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Amorites were an ethnolinguistic group of Semites living west of the Euphrates. The English term Amorite is derived from ĕmōrî, a word found in the Hebrew Bible that is adapted from the Akkadian word for Amorites amurrû; the Sumerian term for Amorites is Mar.tu, which like its Akkadian equivalent also mean the compass direction west. It is sometimes unclear when somebody designated as Martu or amurrû is Amorite or just a westerner; the individual's name can sometimes be of help.

Amorites (an ethnolinguistic group) used Akkadian bureaucratically, but there was no written Amorite language and as such Amorite tales and lore have been lost to history. Mesopotamian and Syrian literature, written in Akkadian and often contradictory, is the primary source of Amorite history; Egyptian and other documents are secondary; and scant, intermixed Amorite archaeological finds are tertiary. No Amorite pots nor weapons have even been concretely identified. Amorite Kingdoms of the Northern Levant in ~ BCE were: Yamhad; Ugarit; Qatna; Byblos; and possibly Apum.

Amorites in the Late 3th MILL BCE

An ~26th CENT BCE tablet from the Fara (ancient Shuruppak) provides the earliest mention of Mar.tu when an individual with a Sumerian name is described as Mar.tu. Later, ~ BCE - ~ BCE texts from Ebla describe the country Mar-tuki/Mar-tumki, and even mention a Mar-tumki king named Amuti. These individuals' names are not Amorite, however, and they may just be other inhabitants of Syria and Mesopotamia. Shar-kali-sharri (a descendent of Sargon from ~ BCE) provides the first account of an Amorite tribe in a date formula from his reign that describes defeating Mar.tu near modern Jebel Bishri, a low mountainous region west of the Euphrates. Mentions of Amorites grow increasingly frequent in the 3th MILL BCE and distinctively Amorite names begin to appear.

By Shulgu's ~ BCE reign of Ur, Amorites pressure on the Sumerian kingdom in southern and central Mesopotamia necessitated a massive fortification wall spanning from the Euphrates to an area just north of Baghdad. Amorite villages were controlled or even raided by Mesopotamians; however, some Amorites were given governance and mercenary duties. Letters in Eshnunna (modern Tell Asmar) have revealed uneasy truces arising from marriages between Amorites and the rulers of the city-states they inhabited. However, Amorite's disruption of Sumerian communications allowed city-states to grow in power to the point that Ibbi-Sin ( BCE - BCE), Ur's last ruler, lost control of his kingdom's major urban centers. Below is an excerpt of a letter written by Ishbi-Irra to his overlord Ibbi-Sin. Within a few years, Ibbi-Sin's reign had fallen (Ishbi-Irra founded his own dynasty at Isin) and a century-long dark age ensued in Mesopotamian history.

Reports that hostile Amorites had entered the country were heard, and all the grain, 144,00 kor, (that had been bought) was brought into Isin. Now the Amorites in their entirety have entered the heart of the country and have taken the great fortresses one by one. After Thorkild Jacobsen, "The Reign of Ibbĭ-Suen," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 7, p. 40

Amorites in the Early 2nd MILL BCE

During the Mesopotamian dark age after Ur III's collapse, Amorite mercenaries became the strongest military force and overtook the cities they originally protected (including Larsa, Kish, Babylon, Sippar, Marad and Uruk). A surge in Amorite names is the only evidence of their infiltration; they integrated into Sumero-Babylonian culture so deeply that mentions of Mar.tu grew rare. In ~ BCE, Yakhdun-Lim of the Khaneans (Amorite tribes in the Mari region) embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects after overthrowing the Mari king. A nearby Amorite named Shamshi-Adad invaded Mari and seized control upon Yakhdun-Lim's death, which was possibly by Shamshi-Adad's orders. Shamshi-Adad placed his younger son Yasmakh-Addu on the Mari throne. When Shamshi-Adad died ~20 years later, Yakhdun-Lim's son Zimri-Lim assumed the kingship. Zimri-Lim lived opulently in a palace with over 300 rooms across ~3 hectares. The palace contained a massive tablet archive that is a primary source for Old Babylonian Syria and Mesopotamian history for this time period. These tablets were fired for eternal preservation when Hammurabi of Babylon, also an Amorite, conquered Mari in his 35th year and permanently obliterated it. Another notable kingdom, Yamkhad, stood northwest of Mari and was dominant eastward across north Syria; Yamkhad consisted of Akkadians, Amorites, Hurrians and some Indo-Aryans from the east.

After Hurrians in the north and Kassites had destabilized Amorite kingdoms, the ~ BCE raid on Babylon both destroyed Hammurabi's dynasty and left Syria in shambles. The Amarna period ensued, with opportunistic Hittite, Mitani, Egyptian and eventually even Assyrian rulers fighting for control of territory in Syria. Amurru was a loose confederation of small kingdoms in Syria, Palestine and Arabia that is mostly known through Egyptian execration texts. The term Amurru continued to refer to the region's kingdoms even after Amurru's collapse, but only the Hebrew Bible still noted an Amorite ethnicity, referring to Palestine's inhabitants that would be displaced by the Israelite conquest of Canaan.

Political organization

The mostly tribal structure of the Amorites has been reconstructed from the archives at Mari. The main tribal population at Mari was Khana (Khaneans), although the word khana later referred to any nomadic population. Khana branched into Sim'al (Sim'alites; literally sons of the left) and Yamina (Yaminites; literally songs of the right); the Sim'al and Yamina were geographically but not ethnically separate. Sim'al was further subdivided into Amnanu, Yakhruru, Uprapu/Ubrabu, Yarikhu and Rabbu/Rababu tribes. Another major tribal group was Sutu (Sutians), which included Almutu, Mikhalizayu and Yakhmamu tribes. In addition to the Khana and Sutu tribes were: Numkha and Yamutbal, along the Khabur; and the Ya'ilanu, found east of the Tigris.

Each tribe had a sug?gu, a liaison with central palace authorities who assembled census information and provided army and corvé conscripts. Amorite nomadism remains vague, but surely included seasonal movement of sheep and goats between traditional tribal grazing grounds along the middle Euphrates and the valley of the Khabur. Near Mari, some pastoralists began to settle as sedentary agriculturalists. As certain Amorites shifted into the urban palace lifestyle, they still had to deal with their sometimes unruly nomadic neighbors. In one case, a governor of a Mari district sent a letter to Zimri-Lim to complain about Yaminite troublemakers. However, many rulers still noted their nomadic Amorite heritage that was just a few decades old. In the capital city of Mari, a high official wrote to the king the advice shown to the left. Note that in later times, Hebrew kings and messiahs rode mules as a symbol of their status.

My lord should give his majesty honor. Since you are king of the Kahneans and you are, secondly, king of the Akkadians, my lord ought not ride horses; rather, it is upon a chariot and mules that my lord ought to ride, and in this way he can give honor to his majesty. After Kupper, Correspondance de Bahdi-Lim, no. 76

Amorites seizing power in Mesopotamia rapidly took in Sumero-Babylonian traditions, including titles (ie, kingship) and forms, but even after many generations remained aware of their Amorite heritage. For example, the Urukian king Anam wrote to Hammurabi of Babylon's father Sin-muballit that their mutual Amnan-Yakhruru tribe was grounds for alliance. Some rulers hinted at tribal origins: some kept the title king of the Amnanu alongside the title king of Uruk; others used the title rabiānu (Akkadian for chief), for example rabiānu amurrim (chief of the Amorites), rabiān amnan šadlaš (chief of the Amnanu of Shadlash and even rabiān rababim (chief of the Rababu; used by a ruler of Kisurra); still others used the traditional tribal title abu (father), such as the Elamite Kudur-Mabuk who appointed his son as king of Larsa and thus began a dynasty.

A millennium later, Shamshi-Adad (an Amorite from Ekallatum who conquered Ashur) and his ancestors were placed atop the Assyrian Kinglist; in addition to mentions of Khana and Ditanu, this reflects the importance of tribal solidarity. Another list, written for funerary offerings amidst Ammi-saduqa's early 16th CENT BCE reign in Babylon, also mentions the Khana and Ditanu tribes and provides a link between Amorite tribes of Mesopotamia and Syria.


Whitting 1995.