Ancient History & Civilisation

Part One


Chapter One

The Origin of Kingship

Just north of the Persian Gulf, in the very distant past, the Sumerians discover that cities need rulers

MANY THOUSANDS of years ago, the Sumerian king Alulim ruled over Eridu: a walled city, a safe space carved out of the unpredictable and harsh river valley that the Romans would later name Mesopotamia. Alulim’s rise to power marked the beginning of civilization, and his reign lasted for almost thirty thousand years.

The Sumerians, who lived in a world where the supernatural and the material had not yet been assigned to different sides of the aisle, would not have choked over the last part of that sentence. On the other hand, they would have found Alulim’s placement at “the beginning of civilization” extremely hard to swallow. In their own minds, the Sumerians had always been civilized. Alulim’s kingship, recorded in the Sumerian king list (perhaps the oldest historical record in the world), “descended from heaven” and was already perfect when it arrived on earth.

But looking back, we see the coming of the first king in different perspective. It is a sea change in the condition of man, the beginning of a whole new relationship between people, their land, and their leaders.

We can’t date Alulim’s reign, since he is not mentioned in any other records, and since we don’t know how old the Sumerian king list itself is. The list was set down on clay tablets sometime after 2100 BC, but it undoubtedly preserves a much older tradition. More than that: the chronology given by the Sumerian king list doesn’t exactly match the past as we know it. “After kingship had descended from heaven,” the king list tells us, “Alulim reigned 28,000 years as king; [his heir] Alalgar reigned 36,000 years.”1

The length of these reigns may suggest that both of these kings are actually demigods, drawn from mythology rather than history; or perhaps, simply that Alulim and his heir ruled for a very long time. According to the Sumerians, eight kings ruled before the enormous catastrophe of Sumerian history occurred and “the Flood swept over” the land. Each reign lasted for a multiple of thirty-six hundred years, which suggests that the king list involves a kind of reckoning we don’t understand.1

What we can do is place the first Sumerian king in the distant past. Whenever he reigned, Alulim lived in a land probably quite different from the Mesopotamia we know today, with its familiar two rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates—running into the Persian Gulf. Geologists tell us that, just before the beginning of history (the date 11,000 BC, although far from precise, gives us a reference point), ice spread down from the polar caps far to the south, down almost to the Mediterranean Sea. With so much water contained in ice, the oceans and seas were lower; the northern end of the Gulf itself was probably a plain with streams running through it, and the ocean lapped up against a shore that lay roughly level with modern Qatar. Rain fell regularly, so that the land was watered.

As the climate began to warm and the ice caps began to melt—a process that geologists assign to the five thousand years between 11,000 and 6000 BC—the ocean crept up past Qatar, past the modern territory of Bahrain. Settlements retreated before the rising water. By 6000 BC, Britain—previously a peninsula jutting off from Europe—had become an island, and the shore of the Persian Gulf had crept up to the southern border of Kuwait. The plain that lay to its north was watered, not by two rivers, but by a whole complex of powerful streams, their paths still visible in satellite photos; the book of Genesis describes one river with “four heads” running through the plain.2

But although the land was watered by this braided riverway, it grew drier. As the ice retreated, the temperature rose. Just north of the Gulf, the rains diminished into infrequent sprinkles that came only during the winter months. In the summer, searing winds blew across the unprotected plain. Each year, the streams swelled up over their banks and washed away fields before receding back into their beds, leaving silt behind. The silt began to build up on the banks of the interweaving streams, pushing them apart. And the Gulf continued to creep northwards.

The people who lived on the southern plain, closest to the Gulf, scratched for survival in a shifting and unpredictable landscape. Once a year, far too much water covered their fields. As soon as the floods subsided, the ground dried hard. They had no stone, no forests to provide timber, no wide grasslands; just reeds, which grew along the streams, and plenty of mud. Mud, molded and dried, mixed with reeds and baked, became the foundations of their houses, the bricks that formed their city walls, their pots and dishes. They were people of the earth.2


1.1 Very Ancient Mesopotamia

The language that these settlers spoke—Sumerian—is apparently unrelated to any other language on earth. But by the time that the Sumerians began to write, their language was peppered with words from another tongue. Sumerian words are built on one-syllable roots, but dozens of words from the oldest inscriptions have unfamiliar two-syllable roots: the names of the two most powerful rivers that ran through the plain, the names for farmer, fisherman, carpenter, weaver, and a dozen other occupations, even the name of the city Eridu itself.

These words are Semitic, and they prove that the Sumerians were not alone on the southern plain. The Semitic words belonged to a people whose homeland was south and west of the Mesopotamian plain. Mountains to the north and east of Mesopotamia discouraged wanderers, but travelling up from the Arabian peninsula, or over from northern Africa, was a much simpler proposition. The Semites did just this, settling in with the Sumerians and lending them words. And more than just words: the Semitic loanwords are almost all names for farming techniques (plow, furrow) and for the peaceful occupations that go along with farming (basketmaker, leatherworker, carpenter). The Semites, not the Sumerians, brought these skills to Mesopotamia.

So how did the Semites learn how to farm?

Probably in gradual stages, like the peoples who lived in Europe and farther north. Perhaps, as the ice sheets retreated and the herds of meat-providing animals moved north and grew thinner, the hunters who followed these herds gave up the full-time pursuit of meat and instead harvested the wild grains that grew in the warmer plains, shifting residence only when the weather changed (as the native North Americans in modern Canada were still doing when Jacques Cartier showed up). Maybe these former nomads progressed from harvesting wild grain to planting and tending it, and finally gave up travelling altogether in favor of full-time village life. Well-fed men and women produced more babies. Sickles and grinding stones, discovered from modern Turkey down to the Nile valley, suggest that as those children grew to adulthood, they left their overpopulated villages and travelled elsewhere, taking their farming skills with them and teaching them to others.

Ancient stories add another wrinkle to the tale: as the Semite-influenced Sumerians planted crops around their villages, life became so complicated that they needed a king to help them sort out their difficulties.

Enter Alulim, king of Eridu, and the beginning of civilization.

It’s easy to wax lyrical over the “beginning of civilization.” Civilization, after all, is what divides us from chaos. Civilized cities have walls that separate the orderly streets within from the wild waste outside. Civilization, as archaeologist Stuart Piggott explains in his introduction to Max Mallowan’s classic study of ancient Sumer, is the result of a courageous discontent with the status quo: “Sporadically,” Piggott writes, “there have appeared peoples to whom innovation and change, rather than adherence to tradition, gave satisfaction and release: these innovating societies are those which we can class as the founders of civilization.”3

Actually, civilization appears to be the result of a more elemental urge: making sure that no one seizes too much food or water. Civilization began in the Fertile Crescent, not because it was an Edenic place overflowing with natural resources, but because it was so hostile to settlement that a village of any size needed careful management to survive. Farmers had to cooperate in order to construct the canals and reservoirs needed to capture floodwaters. Someone needed to enforce that cooperation, and oversee the fair division of the limited water. Someone had to make sure that farmers, who grew more grain than their families needed, would sell food to the nonfarmers (the basketmakers, leatherworkers, and carpenters) who grew no grain themselves. Only in an inhospitable and wild place is this sort of bureaucracy—the true earmark of civilization—needed. In genuinely fertile places, overflowing with water and food and game and minerals and timber, people generally don’t bother.3

In the Fertile Crescent, as villages grew into cities, more people had to sustain themselves on the same amount of dry land. Strong leadership became more necessary than ever. Human nature being what it is, city leaders needed some means of coercion: armed men who policed their decrees.

The leaders had become kings.

For the Sumerians, who struggled to survive in a land where water either washed away their fields in floods, or retreated entirely, leaving the crops to bake in the sun, kingship was a gift from the gods. No primordial gardens for the Sumerians: cities, protected from invading waters and hungry raiders by thick mud-brick walls, were man’s first and best home. The city of Eridu, where kingship first descended from heaven, reappears in the myths of the Babylonians as the Sumerian Eden, created by the king-god Marduk:

All the lands were sea….

Then Eridu was made….

Marduk constructed a reed frame on the face of the waters.

He created dirt and poured it out by the reed frame….

He created mankind.4

Eridu never disappears, as the Eden of Genesis does. The sacred city stood as the division between the old world of the hunters and gatherers, and the new world of civilization.

But the hunters and gatherers were not entirely gone. From the earliest days of kingship and the first building of cities, settled farmers quarrelled with nomadic herdsmen and shepherds.

The fifth king in the Sumerian list is Dumuzi, who is (as the list tells us, with an air of faint surprise) a shepherd. That a shepherd who becomes king is a meeting of opposites becomes clear in “The Wooing of Inanna,” a tale starring Dumuzi and the goddess Inanna.4 In this story, Dumuzi is not only a shepherd and king, but also has the blood of gods in his veins; despite his divinity, Inanna finds Dumuzi unworthy. “The shepherd will go to bed with you!” exclaims the sun-god Utu, but Inanna (who generally bestows her favors without a whole lot of hesitation) objects:

The shepherd! I will not marry the shepherd!

His clothes are coarse; his wool is rough.

I will marry the farmer.

The farmer grows flax for my clothes.

The farmer grows barley for my table.5

Dumuzi persists with his suit. After a fair amount of arguing about whose family is better, he wins entrance to Inanna’s bed by offering her fresh milk with cream; she promptly suggests that he “plow her damp field.” (He accepts the invitation.)

Inanna’s preference for the farmer echoes a real tension. As the southern plain grew drier, cities clustered along the riverbanks. But beyond the cities, the desert wastes still served as pasture for sheep and goats and as the home of nomads who kept the ancient wandering ways alive. Herdsmen and farmers needed each other; herdsmen provided farmers with meat, fresh milk, and wool in exchange for life-sustaining grain. But mutual need didn’t produce mutual respect. City dwellers scoffed at the rustic, unwashed herdsmen; herdsmen poked fun at the effete and decadent townspeople.

In this land of cities and kings, farmers and nomadic wanderers, the first eight kings of Sumer ruled until catastrophe struck.

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