (Genesis 11:1). Thus society and technology were advancing at a rapid pace—but they were not good advances. Verse 6 says, “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
So what did God do? “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (verses 7-9).
As the Bible reveals, God was behind the scattering of the Akkadians. God changed the people’s languages in order to cause them to migrate away from many city centers in the Fertile Crescent. God wanted to slow down human advancement lest mankind too quickly reach the point where, if Christ didn’t directly intervene, all life would be destroyed (Matthew 24:22).
In a situation in which languages are suddenly changed, it is not hard to envision social, political and economic institutions quickly breaking down. Cities would have quickly become unmanageable. An onset of a drought would only have hastened the exodus and prevented the return.
Once again, archeology confirms the biblical account of history. Nimrod, the scattering of the people, and thus the authenticity of the Bible are being confirmed by science—even if most scientists don’t realize it.
But if the Bible is a confirmed and verified historical document, shouldn’t we pay attention to what it says? Shouldn’t we learn from the lesson of Nimrod?
Today, science and technology are making huge advances. But society’s evils are increasing at an even faster rate. Science has given us the Hubble telescope, with which we can see the universe, which, the Bible reveals, holds incredible promise for the future of mankind (request our free booklet Our Awesome Universe Potential)—but at the same time, science has also given us the nuclear bomb.
Nimrod knew that disobedience eventually leads to Flood-like destruction. In his misguided thinking, he sought to avoid the consequences of sin by building a tower so tall that water would never be able to cover it.
Forty-two hundred years after Nimrod, mankind still hasn’t learned its lesson—and is once again facing worldwide destruction.