Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eight

The First War Chronicles

In Sumer, around 2700 BC, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, conquers his neighbors

WHEN THE SUMERIANS began to use cuneiform, they moved from once upon a time into the knowable past. They began to set down accounts of battles won, trades negotiated, and temples built. The king list can now be elaborated by official tablets and inscriptions.

Epic tales, which often preserve the body of earthly accomplishments beneath the fancy dress of demonic opponents and supernatural powers, remain useful. But now we can anchor them in accounts which are intended to be more or less factual. Which is not to say that inscriptions display a new and startling objectivity; they were written by scribes who were paid by the kings whose achievements they recorded, which naturally tends to tilt them in the king’s favor. (According to Assyrian inscriptions, very few Assyrian kings ever lost a battle.) But by comparing the inscriptions made by two apparently victorious kings at war with each other, we can usually deduce which king actually won.

In Sumer, where civilization arose in order to keep the have-nots separate from the haves, battles between cities erupted sporadically from at least 4000 BC. From temple inscriptions, the king list, and a collection of tales, we can put together a story of one of the earliest series of battles: the first chronicles of a war.

In the year 2800 BC (more or less), the Sumerian king Meskiaggasher ruled in the city of Uruk. Uruk, known today as the southeastern Iraqi city Warka, was one of the oldest cities in Sumer, occupied since at least 3500 BC.17 In Meskiaggasher’s day, it was also (so far as we can tell) the largest. Its walls were six miles long; fifty thousand people lived in and around it. Two huge temple complexes lay within its gates. In the complex called Kullaba, the Sumerians gathered to worship the remote and reticent sky-god An; in the complex Eanna, they carried on a much more vigorous devotion to Inanna, the very accessible goddess of love and war.18

It must have galled Meskiaggasher that his great and historic city was not in fact the crown jewel of Sumer. That honor still belonged to Kish, the city whose king could claim the formal right of overlordship. By this point, Kish had extended its protection (and control) over the sacred city of Nippur, where the shrines of the chief god Enlil stood and where kings of every Sumerian city went to sacrifice and to seek recognition. Although not the strongest city in Sumer, Kish seems to have exerted a disproportionate influence over the area. Like New York City, it was neither a political nor military capital, but nevertheless stood for the heart of the civilization—particularly to those outside.

Meskiaggasher does not seem to have been a man who could happily stand second in line. He probably seized the throne of Uruk from its rightful holder; in the Sumerian king list, he is described as the son of the sun-god Utu, which is the sort of lineage a usurper often used to legitimize his claim. And, as the king list tells us, during his reign he “entered the seas and ascended the mountains.” This seems more straightforward than Etana’s ascension to the heavens. Once in control of Uruk, Meskiaggasher expanded its sway; not over other Sumerian cities (Uruk was not quite powerful enough to pitch into Lagash, or Kish, head-on), but over the trade routes that led through the seas and over the surrounding mountains.

The control of these trade routes had to come before war. Meskiaggasher needed swords, axes, helmets, and shields, but the plains between the rivers lacked metal. The swordsmiths of Kish could count on getting their raw materials from the north, down Kish’s direct river route; Uruk needed to find a southern source for these raw materials that the plains between the rivers lacked.


8.1 Meskiaggasher’s Trade

A southern source lay at hand. The fabulous Copper Mountains stood in Magan—southeast Arabia, modern-day Oman. Mentioned in cuneiform tablets from Lagash and elsewhere, the Copper Mountains (the Al Hajar range) had mines sixty-five feet deep, and ovens for smelting ore, from very early times.

There was no easy path to Magan across the Arabian desert. At the ports of Magan, though, Sumerian reed boats—caulked with bitumen, capable of carrying twenty tons of metal—could trade grain, wool, and oil for copper. Meskiaggasher’s first, logical preparation for war was to assure (either by negotiation, or by battle) that Uruk’s merchants had a clear path down the Gulf of Oman to Magan.

But Sumerian smiths needed more than pure copper. Three hundred years or so before Meskiaggasher, they had begun to add ten percent of tin or arsenic to their copper, a combination which produced bronze: stronger than copper, easier to shape, taking a sharper edge when ground.19

To get the best bronze, Meskiaggasher needed tin. Bronze made with arsenic was a little weaker, a little harder to hone. It also tended to kill off your skilled craftsmen over time, which was no good way to build an arsenal. So Meskiaggasher’s ascension of the mountains was likely carried out in search of this tin, which lay under the rocky slopes of the Zagros Mountains, or possibly even farther north, in the steep icy Elburz Mountains below the Caspian Sea. Meskiaggasher took his soldiers deep into the mountain passes and forced the mountain tribes to provide him with the metal he needed to turn copper to bronze.

Now Uruk was armed, but Meskiaggasher didn’t live to see it victorious. After his death, his son Enmerkar inherited the throne.

Enmerkar had the unenviable job of living up to his father’s reputation; it’s difficult to go one better on a man who entered the seas and ascended the mountains. We’re given a glimpse of his efforts to grasp fame in a long epic tale from somewhat later, called “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.”

Aratta was not a Sumerian city. It lay in the eastern mountains, somewhere south of the Caspian Sea. Its inhabitants were Elamites, a people who spoke a language entirely unrelated to Sumerian (and which, in fact, hasn’t yet been deciphered). The Elamite cities sat not on tin or copper, but on precious metals and stones—silver, gold, lapis lazuli—and for some years had been swapping semiprecious stone to the Sumerians in return for grain.

Enmerkar, standing in the shadow of the man who had entered the seas and ascended the mountains, decided to pick a quarrel with his trade partner. He had no compelling political reason to do this, but Aratta was a choice prize. If he could bring it under his sway, he would dominate a city that Uruk had long admired for its riches, its metalworkers, and its skilled stonecutters. His fame would be assured.

So he sent a message to the king of Aratta, announcing that Inanna—who also happened to be the chief deity of Aratta—preferred Uruk to Aratta, and that Aratta’s people should acknowledge this by sending Enmerkar their gold, silver, and lapis lazuli at no charge.

This was a declaration of war, and it was met with defiance. Unfortunately, Enmerkar seems to have overestimated his strength. In the epic tale, after a series of testy exchanges between the two kings, the goddess Inanna settles the issue by assuring Enmerkar that while she most certainly loves Uruk best, she has an affection for Aratta as well and would prefer him not to flatten it. At the tale’s end, the Elamites of Aratta are still free from Enmerkar’s rule.1

Given that the story has come down to us from the Sumerians, not the Elamites, this ambiguous ending probably represents a shattering Sumerian defeat. Enmerkar died, childless, without expanding his father’s empire, and brought Meskiaggasher’s dynasty to an early end.

He was succeeded by one of his fellow warriors, a man named Lugulbanda, the star of several epic tales in his own right. After Lugulbanda, yet another unrelated warrior assumed control of the city. The succession of fathers and sons seems to have been broken, and Uruk made no more attempts to enclose other cities within its grasp.

Then, perhaps a hundred years later, Uruk again made a bid for the reins of Sumerian power. Uruk had a new king: yet another usurper, a young man named Gilgamesh.

According to the king list, Gilgamesh’s father was not a king at all. He was most likely a high priest in the Kullaba temple complex, devoted to the worship of the god An, and the possessor of a certain reputation. The king list calls him a lillu, a word which implies demonic powers. Although the kings of Sumer had once been priests as well, this time had passed. For some years, the priestly and political administration of Sumerian cities had diverged; Gilgamesh may have inherited the priestly power, but he seized the kingly authority that he had no right to as well.

In an epic tale told not long after his reign, we find Gilgamesh claiming Lugulbanda, the warrior-companion of Enmerkar, as his father. On the face of it, this is silly; Lugulbanda had occupied the throne decades (at least) before Gilgamesh’s birth. But from the point of view of a man rewriting his personal history, Lugulbanda was a fine choice. He had been a brilliantly successful warrior-king, a man with a knack for surviving long brutal campaigns and emerging fresh and ready to fight at the far end. By Gilgamesh’s day, Lugulbanda—perhaps thirty years dead, or even more—was well on his way to achieving the status of a Sumerian hero. A hundred years later, he would be considered a god. He lent Gilgamesh a sheen of secular power.

Once Gilgamesh’s first venture—to seize the throne of Uruk—had succeeded, he was ready for a new task. And Kish still lay unconquered, its king protecting sacred Nippur, and claiming that vexing indefinable superiority of prestige.

When we detach this young king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, from the epic tales which predated him and later became attached to his person, we are still left with a vivid personality. Gilgamesh wanted it all: loyal companions, the throne, a royal title, the title “king of Kish,” and eventually immortality.

Gilgamesh’s first preparation, before declaring war on his neighbors, was to fortify his own walls. “In Uruk [Gilgamesh] built walls,” the prologue to the Epic of Gilgamesh tells us, “a great rampart…. Look at it still today: the outer wall…it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal.”2

The copper is a later exaggeration. Uruk’s walls at this time weren’t stone, let alone copper; they were made of wood, brought from the north. Gilgamesh’s journey to get wood is reflected in the Epic. In it, he ventures to the cedar forests of the north in order to set up a monument to the gods, but before he can build it he has to fight the giant of the woods: “a great warrior, a battering-ram” known as “Hugeness” or, in Sumerian, “Humbaba.”3 In fact, Gilgamesh would have faced, not a giant, but Elamite tribes who lived in the forest and were disinclined to hand over their most valuable resource peacefully.

With walls fortified, Gilgamesh was ready to pick his own quarrel with the king of Kish.

THE KING OF KISH was named Enmebaraggesi, and he had ruled in Kish for years before the upstart Gilgamesh came to power in Uruk.20 He was not only the king of Kish, but also the protector of sacred Nippur. An inscription found there tells us that Enmebaraggesi built in Nippur the “House of Enlil,” a temple for the great Sumerian chief god of air, wind, and storms, who held the Tablets of Destiny and thus wielded power over the fates of all men. Enlil, who was credited with the sending of the flood in a grouchy moment, was not a god to be messed with. But since the temple built by Enmebaraggesi became known as Enlil’s favorite, the king of Kish was confident in the god’s favor. He was unlikely to have worried much about the juvenile challenger from the south.

Meanwhile, Gilgamesh was mobilizing Uruk’s forces. All the machinery of war was put into motion: the foot soldiers with their leather shields, their spears and axes; the siege engines made of northern timber, hauled by oxen and sweating men; a huge cedar log, floated upstream on the Euphrates, to be used as a battering ram to bash down Kish’s gates. War was the most highly developed skill in the ancient world. From as early as 4000 BC, carved scenes show us spearmen, prisoners both alive and executed, gates broken down and walls besieged.

So the attack began—and failed. We know this because the king lists record Enmebaraggesi’s death from old age, and the peaceful succession of his son Agga to the throne of Kish.4

Why did Gilgamesh retreat?

In all the legends that accrue around Gilgamesh, the central figure remains vividly the same: a young, aggressive, impetuous man, of almost superhuman vitality, the kind of man who sleeps three hours a night and hurtles out of bed to get back to work, who starts an airline before the age of twenty-five, or founds and sells four companies by twenty-eight, or writes an autobiography before thirty. It is also a constant in the tales that this vitality wears Gilgamesh’s people to a frazzle. In the epics, they are so exhausted by his constant bounding around that they call out to the gods for deliverance. In reality, they probably just balked; and without the support of his citizens, Gilgamesh was forced to retreat.

The king of a Sumerian city, after all, was not an absolute ruler. In the story of Gilgamesh’s expedition to the north, he has to seek the approval of a council of elders before he sets off. Sumerians, formed by a country in which every man needed to keep his elbows out against his neighbor’s trespasses in order to survive, seem to have had a keen sense of their own rights. They were the first people to write down their law codes, inscribing the limits of others’ freedom, so that there could be no mistake. They were not likely to suffer a king’s encroachments for long without objecting, and in this case, they declined to go to war any more.

Gilgamesh was still determined to conquer Kish. Agga of Kish, on the other hand, was inclined to make peace. A poem-story called “Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish” records that he sent envoys to Gilgamesh, apparently to establish friendly relations.

Gilgamesh seems to have taken this as a sign of weakness, rather than a sign of peace. According to the tale, he first brings together the elders of the city and tells them about Agga’s message. Rather than recommending peace, though, he suggests another attack: “There are many wells of the land to be claimed. So should we submit to the house of Kish? Instead, we should smite it with weapons!”5

The assembly of elders declines to smite Kish, telling Gilgamesh to go finish his own wells rather than romping after the wells of others. But Gilgamesh instead turns to another assembly: the assembly of young (“able-bodied”) men. “Never before have you submitted to Kish!” he tells them. After a little more rhetoric, they are ready to cheer him on. “Standing on duty, sitting attendance, escorting the son of the king [of Kish]—who has the energy?” they shout to him. “You are beloved of the gods, a man of exuberance!”

“Do not submit to the house of Kish!

Should we young men not smite it with weapons?

The great gods created Uruk,

and its great walls touch the clouds.

The army of Kish is small,

and its men cannot look us in the face.”

So supported, Gilgamesh decides to attack Kish once more.

This double parliamentary assembly of elders (wise but past fighting) and younger men (able-bodied but hotheaded) was common in Sumerian city government. It endured for centuries in the ancient Near East; much later, the son of the great Hebrew king Solomon, on ascending the throne, would split his country in half by ignoring the peaceful counsel of the assembly of elders in favor of the rash actions suggested by the assembly of younger men.

Gilgamesh follows the same course, and comes to grief. Again, the attack on Kish drags on; again, the people of Uruk protest; and again, Gilgamesh withdraws. We know this because it is not Gilgamesh who finally defeats Kish and claims the titles of king of Kish and protector of Nippur, but another king entirely: the king of Ur.

Ur, farther south than Uruk and far away from Kish, had been quietly growing in strength and power for decades. Its king, Mesannepadda, seems to have been extraordinarily long-lived. By the time that Gilgamesh’s second attack on Kish trailed off into retreat, Mesannepadda had been on his throne for decades. He was far older than Gilgamesh, perhaps even older than the now-dead Enmebaraggesi. He too wanted Kish; and he was no ally of Uruk.

But he had been willing to wait before launching his own assault. When Gilgamesh withdrew, leaving Kish weakened, Mesannepadda attacked Kish, and triumphed. Mesannepadda, not Gilgamesh, brought the First Dynasty of Kish to an end and took control of the sacred city of Nippur. Gilgamesh’s superhuman energy was still locked behind walls, confined by his people’s unwillingness to support another attack.

Once again, the dynamics of inheritance came into play. Kish had fallen when Enmebaraggesi died and left the defense to his son; now Gilgamesh waited until the old and powerful Mesannepadda died and left his own son, Meskiagunna, as ruler over the triple kingdom of Ur, Kish, and Nippur. (And, perhaps until the elders who had seen him twice defeated were dead as well.) Then, Gilgamesh attacked for a third time.21

This time he was triumphant. In a bitter struggle, he brought Meskiagunna down, claimed his city, and took over the other territories Meskiagunna had won through war. In one last push, Gilgamesh had finally become master of the four great cities of Sumer: Kish, Ur, Uruk, and the sacred Nippur.

After decades plotting Kish’s conquest, Gilgamesh now ruled more of Sumer than any king before him. But only for a little while. Even Gilgamesh’s superhuman energy could not ward off old age. When he died, very shortly after his victory, his four-cornered kingdom, the title of king of Kish, and all the stories surrounding his towering figure devolved on his son.























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