Chapter 3

Kings and Subjects

In southern Mesopotamia, it’s unlikely that anything dramatic happened around 2900 BCE. The people alive at the time presumably didn’t suddenly feel themselves to have entered a new era. They kept right on farming and making pottery and weaving and working for the temple and doing all the things they had been doing during the Uruk period. But several things did change around this time. One was that more and more people began to live in cities and those cities grew larger and larger. Another is that these city populations needed more farmland than basin irrigation of natural channels could provide. The people began to take more control of the rivers on which they depended and to create canals of increasing size and complexity to bring water to their fields.1 They did this probably by enlarging and adapting existing natural channels.2 A third innovation, the one that gives this era its name, was that the powerful men who ruled each of the various major cities became yet more powerful, taking personal credit for monumental buildings and irrigation projects that they commissioned.3 These men were now recognizably kings, so this new era is known as the “Early Dynastic period.” Unfortunately, one looks in vain for the cuneiform documents to tell us about the first halting steps from priest-kings to kings whose roles were different from those of priests, if they were indeed halting steps.

Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu: A Priest and His Daughter

It is in the Early Dynastic period that we can begin to learn more about the specific lives of individuals. The writing system had developed beyond proto-cuneiform, as scribes began to use the signs phonetically to reflect the sound of a word. When they did this, we can begin to think of their system as writing in the conventional sense—as an attempt, in a limited way at this point, to record the sounds of a language.4 The language it represented was Sumerian, which had a couple of features that coincidentally lent themselves to syllabic writing: it featured a lot of one-syllable words and a lot of homonyms. As in the case of the sign “GI,” which could be read as “a reed” or “to return,” plenty of other Sumerian words sounded alike, with at least one of the meanings having already been turned into a pictogram, so that the pictogram could be used whenever that sound was needed.

By now, the signs no longer looked anything like pictures; the script from this era onward is called “cuneiform.” In the Early Dynastic period, a few people began to use cuneiform to write about themselves—not often, and not in much depth—but we get clearer glimpses of them in the cuneiform texts. Although 90 percent of documents were still written for administrative purposes,5 a few inscriptions extolled the achievements of powerful people, and a few recorded legal transactions. You might expect that kings were the only ones to take advantage of this new use of writing, but that’s not the case. Two of the earliest individuals whose activities were described in something resembling a narrative form lived at the beginning of the Early Dynastic period and were not kings. They were a man named Ushumgal and his daughter Shara-igizi-Abzu. They lived in the city of Umma in southern Mesopotamia.

Although they do not seem to have been royalty, they were also not commoners. Ushumgal was a pab-shesh priest who served a god named Shara. His daughter Shara-igizi-Abzu had a profession too, she was an esh-a, though we don’t know what this meant. Shara was the chief god of the city of Umma, so Ushumgal was one of the most powerful religious leaders in the community. As in the Uruk period, as a priest he would have overseen the administration of temple properties. In later centuries, pab-shesh priests kept track of grain, received special garments for festivals, and poured libations when other priests were chanting.6 The same might well have already been true for Ushumgal.

We not only know the names of these two people, we even know what they looked like, or at least how they were represented by an artist who knew them.7 Ushumgal had long hair and a beard; he wore an ankle-length skirt with a fringe at the bottom and a wide rope-like band at the top, along with a cape of some kind over one shoulder. His feet were bare (see Fig. 3.1). Shara-igizi-Abzu wore her hair braided around her face and bound up in a bun in the back. Her dress was long and simple, without a fringe or belt, and the fabric looped over her left arm (see Fig. 3.2).


Fig. 3.1 Figure of Ushumgal, on the stela of Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu, c. 2900 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Fig. 3.2 Figure of Shara-igizi-Abzu on the stela of Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu, c. 2900 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One curious feature of Early Dynastic art is that artists usually depicted women with straight, almost male physiques. In contrast to so-called fertility figurines from earlier in human history, Early Dynastic artists rarely included any suggestion of breasts or hips under the depiction of clothing, which might have distinguished the women from the men. Only their clothes and hairstyles mark them as women. This is true of the depiction of Shara-igizi-Abzu. Often women’s names were also ambiguous, so it is not always possible to tell whether a text was written about a woman or a man. Names consisted of phrases or sentences, most of which were expressions of piety. Only a few of them were particular to women at this time.

The reason that the artist immortalized Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu is that they were involved in a transaction so important that a record of it was carved onto a stone boulder, complete with pictures of the main parties. The roughly drawn cuneiform signs that litter the sides of the boulder, and even extend over the figures themselves, record that this transaction pertained to animals, land, and houses, in large quantities: 450 iku of fields are mentioned (about 158 hectares or 392 acres), along with three houses and some bulls, donkeys, and sheep.8 Unfortunately, the inscription suffers from a dire shortage of verbs, which would have been useful in determining what exactly was going on.

Some other people were involved as well, and four of them were portrayed on the boulder next to the two main parties. These other four, even though they too were apparently important people, are dwarfed by the large figures of Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu. One, a woman who, like Shara-igizi-Abzu, served as an esh-a, was also the daughter of another priest. The three others were men: the chief of the assembly, the foreman of the assembly, and the chief herald. These movers and shakers of the Umma community had been brought together to do something, or to witness something, that pertained to the animals, houses, and fields. No price was listed, which argues against its being a record of a sale, but it does seem likely that the property was changing hands.9 One possibility is that Ushumgal was giving all the real estate and animals to his daughter.10

The boulder is all that is left to attest to a solemn moment, almost 5,000 years ago, when these people gathered, decided on a course of action, and transferred property. An oath was even sworn, according to the inscription, which suggests that it represented a legal document. Some kind of a judicial system must already have been in place to enforce it, hundreds of years before laws began to be written down.

The artist, whose name is given as Enhegal,11 must have spent considerable time immortalizing the occasion. When the carving was finished, the stone monument, or stela, was probably set up in a temple as a permanent record. That same permanent record is now on display in a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Although this boulder is one of the earliest examples of individuals being portrayed and named, it illustrates several deep Mesopotamian traditions, mentioned in the Introduction, that will recur throughout this book. One is that real estate was viewed as extremely important and the people felt that changes in the ownership of, or rights to, land and houses needed to be recorded, not just remembered. The records were maintained and stored and passed down through generations. Whereas wills and letters and lists might be thrown away after the deaths of the people to whom they pertained, real estate contracts and deeds tended to be carefully preserved.

Another long-lasting tradition seen here for perhaps the first time was that it was always best to get the gods involved when humans were doing potentially contentious things such as transferring property. In the ancient Near East, oaths never lost their power to rein in natural impulses; the fear of the gods remained a powerful restraint on greed and corruption for thousands of years.

A third tradition seen here was less resilient but still lasted for millennia. Although men held powerful positions as kings, princes, and priests, their female counterparts—queens, princesses, and priestesses—could at times be just as powerful and were not denigrated for their sex. A powerful woman was to be feared and obeyed, no less than a powerful man. Shara-igizi-Abzu was not portrayed on this stela just because she was the daughter of Ushumgal—she was there playing a major role. She was even depicted as just a little bit taller than her father.

The city of Umma, where they lived, was presumably ruled by a king, though at the beginning of the Early Dynastic period there is very little written evidence from anywhere in Mesopotamia for kings, or for anything else, for that matter. Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu emerge from the general anonymity of the era like beacons in a fog, reminding us that hundreds of thousands of people in the Near East were busily getting on with their lives; we just do not know about almost any of them.

The city of Umma was watched over by the god Shara, whose temple was one of the most impressive in all of Sumer.12 The ruler of Umma controlled not just the city itself but several smaller cities and towns,13 along with the villages and lands around the city—it was a city-state. Sumer was dotted with city-states, each home to at least one city god or goddess and each with its own government. (The same was true of the region of Akkad, which lay to the north of Sumer.) Directly to the east of Umma was its neighbor, the city-state of Lagash, with which it is always associated, as though they were ancient twins (though very argumentative twins).

Lagash seems to have had a ruler at the beginning of the Early Dynastic period, around the same time that Shara-igizi-Abzu and her father were alive. He was portrayed on a stone stela, in a style not unlike that used by the artist Enhegal to portray the priest Ushumgal.14

Like Ushumgal, the ruler of Lagash wore his hair long and had a beard, and his skirt extended to his ankles. Unlike Ushumgal, though, his skirt resembled those of the Uruk period priest-kings. It seems to have been made of net, represented by cross-hatching on the sculpture, and he had two feathers in his headdress. He was shown grasping one of two tall maces. The symbolism of all this is lost on us—what did the maces imply? Why was he in a feathered headdress? We do not even know his name; only the name of the god of Lagash, Ningirsu, is given. Some scholars think that he may even represent a god, not a ruler, though gods tended to be shown with horns on their heads, not feathers.

In these early centuries of Sumerian kingship, hints have been found of alliances between southern cities, with perhaps as many as twelve of them forming some sort of a network, perhaps for trade.15 Meanwhile, the rulers of a city-state called Kish, at the very northern edge of the Sumerian-speaking area in what is now central Iraq, were becoming more aggressive than their southern neighbors. An alabaster rectangular plaque bearing what is apparently the earliest historical inscription ever found was published in 2013.16 Perhaps we should not be surprised that it records not a peaceful alliance but the capture by the city of Kish of 36,000 prisoners from at least twenty-five places. Although no king’s name appears in the preserved section, we do know the name of the scribe who wrote the inscription—a man called Amar-Shid. He had carefully inscribed the name of each community and the number of people taken from it, in neat text boxes in rows, to be read from right to left and from top to bottom. On the opposite side of the stone from the inscription, a sculptor had carved two bearded men holding weapons. Those tens of thousands of prisoners were put to work, according to the inscription, with“filling the threshing floors (with grain) and the making of grainstacks.”17 These prisoners, put to work for the palace or temples of Kish, were among the first of many, many men and women in the ancient Near East who were captured in war and forced to labor for their captors.

Over the course of the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900–2300 BCE), the Sumerian city-states went back and forth between these opposing poles of peaceful alliance and armed conflict. To protect themselves in the case of conflict, they built walls around their cities, but to pursue alliances, they developed mechanisms of diplomacy.

As the centuries passed in Umma and Lagash, scribes created more inscriptions, and the rulers of the two city-states shook off that enveloping fog of anonymity. They become known to us as people—people who for generations squabbled and sometimes battled with one another. The point of contention between the two city-states was a stretch of land known as the Gu’edena, which was claimed by both.18 A ruler of either Umma or Lagash would no sooner have set up a boundary stone to mark the border than his counterpart would be outraged at its placement and would remove it, claiming the land for himself. This was an act of war and the troops of the two lands would launch would a campaign to fight for control. It happened again and again. This all started very early on, in the reign of a king of Lagash named Ur-Nanshe.

King Ur-Nanshe of Lagash: Creating the Model of the Pious King

Ur-Nanshe (mid-third millennium BCE) ruled so early in the history of the city-state of Lagash that we do not know who he was, exactly, or for how long he reigned.19 Luckily for us, though, he created inscriptions that included more narrative than was found in the terse list of captives from Kish. Ur-Nanshe was one of the first rulers to come up with the novel idea of using writing to record something about himself. In some cases, this new use for writing was largely a matter of labeling people on relief sculptures, much as Ushumgal and Shara-igizi-Abzu had done some time before, but King Ur-Nanshe did tend to add a few words about his achievements as well.

A limestone plaque produced by one of his court artists shows the king in two poses, looking a little cartoonish to modern eyes (see Fig. 3.3). His face is in profile, and a huge, surprised-looking eye and triangular nose dominate his clean-shaven, bald head. His head is too big for his body, making him seem childlike; his torso faces the viewer but his feet point sideways; and he is twice the size of the other people who line up in front of him. These individuals have their names written across their skirts or in front of them—and they almost all have the sign “DUMU” after their names. The Sumerian word dumu is usually translated as “son” but it also meant “child.” Here, then, were King Ur-Nanshe’s children, and one of them—the tallest one, standing at the front of the line—was clearly a daughter, as she was dressed in women’s clothing.20 Her name seems to have been Abda. The seven other children were all sons, one of whom eventually took the throne after the death of his father.


Fig. 3.3 Limestone plaque showing King Ur-Nanshe of Lagash and his family, mid-third millennium bce. (Renée Lessing-Kronfuss/Art Resource)

But at the time this plaque was made, that sad moment was off in the future and royal succession seems not to have been at the forefront of the king’s mind. What he wanted to memorialize on this plaque were three pious acts. He had the stone carver write that he had “built the temple of the god Ningirsu; built the Abzu-banda (building) (and) built the temple of the goddess Nanshe.”21 These words were squeezed in next to one of the images of the king—appropriately enough, one that showed him with a basket on his head, as though carrying bricks to a building site. These buildings that he boasted of constructing would of course have been the work of many corvée laborers, called up from the population for the purpose and provided with rations and perhaps accommodations.

There is one other achievement that he thought to include, this one next to the second image of the king: he “had ships of Dilmun submit timber as tribute from foreign lands (to Lagash).”22 Dilmun was hundreds of kilometers to the south of Lagash on the shores of the Persian Gulf, in what is now Bahrain. It seems improbable that Lagash controlled Dilmun, so the “tribute” may have been something more in the nature of trade, but evidence from Bahrain confirms that it was serving as a trading center for the whole region and was indeed in contact with the Mesopotamian city-states at this time.

This plaque is not all we know of King Ur-Nanshe; he left us plenty of evidence of his reign, including at least thirty-seven inscriptions. He had them written on figurines, on objects made of stone—limestone, diorite, and onyx—and on bricks, door sockets, and copper nails, but never, apparently, on anything so prosaic as a clay tablet. He frequently boasted about constructing public buildings, and on seven occasions he repeated his assertion about the ships from Dilmun bringing timber for Lagash. In other inscriptions he listed many statues he had dedicated to (or perhaps of) various gods, along with a number of canals he had commissioned. Once he noted that he had distributed a truly vast amount of barley to a temple, presumably for its staff.23 Another time he noted that he had chosen someone to be a “spouse” of the goddess Nanshe, probably as a priest of some sort.24 All of these activities benefited his people, and he comes across in his inscriptions as a public-spirited and pious king.

Surprisingly, in the surviving inscriptions, Ur-Nanshe rarely mentioned war or conflict—only twice, in fact. In his longest inscription he wrote that he “went to war against the leader of Ur and the leader of Gesha” and that he “defeated and [captured] the leader of Ur” and “defeated the leader of Gesha.”25 Gesha was used as another name for Umma, the city-state that neighbored Lagash. This was the start of the long hostilities between the two kingdoms. He fought farther away, as well, in Elam, to the east of Lagash in what is now western Iran.26 Elam, which was to become one of the great powers of the Near East, was at a low point in the mid-third millennium. The city of Susa, its capital, had shrunk in size and was soon to be abandoned, though not for long.27 Ur-Nanshe’s campaigns, to both Umma and Elam, must have been major undertakings, requiring his soldiers to be armed and provisioned, and involving scouts and camp followers, donkeys, chariots, and considerable quantities of bows, arrows, and spears. Unfortunately, though, we know almost nothing about his wars or what the purpose might have been for his expedition to Elam. He certainly wasn’t preoccupied with recording their specifics for posterity. Later kings of Lagash provided many more details.28

It’s a little unclear, in fact, for whom Ur-Nanshe commissioned his inscriptions. They clearly were not for his subjects. For one thing, the Mesopotamians were mostly illiterate and, for another, the inscriptions probably were not set up in public places. They were in temples or palaces, accessible only to a few high-ranking people. The ones written on bricks would have been hidden from everyone’s view, covered up by other bricks. The frequent focus on his construction of temples for the gods suggests that gods themselves may have been the main audience. As a result of Ur-Nanshe’s inscriptions, the gods would be reminded forever that the king had taken good care of them.

That was a great thing about writing: a message conveyed this way did not have to be repeated over and over. It didn’t die when the king did—not like his spoken words. The gods lived forever and this message to them—carved on stone, or brick, and set in a holy place—might live forever too. We are so used to this fact about the timelessness of the written word that it doesn’t even occur to us as worthy of note. But it must have been magical to the Early Dynastic kings to realize that words, which had previously been as ephemeral as the wind in the trees, could be pinned down and preserved on stone.

Ur-Nanshe’s inscriptions may not prove to be eternal, but they are doing pretty well, having already lasted about 4,500 years. It is just possible that the king was writing to the future as well as to the gods. His sense of the future would not have included us, of course, as we examine the plaque that shows him with his family, by enlarging it on a computer screen. But he might have written on those bricks to let future kings know who first built the structure that they were, perhaps, remodeling.

After Ur-Nanshe, later kings often actually addressed their successors in their inscriptions, asking them to preserve the images and the words (and sometimes adding curses on anyone who defaced the inscriptions). Written words, they realized, could transcend time and the physical world, reaching unseen gods and as yet unborn successors. They provided a measure of immortality for the kings themselves.

No matter why the kings commissioned them, the important thing for us is that the royal inscriptions existed and that kings in the Near East continued to write them throughout ancient history. Their preoccupations stayed much the same over time—building projects, statues, water management, trade, alliances, appointments of priests and priestesses, and wars. These came up over and over. The kings’ words provide us with a skeleton of political events on which we can begin to hang a narrative about their world. Never mind that their accounts were certainly biased, probably exaggerated, and clearly self-serving. In them we find the names of people and places, and accounts of joys and troubles. It has always been easier to study society, religion, and economy in the ancient Near East than to study politics, but it is helpful to have a general sense of what was going on politically in order to give a framework to the rest.

The origins of kingship are unclear but, once invented, monarchy clung on tenaciously. Perhaps it seemed natural in Mesopotamia because the population had become accustomed to priest-kings running things during the earlier Uruk period. Having a powerful man in charge was not new. Perhaps kings were accepted by their subjects because they gradually began to claim that the gods had chosen them for their role (though Ur-Nanshe did not mention this; it seems to have been a concept that developed after his reign). Perhaps it was because kings got their start as military leaders and presumably had the loyalty of their troops. And perhaps it was because the role of king became hereditary, like just about every other job in Sumer. The chosen crown prince got plenty of training so that he could take over his father’s position smoothly. Whatever the reason or reasons, the Mesopotamians embraced monarchy and came to believe that the gods had given it to them as the ideal form of government. Who were they to question the gods?

Ur-Nanshe, like other Early Dynastic kings, was probably assisted in his role by a town assembly and a council of elders.29 Although divinely ordained, the Sumerian idea of monarchy was not absolute. Ur-Nanshe was a contemporary of the kings of the Fourth Dynasty in Egypt, but his power over his subjects was much less sweeping than theirs, and his little kingdom was a fraction of the size of Egypt. The Fourth Dynasty Egyptian kings in Ur-Nanshe’s era could (and did) command the construction of what are still among the biggest and heaviest monuments ever constructed on Earth: the Great Pyramids. Nothing in Mesopotamia at this time was remotely comparable.

People often now speak of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia in the same breath. They shared a fairly small region, at least to modern eyes, and were the earliest two urban cultures on Earth. As we have seen, during the Uruk period they were in contact with one another, trading and sharing influences. It’s possible that the Mesopotamians were influenced by Egypt in adopting the idea of having kings to rule their urban states. By Ur-Nanshe’s time, though, the two civilizations seem to have fallen out of regular contact with one another, and it is entirely possible that the king of Lagash knew nothing of his contemporaries along the Nile. Egypt is never mentioned in texts from Early Dynastic Sumer—at least not those that have been found.

Ur-Nanshe used the title lugal, which meant, literally, “big man” (lu meant “man”; gal meant “big” in Sumerian), and lugal is almost always translated as “king.” His successors in Lagash chose instead the title ensi. In later times an ensi was a governor and therefore lower in rank than a king, but in this early era the two terms seem to have been synonymous. Ur-Nanshe’s successors continued not to focus on grand demonstrations of superhuman power like their contemporaries in Egypt; instead they became increasingly preoccupied with their battles with neighboring Umma over control of the Gu’edena lands.

Ur-Nanshe is one of the very earliest kings on Earth whose name is known to us, but he certainly did not think of himself as being at the beginning of history. No one in what we call the ancient world did. Their culture was, at the time, the most modern the world had ever seen, advanced in technology, developing hitherto impossible connections with other cultures, proud of its accomplishments.

The people of Ur-Nanshe’s era had no memory of a time before their cities had been built or kings had ruled. When, a few centuries later, scribes created a document called the “Sumerian King List” to capture their understanding of the past, they wrote (concerning the time before what we call the Early Dynastic period), “In five cities eight kings reigned for 385,200 years.”30 They believed that this period was followed by a flood, after which a further “23 kings reigned for 23,310 years” in the city of Kish, and then more besides, all before we get to approximately the era of Ur-Nanshe (who was not named in the list). One of the kings of Uruk in this mythical early period was “Gilgamesh, whose father was a ghost” who “reigned for 126 years.”31 Gilgamesh came to be one of the great heroes of Mesopotamian literature, but if he was a real king we have no evidence of his existence from his own time. We will come back to the epic poem about him later.32

Obviously, the alleged reigns in the Sumerian King List were absurdly long and lay in the realm of legend, not history, but they tell us that the people of Early Dynastic Sumer probably believed themselves to be living at the endpoint of more than 400,000 years of civilization. To their minds, their culture was almost inconceivably old and well established. They would have been astonished to know that we see them as having been right at the beginning.

Before we move on, I should note one other fact about Ur-Nanshe, his successors in Lagash, and kings of many other Early Dynastic city-states. They did not rule alone. The queen—the principal wife of each king—played a considerable role. Ur-Nanshe did not just depict his sons and daughters on his relief sculptures; his wife Min-bara-Abzu appeared as well.33 After the time of Ur-Nanshe, much more is known about the queens and their responsibilities.

King Eannatum of Lagash

Sometime in the twenty-fifth century BCE, Ur-Nanshe’s grandson Eannatum came to power in Lagash. He continued to fight against the city-state of Umma, the perpetual enemy of Lagash, but he also claimed to have fought and won battles against distant lands such as Mari, far to the northwest on the Euphrates in Syria, and (like Ur-Nanshe before him) against Elam, to the east. These military campaigns don’t seem to have enlarged his kingdom at all, however.34 The main reason for his importance to history is the impressive stone stela that he set up in his capital city of Girsu to commemorate his victories over Umma. It’s known as the “Stela of the Vultures,” and its surviving fragments measure 180 centimeters (almost 6 feet) tall by 130 centimeters (4 feet 3 inches) wide. It might have been even taller when it was complete.

The stela gets its modern name from a rather gruesome scene at the top of the back, showing vultures pecking at the heads of dead soldiers, but the vultures were incidental to the main scenes. On the front (see Fig. 3.4), a standing god dominates everything, taking up about two-thirds of the height of the monument. In his hand he holds a huge net containing a mass of naked, dead soldiers, all piled together, limbs intertwined. The viewer would have had no doubt that these were the men of Umma who had been defeated by Eannatum and that the god was responsible for the victory.


Fig. 3.4 Front of the Stela of the Vultures showing the god Ningirsu holding prisoners in a net, twenty-fifth century bce. (Renée Lessing-Kronfuss/Art Resource)

On the back (see Fig. 3.5), the artist showed scenes from a battle that Lagash had won. Only fragments survive, but there’s enough of it for the main points to come across clearly. In four scenes, or registers, stacked on top of one another, enemies from Umma (again naked and dead) are shown sprawled on the ground, sometimes literally underfoot. In at least two of the registers, Eannatum, larger than life, leads his troops to triumph. The troops of Lagash line up behind him, armed with helmets, shields, and spears, the model of discipline. In the second to the top register (the small top register just shows those ominous vultures), the soldiers’ weapons are drawn as they march in phalanx formation, spears pointing out between their matching rectangular shields. Eannatum marches ahead of them. In the scene below this, the troops have their weapons stowed over their shoulders, while Eannatum rides alone in his chariot at their head, a lance in his hand, poised to strike someone or something—the relevant part is missing. The general impression one gets is that Umma didn’t stand a chance of victory. It’s also interesting to note that the army of Lagash was obviously well trained to fight as a unit, and that the soldiers were equipped with standard arms, cloaks, shields, and helmets. All this must have been organized and paid for by the palace.


Fig. 3.5 Back of the Stela of the Vultures showing King Eannatum of Lagash leading his troops in battle, twenty-fifth century bce. (Renée Lessing-Kronfuss/Art Resource)

Eannatum claimed in the accompanying inscription on the stela that he was the physical son of the local god Ningirsu—that his birth resulted from “semen implanted in the womb by the god Ningirsu.”35 Although he stopped short of claiming to be a god himself (Mesopotamian kings rarely did), he went into more detail about his close ties to the gods, and then moved on to an account of the battle with the king of Umma over their shared border, presumably the one shown in the scenes on the back of the stela.

Eannatum then noted that he had required the king of Umma to swear to support him and never, in the future, to encroach on the lands controlled by Lagash. The king of Umma swore oaths in the names of six different gods, and much of the text on the stela is taken up with them. The first oath was in the name of the king of the gods, Enlil: “Eannatum gave the great battle net of the god Enlil to the leader of Gish[a] (i.e. Umma) and made him swear to him by it.”36 The king of Umma then made the same promise to the goddesses Ninhursag (a fertility goddess of the mountains) and Ninki (goddess of plants and daughter of Ninhursag), and to the gods Enki (god of fresh water), Sin (god of the moon, also known as Nanna), and Utu (god of the sun).

Oaths like this, and like the one sworn by Ushumgal years before in the somewhat indecipherable stela from Umma featured at the start of this chapter, continued to be crucial to the resolution of disputes. Only the gods could be trusted to hold a king (or anyone else) to his word. The king of Umma could expect all six deities to punish him if he attempted to move the border in the future.

King Enmetena of Lagash: Warrior, Diplomat, and Benefactor

The oath sworn by the king of Umma may have worked to discourage aggressions for a short time, but a few decades later King Enmetena of Lagash (c. 2450 BCE) was still fighting against Umma over the same territory. Fortunately for historians, he wrote a long summary of the conflict, setting his own actions against the context of decades of what seem, in retrospect, to have been rather futile wars. This is one of the earliest attempts anywhere at writing a history of events. It was certainly also a work of propaganda and self-promotion, but it must have involved some research into past engagements between the two lands, perhaps even looking at old inscriptions.

He started his history not with the life of his great-grandfather King Ur-Nanshe, but with the gods. According to King Enmetena, it had been the god “Enlil, king of all the lands, father of all the gods” who had “fixed the border “fixed the border (between the god) Ningirsu and (the god) Shara,” meaning the border between the kingdoms of Lagash and Umma.37 The border had not been created by men; it had been the work of Enlil himself, the greatest of all gods. This obviously meant that it had to be maintained just where the god had set it and it had to be protected from movement. And so, as he described it, one Lagash king after another had attempted to do just that, against what they saw as the dastardly incursions of the kings and armies of Umma. No doubt the kings of Umma saw things differently.

During Enmetena’s reign, his counterpart in Umma was King Il, a former temple administrator who had somehow ascended to the throne. The two men disagreed over more than the position of the border between them. There was also the question of an unpaid loan in barley. King Il was supposed to repay the barley to Enmetena with interest. The quantities listed are staggering—beyond anything remotely possible. The 1,866,240,000 liters that Il had supposedly paid to Enmetena were not enough!38 There is something wrong with these numbers—this amount of barley would fill about 750 Olympic-size swimming pools—so we can ignore the quantity and just note that, to Enmetena’s mind, the payments made by Umma did not cover what was owed.

Here is where the inscription gets even more interesting. The scribe wrote that “Enmetena, ruler of Lagash, sent representatives to Il” to deal with the issue of the loan payments and the border with Umma. In a way, this makes perfect sense. Of course, the two kings had to send representatives to one another; they could not have gone in person without losing face. Someone had to demand the loan payments and bring the barley back on their behalf. Someone had to let the king of Umma know that the king of Lagash was unhappy with the position of a new boundary channel that had been dug by the men of Umma. The representatives seem to have presented their king’s cause to the king of Umma, and to have done some negotiating. They were, in a word, diplomats.

In this case, the king of Umma was unwilling to accede to Enmetena’s demands. He shouted at the envoys from Lagash: “The boundary-channel of Ningirsu and the boundary-channel of Nanshe are mine!”39 and he swore to move a levee to a location more advantageous to his own kingdom. We do not know whether the envoys returned home with a letter from the king of Umma or whether they just memorized the message. Either way, they provided the means for a conversation to take place between the two kings.

King Enmetena must have used diplomacy at another point in his reign as well. He recorded in a different inscription that “Enmetena, ruler of Lagash, and Lugal-kinesh-dudu, ruler of Uruk, established a brotherhood (pact) (between themselves).”40 Brotherhood, nam-shesh in Sumerian, referred to a formal alliance, and this is the first known mention of it in Mesopotamian history. Probably the two kings swore an oath not to attack one another and to regularly send envoys between their courts. Diplomacy had a very long history in the region after this; as you will see, kings often preferred to be at peace than at war, and in times of war they liked to have allies—“brother” kings—in other states. It would be fascinating to know what inspired the king of Lagash and the king of Uruk to agree to this alliance. Who proposed it? What were the terms? What did each gain? Had they fought one another in the past? Did they jointly fight against other city-states, such as Umma? We do not know, but Enmetena was ahead of his time. Friendly kings created formal alliances and referred to one another as brothers for centuries after this.

He was ahead of his time in another way as well. As he put it: “He cancelled obligations for Lagash, restored child to mother and mother to child. He cancelled obligations regarding interest-bearing grain loans.”41 This action was just what it sounds like: Enmetena canceled debts for the people of Lagash and reunited mothers with their children who were serving as debt slaves, and vice versa. Can you imagine a more popular act? Interest rates in Sumer were crippling, and few people who had borrowed grain could ever hope to repay both the principal and the interest. A final resort of the borrower was to serve, sometimes with his family members, in the household of the creditor as slaves until the loan was considered to have been paid. Enmetena, in one sweep, restored hope to such people in his city-state. The weight and worry of their unpaid loans were lifted, families were reunited.

The term in Sumerian that we translate as “freedom,” amar-gi, literally meant “return to mother.” It’s a sad and touching image. Where we refer to freedom as an abstract ideal, they envisaged the concrete situation of a child moving from a place where she or he was enslaved, back to the safety and comfort of home and mother. Enmetena boasted that he provided this kind of freedom to debt slaves in Lagash.42

He probably decided on this action for several reasons. Popularity might have been one of them. It didn’t hurt to be appreciated by one’s subjects, even in a monarchy. But it might also have been good for the economy. The temples that made most of the loans could afford to absorb the loss, and the interest payments made by borrowers could have been taking wealth away from the court’s own income. Whatever the reason, Enmetena was creating the mold of a conspicuously kind monarch, one whose public face was not that of a warrior or taskmaster, but a generous benefactor of his people. Who would want to overthrow such a man?

In his inscriptions, Enmetena also often listed the temples he had built in his kingdom and noted that he had constructed “for the god Ningirsu, the master who loves him, his (Ningirsu’s) brewery.”43 Perhaps a brewery is not the first thing you would expect a deity to need, but everyone in Mesopotamia drank beer, the gods included. You may remember that Kushim, who controlled the beer supplies in the Uruk temple complex centuries before this, was one of the first people to be named on a document.

And then there was Enmetena’s statue, about which one could write a whole biography of its own (see Fig. 3.6). It was carved of diorite, a hard stone imported from what is now Oman, and it stands 76 centimeters (30 inches) tall. Enmetena wears a flounced wool skirt pulled up almost to his chest, his feet are bare, and his hands are folded over his bare chest in prayer. Unfortunately his head is missing, but an inscription survives on the statue, and it tells us not just that the figure represents King Enmetena, but even the name of the statue and where it was placed: “At that time Enmetena fashioned a statue of himself, named it ‘Enmetena (is the) Beloved of the god Enlil’ and set it up before the god Enlil in the temple.”44 The statue could stand in for the king, perpetually praying in front of the greatest of the gods. He continued, calling on his personal god to also put in a good word constantly with Enlil: “Enmetena, who built the E-ada (temple)—may his personal god, the god Shul-utul, forever pray to the god Enlil for the sake of Enmetena.”45


Fig. 3.6 Diorite statue of King Enmetena of Lagash, found in Ur, c. 2450 bce. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg))

This sounds a little like a cheat—Enmetena could get on with his life and not worry about praying to Enlil. His statue and his personal god could take care of this for him. But if you look more carefully you see that the statue inscription actually gives us an insight into a bigger idea, one that is alien to us in the modern world. The statue was not just a representation of the king. To the mind of a Mesopotamian, a statue contained some part of the very being of the person it represented. Enmetena was not avoiding prayer—he would now be doing it all the time because the part of him that resided in the statue was perpetually praying on his behalf. The statue could also receive offerings. It had a life force of its own that even outlived the king. After his death it became a focus of rituals, as we will see.

At some point, probably long after Enmetena’s death, someone decided to rob the statue of its power—to kill it, in a way—by lopping off the head. And then perhaps it lay in the ground for centuries. Ultimately, archaeologists found the statue on the citadel in the city of Ur, not Lagash, and not in an Early Dynastic building but in a much later occupation level, one that dated to the Babylonian king Nabonidus who ruled this region almost 2,000 years after Enmetena.46 It may have been a museum object, of sorts, in the Babylonian king’s personal collection. He liked to collect objects that were already very ancient, even in his time. We don’t know where Nabonidus found Enmetena’s statue before bringing it into his collection. It is now on display in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.47

Royal Tombs of Ur

Enmetena’s tomb has not been found, nor have the tombs of any of the kings of Lagash or Umma. But royal tombs from this era were excavated in the nearby city of Ur and they were extraordinary. Ur was southwest of Lagash, on the coast of the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf), and it seems to have been subject to Lagash at some points during the Early Dynastic period.

The tombs at Ur were excavated in the 1920s, and they made for sensational news at the time. They were excavated by a team led by a British archaeologist named Leonard Woolley. He employed many workmen on the site at Ur, who uncovered literally thousands of tombs during their excavations. Of those, about 660 were burials of people from the Early Dynastic period.48 Most were simple graves whose occupants took little with them in death—some jewelry, some pots, a dagger, that sort of thing. They were almost all buried in a flexed position with their hands near their mouths, and most of them held a cup.49

Sixteen of the tombs, though, were much more elaborate, and Woolley decided that they were the tombs of royalty. Although there have been plenty of arguments over the century since he found them, about whether the deceased were indeed kings and queens, most of the evidence does support Woolley’s original conclusion.50

Many of the royal tombs had been robbed extensively in ancient times, but some of them still retained many of the luxury gifts that had been buried with the monarchs, so Woolley was very careful as he uncovered them. He and his wife Katherine did most of the excavation of the royal tombs by themselves. They were so careful, in fact, that Woolley admitted to finding the work tedious at times, as he lay on the ground, meticulously brushing away dirt from tiny beads and fragile pieces of gold and shell.51 Fortunately, the Woolleys kept surprisingly careful records and photographs in comparison with some other excavations of the same era.

The finds in Ur were newsworthy in part because of the vast quantities of gold and other precious goods that were found, and for historians they were important because very few royal tombs had been discovered in Mesopotamia. (This remains true.) Unlike their Egyptian counterparts of the same era, the Mesopotamian kings did not place giant monuments over their tombs, so they are not easy to find.

Two of the earliest of the royal tombs at Ur were constructed a few decades before the time that Ur-Nanshe ruled in Lagash. The dead rulers in these earliest tombs spent the afterlife in elaborate buildings with thick plastered stone walls and vaulted ceilings over each room, both houses featuring four rooms connected by doorways.52 The main entry doors were topped with stone arches. They looked like expensively constructed houses that happened to be underground. Stone was not easily obtained, so its use marked these structures as important.

Both of these tombs had been thoroughly robbed in ancient times, leaving the rooms empty except for a few objects and some glittering fragments on the floor that hinted at the riches that must have been buried with the ruler. A few earrings and pins survived in these mausoleums, along with leaves made of gold, a silver gaming board, and some cups. If the robbers thought that these riches were trifles worth abandoning, what must they have stolen? The possibilities boggle the mind.

Woolley found, however, that one corner of the farthest room in one of the buildings had somehow escaped the robbers’ attack.53 In it, he discovered the skull of a man who had been buried wearing a cap decorated with thousands of tiny lapis lazuli beads. Next to his head was one of the most dramatic finds from any of the royal tombs: a narrow wooden box decorated with a mosaic of shell and lapis lazuli.54 It came to be known as the “Standard of Ur,” though its original purpose is uncertain. It is diminutive, each face not much bigger than a sheet of legal-sized paper, 47 centimeters (18.5 inches) in length and just 20 centimeters (8 inches) high. It is hard to imagine it being carried into battle as a standard around which the troops might rally, as Woolley proposed. At the top of a pole one would not necessarily even be able to make out the tiny figures on it. Another possibility is that it was the soundbox of a musical instrument.

On both long sides of the box, the rectangular scenes are divided into three levels, or registers, like the earlier Uruk Vase or the Stela of the Vultures, with pale figures laid out in single file against the rich blue of the lapis lazuli. On one side the artist created an image of a time of peace (see Fig. 3.7). Rows of men and animals (donkeys, sheep, goats, and cattle) walk on the lower two registers, some of the men carrying bags or bearing packs on their backs. In the top register is a banquet attended by seven men. The tallest among them was almost certainly the king and was probably the same man with whom the object was buried. Here he presides over the richness of his land, which is a place of music, feasting, abundance, tame animals, dutiful servants, and orderly behavior.


Fig. 3.7 Peace side of the Standard of Ur, found in the Royal Tombs of Ur, mid-third millennium bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

On the other side, the three registers tell a different tale (see Fig. 3.8). The bottom register depicts four matching chariots and their charioteers. Like a graphic novel, read from left to right, the first chariot is moving slowly, the second, in front of it, is going more quickly, the third faster still, and the fourth at a gallop, the donkeys’ front legs raised up, their heads straining against the harnesses. Beneath the feet of the front three chariots lie the naked, bleeding figures of the enemy dead. The second register shows Sumerian soldiers outfitted in identical capes and helmets, each carrying a spear in both hands, along with prisoners of war, some of them naked, some bleeding, being led in a miserable procession that continues onto the top register where they are presented to the king, now standing and facing them, a mace in his hand. His importance is underscored by his considerable height and by the floor-length robe that he wears. Behind him stand four attendants, along with his waiting chariot.


Fig. 3.8 War side of the Standard of Ur, found in the Royal Tombs of Ur, mid-third millennium bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

In these two scenes, and with no writing, the artist has told a tale of a leader who is dominant in both war and peace and whose world is orderly, even in the aftermath of a bloody battle. Every man seems to know his role. And they are indeed all men, with the possible exception of one of the musicians at the banquet whose long hair might indicate a woman, though the figure’s clothes seem male. In spite of the prominence of women in the courts and the temples at this time, which we will explore in the next chapter, this was certainly a society in which men were dominant.

This king of the royal standard was not the only inhabitant of his tomb. A rectangular depression in the floor of one room would have held another coffin,55 as did a similar depression in another room.56 And scattered in disarray were other human bones. Woolley estimated that there were perhaps five bodies near the entryway,57 one skull in one room,58 and four bodies in another,59 though two of them were missing their skulls. To judge from what seem to have been three main burials in three of the four rooms, this early tomb seems likely to have been constructed for more than one member of the royal family, serving as a family burial place and reused over several generations.

Tombs like this have been discovered at a site called Tall Ahmad al Hattu, but from an earlier period than the tombs at Ur.60 At Tall Ahmad, as at Ur, elite people had been buried in houses for the dead. Successive burials had taken place in a single underground building, with the previous occupants swept unceremoniously aside to make space for the latest burial.61 One burial chamber there boasted eleven skulls and assorted long bones, presumably moved out of the way when a new funeral took place.62 Does this explain the skulls and partial skeletons in the four-chamber tomb at Ur? Perhaps.

But after these first two multiroom tombs, the slightly later burials of Early Dynastic kings and queens at Ur included many more skeletons, and it is clear that, in these tombs, they were not the result of successive individual burials. The bodies were all buried at the same time. This might sound macabre, and it probably was. The conclusion seems inescapable that people, sometimes dozens of people, were killed and buried during the course of the royal funerals at Ur.

The details of these deaths, though, are hard to discern, as are the rituals of the funerals. Eight of the tombs, in addition to the two I have already discussed, included buildings to house the dead monarchs underground.63 The later built tombs were considerably smaller, however, than those in the first two burials. They did not have four rooms—usually just one room was built. It contained the coffin of the dead king or queen, along with sumptuous gifts (some of which escaped the tomb robbers). Unlike the earlier tombs, some of these tombs had been built in a corner of a larger pit which could contain more gifts . . . and people.

Woolley believed that the people were court attendants who had walked, alive, into the tomb pits (possibly singing and playing music), and had then drunk poison in order to voluntarily die with their ruler, ready to assist him or her in the afterlife. However, a team of researchers has done CT scans of two of the attendants’ skulls (from two different tombs), and these paint a very different picture.64 Both of the victims had been hit in the head with a sharp pointed object, and each had been hit hard enough for the weapon to have punctured his or her skull. It seems that the skeletons in the royal tombs did not provide evidence for a peaceful group suicide, but rather a mass murder.

The original funeral of the king or queen might well have included music and feasting, as Woolley had proposed, and the people who ended up in the tomb with the king or queen might even have been part of that ceremony. But the killing of the attendants might have happened days or even weeks later. After the attendants had been killed, their bodies were dressed in fine clothes and arranged in the tomb like mannequins, posed as though playing music, leading oxen, or standing guard. Tellingly, the skulls showed signs of having been heated and treated with mercury, both of which would have delayed putrefaction of the bodies and made for a more convincing tableau.65

Strangely enough, Woolley and the excavators also found five burial pits that seem to have included only attendants, apparently without any sign of the person they were supposed to have attended.66 Woolley thought that there had been tomb chambers and dead monarchs with these victims and that these must have been destroyed by later tombs. But perhaps these pits were additions for one of the other burials. Or perhaps the dead king or queen, priest, or priestess was indeed among the other skeletons, remarkable only for the extravagance of his or her dress.67

Woolley called one of these group burials the “Great Death Pit,” which certainly made for a lot of publicity.68 In it were seventy-four skeletons, most of them women dressed in what must have been elaborate gowns (though those had disintegrated) and decked out in jewelry—pins, necklaces, earrings, and hair ribbons made of gold, silver, carnelian, and lapis lazuli, all of which had been imported from great distances and would have been worth a fortune. The bodies were lined up in neat rows on the floor of the pit. Three lyres were also placed in this pit, ready to be used by the dead women to provide music in the afterlife.

One skeleton in the Great Death Pit (number 61, as designated by Woolley) stood out from the others—although she had not been placed in a built chamber, she was distinguished in several ways from the women around her. For one thing, the cup she held was made of silver while those of the other individuals were made of clay, and she was adorned with more jewelry than anyone else.69 A cylinder seal found on another of the skeletons might have identified her profession. It read “Child of the Gipar.”70 The Gipar was the name of the palace in Ur that was occupied by the high priestess of the god Nanna, the moon god who made his home in Ur. Perhaps skeleton 61 had been the high priestess.

A number of the rulers for whom these burials were staged were queens. One of them can be identified by her cylinder seal. She was named Puabi and she had one of the most extravagant burials of all, accompanied in death by twenty people, along with two oxen and a cart. She would have been contemporary with one of the earlier Lagash royal couples, perhaps King Ur-Nanshe and Queen Min-bara-Abzu.71 Might the earliest royal couples in Lagash have engaged in the same kind of funerary practices as the rulers of Ur? Might they, too, have had attendants killed to join them in the afterlife? Until their tombs are found, if that ever happens, we have no way of knowing.

Scholars have come up with many theories to account for the presence of the dead attendants in the early Ur royal tombs, but they have reached no consensus. It may not, in the end, be something that even needs a specifically Mesopotamian explanation. The earliest kings of Egypt did the same thing, as did the earliest kings in Nubia (at a later date), along with some Chinese kings during the early Shang dynasty, and others later still in the New World in Panama and Peru.72

The practice never seems to have lasted long in any of these places. Perhaps the murder of attendants at the death of a ruler was a symptom of a time when kingship was relatively new in each region and the limits of royal power had not been completely set. If one needed servants in this life, surely one needed them in the next life as well. Having courtiers killed and buried conveniently close by in one’s own tomb assured that they would be right there for eternity.

More telling, perhaps, is the fact that the practice stopped. It cannot have been a particularly popular tradition among those selected for death, or for their families, and it might also have handicapped the heirs to the ruler, who may have lost a considerable amount of court expertise—which died along with the attendants to the previous king or queen. In Egypt and China, murdered attendants were replaced by models or paintings of people who could miraculously come to life in the netherworld. That does not seem to have been true in Mesopotamia.

Perhaps the latest of the royal tombs at Ur was of a king or prince named Meskalamdug.73 His coffin had disintegrated but the impression of the wood remained in the clay around it when Woolley was excavating.74 Both inside and outside the coffin, Woolley found a staggering quantity of goods, including ceremonial weapons such as a gold dagger and electrum axes. Both would have been useless in battle, but they provided gleaming evidence of the man’s power and prestige. His name was engraved on a lamp and a gold bowl. Woolley wrote that “The offerings outside the coffin were bewildering in their number.”75 Objects of gold, silver, bronze, copper, lapis lazuli, diorite, and shell filled the burial shaft. There were no people with him, and there were also no models of people. Meskalamdug was going to the afterlife alone, dependent, perhaps, on his heirs to supply him with food and drink to keep him going through eternity in the netherworld.

The scribes of the Early Dynastic period didn’t let us know what people believed about the afterlife during this era. To judge from the burials, though, they thought that you could take your wealth and power with you when you died. Even poor people were optimistic enough to include small treasures and pots of food for the dead in their tombs. Oddly enough, this concept seems to have been replaced by one in which the people believed that the dead lived on only in a dark, underground, comfortless world where kings had no more power than anyone else. This, at least, was the way the netherworld was described in two later literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Descent of Ishtar.

The scribes did not let us down, however, when it came to leaving a record of the economy of the era. Tablets continued to be covered with details of Early Dynastic palace and temple administrations, which we will explore in the next chapter.

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