Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 10

THE GREAT KINGDOM OF UR

About the Guti who overthrew the Akkadian empire and ruled over Mesopotamia for almost a hundred years we know next to nothing.1 The Sumerian King List gives ‘the hordes of Gutium’ twenty-one kings, but very few of them have left us inscriptions, and this, coupled with silence from other sources, points to a period of political unrest. The invaders were certainly not very numerous; they ravaged the country, probably plundered Agade and occupied Nippur and a few strategic points. Yet we know from a recently published inscription that at least one of their kings, Erridu-Pizir, fought against the Lullubi and the Hurrians of Kurdistan in defence of Akkad,2 and many cities must have enjoyed almost complete freedom, keeping alive a spirit of national resistance which, eventually, culminated in the liberation of Sumer and Akkad. When, in about 2120 B.C., Utuhegal, ensi of Uruk, mustered an army and rose against ‘the stinging serpent of the hills’ several princes in southern Iraq followed him. The hated foreigners were defeated; Tiriqan, their king, tried to escape, was captured and handed over to the Sumerian leader:

Utu-hegal sat down; Tiriqan lay at his feet. Upon his neck he set his foot, and the sovereignty of Sumer he restored into his (own) hands.3

Nippur was no doubt recovered, and Uruk, the city which since the days of Gilgamesh had given Sumer no less than four dynasties, could stand once again at the head of the city-states. But its fifth dynasty was short-lived: after seven years of reign Utu-hegal was evicted by one of his own officials, Ur-Nammu,* governor of Ur, who took the titles ‘King of Ur, King of Sumer and Akkad’. Thus was founded the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2112 – 2004 B.C.), which represents one of the most brilliant periods in the history of ancient Iraq, for not only did Ur-Nammu and his successors restore the Akkadian empire throughout its length and breadth but they gave Mesopotamia a century of relative peace and prosperity and sponsored an extraordinary renaissance in all the branches of Sumerian art and literature.

Ur-Nammu and Gudea

Compared with the Sargonic period, the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur – the ‘Ur III’ or ‘Neo-Sumerian’ period, as it is sometimes called – is conspicuously poor in historical inscriptions and, much as we should like to, we cannot follow Ur-Nammu in the battles which served to enlarge his kingdom. The collapse of the Guti followed by the accidental death of Utu-hegal (‘his body was carried off by the river’) must have resulted in complete political vacuum, and we may assume that the whole of Mesopotamia fell into the hands of the King of Ur in a comparatively short time. The rest of the reign (2112-2095) was devoted to the fulfilment of more domestic but none the less urgent and important tasks: the restoration of order and prosperity and the care of the gods. Ur-Nammu ‘freed the land from thieves, robbers and rebels’ and has long been thought to have dictated what is considered to be the most ancient collection of laws in the world, although it appears from a newly found tablet that the true author was his son Shulgi.4In its present state, this ‘code’ is incomplete, but what remains of the laws is of considerable interest, for it appears that at least some crimes (such as physical injury) were not punished by death or mutilation, as later in the Code of Hammurabi or the Hebraic law, but the offender was obliged to pay compensation in silver, the weight of which varied according to the gravity of the crime. This, of course, is the sign of a society far more polished and civilized than is usually imagined.5 Ur-Nammu

image

Reconstruction of the ziqqurat of Ur, as it probably looked at the time it was built by Ur-Nammu or Shulgi.
After Sir Leonard Woolley, Ur Excavations, V, 1939.

also revived agriculture and improved communications by digging a number of canals; towns were fortified against future wars, and an enormous amount of rebuilding was carried out. But in the minds of archaeologists the name of Ur-Nammu will for ever be associated with the ziqqurats, or stage-towers, which he erected in Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Nippur and various other cities and which are still the most impressive monuments of these sites.6

The best preserved of these stage-towers, the ziqqurat of Ur, may be taken as an example.7 Built of mud bricks, but covered with a thick ‘skin’ of baked bricks set in bitumen, the stage-tower of Ur measured at its base 60.50 by 43 metres. It had at least three tiers, and though only the first and part of the second tiers have survived, its present height is about twenty metres. Yet this enormous mass gives an astonishing impression of lightness due partly to its perfect proportions and partly to the fact that all its lines are slightly curved, a device long thought to have been invented by the Greek architects who built the Parthenon, nearly two thousand years later. Against the north-eastern side of the tower three long flights of steps converge towards a landing half-way between the first and the second platforms, and from this point other steps once led to the second and third stories and finally to the shrine crowning the whole structure. The ziqqurat stood on a large terrace in the heart of the ‘sacred city’ – the walled area reserved for gods and kings which occupied most of the northern half of the town. It cast its shadow over the great courtyard of Nanna – a low-lying open space surrounded by stores and lodgings for the priests – the temples of the moon-god and of his consort the goddess Ningal, the royal palace and other less important buildings. Towering above the walls of the capital city, it mirrored itself in the Euphrates, which flowed along its western side. Even now the rounded red-brown pyramid topping the enormous greyish mound of the ruins forms a landmark visible from many miles away. The ziqqurats of other cities are not so well preserved and differ from that of Ur in several details, but their shape, their orientation and their position in relation to the main temples remain essentially the same. What then, it may be asked, was the purpose of these monuments?

The pioneers of Mesopotamian archaeology naïvely thought that the ziqqurats were observatories for ‘Chaldaean’ astronomers, or even towers ‘where the priests of Bel could spend the night away from the heat and mosquitoes’, but this obviously does not make sense. Comparison with Egypt comes immediately to mind, and indeed, Sumerian architects may well have inspired their Egyptian counterparts; but it must be emphasized that the ziqqurats, contrary to the pyramids, do not contain tombs or chambers; they were built as a rule upon older, more modest structures erected during the Early Dynastic period, and these low, one-tiered, archaic ziqqurats derived, it is now generally believed, from the platforms that supported the temples of the Ubaid, Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods. But why these platforms, why these towers? Philology throws no light on the problem, since the word ziqqurat (sometimes transcribed ziggurat or zikkurat) comes from a verb zaqaru, which simply means ‘to build high’, and we have the choice of several theories.Some authors believe that the Sumerians were originally highlanders who worshipped their gods upon the mountain-tops, and so built these towers to serve as artificial mountains in the flat Mesopotamian plain. Others, rejecting this over-simplified and questionable explanation, think that the purpose of the temple platform (and therefore of the ziqqurat) was to raise the main god of the city above the other gods and to protect him from the promiscuity of laymen. Yet another group of scholars sees in the monument a colossal staircase, a bridge between the lower temples, where the routine ceremonies of the cult were performed, and the upper sanctuary, half-way between heaven and earth, where men and gods could meet on certain occasions; and this, we believe, is nearer the truth. All considered, perhaps the best definition of the ziqqurat is given by the Bible (Genesis xi. 4), where it is said that the ‘Tower of Babel' (i.e. the ziqqurat of Babylon) was meant ‘to reach unto heaven’. In the deeply religious mind of the Sumerians these enormous, yet curiously light constructions were ‘prayers of bricks’ as our Gothic cathedrals are ‘prayers of stone’. They extended to the gods a permanent invitation to descend on earth at the same time as they expressed one of man's most remarkable efforts to rise above his miserable condition and to establish closer contacts with the divinity.

Judging from the dispersion throughout southern Iraq of bricks stamped with Ur-Nammu's name, it would appear that the building of temples was the king's privilege, and indeed it was, when the Ur III empire was firmly established, but before that we know of a city not far from the capital where a grandiose building programme was carried out by the local ruler with truly royal magnificence: this was Lagash under its famous ensi Gudea (c. 2141 – 2122 B.C.).

We have seen (Chapter 8) that Lugalzagesi of Umma had put an end to the protracted conflict between his city and Lagash by setting fire to the monuments of Girsu and turning it into a mass of ruins. But in the ancient Orient towns were rarely as completely destroyed as the texts would have us believe, and somehow Girsu survived. Towards the end of the Gutian period it was in the hands of energetic princes who apparently managed to remain independent and set themselves the task of reinvigorating the faded glory of their city. One of them was Gudea,* a contemporary of the last Gutian kings, whose numerous statues and inscriptions provide the most admirable examples of Sumerian achievement in art and literature.

Gudea built – or rather rebuilt – at least fifteen temples in the city-state of Lagash, but on none of them was he so lavish as on the E-ninnu, the temple of Ningirsu, the city-god of Girsu. On two large clay cylinders and on some of his statue inscriptions8 he explains at length why and how he built it, giving us, incidentally, invaluable details on the complicated rites essential to the foundation of sanctuaries in ancient Mesopotamia. It is typical of Sumerian thinking that the decision to erect a temple is given not as an act of will of the ruler, but as the fulfilment of a wish of the god expressed in the form of a mysterious dream:

In the heart of a dream, here was a man: his height equalled the sky, his weight equalled the earth… To his right and to his left lions were crouching… He told me to build him a temple, but I did not understand his heart (= his desire)…

Here was a woman. Who was she not, who was she?… She was holding in her hand a stylus of flaming metal; she was holding the tablet of good writing of heaven; she was immersed in her thoughts…

Troubled and perplexed, Gudea first sought comfort from his ‘mother’, the goddess Gatamdug, and then proceeded by boat to the temple of the goddess Nanshe ‘interpreter of dreams’. Nanshe explained that the man was Ningirsu and the woman Nisaba, the goddess of science; she advised Gudea to offer Ningirsu a chariot ‘adorned with shining metal and lapis-lazuli’:

Then, inscrutable as the sky, the wisdom of the Lord, or Ningirsu, the son of Enlil, will soothe thee. He will reveal to thee the plan of His temple, and the Warrior whose decrees are great will build it for thee.

Gudea obeyed. Having united the citizens of Girsu ‘as the sons of the same mother’ and made peace reign in every house, he desecrated the old temple and purified the city:

He purified the holy city and encircled it with fires… He collected clay in a very pure place; in a pure place he made silt into the bricks and put the bricks into the mould. He followed the rites in all their splendour: he purified the foundations of the temple, surrounded it with fires, anointed the platform with an aromatic balm…

When this was done, craftsmen were brought from afar:

From Elam came the Elamites, from Susa the Susians. Magan and Meluhha collected timber from their mountains… and Gudea brought them together in his town Girsu.

Gudea, the great en-priest of Ningirsu, made a path into the Cedar mountains which nobody had entered before; he cut its cedars with great axes… Like giant snakes, cedars were floating down the water (of the river)…

In the quarries which nobody had entered before, Gudea, the great en-priest of Ningirsu, made a path and then the stones were delivered in large blocks… Many other precious metals were carried to the ensi. From the Copper mountain of Kimash… its mountains as dust… For Gudea, they mined silver from its mountains, delivered red stone from Meluhha in great amount…

Finally the construction work proper began, and within one year the sanctuary was completed, beautifully appointed and ready for the god's ceremonial entry:

Respect for the temple – says Gudea proudly – pervades the country; the fear of it fills the strangers; the brilliance of the Eninnu enfolds the universe like a mantle!

Alas, of this magnificent temple practically nothing remains, and we would be tempted to tax Gudea with gross exaggeration were it not for the seventeen odd statues of the ensi that have come to us, mostly as the result of illicit digging.9 Carved out of hard, polished black diorite from Magan, they are executed with a simplicity of line, an economy of detail, a sensitivity of expression which give them a prominent place in the gallery of world sculpture. If such masterpieces were displayed in the sanctuaries of Girsu we can well believe that the rest of the decoration and the buildings themselves were of no inferior quality.

This young man sitting calmly, a faint smile upon his lips, his hands clasped in front of his chest, the plan of a temple or a foot rule across his knees, is the finest example of a figure unfortunately soon to disappear: the perfect Sumerian ruler, pious, just, cultured, faithful to the old traditions, devoted to his people, filled with love and pride for his city and, at least in this particular case, pacific – in all the inscriptions of Gudea, only one military campaign in Anshan (East of Elam) is mentioned; there is therefore no doubt that the timber, metal and stone used in his buildings were acquired by trade and not by territorial conquests. What was given in exchange is not disclosed, but the widespread commercial undertakings of the ensi of Lagash testify to the almost unbelievable prosperity of a Sumerian city-state after one hundred years of Akkadian government and almost fifty years of foreign occupation.

Shulgi, Amar-Sin and the Sumerian Empire

‘Abandoned on the battlefield like a crushed vessel’,10 Ur-Nammu died in an untold war and was succeeded by his son Shulgi,* who reigned forty-seven years (2094 – 2047 B.C.). The first half of this long reign was spent in peaceful activities: the temples and ziqqurats founded by Ur-Nammu were completed and new buildings erected; the gods were reinstated in their shrines under the care of high-priests appointed by the king; the calendar was reformed and a new measure of grain, the royal gur (about six bushels) superseded the local measures formerly in use; in all probability, a thorough political, economic and administrative reorganization of the kingdom took place during this period. Furthermore, this king who claimed to have mastered the science of the scribe founded the two great schools of Ur and Nippur to which we owe so many masterpieces of Sumerian literature. On his twenty-fourth year of reign, however, Shulgi embarked upon a long series of annual military campaigns in the plains and hills of Kurdistan. The theatre of these operations was a triangular region delimited by the towns of Shashrum, Urbilum and Harshi and having for its centre Simurrum, an apparently mighty stronghold which had to be captured and ‘devastated’ nine times before it succumbed.11This region was inhabited by Hurrians who, with their Lullubi allies, were probably threatening two major trade routes: one along the Diyala river to central Iran, the other along the Tigris to Armenia and Anatolia. The threat must have been strong, for between two of the three ‘Hurrian wars’ the Sumerians built a fortified wall somewhere between the Tigris and the Zagros range. In the end, Shulgi was victorious and turned this part of Kurdistan into a Sumerian province (2051). In South-West Iran, the Sumerian king pursued a more diplomatic and easier policy. The Guti had put an end to Puzur-Inshushinak's reign and plunged Elam into a state of anarchy worse than that of Mesopotamia. Shulgi took advantage of the situation to assert his authority over the former Akkadian protectorate. He married his own daughters to the rulers of Warahshe and Awan, took possession of Susa where he installed a Sumerian governor but built a temple to Inshushinak, Elam's supreme god, crushed a revolt in Anshan and finally enlisted Elamite soldiers into a kind of ‘foreign legion’ entrusted with the defence of Sumer's south-eastern border. Following the example set by Narâm-Sin, Shulgi called himself ‘King of the Four Quarters (of the World)’ and was worshipped as a god during and after his lifetime. Twice monthly offerings were made to his statues throughout the empire, hymns were written praising him,12 and the name of ‘divine Shulgi’ was given to a month of the Sumerian calendar.

Amar-Sin,* son of Shulgi, reigned only nine years (2046 – 2038). Like his father, he divided his time between the building of temples and the conduct of wars in the same north-easterly districts, was deified and, with complete lack of modesty, referred to himself as ‘the god who gives life to the country’ or ‘the god sun (i.e. judge) of the Land’. According to a late omen-text, Amar-Sin died of an infection caused by a shoe-bite. He was buried, side by side with Shulgi, in a vast and remarkable underground mausoleum found intact though plundered in the sacred city of Ur, near the famous ‘Royal Cemetery’.13

During the reigns of Shulgi and Amar-Sin the Sumerian ‘empire’ reached its zenith. Within borders that are hazy for us, three different zones can be identified. At the periphery were independent states, such as Elam or Mari, which had been drawn into the sphere of influence of Ur by a policy of matrimonial alliances introduced by Ur-Nammu at Mari14 and pursued by Shulgi elsewhere. Then came conquered countries transformed into provinces and put under a civilian governor (ensi) or a military governor (sagin in Sumerian, shakkanakkum in Akkadian), often of local origin; this was the case with Susa, Assur and probably a great portion of Northern Mesopotamia, as suggested by the fact that Ur-Nammu repaired and renovated the palace of Narâm-Sin at Tell Brak, where it had been destroyed, presumably by the Guti. Finally, in the heart of the kingdom (Sumer and Akkad), the former city-states were now treated as provinces. The only lugal was the King of Ur, and the once proud ensi had become mere administrators appointed by him to maintain order, dispense justice, implement royal instructions concerning public works and collect duties and taxes. The different parts of this vast territory were interconnected by a network of roads with fixed halting-places, a day's walk apart, where the official travellers, escorted by soldiers and gendarmes, received a ration that varied in importance according to their rank.15 These were royal couriers (lu-kasa) but also sukkal, that is to say royal inspectors periodically sent by the king to ensure that the local and regional administrations worked smoothly. Their chief, the sukkalmah (‘great sukkal’), held the highest post in the central government: he was the ‘grand chancellor’ responsible only to the sovereign.

One of the most specific institutions of the kingdom of Ur was the bala (literally ‘rotation’), a taxation system whereby each ensi of Sumer and Akkad in turn paid the State a monthly tax, usually in cattle or sheep.16 These taxes converged towards a large collecting centre called Sellush-Dagan, nowadays Drehem, a few kilometres south of Nippur. There, they were sorted, some of them going to Nippur – more than ever the religious capital of Sumer – and the rest to Ur. To these taxes must be added the tribute (gun) in silver, cattle, hides and various objects paid by far-away provinces and by some countries under Sumerian tutelage, as well as the ‘gifts’ sent by foreign rulers.17 All ingoing and out-going goods were carefully recorded by the scribes of Sellush-Dagan.

These Drehem archives, together with those found at Ur, Nippur, Girsu and Umma, constitute a huge mass of administrative documents of which about forty thousand have already been published18 and as many, if not more, are still lying in the drawers of museums, universities and private collections. In spite of this apparent wealth of information, our knowledge of the social and economic systems in Sumer under the Third Dynasty of Ur will never be complete for the simple reason that, apart from a few contracts, letters and judgements, all these texts are only accounts of State institutions, the private sector, if any, being completely occluded. Moreover, the sheer number of tablets to be studied, the uncertain meaning of some Sumerian titles and functions and the methodological problems raised by an undertaking of that size mean that it will be a long time before the coherent synthesis expected by all historians becomes available.

In our present state of knowledge, the general impression created by these documents is that the type of central government which had developed around the Temple and the Palace in the Early Dynastic period (pp. 131 – 4) persisted but with the emphasis now on the Palace. On all his lands and subjects the king of Ur exerted absolute power based on his personal qualities and on a mandate he claimed to have received from Enlil with as sole condition the respect of traditions – a respect which went so far that ‘dynasties’ ofensi and shagin were tolerated, and even a provincial judge could oppose a royal verdict.19 In theory the owner, on behalf of Enlil, of all goods and estates, the king seems to have possessed only the ‘food land’ in the small territory of the city of Ur. On the other hand, the Palace received from everywhere an unceasing flow of taxes, duties, tributes and gifts which provided the monarch, his family and his court with a very substantial income. It is only fair to add that large chunks of this income were spent on financing the building of temples, the digging and maintenance of canals and the undertaking of other public works throughout the Sumerian ‘empire’.

As in the remote past, the wheat and barley fields were cultivated and managed by the numerous persons who worked for the temples under command of a ‘prefect’ (shabra) assisted by an army of supervisors, controllers and scribes. The cultivable lands were still divided into lord's land (i.e. god's land), food land and plough land, and the yield was considerable: in the second year of Amar-Sin, for example, almost 255,000 hectolitres of wheat were harvested around Girsu. We are not so well informed on the pastoral sector of the economy, although we occasionally read about large herds and flocks bred and fed by the State (i.e. the Temple and the Palace); but we return to firmer ground with the Sumerian ‘industry’, that is to say the transformation of agricultural and pastoral products – but not metal work which remained in the hands of artisans.20 Throughout southern (and probably also central) Mesopotamia were big, self-sufficient factories producing such commodities as leather, textiles or flour and employing thousands of workers, most of them female. Thus, in the region of Girsu fifteen thousand women were employed in the local textile industry,21 and in the same area a cereal transformation unit was producing not only flour (1,100 tons per year) and bread, but also beer, linseed oil, grindstones, mortars, clay pots, woven reeds and leather. This particular factory employed 134 specialists and 858 skilled workers, including 669 women, 86 men and 103 teenagers. While there is some evidence of private merchants and ‘businessmen’,22 the international trade seems to have been exclusively in the hands of the State which supplied the necessary capital. The majority of the so-called merchants (damgar) were in fact civil servants acting as intermediaries. Silver was still rare and mainly used as standard for exchanges, but sometimes also as ‘money’. It was hoarded by high officials and did not circulate unless authorized by the Palace.

In the Ur III period, the Sumerian society – as seen through the administrative texts that are available and discounting a possible private sector of unknown size – seems to have been divided into two categories of persons. On one side, the relatively few officials of the central and provincial governments, from sukkalmah to hazzanum (village mayor), whose revenues and social status varied according to their rank. On the other side, the bulk of the population, employed by the great production units. These units were run by a large number of managers specialized in different activities, while the manpower was provided by teams of male (gurush) and female (geme) workers, skilled or unskilled. This labour force was also used either permanently or for long periods to carry out such seasonal work as harvesting cereals or gathering dates and reeds, or for occasional corvées, such as digging and maintaining irrigation canals, hauling river-boats or building fortifications. For some very extensive public works, soldiers (eren) were enlisted, and the whole population could be mobilized if needed. Slaves (arad) were in small numbers and exclusively recruited among those prisoners of war who had not been put to death after battle.23 They were incorporated with units of eren or teams of gurush, while their wives and children were ‘vowed’ to temples or allocated to the great factories as employees or servants. All slaves enjoyed the same rights as the other labourers, and they could be set free by the institutions for which they worked.

As in the Early Dynastic period, salaries were paid in yearly, monthly or daily rations the nature and amounts of which varied according to age, sex and rank.24 The minimum ration of an unskilled factory worker consisted of twenty litres of barley per month, plus three and a half litres of oil and two kilos of wool per annum. This sounds, and indeed was, very little, but it was to some extent supplemented by the smaller rations allotted to wives and children and by seasonal or occasional distributions of dates, beans, spices, fish, meat and clothes. On the other hand, an engar, who was a chief ploughman but also a kind of agricultural expert, received twice the above rations. In addition, he would be given a piece of food land and perhaps a small kitchen garden under palm-trees where he would grow fruit and vegetables, breed geese and goats. This would leave him with a surplus that would enable him to buy one or two servants and perhaps a house for his children. On the whole, it would appear that a large proportion of the Sumero-Akkadian population lived rather miserably and that some of them merely subsisted. These people often had to borrow goods or even silver from public or private lenders at a very high interest rate (thirty-three per cent for barley); some of the poorest were forced to hire out as servants their children and sometimes their wife until they were free of debt.

We shall never know what the ‘man in the street’ thought of the society in which he lived. He may have been the victim of abuse and injustice from the wealthy and the powerful, but he probably put up with a system in which he was only a cog; after all, he had never known anything else and he had to comply with the order established by the gods. In the days of Shulgi and Amar-Sin, the huge economic machine which ensured everybody's life and the prosperity of Sumer seemed to be working smoothly. To the contemporaries of these kings the empire must have looked like a large, well-kept, almost indestructible edifice. But the soldiers keeping watch along the dusty roads of the desert knew that the nomads were already on the move. Across the Euphrates and the Khabur, they now trickled towards the green valley in harmless little streams; in a not too distant future, however, their bellicose tribes would form a rushing torrent which no power could stem.

The Fall of Ur

The first indication that things were not as quiet as they had been on the western frontier occurs during the reign of Shu-Sin* (2037 – 2029 B.C.), the brother and successor of Amar-Sin. Like the previous kings of Ur, ‘divine’ Shu-Sin restored a number of temples and campaigned in the Zagros mountains, where he defeated a coalition of several Iranian rulers.25 He also helped his son-in-law, the king of Simanum (a town north of Mardin, in southern Turkey) to quell a rebellion, brought the rebels to Sumer and built a camp for them near Nippur: the first P.O.W. camp in Mesopotamia!). But the formula for his fourth year strikes an unfamiliar note, for in that year, we are told, the king ‘built the fortress of MAR.TU (called) which keeps away Tidnum’.26 We know from other sources thatMAR.TU in Sumerian and Tidnum (or, more usually, Amurrum) in Akkadian were different names for the country west of the Euphrates and its inhabitants. This vast region corresponds to present-day Syria, including the desert around Palmyra, the Orontes valley and the mountains which border the Mediterranean Sea. Part of its population lived in towns and villages, but when the Sumerians or Akkadians spoke of the MAR.TU or Amurrû – the ‘Amorites’ as we call them – they had in mind those people with whom they were in particularly close contact: the nomadic tribes who roamed the Syrian desert and often crossed the rivers to graze their flocks in the steppes of Mesopotamia.27 Since Early Dynastic times these wandering Amorites were well known to the Sumerians, either as individuals who had abandoned their tribe to live and work in the cities or as bedouins whose uncouth way of life was considered with disgust and contempt:

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 his death…28

Or again:

They have prepared wheat and gú-nunuz (grain) as a confection, but an Amorite will eat it without even recognizing what it contains!29

Against these savages who raided villages and attacked the caravans frequent police operations were directed, and on occasion a full-scale campaign was launched. Thus one of the years of Shar-kali-sharri, the last great king of Agade, was named, after his victory over the MAR.TU ‘in mount Basar’, i.e. Jabal Bishri, between Palmyra and Deir-ez-Zor, and there are references to Amorite prisoners of war in texts of Shulgi and Amar-Sin. But the situation was now reversed: the Sumerians were on the defensive; somewhere between Mari and Ur they had to build a fortress in order to keep the nomads at bay.

For a time this measure must have proved effective, since we do not hear about the Amorites during the next ten years. Meanwhile, Shu-Sin died and was succeeded in 2028 by his son, Ibbi-Sin.* What happened during the change of reign we shall probably never know, but no sooner was the new king enthroned than the empire literally disintegrated.30 One by one, the eastern provinces – beginning with Eshnunna in the second year of Ibbi-Sin and Susa in his third year – declared themselves independent and broke away from Ur. At the same time the Amorites were exerting an ever-increasing pressure on the borders of the kingdom. In the fifth year they broke through the defences and penetrated deep into the heart of Sumer. How critical the situation had become is shown by two letters exchanged between the king and one of his generals, Ishbi-Irra, a native from Mari, who had been ordered to buy a large quantity of grain in Nippur and nearby Isin and to convey it to Ur. Ishbi-Irra declares himself unable to carry out his mission because theMAR.TU have ravaged the country and cut off all roads leading to the capital city, and are ready to attack Isin and Nippur; he asks to be formally entrusted with the defence of the two cities. In his reply the king agrees, advises his officer to seek the help of otherensis and offers to buy the grain at double its normal price. Soon afterwards Ibbi-Sin succeeded in defeating the MAR.TU, but his subjects were starving and his authority was challenged by his own officials. In the eleventh year (2017) Ishbi-Irra proclaimed himself king in Isin – the very city he had pledged to protect on behalf of his lord – and a few years before, an Amorite sheikh called Nablânum had been crowned in Larsa, only twenty-five miles from Ur. To make matters worse, the Elamites took advantage of the situation to invade Sumer, as they had done so often in the past. Abandoned by the gods, beset with famine, attacked on two fronts, practically reduced to the capital city and its immediate neighbourhood, the great Sumerian empire was by now only the shadow of a kingdom. Ibbi-Sin fought to the last and apparently attempted to secure the alliance of the Amorites against the Elamites and the troops of his rival Ishbi-Irra. But this plan also failed. In 2004 B.C. the Elamites were at the walls of Ur – those walls which Ur-Nammu had built ‘as high as a shining mountain’. They attacked the great city, took it, sacked it, burned it down and withdrew, leaving behind a small garrison. The unfortunate Ibbi-Sin was taken prisoner to Iran, ‘to the end of Anshan whose cities he himself, like a bird, had devastated’, and died there. Years later, when Ur was again a flourishing city, its destruction was still remembered and lamented by the Sumerians as a national catastrophe:

O Father Nanna, that city into ruins was made…

Its people, not potsherds, filled its sides;

Its walls were breached; the people groan.

In its lofty gates, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about;

In its boulevards, where the feasts were celebrated, scattered they lay.

In all its streets, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about;

In its places, where the festivities of the land took place, the people lay in heaps…

Ur – its weak and its strong perished through hunger;

Mothers and fathers who did not leave their houses were overcome by fire;

The young lying on their mothers' laps, like fish were carried off by the waters;

In the city, the wife was abandoned, the son was abandoned, the possessions were scattered about.

O Nanna, Ur has been destroyed, its people have been dispersed!31

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