Ancient History & Civilisation



The history of ancient Iraq is divided, like its prehistory, into periods characterized by major political changes often accompanied by changes in the social, economic and cultural fields. The first of these periods begins around 2900 B.C. and ends with the conquest of Sumer by the Semitic king of Akkad, Sargon, in 2334 B.C or thereabouts. For this reason, it is sometimes called ‘Presargonic’, though the term ‘Early Dynastic’ (abbreviated ED) is usually preferred by English-speaking scholars. The Early Dynastic period, in turn, has been broken down into three parts: ED I (c. 2900 – 2750 B.C.), ED II (c. 2750 – 2600 B.C.) and ED III (c. 2600 – 2334 B.C.), but it must be made quite clear from the start that if by ‘history’ is meant records of political events, or at least genuine incriptions from local rulers, then only part of ED II and the whole of ED III are historical; ED I and the first decades of ED II belong to prehistory in the narrow sense of the term until the chance discovery of an inscription, from one of the earliest kings of Uruk or Kish mentioned in the Sumerian King List, pushes back overnight into the past the beginnings of history, as has already happened twice.

Until the First World War, our knowledge of the Early Dynastic period was almost entirely derived from the excavations carried out by the French at Lagash – or rather Girsu1 – nowadays Tell Luh or Telloh, a large mound near the Shatt al-Gharraf, forty-eight kilometres due north of Nasriya.2 Besides remarkable works of art, these excavations have yielded numerous inscriptions which have made it possible to reconstitute in fairly great detail the history of Lagash and to draw up a list of its rulers from about 2500 to 2000 B.C. Unfortunately, the information thus obtained was practically restricted to one city, and its rulers did not figure on the King List, probably because they were not considered to have held sway over the whole of Sumer.

Then, in the winter of 1922 – 3, Sir Leonard Woolley found at al-Ubaid, among the debris of magnificent bronze sculptures and reliefs which had once decorated a small Early Dynastic temple, a marble tablet with an inscription reading:

(To) Ninhursag: A-annepadda, King of Ur, son of Mesannepadda, King of Ur, for Ninhursag has built (this temple)

Both A-annepadda and his father figured on the Sumerian King List, the latter being the founder of the First Dynasty of Ur which succeeded the First Dynasty of Uruk. Thus for the first time one of those early Sumerian princes long held as mythical was proven to have actually existed. There is reason to believe that Mesannepadda reigned in about 2560 B.C.

Finally, in 1959 a German scholar, D. O. Edzard, found in the Iraq Museum a fragment of a large alabaster vase, engraved with three words in a very archaic script:

Me-bárag-si, King of Kish

This monarch, as Edzard showed,3 was none other than Enmebaragesi of the King List, twenty-second king of the ‘legendary’ First Dynasty of Kish and the father of Agga who, as we have seen, fought against Gilgamesh. Since another inscription of that king was found at Khafaje in an archaeological context suggesting the end of ED II, and since Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, had seven successors whose reasonably long reigns totalled 140 years before his dynasty was overthrown by Mesannepadda, we may safely assume that Mebaragesi reigned around 2700 B.C. and take that date as a provisional starting-point for the history of ancient Iraq.

The twenty-one kings of Kish preceding Mebaragesi and the four contemporary kings of Uruk preceding Gilgamesh would nicely fill the gap between 2900 and 2700 B.C., provided we ignore the incredibly long reign assigned to each of them by the Sumerian King List. There is no reason to doubt that these monarchs existed, despite the fact that they were later turned into heroes and semigods, but we have no genuine royal inscription from these three centuries, and our knowledge of ED I and ED II is entirely based on archaeological data, the archaic texts from Ur (ED I or ED II) being extremely difficult to understand and of limited historical interest.

From about 2500 B.C. onwards, however, we have just enough royal inscriptions, as well as economic, legal, administrative and even literary texts – notably from Fara, Abu Salabikh and, later, Girsu4 – to sketch a rough outline of the political and social history of Sumer. But apart from a few very short inscriptions (mostly kings' names) found at Mari, on the middle Euphrates, and from fragments of inscribed vases and statuettes discovered at Khafaje, in the Diyala valley, all these texts come from southern Mesopotamia, the northern part of this country remaining regrettably illiterate. However, one must not lose all hope, and the thousands of clay tablets recently found at Ebla show us that archaeology may still hold many surprises.

The impact of this discovery cannot be fully appreciated unless one remembers that until 1974 virtually nothing was known about Northern Syria in the third millennium B.C. By a stroke of good luck, in that and the following two years the Italian archaeologists who during a decade had been excavating at Tell Mardik – a large mound lying sixty kilometres south-west of Aleppo – brought to light, in the ruins of a palace dated 2400 – 2250 B.C., some fifteen thousand clay tablets bearing cuneiform signs of the type used in the Sumerian city of Kish.5 Many words and sentences were written in Sumerian ‘logograms’ but others, written in syllables, left no doubt that Tell Mardik was the ancient city of Ebla – a name that had previously appeared in a handful of Mesopotamian texts – and that the language spoken at Ebla was a hitherto unknown Semitic language, promptly baptized ‘Eblaite’, which to some extent differed from Akkadian and from the West-Semitic languages (Amorrite, Cananaean) of the second millennium B.C.

As these tablets were slowly being deciphered, their importance became increasingly obvious. Not only did they reveal that Ebla was the capital city of a relatively large and powerful North Syrian kingdom, but they provided a wealth of information on the organization, social structure, economic system, diplomatic and commercial relations, areas of influence and cultural affinities of this long forgotten kingdom. No Sumerian city-state of the Early Dynastic period has left us such vast and detailed archives, but with a few exceptions (see page 142) the contribution of the Ebla texts to the history of ancient Mesopotamia, although non-negligible, has up to now remained limited, and as more of these texts are being published, it does not seem that this situation will be greatly modified.

The Archaeological Context

Surface exploration and excavations have shown that at the beginning of the third millennium B.C. the urbanization process, which had commenced during the Uruk period, reached its acme, involving the whole of Mesopotamia. In southern Iraq many villages disappeared to the benefit of already large or growing cities, the best example being Uruk which became a huge metropolis covering more than 400 hectares and giving shelter to 40 or 50,000 inhabitants. At the same time, urban centres appeared or developed from proto-historic settlements in the northern part of Iraq. The best known of these towns are Mari (Tell Hariri),6 half-way between northern Syria and Sumer, Assur (Qala‘at Sherqat),7 ninety kilometres south of Nineveh (opposite modern Mosul), and others of unknown ancient name but which must have been important: Tell Taya, for instance, at the foot of Jabal Sinjar,8 and Tell Khueira on the TurkeySyria border, between the rivers Balikh and Khabur.9 Urban growth, exceptionally coupled with rural proliferation, also occurred in the Diayala basin, north-east of Baghdad, where surveys have revealed the traces of ten major cities, nineteen small towns and sixty-seven villages in a area of about 900 square kilometres. Incidentally, it is to the American archaeologists who, in the 1930s, excavated three sites in this region, Tell Asmar (Eshnunna), Khafaje (Tutub) and Tell ‘Aqrab, that we owe the classical and sometimes criticized tripartite division of the Early Dynastic period.10

As a rule, the Mesopotamian towns of the early third millennium B.C. were surrounded by a wall, sometimes double and often reinforced by towers. These fortifications bespeak of frequent wars, and this is supported in Sumer by ED III texts mentioning struggles between city-states and against foreign invaders. We shall never know, however, who were the enemies so much feared by the inhabitants of Tell Taya that they built a citadel and raised their city wall on a three-metre high stone base.

With few exceptions, all the northern towns were subjected to varying degrees of Sumerian influence in matters of art, religious architecture and sometimes pottery and glyptics. How this came about remains uncertain. Some authors have postulated the existence of ‘Sumerian colonies’ in the midst of predominantly Semitic populations, but there is no textual or archaeological evidence to support this theory, at least in the Early Dynastic period, and the most plausible carriers of Sumerian culture would be itinerant artisans and merchants.

Most archaeologists agree that the Early Dynastic period culture is issued from the Uruk-Jemdat Nasr culture, and this is true in many respects, but some discontinuities are striking and raise difficult questions. Thus, there seemed in the ED II period to disappear, for an unknown reason, before the end of ED III, a very peculiar and diagnostic building material which has never been used in Mesopotamia before and after: the so-called ‘plano-convex’ bricks, shaped like flat-based bread loaves, laid on their edges and arranged in a herring-bone pattern. A more important problem is the quasi-total abandonment of the classical ‘tripartite’ Mesopotamian sanctuaries and their replacement by temples and shrines of various plans and sizes,11 some of them often indistinguishable from the surrounding houses until one went inside, others standing alone, like the large and splendid ‘oval temple’ of Khafaje, with its two eccentric enclosures and its cella raised on a platform; this type of temple goes back to the Uruk period (oval temple of Tell ‘Uqair). Some Early Dynastic sanctuaries clearly reflect non-Mesopotamian influences, possibly for geographical reasons. At Mari, for instance, the temple of the local goddess Nini-zaza contained a conical monolith, a baetyl, which would have been at home in an open-air West-Semitic temple of Syria or Palestine. Further north, the multiple temples of Tell Khueira, so near to the present Turkish border, rest on stone bases and have open porticoes that are reminiscent of Anatolian dwelling-houses.

Apart from a few interesting wall-plaques, some of them inscribed, and pieces such as the celebrated ‘Stele of the Vultures’ from Girsu, the sculpture of that period is represented mainly by statues of worshippers which once stood on the brick benches that ran around the cella of most temples. Usually upright but sometimes seated, their hands folded in front of their chest, these long-haired or bald, shaven or bearded men wearing the traditional Sumerian woollen skirt, and these women wrapped in a kind of saree were staring at some divine statue with their shell-and-lapis eyes set in bitumen – the eyes we have already encountered at Tell es-Sawman two and a half millennia ago. But these statuettes are not all of the same quality.12 Those found at Tell Khueira are rather crude and clumsy, those discovered in the archaic Ishtar temple at Assur are mediocre, and those, widely publicized, which come from the ‘square temple’ of Tell Asmar are stiff, angular and, with their huge, haunting eyes and their corrugated beards, more impressive than beautiful. In contrast, many of the statues unearthed at Mari are marvellous portraits extremely well-carved, but Mari is very far from Sumer and these remarkable sculptures cannot be regarded as being representative of Sumerian art: in all probability, they were the work of local artists drawing their inspiration from Sumer, the ancestors of the great sculptors of the Akkad period. What is strange is that


The oval temple at Khafaje, Early Dynastic III period. The two areas enclosed by walls measure 103 × 74 and 74 × 59 metres respectively. We do not know to which god or goddess this temple was dedicated. From P. Amiet, L‘Art Antique du Proche-Orient,1977; after P. Delougaz, The Oval Temple at Khafaje, 1940.

the statues of worshippers discovered at Nippur and Girsu, in the Sumerian heartland, give the impression of being mass-produced and cut a sorry figure when compared with the masterpieces of the Uruk period. Were they made in workshops for ‘impoverished pilgrims’,13 or do they reflect the inevitable decline that seems to follow all exceptional periods in the history of art?

To be fair, it must be said that in other fields the art of the Early Dynastic period was far from being decadent. Thus, in a limited area of central Mesopotamia there flourished, in ED I, an attractive polychrome pottery called scarlet ware clearly derived from the Jemdat Nasr ware. On the other hand, many sites of the upper Tigris valley and the Khabur basin have yielded samples of the very elegant ‘Ninevite 5' ceramic, at first painted, then heavily incised, and remarkable for its shapes: tall fruit stands with pedestal bases, high-necked vases with angular shoulders, carinated bowls.14 The scarlet ware was short-lived, the Ninevite 5 ware vanished towards the middle of ED III after a very long existence, and both were replaced, throughout Mesopotamia, by an unpainted pottery with very few artistic qualities.

The art of the stone-cutter followed a contrary course towards improvement.15 The short and narrow cylinder-seals of the ED I period bearing monotonous friezes of schematized animals or geometric designs (the so-called ‘brocade’ style) were replaced, in ED II and III, by longer and wider seals with totally different compositions depicting either ‘banquet scenes’ or ‘animal-contest scenes’. The former showed men and women drinking from cups or from tall jars through a tube. The latter consisted of cattle attacked by lions and defended by naked heroes and bull-men. There were also some religious motifs, such as the sun-god on a boat. As time went by, the compositions remained basically the same, but they were executed with greater skill. Some seals, notably those of kings, were made of lapis-lazuli or other semi-precious stones, or even of gold, and they were sometimes capped with silver at both ends. An important novelty was the appearance, at Ur, Jemdat Nasr and Uruk, of the first short cuneiform inscriptions on cylinder-seals.

However, it is in metal work that the Sumerians made the most striking advances due to a great extent to the introduction of two new techniques: cire perdue (lost wax) for bronze and repoussé for precious metals. As we shall see in going through the marvellous pieces found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Early Dynastic period was the time when the art of the goldsmith reached a degree of proficiency unequalled in any other contemporary civilization. But the raw material had to be imported and paid for with what southern Mesopotamia could offer: cereals, hides, wool, textiles, manufactured objects and bitumen. How, then, were the Sumerians organized to run their economy? What was their social structure? Who were their rulers and what can we know of their political history? To try to answer these questions (and some others) we must leave archaeology and turn to the few texts that are available.

The Sumerian City-states

Because our attention is now focused on Sumer we are tempted to forget what a small country it really was: thirty thousand square kilometres, a little less than the area of Belgium, about the size of four or five English counties. As life remained concentrated along the Euphrates, its branches and irrigation canals, the ‘cradle of civilization’ was in fact a fairly narrow strip of land extending from the latitude of Baghdad to the swamps that bordered the shores of the Arabo-Persian Gulf. In addition, a linguistic barrier, somewhere between Kish and Nippur, separated the Semitic-speaking people of the north (the future Akkad) from the Sumerian-speaking people of the south, making Sumer proper even smaller.

In the third millennium B.C. both Sumer and Akkad were divided into political units which we call ‘city-states’. Each city-state consisted of a city, its suburbs and satellite towns and villages, and of a well-defined territory comprising gardens, palm-groves and fields of barley and wheat. The open steppe between irrigated areas served as pasture land. The average surface of a city-state is unknown, but one of the largest, Lagash, is said to have measured some 2,880 square kilometres and to have numbered 30,000 – 35,000 people.

For the Early Dynastic period our sources do not list more than eighteen major cities in the whole of Sumer and Akkad. These were, from north to south: Sippar, Kish, Akshak, Larak, Isin, Nippur, Adab, Zabalam, Shuruppak, Umma, Girsu, Lagash, Nina, Badtibira, Uruk, Larsa, Ur and Eridu. But many other towns and villages, as yet unlocated, are also mentioned, whilst archaeologists have unearthed settlements – such as al-‘Ubaid and Abu Salabikh – whose ancient names remain unknown.

Each Sumerian city was formed of several districts, and each district had its own god with his temple. The city as a whole and its territory were under the protection of a ‘national’ god who ideally owned the city-state. Lagash, for example, ‘belonged’ to Ningirsu as its rival Umma belonged to Shara and Ur to the moon-god Nanna. This fictitious concept and the fact that the first administrative records available in large numbers came from a temple that of the goddess Baba in Girsu – have led to the hasty conclusion that all the land of the city-state was the property of the temples and that all its inhabitants were temple servants or clients. This might have been true for the Uruk period, but the picture that emerges from other Presargonic tablets now in our possession and from a careful reappraisal of old and new data by modern scholars is very different from the picture presented some years ago.16

It is now estimated that about one-third of the arable land surrounding the city was owned by the temples. This temple-land could neither be sold nor exchanged and was divided into three parts: the ‘land of the Lord’ (gàna-ni-enna), which fed the priests and the numerous persons employed by the temple; the ‘food land’ (gàna-shukura), which was allotted in small parcels to the farmers who worked the ‘land of the Lord’ and to some temple officials for their subsistence, but which did not fully belong to them and could be taken away at any time; and the ‘plough land’ (gàna-uru-lá), which was let out to tenants against one-seventh or one-eighth of the harvest. The temples also exploited or hired out orchards, pastures, fisheries, as well as cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. Taken collectively, the revenues of the temples in cereals, fruit, livestock and by-products were therefore considerable. They were partly used for the maintenance of the priests, scribes and other temple officials, partly stored as provision against drought and partly exchanged for imported goods. Probably the largest part, however, was redistributed as wages or gratuities to the thousands of people – mostly women, but also men and slaves of both sexes – who permanently laboured in temple workshops and premises, milling grain, spinning and weaving wool or hair, brewing beer or acting as cooks, gardeners and servants. Also paid in kind (usually barley) were the temple farmers, who could be mobilized by the ruler in case of war or for such large-scale public works as the building of sanctuaries and fortifications and the digging of canals. The scale of wages seems to have varied considerably from place to place and also with time.

All this required continuous planning, control and bookkeeping, but the Sumerians had meticulous minds and were extremely well organized. Not only did their ‘bureaucrats’ leave us thousands of payrolls, vouchers, lists of workers and other similar documents, but we learn from tablets found at Girsu and Shuruppak that members of the same profession were divided into highly specialized groups. For instance, there were separate shepherds for male and female asses and separate fishermen according to whether they fished in fresh, brackish or sea water; even the snake-charmers formed a ‘corporation’, which had its own chief. Artisans and merchants, similarly organized, worked partly for private citizens and partly for the state (temple or palace), though trade with foreign countries as far away as Afghanistan and the Indus valley was largely in the hands of the latter. An army of scribes, controllers, overseers and other officials, directed by chief inspectors (nu-bànda) and by superintendents (agrig) under the leadership of the high priest (sanga) of each temple kept this intricate machinery running.

The other single major economic unit was the palace, although much less is known about its role and administration. Tablets from Shuruppak, c. 2600 B.C., indicate that the ruler maintained six or seven hundred soldiers with their equipment – no doubt his own bodyguards and the regular army of the city-state – and employed people of various professions on his estates. We also learn from a handful of contracts that he occasionally purchased land from wealthy individuals or high officials. We have no means of assessing the total size of the royal domain, but if we include the possessions of the princes and their families, it might have been as large as the temple-land.

Finally, other contracts – more numerous, it is true, in Semitic Akkad than in Sumer proper – tell us that private persons of all ranks could freely sell, exchange, donate or let out houses, fields, gardens, fishery ponds, livestock and slaves belonging to them – or rather, perhaps, to family communities.17 Naturally, the area of the plots of land in private possession varied according to the social status of the owner: it could reach more than 240 hectares for a high official and be as small as 6 hectares or even one hectare for a simple civil-servant, a currier or a stone-cutter, all people attested as vendors in these contracts.

As for the social structure of the city-state, our texts mention only freemen and slaves, but it is clear from the tripartite economic system described that in Early Dynastic times the Sumerian society was divided into three main layers: at the bottom the slaves, usually recruited among prisoners of war or kidnapped in foreign countries but never very numerous; then those peasants and workers who served the temple or the palace, were maintained by them and possessed no land; and then the group of landowners or ‘freemen’, which covers the whole range from artisans to members of the royal family. And above all these, of course, the ruler of the city-state about whom more will now be said.

Early Sumerian Rulers

For the Sumerians, the ruler was the ‘shepherd’ chosen by the gods and responsible to them for the safety and prosperity of the city-state. On the archaic tablets from Uruk the ruler is called en, a title translated by ‘lord’ but implying both secular and religious functions. The en probably resided in the temple precinct, and it is reasonable to assume that he was also the high priest of the ‘national’ god, the head of the temple around which the Sumerian city had grown. This title persisted until the middle of the nineteenth century B.C., but in other Early Dynastic states the ruler was known as either ensi, ‘governor’, or lugal, ‘king’. Ensi is written PA.TE.SI, a compound logogram of uncertain meaning; lugal simply means ‘great man’. Why some rulers called themselves ensi and others lugal, or sometimes took both titles according to circumstances, is by no means clear.18 In some cases at least it seems that the lugal reigned over several city-states and that the ensi was the vassal of a lugal. The ruler's wife, known in any case as nin, ‘lady’, ‘queen’, played an important part in public life. In Girsu, for example, she managed the affairs of the temple of the goddess Baba.

The ruler and his family lived in a palace (é-gal, ‘big house’) distinct from the temple. Three such palaces have been excavated in Mesopotamia: one at Eridu, another at Kish and yet another – or rather two superimposed palaces built in succession – at Mari.19They differed in a number of details but were strikingly similar in plan. All had a square central courtyard surrounded by chambers on three sides and communicating, on the fourth side, with a long, rectangular room which probably served as an audience hall. Two parallel thick walls separated by a narrow corridor surrounded the building. In Mari, the palace contained numerous ritual installations suggesting royal chapels. In Kish, a second building alongside the palace included a spacious hall with four central mud-brick columns and a pillared loggia.

The ruler governed the city-state on behalf of the gods. As most ancient and modern kings, he led his troops against the enemy, signed peace treaties and saw to it that fair judgements were rendered. One of his most sacred duties was the building, maintenance and restoration of the temples, in keeping with the


Meskalamdug's helmet (or, more exactly, wig) in massive gold, from the Royal Cemetery of Ur.
After Sir Leonard Woolley, Ur Excavations, II, 1934.

belief that humanity had been created for the service of the gods and that he was only the first of their servants. Numerous inscriptions refer to such building activities, and from Ur-Nanshe to Ashurbanipal several Mesopotamian monarchs have been portrayed in stone or bronze with baskets on their heads, carrying bricks for the new sanctuaries. Lugals and ensis also played a leading role in feasts, processions and other religious ceremonies. In Uruk, but also possibly elsewhere, the Early Dynastic ruler acted as the male god in the Sacred Marriage rite and, indeed, there is reason to believe that early in the third millennium B.C., in the days of Lugalbanda, Dumuzi and Gilgamesh – all qualified as ‘divine’ in the Sumerian King List – some royal couples were considered as ‘living gods’ or, more correctly, as human replicas of the divine couple to whom the city-state belonged. This, might be one of the answers to the many questions raised by the most startling discovery ever made in the course of Mesopotamian excavations: the Royal Cemetery of Ur.

A detailed description of the Royal Cemetery cannot be given here; it should be read in the excellent articles and books written by Sir Leonard Woolley on this fascinating subject.20 None but the discoverer himself could effectively convey the feeling of excitement that seized him and his team as gold literally oozed from the earth under their picks and as marvel after marvel was brought to light. None but this outstanding archaeologist could describe the delicate and painstaking removal, the patient and skilled restoration of the magnificent objects, ornaments and weapons that accompanied the dead: the golden vessels and daggers, the gold and lapis-lazuli statuettes of a ram ‘caught in a thicket’, the golden and silver bulls' heads which decorated the harps, the gold head-dress of ‘Queen Puabi’ formerly known as Shubad, and, above all perhaps, the splendid golden helmet of Meskalamdug – to quote only the main pieces. Woolley's dramatic evocation of these strange funerals where musicians with their harps, soldiers with their weapons and court ladies in gorgeous attire willingly followed their masters into the awesome pits where they were drugged to a painless death never fails to leave the reader with a poignant, unforgettable feeling of horror, mingled with wonder and admiration.

But the Royal Cemetery of Ur presents the historian with very difficult problems. There is no doubt that it belongs to the dawn of history, to the period immediately preceding the First Dynasty of Ur (c. 2600 B.C.). It would seem at first sight that the people so lavishly buried could be no other than kings, queens and princes, but in the seventeen royal tombs where several inscriptions were found, most of them on cylinder-seals, two names only, Meskalamdug (‘The hero of the good land’) and Akalamdug (‘The son of the good land’), are followed by the title lugal, ‘king’, and two other names, those of Ninbanda, wife of Meskalamdug, and of Puabi, spouse of an unknown monarch, are qualified by the title nin, ‘queen’; and while the fact that all but two tombs had been plundered in antiquity might account for the absence of other royal inscriptions, this absence is nevertheless disconcerting. Even more puzzling is the practice of collective burials involving from three to seventy-four attendants, mostly female here – practically a whole royal household. It is attested on a smaller scale and mostly with male servants in other countries and in other times – in Egypt during the First Dynasty, among the Scythians and the Mongols, in Assam, and even among the Comans of southern Russia as late as the thirteenth century A.D.21 – but nowhere in Mesopotamia outside Ur and possibly Kish. Again, it can be argued that practically all the royal tombs in ancient Iraq were found plundered and that we have no written description of a royal funeral. Yet this silence about a ceremony which must have been of paramount importance is surprising and can only be explained by assuming that royal burials with human sacrifices fell into disuse at a very early date, probably during the Early Dynastic period. But why this sacrifice? The only text in our possession alluding to a king going to the grave with his retinue is, significantly, a Sumerian epic tale known as ‘the death of Gilgamesh’.22 Now, we know that Gilgamesh and Meskalamdug were but a few generations apart, and we also know from other sources that Gilgamesh was considered to be a god of the Netherworld. This would tend to confirm the theory first propounded by Woolley that Meskalamdug, Akalamdug, Puabi and the other anonymous kings and queens of the Royal Cemetery were more than monarchs: they were gods, or at least they represented the gods on earth and, as such, were entitled to take their court with them into another life, a life no doubt incomparably more enjoyable than that of the human being. However, this theory, as all others, is open to criticism, and the drama of the Cemetery of Ur remains a mystery.23

If the kings of Mesopotamia ceased early to be ‘substitute gods’ they always retained some of their priestly functions. Yet the general trend throughout history was towards a gradual separation of the Palace from the Temple, and this development began in Early Dynastic times. Already in about 2400 B.C. Entemena, ensi of Lagash, was no longer high priest of that city, for on a beautiful silver vase which he dedicated to Ningirsu an inscription expressly mentions: ‘In those days Dudu was priest (sanga) of Ningirsu.’ There were even times when the ruler and the priests were, it seems, in open conflict. About a century after Entemena, Uruinimgina (formerly called Urukagina), the last prince of Lagash, tells us in a famous inscription24 how he, as champion of the gods, put an end to the abuses that existed before his reign: inspectors of the ruler interfered in all affairs, fantastic taxes were levied on burials and, apparently, on weddings, houses were bought below their price by rich officials, corruption was rife and the poor suffered much; but, more important, the ensi was building up vast estates, his ‘onion and cucumber gardens’ encroached on the best fields of the gods and were tilled by oxen and asses belonging to the temples. Uruinimgina revoked many officials, reduced taxation and ‘reinstated Ningirsu’ in the buildings and fields of the ruler:

He freed the citizens of Lagash from usury, monopoly, hunger, theft and assault; he established their freedom.

But these reforms, if they were applied at all, had no lasting effect, for it was under Uruinimgina's reign that Lagash and the rest of Sumer fell into non-Sumerian hands.

Outline of History

To reconstruct the sequence of events during the Early Dynastic period is not an easy task. Not only are historical texts proper extremely rare and usually concise, but the co-existence of several local ‘dynasties’ and the part played by some rulers not mentioned in the King List add considerably to the difficulty. We shall therefore aim at nothing more than a brief outline of Early Dynastic history, warning the reader that many points in our reconstruction are highly controversial.

This history is essentially one of wars between city-states and against foreigners. Many of these wars undoubtedly had economic causes that are seldom mentioned, such as the appropriation of land or the control of trade routes and irrigation canals, but some had geopolitical or religious motives. Thus Kish lay in the heart of a Semitic area – even though most of its rulers bore good Sumerian names* – and to conquer it meant to unite the two main ethno-linguistic groups of Sumer under the same rule. The title ‘King of Kish’ therefore seems to have been more coveted than any other, being almost synonymous with ‘King of Sumer and Akkad’ or ‘King of the (whole) Country’ which occur later in royal inscriptions. Another goal worthy of any prince, whether Sumerian or Semite, was to possess Nippur, or at least to be recognized by its ensi and clergy. Contrary to Kish, Uruk and Ur, Nippur never gained nor claimed ascendancy over other city-states and does not even figure among the ‘dynasties’ of the Sumerian King List, but it was the seat of Sumer's supreme god, Enlil, and the religious capital, the Rome or Mecca of the Sumerians. In consequence, lugals and ensis competed in sending to Enlil's shrine the most valuable gifts; those who could include Nippur in their kingdom restored or rebuilt its temples, and at the end of the third millennium the words ‘chosen by Enlil in Nippur’ became part of the standard royal titles. Did this attitude towards Nippur merely reflect religious fervour, or was it – as the supporters of the ‘primitive democracy’ believe – a survival of the times when, faced with the threat of foreign invasion, delegates from all city-states met in Nippur to elect a common war leader? Or again, did the priests and theologians of Nippur exert upon the kings some strong, if untold, political influence, as did the priests of Heliopolis in Egypt? As with so many questions in ancient history, these have no definite answer.

Mebaragesi (c. 2700 B.C.) is the first Early Dynastic king authenticated by two inscriptions, but these give us only his name and title, whereas the Sumerian King List yields the interesting information that ‘he carried away as spoil the weapons of Elam’. This is the first mention, though probably not the first episode, of a very long conflict between Mesopotamia and Elam which had its roots in prehistoric times and was to last for almost three thousand years. When Mebaragesi's son, Agga, surrendered to Gilgamesh, the age-old First Dynasty of Kish came to an end, and for a century (c. 2660 – 2560 B.C.) Gilgamesh's seven successors – unfortunately mere names on the King List – reigned over both Uruk and Kish. Soon after that period, however, we have three short inscriptions from a prince of unknown origin named Mesalim, who calls himself ‘King of Kish’ but seems to have had close links with Lagash, where he erected a temple to Ningirsu and arbitrated a border dispute between that city and Umma (Tell Jokha, twenty-nine kilometres to the west of Girsu), setting up his stele as a boundary stone.

During that time, maritime trade with the East had immensely enriched the city and rulers of Ur (which was then a port near the mouth of the Euphrates),25 as shown by the treasures buried with Meskalamdug and Akalamdug in the famous ‘Royal’ Cemetery (c. 2600 B.C.). Who the ancestors and descendants of those two kings were we do not know, but c. 2560 B.C., Mesannepadda (‘hero chosen by An’) – whom we have already met – founded the First Dynasty of Ur. He was soon powerful enough to overthrow the last king of Uruk as well as his contemporary, Mesalim of Kish. Nippur appears to have been in his possession, since he and his second successor, Meskiagnunna, rebuilt there a temple called Tummal which had been originally erected by Mebaragesi but which had ‘fallen into ruin for the first time’. Lagash was then at peace with Umma, and its prince Ur-Nanshe was busy building temples, digging canals, importing wood from Dilmun and having himself portrayed on a well-known wall-plaque with his wife, his seven sons and three of his officials. Even relations with distant Mari were friendly, if we judge from the finding in Mari of a hoard of precious objects apparently offered by Mesannepadda to one of its kings.26 This pax sumerica under the aegis of Ur lasted about one hundred years, but ended in disaster. Kish, probably lost early to the local rulers of its Second Dynasty, was briefly occupied by people from Hamazi, a town or a country probably located beyond the Tigris, between the Diyala and the Lesser Zab, whilst hordes of Elamites came from the district of Awan (probably around modern Shushtar) and imposed their law over part of Sumer. And as though this was not enough, Lagash became very troublesome under one of its rulers – a ruler who has left us some of the most extensive and detailed historical records of the entire Early Dynastic period.

Like his grandfather Ur-Nanshe, Eannatum,* ensi of Lagash (c. 2455 – 2425 B.C.), was a great builder of temples and digger of canals; circumstances also made of him a great warrior. He purged Sumer from the Elamite bands and protected its eastern flank by conquering if not, as he claims, ‘Elam the great mountain that strikes terror, in its entirety’, at least several towns on the border of Elam. He overthrew Ur and Uruk and ‘added to the princeship (nam-ensi) of Lagash and the kingship of Kish’. But the war about which we are best informed is a localized conflict, the war against Umma.27 The bone of contention was a certain field called Gu-edin which lay at the border between the two states and was claimed by both; but now:

The ensi of Umma, at the command of his god, raided and devoured the Gu-edin, the irrigated land, the field beloved of Ningirsu… He ripped out the stele (set up by Mesalim) and entered the plain of Lagash.

The infantry of Lagash, armed with long spears and protected by heavy shields, met in battle the soldiers of Umma. Eannatum won:

By the word of Enlil, he hurled the great net upon them and heaped up piles of their bodies in the plain… The survivors turned to Eannatum, they prostrated themselves for life, they wept…

The fight ended in a peace treaty. The ensi of Lagash ‘marked off the boundary with Enakalli, the ensi of Umma; he restored Mesalim's stele to its former place' and levied on Umma a heavy tax in barley. Eannatum's victory – or rather the victory of Ningirsu, the god of Lagash, over Shara, the god of Umma, as the texts present it – was commemorated by a masterpiece of early Sumerian sculpture, unfortunately found in fragments: the stele ‘of the Vultures’, so called because of the birds of prey that tear up the corpses of the vanquished. Towards the end of his reign, Eannatum had to fight a coalition of the men of Kish and Mari led by Zuzu (or Unzi), King of Akshak.28 Although he claimed victory, there is little doubt that this war marked the end of the small empire he had built.

Only a few years ago, very little was known about the history of the kingdom of Mari during the Early Dynastic period. Mari figures on the Sumerian King List with six kings totalling 136 years of reign, but only one or two names are legible. Two inscriptions from Ur mention an otherwise unknown Ilshu, king of Mari, and four of the statues of worshippers found at Mari itself bear inscriptions giving their name (Ikun-Shamash, Lamgi-Mari, Iblul-Il, Ishkun Shamagan), but there is no means of knowing in which order they reigned. But now, some light has been shed on the subject by the Ebla archives, and notably by a letter from a certain Enna-Dagan, en of Mari, to an unnamed en of Ebla, reminding him of a series of successful military campaigns led in northern Syria by three of his predecessors and in particular Iblul-Il who seems to have devastated or occupied a large number of towns belonging to the Ebla kingdom.29 The purpose of this letter is not stated, but there can be little doubt that Enna-Dagan was trying to put some pressure on his rival and keep some kind of control over Ebla. This seems to be supported by administrative documents from Ebla which suggest that the rulers of this kingdom regularly sent large ‘gifts’ (read: tribute) of gold and silver to the court of Mari, at least until the reign of Ebrium, the most powerful king of Ebla.30 Other documents of this type also show that Mari and Ebla were not always on bad terms: many artisans and artists from Mari actually worked in Ebla, and these two cities exchanged a variety of goods, either for their own use or acting as ‘trading ports’ between the Mediterranean coast and Anatolia at one end and lower Mesopotamia and beyond at the other.31

When exactly the Mari-Ebla wars took place is impossible to say for lack of synchronisms between the rulers of these kingdoms and those of the Sumerian city-states, and also because of the uncertainties attached to the order and duration of their reign, the meaning cf their title and indeed the existence of some of them. However, for reasons which cannot be developed here, it seems that Iblul-Il of Mari, Arennum of Ebla and Eannatum of Lagash were more or less contemporary (c. 2460 – 2400 B.C.).

The century following Eannatum's death (c. 2425) is rather confused. It appears that En-shakush-anna, King of Uruk, and Lugal-anne-mundu, King of Adab (nowadays Bismaya, twenty-six kilometres north of Tell Fara32), successively occupied Kish and Nippur and were recognized as suzerains of Sumer. In Lagash, under Eannatum's nephew Entemena* war broke out again with Umma. In a long inscription on two clay cylinders Entemena recalls what happened in the past, tells us how he ‘slew the Ummaite forces up into Umma itself’, then stood firm against the pretensions of the new ensi of Umma, ‘that plunderer of fields and farms, that speaker of evil’, and dug a boundary ditch as a permanent frontier between the two rival cities. We also know from other sources that Entemena concluded a ‘brotherhood pact’ with his powerful neighbour Lugal-kinishe-dudu of Uruk, who had united Uruk and Ur into a single kingdom, and that his reign ended in peace and prosperity. But a few years later the situation deteriorated again in Lagash. The priests of Ningirsu seized the throne and occupied it for about two decades, enlarging, as we have seen, their personal properties at the expense of the gods. They were overthrown by Uru-inimagina, famous for his social reforms, but the victor reigned only for eight years. An energetic and ambitious ensi of Umma, Lugalzagesi*, marched against Girsu, took it and destroyed it, thus avenging two centuries of defeat. On the smouldering ruins of the city, an unknown scribe sat later to write a lamentation which has come down to us:33

The men of Umma have set fire to the (temple) Antasurra, they have carried away the silver and the precious stones… They have shed blood in the temple E-engur of the goddess Nanshe; they have carried away the silver and the precious stones… The men of Umma, by the despoiling of Lagash, have committed a sin against the god Ningirsu… As for Lugal-zagge-si, ensi of Umma, may his goddess Nidaba make him bear his mortal sin upon his head!

But the curse had no immediate effect. After Lagash, Lugalzagesi took Uruk and established himself as king of that city. He then proceeded to conquer the rest of Sumer and apparently succeeded. Indeed, on a vase dedicated to Enlil in Nippur he claims conquests embracing the whole of Mesopotamia as well as Syria:

When Enlil, king of sovereign countries, had given him the kingship over the nation (Sumer), had directed upon him the eyes of the nation, made all sovereign countries wait upon him, and made (everyone) from where the sun rises to where the sun sets submit to him; then he drew toward himself the feet of (everybody) from the Lower Sea (Arabo-Persian Gulf) (along) the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Upper Sea (Mediterranean). From where the sun rises to where the sun sets, Enlil lets him have no opponent. All sovereign countries lay (as cows) in pasture under him; the nation was watering (its fields) in joy under him; all the dependent rules of Sumer and the ensis of all independent countries bowed to him before his arbitral office in Uruk.34

It is difficult to believe that Lugalzagesi possessed in fact such an empire. Perhaps this is no more than a piece of grandiloquence; perhaps the King of Uruk had managed to obtain the submission or the alliance of the Semites of Mari, who, in turn, might have held the Semites of Syria under their political influence. In any case, the ‘Sumerian Empire’ of Lugalzagesi lasted no longer than his reign: twenty-four years (c. 2340-2316). A newcomer, a Semitic prince, Sargon of Akkad, gave it the fatal blow.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!