Babylonian Quest for Lapis Lazuli and Dilmun during the City III period
Eric Olijdam. Pages 119-126 in F.R. Allchin & B. Allchin (eds), 1997, South Asian Archaeology 1995. New Delhi.
The second half of the second millennium BC is a poorly understood period in the history of Mesopotamia, the Persian/Arabian Gulf and adjacent areas. Soon after unifying southern Mesopotamia, by conquering the Sealand, the Kassite rulers of Babylonia became involved in the diplomatic relations between the major courts in the Near East, including Egypt. The correspondence between the 'great kings', part of which was found at Amarna in Egypt, was primarily concerned with arranging political marriages and exchanging valuable gifts. Babylonia sent lapis lazuli, horses and chariots to Egypt in exchange for large amounts of raw gold. This gold was used by the Kassite kings to finance large-scale building programmes and revitalise the Babylonian economy. Acquisition of Egyptian gold was essential for establishing important Babylonian political goals: the close incorporation of the former Sealand and the legitimization and consolidation of Kassite rule, which was based on divine legitimation supported by a sound economic policy.
In contemporary sources, Babylonia is identified as the centre of the lapis trade. Being one of the few Babylonian exchange items it is quite likely that a steady supply of this semi-precious stone was one of the most important topics on the political agenda. The small amount of lapis items from Mitanni and Assyria mentioned in the Amarna texts implies that it is unlikely that lapis entered Babylonia via a northern land route. A southern land route, controlled by Elam, is possible but was wrought with problems for most of this period. Given its extreme importance it does not seem plausible that the Kassite kings depended on lapis lazuli brought to Babylonia via land routes, especially since they were all too well aware of the danger of long-distance overland routes, even in a favourable political situation. A sea route seems more plausible and preferable.
It is generally accepted that during the late third and early second millennium most of the lapis lazuli made its way to Mesopotamia through the Gulf, but that this trade network — dominated by Dilmun — collapsed during the Old Babylonian period. The second half of the second millennium is represented in Dilmun (Bahrain, the adjacent Saudi Arabian coast and the island of Failaka) by the City III period, during which it was governed by a high Babylonian official. Items from this period made of materials alien to Dilmun (copper, gold, alabaster, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, ivory, ochre) indicate that mercantile relations were still maintained with its former partners Magan (Oman Peninsula) and Meluhha (Indus Civilisation).
The fields of economy, politics and religion are intertwined in the ideological concepts involved in Babylonian kingship. Against the background of establishing interregional relationships and upholding internal Babylonian power relations, the incorporation of Dilmun may be seen as an attempt by the Kassite kings to secure the supply of lapis lazuli. A maritime route through the Gulf should be seen as a successful effort not to become dependent upon other (competing) powers for obtaining this precious stone, and also to circumvent any difficulties that might arise between Babylonia and the source area(s) east of the Zagros Mountains. The extreme importance of lapis lazuli for the Kassite kings might not only explain the incorporation of Dilmun in Kassite Babylonia but also justify the important position of Dilmun in its political constellation.